HC Deb 13 June 1967 vol 748 cc445-55

Not less than once per year the Postmaster-General shall—

  1. (a) cause to be made a list of all householders shown on Post Office records as not possessing a television licence;
  2. (b) cause a communication to be sent to such householders requiring confirmation that no television set is in use;
  3. (c) instruct Post Office staff to visit those householders from whom no satisfactory reply is received.—[Mr. Bryan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Paul Bryan (Howden)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I tried to deploy the arguments which I shall use now in the debate on Clause 2 stand part, in Committee, but was, from time to time, ruled out of order. This is possibly why the Postmaster-General did not answer them at length, although another reason is that he might genuinely have thought that they were not important.

If the objective of Part I is to reduce licence evasion, this Clause is by far the most important of that Part of the Bill. My views have changed during the Bill's passage. Several differences between the right hon. Gentleman and myself came to light during the Second Reading debate. I shared his view that the prevention of evasion was a matter of determining, locating and punishing the law breakers and might be called a policing exercise. Particularly as a result of talks which I have had with provincial postmasters and their staffs, however, I have come to consider it more as a straight, commercial, money-collecting exercise.

Those who do not pay for their licences are breaking the law, but, from the reports of the Post Office investigators, one sees that, as a type, they are less like criminals than the slow payers which any commercial firm dealing with the public is experienced in handling. A percentage of the public do not pay their bills until someone asks for their money. They are not moved by postal reminders and certainly do not regard themselves as law breakers. Commercial firms know this and organise themselves to deal with the situation.

We have been talking of television rental companies. If a company bought up a small, independent rental concern, it might find that 50 per cent. of the customers were behind with their payments. If it merely wrote them reminders, it would get virtually nowhere. Extra staff is normally needed to carry out a drive on the arrears on calling on the slow payers. After a month or two, when the percentage of arrears has been reduced to a normal level, the normal staff can keep it there.

10.15 p.m.

The more I talk to postmasters, the more it seems to me that the position with licence evasion is basically similar. But the steps taken to correct it are different and much less effective. The Post Office has a system of postal combing by which a regular letter, followed by a reminder if necessary, goes to every household without a licence. If these letters bring no result, a member of the Post Office calls on the house concerned. This task is well done, and I have absolutely no criticism of the members of the Post Office staff who carry it out. They carry it out with competence and certainly with great diligence. But the routine is followed only every four or five years. Once a street has been combed, a defaulter knows that he is safe for five years. This is the opposite of a deterrent.

What is more, excellent though the Post Office staff may be, the number devoted to this task is insufficient to make sure that a household is persistently called on until the householder is contacted. If any commercial firm chased its slow payers every four or five years, it would be out of business before it caught up with them.

Ineffective as the present system is, I am bound to say that I treat it more seriously than the Postmaster-General. In Committee he said: … combing … is something we do here and there every few years, at present. It is a sort of sampling of one town every five years, another every three years, another every five years, and so on. I am glad to say that what takes place is more effective than that. Once we get the lists in under subsection (2) the job will begin and that will be a once-for-all job. The job under Clause 2 will be a continuous process."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 2nd May, 1967, c. 65.] I concede at once that the lists made available through the Bill will be a help. But the Post Office will not have those lists for another 18 months, and when they come in they will cover only about 60 per cent. of the sets in use. If things are allowed to take the course suggested by the Postmaster-General, it will be years before we get a real grip of the situation. Meanwhile, every unlicensed set not detected is costing the B.B.C. £5 a year.

All that I ask in the new Clause is that the Post Office should do exactly what it does already but more thoroughly and more often. It proposes that every house without a television licence should be contacted once per annum. To start with, this would involve extra part-time staff. But the task requires more common sense than training. I should have thought that the staff, especially part-time staff, would be forthcoming. Once the first combing had been thoroughly completed, I believe that defaulters would dwindle to so small a number that a regular yearly check could be completed by the present staff.

