TV Licensing Search Warrants

Richard Bowden made this Freedom of Information request to British Broadcasting Corporation

The request was refused by British Broadcasting Corporation.

From: Richard Bowden

3 July 2008

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am seeking to gather information on the use of search warrants in
relation to TV Licensing enforcement, and would request that you
make available, for each of the last 10 years, broken down by year,
the number of search warrants obtained by the BBC or its agents to
look for television reception equipment.

If you require any clarification of this request, or any further
information about it, please let me know as soon as possible.

Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Yours faithfully,

Richard

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From: FOI Enquiries
British Broadcasting Corporation

4 July 2008

Dear Mr Bowden,

Thank you for your request for information under the Freedom of
Information Act 2000, about search warrants issued by TV Licensing,
which was received on 3 July 2008. We shall deal with your request as
promptly as possible and, at the latest, within 20 working days. If you
have any queries about your request please contact us at the address
below.

The reference number for your request is RFI20080725.

Kind regards.

The Information Policy and Compliance Team
BBC Freedom of Information
Room 2252, BBC White City
201 Wood Lane
London W12 7TS, UK

Website: www.bbc.co.uk/foi
Email: [BBC request email]
Tel: 020 8008 2883
Fax: 020 8008 2398

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From: FOI Enquiries
British Broadcasting Corporation

30 July 2008


Attachment RFI20080725 final response.pdf
40K Download View as HTML


Dear Mr Bowden

Please find attached the response to your request for information,
reference RFI20080725

<<RFI20080725 - final response.pdf>>

Yours sincerely
Rachel Hallett

BBC Information Policy and Compliance
Room 2252, White City
201 Wood Lane
London W12 7TS, UK

Website: [1]www.bbc.co.uk/foi
Email: [2]mailto:[BBC request email]
Tel: 020 8008 2883
Fax: 020 8008 2398

[3]http://www.bbc.co.uk
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From: Richard Bowden

30 July 2008

Dear Rachel,

Ref: RFI20080725

Thank you for this response. I am disappointed that the BBC has
chosen not to supply the information requested, and would request
an internal review of the decision.

It is a fundamental principle of British law that it is not enough
for justice to be done - it must also be seen to be done. Search
warrants are official Court documents and, save for exceptional
circumstances, information relating to their use should not be
treated as secret.

Furthermore, even if it were accepted that this information should
remain secret (which I dispute), I can see no reason why the
claimed prejudice would not reduce significantly over time.
Information relating to ten, five, or even three, years ago, would
provide substantially less risk of prejudicing "the prevention or
detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders,
the collection of the licence fee and the BBC’s ability to
discharge its public functions in respect of such matters", but I
can see no evidence in your response that such a test was even
considered.

Without any implication that I accept that the tests used in
relation to the public interest in disclosure to be in any way
complete or definitive, I would also comment on the particular
responses to them:

Your first argument here does not hold. The public can, at most, be
assured that each specific search warrant obtained was deemed
acceptable by the individual magistrate or sheriff. The bigger
question of whether the wider policy of obtaintaining search
warrants is appropriate and proportional cannot be discerned from
looking at individual requests, but only from the pattern of
requests as a whole. Providing information on the number of
warrants obtained is one small piece of that.

Your remaining three arguments appear mostly irrelevant as the
focus of my request is solely on the number of search warrants
obtained, not on any subsequent prosecution, or the wider questions
of value for money.

I trust that these points will be considered during the internal
review, and look forward to hearing the outcome of that in due
time.

Can you please acknowledge receipt of this email and provide an
estimated timeframe for the review?

Yours,

Richard

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From: FOI Enquiries
British Broadcasting Corporation

30 July 2008

Dear Mr Bowden,
We have received your request for an internal review relating to your
request for information about TV licensing search warrants. Your request
for an internal review was received on 30th July. We shall deal with the
review as promptly as possible and, at the latest, within 30 working days.
If you have any queries please contact us at the address below.

The reference number for your internal review is IR2008029.

