Television licensing in the United Kingdom

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For licensing for broadcasting rights, see broadcast license.

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. Businesses, hospitals, schools and a range of other organisations are also required to hold television licences to watch and record live TV broadcasts.[1] Since 1 April 2010 the annual licence fee has been £145.50 for colour and £49.00 for black and white.[2][3][4] 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 £3.7261 billion in 2013–14[5] of which 607.8 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 £5.066 billion in 2013–2014.[5]

Operation of the licensing system[edit]

Legal Framework[edit]

The level of the fee is decided following periodic negotiations between the UK Government and the BBC Trust.[6] The licence fee is then formally set by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport by the use of Statutory Instruments. The relevant Statutory Instruments are The Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004 [7] and amendments since that time such as The Communications (Television Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations 2010. [3] As well as prescribing the fees, the regulations also define “television receiver” for the purposes of the law.

From 1988 to 2010, the licence fee was increased annually each April [8] 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.[9] 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.

Capita's TV Licensing Headquarters is based at India Mill, Darwen, Lancashire.

The licence fee is classified as a tax,[10] 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.[11]

TV Licensing brand or trade mark[edit]

The BBC pursues its licence fee collection and enforcement under the trading name TV Licensing, but contracts much of the task to commercial organisations.[12] TV Licensing is a trade mark of the BBC used under licence by companies contracted by the BBC that administer the television licensing system.[12] Concerning the relationship of the BBC brand with the TV Licensing brand, the BBC's position is: "The TV Licensing brand is separate from the BBC brand. No link between the two brands should be made in customer facing communications, in particular, use of the BBC name and logo".[13] However, it also states that the rules for internal communications and communications with suppliers are different and: "the name BBC TV Licensing may also be used within department names or job titles for BBC employees".[13]

TV Licensing contractors and subcontractors[edit]

Capita[edit]

A major contractor is Capita[14] which specialises in outsourcing for government projects. Capita is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the TV Licence fee.[12][15] 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.[9]

Capita's TV Licensing headquarters is based at India Mill, in Darwen, Lancashire.[16] 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.[9] 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'.[9] 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.[9] Some of Capita's TV Licensing work is carried out in Mumbai, India.[17]

Proximity London Ltd[edit]

Marketing and printing services, including reminder letters and licence distribution are carried out by Proximity London Ltd.[18]

Mediaedge:CIA International Ltd[edit]

Media services are contracted to Mediaedge:CIA International Limited.[19]

Other Contractors[edit]

Other contractors involved in TV Licensing include PayPoint which provides over-the-counter services in the UK, and the Post Offices which provide the same services in the Isle of Man and Channel Islands.[9] Also involved are: AMV BBDO Ltd [18] who provide advertising services and Fishburn Communications Limited [20] who carry out public relations.

Duration of a TV licence[edit]

A TV licence, once issued, is normally valid for a maximum of 12 months. The period of its validity depends on the exact day of the month it is purchased; this is because TV licences always expire at the end of a calendar month. If a licence were to be obtained in September 2014, for example, it would expire on the 31st August 2015. Thus the period of validity would vary between 11 and 12 months depending how early in the month it was bought.[21] If an existing licence is renewed on time, the new licence will last the full 12 months.

If a TV licence is no longer needed for an address it is possible to cancel a licence and apply for a partial refund.[22] The amount refunded will depend on the time left to the expiry date. Normally only full quarters (that is three consecutive calendar months) of unexpired licence period are refunded.[23]

The BBC may also revoke a licence under certain circumstances [23]

Payment methods[edit]

The BBC allows the following forms of payment of the licence fee:[24]

  • Direct debit. Payments may be made annually, quarterly or monthly.
  • Debit or credit card. Annual payment.
  • PayPoint. Annual payments may be made at PayPoint outlets (usually situated in shops) by cash or debit card. Monthly or weekly payments may also be made by holders of a TV Licensing payment card (see below)
  • TV Licensing payment card. Holders of this card will have a payment plan showing when and how much they need to pay. Payments may be made weekly or monthly at PayPoint outlets. Payments may also be made online, by phone or by text message (with credit or debit card).
  • TV Licensing savings card. This is a way for a licence fee holder to save for a subsequent licence. If enough money for the new licence is saved up, a new licence is sent automatically. Otherwise the balance has to be paid for.
  • Cheques and postal orders. Annual payments may be made by post by these methods.
  • BACS electronic transfer. Annual payments for renewal licences only.

