TV Licence

TV Licence

The TV licence is in fact a licence to watch television programmes as they are being broadcast rather than to simply own a TV. ‘Broadcast’ includes traditional transmission over the airways, by satellite and over the internet.

The requirement to have a licence is defined in the Communications Act 2003 where it states that to watch live TV without being covered by a licence is a criminal offence. Since 1st September 2016 a licence is also required to watch catch-up BBC TV. The actual licence fee level is set from time to time by the government’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The 2003 Act is supported by the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004. This provides further details about licence requirements for different types of accommodation.

The licence fee is collected by the TV Licensing Authority. Up until 1991 this Authority was the responsibility of the Home Office but was then transferred to the BBC. The BBC has outsourced actual collection and administration of the fee to a variety of companies, in particular Capita PLC.

So, in effect the BBC and TV Licensing are one and the same. The BBC tries to distance itself from its TV Licensing operation which it runs as a separate brand with its own trademark:

                                          

The trademark was designed for the BBC in 2008 by The Partners. The logo at the left hand side represents the power button design seen on many electrical items, and the tick emphasises the positive aspects of having a television licence. The BBC has issued comprehensive guidelines on how the trademark should be used and in what circumstances. The document TVL Brand Guidelines has been released under a freedom of information request and makes interesting reading. In particular it says that in any customer facing literature that uses the trademark, there should be no connection made between the BBC and TV Licensing.

TV Licence Tax

Since 2006 the Office of National Statistics has classified the TV licence fee as a tax on the basis that it’s a compulsory payment if you watch any television and is used for purposes other than just funding the BBC. As a tax it is highly regressive—imposing a set fee per household, regardless of the number of people in the household and their financial status. So a single person, students and unemployed people on benefits pay the same as a millionaire with a large household. Unlike the council tax there is no 25% single person reduction, or exemption for full time students.

There are further anomalies. If that millionaire is over 75 or has an over 75 year old relative living there, no TV licence would be required. And there are totally arcane rules about licence requirements for portable equipment. For example if you use a portable computer or a smartphone to watch television it is covered by your home licence, except if it’s plugged into the mains power of say a pub when it has to be covered by their licence.

Allocation of TV Licence Fee Funds

In 2014/15 the TV licence fee total was £3,735 million. The BBC also received £1,070 million other income, primarily from its BBC Worldwide operation. The majority of this income is used by the BBC to fund its broadcasting activities. But over the last few years the government has insisted the BBC itself finance certain activities which the government used to pay for and are in the BBC’s 2014/15 accounts as:

  1. £243 million for the World Service. This was previously funded by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

  2. £7.2 million for BBC Monitoring. This was previously funded by the Cabinet Office.

  3. £150 million for broadband rollout. This is surely British Telecom’s responsibility.

  4. £76 million of licence fee money is transferred directly to the S4C Welsh channel. Additionally £31 million is spent on content creation specifically for S4C. Previously the £76 million was provided directly to S4C from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Currently, the over 75s  licence fee is paid to the BBC by the Department of Work and Pensions, amounting to £613.4 million in 2014/15. However the 2015 July budget decreed that responsibility for paying these licenses would be transferred to the BBC between 2018 and 2020 when it is estimated the cost to the BBC will be £750 million annually. But at the same time the BBC will become responsible for the over 75s licence fee policy, so a brave Director-General may well decide to put and end to this privilege.

These extra uses of licence fee income artificially increase the licence cost when many people are struggling financially. Also, this transfer of expenditure from the government to the BBC, is a transfer of expenditure from monies raised through proportional taxation to that raised through a regressive tax, in effect hitting the poorest hardest.

Licence Fee Collection

The BBC basically assumes that all UK households watch television and in that respect have developed a database of all UK residential properties with the licence status of each property. Any property without a licence is then bombarded with an escalating series of letters, first demanding payment, then threatening that one of their representatives will call round to check if you are in fact watching TV, and finally threatening court action. At which stage the letter sequence simply resets to the start and round it goes again, month after month, year after year, ad infinitum like a TV Licensing Groundhog Day.

