Television licensing in the United Kingdom

Television licensing in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies, a television licence is required to receive any publicly broadcast television service, from any source. This includes the commercial channels, cable and satellite transmissions. The money from the licence fee is used to provide radio, television and Internet content for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and Welsh-language television programmes for S4C.

Operation of the licensing system

The licence fee is set annually by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport by the use of Statutory Instruments.

The BBC is authorised by the Communications Act 2003 to collect the licence fees. The money received is first paid into the Government's Consolidated Fund. It is subsequently included in the 'vote' for the Department of Culture Media and Sport in that year's Appropriation Act, and passed on to the BBC for the running of the BBC's own services (free from commercial advertisements), and for the BBC to produce programming for S4C.

The licence fee is classified as a tax] . Another reason given in a response to Ofcom by the National Union of Journalists was that the licence fee allows the BBC to retain independence from both commercial and political pressures [cite web |url= |title=Ofcom Review of Public Service Broadcasting: Response by National Union of Journalists |accessdate=2008-08-13 |work=Creators' Rights Alliance web site |publisher=Creators' Rights Alliance |date=Undated, after 5 December 2003 ] .

Nevertheless, having surveyed public opinion during December 2003, a key finding of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was that "the way the licence fee is set and collected raised issues about fairness" [cite web |url= |title="What you said about the BBC |work=Review of the BBC's Royal Charter |accessdate=2008-08-12 |publisher=Department for Culture, Media and Sport |date=July 2004] . Further criticisms, embodied in a 2005 Green PaperCite web|author=Department for Culture, Media, and Sport|year=2005|title=Review of the BBC's Royal Charter (Green Paper)|url=|format=PDF|accessdate=2006-06-18] , included cost, value for money, whether or not the BBC should be publicly funded, the high cost of collection and enforcement, and the methods used.

In September 2008, the BBC's governing body, the BBC Trust, launched a review of TV Licensing's methods [cite web |url= |title=Trust review of licence fee collection |accessdate=2008-09-08 |work=On-line public consulation |publisher=BBC Trust |date=8 September, 2008 ] , following complaints about "heavy-handed" and "intimidating" tacticscite web |url= |title=Review of TV licence fee tactics |accessdate=2008-09-08 |author= |date=8 September, 2008 |work=BBC News Web Site |publisher=BBC] .

Meanwhile, in 2004, the Institute for Public Policy Research criticised the TV licence fee for its regressive impact, pointing out that it represents a much higher proportion of income for low-income households, that evaders are most likely to be single parents, lone tenants, pensioners and the economically inactive, and that the difficulties they have in paying the licence fee are compounded by the penalties enforced for non-paymentcite web |url= |title=BBC Review should consider licence fee concessions |accessdate=2008-08-13 |work=Press Release |publisher=Institute for Public Policy Research |date=27 December 2003 ] .

Also in 2004, the BBC reported that "Almost 70% of people in the UK want changes to the way the BBC is funded", following an ICM poll for their current affairs programme "Panorama", which showed that 31% were in favour of the existing licence fee system, 36% said the BBC should be paid for by a subscription, and 31% wanted advertising to pay for the programmescite web |url= |title=Majority 'want change to TV fee' |accessdate=2008-08-14 |work=BBC News |publisher=BBC |date=6 March, 2004 ] .

Four years later, in August 2008, the Guardian newspaper reported that "The BBC is facing an uphill battle to maintain support for the licence fee", stating that according to an Ipsos MORI poll the newspaper had commissioned, 41% agreed that the licence fee is an "appropriate funding mechanism" and 37% disagreed; but when asked whether the licence fee is "good value for money", 47% disagreed, with more than half of them disagreeing strongly. The poll also showed that there is no longer a majority believing that the licence fee assured them of distinctive programming not available elsewhere ― which, the newspaper said, had long been one of the key arguments for its existence: 41% of the population disagreed with only 30% agreeing. The poll also showed that opinion was split by a growing north-south and socio-economic dividecite web |url= |title=Broadcasting: Survey blow to BBC as public question case for licence fee |accessdate=2008-08-18 |author=Owen Gibson |date=18 August, 2008 |publisher=The Guardian ] .

