One in three people hauled to court for not paying the BBC licence fee have the case thrown out.
- Many prosecutions are dismissed because the accused are vulnerable or unwell
- Include domestic abuse victim and father who can’t watch TV due to brain aneurysm
- They were taken to court by Capita, an outsourcing firm paid £59m a year by BBC to collect licence fees; its staff are paid bonuses
- Of 256 TV licensing court hearings across country this summer, 33% were dismissed by judges or dropped by BBC
Many of the prosecutions are dismissed because the accused are vulnerable or unwell.
They have included a domestic abuse victim and a father who cannot watch TV because he has a brain aneurysm. They were taken to court by Capita, an outsourcing firm paid £59million a year by the BBC to collect licence fees. Its staff are paid bonuses (Incentives to lie).
The BBC and Capita had assured MPs that licence fee collectors would not target the vulnerable after an undercover newspaper investigation earlier this year exposed their ruthless tactics.
Following that our reporters attended 256 TV licensing court hearings across the country this summer. Of these, 85 – 33 per cent – were dismissed by judges or dropped by the BBC at the last minute.
Given that around 180,000 people are taken to court each year for non-payment, the investigation suggests 60,000 of them are taken to court needlessly.
Meg Hillier, chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, said she was very concerned by the figures. Campaigners said the Government should decriminalise licence fee offences.
Today the newspapers latest investigation can reveal that:
- In one court, 20 out of 27 licence fee cases were thrown out in a day;
- Some defendants make huge journeys to plead their case, one travelling 550 miles;
- Homeowners who agree to pay when visited at home are still prosecuted.
Licence fee prosecutions account for about one in ten criminal cases in England and Wales. Households must be covered by a £147 TV licence to watch or record live programmes on any channel, or to download or watch BBC programmes on iPlayer.
This applies to any device they use – from a TV set to a games console. Failure to pay can result in a £1,000 penalty and a criminal conviction. Last year, 38 people – mostly women – were jailed for not paying the fine.
The cases thrown out of the courts are often where the BBC’s lawyer decides not to go ahead with the case or magistrates dismiss it as it is not in the public interest.
A large number of cases were withdrawn because they were more than three years old.
Others were thrown out because those targeted had health issues, severe financial and personal difficulties or there had been mistakes by Capita’s collection staff.
The majority of those accused of not paying the TV licence – 58 per cent – were women.
Earlier this year, the Mail Investigations Unit shone a spotlight on the tactics used by licence fee collectors. We revealed how, under an aggressive incentive scheme, more than 300 collectors employed by Capita are each ordered to catch 28 evaders a week.
Bosses told an undercover reporter he could earn bonuses of up to £15,000 a year for licence fee sales obtained with threats of court action. One manager said: ‘We will drive you as hard as we can to get as much as we can out of you because we’re greedy.’
Following the investigation, BBC director-general Lord Hall wrote to Capita, saying it had ‘fallen short of the standards the BBC has a right to expect’.
Capita suspended two managers and assured MPs that vulnerable people were not targeted.
The public accounts committee published a report into the licence fee, which brings in £3.74billion a year, in April. It criticised Capita, found more women than men were targeted for payments and said the BBC must ‘rapidly’ change its approach to licence fee collection to protect women. A Government response is expected next month.
Mrs Hillier said: ‘We already had concerns about the conduct of Capita officers.
‘We will keep a close eye on how Capita are operating on behalf of the BBC licence fee payers.
‘The Mail has uncovered a high court failure rate which suggests that Capita are not doing their job properly on the doorstep. Court time is being wasted and people are being put through unnecessarily traumatic experiences.’
Andrew Bridgen, Tory MP for north-west Leicestershire, said: ‘These statistics will come as no surprise to any MP used to dealing with these matters as constituency casework. It should not be a criminal offence not to pay the TV tax.’
Capita has the power to choose who to take to court, but the cases can then be withdrawn by the BBC’s lawyers. Last year, about 600 prosecutions were withdrawn by the Corporation because they were not in the public interest.
