§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.7 a.m.
§ Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a very exhilarating moment for me because I think that for the very first time in nearly 20 years in this House I find myself called upon to speak without anybody breathing down my neck and urging me to be brief because of shortage of time. I hope that I shall not take advantage of that feeling of exhilaration by speaking at too great length. It is also a unique occasion in that this is the first time in the course of promoting a number of Private Members' Bills that I have had a place in the Ballot and the opportunity of being first on a Friday. I hope that these two circumstances augur well for the success of this Bill.
The Bill has a very distinguished history, and I am exceedingly grateful to those hon. Members who over the years have supported the principle which it embodies. I am particularly indebted to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), whom I am very glad to see this morning and who introduced a Bill in 1971 to reduce the licence fee for retirement pensioners by half, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Harper) and other hon. Members who together succeeded in reducing that figure to 5p during the Bill's progress in Committee.
The argument put forward both by the sponsors of the Bill and the supporters of the amendment was that the distinction between those people who were in warden-supported community homes and who had to pay only 5p for their licence and all the other elderly people who had to pay the full fee was arbitrary and unfair. Unfortunately, that Bill did not go the full term, and so in the intervening period many other attempts have been made to put this principle before the House and to get it accepted. The argument about the 5p licence fee still stands and the difference in treatment 1746 between the two groups of pensioners is felt by many to be most unfair and unwarranted.
I have a letter that was sent to me when the Bill was first mentioned in the Press. It was written by a lady of 74 who said:Please do not think that I am taking a liberty in writing to you but as I am a pensioner I thought you may be able to help. Like myself there are plenty of pensioners who live on their own but have to pay full licence fees because they do not live in a bungalow.She was of course referring to an elderly person's bungalow.I am one who lives in a two-bedroomed house on my own waiting for ten years for a bungalow. If you live in a bungalow they get licences, free telephone and a warden if needed. I have done my stint after working till 64.…I do hope to hear from you to see if you can help such people as me."
There are many other letters of that kind which, I know, my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite have received from their constituents, and I feel sure that further examples will be given today. For that reason, I shall not labour that aspect. It is an anomaly and it is time that it was rectified.
As a matter of interest, let me say that it was noted in Hansard in December last year that there were 190,000 people in England and Wales receiving these 5p licences. That is quite a number, but it does not touch the great majority of elderly people.
In the debate on the earlier Bill, the then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Mr. Christopher Chataway, talked about the costs of collection of a very small fee, such as 5p, being uneconomic and said:It would be more logical … to argue for a free licence than for a licence fee of 5p."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 30th June 1971; c. 20.]I am sure that he was right about that, and that is the principle upon which my Bill is based.
I am not confining myself to the argument between a 5p licence and a full licence. I go further than that and say that all pensioners should have complete exemption from licence fees. My approach is based on the needs of the pensioners themselves, first in the sense of financial hardship, but also—and this is very important—in the sense of their personal 1747 needs, the special needs of pensioners. I am seeking to meet those needs by complete exemption.
It is a principle that is very important. I have been interested to find that the principle has been enshrined in broadcasting law since its inception. The very first Wireless Telegraphy Act and subsequent measures made provision for complete exemption from licensing for blind people. It is easy to see why. Then the licence was primarily concerned with sound broadcasting, which brought a whole new world of music, drama, comedy, information and news to blind people and gave life a completely new dimension for them. It is curious that, with the rapid expansion of television, we have not shown the same understanding as those earlier legislators in approaching the new vistas in life that TV has brought to the elderly and severely disabled. We have not completely exempted them from the licence fee in the same way.
There is no doubt in my mind, or in the mind of anyone else here this morning, that for many lonely pensioners a television set is companionship. It enables those who are housebound to participate in outside events. It enables those who were formerly active in sport to participate in football matches and other sporting events, almost as though they were on the spot. Those with active minds can keep them active with news and current affairs programmes. It is a stimulus to the mental activity of many pensioners who have very little else to keep their minds active and alert. For all of them television provides a window on the world and dramatically widens their horizons at a time of life when those horizons in other respects are inevitably diminished.
There is an additional factor that is very important. I have been shocked in my constituency—and I am sure that this is true of most constituencies in London and other large cities, and probably in most other parts of the country—by the increasing violence on the streets and on the buses. The fear of that violence has had a serious effect on elderly people. It has made them afraid to go out after dark. It has made them afraid to use their free bus passes in the evenings because to do so means that, with poor bus services, they may have to stand for half 1748 an hour or more waiting for a bus that does not come.
They just do not go out in the evening. These people shut themselves in at night and the only thing they have to keep them company and to keep them occupied is the television set. It is more important than ever today that we provide them with a means of keeping that television set by giving them a free licence, and it is for that that I am pressing.
One argument that is always put against this proposal is that pension increases should take care of a pensioner's needs. I agree that it would be ideal if that were the case, but we all know that there are special items involving lump sum payments for which it is difficult to allow when budgeting on a weekly basis. Even money that is put aside for expenses such as gas, electricity or coal is invariably not enough when the quarterly bill arrives, and the great fear among many elderly people is that, with continuing inflation and the increased cost of essentials, such as heating and lighting, they will not have enough to meet the bills when they come in. It is a fact that the money they try to put aside for a television licence too often disappears into the electricity or gas meter, or to meet some other obligation that takes priority.
In the inflationary situation in which, unfortunately, we have been living for some time, a pension increase can only try to catch up with the rising cost of living. Lump sum payments are still a major problem and even finding the extra pound on the black and white television licence will be a problem for many old people.
With this continuing inflation a constant headache to them, the members of my old folks' club in Wood Green—incidentally, this club was the very first old folks' club to be founded in this country and it is entirely self-supporting, so that its members are very independent people—are increasingly worried about the future and how they will cope with rising prices. They very much hope that the Bill will be successful.
However, in view of the previous efforts to obtain a concession, they feel that they dare not expect too much. One 89-year-old member who is still active said the other day, "A free television licence is the one thing we are looking forward to 1749 now there is nothing else we can hope for." What she said was true of what many of them feel.
We all know of the number of elderly people in the 65 to 80 age group who do not qualify for a pension. To them a pension increase would mean nothing, but a free television licence would be a big help. The "Help the Aged" organisation has received numerous appeals for help. People have been in touch with it telling of the struggle they have in finding money for their television licences. For many pensioners, it is a large sum to have to find at once. Clearly, the facility of television is something which as a nation we could well provide free to pensioners and feel that we were rendering a worthwhile service to them.
I have taken notes of some of the letters written to "Help the Aged". One says:The big increase in television licences has made me very depressed. What about those who cannot work, who are housebound. My family are miles away. I usually see them once a year. I denied myself everything to get a TV and that is my sole comfort. I shall have to give up my TV when the new licence fee comes into force. We just cannot manage.Another person writes:… for instance, TV licence? Could not something be done for old age pensioners? … Please ask for us to be given half the £7 free for the old folks.That was before the licence fee was increased. Another letter says:Now that my £7 licence is due and I have not got it and it is my only pleasure. I shall miss it very much.I am sure that this is a common experience of many hon. Members. These letters make a strong case for the Bill.
The needs of pensioners were to some extent recognised by the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he was considering the licence increase. The black and white licence fee was increased by only £1. While that is a large amount for old age pensioners, it is a recognition that most of them have black and white television sets and could not afford a large increase. My right hon. Friend did not go as far as I would have liked and say, "I will make a special provision so that old people do not have to pay at all." There is something in what was said which suggests that there is a recognition of a special case here.
1750 Something is being done by a number of local authorities over and above the provision of the 5p licence. Many local authorities are introducing schemes to give TV licences to old people in their area. In Edinburgh a scheme was introduced by the local authority last summer under which anyone of pensionable age who is housebound and does not hold a concessionary bus permit is eligible for a free black and white television licence. The council in Wakefield provided 1,855 free licences for pensioners in 1973–74. It expects greatly to expand that figure in the current year. At Clay Cross the local authority is in the process of issuing free television licences to all old-age pensioners. I am sure that hon. Members will be encouraged to know that. Similar schemes are operating in the Harlow district and a number of other places.
The figures for the issue of free television licences and other facilities are published. Out of 158 local authorities in England 102 make some provision of this kind. In some cases it is only the issue of one free television licence, presumably to someone chronically disabled. Most authorities have issued considerably more than that. The licences are issued by local authorities under the provisions of the Health Services and Public Health Act, 1968 which enables them to provide facilities for elderly people, and under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 which laid a duty on the local authority to meet the needs of a disabled person, where it thinks that is necessary, by making arrangements for the provision of television or assisting in obtaining television. Such disabled people are defined in the National Assistance Act 1948 as theblind, deaf or dumb, and other persons who are substantially and permanently handicapped by illness, injury or congenital deformity or such other disabilities as may be prescribed by the Minister.I have drawn attention to the disabled because this Bill is a little different from the previous one in that it includes the disabled. I thought it desirable to do that because although the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act lays a duty on local authorities, there may be one of two people who are not caught by that Act but who will be caught by my measure. It appears that some local authorities are much more stringent—I 1751 will not say stingy—in applying their powers than others. This Bill could help anyone excluded from the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act provisions on the grounds that, unfortunately, they live in the wrong local authority area.
Three important questions remain—how many people will be covered by the terms of the Bill, what will be the cost of implementing it and where will the money come from? It is possible to make endless permutations. For example there were 7,963,000 retirement pensioners at the end of 1973. Many of these were in joint households with more than one pensioner. Many more did not have television. The 1971 Census found 5 million one, two or three person households containing at least one person of pensionable age and not more than one person below pensionable age. A Written Answer of 20th December seemed to suggest that the number of households where all members are over retirement pension age is about 3 million. The cost of remitting half the TV licence fee to that group was about £11 million. The cost of remitting the whole fee to such households on this basis, taking the recent increase to £8 into account, seems to be about £25 million or £26 million.
This is in line with the comment made by Mr. Chataway in the debate to which I have referred when he said:According to the estimates which we have made, there are about 5.3 million pensioner households".He did not define what he meant by that. He went on:… of which perhaps 3.5 million have television."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, Wednesday, 30th June, 1971; c. 30.]That would seem to be in line with the figure given in the Written Answer. Mr. Chataway said that the cost of a complete concession would be £24 million-plus." If we take into account the increase in the black and white fee, the cost comes to about £26 million.
I cannot take the cost figures further with the limited resources I have available. If the Minister intervenes I hope that he will have something to say on this issue and perhaps improve on the figures I have given. If the principle of the Bill is accepted it will be possible 1752 to obtain a great deal of information from the local authorities already operating free television licence schemes. The authorities can provide such information as how they set about the work and how they selected the households. This should enable a much more viable scheme to be brought forward.
It is clear to me that the cost must be met by means of a special Exchequer grant to the broadcasting authorities to meet the resulting loss of revenue. I do not believe that it would be right further to reduce the broadcasting service facilities. It would be unfair to viewers generally and to the people we are trying to help if the broadcasting service became less attractive or less informative. It is inconceivable, so soon after the recent increase in licence fees, that the licence fees should be increased still further to meet the cost of this Bill. However, the Annan Committee is considering the question of broadcasting, and the financing of broadcasting is within its terms of reference. Therefore, the question of a special Exchequer grant for the purpose we are discussing could be taken care of by the recommendations which the committee makes.
I hope that the House will accept the principle of the Bill. It is a private Member's Bill and the wording may be imperfect, and amendment may be needed to take care of all the detailed points to which I have referred. We are all well aware of the country's serious economic situation and of demands being made for special contributions here and there. We know of all the calls being made on the nation's money. However, the people we are trying to help have earned many times over by the work they have done in the community the small assistance which we are trying to give them. What is proposed in the Bill would be a boon to them out of all proportion to its cost to the economy.