There is absolutely no politics in the Clause. It comes from a genuine conviction that the Bill, which we all wish to see effective, will founder because the Postmaster-General has over-rated the effects of Clauses 2 and 3 and underrated the importance of the field work which must back up Post Office records, however much they are improved.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I support the new Clause. From my experience, the Post Office records appear to be in a thoroughly unsatisfactory state. The new Clause, if it is accepted by the House, might go some way to remedying the situation.

I purchased a new broadcasting licence in January this year. I forget that I had bought it. I received a somewhat savagely worded reminder that, perhaps, I did not have a licence. I got a new one at the House of Commons when I received the reminder. I then had an apologetic letter from the postmaster at home saying that I now had two. There was a four-month time lag between my purchase of the original licence and receipt of the reminder, when I bought the second one. My local postmaster told me that I could have my money back, but in the end I got only £4 17s. 6d.

From that sad, personal tale of someone who honestly did his best, bought his licence at the right time, responded to the reminder and lost 2s. 6d. in the bargain, it will be seen that there is something wrong in the set-up, and I support my hon. Friend's Clause.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

This seems to be a curious Clause to emerge from a party which regards itself as the guardian and custodian of liberty. I understand and sympathise with the object of it, which is to extract licence fees from those who should pay them. To that extent, I applaud it. However, a proposal for the setting up of this highly complicated procedure whereby people without television sets are to receive communications and there is to be a large department to ensure that such people are visited regularly, coming from the party which constantly talks about the increase in bureaucracy and the number of civil servants—

Mr. Bryan

Is the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman would address the Chair, it would help the Press and the Chair.

Mr. Bryan

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. It would be better if the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) had read the proceedings which preceded tonight's sitting, because he would find that a lot of what he says is answered there.

Dr. Winstanley

I have read the proceedings with some interest, but in no way do they invalidate the comment which I make. The Clause provides that persons without television sets shall be visited. I am reminded of a speech by the Leader of the Conservative Party at a party conference in which he talked about the Socialist attack on private liberties and referred to "officials knocking on every door".

Here we have a positive recommendation that Post Office officials should go round knocking on doors. It seems extraordinary that one should try and discover who should pay a television licence fee by finding all the people who have not got television sets. It is rather like trying to discover the number of people who have attended a football match by counting the number of people who have not.

I am in sympathy with the aims of the Clause, just as I am in sympathy with the Bill, since the Bill itself is no more than the formal implementation of a suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) some 12 years ago—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not let his Liberal enthusiasm tempt him to get out of order.

Dr. Winstanley

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

We sympathise with the aims of the Clause, which is to extract licence fees from those who should pay them, but it seems to be a cumbersome way to do it. The provisions in the Bill are unsatisfactory in themselves, and we may need new ones, but I could not recommend my hon. Friends to support a Clause which requires correspondence to be sent to citizens and which sets up an elaborate administrative organisation to enable members of the Postmaster-General's staff to visit people who, so far as we know, have no liability. The Clause runs contrary to what I have always understood to be Conservative Party policy. I am surprised to find it here. Despite the fact that it is not Conservative policy, I do not intend to support it.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

How the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) can describe the Clause as complicated, I do not know. I can see his point of view when he says that he would resist the idea of people being written to asking whether or not they have television sets—

Dr. Winstanley


Sir H. Nicholls

It is proposed that they should be written to first. If they do not reply on the prepaid postcard, they would then be visited.

I can understand the hon. Gentleman wanting to resist that, but I do not know how he can say that this is complicated, and that a vast army of civil servants will be needed to carry it out, because, as my hon. Friend explained, it is clear that by carrying out research in this way we will make use of the existing Post Office facilities and staff to a large extent, and at the end of the day it will be quicker and less costly than setting up the paraphernalia of the law and all the legal jargon that goes with it.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman when he says that he does not want to be written to and asked whether he has a television set. He is so busy appearing on television that perhaps he does not have one. All I can say is that those who listen to him get value for money, but I do not think he ought to base his objection to the Clause on the fact that it is complicated, and that it will take an army of civil servants to operate it, when in fact the opposite is the case. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view on whether we ought to be written to with regard to the possession of a television set, but I hope that he will base his argument on firm ground, instead of wrapping it round with all that jargon.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Edward Short)

The hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) suggested that I did not listen to his argument on postal combing during the Committee stage of the Bill. I listened to him at great length, and with great care, both during the Second Reading debate and in Committee. I should have thought that the very happy and felicitous way in which the Committee stage proceeded showed that he was satisfied with the splendid answers which he received from me. However, I shall try to deal with the matter once more.

