HC Deb 10 April 2000 vol 348 cc117-57

Order for Second Reading read.

10.13 pm
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

I beg, at last, to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I trust that we shall not witness on this Bill any of the filibustering, delaying, obfuscatory nonsense that we had on the previous Bill.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would the occupant of the Chair have allowed filibustering speeches, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested? Is it not an insult to the occupant of the Chair to suggest that filibustering speeches were going on?

Madam Speaker

I doubt whether the Chair would have allowed filibustering, although the Chair did allow very long speeches in the previous debate.

Mr. Smith

I know an overlong speech when I see one, Madam Speaker. I warn Conservative Members that if they hold up this fair and sensible measure, they will have a lot to answer for to their constituents over the next few months.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should not even consider or debate the issue?

Mr. Smith

I am not suggesting any such thing. I am suggesting that the Bill should be sensibly debated, rather than discussed in the silly fashion that was characteristic of some of the speeches in the previous debate.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his pre-Budget statement of November 1999 that from this autumn everyone aged 75 or over would receive his or her television licence free of charge. As I announced on 21 February, the concession will come into force on 1 November this year.

The Government are introducing free television licences for people over 75 in recognition of the special role that television plays in the lives of many older pensioners. With advancing age, people are much more likely to be housebound or socially isolated. For many in that age group, television becomes the main source of information and entertainment— people's window on the world.

Older pensioners are also more likely to be on low incomes. Nearly 50 per cent. of the households that will benefit from the concession are in the bottom three income bands. By providing free television licences for people aged 75 or over, we shall free well over 3 million households, including some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community, from a sizeable household bill.

Having decided to introduce this concession, our concern is to ensure that it is implemented as efficiently as possible, and with the least possible inconvenience to the people it is designed to help. Thus the Wireless Telegraphy (Television Licence Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2000, which came into force on 1 April, include provisions enabling a person who will have attained the age of 75 years before 1 November this year and who needs to renew their licence before that date, to obtain a short-term licence, so that they pay only for the period up to the start of the concession. From 1 November onwards, anyone who will turn 75 less than 12 months after their television licence is due for renewal will likewise be able to purchase a short-term licence. People whose licence extends beyond 1 November, or subsequently beyond their 75th birthday, will be entitled to a refund of full unexpired months after that date.

We have given careful thought to the procedures for claiming the free television licence. The estimated cost of free licences will be £344 million in 2000–01, with an additional £24.3 million in administrative costs. These costs will be borne from public funds. The Government therefore have a duty to the taxpayer both to ensure that free licences are issued only to those who are entitled to them and that they are issued in the most cost-effective manner.

It is important that we remind ourselves of the intention of the concession, which is to assist the over-75s with access to television services. We are therefore providing free television licences for people aged 75 or over for their principal residence. It is not the intention that a person aged over 75 should be able to obtain multiple free licences to cover the addresses of younger friends and relatives—although I note that at least one national newspaper has already suggested that they may wish to do so. Nor is it the intention that a couple both of whom are aged 75 or over should be able to obtain a second free licence for a second address. We have no reason to believe that significant numbers of people over 75, or their families, will try to take advantage of the system in these ways

Mr. Fabricant

I welcome in broad principle what the right hon. Gentleman is doing, but what about a 75-year-old or a couple aged 75 or over who are living with a much younger family? Will the whole family enjoy a free licence?

Mr. Smith

Yes, the whole family will because that is a household with someone aged over 75 in it.

The administration of the scheme must incorporate sensible precautions to limit the concession to those for whom it is intended and to safeguard public funds. On the other hand, we do not wish to impose unnecessary burdens on genuine claimants. Given those requirements and after careful consideration, we have concluded that much the most efficient way to operate this concession is for the Department of Social Security and, in Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development to make available to the BBC as licensing authorities, certain limited information about people who are, or will shortly become, eligible for the concession. Given that, in practice, the work of administering the television licensing system is performed by a number of sub-contractors acting as agents for the BBC, it is also necessary for that information to be made available to third parties who are providing such services to the BBC under contract or by some other arrangement. That information will be used to set up a database, against which applications for free licences, short-term licences and claims for refunds on unexpired licences can be checked. That will enable the BBC to check the information supplied by applicants against that held by the Department of Social Security or the Department for Social Development, to help to verify entitlement.

The Bill is required to authorise the disclosure of such information. Clause 1 will give the Secretary of State—in practice the Department of Social Security—and, in Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development, the legal authority that they currently lack to supply information of prescribed kinds to the BBC.

We intend to use the order-making power in the Bill to prescribe only a narrow range of information which can be supplied to the BBC—namely the age, date of birth, address and national insurance number of persons aged 74 or over. Supplying information on persons aged 74 will ensure that the information is already available to the BBC at the time a person attains the age of eligibility. It is intended that an order under the Bill should also enable the DSS and the Department for Social Development to disclose to the BBC the fact that such a person has died.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

As that is a vital point and people may be concerned that too much information may be handed over to a commercial company outside the Department, will the Secretary of State consider putting on the face of the Bill the undertaking that only the age, date of birth, address and national insurance number will be supplied? That might reassure people as to the contents of the regulations that will be made in due course.

