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Television Licence Agents

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

I wish to raise the issue of how the licensing authorities deal with those who choose not to own a television—or own one, but only to play videotapes or DVDs, not to receive broadcast material.

A TV licence is payable if a set is owned and used to receive broadcasts. The Government decide the proportion of the licence fee that goes to the BBC, which receives the fee in its entirety, as far as I know. For that reason, the BBC has recently been left to collect the licence fee, although the rate of the fee and the principle behind it is established by Parliament.

The BBC has chosen to contract out collection to a third party called TV Licensing, which is linked to Capita, the organisation that provides a range of public services for private profit on behalf of a number of agencies, including parts of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is here today, will be aware of Capita’s role in dealing with compensation for mineworkers.

TV Licensing has a code of practice on how to deal with collecting the licence fee. Among its harmless provisions is that it should be courteous to customers, and we all recognise that as an important part of any service agency. Unless it obtains a magistrate’s warrant, the organisation has no power to enter someone’s property without their consent to verify whether they have a TV or whether a TV is being used for receiving broadcasts.

To some extent, the organisation also propagates what is possibly an illusion about TV licensing vans. From childhood, I remember adverts featuring vehicles with discs on top of them that were supposed to identify where a TV was in operation; a man would knock on doors to pursue the matter. TV Licensing propagates the impression that such activity is a critical part of prosecuting those who choose not to pay for a licence, although, as far as I know, there has not been a case in which evidence from such a vehicle has been produced in court.

I shall be intrigued to hear what the Minister has to say. When such matters have been raised in the past, the Government have sought to suggest that responsibility for collection and policy is a matter for the BBC and not for parliamentary concern. Indeed, a previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), said:

“It is for the BBC, as licensing authority, to keep under review the guidelines under which TV Licensing operates.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 87W.]

That is wholly inadequate; such activities are sanctioned by Parliament. The principle of having a licence fee to pay for broadcasting is sanctioned by Parliament, and to express no interest in how that fee should be collected is an inappropriate dismissal of responsibility.

We all recognise that some people who should have a licence choose not to pay for one. It is difficult to estimate how many such people there are, but it is reckoned that they make up about 5 per cent. of those who should have licences. All of us would accept that if we are to have a licence to pay for public service broadcasting, we should attempt to make sure that people do not freeload and receive such broadcasts for nothing.

I turn to the group whom I want to address in this debate. In our society, a small group of people choose not to have a television. They do so for a variety of reasons; for example, they may feel that the broadcast content is inadequate and that they do not want it. A small number of people have moral objections; only a couple of weeks ago, a constituent of mine told me that he does not wish to have a television because of his religious beliefs. It is not for us to be concerned about why someone should choose not to have a television; it is entirely for them to decide.

Until reasonably recently, an individual’s clear statement that they did not have a television was accepted by the licensing authorities. People were taken at their word. Presumably, it was subsequently decided for some reason that among those people were a reasonable number of liars, or people who were forgetful and changed their minds about having a television but did not apply for a licence, and that those people were a concern.

At the moment, the approach taken is to assume that every household has a television. The address database includes all addresses in this country. In some cases, it includes commercial addresses; mailings sometimes go out to industrial estates suggesting that TV licences are not being paid. The premises involved are not only domestic. The assumption that I mentioned is made, and there is therefore also an assumption that homes on the database that do not hold a licence must be breaking the law. That is backed at the moment by a further assumption that when someone, replying to a TV licence inquiry, says that they do not have a television or do not receive broadcasts, they are probably not telling the truth—or, at the very least, that the issue requires verification. An agent will knock on the door and ask to inspect the property to find out whether there is a TV.

It seems that there is an exception, which was raised by a constituent of mine. If someone is over 75, they are not obliged to pay for a TV licence. If they can show, by producing a birth certificate, that they are over 75, they are left alone. I suppose that we should be thankful for small mercies, although my constituent was very upset. I shall come in moment to the mail that is sent out. A relative of the elderly lady concerned contacted me to say that she had been very shocked to receive her letter. The licensing authorities graciously responded to me and said that they took my word, as a Member of Parliament, that the lady in question was over 75. They said that they intended to leave her alone. Their discretion on whose word should be taken as truth is interesting. Anyway, that small exception applies: the authorities will not persist with very elderly people.

