Belfast Telegraph

Ford's letters to London reveal bid to decriminalise offence

By Adrian Rutherford

Justice Minister David Ford lobbied three senior government figures in a bid to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence fee.

He wrote to Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Sajid Javid, the former Culture Secretary, in the space of 30 months.

In the letters, Mr Ford repeatedly stresses how prosecutions for licence fee evasion are impacting on the judicial system.

However, because broadcasting is not a devolved matter, it is outside Mr Ford's power to change the law here.

Copies of correspondence sent and received by Mr Ford have been released after a Freedom of Information request.

In January 2012, he wrote to Mr Vaizey detailing the "ongoing problem" caused by people ending up in prison for not paying a fine for TV licence evasion.

Mr Ford said he was "keen to move forward with the civilisation proposal".

However, in his reply, Mr Vaizey warned that any changes could lead to more people not paying their TV licence.

"I know that the BBC undertakes considerable work in seeking to keep the evasion rate as low as possible and I would not like to see these efforts undermined," he wrote.

In May 2013, Mr Ford wrote a second letter to Ms Villiers.

He was seeking her agreement to amend Westminster legislation in the Assembly to make TV licence evasion a civil matter.

Mr Ford conceded that he requires her approval as the matter is not devolved.

He noted that there was "widespread political and public support within Northern Ireland" for decriminalising TV licence evasion.

Having not received a reply, he wrote to Ms Villiers for a second time in September 2013.

Mr Vaizey replied on Ms Villiers' behalf, reaffirming the government's position that criminal prosecution is the best deterrent to non-payment.

Mr Ford then wrote to Mr Javid, then Secretary of State for Culture, in June 2014.

It came after MPs backed plans to give the government power to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee.

They voted in favour of an amendment to the Deregulation Bill.

Mr Ford wrote: "Although disappointed with the negative responses received previously, I am pleased that the government is now supporting amendments to the Deregulation Bill currently making its way through Parliament."

He added: "I wish to put on record my support for the Government amendments".

Last February, the House of Lords narrowly voted that there should be no move to decriminalise non-payment of the fee before 2017.

Belfast Telegraph


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