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Licence to Bill

Governments license people to do and own dangerous things, so they can keep a track on who is putting everyone else at risk. Dogs can be dangerous. Driving cars can be dangerous. And there are very few non-dangerous uses of guns, as evidenced by the 1500 Americans who die from accidental shootings each year. Incredibly, gun mishaps are the 7th most common cause of accidental death in the US. So when governments fairly and consistently license dogs, cars and guns, they will hear no quarrel from me. Being mauled by a dog, run over by a car, and shot by a gun all rank amongst the bottom 100 ways I would like to die. (Sidenote: my top ten preferred ways to die all involve sexual over-exertion amongst various arrangements of implausibly attractive and energetic women. Needless to say, none of these coincide with the top ten most likely ways to die, especially for me.) Though limits need to be set to government’s interference in the lives of private citizens, licences that help to protect the public can serve a useful purpose. But in the UK, there is one activity that is not dangerous, is extremely common and is unnecessarily licensed: watching television. Whilst I accept that slumping in front of the telly to watch Celebrity X-Dancing on Ice is unlikely to promote physical, mental or spiritual wellbeing, I see no reason to deny anyone a permit for televised light entertainment.

Joking aside, some people say TV is dangerous. This assertion needs to be put into context. TV might prompt me to fantasize about being ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, but TV will not go out and buy me a .44 magnum. To blame social ills on the TV is to side with the arguments that short skirts cause rape, that honouring dead soldiers causes war, and the people habitually need to be protected from their stupidity by the intervention of other people who claim to be less stupid (often wrongly). In some cases, involving dogs, cars and guns, there really are a few morons who pose a threat to the sensible majority. And yet, in the UK, television is licensed, as if a finger on a remote control needs to be registered in the same way as a finger on a trigger.

Any gun-toting backwoodsman can explain the anomaly of licensing TV. Even rednecks sometimes see things clearly; our governments are out to get us, or at the very least they are out to get our money. The viewer is not given a licence to watch television. It is the government which licenses itself to issue citizens with yet another unwanted and unnecessary bill.

Beyond paying the fee, there are no conditions attached to watching television that are imposed via the licence. Beyond accounting for the fee, there is no need to compile a list of who holds a licence. A licence to watch TV is not like a licence to practice medicine. The only requirement on the TV licence holder is to keep paying their annual fee. This makes the licence and its enforcement nothing more than a convoluted and inefficient way to levy a tax. A whopping 4% of the money raised by TV licence fees is spent on the task of collection and enforcement. Of the £145.50 collected annually for each full TV licence, over £5 gets spent on taxation bureaucracy! In contrast, the UK government’s main tax collection body, HMRC, has an annual budget that consumes less than 1% of the billions it collects. If the TV licence fee was as efficient as most taxes, it would be about £4 cheaper. That means every honest TV-watching and tax-paying household in the UK is wasting £4 each year, just so the government can pretend that the TV tax is a fee for a licence.

Common sense tells us that governments twist the meaning of words. Governments are run by politicians and most politicians are lawyers. The route from lawyers to politicians to government to word-twisting is a far more reliable causal path than the route from television to violent thoughts to guns to the murder-of-innocent-passersby. When it comes to shameful warping of the truth, the only people who can rival governments, politicians and lawyers are media manipulators and journalists. As a consequence, the ordinary public are more likely to hear how the moon landings were faked, or how a woman’s body can reject a rapist’s sperm, than to hear that the BBC is financed by a grossly inefficient and wasteful tax. Only a breakdown in irony allows the BBC to maintain the illusion of providing an impartial public information service whilst carefully avoiding the straightforward conclusion that the licence fee that pays for the BBC can only be sustained thanks to a shamefully wasteful bureaucracy to collect and enforce it. And the single over-riding purpose of this waste is to maintain two illusions: that the BBC is not funded by a tax, when it plainly is, and that the BBC’s funding is independent of the government, even though the government decides what the tax will be. This came to mind when chortling over the Obamacare legal row, where some judges said a fine cannot also be a tax. Telling governments there are ways to raise money which are not taxes is like telling a gun nut that there are ways to shoot people which are not murder; the semantic niceties are unlikely to promote good end results. In the case of the UK licence fee, the country wastes £100m every year, just to avoid the politically inconvenient truth that government taxes are government taxes, no matter what they are called or how they are implemented.

