The BBC Trust today published the findings of its wide-ranging review into how the licence fee is collected.
The report assesses whether current collection arrangements are efficient, appropriate and proportionate. Overseeing the arrangements is a new responsibility for the BBC's governing body, which held a public consultation as part of the review process.
Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, said:
"In collecting the licence fee, the BBC must balance firmness with fairness. The main findings of this review are that TV Licensing needs to improve the tone of its early dealings with the public, especially households that do not have TV sets. At the same time, TV Licensing should do more to target the minority of hard core evaders to make sure that everyone who should pay, does pay.
"The Trust wants to ensure that, for the vast majority of people who pay the licence fee, the process is as simple and convenient as possible. We would like to see payment plans simplified, especially for people on low incomes. We need to discuss the practical options of this with both BBC management and the Government, which sets and regulates the payment plan rules.
"We are asking BBC management to act on all our recommendations and bring an action plan to us within three months. We expect them to look for continued improvements in collection arrangements and will review and approve their strategy annually."
The Trust praises the work the BBC has done since it took over responsibility for licence fee collection from the Home Office in 1991. The evasion rate has dropped from 12.7% to 5.1% but the decline has now levelled off. The Trust welcomes savings of £43.5 million in collection costs since 2006/07 but recommends that the BBC should put more emphasis on targeted enforcement, even if this leads to modest additional cost.
Although the Trust recognises concerns raised in the public consultation about the ending of over-the-counter licence fee payments at Post Offices, it concludes that the switch to PayPoint has increased the number of outlets and offers better value for money.
The Trust's review records a clear public view that the tone of reminder letters is too harsh. Only a third of those who responded to the public consultation thought that communications met the stated aim of being clear and concise, polite but firm. The Trust calls on BBC management to ensure that early reminders meet these requirements and are non-accusatory in tone. However, the Trust endorses the policy of sending a strong message in later letters to deter evasion, coupled with professional and determined enforcement.
Although the range of payment methods offered is considered satisfactory for the vast majority of licence fee payers, the Trust recommends further discussion over instalment schemes requiring up front payments, which may present a barrier to those on low incomes.
In the public consultation, strong views were expressed about communications with households that do not have a TV set or other equipment to watch live broadcasts. At present, such households are not obliged to let TV Licensing know but, unless they do so, they continue to receive letters and may be visited by an enforcement officer. Only a third of those who responded to the consultation thought this policy was appropriate.
The Trust has called on TV Licensing to introduce easier notification arrangements for households without TV sets, together with improvements to the tone and content of standard letters on this matter. It also recommends a review of procedures to minimise the risk of errors when recording households that have provided notification that they do not have a TV set. However, the Trust notes that enforcement officers subsequently discover sets in 27% of households that claim not to have one.
Looking at the future of licence fee collection, the Trust highlights issues raised by recent advances in the way people access television content, including the BBC iPlayer. It calls for clearer communication on the legal requirement for a TV licence to view live internet streaming on PCs or mobile devices.
Publication of the report follows an extensive public consultation carried out between September and November last year. More than 4,000 members of the public, audience groups and other interested parties expressed their views. The Trust also commissioned audience research among people including new migrants to the UK, low income groups and those with no TVs. Arrangements were compared with those of other agencies including the DVLA, a local authority and a utility company.
Notes for editors
1. The Trust review of licence fee collection is available: Review of licence fee collection
2. The Trust has also published the following documents:
- A summary of responses received to the public consultation
- Organisational responses received to the consultation
- Audience research reports
3. Terms of reference for the review are available: Terms of reference
4. Under the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004, it is a legal requirement to be in possession of a valid TV licence in order 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 TV programmes as they are being shown on TV.
5. The BBC became responsible for collecting the licence fee in 1991, taking over from the Home Office. In 2007/08 £3.4 billion was collected in licence fee revenue. There are 25.3 million licences in force.
6. Administration of the collection and enforcement of the television licensing system is carried out by TV Licensing, which is a trading name used by the companies contracted by the BBC to do this. Information about TV Licensing is available at http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/