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The British TV licence – possibly the dumbest thing on earth

November 22nd, 2010 1 comment

Don’t get me wrong, I love the charming conservatism of the British nation. I like how milk is sold in 1.136L cartons because you can decimalise the pint but you can’t kill it. I like quaint holdovers like the House of Lords and the Royal Family. I love the way central London is peppered with garden squares instead of Westfields. I enjoy traditional pomp like the Lord Mayor’s Show or Trooping the Colours. It makes me smile when I hear peculiar pronunciations unpolluted by American verbal hegemony, like “Pantene” pronounced as “Pan-ten”, “Dae-woo” pronounced as “Day-oo”, or “vit-amins” instead of “vite-amins”.

The TV licence system, however, is retarded. It is not unique to Britain – some other European countries have also retained it. The British, however, have managed to run the system in such a way as to make it, frankly, ridiculous.

First, a brief explanation of the TV licence itself for those of us unfamiliar with such a backward system. Every year, each household which uses a television to receive TV broadcasts (whether directly or recorded) is required to pay a licence fee, currently £145.50 per year for a colour TV. The fee makes up the majority of the BBC’s funding, with the rest coming from commercial arrangements and topped up by government.

The licence fee system is fundamentally unfair. It falls disproportionately on the young, because it is imposed by household, meaning that a single person household is taxed (it is legally a tax) at the same amount as a large family. It falls disproportionately on working people, because it is a set fee, not “pay per view”. This means that a household is required to pay the same fee if they watch even 5 minutes of television when they get home from work, as someone who has the television available to them at all times. It falls disproportionately on the poor, because it discounts the number of television sets in a household. Someone with just one TV between a family of six pays the same licence fee as a household with a TV in every room. Finally, of course, the tax is a set amount, not means tested and not income-progressive, and so it falls disproportionately on those with a lower income. £145.50 is not a small sum – it’s about $250-300 (depending on exchange rates), quite a bit to save up in austerity Britain.

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