Although many people may feel that a television licence is a frivolous thing, my view is that it is essential for the people we are trying to help and that the assistance we seek to give them is vital to their wellbeing now and for the rest of their old age. I ask the House to accept the principle of the Bill and to give it a Second Reading.
§ 11.33 a.m.
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
I am glad to be the first to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on an excellent speech and on her initiative in resuscitating and putting more life into a Bill which I had the privilege to introduce in 1971. The hon. Lady was an interested and keen supporter of my Bill, which reached the Committee stage but, unfortunately, did not get any further. Having studied her Bill, I believe that it merits much more success, and I wish her the best of luck in getting it through both Houses at an early date.
There are one or two differences of great interest to me between the hon. Lady's Bill and my 1971 Bill. The main one is that my Bill envisaged a half-price television licence which, thanks to Opposition amendments, was subsequently reduced to a 5p licence. The hon. Lady's Bill envisages a free licence, not only for all old-age pensioners, but also for all disabled people.
The hon. Lady said that the cost of her Bill would be £26 million, whereas the cost in 1971 of a half-price licence for old age pensioners would have been about £8 million. We must be realists. Nobody on either side of the House would say that economic circumstances had changed for the better since 1971. Hon. Members opposite may think that we have a better Government, but certainly our economic situation is not as sound as it was in 1971, probably due mainly to foreign oil imports and matters beyond our control. We must therefore consider much more carefully how we should provide from the Exchequer, not the relatively meagre sum of £8 million but the much more demanding sum of £26 million if we are to give wholehearted and meaning support to the Bill.
We all desperately want to do something about this matter. When I was carrying out research for my Bill, I went to the Library and found in book after book telling examples and detailed case histories from social workers showing how dependent elderly people, not necessarily living alone, but perhaps couples whose children have left home, are on their television sets. In the homes of elderly couples or even of perhaps two sisters living alone the black and white television set has taken the place of the cat or dog 1754 which was much more commonly found in the homes of elderly people before the war. There is no doubt that the television set has become for these people, not a luxury, but an absolute necessity.
One of the most telling remarks of the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green was that in her constituency in London old people who enjoy concessionary bus fares are afraid to go out after dark because of the recent violence and mugging on buses and in dark streets. One can well understand why they will not go out with such threats hanging over them. Old people in many parts of the country do not have concessionary bus fares. They are not available in my constituency. It is therefore even more necessary for elderly people to stay at home and seek the comfort of their television sets.
I have also found since carrying out research for my Bill that there is in my constituency a growing sense of disquiet and ill feeling because people who live in warden-assisted schemes enjoy the advantage of the 5p licence whereas neighbours in identical circumstances, because they are not in warden-assisted schemes, are not permitted by legislation to receive a 5p licence. I hope that if nothing else comes from this excellent Bill this problem will be considered and solved by the House.
A perfect example of the problem is a block of old people's flats near Leicester consisting of eight floors. The bottom two are the only floors with a warden-assisted scheme, and residents on those floors are the only ones who have the 5p licence. It is a ridiculous anomaly that other residents on the six upper floors in the same block, owned by the same local authority, do not have the benefit of cheap licences, simply because they do not have the warden-assisted scheme. It is utter nonsense. I hope that we shall try to put the matter right in Committee. I am told time and again that it is Government legislation that restricts the facility to warden-assisted schemes and prevents the spread of such assistance.
I think that all hon. Members support what the hon. Lady is trying to do. The Bill has all-party support. I do not think that any Liberal Members are present today, but I know that the Bill has a Liberal sponsor.
1755 If it is our intention to meet the cost of the Bill, we must work out in Committee exactly how that can be done. We all want to help the elderly in this way. How do we ask the Government to go about it? The Minister smiles. The hon. Lady said that one way was by reducing the cost of the television programmes transmitted by the BBC. But if the quality of the BBC service is reduced even more, the appeal of the whole service is likely to be lost, and that course could be self-defeating. Therefore, I do not think that it will commend itself to the House.
Another way is by asking those who pay the full rate for black and white or colour to pay more to meet the £28 million which it will cost to provide the licence free to the elderly and disabled people. No doubt that will be considered in Committee. Another way, which the hon. Lady seemed to favour, is a special Government grant for the purpose, the money presumably coming out of the general Exchequer fund. The House might find that a good idea.
I should like to make a suggestion as to how at any rate a large amount of the money could be found. There has been considerable talk recently about the need for another television channel to carry advertising. One of the reasons why the advertisers who use the ITV channels have been pressing for additional facilities is that so much advertising time on the existing channels is taken up by Government advertisements.
The other night there were three Government advertisements in succession. The first was quite a long one which went into great details about how we could effectively lag our copper hot water tank in the bathroom. There were details of where to buy the lagging, and the amount of fuel that should be saved. That good and necessary advertisement was followed by another detailing the need for all children to learn the Highway Code and to be careful crossing the road. The third was also very useful. It advised people that they must be careful to secure their house before leaving it, and to use a chain on the door to prevent a stranger bursting in when the door is opened.
The Government are right to sponsor such advertisements. Nearly all those that I have seen have been essential. I 1756 am sure that more money will be spent fairly soon to tell us how we should act in the referendum. We shall probably not receive Government advice on how we should vote, because they may not have decided, but I am sure that we shall be told where to vote and when the voting will take place.
We all remember the expensive seat-belt advertising campaign, the repeated "Clunk-click" advertisements which we could probably all repeat in our sleep. That was a necessary campaign. We also recall last winter's "Switch off something" campaign.
The Government are extensive and increasing users of television advertising space. They should consider switching all their advertising to the BBC and paying full going rates to the corporation. That would considerably increase the BBC's income and leave additional advertising space which is badly needed for commercial advertisers on the independent channels.
No doubt all these matters will be considered in Committee. I wish the Bill the best of luck. The criticisms I have had of it have been few, but one or two of my hon. Friends have asked, "Why should we specify that old people are to get help in one particular way, by a free television licence? Why not give them more money to spend as they see fit?" That is one way of looking at the matter, but this principle is nothing new. The House has considered the question time and time again, and Governments of both parties have decided many times that it is right to channel not cash assistance but assistance in kind to pensioners. For example, only recently we introduced the welcome EEC scheme for cheap beef and butter for pensioners.
§ Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith (Glasgow, Hillhead)
What about the vegetarians? Why should not they receive some help? Why should it be just the people who eat meat?
§ Mr. Farr
Probably vegetarians think that they manage perfectly well without eating beef at the present high prices. That matter is not closely connected with our debate on television licences. My hon. Friend will probably be on the Standing Committee, where he can develop his vegetarian arguments at length.
1757 Cheap beef and butter have been provided for elderly people under the EEC schemes. We also have concessionary travel for old people, which should meet the general approval of both sides of the House. In many local authority areas there are still schemes under which old people gain cheap or free admittance to various functions. There is nothing new in this and nothing to be ashamed of. Some of us, including myself, reject the idea that any additional help to the elderly should be in cash terms alone.
I fully support the Bill. I know from personal experience, as does the hon. Lady who introduced the Bill, the need on the part of elderly people for the company of a television set. To some more than others it is essential, and to many it is the most important possession in their lives. The recent increase in fees—I am not referring to the increase in colour fees but to black and white television—makes it more and more difficult for elderly people in their declining years to find the money to pay for what I regard as an absolute necessity.
§ 11.50 a.m.
§ Mrs. Maureen Colquhoun (Northampton, North)
I see this Bill as a fundamental right for the elderly. I do not see it as a concession or a hand-out but as an absolute right, despite the economic crisis—and perhaps because of inflation and concern for the elderly.
I hope that the Government will grant this right to disabled and retired people and that they will not restrict it to licences for black and white television sets but will include licences for colour. It seems to be an extraordinarily out of touch idea that for the elderly the second best will do. This is not acceptable, and indeed it is not true. It is a philosophy which must at all costs be denounced. Only the best is good enough for the retired. The patronage about the elderly which exists in this nation is insufferable. We find this patronage all over the place. It even exists in cooking hints which tell the elderly how to make banquets out of bones.
§ Mr. Galbraith
Is not the hon. Lady herself patronising the elderly by deciding how money is to be spent for old people?
§ Mrs. Colquhoun
I thought that I was sent to this House to have a say on behalf of my constituents about how public money is spent, and I am now having that say.
We also find patronage of the elderly among travel agents who try to persuade the elderly to economise on holidays by going out of season. Travel agents give the impression that at those times of the year everything is lovely—when in reality it is raining more than ever and gale force winds prevent the old people from even taking a walk.
The elderly do not want patronage. They want respect. A respectful nation would not extend to them butter or beef coupons but provide them with a large enough pension to enable them to choose. Surely everybody accepts that situation. I think we should also extend to them as of right the right to use services to which the elderly contributed in their middle years when they were earning. They have earned those services as of right in retirement. Indeed, I should like to see more public money spent to extend telephone services to the elderly free of charge, but I appreciate that the present Bill deals only with television licences.
The disabled, too, should become eligible for a free service because they are dependent on the media to keep them in touch. If the Bill is acceptable and this overdue reform is accepted by the Government, everybody—men and women—should become eligible for free licences at the age of 60. It would be pointless if a woman were able to watch her television free from the age of 60 while her husband had to wait for that privilege for another five years. The retirement age as it now stands is definitely anti-man and, as a liberated woman, I do not like that situation at all. We do not want to increase the disgraceful anomalies which have been built up in social security legislation just because the situation has been accepted for so long.
If we accept television as a window on the world and an alleviation of loneliness—which I believe it is for the retired—I wonder why we are debating this matter at all. I also wonder why a Government—a caring Government—did not see how important it was to make this right available to the retired and disabled years ago, so that every retired person 1759 who wanted it could have a television set without worrying about licence fees.
I have had many letters on the subject and, unbelievably, there are still hundreds of retired people in my constituency who cannot even afford a radio, let alone a television set. Surely that is an extraordinary situation in an affluent, comfortable and comparatively wealthy country.
I believe that television, by its nature, is very much a retirement activity. It is the equivalent of crochet work and sewing samplers. Television is not an activity for the young but is a lifeline for the elderly. The typical television viewer seen by many television companies, especially ITV, is somebody who is young, swinging and trendy. But if one is young, swinging and trendy one does not sit in the living room watching the box. In my constituency in Northampton we have a dreadful anomaly by which some old people who live in warden accommodation and bungalow schemes pay only a 5p fee, whereas hundreds of pensioners outside those schemes do not enjoy such a concession. This is fundamentally wrong and unfair.
I support the Bill. We are grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) introduced the Bill and spoke about its provisions and its effects in such an understanding way. It is time that we began to set up in this House situations of dignity for the retired. This will be one small step towards giving them rights and not handouts.
§ 11.59 a.m.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)
I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) in introducing the Bill. The hon. Lady put her case in a reasonable and compelling manner, and I shall not go in detail into the arguments she raised. This is a subject of which every hon. Member is aware. I have in the past tabled Questions to Labour and Conservative Governments and signed early day motions seeking the Government's intentions on concessions for old-age pensioners. However, it is only when an hon. Member is fortunate enough in the Ballot that this kind of measure can be presented. Every Government say that for one reason or another the time is not appropriate. The 1760 time is never right except when an hon. Member such as the hon. Member for Wood Green has the courage to use the time to bring forward a Bill.
Generally speaking, I favour the principle of increasing old-age pensions and of allowing pensioners to be masters of how they spend their own money. But we must face facts. If a grant were made to cover the cost of the licence fee, in many cases it would be spent on food and fuel. If the Bill is successful, I hope the grant will be made in such a way as simply to relieve the individual from liability to pay the television licence.
