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Labour backs licence fee law change: ‘No one wants to see people in prison for non-payment’

By PA Mediapoint

Decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence moved a step closer after Labour backed a review of penalties – saying no-one should be jailed for it.
MPs will vote tomorrow on an amendment to the Deregulation Bill setting up an up to 12-month examination of penalties.
It has been jointly tabled by the Solicitor General Oliver Heald and Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP who led a hugely popular campaign in favour of decriminalisation.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller hopes to use reform as a tool in negotiations over the BBC's Charter, which is due for renewal in 2017 while Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is keen to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system.
Cases of people accused of evading the £145.50 fee accounted for in excess of one in 10 of all criminal prosecutions last year – with 155,000 convicted and fined.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has struck a cautious note about the move however, noting BBC concerns that anything that encouraged evasion could reduce the broadcaster's income and lead to services being axed.
Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman said: "The BBC is an institution of enormous importance to our culture. It is loved in this country and admired around the world.
"We need to maintain funding for the BBC. But no one wants to see people in prison for non-payment of the television licence fee.
"That's why Labour will support these amendments on decriminalisation, but on condition that any decision is taken after a comprehensive review so that the funding of the BBC is not undermined.
"Labour believes the licence fee is key to the independence of the BBC and remains the best funding model."
Mr Bridgen had the support of more than 150 MPs for his original amendment calling for non-payment to be made a civil offence.
The new Government-backed proposals require Culture Secretary Maria Miller to carry out a review of the sanctions, lasting up to a year, within three months of the Deregulation Bill being passed.
The findings of the review will be presented to the BBC Trust as well as both Houses of Parliament.
Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman said: "The Government supports the amendment. There is a vote tomorrow and it will be whipped.
"The PM thinks it is an interesting idea and something that should be very closely looked at."
Bridgen said he was "pleased but not surprised" at the Opposition's support given that more than 150 MPs from across the House had put their names to his decriminalisation proposal.
He urged the BBC to see the change as "an opportunity not a threat" and focus its attention on other income streams, notably in foreign markets.

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