Television licensing in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies, any household watching or recording live television transmissions as they are being broadcast (terrestrial, satellite, cable, or internet) is required to hold a television licence. Since 1 April 2010 the annual licence fee has been £145.50 for colour and £49.00 for black and white. Income from the licence is primarily used to fund the television, radio and online services of the BBC. The total income from licence fees was £3.6562 billion in 2012–13 of which £597.3 million or 16.3% was provided by the Government through concessions for those over the age of 75. Thus, the licence fee made up the bulk of the BBC's total income of £5.102 billion in 2012-2013.
- 1 Operation of the licensing system
- 2 History
- 3 Licence fee expenditure
- 4 Legal issues
- 5 Opinions on the Licence Fee
- 6 The future of the licence fee
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Operation of the licensing system
The licence fee is set by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport by the use of Statutory Instruments. The level of the fee is decided following periodic negotiations between the UK Government and the BBC Trust. From 1988 to 2010, the licence fee was increased annually each April. Before 1988, increases in the licence fee happened at irregular intervals, sometimes a few years passing between changes. Since April 2010, the licence fee has remained constant.
The BBC is authorised by the Communications Act 2003 to collect the licence fees. Licence Fee collection is the responsibility of the BBC’s Finance and Business division. The money received is first paid into the Government's Consolidated Fund. It is subsequently included in the 'vote' for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in that year's Appropriation Act, and passed on to the BBC for the running of the BBC's own services (free from commercial advertisements), and for the BBC to produce programming for S4C.
The licence fee is classified as a tax, and evasion is a criminal offence. Since 1991, collection and enforcement of the licence fee is the responsibility of the BBC in its role as TV Licensing Authority. The BBC pursues its licence fee collection and enforcement under the trading name "TV Licensing", but contracts much of the task to commercial organisations. A major contractor is Capita which specialises in outsourcing for government projects. It is expected that Capita will earn £1.10bn - £1.55bn from its contract with the BBC if it runs its maximum 15 years from July 2012. Although the majority of the administration of the running of the licence fee system is contracted to Capita Business Services Ltd, other companies are involved, such as PayPoint which provides over-the-counter services in the UK, and the Post Offices in the Isle of Man and Channel Islands. Marketing and printing services are carried out by Proximity London Ltd. Capita employs a number of subcontractors for part of its TV licensing operations - one important one being Computer Sciences Corporation which provides and modernises the required IT infrastructure. Since 2004, Capita has undertaken a proportion of TV licensing administration at locations outside of the UK and 'has progressively increased the amount of work processed overseas each year'. However as of 2013, Capita has not set up any overseas call centres to carry out TV Licensing work and it would need the BBC's permission to do so in the future.
The licence fee can be paid annually, monthly or quarterly by Direct Debit, or monthly or weekly with a cash payment plan, which was introduced for those with limited means or no bank account, and replaced a previous scheme using trading stamps.
Payments made using Direct Debit carry an additional cost of £5.00 per year, or £1.25 a quarter, which is included in the licence fee total. This addition is described as "a small charge" in the generic letter issued by TV Licensing to those paying by Direct Debit, and on the TV Licensing website it is justified with: "Since the majority of the licence is paid for in arrears, your quarterly payments will include a premium of £1.25". Typically, direct debit schemes in the UK for major utilities or publicly provided services operate in a reverse way, granting a discount to direct debit payers.
In the United Kingdom, Guernsey and Isle of Man, free TV licences are available for households with a member aged over 75. This is funded in the UK by the Department for Work and Pensions, and in the Crown Dependencies by their respective governments. The States of Jersey did not initially opt to extend this concession to their island but free licences were later introduced for over 75s if they received an income under £13,000 for single people, or £21,000 for couples. In the Isle of Man, pensioners under 75 who receive income support can also get free licences. The funding is provided by the Isle of Man Department of Social Care.
Those aged over 60 and in residential care homes (including nursing homes, public-sector sheltered housing and almshouses) can get Accommodation for Residential Care (ARC) licences for £7.50 a year.
