Correspondence with Andrew Lansley, Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire:
The annotations in [square brackets] are my comments.
Some of the letters on this page have been re-typed. If any errors (not marked "[sic]") are present they were probably not present in the original and I will correct the page if notified.
I wrote to Andrew Lansley on 26th April 2001
Dear Mr Lansley,
I wonder if you read Bryan Appleyard's article in the Sunday Times magazine of the 15th of April 2001? In this piece he mentions me and my dealings with the Television Licencing Authority (copy enclosed with section highlighted). Is there anything you can do to bring about a change in the way this organisation operates?
The section highlighted was:
But the weirdest thing of all is that we really don't care. To take an example that may sound trivial but isn't, the Television Licensing Authority is currently running an advertising campaign boasting of its ability to invade our privacy. Hoardings show a local street sign with the caption that declares, four people in this street don't have a TV licence and the TLA knows who they are.
Duncan Bennett, a systems administrator with the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, knows exactly what this means. He hasn't had a TV in 10 years and yet, annually, he gets threatening letters from the TLA. He has now discovered that, with no evidence against him whatsoever, they can get a warrant - always automatically granted - to break into and search his house. He is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent, a terrible inversion of ancient common-law tradition. He has struggled to find anybody willing to take up his campaign on the issue. Bennett is not suspected of drug-trafficking, terrorism or subversion. He is suspected of having a TV without a licence. Only in Britain would such an abuse of power - or even such advertisements - be tolerated.
Andrew Lansley replied on 30th May 2001
Dear Mr Bennett
Thank you for your letter of the 26th April 2001, which I did not receive until 21st May, expressing your concern regarding the procedures followed by TV Licensing to ascertain responsibility to purchase a TV licence.
Can you tell me how you have discovered that a warrant may be obtained by TV Licensing to search premises for a TV set; have you received this information from TV Licensing?
I replied on 9th July 2001:
Dear Mr Lansley,
Operation and conduct of the Television Licensing Authority
Thank you for your letter of the 30th of May, in answer to mine in which I forwarded a copy of Bryan Appleyard's Sunday Times article that mentions my dealings with the Television Licensing Authority. I am most grateful to you for taking the trouble to reply at such a busy time [general election].
I have not had a television set for the last 10 years. My problems with the Television Licensing Authority began when my partner and I moved to [address] in 1993. As non-viewers, we have been required annually to return a form stating that we do not have a television set. In 1999 their letter said, "Please reply to this letter as soon as possible. If you don't, an enquiry officer may visit your home when they are next in your area." This year they started their letter with, "We have no record of a valid TV Licence for this address. A TV Licensing Enquiry Officer now has your details and is planning to visit you." I enclose a copy of this letter for you to see. After receiving one of these threats, I went to the Citizens' Advice Bureau at the Addenbrooke's Hospital site in Cambridge to see if there was anything I could do to prevent a "visit". I was told that if I refuse entry to the Television Licensing Authority agents, they will simply get a warrant and break my door down. In addition to consulting the Bureau's microfiche records, the person I spoke to told me that he had been Clerk of the Court in Cambridge (before he retired) and knew from personal experience that warrants for searches by the Television Licensing Authority were always granted automatically and without question.
This degree of harassment seems out of proportion; I should be able to refuse a source of entertainment without being assumed to be dishonest, but it seems I cannot simply declare once that I do not have a television set and be left in peace. I do not think it right to be threatened like this and I do not want to live with the anticipation of what feels like a form of secret police knocking on my door. This is not an unfounded fear; the last letter I had from TV Licensing Customer Relations said they WILL call. They will "protect (my) address from enquiries" for two years, but only after their enforcement officers have inspected my home. If they were restricted to doing this on grounds of suspicion (that is, if and only if they had detected the electronic emanations from a television receiver on my property) I would not mind. However, that is not the case. They are just going to do it regardless. Although the Television Licensing Authority assume otherwise by default, I am law-abiding person. I pay equivalent charges like road tax, and in the days when I did own a television set, I bought a television licence each year. If I were to own a set in the future, I would buy a licence without prompting. However, in the eyes of the Television Licensing Authority I am guilty until they consider me innocent (and then only for a limited period!).
