According the the Culture, Media and Sport Committee a “broadcasting levy on all households” is the best alternative to the current TV licence fee. This system, imported from Germany, means every home in the UK would have to pay the same flat tax. The Committee said, in their report called “The Future of the BBC”, that it would:
- close the catch-up TV loophole
- ensure that the people who use only BBC radio and online services contribute to their costs
- and obviate the need to identify evaders through extensive and expensive investigatory measures
In their opinion, this universal levy would be justified on the basis that “the BBC reaches over 96% of the population”. They acknowledge that the principal losers would be the households with no equipment of any sort capable of receiving broadcasts but minimise this fact by saying that the “the number we are talking about is very, very small”.
But before examining each of these claims individually and in more depth, let’s see how it really works in Germany.
RUNDFUNKBEITRAG, IN A NUTSHELL
The household levy, or “Rundfunkbeitrag”, as the Germans call it, was only put in place in January 2013, so the German government is still very much playing it by the ear. Their motto is “One apartment – One contribution“. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many people live there and how many TV or radios are available. This is because their previous fee was based on the number and types of broadcasting receiving devices. It was therefore complicated system (unlike in the UK, where it was always as simple as “one household, one fee”).
It costs €17.98 per month per civic address. Businesses, public sector institutions and non-profit-organisations have to contribute based on the number of their business premises, their employees and their motor vehicles (the number of vehicle is relevant because each one of them is fitted with a radio). Here’s one example showing how the monthly payment is calculated:
Even though the Rundfunkbeitrag is a flat tax, some social exemptions have been put in place to make it fairer. For example, the following people can apply for an exemption, if they supply the relevant evidence:
- Under aged people
- Recipient of educational grants living away from home (BAföG, Berufsausbildungsbeihilfe or Ausbildungsgeld)
- Recipients of certain welfare benefits (Arbeitslosengeld II, Sozialgeld or Grundsicherung im Alter)
- Blind people
People with disabilities with the code “RF” in their disabled person’s pass can apply for a reduced fee of €5.83 per month (1/3 of the price). Those with a level of deafness above a certain threshold can apply for the reduced rate.
In comparison, Britain only offers a 50% reduction to blind people. And because there is no age minimum in the British law, technically, a kid could be prosecuted. This is why British students are not exempt from paying the TV licence fee. On the other hand, the German household levy is for life, whereas in the UK, people of 75 can claim a free TV licence, which is, in fact, paid by the British government.
Before moving on to the next section, there are a still couple of important differences to stress between Britain’s and Germany’s system.
- German public broadcasters are funded by a combination of advertising and household levy whereas the BBC relies only on licence fee and international sales of its broadcasts.
- The German household levy funds 22 TV and 67 radio stations, whereas the current British TV licence fee only pays for 8 BBC channels, 18 BBC radio stations and BBC World Service.
Now that we know a bit more about the German system, let’s see if the claims from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, mentioned above, hold water.
THE 96% PREMISE
The initial premise, used to justify why every house with a TV should be subject to a levy, is shaky at best and relies on way too much wishful thinking for my taste. Let me explain why. The Average Weekly Reached, measured by GfK for the BBC, is based on a weekly sample of 500 people. Five consecutive minutes of radio a week, or 15 minutes minimum of television in a week, is all it takes for the BBC to claim someone has been “reached”. To put that in context, listening to 5 minutes of radio is listening to one song and tuning out as soon as the DJ speaks. And can we just assume viewers who only tune in for half, or a quarter, of a TV programme didn’t enjoy the show? For more perspective, let’s compare the BBC’s samples with real samples used by other organisations. RAJAR, the official body in charge of measuring radio audiences in the United Kingdom, interview a quarterly population of 53,502 people, while BARB, the organisation responsible for providing the official measurement of UK television audiences, used a panel of around 11,300 individual respondents daily. Why the BCC is happy with such low standard is anyone’s guess. But we can safely say that the “fact” that the BBC reaches over 96% of the population is nothing more than wild extrapolations based on a microscopic sample of people, using insignificant length of time.
Currently, people not watching (or recording) live broadcasts do not require holding a valid TV licence. So, asking everyone to pay a household levy, regardless of their TV habits, would, indeed, close the catch-up TV loophole. But what about the freedom to not endorse the BBC in any way, shape or form? Not owing a TV (or simply limiting viewing to catch-up TV) may seem a case of “cutting off the nose to spite the face” to some, but for others, is not a big deal, as principles are paramount.
