§ Order for Second Reading read.9.36 am
§ Mr. David Winnick (Wallsall, North)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It gives me much pleasure to move the Bill's Second Reading. There is a number of worthwhile topics which one carefully considers when, out of the blue, a place is secured in the ballot. There is the certainly immediate surprise at having one's name chosen first.
Why this Bill? For a number of years my hon. Friends and I have pressed the need for pensioner households to be exempt from the payment of the television licence fee. I introduced a ten-minute Bill a few years ago and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) has kept the issue alive in successive years, also by way of ten-minute Bills. The most recent occasion on which he introduced one was on 6 May 1986. I was always pleased to be a sponsor of my hon. Friend's proposed measures and so there is no sudden interest in the issue for me. I believe strongly in the justice and purpose of the Bill for reasons that my hon. Friends and I will be dealing with and explaining during today's proceedings.
There are those who argue that concessions for pensioners are basically wrong in principle. We are often told that what is required is sufficient income for the retired to choose how to spend their own money.
§ Mr. Winnick
Some of those outside the House who advance that argument are committed undoubtedly to advancing the pensioners' cause. One of the ironies, politically at least, is that the very people who are in favour of concessions, like members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, tend also to be generally strong advocates of real increases in the basic pension, while those who are, to say the least, reather lukewarm over concessions are not by any means necessarily at the forefront of the campaign to increase pensioners' living standards.
§ Mr. Winnick
No. There are many hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to participate in the debate. I think that it will be wise for me to give way as seldom as possible.
I well remember the arguments which were advanced—this goes back over 20 years—against the need for reduced or free travel facilities for senior citizens, and I have no doubt that we shall have a rehash of those arguments later today. One intervention has just been made that reflects them. One of the arguments used against the idea of free travel was that by such a measure the retired would be singled out, stigmatised and perhaps even humiliated. All I can say is that not one of my constituents has complained to me of being humiliated by the bus pass.
Pensioners who enjoy such facilities—they are not enjoyed all over the country—are very pleased to have 505 them, as they provide an opportunity to get out and see relatives and friends. There are few, if any, hon. Members—I include Conservative Members—who have argued against the bus pass in recent times. If the concession is wrong, why is not the bus pass taken away? Even this Government have been on the defensive in that respect regarding the Transport Act 1985 and its implications.
There is, rightly, no income test for the bus pass. Age is the only criterion apart from some form of disability. A few weeks ago, there was a gossip piece in a newspaper about the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and his not having paid the bus fare, or some such silly allegation. He replied in The Observer on the following Sunday that he and he wife were travelling on their bus passes. Good luck to the right hon. Gentleman, although I should have thought that, 20 years ago, he would not have argued in favour of the bus pass. It has never been argued that people who can afford bus travel should not be eligible for the bus pass or for the concession on the Underground in London.
It is not part of my argument today that the television licence fee is wrong. I am aware that some people believe that there should be an alternative method of raising revenue for the BBC, but I believe that the licence fee is, in the main, good value for money. Bearing in mind the number of programmes that are available on all four channels, any alternative such as pay-as-you-view or subscription television would, apart from anything else, penalise people on small incomes. One would have to pay to obtain certain programmes. That is quite unlike the present arrangement under which one pays a fee and all programmes are available. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to learn that it is difficult to imagine anybody who is more strongly opposed to advertising on the BBC than I am.
It is understandable that pensioners watch a good deal more television than other people. There will today be many differences of view between the Government and me and my hon. and right hon. Friends, but I do not believe that there will be any argument about that statement. All of the statistics bear it out.
For many elderly people, television is the sole form of entertainment. As people grow older, it is more difficult for them to get out, so television becomes an important link with the outside world. In those cirumstances, television helps to overcome a good deal of loneliness. It is obvious that it cannot act as an effective substitute for personal contact, but it helps to make life more comfortable and to make pensioners feel less isolated in their own homes. That is all to the good. It is one of the virtues of television. It may have disadvantages, but that is one of its many advantages.
At paragraph 634, the Peacock report says that many pensionersare especially dependent on television for information and entertainment.There are approximately 2.8 million single pensioners living on their own who have television sets and a further 2 million pensioner couples who use television. It is interesting to note that, while most married pensioners have colour sets, about 1 million of the single pensioners have black and white sets. In some cases, perhaps, that is 506 a matter of preference, but I should have thought that it was common ground that it is almost certainly in most cases a matter of cost.
If all pensioners were required to pay the licence fee, it might be more difficult to argue my case, but the matter is more complicated. In 1978, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) was Home Secretary, he rightly allowed people in warden-controlled accommodation to pay a nominal fee of 5p a year.
§ Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)
There is an enormous amount of bitterness about that among people who live on their own. I get more complaints about it than about anything else.
§ Mr. Winnick
I did not realise that I should have such a strong and passionate advocate of my Bill in the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery).
§ Mr. Powley
I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's sincerity, and the concession that he mentions was introduced in 1978, but why did the then Labour Government not introduce free licences for all pensioners when they had an opportunity to do so?
§ Mr. Winnick
It is clear that the hon. Member is one of the intellectual thinkers of the Conservative party. I was not prepared for that intervention, although I should have known that it would come, even if I had been in politics for only a few minutes. [HON. MEMBERS "Answer."] There is such a strong desire for me to answer that question that I must not disappoint Conservative Members.
We all know that reform often does not come as a whole. The concession for warden-controlled accommodation was welcome. We made it perfectly clear in our 1979 general election manifesto, however, that we would introduce a concession such as I am proposing. The Conservatives would have had great fun drawing attention to what we had promised if we had been returned and failed to implement that policy. Common sense dictates that, as it was in our manifesto, we would have implemented it if we had been returned to Government.
§ Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)
Does my hon. Friend agree that elderly people cannot understand why people in sheltered accommodation come under the umbrella of the collective licence when they are expected to pay the full licence fee?
§ Mr. Winnick
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not wish to disappoint any hon. Member, so I should say now that I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) who strongly supports the Bill, and then get on with my speech.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the concession was introduced in 1978 to bring sheltered accommodation into line with the Savoy hotel, which purchases one licence to cover every set in the hotel? Concessions were not introduced in the 1970s because, in view of the massive growth of colour television, BBC income rose at a tremendous rate and licence fee increases were kept low. That is no longer the case with colour saturation.
§ Mr. Winnick
That point is well made. Pensioners will be interested to hear how Conservative Members respond to a matter which is dear to the heart of many retired people.
507 The 5p a year licence was introduced in 1978. It was later extended to some physically disabled people, others in residential homes run by local authorities or private voluntary bodies, and people in sheltered housing. I said a few moments ago that reform comes in stages. That was another small reform, which I welcomed. I should have thought that Conservative Members would welcome it too.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor)
The hon. Gentleman seems to be basing his excuse for not having done anything about this matter when he was a Back Bencher in the last Labour Government on the fact that a major change was made in 1978. The change made then was a minor one and the real change was made in 1969. He will need a better excuse about why he sat on his backside and did nothing during the five years of office of the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Winnick
That is a rather inadequate way to explain the important concessions made at the time by a Labour Government. It is estimated that in all about 640,000 people pay 5p a year, the large majority of them being retired people and pensioners. In 1965, when there was a combined radio and television licence fee, it was decided that registered blind people should pay £1.25 a year, and this arrangement continued when licensing for radio ended. Clearly there are anomalies because of the differences in the amounts of money payable for the television licence fee.
I should like to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North-East (Mr. Park). The same point was made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale. It was that there is a glaring anomaly in that those in warden-controlled accommodation rightly pay 5p a year while others not in such accommodation but in no better personal circumstances have to pay the full amount.
We are often told by constituents who complain to us that they find it difficult to understand and justify such a difference, such an anomaly. Very few hon. Members will not have had that point made to them time and again. In a single block of flats one part may be warden controlled while the other part is not. This anomaly should end and all pensioner households should be exempt from the licence fee.
Understandably, I have received many hundreds of letters about this subject. I apologise to many of the writers of those letters because, although I have been able to reply to some of them, it has been impossible because of the lack of facilities to reply to them all. I am grateful to those who have written in support of my Bill. I am sure that all hon. Gentlemen are grateful for the support that they receive for any public measure that they introduce. We do not sneer in this place at people who take the trouble to write letters. Good luck to them. We live in a democracy, and why should not people express a point of view, either for or against?
Of all the letters that I have received only one has been critical. Because of the pressure of time, I shall mention just one or two of those letters. From the Isle of Wight a pensioner writes that she sacrifices everything to get the money to be able to pay the £58 fee. She says:As I am on my own, my tv is a Godsend.508 She says that out of an income of £38 a week she has to save weekly for electricity, water, insurance and gas and she says it is a great hardship to pay for things like the licence fee.
No doubt the Minister will say that the money need not be paid in one go. We know that and I do not deny that it is easier to pay by way of weekly or montly instalments. But at the end of the day it is still £58, and this is what the pensioner is complaining about. From Wales a correspondent says that the payment of the licence fee is "something dreaded" and is difficult to find because of other expenses. This person concludes—and I pass the message to the Minister of State:It should be a free vote and there should be no Whips on.I shall return to that point later.
I propose to mention in a moment the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. and learned Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington). I had a letter from a pensioner in Preston who says that she lives in a close of 15 bungalows designed for the elderly and the handicapped. Four of the bungalows enjoy the facilities of a warden scheme and receive the concession of 5p a year; the rest pay the full amount. She adds:Nevertheless some of these 11 are just as old, handicapped and near housebound as those paying the 5pI am not sure whether that person is a constituent because I mentioned Preston. Nevertheless, she wrote to the Minister of State, Home Office. I sent him a note to the effect that I would mention this. He replied to this lady and said in his letter:the position cannot reasonably be defended.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Waddington)
Did I not make it entirely plain that what I said could not be reasonably defended was the 5p concession, and that as a matter of practical politics we could not get rid of it but that that was no argument for saying that the situation should be made even more absurd by extending the concession to all?
§ Mr. Winnick
Does the Minister understand what he says? He has said that the anomaly exists and should be ended by doing away with the 5p concession.
§ Mr. Waddington
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I said nothing of the sort. I said that once an anomaly of that kind has been created it is impossible to get rid of it by removing the concession, but that that was no conceivable argument for making the situation even more confused by extending a similar concession to others.
§ Mr. Winnick
As my hon. Friend says, the second intervention by the Minister makes the situation from his point of view much worse. We take the view that there is a glaring anomaly and that the way to end it is to ensure that all pensioner households have the same right and the same benefit.
Another letter writer lives in Lewes in Sussex, not usually considered the safest of Labour territory. The writer lives in a block of four council flats and the ages of the occupants are 92, 82, 75 and 73. Because the accommodation is not warden controlled, the full amount has to be paid despite the low incomes.
Another letter will interest a Conservative Member because it is from a person in Attleborough, in Norfolk.
509 She is 76 and lives alone without a family. She writes that the TV is her only companion and she says that, as she relies on the state pension and a little supplementary benefit, the licence fee is an extra bill to pay and the money is difficult to find. This pensioner wrote in support of my Bill to her Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Sir P. Hawkins). The hon. Gentleman is not here but, in the usual way I gave him notice that I would mention this. In his reply to her he said:if pensioners were to have a free licence for TV, how would those people who do not have a TV or who do not want one be able to receive the same benefit… Many people do not want TV and would rather spend the money, say, on their car or on records…He tells his constituent that in those circumstances he does not feel that he can support my Bill. Perhaps that constituent should worry about her car or her records and not about the TV licence.
§ Mr. Winnick
I am unlikely to disagree with that remark by my hon. Friend.
We know that Peacock recommended that pensioner households on supplementary benefit should be exempt from the licence fee. On top of all the anomalies that I have mentioned the Peacock committee which no one has suggested is in any way a Left-wing body, makes the firm recommendation that pensioners on supplementary benefit should be exempt from the licence fee and that those paying 5p a year should no longer do so, because apparently it costs more to collect the money than it generates in revenue. I agree with that recommendation. The committee rejected the extension of the concession to all pensioners and my Bill does that as well.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman is a master of the part quotation. He slides over the first point that the Peacock recommendation was a much narrower concession than his. He fails to mention that Peacock recognised, unlike him, that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that this measure would have to be paid for. Peacock suggested that it should be paid for by a £10 car wireless licence. Is that part of the hon. Gentleman's proposal?
§ Mr. Winnick
I do not want to engage in a verbal challenge. I hope that we can conduct the debate on a proper basis. However, I find the "free kunch" expression rather offensive to the type of people whom I have mentioned. I think that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will agree it was not appropriate to say that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] Clearly, if the concession were confined to those on supplementary benefit, another anomaly would be created. Many pensioners on just slightly more than supplementary benefit would find that an injustice had been done, so it would be far better to accept my proposal.
Although I do not believe that the concession should be confined to those on supplementary benefit, even that would be better than nothing. It would help some people. Some Conservative Members jeered when I began my remarks about piecemeal reforms. If the concessions were confined to pensioners on supplmentary benefit, to the extent that that would help some of our fellow citizens it would be better than nothing. I am not dogmatic. No 510 doubt we shall hear a great deal from the Minister of State and other Conservative Members about how properous pensioners are. I am sure that the Minister already has these points in his notes. We shall probably hear that millionaires will benefit under my Bill. But that is a strange argument by a Government who not only have given substantial concessions and relief in virtually every Budget since 1979 to the rich and prosperous but boast that, as long as they continue in office, they will follow the same road. Is it the logic of the Government's case that although that is all right, it is wrong to give any concessions to the well off if, at the same time, under my Bill the majority on low incomes will benefit?
Conservative Members rarely complain about concessions to the rich and elderly. When Tory Chancellors announce concessions in their Budgets, Conservative Members never complain. They never argue. "Rich people already have had many tax benefits. Why should they be given more?" In Committee on Finance Bills, Conservative Members usually table amendments to extend those concessions. Today we shall hear from Consevative Members how shocking and horrible it is that perhaps some rich people will benefit under my Bill, but there is no shock or horror when Tory Chancellors give tax concessions to the wealthy in Budget after Budget.
My Bill will cost £225 million each year. I do not deny that. The Government abolished the investment income surcharge but, if it were restored in the current financial year it would raise for the Exchequer revenue of no less than £825 million. It is interesting to note that, in Committee on the Finance Bill, the fact that hardly anyone with capital of less than £70,000 was liable to pay that tax was not challenged. Conservative Members did not suggest a means test or say that that was wrong, so let there he no hypocrisy today about my Bill.
It appears from the Library's figures that about one third of pensioner households are on supplementary benefit. As we know, that is the smallest possible sum on which people can try to manage day by day. If the definition of poverty were broadened to include those earning up to 40 per cent. above supplementary benefit level, that would cover 64 per cent. of pensioner households. Undoubtedly, a large majority of the people who would benefit from my Bill would be those on small incomes at poverty or near poverty level. It is nonsense to say that my Bill is aimed at helping millionaires.
It would have been wrong for me to have introduced a Bill of this nature without putting forward recommendations on how the shortfall should be made up. I make it perfectly clear that it should be made up from taxes. I have not tried to get round the problem by putting forward other choices. As clause 3 shows, the money would be made up from taxation.
The cost of my Bill would be less than one fifth of 1 per cent. of taxation revenue. I do not believe that any taxpayer would complain about paying that extra amount so that elderly people could be assisted in the way that I have suggested.
The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), wrote on 25 September last year to a Conservative Member of the European Parliament who had been contacted by a constituent. In the last paragraph, the Minister said:We are now considering the Committee's recommendations"—the Peacock committee's recommendations— 511which require careful study, and will reach final views on them only in the light of Parliamentary and public reaction.That is interesting, because, undoubtedly, public reaction has been in support of my Bill.
My Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, should be given a Second Reading and be allowed to go into Committee. I believe that I should be given the opportunity in Committee to respond constructively, as I would do, to any amendments that go some way towards meeting my aims. If the Government said that in no circumstances would they accept the whole measure but would phase it in, I should be disappointed but accept that. I should accept any proposals along the lines that I have advocated.
It would be disgraceful if later today, at 1 o'clock or half-past 1, Cabinet Ministers on very high salaries trooped into the Lobby on a three-line Whip to deny pensioners on the lowest possible incomes a free television licence. What I am advocating is fair and justified. If I am defeated in a Tory-dominated House of Commons on a whipped vote of Cabinet Ministers, I shall carry on the campaign with my right hon. and hon. Friends. We shall not give up, because we believe that we are right. If we do not get this concession for pensioners from a Tory Government, we shall ensure that it comes from a Labour Government.
§ 10.8 am
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
The subject of today's debate is regarded as important by many pensioners and should be taken seriously. It is right that we should devote some time to it. However, I believe that the analysis of the problem by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is defective, and his solution is therefore bound to be wrong.
Many pensioners regard television as a necessity, in the sense that they would give up many items that are accepted as necessary before they would be prepared to sacrifice their television viewing. No one should be scornful of that fact. Although I am not an uncritical observer of broadcasting, I argue that the BBC provides excellent value for money in return for the licence fee. Although television costs us only a few pence a day, the annual licence fee is one of the largest payments that pensioners make. Of course, there is a savings scheme, but it is not a true instalments scheme. Pensioners probably give more thought to that payment than they do to other items which represent a larger share of their budget but which are paid for in smaller amounts at more frequent intervals.
What rankles with many people, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, is not so much the fact that there is a licence fee as that there is a licence fee concession from which a minority of people benefit who are not always those most in need of help. We should address that issue.
Spending a great deal more money, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North suggests, to give all pensioner viewers free licences might have superficial attractions to some, but it would not be a sensible way of extending the social security system. It has obvious disadvantages. It would be a blunt instrument that would benefit the wealthy as well as the poor, regardless of need. It would cost about £230 million even if only pensioners living alone were included. The cost might have to be paid for by an increase in the licence fee for everyone else or, as the hon. Member for 512 Walsall, North suggested, by higher taxation. Many of those who would have to pay the bill could be substantially poorer than a large proportion of pensioners.
The proposal extends a benefit in kind, which conflicts greatly with the sensible view of organisations representing pensioners that improved benefits should be provided in cash, giving pensioners the choice of how they wish to use it. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Sir P. Hawkins) made a sensible point in his letter to his constituents. The pensioners who would gain least would be those who, perhaps as a result of a loss of sight or of hearing, cannot enjoy television. But they could use cash benefits in other more fruitful ways.
The anomalies in the concessionary system cause difficulty—[Interruption.] I am sorry that so many Opposition Members cannot treat this seriously.
§ Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Is it not a fact that, a few minutes ago, the hon. Gentleman—a very wealthy man—deplored the expenditure of £230 million and is trying to weave an argument against giving the pensioners what we want to give them? Did not the Conservative Government, overnight, provide £250 million to bail out the multi-millionaires Johnson Matthey? Is that the morality that he accepts, instead of giving the pensioners what they want?
§ Mr. Waller
I wish that the hon. Gentleman's first suggestion was right. If I were led astray by the hon. Gentleman into discussing his more general point, I would soon be ruled out of order. I shall speak about the issues that we have come here to discuss, not about those which apparently concern the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery).