Mr. Smith

The answer to that question is no, although I will of course consider the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I do not believe that it is necessary, given the clear assurances that I have given about the manner in which we intend to proceed. Moreover, the limited purposes for which the information is being transferred are specifically inscribed in the Bill, which answers the legitimate concerns that people may have about the transfer of information.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

On the subject of disclosure of information and the claims of personal privacy, what does the Secretary of State have to say to my constituent Mr. David Bradnack of 47 Thame road, Haddenham, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, who has lived in the same house for 32 years and who does not possess a television licence and does not want one, but who categorically refuses to sign a form saying that he does not possess such a licence or offering reasons why? Is it right and proper that he should so far this year have been troubled by the licensing authority on no fewer than six occasions to provide information that he has already made clear he does not intend to divulge?

Mr. Smith

That case has no relevance to the Bill. However, I am familiar with the case because the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it to me before. All his constituent needs to do is to state clearly to the licensing authorities that he does not possess a television, and that should be the end of the matter.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Worrying though the matter raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) may be, does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the person involved had a halfway useful Member of Parliament, the problem could have been cleared up a long time ago?

Mr. Smith

I am afraid that, although the House can legislate for some things, geography is a bit more difficult.

The Government well understand that some hon. Members who support the proposals for free television licences for people over 75 will be concerned about the privacy and data protection implications of the disclosure to an outside body of information of this kind, which is held by Government Departments for social security and benefits purposes. However, hon. Members should be clear about the implications of requiring the BBC to operate the concession without the information that we propose.

Every elderly claimant would have to produce, in addition to a completed application form, documentary proof of age. We understand that a substantial proportion of claimants would have difficulty doing so. Many would therefore be put to the inconvenience—and in some cases the expense—of obtaining the necessary documentation. Those entitled to a free licence would also have to reapply each year, as the BBC would have no other means of ensuring that they were still alive and living at the address for which the free licence had been issued.

Without confirmatory information provided by the DSS or the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development to guard against fraud, it would be necessary to adopt a significantly more burdensome approach to policing the concession. In our view, such arrangements would be likely to involve a level of intrusion that would outweigh any loss of privacy from the disclosure of strictly limited social security information under the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

All that sounds very complicated. Would it not be easier just to give pensioners a decent pension?

Mr. Smith

I take it that the hon. Gentleman opposes the Bill. It is not complicated. It is a very simple procedure to enable many millions of people to benefit from the measure that we are proposing.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

The Bill is eminently sensible. Will not the concession also enable the BBC to recoup the licence fees that it is not collecting? Will not a well-policed system mean that pensioners will be satisfied with the concession, and that the BBC will be satisfied with its rightful income?

Mr. Smith

The BBC will indeed collect the licence fees due to it for the more than 3 million households that the concession affects. That is welcome.

Administering the concession without the information that this Bill will allow to be made available would, in addition to being more open to fraud, also be far more cumbersome and expensive. Moreover, it would almost certainly delay the implementation of the concession.

The alternative proposition of requiring claims to be vetted by the Department of Social Security and the Department for Social Development after submission to the BBC would still require primary legislation, since the exchange of information necessary and the verification process itself would entail the disclosure of information. Moreover, such an approach would involve considerable duplication of effort and cost by the BBC and by Government Departments.

We fully accept the need to ensure that information of this kind is used only for the purposes for which it has been provided. Clause 2 therefore places strict limits on the purposes for which the BBC and its contractors are able to make use of the social security information. Information provided under these powers may be used only in connection with television licences for which no fee is payable, or reduced-fee licences.

The policy is to ensure that social security information is used only to facilitate the issue of free television licences, including the associated short-term licences, although the Bill contains provision allowing some flexibility should further concessionary schemes be introduced. However, the Bill does not allow the BBC to use information for the purposes of administering any new scheme or, indeed, any existing concession unless an order is made designating the scheme.

Clause 3 protects social security information supplied to the BBC by providing that the recipient of such information—the BBC, one of its contractors, or anyone who works or has worked for such a recipient—is guilty of an offence if they disclose that information without lawful authority. The offence extends to companies, including the BBC as a corporation created by royal charter, to past as well as present employees of such companies, and also to staff working under other arrangements, such as self-employed people engaged on a consultancy basis.

The penalty for an offence will be, on summary conviction, imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to £5,000, or both, and, on indictment, imprisonment for up to two years and an unlimited fine, or both.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

The Secretary of State correctly states that under clause 3 a new offence is created which could result in someone being sent to prison for up to two years. Why is it deemed necessary to create such a very heavy penalty? People who heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer's welcome announcement did not realise that it would result in the creation of a new criminal offence, with such a heavy penalty.

Mr. Smith

The reason is very simple. We have to protect the privacy and strict confidentiality of data which are being made available for specific purposes. That is clear from the content of the Bill.

