HC Deb 15 July 1997 vol 298 cc198-200 3.36 pm
Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 to exempt persons who have attained the age of 75 from paying the fee for certain wireless telegraphy licences; to make provision with respect to the funding of the BBC; and for connected purposes. I hope to persuade the Secretary of State for Social Security to make good the finance to the BBC. I appreciate that an hon. Member may not introduce a Bill that involves revenue expenditure, but it is no intent of mine to interfere with the finances of the BBC, which have been put on to a proper footing until 2002.

My motivation is simple. When I was campaigning during the general election, I met large numbers of pensioners aged 75 and older, living virtually entirely on their old-age pensions, for whom the television licence fee was a substantial burden and worry. For them, their televisions were their main conduit of communication, information and entertainment. Little did I know at that stage the history of the House's deliberations and the number of Bills and questions that had been tabled during the past 20 years.

I shall summarise the position, as I believe it to be, which goes back to the 1950s, when the Post Office, as an act of philanthropy, exempted people living in old people's homes from paying the full licence fee. That was put on a statutory basis in 1969, and various regulations between 1984 and 1988 added the disabled and the mentally disordered.

After the Kirklees judgment, the issue of sheltered housing came up, and in 1988 regulations attempted to clarify and deal with sheltered housing. On 1 April 1997, the Wireless Telegraphy (Television Licence Fees) Regulations became effective, which defined accommodation for residential care and confirmed the £5 licence. The regulations provide for a £5 licence for residential homes and for sheltered accommodation that is not in the private sector and where not more than 25 per cent. of the residents may be subject to a right to buy. There is an extraordinary anomaly, in that the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 deals with places and not people.

I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) for their efforts over the years in campaigning for a wider licence fee exemption for all pensioners. My objective is an exemption for the older part of that population. There have been 56 representations on concessionary licences since the general election, but the Government are not willing to review the matter: their most recent parliamentary answer was on 2 June.

I want to stress three points. Conservative Members believe that benefits should be targeted. The crucial point is that the older part of the population—those over 75—do not in the main benefit from personal or occupational pensions. A far greater number of pensioners between the ages of 65 and 75 participate in such schemes. The oldest are the most cash-strapped. An increase in the old-age pension, other than an inflationary increase, is extremely unlikely. Means testing is too complicated and too costly for the elderly.

Last year, the cost of such a measure was estimated to be £190 million. Allowing for the increase in the licence fee and the increase in the number of people over 75, the cost is now about £220 million. That is 0.22 per cent. of all social security expenditure, and contrasts with the £628 million cost of exempting all pensioners.

The present arrangements discriminate unfairly. Old people living in a home pay nothing and those in state-run sheltered housing pay £5, whereas people who are encouraged to stay in their own homes under care in the community must pay the full licence fee. It is unrealistic to think that an exemption for all pensioners could be afforded. It should be focused on the oldest part of the community, because people under 75 are generally in receipt of better incomes.

I hope that Labour Members will support me. If the Government have such amounts to spend, it is much better to put the elderly at the top of the list than to make political gestures such as abolishing handguns, which will cost in aggregate £180 million in compensation. Top priority should be given to a simple and tangible measure that is directed, cost-effective and brings help to some 85 per cent. of the retired population who are in real need.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Do I take it, Madam Speaker, that one can only oppose the measure and not draw attention to the fact that my Bill on 16 January 1987 was destroyed by the Tory Government? In so far as the hon. Gentleman is trying to amend my Bill, I support him.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Member got those comments in while there was still time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Howard Flight, Mr. Graham Brady, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mr. Christopher Fraser, Mr. David Ruffley, Mr. Oliver Letwin, Mr. David Prior, Mr. Tim Collins, Mrs. Caroline Spelman, Mr. Andrew Lansley, Mrs. Eleanor Laing and Mr. Robert Walter.