HC Deb 06 March 1996 vol 273 cc316-25 1.30 pm
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister and the House the St. Tydfil's court sheltered accommodation scheme in Merthyr Tydfil, in my constituency.

More than 40 pensioners resident in the scheme are currently denied the benefit of a concessionary television licence by the television licensing centre at Bristol. I argue that, first, the television licensing centre should reverse its decision and, secondly, that my constituency case reveals—as, indeed, do others—the anomalous and arbitrary nature of the regulations governing the concessionary scheme.

Since becoming involved in this constituency issue, I have been surprised at the shared experiences of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I heard, for example, from my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) and for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), both of whom showed me papers from protracted battles with the television licensing centre at Bristol. Happily, the centre changed its mind and they won their cases.

More recently, my attention was drawn to a case in the constituency of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who, in the true tradition of the honourable nature of the House, helped me. I do not raise this matter in a party context. The information that the hon. Gentleman so kindly furnished me with has helped me to prepare my case, and I thank him sincerely for his patience and assistance.

I shall explain to the Minister the nature of St. Tydfil's court. It is a residential block of flats, with 10 floors, built in the 1940s. Progressively, it has become the home of pensioners. Realising that, Merthyr borough council sensitively and sensibly decided in 1990–91 to convert most of the block into proper sheltered accommodation and to provide a full-time warden resident in the block. Understandably, and following the example of all other sheltered accommodation schemes in the borough, the council and the tenants concerned had expected to qualify for the television licence concession. Indeed, the local authority advertised the concession when it issued tenancy agreements. It therefore came as a great surprise to the borough council, and caused considerable resentment among the tenants in the sheltered scheme, when the television licensing centre refused to grant the concessionary licences.

When the issue arose, I read the conditions—indeed, I re-read them in preparing for the debate—laid down in the regulations that govern the concessionary scheme. To qualify, sheltered accommodation should fulfil several conditions. First, it should be provided, or run, by the local authority or a housing association. The St. Tydfil's sheltered accommodation scheme is run and provided by Merthyr borough council. Secondly, it must be specially provided by way of erection or conversion for occupation only by retirement pensioners or disabled people. As I have explained, the borough council converted most of the block of flats into a proper sheltered accommodation scheme, so it qualifies under the second condition. Thirdly, the scheme must be served by a full-time or resident warden. At first, the BBC licence fee unit sought to deny the concession to my constituents on the ground of the absence of a warden, but a full-time warden has been, and still is, resident in the block. St. Tydfil's court therefore qualifies under the third condition.

Fourthly, there must be a communal facility within the boundary intended to meet the needs of residents. There are such facilities at St. Tydfil's court. Those four conditions are fully met by the sheltered accommodation scheme at St. Tydfil's court. The pensioners of St. Tydfil's court are being denied the concessionary licence on a fifth ground, the condition which states that the accommodation must form part of a group of at least four dwellings within a common and exclusive boundary". Since residents and the local authority raised this case with me, I have discovered that the words and phrases in the fifth condition have caused considerable confusion, created a number of anomalies and, in my opinion, led to arbitrary refusal to grant concessionary licences to pensioners who should qualify. The words have caused much confusion about who should qualify. It seems that the sole reason why residents at St. Tydfil's court are being denied the concessionary television licence is that, before the conversion of the block of flats, a number of residents purchased their flats under the right-to-buy scheme.

I should say straight away that the residents who bought their flats accept that they do not qualify under the present arrangements. They signed a petition and support representations made by their neighbours. They have shown traditional Merthyr neighbourly comradeship in supporting their neighbours' case. Indeed, the local campaign on behalf of the pensioners is remarkable because of the people who are involved, especially the redoubtable Mr. McNaughton. He has bombarded Ministers, the Prime Minister, officials at the television licensing centre in Bristol, and everybody within reach, to make the case on behalf of the residents and pensioners. That is all the more special because Mr. McNaughton is a registered blind person.

The Minister will understand the resentment that is felt that officials at the television licensing centre in Bristol have repeatedly refused our pleas. I am sad to report that they have also repeatedly refused to visit the complex. That failure to heed our pleas and to visit is resented all the more because it is clear that the fifth condition is open to interpretation and reinterpretation. I suspect that the Minister will know of cases, of which I am not aware, where there have been battles between pensioner groups, the television licensing centre and his Department.