The most baffling thing about the TV tax is that, unlike any ordinary licence, or even ordinary taxes, there is a working assumption that if there is a property with no registered TV licence, then somebody inside that property must be evading the TV licence fee. Not only is this a licence that has no conditions, and which everybody will be allowed to obtain if they want one, but the enforcement agency spends scarce resources on pursuing empty houses, by sending them threatening letters. There are a lot of taxes in the world. Income tax, corporation tax, value added tax… the line goes on to the crack of doom. National Insurance is another wonderfully British misnomer for yet another tax. The annual registration fee for a motor car is also referred to as a tax, even by the government agents who levy the fee; we should praise the one body of public servants who are prepared to admit that a shovel can also be a spade. Of all the taxes enforced in the UK, only the licence fee starts with the working assumption that if a property exists, there must be somebody inside, doing something that is taxable. Purchasing a newly-built apartment, where nobody has ever lived before, I opened the mailbox to discover five threatening letters addressed to the ‘legal occupier’. Based on the dates of these letters, they would be five letters sent to literally nobody, as nobody can be said to occupy a vacant building. If that were not bad enough, let me share the wording of the fifth installment of this escalating diatribe at the expense of Mr. Nobody…

Dear Sir/Madam

You have not responded to our previous letters.

Is this surprising? Are the ghostly spirits that haunt vacant properties so afraid of Derek Helsey (Luton Enforcement Division) that they will summon up a poltergeist to write a reply, just to tell Derek there is literally nobody living in a property who is obliged to tell Derek anything about what they have not been doing?

We want to ensure you have the information you may need before a hearing is set at your local court.

Notice the logical leap, as graceless as a lemming running off the edge of a steep logical cliff. Somebody who does not exist did not reply, hence the person who does not exist needs to consider their imminent court appearance for not evading a tax for something they did not do. Piling euphemism upon euphemism, the non-occupier is offered ‘information’ of a type that sounds much more like a nasty demand for payment than anything remotely informative. That failing is somewhat inevitable, because Derek Helsey of the Luton Enforcement Division knows literally nothing about the person he is writing to, up to and including Derek’s ignorance that he was writing to nobody.

Of course, if I were to latterly assume the role of legal occupier of said property, I already have all the information I need, and do not require any further information supplied by Derek Helsey. The salient facts of this case are that:

– Nobody lives or has lived in the house.
– The owner of the house lives in another country.
– There is no television in the house.
– The house has no internet connection.
– In summary, the house contains no mechanism to watch television, and no person to watch it.

So I feel like my argument in court will be strong.

Please read the information below carefully and keep for your records. You will be allowed to take it into court with you.

A letter that starts out as merely unpleasant then proceeds to become downright creepy. The information to be retained is separated from the earlier lines by a dashed line and a scissor graphic. Do they seriously expect the reader to cut along the line, to retain the segment below the line (why not retain the whole thing?) and then put the paper in a safe place, ready for when it will be taken into a courtroom? Do defendants in a court case normally rely so much on the advice given by their prosecutor? I hope not.

What to expect in court

I expect that a courtroom engagement with Derek Helsey would involve me angrily gesticulating in his direction, followed up with vast amounts of derision. My sarcasm-laden testimony would concentrate on the complete lack of any justification for instigating court proceedings. However, Derek has different expectations…

– You can expect a lawyer to represent you, or you may represent yourself.