The volume of letters sent out by TV Licensing is staggering, amounting to around 23 million a year or about 100,000 a working day. As there is no legal requirement for anyone to reply to these letters, the majority will simply be ignored and binned. The letter threatening court action is quite curious. TV Licensing has no way of knowing if a TV is being used or not, so such a letter could appear as extortion and contravene the Malicious Communications Act. A freedom of information request has revealed that 3,105,532 of these letters were sent out in 2011 alone.

TV Licensing offers the option of letting them know that you don’t watch television so they can stop sending you letters for two years at which point they check on your situation again. But there is little point contacting them to tell them this as they don’t believe anyone could live without a television and will send one of their representatives round to check if you are telling the truth.

From time to time TV Licensing sends a representative (who they call ‘enforcement officers’) to unlicensed properties. Their modus operandi is to blag their way into a home, see if there is a television installed there, and then get the householder to sign a TVL178 form admitting they have been watching live television without a licence. In practice there is no legal requirement to let these ‘enforcement officers’ into your home, or even to speak to them.

The signed forms are then used by TV Licensing as evidence to prosecute the householder in court which can incur a fine of up to £1,000 although the average fine is around £175. Most defendants don’t attend court, instead the proceedings are batched up and pushed through court en masse. The Guardian attended one of these court sessions and the resulting article makes fairly depressing reading.

In Scotland, which has its own legal system, a different approach is taken. Most of the cases are settled out of court by way of a fiscal fine; an approach which also by avoiding court, avoids a criminal conviction.

Number of Prosecutions

Around 180,000 people are convicted each year of TV licence fee evasion. A curious statistic is that 70% of those are female. It is presumed that this is because they are more likely to be at home during the day when the ‘enforcers’ call, and are less inclined to tell them to just go away, which they are quite entitled to.

These TV licence cases represent about 10% of cases appearing in court in England and Wales and as much as 25% in Northern Ireland, making the BBC one of the biggest organisations giving criminal records to UK citizens. In Scotland the offence of licence fee evasion is effectively decriminalised.

TV licence fee evasion is not punishable by a prison term, but non payment of the resulting fine can end up with a prison sentence. In 2014 in England and Wales, 39 people were sent to prison in this way for an average of 20 days. In Scotland the figure was zero due to the different regime in place there.

For further information on the number of TV licence related prosecutions, see the detailed archive of information collated by Caroline Lévesque-Bartlett: British TV Licence Evasion Exposed

TV Search Warrants

If TV Licensing repeatedly fails to make any contact with a householder and has evidence that TV is being watched they can apply for a search warrant to gain access to the property. These warrants have to be undertaken within 30 days of being issued and are usually undertaken by two ‘enforcement officers’ accompanied by the police who are there to avoid any breach of the peace.

It appears search warrants are very rare but TV Licensing won’t release the actual numbers on the basis that knowing the numbers may encourage people to avoid paying the licence fee. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (responsible for courts in England and Wales) have confirmed they have the numbers, but as they are held in the individual courts rather than centrally, it would cost too much to collate them in response to a Freedom of Information request. However in Scotland the courts have said they have no knowledge of any search warrants being issued between 2011 and 2014.

But really. The concept of a search warrant to look for a television in the 21st century is just farcical, especially when any computing device can be used to watch TV and televisions themselves can be used to browse the internet and as computer monitors.

TV Detector Vans

One source of evidence to support a search warrant request is evidence from the fabled TV detector vans. Again, TV Licensing will not release information on how these work on the basis it could encourage licence evasion. The original detection methods would probably have picked up a signal from the intermediate frequency (IF) oscillator within the TV tuner, which would also enable the detector van to determine what channel was being watched. Recent detection methods appear to depend on a high power camera monitoring light output through a house window, and then determining if the red-green-blue colour fluctuations match those of a TV broadcast.

Evidence from detector vans has never been used in court as it really wouldn’t be sufficient to secure a conviction, and TV Licensing wouldn’t want their detection methodology aired and challenged in public. However, it is used as part of a package of evidence when applying for a search warrant.

Use of TV detector equipment comes under the category of covert surveillance and therefore each instance requires authorisation under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The BBC has been given the power to sign off such authorisation themselves subject to inspection by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners every three years.

