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29 Jul 1998 : Column 338

Concessionary Television Licences

12.58 pm

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the Dispatch Box. While this is her first engagement in her new capacity, I am sure that she will grace the office for many years to come.

It is one of the few privileges of a Member of Parliament to have the opportunity to air the grievances that have accumulated over a lifetime. I first encountered the concessionary television licence scheme and the anomalies that go with it more than 10 years ago, when a resident of Glastonbury house, a tower block of 160 flats not far from here, contacted me to ask why, although she and about 155 other tenants of those flats were of pensionable age, because of the presence of a handful of people below pensionable age, neither she nor her neighbours could qualify for a licence concession. For many years since, that anomaly, the lack of logic in the system and the injustice caused to so many have nagged away at me.

It is clear from recent early-day motions that other hon. Members, of all political persuasions, share my concern. Early-day motion 1483 standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has already gathered 177 signatures. A second early-day motion currently circulating in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. King) has collected 52 signatures. The sense of grievance is felt not only by Members of Parliament, local councillors and council officials, but by pensioners who are excluded from the scheme. It is impossible to quantify the resentment that many pensioners feel. A previous Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Minister for Arts, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), said that the Department receives more correspondence on that issue than on almost any other issue that comes within the Department's control.

The scheme's history is complicated. It was first introduced as a somewhat ad hoc arrangement by officials at the Post Office who, I believe exercising their discretion, granted concessions to some pensioners living in residential homes. The first statutory scheme was introduced in 1969, but it contained anomalies which, despite the passage of time, remain the cause of considerable grievance. More experienced Members of Parliament than me have tried to grapple with those anomalies. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North has been a champion in the campaign for many years: he proposed that concessions should be extended to all pensioners and promoted a private Member's Bill as long ago as 1987--which, surprisingly, was the last time the issue was debated in the House.

Successive Governments have tried to improve the scheme, but each option that they have considered has given rise to a fresh batch of problems. It is my strong conviction, however, that the fact that it is difficult to right something that is wrong is all the more reason to seek to do so. The problem with the current scheme is that no one understands the regulations; no one believes that they are just; no one believes that they fulfil their

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purpose; and no one thinks that they provide value for money. A letter to me from TV Licensing set out the details of the scheme, saying:


    "It is available to people living in


    (i) Residential homes; or


    (ii) Sheltered accommodation which


    (a) forms part of a group of at least four dwellings within a common and exclusive boundary (though up to 25 per cent. of units in a scheme can be properties purchased under the 'right to buy' legislation); and


    (b) is specially provided for occupation only by disabled people, people with learning disabilities or retired people of pensionable age; and


    (c) is provided or managed by a local authority or a housing association; and


    (d) has a person whose function is to care for the needs of the residents (eg a warden) and who either lives on site or works there for at least 30 hours a week."

It is a fitting irony that the new regulations were introduced on 1 April 1997.

The problem is that the scheme is not linked to individual need--although it does at least try to address that need--but, to quote the letter again, it is linked


The limitations of the scheme are clear: it is solely for narrowly specified groups whose accommodation must be run by a local authority or a housing association, and must contain at least four homes; and residents must have the services of a warden for at least 30 hours a week.

I am indebted to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which in March this year published its report, "TV Sinners", which included several examples of the anomalies which occur under the scheme. I shall quote three. First:


Secondly:


    "A CAB in Norfolk reported two pensioner clients living in sheltered accommodation. The housing association responsible for the development began to provide housing to single homeless people in addition to elderly people, and as a result elderly residents lost their . . . concession."

Thirdly:


    "A CAB in Essex reported a man aged over 60 who was living in sheltered accommodation and paying £5 for a . . . licence. The housing association responsible for the accommodation took a decision to lower the qualifying age for residents to 55. This meant that the development was no longer exclusively available to pensioners, and TV Licensing decided that the concession could no longer apply. The client was therefore required to find the full fee."