Yours sincerely

BBC Information Policy and Compliance team
Room 2252, 2nd Floor, White City
201 Wood Lane
London W12 7TS, UK

Website: [1]www.bbc.co.uk/foi
Email: [2]mailto:[BBC request email]
Tel: 020 8008 2883
Fax: 020 8008 2398

[3]http://www.bbc.co.uk
This e-mail (and any attachments) is confidential and may contain personal
views which are not the views of the BBC unless specifically stated.
If you have received it in error, please delete it from your system.
Do not use, copy or disclose the information in any way nor act in
reliance on it and notify the sender immediately.
Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.
Further communication will signify your consent to this.

References

Visible links
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2. mailto:[BBC request email]
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From: FOI Enquiries
British Broadcasting Corporation

11 September 2008


Attachment IR2008029 final decision.pdf
46K Download View as HTML


Dear Mr Bowden,

Please see attached the outcome of your request for an Internal Review.

<<IR2008029 - final decision.pdf>>
I would like to remind you that if you are not satisfied with the internal
review, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. The contact
details are: Information Commissioner's Office, Wycliffe House, Water
Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF, telephone 01625 545 700 or see
[1]http://www.ico.gov.uk/

Yours sincerely
Louise Wright

BBC Information Policy and Compliance
Room 2252, 2nd Floor, White City
201 Wood Lane
London W12 7TS, UK

Website: [2]www.bbc.co.uk/foi
Email: [3]mailto:[BBC request email]
Tel: 020 8008 2883
Fax: 020 8008 2398

[4]http://www.bbc.co.uk
This e-mail (and any attachments) is confidential and may contain personal
views which are not the views of the BBC unless specifically stated.
If you have received it in error, please delete it from your system.
Do not use, copy or disclose the information in any way nor act in
reliance on it and notify the sender immediately.
Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.
Further communication will signify your consent to this.

References

Visible links
1. http://www.ico.gov.uk/
2. file://www.bbc.co.uk/foi
3. mailto:[BBC request email]
4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/

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Francis Irving left an annotation (16 September 2008)

Quote-marks Richard Taylor uses this request in a response to a BBC trust consultation about license fee collection: http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/bbc-trust-revie...

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Richard Bowden left an annotation (23 September 2008)

Quote-marks I have referred this to the ICO.

Link to this

Richard Bowden left an annotation (23 December 2009)

Quote-marks Eventual response from the ICO:

-----

I write regarding the above complaint you submitted to the Information Commissioner's Office (the 'ICO'). The complaint has been allocated to me for consideration.

Your complaint relates to your request for information to the BBC of 3 July 2008 for information relating to the use of search warrants for the purposes of TV Licensing enforcement.

I apologise for the delay in your case being allocated to a case officer. As you may be aware, all complaints about the BBC were put on hold pending a decision of the High Court in relation to the BBC's coverage by the Act. Since the decision was handed down in October, we have been working through the caseload as quickly as possible. However, I apologise for the delay since you referred your complaint to the ICO.

The complaint concerns the BBC's response to your request of 3 July 2008:

“…for each of the last 10 years, broken down by year, the number of search warrants obtained by the BBC or its agents to look for television reception equipment.”

The BBC responded on 30 July 2008 and withheld the information under sections 31(1) (a), (b), (d) and (g) of the Act, relating to law enforcement. It also considered that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure. This decision was upheld by the BBC's internal review.

Having considered the nature of the request and the arguments the BBC has provided in support of its decision, I consider that the BBC was entitled to withhold the information under sections 31 (a), (b), (d) and (g) of the Act. I also consider that in this case the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure. Therefore, the BBC is not required to disclose the requested information.

In its internal review response the BBC argued that disclosing a breakdown of the number of search warrants used in relation to its enforcement of the TV Licence would be likely to influence public perceptions of detection and prevention tactics. It argued that this would, in turn, be likely to affect public behaviour regarding payment of the licence fee. The Commissioner notes that such a change in perception could lead to an increase in the rate of TV licence fee evasion, and therefore accepts that disclosure of the requested information would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime, the prosecution of offenders, the assessment or collection of tax and the exercise by the BBC of its functions for the purpose of collecting TV licence fees.

