It contains a detailed breakdown of every fact and figure relating to the TV licence fee. And yet a leaked copy of an internal BBC report on the collection – and non-collection – of the levy does not contain one mention of the fabled TV detector van.
For years many people have wondered if the famous vans actually exist or if they are a convenient fiction dreamed up by TV Licensing – the body that collects and oversees the licence fee – to deter would-be non-payers.
Many wonder how the vans would be able to tell whether a home has a television – even in the digital age. And with increasing number of viewers watching TV through their laptops, BBC insiders acknowledge that collection for this is a grey area. Those who watch live TV on their computers are legally obliged to purchase a TV licence, but the same does not apply for recorded iPlayer content.
An 18-page memo offering a snapshot of the financial picture last month [August] and summarising findings presented by the TV Licensing’s Executive Management Forum makes no mention of detector vans – but it does contain plenty of other facts and figures.
For example, it reveals that the number of enforcement officers employed to ensure collection of the fee rose in the summer to 334. This is up 20% on the figure reported a year ago.
Evasion of the fee also looks to be up, although interpretation of this data is disputed by the BBC (see below). Evasion was at 5.8% for the month covered whereas it was estimated at 5.2% the year before – an increase of 11.5%.
A TV licensing spokeswoman refuted the suggestion that detector vans are a fabrication.
“Detector vans are an important part of our enforcement of the licence fee,” she said. “We don’t go into detail about how many there are or how they work as this information might be useful to people trying to evade the fee.”
She said that while the figures were accurate in the leaked documents they only represent a snapshot of a month and that overall evasion “remains steady at around 5 per cent” and the number of enforcement officers “remains broadly comparable year on year.”
She added: “We monitor estimated evasion levels throughout the year but, because the figure fluctuates month by month, we only publish an annual figure. Estimated evasion is currently at a low of around 5 per cent, and has been remarkably stable around this level over the past six years, despite challenging economic conditions. Shifts of less than one percentage point in the evasion rate are not considered to be statistically significant.”
On the 5.8% figure she said: “Historical evasion is restated at the end of each financial year using latest assumptions, such as the number of households. In TV Licensing’s last annual review for the year 2011/12, we stated the evasion rate for the end of the year at March 2012 as 5.2%. That rate has now been recalculated as 5.5% using the latest assumptions. The evasion rate for March 2013 was also calculated at 5.5%, demonstrating no variation from the previous year. It is meaningless to compare a monthly evasion figure with the annual published figure due to seasonal variations.”
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years. After a two year stint on local newspapers in the mid 1990s, he spent more than 5 years as the broadcast reporter at the Stage newspaper. Following that he enjoyed staff reporting positions at the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times breaking stories and writing features before settling as a full time freelance writing for an array of newspapers and magazines - but mainly for the Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.