HC Deb 08 July 1955 vol 543 cc1514-8

Order for Second Reading read.

12.57 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Dr. Charles Hill)

I beg to move. That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a modest though not unimportant Bill, to which I invite the House to give a Second Reading. Although it is a Government Bill, the House will recall that the initiative for it belongs to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser). He had intitnated his intention in April to seek the approval of the House to introduce a Private Member's Bill, but circumstances made that impossible, and the view of the Government was that the House would wish this Bill to proceed at the earliest possible moment. Accordingly, it is introduced as a Government Bill.

In 1926, again on the initiative of my hon. Friend through a Private Member's Bill which he piloted through the House, it was decided to remit the wireless licence fee in those households which included a blind person. At that time and up to 1946 there was but one licence fee, the sound licence fee. In the form in which legislative effect was given to that desire, the Postmaster-General was empowered to remit the licence fee. He was not empowered to remit part of it. He was left with the power to remit the whole of it or none of it.

So the phraseology of the 1926 Act was satisfactory until 1946, and the difficulty arose with the introduction in that year of an omnibus television and sound licence fee side by side with the sound licence fee. The omnibus fee at that time was £2, but those persons, even if they were blind persons within the meaning of the Act, who took out an omnibus fee were unable to enjoy any remission because the Postmaster-General had no power to make such a remission.

The simple purpose of the Bill is to restore the concession to those who have lost it, to make it possible for those households—and I deliberately use that phrase because that is the exact position—where there is a blind person coming within the definition of the subsection concerned and where an omnibus television-cum-sound licence fee of £3 is paid, to enjoy the same remission, the remission of £1, which has obtained since 1926, but which has not been available since the introduction of the omnibus fee to those who have paid that fee.

The Bill is very simple in form as well as in intention. It modifies Section 2 (2) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949, so as to enable the Postmaster-General to dispense with the payment of the whole or part of any sum which is payable as a licence fee.

I am sure that the House, though recognising the limited character of the Bill, which does no more than restore a concession which had been lost through other circumstances, will regard it as something worth while doing, and will join with me in acknowledging the part played by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale at the inception and in stirring us to restore the position which had been lost.

1.1 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Bill. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is a small one, but it nevertheless means a great deal to the people who are affected by it.

Those of us with experience in local government work, the welfare of blind persons and the like know how gratefully the original concession was received. None of us wanted it ever to be withdrawn, but the drafters of the original Measure could hardly have foreseen a situation in which there would be a combined television and sound radio licence, and so no account was taken of such a happening.

I am glad that the Government have found opportunity and time to remedy the accident, for that is what it really was. We are very happy indeed to welcome the Bill and facilitate its passage through the House.

1.2 p.m.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

I am very pleased indeed to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) and say a few words in support of the Bill. As my right hon. Friend said, it is only a small, simple Bill, but it is a great Bill in that it expresses the humane feelings of the House towards blind people. It helps the most unfortunate section of the community.

Apart from the social services in the twentieth century, the wireless has been one of the greatest friends, if not the greatest friend, of blind people. When one reflects that the wireless brings to them the news of the day, music, plays, politics and talks, one realises what it must mean to them.

The blind are mainly the poorest section of the community; they are poor because they are handicapped in comparison with other members of the community who have greater opportunities to enter trades and professions. I am certain that the restoration of the concession will have the support of all, and I am very pleased indeed to give it my support.

1.5 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

Television is primarily a visual art. Anyone who listened carefully to what the Postmaster-General said might have deduced that it would have been within the power of the Government to make television licences wholly free to the blind. The blind people themselves—at any rate, those who speak for them in the committee of the Wireless Fund for the Blind Fund, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and St. Dunstan's—do not feel that that is a gift which Parliament ought to make or, indeed, a gift that ought to be asked for, because the art is mainly visual, and so many good things are done for the blind that there is a limit to what we think should be asked for and given.

Nevertheless, an anomaly arose because of the circumstances which have been explained, which I will not elaborate. However, I should like to express the gratitude of the blind community to the Postmaster-General, the Government, and hon. Members on all sides of the House for the original Act and for this modest, but nevertheless most valuable, restoration of the concession.

As more and more families obtain T.V. sets—no one must imagine that a blind man's family should necessarily be without a T.V. set: T.V. is part of our way of life, and, if a set can be afforded, the blind man's wife and children should not necessarily be deprived of it—it is important to emphasise that the blind man should continue to have his sound radio and that it should not be put out of his house by the television, because the television gives him only a very small part of what the sound radio gives him. As the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) said, the sound radio is the blind man's entertainment, newspaper and friend.

One of the reasons why I especially welcome the emphasis in the concession to the blind man in respect of his sound radio is that I want it to be felt to be an obligation upon every family containing a blind person which obtains a television set to make sure that the blind man continues to have his sound radio. The fact that a concession of E1 is given for that purpose will, I hope, be an encouragement to that end.

I should like to add briefly, for the purposes of the record, a few facts. There are 103,000 blind persons in the land. There are about 11,000 new blind persons each year, though that does not mean that the total number necessarily goes up, because the additions are balanced by deaths. The Wireless for the Blind Fund, which the B.B.C. has so generously supported, and to which the British public subscribed at Christmas, has during the last 25 years supplied free wireless sets to all blind persons in the land known to be in need of them. It has issued 44,000 sets, which are in current use. The discrepancy between the figures which I have given is accounted for by the fact that many blind persons are old and perhaps too ill to listen, others live in homes for the blind, others are children, and a few can, perhaps, afford not to apply for a set.

I thank Parliament and the Government on behalf of the blind community for this kindly, generous concession, which will be greatly appreciated.

1.9 p.m.

Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)

I wish to support the Bill, which I feel sure will be welcomed by all blind people in the country in that it restores to them a privilege which they enjoyed before sound and television licences were combined.

I think that, generally speaking, the standard of intelligence of blind people is above that of other people. It would seem that, having been deprived of their sight, they have another power which they have developed. If one looks at the various accomplishments achieved by blind people, one finds that the percentage is very high compared with those of us who, fortunately, have our sight.

I know that blind people appreciate the sound radio more than anything else, because the last thing a blind person wishes is to be a nuisance to anyone else. If blind people can listen to the radio, where they can obtain such a wide variety of programmes, it enables them to feel that they are completely independent. They can obtain their news, listen to sport, and enjoy the arts. That prompts me to mention of a number of blind people who through the years have been attracted to the arts, particularly music. I regret to say that today I cannot play a note, but when I was a child, my music master was a blind person and a first-class musician. Today, living in my constituency at Shaftesbury, there is a blind man who is no mean composer. He is greatly thought of, not only locally, but over a wide area.

I am pleased to give my support to the Bill, and I hope that it will pass very quickly through the House, and that there will be given to the blind people this simple concession, which I feel sure that all of them will enjoy to the full.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Godber.]

Committee upon Monday next.