TV licence sales figures were quoted by the BBC to be 25.353 million in the year 2012/13, although this includes 4.251 million licences for the over 75s which were paid for by the UK government.
When first introduced on 1 June 1946, the licence covering the monochrome-only single-channel BBC television service cost £2 (£70.24 as of 2013). On 1 January 1968, a 'colour supplement' of £5 was added to the existing £5 monochrome licence fee; the combined colour licence fee was therefore £10, the equivalent of (£146.84 as of 2013). The current (2010-2016) cash cost is £145.50 for colour TV and £49 for monochrome TV, per household.
A similar licence, mandated by the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904, used to exist for radios powered by mains electricity (sets using a battery or accumulator did not need a licence), but this was abolished in 1971, when it was £1.25 (£18.36 in 2013 prices). These licences were originally issued by the General Post Office (GPO), which was then the regulator of public communications within the UK. For a more detailed historical explanation see British Broadcasting Company.
Licence fee expenditure
- 66% – All TV
- 17% – National and local radio
- 6% – Online e.g. BBC websites, iPlayer
- 11% – Other e.g. transmission and licence fee collection costs*
To date, the BBC World Service on radio and BBC Arabic Television have been funded by a grant from the government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not the licence fee, whilst S4C receives a fixed annual grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport; however, it was announced in October 2010, that these grants will be funded from licence fee by 2015.
BBC World News and the BBC's other international television channels are operated commercially and will continue to not receive licence fee money. The revenues they generate supplement the licence fee in financing the UK services.
(*) During 2007/2008, the BBC stated that 3.6% of the licence fee was spent on collection.
When a TV licence is required
According to Act of Parliament, a TV licence must be obtained for any device that is "installed or used" for "receiving a television programme at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public".
According to TV Licensing, "You need a TV Licence to use any television receiving equipment such as a TV set, digital box, DVD or video recorder, PC, laptop or mobile phone to watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV". Portable televisions and similar equipment such as laptops and mobile phones powered by internal batteries are covered for use anywhere under a licence held for their owner's residence.
When a TV licence is not required
Since a TV licence is only required for receiving or watching live TV as it is being broadcast, it follows that it is not needed for simply owning a TV or using iPlayer. This has been confirmed by the BBC.
- operating a digital box used with a hi-fi system or another device that can only be used to produce sounds
- installing and using a television set solely as a closed-circuit TV monitor 
- using a TV to play pre-recorded DVDs or videos (although to record live programmes it is necessary to hold a licence) 
- using a TV solely as a digital radio receiver 
- using a TV as a computer games console 
- watching catch up TV services when the programme is not live.
A programme previously recorded on properly licensed premises and then watched on unlicensed equipment is outside the scope of the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004, because it is not "received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public," although such recordings may infringe copyright.
TV Licensing offers the following advice to those who have a TV but 'who wish to make it clear that they do not need a licence':
- remove the television from the aerial;
- cover the aerial socket so that it can't be used;
- ensure that when channels on the television are selected no television signal is received.
However, TV Licensing also says that it is not compulsory to follow this advice.
In order to listen to digital radio on a TV, for example, it would be necessary to attach the TV to an aerial and tune the TV to different channels. The BBC has made it clear that it is legal to listen to digital radio using a TV without holding a TV licence. However, in this situation, TV Licensing officers may ask to inspect the equipment to confirm that no licence is needed.
According to Ofcom, TV transmissions over the Internet are a grey area which in future might make fees based on television ownership redundant. In 2005, a Green Paper by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport included suggestions of "either a compulsory levy on all households or even on ownership of PCs as well as TVs". However, TV Licensing have since stated that use of any device (including a computer or mobile phone) receiving transmissions at or about the same time as they appear on TV requires a licence. The BBC is aware that new technology represents a threat to its revenue. A recent BBC report states "there is a continued threat to the growth in TV Licence sales from the increasing number of people consuming television in a way that does not need to be licensed".
It used to be the case that televisions receiving a transmission from outside the UK (e.g. in Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Netherlands via the Astra satellite, on which many channels are free-to-air) did not need a licence, but this was changed by the Communications Act 2003, so that the reception of television from any source requires a TV licence.