The anomalies that arise from the concessionary system cause the difficulties. At the time, the provision of a concession for residential homes seemed to be a humane step, and including pensioners who live in different sorts of sheltered accommodation seemed to many to be a further advance. It then became difficult to ignore the claims of handicapped people who live in sheltered accommodation, so they too, were included. But every time we move the qualifying line, we create a cause for more aggrieved people who have been omitted. That would be so whatever step one took in extending concessions.
Many of my elderly constituents earnestly desire a move to sheltered accommodation, but because of the shortage of such a provision they must continue to live alone in houses that are far from ideal. Perhaps the case for a concession could most reasonably be made for those people rather than for those who enjoy the company of other elderly people.
In my constituency there is a Sue Ryder hospice, Manorlands, where cancer patients often stay for several months. As it is a nursing home, which does not qualify under the regulations, patients, who are often confined to bed, must have their own licences if they have their own television sets.
The faults in the system are glaring, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, was right not to conceal in his letter the fact that the present system cannot be defended. But I wish to be constructive. It is possible to reform the system. Even those who benefit from the present concession accept that it is unfair and would see the justice in a system which 513 benefited all pensioners alike. A Government who abolished the present unsatisfactory concession would, therefore, not be bombarded with an undue number of complaints if it could be seen that something fairer had been put in its place.
If we agreed that something had to replace the existing system—which is probably true—I would start with the concept that it should be equivalent in value to a monochrome licence, which costs £18. Its appeal would be that it would provide beneficiaries with the choice of having a black and white set without further charge, thus effectively giving them a free licence, or topping up the amount, as most would choose to do, to enjoy the advantages of colour. At that level, the cost to the Chancellor would still be substantial, although it would be much less than the cost of the proposals contained in the Bill.
§ Mr. Ashton
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that can already be done? In local councils such as Bassetlaw, pensioners have the option of a free bus pass to take them anywhere, or a free black and white television licence. One third of them opt for the television licence. If Bassetlaw council can do it, why cannot Tory councils do it?
§ Mr. Waller
It is a matter for individual councils. I am sure that Bassetlaw is not the only one that makes flexible arrangements.
The cost to the Chancellor and to the taxpayer could be reduced by linking the new, more general concession with the benefit which pensioners and some others receive once a year—the Christmas bonus. It has remained at £10 since it was created, but the money will buy much less than it used to, although it has always been paid, except when the Labour Government failed to do so after the International Monetary Fund required public expenditure to be drastically pruned. The Christmas bonus is regarded today as a bit of extra pocket money, but it could become a much-valued benefit to pensioners if it was topped up to the value of a monochrome television licence.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
There may be merit in the hon. Gentleman's argument, although I do not accept it. I hope that he will vote for the Bill so that we can have the advantage of debating his arguments in committee.
§ Mr. Waller
The Bill is so defective that it does not even begin to address the problem.
If the £10 Christmas bonus was topped up to the value of a monochrome television licence, it would still be worth less in real terms than it was when it was introduced. It could be paid in the form of a voucher which pensioners could use to purchase their licence whenever the fee became due. However, if someone chose to spend the money differently—some people may have no use for a television because of blindness or for another reason—it would be his right. It would be a benefit paid in cash, not in kind. The cost to the Chancellor of a generally available voucher could be offset against the existing Christmas bonus and the £22 million which the abolition of the present concessionary scheme will save.
The cost of the official Labour party proposal for a free colour licence for all would be £330 million. The much more limited plan that I have suggested would cost a fraction of that, but I believe that it would be seen as being fair, and it would be popular.
514 Both the Labour party official proposal and the slightly less expensive main provision of the Bill can be considered only as ineffective and wasteful. There is no suggestion of how the bill would be paid—that is the case with so much expenditure proposed by the Labour party. We know that many of those who would write the cheque would be more disadvantaged than those who would benefit. That is why the Bill cannot be supported, but we should nevertheless take action as soon as possible to get rid of the niggle which otherwise will come back to haunt us time and time again.
§ Mr. Terry Patchett (Barnsley, East)
I am grateful for the opportunity to support the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I promise to be brief as I appreciate the strength of feeling about the Bill and I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak.
In my area of Barnsley, East there is a strong caring community. Both the local authority and my constitents care very much for the quality of life of the elderly. The local authority does all it can although, on occasions, central Government handicap its desires. The local authority is strong on providing sheltered units and warden schemes. It has formed community clubs to encourage youngsters to visit pensioners, dig their gardens and, in extreme cases, to paint their homes. It is trying to maintain transport facilities for the elderly even though the Transport Act 1985 has created problems. It is in a constant battle with the Government trying to help the elderly in my constituenty. Many of my constituents do voluntary work and in every village there is an old folks centre where they spend a great deal of time. Every pub and club provide coach trip parties and get-togethers for their elderly members.
My constituents do such work for no reward, and I am very proud of them and the Barnsley metropolitan authority. We care about the quality of life of our elderly and we feel strongly that the Bill will make a contribution to their quality of life. I hope that the Members will support the Bill today.
We are all aware of the many sacrifices that elderly people make to pay their licences to ensure that they keep their television sets. They regard their television almost as a friend, knowing it to be a virtual lifeline in the sense that it keeps them in touch with what is going on in the world and also entertains them.
There is no valid argument against the Bill on the grounds that it would not be a tremendous asset to the elderly. The argument will be based on finance and such arguments have already been advanced by Conservative Members. Yet some Conservative Members would think nothing of taking their wives out for dinner tonight and spending more than a cost of a television licence in that one night. One evening's pleasure as opposed to one year's pleasure. Perhaps that is the measure of the haves and have nots in Britain today.
We all know that if the Government have the will they will find the money. Only this week the Government cut the red tape that protects them from spending money. The Government have done a U-turn on the payment of heating allowances as a result of public pressure and pressure in the House. The Government found billions of pounds to finance the fight against the miners—a fight they created. The Government paid £1,000 to each person 515 who worked at GCHQ to buy off their democratic right to belong to a trade union. If the Government are willing they can find the money.
Yesterday, the Institute of Directors published proposals calling for £4 billion worth of tax cuts. I am sure that Conservative Members will listen carefully to that proposal. Such evidence weakens the Government's arguments against the Bill.
Only this week a statement has been made proposing that the BBC should chase its licence defaulters. That would increase the cost faced by the BBC and therefore I cannot understand how the Government can argue that they are concerned about BBC revenue.
§ Mr. Ashton
Is my hon. Friend aware that this week the Prime Minister, who is a pensioner, went to the opera? For every performance at the opera, the top price seats attract a subsidy of £42. The Government can pay that but they cannot pay for pensioners to watch the opera on television.
§ Mr. Patchett
I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). No doubt, if pensioners were to take advantage of that facility, the Government would seek to withdraw it. Such is the callousness of the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North has taken account of BBC financing in the Bill. Estimates suggest that the cost of the Bill would be £225 million. That is chicken-feed compared to other Government spending. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North has already gone into the anomalies of the present system and I will not go on about 5p and so on. The Bill would eradicate all those anomalies.
I ask all Members to support the Bill today and show respect to pensioners—a respect that they rightly deserve from the country.
§ Sir Paul Bryan (Boothferry)
I declare my interest in the Granada group and also as chairman of Croydon Cable Television. I recall that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), in a previous political incarnation, had a particular interest in this desirable area.
Having heard the speech of the hon. Member for Walsall, North and having read his Bill I must concede that it is more reasonable than the Labour party proposals put forward by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on Wednesday. The right hon. Gentleman said that all pensioners should be given free television licences. Such a general blanket concession to people, including those who clearly do not need it is well out of date. Any modern Government must appreciate that, with an aging population, the justified demand on social services will be almost impossible to meet. Therefore, to start distributing money to those who do not need it is not sensible.
I support the principle—opposed rather than ridiculed by the hon. Member for Walsall, North—that benefits should be in the form of increased income rather than directed at individual grievances. That is a principle that has always been adopted by the Labour party. In 1978 the then Home Secretary the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) rejected the idea of abolishing television licences for pensioners on the grounds that:Such a proposal would cost the best part of £90 million…and the Government believe that it is better to continue 516 to treat old-age pensioners in the way in which we have treated them, with the extra money being paid across the board in the past four years, rather than to do it in the way my hon. Friend suggests."—[Official Report, 26 July 1978; Vol. 954, c. 1581.]That is what the right hon. Gentleman used to say in those days.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North rightly maintains that there are often exceptions to such general principles. I agree, especially when the exception is, say, a bus pass. That concession benefits overwhelmingly those who are poor. The less income a citizen has, the more likely he is to use publid transport. Consequently, that concession workd well and is not a bad exception.
§ Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)
Is the hon. Gentleman quite sure about that? In these days of deregulation, buses have been taken off routes. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in my constituency many poor people have to stay at home and watch television. Consequently, I believe that the Bill will benefit far more poor elderly people than bus passes do.
§ Sir Paul Bryan
That is a fairly tortuous argument, but I still maintain that it is the poorer citizens who benefit from bus passes.
The Bill is reasonable to the extent that it at least contains limits and is confined to households consisting only of pensioners, and so on. We must clearly give the hon. Member for Walsall, North credit for trying to improve the lot of our poorer viewers who have to pay such a high licence fee. Consequently, in arguing against the Bill it is our duty to say how we propose to improve the lot of those in that category.
At first the BBC licence fee was reasonable and was seen to be reasonable. There was initially only one channel, operated by the BBC, and we paid a licence for that. That was understandable. Then ITV arrived and the situation became 50 per cent. less satisfactory because people could easily and reasonably question why they should pay the licence fee if they watched only ITV.
However, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) pointed out, that grievance was blurred by the fact that the licence had a natural buoyancy. The increasing number of television sets meant that the licence fee stayed still. There was another surge of licence income buoyancy with the arrival of colour television. However, as soon as that natural buoyancy started to decrease, the licence fee increased and was questioned more and more. It is now highly questionable. The BBC is more than conscious of that, hence its fight to increase ratings in the knowledge that the fewer viewers is has, the less justified the licence fee appears to be.
We are talking about the licence fee for the next 15 years, or perhaps less than that. By then it will have become intolerable, A quarter of the population will probably have cable. Those people will already be paying £10 to £20 for 20 to 30 choices, and so they will justifiably object even more to paying extra for the BBC. In addition, many services will reach us via satellites, although none of us knows how many there will be. Therefore, whereas at the beginning of television there was only one channel which was paid for by one licence fee there will in future be perhaps two BBC channels among perhaps 50 channels being offered to the public. It will then seem quite unreasonable to pay such a licence fee.
The Government have agreed that in such circumstances the licence will be untenable. They have 517 provisionally adopted the Peacock idea of pay television for the BBC. I have already argued that I do not believe that that is possible. However, that is not the subject of today's debate.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman has great experience in the provision of cable television. But, given the argument that he has just expounded, will he be saying that his and other companies will connect pensioners' houses so that they can receive cable television if it is provided free? In the case of satellite broadcasting, what does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the dish aerials? There is the question of the hardware that must be provided to give people such a great potential choice of programmes.
§ Sir Paul Bryan
That is right. I am arguing in the most general way, and I am not saying exactly who will have these things. But as a general proposition, the proportion of services offered by the BBC for which one must pay will be much smaller than at present, and so the postiion will be less tolerable.
§ Mr. Flannery
Will the hon. Gentleman relate his remarks to the Bill? He has taken us into the future, but what relevance does that have for the Bill?
§ Sir Paul Bryan
It has the relevance that I have just outlined. I said that, if I wanted to reject the Bill, I should first say what I believe can be done to improve the lot of licence payers.
In the meantime, the viewer has another grievance which will be met by indexation. He does not know when there will be an increase in the licence fee. Page 14 of the Peacock report shows that in the past 10 years there have been six increases in the licence fee at intervals of two years, one year, two years and three years. No one knows when that increase will have to be paid. All of a sudden the viewer is asked for an increase. Also, the amount by which the licence fee is increased is unpredictable. In one year, between 1978 and 1979, the licence fee increased by £9. Two years later it increased by £12, and after another three years it increased by another £12. Those are enormous increases on the lump sum. This unpredictability will be put right also by indexation.
But there is yet another grievance, and that is the size of the lump sum and the fact that it all has to be paid at once. In his statement on Wednesday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary offered some encouraging words when he said:We aim to increase convenience of payment for the consumer; to help those in financial difficulty to spread the cost of the fee;"—[Official Report, 14 January 1987; Vol. 108, c. 264.]That is much more important than it sounds. Twenty years ago I held the lofty post of shadow Postmaster-General. Being diligent, I went to several post offices to see how the licence fee was collected. I was appalled to see how inefficiently collected it was. That was not surprising. It is very unpleasant to have to go round getting money from people. As a result, the staff gave it the lowest priority, and the job did not really get done. Page 12 of the Peacock report shows that that situation persists to this day, and 1.6 million people do not pay the fee.
At that time I happened to be a director of Granada Television Rentals Ltd. In order to stay in business, the 518 company has to please the people from whom it collects money. Tremendous efforts were made to find out the easiest way for people to pay. Many alternatives were offered to make payment effective. Not many people wanted to pay by bankers order, but if someone wanted to do so, that was made possible. Many chose to pay weekly, calling at a pleasant shop where they were welcomed. I conclude that this sort of attitude should be adopted in collecting the licence fee. Much greater effort should be made.
I am therefore glad that the Home Secretary is accepting recommendation 4 of the Peacock committee, to which I draw the attention of the House—To permit the BBC to be the managing agent in the collection of the licence fee, the Post Office should be released from its responsibility as agent to the Home Office for collection and enforcement procedures associated with the licence fee. The BBC should become responsible for inviting proposals for collection and enforcement procedures and for identifying the most efficient and economic collection and enforcement system.The Post Office, of course, could tender for the role of agent.I cannot forecast who would tender for the licence fee collecting agency. I doubt if television rental companies would be interested. Nevertheless, for the fee of £45 million now paid to the Post Office there must be a number of money collecting organisations which would be keen to take on that job. The collection of licences could be done much more humanely and sensitively.
In conclusion, I do not reject the case that something must be done and that much more thought must be given to the poorer licence payers. They have legitimate grievances but not grievances that can be cured by this Bill.
§ Mr. Michael Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
I welcome the opportunity today to vote for extending the opportunities for pensioners and other people to enjoy the concession of a free television licence.
I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading today and thus provide an opportunity for those Conservative Members who have already spoken a chance to amend the Bill and to introduce some of their ideas, because although the Bill is a broad-brush attempt to extend the concession, it creates major anomalies. Some people who could afford to pay for the licence would be given the concession, while many hundreds, if not thousands, of people who would desire and deserve a concession, would not receive it.
This week I met an elderly constituent while I was trying to get her an added heating allowance. She spoke of her plight if the Bill was passed. She would not qualify for the concession under the Bill because, regrettably, she has two mentally handicapped sons, both in their forties. There must be an opportunity in Committee to draw out those anomalies and find ways of improving what must be seen as a major step forward.
It would be a mistake on the part of any hon. Member to vote against the Second Reading today. I hope and pray that hon. Members will accept the spirit in which the Bill has been presented and will adopt an open mind and an enlightened attitude to it. It would be too easy to reject it out of hand and lose an opportunity to improve the major anomalies in the system, which have already been highlighted.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. He has made it clear that he intends to vote in favour of the Bill. Why is it, therefore, that the alliance manifesto, "Working together for Britain", used at the last election—a document not short on electoral bribes to pensioners—mentioned nothing, even in a broad-brush way, that could remotely approximate to what he will now vote for?
§ Mr. Hancock
If the hon. Gentleman reads our next manifesto, which I hope he will do, he will see that, like all things in politics, matters move forward. People realise that change has to be made. I am sure the hon. Gentleman remembers that old cliché that someone who never changes his mind never changes anything. This is a clear example of the way in which the alliance is becoming more flexible and believes that those who desire a broader interpretation of the concession should be given an opportunity to gain it. The alliance's approach to this matter is on the right track.
I hope that this will not be an issue at the general election and that the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will receive the support of the House so that the matter will be dealt with long before we have to face the electorate. There is undoubtedly a demand within the country for these changes to take place.
I have a letter from a Mr. Welland who is employed in the TV licensing department in Portsmouth. Last October, in a letter to the Portsmouth local authority in reply to its query on how the present rules could be interpreted, he said:You will appreciate that it is not possible to provide a comprehensive statement of the facilities which would confer entitlement to the concessionary licence.Those concessions cannot be given because it is difficult to provide a comprehensive statement. Mr. Welland went on to provide the local authority with the conditions of eligiblity, but said that there were grey and murky areas in which there could be widespread misinterpretation and confusion.
If the people who implement the present rules do not have a clear picture of how this can be managed, surely something must be done. Indeed, a recent letter from the Home Office to one of my constituents said:Perhaps I should first explain that there is a special television licence for certain old people's homes and sheltered housing schemes. It was not intended to be a welfare concession, but was introduced to provide a uniform system of licensing in old people's homes and comparable residential accommodation for pensioners… The Home Secretary recognises that television is an important source of information and entertainment for many elderly people.My constituent recognises that the present system gives rise to grave areas of doubt and anomalies and that it is a cause of resentment. The Home Office and the Home Secretary recognise, as do the people interpreting the rules, that the current scheme has major problems. Surely, therefore, there can be no excuse for saying that nothing should be done and that we should leave the scheme as it is.
Once again, I draw on my constituency experience. This week the housing department in Portsmouth provided me with a list which tells me that in six major tower blocks, each with more than 120 dwellings, in nearly every block more than 50 per cent. of the inhabitants are granted the concession. The anomalies are too big to ignore. Two 520 people live on the same floor in adjacent flats. One occupies a one-bedroom flat and receives the concession, while his nextdoor neighbour, who lives in exactly the same circumstances, except that because there was no one-bedroom accommodation available had to be given a two-bedroom flat, has to pay the full licence. It is impossible to argue against the need to change that state of affairs.
I defy the Home Secretary, the Minister of State, or anyone else to defend the position that where two pensioners live on the same floor of a block of flats, the only difference being that one has a one-bedroom flat and the other has a two-bedroomed flat, one has to pay £58 and the other has to pay only 5p. The position is indefensible, but, nevertheless, giving the concession to every pensioner would be wrong. As I said, there are many pensioners who can well afford to pay the licence fee. There are many examples, which do not need to be repeated by me today, of people who can and will continue to pay for the licence, but there are many non-pensioners who should be given the concession. I have in mind the long-term unemployed and people who, for other reasons, are unable to meet the full cost because of their predicament and the way in which society has plunged them into major problems.
Changes must be made. The alliance has said that the Peacock report went along the right lines and drew out those anomalies. It tried to perform a duty by recognising that difficulties existed, and also that there were difficulties in finding a solution to the problem, such as how to compensate the BBC for the loss of revenue. The hon. Member for Walsall, North also made this point. The hon. Member made it clear that at the end of the day his legislation would not involve major costs and that the sum should be found to make the concession system fairer and more realistic. It would be wrong to ignore the call of the British people for these changes. I can think of few matters that have so united people as this one has in their attempt to bring it to the attention of Parliament in the nearly three years that I have been here. Nor have all those people been pensioners. Many people believe that we have a duty to recognise this unfairness and to respond to it. The Minister cannot possibly make a case to defend the present position. He may come to the House in an enlightened mood today and tell us what the Government intend to make the system fairer in a way that would make the Bill unnecessary, but I doubt that. That is why it is critical that we support the Bill and send it to Committee, where hon. Members can amend it.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
The hon. Gentleman referred to the need to send the Bill to Committee. May I remind the House that we have had five Bills of this type since 1979 and that not one has succeeded in reaching a Committee? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Conservative Members, who rightly have made it clear that something should be done, no matter how small, have a moral duty to give the Bill a chance so that it can be amended, especially after our experience with the previous five Bills?
