HOT POTATO: Who’s to blame for the TV licence fee?

Everybody knows that we need a TV licence in order to watch or record TV as it’s being broadcast. But who do we have to blame for it: the BBC, or the government?

We asked them both this very question. Here’s what they had to say.

Nicola Stewart, of the BBC Complaints desk, wrote: “In regards to TV licensing, your unhappiness on the general premise of a compulsory TV Licence should be addressed to your Member of Parliament or elected representative, and/or to the Secretary of State for Culture Media & Sport as the UK Government oversees this area of law. The TV Licence is not a BBC requirement but a UK Government requirement and the Government’s legislation does not allow for non-payment or refunds/reductions in light of unhappiness with BBC actions, output or spending decisions.”

When Meera Joti, of the Ministerial Support Team, wrote: “The interpretation and application of the legislation on TV Licensing are the responsibility of the BBC which operates independently of the Government. It would not be appropriate for the Department to comment on matters which are, rightly, independent of the Government. I hope that this is helpful in clarifying the Government’s position on this matter.”

Surely, both statements can’t be true at the same time! As annoying as it is to be given the run around, it’s not surprising though:  nobody wants to be caught holding the licence fee ‘hot potato’ and be the villain that holds British TV viewers to ransom.

But not being the kind to give up so easily, I started by reading the Official TV licensing website (a trade mark of the BBC [1]). There, it proclaims: “The Government sets the level of the licence fee. In January 2007 the licence fee was agreed for a six-year period with the amount being approved each year by Parliament.”[2] This mirrors the reply from the BBC’s complaint desk. They obviously all received the same blurb and stick to it.


Now, me not being afraid of a little bit of legal mumbo jumbo, I tackled the task of reading the BBC’s Charter and the associated Agreement. Let me tell you it was a Snooze Fest.  If you cut all the fluff (and there was a lot of it!), the BBC’s Charter says “a TV licence is issued under section 364 of the Communications Act 2003”.

So here’s the first glimmer of truth: the BBC is authorised, but not required to collect the TV licence fee by the government.

To cut a long story short, the Communication Act says the BBC has been given a broad freedom:

Licence […] may be issued by the BBC subject to such restrictions and conditions as the BBC think fit

To make matters worse, the BBC decided to cut the government out of the equation in 1991: it took over collection and enforcement of the television licence fee from the Home Office.[3] Instead, the BBC hired a partner, called Capita, for this dirty work.

Another thing the BBC is guilty of is letting you believe that people over 75 are given a free television licence. These “free” licences are not handed out by the BBC’s kind heart though. They are funded from general taxation as part of the Government’s social policy. The BBC bills the government every year for them.

When the House of Lords was given an opportunity to analyse the TV licence situation in 2006, it wrote in its report: “Parliament is not given any opportunity (beyond hearing a Government statement) to scrutinise the licence fee formula agreed by the BBC and the DCMS. We believe this is wrong.”[…] “The National Audit Office should be involved in scrutinising the licence fee bid. Its report should be published in full. This would mean that for the first time the public and Parliament would have the information necessary to make an independent and informed judgement on the BBC’s plans.”[4]

So when the BBC says “The TV Licence is not a BBC requirement but a UK Government requirement and the Government’s legislation does not allow for non-payment or refunds/reductions”, it’s complete poppycock.

When the House of Lords expressed their concerns regarding the public’s acceptance of the license fee, Michael Grade, chairman of the BBC from 2004 to 2006, said “[…] there is very, very little resistance to the current levels and the projected levels”.  Tony Hall the current Director General (Chief Executive) of the BBC also shares this view “They [the Commons culture, media and sport committee] are saying that the licence fee is not dead […] I think it will go beyond that but they said 10 years.”[5]

Of these assertions, I’m not so sure. People have taken into their own hands to show that Michael Grade’s research and Tony Hall’s beliefs are a little off the mark. A petition, called “End the BBC Licence Fee”, hosted on 38 Degrees, has gathered over 160,000 signatures and is still open. The BBC’s charter will be up for renewal in December 2016. The negotiations over the corporation’s next royal charter have already started. If you believe as a licence payer you should have some say in the future of the fee (whether it should be scrapped, reduced, transferred to subscription, taken from general taxation, funded by advertising, or even kept the same) then you can sign the petition here and ensure that a debate in parliament occurs.

Petition :



[3] TV licence Enforcement Review, 2015



[6] extrapolation from


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