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Helping Vulnerable Customers

Pipa Doubtfire

Head of Revenue Management

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Every year the vast majority of people buy their TV licence with little trouble. Some still prefer to pay once a year. Most favour the convenience of setting up a direct debit.

But we know that it’s not easy for everyone. Some people can struggle to afford the full cost of the licence fee. Others may have a disability or health condition which impacts on their ability to pay or makes it more difficult to communicate with us. Some may have problems living independently or have other issues to deal with.

Our visiting officers and contact centre staff interact with millions of people each year, in person and on the phone. And we work with more than 450 charities and money advice organisations so they can give the best advice and information to people who approach them for assistance.

We’ve briefed money advisers in more than 180 towns across the UK and have strong partnerships with national support groups like RNIB, Mencap, the Hindu Council and Age UK. We meet with hundreds of diverse stakeholders, like Mind, Shelter, the Red Cross and Women’s Aid, as well as community support organisations and housing associations. Volunteers and staff at these organisations help us by providing feedback and advice on the issues facing our customers, and we work together to identify ways to help their clients stay licensed.

But we recognise everyone’s circumstances are different. That’s why for the past 12 months we’ve been looking into what more we can do to help those who find it difficult to pay.

As a result, we’re making some improvements to help customers who are at risk of becoming unlicensed. And we’ve recently published our Vulnerable Customers Policy, which explains the full range of support that’s available.

Advice about TV Licensing requirements and spreading the cost of your TV Licence

Where possible, we’ve already been moving people to a more appropriate payment plan to suit their circumstances. As a result, more than 86,000 people changed the way they pay and we helped 126,000 customers stay licensed for longer last year.

The range of different payment plans we can offer is set down by the Government. These rules currently require that when people pay in monthly Direct Debit or cash instalments they buy their first licence in six months. But we know that some customers who sign up for a TV licence can then struggle to meet the higher payments required over those first six months. So we’ve been working to find a solution.

In response, we’ll be launching a Simple Payment Plan trial in April 2018 (subject to the Government putting the necessary Regulations in place) where eligible customers will be able to pay for a TV Licence in 12 equal monthly payments – or 26 fortnightly ones. This will be available to those most in need including those who’ve been referred by selected money advice organisations or by our own contact centre staff. The initiative follows David Perry’s recommendation, in the Government’s independent view of licence fee collection, that the DCMS and the BBC should explore ways of amending the current Regulations to offer simple and flexible plans for those facing difficulty in paying the licence fee.

We’re also trialling a helpline especially for organisations such as debt charities and Citizens Advice bureaux allowing them to speak directly to a specialist adviser who can discuss individual customer circumstances.

Our priority is to help people find the easiest and most suitable way to get licensed – but we have to enforce the law proportionately as well for those who avoid paying. It’s only fair on behalf of the honest majority. Prosecution is only ever a last resort – and we give lots of opportunities to help licence fee payers avoid ending up in court. Let me explain the process.

Before addresses are visited, TV Licensing sends letters or emails to unlicensed properties over a period of time and may also make contact by phone. Letters for those falling behind on payments plans or who’ve had plans cancelled explain how to spread the cost of a licence and let people know about the independent financial support available.

When an officer calls at an unlicensed address and finds evidence of unlicensed viewing, an interview is conducted under caution with the occupant, provided they are a responsible adult who lives at the address. We also ask if there is any other information TV Licensing should be aware of which may have prevented the household from being licensed. Our staff receive training to help them identify people who require additional support and we will always try to adapt how we work with customers if they have a disability, mental health issues or other vulnerabilities. It’s important to let us know of any particular circumstances, so we can make sure we take them into account.

First time offenders are given several opportunities to avoid prosecution by buying a licence before a case comes to court, and last year more than 115,000 cases didn’t proceed or were withdrawn on this basis. We now supply a Prosecution Code leaflet which explains the options available. We’ve made this public on our website and our officers hand it out to all evaders caught.

Additionally last year, we didn’t proceed with or withdrew more than 2600 cases because we decided it wasn’t in the public interest to proceed. Sometimes we’ll only be made aware of extenuating circumstances when a case gets to court – and even at this late stage we will still withdraw cases where appropriate.

TV Licensing works hard to keep people licensed and tries to avoid prosecution wherever possible. We’ll carry on doing so. We are committed to helping vulnerable people which is why we have put in place extra support. Our continued focus is on keeping people licensed, so please seek help and support if you need it.

If you are a vulnerable customer or calling on a vulnerable customer’s behalf, please call 0300 790 6114. For reasonable adjustments or alternative formats please call 0300 790 6076. Information is available on our website on alternative formats or languages, Easy Read, concessions, or reasonable adjustment assistance.

Pipa Doubtfire is Head of Revenue Management at the BBC.

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