§ Mr. Hancock
I could not agree more, and that statement comes from an hon. Member with much more experience of the workings of the House than I have. He recognises the frustration felt outside the House and that people feel that we must be a strange animal to recognise 521 that something is wrong, yet not be prepared to change it. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the House has had an opportunity to do something about it on five occasions.
It would be foolish for us to reject yet another opportunity. I am sure that many hon. Members support the spirit of the Bill. Conservative Members who represent surrounding constituencies have been quoted in my local newspaper as supporting the Bill, and some Conservative Members have signed early-day motions supporting a change. It will be remarkable if they are not in the Lobby today to support the Second Reading of the Bill. Our pensioners will not easily forgive those who say one thing in letters and early-day motions, and another with their feet when they vote. I hope that all hon. Members will recognise the need to change the legislation.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor)
I should like to assure the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) that his invitation to consider double standards is one that I fully intend to take up during my remarks. I am glad to have the opportunity to intervene so early in the debate and I should like to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on his good fortune in being drawn first in the ballot. I am sorry that my remaining remarks will not give him much satisfaction, but he, having been a Member of Parliament on and off for 20 years, will know perfectly well why I take this line. He knows perfectly well that my line is consistent with that of every Minister in every Government since the war when this hardy perennial has come before the House. It is only that the tune of some hon. Members changes when they move into Opposition. Then they find much more favour for this change than ever they were prepared to countenance when their party was in Government.
§ Sir Fergus Montgomery
Is my hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on 1 July 1966, on 16 February 1968 and on 7 February 1969 voted repeatedly against a Bill introduced to give a pension to pensioners over 80—[Intrruption.] It was no laughing matter for the people concerned—who were the oldest people in the country and too old to join the national insurance scheme in 1948. Is that not an example of selective compassion? He shows great compassion when a Conservative Government are in power and no compassion when a Labour Government are in power.
§ Mr. Mellor
My hon. Friend is right. So much of what Opposition Members say is based on the assumption that no one remembers anything before yesterday, but we all do. The hon. Member for Walsall, North had the temerity to laugh at what at the time was a most pressing political issue: that of giving a pension to pensioners over 80 who were too old to be part of the pension scheme. That was left to the succeeding Conservative Government. Then he has the gall to rebuke us for our attitudes to pensioners. While I have some hard things to say about the cynical exploitation of pensioners which is being evidenced by the speeches from Opposition Members today, let it in no sense be taken as a lack of sympathy for the plight of pensioners either on my part or on that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I shall begin by differentiating clearly between our approach towards the legitimate aspirations 522 of pensioners and our approach towards the cynical opportunism of the Opposition. They are two different matters.
Through their actions the Government have shown more effectively than any of their predecessors their concern for pensioners. In order that there should be no misunderstanding about that, I shall give the evidence. If an Opposition Member wishes to tell me that any of my statistics are wrong, I shall gladly give him the opportunity to do so because we hear a great deal of empty wind-baggery, which is wholly divorced from the real facts of the Government's record.
Government spending on pensioners has increased by 25 per cent. in real terms since the financial year 1978–79. The total cost of the old-age retirement pension is £18,000 million. That is the clearest possible evidence of the Government's commitment to maintaining and enhancing the living standards of pensioners.
§ Mr. Mellor
It is a great shame that this noted columnist in the national press is so incapable of listening to other people's arguments. He might write a better-informed column next week if he had the courtesy to listen.
§ Mr. Ashton
Why does the Minister start his figures in 1978 rather than in 1979 when the Tories took over?
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman seems to show a lamentable lack of knowledge of the way in which finances are calculated in accusing me of fiddling the figures. The last financial year for which the Labour Government were responsible was 1978–79.
§ Mr. Mellor
Yes, exactly. The hon. Gentleman seems to be showing even less insight than he normally does. I am comparing the last full year of the Labour Government with the present year of the Conservative Government. That shows a 25 per cent. increase in real terms in the sum allocated to the welfare of pensioners.
Notwithstanding the fact——
§ Mr. Mellor
I was about to make that very point. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] Will the hon. Gentleman now listen? Will he promise to keep his trap shut from a sedentary position for just one minute while I explain? Will he make that little deal? I shall deal with the 1 million extra pensioners if this distinguished man of letters will keep his mouth shut for one minute. Is it a deal? Of the £4 billion in extra resources which we have deployed to improve the welfare of pensioners, £1.75 billion has financed the 1 million extra pensioners and £2.25 billion financed increased benefit for all pensioners.
§ Mr. Ashton
Is it not a fact that when the Government came into power, old-age pensions were increased to the cost of living or the increase in the national average age, whichever was the higher? The Government took away the link to the national wage increase and tied the pension to the cost of living index only. This year, if the Labour party formula had been continued, instead of the 45p increase in pensions there would have been an increase of nearer £3. Since 1979, a pensioner couple would have been £12 better off under our formula, and a single person £8 better off.
§ Mr. Mellor
On three opportunities out of four the Labour Government did not do it. They had to fiddle the basis on which pensions were calculated, because the historic inflation was so high, and move it to a prediction of inflation, which they persistently got wrong, because they hoped that the amount that they would have to pay out on a prediction of inflation would be less than if they had to pay out for historic inflation.
The hon. Gentleman, that great pillar of popular journalism, who seeks to curry favour with ordinary folk on the basis that he can pull the wool over their eyes, supported the Government that could not, in two years out of five, even pay the £10 Christmas bonus to the pensioners. We want a little less cant and hypocrisy from the Opposition Benches.
Our spending on pensioners is the third highest in Europe when related to the size of our economy. Not only is the old-age pension more than fully compensating for the rises in the cost of living, but additional assistance is available to 1.7 million pensioners on supplementary pensions and 4.1 million pensioners on housing benefit. Pensioners today, instead of being left to freeze through the winter of discontent as they were in 1978–79 with no extra help, are receiving not only the greatly increased heating supplements that the Government have regularly paid but additional emergency assistance for dealing with particularly adverse circumstances.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I realise that the Minister and the Government are embarrassed by the Bill. We have had debates all this week on pensions and such matters. I am sure that the Minister does not want to repeat them. Will you ask him to answer the debate?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. Fortunately, Mr. Speaker, or the occupant of the Chair, does not determine what should be in speeches. It is my job to see that order is being preserved, and the Minister is not out of order in what he is saying.
§ Mr. Mellor
I appreciate the sincerity of the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) in most of the matters on which he speaks, and I am sorry that it is necessary for us to fall out today. I cannot say the same for some of his colleagues.
§ Mr. Mellor
I shall now accept the invitation to get on, and I shall give way to the hon. Lady later.
We have created that pearl beyond price for the pensioner, the low inflation economy, which is the best protection for his standard of living, as against the Labour party's average inflation of 15 per cent. In its spending plans, the Labour party acknowledges that inflation will go up, but apparently, as he contemplates the ravages of increased prices on every basic commodity, the pensioner will at least be consoled by being able to watch EastEnders for nothing. I wonder how many pensioners will find that a particularly attractive proposition.
If I were asked to sum up what has been happening to pensioners during this Government, I could best do so through an analysis by the Family Expenditure Survey, which deals with the period 1979–85. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw, the noted man of letters, will agree that that was the first year of the Conservative Government, so I hope that I have got my base line right. Between 1979–85, 524 pensioners' total net income in real terms rose by an average of 2.7 per cent. a year, wheras the net income of the rest of the population as a whole rose by 1.3 per cent. That shows how well targeted our assistance for pensioners has been.
Moreover, and even more significantly, pensioners' incomes rose some four times faster during this period than during 1974–79, so if a licence fee concession were needed, how much was it needed during that period 1974–79, when all those Labour Members, the spokesmen of the pensioners, sat supine on their backsides and did nothing about it?
I want to make clear what our policy towards this matter is. Our policy has an added advantage of being the persistent policy that has been pursued by every Government who have had to consider these matters.
§ Mrs. Clwyd
If the Minister is so proud of his Government's record on pensioners, can he explain why, during this week of cold weather, twice as many people have died in this country as in any other European country?
§ Mr. Mellor
That is empty emotionalism, which has no connection with the reality of provision in this country as against others. It is a spurious statistic. The hon. Lady should be ashamed of herself for reducing the debate to that level. I have made it clear that the Government are spending £400 million a year on heating allowances. The last Labour Government spent £90 million. The Government are offering emergency assistance on heating to deal with the cold weather. During the winter of discontent, which was the last hard winter in this country, the then Government did absolutely nothing.
The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone invited me to turn to the more central issues in the debate, and I shall now do so, having, I hope, made clear, without any Labour Member being able to challenge my statistics, the validity of our record towards the pensioners. I hope that we shall hear no more nonsense about the poverty of our record in that matter.
Our policy, like that of previous Labour Governments, has always been to provide the retirement pensioners and others with cash benefits without placing any restrictions on the way in which they might be spent by the recipients. It is not for the Government to determine how pensioners use their resources, by syphoning some off into exemptions from licence fees, which many can afford and others do not want. That is the basic standard principle that the Government adopt. [Interruption.] I appreciate how embarrassing this is for Labour Members who have come to the debate and intend to speak in it. They may find it less embarrassing to talk among themselves, but if they were to listen to as clear a statement as I can give of the essential reasons why this Government, and the previous Labour Government, refuse to introduce such a measure, their succeeding speeches in favour of the measure might command more attention and respect.
§ Mr. Winnick
The hon. Gentleman might find that if he spoke with a little less arrogance he would get more attention from the Labour Benches. Although he is so keen to dismiss all that I have advocated, it is interesting to note that, even if one leaves aside the glaring anomaly whereby those in warden-controlled accommodation rightly pay 5p, the Peacock committee came to the conclusion that at least those on supplementary benefit 525 should not have to pay the television licence fee. Why does he continue to tell us that all that we are putting forward today is a simple exercise in bribery when even the Peacock committee recognise some of the merit of what I am advocating.
§ Mr. Mellor
The Peacock committee made a much narrower proposal than the hon. Gentleman, which would have been subject to all the same anomalies affecting others, equally poor, who are not pensioners or who are immediately above the line. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman—but he refuses to come to terms with this and said nothing in his speech of 35 minutes about how this would be paid for—the Peacock committee advocated that it should be paid for by a £10 licence on car radios, which we thought both unenforceable and undesirable.
Our proposal is to keep sensible control over the licence fee and to ensure that there are easier methods of payment. We see that at the most practical way forward in assisting the pensioners. That is why my hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear what the Government intend to do about the licence fee. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) wants to speak later, why does he not listen to what I am saying instead of having a conversation across the Chamber? I listened to what the hon. Member for Walsall, North had to say. I hope that the hon. Member for Rhondda will extend the same courtesy to me.
§ Mr. Ashton
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We do not wish to abuse the protocol of the House, but it is obvious that the Minister has not read Clause 3 of the Bill. Would it be in order if I were to walk across the Floor of the House and give him a copy of the Bill?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order for me. There have so far been 22 interventions, when the hon. Member addressing the House has given way. There have been even more interventions from a sedentary position. This is a very important debate. Far more hon. Members who are waiting to catch my eye would have the opportunity to do so if there were fewer interruptions, particularly from a sedentary position.
§ Mr. Rogers
I apologise to the Minister if I disturbed him when he was speaking, but, as I have already told the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), I would willingly listen to the Minister if he would come to the central point of his argument. When he stops ranting and raving I shall listen to him. If I have put him off I apologise. I shall now listen attentively to what he has to say.
§ Mr. Mellor
I accept the hon. Gentleman's apology.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced a pattern of increase in the licence that is fair both to the BBC, but subjecting it to appropriate financial discipline, and to those, particularly the less well-off, who have to pay the licence fee. We are also conscious of the difficulty that many people of limited means, including 526 many pensioners, face in meeting the cost of the colour television licence in a lump sum. For that reason we offer easy payment schemes to help people to spread the cost of their television licence.
The well-established TV licence savings stamp scheme is extremely popular, particularly with pensioners, many of whom are regular post office users. In the last financial year, stamp sales reached a record of nearly £160 million, which is equivalent to about 16 per cent. of the total licence revenue. We are aware that the present savings stamp and direct debit schemes do not help those who have been unable to save money for their licence fee and who are faced with the need to find the fee in full before they can be issued with a licence.
As a means of overcoming this problem, both we and the BBC see attractions in arrangements under which licences could be issued on a pay-as-you-go basis, perhaps in quarterly instalments. Therefore we are now considering with the BBC how such a scheme could be put into practice. I hope that that represents a further step forward in recognising appropriate ways to ensure that people are able to spread the cost of payment in a way that is sensible and that fits in with their budgeting arrangements.
Much has been said today about the concessionary scheme. I make no bones about the concessionary scheme, any more than did my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington) in his letter to his constituent. The concessionary scheme is riddled with anomalies. It emerged in the early 1950s; it was particularly modified in 1968 and 1969; it was further modified in 1978 and, to a limited degree, in 1984. The result is that 650,000 benefit from the concessionary scheme and the numbers are increasing by 2,000 to 3,000 a month. We believe, just as the previous Labour Government believed, that it would be quite wrong for us to withdraw that concession from all those people, because a concession once granted cannot, in the real world, readily be withdrawn. However, it is impossible to find a coherent basis for that scheme——
§ Mr. Mellor
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish my sentence. It is impossible to find a coherent basis for that scheme, any more than it would be possible to find a cogent or coherent basis for the scheme that has been proposed by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. If the hon. Gentleman says that his scheme is less anomalous than the present scheme, I fear that he is sadly mistaken. We propose to continue the existing scheme on the basis that to do otherwise would be unacceptable.
§ Mr. Mellor
That has to do with local circumstances; it has nothing to do with the basic thrust of the argument. It relates to the basis upon which a local authority chooses to exercise its discretion.
I hope that I have established the Government's willingness to take sensible steps to ensure that the television licence is not an untoward imposition and that easy payment arrangements are made available for the less well-off.
527 The Bill of the hon. Member for Walsall, North is riddled with anomalies. They can be appropriately summed up in this way. He knows well that the concession he has presented to the House today would benefit many people who are well able to pay the licence fee but that it would exclude many who are below pensionable age who, in one way or another, are worse off than many pensioners—for example, single-parent families, the unemployed, young people away from home and the sick and the disabled living in accommodation that is not eligible for the 5p licence. He knows also that one third of pensioners are in the top three quintiles of national income and cannot be said to be impoverished. That is, 2.5 million people who would benefit from the hon. Gentleman's proposed concession. For that reason, not for any lack of concern about impoverished pensioners, we believe that assistance can be and must be better targeted.
§ Mr. Mellor
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to carry on for a moment.
The Bill fails to single out those who are in financial and social need—for for example, because they are single and housebound and particularly dependent on television as a form of entertainment. The anomalies of this proposal go far beyond anything that, on any pious expectation, could be held out as capable of reform in Committee.
§ Mr. Hughes
If the hon. Member for Walsall, North were to concede that the Bill should be amended so that pensioners on supplementary benefit were included, and also those who are living on their own, does the Minister accept that the Bill ought to be given a Second Reading and sent to Committee?
§ Mr. Mellor
If the hon. Gentleman had had a little more patience, he would have seen that I am coming to precisely that point. One of the central reasons against the Bill is that once one begins to give concessions on television licences to pensioners, it is impossible to police them in a way that ensures that they do not ultimately become a concession for all.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman says that that is not true. Perhaps he will wait and make his own speech. He has intervened once, and I should prefer him to develop that point later in his own way.
The proposals of the hon. Member for Walsall, North would cost £230 million. When a pensioner presents himself for that concession, how would we be able to determine, in practical terms, whether he was living in a pensioner-only household?
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that the DHSS would tell me. However, the DHSS has considered this proposal and says that there is no easy way of determining this issue. If he thinks that I am wrong about that, he can take it up with DHSS Ministers. That is their clear advice to me——
§ Mr. Mellor
No, I shall not give way again, even though the hon. Gentleman is such a devastating debater that I am sure that my reputation will be wholly ruined by not giving way to such an intervention.
528 Apart from the £230 million concession, which by itself is extremely expensive when ill-targeted and when at least a third of it would go to those who do not need it, the total cost of assistance to all pensioners households would be £330 million. That is the figure the Labour party is working on for its concession to all pensioners. But it goes further than that. Some pensioners have monochrome television licences. They will want free colour television licences. There is an evasion rate of 8.5 per cent. and one assumes that evasion is as common among pensioners as it is among others. Therefore many people who are not paying licence fees for their television sets will want free ones. There are other people who have no television sets and they will want them, if there is no licence fee. Therefore the total cost of this concession will be about £400 million. How is that to be paid for? The answer in clause 3 of the Bill is that the money will be paid by Parliament in addition to the annual grant. Opposition Members say that all we have to do is to dig into the money mine beneath this Chamber and Parliament will provide the £400 million. That is the economics of Star-style politics, but the money would have to come out of the pocket of the taxpayer.
§ Mr. Mellor
I shall finish my argument and then I will give way. I am going to get stuck into the central point, which is the Labour party's total fudge, smudge and muddle on this issue. The hon. Member for Walsall, North comes forward with one concession. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr Kaufman), who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, comes forward with quite another concession to deal with all pensioners. Why there should be a difference between them I do not know.
§ Mr. Mellor
To pay for that would require additional taxation. What are we to learn from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr Hattersley)? He says that £3.6 billion is available from soaking the rich. He also says that all of that has already been spoken for for primary purposes and he has set out what those primary purposes are.
§ Mr. Mellor
Will the hon. Gentleman listen to the argument? When I have finished, if he can tell me why the Labour party is in such a muddle, I will listen to him. What the hon. Member is trying to do is to interrupt my speech so that I do not have the opportunity of getting this point across.
§ Mr. Mellor
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook said:We do not propose to be side-tracked from our primary obligations.[Interruption.] If Labour Members will not listen to me, they could at least listen to the right hon. Gentleman.The days have gone when we could hope to achieve all our ambitions in the lifetime of a single Parliament. It is necessary for us to fix our clear priorities and to insist that all other tasks and targets take second place.529 The Labour party is trying to con the pensioners that if it was in office it would give the pensioners this benefit just like that. The right hon. Member for Gorton, when giving the pledge, said:that pledge…will be a priority of the next Labour Government."—[Official Report, 20 November 1986, Vol. 105, c. 726.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) must know that the Minister is not giving way.
§ Mr. Mellor
The right hon. Member for Gorton says that it will be a priority of the next Labour Government to give pensioners free television licences. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook says that he will spend only £3.6 billion, taken from the rich, and borrow £6 million purely for employment meaasures. He says that he will not be driven off course by other matters. What is the truth of it? Let the hon. Member for Bradford, West tell me.
§ Mr. Madden
The Government announced this week that they will spend another £230 million of taxpayers' money to subsidise Common Market food mountains, which are already costing the taxpayers £1,000 million. Why is it wrong to use taxpayers' money to give free television licences to the pensioners and right to subsidise food mountains, most of which are flogged off cheap to the Russians from time to time?