I have already mentioned cases in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall and for Mansfield, which, after protracted discussion, were successful. The most recent case that has been brought to my attention is one in the constituency of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. He has kindly sent me the letter from the television licensing centre in Bristol, which eventually conceded the case that he made. In this case, it seems to be a mixed development. We are told, for example, that numbers 1 to 17 and 27 to 47 (odds) Homefield Close can be regarded as being within a common and exclusive boundary … From the site plan provided, it would appear that the warden can move freely between the two elements of the scheme via the car park which separates the scheme. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has succeeded in persuading the television centre that that case qualifies.

In the case of St Tydfil's court, the warden does not have to cross a car park: she is resident in the block. Pensioners who qualify are easily identifiable, because they pay into the scheme. It is a curious interpretation of "common and exclusive boundary" that rules out a concessionary scheme at St Tydfil's court for the simple reason that, before its conversion, a number of residents—rightly and understandably—purchased their properties under the right-to-buy scheme.

I plead with the television centre to reverse its decision and concede this case, as it has had to concede other cases. If it refuses to do so, however, we must concentrate on the fact that the regulations themselves deny pensioners in sheltered accommodation a concession that I think, in its heart of hearts, Parliament probably intended to allow them. I do not believe that the original intention was to exclude those in sheltered accommodation at St Tydfil's court.

Along with my hon. Friends who are present, I accept that many deserving pensioners will be deprived of the benefits of any concessionary scheme. Thousands who live alone in their own homes will not qualify. Once a scheme for those in sheltered accommodation has been proposed, however, we should ensure that it is simple: certainly, it should not create the anomalies and confusion that have been created by the "common and exclusive boundary" condition. A scheme for pensioners in sheltered accommodation served by a full-time warden would provide a clear definition of those who should qualify for the concession. I do not believe that any complications or anomalies would have been caused if only the first four conditions had provided the criteria, but the fifth condition will continue to cause such problems until it is changed. I do not think that a simple amendment or clarification of the regulations would bust the BBC or wreck the public sector borrowing requirement. The vast majority of properly organised sheltered accommodation schemes qualify.

I hope that the pensioners at St Tydfil's court will win their case. I ask the Minister to re-examine the concessionary scheme, and amend it. It was meant to offer comfort and assistance to pensioners in sheltered accommodation, rather than to cause resentment and bitterness. I hope that the Minister will heed our plea and accept our case.

1.43 pm
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) on obtaining time for the debate, and thank him for his generosity in allowing me to speak for a couple of minutes.

The hon. Gentleman spoke at length about anomalies and interpretation. I have read the leading judgment on the subject—the Crown and Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Kirklees borough council. No doubt, the Minister is acquainted with it. Mr. Justice Taylor refers to interpretation throughout the judgment. As a lawyer, I believe that the law needs to be clarified, not only in the specific context of the people of Merthyr Tydfil—of whom the hon. Gentleman spoke so forcefully—but in a wider context. I am sure that many people in Wales, England and Scotland are in similar circumstances, and I, too, urge the Minister to reconsider.

Let me make two specific points. First, does the Minister think it fair that elderly people who are cared for at home by their relations do not qualify for the concessionary scheme, while those who are in registered homes do? Ultimately, the concession is allowed to the elderly person rather than anyone else. It is clear from the 1991 regulations—which I have read—that the matter could be resolved easily by means of an amendment of the kind suggested by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

Secondly, the residents of Ganllwyd and Abergeirw, near Dolgellau, do not receive terrestrial television transmissions; they rely on satellite television. However, they must pay the licence fee. Is it right for people to pay for a service that they do not receive? Good sense and common law suggest that it is not. Is that being investigated? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar localities throughout Wales, because it is a mountainous country.

1.46 pm
The Minister of State, Department of National Heritage (Mr. fain Sproat)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) on securing the debate, and thank him for the courteous and persuasive way in which he put his case. I take what he has said very seriously, and, while I cede no principle or practice at this stage, I should be happy to speak to him about the matter. I should also be happy to speak to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). They may wish to talk to me, either together or separately. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) has an even tighter case: I believe that only one flat in 50 is owner-occupied in Severn house, but that prevents all the other people in the block from benefiting from the concessionary scheme.

