Press Notice No. 1 of Session 2002
03, dated 18 December 2002
FIRST REPORT: COLLECTING THE TELEVISION LICENCE FEE (HC 118)
Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC), called today for an end to the situation where the BBC is able to escape proper parliamentary scrutiny of how it spends huge sums of public money.
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 1st Report of this Session, which examined the level of licence fee evasion, catching evaders, the penalties for evasion, and the BBC's accountability to Parliament.
Television licence fee evasion reduces the money available for programme making and potentially increases the cost of a licence for those who do pay. The Committee found the BBC has made good progress in reducing the evasion rate, from an estimated 12.6% in 1990-91 to 7.9% in 2001-02. But with some 2 million evaders, costing the BBC over £200 million a year, evasion remains a significant problem.
The BBC should reduce the number of wasted visits made by enquiry officers. Enquiry officers made 3.5 million visits and caught 459,000 suspected evaders in 2001-02, but four out of every five visits resulted in no customer contact. Enquiry officers visited some 657,000 properties that were vacant, under construction or did not exist, and 71,000 properties that were already licensed. Improving the quality of data should be a priority, preferably through specific surveys rather than as a by-product of enquiry officer visits. Visits could then be better targeted to yield more licence sales.
The current situation where the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) has no right of access to the BBC to examine how more than £2 billion a year of taxpayers' money is used, and to provide independent assurance to Parliament, is anomalous. The consideration being given to regulation and oversight of the BBC in the context of the Communications Bill is an opportunity to correct the position and we have pressed the Department to do so.
Mr Leigh said today:
"This Report highlights a significant anomaly in public accountability. The C&AG's rights of access to the BBC are limited only to the collection of the licence fee.
Beyond this the PAC and the C&AG currently have no role, the argument being that scrutiny by the C&AG and the PAC would interfere with editorial independence. This argument does not stand up. We examine financial management at universities without compromising academic freedom. Neither the C&AG, nor my Committee, has any interest in examining the BBC's editorial judgements. We are interested in how effectively they manage their finances."
"My Committee considers it essential that the BBC be opened up to proper parliamentary oversight. The general public pay £2 billion each year in licence fees and have the right to independent assurance that their money is used well."
This Report can be accessed via the internet from around 12.00 noon on the day of publication.