HC Deb 19 February 1990 vol 167 cc753-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

10.6 pm

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

It is a great pleasure for me to raise the subject of sheltered housing and concessionary television licences. Earlier this evening I shrewdly suspected, and hoped, that I might be able to go home for dinner, but I underestimated the absorbing interest of data protection. Never in so short a time have I seen so many knowledgeable colleagues arrive in the Chamber—no doubt galvanised by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department—to participate in such a distinguished fashion in a highly interesting debate.

I am grateful for the support of many hon. Members. Many of my colleagues have raised the subject in Adjournment debates. Not frequently do we find in constituency after constituency represented by colleagues on both sides of the House the anomalies with which I hope to deal. There is, therefore, much concern about the subject.

My purpose is to find a way round over-rigid implementation by the Home Office-in the process becoming more bureaucratic than is strictly necessary-of the May 1988 regulations. I shall concentrate on those regulations and will pray in aid some constituency cases to illustrate the anomalies. There are many similar cases throughout the country about which I have heard and regarding which I have received letters from councils of all political persuasions. At a time when the Government are not enjoying universal popularity, we ought to concentrate on annoying the minimum number of people over such small measures. Sadly, that is not the case here.

I intend to refer briefly to the unsatisfactory state of affairs over wider concessions, causing unnecessary political damage, to which I have already referred. Successive Governments, whatever they might have done in opposition or as individual Members of Parliament, have never conceded free television licences for all pensioners. I do not urge that now and I do not propose to argue one way or the other, but as there was no overall granting of free television licences, quite rightly, concessions were granted to residential homes and to sheltered accommodation with communal services. That arrangement has continued for 20 years, and as with any such arrangement, there has been a constant challenge for the enlargement of those concessions.

We then reach the Armageddon for the Home Office in the case of Kirklees metropolitan borough council against the Home Office of 1987, which is known as the Kirklees decision. It meant that visiting housing stewards and the presence of an alarm system in mainstream housing constituted a communal facility and therefore at least potential eligibility for the concession. Immediately, panic rose from the bottom floor to the top floor of the Home Office as it was realised that those concessions could go way beyond the Government's original intention some 20 years before, which the Home Office now sticks to, and which is for schemes equivalent or comparable to residential homes. That led to the May 1988 revised regulations.

The Government's reaction has not been commendable. They have been unprepared to grant a total concession to the elderly—I would not quibble with that—and they could not withdraw from existing concessions for obvious political reasons, so instead of minimising the anomalies and making the best of a worthy situation, which dictates that concessions should be granted, the Government decided on extremely restrictive regulations of the existing concessions—the May 1988 revised regulations—giving the absolute minimum and holding back everything they could. The result has been rigidity, anomaly and, politically, the worst of all worlds.

I shall not discuss the May 1988 regulations in any great detail. There are four regulations and I shall concentrate on the fourth, although for the information of the House, I shall refer briefly to the others. The first qualification for concession refers to accommodation specifically provided for retired people over the age of 65 and certain categories of disablement. The second qualification is a resident warden or one who works for at least 30 hours a week. The third is a communal facility within a common boundary and the fourth, on which I wish to concentrate, is: There shall be a group of at least four dwellings with a common and exclusive boundary encompassing all and only the accommodation. That is God's gift to anomaly. I shall criticise it specifically in a moment, but first I have a few general criticisms of the overall picture.

The Government are misguided and appear mean in their institution and rigid interpretation of the regulations. I regret that the unsatisfactory background, the unfairness and getting the balance wrong are not wholly restricted to the subject of this Adjournment debate. It is pretty obvious, bearing in mind the increased numbers of elderly people, that there is a tendency for more sheltered housing to be built or converted from mainstream housing by local councils, particularly in urban areas, although I represent a rural constituency. That is the worry to the Home Office of the Kirklees decision.

There are an increasing number of scattered units of accommodation for the elderly on many large estates across the country in the midst of mainstream housing. Instead of facing up to that and spending a little more money—and therefore not having to face this Adjournment debate tonight—the Government have retreated into their shell. They have performed a kind of Custer's last stand over what they claim to be the original intention of the scheme, which is now outdated.

I cannot say that I shall play Sitting Bull to my hon. Friend the Minister's General Custer, but as my hon. Friend leaves this place—we must recall that General Custer did not leave—I hope that he will be prepared to consider the matter and perhaps have a word with my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I believe that this is a matter more for Ministers than for the civil servants who loyally carry out their duties and who, when they are told to be restrictive, are—and with due deference and respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, no one can be more restrictive than the Home Office or, regrettably, be so more effectively.