I know that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney has devoted considerable time to this subject over the years. He has campaigned long and hard in respect of the application for St Tydfil's court to be granted concessionary licence status, and this afternoon he has demonstrated that he is familiar with the general position as set out in the White Paper. He will also know that, since 1 April 1991, the BBC has been responsible for the administration of the television licensing system. That role is primarily exercised by way of its agents in Bristol, TV Licensing, and includes determining whether individual applications for concessionary licences can be granted. It would not be appropriate for the Government to intervene in individual cases, other than to say, "Come and explain why you think that the arrangements should be changed."

Nor is there any option for the BBC to exercise discretion in how the relevant regulations are interpreted. That would erode the framework of general application provided by those regulations and would lead to numerous disputes. Although the circumstances of St Tydfil's court remain a matter on which the BBC must reach judgment, I am sorry that, so far, it seems to the people who have considered the scheme that it fails to meet the qualifying criteria set out in the regulations—the point on which the hon. Gentleman has sought to persuade me otherwise.

The House is familiar with problems raised by constituents who, understandably, do not always understand the reasons for the concessionary scheme existing in its present form. The scheme is of particular concern, because it directly affects some of the more elderly members of society and disabled people. It is right therefore that the scheme should be kept under close scrutiny. The Government have done that and, although there has been no significant change since the last full, detailed review in 1988, it would be wrong to assume that we are not aware of the hard cases and anomalous positions that can and do arise.

That is an inevitable consequence with any position in which lines must be drawn, but it does not mean that the scheme as a whole is unfair, nor that it necessarily needs to be changed. It has been kept under close review and, while we accept that it does not always yield results that make everybody content, we find little advantage at the moment in conducting a further review of the scheme.

It may assist hon. Members if I give a little background about the introduction and development of the concessionary scheme. Its modern history may be familiar to some, but, oddly, the scheme originated by default more than 40 years ago as individual postmasters took it upon themselves to waive the requirement for certain old people living in old people's homes to pay a radio or television licence fee.

Later, Post Office headquarters stopped granting further concessions, thus creating an arbitrary distinction between individual cases. In 1966, the Postmaster General considered ending the concession altogether, but decided that that would be unjust, and offered the concession to all old people's homes. Importantly, at that stage, sheltered housing schemes for pensioners, with some communal facility that rendered them comparable to old people's homes, were included in the scheme.

In 1968, the plans for the concessionary scheme were put on to a formal footing and the first set of regulations laid. Incidentally, in that year, a separate colour television licence was introduced, making the possibility of a concessionary fee that much more attractive. The opportunity was taken to clarify the qualifying conditions, and further consideration was given to the precise definition of sheltered housing, which is crucial to any discussion of the scheme.

In subsequent years, external pressure for further reviews was exerted. All sorts of possibilities were given serious consideration—extending the scheme, introducing some discretion or abolishing it—but in no case did the Government in power at the time consider that the proposed solution would have enabled the concessionary television licence scheme to be operated more fairly, while remaining true to its original intentions. The proposals would have been too complex to administer, too expensive or simply unacceptable.

Nevertheless, as all hon. Members know, there is pressure even now for pensioners to be given a general concession against the cost of the full television licence, but often it is not realised that concessionary £5 licences for all the 7.75 million pensioner households would cost more than £500 million in lost licence fee revenue.

Mr. Rowlands

I never made that case.

Mr. Sproat

I understand, but it is important for hon. Members and the outside world to realise the context in which this matter is set. If time allows, I shall return to the application of my comments to St. Tydfil's court.

Of course, the Government recognise television's important role for people of pensionable age, but we do not believe that a general concession could be justified. That would necessitate an unacceptably large increase in the fee for everyone else, possibly raising it to almost £130 each year, and many of the people who would have to pay such a huge increase in their licence fee might be worse off financially than many pensioners. If the fee were not adjusted, the BBC believes that its capacity to fulfil its public service broadcasting remit would be severely threatened.

In the past 20 years, the only significant changes have been connected with the qualifying criteria for sheltered housing, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Those changes sought to retain an equitable approach, although remaining true to the scheme's original intentions. The Government believe that that is still the correct view to take.

In 1982, physically disabled and mentally disordered people, living in comparable accommodation to that already covered by the scheme, were brought within the scheme's scope. That was on the ground that it would be an unacceptable anomaly to treat them differently from pensioners occupying similar accommodation, and there has been no dispute in that respect.