The hon. Member for Wood Green mentioned the situation in London, where old people are afraid to leave their homes because of mugging. I am thankful to say that in my constituency, the Western Isles, we do not have that problem. However, the old people there hope that the Bill will be successful. There is only one cinema in the islands. Many people live in isolated villages on lonely islands. The proportion of retirement pensioners living in my constituency is double the figure for the mainland of Scotland, so that there are many people for whom this would be a great concession.
Of course, the cost will be substantial. In these days when we spend so much on defence and on the Concorde—I hope that my controversial views on that subject will not affect anyone's sympathy for the Bill—I see no reason why this amount cannot be met by the Government without any difficulty.
I agree with the pledge given by my party to support the Bill and wish it good fortune in passing speedily through the procedures of the House.
§ 12.3 p.m.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)
Since I became a Member of Parliament nearly four years ago, the subject on which I have received most representations from constituents by letter or petition, as well as in conversation, has been that which my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) has chosen to raise today. I am grateful to her for giving the House this opportunity to discuss the matter.
When I think of the reasons why so many constituents should have approached me on this matter, in spite 1761 of all the other momentous issues of the day, I am forced to recognise that the anomaly of 190,000 retirement pensioners qualifying for the present concessionary licence while the others have to pay the full licence fee offends against people's basic sense of natural justice. That anomaly will be magnified when the licence fee is increased in April.
It is strange that the beneficiaries of the concessionary licence are retirement pensioners who already enjoy the benefit of special accommodation for the elderly, while those who do not benefit from the first concession are also denied the second. That adds to the sense of injustice. The anomaly appears even more unjust when, as in so many cases, it is difficult to comprehend. Like the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), I know of blocks of flats where the tenants of the ground floor accommodation, which is provided for the elderly in accordance with the appropriate legislation, qualify for the concessionary licence while the retirement pensioners living above them do not.
The most important aspect of the Bill is that it will sweep away that anomaly. There are many other arguments in favour of free television for the elderly. However, the most important aspect of the Bill is that it will put an end to the anomaly that I have mentioned.
In the past Labour and Conservative Governments have steadfastly refused to make the concession available to all retirement pensioners. They have spoken of the loss of revenue and of the undesirability of providing benefits in kind to pensioners as opposed to benefits in cash. Pursuing that argument, both Governments have ignored the existence of the anomaly which I have pointed out. Even though the Minister may be unable to go all the way with the Bill, I hope that at least he will indicate some way in which the Government propose to take action to end the anomaly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green pointed out that in the absence of action from the Government many local authorities are taking the initiative in these matters, and she mentioned the former Wakefield City Council which introduced a scheme for all retirement pensioners in its area. Since local government 1762 reorganisation, that city has been merged into the wider Wakefield Metropolitan District, which includes the communities of Knottingley, Ferrybridge and Darrington, in my constituency. The new council in that district has introduced a similar scheme for the 22,000 retirement pensioners living in the new district. From 1st January 1975 it provides full concessions for television licences for the elderly at an annual cost to the ratepayers of £176,000. Here the ratepayers can see an extra positive return for what they pay in rates.
One of the difficulties involved in relying on local authorities to pursue the matter is that another set of anomalies is created, whereby retirement pensioners living in one district are denied the concession while they know that their friends who live in another district benefit from the television licence concession, and therefore a sense of injustice is built up. I hope that the Minister, even if he is unable to give a fair wind to the Bill, will be able to give some indication of how these anomalies may be ended.
I put this possibility to my hon. Friend. The present sum made available in the form of the concessions which already operate—that is, 190,000 times £7.95 when the licence fee is increased—produces, if my arithmetic is correct, £1,510,500. I suggest that at least that amount should be spread fairly over all retirement pensioners who are householders and who apply for a television licence.
I calculate that the extent of their benefit from such a scheme would be 40p per year. That seems very small in comparison with the present concession of £6.95—to be increased to £7.95 in April—but if the concession were made available in that way to all householder retirement pensioners and they therefore paid a licence fee of £7.60 a year, at least that would remove the anomaly once and for all.
Moreover, if that change were brought in this year, when the licence fee is to go up, it would soften the effect of the £1 increase, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green said, is a substantial increase for retirement pensioners. Instead of the increase being £1, it would for them be only about 60p.
1763 My purpose in joining in this debate is to emphasise the injustice of the anomaly which has existed for a number of years. I hope that, as a result of our debate on this excellent Bill, we shall have at least some encouragement to believe that that anomaly will soon be ended.
§ 12.12 p.m.
§ Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith (Glasgow, Hillhead)
It seems from my unfortunate experience last week that any hon. Member who wishes to contribute to a debate on a Friday should give his credentials and explain his purpose. At least, that seems to be the view of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), to whom I gave notice that I intended to refer to him and who happens to have a Bill down later on the Order Paper.
Last week I took part in a debate on dog safety, and I carefully explained the great personal interest I had in that matter, having once been assailed and bitten by a dog when I had nothing on but a bathing suit—a most unfortunate and uncomfortable experience, I may say. That explanation, however, did not prevent the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central from launching in the Press and on television a bitter personal attack on me, full of the most unpleasant innuendoes which were entirely inaccurate in their facts.
In order, therefore, to forestall any criticism today, since I see that the hon. Gentleman still has a Bill on the Order Paper today, I have come armed with my credentials to prove that I am genuinely interested in the present subject and that my interest goes back a long time. If any hon. Member cares to slip out and turn up Hansard for 27th July and 13th November 1964, he will see set down in print what I had to say in expressing considerable interest in the subject now before us. I believe that the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), who is present today, took part in the debate on 13th November.
On those early occasions we were discussing concessionary fares, and hon. Members may wonder what that has to do with the question of a free television licence for retirement pensioners and the 1764 disabled which we are debating today on the initiative of the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler). But there is a clear link—it has been hinted at already—between our debate today and those two debates so long ago, although it seems almost a different world now, since in the first of them I was speaking from the Dispatch Box for the then Conservative Government resisting the efforts of the then hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short), now the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President, and in the second, after an unfortunate change in the composition of the House, I was speaking in the same vein from the Opposition benches, and rather less successfully.
However, be that as it may, what links the two series of debates is the principle. It is principle that the House debates on Second Reading. That is the reason for our presence here, to debate principle, although the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central—I am sorry he is not here to cross swords with me—when he made such a fuss last week seemed to think that the function of the House was to be a mere rubber stamp, with no debate on Second Reading. I do not know whether he attaches that view only to his own Bills which happen to come on at four o'clock or whether he would attach the same degree of licence to a Bill which I wanted to introduce. Anyway, that attitude is utterly wrong. The purpose of the House on Second Reading is to discuss principle, and I regard the principle which we are here discussing as of the first importance.
In my view, the principle of this matter goes to the root of our society. It has nothing to do with cheap travel or cheap television licences for the old. Those are the details. The question of principle is, how should we help the old? Should we help them in cash or in kind? I hold strongly to the view that it is utterly demeaning to think of helping old people in kind.
It is very easy to misrepresent that attitude as being in some way hostile to the old, as being hard-hearted and as failing to understand the problem. I hope that, if the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central happens to read my speech, he will resist the temptation to do that. Anyway, for the avoidance of doubt, I make absolutely clear that I am 1765 all in favour of helping the old. After all, old age catches up with all of us. It is not now all that far over the horizon for me, and I state quite definitely that when I become old I shall not want to be helped in kind. I do not want it.
§ Mr. Galbraith
Now we have the hon. Gentleman with us. Unfortunately he did not hear what I said earlier, although I sent him a note. No doubt, our postal service not being as good as it might be nowadays, it did not reach him in time.
I want the help in cash.
§ Mr. Mike Noble (Rossendale)
Repeatedly during the past few weeks the Opposition have emphasised the need for restraint in Government expenditure. The hon. Gentleman is now asking for further assistance in cash. How does he reconcile that with restraint in Government expenditure? Perhaps he could help us out of his experience as a former Minister.
§ Mr. Galbraith
If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for a minute or two, I shall make a practical suggestion which, I hope, will meet that point.
When I reach old age, I do not want do-gooders to decide how whatever public money is available should be spent on my behalf. I want to spend it in my own way. I am surprised that there should be any doubt about this matter.
On a previous occasion when we debated travel concessions for the old, there was the kind of sentimentality which I thought intruded into the speech by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun). Naturally travel concessions are of help to old people who are able to get about and have public transport services available to them, but what about those living in the country where there are no buses? Indeed, what about those living in towns where there are buses but who are too infirm to make use of them?
§ Mr. Galbraith
Exactly. It is not often that we have sensible suggestions from 1766 the Liberal Bench, but that is the exception which proves the rule.
If public money is to go to the able and the fortunate—those who are able to get about and have public bus services—why not give it to the disabled and the unfortunate so that they might save it perhaps for the odd taxi ride or use it to subsidise fares for relatives who might want to visit them but do not have sufficient money?
Those were the arguments that I used successfully when speaking from the Government side but unsuccessfully when speaking from the Opposition side, by which time the present Lord President of the Council had become the Patronage Secretary. We know what power the Patronage Secretary wields. I am afraid that ultimately my argument did not carry weight. Therefore, those who were mobile and had public transport services available got the help, whereas those who were not mobile did not get the help. That seems an unfair way of distributing public funds to help old people.
We are now proposing to extend the principle, which I thought was unfair, from transport into television. That is grand for people who have television. But what about those who have not got television? What about those who are blind? What about those who do not like television? Many people do not like television. They may prefer to have a daily newspaper to keep them in touch with what is going on in the world. Why should they not get some help? Why should they be denied the help that is to be given to people who are old and who watch television but who may not necessarily need that help?
§ Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)
The hon. Gentleman is pursuing an interesting line of argument which bears out the objections that many of us had to means-tested rebates and applications for benefits resting with the people who were seeking to enjoy those benefits. Is he arguing that retired people who enjoy concessionary television licences should have them withdrawn?
§ Mr. Galbraith
I do not like withdrawing anything from people once they have got used to it. The hon. Gentleman was talking about anomalies. That is the trouble. Once people get used to having 1767 something, it is difficult to take it away. I do not want to extend that principle.
I do not think I shall vote against the Bill if the Government decide-I hope they will not—to give it their blessing because some people would at least benefit from the Government's largesse. But I should like all people to benefit, not just those who like watching television.
I confess that I have had few, if any, letters on the subject of television licences. I have checked, but I do not recall having had any letters on this subject. I cannot be absolutely sure that I may not have had one or two. However, I know that I have had many letters from old people about telephones. The hon. Member for Northampton, North, who is not in her place at the moment, referred to that matter. I am touched by what these old people say. They say that they cannot pay the new charges, yet the telephone is often their only lifeline with the outside world.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central has gone away again, but there we are. It may be argued that people with telephones are relatively well off. I think that it could more accurately be put that once they may have been relatively well off and that is why they have the telephone. But now, because of inflation, these old people are in dire financial stress. Why should they not be helped?
I think Labour Members often think of poverty in absolute terms. They are quite right to think of it in those terms up to a point. However, I assure them, from personal experience in my constituency, that what is often much harder to bear than absolute poverty is a sudden decline in standards—in other words, that people can no longer afford what they have been used to affording. That is happening to many old people now.
§ Mr. Freud
I am grateful to the self-appointed Whip to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) for giving way. Is the hon. Gentleman of the opinion that it is a dangerous precedent to offer people money for things which they do not have? If so by the same token, if someone does not have a telephone he will, on the basis of the hon. 1768 Gentleman's argument, say "As I have no telephone, I should like the money instead". I should think that that was a dangerous precedent to introduce.