§ Mr. Mellor
The earth really has heaved and brought forth a mouse. I thought that the hon. Gentleman had something valid to say about how the electorate was to view the cynical promises of the Labour party, which is desperately trying to find some means of getting the support of the electorate.
The fact remains that Labour Back-Bench Members are vainly trying to sustain the quite impossible position that their Front Bench has got them into, because it is quite impossible to fund this change on any realistic view of what they are prepared to say. The only consequence would be the kind of increase in taxation that we had under the last Labour Government, the burden of which fell primarily on those who are paying the standard rate of tax, and which fell to a disproportionate degree on pensioners because the Government failed to raise the tax thresholds in line with inflation. It would be paid for out of the pensioners' own money.
Every Labour Government who have been asked to do this have refused to do so. The argument is quite plain. The money would come out of taxation, and a lot of those who could ill afford to pay it would have to pay for a concession given to those who are well able to pay for their licence.
As a classic example of the inability of the hon. Gentleman to think his proposal through, may I put out that he does not even advert to the reason why the BBC would be most loth to see this proposal go forward. The last thing that it wants is to be paid for its internal services through a direct Government subvention. What does that say about the independence of the BBC? How will that stand when a Labour Chancellor next gets into trouble with the IMF?
§ Mr. Mellor
I am not giving way any more; and it is no good the hon. Member for Walsall, North looking at his watch. When he reads what I have said, he will find plenty of things that he could, with advantage, have anticipated and answered in his own equally long speech.
The Opposition cannot raise this money without increasing taxation. They will try to lump it on to the rest of the licence payers and impose on the people of this country a licence fee of over £90 a year to justify their own promises.
This Bill is a cynical attempt to bribe people with their own money. It is not just bribery; it is an incompetent act of bribery, because the Opposition cannot even target it correctly, cost it correctly or fund it correctly. The pensioners know that they do better under this Government than the ever did under a Labour Government, and they will not be taken in by this sort of nonsense.
§ Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on coming first in the ballot, and on putting forward such a sensible and long overdue proposal.
The Minister has had a bad day, because if his only tactic is to pour abuse on the Opposition, or to go back 10 or 15 years, the public will see that his arguments in opposing the Bill are weak. I will deal with a few of his points, although he went on at great length and other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate.
Any pensioners who have been listening to the Government arguments will go away shaken, shocked and dismayed at the cynical disregard of their interests. Far too much of what the Minister and other Conservative Members have said was nothing to do with the pensioners and this Bill, but was an attempt to obscure the issue and to hide their embarrassment. Pensioners in this country are not fools; they know what is going on and they will come to their own conclusions.
I wish to comment on one point that the Minister made. On the question whether it was known how many people lived in pensioner households, he said that this information was not known, could not be known or was not available.
§ Mr. Dubs
May I remind the Minister that his own Government are putting forward for Scotland—and soon for the rest of this country—proposals about a poll tax based on the need to know who lives in each household. He cannot have it both ways; either it will work for the Government's proposals—I object to them—or it will not. The Government must believe that it will work, otherwise why are the Government not arguing that the poll tax proposals should be adopted throughout the country?
Far too many pensioners today are poor, cold and isolated. We have talked a great deal about the need to keep pensioners warm in the cold weather. The Bill deals with one aspect of their poverty and with their isolation.
Let me remind the Minister of a point that was made earlier in an intervention. If the link that the Labour Government established between pensions and earnings had been maintained to this day, a single pensioner would be £8 a week better off and a pensioner couple more than 531 £12 a week better off. The very fact that that link was cut by the Government is one reason why so many pensioners are in poverty today and cannot meet their fuel bills and the television licence fee.
The Minister talked about fuel. Let me remind him of two specific facts. He was saying how well Tories have done by pensioners. Under the Labour Government there was a subsidy for pensioners and others in poverty to help them to meet their electricity bills. After the first £20 bill there was a 25 per cent. contribution towards the electricity bills of pensioners and other groups in poverty. That was done away with.
Let me also remind the Minister that we were charging pensioners and others for gas at cost price. What is happening now? In order to privatise industry, the Government have deliberately increased fuel prices in Britain, putting a further burden on pensioners and many others.
§ Mr. Mellor
I shall tell the hon. Gentleman precisely what has happened on electricity prices. London Electricity Board and other area boards have reduced their electricity prices for the past quarter and electricity prices for the past three years increased well below the rate of inflation. Under the Labour Government electricity prices increased by 2 per cent. every six weeks. That was the help that the pensioners received from the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Dubs
What the Minister is saying about electricity prices applies only to the past three years. What about since 1979 when the Government took over? The fact is that the Labour Government's support for pensioners and our ability to keep gas prices low cannot be challenged by the Minister, because he knows that it is the truth.
I do not want to spend time arguing with the Minister. He and I represent constituencies that are adjacent to each other in the same borough. Let me throw a challenge to him. Let him agree to debate with me in front of pensioners in Wandsworth all the arguments about the position of pensioners. I challenge him to agree to such a debate. We shall have it in Wandsworth and we shall see what the pensioners of Wandsworth make of our respective arguments.
The Home Secretary made a statement in the House two days ago on the licence fee and indexation. He said that in April 1988 the licence fee would go up by £2, but would also be indexed, making in all an increase of £5 next year on every household in Britain. That would also have to be borne by pensioners. No wonder the Government are embarrassed by the Bill. No wonder they are in difficulty. They are saying that there will be another swingeing increase on all people, including pensioners paying the licence fee, and we are saying that pensioners should be sheltered from that.
§ Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)
The hon. Gentleman said that pensioners would see through any false arguments. Why did not the previous Labour Government introduce this measure when they had the chance to do so?
§ Mr. Dubs
We are dealing with the position of pensioners now. It is no good Conservative Members going back 10, 15 or 20 years. We are talking about the extra burden that has been thrown on pensioners by the Government and what will be done to help them. So far, the Government have come up with no answers.
532 Indeed, it is an open secret that, in order to vote the Bill down, the Government are to bring in the payroll vote. The hundred or so Members of Parliament on the Government payroll will come in later this morning to try to help the Government out of this difficulty and their embarrassment.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman once again. He is obviously embarrassed to be reminded of the Labour Government's record, so let me ask a categoric question about the future plans of a Labour Government. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has proposals which, apparently, can be costed on a £3.6 billion increase in tax on the rich. He has already come out with £5.6 billion of expenditure which does not include free television licences. Therefore, where do television licences stand in the order for the Opposition? When will they do it and how will they pay for it?
§ Mr. Dubs
We should not be making cheap debating points. No amount of laughter from the Minister and his colleagues will disguise that. We have made a commitment that the next Labour Government will phase in the abolition of the licence fee for pensioners. [HON. MEMBERS: "Phase in?"] Phasing in means doing it over a period of years, and that commitment is there.
§ Mr. Dubs
No, I shall not. [Interruption.] I shall give way in a moment. We are discussing today not what Governments did 10 or 15 years ago but the Bill that is before the House. Because the Government have no answer to the Bill, they are seeking to obscure the issue. Today is a private Members' day and I am making the Front Bench contribution in support of the Bill.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman is keen to debate in Wandsworth, but he does not seem so keen to engage in debate in the House. Over what period of years will the pledge be carried through. When will it be done? How will it be paid for? Why is not it in the urgent programme of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook, (Mr. Hattersley)? Why, if it is not in that programme, did the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) say that it was a priority? What priority? Tell us in clear terms——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman has already made a long speech. Many hon. Members are waiting to catch my eye, so we should get on with the debate.
§ Mr. Dubs
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not give way to any more interventions.
If the House passes the Bill today, and I hope that it will, and if it makes rapid progress before the next election, which will produce a Labour Government, the Labour party's policy will be well on the way to being implemented, and the Minister knows that.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Minister on the Treasury Bench, after a disgraceful and lengthy speech, to sit there and abuse—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. It is not in order for any hon. Member to make a running commentary from a sedentary position.
§ Mr. Dubs
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Other hon. Members have rightly said that some pensioners benefit from the 5p concession while others do not. In a block of flats in my constituency, the first two floors are sheltered housing and the pensioners there benefit from the 5p concession. On the higher floors where the flats are identical, pensioners in almost the same situation as those in the flats below but who do not have the warden support, have to pay the full licence fee. If ever there was an example of unfairness, that is it. We should extend the concession to all, or go further, as the Bill suggests, rather than say, as did the Minister of State, that that would make the situation more absurd. The hon. Gentleman said that in an intervention. It seems that we are being unfair to pensioners and that we must bring the offence to an end.
We all know that the licence fee is regressive. It bears heavily on those who are least able to pay, and the bulk of pensioners are in that group. Bus passes are an example of an attempt to help those who are least able to pay, and I do not object to the fact that all those of pensionable age receive bus passes. There are some who may not need a pass—indeed, there are those who could well afford to do without one. The Prime Minister is eligible for a bus pass, and I shall not object to her having one to use to travel from Dulwich after the next election as long as pensioners generally can benefit from this travel concession.
We have in the BBC, despite all of the criticisms that are made of it, the finest example of public service broadcasting in the world. The BBC has set high standards and the IBA has had to emulate them. It is right and proper, therefore, that access to television as a medium of entertainment, news and information should be available to all our people. I do not want the poor, and above all pensioners who are lonely, isolated and more dependent on television than anyone else for information and entertainment, to be denied the chance of having television in their homes.
The burden is heavy on pensioners and if the licence fee increases it will become heavier still. The Bill is an important step in easing the burden on pensioners and it will be seen as such by all. I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)
When I first arrived in the House about eight years ago I made a severe mistake, according to the Chief Whip. I felt occasionally that I had to stick by my principles and vote against the Government. That happened occasionally but not very often. Lo and behold, the issues on which I rebelled when I first entered the House became the subject of changes of policy on the Government's part and my policies became Government policies. This led to the Civil Service being deprived of the benefit of my experience. If it is any encouragement to the Bill's supporters, they shall have my support today. In taking this action I am being extremely fair because one of the Bill's sponsors is the very man who led the opposition mounted against me during the week that saw the consideration of another Bill. I believe, however, in doing what I consider to be fair and right. Enough of my own advertisements.
Since my arrival in this place I have endeavoured, through successive Home Secretaries and the Director General of the BBC, by tabling questions and by my efforts as a member of the all-party pensioners group, to try to secure a fair and just system of concessionary television licences for all pensioners. There are some who say that those who take my position want a concession that will extend across the board and that millionaires and the rich generally will receive the same concession as everyone else. What is so terribly wrong about that? Millionaires receive tax avoidance advice, but, by and large, they pay much more tax per head than anyone else. I am concerned about the pensioner who is not in receipt of handouts and who does not receive benefits. Some of them say to me, "Mr. Dickens—
§ Mr. Dickens
Indeed. They told me, "I am considered to be too rich to apply for benefits but in truth I am too poor to keep paying ever-increasing costs and prices." These people are caught in a trap. As I have said, what is wrong is the licence fee concession being extended to everyone? We all pay tax, including Members of Parliament. Indeed, hon. Members pay more tax than the chap on the shop floor, and rightly so because, generally, we earn more money.
§ Mr. Dickens
I shall do so in a moment.
My remarks about taxation reflect the Conservative party's philosophy. We know that the Labour party, including the Opposition, wants always to support the deprived, and quite rightly so. Conservatives take the same view. We all want to support the struggling families but the difference between parties is that the Labour party wants always to squeeze the rich or the wealthy. In this instance we have an opportunity to say that the licence fee concession will not be given only to those in receipt of benefit and that we have in mind the mother with a young family, the sick and disabled. God willing, all those who come within those categories will be pensioners one day.
§ Mr. Holt
That is because my hon. Friend is being so stupid. My hon. Friend has suggested that Members of Parliament are subject to higher taxation than many others. I suggest that he considers the earnings of those who work in television. He should acquaint himself with the earnings of the ITV blue-collar workers and the tax that they are paying on earnings of over £100,000 a year.
§ Mr. Dickens
That is right. I am aware also that some of those who host quiz shows are paid £250,000 for doing so. I wonder sometimes whether the financing of the media is out of step with other areas of the community.
I do not think that the Opposition have a snowball's chance in hell of securing the Bill's Second Reading—
§ Mr. Dickens
—but I shall try to help the Opposition resist the closure. We all know what it is like in the House on a Friday. The Government claim that there are defects in a proposed piece of legislation and that more should be done to improve various parts of it and the supporters of the Bill say that the Bill can be improved in Committee. That has been said by many hon. Members this morning. That is all very well, but last Christmas I attended a party that was arranged for disabled people of all ages. They asked me to try to make arrangements for them to have a warden because they felt vulnerable. I made the necessary arrangements during the year and, with the help of the local council, a warden was obtained. When I went to these disabled people's Christmas dinner this year they thanked me for their free television licence. When I asked them what they meant they said, "Dont't you realise that because you arranged for us to have a warden, we can now enjoy the concessionary licence?" I felt that it was a pity that they had to talk to me in those terms. The present system puts one pensioner against another.
When a pensioner talks to a friend in a shop, for example, he might find that his friend pays nothing for his television licence while he has to go to his jar and take out the few coppers that he has put together to pay for his licence. That is unfair and unjust.
§ Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)
My hon. Friend has said that in many instances one pensioner is put against another. Does he not consider that the Bill would do that?
§ Mr. Dickens
Perhaps I have missed something in the Bill, but I do not see how it does that. If every pensioner—
§ Mr. Dickens
That is not what I was told by the sponsors in the Corridor. We should be treating pensioners alike, and I am sure that the Bill's supporters would accept amendments to that effect.
In this instance I feel that the Government have been extremely slow. This is my eighth year in the House, and from the moment that I stepped into the place I tried to secure a fair system for all pensioners. The present system is disgraceful and the Government, rightly so, are unwilling to take away concessionary licences from those who are in warden-controlled accommodation because that would be politically unpopular. Secondly, there is a hotch-potch of other pensioners who are left out of the concessionary arrangements, and they feel that they are 536 being treated unfairly. It would be better to move towards a funding arrangement for the BBC that would be fairer for everyone.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has made a passionate plea on behalf of the Government. In doing so, he drew attention to the many things that the Conservative party has done to help pensioners over many years. I agree with that, and I am still proud to be a member of the Conservative party. I continue to support it day in and day out. I think, however, that we are failing to concentrate our minds on the Bill. Surely we should be fair to all pensioners. I think that we have slipped up on this occasion. I should like to see a different arrangement for the funding of the BBC. In that way we might secure a fair deal. Even if the Bill fails today, it will have fired a warning shot across the nation's bows. It will show that there are right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who are quite able and willing to think of a different method. We shall have to think a little more constructively.
It is always better if proposals come from the Government because they then have much more chance of success. I urge the Government to consider deeply the arguments that have been advanced today because we are not being fair to all pensioners.
§ Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)
The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) made a surprising speech. I thought that he would get up and hang all pensioners. I welcome what he said and look forward to seeing him in the Division Lobby.
This is an important debate. We should acknowledge that many pensioners are listening to us in the Strangers Gallery. They will report to their organisations what has been said.
The debate goes much further than television licences. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on his success in the ballot and on the way in which he introduced the Bill. He has provided us with an opportunity to highlight yet again the problems that face pensioners. We have already seen and heard of their difficulties this week because of the weather. They have arisen basically because pensioners lack money. The Bill is being introduced for the same basic reason. If pensioners were better off—which is what we want—there would perhaps be no need for private Members' Bills.
My hon. Friend and Member for Walsall, North mentioned a letter that he had received from a lady in the Isle of Wight who said how difficult she found it to raise the money for her television licence. It is all very well for the Minister to say—when I could catch what he said between his bouts of temper—that pensioners can get stamps, but it is often difficult for them to find the money to buy a stamp each week.
§ Ms. Richardson
Indeed, they sometimes have difficulty waiting in the queue, especially in present weather conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North epitomised pensioners' dilemma when they try to secure the lifeline of a television set. Television is company in the home and makes their lives a little fuller.
All pensioners have difficulties, but women pensioners will be especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Member 537 for Walsall, North. Some two thirds of the 9.6 million retired people in Britain are women, and just over 6 million of the 9.3 million people who draw state pensions are women. At all ages, more women than men are single, widowed or divorced and the older the age group, the more marked that trend becomes, thus increasing the chances that women will live alone.
The 1981 census showed that almost 13 per cent. of women over 80 were married and that 87 per cent. were widowed, single or divorced. We all know that women often survive longer than their husbands, and therefore live in isolation. Only one third of retired women receive a full basic state pension. They are somewhat worse off than their male counterparts and deserve special consideration.
Some 2.4 million women have lower pensions than men, including some 1.5 million women who have to wait until their husbands retire to qualify for the lower dependent wife rate of pension. Fewer women qualify under occupational pension schemes.
We have a high population of pensioners in Barking. I am sure that others will claim the same for their constituencies. Some 13.8 per cent. of the male population is retired as compared with 12.1 per cent. in the rest of the country, and 25.4 per cent. of the female population are pensioners as compared with 22.9 per cent. in the rest of Great Britain.
Those figures show that we are an aging population. We should be proud of that. Too often, the media and the Government regard pensioners as a drag. They are not. We should be proud of them and the fact that we have a National Health Service which has enabled pensioners to live longer and better lives than was possible only 20 years ago.
The prospects for women under the present Government are poor. They have suffered from the difficulties of managing on their pensions and they have suffered because the Government have attacked local authorities and prevented them from providing extra sheltered accommodation which, inter alia, would have enabled pensioners to have a much cheaper television licence.
When I go home from here at night—I live alone—the first thing I do is switch on the television, provided that it is not after midnight. It is not that I necessarily wish to watch anything—I do it because I need the company of voices in my flat. Television and radio, but especially television because of the moving pictures, are a vital part of a pensioner's life. Television is not a luxury or even just entertainment. It is a lifeline and a link. It enables people to feel that they do not live in isolation but as part of the community.
We should regard television as an essential part of people's lives and ensure that when people whose life and work we value reach retirement, they are given the benefit of free television licences as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North proposes.
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on being fortunate enough to gain first place in the ballot. I am sure that this is an important issue to which we should give serious consideration.
538 The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) made a fair point when she emphasised that television is not simply a means of communication or entertainment. For a great many people, especially the elderly and those who have to live alone, it can mean much more. The issue is clearly important.
For people who are on low incomes, £58 is a significant amount of money and the Bill is important if for no other reason than that. It has to be said, however, that whether we consider the cost of the limited proposals in the Bill, at £230 million, or of the only system which, if we follow the general principle of the Bill, is ever likely to work—£320 or £330 million—we are talking of a significant sum.
If the issue is important socially, economically and in terms of pensioners' incomes, my first priority is to try to assess under three important headings what attitude I ought to take to the proposals in the Bill.
First, is the principle in the Bill a fair one? Is it a desirable proposition and can it be justified on the grounds of social equity? Secondly, if the amount involved is hundreds of millions—£230 million or £330 million or whatever the figure may be—is that the right way in which this Government or any other Government ought to spend that sort of public money? Is that an area of public expenditure that we ought to regard as a priority?
