Northern Ireland news

Belfast granny jailed over TV licence calls for it to be scrapped

Anne Smith back at home in west Belfast after her stint in jail over non-payment of TV licence fines. Picture by Hugh Russell
Brendan Hughes

A GRANDMOTHER who was jailed for not paying her TV licence has called for the tax to be scrapped.

Anne Smith said she doesn't watch the BBC – and questioned her penalty.

The west Belfast woman is relieved to be back home after spending two nights in Hydebank prison over non-payment of TV licence fines.

Ms Smith, a mother-of-four, is awaiting a double-hip replacement and has serious mobility issues as well as suffering from debilitating lung condition COPD.

Despite appeals and an offer to pay off the £1,162 in fines, she was told she had to serve her sentence because a bench warrant had already been issued for her arrest.

She was released on Friday after a mystery benefactor moved by her plight paid the £611 needed following time served to discharge her debt.

Sitting next to the television in the living room of her Poleglass home, Ms Smith smiled as she confirmed she now has a TV licence.

"I have got a new TV licence card which I have to start paying today ­– so that will be happening," she told The Irish News.

Ms Smith said the licence will cost her about £6 a week, but the grandmother-of-12 doesn't feel the charge should exist.

"I don't think you should have to pay the BBC, especially if you're paying a subscription to Sky," she said.

"If they put on something decent I would never mind paying but it's never a channel I would put on."

She added: "I don't think there should be a TV licence, no. But I better watch what I'm saying – because I am paying it!"

Ms Smith said until recently she had a Sky subscription, and intends to re-subscribe after the Housing Executive finishes improvement works at her home.

She said the BBC "should ban the TV licence", adding: "I mean, you're paying subscriptions to Sky or Virgin.

"I don't watch the BBC because they don't put anything only rubbish on. I wouldn't even put on the news on the BBC."

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Ms Smith said her favourite television programmes are soap operas Emmerdale and Coronation Street, as well as shows on crime channels.

"My son thinks I'm trying to do away with him. He says every time that TV comes on there's a crime channel on. He says, 'Ma, you're just looking for ways that you won't get caught,'" she joked.

On her time in prison, Ms Smith said it was a shock being locked up.

She said: "I wasn't down. It was just the shock. You don't actually believe. 'What am I doing here? Are they having a laugh?'"

But the grandmother said fellow inmates were welcoming, and she recalled how a nun helped her make a phonecall home.

"It's strange being stuck in the cell knowing you can't just open the door and go out. It's mad," she said.

Ms Smith thanked her family and everyone who has helped her in recent days after learning of her plight, including Sinn Féin reps and her friend and neighbour, Marie Flynn.

"I would like to thank everybody, The Irish News, everybody. There were so many people. I didn't think people that didn't know you could be so kind," she added.

In response to criticism of the licence fee, the BBC said the amount is set by the British government and is lower than it was 25 years ago, taking into account inflation.

"For £2.89 a week the BBC provides nine TV stations, 10 national and 40 local radio stations – including BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle – television, radio and online news services, one of the UK's most popular websites, and BBC iPlayer," a spokesman said.

"The licence fee also goes towards producing world class programming including Blue Planet II, Strictly Come Dancing, Line of Duty, Come Home and Mrs Brown's Boys."

Figures from the NI Court Service show 60 people a year are jailed for non-payment of TV licence fines.

TV Licensing said prosecutions are only pursued as a "last resort when all other options are exhausted" and sentencing "is a matter for the courts".

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