§ Mr. Galbraith
I am trying to come to my constructive suggestion which may partially help the hon. Gentleman. I see his difficulty. We are getting into a difficult sphere altogether. It is almost impossible not to have anomalies. It is almost impossible not to help some people because they have the equipment and not others who would like, if not that equipment, some other equipment if public funds are available. I should like to make what I hope may be regarded as a constructive suggestion.
At the time that the hon. Member for Wood Green was referring to the cost of this proposal, unfortunately I was engaged in conversation wtih the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), who has now left the Chamber, and I did not hear how much it would cost, but I think that the figure of £26 million was mentioned. At least we have got that figure. I do not know whether the Minister has the least idea—I do not suppose he has, and I am not blaming him for it—how much travel concessions to old people cost. If we knew these two figures, we would have the global amount which I believe should be shared amongst all old people as a bonus to, not in substitution of, their old-age pension.
Some old people would use that money for transport. The money is being spent now and if the Bill goes through additional money will be spent out of the public purse. As I said, some people would use the money for transport. Some would use it for television. Some, like my constituents would obviously use it for the telephone. Indeed, some might even use it to buy a daily newspaper. But it would be their individual choice how they used the money. I believe that to give old people this freedom of choice is the right way to deal with the problem We are not living in the age of the soup kitchen. However, I am afraid that the hon. Lady, despite the pleasant and reasonable way in which she presented her Bill, is seeking to enshrine the principle of payment in kind which the Truck Acts were designed to prevent over 100 years ago. That is really what she is going back to. I am sure that she is horrified.
1769 but that is what it comes down to and that is why I am so opposed to it.
The argument against payment in kind could not be better expressed than in the pensioners' own periodical which appeared as long ago as 1964. I have heard nothing to the contrary or that they have changed their views. They saidThe most fundamental issue involved is whether pensioners are to be regarded as an integral part of society or a class apart … Let every pensioner have the right to spend the money as he wishes and pay his way the same as anyone else in society.I profoundly agree with that sentiment. It is utterly and absolutely right.
At the time of the travel concessions debates, a lady wrote to me from Liverpool. I know nothing much about Liverpool as it is not my part of the world, but the lady wrote to me sayingI entirely agree with you.The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) will be very interested to know that anyone could agree entirely with me. This lady also said:Please do not give way. A little extra money is far better than cheap fares.I am sure that this lady, if she knew I was still interested in this subject, would be writing to me saying that a little extra money was far better than cheap television licences.
Hon. Members may, in spite of their knowledge of these subjects through close contact with their constituents, fail to appreciate the spirit of independence and the desire to choose for oneself which exists among many old-age pensioners. It is freedom of choice and having the means to exercise it that I stand for and believe in passionately.
I cannot do better than quote what I said in winding up a debate 10 years ago:This is a Bill whose inspiration derives"—I am sorry to use these rather unpleasant words—from an out-moded attitude of sentimentality which is utterly unworthy of our old people, but some old people will benefit from it, and for that reason I shall not vote against the Bill.I said that then and I say it again today.But nothing that has been said so far from the party opposite"—1770 or by my hon. Friends; it is extraordinary how they leave the Chamber when I rise to speak—has convinced me that in the second half of the twentieth century this is a proper or dignified way for a modern go-ahead country to set about helping its old people."—[Official Report, 13th November, 1964; Vol. 701, c. 1406–7.]That is as true today as it was 10 years ago.
Instead of doing for the old what they are well able to do for themselves, I think that we should have nothing to do with a form of charity in kind, which is what the Bill is. Instead, we should show that we trust old people by giving them the means of choosing for themselves. I very much hope that the practical proposal and suggestion I have made may be taken up by the hon. Lady.
§ 12.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Colin Jackson (Brighouse and Spenborough)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on introducing this measure.
I am aware that I am addressing a rather mobile House. I am not sure at any particular moment who may or may not be present in the Chamber. Let me take the advantage of commenting on the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) by saying that it reeked pretty strongly of Pecksniff. The hon. Gentleman said that we should not bother about matters of chairity in terms of concessionary television licences. He said that we should give them the money. The plain fact is that we are not giving them—if I may so refer to our senior citizens—the money. We are not giving them an adequate pension.
§ Mr. Jackson
I had not realised that the hon. Gentleman was leading the Opposition benches in a major advance for senior citizens.
§ Mr. Galbraith
The hon. Gentleman is hardly being fair to me. If the Bill is passed, it will involve the payment of public money, or it will involve the lack of income. All I am saying is that that money and, indeed, all other money expended in the same way, should be put into a global fund which should be distributed among all old-age pensioners. I 1771 cannot see what is wrong with that. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would direct himself towards that argument of mine and not make suggestions that I am talking about the pensions, which I am not talking about at all.
§ Mr. Jackson
Until that global sum is of such a total that it would include not only the television licence concession but, for instance, the telephone concession, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, we must talk of specifics in terms of individual concessions. If the hon. Gentleman would care to put forward a figure for the total, I should be more impressed with his argument. I am not suggesting that he is mean-minded or ungenerous.
However, we should confine ourselves today to the subject which we are asked to debate—that is, television licences for the elderly and, let me say to the hon. Gentleman, the disabled. He talked about the blind. But what about those who are disabled in a more physical sense? The Bill specifically takes into account people who are disabled as well as the elderly.
I could speak at great length on this matter, but I shall carry on for only a few more minutes. I agreed with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) about the differentials between those who live in warden-supervised accommodation and those who do not. I come from a constituency in the West Riding and I have a close knowledge of the people of that area. Nothing causes greater disquiet and indignation there than a sense of unfairness, when upstairs, for instance, without a warden service, someone with a smaller income may be paying the full television licence fee and downstairs someone with a greater income pays the 5p. It is like the old days, in about 1968, when the 2d. and 3d. stamps were introduced. This was called, in a most inappropriate phrase, second-class mail and first-class mail.
People do not mind contributing provided that there is a sense of fairness. It will not be good enough for my hon. Friend the Minister of State to say, as I suspect he will, "We shall look at this." Everyone in this House is earning far too much compared with the income of the ordinary pensioner. We are a load of hypocrites when we talk about the 1772 ordinary person and say that he had better wait. It is no wonder that people resent the fact that we might vote ourselves a salary increase when today we shall have the Minister saying "Wait".
I have asked the Home Secretary when this anomaly between the concessionary 5p and the full television licence would be ended. The Home Secretary replied perfectly honestly—but I could not help inquiring silently "How much are you earning?"—that it was not convenient at present and that we could not deal with it. I suspect that shall get the same sort of reply today.
The Annan Committee is coming along. I shall perfectly understand if the Minister of State, in replying, says "Not today." But I simply will not tolerate "Not today, tomorrow or ever"—or that it could come out of some general increase in contributions to the elderly.
One of the advantages of being a Member of Parliament is the ability to hear the views of ordinary people every day, especially at weekends. What I want from the Minister's reply is some sense of recognition of the injustices of these differentials. It is no wonder that people sometimes lose heart about Parliament because they think that we do not realise what ordinary people feel in terms of a sense of injustice and disparity between one house and the next.
I very much hope that we shall get from the Minister something more than just a vague indication of the knowledge that things are not quite right. Why is it that we can make generous grants to Covent Garden, to ballet lovers, to the National Theatre and to those of us who like to hear Shakespeare but find ourselves unable to offer assistance to someone who wants a little help indoors because he or she is old or disabled? What sort of nation are we? It seems that we can make money available to those who are affluent and cultured, but when it comes to those who sweated and toiled throughout their lives in factories and who now do not have much longer to live, we are told that financially it is inconvenient or that other priorities must take precedence.
This has been a valuable opportunity to discuss this matter honestly and sincerely. I feel that I can go home this weekend with the feeling that the House 1773 has taken notice of these matters. The representative of the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, seems to be laughing. That is typical of the attitude which has been displayed in some quarters. However, if we find that the Home Office is listening, this Parliament will be respected, the Government will be more respected and democracy will be more secure.
§ 12.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)
In common with other hon. Members I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on the persuasive and able way in which she moved her Bill. I represent a constituency in which 30 per cent. of the population is made up of retired people. I well understand how popular the principle of the Bill will seem to many hon. Members and their constituents. I hope that they will not consider that anyone who questions certain aspects of the Bill is lacking in compassion. I feel that I must point out one or two practical difficulties which must be ironed out before the Bill can possibly appear on the statute book.
There is first the question of cost. What would be the cost of the Bill? I am afraid that the hon. Lady was being a little too modest when she suggested that the cost would be around £26 million. The figure of £25 million for the cost of such a measure was given on the last occasion that the matter was debated in Parliament in February 1973. Since then there has been an increase in licence fees and an increase in the number of old-age pensioners. There are at least 4½ million pensioner households in the country. An approximate calculation of the cost of the Bill would produce a figure between £30 million and £35 million. That is a large sum to find out of public expenditure in these hard times.
The next question is who will pay the extra costs? The hon. Lady rightly said that it should not be the BBC. That would necessitate a drastic reduction in its standards and coverage. Should the other licence holders pay? I think not, because they would each see their licence fees increased by at least £3 to pay for the cost of the Bill. Should it be, as the hon. Lady suggested, that the Exchequer should pay? That means the 1774 taxpayer. The danger of the hon. Lady's proposal is that the cherished independence of the BBC would be endangered if it received an annual Government grant to cover a shortfall of £30 million or £35 million a year. There is a problem concerning the threat to the BBC's independence posed by this measure. That is a matter that the Minister will have to cover in his reply. We cannot see the rightly cherished independence of the BBC in any way threatened by this kind of measure.
Thirdly, is this the right way to help pensioners? My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) has covered in great detail the argument about the principle of cash or kind. It should be said that my hon. Friend was not talking about a Tory principle. He was supporting a principle which has been supported on both sides of the House. Certainly the former Member for Sowerby, now Lord Houghton, said as early as 1965:I am sure that it is by far the best policy, on the whole, to provide old people with adequate money resources and to allow them to take their place in the community and choose the disposition of their resources like other people."—[Official Report, 19th February 1965; Vol. 706, c. 1594.]In other words, he was arguing for benefits in cash rather than in kind.
I see that the present hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) is in his place. I wonder very much whether he agrees with his predecessor. I take this opportunity of apologising to the hon. Gentleman. A few nights ago when we were debating another communications matter I suggested that one of his figures was inaccurate concerning an NUJ vote. In fact, I was the inaccurate party and I take this opportunity to make an apology to him and to place it on the record.
I return to the Bill. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead had a good point when he said that if we are to give concessions it must be acknowledged that telephone charges and installations represent a much more important lifeline than television sets. There is no end to the things that we could think up which deserve concessions. I think that the hon. Lady argued her case very well but she has one or two more arguments to put forward before the objections can be completely overruled.
1775 Will the benefit of the free licences be confined to those for whom the Bill seeks to provide? Let us suppose that an old-age pensioner collects his or her free licence and has wage-earning members of the family living with him. Is it fair that those wage earners should get the benefit of a free licence? I believe that it would be desperately unfair if middle-aged people with families who are struggling to make ends meet should receive no concession, whereas wealthy families having a 61-year-old grandmother living with them should get a television for nothing.
The hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) spoke about anomalies. I think that his points had a good deal of substance. The fact remains that in trying to extend concessions we might be creating many more anomalies than already exist, and especially if the legislation now before us goes forward in its present form. We must consider how this legislation should be drawn if the Bill goes into Committee and we start talking about amendments.
Finally, I throw out two practical and, I hope, constructive ideas on how to help old-age pensioners and disabled people to pay for their licences. There is one short-term measure which I believe could be implemented immediately and which would give a certain amount of help in relieving anxiety while we talk about the Bill in Committee and at later stages. I believe that old-age pensioners should be allowed to pay their licence fees by instalments.