The mailings sent out are offensive in a number of ways. I have a number of examples here, and unless I am a very unusual hon. Member, they are also drawn to the attention of other MPs from time to time. One common feature is that the envelope makes it perfectly clear what the matter is about. If the letter were put through the letterbox of a multiple-occupation block, it would be clear to all one’s neighbours that one was probably not complying with the law.

One letter states that TV Licensing officers would soon be visiting the address of the gentleman who wrote to me. Another one, perhaps jokingly, refers to the chance to own Britain’s most successful anti-detection device—there is a picture of a van with radio equipment inside—and to avoiding a knock on the door, risking a fine, millions sold, batteries not required, peace of mind guaranteed and so on. Ho, ho, ho.

However, if one is sharing a property with other people, such a letter gives the message that they might be a fiddler. If it goes to an ordinary household, it certainly gives a message to the postman who puts it through the letterbox that he is dealing with someone who probably is not complying with the law. The public disclosure of what the letter is about is offensive to many people.

The tone and accuracy of the correspondence are also offensive. Let me deal first with accuracy. The gentleman who wrote to me provided a selection of the 150-plus letters he received from TV Licensing at his address. He has made it clear repeatedly that he does not own a television and does not wish to own a television. To be fair, he does own a television but only for the purpose of playing tapes. Nevertheless, in law he is not required to pay for a licence. He received a letter that stated:

“After repeated reminders that this address is currently unlicensed”—

repeated reminders, certainly, but he had responded to them and made it perfectly clear that he was not obliged to pay for a licence—

“we have still had no response from you.”

The letter then draws attention to some of the penalties that may apply.

Another letter entertainingly states:

“On average, Officers from our Enforcement Division catch 70,933 people every year.”

The organisation achieves a remarkably precise average. In any case, I would be interested in public disclosure of exactly how well the activity is performed. The letter goes on to state that

“there is no record of a TV Licence at your address, and that you may therefore be watching or recording television programme services without a valid licence. If this is the case, you are breaking the law.

Enforcement Officers have been authorised by us to visit your address…to interview you under caution in compliance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.”

To be honest, that might not appear aggressive to a highly educated, well-prepared individual, but to many people, waving legal penalties and saying that they may be interviewed under caution is extraordinarily aggressive, particularly if they have repeatedly made it clear that they are not obliged to pay for a licence in the first place. The process of recording who has said what and ensuring that the database functions as a source of information for pursuing those who have not paid for a licence clearly is not carried out satisfactorily or efficiently by TV Licensing.

What do constituents complain about? First, they complain that there is an assumption that they have a television. I suspect that they have to live with that, as the overwhelming majority of households in this country do have a television. The assumption is probably fair. People find it offensive because they choose not to have a television, but we must accept that it is probably reasonable.

People certainly object to the refusal to accept their word, and I have a great deal of sympathy with them. If a resident has made it clear that they do not own a television and that they will not own a television, the most that TV Licensing should do is to contact them, perhaps once a year, to ask if that is still the case. They should be contacted courteously with an appropriately phrased letter, not one that aggressively implies that they are probably breaking the law.

People do not like the aggressive tone of the letters. I gave some examples of the kind of tone that is used. Again, I sympathise with their concerns. They certainly do not like the public way in which that aggression is delivered. To package such letters in what are, in effect, open envelopes and indicate that people may be offenders is simply not acceptable if someone is carrying out a perfectly lawful activity and does not have to pay for a licence.

Lastly, we must consider the impact on someone who is elderly or disadvantaged in some way and who may readily become confused or made anxious by highly legalistic mail. Again, that is not acceptable.

What should we do? First, there are perfectly reasonable databases of names and addresses in the UK that are updated regularly. If there is no evidence of a change of occupier, a gentle and neutrally worded annual inquiry would be appropriate. If a person says that they have no TV, asking them to confirm that on an annual basis is reasonable.

