A Royal Charter (Cm 9365) provides the constitutional basis for the BBC and, among other things, sets out the BBC’s public purposes. Under the Charter, the BBC is funded primarily through the licence fee. The current Charter runs until 31 December 2027.

Legal basis for the licence fee

A television licence is required, even if a viewer does not watch BBC programmes. Under Part 4 of the Communications Act 2003 (as amended), a licence is needed to:

  • watch or record programmes as they’re being shown on TV, on any channel;
  • watch or stream programmes live on an online TV service (such as ITV Hub, All 4, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV, Sky Go, etc.);
  • download or watch any BBC programmes on iPlayer.

The 2003 Act is supported by the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations (SI 2004/692) (as amended). The Regulations set out the types of television licence, the criteria for obtaining them, the fees payable, and the different concessions available.

Decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee

The use of a television receiver without a valid licence can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000. In some cases, where there is a refusal to pay the fine and where all other enforcement methods have been tried, a person can be sent to jail.

In February 2020, the DCMS published a consultation on decriminalising the offence. The consultation closed on 1 April 2020. There were over 150,000 responses.

The DCMS published its response in January 2021. This stated that the Government hadn’t reached a final decision on decriminalisation and that it would remain “under active consideration”. For further detail, see the Library Paper, TV licence fee non-payment: should it be decriminalised? (17 February 2021).

The future of the licence fee model

The licence fee model dates back to linear viewing (i.e. watching television programmes at the time of broadcast). Changes in viewing habits, e.g. a shift to SVOD (streaming video on demand) and commercial services (e.g. Sky), and the rise of new technologies, has led some to question the future of the licence fee. These issues are discussed in a November 2019 report from the House of Lords Committee on Communications (chapter 1 looked at changes in viewing habits; chapter 4 looked at the funding of public service broadcasting). According to the report:

The licence fee is the guarantor of the BBC’s financial independence and underpins its unique quality. A subscription model would undermine the fundamental principle of universality that the BBC should be free-to-air. [para 201]

The Government’s response to the Committee’s report was published in February 2020. This said that the Government was “committed to maintain the licence fee funding model for the BBC for the duration of the current Charter period” (p12). 

Hansard material

Written answers on the future of the licence fee

Oral answers on the TV licence

Parliamentary questions on TV licence fee decriminalisation

House of Commons Debate on the TV licence, 6 February 2020

Text of the E-petition

The text of E-petition 300118 Revoke the TV licence using legislation reads:

“We wish the Government to end the TV licence as soon as possible.

The TV Licence is not required as many people no longer watch the BBC preferring to watch other media sources and listen to many of there radio stations especially the overseas service this is seen as the british public paying for a service they dont need or use. This is also seen as a unfair tax on those on low income which usually results in many being prosecuted for non payment putting them further in debt and possible jail.”

The petition received 110,839 signatures.

The Government’s response was published on 14 May 2020. This began:

The licence fee is payment for a licence to watch or receive television programmes. The government is clear that the licence fee remains a licence to watch or receive televison programmes, and is not a fee for BBC services. It is payable regardless of whether the licence holder ever watches the BBC. Licence fee revenue is not just used to fund the BBC, it is also used for other strategic public service objectives including S4C (the Welsh-langauge broadcaster)…

The response also said that the licence fee model would be looked at ahead of the next Charter Review, which is set to be completed by 2027.

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