The payment methods mean that the licence fee is paid for either completely or partially in advance. Annual payments require complete payment in advance. For monthly direct debit, a new licence is paid off in 6 monthly installments of just over £24 a month. Renewal licences are paid for in 12 monthly installments starting 6 months before expiry of the licence in force ie. starting 6 months before the renewal date.[24] Quarterly 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: "By paying quarterly the majority of your licence is paid for as you use it. This differs from our other instalment schemes, where at least half of the licence fee is collected in advance. As a result, quarterly payments incur a small premium of £1.25 per quarter which is included in your payment."[24] 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.

Concessions[edit]

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.[25] 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.

Licences are half price for the legally blind.[26]

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.

Total licence sales[edit]

TV licence sales figures were quoted by the BBC to be 25.478 million in the year 2013/14, although this includes 4.328 million licences for the over 75s which were paid for by the UK government.[27]

History[edit]

When television broadcasts in the UK were resumed after a break because of the Second World War, it was decided to introduce a television licence fee in order to finance the service. When first introduced on 1 June 1946, the licence covering the monochrome-only single-channel BBC television service cost £2 (£72.38 as of 2014)[28]. The licence was originally issued by the General Post Office (GPO), which was then the regulator of public communications within the UK. The GPO also issued licences for home radio receivers powered by mains electricity [29] and was mandated by laws beginning with the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904, to administer the licensing system. Households which bought a TV licence did not need to hold a separate radio licence as the TV licence covered both TV and radio reception.

The BBC started regular TV transmissions in colour from the summer of 1967.[30] 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 (£151.32 as of 2014). The current (2010–2016) cash cost is £145.50 for colour TV and £49 for monochrome TV, per household.[31]

The radio only licence was abolished in 1971, when it was £1.25 (£18.91 in 2014 prices).

In 1991, the BBC took over the administration of television licensing in the UK.[11]

Licence fee expenditure[edit]

Further information: BBC

The BBC Trust gives the following information for expenditure of licence fee income during the year 2009–10 of £3.56 billion[32] (expressed here in percentage terms):

  • 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.[33]

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.

In addition, the BBC Alba Gaelic language television service is predominantly funded by MG Alba, an organisation funded by the Scottish Government.

(*) During 2007/2008, the BBC stated that 3.6% of the licence fee was spent on collection.[34]

TV Licence legal requirements[edit]

When a TV licence is required[edit]

According to an Act of Parliament, a TV licence must be obtained for any device that is "installed or used"[35] for "receiving a television programme at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public".[36]

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".[37] 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.[38]

When a TV licence is not required[edit]

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.[39]

In addition, it is not necessary to own a TV licence for the purpose of:[40][41][42]

  • operating a digital box used with a hi-fi system or another device that can only be used to produce sounds[37]
  • installing and using a television set solely as a closed-circuit TV monitor[43]
  • using a TV to play pre-recorded DVDs or videos (although to record live programmes it is necessary to hold a licence)[40]
  • using a TV solely as a digital radio receiver[42]
  • using a digital box to listen to radio through a TV [44]
  • using a TV as a computer games console[40]
  • watching catch up TV services when the programme is not live.[45]

According to the TV Licensing ASK Helpscript which is provided for its own staff to help with enquiries, it is legal to receive a live TV channel on a computer without a licence under the following conditions: the channel originates outside the UK and Channel Islands and it is "not available on terrestrial, satellite or cable in the UK or Channel Islands". [46]

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,"[36][47] 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':[48]

  • 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. 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.[42]

According to Ofcom, TV transmissions over the Internet are a grey area[49] which in future might make fees based on television ownership redundant. In 2005, a Green Paper by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport[50] included suggestions of "either a compulsory levy on all households or even on ownership of PCs as well as TVs".[51] 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.[37][47] 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".[52]