In a previous Decision Notice issued by the Commissioner relating to TV Licensing and section 31(1) of the Act, the Commissioner found that the BBC was entitled to withhold the requested information for similar reasons. The information in that case was the number of detection devices possessed by the BBC and how often they are deployed. The request in this case also concerns statistical information about the methods and tactics relating to TV licence enforcement activity and I consider that many of the same arguments apply. The Decision Notice referred to can be accessed via:

http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/d...

In your complaint to the ICO, you asked us to consider whether the BBC was justified in its refusal to provide information about the number of search warrants obtained. In view of the facts of the case, I consider it was correct to state that the requested information engages the exemptions cited under section 31(1) of the Act. The arguments provided in its internal review response are in line with Decision Notices the Commissioner has issued upholding BBC decisions to withhold similar information, as detailed above.

I note that you argued in your request for an internal review of 30 July 2008 that there would, over time, be a reduction in the prejudice caused by disclosure of the number of search warrants. The BBC argued that there had not been a substantial change of policy regarding the use of search warrants in the requested ten year period and that therefore the number of warrants issued in one year is likely to correlate with the number in previous and subsequent years. In view of the arguments put forward, I consider that disclosing the number of search warrants obtained ten years prior to the request would be no less prejudicial to the process of collecting the licence fee than, say, the number obtain one or two years prior to the request.

Public interest test

Section 31 is a qualified exemption and therefore the Commissioner must decide if the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure. I consider that many of the arguments provided in the BBC's internal review response are relevant and it has correctly judged that the public interest test favours maintaining the exemption in this case.

The BBC has outlined that it considers there are public interest factors in disclosure of the requested information in that the BBC is seen to be exercising its function to apply for search warrants appropriately and proportionately, that the public may increase its understanding of the BBC's use of its statutory powers in relation to collection of the TV licence fee, and that public funds are being appropriately applied towards enforcing compliance with payment of the licence fee.

However, the BBC also considered that strong factors in favour of maintaining the exemption include the importance of maintaining effective deterrence of licence fee evasion. The Commissioner notes that there is a public interest in ensuring that the TV licensing system is efficiently run and the licence fee collected. As detailed above, the Commissioner agrees that the disclosure of the number of search warrants issued would prejudice the BBC's activity in enforcing the licence fee. Therefore disclosure would undermine the public interest in the successful collection of the licence fee and the public interest in the detection of crime. In view of this, the Commissioner considers there is a strong public interest in the maintenance of the exemption in this case.

I consider there is also a public interest in the BBC receiving the full level of funding for its activities via the licence fee. Additionally, there is a public interest in keeping the cost of enforcement activities to a minimum so that those funds can be directed to programming. The disclosure of the information would undermine the BBC's activities to ensure the collection of funds. For these reasons I consider that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.

Conclusions

In view of the above, I will be recommending that the Commissioner upholds the BBC's decision to withhold the requested information in this case.

I would be grateful if you could consider whether, in view of the information above and the previous Decision Notice issued by the Commissioner, you may be prepared to agree to an informal resolution of this complaint.

If you are not prepared to agree to an informal resolution of the complaint, I will be recommending that the Commissioner issues a formal Decision Notice on the same basis as the considerations outlined in this email. However, I do not consider that a Decision Notice would serve any useful purpose in this case as it would not require the BBC to take any further steps.

If you wish for a Decision Notice to be issued, I would be grateful if you could respond within ten working days, i.e. by 4 January 2010. If I do not hear from you within this timeframe, I shall assume that you are happy to resolve the case informally.

I hope you find this information useful.

----

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Richard Bowden left an annotation (23 December 2009)

Quote-marks My plan is to reply along the following lines. Other suggestions or comments welcomed before I make this response.

