Who is the BBC? During daytime, it shows an impartial, benevolent side. But what’s lurking in Auntie’s shadow?

BBC Capita shadow

When it comes to money, the BBC’s veneer of generosity is quickly lifted when you realise that the “free licences” they authorise actually come from government contributions[1] out of general taxation. Around 3.9 million people (of over the age of 75) benefit from such “free” licences. Make no mistake the BBC is not one to let a pretty penny escape. But when it’s time to collect on non-payments, it’s interesting to know that, rather than dirty its own hands, the BBC subcontracts the enforcement of Licence Fee evasion to little more than hired thugs under the employment of Capita. More on that in a minute so please bear with me.

It is well known that every household watching live television should have a TV licence. What is less known, is that TV licence evasion, according to the laws of this country, is a crime. This means that, unlike for other utilities bills, if you are brought to Court for not paying your TV licence, and you don’t pay the subsequent the fine, you can end up in jail. This is not an empty threat! 50 people were imprisoned in 2012, up from 30 in 2009.

Because this unique method of funding is so harsh, to both those who pay and even more so to those that don’t or can’t, I went on a quest to found out who is responsible to set it up in the eventuality of a shared household. The answer was not as straightforward as you might have expected.

The meaning of “licence fee payer”

According to the official TV licensing website[2], “You need a valid TV Licence if you use TV receiving equipment to watch or record television programmes as they’re being shown on TV. ‘TV receiving equipment’ […] includes a TV, computer, mobile phone, games console, digital box, DVD/VHS recorder or any other device.”

I don’t know about you, but when trying to define who is liable, the use of the term “You” is not exactly helping. So saying “My husband was in charge of the TV licence, he didn’t tell me he stopped paying it” is no defence.

Now, according to the BBC Charter[3], a “licence fee payer” is “[…] not only a person to whom a TV licence is issued under section 364 of the Communications Act 2003, but also (so far as is sensible in the context) any other person in the UK who watches, listens to or uses any BBC service, or may do so or wish to do so in the future.”

Those are the exact words of article 57 of the BBC’s Charter. With such a broad definition, the BBC could technically prosecute every single occupant of a household, even a child, as long as a Capita officer judges it “sensible in the context”.  This may sound absurd, but the fact remains: there is no formal minimum of age for liability. And this is why students who have a TV in their accommodation have to pay for a TV licence.

According to the Communications Act 2003, art. 363, all you need is to have a control over the TV in your household.  But wait, it gets better. “A person with a television receiver in his possession or under his control who […] knows, or has reasonable grounds for believing, that another person intends to install or use it in contravention of that subsection, is guilty of an offence”[4].  So if you just know someone who is using a TV illegally, you are technically guilty of an offence too by association.

According to Pipa Doubtfire, Head of Revenue management, “When a TV Licensing enquiry officer visits a property, and finds TV equipment being used without a valid licence, they will take a statement from any responsible adult living at the address. It’s that person who may then be prosecuted.”[5]

In other words, to the BBC, it doesn’t matter if the person they prosecute:

  1. a) doesn’t own the TV,
  2. b) doesn’t watch it, or
  3. c) isn’t the one in charge of paying the household bills.

Licence Fee Evaders

According to Capita, “around 1,000 evaders are caught daily“.  These “outstanding results” are based on an “incentive scheme”.

Surprisingly, this claim is actually backed by 2 BBC employees. John Williams, Client Support Manager at the BBC, wrote: “I can confirm that our officers do not work on a commission basis, they receive a basic salary with incentives.” Pipa Doubtfire, head of Revenue Management at the BBC, also confirms this practice. She wrote: “Additionally, visiting officers do not work on a commission basis, they receive a basic salary with incentives […].” Between you and me, I think the BBC is clutching at straws, or splitting hairs.

“There is a healthy level of competition between teams and individual officers across the country. Every month good performance is recognised and extra rewards given to individuals who have done particularly well.” says Capita’s Job Pack.