The recent rise of multi-channel digital television has led to criticisms that the licence fee is unjustifiable on the basis that minority interest programming can now be broadcast on specialist commercial channels and that the licence fee is currently funding a number of digital-only channels which many licence holders cannot access (for example BBC Three and BBC Four) [cite web |url= |title=Consultation for the Independent Review of the BBC's Digital Television Services |accessdate=2008-08-13 |author=John Hambley, Chairman, Artsworld |publisher=H M Government |date=8 June, 2004 |work=Letter to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport ] .

Also, the rise of other mediums for broadcasting television programmes, such as mobile phones and the Internet, has led to questions over whether or not a licence fee based on television receiver ownership can continue to be justified when television receivers are no longer the sole means for the BBC to distribute its content [cite web |url= |title=Reforming the BBC |accessdate=2008-08-16 |date=March 3, 2005 |publisher=The Economist ] ; and these technological changes led the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to state in 2005 that the collection of a fixed charge based on television ownership may become difficult to sustain.

In 2006, the House of Lords Select Committee on BBC Charter Review criticised the reclassification of the licence fee as a tax, pointing out that the BBC was in consequence reclassified as a central government body, with "significant implications for the BBC's independence".

All the while, the television licence fee system has been variously criticised, commented upon, and defended by the press [cite web |url= |title=Kill the licence fee |accessdate=2008-08-14 |author=David Cox |date=26 August, 2002 |publisher=New Statesman] [cite web |url=,,8209-1004679,00.html
title=BBC 'anti-competitive' |accessdate=2007-01-23 |author= Raymond Snoddy|publisher=The Times
] [cite web |url=,,1025975,00.html
title=So who really hates the BBC? |accessdate=2007-08-18 |author= Roy Greenslade|publisher=The Guardian
] [cite web |url=,3604,1045292,00.html
title=BBC needs a Bullywatch |accessdate=2007-08-18 |author= Polly Toynbee|publisher=The Guardian
] , and in July 2008, it was reported that "About one in twenty households refuses to pay the levy" [cite web |url= |title=How to dodge TV licence fee: just watch repeats on your computer |accessdate=2008-07-19 |work=The Times |author=Dan Sabbagh |publisher=Times Newspapers |date=19 July, 2008 ] .

Supporters of the licence fee claim that it helps maintain a higher quality of programming on the BBC compared to its commercial rivalsFact|date=August 2008 (although that would be a minority view according to a 2004 ICM poll), and allows the production of programmes that would otherwise not be commercially viableFact|date=August 2008 (although that would be a minority opinion according to a 2008 Ipsos MORI poll). Some claim that it also leads to better programmes on the commercial channels as they seek to draw viewers and listeners away from the BBC's outputFact|date=August 2008, and both Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have pointed out that if the BBC were to be funded by advertising then the increased opportunities for advertisers would result in reduced revenues for all broadcasters.

Some critics claim that the licensing system interferes with the freedom to receive information, and contend that this is a contravention of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to Freedom of Expression) [cite web |url= |title=Mean fields: Naked into the TV courtroom |accessdate=2008-09-15 |author=Jonathan Miller |date=January 12, 2003 |work=Sunday Times |publisher=Times Newspapers Ltd] .

Legal issues

When a TV licence is required

According to Act of Parliament, a TV licence must be obtained for any device that is "installed or used" [cite web|title=Communications Act 2003, Section 363(1)|url=|publisher=HMSO|accessdate=2006-06-18] for "receiving a television programme at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public"cite web|title=The Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004, Regulation 9|url=|publisher=HMSO|accessdate=2008-04-20] .

According to TV Licensing, "You need a TV Licence to use any television receiving equipment such as a TV set, digital box, DVD or video recorder, PC, laptop or mobile phone to watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV"cite web|author=TV Licensing|title=Do I need a TV Licence?|url=|accessdate=2008-08-03] .

Specific exclusions not requiring a TV licence are:

* digital box used with a hi-fi system or another device that can only be used to produce sounds
* television set installed and used solely for some purpose other than watching or recording television programmes (e.g. closed-circuit TV monitor, DVD or video player or games console) [ TV Licensing - Videos, DVDs and games consoles] ] [ TV Licensing - CCTV] ]
* If you are only watching on-demand services, after programmes have already been broadcast, you will not need a TV licence [cite web |url= |title=Trust review of licence fee collection, Question 1 |accessdate=2008-09-15 |author=BBC Trust |date=8 September, 2008 |work=BBC Web Site |publisher=BBC] . (This includes the BBC iPlayer service Cite web|url=|title=The toughest exam of all|accessdate=2008-09-15|publisher=The Guardian|date=August 9, 2008] .)

