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Five myths about the BBC TV Licence busted

Will I go to jail if I don’t pay the TV licence? Are TV detector vans real? Do I need a licence if I don’t watch TV? 

We examine some of the myths surrounding the licence fee, how it’s enforced and what could happen if you ‘opt out’. 

Myth 1: TV Licensing has a fleet of vans roaming the streets

The spectre of marauding TV Licensing vans loom large in the public information thanks mainly to wobbly old propaganda films like this one. 

But while TV Licensing does make use of detection equipment of some description, it’s extremely unlikely they go cruising the streets, gleefully poring over oscilloscopes. Information obtained by freelance journalist Peter Jones in 2011 revealed that, up to the 1st April 2011, TV Licensing had never used any detection evidence in court.

TV Licensing claims that presenting detection evidence to a court is ‘unnecessary’, and that it instead uses that evidence to apply for search warrants issued at the discretion of a magistrate (or sheriff in Scotland). However this raises the question: if detectors vans are so efficient, then why would TV Licensing need to apply for a search warrant to physically search a property to reinforce their hypothesis? 

In TV Licensing’s own words, the most likely course of action is: “Typically we’ll send a number of letters to remind occupants of the importance of being properly licensed. Then we’ll try to contact them by phone. If there’s still no response, we may send an enforcement officer to see if there’s a TV receiver on the premises. Visits can result in evaders being caught. On average over 1,000 evaders are caught daily.”

Myth 2: Licence fee prosecutions are a waste of court time

While it might be alarming to think that 10 per cent of all court cases are related to license fee dodging, if you break down the figures, you’ll see that such cases are often dealt with in bulk. 

Prosecutions for failure to hold a TV licence in 2012 represented approximately 13 per cent of all defendants who appeared before a magistrates’ court.

Whilst they made up a significant percentage of court volume, TV Licensing cases accounted for just 0.3 per cent of total court time based on the most recent figures available.

There’s a good reason for why this is the case and we’ll get to that now. 

Myth 3: You go straight to jail for licence fee evasion

In 2013, 178,332 people in England and Wales were proceeded against under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts. 153,369 were found guilty. However, only 32 of those went to prison that year. 

If you look at the figures, you’ll see that the great majority of people who are found guilty of fee dodging don’t end up doing time. Why is this? 

Under the current system, if you are found guilty of licence fee evasion you will in the first instance receive a fine, which in most cases can range from under £25 and up to £1,000. The amount varies, but data from the Criminal Justice System (England and Wales) shows that in most cases the fines vary between £150-£200. 

Your local magistrate, district judge or sheriff can send you to prison if you wilfully and repeatedly refuse to pay the fine.

In Scotland, most cases are actually settled out of court, which impacts less on court time. The maximum fine in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man is £1,000. 

The maximum fine that can be applied in Guernsey is £2,000, higher than anywhere else in the UK, whereas in neighbouring Jersey, the top fine is £500. 

Though we’ve yet to see any figures detailing prosecutions outside of England and Wales, the government consultation published earlier this month states that fee dodging is largely dealt with in the same manner and leads to the same sort of sentencing outcomes elsewhere in the UK. 

The Ministry of Justice said that from 2005-2014, a total of 353 people were handed custodial sentences for not paying fines. 

Here’s how those figures break down over the years and according to gender. 

Year Men Women Total
2005 21 8 29
2006 21 3 24
2007 17 10 27
2008 19 16 35
2009 11 19 30
2010 16 27 43
2011 10 38 48
2012 25 26 51
2013 15 17 32
2014* 10 24 34

*Figures for 2014 are not yet complete – they only relate to sentences up to October. We’re awaiting more up to date figures and will amend this once we know more. 

Source: Ministry of Justice

Myth 4: Non-payment of the licence fee will earn you a criminal record

Oddly enough, while refusing to pay the fine resulting from license fee dodging can see you doing a stretch in chokey, you won’t earn a criminal record. 

This is because it’s not a recordable offence. Non-recordable offences are typically for things like travelling on a train or tube without a ticket. Your fingerprints and DNA samples won’t be taken and held on the police database for a non-recordable offence. 

The TV Licence Enforcement Review states: “Under the current system individuals found guilty of failure to hold a TV licence do not receive a criminal record as the offence is not a recordable offence and therefore does not appear on the Police National Computer.”

If an offence is not on the PNC, it won’t show up on any DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks – the new name for CRB (Criminal Recods Bureau). 

That said, any new jobs you apply for may require you to declare any time spent in prison on your application form – and it’s generally not a good idea to lie to potential employers.

It’s also worth pointing out that a record of the conviction will be held at the court where the case was heard, so your fee-dodging past won’t be a total secret. 

Myth 5: I don’t need a TV licence to watch online

This is actually half true. You don’t need a licence to watch catch up on things like BBC iPlayer, 4oD and similar streaming services. But this applies to non-live, catch-up TV and non-live catch-up TV only

You can’t (legally) watch live TV via any of these services. You will also need to formally opt out of paying for a licence, which will require you to contact TV Licensing or fill out a form on its site

In short, here’s what you can do, freely and legally, without a licence 

  • Use your TV as a monitor.
  • Watch BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 (catch-up only) on whatever device you want.
  • Access BBC websites, including video streamed from BBC News and BBC Sport (except live streams).
  • Listen to BBC Radio.
  • Stream content from Netflix, Prime Instant Video, Wuaki.tv, Blinkbox, Google Play, iTunes or any service of your choosing.

We’ve written a whole other feature about how to do this which you can check out here

Hopefully this has cleared up some misconceptions you may or may not have had about the licence fee. Let us know what you think about this, the ongoing TV Licence debate and the future of the BBC in the comments. 

Update: This article has been amended to correct inaccuracies related to fines in Scotland, Guernsey and Jersey. 

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