A major weapon in the arsenal of TVL/BBC is the Detector van. Or
Letters reproduced on this site periodically refer to "electronic
My view is that, so long as it is not causing an obstruction, the
BBC may leave a detector van outside my property as often as they wish. I do
But, out of curiosity, from time to time, I look out of my window
to see if I can spot one. So far, I have not seen any. In fact, I have never
seen a detector van anywhere, anytime.
A letter to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act asked how
many vans there were, and how many were in operation on a given day, but the
BBC declined to provide an answer.
Divulging the number of vans does not, in itself, prevent their
effectiveness, any more than knowing the number of police cars undermines the
police. Public knowledge that there is a large number of detector vans might be
expected to increase prevention rather than reduce it. Therefore, the BBC's
refusal to answer implies that the number of detector vans is small.
The possible number of detector vans is provided by
Broadcast, the company that services the vans. This scan is from
The highlighted paragraph says that there are two dedicated
members of staff working on each of the vehicles every week, completing the
vans in a six month period. The conclusion to be drawn is that there are
26* vans, less one for
servicing at any one time, is not a particularly large number and accounts for
why they are not commonly seen on the roads. By way of comparison, most people
have seen Securicor vans; there are 1,900 of these. Such a small number of
detector vans is consistent with the BBC's unwillingness to divulge the number,
since making it known that there are so few might "prejudice the
|*Update, August 2009: new evidence has led to the estimate of 26
vans being revised downwards. Please see Freedom of Information - own
goal for BBC, further down this page for information and analysis.
How important are these vans in tracking down rogue television
The TVL website contains the following:
tvlicensing.co.uk - 1 February 2007
The second and third substantive paragraphs are not remarkable.
Obviously, TVL/BBC knows which households do not have licences, since
TVL/BBC is responsible for issuing them. Illegality concerns the unlicensed
receiving of broadcasts, so only the final paragraph is relevant.
Note how the final paragraph is structured. The first sentence
describes detector van capabilities. The second says that over a thousand
people are caught every day. The impression created is that detection devices
are responsible for catching more than a thousand people every day. But the
paragraph does not actually say this; it is the running of the two sentences
together in the reader's mind that leads to this conclusion, encouraged by the
insertion of the term 'in fact'.
TVL/BBC also seeks to impress with use of GPS satellite
tvlicensing.co.uk - 1 February 2007
GPS (Global Positioning System) is a tool for navigation, not
detecting the receiving of broadcasts. For those who are unfamiliar with GPS,
it is an electronic atlas, whereby roads and street numbers are stored on a
database and a synthisized voice tells the driver where to drive ("turn right,
turn left"). GPS devices are available for purchase at electrical stores and
powered from the vehicle's cigarette lighter.
The sole benefit of GPS to TVL/BBC is that it saves them looking
at a map when driving. Expressions such as GPS will help "target individual
evader homes" are misleading, since they imply that satellite technology
contributes to the detector capabilities of the van. It doesn't.
Hand-held devicesTVL/BBC also employs the
use of hand-held detectors; according to the TVL website, they make it "...easy
for us to locate TVs, even in the hardest to reach places". These devices are
produced by Buckman Hardy Associates; here is a scan from their
buckman-hardy.co.uk - 1 March 2007
But can these detection devices actually detect a
If it is possible to place a man on the moon and split the atom,
it would be surprising if it was not possible to detect a television on the
other side of a wall. The following is a question put to the BBC under the
Freedom of Information Act:
Thus, the BBC confirms that detector equipment exists, and says
that it can detect within 20 seconds, but details on how it does this are
The TVL website also opts for secrecy on how
detector vans work:
tvlicensing.co.uk - 1 February 2007
If TVL/BBC technology is secret, what role can it play in the
legal enforcement process?
The answer is none. Courts cannot convict without evidence, and
evidence cannot be heard unless it is available to both prosecution and
defence. Since TVL/BBC is unwilling to divulge the inner workings of a detector
van, its evidence cannot be used in a prosecution.
Compare the lack of
public knowledge on detector vans to speed cameras. Speed cameras are subject
to scrutiny. Here is a scan from the BBC's website which does just that:
Faulty or inaccurate speed cameras will cause injustice and bring
the speed enforcement process into disrepute. It is in the interests of both
motorists and enforcers to make the technology of speed cameras known, for
scrutiny ensures credibility, and credibility secures convictions when the
speeding laws are broken.
For TV detector devices to
be credible, we have to know that they are reliable and accurate. Here is a
question on the testing of vans, put to the BBC under the Freedom of
The final sentence says, "calibration records...are not available
for viewing by the public".
If the public do not have access to the calibration records,
nobody outside TVL/BBC can know whether the vans are working correctly.
Consequently, any information obtained by the vans cannot be used in an
evidential way. Detector vans - or Dummy
The above observations are based on the assumption that BBC/TVL
uses whatever detector technology is available to it. However, there is an
alternative view that says detector vans are a myth, cultivated by the BBC to
make people think that detector technology is used. This view
acknowledges that vans themselves exist, but argues that they are empty; they
are dummy vans rather than detector vans.
This view is given
credence by exchanges which occasionally appear on the internet. The following
have been selected because the writers claim some degree of inside knowledge,
or have seen inside a TV detector van.
I used to work for TV licencing driving around in
the detector van. It was full of fancy looking equipment for show only, NONE OF
IT WORKED! They have a database of the houses without licences which they got
by selecting streets and looking at who HAS got the licence. The remaining are
Leaflets will be dropped through those doors
advising them to buy a licence as the TV detector van will be in the area in
two weeks time. After driving around the area for days on end in a highly
visible van with large antennae, leaflets are dropped again through the doors
saying they have been picked up by the van and need to buy a licence or face
prosecution. Most people pay.