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an absolute disgrace that those anomalies remain and that this country does not have a comprehensive concessionary TV licence scheme specifically targeted on pensioners? Will he give examples of other nations--especially European nations--that treat their old folk a little better than we do?

Mr. Bradley: My hon. Friend is quite right, and I should pay tribute to his long-standing commitment to the

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cause. For a number of years, both in the community and in this House, he has served his constituents very well in respect of this issue. Although the proposals that I shall put forward later in my speech might not meet fully the needs that he has identified, I can tell him that several European nations recognise the importance of caring for their pensioners. Austria, France, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland and Ireland are just a few of the countries that grant a full concession to pensioners. Several other European nations make similar concessions to people with disabilities, whether they are blind, deaf, or suffer from impaired mobility.

The anomalies in the existing UK scheme mean that, while many are targeted by the spirit of the regulations, many more are excluded by the letter. Currently, 651,000 pensioners receive concessions, but about 10.5 million do not. Many people benefit who do not need to benefit because they have sufficient income to pay the full licence fee, whereas many of those who are not in receipt of the concession are on low incomes. It is not difficult to see the source of the resentment that has accumulated over the years.

The next problem is the cost of the scheme to the BBC. Currently, it costs £60 million a year. If the £5 licence were to be extended to all pensioner-only households, the cost would rise to £437 million. The problem with such a universal solution is that it would apply equally to those on relatively high incomes as to those on relatively low incomes. Therefore, the large majority of members of the other House would qualify for a concessionary licence--although it might be argued that they would be better off at home watching "Men Behaving Badly" than coming here and ensuring that life imitates art. It would be difficult to sustain the argument for a concession that covered those who had no particular need of it.

Extending the concession in that way would add £28 per annum to the cost of the licence fee. A free licence for all pensioners would cost about £628 million and result in a £36.50 increase in the price of a licence. That would severely affect those on low incomes who do not happen to be pensioners, and it was rightly rejected as a solution by the Secretary of State as recently as last November.

There have been several proposals for change. As long ago as 1977, the Annan committee criticised the lack of relationship between cost and need, and recommended the phasing out of the current scheme. In 1986, the Peacock committee proposed that pensioner households on income support ought to receive a concession in recognition of their low-income status. Sadly, the previous Government rejected that proposal and said that the best way to meet need was to increase the level of pension. Most Labour Members--it is interesting to see that no Opposition Members are present--would agree with that proposition. The problem is that, far from increasing provision to pensioners, the previous Government cut it year on year.

In the last debate on this matter, on 16 January 1987, David Mellor, then a Home Office Minister on his way up the slippery pole down which he more speedily descended, criticised Labour Members for raising the issue and proposing to extend concessionary licensing. He accused them of the "cynical exploitation of pensioners". The payroll vote on that occasion ensured that the Free Television Licences for Pensioners Bill,

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which was a private Member's Bill in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, was defeated by just 21 votes.

This Government can do better and I welcome the Department's proposal to review the licence fee beyond 2002 and the fact that the review will include consideration of the concessionary scheme. I should like to contribute by making a proposal. We should return to the basic principle of need, both income related and dependency related. There are people who rely on television not only for entertainment or information, but for company, and they are not exclusively pensioners. I urge the Government to include in the scheme people on low incomes and on benefits, and people who are housebound and dependent. The problem at present is that those people are not targeted.

Not all pensioners would benefit from that scheme because a third of pensioners are in the upper half of the income bracket, but many people would benefit, including those who are of non-pensionable age, but who suffer from disabilities. I have tried to quantify those who would benefit, the costs of introducing the benefit and the practical means of offsetting those additional costs. I am indebted to a number of sources for the information on which I draw. The House of Commons Library has been helpful; answers to parliamentary questions have been illuminating; the BBC has co-operated and I am grateful for advice received from Age Concern. I have tried to be fair but practical in my proposal because although it is right that the scheme should be improved and more people should benefit, it is also right that the costs should be contained.


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