We all know that with the licence fee at its present high rate the old-age pensioner will often find that the licence represents the biggest single item of expenditure in the year. Many of them are not very good at managing their finances and they worry about having to pay such a large sum. If there were the possibility of an administrative arrangement to allow them to pay their licence fees quarterly, that would be a small concession which would relieve a certain amount of anxiety. I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion. I believe that it is a more practical proposition than the advance saving stamp scheme, which is not used very much at present.
Next, I take a long-term note about the best way to help old-age pensioners. The 1776 Minister may remember that when we were discussing television licences during the Consolidated Fund Bill I put forward the idea that in future we should move away from the present licensing system and have some form of household rate for broadcasting. Under such a system we could have a much more effective system of rebate help for pensioners and others than the kind of measure we are now discussing. I am not unsympathetic to the Bill, although I believe that many criticisms and questions can be raised about it. It needs substantial amendment before it gets anywhere near the statute book.
§ 12.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)
Before I get on to my main argument, I, too, wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on introducing this important Bill.
I notice that a number of speakers have raised the question of principle whether we ought to give pensioners the money or the benefit in kind. I do not wish to pursue that argument to any great extent, but in view of what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) said about the need for credentials, I have to say that I have a few that I can present to the House. I have not brought them along. Some weeks ago I had on the Order Paper a motion for a Friday debate on this subject, which unfortunately was not reached. I have taken a considerable interest in this subject, as I shall show in due course.
On the question of money or benefit in kind, a further point might be added. It is very much my impression—it is only my impression, but it is the impression of a Member whose constituency contains a fairly high proportion of old people, of whom I see a good deal—that old people would prefer this Bill to the money. As one of my hon. Friends said earlier, they think they ought to have this benefit as of right. That is a consideration worth taking into account.
I do not know what old people feel about some of the other means tested benefits that they get. I know what they think about social security benefits. But on this issue it seems to me, from talking to pensioners, that they feel extremely strongly about it. Why that should be I am not certain. It may be that my hon. 1777 Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) is right and that they feel this deep sense of injustice as between those who are in warden-supervised sheltered accommodation and those who are not. There may be other reasons, too. Indeed some hon. Members have drawn attention to them.
There is the fact, for instance, that television means a lot to an old person. I want to press on my hon. Friend the Minister of State the necessity of taking this matter seriously. I recall—no doubt, he does, too—an occasion during the 1970–74 Parliament when the Opposition tabled an official motion on this subject, on which I believe we were whipped. My recollection may be wrong but I believe that it was a three-line whip. Admittedly, we did not put this subject in our manifestos when we fought the two elections last year, but when an Opposition party commits itself to the degree that we did when we were in opposition, that party has a strong moral obligation to do things that it said it believed in when in opposition. Having given this matter the official stamp of approval of the Parliamentary Labour Party, we are under a considerable obligation.
I am certain that one of the reasons why we attached such importance officially in the Labour Party to an issue that may seem to some people relatively unimportant is that other hon. Members, like myself, were under this persistent pressure from old people in our constituencies to make the kind of change which my hon. Friend is proposing in this Bill. We land ourselves in a number of serious difficulties if we do not make these concessions, and they are very well illustrated in the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary some days days ago when he announced an increase in the television licence fee.
What seemed clear to me from my right hon. Friend's statement and his subsequent replies to questions was that he was very reluctant to increase the licence fee for a black and white set because he knew that that would penalise pensioners who, presumably he thought, all have black and white sets. Of course, that is not true. Occasionally a man retires and is presented with a beautiful colour set and finds himself having to 1778 pay the higher licence fee as a consequence. But I believe that is what the Home Secretary had in mind when he made his decision about this vast differential between the licence fee for colour reception and the fee for black and white reception. That seemed to be the rationale behind his decision.
In effect, the decision was thoroughly bad. In fact, I think it was in contrast to the proposals which were put to him by the BBC. As a member of the General Advisory Council, I took some interest in that matter. Apart from that, even the BBC's proposals seemed to me to be slightly odd. I could not see why somebody with a colour set should pay twice as much as somebody with a black and white set. The programmes still have to be produced. The same costs are involved. I recognise, of course, that there are technical difficulties involved in colour transmission as opposed to black and white transmission, but I should have thought there was very little reason, if any, for the enormous contrast in the fees for black and white and colour sets.
I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend will explain the rationale. I do not understand it, unless it is simply to enable those who are relatively poor to buy or rent a black and white set and avoid paying a higher licence fee. I believe that if we made the sort of concessions proposed in this Bill to old people and disabled people it might enable the Home Secretary to be more rational and realistic in his approach to the licence fee for the rest of the community. In that sense, I think this may well be a further argument for doing what my hon. Friend proposes in her Bill.
I believe that the old people want it. They regard this as a priority, and the House should take their view seriously. Secondly, the Government would be enabled to impose economic licence fees on the rest of the community. In addition, I feel that we ought to go ahead with this policy because we in the Labour Party when in opposition pursued it in the Parliament which began in 1970.
§ 12.58 p.m.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
On Fridays in particular—although this applies to other days of the week as well—speeches from the Front Bench should be 1779 as short as possible, and I shall do my best to conform to this rule. Also I sense that the House would like to make progress on more than one of the measures which are before us today. I am thinking especially of the Youth and Community Bill in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), which is concerned with the interests of younger people, just as the Bill which we are now discussing will benefit elderly people and disabled people of all ages.
I congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on introducing this Bill so persuasively. She is a great battler for good causes, and I feel all the more sorry that I cannot give her Bill an unqualified welcome. I agree absolutely with her objective of making life easier and fuller for pensioners and disabled people. As a nation we are not doing nearly enough—although things have improved in recent years—for these sections of society. This is equally true of some other sections of society; for instance and particularly, one-parent families, to whom I hope the Government will soon be able to give higher priority, as they have been pressed from both sides of the House during recent weeks; and, for example, also, the mentally handicapped.
Most of us on this side of the House doubt whether the method of the Bill is the best way in which to direct more help towards pensioners and disabled people. I except my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), who has been consistent through the years in pressing this measure. I know how sincerely he feels about it. But most of us in the Opposition have our doubts about whether this is the right method.
I have been doing some research into one or two past occasions when the problem has been discussed. For example in 1967 the present Leader of the House, then Postmaster-General, said:I have concluded that it would be wrong for me to seek powers to make a concession which would create serious anomalies."—[Official Report, 13th February, 1967; Vol. 741, c. 31.]On 29th January this year, when answering questions after his announcement of the increases in the television licence fees, the Home Secretary said:I am aware of the difficulties confronting those who live alone on smaller 1780 incomes, many of whom are retirement pensioners. But the arguments which have prevailed hitherto—and they are substantial arguments—against dealing specially with this matter as opposed to keeping pensions as high as can reasonably be done continue to prevail."—[Official Report, 29th January 1975; Vol. 885, c. 399.]There was a third occasion between the other two, exactly two years ago today—mentioned by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett)—when in the House the Labour Party proposed this official motion:That this House considers that all retirement pensioners should be entitled as of right to free television licences".What strange contortions and reversals! Then one remembers that in 1973 the Labour Party was in opposition and could fully indulge its instinctive irresponsibility.
The Conservative Party, now in a comparable situation, does not intend to go in for that sort of humbug. In Government we had serious reservations expressed on that occasion two years ago, about the wisdom of a special concession for television licences, and our reservations have not miraculously vanished just because we are temporarily in opposition today.
However, if we are unenthusiastic about this Bill it is not from any lack of concern about pensioners and disabled people and other groups who are up against one form or another of disadvantage. We all know how much television means to the people who are intended to benefit from the Bill, people often lonely and housebound, who were eloquently described by the hon. Lady and others. We know that they are hit harder than most by rising prices while month after month the Government increasingly give the appearance of a total incapacity to do anything effective to beat inflation. We know that the forthcoming increases in the licence fee will be seriously felt by pensioners and the disabled.
May I repeat in passing the need for a truly effective drive by the BBC to root out extravagance and to make more economies? I hope that the Minister of State will be able to give us a firm assurance that the BBC is taking this matter seriously so as to put off as long as possible any further increases in the fee.
1781 The general principle in which we on this side of the House believe is that the Government should aim to provide pensioners and the disabled and others in special need with the maximum amount of money in cash to spend as they wish individually. In other words, we have always felt that cash is better than kind and that the exceptions to that general principle should be rare. We want people to have more choice.
This was the main argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith). It is a fact today that pensioners, thanks to the increases made by our Government and by the present Government, now have rather more discretionary buying power than they have ever had before, and it is worth the House noting that about four out of five households where pensioners live already have television.
Much has been said about anomalies and unfairness. We are all conscious of them, and there is no easy solution to the problem. Even a slight change in the present arrangements for concessionary cheaper licences for old people's homes would raise difficulties, and they have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. The problem that worries me is whether, if we remove one anomaly by doing what the Bill seeks, we shall be landing ourselves in others.
What about the other deserving groups who are also in the minds of other hon. Members and who have been mentioned? First, there are the blind and, secondly, there are those who are desperately dependent on telephones, which they either have already and cannot easily afford, or which they desperately need but cannot afford to install. I have had many more letters in recent months from constituents about the problems of those dependent on telephones as their lifeline and the prospective further rise in telephone charges than about the problem of television.
§ Mr. Lane
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I mentioned him and his general approach to the problem while he was detained elsewhere. I should like to come to that subject a little later, because I think that there is a possible solution in something that local authorities can do in the matter of television as well as telephones, and I shall come to it shortly.
I repeat that the one-parent family is an example of another group who may be in difficulties as great as, if not greater than, those faced by many of the people whom the hon. Lady's Bill is directed to help. There are these anomalies, and they and the unfairnesses will not go away simply by passing the Bill in the form proposed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) mentioned particularly the subject of cost. He speculated that it might be nearer £35 million a year than the £25 million or £26 million mentioned by the hon. Lady. I hope that the Minister of State will give us the best estimate that the Government can make. As has been said, the cost must be met by a straight subsidy from the Government, or by the payment of about £3 a year additional by every other licence holder.
§ Mr. Lane
There is no other way. The revenue must be found either by other licence holders—and I reckon that that would mean at least an additional £3 a year—or by Government subsidy. Perhaps if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to solve this conundrum.
However, I do not want to end on a negative note, and I should like to make some positive suggestions of ways in which the needs of pensioners and the disabled could be met in a context wider than the Bill. There are better and more effective ways of using scarce public funds.
I remind the House of three examples of what was done when my party was in office, to ilustrate this approach: first, the Christmas bonus for pensioners, which has been widely appreciated; secondly, the attendance allowance for the disabled; thirdly, the continuing relaxation 1783 of the earnings rule, which, I am pleased to say, thanks to a great deal of help from other parties, we have persuaded the Government to continue during the years ahead until it has been effectively phased out. I urge the Government to act further in the same direction as soon as resources allow.
There are three other ideas which I wish to put forward. The first concerns the age addition in the pension for the over-80s introduced by the Conservative Government. This has remained at 25p for single people and 50p for couples for four years. An increase is overdue. If the Government can find some spare resources, they could double this additional pension at less than half the total annual cost of the measure involved in the Bill.
Second, there is the possibility of paying the licence fee by quarterly instalments. This is all the more relevant after the licence fee has been increased on 1st April. I know that there is the savings stamp system, but it is not very relevant. The Government should have another look at the instalment idea, particularly in view of all the modern, mechanised methods for issuing reminders, accepting payments and so on.
My third suggestion bears on what the hon. Member for Harborough said in his intervention. We want to be sure that local authorities have maximum discretion in giving special help over television licences to people for whom a television is particularly important. This would be parallel to the help given with telephones. Local authorities have a considerable discretion here.
§ Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)
In suggesting this, is the hon. Gentleman having regard to resources of local authorities? Does he realise that finding these resources would present the local authorities with a problem?
§ Mr. Lane
I agree. There is a problem whenever we suggest that local authorities should spend more. The money has to come from somewhere. There are areas even now in which every local authority can economise further. There are less essential forms of spending and there is the possibility of postponing desirable improvements. This would give a little more elbow room for those desirable moves we would all like to see.
1784 The House will want to hear the Government's view. We wonder whether the Minister of State will be sticking robustly to the line which the Home Secretary took three weeks ago. Or is there some new idea which has been conjured up in Whitehall which will help those who would benefit from this Bill without involving the disadvantages which we see in it?
Hon. Members ought to think hard before giving the Bill a Second Reading. We would do better to keep up the pressure on the Government to switch scarce public resources from some of their more dubious schemes—and I instance particularly the hare-brained projects of the Secretary of State for Industry—to increasing the cash available to the most hard hit and most deserving groups in the community.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Mike Noble (Rossendale)
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on her good fortune in the Ballot and on her selection of the Bill. She presented her arguments in an admirable way. The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) amply indicated the benefits of television to old-age pensioners. We are fortunate in that not only do we have a place of work in this building but we have a place of education and entertainment. As gregarious animals we can mix together freely. There are many who tend to forget the loneliness of our constituents, often living in a single-bedroom house or a single-room flat.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a club for retired gentlemen just down the corridor called the House of Lords?
§ Mr. Noble
I am not sure whether I would support a move to introduce free television there.
Here we can contrast our facilities and our good fortune with that of many of our constituents who are very lonely and who depend on television to be their window on the world. This enables them to keep in touch with outside interests.
Conservative Members have been arguing for the provision of a telephone. Old persons often dislike the telephone. They are accustomed to television. Few would ask for a telephone even though 1785 we may think it desirable that they should have one. The approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) in suggesting that this service should be given as of right to old people is correct.
The previous hon. Member for Rossendale ensured that this subject had a good airing in my constituency during his brief tenure of the seat and during the election campaign. Unlike some hon. Members who have received no letters, I have received a petition on this subject. It was collected by an old lady on a large, hilly estate in my constituency. She felt sufficiently strongly to visit all the old persons on the estate and ask them to sign. She assures me that she had a unanimously favourable response from those she was able to contact. The petition is available for inspection. I have a file of letters to the Press. We have even had letters to the Prime Minister. I have had letters to.
I will read an excerpt from one of the letters I have received. The gentleman who writes it tells me that today he is celebrating 50 years of married life. He says:It will be a day to be remembered by us for as long as we live.He goes on to describe a visit he made. He says:On Christmas Day we went to see some old-age pensioners living in separate places. The first one was sitting at home in front of her fire watching the television. I said to the old lady, who lived alone, 'You like your TV?' She said 'Yes'. She also said that but for the £10 Christmas bonus it would have had to go back because she could not have paid the licence.The second person I visited was an old man who lived alone. His TV licence was due in January 1975. I asked him the same questions as I asked the old lady. He too said he depended on his Christmas bonus for his licence. Next I visited an old couple living in accommodation which had a warden and a television. They were only paying 10p for their television licence. They were having a chicken for their Christmas dinner, making them £9.90 better off than the other two persons.My correspondent points out that the first two pensioners did not spend the rest of the Christmas bonus on coal. Yet the couple in the sheltered accommodation had all these advantages plus cheap television.
1786 The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hill-head (Mr. Galbraith) said that we should be debating the principle. There is an important principle here. My hon. Friends would argue that there are many benefits which ought to be given in kind and that there are things which should be provided as of right by the Government. I am sure that Tory Members would not like a free enterprise defence system, despite their attachment to defence.
The greatest advantage in terms of the Government providing a free television licence for old-age pensioners is that it is completely inflation-proof. It has been pointed out that the cost of the Bill would be £26 million, but we should be providing pensioners with a free television licence and giving them an inflation-proof benefit as of right. That is the most important principle.
There are two main points which I should like the Government to consider, and, I hope, accept. First, despite the arguments of Conservative hon. Members for more money to ensure that people have freedom of choice, an anomaly will remain which causes more bitterness among old people than anything else I know. Only 190,000 of them may be receiving the benefit of a 5p licence, but every pensioner I have come across knows one of them at least. I have a letter from a man who suggests that as people in warden-type sheltered accommodation get the benefit of a free or 5p television licence, the local authority might provide a warden in his area, solely, it would seem from the letter, for the purpose of getting rid of the anomaly.
The second point which I should like the Government to consider concerns inflation. I am confident that right hon. and hon. Members opposite will be in opposition for a long time, because I believe that the Government will get on top of inflation. However, we can expect prices to continue to rise for some time. The television licence is paid in a lump sum, which creates great difficulty for old people. If it were free, it would not simply do away with the question of payment but would be a protection against the licence fee increasing time and again to meet the BBC's costs.
I am delighted to give full support to the Bill and I hope that the Government will be very considerate towards it.
§ 1.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)
I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on introducing the Bill, and I support hon. Members who have said how strongly their constituents feel about its subject matter. My constituency is a large rural area made up of a considerable number, well above the national average, of elderly retired people. I confirm what has been said about the strength and depth of feeling about the anomaly which we have been discussing and which is at the root of the problem dealt with in the Bill.
The present arrangements are anomalous and are unfair and are seen to be most unjust. We could wish for a different situation, but we must address ourselves to the existing situation in which a considerable number of elderly people receive concessionary television licences. We must therefore support the Bill, which seeks to lessen the anomaly and to provide free television for all retired and disabled people.
The details of the anomaly have been adequately covered. The organisation for providing concessionary television licences must cost a considerable sum. Perhaps the Minister will give some details of the administrative costs of the present arrangement. Anyone who has dealt with this matter knows that the Post Office and local authorities are in contact in dealing with the question of concessionary licences. A six-page stencilled letter can be obtained from the Post Office setting out the rules and regulations under which elderly people can be supplied with concessionary licences. Many local authorities and their social services departments must interpret those rules and regulations, often in an arbitrary way.
I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Jackson) in drawing attention to the great importance of television in rural areas. It is the only form of entertainment for many elderly people. In many ways it is their only company. Public transport is poor and expensive and the increases in petrol prices have reduced leisure and pleasure driving, and the number of calls made by relatives has also been seriously reduced. Therefore, television is a most 1788 important aspect of community life in my area.
If the Bill is enacted, it will be seen as a long-overdue reform which will deal with a very unfair situation. In my area, where television reception is extremely poor in many cases, elderly people who want to enjoy the use of more than one channel and to receive a relatively good picture are forced to use piped television, for which an additional weekly charge is made. Added to the cost of the full licence, this makes television a most expensive pleasure for many of my elderly constituents.
It is an indication of the strength of feeling on this matter that only this week my local authority has discussed it in committee. There have been several debates on this issue in the council in the last few weeks and in the period that I have represented the constituency I have received a considerable number of letters, petitions and personal representations on it. This week my local authority decided that there was little that it could do, but it wanted the situation to be considered and it has made urgent representations to the Association of Metropolitan District Authorities asking it to make representations to the Government to see whether it can be dealt with.
Today we have heard, not for the first time, rather hypocritical suggestions from the Opposition. They have said that the Bill is objectionable and that we should be advocating not the extension of concessions but the improvement of pensions so that pensioners can decide for themselves what to spend money on. It has been termed discretionary buying power. Many of us on this side of the House have always held that view and yet the philosophy of the Opposition has continually been that universal benefits were to be deplored and resisted.
We have built a monolithic structure under which more than 40 benefits are means-tested and have to be applied for. Many of my constituents do not claim such benefits. It is estimated that only four out of ten people claim the benefits for which they are eligible. I am concerned about those elderly people who, for reasons of pride, uncertainty or even fear do not claim them.
1789 If the Bill were to be enacted, it would remove one of the unfairnesses which so many people face, and it would be very welcome to an enormous number of elderly people. I therefore hope that it will be supported. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green on giving us the opportunity to discuss this important matter. I wish the Bill well and hope that it is quickly passed.
§ 1.28 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
I was anxious to attend the House today to support my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) in seeking to obtain the concessions outlined in the Bill. She represents an adjoining constituency to mine and she and I know pensioners' difficulties and how they rely on television to provide one of their few pleasures.
The Minister of State—and I am sorry he is not present—is in a dilemma. He will be wholeheartedly in favour of the principle of helping retired pensioners and disabled people who come within the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. But I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State faces the dilemma of cost. In moving the Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green referred in detail to that factor.
I listened with great interest to what was said from the Opposition Front Bench about the attitude of the Conservative Party on this matter. I can remember questions being put to the then Conservative Government on this matter in July and November 1970. The view they gave then was the same as that given today by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) that the Conservative Party preferred to give cash benefits to pensioners, the disabled and so on, and not to single out one class to obtain a particular concession.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has also subscribed to that doctrine. I appreciate that if the cash were given to the old people or to the disabled so that they could spend it in the way they wanted, that would be all well and good. Unfortunately, the cash is not given to them. I know that we are in a difficult economic position.
1790 However, when I listen to Conservatives talking about what they have done, when I remember what they said in 1970 about giving cash to help the pensioners and the disabled, when I remember the long term of Conservative rule at a time when the country was in a much better economic state than it is today and when it was more than possible for the Government to give more cash to pensioners and disabled, I wonder at the hypocrisy of the Conservative attitude. The Conservatives should be condemned for the way in which they paid lip service to a doctrine which they neglected to carry into practice when they were in power and when they had ample means to do so.
I know that our economic difficulties are very great and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will say that he very much sympathises with the chronically sick and with the pensioners, and that the Government will do everything they can to help them. I know, too, that we should not forget that the Labour Government have done a considerable amount of work in raising pensions and helping these categories of people. Nevertheless, I wish to enter a special plea to the Minister that he should not put us off simply by saying that because of the economic conditions we do not have the money. The proper way to deal with this matter is to provide more cash, and that could be done. I urge my hon. Friend to look very carefully at the Bill to see whether something cannot be done to try to achieve its object.
During the General Election campaign one of the most pitiful cries and earnest pleas came from people in regard to the provision of television. For old people it is not a luxury. People talk about it being a "window on the air", a lifeline and so on. From the practical point of view, how many old people depend upon television as their sole pleasure? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green said in her excellent opening speech, these days old people are prevented from going out by the danger of mugging. They must stay at home, and television is their one great interest. Something should be done to try to assist them.
Many local authorities—my own, for example—try to help old people on the question of television and telephones, but so many local authorities fail to carry out 1791 the duties imposed upon them by Section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. That may be through lack of money, but often it is because they do not get down to the task of giving effect to these measures.
I know that the powerful criticism will be made that the proposal will cost a great deal of money. What will it be—£26 million or £35 million? I do not know what the figure is, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will probably give the figure. Surely there are ways and means in which that sum will be raised. The hon. Member for Cambridge spoke about putting an extra £3 on the television licence to cover the cost, but we need not do that. There are ways and means of getting money to finance the concession. We spend an enormous amount on defence. The cost of the concession would be very small by comparison. The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) suggested what might be a practical plan. He said that Government advertising on ITV should be switched to the BBC and the money saved should be used to pay for the concession. There are all sorts of ways and means which could be looked at to get the money.
I am particularly anxious that careful examination should be given to Clause 1(2)(b) where there is reference to disabled persons. Under that clause disabled persons would have the right to obtain assistance in this way if they came within the definition in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. However, there is a limit to what the local authority can do according to the amount of money that it has. I believe that the help should come from the Government.