In 2012, more than 400,000 households informed the BBC that they did not need a TV licence.
Number of licences required per address
A licence is required to watch live TV transmissions anywhere, including residential and business premises.
For residential premises, only one licence is required per household per address, regardless of the number of licensed devices or the number of members of the household. However, the licence itself is always held in the name of an individual. 
A rented property in multiple occupation by a joint tenancy agreement is considered by TV Licensing as one household and requires only one licence, but a rented property with multiple, separate tenancy agreements is not considered a single household and each tenant may require a separate licence. For example, a house in multiple occupation may have private bedrooms and shared communal areas: if five occupants share such a property with individual tenancy agreements then they may require up to five television licences if each private room contains a television receiver, while a similar property housing five occupants under a joint tenancy agreement may require only one television licence.
Use of television in a static caravan is covered by the licence held for the user's main address, provided there is no simultaneous use of television at both places, and the use of television in a touring caravan is always covered by the user's main home licence. The use of a television set which is powered solely by its own internal batteries is covered for any address by the user's main home licence, but requires a separate licence if it is plugged into the mains or other external power source, such as a car battery; this also applies to TV-enabled mobile telephones.
Licence fee enforcement
A person who watches or records live TV without being in possession of a TV licence is referred to by the BBC as a 'TV licence evader'. Each year the BBC estimates the evasion rate (expressed as a percentage of total 'licensable properties') and publishes the value in its Annual Report and Account. For the year 2005–6, TV Licensing claimed that they "reduced estimated evasion to a record low of 4.7%". However, this figure rose during the following year to 5.1% and remained at 5.1% during 2007–8. For the year 2010/2011 the evasion rate is stated as 5.2%. According to the BBC "the published rate of evasion has increased marginally to 5.5% in 2012/13". The evasion rate is far from uniform across the UK, with Scotland having a far higher rate than the UK as a whole. One reason given by the BBC for evasion is lack of money in a household. For example, in the BBC Full Financial Statement 2012/13 the BBC says: 'as household budgets come under pressure, we are starting to see an increase in licence fee evasion rates over their prior year level'.  However, this is not the only reason given for TV licence evasion, since according to a submission made by the BBC to the Information Commissioner's Office: 'the BBC said that it is also aware that a growing number of individuals deliberately evade the licence fee due to dissatisfaction with the BBC'. 
Since it is not possible to prevent a person buying and using TV receiving equipment without being in possession of a licence, it has been found necessary to enforce the TV licence system by detecting and prosecuting TV licence evaders. The critical method of detecting TV licence evaders is through the use of a database system known as LASSY, which contains 29.5 million addresses in the UK. This database is routinely updated with licence holders' details. Until 2013, dealers in television receiving equipment were required by law to provide TV Licensing with identifying information about everyone who buys or rents such equipment. However this requirement has been lifted by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill passed in 2013. TV Licensing maintains permanent contact with every address in the database that is recorded as not having a TV licence  until a licence is purchased for that address or until TV Licensing confirm that the household does not need a licence. If it is confirmed that a household does not watch or record live TV, the address is put into the NLCC (No Licence Needed Claim Confirmed) category. Residential properties put into this category are not visited or contacted for a period of two years from the time that the claim was confirmed. Business properties on the other hand, are exempted from visits or mailings for three years after confirmation.
The initial contact with occupants of addresses for which there is no current licence is by letter. During the financial year 2011–12, approximately 21 million "standard warning" letters were sent, each costing 18.3 pence in postage (excluding printing and sorting costs). The methods by which an occupant can reply are in writing, by telephone or by filling in an online form . If there is no reply to the first letter and a TV licence is not bought by the occupant, then TV Licensing continues to write regularly to the address and "the tone of the letters progressively becomes stronger to encourage a reply". If a business or household is not obliged to have a TV licence then TV Licensing will request written confirmation of this, even though no such information is required to be given in law.