On the face of it, there is no need for a legal eagle to be employed arguing this open-and-shut case. On the other hand, Derek’s letter looks like it was drafted by lawyers. Everything is cleverly worded to insinuate the recipient is an evil tax avoider, whilst never explicitly making that (false) accusation. Methinks only a lawyer would produce such weaselly threats, and that they this particular lawyer was rewarded handsomely through their share of the £4 per licence that is spent on enforcement. This leads me to think there is a good advantage in bringing a lawyer to such a hearing. As defendant, my legal costs would be paid when the accusations are proven to be shockingly baseless, and if any lawyer is going to profit from the studied treachery that is the law, I want it to be my lawyer. Those eager to fight the overbearing expansion of government should take note of such excellent and non-violent opportunities to punish government wastefulness by, err, making it even more wasteful. Which of course makes this yet another example of an eternal conundrum: it is hard to motivate efficient and limited government, because the only thing government can lose is the resources it took from you in the first place.

– Evidence collected during an enforcement visit to your property is used by the court to decide the penalty for TV licence evasion.

In other words, the ‘information’ is just advice. And the advice is to completely forget that you are innocent until proven guilty. As stated here, the evidence that was collected will be used to decide the penalty you will pay for the TV licence evasion that you are guilty of. There are only three problems here: (1) nobody will be paying a penalty because (2) nobody is guilty of evading the licence fee, which would be easily established by (3) the evidence gathered if anybody actually popped by to ascertain that nobody was receiving these nonsense demands in the first place. Or Derek could just call the property developer and save himself the 96 separate visits to the 96 vacant properties that were built by that developer. 5 letters sent to each of 96 vacant properties at 18.3 pence per letter is £87.84 wasted. A quick ‘enforcement’ phone call to the property developer would have been significantly cheaper.

– The court has the power to impose a fine of up to £1,000, plus legal costs. The decision is legally binding.

Presumably the decision is equally binding if there is no fine, not that they feel the need to provide that piece of information. And they should really clarify that the court can award the legal costs either way.

– If your property needs a TV Licence, you will still need to buy one.

At last, we see a hint of doubt in Derek’s mind. The word ‘if’ has made a late but welcome appearance, creating a crack in the façade of Derek’s former certainty. Perhaps Derek realizes he has no grounds to go to court, after all.

How to avoid a court summons

A return to the previous hectoring tone indicates Derek has resumed his natural air of his confidence: he is right, you are wrong, he will go to court, and you will not rubbish him when there.

Oddly enough, the following suggestions omit what should be the most straightforward advice for avoiding a court appointment in a moral and just society: just avoid doing anything wrong. If there is no good cause to drag you to court, then commission-fueled chancers should back off. But presumably that advice is omitted for good reason, because Derek is determined to frighten you, any way he can… and irrespective of any actual wrongdoing…

It is illegal to watch television programmes as they are being shown on TV without a TV licence – no matter what device you use.

And hence an important recommendation in a 2009 report by the BBC Trust is conveniently brushed aside. That report recommended

to improve public awareness of the TV licensing law surrounding the use of technology, such as the internet, to access television services.

There are no exemptions based on the kind of device that might be used to watch ‘television’ (a PC, a telephone and similar devices can fulfill the role of a TV). This much is clearly pointed out. But there is also a technology-driven exemption from the licence which is stated here, though this is conveyed far less obviously. There is no requirement to have a licence in order to watch television programmes at times other than when they are shown on TV. Admittedly that last sentence is confusing, but that is my point. If I talk about watching TV programmes shown on TV but not watched on a TV and not when shown on TV, then my language has degenerated into a quagmire of sloppy imprecision. It would be more precise to say: “you need a license to watch broadcast TV streamed to internet-enabled devices, but you do not need a license if you only watch TV programmes on internet-enabled devices where the internet-delivered content is delivered at a different time to when the programme was broadcast”. Or, to put it as succinctly as Dickens’ Mr. Bumble, “the law is an ass”. An even more precise statement would clarify that the time of ‘watching’ is synonymous with the time of ‘recording’, and hence may be very different to when you actually watch the programme. But if you only ever watch TV programmes by using an on-demand service over the internet, where the time you watch does not coincide with the time of broadcast, then you do not need a licence. Needless to say, none of these gimps have realized that broadcast TV sometimes includes repeats, so it is possible that somebody could watch a ‘catch-up’ service over the internet whilst the programme is, coincidentally, receiving a repeat broadcast. If, by now, you have no idea about what is included, excluded, and the grey areas that lie within these rules, then let me summarize the real heart of the matter: give up on trying to understand this legalistic and bureaucratic muddle, and tell your MP that these idiotic laws should be scrapped completely.