A further 100,000 people who fell behind on payments for the first time were summonsed to court last year. Their cases were also withdrawn.
A Capita spokesman said: ‘Cases only go to court as a last resort and most first time offenders will not be prosecuted if they buy a TV licence before their case comes to court.’
In a statement, the BBC said the ‘small number’ of cases highlighted by the newspaper did not fairly reflect TV Licensing’s approach to enforcement’. A spokesman added: ‘Enquiry officers invite everyone to provide additional information when they take a record of interview, but some people choose not to explain their personal circumstances.
‘If a customer then discloses public interest evidence it can still be considered during the prosecution process including in court.’
A private member’s bill to make non-payment a civil rather than a criminal offence will be debated by MPs at its second reading in the Commons next March.
How the sick and vulnerable were dragged through courts
Families put through legal ordeals by the BBC last night told of their fury at being wrongly targeted. Here are their stories:
Bailiffs target father with brain aneurysm
A father who could not watch television because of a brain aneurysm had to fend off bailiffs at his door because of a TV licensing mistake.
Jeremy Lewis-Evans, 45, was home alone when a Capita official asked to be allowed in to check through his TV channels.
Mr Lewis-Evans, who suffers headaches and is easily confused because of his illness, informed the officer that the household had a TV licence. He did not know that it had expired five days earlier when a direct debit payment failed.
His wife Rebecca, an NHS phlebotomist, called TV Licensing to pay, but was allegedly told the family did not require a licence as they did not watch live TV.
Mr Lewis-Evans, of Cardiff, was later convicted and fined without his knowledge and visited by a bailiff. In August, magistrates overturned the conviction after hearing about his illness.
His wife said: ‘TV Licensing use bullying tactics and scare you into thinking you have done something wrong, then when you try and sort things out they refuse to help.’
Carer travelled 550 miles to clear name
Roy Brako was forced to make a 550-mile round trip to be cleared at a TV licensing hearing.
The 44-year-old care worker travelled from his home in Plymouth to Stratford Magistrates’ Court in east London last month over claims he didn’t have a TV licence at a property in the capital during a visit in February 2013.
However, Mr Brako had not lived in the flat since 2011. A Capita official must have interviewed someone about the allegation on the doorstep – but it was not him.
The father of two, who helps people struggling with substance misuse, said the tone of court letters left him feeling extremely anxious. He paid £75 to travel four-and-a-half hours by coach to the hearing in London.
When he produced documents confirming he did not live at the property in 2013, prosecutors said the case would be withdrawn. Mr Brako was offered £30 to cover his travel.
After the hearing, he said: ‘There is no way it could have been me at the property. Obviously I could have done without spending all the money and time on going to London for something that clearly had nothing to do with me. I had to take a day off work and the threats of arrest and court action brought up a lot of anxiety.’
Vulnerable mother hounded for cash
A mother emerging from an abusive marriage was hauled to court for falling behind on TV licence payments. Jo Marsh, 39, who has two children with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the abuse, appeared at Wigan Magistrates’ Court with help from a Salvation Army officer.
She was visited by a Capita official in January and explained that she was trying to get on top of her payments.
The officer was informed Miss Marsh had requested a new payment card over the phone. But she was still prosecuted. The case was withdrawn in August when a TV Licensing prosecutor admitted to magistrates that it was not in the public interest to prosecute.
£250 taken from accountant’s wages
Olga Umbrase went to court three times to have her name cleared after TV Licensing wrongly took £250 from her wages, without her knowledge.
The fine related to a house the 31-year-old accountant had rented a room in back in 2010. However Mrs Umbrase had already moved out of the property. After two failed attempts to clear her name the mother of one had the case thrown out earlier this month and her conviction quashed.
It emerged that because the matter was seven years old, it should not have been pursued. Mrs Umbrase, who is from Latvia, said: ‘I can’t believe they just took my money. After seven years I could barely even remember which property they were talking about, yet I was made to feel I did something wrong.
‘The flatmate or landlord must have given my name as soon as I moved out. If they managed to find my bank account surely they could have asked me about it first? This has all been very annoying.’