What is wrong with the present efforts of the Post Office against licence evasion is not, as he suggested, that they are half-hearted. The real trouble is that they are wasteful because they extend over a wide area. Everybody in the country who is shown in our records as not having a television licence has to be treated as a potential evader, even though we know that many of them cannot be evaders, simply because they do not have a television set. This is why the present method is very wasteful. We therefore write to people without licences and ask whether they have sets, and if so whether they will kindly take out a licence. I think that the notice is a polite one and not rude.

This approach has some effect, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are people who ignore these letters, and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) proffered the information that he would probably be one of them. There are others who give false answers. When either of these things happens, the evaders may eventually be brought to book by visits to their homes, but the programme of visiting homes takes a considerable time. On average it takes about four years to work through a normal, average-sized town. To do so more often, say every three years, or every two years, would need many more staff, and it would be basically inefficient to bring in more staff for making a large number of inquiries and visits which in many cases must lead nowhere, because, as I have said, many homes have no sets.

The provisions in Part I of the Bill will provide us with a list of people who have sets for comparison against my list of licence holders. This will enable the Post Office, instead of wasting time and effort on many abortive inquiries, to attack the hard core. To do this there will be some transfer of existing labour from the present job of combing to this job to process and deal with the information which we get under Part I of the Bill.

I doubt very much whether a vast increase in the number of detector cars is the answer. I am dealing with this again because the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it on many occasions. We do not have to stop at 20 detector cars, but the point is that if we consider these cars simply for the direct effect of catching evaders they are not worth the money, they are not a paying proposition, but they pay for themselves many times over because of their deterrent effect. When a detector car is seen in an area a large number of people buy licences, but if we consider them for their direct effect—the number of evaders who are caught—they really are not worth the money. Although we need more cars, and we are getting more, the number cannot be increased indefinitely without regard to the cost, and I do not think that the deterrent effect would increase in proportion to the increase in the number of cars.

10.30 p.m.

To put it another way, I have three main objections to the new Clause. First, the staff available to the Post Office is not unlimited. It would be impossible to take on at present both the extra work that the Clause would require and the additional work that Part I of the Bill requires. Secondly, the extra work would not be as fruitful as that to which Part I will give rise, for the reason I have mentioned. Postal combing is directed to people without licences. We do not know whether they have sets. Inquiries made under the dealer scheme, on the other hand, will be directed towards people whom we know to have sets.

I do not propose to pursue the idea of recruiting part-time staff for the special purpose of visiting people who have no licences and to ask them whether they have sets, except to say that this is not the kind of work that anybody can do. It requires some skill and some discretion if it is to be done without upsetting people. Anyhow, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) has said, the party opposite is always accusing us of increasing the number of civil servants.

My third objection to the Clause is its inflexibility. It does not simply permit me to increase the scale of postal combing; anyhow I do not need permission to do that. The new Clause would compel me to do it once a year regardless of circumstances and regardless of the effect on other essential Post Office services of this rather big extra demand on staff resources. Nevertheless, having pointed out these three objections I say that at some time in the future it may be possible and desirable to increase the scale of postal combing. I do not know and—with respect—neither does the hon. Gentleman.

More frequent postal combing of the people remaining without licences may become possible when the number of licensed households has been substantially reduced as a result of the Bill. It will then be a very much smaller problem to tackle. Also, my Department has well under way a project to transfer the licence records to computers, starting first with a pilot scheme, later to be extended to the whole country if the pilot scheme is successful.

When this has been done some staff will be released—staff who are at present occupied on routine clerical work. This will make more possible more selective postal combing of areas where few people

have licences. Those areas could be combed more often without increasing the frequency of combing in places where there are few people without licences. That would be the effect of the new Clause. Whether it would be desirable to make inquiries as often as once a year of people who turn out to have no sets is another matter. People who have no sets might be irritated by receiving these inquiries as often as once a year.

