The BBC has been criticised for a lack of transparency after failing to explain why the number of people fined for failing to pay their TV licence in Scotland has dropped in recent years.
Figures obtained by The Ferret from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service show the number of people being referred to the courts for watching TV without a licence dropped significantly in the year before the Covid-19 pandemic.
In each of the three years prior to the 2019-20 financial year more than 5,000 people were fined for non-payment. But the figure has dropped dramatically since.
In 2019-20, 3,790 people were fined. In 2020-21 – the first year Covid-19 affected public services – the number dropped further with just 1,226 people fined.
The BBC has refused to give a reason for the drop, however, other than pointing to the impact of Covid-19 which forced a reduction in licence fee enforcement activity.
BBC officials said they will not provide a current figure for the estimated proportion of people who have not paid for a TV licence for Scotland.
The latest published figures estimating the licence fee evasion rate in Scotland cover 2015. At that time the BBC said licence fee evasion rates were higher in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, with as many as one in 10 people liable to pay the £159 fee failing to do so.
Figures in a UK parliament briefing show that since 2010 the evasion rate has trended upwards across the UK, whilst the amount of money the corporation spends on enforcement has reduced.
The Ferret submitted a Freedom of Information request for more up to date information on the estimated evasion rate in Scotland.
Although the BBC holds this information the corporation refused to supply it. The information would “be likely to prejudice the prevention or detection of crime, the collection of the licence fee and the BBC’s ability to discharge its public functions,” it claimed.
Campaigners calling for reform of the corporation have criticised the lack of transparency.
Debs Grayson, campaign co-ordinator for the Media Reform Coalition’s BBC and Beyond campaign said: "Public media institutions like the BBC need to be accountable to all of us, and being transparent with their data is an important part of maintaining the support of the public.
“The BBC exists to provide a universal service that meets the needs of all communities. If some groups are less likely to pay the licence fee this shouldn't be seen solely through the lens of evasion and punishment; it indicates that there has been a loss of trust, which the institution should seek to learn about and rectify”.
The current licence fee is £159 a year which is paid by every domestic household in the UK for access to TV services. The money raised goes towards paying for everything the BBC does – including TV channels, radio stations and online reporting.
Grayson continued: “While we believe the BBC is good value for money overall, the cost is significant for those on low incomes, and this may also be a factor in different rates of payment.
“The Media Reform Coalition has long argued that the licence fee being a flat tax is unfair, and it should be replaced with a system which reflects people's ability to pay.”
The Ferret has asked the Information Commissioner to investigate the BBC’s response to our freedom of information request.
The BBC declined to comment further.
The full FOI response
How much is a TV Licence in Scotland?
The cost of a TV Licence in Scotland is £159 for a colour licence and £53.50 for a black and white licence.
The cost of a TV licence is the same wherever you live in the UK.
If you live in a care home, are over 74 years of age, or are partially sighted you may qualify for a discount.
You can find out more at the TV Licensing website.
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