The BBC is criminalising thousands of young people every year by prosecuting them for failing to pay the license fee, Government figures show.
Around 18,000 people under the age of 20 have been prosecuted in the last five years amid fears that the court action could be putting their futures at risk.
The news comes despite evidence that fewer than half of 16 to 24-year-olds watch the BBC on an average week, with many turning off the public service broadcaster in favour of streaming channels.
Andrew Brigden, the Tory MP who has let the campaign to decriminalise the licence fee, said: “This could have a major impact on their life chances and their future employment prospects.
“Any involvement in a criminal prosecution is a bad start for young people. These statistics are deeply worrying for anyone concerned about the future of our younger generation.”
The Ministry of Justice figures from magistrate court appearances also state that in the past children as young as 10 were prosecuted along with a handful of those aged between 12 and 14.
Between 2008 and 2016, the figures state that more than 400 teenagers were proceeded against for TV licence evasion. There have been no recorded prosecutions since 2016.
However, a TV Licensing spokesperson said that the official figures must be wrong as they “don’t prosecute people that young”.
“Our policy is to prosecute people aged 18 or over. We have reviewed this issue before and found around 10 cases where someone aged 17 – but no younger – had been prosecuted, and tightened our systems further,” a spokesperson said.
They admitted that they had not contacted the department about the alleged error and the MoJ stood by its figures.
The calls to decriminalise the licence fee, which now costs £154.50 a year, are gathering pace as campaigners point out that the prosecutions disproportionately affect women and represent a “criminalisation of poverty”.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, has said that they Government will launch a consultation on whether it should remain a criminal offence.
Five people were sent to prison for defaulting on their TV licence in England last year and 19 were jailed in 2017. The majority of those jailed were women, who make up almost 70 per cent of those prosecuted.
A total of 129,446 people were prosecuted for not having a licence in 2018, down slightly on previous years.
Government data seen by the Telegraph show that the 2,226 people between the age of 18 and 20 prosecuted in 2018, the last year for which data is available, just over 2,000 were convicted. The vast majority received a fine, with a small number paying up to £750.
Among those threatened with prosecution is Emily Reid, 19, who was taken to magistrates court by TV Licensing Authority, the body contracted by the BBC to enforce its licensing, after answering the door of her ill father’s home.
The case was dropped last week and Miss Reid said that she had “cried” as it could have ruined her future career in the police.
A TV Licensing spokesperson said that it is “the law” that young people who watch or download live TV or programmes on iPlayer must have a licence and that the conviction does not appear on standard criminal record checks.
They added that they “do all we can” to raise awareness including working with student unions to make sure young people are aware of the requirements.