In the past the BBC was simply a public service broadcaster. Now, it is not. In the words of Sir Christopher Bland to the select committee for Culture, Media and Sport in the summer of last year: "We [the BBC] are not simply a public service broadcaster but a business.". I do not think that anything that looks and behaves so much like a "business" should have a supporting bully-boy organisation with these extraordinary powers to support it. It would be bad enough to feel under an unwarranted threat from a "proper" authority, but to be threatened by a company (Envision Licensing Ltd) who operate for a body whose sole purpose is to ensure funding for a "business" (and of course to ensure its own existence) seems outrageous. Businesses do not have supporting organisations such as the Television Licensing Authority (with a staff of 1,200) to do their dirty work for them. Can it be right that a "business" should have powers to enter premises, its own enforcement officers, and the right to threaten and harass? Last year I wrote to Gerald Kaufman of the select committee mentioned, when he was calling the BBC to account in the summer. I think my letter was too late for any useful action, but he told me the Committee were shown its contents before they compiled their report.
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. If there is anything you can do to help, I would be very grateful. If you would find it useful to see copies of my correspondence with the Television Licensing Authority, I would be pleased to send them to you.
The enclosed letter from the Television Licensing Authority, received 12th January 2001 was:
We have no record of a valid TV Licence for this address. A TV Licensing Enquiry Officer now has your details and is planning to visit you. If you use television receiving equipment to receive or record television broadcast services and do not have a valid licence, you are breaking the law. You risk being taken to court and fined up to £1,000. So if you do not have a licence you should buy one today.
A colour TV Licence currently costs £104. Therefore you can be properly licensed for around 9 a month. If you call 0870 606 6789 and pay by Direct Debit over the phone now, your TV Licence will begin immediately. You can choose to pay in one lump sum or by a range of instalments. (Remember to have your bank details to hand when you call.) More information on Direct Debit and other payment methods are on the back of this letter. You can also pay online at www.tv-l.co.uk.
If you receive income related benefits, a weekly payment scheme is available. Call 08467 289 289 for more information. If you do not have a TV Licence or do not use a television[sic], I apologise for any concern this letter may have caused. To enable us to update our records, please confirm this in writing using the postage-paid envelope provided.
Remember, using a television without a valid licence is against the law and carries a heavy fine of up to £1,000. Act now to avoid the need for future action.
PS. If you or someone at this address is aged 74 or over, please call 0845 603 6999 for details of how to apply for a free or Short Term Licence.[sic]
Andrew Lansley replied on 19th July 2001:
Dear Mr Bennett,
Thank you for your letter of the 9th July 2001 regarding TV Licensing.
I have written to TV Licensing [Andrew Lansley did not send me a copy of that letter] to ask how they would satisfy themselves that you do not have a television set and whether they will desist from writing to you. I will write again when I have a reply.
And later replied again on 17th August 2001:
Dear Mr Bennett,
Further to my letter of 19th July 2001 I enclose a copy of the reply dated 10th August which I have received from TV Licensing regarding communications and rules regarding access to property.
I hope this answered you concerns. As you can see, you should receive not further communications for two years.
Enclosing the following dated 10th August 2001:
Dear Mr Lansley,
Thank you for your letter of 19 July regarding the concerns of your constituent, Mr Bennett.
Before explaining the tone of the standard letters Mr Bennett has received has changed I must advise that we wrote a personal letter to your constituent on 30 January explaining our position and assuring him that we would send no further correspondence for two years. This 'stop' remains in place.
Previously, we had allowed a similar facility for one year from November 1999. A standard letter had been sent to 'The Occupier" in January 2001. In the meantime, the position of the BBC, as the Licensing Authority, has changed somewhat since that initial exchange of correspondence. They have become increasingly concerned with evidence received that television usage had been found as a result of calls made by our representatives on addresses at which assurances had previously been made that no TV set was installed. This is clearly an unacceptable situation as licence-fee evasion reduces the revenue available for programme making considerably, as well as well as being unfair to those who regularly renew their licences [note emphasis on programme-making and not on public service broadcasting]. It was for this reason that we were instructed to verify such statements by visiting all addresses for which only verbal or written declarations have been received. On the other hand, we do not wish enquires to cause offence to anyone who has no requirement for a licence. As I am sure you will agree, this is a difficult balance to achieve. Once the genuine non-user has been identified, they can then be taken out of the standard enquiry process and so avoid being troubled by letters they may find annoying.