I urge upon my hon. Friend the Minister of State that this is a Bill which is necessary and helpful and which is extremely important to old people. I hope that he will say something encouraging so that at least its main object may be implemented. I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing in the measure and I hope that it will be successful.
§ 1.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
I am grateful for these few moments in which to comment on this splendid Bill. Like many hon. Members, I have received representations from pensioners, not on an organised basis but on an individual basis, 1792 as I have met them in the street and while canvassing, about the anomalies of the existing system. Under that system a particular group of pensioners is given what virtually amounts to a free television licence while others are not. The situation exists in which old people want to get into warden-assisted accommodation when on the face of it they do not seem to need it, and one is forced to wonder whether they are seeking to enter the accommodation simply to be entitled to pay the nominal television licence fee.
We want to eradicate that sort of thing. If we are to give justice—and that is and always has been the aim of the Labour movement—we have to show that justice is being done. We must therefore eradicate this anomaly by ensuring that every pensioner pays only a nominal fee.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) talked about resources, and of course that is a most significant factor. The concession will cost money, but that money will be going to people who have worked their lives out for the community and who are now entering the evening of their lives and deserve special consideration. The hon. Member suggested that local authorities might be able to save a bit here and there and that they should be given discretion in the matter. This is not a matter for local authorities. They are facing very grave difficulties.
When I first requested the money for an outside telephone to be installed near old people's bungalows so that those people could summon help, my local authority of Bradford, which is Conservative-controlled, sent me this reply:I will have the possibility investigated, but the financial situation this coming year is such that it is extremely unlikely that we shall be able to supply additional telephones, no matter how great the need.In my letter I had explained that some elderly people had been seriously ill. The person who had approached me had found the local telephone out of order. It is not always possible to telephone from the "pub", because the need generally arises outside licensing hours. If the local authority cannot provide a telephone, how can it provide the financial resources needed to supply a free television licence?
In Bradford the problem is partly caused by a confused order of priorities. The council is buying new banqueting tables and chairs and a new civic badge 1793 next year. It is also embarking on the lunatic venture of extending the Leeds and Bradford Airport on its own, which will cost several million pounds if it succeeds in its foolish, lone venture.
We should not be balked by the fact that local authorities cannot meet this sort of expenditure during the ensuing year. The problem comes back to the central Government, and I urge the Government to consider this expenditure. First, it will create a great deal of good will among people who have worked for the community throughout their lives, people who do not now enjoy particularly luxurious lives. Many pensioners are barely getting by on their pension. Although the Labour Government have given the biggest increase in the history of pensions, nobody would say that it was adequate. Nobody would say that pensioners were living a life of luxurious ease. They are getting by, and no more.
Therefore, the Government should seriously consider providing the money. They can obtain it from a number of areas. For example, there is defence. We are spending this year over £100 million more in real terms on defence than we did last year, in spite of Labour Party conference resolutions to the contrary. In our manifesto we talked about cutting defence expenditure by several hundred million pounds. In fact, we have only cut Conservative estimates and we have not cut defence expenditure in real terms.
By and large, defence expenditure is inflationary because those employed in defence work do not produce goods and services to satisfy demand. Therefore, cutting defence expenditure to pay for the free licences would be an anti-inflationary move. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that he should have a word in the ear of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the sum approaching £200 million that we are to spend on Lancer tactical nuclear weapons, each of which will have four times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That is the sort of madness upon which we are embarking.
We are spending £100 million, or so it is said—if the secret leaked out it would bring the whole defence strategy crashing down—on new weapons for Polaris submarines, based on the myth, enthusiastically supported by the Opposition, that if 1794 we do not have them the Russians will be coming next week, catching aeroplanes and trains to take us over. That is the sort of delusion on which we are spending about £4,000 million a year.
Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will not expect us to totter with surprise if he tells us that the Bill would cost £20 million or £30 million per year. Defence expenditure is pushed through. The House says "It is absolutely necessary. We must remain strong." In the meantime, throughout the country pensioners, many of them people who fought in the last war, including people who were maimed, who have worked not at handsome, glamorous jobs but at nasty, dark, dirty jobs, are struggling to obtain a bit of entertainment from a television set, often a grotty old set that does not work very well.
Let us bear in mind the Labour movement's priorities. One priority laid down in conference was that we should cut defence expenditure, much of which is superfluous, so that the people who have supported us and the country, who have given their lives in all sorts of ways to create the country in which we live, should have one of the benefits set out in the Bill. I give the Bill my enthusiastic and wholehearted welcome, and I hope that the Government will do the same.
§ 1.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Tony Newton (Braintree)
I apologise for speaking after not having been able to be present earlier. Having come mainly to listen to the debate, I have been partly stimulated to speak by some of the attacks on my party, but I do not want to reply to them in detail, because no purpose is served if we discuss these matters in a purely party political way.
I speak only for myself. Although I support the general aims of the Bill, I have reservations about its precise terms. I have in mind the problems of subsidising television licences in households where a retired person is living with younger relatives. I can see no good reason why we should provide free television licences where the household may have a good income but happens to include a retired relative. However, that practical difficulty, to which the Minister will probably refer in his reply to the debate, does not change the fact that I 1795 support the general aims and objects of the Bill.
A number of comments have been made about attitudes to cash benefits. I have changed my mind about this general question a good deal over the past few years. In theory, it remains right that we should seek to make sure that our retired and disabled people have a proper income from which they can afford such things as television licences. But it is clear that in practice, now or in the foreseeable future, in the economic circumstances facing the country, we shall not be able to do as much as all hon. Members, on both sides of the House would like. That makes it necessary to reconsider the arguments.
I have changed my mind about not only television licences but telephones and bus fares. Over the next few years we should be actively seeking to extend the concessionary schemes for retired and disabled people. There are one or two other categories which could be mentioned in this context.
Whether one pensions increase is larger than the last, or the next is bigger still, many retired and disabled people will continue to live close to the margin of their incomes all the time and will not find it easy to budget for those sums that have to be paid in a lump at certain times of the year. I was a strong supporter of the Christmas lump sum initiated by the Conservative Government. It has given a benefit and a pleasure to those who received it much in line with what we could achieve by dealing with some of the problems of television licences, telephones and the like. A lump sum payment confers a practical benefit. In psychological terms it is an important matter and that factor should be borne in mind.
I shall not debate with the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) where the money for these purposes should be found, although no doubt he will guess that I would pick on some part of the food subsidies rather than on defence expenditure. I appreciate the financial difficulties and realise that it will not be possible to do all these things at once. Any hon. Member who has been in touch with problems relating to assistance for telephones, television licences and bus fares—and who, as I have, has had a 1796 great deal of correspondence on these subjects—would agree that the present situation is deeply unsatisfactory, causes a great deal of ill will, and in some cases is unfair. We must consider how we can do more to help the situation.
I do not give unqualified support to the exact terms of the Bill, but give my support to the general aims which the hon. Lady has set out to achieve.
§ 1.52 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)
The whole House owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for giving us the opportunity to discuss a problem which we have dealt with on a number of occasions, but which is a matter of continuing interest and importance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Jackson), who was a little less than charitable to me at one stage of his speech, suggested that the fact we were able to talk about this matter showed that we were more closely in touch than some people suggest with what our constituents feel and want us to talk about. This history of this matter shows that we are alive to our constituents' feelings. This matter has now been discussed on many occasions in the past. This is a continuation of a campaign fought by many hon. Members—not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green, the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and others. Therefore, I approach this subject recognising its importance and the sensitivity of the issues involved.
The subject has been approached in one of two ways by most of those who support the Bill—and I think all hon. Members, except one, have supported the principle that lies behind it. The first approach was indicated by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green in her remarks but was brought into even greater focus by my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). They said that there already is an anomaly in the existing system. The anomaly causes great frustration and a sense of injustice to old people because they do not see the equity of a dispensation which is given to some people who live in community homes and which is denied to others.
1797 I am afraid that they are right and that an anomaly exists which is inequitable. It is obviously nonsense that if a person lives in a home or in a series of housing units where there is a warden, he or she can enjoy the advantage of a fairly cheap television licence. However, if the warden lives across the road, they cannot enjoy that facility, nor can they do so if they live in a self-contained unit, even though it may be local authority accommodation. We heard an example given by the hon. Member for Harborough where two floors of a block of flats in Leicester had a warden when the rest did not. The situation was that the two floors had a cheap licence and the rest did not. An anomaly of that kind leads to criticism and frustration.
A further consideration is that the anomaly which has been outlined was brought about when an earlier anomaly was removed. Under previous legislation any home built after 1952 could have a cheap licence, but a home built before that time could not. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House as the then Postmaster-General made the change which led to the present situation.
There are two ways of dealing with the situation. The first method is by withdrawing the concession altogether so as to end the sense of frustration on the part of those who do not enjoy it, which of course would lead to even greater frustration for those who now enjoy the concession. Secondly, we could go further in extending the concession. My hon. Friend the Member for Goole was almost cavalier about the matter. He said that the only way to end the anomaly was to follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green wants to do in her Bill.
However, there is a difference in the two methods. We must remember that at present the concession is enjoyed by 200,000 people in the United Kingdom, 190,000 of them in England and Wales. The concessions which would be available under the provisions of the Bill would apply to 6,250,000 pensioner households in England and Wales and to a further 400,000 households which contained somebody who was disabled. Therefore, about 6,500,000 households would receive some benefit by getting rid of an anomaly which at the moment 1798 affects a concession available to only 200,000 people. Therefore, there is a great disparity in the public expenditure figures with which we are dealing in this debate.
Let us examine the other main theme epitomised in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) who said that the television licence should be looked upon as a right for the elderly. The force of what she said was mitigated for me by watching her make her speech over the head of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman)—who I hope will forgive me for using him as an example. Most of us would never believe that my hon. and learned Friend was over retirement age, speaking as he does with such vigour and lucidity, but if we were to approve these proposals my hon. and learned Friend would have the opportunity to go home after a hard day in the courts and in this place to watch colour television on a free licence. It may be unfair to apply that argument only for my hon. and learned Friend. One could have instanced many members of another place who would find themselves in the same category.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Under the terms of the Bill I would remind my hon. and learned Friend that I am not a retired pensioner under the Social Security Act. I am an old-age pensioner but I am not a retired person.
§ Mr. Lyon
I apologise unreservedly to my hon. and learned Friend. What is true is that there is a substantial number of retired pensioners who would come within the terms of the Bill but who can never be described as "poor" by any definition of that term. The latest Family Expenditure Survey showed that in households containing only one pensioner, 9 per cent. of the households had an income larger than £50 per week. Where the head of the household was over 65, 11 per cent. had incomes of over £50 per week.
Therefore, although I accept the central thesis of the debate—that when referring to the retired pensioners we mean the area where the greatest degree of poverty exists in our society—it is not axiomatic that every retired pensioner is poor or 1799 that every retired pensioner cannot afford to pay for a television licence.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart
Since a great deal of fuss was made by the Labour Party about means testing in relation to various other issues, why does the Minister bring the matter up in regard to this Bill? Surely we do not want means testing. No doubt what the hon. Gentleman has said is factually correct, but why is he introducing the question of means testing on this occasion?
§ Mr. Lyon
I shall deal with the issues raised in the debate during my speech, including the point just made.
Hitherto the attitude taken by both Governments has been that we could not make the concession because it would be too expensive in terms of public expenditure and that it was far better to increase the old-age pension so as to allow people to decide for themselves how to spend their money.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hill-head (Mr. Galbraith) said that the situation should be changed so that people too poor to help themselves could be assisted. That is not a universal case. It is greatly to be welcomed that not all retired pensioners are poor. It is the universal wish that we should create a society in which retirement is not synonymous with poverty. There should be an old-age pension scheme which allows for a reasonable standard of living for our old people. That is the objective of the Government's recent pensions scheme legislation which, when fully operational, will provide a decent standard of living for all retired people. I realise that that scheme will not come into operation in the near future.