Thirdly, as previous Labour Ministers have always asked, and as has been asked by this Government: where is the £320 million to come from, because clearly it will not spring out of thin air? It is necessary to examine those three essential principles if we are to take the Bill seriously. Let us look at them in reverse order.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point about the global sum. I apologise for intervening if the hon. Gentleman proposes to develop that and come to the conclusion that I am about to put to him. Is he aware that for pensioners living by themselves—or for two or three pensioners living in the same household—the money required in terms of basic income tax would be 0.2p, or one fifth of a penny?
§ Mr. Norris
The hon. Gentleman is right to point that out and he is also right to suggest that I might want to develop that approach to the totality of public spending. The point I was coming to is that every proposition is examined on the basis that its cost will be one third or one fifth of a penny or such an amount. Of course that is right.
I have not spent many years in this House, but I spent many more years on a local authority on which one heard exactly parallel arguments. The arguments were always, "Let us have just a little bit more of this." People used to say that we should have a little bit more of this or that desirable item and that the cost would only be 0.5p or perhaps one tenth of a penny on the rates. In all deference to the hon. Gentleman's experience, I have to tell him that that argument is simply not sustainable; it is a genuine argument of absurdity, a reductio ad absurdum.
People go on and on saying that this or that extra benefit will only mean another one tenth or one quarter of a penny on income tax, but that is not a sustainable argument. An Opposition hon. Member said that the £320 million could be found if there was a will to find it. He said that where there is a will there is a way, but the economic wellbeing of a nation cannot be sustained by that argument.
One of the most distressing experiences that many of us in local government ever had was to find out, after the 539 IMF had come here to try to instil some basic economics into the Labour Government of 1974–79, that that Government had no sympathy whatever with that argument. It was advanced by those of us in local government who were pleading with the then Chancellor and the then Secretary of State for the Environment for absolutely vital funds that we needed for a whole range of services that we wanted to offer to our ratepayers. The then Chancellor and the Secretary of State for the Environment told us in extraordinarily pious terms that we had to recognise that money did not grow on trees or come out of thin air, and that every one tenth of a penny simply added to previous one tenths. We can develop that argument, but it does not need much exposition by me. I believe that the vast majority of people have always accepted that.
There is, of course, an alternative, which is to develop a point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who made a very pertinent speech, was in error in only one respect when he said that the hon. Gentleman had not advanced a mechanism for paying for his proposal apart from saying that the Government would pay. The hon. Gentleman clearly said that if the investment income surcharge were reintroduced it would easily provide the necessary amount. That is a seductive argument for people to advance, particularly the Opposition. It is the view that the rich get the pleasure and the poor get the blame. No doubt that happens, but the problem is that there are many other ways in which that money will be spent by successive labour spokesmen who have committed successful Departments to expenditures which vastly exceed the £3 billion or so available by extra taxation of the rich and which do not begin to deal with the totality of the Opposition's promises of which this proposal is one.
A significant question mark remains over the Bill about whether the £320 million is available.
I should like to advance an argument especially for the Opposition. I never fail to credit all hon. Members with the same concern for their fellow citizens and desire to ensure their well-being. If the Opposition had £230 million or £320 million in their hands, would they honestly be sure of their ground in view of the fact that central heating would be installed in 115,000 old people's homes, for the cost of a free television licence.
§ Mr. Norris
That is an interesting proposition, because it begs the assumption that, if it is not "either/or", it is "as well as". The hon. Gentleman clearly is not listening to me or to all sensible people. Every housewife knows, when she goes into a supermarket, that all expenditure decisions are either/or decisions. I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) will forgive me—I do not want to detain the House because other hon. Members want to speak—but this is exactly a matter of either/or. The failure to recognise that all the expenditure decisions which we take in the House are either/or decisions flaws the Opposition's argument.
§ Mr. Norris
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The balance between the rate of taxation levied and the amount of money spent by any Government on behalf of any section of the community is the essence of politics. I do not seek to evade that point. I have already said that it is rather facile merely to assume that every desirable extra expenditure in the community is simply to be paid for by an almost limitless ability of those who create wealth. That example is, therefore, not especially convincing.
I suspect that the hon. Member for Stockton, North knows that this is an either/or question. If I had the luxury of distributing £320 million, I should like to distribute it in a way that would assist old people. I should like to provide central heating for 160,000 old people's homes each year and insulation schemes for one third of a million pensioners every year. That is what we could do with this amount, which would provide a facility which, by common consent, including that of the hon. Member for Wallsall, North, is not even necessary to a large number of people to whom it is directed.
§ Mr. Norris
I shall not give way because I do not have much time and many other hon. Members wish to speak.
I advance only one other option. I hear many arguments about the plight of local authorities when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment addresses the House. Opposition Members talk about the difficulty that local authorities have in supporting the services that they wish to provide. What if we could distribute about £300 million to the 300 local authorities in Britain, including the district authorities? Each would have about £1 million to spend as it wished—although in some cases not as I would wish. If there was such an alternative, in all conscience, I could not support this measure. There are many more obvious ways in which the money could be spent.
The irony is that my 30-year-old disabled constituent would be ineligible for the benefit while my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), would both enjoy it. With the greatest respect to both of them, I doubt whether they are in the desperate need that would require the attention of the House under this measure. On the contrary, there is no logic in the way in which the proposal is advanced and certainly no logic for deciding that age alone shall be the criterion for such largesse.
The present arrangements should be developed. First, we should allow people to pay more easily and, secondly, we should extend the concessionary category. I recognise that there are anomalies and that there is sometimes resentment about the way in which the system can apply arbitrarily as between the top three floors of a tower block which contain unsupervised old persons' accommodation and the bottom three floors which contain supervised accommodation. The Government must examine the matter. I welcome the indexing of the fee, which will ensure that more value for money is enshrined in future levies for the service that we receive.
541 As a slight note of caution to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, I should say that I entirely accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan). As the proliferation of options offered by television expands, it will become less and less easy to argue that two of those channels should demand an impost from taxpayers. My hon. Friend mentioned a figure of 50 channels. That is what might have been said of the growth of literature several hundred years ago. I suspect that there will be several hundred options before he and I are much older. We must consider the licence fee on a different basis.
But that does not cut across the basic premise of the Bill. In essence, the hon. Member for Walsall, North says that, if the House had the choice of spending £320 million and if it wished to spend that money to alleviate the plight of elderly people, it should do so in a way that all previous Labour as well as Conservative Governments have rejected as being inequitable, inefficient and of far lower priority than many other matters.
For that concrete and unanswerable reason—it has not been answered by anything that I have heard today—I shall be unable to support the Bill. I have already advised those of my constituents who sent me their slips from The Star that although I applaud their good intentions, they are misguided as to the appropriateness of this expenditure.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
During the course of this morning Conservative Members deviated for some time, possibly without intention, or possibly in the course of developing their arguments, by embarking upon giving the House a tutorial on the past. The fact of the matter is that the Bill essentially deals with the present.
I think that we should make it abundantly clear that when we are debating—as we did for a short period this morning—hon. Members should bear in mind that it does not impress the country or pensioners if hon. Members embark upon a tutorial on the past. They have spent time asking who did what and when, or who did not do what and when.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
The state of legitimacy is lost in the state of illegitimacy.
This is a private Member's Bill and, as I said earlier to the House, the essence of the Bill has already been brought before the House in different Bills on five previous occasions. Therefore, hon. Members should not seek to bore the nation with a repetition of past arguments.
I do not think that there is any hon. Member who has been in the House for a long time who could honestly claim that he or she has never had a change of mind on a problem when circumstance have changed. The country and old-age pensioners are asking their elected Members to confine their remarks to this issue. The electorate want to know whether there is a problem, is it morally correct to deal with it, and can we have the resources to do so? The 542 answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second is certainly. However, there is a lack of political will.
I find it rather odd, given that this is a private Member's Bill—and rather out of character—that the Minister spent so much time this morning—rather more than anyone else—making party political points. I came down from the north of England for this debate and I did not want to be told that the Bill should be put into a strait jacket because of the stupidities of official party policy of whatever colour. Perhaps that is why the Front Bench was at a loss to say very much. It has no business with the Bill, as it is a private Member's Bill.
The contribution made by the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) was objective and fair. He posed certain questions—one should do this or do that. He conceded that we should also consider the issue. His contribution certainly impressed the House, because he did not embark upon a futile puerile exercise—a tutorial on the past.
We heard from one hon. Member this morning who is so rich that he could afford to have a golden television set. He had the cheek and temerity to say that there were one or two niggardly things that should be put right, but he does not have the guts to come into the Lobby with us. If I may give a word of advice, it is that those who are extremely well off should show some common decency and shut up.
§ Mr. Waller
As the hon. Gentleman is looking at me, I can only assume that he is referring to me. I imagine that my income as a Member of Parliament is similar to his, because I am a full-time Member of Parliament and have no other form of income.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
I shall leave that point, as hon. Members are fully aware of what I was saying, but the hon. Gentleman might at least have been less hard on the poorer sections of our community, given that he is living in luxury of a sort that very few people in this country can even dream of.
Five private Members' Bills have been introduced on this subject. The official policy of previous Administrations has been that they want to give the pensioners the cash and let them spend it as they like, saying that there is free choice, but that is the damndest cheek that I have ever heard. Administrations anyway have no business in deciding how people spend their money and should not say that in the context of claiming to be about to give people cash. Pensioners never seem to get the cash anyway. Does the House not understand that we are dealing with people who have already contributed to the wealth of the country? They have worked for the wealth of the country, and the things that we now enjoy are the work of past generations. If we cannot play the game today by our old people, how the hell can we play the game by ourselves?
The Minister's speech fell far short of what was required. That may have been out of character and due to an exuberant desire to set the political format for his Prime Minister, or even for his own self-survival. As someone said to me a little earlier, there may anyway be a question mark over his survival after that speech.
The House must try to understand that it is not a question of either this or that, or of as well as. There are sufficient anomalies in the allocation of resources for us 543 to raise great moral questions about the rightness of our actions. For example, we spend billions of pounds on the Common Market, and as a result the Russians are happy in their abundance of butter. Millions of pounds are spent on missile equipment which will before long be out of date. Billions of pounds have been committed to cruise and Pershing. One contract alone has now run over £800 million, with another £900 million contracted to be spent.
We must look at our total resource allocation and ask ourselves whether we have got the balance of our priorities right, so that we can deal properly with welfare, health and education. I believe that the answer to that question is no. What we see now is a condemnation of years of neglect. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is trying for the sixth time in nearly six years to get a Bill enacted. The House needs only to have the will for the legislation before us to become a reality. The House needs only to say that hon. Members will be free to examine the Bill in Committee.
I am a senior Committee Chairman of the House and I have dealt with many Bills. One of the great merits of the House is that where one side of the House disapproves of a Bill completely in principle, it votes against it. It is not a question of what is arguable about voting against a Bill where the whole principle is involved, because the total principle of the Bill invites opposition in that sense.
The other great merit of the House is that, where a Bill has within it the core of a principle, it is allowed to go to a Standing Committee so that it can be improved. The principle can be either widened or contracted within the judgments of our capacity to meet those considerations.
I have refrained from referring to the Allen and Peacock reports. All that is there for hon. Members to read. I have refrained from making any sort of statistical analysis or financial judgments, except to say that the global amount can be met by one fifth of a penny. Notice that I said that during an intervention earlier. It will cost one fifth of a penny rate on the basic level of taxation. It is a damned sight less for those who are rich and on the highest income tax scales. Therefore, I have put aside all the detailed paraphernalia and sought to deal with the general principle, which is, that there is a consensus in the hearts and minds of men and women that there is a core of rightness and moral acceptability in the Bill. If there are any doubts about the Bill's practicality and about the consequences of its total implementation, for God's sake, for once, show a lead to the country show that we in the House are going in the direction and meaning of sense and not responding to what has been decided in Downing street or a Department of State.
If the payroll vote is brought in this morning, members of which will not have heard one tittle of this debate, to walk into the No Lobby and defeat this sensible Bill and refuse to give it a chance to be heard, that will be wrong. If I may say so, if the Bill is taken under the genuine, generous, likeable chairmanship of the hon. Member for Hartlepool, we will not fall short. I plead with the House to give the Bill a chance to be heard. It needs to be shaped, so that it is acceptable to the will of the House. Then everyone in Britain, not only old-age pensioners, will feel that for once we have got rid of petty, party, political nonsense and used a little bit of sense in the national interest.
§ Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)
The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) made an emotional and interesting speech. It echoes the entire mood of Labour Members' speeches today. The entire purpose of the Bill is emotional. It is a sort of "East Enders" with a Greek chorus now assembled behind the mover. It is a media exercise.
Instead of applying our hearts to the Bill—and I have applied my heart to this Bill perhaps rather more than Labour Members realise—we should understand that old-age pensioners want television and find it extremely hard to pay for it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give them it."] I am also thinking of the old-age pensioner who lives with his adult son and wife who are out of work. They will not qualify under the Bill for a free licence. [HON. MEMBERS: "Change it, then."] That is why I intervened earlier in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) to say that the Bill would achieve what the present anomalies regarding residential care achieve, which is to set pensioner against pensioner. It only worsens the situation; it solves nothing.
The facts and the intellectual argument are admirably expressed in a piece of research that I have not heard mentioned today. In 1968 the television licence was £10 a year, and the basic pension for a single pensioner was £4.50 increasing to £5. In those days a pensioner with no savings would have had to spend more than two weeks of his pension on a television licence. Today the basic single pension is £58 a week. [Interruption.] I am sorry, that is the cost of the licence. I misread my notes. [Laughter.] I have always been bad at reading notes and that rubs the point in. [Interruption.] I shall wait for the Greek chorus to subside.
§ Mr. Brinton
Today the basic old-age pension is £38.70 and the licence for a colour set is £58. That means that today a pensioner pays for his licence with one and a half weeks of his pension, not two weeks.
§ Mr. Brinton
That is not all right. What is all wrong is to suggest to pensioners, whom I know and who have savings, this Labour totem of all pensioners being without savings. That myth has been exposed today. Therefore, we must consider what we are talking about.
§ Mr. Holt
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before you took the Chair this morning, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) interjected on a point of order and asked for sedentary intervention to be stopped. Your predecessor in the Chair rose to that request and stopped them. Will you do the same, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
I have noticed during the few moments that I have been in the Chair that there has been a certain amount of noise coming from both sides of the House. I hope that we shall listen to what the hon. Gentleman has to say.
§ Mr. Brinton
I wish to turn to the other side of these proposals, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the 545 Minister at the end of his speech. What would be the effect of the proposals, if the Bill were passed and a sizeable proportion of the BBC's money came via the Government? That was laughed at today and, apparently, hon. Members believe that it would not matter if the Government could say yea or nay about what happens to the BBC. There was even more raucous laughter when the word "independence" was mentioned in connection with the BBC. Every right hon. and hon. Member should defend the independence of the BBC. That does not stop us criticising the BBC, but the Government were to get hold of the money that is paid to our domestic BBC services, that independence would be at risk.
§ Mr. Winnick
I may do the hon. Gentleman an injustice, but it is interesting to note that he did not defend the BBC when it was under fierce onslaught from the chairman of the Conservative party. My Bill does not basically change the financing of the corporation; it will continue to be financed by the licence fee. All that would happen is that the shortfall, resulting fom the extension of free licences to pensioner households, would be made up by the Exchequer. The Bill does not change the financial relationship between the BBC and the Government.
§ Mr. Brinton
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the chairman of our party was entitled, as is any other citizen or organisation, to criticise the BBC, and he left the matter for the governors to decide. On the second point, the moment the Exchequer has to hand out money, it will decide how much to hand out. That happened in the last Labour Government, in the matter of the pensioner earnings equivalent in the rise of pensions. It happened in the case of the pensioners' Christmas bonus. There is no guarantee, if the money is to be handed out by the Exchequer, that there will be a constant flow of equivalents.
The Bill, if one casts aside the emotion and looks intellectually at what it means, will continue to set pensioner against pensioner. It will not improve the lot of any of those pensioners' children, because I do not believe that arrangements can be made to pay this through taxes. Therefore, the television licence for the sons and daughters of those receiving free licences will go up by £30 a year. I could not recommend the Bill to go to committee for consideration because it is a mass of anomalies that does not achieve its set purpose.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
The shortest speeches today have been no less effective than the longest, and I hope that mine will be both short and effective. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) has more knowledge of television than I. He may agree with me when I say that I would have had more regard for the argument about the independence of the BBC if it had been put 10 years ago than I do now, after the performance by the chairman of the Conservative party and other recent revelations.
I have been against this anomaly since before I entered the House in the 1970s. When the concession was first introduced I welcomed it but percieved the difficulty and distress that it would cause, because often people who enjoyed the concession were in better condition than those who did not enjoy it, as happens now. Since then, I have 546 been involved in the various initiatives to secure an improvement. I mutedly welcomed the partial improvement introduced by the Labour Government in the 1970s, but it did not go far enough.
My local authority is a good one and has a splendid record of providing accommodation for the elderly. Because it has done so, a larger than average number of people in my constituency—this applies to other parts of south Yorkshire—enjoy the concession. That means that those who do not enjoy it feel even more strongly about it because they know more and more people who do.
Three or four years ago I raised in the House a relevant illustration when I spoke about two widows in Rawmarsh, both of the same age, lifelong friends and both in identical circumstances in that both were widows of miners. One lived in a ground floor flat and the other lived in the flat above. The one in the ground floor flat had the 5p television licence, but her friend in the same circumstances had to pay the full licence. That was absurd, as it continues to be.
My local authority recognised the absurdity and maintained to all pensioner households not qualifying for the concession a grant equivalent to the monochrome licence. Unfortunately, the harsh rate-capping retrenchment and the Government's attitudes and policies towards local authority spending meant that last year the local authority had to choose whether to maintain the home help service or the television grant. It decided that it could not afford to maintain the television grant. That renewed its support for this Bill. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) had the good fortune to draw first place and I know that thousands in south Yorkshire are deeply thankful for the Bill.
In the metropolitan borough of Rotherham there are 19,000 pensioner households. The council's grant was not paid to 13,000 pensioner households. Therefore 5,000 pensioner households in Rotherham enjoy national concession. That presents a sufficient number of anomalies to make it imperative for the concession to be extended to the other 13,000 pensioner households. It means that 4,500 people in my constituency are denied the concession, whereas 2,000 other people obtain it. Some of the 4,500 who are denied the concession are in greater need than some of those who enjoy it. The Minister can no longer defend this anomaly.
On Wednesday, the Home Secretary more or less challenged my hon. Friends to deploy arguments that would convince the Government that our case is just. He could have shown his face in today's debate. However, I accept that the Minister of State has sat assiduously throughout the debate. I hope that he understands that the populist voice, that may well have been expressed by his hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), is very extensively supported. The arguments that have been deployed by my hon. Friends ought to be heeded. there may be a case for considering refinements to the Bill in Committee, but if this Government use ministerial muscle to defeat a Bill with a long pedigree and a great deal of justice behind it, it will do them no good. The ordinary people of this country know that the City of London has enjoyed great support from this Government. Through big bang and other arrangements, in association with the City of London, the Government have allowed young men to earn salaries that are in excess of six figures a year for running 547 about chasing money in the City of London. That gives some idea of the priorities of the Conservative party. We are approaching a general election. I cannot imagine that the Government have so little sense that they will let this matter lead to them losing the many seats that they deserve to lose.
§ Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)
I am glad that the Minister spelt out some of the benefits that have accrued to pensioners during the lifetime of this Government. I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on being first in the private Members' ballot. One of the features of this debate is that many hon. Members have referred to the defects of the Bill. A Bill with defects is less likely to make progress than one that has been carefully thought out, in consultation with various bodies.
Television plays a very large part in the life of a pensioner, as do many other things. Some might say that its importance is not to be welcomed, in that pensioners do not seek enjoyment elsewhere, where through comradeship and friendships they are encouraged to get out of their homes and participate in worthwhile activities. Nevertheless, the licence fee is a heavy burden for pensioners of limited means. It is regrettable that we lump together all pensioners and describe them as having to cope with financial difficulties. Many pensioners provide throughout their working lives for their retirement. They are proud of the fact that, having contributed to private pension schemes, they are able to draw on funds, that enable them to live well in their old age.
We should be guided by the principle that people ought to be encouraged to save for their retirement. The more that the Government do to give concessions and handouts for those who, at present are retired, the less the incentive is for those who are in the middle span of their life to save and make arrangements to secure their financial viability in retirement.
§ Mr. Winnick
The hon. Gentleman, in opposing my Bill, unlike the Minister, is putting forward a coherent and logical argument, although I strongly disagree with it. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that what he has just said is hardly consistent with the Government's policy? The hon. Gentleman says that people should save. Leaving aside the problems that so many people have in saving—those on low incomes in their working lives, and so on—does he not realise that no one, even though he may be on supplementary benefit, can receive the extra £5 a week if he has more than £500 saved? People who save are being penalised.
§ Mr. Banks
People who wish to save would be penalised by taxation. Taxation is geared to the Government's requirements to fund various schemes, one of which would be concessionary television licences if this Bill went through.
Other anomalies would appear if the Bill were to be enacted. There would be a conflict between pensioners, and this has been brought out in the debate. Under the Bill as it stands, the concessions would go only to pensioner households; that is to say, both people living as a husband and wife in a household would have to be of pensionable age. Therefore, there would be a gap—given that there are gaps between the age of a husband and that of a wife 548 —before the qualification applied. Similarly, those pensioners who have a minor living with them would also qualify. One could expound the argument that somebody who is handicapped, but who is not a minor, should not disqualify the concession.
Another anomaly, when we are talking about a colour television licence, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North has pointed out, is that 1 million people have black and white television licences. Those with black and white licences would feel disadvantaged by the fact that they do not have a colour television set, and thus qualify only for the lower payment.
Above all, there has been a lack of mention in this debate of the family assisting pensioners. Some sons and daughters of pensioners are prepared to give support. Many people accept that responsibility and are delighted to give that support to their parents in their old age if their parents are hard up and unable to meet their commitments.
Above all, my quibble with the Bill is that many people, through taxation, would have to pay the amount of money that would be necessary. Some of those people are less well off than those who would receive the concession. There are many people living on low wages who have heavy commitments, with young children to support, who would find that if their taxation were increased, even by a small amount, it would have an effect on their family budget.
My criticism of the Bill is that it does not select those who are most in need of help. It gives a broad concession to too many people who are themselves able to find the funds for the licences.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
There are many flaws in the arguments of the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks). Of course, children support their parents as and when they can; that always has been the case. But perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to say what he would do about the 24 per cent. who are unemployed in my constituency. Were they able to work to support their parents, they would gladly do so. They probably do so on the pittance that they receive while unemployed.
The Bill deals purely with pensioner households. That excludes those households with non-pensioners who are capable of paying a television licence fee. However, the hon. Gentleman had a point when he referred to a household consisting of two old-age pensioners of different ages, the husband aged 60 and the wife aged 65. That would create an anomaly, but it could be considered in Committee. All we are asking is that the Bill should be considered in Committee.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on introducing the Bill and on his position in the ballot which enabled him to do so. Many Labour Members would have chosen such a Bill had we been fortunate enough to be first in the ballot.
The Bill will be appreciated by millions of people outside the House. I am sure that all hon. Members have received a tremendous amount of correspondence on this subject. That shows how many people are willing the House to let the Bill go forward and, at least, to look at it.
It has been said that television is changing, and that is right. That is why we have the Bill. Had television remained the same, I am sure that we would not be having 549 this debate. There would not have been the same pressures from outside. We have not reached the end of its development. It is only a step in the direction in which television is going.
Cable television will give a choice of 25, 30 or 40 channels with different ideas and attitudes. For example, cable television may televise the House on a 24-hour basis so that people can switch on and off as they wish. That will stop the prima donnas coming in when proceedings are being televised. The same applies to our Committee proceedings upstairs.
Gradually, the part played by the BBC will become less and less as the number of channels and the opportunities of television increase. This is but a step, but it is a step that is needed and we should be wrong if we did not allow the Bill to be thoroughly examined in Committee.
I raised this issue in 1978 when I first entered the House. Therefore, I cannot be accused of being a member of the previous Labour Government. I took up the debate from my predecessor, John Jacob Mendelson. When I came here after the by-election in 1978, there two matters on my desk. One concerned television licences and the other the Stockbridge bypass. That bypass has now been built, and I hope that this matter will reach a similarly successful conclusion.
In 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984 I have presented ten-minute Bills. The one in 1982 went to a vote, and it was accepted by 187 votes to nil. That was a clear expression of the will of Parliament at that time, and, I think, the will of both sides of the House, on an important issue. I hope that today Conservative Members will continue to show their support of the Bill by coming into the Lobby with us and making a positive move to putting the Bill in Committee. That will be appreciated not only by pensioners but by many other people outside the House.
The Government had a chance this week to do something and failed. The Secretary of State presented to the House his proposals on television licensing for the next few years. He had a chance at that time to say that something should be done about concessionary licence fees. But, as usual, he ignored the millions of pensioners. As usual, the argument was that we could not afford it. A long time ago one of my lecturers on industrial relations told me that the right response was to say, "It will not work" when finding oneself on the losing side of an argument. Instead of saying, "It will not work", Governments say, "We cannot find the money" or "The Bill is defective". The Secretary of State for the Environment would be in terrible trouble if he relied on the Bill-is-defective argument. Next week we shall be debating a Bill that the right hon. Gentleman had to introduce because the measure which preceded it was defective. He has been involved in at least five court actions because of the enactment of defective Bills. Any Government would be in trouble in relying on the defective Bill argument because they introduce defective measures which they then have to remedy.
When I was in local government I was always puzzled when considering where the money would come from to fund whatever project was before the council. At central Government level, the money was suddenly found to enable Britain to fight the Falklands war. The money was there when we wanted it. The Government found the 550 money to defeat the miners' strike. It was there when the Government wanted it. The found the money also to enable them to give tax rebates to many who could have done without them. The Government say that the money is not available in this instance because they do not want the Bill. That is why they have advanced a negative argument to try to kill the Bill on Second Reading.
I agree with those who say that the best approach is to have a retirement pension that is high enough to make concessions unnecessary. Can any hon. Member say when a pension of that sort will be paid, especially when the Government removed the link between pensions, price increases and wage increases, pensions being linked to whatever was the higher? Every move towards the introduction of concessions has been killed by the Government.
Many local authorities recognised that there were anomalies and tried to remove them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) has said, local government expenditure cuts have forced local authorities to withdraw concessions. We can hope only that they will be restored. What provision was made by local government? I have the 1984–85 figures that set out the concessions that local government provided regionally. There were 145 in the northern region, 12,555 in Yorkshire and Humberside, six in the north-western region, 276 in the east Midlands, 440 in London, north and 3,234 in London itself. The figures show that the spread was unequal. Of the 12,555 concessions provided in Yorkshire and Humberside, 11,518 were in one local authority. It is clear that local government cannot take up that which central Government does not provide.
Many hon. Members have talked about anomalies, and we are all aware of them I shall give one example. In a block of flats the units on the lower floor were designated as old persons' dwellings while the ones above were not. In one instance a 60-year-old lady living on the downstairs floor received a free television licence while her 80-year-old mother, who lived upstairs, did not. That is an example of the quirks and anomalies that are brought about by the present system.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
We are living in an imperfect world and there will always be anomalies. Anomalies raise problems and in dealing with problems we are presented with new opportunities. Anomalies provide no excuse for inaction.
§ Mr. McKay
My hon. Friend is right. I shall always remember being told that problems exist for us to overcome them, and that in so doing we make way for the new problems that will inevitably come along. The same can be said of anomalies. When we remove one set of anomalies, it will be replaced by another, and so the process continues.
Many pensioners are debarred from the present national system because of their accommodation. This often happens when pensioners are living in the same position and in the same way as those who receive concessionary licences. As has been said, the number of people involved is increasing. In 1979, when I started on the campaign for concessionary television licences, 400,000 people received a concession. That figure is now 635,000. That leaves some 4.8 million people who do not receive any concession, although they are in the same way. Many people believe that that is wrong and unequal.
Some people ask how we will raise the money. It has been suggested that the money could be spent on this or 551 something else. That would be a fairer argument if the choice was between this or something else, but it is a choice between this and nothing. We have heard that the money could be used to instal central heating in 150,000 houses, but it is not that the money will be used for that if we do not have oncessionary television licences. We are merely being presented with a notional choice. The Government will not turn the Bill down to save money which will be given in some other form. They have already cut local government funding.
Some 2.9 million pensioners live alone and another 1.9 million are in couples. We are talking of 4.8 million people. The concession would cost only 0.2p on the basic rate of income tax. Would anybody quibble at 0.2p?
§ Mr. McKay
The hon. Gentleman is well heeled. I bet him that the majority of people do not think or feel like him, they think of people who are less fortunate than themselves. The cost could he borne by putting 0.4 per cent. on value added tax. There could be a combination of the two, and we could increase the 5p licence.
§ Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the rise in income tax or VAT should be in addition to the £28 billion that the Labour party has already pledged?
§ Mr. Ottaway
I am suggesting that it is not just 0.2p of additional income tax—the Opposition are suggesting £28 billion-worth of increased taxes.
§ Mr. McKay
I do not think that we have suggesed that. We have only suggested possible means of raising the money. The hon. Gentleman probably does not like that, but that is why he is not on this side of the House. Conservative Members should stop making spurious arguments. Is the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) telling me that the British people will not support old-age pensioners to the tune of one fifth of a penny? If he is, he is wrong because the British people are more creditworthy than him and they think more kindly about old people.
The hon. Gentleman will get old one day. Whether he is fortunate or unfortunate depends to some extent on the House, which should ensure that people are treated equally. If the hon. Gentleman does not vote in favour of the Bill, he will be voting for inequality, and that is what the House is not about.
§ 1.5 pm
§ Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)
The television set is the porthole through which many of our constituents see the outside world—those constituents who, perhaps, can see only through that porthole because they are not able to go up on deck, let alone go ashore and move about like the rest of us. Basically for that reason alone I shall go into the Lobby and say, "Let us take this Bill a little further and see what we can do with it."
It is sad that we have had so much yah-booing from all sides, but my hon. Friend the Minister spoke truly when he told of how much the Government and the 552 Conservative party have done for the old. Equally, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), the mover of the Bill, spoke truly when he said that we care for the elderly and the pensioners. I accept all that, but this is a discriminatory Bill and that aspect must be changed.
We must not discriminate on any ground against any person, and age is one of the grounds which is not in itself reasonable discrimination. Let us consider the housebound, who may well not be pensioners, the sick, the crippled and the disabled. Those people are not necessarily pensioners, and if we are to make things fair, amendments of considerable substance are required. These would have to be made so that the Bill could be seen as fair by the Committee and would be fair as an Act.
I do not doubt for a second that the hon. Member for Walsall, North would accept our agreement on the good and caring things that he said, but it was perhaps sad that he tied those in with too many barbs and comments, as if those on the Government side had no humanity and that only his hon. Friends who were yah-ing and booing had some sort of monopoly on the good thoughts in life. That is not so and all hon. Members know that.
I spoke about discrimination, and many Members have mentioned anomalies. If we go through the Bill clause by clause, we see that the first obvious anomaly, about which so many hon. Members have spoken, is like that in Woodville close in my constituency.
One group of people pay 5p for each television licence and people on precisely the same income living on the next floor in the same building pay the full rate. Of course this must be changed. No Government can say that it would not be fair to wipe out this anomaly.
Perhaps the one thing that a private Member's Bill can do is clear up anomalies, even though it cannot change the vast policies of state. I have listened with interest but not great enjoyment to the House going through a sort of budgetary process. But this is a private Member's Bill and not part of the budgetary process of Parliament nor indeed part of the policy of any party in Parliament. It deals with a matter about which hon. Members in all parts of the House feel strongly. Although we may take different routes we all want to reach the same goal and there is no need to be ashamed of choosing a different route.
If the Bill goes forward I shall be happy to serve on the Committee and see how many can clear things up and make them more logical. There is no point in saying that age alone should be the only criterion. Age may be the beginning of a qualification, but those who are housebound must have equal access to the benefits of the box. I entirely understand those who talk about the BBC versus independent broadcasting and advocate various forms of funding. That is not what we are discussing. We are discussing whether it is right that those who are disadvantaged should be helped to at least some form of parity in their viewing of the outside world, into which some of them cannot go.
Mention has been made of widows. It is easy to ring the withers of Parliament by picking out the hard cases. Yet even in peaceful north Devon I know young widows who do not like to go out at night, not because of the violence that one finds in capital cities, but simply because ladies on their own prefer not to go wandering alone. If they, too, are on a limited income, are they not equally entitled to this TV benefit? For these very much wider reasons than the reasons in the Bill we should at least give it a try.
553 One thing that nobody has mentioned except in an unkind way is the hotel system of paying for television. Please do not turn me against the Bill, as hon. Members couldeasily do, by talking about the prosperity of people running hotels. Hon. Members who come from constituencies where trade is seasonal will know that hotels may be empty for six months of the year and that the approximately £25 licence fee that each hotel pays per set is a fair if not excessive sum. I can see no logic at all in the argument that to help somebody we should soak somebody else. That somebody else may well be oneself wearing another hat or on another journey.
The Peacock report said that there should be no advertising, but I do not agree. I believe that pensioners and young people would understand the logic of such an approach to Radio 1, which my family calls "Radio Plonk". It broadcasts pop programmes, that are quite good for those who like that sort of thing. If there were advertising on Radio 1, which I believe has the largest listening audience of all the stations, it would not make a pennyworth of difference to its appeal but it would make many pennyworths of difference if that revenue was then allocated to pensioners' viewing fees.
Young people like to look after the old and the disadvantaged. We should look for ways of finding the money without imposing a burden on taxpayers generally. I am not seeking to destroy public radio or television, but it is a strange anomaly that while it is somehow ethical for the BBC to sell programmes and the music from various serials and to advertise these widely, it is apparently not ethical to put advertising on a Radio 1 programme and thereby provide pennies for pensioners' TV pictures.
§ Mr. Ottaway
My hon. Friend will, of course, recall that the Peacock committee rejected advertising because it did not think the market was big enough to sustain two channels competing for one lot of advertising. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had a chance to look at a report in The Times today which says that the IBA will consider increasing the amount of advertising on the independent channels because there is insufficient time at present to take the demand. The article states:The formula has resulted in a growing shortage of slots for commercials".This seems to show that there is scope to reconsider the Peacock report's recommendations.
§ Mr. Speller
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not read The Times this morning, as the Western Morning News is far more important from north Devon's point of view.
In a previous incarnation I was a shopkeeper, and the argument of every shopkeeper against an out-of-town shopping market or against granting planning permission for a rival to be built is that there is not enough business to go around. Frankly, the Peacock committee's recommendation is not acceptable as an argument against more advertising on television any more than that view is an argument for stopping someone setting up in business next to me on the high street selling drawing boards. I believe that there is plenty of advertising money about, provided good advertising is aimed at those who are likely to buy the products advertised. That is why I mentioned Radio 1.
554 The Bill is imperfect, but, as we are all aware, perfection is a rarity outside this Chamber, and sometimes inside it. I believe that many of the clauses must be changed substantially. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) said, that is the purpose of a Committee. If the Bill is not passed this Session, shall we again try next Session, the Session after and so on for ever? There is always a good argument for inertia. Inertia, allied to cost, is the greatest deterrent of all. I should have thought that it is worth trying to carry on this Bill and I note that my equally well-built hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) will also support further consideration. I do not know whether I shall be able to support the Committee's decisions, but let us take the Bill at least that far and see whether we can make it workable, fair and equitable to those for whom the licence fee is not equitable at present.
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
It is a great pleasure to speak in support of this Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). All hon. Members, irrespective of the side of the House on which they sit and their constituencies, represent retired people. There is no doubt that the Bill has wide public support which is by no means confined to retired people who see the possibility of benefiting from it. It extends to people of all ages who appreciate its benefits.
I am a member of the all-party pensioners group, which has discussed the issue many times. Delegations from all areas come to meet us and to talk about matters that worry them, and this issue is almost always on the agenda. For a long time, many people have wanted developments in this area. Today we have a chance to do something.
I have listened to every speech in the debate and I am confused by the repeated mention of well-off pensioners. I could not describe the pensioners who come to my advice surgeries or whom I meet when I visit day centres or luncheon clubs as well-off. There may be well-off pensioners in some areas, but they do not live in my part of south London. However, I often meet pensioners who tell me, "Because of the system and because I receive a few shillings a week over the limit, there are many benefits I do not receive." Pensioners tell me repeatedly about their difficulties in managing week after week. All hon. Members, irrespective of party, should want a system in which, once pensioners have paid their bills, they have some money left in their pockets to spend as they wish. Very few of them have more than a few shillings left after they have paid their bills. If the Bill were given a fair wind, it could help many people.
To Members of Parliament and to many many members of the general public, the licence fee of £58 may not be a large sum, but there is no doubt that it is a very sizeable sum to the vast majority of pensioners. We tend to forget the problems facing the overwhelming majority of pensioners who live on limited incomes.
Another issue that is often mentioned in the House but on which we make no meaningful progress is standing charges. Pensioners must pay standing charges on electricity and gas—we now have standing charges on water—telephone rentals, VAT on the bills, and the television licence fee of £58 a year. Pensioners on limited incomes are being asked to pay about £200 a year in charges even before they use any services, so the removal of the £58 licence fee would be of great benefit to them.
555 A frequent argument in the House is, "It is a good idea and we should do it, but it would be too complex to introduce." I reject that argument in this case. Some hon. Members have mentioned bus passes. I served on the Committee that considered the Bill to set up London Regional Transport. A major issue there was bus passes. We were told that it would he complex to provide bus passes. They were retained only because of the efforts made by the Greater London council to ensure that the bus pass system that it had introduced and which was so warmly welcomed by the people of London could continue. The argument that it would be too complex to continue the scheme evaporated when it became obvious that the people of London would fight to retain the system. Thankfully, it has been retained. It is no good hon. Members saying, "It is a good idea but far too complex." It is not. It needs the willingness of Parliament to allow my hon. Friend's Bill to go into Committee. That is the correct procedure and that is how legislation, Government or private Members' legislation, comes on to the statute book. A Bill goes into Committee where it is discussed and amendments are tabled. The House should provide that opportunity for my hon. Friend's Bill.