If a colour TV licence is not purchased for an address, TV Licensing agents—known as "enquiry officers" or "enforcement officers"—make unannounced visits to the address. Visits are made even when the occupant has declared that no licence is necessary, or when a licence has been purchased for only black-and-white television. In fact, according to a Citizens Advice Bureau report, when one of the Bureau advisers contacted TV Licensing on behalf of a client, they were told that "black and white licence holders tend to get 'special attention' including visits from inspectors". The number of visits rose from 2.9 million during the year 2005–6 to 3.5 million during the year 2006–7. The BBC Trust states that during the year 2007–2008, when people who had said that they did not require a TV licence were visited, 27% were found to need one. According to TV Licensing, "more than 204,000 people in the UK were caught watching TV without a licence during the first six months of 2012". However, according to a BBC Trust report, less than half of evaders caught end up with a conviction. For example in 2007/8, 371,000 evaders were caught, which led to 177,000 cases but only 150,000 convictions. There were reported to be 334 enforcement officers in employment in August 2013. 
TV Licensing enforces the BBC's statutory obligation to ensure that every address where a television licence is required is correctly licensed, but its agents have no special rights and, like any other member of the public, rely on an implied right of access to reach the front door. Following freedom of information requests, the TV Licensing Visiting Procedures have been made publicly available, although certain sections have been redacted on the grounds that "disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders, the collection of the licence fee and the BBC’s ability to discharge its public functions in respect of such matters."  Enforcement Officers ask a set of predetermined questions to whoever answers the door when they visit. They first try to find out if the person who responds to the Enforcement Officer is an "appropriate person" to interview (i.e. an adult who lives at the property). They then try to find out if that person has been receiving TV without a licence. If they suspect that this is the case, they take a prosecution statement and ask the interviewee to sign it. The Enforcement Officer may ask permission to enter the property and may examine any TV receiving equipment found there. The occupants may deny an agent entry to the premises without cause and are under no obligation to answer any questions or enter into any conversation. If an agent has evidence that television is being watched or recorded illegally but is denied entry by the occupants so that (s)he cannot verify the suspicion without trespassing, then TV Licensing may apply to a magistrate for a search warrant, but the use of such warrants is rare. The BBC states that a search warrant would never be applied for solely on the basis of non-cooperation with TV Licensing and that in the event of being denied access to unlicensed property will use detection equipment rather than a search warrant.
TV detector vans have in the past featured heavily in TV Licensing publicity, highlighting that technology capable of detecting signals from operating TV sets is employed, and TV Licensing has claimed to have developed a hand-held detector. Although the BBC refuses to divulge how the detectors work, it has released some details of the capability of its detectors. For example it states that 'the detection equipment used by TV Licensing takes as little as 20 seconds to work and can distinguish between two television sets close together on either side of a partywall.'  It is also claimed that the equipment has a range of 60m. It is also stated that the hand held-devices 'measure both the direction and strength of a signal making it easy for us to locate TVs, even in the hardest to reach places'. The company Buckman Hardy Associates has made such equipment for the BBC in the past.  The BBC states that such technology used in conjunction with targeted advertising acts as a deterrent: its use may make it easier for TV Licensing agents to establish that an offence is likely to be taking place but they would still need to secure further evidence for successful prosecution. Furthermore, such technology is restricted in its use by the meaning of "surveillance and covert human intelligence sources" in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order 2001. TV Licensing now states "We will only use detection equipment to identify evaders when other, more cost effective, routes have been exhausted", and the BBC has stated that "Detection technology is generally used to obtain search warrants". Authorisation of the use of TV detectors is made by certain officials at the BBC, specifically the Head of Sales and Marketing or anyone holding a more senior role within the TV Licence Management Team of the BBC. No data from technology claimed to detect television signals has ever been used as court evidence. Although the BBC refuses to say how many detector vans are in its fleet, according to one source there may be as few as 11 in the whole country. Like other public bodies that undertake covert surveillance, the BBC is subject to the scrutiny of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, which inspects the BBC every other year.