For all these reasons I cannot advise the House to accept the new Clause, and I hope that in view of my explanation the hon. Member for Howden will not press it to a Division.

Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time: —

The House divided: Ayes 129, Noes 210.

Division No. 364.] AYES [10.34 p.m.
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Murton, Oscar
Astor, John Gilmour, Sir John (Fife, E.) Neave, Airey
Baker, W. H. K. Glover, Sir Douglas Nicholls, Sir Harmar
Barber, Rt. Hn. Anthony Glyn, Sir Richard Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael
Berry, Hn. Anthony Goodhart, Philip Nott, John
Biffen, John Gower, Raymond Orr, Capt. L. P. S.
Biggs-Davison, John Grant, Anthony Osborn, John (Hallam)
Black, Sir Cyril Grant-Ferris, R. Page, Graham (Crosby)
Blaker, Peter Gresham Cooke, R. Pearson, Sir Frank (Clitheroe)
Bossom, Sir Clive Gurden, Harold Percival, Ian
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Pike, Miss Mervyn
Boyle, Rt. Hn. Sir Edward Harrison, Cot. Sir Harwood (Eye) Prior, J. M. L.
Brinton, Sir Tatton Harvie Anderson, Miss Pym, Francis
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel Ramsden, Rt. Hn. James
Bryan, Paul Heseltine, Michael Rees-Davies, W. R.
Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N & M) Hiley, Joseph Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Buck, Antony (Colchester) Hill, J. E. B. Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
Bullus, Sir Eric Hirst, Geoffrey Royle, Anthony
Campbell, Gordon Hobson, Rt. Hn. Sir John Russell, Sir Ronald
Carlisle, Mark Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Carr, Rt. Hn. Robert Holland, Philip Sinclair, Sir George
Chichester-Clark, R. Howell, David (Guildford) Stainton, Keith
Clegg, Walter Hunt, John Stodart, Anthony
Cooke, Robert Hutchison, Michael Clark Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M. (Ripon)
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Iremonger, T. L. Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Costain, A. P. Jopling, Michael Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Crouch, David Kimball, Marcus Teeling, Sir William
Dance, James King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Tilney, John
Dean, Paul (Somerset, N.) Kitson, Timothy Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) Knight, Mrs. Jill van Straubenzee, W. R.
Doughty, Charles Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hn. Sir John
Drayson, G. B. Loveys, W. H. Walker, Peter (Worcester)
du Cann, Rt. Hn. Edward Mac Arthur, Ian Webster, David
Eden, Sir John Maddan, Martin Wells, John (Maidstone)
Elliott, R.W.(N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, N.) Maginnis, John E. Whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William
Eyre, Reginald Mawby, Ray Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Farr, John Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Fisher, Nigel Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr, S. L. C. Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Mills, Peter (Torrington) Worsley, Marcus
Forrest, George Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) Wright, Esmond
Fortescue, Tim Miscampbell, Norman Wylie, N. R.
Foster, Sir John Monro, Hector Younger, Hn. George
Giles, Rear-Adm. Morgan More, Jasper TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Morgan, Geraint (Denbigh) Mr. David Mitchell and
Mr. Bernard Weatherill.
Abse, Leo Archer, Peter Atkins, Ronald (Preston, N.)
Alldritt, Walter Armstrong, Ernest Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham)
Anderson, Donald Ashley, Jack Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Hannan, William Murray, Albert
Barnes, Michael Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Newens, Stan
Barnett, Joel Haseldine, Norman Norwood, Christopher
Baxter, William Hazell, Bert Oakes, Gordon
Beaney, Alan Henig, Stanley Ogden, Eric
Bence, Cyril Herbison, Rt. Hn. Margaret O'Malley, Brian
Bessell, Peter Hilton, W. S, Orbach, Maurice
Bishop, E. S. Hobden, Dennis (Brighton, K'town) Orme, Stanley
Blackburn, F. Hooley, Frank Oswald, Thomas
Booth, Albert Hooson, Emlyn Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, S'tn)
Braddock, Mrs. E. M. Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Owen, Will (Morpeth)
Bray, Dr. Jeremy Howarth, Robert (Bolton, E.) Page, Derek (King's Lynn)
Brooke, Edwin Howell, Denis (Small Heath) Palmer, Arthur