We have heard much about the cost of this Bill. I totally reject those arguments. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) referred to what it would cost on the standard rate of tax—a fifth of 1p. We have heard that there may be a reduction in income tax and that is greatly resented by those we are trying to help today. The Chancellor has said that he hopes to find X number of billion pounds for his April Budget. As it is expected that this will be an election year, we know that the Chancellor will be able to find very substantial sums of money. There will be substantial tax cut giveaways, but how will pensioners benefit from that? If there are tax cuts announced in this year's Budget the vast majority of pensioners will receive nothing at all.
Today Conservative Members have been objecting to the expenditure of something in the region of £200 million. However, those same hon. Members will be shouting their heads off on Budget day when the Chancellor announces give-away tax concessions worth millions of pounds. That is what annoys so many of the less well off sections of our community. Tory Members complain about the cost of this Bill while at the same time warmly supporting any tax concessions. The Bill should have the opportunity to go into Committee, where it can be thoroughly discussed.
I would support the introduction of a decent indexed pension scheme—my wish is shared by many hon. Members and the vast majority of pensioners. If we had a system of that kind the measure that my hon. Friend is seeking to introduce would not have the same degree of urgency, and problems with regard to heating payments would be eased.
On Tuesday the Government showed concern for people facing enormous problems because of the atrocious weather. In view of the Minister's remarks and those of other Conservative Members it is worth recalling that one of the great problems that many pensioners find in keeping warm, not only during exceptionally bad spells but throughout the winter, is the size of the bill that they have to meet either for gas or electricity.
That problem has been exacerbated by the Government's policies that have forced an enormous increase in the price of gas and electricity. That makes it difficult for many people to afford to keep themselves 556 warm. The Government showed a degree of concern on Tuesday—no more than that—but it would appear that my hon. Friend's worthwhile Bill will not be receiving any sympathy.
If the Bill is not given its Second Reading today, pensioners and their families will know just how much the Government care. Today can be seen as a test of the Government's concern. On Tuesday they were forced to act because of the atrocious weather, but apart from that, they are not prepared to show any urgency. The test is whether the Government will give the Bill an opportunity to be debated in Committee.
In half an hour or so Conservative Members on the payroll vote may stream into the Chamber although they have not taken part in the debate or even listened to any of the speeches. If they come in to kill the Bill, it will be an utter disgrace. Government legislation and, more particularly, private Members' legislation is entitled to be given a fair wind so that it can be debated in Committee. I warmly support this Bill, and I sincerely hope that we can debate it in Committee.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
I can certainly take up some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), even if I cannot agree with his conclusions. He made one important point, which is that we are really talking about the proper expenditure of public money. On occasion that theme has been spotted during the debate, but most of the time it has not been. We are discussing the right way of spending public money.
When my hon. Friend the Minister set out the Labour Government's record on pensions, he did not suggest, any more than I would, that the manoeuvres that the Labour Government had to resort to stemmed from any lack of compassion or concern for the elderly. There was no doubt about that at all, but, confronted with the realities of office, they suddenly found that the rhetoric of compassion was not, in itself, enough. That led them into some pretty devious byways which certain Opposition Members found somewhat distressing.
I shall not go through all that now, as it has already been referred to at some length. However, it is worth mentioning the manoeuvring that had to be done to get out of the earnings link that that Labour Government had introduced, and the manoeuvrings that were done from a historic to a forecasting method. That is what happened when the Labour Government had to find the money to care for the poor. Perhaps that was best summed up in a pamphlet that explained to the public how an electricity discount scheme would work. On the Government's behalf, it explained whey they could not do as much as they would have liked, and stated:the Government has only limited funds available to help people.In a way, that says it all. All Governments have only limited funds available to help people.
When the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) popped in for a few brief moments to speak, I put it to him that I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that I could not find in the 1979 alliance manifesto one word about approaching the problem of caring for pensioners by making such concessions. The hon. Gentleman said, "Ah. I know what the answer to that is. The answer is that 557 circumstances change." He may rue the day that he did it, but he then picked up my word flexible and said that we had to be flexible and that times changed.
Times may change in the sense that one has to consider the way in which one wants to achieve one's policies, and one must accept that sometimes one has to change one's mind about how to go about it, but the laws of economic reality have not changed since 1978 or 1979. The Bill effectively advocates a blanket subsidy, and that is what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South was talking about. The laws of economics do not change simply because a party which used to be in government goes into opposition.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South, who I know will wish to read Hansard to see what other contributions were made, may well turn his mind to what was said by the founder of his own party, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) when he was the Labour Home Secretary. He said:Successive Administrations have taken the view that it is preferable to help pensioners and disabled people with cash benefits rather than to give benefits in kind. I do not think it would be possible to justify the increased public expenditure which a Government subsidy would involve.Times may change, but the laws of handout economics do not. The right hon. Gentleman took that line at that time, so to that extent nothing changes.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
It is still the alliance's position that a decent pension is by far the best way of helping people of pensionable age. In 1979, when the Labour Government, who had been supported by the Liberals, went out of office, the link between earnings, a decent graduated pension and the pensioners' entitlement was dropped. If the Government were to re-adopt that link there would not be so much pressure for the Bill, because more pensioners could afford what they are entitled to, which is to have a television in their old age.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I appreciate that because of the hon. Gentleman's responsibilities he may have other calls upon his time, but he may feel in due course that he perhaps missed something from this debate by not being present when my hon. Friend the Minister was talking about precisely that point. The hon. Gentleman talks about the earnings link. Yes, the Government whom his party kept in office produced an earnings link, but in three out of the four years in which it should have applied they avoided their own legislation.
The Secretary of State for Social Services at that time was chided by Pensioners Voice for his machinations on the pension. He said:There is a statutory obligation to take these figures…into account…but no statutory obligation to get it right.Those were the steps to which the Government whom he supported were reduced.
The hon. Gentleman may also care to recall that pensioners were so displeased by the Government whom his party kept in office that on one somewhat inglorious occasion the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), a Social Security Minister in that Government, had to be rescued from Central Hall, Westminster from baying hordes of pensioners who wished to tell him directly how they felt about the pension record of the Government whom he supported.
558 I am sorry to have to say to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey that, if he is to claim any support for the Government whom he formerly kept in office, he should think more carefully in the free moments available to him of that Government's record. He may also care to look back, as I do frequently, at a manifesto on which he was quite content to fight the last election, and notice that there is not one word among the many hundreds of words in it on how the issuing of a free television licence to all pensioners had become a necessary human right which would have to be funded. The hon. Gentleman will have to learn to live with that.
Much mention has been made of the anomalies which would result if the Bill, or anything remotely like it which could emerge from Committee, were to be passed by the House today. It has been suggested that anomalies are just a fact of life and that we must put up with them. We must go further than that. We are entitled to say to pensioners, when assessing the promises made by a party today and comparing those with how it dealt with the problem when in office, "Let us look at some of those anomalies."
What about the fact that about 35 per cent. of pensioners have an income above the national average? Is that really a proper expenditure of taxpayers' money to give free television licences to such people? That has been said before, but, unhappily, having listened to the speeches today, it needs to be said again. Does the right hon. Member for Leeds, east (Mr. Healey). the former Chancellor, need a free television licence? Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister really need one? I am bound to say that I do no think that she does.
§ Mr. Norris
Is it not an irony that on this side of the House we have always advocated means testing as the best way to determine who should be eligible for benefits, not because, as the Opposition allege, we are interested in feathering the pockets of the rich, but precisely because it ensures that those who do not need benefits do not receive them from the pockets of taxpayers who can ill afford to pay? Is it not a real irony that this proposal further ensures that the real beneficiaries of the Bill are those who have no need of this munificence?
§ Mr. Nicholls
My hon. Friend supplements his excellent speech with a valuable point. That is precisely the problem. When benefits are not targeted, anomalies arise. If the debate has shown nothing else, it will make hon. Members pause to wonder why they have worked so hard today to give the Prime Minister a free television licence.
§ Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)
I have followed my hon. Friend's remarks with care. He may know that I represent a constituency which suffers from 24 per cent. male unemployment. Does he agree that the expressions of concern from Opposition Members about the unemployed would have a better ring if they suggested that those in genuine need, for example the unemployed, rather than many pensioners who are not in genuine need, were given free television licences?
§ Mr. Nicholls
I must commend my hon. Friend's eyesight and perspicacity, as the next point on my notes relates to the other poor. My hon. Friend makes an important point. If hon. Gentlemen are trying to means-target a benefit, saying that an unending diet of soap opera has become indispensable to human life and should be 559 funded by the state, they are failing, because other poor members of society, including poor pensioners, will not benefit from the Bill or anything remotely based on it.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The hon. Gentleman has just said that the Bill would have the effect of giving the Prime Minister a free television licence and that that was a reason why he argued against it. Surely that same argument could be applied to free bus passes? We understand that the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) got himself a bus pass when he reached the qualifying date.
§ Mr. Nicholls
The hon. Gentleman has an engaging manner and he uses an old debating trick. On finding that he is in some embarrassment in talking about what he should be talking about, he talks about something else and hopes that he will not also be embarrassed by that. I am tempted to follow him down that particular byway and show him the error of his ways, but that is not fair use of the time of the House when others want to speak. Moreover, I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would call me to order if I tried to do so.
In addition to benefiting the elderly rich, the Bill would produce some strange reactions. I particularly enjoyed the moments of light relief when the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) was speaking. He swooped on my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) and accused him of being a millionaire, saying that my hon. Friend could afford a gold-plated television. The irony is twofold. First, if my hon. Friend is so gifted and fortunate, he must he paying huge amounts of tax to the Exchequer to fund benefits for those who need them.
Secondly, after that marvellous peroration from the hon. Member for Hartlepool about the evils of our opposition to the Bill and my wicked hon. Friend who has all that money, he said that when my hon. Friend, in the fullness of time, becomes a grey haired old millionaire in the twilight of his years, he wants to give my hon. Friend a free television licence. With the best will in the world, it is difficult to follow the logic of that. When one starts to try to dish out a blanket benefit because it seems like a good idea and the editorial policy of such distinguished newspapers as the Daily Star will offer support, one begins to travel down extremely odd paths.
I wish to deal with two further points, one of which has been a recurring theme in our debate. It is suggested that if only we could have a Socialist Government who would tax the rich, all this lovely money would be provided. Once again we hear that cry. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) said that if we could only screw the rich everything would be fine. That sounds fine. If we want to have a nice, straightforward, simplistic policy to produce Utopia on earth, we go back to the old musical song, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) reminded us, and reckon that it is the rich who are to blame.
One of the people from whom we have not heard today is the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I do not know where he is, but it may be that he suffers from embarrassment. In April last year he asked a written question of the Treasury to find out how much money the richest sections of society had paid since the Government cut their tax rates. We can perhaps guess why the hon. Gentleman asked that question. He thought that he would get a particular answer, but he did not. What he found out, and others could have told him the logic of this if he had 560 troubled to ask, is that if we reduce the rates of taxation on the rich, they may work harder, earn more money and contribute more tax. That is not a statement from a Member of Parliament such as myself, who might he thought to be partisan. That is hard-core statistical and verifiable fact from the Treasury, which shows that if one cuts the tax rates of the rich, they wind up paying more.
§ Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)
If the figures have escaped my hon. Friend, I can inform him that the top 5 per cent. of taxpayers contribute 26.4 per cent. of the total tax bill.
§ Mr. Nicholls
It is bound to be that way. If Labour Members are trying to work out why reducing tax rates on the rich helps those whom they say that they want to help, they should be able to understand that. Under the last Labour Government tax rates went up to 98 per cent., with the result that people did not bother to work, or did not go into the office after Thursday, so that they were not working just for the Government, or they left the country, or they took the money as perks, or simply gave up the ghost and stopped earning completely. If, under this Government, one can retain 40 per cent. of the money that one earns, there is a real incentive to earn more. It is difficult for Labour Members to get to grips with this, and it goes against the whole theory of the class warfare. I f one wants money to help the poor, and if, like the last Labour Government, one realises that there is a limit to what one can do and one is in the business of generating money to help, one should be reducing tax rates on the rich, because more money will be generated in that way.
My second point is perhaps a small one, but it is worth dealing with it. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said that more people had died of hypothermia this winter here than in any other country. To use such figures in a numerical head count without relating it to the percentage that that would form the population is, while I would not say dishonest, an unhelpful and misleading use of figures. If the hon. Lady had wanted to follow that byline, she might have cared to reflect on the fact that the greatest number of winter deaths from hypothermia occurred in 1978–79. Labour Members constantly try to drop the blame for hypothermia at the Government's door, but they cannot do so. When I say that it was under the last Labour Government that hypothermia deaths peaked, I am in no way saying that that was a result of their lack of compassion. It is a simple fact of life that has to be faced.
As the debate has gone on and Labour Members have been made to face the Labour party's record in office and the arguments against the use of public expenditure in this way, they have tried to say that altering the Bill in Committee will take care of all the problems. When the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was concluding his remarks, in a Churchillian parody, he came out with a line that I noted down because I could hardly believe my ears. He said that the Bill would help "pensioners on low incomes." That is precisely not what it will do in its entirety. It will help all pensioners in a thoroughly arbitrary way, whether they are rich or poor.
§ Mr. Winnick
Presumably the hon. Gentleman considers that I should have introduced a Bill to give further tax concessions to the rich. He says that, in its entirety, my Bill will not help those on low income. I accept that, but the overwhelming majority of pensioners who 561 would receive the concession under my Bill are on low incomes—some 64 per cent., including those on supplementary benefit, with 40 per cent. above supplementary benefit level.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I remember the hon. Gentleman's speech very well. He redefined poverty so as to bring more people within it—a fairly usual tactic. The hon. Gentleman said that this measure would help pensioners on low incomes, but it will not. It takes a purely arbitrary class of pensioners, irrespective of their means, and applies help to them.
The hon. Gentleman ought to bear in mind that this Government have not given a single penny to the rich. They have allowed those who earn money, pay their taxes and turn the rhetoric of compassion into reality to keep more of what is rightfully theirs. To say that that amounts to a concession is like saying that a burglar has done one a favour in not nicking all one's possessions. To use that kind of language when referring to tax concessions will not work.
It is tempting to say that the hon. Member for Wallsall, North does not remember the record of his Government when they were in office and that he believes that this measure will help pensioners. Whatever else one may say about the hon. Gentleman, he has attended this debate assiduously, and I should like to think that he has done his research carefully. However, he can be in no doubt that if his party were ever again charged with the responsibilities of government—the realities that applied between 1974 and 1979 would apply again. It may appear to some of the most gullible and vulnerable sections of our society that he has their welfare at heart, but he has exploited their fears, and he may attract some votes thereby but I wonder whether, in the end, he will think that that was the best use of his fortune, upon which I congratulate him, in having obtained first place in the private Members' ballot.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The House will be aware that at least five hon. Members who have been here since the beginning of the debate still wish to speak. Time is short, so I appeal for brief contributions.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), whom I must thank. He displayed the most overbearing arrogance and unparalleled conceit. It was the most dangerous cocktail of class prejudice that one can possibly conceive. Now I understand what was said yesterday by the Leader of the House during business questions. He confessed that he would rather be known as a Tory ignoramus than as a member of the Tory intelligentsia. In last Wednesday's debate on severe weather payments and the plight of the pensioners I referred to my long-standing associate membership of the Teeside pensioners association. I make no apology for reminding the House in this debate of that personal commitment. Support of and invlovement in such an organisation, dedicated as it is to the cause of improving the lot of the senior citizen and pursuing the beneficial development of their conditions in retirement, has always seemed to me to be just as natural an extension of my 562 trades union activities as seeking better medical provision for my wife or an improved education system for my children. It is a further stage of development in the Christian quest to put to fairer and better use the country's common wealth.
Therefore, I take both pleasure and pride in asking the House to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). This eminently sensible proposal is long overdue. I take pleasure in devoting to that purpose the skills that I was encouraged to develop by fellow members and officers of the Teesside pensioners association. I refer to women like Elsie Stringer and Olwyn Gartland and to men like George Short and Syd Clay. My personal satisfaction stems in no small measure from the fact that my participation in today's debate means that I shall manage in some small way to repay the debt of gratitude that I owe to them and to many others of their age group for all that they have done to make this country great. That gratitude is something akin to the form of thankfulness that one feels for the patronage of caring parents. If all Members present in the House today can call to mind their personal statement of account on that particular element of life's currency, and examine closely their present balance, my hon. Friend must surely anticipate the outcome of today's debate with considerable optimism.
In that spirit of optimism, let us examine in finer detail the purpose of today's proposal and the reasons why we should seriously consider the adoption of such a scheme. We seek to enshrine in law a situation that allows the pensioner, either in single or married state, to be able to own and operate a television set free of the statutory requirement to obtain a licence. Why? The plain and simple answer to that plain and simple question is that it is grossly unfair not to. Let me explain and I will make it easier for the more myopic misers who would seek to obstruct this proposal.
If we look closely into the principle of the television licence, and the practical effect of compliance with its requirement, what is the fundamental problem that arises? Why do pensioners, those on social benefit payments and those on low incomes, view it with concern? They do so because they see the licence fee as a tax on households, and furthermore, as a form of tax that reacts most sharply against those held within these low income groups.
As it is pensioners that we are deliberating on today, let us ask ourselves what percentage of a pension our elderly are required to set aside to meet this iniquitous tax. If we take the weekly amount of a married couple, £61.95, or £3,200 per annum approximately, the portion of income absorbed is close to 2 per cent. annually. For the pensioner living singly and alone on £38.70 a week, that annual figure is £2,000, a portion of almost 3 per cent.
I thought of leaving it to the imagination of hon. Members present to assess the percentage for those on high incomes. I thought that an exhortation to such altruism might help to underline the inequality of this television tax. However, I thought again, and decided to render more assistance, because some hon. Members have been known to be somewhat slow when it comes to handling figures of a mathematical nature.
Having settled on the basis of the single viewer, calling on the net in hand income and using round figures, I offer this assessment to the House. The basic income of an hon. Member setting aside the magnificent additions of ministeral salary and the enhancement of junior post 563 payments and other payroll vote inducements of which we are likely to see evidence in about seven minutes, is, roughly speaking, £950 a month—say, £11,500 per annum. Expressed as a proportion of that modest sum, a television licence absorbs a mere 0.5 per cent., as opposed to the 3 per cent. demanded of the pensioner sitting shivering, pondering whether the long range Met forecasts will be accurate; or whether the temperature in four or five days will trip a point or two up on the Celsius scale; wondering whether to burn the extra log for fear that the magic minus 1.5 deg C felt in the bones is only recorded as minus 1.3 deg C at the national climatological message centre situated 50 miles away from his television set.
We heard a lot during Wednesday's debate about boneheads, so to make certain that all hon. Members present understand what I am saying, let me express it in another way: 0.;5 per cent. of an annual income for an individual Member of this House, 3 per cent. for an individual pensioner—six times cheaper for the hon. Member, or if one prefers it, six times dearer for the senior citizen.