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,[53] 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.[54] According to the BBC, the average number of addresses in the UK with a No Licence Needed (NLN) status in the 2013 calendar year was 1,879,877.[55] In the month of June 2013, 5,043 NLN declarations were made to the BBC on the grounds that the address was only watching catch up TV.[55]

Number of licences required per address[edit]

A licence is required to watch live TV transmissions anywhere, including residential and business premises.[56]

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.[57] However, the licence itself is always held in the name of an individual.[58]

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.[59] 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.[60]

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.[61] 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;[61] this also applies to TV-enabled mobile telephones.[47]

Licence fee enforcement[edit]

TV licence evaders[edit]

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'.[9] 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 reported that they "reduced estimated evasion to a record low of 4.7%".[62] However, this figure rose during the following year to 5.1%[63] and remained at 5.1% during 2007–8.[64] For the year 2010/2011 the evasion rate is stated as 5.2%.[65] According to the BBC "the published rate of evasion has increased marginally to 5.5% in 2012/13".[9] The evasion rate is far from uniform across the UK, with Scotland having a far higher rate than the UK as a whole.[66] 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'.[67] 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'.[68]

According to a National Audit Office report from 2002: "Areas with high evasion rates are most likely to have, for example, a higher than average proportion of younger people, low income households, and students and single parent families, and a level of County Court judgments 50 per cent above the national average".[69] However, according to the BBC, 'evasion is spread across all socioeconomic groups'.[63] The BBC has also claimed that the 'TV Licensing evader profile' could be characterised by the distribution by social grade of 1.3m properties that were not licensed on 31 March 2007. The profile was given as follows: AB 20.1%, C1 29.1%, C2 13.6%, D 18.9%, E 18.3%. [63]

The Broadcasters' Audience Research Board estimated that of June 2004, 2.3% of UK households do not have television,[70] and in September 2008, the BBC reported that some one million people do not need a TV licence.[64] 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).[71] 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.[69]

LASSY database[edit]

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 first identifying TV licence evaders and then attempting to sell them a licence and, in some cases, prosecuting them.[53] The critical method of detecting TV licence evaders is through the use of a database system known as LASSY,[72] which contains 29.5 million[63] addresses in the UK. LASSY is an acronym of 'Licence Administration and Support System' .[34] According to the National Audit Office: "The database holds records of potentially licensable properties and basic details (such as the name of the licence holder and the licence expiry date) of those for which valid licences are held".[69] This database is routinely updated with licence holders' details. Until 25 June 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.[73] However this requirement has been lifted by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill passed in 2013.[74] TV Licensing maintains permanent contact with every address in the database that is recorded as not having a TV licence[75] 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.[53]

TV Licensing letters and telephone calls[edit]

TV Licensing may make initial contact with occupants of addresses for which there is no current licence by letter[13] or by phone.[34] During the financial year 2012–13, approximately 21.5 million letters were sent to unlicensed addresses. The average postage cost to post one standard TV Licensing letter in the financial year 2012/13 was stated to be £0.2059. [76] The methods by which an occupant can reply are in writing, by telephone or by filling in an online form [2]. 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".[42] For example, one of its standard letters includes the phrase: "OFFICIAL WARNING: WE HAVE OPENED AN INVESTIGATION". This warning was included in 940,615 letters sent in January/February 2013.[77] Another standard letter states: 'Dear Sir/Madam, you have not responded to our previous letters. We want to ensure you have the information you may need before a hearing is set at your local court.' [78] More than 3 million letters containing this phrase were sent in 2011. [79]

Three basic tones of voice are used in TV Licensing letters: "Customer Service", "Collections" and "Enforcement".[13] According to the BBC: "Customer service is the brand experience we create for customers who are currently licensed, unknowingly unlicensed or who don’t need a licence", whereas "Collections is the brand experience we create for those customers whose TV Licence has expired and whom TV Licensing wants to motivate to renew." Finally, the Enforcement tone is used for households who have been unlicensed for a longer period. This period is not specified in freely available documents but TV Licensing suggests it could be used, for example, for the third and fourth Renewal reminder.[13] Each of these 'tones' involves letters with a different colour palette. For example, green is used in 'Customer Service' letters and red may be used in 'Collections' and 'Enforcement' letters. In all cases, the vocabulary and format used in the letters is strictly defined.[13]