Towards the end of 1984, Kirklees metropolitan borough council applied for concessionary licences for some of its residents in accommodation served by housing stewards, whose duties included rent collection, care of the housing stock and provision of advice and assistance to residents. The Home Office refused to grant the claim on the ground that that was not a valid interpretation of the "common facility" required by the regulations, but in 1987 the council won the case at judicial review. That had far-reaching and unacceptable implications.

In effect, that judgment opened the way for local authorities to bring many eligible categories of people living in ordinary council housing into the concessionary scheme. They would simply need to claim that these were "groups" of "specially provided" housing. The housing would not even have had to be sheltered, which would have been contrary to the concessionary scheme's intention and extremely costly.

Mr. Rowlands

That is not true in the case of St. Tydfil's court.

Mr. Sproat

I am trying to put the matter in its context, which is important to understand. People who do not have concessionary licences and who live close to people who do often do not understand why. It is important that they know that there is a logic behind the position. As I said, the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to discuss the matter. A debate of this length is not the happiest way in which to discuss such an important matter and the detail that it requires.

Following the Kirklees case, the Government promptly conducted a major review of the scheme. Possible options were considered, but, once again, it would have been too expensive to extend the scheme. In contrast, it was deemed unfair to the many existing beneficiaries—I believe that there were more than 700,000 at that time—to take away a long-standing concession. The Government therefore decided to restore the scheme's underlying intention, so that it would benefit retirement pensioners and disabled people living in residential homes or in sheltered housing that was directly comparable with such homes.

Eligibility for the concession was thus still linked to the type of accommodation occupied, as opposed to individual circumstances. In 1988, we introduced new regulations to define the qualifying criteria for sheltered housing schemes more rigorously. Those include all the criteria that apply today. First, in line with the established principles of the scheme and the need to be comparable with old people's homes, sheltered housing still has to be specially provided for retirement pensioners or disabled people and to be run by a local authority or housing association.

Secondly, such housing must form part of a group of at least four dwellings, which must lie within a common and exclusive boundary. If not, there would be no way of limiting the geographical spread of a so-called scheme and the Kirklees threat would still be a possibility. Lastly, the scheme must be served by a full-time or resident warden. That also relates to the desire to restrict the eligibility of sheltered housing to the sort of scheme that is directly comparable with an old people's home. A further requirement, for a communal facility for the residents within the boundary, has since been dropped as, in practice, it proved unnecessary in the context of the more tightly defined qualifying criteria.

I should like to return to the specific points on St. Tydfil's court that the hon. Gentleman properly raised. As I said, it would be inappropriate for me to make judgments in the BBC's place about applications from individual sheltered housing schemes. I am informed, however, that nine of the 66 dwellings in the block are privately owned, having been purchased under right-to-buy provisions. Thus, they cannot logically form part of the sheltered housing scheme. A "warden" works there for the requisite 30 hours each week, but it appears that St. Tydfil's court does not satisfy the common and exclusive boundary criterion set out in the regulations. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said that, as a lawyer, he did not agree with that interpretation, but that is the current interpretation.

Legal advice on similar cases has been that it is not even possible to draw an artificial boundary so that part of such a scheme can qualify. That is the problem with laying down rules—there are always decisions to be made in what might most appropriately be called borderline cases. The alternative, however, would be either to give the BBC the power to operate a discretionary system, which would surely be even more unfair, or to relax the qualifying criteria.

As I have pointed out, any extension of the scheme would reduce the licence fee revenue necessary for the BBC to continue to provide the quality and range of its services. We are thus left with the option of retaining a scheme which costs some £50 million each year in lost licence fee revenue and more to run, but which benefits about 600,000 people in line with the spirit of the original concession.

It would be unfair to draw to a close without discussing so-called preserved rights. The change in qualifying criteria that followed the Kirklees decision would have meant that many of those qualifying under the old rules would no longer have continued to do so under the new ones. Just as the Government did not wish to abolish the scheme, nor did we want to take the concession away from anyone who had previously held it. The new regulations therefore included a provision to preserve the rights of existing beneficiaries for their lifetime, as long as they continued to reside in accommodation that would have met the old qualifying criteria.

That, I recognise, is a source of much confusion. It leads to positions where neighbours are treated differently due to past and not present circumstances. That is by no means ideal, but it is not logical simply to claim equal treatment with one's neighbour, even if one's first impression is, perhaps understandably, that the position is not fair. That is an inevitable consequence of the saving provision in the regulations and the Government's determination not to take the concession away from anyone who already had it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)


It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.