There is of course no legal obligation for Mr Bennett to allow an officer to enter his property [but no mention of the consequences of not doing so]. However, visits are undertaken as unobtrusively as possible and should only take a matter of minutes. No detailed search is undertaken as the enquiry officer need only have a brief view of the main living areas [I wonder how they define this?]. The statutory duty of the Licensing Authority is to ensure that all existing or potential users of television are aware of licensing requirements would be compromised if addresses were permanently removed from the the enquiry process [c.f. end of previous paragraph]. We do not doubt Mr Bennett's integrity when he says he does not own a TV but we must be seen to offer a consistent and equitable approach in all instances and this would not be achieved by permanently removing him, or any other who has similarly replied to our enquiries, from the possibility of receiving any further correspondence.
I hope my letter has explained our position satisfactorily, that you will convey my sincere apologies to your constituent for any distress he may have been caused.
Heat of TVL Operations [sic]
in the absence of Mena Rego
I then replied on 24th August 2001:
Dear Mr Lansley,
Operation and conduct of the Television Licensing Authority
Thank you for your letter of the 17th August 2001, telling me that I "should not receive further communication [from the Television Licensing Authority] for two years". I regret that this information was not very useful. I knew of this two-year "stop" and mentioned it in my letter of 9th July 2001 (copy enclosed). When I wrote to you it was actually in the hope that you might question the existence, status and operation of this organisation, within the parliamentary system, rather than write to them and ask them how they were going to treat me.
I appreciate the Television Licensing Authority are carrying out their statutory duties, but I think you should question whether those statutory duties are right. You should question whether their powers are appropriate for an organisation whose purpose is raising revenue for maintaining an entertainment source. Even in the letter you forwarded they refer only to "revenue ... for programme making"—surely that does not merit these powers and behaviour?
In your earlier letter you expressed interest in the the Television Licensing Authority's powers of entry. We do not seem to have any conclusive answers to that. For example, why are search warrants given automatically and without question (also without evidence of electronic emanations)? In the letter you forwarded they say that I am under no obligation to permit entry to their enforcement officers, but what are the consequences of not doing so? Would this put me immediately under suspicion? Would they consider a refusal of entry grounds for a search warrant or simply step-up their level of harassment?
You should also question why they need to enter premises at all when there is apparently no need. Envision Licensing Ltd claim "We can detect a TV in use from 30 metres away" and "will we be able to see where the television is and what's being watched on it" (see enclosed). If they have these detection systems, surely they do not need to harass anyone other than licence-dodgers?
Given the lengths the Television Licensing Authority have to go to in order to collect licence fees, would it not be better, fairer and possibly more cost-effective to partly-fund the BBC from taxes and abolish the anachronistic licence system altogether? After all, one can listen to BBC radio programmes and look at information on BBC web-pages without payment. Having everyone pay for the BBC's public services, regardless of whether they watch television or not, would bring it in line with other publicly-available resources—for example we all pay towards the upkeep of civil amenities, though we may never use them.
I will be grateful for anything you can do that will help further with this. Thank you.
Andrew Lansley replied on 11th September 2001:
Dear Mr Bennett,
Thank you for your letter of 24th August 2001. I am sorry that you did not find the information from TV licensing useful.
I will discuss with colleagues the issues you have raised regarding the collection of TV licence revenue and funding of the BBC.
On the 30th of March 2002 I sent email to Andrew Lansley:
To: email@example.com From: Duncan Bennett Subject: Our correspondence last year Dear Mr Lansley, Operation and conduct of the Television Licensing Authority ----------------------------------------------------------- Last year between April and September we exchanged letters regarding my concerns about the Television Licensing Authority. The last letter from you dated 11th September told me "I will discuss with colleagues the issues you have raised regarding the collection of TV licence revenue and funding of the BBC.". Since then I have heard nothing from you. I now have a web site on this topic: http://www.marmalade.net/lime These pages contain the text of our correspondence. In this exchange, your letter of the 11th of September 2001 leaves the reader without any conclusion. Because of that I would like to invite you to write to me with your findings and opinions on this matter so that I might add your letter and complete this collection. It would also be most helpful if you could address the un-answered questions in my letter of 24th August 2001. Thank you for your help. Yours sincerely, Duncan Bennett
On the 30th of April 2002, Andrew Lansley wrote:
Dear Mr Bennett,
Thank you for your email of 30th March 2002 regarding television licensing. I have looked at your web site.
I am aware of your concerns and will take your views into account when the Communications Bill is discussed later this year.
24th December 2002:
I have heard nothing since. It would seem that Andrew Lansley has no intention of expressing an opinion or taking this matter further.
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