The question now is whether we can take the step proposed by my hon. Friend to help those who are in need in the interim. There are difficulties, the first of which is that there are approximately 6,250,000 households containing pensioners and approximately a further 400,000 households containing disabled people. We think that approximately 80 per cent. of those have taken out black and white television licences, and we know that, of the 17½ million licences, approximately 10 million are black and white. We estimate that about 5 million pensioners' households have black and white television 1800 sets while approximately 1¼ million households, possibly with pensioners, have colour television sets.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall
May I remind my hon. Friend of an answer given to my Written Question on 4th December 1974 in which the Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security stated that,It is estimated, however, that, in 1971, there were slightly under 4¼ million households in England and Wales in which the head of household was over pensionable age."—[Official Report, 4th December 1974; Vol. 981, c. 508.]I think that is a situation with which we are dealing today.
§ Mr. Lyon
The figures quoted by my hon. Friend are not strictly comparable with those I have just given.
As a result of the recent Family Expenditure Survey, 1973, we have obtained better figures regarding the number of pensioner households in the country. By "pensioner households" I mean those containing at least one pensioner. Our estimate, based on the latest figures, is that if we were to accept the terms of the Bill unreservedly, the cost would be about £60 million a year. That represents about 30 per cent. of the gross licence revenue.
Everyone agrees that if we accepted the proposal it would not be right simply to cut the revenue of the BBC, especially when it is in such difficulties. If we were to pay for it by means of increasing the existing licence fee, the increase, on top of that recently proposed, would be an average of £5 for monochrome and colour licences. A greater weighting to the colour licence fee would add about £9 extra on the colour television licence and about £1 extra on a black and white licence. My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green has indicated that she did not wish that to be done, since the burden of the extra payment would fall upon low-income families in which there were no pensioners.
The question is whether we should at this stage make the expenditure from public funds and from the taxpayer of a further £60 million to meet the need. The Government do not accept that. Both sides call constantly for stringency in public expenditure to overcome the disease of inflation. It would be wrong 1801 to adopt a proposal calling for an increase in public expenditure of £60 million.
Therefore, we have considered whether there is some way to meet the legitimate anxieties expressed in this debate without incurring that degree of public expenditure. Before the Bill was published we wondered whether it might be possible to increase the disparity between the black and white and colour television licence fees which in any case will be increased under the new proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) asked why that should be so since the cost of providing programmes is roughly the same and it does not matter very much whether we view the programmes on colour or black and white television sets. Most hon. Members accept that if people can afford to buy colour television sets they can also afford to pay the extra fee. If we are to distinguish between the various sections of licence holders, that point has some validity. I accept that it is not an entirely fair way of trying to isolate who is poor. Obviously there will be rich holders of black and white licences and poor holders of colour licences. However, the division, although arbitrary, has a respectable basis.
There are difficulties in giving a free licence even for black and white only. At the moment, as I showed from the figures, about 60 per cent. of licence holders have a black and white licence—about 10 million out of 17½ million—and the proportion is probably substantially greater where there is a pensioner in the household. We are in the realm of guesswork here because it is not possible to know where the black and white licences go, but we assume that the proportion is higher among pensioner households than among others. If the proportion were 80 per cent. the commitment would be substantial, and, as I say, we estimate that the number of households would be about 5 million. If it were 5 million, the licence being £8, the total cost would be about £40 million, so there would not be a considerable reduction on the estimates envisaged in the Bill.
We must try to ascertain whether there is any other way in which we can isolate even more closely where the need falls. We are engaged upon this now. But 1802 there are difficulties in administering such a scheme and determining where pensioner households are. If we restrict it to households where there is one pensioner, or at most two, living in the household, that will create some administrative difficulty and cost.
It is worth noting also, in relation to the proposal to issue a free television licence, that it costs about 10p per licence at present to issue the piece of paper. There would, therefore, be a cost falling on public expenditure for the mere issuing of the free licence provided for in the Bill, and that cost is estimated at about £500,000.
§ Mrs. Joyce Butler
I take it that my hon. Friend has noted that the Bill provides for complete exemption from licensing, so that there need be no cost for the issue of a licence, as is done for blind people.
§ Mr. Lyon
As I understand it, blind people do not have a free licence; they have a concession on the licence. As the Bill is drafted, there would have to be the issue of a licence although no fee would be payable. That is why I made the point. Obviously, the matter could be overcome by not issuing the piece of paper, or by simply charging 10p for the administrative cost. But there are, as I have explained, difficulties in relation to isolating any group of licence holders who ought to be helped as distinct from others.
If we are not to go for an increased pension to cover all these matters, the best way would be to give free licences to all pensioner households, but once we concede that we cannot do that—certainly not in the present public expenditure climate—we encounter considerable problems in finding an acceptable scheme in public expenditure terms which does not create more anomalies.
§ Mr. Colin Jackson
It is obvious that it costs no more to issue a certificate of non-licensability than it does to issue one for licensability. One is either obliged to pay or not obliged to pay. Moreover, will my hon. Friend recognise that many of us do not acknowledge his figure of £60 million extra expenditure, and, what is more, even if it were £60 million, we wonder why one should be so concerned not to allow old-age pensioners this concession when we are quite ready to make 1803 sums available, for example, to Covent Garden and the National Theatre. Why are we so discriminatory?
§ Mr. Lyon
I do not think that my hon. Friend is fair in suggesting that we are discriminatory. The point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and taken up by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), that in 1973 the then Opposition moved a motion saying that we ought to issue free television licences in these circumstances, and the hon. Member for Cambridge said that it was pure political humbug for us, having said that then, not to be able to concede it now.
I have looked at the way we opened that debate, and I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), speaking on behalf of the then Opposition, said:The Government amendment rejects the concession. Cash, not kind, is what it purports to advocate. If the Secretary of State were talking of a real sufficiency of cash, I should support him."—[Official Report, 21st February 1973; Vol. 851, c. 492.]It is perfectly plain that the attitude of the Opposition then, as of the Government now, was that to increase old-age pensions substantially is a better way than issuing a licence in kind.
In the intervening two years between February 1973 and now—here I come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough—the income of old-age pensioners has risen in cash terms by 70 per cent. There has been a 50 per cent. increase—that is, when the new rates come into force in April—since we came into power last March. No one can say that we have not done a good deal for old-age pensioners, and it is wrong for my hon. Friend to suggest that we are in some way discriminating against them because we pay out of public expenditure for other desirable causes—and, surely, Covent Garden and the National Theatre are desirable causes.
The priority which we accord to old-age pensions is extremely high. In public expenditure terms, we are paying about £2,800 million a year for pensioners, and the social services budget is rising rapidly.
We accept our commitment to try to help old-age pensioners in their standard of living even in the present difficult 1804 circumstances. It is expected that, in addition to the increase which will come in April, pension rates will be reviewed again in December. I say, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Member for Brig-house and Spenborough is less than just to the Government whom he supports in suggesting that we are discriminating against pensioners.
§ Mr. Galbraith
It is a small point but worth noting that the money which goes to the theatre, to Covent Garden and so on also helps television, because those activities are often broadcast on television.
§ Mr. Lyon
Whenever we talk about public expenditure, one can always take another range of priorities which would allow more to be spent on the priority which one is then advancing. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) found another area where there could be cuts, and the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) indicated yet another. The overall balance of priorities in public expenditure is always a matter of continuing political debate.
We accept the need to see whether we can make an advance on the present concessions available to pensioner households. We are considering the present black and white licence as offering one way of extending the concession. It may be, in view of the difficulties which I have outlined, that we shall be frustrated in that aim, but if we are we shall certainly give attention to any other of the many suggestions which have been put to us to see whether a way can be found to help. I regret, however, that I cannot say that the Government accept the universal principle laid down in the Bill, and I hope that, in the light of our commitment to try to find a way to meet the need which my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green has expressed so eloquently, she will feel able to withdraw the Bill at this stage.
§ Mrs. Joyce Butler
I want my hon. Friend, before he concludes, to appreciate that he puts me in great difficulty. I have moved the Second Reading with almost universal support on both sides of the House, and all he has said is that he will look into the matter. Is it not possible for him to say something more positive? He has not given me any real 1805 grounds at this stage on which I could feel able to ask leave to withdraw the Bill.
§ Mr. Lane
Perhaps I can help the Minister while he is reflecting on that question and put something straight for the record. When I talked about humbug I was not contrasting the sceptical attitude of the Government now with their enthusiastic attitude two years ago when in Opposition. I was contrasting their atttitude two years ago with their steady refusal to do anything of this kind on successive occasions when they were in Government before 1970, as expressed by the present Leader of the House, the present Secretary of State for Industry and the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) when each of them had ministerial responsibility, I just want to make that clear.
§ Mr. Lyon
The hon. Gentleman has made his party point. Since we came to power we have substantially improved the living standards of all old-age pensioners, and not just in this respect.
I come back to the more germane point made by my hin. Friend the Member for Wood Green about the concession that I can afford to her. I recognise that I have not given the firm commitment that she would have liked. We intend, if we can, to find a way to help her. I cannot go further than that today. It would not be right to encourage her or the people who will read about the debate to think that we shall find a solution to this very difficult problem. We are doing our best to try to assist my hon. Friend and those pensioners to whom she referred in her opening speech.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
Does the hon. Lady wish to ask leave to withdraw her motion?
§ Mrs. Butler
Before I go any further, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I must stress that I am in great difficulty over this matter. I am conscious that many thousands of pensioners and disabled people who know that this debate is taking place today and have asked for this concession will be as confused as I think we all are about the outcome of the debate. I think that they would recognise a clear vote and decisive support for the Bill. They would no doubt expect difficulties and some amendments 1806 in Committee where we might set out to define the people who could be helped in such a way that would reduce the total cost which my hon. Friend has put at its very highest and which I would not accept. If the Bill got into Committee it could be amended in that way. I had hoped that my hon. Friend would look at the Bill in that way and consider whether it was possible to define a certain group of pensioners over a certain age or having only black and white television. That would have been something positive.
As it is, I am in great difficulty. I must press my hon. Friend to say more. If, when he and his Department have carried out the investigations to which he referred, they find that they cannot go all the way with the Bill, or even as far as they are hoping to go, but they will at least come forward with some positive proposal which will give us the opportunity of taking the matter further, that would help. I should hate to withdraw the Bill at this stage and then find that the Department's investigations are abortive and we are left with nothing. That would be completely wrong. It would not be in the interests of the very people who are looking to us for assistance. Will my hon. Friend help us further?
§ Mr. Lyon
I have already indicated that in a genuine spirit we are engaged in the search for some kind of concession. That is our intention. I indicated the difficulties in order to show that we may not be successful, because I did not want to mislead my hon. Friend. If we can find an easily definable category and a scheme, the cost of which in public expenditure terms would not be great, clearly we shall want to do so. I have not indicated where we might find that category. It would be wrong at this stage of our investigations to give any kind of hope to any particular group. However, I repeat that we are genuinely seeking to find a concession which will help my hon. Friend and the people she has represented today.
§ Mrs. Butler
With your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to put one further point. Will my hon. Friend indicate the time that he expects this inquiry to take?
§ Mrs. Butler
With that very small crumb, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be forced to ask your leave, and that of the House, to withdraw the motion. I had hoped for very much more from my hon. Friend. However, we should be in difficulty if we tried to put the matter to a vote. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Is it the wish of the House that the motion be withdrawn? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There are dissentient voices. Therefore, under Standing Orders, I must put the Question.
§ Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put and negatived.