Many anomalies have been drawn to my attention since notice of this Adjournment debate appeared on the Order Paper. There is widespread concern not only from Leominster district council, but from the National Federation of Housing Associations, Age Concern, the Consumers Association and district councils, which have contacted me from such places as far apart as Malden and Camden.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

What about Stockton?

Mr. Temple-Morris

Yes, and from Stockton.

I want to refer to two anomalies in Leominster, with which my hon. Friend the Minister is familiar. They are examples of this ridiculous anomaly, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I mention them specifically. The first relates to Burton gardens and Burton crescent in Wembley. The accommodation there is now a sheltered scheme and it has communal facilities, a warden and a clearly demarcated section on the housing estate. However, before the warden and alarm were installed and before restrictions were imposed in 1986 making it much more difficult for tenants to buy that type of council housing, the bold tenant—no doubt encouraged by the Government—of 25 Burton crescent decided to buy his old people's accommodation. He duly did that and became the only private owner on that estate.

At the moment, Burton gardens, which runs into Burton crescent, gets the concession in toto. The part of Burton crescent up to No. 25 also receives the concession I am grateful in that regard to my hon. Friend the Minister, who granted an additional concession to the original adjudication after my first intervention in the matter.

However, no one beyond No. 25, on exactly the same estate, receives the concession. No. 25 is preceded by the odd Nos. 21 and 23. Nos. 21, 23 and 25 are all joined together. They are old people's ground-floor flats in units of three, all joined together. Because Nos. 21 and 23 are joined to No. 25 and separated by a very small car parking space from the earlier numbers that receive the concession, they do not receive it. All the flats above No. 25 do not receive it either.

If that example is frankly ridiculous, then the second example of Cornwall gardens at Tenbury Wells in my constituency is even more so. That is a council-owned site and one turns into it from Berrington road in Tenbury Wells. Where one turns into it, there are two flats. Nos. 7 and 9 Berrington road, which are part of the wholly council-owned site. After those flats there is an entrance and right of way granted by the council to a pub car park. On the other side of that entrance the estate continues. The estate was bought as a whole, is administered as one estate and was built as one. Only that solitary little entrance to the pub car park separates Nos. 7 and 9 from the rest of the estate.

The estate has excellent communal facilities. I enjoyed a nice cup of coffee and some hospitality when I inspected it. Knowing that my hon. Friend the Minister might challenge me and say that I have not been there, I advise him that I went there in January. There is a recreation room, a laundry, a warden, an alarm system and so on.

When the two existing sitting tenants at Nos. 7 and 9 eventually cause a re-let, the full television licence fee, rather than £5, will have to be paid. The Government should do something about that practice, but they do not seem to have learnt the lesson that, if one pleases a few of the people a lot of the time, one will at least make some progress. It is not for me to lecture my hon. Friend the Minister on that matter, and he would not be responsible for it either.

I shall review some possible policies and practical suggestions in a descending scale of generosity. The first is a general concession to all pensioners, a matter on which the House voted towards the end of the last Parliament, and which I do not press tonight. The second is a concession to all pensioners entitled to housing benefit or a community charge rebate—in other words, whether they are in or out of sheltered housing. The third is a concession to all pensioners living in purpose-built sheltered accommodation. That means the public sector and—an increasing bone of contention, as more and more people spend their last savings on buying sheltered accommoda—tion the private sector also.

The fourth policy, which I recommend to rriy hon. Friend, is a concession to all pensioners living in purpose-built or adapted local authority and/or housing association accommodation. That covers all developments—urban, rural, large and small estates. That represents a logical compromise.

My hon. Friend will forgive me when I say that I do not expect a generous response from him tonight. I will not even press him for one. However, I suggest that we have less rigidity in the application of the May 1988 rules. One method would be by way of ministerial discretion. I expect that my hon. Friend will say that Ministers do not have discretion, and that therefore we are stuck with rules that have been drafted as restrictively as possible.

I have been trying to be constructive. Concentrating on what I have called policy No. 4, I ask my hon. Friend to consider that there shall be a group of at least four dwellings with a common and exclusive boundary encompassing all and only the accommodation. Therefore, a little thing such as the entrance to a pub car park completely ruins those who happen to be caught out on the wrong side of it. I suggest that we should add the words, "save and except where the accommodation is clearly part of a coherent, unified and separate sheltered housing scheme." That would get shot of many anomalies. However, I am afraid that it would not alter the major problems, as that can be done only if we address purpose-built and/or adapted public housing as a whole. If my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point, we will make progress.

