Bailiffs could seize possessions from pensioners who don’t pay for a TV licence under Government plans.
Ministers are seeking to replace the criminal sanction for licence-fee evasion with a civil penalty but age campaigners said the thought of debt collectors knocking on pensioners’ doors was “distressing and frightening”, reports the Express.
Concerns have been raised as letters have been sent to millions of over-75s, who were previously entitled to a free TV licence, telling them to pay the £157.50 fee.
Currently, those who watch television without a licence can be prosecuted and sent to prison if they refuse to pay the resulting fine of up to £1,000 but the Government wants to decriminalise evasion and a decision is expected later this year.
It would mean that non-payment is likely to be treated as a civil penalty — similar to a parking fine — or a civil debt, like an unpaid utility bill. Under both systems, debt collection is outsourced to private bailiffs, with individuals also required to pay their fees.
The Government’s consultation document says: “The use of enforcement agents to enforce the debt may cause additional anxiety for individuals who may already be vulnerable.”
The BBC warned civil enforcement would allow possessions to be seized and “sold by a bailiff” in its submission. It said: “Action taken by bailiffs is by its very nature intrusive. TV Licensing does not use them to recover arrears.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, which has campaigned to protect free licences, said: “We are aware that any decriminalisation of the TV licence enforcement process would in all likelihood lead to greater use of bailiffs to reclaim the money due and that’s one of the reasons why we are wary of any such policy shift.
“It is hard to think of anything more distressing and frightening for an older person than to have a bailiff turn up at their front door, demanding entry.”
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden acknowledged there were pitfalls and pledged a second consultation on how to replace the criminal sanction. The BBC said decriminalisation would slash its income by about £300m a year.
A spokesman said: “As a universal service we need an enforcement system with appropriate sanctions otherwise it is unfair to those who do pay. A detailed Government-commissioned review has already found the current system is the fairest and most effective.”
There is growing resistance over the controversial move to scrap the free licences with campaigners calling on over-60s to cancel their TV licence direct debits in solidarity with over-75s and offer to pay with monthly backdated cheques which take much longer to process.
Dennis Reed, of Silver Voices, the community organisation behind the protest, pledged a “long attritional campaign” to force the BBC into a U-turn.
He said many pensioners had cancelled their automatic payments to try to flood TV Licensing’s administration systems rather than put protesters at risk of prosecution by refusing to pay.
Silver Voices said: “It defies belief that, as a second wave of coronavirus marches over the horizon, the BBC are doing this. It shows a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding.”