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.[80][81]

Enquiry officer visits[edit]

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,[63][82] or when a licence has been purchased for only black-and-white television.[61] 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".[83] The number of visits rose from 2.9 million during the year 2005–6 to 3.5 million during the year 2006–7.[63] 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.[34] 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".[84] 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.[34] There were reported to be 334 enforcement officers in employment in August 2013.[85]

TV Licensing enforces the BBC's statutory obligation to ensure that every address where a television licence is required is correctly licensed,[61] 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.[82][86] A householder may withdraw the implied right of access to TV Licensing personnel. This is known as a WOIRA instruction. According to the BBC "the total number of WOIRA requests recorded since January 2008 (the date we began formally logging WOIRA requests centrally) to 21st October 2012 is 2311".[87]

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."[53] Enforcement Officers ask a set of predetermined questions to whoever answers the door when they visit.[53] 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[88] 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.[63] The BBC states that a search warrant would never be applied for solely on the basis of non-cooperation with TV Licensing[82][89] and that in the event of being denied access to unlicensed property will use detection equipment rather than a search warrant.[88]

According to the Daily Mail newspaper: "TV licensing catches all but a tiny minority of cheats by the very low-tech technique of sending inspectors to knock on their doors. Although ‘enforcement officers’ have no official powers of entry, they are trained in either talking their way across the threshold, or tricking homeowners into confessing they have been watching TV illegally."[90]

Detection technology[edit]

A Leyland Sherpa television detector van.

TV detector vans have in the past featured heavily in TV Licensing publicity,[91] highlighting that technology capable of detecting signals from operating (analogue) TV sets could be employed.[92] Detector vans date from the 1950s, when the Post Office ran converted Hillman Minx and Morris Oxford estate cars, which had large aerials attached to their roofs. [93] Subsequently Commers were introduced. In the 1980s, vans were supplied by Dodge and Leyland. In the 1990s, Ford Transits were introduced. In 2003, TVL launched its 10th model of detector vans. It was stated that these vans had removable branding so that they could operate covertly.[94]

No technical details of the detectors used have been released but it has been stated 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.'[95] It was also stated that the equipment had a range of 60m.

Hand-held detectors have also been developed,[63] which, according to TVL, can 'measure both the direction and strength of a signal making it easy for us to locate TVs, even in the hardest to reach places'.[96] The company Buckman Hardy Associates has made such equipment for the BBC in the past.[97]

Although no technical details of TV detectors have been made public, it is thought that they operate by detecting electromagnetic radiation given off by a TV.[98]

It has recently been revealed that the BBC uses optical TV detectors to obtain search warrants.[99]

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.[72][100] 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[63] and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order 2001.[101][102] 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.[103] A number of official inspection reports on the BBC's detection methods have been made available following freedom of information requests[104] These reports give an outline of the process of authorisation of the use of detection equipment. Briefly, applications for authorisation are made in the name of the Detection Manager of Capita. Correspondence between TV Licensing and the affected householder may be attached to the completed application forms which pass via a quality control 'gatekeeper' to the authorising officers (AOs) at the BBC. In 2012 there were two designated AOs at the BBC. To be authorised, an application must be shown to be 'necessary and proportionate'. AOs sometimes reject applications. Once approved, the authorisation lasts for a duration of eight weeks.

TV Licensing states "detection equipment will only be used if other less intrusive and more cost effective routes have been exhausted",[105] and the BBC has stated that "Detection technology is generally used to obtain search warrants".[100] In a reply to a FOI request in 2011, the BBC stated "I can confirm that TVL has not, to date, used detection evidence in Court". The BBC also wrote that such evidence "is unnecessary" because "TVL uses detection evidence when applying for search warrants. If, following service of the warrant an individual is found to be evading payment of the TV Licence, then the evidence obtained via the search warrant is used in court, not the detection evidence.[106]

Search warrants[edit]

