HC Deb 24 November 1987 vol 123 cc150-2

4.3 pm

Miss Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for concessionary television licences for state retirement pensioners. Many people outside the House would assume that there would be all-party support for a Bill that sought to introduce a more rational and just system for concessionary television licences for pensioners. Sadly, that is not the case. When a similar Bill entitled Free Television Licences for Pensioners was introduced in January by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), Conservative Members either abstained or voted against it. Eighty-six per cent, of Ministers trotted obediently into the Lobby to vote against concessionary television licences for pensioners and 100 per cent, of the "caring" Ministry—the Health and Social Security Ministers—voted against it. The Prime Minister did not vote, and I can only assume that by not voting she was declaring an interest as one of the few pensioners in the Cabinet.

During the June election, Conservative Members put pensioners high on the political agenda and talked a lot about the need to give them a decent standard of living and care. I assume and hope that there has been that change of heart by Conservative Members and that they will support the Bill to increase the number of pensioners who can get concessionary licences.

The importance of the issue to Labour Members has been well illustrated by the efforts made to change the existing legislation. The statutory authority for concessionary television licences is contained in the Wireless Telegraphy (Broadcast Licence Charges and Exemption) Regulations 1970. An extension of that scheme was introduced in 1978 by the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees).

Following representations in 1983, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) pushed for a further extension to allow for physically and mentally disabled persons living in local authority residences or sheltered accommodation to receive concessionary licences. The House has been kept informed and aware of the issue by the hard work and perseverance of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), who has introduced no fewer than four ten-minute Bills since 1980. I know that he would agree with me that, ideally, the answer is not to introduce concessionary television licences but to pay pensioners a decent pension.[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) obviously agrees with me. I hope that he will vote for the Bill. If he is unable to do that, I hope that he will vote for an increase in pensions when he gets the chance.

I hope that Conservative Members will give consideration to concessionary TV licences because we are just asking for fair play. At present, pensioners can be in exactly the same financial situation and have exactly the same income, but if they live in different households, or even in the same building, one pensioner can get a TV licence while another cannot. It is that inequality and injustice that the Bill seeks to change. I have talked to pensioners and have received considerable correspondence from them in which they have said that they want, not freebies, but to be treated equally.

Over the past couple of years the Government have not shown the attention to pensioners that they indicated during the election that they would. In the short time that I have been in the House, we have seen the full impact of the Government taking away the funeral grant; legislation recently introduced whereby if pensioners manage to save £3,000 as security for later in their lives they will be denied housing benefit; and the severe cold weather payment negated by the increase in electricity prices. Above all, there has been a cut in real pensions because pensions are not linked to earnings. If Conservative Members appreciate the effects of those changes, will they look positively upon the Bill as it improves just one small aspect of TV licences for pensioners? If Conservative Members read the Peacock report, they will see that it states that many more pensioners rely on television for information and entertainment than other sections of the population.

The present legislation needs to be looked at. Under the present concessionary licence, it costs three times as much to collect the 5p licence cost as is received in revenue. It is clearly irrational and needs reform. The present inequalities lead to feelings of bitterness and inequality among pensioners. They are not the sort of feelings that we want to create.

The cost to implement the proposals in the Bill would be either £230 million or £330 million, depending on whether the cost was per household or per head. Compared with the amount of money that the Government have clawed back from pensioners and the amount of money that they have wasted advertising for share ownership, the cost is small. Its effect on income tax would be so minimal that I am sure that every rational hon. Member would support it.

If supported and allowed by the Government, the Bill would make it possible to alter the present unequal and unjust system of the cost of TV licences. Such a change would bring just rewards for the pensioners on Teesside who have campaigned hard on the issue, such as Syd Clay, George Dixon, George Short, Sid Spencer and the late George Sundell.

I am asking Conservative Members to think about a fair deal and fair play for pensioners. Can it be argued that, on anyone's definition of "fairness" it is fair for a pensioner or pensioner couple who are over 70 on a basic pension should pay for a TV licence when Mr. Thatcher and his wife, Margaret, at No. 10 Downing street have 13 televisions but, because that is a Crown property, pay nothing? Is that just?

4.10 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)


Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman rising to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Forth

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I will not take points of order in the middle of the presentation of a ten-minute Bill.

Mr. Forth

One of the most nauseating sights in the House is the sight of the Opposition trying to bribe people with their own money—and it is repeated many times. They try that trick time and again, but fortunately the electorate have grown accustomed to it and have seen through it. Yet again we have before us another Opposition folly. They are lumping together in a most patronising manner all old-age pensioners. Opposition Members assume that all people of pensionable age need state assistance, handouts and support.

Opposition Members assume that all old-age pensioners have not made adequate provision for their later years and that they are not able to afford adequately the £1 a week that it costs for a television licence. They assume that pensioners must be subject to the kind of patronising claptrap contained in the Bill today.

Another difficulty with this kind of measure is that yet again it is an example of the blindness of Opposition Members when it comes to the indiscriminate giving of benefit. Opposition Members are quite happy to give taxpayers' money without question to everyone, regardless of whether they need it or not. They are not remotely cognisant of the concept—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. No interventions are allowed on a ten-minute Bill.

Mr. Forth

Opposition Members are not remotely cognisant of the concept of targeting benefits. Therefore, they bring such measures before us willy-nilly, believing in the most patronising and condescending way that they will buy the votes of those who will be truly grateful in spite of the fact that it involves yet again the taking of taxpayers' money from people and then giving it indiscriminately to those who may not need it.

The hon. Member for Redcar (Miss Mowlam) asked whether Conservative Members had consulted the electorate and whether electors had written to Conservative Members on this matter. They have not written to me. I would not expect the electors to write to me on it because most of them are robust enough and ready enough to pay for their own television licences.

The hon. Lady was honest enough to refer to the fact that this matter was brought before the House earlier in the year. The acid test is that it was then deliberated on and disposed of. There was a general election. I need not rehearse the results of that general election now. Suffice it to say that the Conservative party is back in government running the country responsibly and we are yet again the custodians of the public purse. We are taking a continued and responsible attitude to the raising of taxes and the dispensing of benefits. We will not try to bribe the electorate with the electorate's money.

The final proof of the matter lies in the fact that, when Opposition Members brought a similar measure before the House and it was disposed of, Conservative Members were rewarded by the electorate by being returned to power. For that reason, I am confident in asking the House yet again to reject this nauseous and patronising measure so that we, as responsible custodians of the taxpayers' purse, may enjoy the continued support of the electorate.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Marjorie Mowlam, Mr. Allen McKay, Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. Don Dixon, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. David Winnick, Mr. David Marshall, Mr. Peter Hardy, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Ms. Hilary Armstrong, Miss Joan Lestor and Mr. Frank Cook.