Licence fee evasion makes up around one tenth of all cases prosecuted in magistrate courts. For every man prosecuted, two women are brought before the magistrates for this offence, a discrepancy explained by the fact that women are more likely to be at home when an enforcement officer calls. The law allows a fine of up to £1,000 be imposed on those successfully prosecuted. This figure is frequently publicised by TV Licensing to maximise deterrence. In reality, magistrates rarely impose the maximum fines allowed to them by law. The Magistrates' Association has been calling for the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion for nearly 20 years, concerned that evaders are punished disproportionately. During the year 2005–6, the average fine including costs was approximately £153 (slightly more than the cost of a licence). The Adam Smith Institute has published a report calling for the BBC to give up the licence fee. One of the reasons given is the licence fee criminalises poor people, in particular women with children living on welfare. The report points out that such people are liable to be re-prosecuted almost immediately unless they dispose of their TVs. In fact, an National Audit Office report from 2002 stated that "significant numbers of offenders do not buy a licence following conviction".
TV Licensing is managed as a sales operation and its officers are motivated by commission payments. In 2005, a TV Licensing officer was found guilty of false accounting and perverting the course of justice after he deliberately forged the confessions of four people to obtain commission payments. There have been numerous cases of TV Licensing officers engaging in threatening and bullying behaviour and several have been convicted of offences committed in the course of their duties. In April 2012 an Essex man convicted of TV licence evasion had his conviction overturned when TV Licensing were unable to confirm the validity of video evidence they presented in the original trial.
The Broadcasters' Audience Research Board estimated that of June 2004, 2.3% of UK households do not have television, and in September 2008, the BBC reported that some one million people do not need a TV licence. Alleged excuses given by householders for not having a licence include loss of mail, being "too busy" and suffering from polymorphous light eruption (sun allergy). The results of market research carried out on self-identified evaders concluded that roughly half were 'opportunistic delayers' who were playing the system to avoid immediate payment and that the others were 'deliberate evaders' who were trying to 'cheat the system'. Nearly one fifth of respondents claimed never to have bought a TV Licence.
Opinions on the Licence Fee
Previous inquiries, such as the parliamentary Peacock committee in 1986 and the internal Davies committee in 2000, recommended continuing the licence fee, with conditions. In 2001, an Ofcom report found that the vast majority of those it interviewed, including owners of digital television equipment, supported the principle of a licence fee to fund public service television and radio. The advantages of such funding listed by those interviewed included diversity, high quality, education, innovation, entertainment, information, original productions, pluralism, accessibility, inclusion of minorities and free access. Another reason given in a response to Ofcom by the National Union of Journalists was that the licence fee allows the BBC to "retain independence" from both commercial and political pressures. Nonetheless, having surveyed public opinion during December 2003, a finding of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was that "the way the licence fee is set and collected raised issues about fairness". Further criticisms, embodied in a 2005 Green Paper, included cost, value for money, whether or not the BBC should be publicly funded, the high cost of collection and enforcement and the methods used.
Meanwhile, in 2004, the Institute for Public Policy Research criticised the TV licence fee for its regressive impact, pointing out that it represents a much higher proportion of income for poor households, that evaders are most likely to be single parents, lone tenants, pensioners and the economically inactive and that the difficulties they have in paying the licence fee are compounded by the penalties enforced for non-payment.
In 2004, the BBC reported that "Almost 70% of people in the UK want changes to the way the BBC is funded", following an ICM poll for their current affairs programme Panorama, which showed that 31% were in favour of the existing licence fee system, 36% said the BBC should be paid for by a subscription and 31% wanted advertising to pay for the programmes.
In 2006, the House of Lords Select Committee on BBC Charter Review criticised the reclassification of the licence fee as a tax, pointing out that the BBC was in consequence reclassified as a central government body, with "significant implications for the BBC's independence".
In August 2008, the Guardian newspaper reported that "The BBC is facing an uphill battle to maintain support for the licence fee", stating that according to an Ipsos MORI poll the newspaper had commissioned, 41% agreed that the licence fee is an "appropriate funding mechanism" and 37% disagreed but when asked whether the licence fee is "good value for money", 47% disagreed, with more than half of them disagreeing strongly. The poll also showed that there is no longer a majority believing that the licence fee assured them of distinctive programming not available elsewhere ― which, the newspaper said, had long been one of the arguments for its existence: 41% of the population disagreed with only 30% agreeing. The poll also showed that opinion was split by a growing north-south and socio-economic divide.