I can imagine the Minister's advisers going to him tomorrow morning, saying "It is a legal nightmare. They will be challenging us here and there. The only way in which we can defend it is to keep within the corral. Minister, you cannot do this or that." It would be nice if, once upon a time, we could see an Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office doing what I want-and, if he viewed the matter reasonably independently, what he also would want.

Therefore, in the name of a little more decency, and certainly in the name of fairness, I commend what I have said and the limited, minimal solution that I have outlined to my hon. Friend.

10.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) on securing this debate and on raising this subject. It is one in which he has taken a persistent and concerned interest on behalf of his constituents, as his detailed promenade down Burton gardens and other local streets, and his other many exchanges with the Home Office, have shown. I am grateful to him for providing a useful opportunity this evening to explain why we changed the concessionary licence scheme nearly two years ago, and to clear up, I hope, some of the misunderstandings and misconceptions that seem to have arisen since.

I start by explaining briefly how the scheme evolved, and why it became necessary to change it. The scheme was formally established on a statutory basis on 1 January 1969. It was intended to rationalise the television licence requirements in old people's homes. Previously, residents in some homes had been treated as though they were exempt from licensing, while others were required to pay the full licence fee.

The scheme was also intended to cover sheltered housing schemes for pensioners run by local authorities or housing associations which were considered to be directly comparable with old people's homes. At a later date, the scheme was extended to cover disabled or mentally handicapped people living in similar accommodation. The scheme was thus introduced for the best of motives, to correct what was seen as an anomaly. Entitlement was clearly linked to the type of accommodation occupied, and the way in which it was run, rather than to the personal circumstances of the occupant.

Over the years, the number of people benefiting from the concession has steadily increased. When the regulations were changed in May 1988, that number stood at 776,000 people. It has since gone up by over 91,000. So the change was clearly not an effort—certainly not an effective effort—at covert restriction. It sprang from the necessity, after the court action to which I shall refer in a moment, to make what were believed to be the existing rules more coherent and sustainable at law.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lloyd

Yes, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I have only a little time.

Mr. Cryer

Does the Minister accept that changes are being made in those statistics even now? Some of my constituents who receive the concession are being told, even at this stage, that it will be withdrawn. Does not this need clarifying?

Mr. Lloyd

It has been clarified. That was the whole purpose of the change. The position was anomalous before, as the court decision suggested. Although some people have lost, undoubtedly a great many more can now benefit.

As I have said, the change sprang from necessity after that court action. Thus, the figure now exceeds 867,000 people, and 80 per cent. of those beneficiaries live in sheltered housing schemes rather than conventional residential homes. It is the application of the regulations to people in sheltered housing—my hon. Friend referred to this specifically—that seems to cause most uncertainty.

As hon. Members will remember, early in 1987 the scheme ran into particular difficulties following a successful High Court action by Kirklees metropolitan borough council. It had sought judicial review of our decision not to issue the licence to the occupants of some council accommodation. We had thought that the employment by the council of officials to visit all council tenants to collect rent and to sort out housing problems did not constitute a communal facility, as required by the regulations then in force.

The court disagreed, and that judgment has far-reaching implications. It called into question our other interpretation of the regulations—that the accommodation must form groups and be specially provided for pensioners or disabled people.

It quickly became clear that the Kirklees judgment had effectively opened the way for local authorities to bring within the scheme large numbers of people living in what was essentially mainstream housing. By providing some sort of visiting care service or communal alarm system, they could claim that the accommodation was specially provided and formed a group with a communal facility. It was never the intention that the scheme should expand in that way, as I think my hon. Friend will agree, and it would have been very expensive in terms of revenue lost to the BBC.

We therefore had to act to protect the BBC's finances, and to avoid the complete breakdown of the scheme. A simple solution would have been to abolish the scheme, but we did not want to take away a long-standing concession which had benefited many people. We therefore considered a number of options for change. These included the possibility of linking entitlement to a social security or other benefit; but there was no consensus as to the most appropriate linkage, and to grant the concession to pensioners receiving a particular benefit would have provoked claims for similar treatment from non-pensioners in receipt of the same, or broadly comparable, benefit. That would have widened the scope of the scheme considerably, and could have been even more anomalous than the previous arrangements.