The BBC have stated that a licence is not needed simply because a television receiver is owned [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 07/11/2006] ] .

A previously recorded TV programme is outside the scope of the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004, because it is not "received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public". (Viewing unauthorised recordings of programmes may infringe copyright, but that is a separate matter.)

According to Ofcom, TV broadcasts over the internet are a grey area [cite web|author=The Digital TV Group|date=2005-02-28|title=BBC 'to lose in internet TV loophole'|url=|accessdate=2006-06-18] which in future might make fees based on television ownership redundant. In 2005, a Green Paper by the Department for Culture, Media and Sports included suggestions of "either a compulsory levy on all households or even on ownership of PCs as well as TVs" [cite web|author=The Times|date=2005-03-05|title=Computer tax set to replace TV licence fee|url=,,2-1508650,00.html|accessdate=2006-06-18] . However, TV Licensing have since stated that use of any device (such as a computer or mobile phone) receiving broadcasts at the same time as they appear on TV requires a licencecite web|author=BBC News|date=2006-02-13|title=Fine warning over TV on mobiles|url=|accessdate=2006-06-18] .

It used to be the case that televisions receiving a broadcast from outside the UK (e.g. Satellite from Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Netherlands where many channels are Free to Air) did not need a licence, but this was changed by the Communications Act (2003), so that the reception of television from any source requires a TV licence.

Number of licences required per address

A licence is required to watch live TV broadcasts anywhere, including residential and business premises. [cite web |url= |title=Q&A: The TV licence and your PC |accessdate=2008-07-20 |work=BBC Web Site |publisher=BBC |date=15 June, 2006 ] .

For residential premises, only one licence is required per household per address, regardless of the number of licensed devices or the number of members of the household.

A rented property in multiple occupation by a joint tenancy agreement is considered by TV Licensing as one household and requires only one licence, but a rented property with multiple, separate tenancy agreements is not considered a single household and each tenant may require a separate licence [ [ TV Licensing - "Shared homes"] ] . For example, a house in multiple occupation may have private bedrooms and shared communal areas: if five occupants share such a property with individual tenancy agreements then they may require up to six television licences if each private room contains a television receiver and a communal area also contains a television receiver, while a similar property housing five occupants under a joint tenancy agreement may require only one television licence [ [ TV Licensing - "Students"] ] .

Use of television in a static caravan is covered by the licence held for the user's main address, provided there is no simultaneous use of television at both places, and the use of television in a touring caravan is always covered by the user's main home licence. The use of a television set which is powered solely by its own internal batteries is covered for any address by the user's main home licence, but requires a separate licence if it is plugged into the mains or other external power source, such as a car battery: this also applies to TV-enabled mobile telephones.

Licence fee enforcement

TV detector vans have in the past featured heavily in TV Licensing publicity, implying that secret technology capable of detecting signals from operating TV sets is employed [ [ BBC - Press Office - New generation of television detector vans ] ] , and TV Licensing has claimed to have developed a hand-held detector. The BBC states that such technology used in conjunction with targeted advertising acts as a deterrent: its use may make it easier for TV Licensing agents to establish that an offence is likely to be taking place but they would still need to secure further evidence for successful prosecutioncite web|author=National Audit Office|date=2002-05-15|title=The BBC: Collecting the television licence fee|url=|format=PDF|accessdate=2006-06-18] . Furthermore, such technology is restricted in its use by the meaning of "surveillance and covert human intelligence sources" in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order of 2001 [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 08/08/2006] ] . TV Licensing now states "We will only use detection equipment to identify evaders when other, more cost effective, routes have been exhausted", and the BBC has stated that "Detection technology is generally used to obtain search warrants" [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 14/03/2007] ] .

