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Britain wants to stop sending people to jail over tv licences - but Ireland is unlikely to follow suit

Britain sent 51 people to jail last year for not paying their tv licence – while Ireland imprisoned 411 people.

Image: Television via Shutterstock

POLITICIANS IN BRITAIN are currently having one of the most interesting debates in years about what to do about people who don’t pay the TV licence.

MPs across party divides have come together to support an amendment which would seek to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence – in other words, meaning it would no longer be a criminal offence.

Instead, evaders would face a civil, rather than a criminal sanction, somewhat similar to a parking ticket.

This would remove the threat of a criminal record and, more importantly, the potential of a jail term for not paying the fine of up to £1,000 (€1,217) for not having a licence, which costs £145 (€176) per year.

The Graham Norton Show - London Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy during a recent filming of The Graham Norton Show on BBC One Source: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Tory MP Andrew Brigden, who suggested the amendment which has now been agreed upon, said people were getting a criminal record “for the only crime of being poor”.

More than one in ten criminal prosecutions (around 155,000 a year) in Britain relate to non-payment of the television licence, and MPs believe these proposals, which will be reviewed before being introduced, would ease the burden on the court system.

The Irish system

Ireland’s criminal justice system is similarly burdened by the chasing up of tv licence evaders as it continues to deal punitively with people who haven’t paid the €160 charge – and while there are some signs of this easing slightly, it is unlikely to be as radical as the British plan.

No-one in Ireland has yet suggested taking it completely out of the hands of the criminal justice system (although one TD has proposed evaders should do charity work instead of going to prison).

Anglo Court Cases Inside the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Last year alone, 6,533 people appeared before a court in Ireland for not having their licence.

The figures have dropped slightly – it was above 8,000 every year since 2010 - but remain disproportionately high, especially when it came to sanctions. Almost 5,000 people were given a fine last year for not having their licence.

More seriously, 411 people were sent to jail for not paying their tv licence, compared to just 51 people in the same year in Britain, which has a population fourteen times the size of Ireland’s. The figure has more than quadrupled in five years.

Number of people imprisoned for not paying the tv licence

  • 2009: 75
  • 2010: 152
  • 2011: 183
  • 2012: 272
  • 2013: 411

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has estimated the cost of sending these fine defaulters to jail as just €10.44 per day, because they make up such a small amount of the prison population. That figure includes prisoner catering, bedding, toiletries, dentist fees and medicines.

The cost

However the Irish Penal Reform Trust points out that these figures are erroneous: imprisoning someone for even a few hours involves prison staff, garda time and courts time, as well as all the extras.

File Pics The Director of the Prison Service Michael Donnellan has said that the practice of slopping out will be eliminated from Mountjoy Prison by September of this year. Mountjoy Prison Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

Noeline Blackwell of the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) says that it’s more likely that the real figure of imprisoning someone is around €2,000 per week, making it hard to see the economic sense in doing it for a relatively minor crime.

“You’re looking at what is basically an administrative offence,” she says. “Ok, it’s illegal, but it’s hardly the kind of fundamental damage to the State that some other serious crimes would be.

“There’s a general recognition in human rights law that people should only go to jail as a last resort, when you’re taking away their liberty in recognition of the magnitude of their crime”.

Hitting the poorest

She points out that one of the major problems with the current system is that a lot of the reasons why people don’t pay the licence – or the ensuing fine for not having one – is because they can’t pay.

“No-one should ever end up in jail for something they can’t pay,” she says.”If you look at the economic argument of sending people to jail, you might see someone who doesn’t pay €160 for the licence who gets called to court, who goes through the court system and gets landed with a fine.

They don’t pay the fine and they could end up in jail for about a wek. And at the end of the week, the fine is extinguished.
So the State has lost the €160 licence, the fine, plus another €2,000 per week minimum from keeping someone in jail. So there is no value to be obtained in taking away someone’s liberty.

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Ireland has brought in long-awaited legislation in the last month called the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014, which aims to cut down on the number of people jailed for not paying fines.

The new law will mean courts can take into account a person’s capacity to pay a fine, and then fix the fine at that level.

Nicky McFadden funeral Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

It will also allow for payment through installment or in manageable tranches, which, Blackwell says, is “much more suitable for someone convicted of not paying what is a small tax for watching television”.

Alan Shatter said as the Bill passed that imprisonment was an inappropriate response to fines default and said that this would be a viable alternative.

Although the legislation has been passed, it has not yet officially been started by Minister for Justice, although he has promise it will be “as soon as possible”.

Not a fan

Much of the opposition in Britain to decriminalising non-payment of the tv licence has come from the one organisation which stands to lose the most: the BBC.

BBC Headquarters - London Source: EMPICS Entertainment

The national broadcaster has said that it could have to close channels, and predicted that it could lose up to £200 million by increasing the number of people who don’t pay.

It’s likely that if such a system were proposed here, RTÉ would have similar concerns.

In the mean-time however, the coming year will tell whether the new legislation will cut down on the number of people being sent to jail for not paying the €160 charge – or whether a whole new approach is needed.

Read: The most common excuses Irish people give for not paying their tv licence > 

Read: Almost 11,500 people in court for not paying tv licence > 

About the author:

Christine Bohan

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