Secondly, a response from the resident—as I said, in most cases my constituents do respond—should prompt a review of appropriate actions. A response to one of my constituents stated:

“This is an automatically produced letter and the wording may not be totally appropriate to your individual circumstances.”

It simply is not acceptable or reasonable for a company to send aggressive direct mail to an individual who has made their circumstances clear because it cannot be bothered to change its records. I hope for an improvement in performance in that respect.

Thirdly, correspondence should be private. It is not appropriate to use a variety of logos and messages on the envelope that indicate what is inside. Fourthly, I would like to know about the performance of the organisation. Does it provide a cost-effective means of collecting TV licence fees from people who have chosen not to pay? What is the BBC paying for this purpose, and with what result? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate. I appreciate not only from his remarks but from those of other hon. Members the effect that correspondence or a visit from officials of TV Licensing can have. They can cause anxiety to those who are affected, not least those who are legitimately paying their licence fee and may have been caught in the system.

However, it is important to put on the record the fact that licence fee evasion costs some £150 million each year. From the surveys and work that we have done with licence fee payers, the majority of the public—substantial numbers—have huge faith and trust in the BBC, but absolutely expect value for money. The sum of £150 million a year is substantial, and it is right that the BBC has a system to try to collect that money and drive down losses. My hon. Friend asked about performance, and I shall come to that.

To set out the Government’s position, we all must recognise the need for effective and efficient TV licence fee collection. In the charter review White Paper, we confirmed that we consider the television licence fee to be the best way to finance the BBC and that it should therefore remain the main funding source throughout the 10- year period covered by the corporation’s new charter. In keeping with the need to maintain the BBC’s independence from the Government, we have also confirmed that it will remain the responsibility of the BBC to collect the licence fee and to ensure that that is done in a proper, efficient and cost-effective manner.

On the efficiency of licence fee collection, enforcement has rightly been the subject of past scrutiny by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and we expect it to be the subject of further inquiries. The House of Lords BBC Charter Review Select Committee also stressed the importance of cost efficiency in the collection and enforcement of the licence fee, and sought improvement in that area.

The Government acknowledge that licence fee enforcement must take place in such a way as to maintain public support. Successive charter review public consultations have reminded us of the public concerns about the impact of the licensing system and the way it operates, particularly in relation to the elderly and low-income households.

My hon. Friend commented that the BBC collects television licence fees on behalf of the Government. That is absolutely correct, but it is not the same as saying that the Government are—to use his words—expressing no interest in how fees are collected. Parliament originally gave the BBC the responsibility for collecting licence fee revenue in the Broadcasting Act 1990, but endorsed that more recently in the Communications Act 2003, which contains additional safeguards in relation to the powers of entry. As television licensing authority, the BBC has a statutory responsibility for the administration and enforcement of the licensing system. With that goes the responsibility to establish appropriate procedures and guidelines for staff and collection agents.

It is not the Government’s responsibility to administer that, but of course we have a view on how that might be done if the system is abused. In the light of concerns such as those that my hon. Friend has expressed, we have included a provision in the BBC’s new royal charter to make the BBC Trust more directly accountable for the activities of TV Licensing than has hitherto been the case under the board of governors. Article 24(2) of the charter explicitly provides that the functions of the new trust will include ensuring

“that arrangements for the collection of the licence fee are efficient, appropriate and proportionate”—

and I emphasise “proportionate.”

We intend that that requirement should give a clear steer to the trust to take a close interest in the TV licence arrangements and satisfy itself that they operate in a way that is efficient, yet without seeming unfair or oppressive to those who come into contact with the system. There is a careful balance to be struck. One the one hand, the BBC as enforcing authority has a responsibility to ensure that every address that should have a television licence has one. On the other hand, it should not turn its back on significant evidence of licence fee evasion, which currently runs at around £150 million each year in lost licence fee revenue, the cost of which is ultimately borne by those who pay their television licence fee.

My hon. Friend asked about performance. The BBC has so far been successful in reducing the evasion rate, which stood at an estimated 4.6 per cent. in March 2006—around one in 20 households, which is still staggering. That was, however, down from 7.8 per cent. in March 2001. The trend is downwards, which is significant in terms of the many tens of millions of pounds of revenue that would otherwise be lost to the BBC or which would constitute an extra cost to be borne by everybody else who legitimately pays their licence fee. Given both the scale of the problem and the amounts of money lost, it is correct that a rigorous approach should be taken to maintain and improve on that record.