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D. Howie, W. Park, Trevor
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W.) Hoy, James Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)
Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan) Huckfield, L. Pavitt, Laurence
Pentland, Norman
Buchan, Norman Hughes, Rt. Hn. Cledwyn (Anglesey) Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.)
Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Sp'burn) Hughes, Roy (Newport) Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)
Cant, R. B. Hynd, John Price, Christopher (Perry Barr)
Carmichael, Neil Jackson, Colin (B'h'se & Spenb'gh) Price, Thomas (Westhoughton)
Chapman, Donald Jeger, Mrs. Lena (H'b'n&St.P'cras,S.) Price, William (Rugby)
Coleman, Donald Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.) Probert, Arthur
Concannon, J. D. Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Rees, Merlyn
Conlan, Bernard Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Rhodes, Geoffrey
Crawshaw, Richard Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, West) Richard, Ivor
Crosland, Rt. Hn. Anthony Kerr, Dr. David (W'worth, Central) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Croasman, Rt. Hn. Richard Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Roberts, Gwilym (Bedfordshire, S.)
Cullen, Mrs. Alice Leadbitter, Ted Robinson, W. O. J. (Walth'stow, E
Dalyell, Tam Lee, John (Reading) Rogers, George (Kensington, N.)
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Lestor, Miss Joan Rose, Paul
Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Lever, L. M. (Ardwick) Rowland, Christopher (Meriden)
Davies, Ednyfed Hudson (Conway) Lewis, Arthur (W. Ham, N.) Rowlands, E. (Cardiff, N.)
Davies, Harold (Leek) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Short, Rt. Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-Tyne)
Dell, Edmund Luard, Evan Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)
Dempsey, James Lubbock, Eric Slater, Joseph
Dewar, Donald Lyon, Alexander W. (York) Spriggs, Leslie
Dobson, Ray Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.) Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Doig, Peter McBride, Neil Swingler, Stephen
Donnelly, Desmond McCann, John Taverne, Dick
Dunn, James A. MacColl, James Tinn, James
Dunnett, Jack MacDermot, Niall Urwin, T. W.
Dunwoody, Dr. John (F'th & C'b'e) Macdonald, A H, Varley, Eric G.
Edwards, Rt. Hn. Ness (Caerphilly) McGuire, Michael Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley
Edwards, William (Merioneth) McKay, Mrs. Margaret Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Ellis, John Mackenzie, Alasdair (Ross & Crom'ty) Walden, Brian (All Saints)
Faulds, Andrew Mackle, John Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Mackintosh, John P. Wallace, George
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Maclennan, Robert Watkins, David (Consett)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.) Watkins, Tudor (Brecon & Radnor)
Foley, Maurice McNamara, J. Kevin Weitzman, David
Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale) MacPherson, Malcolm Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Ford, Ben Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.) Whitaker, Ben
Forrester, John Mahon, Simon (Bootle) White, Mrs. Eirene
Fowler, Gerry Mallalieu, J.P.W. (Huddersfield, E.) Whitlock, William
Fraser, John (Norwood) Manuel, Archie Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Fraser, Rt. Hn. Tom (Hamilton) Mapp, Charles Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Freeson, Reginald Marquand, David Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Galpern, Sir Myer Maxwell, Robert Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Gardner, Tony Mendelson, J. J. Willis, George (Edinburgh, E.)
Ginsburg, David Millan, Bruce Winnick, David
Gourlay, Harry Mitchell, R. C. (S'th'pton, Test) Winstanley, Dr. M. P.
Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth) Molloy, William Winterbottom, R. E.
Gregory, Arnold Moonman, Eric Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A.
Grey, Charles (Durham) Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Woof, Robert
Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Yates, Victor
Grimond, Rt. Hn. J. Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Morris, John (Aberavon) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hamling, William Moyle, Roland Mr. Joseph Harper and
Mr. Ioan L. Evans.