If you want to watch TV in the UK – even if you're more likely to stream Netflix than switch on the BBC – you need a TV licence. Failing to purchase the document, which costs £154.50 a year, could land you with a fine of up to £1,000 for watching or recording live TV, including downloading or watching BBC shows on iPlayer (whether they're on live, catch up or on demand).
Paying the fee may be simple – it takes minutes via the TV Licensing website – but with eight million people in working households now in poverty, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the annual expense is out of many people's reach and as a flat-rate fee, the TV licence is a bigger burden on poorer individuals and families than others.
TV licence evasion accounts for 30% of all female prosecutions (compared to 4% of male prosecutions).
Nearly three quarters (72%) of people prosecuted for TV licence evasion in 2017 (137,913 in total) were women, with the crime accounting for 30% of all female prosecutions (compared to 4% of male prosecutions) – making it the most common offence for which women were prosecuted, according to government figures. In addition, a greater proportion of women (94%) than men (92%) were convicted.
The most recent government figures show that 88,091 women were convicted of TV licence evasion in England and Wales last year, a substantial number of whom were in their 20s and 30s: 7,468 aged between 21-24, 17,477 between 25-29 and 31,576 between 30-39.
What explains this vast gender gap? The Perry Review said it was "not... possible to reach any definitive conclusion to explain the reason for this gender imbalance" and couldn't find "evidence of any discriminatory enforcement practice"; but women's groups, the TV Licensing body and the government have suggested several reasons.
"A contributing factor to this is the greater availability of females in the home when a TV Licensing Enquiry Officer visits the house in person," the Ministry of Justice posited in 2017. Enforcement officers visit households they suspect of watching or recording live TV without a valid licence when they're unable to contact anyone at the property by letter or over the phone.
Did you know? Nearly three quarters of those prosecuted 4 not having a TV license r women. Because they r home when enforcers call. It’s the most common offence 4 which women are prosecuted. Prison is still used 2 punish debts relating 2 not paying Council tax or TV license. pic.twitter.com/VVFY117IX0— Women in Prison (@WIP_live) June 12, 2019
The charity Women in Prison, which supports women affected by the criminal justice system and tweeted about the ongoing issue last month, also believes the disparity is because women are more likely to be "home when enforcers call". Speaking to Refinery29, Dr Kate Paradine, Women in Prison's CEO, said the situation was "as ludicrous as it is shameful and shows how broken the justice system is". She added: "Debt and poverty should never be punished by prison."
In its 2017 Gender Disparity Report, which addressed the issue head-on, TV Licensing also said it was because women were more likely to head up households, were more likely to be available "in the home at all time of the day to answer the door" to a TV Licensing officer, and were more likely to engage with an enforcer who comes knocking, particularly if the enforcer was also a woman.
Given that women are also more likely to be poor (single women are at the highest risk of poverty of any group), struggling to pay bills and therefore disproportionately burdened by the fee, it's not a stretch to call the TV licence a feminist issue.
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the UK Women’s Budget Group, told Refinery29 she was "not surprised that women are more likely to be convicted of non payment – since they are more likely to be poor than men, so more likely to have to face the choice between different bills." She described it as "very wrong" that so many women are in prison for non-violent offences, adding that it was an indication of "how our criminal justice system treats women".
Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, echoed this. "Debt, poverty and criminal justice are feminist issues. Prosecution for TV licence evasion is part of a wider picture of a punitive welfare and criminal justice system which disproportionately impacts women."
She continued: "The services, such as women's centres, that work with women to prevent offending and enable them to move on from difficult circumstances such as poverty, are facing devastating funding cuts. As a society we'd do far better to invest in those services than criminalising women for debt."
Many believe that not only are TV licences a feminist issue, they're also inherently unfair. Caroline Lévesque-Bartlett, a legal editor and French teacher, began campaigning against the TV licence four years ago and has garnered more than 335k signatures on her 38 Degrees petition to have it abolished. One of her main objections is the greater burden it places on poor households and she believes TV licence evasion is an "all round ludicrous crime" that disproportionately penalises women.
"I'm surprised that TV licence evasion is the most common offence for which women are prosecuted," she told Refinery29 when we outlined the data. "When I saw the stats [70% women versus 30% men having been prosecuted] I couldn't believe it. It's normally the other way around for crimes."
She continued: "There is no question that women are more often on the receiving end, but the problem is bigger than that. Why should anyone – students, people on benefits, over-75s now too – be forced to fund the BBC if all they want is to, say, watch ITV? It makes no sense. Why should anyone fear a criminal record for such a petty thing? There are far more sensible ways to fund the BBC."
Lévesque-Bartlett also believes the BBC's decision to withdraw free TV licences from all but the neediest over-75s from June 2020 could more negatively affect women than men. Indeed, the BBC itself said it will "have a more significant qualitative effect on women than men because women, especially older women, are more likely to be single, and so be reliant on TV for information and companionship."
A spokesperson from TV Licensing, the BBC's licence fee collection and enforcement body, said it "takes all reasonable steps to avoid prosecution, including not prosecuting first-time offenders if they buy a licence before the case comes before magistrates.
"Individuals cannot be imprisoned for licence fee evasion, only for non-payment of court-ordered fines. The decision to imprison an individual is made by a magistrate as a last resort and only after wilful or culpable refusal to pay.
"The number of women imprisoned in England and Wales in 2018 was four, a 50% reduction from the previous year’s eight women. Prosecutions in England and Wales have fallen by 6% from 138,000 to 129,000 over the same period. The government’s own independent review of TV licence fee enforcement, by David Perry QC, said that the TV Licensing system is broadly fair and proportionate."