A phrase used frequently in this Chamber is "real terms". Let us have some real terms. Real terms on this scale means that, while an hon. Member may get a meal in the Dining Room for £5, the pensioner, on this basis, would have to pay £30. Dinner in the Strangers Dining Room would set the senior citizen back £48. A hearty grill in the Harcourt Room could mean a bill for the old folk of £70. The beer would be £6 a pint; the gin and tonic, £7 a tot; and the four star petrol to fuel their chauffeur-driven Rolls home could be bought for a mere £10.50 a gallon.
If one goes further and applies the same principle to the annual rate for the long-term unemployed, the percentage differential is eroded even further, reinforcing the argument that television licences should be phased out altogether as was proposed in the Labour party manifesto at the general election.
What sort of society have we created when old people who, by nature of their age and varying degrees of infirmity, are most dependent on television are to be punished, while those at the healthiest and wealthiest end can get away with what is, relatively speaking, a nominal charge.
A further cause of concern is the differentials between pensioners. If a pensioner lives in sheltered accommodation or in a ground floor flat connected to a warden system, he will pay 5p, but his neighbour upstairs with the same economic difficulties has to pay the full licence fee. Many hon. Members have referred to that, as they have, too, to the shabby differential which means that it is acceptable for hotels with dozens of bedrooms to get away with one television licence and yet to advertise "television in all rooms" as a means of touting for further business. As long as such differentials exist, which affect people on low incomes so severely, the seeds of discontent will be ever present.
I have referred to the percentage differences between the cost to a pensioner compared to the better-off sections of society in order to emphasise the criminal discrimination against those on low incomes. However, we cannot reduce the argument to percentages alone. When talking about the low incomes of our old people, we must understand that every penny of such income is spent on sustaining life, to such an extent that priorities such as food and clothing, or, in the present circumstances, heating, to combat the most severe weather, all have to be 564 met. A television set is as essential to the elderly as the other things mentioned, bearing in mind that the lack of mobility imposes on the elderly the need to spend long periods in the home and alone.
To many old people the television set is their only contact with society and the outside world. It is criminal that in this rich society old people should be confronted with the choice of buying the necessities of life or purchasing a television licence.
I have tried to make a genuine case for the introduction of free television licences for the elderly. That plea from the heart must be seen in the context of a general decline in the living standards of the elderly. Since the pensions uprating link with earnings was broken in 1980, pensioners have lost considerable amounts of money from their weekly income and the relationship of the pension to the average wage has declined. That shows a serious aggravation in relative poverty. Heating allowances for new claimants were abolished in 1985 and the severe weather payment would appear a huge joke if it were not so tragic.
The Fowler legislation is set to erode standards still further. Inflation over the years has severely reduced the value of the Christmas bonus. The death grant, instead of being improved and brought up to a more realistic level, is to be abolished.
We often talk about senior citizens in a patronising way, knowing full well that the people about whom we are talking are second class citizens who struggle for their very survival. If we believe in the term "senior citizens", let us begin to bestow on our senior citizens the full rights and privileges that we associate with seniority. Much work is required to achieve such noble aims, but a start could he made by recognising the value of the television concession to the elderly. If there is a trace of humanity in the House, the Bill should be carried without dissent.
It is with pride and pleasure that I support the Bill and I appeal to all to let this mark the beginning of a process when we begin to recognise the true value of our old people.
I have had many clippings from The Star, clippings which I have not brought with me because I do not need them. The association of which I am a member has a membership approaching 2,000 and it keeps me well informed of their opinions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) referred to the 7,800 concessionary licences that were revoked by the Home Secretary in 1980. They were added to by the television licences that were revoked simultaneously in my constitutency. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow referred to Tyneside, but he did not refer to the campaign of Fred Jones. A pensioner of about 80 years of age is refusing to pay his television licence fee and is challenging the Government to send him to gaol for so doing. I say more power to his campaign. Fred Jones's campaign on Tyneside, the Teeside pensioners' campaign in Cleveland and the campaign that has been launched in The State today will ensure that the Division lists will be made available throughout the country. There are 9 million pensioners and many of them have children and grandchildren. When they read the Division lists, they will know where to put their cross at the next election.
§ 2 pm
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)
When I read today's Order Paper I thought at first that good use had 565 been made by Opposition Members of the opportunities that are presented by a private Member's Bill. I thought also that there might be an attempt to embarrass the Government. As the debate has unwound, however, it has become clear that anyone who reads a report of it will understand that it has exposed more about the Opposition's position than about that of the Government.
Opposition Members have protested about Conservative Members' constant references to the last period of Labour Government. They have done so because we have hit upon what is always a fundamental truth: judge someone by what he does or by what he did when he last had the chance to do something effective, and not necessarily by what he says. We have been told repeatedly by Opposition Members that we must not refer to what the Labour party did when it was last in Government. We have been told that that was ages ago and that it does not matter. We know, pensioners know and the entire electorate know that one of the best ways of judging what a Labour Government would do when in power is to examine what happened when a Labour Government were last in power. Despite all the promises, high-flown words and repeated claims of compassion that have come from Opposition Members, we know, and the pensioners know, that the promises made by the previous Labour Government were false and that those being made now will be equally false.
Why is that? Did the previous Labour Government manage the economy sufficiently effectively to deliver to those in need in society what had to be delivered? We know that the Labour Government failed to pay the Christmas bonus for two years. That Government failed to provide the concessions that Labour Members have suggested would be provided by a future Labour Government. We know that what Labour Members have talked about did not happen during the previous Labour Government's period in office and that it will not happen under a future Labour Administration. Even if it did, their mismanagement of the economy would be such that inflation would return and destroy the savings of the very people whom today Labour Members are claiming they wish to help.
We have nothing to fear from this attempt to embarrass the Government. It has given us an opportunity to draw attention to the failure of the previous Labour Government to deliver what they promised.
Why should the Opposition choose to give such special attention to television? If television is vital to life, as it has been claimed, why not talk about concessionary food or clothes? Why are Labour Members seeking by means of the Bill to remove from pensioners the right to choose how to use their resources, pensions or otherwise? Why should we deny to pensioners the right to say that they do not want a colour television and that they want to use their resources for another purpose? Why should we make the assumption that colour television is so overwhelmingly important to every pensioner that it is necessary to give them the treatment that is set out in the Bill? Those of pensionable age have as much right to exercise choice as anyone else and they do not need this patronising concession—
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Would the hon. Gentleman go as far as to suggest that pensioners' bus passes should be withdrawn, or does he find some way of justifying those?
§ Mr. Forth
I shall give the hon. Gentleman an answer if he wants one. I would judge travel to be a much more essential part of a pensioner's life than watching a colour television. If the hon. Gentleman wants my answer, that is it. I am much happier continuing to provide those of pensionable age with travel assistance, which I deem to be more necessary to them than colour television, than to take away their right to judge whether to have a television of any sort, a colour television or a black-and-white television. I respect that power of judgment and it is one that I wish to leave with them.
The other fallacy is that the indiscriminate giving of benefit is the best way in which to deal with problems. Opposition Members are prepared to take the scarce resources that are available to the Government and scatter them far and wide across society irrespective of whether people need help. Conservatives much prefer to identify people who are genuinely in need and give them as much assistance as possible. We do not want to give help, regardless of need, across the social spectrum. That is precisely the mistake which the Bill would make—yet again—and it is why I could level the charge of mismanagement against the Opposition.
No matter how often the Opposition repeat their claim to concern, when it comes to the acid test—whether that concern is translated into action—they fail on every count. They fail on the general count of mismanagement of the economy, as we have seen in the past, and they fail repeatedly because they are unprepared to single out those who are genuinely in need and direct assistance to them. The Opposition much prefer the bland and utterly ineffective approach of giving scarce resources that are raped from the taxpayer to anybody, regardless of need.
It has been observed several times today that one third of people of pensionable age are in the upper income groups, and presumably most of them would not wish to claim the proposed benefit.
The so-called campaign mounted by The Star has been referred to often today. Opposition Members have said that it carries some value or strength. Putting in a coupon which can be cut out and which purports to offer something for nothing gives people an easy opportunity to express their view that they would like something for nothing, all for the cost of a stamp. I confess that, from my electorate of about 77,000 people, I have received eight coupons. Only eight of my constituents have cut out the coupon and sent it to me saying that they rather like the idea of getting something for nothing. Would that life were that simple. Fortunately, not all of us will be subjected to the sort of pressure that is sought to be exercised.
I notice that in the January 12 edition of The Star the paper said:If the Bill is sabotaged we will go all out to nail those responsible.567 [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] What sort of Members of Parliament does that newspaper think we have if it thinks that, simply by exercising such blackmail, it can force hon. Members to make a misjudgment?
§ Sir Paul Bryan
One of my hon. Friends has received four coupons and another has received two, but I have received none.
§ Mr. Forth
My hon. Friend makes the point for me. In spite of the ease with which the Bill is offered, and in spite of the seductiveness of the concept of something for nothing, very few pensioners will fall for it, because they know how life operates. They know that this is an attempt to tell them that there is an easy way out. It is an attempt to tell them that there is some way in which a party which failed to help them previously will give them something for nothing in the future.
People of pensionable age, perhaps more than any other group, know perfectly well that there is no such thing as something for nothing. They know how to manage their resources and how to determine their priorities. Above all, they know that this type of cheap gimmick is not to be respected and will not be responded to.
There are many other reasons why my right hon. and hon. Friends, having considered the Bill with seriousness and having weighed up whether it is worth supporting, have decided—I suspect, in most cases, without too much trouble—that the Bill is less than honest, will not be delivered, and is misdirected. For that reason, I shall oppose it.
§ 2.9 pm
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
Whatever else the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) or The Star may have done, they have certainly brought a large number of hon. Members to the House to debate what is clearly an important piece of legislation. I ask hon. Members to consider the arguments that we have heard in the debate. We are talking about 7 million pensioner households and about a not insignificant amount of money which would come out of the total licence money of £723 million which goes to the BBC. The concession would mean that £230 million, or at most £345 million, would be lost.
The Minister came to the Dispatch Box to defend a system which he admits is riddled with anomalies. There is not only the anomaly of people in identical financial circumstances living next door to each other and paying different licence fees, but the anomaly that it costs ££155,000 to collect the 5p licence fees and the amount collected is only £29,000. What is the issue? It is that for many pensioners and elderly people, just as home helps and social services help them overcome their loneliness, so radio and television are crucial to help overcome that loneliness too. This debate is interesting and important, because it is all about how much people can afford, and we must remember that we are talking about some of the worst paid pensioners in Europe. Perhaps that is why we had such controversy earlier in the week at the end of which the Government gave in on the £5 severe weather payment.
The Bill contains three proposals. The first is for free television licences for pensioners who are living alone or with other pensioners or minors. It is not for all pensioners, and it might have been a little better if the hon.
568 Member for Walsall, North had made that a little clearer in the title of his Bill. This is not a totally open commitment. The second proposal is to scrap the anomalous 5p. That is such an anomaly that even the Government could concede that it should go immediately. The third proposal is that the money which the BBC will lose should come from the taxpayer. I shall deal in turn with those matters.
First, the Government should have accepted, as they were invited to accept, the Peacock recommendation that supplementary income pensioners should be entitled to free television licences. That would cost the Treasury £80 million. That is a small category of needy people, and relatively little cost.
Clearly, it is right that pensioners who are well off should not have free television licences. Such a payout is clearly ludicrous and the examples of previous Prime Ministers or the present Prime Minister demonstrate that. Free TV for supplementary pensioners is what the Peacock committee recommended and the Government could easily adjust the £80 million to pay for that. We are against all pensioners receiving free television licences. We are also against continuing anomalies.
Thirdly, we accept that the television licence has to be paid because the BBC needs money, and we would not vote for clause 3 which says that that money should come directly from the Government. That is because we do not trust the Government with the BBC.
Money lost by concession must be raised in some other way and perhaps younger and richer people should have to pay more for television licences. Issues of that sort could be looked at in Committee. For example, we should look to see whether we could have a phased introduction of the system or whether we could have different rates for black and white and colour television. There are all sorts of possibilities provided we have a system which is simple and administratively easy.
The Minister says that the DHSS would find it impossible to identify how free television licences could be given only to those on supplementary benefit. The DHSS keeps records of people on supplementary benefit, the post offices know the pensioners and the Minister's own poll tax proposals will provide an additional check.
Our first priority is a decent pension. Secondly, we want to abolish standing charges, and only thirdly would we intend to be more generous about television licences for pensioners. As the Government are not willing to put up the pension to a decent rate and are not willing to abolish standing charges, they should at least have the generosity to accept the Bill on Second Reading. They give tax handouts to the rich in their Budgets, while earlier in the week £5 for the poor had to be prised out of them. Some of the Government's Back Benchers will vote against them. I hope that many of them will do so and that Ministers will realise that pensioners will be watching the Government and will condemn them if they show no compassion and do not allow the Bill to go to Committee.
If the Government resist the Bill, they are saying that it is not worthy of consideration. There has been a campaign for this measure for several years. I am sure that pensioners throughout Britain believe that the Bill should be given a Second Reading. The Government should realise that electorally they will be in severe difficulty if they do not agree. I call on Conservative Members to allow 569 the Bill to proceed to Committee so that there can be real progress, not a knee-jerk negative reaction by an uncaring Government.
§ Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, That the Bill be now read a Second time:
§ The House divided: Ayes 162, Noes 183.571
|Division No 55]||[2.15 pm|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Foster, Derek|
|Alton, David||Foulkes, George|
|Anderson, Donald||Fraser, J. (Norwood)|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Garrett, W. E.|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||George, Bruce|
|Barron, Kevin||Godman, Dr Norman|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Gould, Bryan|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Hancock, Michael|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Hardy, Peter|
|Blair, Anthony||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Haynes, Frank|
|Boyes, Roland||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Home Robertson, John|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Howarth, George (Knowsley, N)|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||Hoyle, Douglas|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Hughes, Roy (Newport East)|
|Buchan, Norman||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Caborn, Richard||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Callaghan, Rt Hon J.||Janner, Hon Greville|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Campbell, Ian||Lambie, David|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Lamond, James|
|Canavan, Dennis||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Leighton, Ronald|
|Cartwright, John||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Litherland, Robert|
|Clarke, Thomas||Livsey, Richard|
|Clay, Robert||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Clelland, David Gordon||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Loyden, Edward|
|Cohen, Harry||McCartney, Hugh|
|Coleman, Donald||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Conlan, Bernard||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton North)||McNamara, Kevin|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||McWilliam, John|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Madden, Max|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Marek, Dr John|
|Craigen, J. M.||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Crowther, Stan||Maxton, John|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Maynard, Miss Joan|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)||Meacher, Michael|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Michie, William|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Mikardo, Ian|
|Deakins, Eric||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)|
|Dewar, Donald||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||O'Brien, William|
|Dixon, Donald||O'Neill, Martin|
|Dobson, Frank||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Dormand, Jack||Park, George|
|Dubs, Alfred||Parry, Robert|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.||Patchett, Terry|
|Eadie, Alex||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Eastham, Ken||Pike, Peter|
|Evans, John (St. Helens N)||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)|
|Fatchett, Derek||Prescott, John|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Radice, Giles|
|Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)||Raynsford, Nick|
|Fisher, Mark||Redmond, Martin|
|Flannery, Martin||Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)|
|Richardson, Ms Jo||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Roberts, Allan (Bootle)||Stott, Roger|
|Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)||Strang, Gavin|
|Rogers, Allan||Straw, Jack|
|Rooker, J. W.||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)||Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)|
|Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Rowlands, Ted||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon R.||Wareing, Robert|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Welsh, Michael|
|Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Silkin, Rt Hon J.||Wilson, Gordon|
|Skinner, Dennis||Winnick, David|
|Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)||Woodall, Alec|
|Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'ds E)||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Soley, Clive||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Spearing, Nigel||Mr. Joseph Ashton and|
|Speller, Tony||Mr. Tony Banks.|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Gorst, John|
|Ancram, Michael||Ground, Patrick|
|Ashby, David||Gummer, Rt Hon John S|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)||Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael|
|Baldry, Tony||Hayward, Robert|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Batiste, Spencer||Henderson, Barry|
|Best, Keith||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Hickmet, Richard|
|Blackburn, John||Hind, Kenneth|
|Body, Sir Richard||Hirst, Michael|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Bottomley, Peter||Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Howard, Michael|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Bright, Graham||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Brinton, Tim||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Hubbard-Miles, Peter|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.||Hunt, David (Wirral W)|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Jackson, Robert|
|Burt, Alistair||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Butcher, John||Jones, Robert (Herts W)|
|Butterfill, John||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Key, Robert|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Carttiss, Michael||Knight, Greg (Derby N)|
|Cash, William||Lamont, Rt Hon Norman|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Lang, Ian|
|Chope, Christopher||Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Colvin, Michael||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Cope, John||Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)|
|Couchman, James||Lightbown, David|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Lilley, Peter|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Dunn, Robert||Lord, Michael|
|Durant, Tony||Luce, Rt Hon Richard|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Eggar, Tim||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Emery, Sir Peter||MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)|
|Eyre, Sir Reginald||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Favell, Anthony||Major, John|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Malone, Gerald|
|Forman, Nigel||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Forth, Eric||Mayhew, Sir Patrick|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Mellor, David|
|Fraser, Peter (Angus East)||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Freeman, Roger||Miller, Hal (B'grove)|
|Galley, Roy||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Mitchell, David (Hants NW)|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Moate, Roger|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Silvester, Fred|
|Moore, Rt Hon John||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)||Spencer, Derek|
|Moynihan, Hon C.||Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)|
|Neubert, Michael||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Newton, Tony||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Normanton, Tom||Stanley, Rt Hon John|
|Norris, Steven||Steen, Anthony|
|Onslow, Cranley||Stern, Michael|
|Osborn, Sir John||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Ottaway, Richard||Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Patten, Christopher (Bath)||Sumberg, David|
|Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Pattie, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Pollock, Alexander||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Portillo, Michael||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Price, Sir David||Thurnham, Peter|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Tracey, Richard|
|Raffan, Keith||Trippier, David|
|Raison, Rt Hon Timothy||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Rathbone, Tim||Viggers, Peter|
|Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Watts, John|
|Robinson, Mark (N'port W)||Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Whitney, Raymond|
|Rossi, Sir Hugh||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Rowe, Andrew||Wood, Timothy|
|Ryder, Richard||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Scott, Nicholas||Mr. Patrick Nicholls and|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Mr. David Maclean.|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
§ Question accordingly negatived.2.28 pm
§ Mr. Winnick
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was fortunate enough to come first in the ballot for private Members' Bills. It is disgraceful that the payroll vote—I saw for example the chairman of the Tory party, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary voting against the Bill—has been brought in to vote down a measure which represents fairness and justice for pensioners and I seek your advice.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman has got his point on the record. He and the House are aware that, thank goodness, the Chair has no control over the motives which influence hon. Members to vote one way or the other.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course we recognise that you have no control over the matter that you have just mentioned, but the Prime Minister has control over the fact that members of the Cabinet, Ministers and members of the Tory party's payroll vote have been wheeled out to vote against the Bill, thus disposing finally of the Prime Minister's phoney compassion for the poor and for pensioners. We have just seen the genuine hard face of Thatcherism doing down the pensioners.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I can only repeat that those are not matters over which the Chair has any control. I think that the whole House knows that.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I must first deal with the remaining Orders of the Day. If hon. Members still wish to raise points of order after that, I shall take them then.