Moreover, we believe that that type of approach would have been wrong in principle. The television licence fee is not a proper instrument of social policy. The right way to help the less well-off is through the pensions and benefits system, leaving it to individuals to decide for themselves how best to spend their own money. After much thought, therefore, we concluded that the most sensible thing to do was to restore the underlying intention of the scheme. As I explained earlier, this was to benefit retirement pensioners and disabled people living in residential homes, or in sheltered housing schemes which were directly comparable with such homes.

To give effect to this decision, we introduced new regulations which defined more closely the type of sheltered accommodation that would qualify in future. These regulations came into force on 19 May 1988.

To qualify as equivalent to a residential home under the new regulations, sheltered accommodation must now satisfy the following conditions. First, it must form part of a group of at least four dwellings within a common and exclusive boundary. That is where the examples that my hon. Friend gave fall outside the rules. Secondly, it must be specially provided by way of erection or conversion for occupation only by retirement pensioners or disabled people. Thirdly, it must be provided or run by a local authority or a housing association. Fourthly, it must be served by a full-time or residents warden. Fifthly, there must be a communal facility within the boundary intended to meet the need of the resident. Perhaps I might explain why we imposed those conditions and say a little about how we apply them in practice.

Mr. Devlin

I am dealing with a case where concessionary television licences have been withdrawn because the buildings are not joined together. That was not on my hon. Friend's list of five conditions. I raised the matter with the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), one Question Time but I have received no answer since.

Mr. Lloyd

The concession would not have been withdrawn from someone who was in receipt of the concession. Nor would it have been withdrawn because the buildings were not joined together. It might have been withdrawn because the buildings were not within an exclusive boundary. I cannot deal from the Dispatch Box with a case of which I know nothing except what my hon. Friend has just said. If he would like to communicate with me about it, I shall be happy to reply and explain.

The reason why there must be a group of four dwellings within a common boundary is that the housing must be seen to form a cohesive, self-contained group, encompassing all and only the accommodation in question—just like a residential home.

We cannot accept, for instance, that a line drawn on a map round some parts of a mixed housing estate constitutes a common and exclusive boundary for the purposes of the regulations.

Thus, sheltered housing interspersed with mainstream housing cannot qualify. Nor can sheltered housing units physically separated from others by things such a shops, car parks or non-sheltered housing be regarded as part of the same scheme for concessionary television licence purposes.

We realise that local authorities sometimes choose to regard these separated housing units as part of a single scheme for their own administrative purposes, and find it hard to understand why we cannot do the same. The difficulty is that, when running a statutory scheme, it must be made clear—the Kirklees judgment established that—which accommodation qualifies and which does not. Hence our insistence on comparability with a residential home and the need for a common and exclusive boundary.

It would have been extremely difficult to devise a formula that would have allowed some separated housing units in reasonably close proximity to qualify, while excluding other units further afield which did not seem to be part of the scheme. If we had sought to do that, we should have provided God's gift to anomaly, to use my hon. Friend's colourful phrase. That would have been unworkable in practice and would undoubtedly have produced those anomalies on which the Kirklees judgment was predicated.

I now turn to the warden cohdition. In our deliberations, we considered carefully whether it would be right to include schemes served by a visiting or mobile warden. That is the case in my hon. Friend's constituency. We concluded that it would not. We recognise that many local authorities see mobile wardens as a more cost-effective way of caring for the needs of their elderly residents, and we welcome that. But the fact remains that to extend the scheme in that way would run counter to the long-standing principle. The reason for including sheltered housing schemes in the first place was that, as generally organised, they were regarded as being on par with residential homes, including the provision of resident warden.

My hon. Friend made several suggestions about how we might consider the rules. Obviously, we shall keep the scheme under review and make a particular point of reviewing his suggestions, but we can offer no prospect of further change, and I would mislead the House if I said otherwise. The ministerial discretion would be a vehicle for huge further anomalies and further opportunities to take these matters to court. Therefore, we shall not follow that avenue. We shall look carefully at his suggestions and those of any other hon. Member or organisation. I can see no real opportunity for any change in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Temple-Morris


Mr. Lloyd

As the time is coming when I must sit down, I cannot give way to my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him for enabling me to set out this complex issue which, although designed as a helpful concession is, alas, still a source of misunderstanding and resentment.

The motion having been made after Ten o-clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes to Eleven o'clock.