But how much incentive do they get? According to a job offer seen on[6], a TV licence officer can expect a low fix salary (£14,000 a year) and the possibility of an extra £1,000 every month if a set number of statements under caution is reached. So in effect, the combined bonuses are nearly as big as the salary offered.

According to another job advert, this time on[7], Capita hires goons with at least to 2 years of experience in “contact centre operations and in particular financial environments – i.e. collections, credit control”. You can suspect that the bigger, the meaner, the better as they have to be able intimidate “hard core evaders” and “enforce prosecution proceedings by taking statements under caution”.

But typically, who are those harden criminals that need tackling? The answer is: mostly women.

tv pie

Criminal Court Statistics[8] show that 68% of TV licence evaders are women. When compared with other petty crimes[9], this proportion is strangely at odds.

male female crime proportion

So why is that?

When a Capita officer finds a household without a valid TV licence and manages to speak to someone, he will try to have them sign a “Statement under Caution”, which is just a fancy way to say “Admission of having committed a crime”. This document is later used in court in order to speed up the whole conviction process.

Because there are more women at home taking care of children, when the TV licence enforcement goon comes around, that someone answering the door is statistically more likely to be a woman. If further evidence is needed, figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that of the 2.24 million people who choose to stay at home to look after their family, 2.04 million are women. In my book, this is called “the vast majority”.

Another reason, as to why there are more female TV licence evaders, is because women generally are more trusting and /or impressionable. This is what happened to Samantha, a sweet but naive young mother of Tyne and Wear. She had moved into her first flat, all by herself, less than 3 weeks before a TV licence officer went to visit her flat. Samantha had neglected to set up a TV licence, but having to deal with a 5 month old baby, and loads of boxes still unopened, it’s hard to judge her. When the TV licence officer introduced himself, she understood that he was there to straighten her situation. She invited him in. She signed the paper he handed her whilst the statement under caution was mumbled briefly. But what she thought was a Set Up Form turned out to be a Statement Under Caution. Samantha was classified, and later treated, as a criminal. When her brother Simon heard about it, he chased it and fought it relentlessly. He secured a written admission, from multiple BBC’s officers, that his sister had been victim of a dodgy practice. Initially a monetary compensation of £20 was offered for his sister’s stress and distress which then was withdrawn. When the matter was escalated to Pipa Doubtfire, Head of Revenue management, the compensation was doubled on the spot. Typically, a poorly handled complaint is awarded up to £500, says the Financial Ombudsman.[10]

The Licence Fee itself

The privilege to watch one’s own TV comes at a cost of £145.50 per year. The BBC insists that this is not a payment for watching the BBC[11]. The licence fee is “a payment for permission to receive television broadcasts and not for the service provided.” They even add: “It is payable in full irrespective of the use made of that service and the quality of reception.”

It goes without saying that this fee represents a much higher proportion of income for many households. And what amounts to 40p a day is, in context of austerity, actually quite a lot.

By forbidding all TV programs to non-licence payers, the BBC, backed up by the government I hasten to add, either prevents people with low income to enjoy a hobby that should otherwise be free, or it criminalises them.  The message is clear: TV is a luxury. Poor people should just work harder to afford it.

A Petition

If this level of bullying bothers you and you would like to highlight to Members of Parliament how strong your feeling is on this matter, there is a petition, called “End the BBC Licence Fee“, hosted on 38 Degrees. The petition, already signed by thousands, calls for a debate on the future of the licence fee, with the hope the TV licence fee will be abolished in the near future. As the BBC’s charter will be up for renewal in December 2016, the public should have their say about it. The petition can be signed here

[1] Art. 78(2) Agreement Between Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation








[9] Table B.4a of Criminal Court Statistics Quarterly, England and Wales, July to September 2014


[11] Factsheet: Frequently asked questions about the television licence fee