In some cases, TV Licensing may apply to a magistrate (or a sheriff in Scotland) for a search warrant as part of the enforcement process.[107] According to TV Licensing such an application may only be made 'when there is good reason to believe that an offence has been committed, evidence of the commission of that offence is likely to be found, and conditions regarding access to the property warrant the granting of a search warrant'.[107] The same source also states that 'The BBC contracts Capita Business Services Ltd to carry out television licensing enforcement activities, including applying for and executing search warrants.' The BBC's contractor uses powers granted by Section 366 of the Communications Act 2003 to apply for and exercise search warrants.[108] The Act specifies that the search warrant is valid for a month after being granted. According to the BBC, such warrants are usually served in the presence of police officers.[107] The TV Licensing Visiting Procedures state: 'To minimise the impact on normal operations Enforcement Managers accompanied by an EO should in normal circumstances execute search warrants. On no account must the warrant be executed without two officers being present. Normally the two officers must be accompanied by a Police Officer'.[53] The warrant provides an authorisation to search a premises, and to examine and test any television receiver found. However, there is no power to seize any apparatus.[109] According to the BBC Search Warrant Policy "force must not be used by TV Licensing to gain entry to a property".[110]

Although data on the number of search warrants executed per year in the whole of the UK are not collated or held centrally, some idea of the frequency at which they are used may be taken from the result of a recent FOI request.[111] It was revealed that Sheffield Magistrates granted TV Licensing a total of six search warrants in the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, whilst in Northampton (including Wellingborough and Kettering) only two were granted in this period.

Information provided by the Scottish Court Service suggests that TV Licensing search warrant applications in Scotland are virtually non-existent. In their response to a FOI request the Scottish Court Service confirmed that no search warrant applications were made to courts in Scotland's two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in the three-and-a-half years between 1 January 2011 and 21 July 2014.[112]

Prosecution and fiscal fines[edit]

Licence evaders are liable for prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.[113] In England and Wales and in Northern Ireland, prosecutions are the responsibility of the BBC and are carried out by its contractor, Capita, in magistrate's courts [114][115] Similarly, on the Isle of Man, prosecutions are also carried out by Capita on behalf of the BBC [116] In Scotland, on the other hand, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Office undertakes prosecutions for TV Licence evasion.[117]

Licence fee evasion makes up around one ninth of all cases prosecuted in magistrate courts.[118] For every man prosecuted, two women are brought before the magistrates for this offence: it has been speculated that this is because women are more likely to be at home when an enforcement officer calls.[119] Proceedings for TV Licence evasion form a high percentage of all prosecutions carried out against women - over a third of all cases against women in England and Wales in 2013 were for this offence.[120] By comparison, TV licence evasion made up around 5% of prosecutions against men in 2013 in England and Wales.[120]

Very few cases in Scotland come to court. Instead of prosecution, in Scotland, TV licence fee evaders are usually asked by the Procurator Fiscal to pay a fiscal fine and a small number are simply given a warning. For example, in 2013-2014, just 10 cases reached the courts whereas 12969 people were asked to pay a fiscal fine, no action was taken in 275 cases, and 174 people were sent a warning. In addition, 2 people were asked to pay compensation and 1 person was offered the chance to pay a combination of fiscal fine and compensation. [121]

The maximum fine for this offence of up to £1,000 is frequently publicised by TV Licensing to maximise deterrence.[122] In reality, magistrates rarely impose the maximum fines allowed to them by law. For example, during the year 2005–6, the average fine including costs was approximately £153[123] (slightly more than the cost of a licence). According to a 2013 TV Licensing briefing document, the level of fines and costs imposed by magistrates court vary considerably between different regions of England and Wales.[114] In North Wales average fines and costs were stated to be £108.90 whilst offenders in the English Midlands area of "Black Country, Staffordshire & West Mercia" were required to pay £197.70.

Magistrates take into account the financial situation of the defendant when imposing fines.[124] They also take into account: whether it is a first offence; if a TV licence has been purchased and the length of time a defendant was unlicensed. The following are regarded as 'factors indicating lower culpability' which can result in mitigation of the sentence:[124]

  • Accidental oversight or belief licence held
  • Confusion of responsibility
  • Licence immediately obtained

A guilty plea may also result in a lower fine.