Sir Wendy -
The TV licensing agency apparently has vans which can detect TVs and vcrs in
unlicensed properties, but I've never seen them and nor has anyone else.
Sinner Boy - I've seen them, but they don't have
detectors. They have a list of unlicenced addresses and they go round in the
evenings, when they can see the glow through the window. Then they knock on the
door and say, "Hello, we've detected a telly in your left hand back bedroom"
Then they ask to come in for a look. My mother's ex-boyfriend used to work for
them and told us.
September 2005 (edited)
Dilzybhoy - I had a mate who drove about all day in
a "detector" van. He was employed to drive around the schemes with the van with
the big aerial and "TV detector Van" plastered on the side. It had nothing in
it apart from his sleeping bag and some clothes ... I'm not making it up. I've
seen inside it ... Twas in 2000 I was in this "detector" van.
Regarding this license threat malarky. I happened to be in a petrol station
whilst one was filling up and saw in the back of this tv detector van,
absolutely empty, it might not be the case in all detector vans but I would
imagine a fair few are decoys.
Doubts that detection equipment is used is also given weight by a
TVL/BBC announcement in 2003 that detector vans will henceforth have removable
The press release says that the lack of identifying features on
the vans is intentional; people aren't supposed to see them. But the
implication is that neither detector vans nor dummy vans need be used for the
BBC to persuade the public that they are still in use, since the BBC need only
refer to their 'covert' nature to account for their absence from the streets.
Freedom of Information - own goal for
In 2006, a member of the public complained to the
Information Commissioner about the BBC's refusal to release information on
detector vans under the Freedom of Information Act. After considering BBC
representations, the Information Commissioner rejected the
However, in providing his Decision Notice (to read in full,
click here), the Information Commissioner
provided the reasons provided by the BBC for not wanting the information
released. In short, the BBC had said that the effectiveness of detector vans
depended on perception, and that if the public actually knew the number
of vans, and how often they were used, detector vans would no longer be a
Key paragraphs are as
|21. The BBC explained
that the number of detector vans in operation, the location of their deployment
and the frequency is not common knowledge. It relies on the public perception
that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders. This perception has
built up since the first van was launched in 1952 and has been a key cost
effective method in deterring people from evading their licence
22. The BBC state that to release
information which relates to how often detector vans are used will change the
publics perception of the effectiveness of detector vans. If the
deterrent effect of television detector vans is lost, the BBC believes that a
significant number of people would decide not to pay their licence fee, knowing
how the deployment and effectiveness of vans will affect their chances of
success in avoiding detection.
Commissioner has viewed the withheld information and is satisfied that
disclosure of the information would be likely to have the adverse effects
30. The Commissioner
recognises the importance the BBC places on the public perception of the use of
detector vans, and he also recognises that disclosure of this information would
change this perception...
But that's not all. The Decision Notice made the following finding
|13. The information being
withheld consists of 32 documents which include the following information:
Authorisations of detection of
television receivers from outside residential or other premises;
Internal emails and file notes which
relate to the request and other similar requests;
Other internal TV licensing documents.
The Information Commissioner indicates that there were fewer than
32 authorisations for the use of detectors. This disclosure may have provoked
an irate reaction from the BBC, since a later Decision Notice, again relating
to detector vans and virtually identical to the one above, omits the
number of detector authorisations.
How many working detector vans? A
The member of the public's FOI request that led to
the disclosure of 32 documents was submitted in July 2006; the request was for
documentation that "
stretches back to the beginning of 2004". So,
the 32 documents may cover a period as long as 30 months, from the beginning of
2004 to mid-2006.
Commissioner says the 32 documents include emails, file notes and other TV
licensing documents. These extra documents are all referred to in the
plural, so there must be at least two of each, therefore accounting for no
fewer than 6 of the 32 documents. This leaves, at most, 26 authorisations for
detector van deployment.
26 authorisations in
2½ years compels a reassessment of the previous estimate that there are
26 detector vans, for each van could have been used, on average, only
once in that lengthy period. Not even the BBC can be that
inefficient. So, the conclusion may be drawn that that there are fewer than 26
In May 2009, the BBC awarded a new contract for detector vans. The
contract award (read in full here) includes the following sentence:
|The objective will be to
enhance the current fleet of vans by building a further fleet of vans (minimum
of 5) to come into service from April 2009.
The contract award says that the BBC currently has one
fleet, and wishes to add a further fleet. It identifies the figure
of five vans to a fleet, or possibly six, since it specifies five as the
minimum. This implies that, prior to 2009, the BBC had five or six
With this figure in mind, it is worth recalling
the promotional picture of detector vans that featured on contractor dB
Broadcast's website in 2006 (since removed). This shows precisely six vans:
At the time of the photo, it was assumed that these were six of
the 26. But when considered against the evidence contained in the Information
Commissioner's report and the contract award, this photo may be more accurately
interpreted as showing the entire fleet.
(1) Between 2003 and 2009,
there were six working detector vans. Each of these was deployed several times
a year. This low number of vans and deployments accounts for the BBC's view
that release of this information would end their deterrent effect.
(2) In 2009, the BBC commissioned five more working vans. Thus, as
of 2009, there are eleven vans. This does not preclude the possibility that the
new fleet is replacing ("enhancing" in the contract award) the previous one, in
which case there will fewer than eleven working vans.
(3) In addition, there are dummy or publicity vans that appear in
supermarket car parks and other public places. Since the working vans are used
so infrequently, it is likely that they spend most of their time in this
capacity. At least two vans seen performing this role (see
Detector vans, LT03TYV and Y254CGO) are of the type in the above dB