HC Deb 26 July 1999 vol 336 cc6-7
6. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

If he will report progress on the review of concessions relating to the television licence. [91344]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson)

The BBC funding review panel, which is examining the structure of the concessionary licence scheme and whether a suitable alternative structure could be available, will report to my right hon. Friend very shortly. Copies of the report will be sent to all Members of the House. There will then be a period of public consultation on the panel's recommendations.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I recognise that six different groups of concessions prevail, but is the Minister in favour of looking again at the rather meagre £1.25 reduction for blind people and at whether the concession should be extended to deaf people? Is not this whole problem created by the fact that this is a classic case of "create an exception and anomalies abound"?

Janet Anderson

The hon. Gentleman is right. I reassure him that the Government accept that the reduction currently available to blind people is of little help. The review panel will no doubt wish to consider this matter in the context of the concessionary arrangements as a whole, but I would not want to pre-empt its recommendations. We recognise that past attempts to address the anomalies of the concessionary scheme individually have done nothing to improve the scheme. That is why the review panel has been asked to consider the scheme as a whole.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does not the Department receive more correspondence on this subject than on any other? Since I tried to introduce a private Member's Bill on this issue on 16 January 1987, the problem has not gone away. Why is it not possible for a scheme to be introduced giving the over-70s a reduction of a third or a half? Pensioners up and down the country are asking for a concession. They are right to do so, and it is time the House of Commons acted.

Janet Anderson

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area to highlight the issue. He is right that the Department receives more correspondence on this matter than on any other subject. There has been some speculation in the press that the panel may recommend withdrawing the concession from existing beneficiaries. The panel has yet to report, and I cannot anticipate its recommendations. However, there is no question that the Government would withdraw the concession, and we hope that the review panel, when it reports, will propose different options to improve the scheme, one of which may be my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady is taking the concessions issue seriously. Does she share my surprise that an organisation that currently receives about £2.25 billion a year from a hypothecated tax seems to think that that is not enough? Should not the BBC start by redefining what the licence fee is for, before digging further into the pockets of television viewers?

I know that the hon. Lady is not short of advice on broadcasting. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) is today making a speech which provides further unsought advice. May I offer her some pleasant holiday reading? Our submission to the BBC funding review panel, entitled "Fair Funding for the BBC", contains some helpful advice on concessions.

Janet Anderson

The hon. Gentleman was a parliamentary private secretary in this Department under the previous Government, and I am glad that he continues to take a serious interest in the funding of the BBC. The BBC plays a central role in our aspirations for broadcasting and for the delivery of high-quality public service output into the digital age. The aim of the review is to ensure the BBC's continuing ability to meet its obligations to its viewers and its listeners, and to operate successfully in a competitive marketplace.

The Government have, time and again, made it plain that we believe that the licence fee is sustainable at least until the run-up to the renewal of the BBC's charter in 2006. Though an imperfect funding mechanism, it is the best means of providing the BBC with sufficient security to continue to meet its obligations to its audiences, and to invest in the future of broadcasting.