HC Deb 24 May 1994 vol 244 cc209-11

5.2 pm

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give television licence holders a reduction in their licence fee when it is recognised that the household is unable to enjoy good television reception. This is a modest, simple and fair Bill, although I had no idea when I tabled it that simply to do so would instil so much fear into the BBC that the whole organisation would go out on strike. I have decided that that is a matter of such importance to my constituents and to other constituents elsewhere in the country that I would brave the picket lines to come here and put my case to the House.

I have a number of constituents whose television reception is always poor, yet, under the current rules, they have to pay the full licence fee. That is patently unfair.

Today, the BBC is filming one of my constituents, who can obtain only what the BBC accepts is a substandard picture, but when that film is shown on television, he will be one of the small group of people in this country who will not be able to watch it at all. He lives not in a wild, remote area, but in a village less than 20 miles from the centre of Manchester, with half the country's population within an hour or so's drive away. We know that, because most of them seem to come and spend every Sunday in my constituency. Therefore, we are not speaking simply about the wildest, remote parts of the country, although the problem is predominantly rural.

Television reception is also a problem in areas such as Kent. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) supports the Bill, because there are pockets in his constituency in which people cannot receive the BBC, but only Dutch television. Unfortunately, Dutch is not one of the languages that are taught in the schools of Dover. Those people can only hope, as we do, that Dutch television will show as many BBC repeats as the BBC shows here. Nevertheless, they still have to pay the full licence fee to the BBC.

In Scotland, some people cannot receive any British television services, and can receive only television services that are broadcast by satellite, either by BSkyB or other satellite television stations, watching only programmes that have not been made by the BBC, yet they also have to pay the full licence fee to the BBC, even though they do not enjoy any of the services it provides.

The irony is that many of the people who are affected by that problem live in regions that have been made famous by programmes such as "It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet", "Last of the Summer Wine" and "Peak Practice", yet they are the very people who are unable to watch their regions being represented on television.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage in his place, listening to the debate. He will be aware, from his interest in cricket, that Buxton in my constituency does not always enjoy good weather because Buxton is probably the only town in this country where a cricket match has been snowed off in June. However, it is not fair that so many of the rest of my constituents should have to see snow every time they want to watch a cricket, tennis, rugby or football match on their television sets.

The Bill is not about whether programmes are worth watching, because some people would argue that they should pay more if they are unable to watch "EastEnders" or "Casualty" or Ben Elton or party political broadcasts, or about what the BBC does with the money it receives. It is about the service that people receive. Under the principles of the citizens charter, people should not have to pay the full cost if they receive a substandard service.

The most peculiar aspect of the current law is that paying the licence fee does not entitle us to receive a television picture—it only obliges the BBC to transmit one. It is as though paying the council tax obliged the rubbish wagons to set off from the depot in the morning but not to collect any rubbish. It is like saying that by putting a stamp on the letter one can be certain that the letter will be taken out of the letter box, but one has no say about whether it will be put through someone else's letter box or dumped in the nearest hedgerow.

The licence fee simply relates to the ownership of equipment, which enables people to receive the signal, even if there is no signal that they can receive on that equipment. People feel understandably frustrated and annoyed about the current system, and there is wide agreement on both sides of the House that that is simply wrong.

There is a further serious issue, relating to those people who are hard of hearing and who rely on the teletext service to give subtitles to programmes. Teletext is one of the first services to break up in areas of poor reception, which can deprive those people who are hard of hearing of any benefit from their televisions. Nevertheless, they have to pay the same licence fee as everyone else. I am grateful to the Deaf Broadcasting Council for the support that it is giving my Bill.

Some people say that it will be difficult to know which regions are affected, but that is not so. The BBC has already identified many of the areas with populations of more than 200 that have substandard reception. In the case of Millers Dale in my constituency, the BBC has told me that 160 people are affected, so they also have significant information already on areas of smaller population. The Department of National Heritage has published lists of affected communities in different parts of the country.

Other people will say that it is difficult to assess whether people's reception is good or bad. I accept that. The degree of reception will always be a subjective issue. However, the principle in the Bill is that it would apply to people who receive a consistently bad picture, so it does not refer to the household where reception is distorted by atmospheric conditions or by bad weather conditions.

It would relate to permanent geographical and geological features rather than vegetation or a building blocking the signal. It would not apply if one's neighbour had allowed his hedgerow to grow too high, blocking one's television picture. It would apply when signal strength was the root of the problem.

The BBC also says that it is hard to tell whether or not a picture is substandard. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) said on television this morning, it is like a camel: one cannot describe it, but one certainly recognises it when one sees it—or, in the case of a television picture, when one does not see it.

There should certainly be no concern about the amount of money involved, as the BBC estimates that 99.4 per cent. of the population receive a satisfactory picture. This year, the licence fee will raise £1.6 billion, so a full rebate for those unable to receive a good picture would cost under £10 million. If the rebate were set at half the licence fee, the loss of revenue to the BBC would be just one day's income. No doubt all hon. Members could suggest good ways of making that up. In fact, we might be spared a programme like "El Dorado", as well as getting a better deal—a double benefit.

The principle would be that people should have taken the steps they could reasonably be expected to take to improve their picture—for example, the provision of a good-quality aerial or, if necessary, a booster. However, it does not seem right that they should be expected to spend more than £300 on a so-called self-help kit to get a proper picture.

The principle behind the Bill is based on the fact that there are people who, day in and day out, can get only substandard television reception. In many parts of the country, the BBC has already established where the people concerned live, and the corporation already has its own definition of what is and what is not satisfactory. In this age, it is simply not acceptable that people should have to pay for a service that they are not receiving.

I fully recognise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage is reviewing the whole future of the licence fee. However, that matter is not an issue under the Bill. It is bad enough to have to pay the BBC to be allowed to watch programmes broadcast by independent stations—like having to buy The Guardian in order to be able to read The Times—but it is not acceptable that people should have to pay the BBC even if they receive no satisfactory picture from anyone at all.

As I said at the outset, this is a simple Bill, with cross-party support. It would help a small number of people who, we all accept, get a raw deal at the moment. It is time to correct this anomaly.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Charles Hendry, Mr. Sebastian Coe, Mr. Jonathan Evans, Mr. George Foulkes, Mr. Phil Gallie, Sir Russell Johnston, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, Mr. Calum Macdonald, Mr. David Shaw and Mr. John Sykes.