The critical method of detecting evaders is through the use of a database system known as "LASSY", which contains 29.5 million [ TV Licensing Annual Review, 2006/7] ] addresses in the UK. This database is routinely updated with licence details and with details submitted by dealers in television receiving equipment, all of whom are required by law to provide TV Licensing with identifying information about everyone who buys or rents such equipment [ [ TV Licensing's information page for TV dealers] ] . TV Licensing maintains permanent contact with every address in the database that is recorded as not having a TV licence [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 04/08/2006] ] .

The initial contact with occupants of addresses for which there is no current licence is by letter. During the year 2005-6, approximately 23.5 million "standard warning" letters were sent [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 25/07/2006] ] . The only methods by which an occupant can reply are in writing or by telephone. If a business or household is not obliged to have a TV licence then TV Licensing will request written confirmation of this, even though no such information is required to be given in law [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 08/02/2006] ] [Confirmed by Shaun Woodward (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media and Sport) in response to a request for clarification from a constituent [] ] .

If a colour TV licence is not purchased for an address, TV Licensing agents — known as "enquiry officers" or "enforcement officers" — make unannounced visits to the address. Visits are made even when the occupant has declared that no licence is necessary, or when a licence has been purchased for only black-and-white television [ TV Licensing, "About TV Licensing"] ] . The number of visits rose from 2.9 million during the year 2005-6 to 3.5 million during the year 2006-7. The BBC Trust states that during the year 2007-2008, when people who had said that they did not require a TV licence were visited, 27% were found to need one [cite web |url= |title=Trust review of licence fee collection, Question 7 |accessdate=2008-09-08 |work=BBC Web Site |publisher=BBC Trust |date= ] .

TV Licensing enforces the BBC's statutory obligation to ensure that every address where a television licence is required is correctly licensed, but its agents have no special rights and, like any other member of the public, rely on an implied right of access to reach the front door. The occupants of a visited property may deny an agent entry to the premises [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 18/09/2007] ] without cause and are under no obligation to answer any questions or enter into any conversation. If an agent has evidence that television is being watched or recorded illegally but is denied entry by the occupants so that (s)he cannot verify the suspicion without trespassing, then TV Licensing may apply to a magistrate for a search warrant, but the use of such warrants is rare. The BBC states that a search warrant would never be applied for solely on the basis of non-cooperation with TV Licensing [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 13/04/2007] ] [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 25/08/2006] ] and that in the event of being denied access to unlicensed property will use detection equipment rather than a search warrant.

The law allows a fine of up to £1,000 be imposed on those successfully prosecuted. This figure is frequently publicised by TV Licensing to maximise deterrence. In reality, magistrates rarely impose the maximum fines allowed to them by law. During the year 2005-6, the average fine including costs was approximately £153 [ BBC Response to Freedom of Information Request, 27/04/2007] ] (slightly more than the cost of a licence). However, in addition to the fine the guilty party will be obliged to purchase a licence at the usual cost.

TV Licensing is managed as a sales operation [ Home Office - The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order 2001] ] and its officers are motivated by commission payments. In 2005, a TV Licensing officer was found guilty of false accounting and perverting the course of justice after he deliberately forged the confessions of four people to obtain commission payments [cite web|author=icWales|date=2005-09-24|title=TV licence worker guilty of pay scam|url=] .

For the year 2005-6, TV Licensing claimed that they "reduced estimated evasion to a record low of 4.7%" [ TV Licensing Annual Review, 2005/6] ] . However, this figure rose during the following year to 5.1% and remained at 5.1% during 2007-8.

The Broadcasters' Audience Research Board estimated that of June 2004, 2.3% of UK households do not have television [ BBC response to Freedom of Information Request, 16/02/2006] ] , and in September 2008, the BBC reported that some one million people do not need a TV licence.


The Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004 gives the following definition:

* "television receiver" means any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any television programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose.
* any reference to receiving a television programme service includes a reference to receiving by any means any programme included in that service, where that programme is received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public by virtue of its being broadcast or distributed as part of that service.


External links

* [ TV Licensing (United Kingdom)]
* [ Future of the BBC] – documents relating to the review of the BBC's charter
* [ Citizens Advice Bureau TV Licence Guide]
* [ A site mostly concerned with the experiences of UK citizens without Television and The TV Licensing Authority]
* [ The BBC Trust's Review of Licence Fee Collection, on-line public consultation]

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