HC Deb 08 March 2004 vol 418 cc1227-9
3. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

What rights of entry the TV Licensing Authority has into households that do not have a TV licence. [158918]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell)

TV Licensing officers may enter a person's home only with their consent or under a warrant issued by a justice of the peace, or, in Scotland, a sheriff. Such a warrant may be issued only if there is reasonable ground for suspecting an offence related to the installation or use of a television receiver.

Mr. Carmichael

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I wonder whether she would be good enough to remind TV Licensing; of the extent of its powers, because I am sure that I cannot be the only hon. Member to receive complaints from constituents who do not have a television set, but who feel bullied and harassed by its actions and feel that they are being made to prove the negative?

Tessa Jowell

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, which he has pursued with my Department on behalf of his constituents. TV Licensing is independent of Government and is run by the BBC, but I am aware of the concerns expressed by a number of hon. Members about the tone of some of its correspondence and think it right to draw that to the attention of the BBC. It is, of course, yet another issue that will be considered in the context of the charter review.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend call on the BBC to desist from the odious licensing campaign that it is conducting, in which it implies, regardless of the Data Protection Act 1998, that it is able to snoop on every household in the country and threatens people with. the repulsive slogan, "Get one or get done" and the prospect of a huge fine or a prison sentence? Will she make it clear to the BBC that if it conducts a campaign with menaces and threats of that kind, using licence payers' money to do so, more and more people will believe that there ought not to be a licence at all?

Tessa Jowell

I am well aware of my right hon. Friend's interest in that matter. He has raised it with me before, but I will not intervene in the way he proposes. TV licence evasion costs about £200 million a year. I understand that not just this campaign but previous campaigns have more than paid for themselves in catching offenders but, of course, it is right that any such campaign is proportionate and is operated within the law and acts sensitively in relation to people who are most vulnerable. Although only 2 per cent. of the population have no television sets, I know that the cases that have been pursued—arguably too vigorously—have caused distress. That is wrong.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

Does not the Secretary of State feel just a twinge of social conscience when, despite the carefully planned and considered progressive escalation in the stridency of communications from the licensing authority, the outcome is still a significant loss of revenue, to which she referred, and about 150,000 prosecutions a year for licensing offences at considerable public expense, with a high proportion of those summoned being single parents?

Tessa Jowell

The number of people pursued for licence evasion has fallen over the past 10 or 12 years. That is good, because failure to pay for television licences has a direct cost on the BBC and its quality of programming. The hon. Gentleman must accept that he cannot, on the one hand, accuse the Government of unwarranted interference in the BBC, yet, on the other, make the kind of claims that he does. It is incumbent on the BBC to run the operation in a way that is sensitive, consistent with the law and effective in ensuring that people discharge their responsibilities and pay for their TV licences.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab)

Is the TV licence fee not just in effect a poll tax-flat rate and unfair? In a digital age with hundreds of channels, is it not looking increasingly like an anachronism? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way forward would be to abolish the licence fee and fund the genuine public service broadcasting provided by the BBC that is not on other channels through progressive taxation?

Tessa Jowell

My hon. Friend makes an interesting contribution to the broader charter review debate, and full account of it will be taken at that time.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the obvious anguish among Labour Members caused by the continued hated poll tax, it would be wise of her seriously to consider other ways of financing the BBC and show that the Government, on this occasion, want a sensible modernisation of something that is causing such distress to those without televisions, those on low incomes and those on her Back Benches?

Tessa Jowell

Responsibility for the hated poll tax sits on that side of the Chamber, not on this one. As I have said on many occasions, the debate about the future of the licence fee is part of the full and vigorous debate being held as part of the charter review. I have also made it clear that a better alternative to the licence fee must be devised before it can be replaced.

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