------

I have read the prior Decision Notice to which you refer, but I do not agree with your assertion that many of the same arguments should apply in this case.

That case referred primarily to internal procedures within the BBC relating to TV licensing. My request related solely to search warrants, which are issued by the courts. It is, of course, a key principle of UK law that under normal circumstances it is abhorrent that court proceedings be secret.

As such I cannot agree to your proposed informal resolution of this matter, and would request that you proceed with issuing a formal Decision Notice.

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Mark Lawrence left an annotation (28 December 2009)

Quote-marks Dear Richard,

In relation to the intransigence of the BBC and unhelpfulness of the ICO about releasing the information, can I suggest you write to the part of the government which deals with oversight of the BBC - the Dept of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). I recall a recent newspaper article (possibly Nov 2009)about the TV Licensing contract being withdrawn from the company engaged by the BBC, because of the inappropriate over-zealousness of the company's enforcement officers, following an investigation by the Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport. The DCMS and the Select Committee may take a different view to the ICO and direct the BBC to release the information to you.

If that fails you could write to the Ministry of Justice (or whichever ministry oversees the magistrates'court system, where warrants are obtained, in England and Wales) and ask the Ministry for the information. You may have to apply to the Northern Ireland Office and the Scottish Office for the same information covering Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively.

Good Luck.

Mark Lawrence
(jrmlawrence@hotmail.com)

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Adam Brookes left an annotation (20 April 2010)

Quote-marks The ICO have issued a decision notice regarding this request which is available at http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/d....

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Richard Bowden left an annotation (28 April 2010)

Quote-marks I have appealed this to the Tribunal. My argument is that the disclosure of this information would not, or should not, be likely to prejudice law enforcement activity, and no evidence has been provided to support a claim that it would. Thus section 31 should not apply to this sort of information at all. Further/alternatively, there is significant public interest in this information being released.

1. The decision does not adequately distinguish between purely internal BBC procedures (detector vans) and a formal judicial procedure that leads to a serious interference with a person’s liberty (search warrants). There should be a substantially increased threshold required to withhold details of court proceedings than of purely internal matters.

2. The BBC disclose many other statistics about TV Licensing enforcement (for example that enquiry officers make 3.5MM household visits per year), and information on successful prosecutions is also available. The argument that disclosing search warrant statistics would change public perception sufficiently to prejudice enforcement activity seems to imply that the numbers obtained are negligible. However the BBC also claim openly that its policy is to only apply for a search warrant as a last resort, and there are many court cases taken (and won) for evasion that do not involve search warrants at all. So even discovering that these numbers are low would not necessarily assist evaders — it would simply mean that the other enforcement tactics have been adequate.

3. Relying on secret court procedures to maintain a perception of enforcement is anathema to the long-standing tradition that it is not enough for justice to be done, but that it “should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”. The public should have a right to know the actual enforcement steps (particularly those using the courts), rather than solely the carefully selected information that suits the BBC’s purposes to release.

4. Too much weight is placed on the oversight provided by the National Audit Office, with the claim that there is no “compelling evidence that the systems are working unsatisfactorily ... elevating the general public interest in disclosure to a higher level”. Not only was the last report specifically on TV Licensing produced eight years ago (May 2002), but that report made no reference whatsoever to search warrants, and did indicate problems with the BBC’s enforcement processes. It goes against the key principles of freedom of information if you have to already be able to provide evidence of problems before you can obtain the information that would confirm or deny such.

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Clive left an annotation ( 8 September 2012)

Quote-marks The elephant is in the room, and no one is referring to it. These officials' reference to "the public interest" is exactly the opposite of what the public interest is.

The public interest is in no more paying a tv license than paying a radio license (which there existed in the UK in the past). The public interest is in maintaining their privacy, and making sure that snoops looking for various electronic equipment do not invade it.

In view of the officials' quite blatant attempt to paint the public interest as being the opposite of what it is I would suggest a petition or poll be taken. Then we would have proof that the official is quite simply wrong.

smart1980@billionmessages.com

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