On the other hand, efficiency and effectiveness should not be seen in isolation. The public have a right to be treated with respect and fairness. It is an absolute prerequisite that that should be seen to be the case in order to ensure long-term support for the licence fee system. I am aware that concern has been expressed about TV Licensing enforcement officers visiting people in their homes or expressing an intention to make such visits, particularly when the person in question has already indicated that he or she does not have a television. However, home visits are not a new practice to combat evasion. TV Licensing has long made a point of making home visits to selected addresses for which it receives a declaration that no television set is in use.

The BBC indicates that the underlying reason for the home visit policy is the scale of false declarations. To give an idea of what we are talking about, in 2004-05 more than 50 per cent. of declarations received by TV Licensing that no television was in use were false. For that reason, the BBC has a policy under which TV Licensing now visits all addresses for which it has received such a declaration. The purpose of the visit is to identify genuine non-users of televisions, so that subsequent contact with them can be minimised.

If one considers the volume of licence fee evasion—£150 million a year—and the fact that 50 per cent. of declarations that no set is in use are false, the case for a rigorous procedure to stop licence fee evasion is absolutely justifiable. The fact that the figures are coming down suggests that the policy is working. As I have said, however, it matters that the procedure is fair and proportionate.

TV Licensing officials may enter a person’s home only with that person’s consent or if authorised to do so by a warrant issued by a magistrate, as my hon. Friend will understand. The BBC assures me that visits by inquiry officers follow a strict set of procedural instructions and take a matter of minutes. I understand that, following successful verification that no television is in use at the premises, the policy of TV Licensing is now to exclude the address from any further enquiries for an initial period of four years.

I also acknowledge the concerns about the tone of TV Licensing’s advertisements and letters of inquiry. Although the BBC has assured my officials that the contents of TV Licensing’s letters are not visible to a postman, it is clear that they come from TV Licensing, and I can understand that some recipients are unhappy about that. I also understand that it may sometimes appear that TV Licensing is out to pursue people who choose not to own a television set.

For the sake of clarity, it may be helpful to point out that an estimated 1.19 million households have a TV but no licence, as of March 2006. To give some perspective, that is twice the number of households with no television. In their duty to administer and enforce the television licensing system, the BBC and TV Licensing take the view that there is a clear obligation to all licence fee payers to investigate unlicensed addresses, to verify the status of the premises and establish whether a licence is indeed required.

I appreciate the need for TV Licensing to consider the individual’s privacy when corresponding, however. Although it is not for the Government to become involved in the day-to-day operation of the system, I will undertake to raise my hon. Friend’s concern about envelopes and logos with the BBC.

In conclusion, I hope that what I have said, especially my references to the obligations on the new BBC Trust in relation to the licensing system, will go some way to reassuring my hon. Friend that the Government are alert to the concerns that he has raised in this debate. We remain committed to the television licence fee as the basis for funding the BBC. That requires support for a collection and enforcement system that is efficient and effective; but that system must also be seen as fair and proportionate to those who come into contact with it.

I thank the Minister for his response, which has included some encouraging points, but the standard of administrative efficiency is poor. In the case of the 75-year-old to whom I referred, the letter to me said:

“We have found that a small number of addresses”—

I do not know what “small” might mean, bearing in mind the scale—

“have recently been sent a mailing in error. We had already been told that no TV Licences were needed”.

The difficulty is often with TV Licensing not logging what it already knows on its system.

If one looks at efficiency, one must consider the scale of the evasion and the BBC’s success in driving it down. Evasion is a serious problem that costs all licence fee payers considerable amounts of money in order to support those who do not pay their fair share. However, I am prepared to raise some of the issues that my hon. Friend has mentioned with the BBC. I remind him of the contents of the new charter, specifically the section that relates to the collection of the licence fee now being the responsibility of the trust. I hope that the trust will listen carefully not only to my hon. Friend’s speech but to the Government’s reply.