Decriminalisation of TV Licence Evasion Offence

Magistrates have been uneasy for a while about having to give criminal records and fines for TV licence fee evasion cases, especially when many of the defendants are on benefits and 70% are female. Why can’t the offence be a civil one like non-payment of gas and electricity bills? There have been a number of attempts to decriminalise the offence.

During the Royal Charter review of 2005/2006 the House of Lords Select Committee on the BBC’s Charter Review recommended:

  1. At the earliest opportunity, non-payment of the licence fee should be decriminalised and brought into line with civil offences through the use of fixed penalty notices and civil court orders.

Unfortunately this recommendation was not adopted by the government and the status quo continued. In 2014 Andrew Bridgen MP tabled an additional clause into the Deregulation Bill that would allow for decriminalisation of non-payment of the television licence. This was approved by Parliament but overturned by the House of Lords by a majority of just three votes with an amendment that no change should be made before 2017 when the new BBC Royal Charter would come into effect.

The Department of Media, Sport and Culture then commissioned a TV Licence Enforcement Review led by David Perry QC. This reported on 16th July 2015 and although included recommendations to improve the current enforcement regime, so long as the current TV licensing fee collection system is in place, the current enforcement regime, i.e. criminal sanctions, should remain as it is a “broadly fair and proportionate response”.

So as things stand, any new move to decriminalise the offence will have to be considered as part of the BBC Royal Charter Review, but if David Perry’s main recommendation is adhered to, it won’t happen.

Meanwhile the BBC is against decriminalisation as they claim it could cost them up to £200 million annually in lost licence fee revenue.

The House of Commons Library has produced a useful summary of the decriminalisation issue: TV licence fee non-payment— decriminalising the offence

Catch-up TV

When the BBC introduced iPlayer in 2007 it made no attempt to password protect it in full knowledge that a TV licence would not be required to watch iPlayer content. It subsequently started grumbling that people were exploiting this ‘loophole’ (of its own creation) by just watching catch-up TV and not buying a TV licence, and this was costing them £150 million annually.

On 3rd July 2015 George Osborne and John Whittingdale wrote to the BBC about its  funding arrangements and included a commitment to ‘modernise’ the licence fee to cover catch-up TV: Letter from George Osborne and John Whittingdale to Tony Hall

John Whittingdale reiterated this commitment to extend the TV licence fee to include catch-up TV in his keynote speech to the Oxford Media Conference on 2nd March 2016.

On 7th July 2016 the government published ‘The Communications (Television Licensing)(Amendment) Regulations 2016’ that stipulates a TV licence is required to watch on-demand BBC programmes, but not those broadcast by other channels such as ITV etc. The revised regulations came into force on 1st September 2016. So the law is now a total mess. Can any sane person explain why a TV licence is required to watch live ITV but not on-demand ITV?

Conclusion

The licence fee has served the BBC well allowing it to grow from a media start up company in the 1920s to what is now a global media behemoth.

However the world has moved on with the BBC no longer having a monopoly of UK broadcasting and the digital age opening up many new ways of watching video material.

It’s perverse that watching any TV, not just the BBC, requires a licence and for this to be backed up by criminal sanctions should be unacceptable in any civilised country.

Within the UK, the guaranteed licence fee income has allowed the BBC to grow the number of TV channels, radio channels and web sites without any regard to their commercial viability. But now the UK economy is not doing as well as it was the BBC is clearly under financial pressure to maintain the huge empire it has developed.

So what should be done?

  1. 1.At the very least the offence of watching TV without a licence should be decriminalised. If the BBC loses some income, so be it. At the same time TV Licensing’s aggressive harassment of its potential customers should be curtailed.

  2. 2.A serious review should be made of the BBC’s scale in the UK. Do we really need nine TV channels? Fifty nine radio stations? All those BBC websites?

  3. 3.In the longer term the BBC should move to a subscription model, with its TV signals encrypted. If there was a shortfall to pay for BBC radio the government should resume paying for the over 75s which would cover the annual £652.5 million cost of running the BBC radio stations. This is essentially the recommendation made by the comprehensive Peacock Report published way back in 1986. If that report had been implemented, the licence fee would have been consigned to history.