According to TV Licensing: "many evaders claim that an enquiry officer told them they would not be prosecuted if they bought a licence". However, it is also pointed out that "it is a disciplinary offence for an enquiry officer to say or suggest this".[114] Nevertheless, the same TV Licensing briefing does say that: "first-time evaders may escape prosecution if they purchase a licence immediately".[114]

The UK government has stated that: "Most TV licensing cases that are heard by magistrates courts are uncontested and the case is therefore often resolved in the defendant's absence." [125]

The Magistrates' Association has been calling for the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion for nearly 20 years, concerned that evaders are punished disproportionately.[126] 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.[127] In fact, an National Audit Office report from 2002 stated that "significant numbers of offenders do not buy a licence following conviction".[69]

TV Licensing is managed as a sales operation[128] and its officers are motivated by commission payments.[129] 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.[130] 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.[131]

According to TV Licensing, 30% of those prosecuted for TV Licence evasion in 2012 were found to have satellite or cable subscriptions.[114]

Although those found guilty of TV licence evasion cannot be sent to prison for that offence, if they default on their fine, they can be imprisoned. For example, in 2011, 48 people were imprisoned in England and Wales for defaulting on fines imposed for TV licence evasion. The figure for 2012 was 51.[132]

Opinions on the licence fee[edit]

Opinion polls[edit]

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.[133]

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.[134]

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.".[135]

In 2013, according to an ICM poll for The Sunday Telegraph, 70% stated that the BBC licence fee should be abolished or cut. 49% of those polled believed the fee should be scrapped altogether.[136]

Views of official bodies and policy institutes[edit]

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.[137] 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.[138] 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".[139] Further criticisms, embodied in a 2005 Green Paper,[50] 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.[14]

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;[140] 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.[50]

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".[10]

In a debate in the UK Parliament in October 2013, the licence fee was referred to as 'a flat-rate poll tax' and as 'probably the UK's most regressive tax'[141]

Some critics[who?] 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).[142] In a case dealing with the German radio licence, 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)."[143]

Media views[edit]

The television licence fee system has been variously criticised, commented upon and defended by the press.[144][145][146]

In 2014, Nick Ross, a BBC presenter, stated that the licence fee was unfair and should be abolished.[147]

Websites and blogs[edit]

There are a number of websites that campaign against the TV licence[148] The BBC monitors the internet for references to TV Licensing.[149] According to the BBC "searches are carried out for the purpose of identifying external information relating to TV Licensing such that, where appropriate, we can respond and assist licence fee payers or correct inaccurate information as well as flag up customer complaints." Part of this monitoring 'flags up' critical comments about TV Licensing. An internal briefing note released by the BBC in response to a freedom of information request names the TV Licensing Blog as TV Licensing's "most prevalent activist" [148] who has "built a significant following both for his blog and for his @TVLicensingblog Twitter feed (over 900 followers)". The BBC also monitors YouTube videos of Enforcement Officers and YouTube videos critical of TV Licensing [149] as well as social media such as Facebook [150] and Twitter.

Opinions on collection and enforcement methods[edit]

In September 2008, the BBC's governing body, the BBC Trust, launched a review of TV Licensing's methods,[34] following complaints about "heavy-handed" and "intimidating" tactics[64] 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".[151]

In 2008, the former BBC television star, Noel Edmonds, stated that he had stopped paying his TV licence in a protest at the tone of BBC adverts aimed at TV licence evaders.[152]

Isle of Man[edit]

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[edit]

The current Royal Charter for the BBC expires on 31 December 2016[153] and the TV licence fee itself is fixed at £145.50 until March 2017.[154] 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.[155] It is thought likely that negotiations will start in 2015 for renewal of the Royal Charter that will guarantee licence fee funding until 2026.[156]

From 2014, funding for the BBC World Service has been provided by the licence fee rather than, as previously, by grant-in-aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.[5] 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.[157] 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.

Changing the law to make TV Licence evasion a civil offence rather than a criminal one is currently (2014) being discussed by UK government ministers and UK members of parliament.[158]

Notes[edit]

The Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004[36] 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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External links[edit]