Sunday, 25 November 2012

TV Licensing™ Enforcement: Whose Job Is It?

Perhaps one of the nastiest aspects of the Service Provision Agreement between the BBC and Capita Business Services concerns the application for and conduct of searches of dwellings and other premises for licensable receiving equipment. Information is laid on oath to a magistrate of probability that “evidence” exists that live broadcast television programming is being viewed unlicensed by the BBC. Despite there being many sources of screen flicker other than live broadcast television being viewed on a television set, the magistrate concerned usually falls hook, line and sinker for the application. Entry is granted by a warrant of entry and search signed by the magistrate. Aside of the many published occasions when such forced entry has turned up no evidence of broadcast receiving licence “evasion” whatsoever. Apart from the inherent injustice of the whole disreputable process it is the role of police in attendance which is the central subject of this blogpost.
A Freedom of Information request lodged with, Cheshire Constabulary, is the starting point. TV Licensing Watch, apologise for the length of the blogpost but our view is that in terms of individual civil liberties and human rights and police powers, it is a matter of profound importance. The central question is, under the terms of the Service Provision Agreement between the BBC and Capita Business Services whose job is it to enforce the BBC TV Licence? The BBC and its contracted BBC TV Licensing™ contractors or various police forces and constabularies in the UK?
If the Freedom of Information response provided by Cheshire Constabulary is to be taken at face value then as far as Cheshire Constabulary are concerned it is part of their job to enforce the BBC’s broadcast receiving licence regime. Well, as a matter of fact, Cheshire Constabulary, it is not the job of any police force or constabulary to enforce the BBC’s broadcast receiving licence. It is solely the enforcement responsibility of the BBC and its BBC TV Licensing™ contractors. The only role police and constabularies have in TV Licensing™ enforcement is to ensure that no breach of the peace occurs during the execution of warrants of entry and search against employees of Capita Business Services under the BBC TV Licensing™ contract.

Nor, Cheshire Constabulary is it the job of the police and constabularies to apply the BBC’s terms of reference to Freedom of Information requests lodged with police and constabularies. In this instance, Cheshire Constabulary, were requested for information held by, Cheshire Constabulary, not information held by the BBC. Therefore, the disclosure rules that apply are those of Cheshire Constabulary not those of the BBC. Freedom of Information legislation is absolutely clear on the point.

If the BBC have problems about disclosure of the information requested in this Freedom of Information request lodged then it is a problem for the BBC and nobody else. Not Cheshire Constabulary. It may be of interest to readers of this blogpost that Cheshire Constabulary visited this blogsite recently.

