Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Andy Carey

  If you only ever watch Coronation Street you have to pay it. If you object to 62 per cent of the BBC's money being spent in South East England you probably have to pay it. If you don't want or can't afford digital television and disagree with paying for channels you can't get, you still have to pay it in full.

  It is of course the TV licence and approximately two million households do not have one. Around 300,000 so-called "evaders" are caught every year, and over 100,000 are prosecuted. :Sixty-eight per cent of those prosecuted are women, almost all those prosecuted are earning less than the average wage if they are wage-earners at all. All of them were at home during the day or early evening and opened the door to an Enquiry Officer from the Television Licensing Authority (the TVLA), the private company appointed by the BBC to collect the licence.

  I have met a deaf woman and a single mother who was fined for not having a licence. As a lip reader she rarely watched TV herself but she considered TV to be essential so that her two children could hear normal voices in the home. I have also met a heroine addict who lived two streets away from his separated wife in a high-crime neighbourhood. While he was away looking for work in London, she slept alternate nights at his house, and took a TV with her to watch. She got caught. The fact that she was licensed at her address didn't stop her being fined. These are not extreme examples. It stands to reason that the kind of person who is at home during the day and who can't afford a TV licence, is more likely to be on benefits or have children to care for, and is least likely to be taking advantage of those BBC services which require extra hardware, namely digital and internet. At the end of the day the law should not be broken but one had to feel sympathetic. As far as I know the BBC is the only "public service" to which the poor pay a greater proportion of their disposable income than the rich. Unlike say the NHS or education it can hardly be called an essential public service.

  Typical fines for evasion in the Magistrates Courts are £120 + £45 prosecution costs. Once a person has been fined, the legal system takes over. The costs of all the administration, fine enforcement officers, warrants for the arrest of non-payers and ultimately jail for those who wilfully default on the fine, have to be met by the taxpayer. The complexities of collecting fines are such that approximately 40 per cent of all fines imposed in Magistrates Courts are written off or cancelled by judicial action such as imprisonment. If the offender has to seek debt counselling at a Citizens Advice Bureau, the taxpayer has to cough up again. If you were a normal working person who thought evaders deserved what they got, you should still be concerned that nearly 10 per cent of the costs of running the Magistrates Court service is due to this one offence. You probably have access to more precise figures.

  And the TVLA proudly say that last year two retailers were prosecuted for not complying with the requirement to pass on names and addresses of those buying a television. It's not that big a deal but every TV you buy is a few pence per set dearer because of the cost of administering this requirement.

  But there is more. To maximise their income and to make their lives easier, the TVLA has been misleading the public. They want you to believe that any use of a television without a licence is an offence. On their website it says: "Using a television without an appropriate licence is a criminal offence." And "There is no valid excuse for using a television and not having a TV Licence." In their letters they send to unlicensed households at regular intervals it says: "Anyone who uses a television without a licence is breaking the law and faces a fine of up to £1,000." What? Absolutely anyone? This kind of wording is used repeatedly in all their publicity. The truth is that a licence is needed if you use apparatus (of any kind, TV, VCR, PC of any other) to receive or record broadcast television services. If you detune your equipment, and remove any aerial, then no licence is required. If use a TV only to watch pre-recorded videos, as a monitor for a games console, a computer or closed circuit television, of just to keep a nice clock on, then you save £109 legally. You do not even need a licence to watch a video of a programme recorded on a neighbour's (presumably licensed) television, although there may be a breech of copyright law in this case. The TVLA will only tell you the above information if you ask them directly. Some of the above quotes are deliberate falsehoods, and people who can't afford a licence are possibly being misled into getting rid of their TV completely, or into thinking that because they use it for videos or computer games and wrongly believe they are breaking the law by doing so, they may as well watch or record TV broadcasts as well.

  Everything in life has to be paid for, but the hurt caused by the BBC's method of funding is out of all proportion to the benefit it brings. Alternatives include subscription or putting it on Income Tax. One of the main objections to funding for example the public service content (OU, schools, education, possibly radio too) from taxation would be that the BBC's independence would be compromised. I don't understand this as governors are appointed by the Government, the level of the licence fee had to be approved by Government and the BBC's Charter is renewed by Government. Their powers and also their public service obligations also ultimately come from Government so the BBC is not really independent now. But if it were publicly funded, there could still be mechanisms that allowed it to retain its tradition of independent-minded broadcasting. After all the judiciary is publicly funded and they can and often do reach decisions that are against the government of the day.

  Another common objection is that the BBC's income would be squeezed by competing public spending priorities. I don't see that the BBC is more important than Health, Education, Defence and all the other public spending priorities, and that the BBC should thus be protected in some special way that other public services are not. Anyway, there are surely mechanisms to guarantee the BBC an income stream, index-linked, and renewed by Parliament every 5 years or so.

  As for the TVLA's 500 Enquiry Officers, they surely have many of the skills to become police officers where they could contribute to solving and reducing real crime.

  Anyway, thank you for raising the issue of the BBC's funding in Parliament and good luck in the next four years.

10 February 2002

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