BBC uses anti-terror spy powers to track down licence fee dodgers who do not pay annual £145.50 cost

The Culture Secretary said enforcement of TV licensing will be examined in a new review (file image) Daily Mail – by ALASDAIR GLENNIE

The BBC is using laws designed to catch terrorists and organised crime networks to track down people who dodge the licence fee, it emerged yesterday.

The publicly-funded corporation uses the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), designed by the last Labour government to fight terrorism, to catch those who evade paying the £145.50 fee.  

Now, however, its ability to use sweeping surveillance powers could be stopped by a new review announced yesterday by culture secretary Sajid Javid.

Mr Javid’s independent inquiry into TV licence fee enforcement will examine the corporation’s use of covert surveillance operations on those it thinks have not paid the obligatory licence fee.

Although the BBC has admitted using the hugely controversial RIPA, it has refused to say in what way, when and how often.

Appearing before the Commons culture, media and sport committee yesterday, Mr Javid was asked whether he felt it was ‘appropriate’ for the corporation to use RIPA powers.

He replied: ‘This whole issue of people who aren’t paying the licence fee, how do you go after them and get them to pay, needs to be looked at very carefully.

‘And that’s exactly why I set up this review, which is an independent review.’

He said that the inquiry will be led by leading barrister David Perry QC, and will conclude next June.

Mr Perry has previously advised the Crown Prosecution Service on the cash for honours scandal, and acted for the CPS on the prosecution of radical Muslim hate preacher Abu Hamza for murder and race-hate offences.

The review’s primary purpose is to investigate whether evasion should be decriminalised following concern at the number of convictions.

Almost 200,000 people are prosecuted a year – one in nine of all lower court cases – and more than 50 people were sent to prison in 2012-2013 for failing to buy a TV licence.  Many get penalties of up to £1,000 and a criminal record.

Mr Javid said: ‘When the licence fee was put in place it was a long, long time ago and some people argued that you needed to have criminal sanctions because there is no way to cut off someone if they don’t pay their fee in the way you can cut off someone’s electricity supply.

‘But clearly times have changed.

‘Technology has moved on. Also, there is a question of fairness – 50 people went to jail for not paying their licence fee. I think this raises considerable concerns.’

Tory MP John Whittingdale, who chairs the culture committee, said there were ‘big question marks’ over the BBC’s use of RIPA powers.

He added: ‘The problem is, the BBC won’t tell us how it is being used, or in what circumstances. That means we can’t be sure it is being used properly.

‘This legislation was designed to fight terrorism and organised crime. I can’t imagine it was intended for people who don’t pay their TV licence.’ 

Emma Carr, of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘The public were told these powers were going to be used to catch terrorists and paedophiles, not to help the BBC to snoop on people who haven’t paid the licence fee.

‘It is clear that the use of these powers has reached unacceptable levels. It is important that there is a wholesale review of how these [powers] are being used not just by police and intelligence services but also by organisations like the BBC.’

Home Secretary Theresa May recently ordered that the rules governing the use of RIPA should be tightened so they are used only to investigate serious crimes.

The Metropolitan Police Service has come under fire for using the powers to access the phone logs of reporters on two newspapers to trace their sources.

In 2012, Big Brother Watch discovered 345 councils had been authorised to use RIPA 9,607 times in just three years – the equivalent of around nine spying missions a day.

Seven public authorities, including the BBC, refused under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose why or how often they had used the powers.

At the time, the BBC said the reason for its secrecy was ‘to ensure people without a valid TV licence don’t use this information to their advantage’. Last night a BBC spokesman said: ‘Legislation explicitly grants the BBC the right to use these powers to detect unlicensed use of television receivers.

‘We’re regularly inspected by independent regulators and have always been open about using this power when there is no other option to help reduce evasion on behalf of the vast majority of the population who pay for their licence.’

RIPA, passed by Labour in 2000 ostensibly as an anti-terror measure, gives public authorities sweeping powers to snoop on the public.

The most common use of the legislation is to demand phone companies hand over an individual’s communications data.

This would include details of who a person called, when and for how long.

However, the act can also be used to mount undercover surveillance operations – such as secretly following a person to see when they are at home.

This could, in theory, be used to match the times when a TV is believed to have been in use.

Rona Fairhead, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, the independent governing body of the BBC, was accused of ‘going native’ after giving a glowing initial report into the corporation.

Many had hoped Fairhead, who had extensive private sector experience before joining the Trust, would bring a firmer approach to the corporation whose image had been tarnished by scandals including large pay-offs for departing executives.

Conservative MP Philip Davies said he was ‘alarmed’ by Fairhead not having identified a single weakness yet, and asked her ‘Have you gone native in record time?’

She replied: ‘Absolutely not.’

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