The only way to stop this investigation going further…

In other words, the only ways to stop the current absence of any real investigation from progressing to the earlier stages of real information-gathering (by coming round to the property unannounced, hoping you are in, and hoping you let the inspectors in) are as follows…

…to do one of the following: buy a licence… [or] let us know that you don’t need one… We may visit to confirm this.

In other words, buy a licence because we get paid commission every time you do. In other words, line the pockets of Derek and his chums who get a nice slice of that £4 spent on collection and enforcement per every licence fee paid. Or you could tell Derek he should stop investigating because he never really started and does not need to. In which case, he might pop round and do some investigating anyway, indicating that this is not genuinely a way to stop the investigation from going any further.

And there the letter ends, apart from a peculiar footnote section which states various arcane code numbers interspersed with many slashes and hyphens, and a single request: ‘please do not write below this line’. My wanting to write below this line seems just as unlikely as my keeping the letter so I could take it to court with me. Or as unlikely as going to court. Or as unlikely as losing if I went to court. On the other hand, I cannot begin to imagine how the TV Licensing Authority benefits by keeping this part of the letter devoid of my scribbly writing. So I did write below the line, just because I could, and for the childish glee it gave me. I wrote the words: “you can’t stop me writing here, if I want to.” Which is legally correct, as it happens. Hopefully this will foil whatever plans they had for usefully exploiting the final 3% of a letter after they stupidly wasted the top 97% with a lot of rambling drivel.

Needless to say, the back of the letter is devoted to lots of advice on how to pay for a TV licence, irrespective of the recipient not needing one, or the recipient not actually existing. But amongst the guff, there was, at long last, a piece of interesting information.

We’d like to stop writing to you if you don’t need a licence. So, if you do not watch or record television programmes as they are being shown, please [call us or fill out the form on our website]. We may confirm this with a visit. We do this because, when we make contact on these visits, one in five people are found to need a TV licence.

Put another way, on the rare occasions when Derek visits a property and actually finds somebody there (my bet is that Derek works strictly between the hours of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday) then 4 out of 5 times he was completely wasting his time, in addition to wasting the time of his unfortunate victims.

When it comes to TV licences, the law, taxation, and enforcement all serve to be a messy, wasteful, worthless drain on hard working people who have real and productive jobs to do. Unlike Derek. A tiny change to the thresholds for income tax would raise as much money to pay for the BBC, whilst saving the £100m a year that is wasted on employing Derek to enforce a surplus bureaucracy. That represents a saving of £1.60 for every man, woman and child in the UK. But if you want to save even more money, spare yourself the £145.50 for a TV licence, by getting a good internet connection, and only ever watching catch-up TV services like BBC’s iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4OD. There is no fee to pay, so long as you watch at a time that suits you, and not when the channels choose to broadcast their programmes. And if enough people did that, then an arcane and broken licence model would have to be scrapped. Do your wallet a favour and help the rest of Britain to slash government waste by kicking Derek out of his cushy job and forcing him to find some useful employment for a change. And best of all, if you do this, you might spend some of that extra money on going out and being sociable, instead of being drained on a nightly basis by that horrible one-way window in the corner. Or if you do not go out, you will at least have more time to trawl the internet for wonderful, free, content like this.

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