I refer to your recent request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 as set out below:
Could you please confirm how many times your officers attended search warrants in accordance of S366(2) Communications act 2003 granted to Capita Business Services Ltd (trading as "TV Licensing")for the past 5 years?
In accordance with section 1(1) (a) of the Act our response is provided below; I have now considered your request and in particular where the public interest considerations lie in respect of disclosure or not of the information.
I have decided that the information should be exempted by virtue of Section
31 (1) (a) (b) (d) and (g) and (2) (a) Law Enforcement. This type of information has been requested previously both from ourselves, other forces and the BBC itself. It is our view that disclosure would prejudice the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension of offenders and the administration of justice. In addition disclosure would prejudice the BBC in the exercise of its functions for the purposes of ascertaining if any person has failed to comply with the law.
It is a criminal offence to install or use television receiving equipment to receive television programmes without a valid licence. TV Licensing investigates and prosecutes unlicensed use of television receiving equipment. It uses search warrants to assist in this activity. TV Licensing’s policy on search warrants has been made public in the past. Search warrants are applied for in cases where the evidence means that it is extremely likely that a television is in use. Search warrant applications are considered scrupulously before they go forward to the court and they are treated very much as a last resort. As a matter of law a search warrant cannot be granted unless there are reasonable grounds for the application. The Police will be asked to attend the execution of a Search Warrant to observe, to assist if required and to prevent a breach of the peace.
Additional convincing arguments from the BBC in relation to campaign groups via a number of blogs and forums on the internet, who are dedicated to people who are dissatisfied with having to pay the licence fee and seek to avoid any detection from non payment of the licence fee. These sites are used by members to share information on TV licensing and how to evade payment. The Information Tribunal considered this evidence, and the fact that any information in relation to TV licensing becomes subject to intense scrutiny by these groups. Evidence was supplied to the Tribunal and their conclusion said that:
“Once widely disseminated, we consider the information would be used to assess the likelihood of detection and enforcement of non-payment of licence fees. This is not just based on reasonable supposition. We have seen that there are already examples of websites providing advice and tactics on how to evade the licence fee. These include assertions about the right to search and indicate an interest in searches. The exhibits even illustrated how information disclosed to the public by the BBC including through the FOIA process has been used to assess the risk of detection. It is highly likely that some would look to use this evidence to attempt to assess whether detection of non-payment were likely. We think that having assessed the risk, this would cause either more evasion, or at least a detrimental effect on the BBC’s strategy for enforcement..."
We have undertaken another review into the websites/forums available, and find that the blogs/forums/websites are indeed active and easily accessible. We therefore consider that the evidence supplied by the BBC, and upheld by the Tribunal, is convincing. It is the presence of the campaign groups and their sheer tenacity in actively evading detection that adds value to the need for the Police to uphold the S31 approach.
For example, the Police are well aware of campaign groups which demonstrate a range of subversive and overt tactics. When reviewing any requests for information on these subject areas, the Police would never wish to divulge anything that would be of use to these campaigns that would enable them to avoid detection.
S 31 Public Interest Test
Factors favouring disclosure
Any disclosure would demonstrate the accountability and transparency of police operations and interaction with the TV licensing authority. In turn it would show that public funds are being appropriately applied and that value of money is being obtained.
Factors favouring non disclosure
There are a number of processes already in place which govern and oversee the TV licensing process For example, search warrants are only issued by independent third parties (the Magistrate, in accordance with strict legal requirements, would not issue a warrant unless there was sufficient evidence and public interest.) Therefore the public interest in knowing that TV Licensing is using its powers proportionately is satisfied.
It is publically known that the Police are asked to assist in executing search warrants. Therefore revealing the number of times Police have attended would disclose the levels of enforcement by the BBC throughout the UK. This information can be used by people who wish to avoid paying the television licence fee. This is of particular relevance as there are a number of active campaigns who wish to undermine the licence fee process. Any disclosure would also undermine the partnership approach to law enforcement between the BBC and police forces.
Although it is considered that there is a large public interest in any TV licensing information, which is demonstrated by the number of forums/websites/debates, this conversely also provides the evidence for withholding the information requested. Any information disclosed by the Police could assist a person/campaign in attempting to evade detection – this in turn could prejudice the BBC’s enforcement strategy. The strongest public interest is in the BBC being able to enforce the television licensing system cost effectively and in not disclosing information which could impede the deterrent effect.
The Police are aware that the debate for disclosure of any information for TV licence has been upheld by the Information Commissioner and at Tribunal. In particular, the evidence for the active campaign groups for non payment is convincing. We are satisfied in terms of section 2(2) of the Act that in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.
If I can be of any further assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.
If you are not satisfied with the decision applied in this case I enclose for your attention a copy of the Constabulary's appeal procedures. (See attached file: FOI Appeals Procedures. Final version.doc)
John Gannon
Information Compliance
Professional Standards Department
Tel: 01606 364176

The value of domestic cctv surveillance and handheld video camera can prove invaluable in gathering evidence of the serial abuses and misdemeanours perpetrated by employees of Capita Business Services under cover of the BBC TV Licensing™ contract. TV Licensing Watch advise anybody who has the misfortune to have face to face dealings with Capita Business Services TV Licensing™ to make an audio-visual record of those dealings in their entirety covertly or overtly with cctv and handheld video cameras.

For people who have not exercised their right to remain silent, TV Licensing Watch advise anybody who has had the misfortune to have face to face dealings with Capita Business Services TV Licensing™ and have received a summons as a consequence to contact a licensed law practitioner if: there is the slightest discrepancy between the actual situation regarding viewing habits and/or what actually happened during the interview compared with what has been written on the TVL178 Record of Interview self incrimination form.

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