Do a disproportionate number of women end up in prison for failing to pay TV licences?

4 August 2022
What was claimed

A disproportionate number of women have ended up in prison for failing to pay their TV licence fee.

Our verdict

You cannot be sent to prison for failing to pay a TV licence fee, only for failing to pay a fine in connection with a conviction for not paying the fee—and the latest available figures for England and Wales show no one was jailed for this in 2020 or 2021. Women are more likely than men to be convicted of not paying the fee, but the number of men jailed since 1995 after failing to pay fines is twice the number of women.

“What I’m very concerned about on the TV licence fee is how many women have ended up in prison for non-payment, a disproportionate number.”

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss said that, if she becomes Prime Minister, she will order a review into whether failing to pay for a TV licence should be a criminal offence, citing particular concern over the number of women being jailed. 

She said: “What I’m very concerned about on the TV licence fee is how many women have ended up in prison for non-payment, a disproportionate number.”

There are a number of problems with this claim. You cannot be sent to prison for failing to pay a TV licence fee, only for failing to pay a court-imposed fine in connection with a conviction for not paying the fee. Being imprisoned for this offence is rare—the latest available figures for England and Wales show no one was jailed in 2020 or 2021, and no more than two people were in 2019.

There are different ways of understanding what Ms Truss meant by “disproportionate”, but assuming she was talking about the relative numbers of women and men who are jailed, much of the evidence does not support her claim.

Since 1995, in England and Wales the total number of men jailed after failing to pay fines is twice the total number of women and in only six years in that period has the number of women jailed exceeded the number of men, though over the past 10 years slightly more women have been jailed than men.

It is true though that a significant majority (76% in 2020) of those prosecuted for TV licence evasion are women.

You can’t go to prison simply for not having a TV licence

Although it is a criminal offence to watch television without a valid licence, you cannot be sent to prison for this alone. 

However, a court can issue a fine of up to £1,000. You can receive a custodial sentence for wilfully refusing to pay this fine, after other methods of trying to recover the fine have failed. 

For a case to be prosecuted, it must pass a public interest test, which considers factors such as “the personal circumstances of the individual – for example, their health – and whether an alternative to prosecution could be offered”.

How many women are jailed?

It’s not entirely clear what Ms Truss meant by “disproportionate”, or what comparison she was making—we asked her team but had not received a response at the time of publication. However given she spoke specifically about the number of women jailed, it seems likely she was talking about the proportion of women who are prosecuted, or the proportion of women in general, rather than making a more general point about imprisonment being a “disproportionate” punishment.

The number of TV licence prosecutions and convictions has been in decline since 2015, and fell sharply in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic which saw enforcement visits temporarily suspended.

During 2020, the last year for which full figures are available, there were 55,061 prosecutions and 52,477 convictions in England and Wales for TV Licence evasion. Of the 52,477 convicted, 39,742 were women (76%).

In 2017, a gender disparity report from TV Licensing said the reasons more women are prosecuted than men could include the number of households without an adult male, more women being home during the day to answer the door to a TV Licensing enquiry officer and women being more likely to engage positively with them.

However, Ministry of Justice statistics for England and Wales show that during 2020 and 2021, no convictions resulted in prison sentences, meaning no women - or men - were jailed. During 2019, two or fewer people were sent to prison (the exact number is not given in the statistics to protect against personal identification), none of whom were women

Between 1995 and 2018, a total of 1,449 men were jailed for the offence compared to 754 women, suggesting that in fact men may be disproportionately more likely to be jailed. This ratio does vary depending on the time period looked at though. Over the last ten years, for instance, a slightly higher proportion of those jailed are women (53%), while over the last five years that figure is 46%. 

Image courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters

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