In September 2008, the BBC's governing body, the BBC Trust, launched a review of TV Licensing's methods, following complaints about "heavy-handed" and "intimidating" tactics and during December 2008, it was reported by the press that the chairman of the all-party Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee had accused TV Licensing of behaving "like the Gestapo", employing "tactics that are outrageous", saying: "The tactics used by TV Licensing in their letters are intimidatory and cause genuine distress. Their records are not always correct, but they write letters that assume members of the public are criminals".
In September 2009, The Guardian reported an ICM poll showing an increase in support for the licence fee to 43%; "The fee is backed by 43%, against 24% who think advertising should foot the bill and 30% who think people should pay to subscribe if they want to see BBC programmes. In 2004, only 31% backed the licence fee, 12 points lower than today.".
Other technologies for receiving visual media, such as mobile phones and computers connected to the Internet, has led to questions over whether or not a licence fee based on television receiver ownership can continue to be justified when a television receiver is no longer the sole medium over which the BBC distributes its content; and these technological changes led the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to state in 2005 that the collection of a fixed charge based on television ownership may become difficult to sustain.
Supporters of the licence fee claim that it helps maintain a higher quality of programmes on the BBC compared to its commercial rivals (although that would be a minority view according to a 2004 ICM poll), and allows the production of programmes that would otherwise not be commercially viable (although that would be a minority opinion according to a 2008 Ipsos MORI poll). Some claim that it also leads to better programmes on the commercial channels as they seek to draw viewers and listeners away from the BBC's output and Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have pointed out that if the BBC were to be funded by advertising then the increased opportunities for advertisers would result in reduced revenues for all media content suppliers.
Some critics claim that the licensing system interferes with the freedom to receive information and contend that this is a contravention of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to freedom of expression). The ECHR in Application No. 26907/95 stated "Such an undertaking cannot be successfully accomplished unless it is grounded in the principle of pluralism, of which the State is the ultimate guarantor." and "The interference complained of was, therefore, necessary in a democratic society. There is, accordingly, no appearance of a violation of the applicant's right under Article 10 (Art. 10)."
Isle of Man
The licensing system remains controversial in the Isle of Man due to the fact that the licence fee remains the same as in the UK and Channel Islands, even though the BBC provides neither a local television news service for the Isle of Man (similar to BBC Channel Islands) nor any BBC local radio or national radio opt-out station. The BBC has sought to redress the lack of coverage by improving its online news service for the Isle of Man, with permanent BBC staff based at the Manx Radio studios in Douglas. A Select Committee of Tynwald was established in 2009 to investigate the value for money of the licensing system for the Isle of Man, and the feasibility of the Isle of Man withdrawing from it.
The future of the licence fee
The current Royal Charter for the BBC expires on 31 December 2016 and the TV licence fee itself is fixed at £145.50 until March 2017. Assuming the TV licence is retained, then the next round of negotiations for the renewal of the Royal Charter will decide the level of the fee to be charged after this time. It is thought likely that negotiations will start in 2015 for renewal of the Royal Charter that will guarantee licence fee funding until 2026.
From 2014, funding for the BBC World Service will be provided by the licence fee rather than, as at present, by a Grant-in-aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is expected to cost £245 million in the year 2014/15.
A briefing paper for the UK Parliament sets out the options for future funding of the BBC. The options listed are: continuance of the current system of TV licensing; funding the BBC from general taxation; use of advertising revenue; and a switch to a subscription system.
The Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004 gives the following definition:
- "television receiver" means any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any television programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose.
- any reference to receiving a television programme service includes a reference to receiving by any means any programme included in that service, where that programme is received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public by virtue of its being broadcast or distributed as part of that service.
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- TV Licensing (United Kingdom)
- Citizens Advice Bureau TV Licence Guide
- Enforcement information released by the BBC after FOI request
- THE BBC LICENCE FEE BID - report for the BBC Board of Governors, April 2006