TV licence prosecutions discriminate against women

“I was so scared. I felt completely helpless. I was a single mum, in the pandemic, living by myself with a baby.”

I made tiny mistakes but I tried to correct them and I co-operated from the beginning. I feel like I wasn’t treated with respect, either because I was a woman or because I didn’t speak good enough English.

That was an account given to a journalist at The Times by Ana (not her real name) a woman who was prosecuted for the non-payment of the TV licence fee. The woman, who received legal assistance from APPEAL, was one of the many thousands of women prosecuted last year for this criminal offence.

If the government had followed the calls of a number organisations to decriminalise TV licence non-payment when it opened its consultation in 2020 Ana would not have been through this frightening and demoralising experience. In fact, the number of women being dragged through the criminal justice system as defendants would be cut by one third.

Astonishingly, it is the most common offence for which women are convicted, accounting for 30 per cent of all convictions against women in 2019.

Evidence has also long shown that there is a gender disparity problem in the way that the BBC prosecutes people. In 2020, 75 per cent of prosecutions by TV Licencing were against women, despite only accounting for around 50 per cent of licence fee holders.

At APPEAL we have represented pro bono a number of vulnerable women being prosecuted for this offence. Many have had mental health problems or, like Ana, been single mothers of a minority ethnic background. Some have in fact paid their licence fee but payment systems errors have caused delays or the registration of a payment to the wrong name.

For every one of these women, we have successfully demonstrated to TV Licensing, who act as the prosecutor in these cases, that it is not in the public interest to proceed. But contrary to the public interest test that TV Licensing are obliged to consider, and in spite of their own policy on vulnerable customers, the body continues to initiate cases against vulnerable women.

This is why on International Women’s Day, we at APPEAL launched a new tool to empower people who are being prosecuted for this offence to more effectively defend themselves. The free tool, Navigating the Maze: Guidance and Templates for TV Licensing Prosecutions, empowers people to more effectively represent themselves by providing general advice and template letters that can be easily adapted.

The evidence is unequivocal that the majority of women who end up in the criminal justice system have a variety of unmet needs, including being victims of domestic abuse and experiencing poverty and mental health problems. We must start talking about how to deal with criminalised women in a way that is humane and stops the futile punishment of those who need help.

Looking at the sheer number of women prosecuted and found guilty of this low-level offence in England and Wales, it is also eye-opening to consider how many will also be experiencing the harmful knock-on effects of having a criminal conviction. These include a negative impact on employment opportunities and even being denied compensation when a victim of rape or sexual assault. That is why we are also campaigning for the offence to be decriminalised.

Prosecuting someone for the non-payment of a TV Licensing debt is one of the clearest examples of the direct criminalisation of poverty that persists in this country. As we continue to encounter the troubling economic consequences of the last two years and expect more hardships this year in the wake of huge inflation and energy bills, it is vital now more than ever that individuals experiencing financial hardship are given support rather than criminal sanction.

Charlotte Threipland is Comms and Policy lead at APPEAL, a law practice and charity that fights miscarriages of justice.

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