The BBC do not want to disclose how many people use catch-up services only, but we know, from their own statistics, that 5.6 million UK address out of 31 million currently don’t have a TV licence (for any number of reasons). If all of them were suddenly asked to pay the same flat fee as everyone else, this would potentially raise £814M. And, because there are currently 4.33 million free TV licence as we speak, an extra £630M could be added on top if the conservatives were to get rid of the privilege offered to people over 75, as they heavily hinted.
This means the government is looking at a combined £1.444 billion gain. Personally, I think charging people who don’t own a TV is unreasonable. But will the greed be stronger than the social concessions and sense of fair play?
BBC RADIO AND ONLINE SERVICES USERS TO CONTRIBUTE
Radio only, and combined radio & television licences, were abolished on 1st February 1971. It is unclear why, but the decision was taken that radio should be free. So what the Committee is suggesting is returning to a regressive system, abandoned 44 years ago.
As for internet, charging the full TV licence to someone because they occasionally click on a BBC recipe seems disproportionate to me. Also, computers might be quite common, but let’s not forget that, at the very least, 4.7 million household don’t even have access to Internet at home. If the BBC wants to restrict access to its content to TV licence payers, there are relatively easy and cheap modifications that can put in place which would not penalise those who can’t afford the £12 monthly fee. Take the Times Online for example. They run a subscription system, which gives the start of an article as a teaser, but requires a log in to be read in full.
THE NEED TO IDENTIFY EVADERS THROUGH EXTENSIVE AND EXPENSIVE INVESTIGATORY MEASURES
It’s true: TV licence officers won’t need to prove that someone has been watching TV anymore. But the need to chase evaders and their money will not diminish in the slightest. Why? Because if someone was objecting paying the TV licence fee in the first place, they won’t suddenly want to comply simply because it’s now called a household levy.
Unsurprisingly, Germany is still experiencing a fair amount of resistance to its new levy, 2 years later. Evaders, who prefer to call themselves “strikers”, use delaying tactics in the hope that the Rundfunkbeitrag will be, one day, declared unconstitutional. Therefore, the Germans still need to send a lot of paperwork such as:
1) an Invitation to Register
2) a First Reminder to Register
3) Second Reminder to Register
3) a Third Reminder to Register
4) a Notice of Forcible Registration, Assignment of Account Number
5) a Request for Fees Due
6) a Reminder for Fees Due
7) Beitragsbescheid Payment demand and Late Fees
I’m not making this up. Here are examples of the kind of letters they send in Germany.
This strong conviction they should not to fund something they don’t believe in means Germany still hire enforcement officers, called “Vollziehungsbeamter”. They also hire bailiffs. So, from the outside at least, managing and collecting the household levy seems to be just as much a pain in the back side.
The economy of this system the British government is dreaming of might be just that: a dream.
LEVY OR LICENCE, WHAT’S IN NAME?
At the end of the day, a household levy will still be regressive, compulsory and expensive to collect (i-e everything the TV licence was blamed to be), because, as Whittingdale put it himself, a “household levy […] is essentially the licence fee by a different name.”
The slight change considered might be a good thing for the BBC and the government, as it may increase the amount of money collected, but it won’t do much for the public, unless the social exemptions introduced in Germany are also imported and the original British exemption, for the people over 75, is kept.
But at the end of the day, the household levy doesn’t address most of the TV licence problems. As it doesn’t reduce the monthly fee, it’s still a burden to people on low income and single parent families, and as it’s not taken at source or by voluntary subscription, it still relies on bullying. It will actually be worse for poor households as they will lose the ability to economise by getting rid of their TV.
It also still provides an unfair advantage to the BBC, compared to other broadcasters with a far smaller budget. Therefore, it’s the same evil, only with the fresh hell of the complete lack of freedom added on top.
As a society, and indirect owner of the BBC, we have to decide if we really want to charge people of 75 (haven’t they done enough?), and if charging people without a TV, internet connection or radio is fair, and, finally, if we think billing non-profit-organisations and charities is such a hot idea. And while we are at it, we should question why everyone should pay the same flat fee, regardless of their means, just because it makes it simpler to collect.
If you are against the current TV licence fee and the projected Household levy, or if you simply want the choice NOT to fund the BBC, there is a petition, called “End the BBC Licence Fee“, hosted on 38 Degrees and signed by over 160,000 people. It asks Whittingdale, as the new Secretary of the state for Culture, Media and Sport, for a real open public debate on the future of the licence fee.
The petition can be signed here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/end-the-bbc-licence-fee