The approach that we propose, and that the Bill will make possible, has a number of advantages. It will enable the application procedure for a free television licence to be greatly simplified, to the benefit of beneficiaries and—by reducing both the possibility of fraud and the cost of administering the scheme—the taxpayer. Claimants will have only to complete and return a simple form that will be sent out to all households over the coming months. In the majority of cases, there will be no need for any further action on their part. Additional information will need to be sought only if there is a discrepancy between the information provided in the claim form and that held by the BBC as a result of the Bill.

I therefore encourage and request the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

10.32 pm
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

May I begin by saying how much we regret that this important and, in many ways, welcome measure has been introduced following another Second Reading debate? It is not helpful to the House's consideration of the matter that it takes place at such a late hour.

The Government will no doubt be interested to know whether the Opposition support the granting of free television licences to those over 75. In anticipation of that question, let me say at the outset that of course we give an enthusiastic welcome to any sensible measure that alleviates the burden of the licence fee on the elderly. We have advocated and welcomed measures to halve the fee for registered blind people and to increase subtitling for those who suffer from deafness.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

If the hon. Gentleman has such wholehearted support for this measure, why, in the 18 years that his party was in office, did it fail to introduce any similar measure?

Mr. Ainsworth

The hon. Gentleman asks a rather silly and irrelevant question.

The decision to provide all 75-year-olds with a free television licence will no doubt be very welcome to the beneficiaries, particularly in the light of the paltry 75p a week increase in the basic state pension announced in the Budget. It is, however, a complex scheme to operate, and may be confusing to some people. Indeed, it may be confusing even to the Secretary of State, whose Department, we understand, was not properly consulted prior to the Chancellor's announcement of the scheme. The Secretary of State may be further confused, because he will, in practice, have no say in the operation of the Bill that he has introduced. The right hon. Gentleman is not mentioned in the Bill—it refers to the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Chris Smith

May I point out, for the record, that there is no such person as the Secretary of State for Social Services?

Mr. Ainsworth

I meant the Secretary of State for Social Security. The right hon. Gentleman is obviously fairly desperate if he has to make points like that.

The people who matter are the beneficiaries, the 75-year-olds. The measure will require them to opt into the scheme; it will not happen automatically. Those pensioners will still have to apply for a television licence and hold one, even though—provided they have filled in the right form—they will not have to pay for it. I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement tonight that multiple applications will not be allowed.

We need to hear what steps the Government are taking to ensure a proper understanding of the measure among those whom it is intended to benefit. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that eligible pensioners do not confuse free licences with no licences?

Will the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting confirm when she winds up that pensioners over 75 found with a television set and no free licence will still be liable to criminal charges? Will she confirm that elderly pensioners may be liable to pay a fine for failing to hold a free television licence?

Mr. Bermingham

Does the hon. Gentleman actually think that we live in a society where we would prosecute an 80-year-old because they were not able to obtain a free licence? How ridiculous can he be?

Mr. Ainsworth

It may be ridiculous, but my understanding is that that is the law. The hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to his Front-Bench colleagues.

There is also the question of households which include a 75-year-old but which do not possess a television set. Although relatively few in number, they do exist. The free television licence is effectively a f104 a year additional benefit for owning a television; a benefit conferred on anyone who lives in an eligible household, whatever their means or age. Are there any plans to provide an equivalent benefit to those households which have chosen not to own a television set? They may feel that they are more than £100 a year worse off than their neighbours as a result of the scheme.

The scheme is innovative and breaks new ground in a number of ways. Welcome though its objectives are, it is inescapable that it adds further complexity to the tax and benefits system, which many people believe is confusing enough already. It casts the BBC—whose prime function is to make and broadcast radio, television and online services—in the role of welfare agent. Admittedly, the BBC is already responsible for the existing concession arrangements which, by general consent, are unsatisfactory and arbitrary.

Mr. Kaufman

Does the hon. Gentleman understand that the BBC has this power because the party of which he is a member gave the BBC the power to collect the licence, which it did not have before his party provided it? That is the reason—but then he has no memory and no knowledge of any of these matters.

Mr. Ainsworth

I was not in the House when the power was conferred, but there is no doubt that the present concessionary scheme has not worked as everyone would have wished. It is full of anomalies and is in need of reform. The Secretary of State himself has said so, although I have not noticed any specific measures coming from the Secretary of State or the Government to tackle the problem of the 130,000 people—pensioners and mentally and physically disabled people—who will remain on the existing scheme and will not benefit from the Bill.

Mr. Chris Smith

For the record, may I remind the hon. Gentleman—he must momentarily have forgotten it—that we extended the existing concessionary scheme to ensure that men aged between 60 and 65 who are in sheltered housing qualify for it, when, previously, they had not?

Mr. Ainsworth

I am indeed aware of that fact, but the Secretary of State has not addressed the problem that arises when someone under 60 arrives in a qualifying home where he or she may inadvertently disqualify existing residents.

The new arrangements will do nothing for people aged under 75 who are on low incomes. Indeed, the Secretary of State may have heard, as we have done, from people for whom his scheme causes unhappiness. For example, a 55-year-old man on income support has wondered angrily why he is not included while the Duke of Devonshire is.

Mr. Leigh

Is not the point that the Government have realised, following the resignation of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and the derisory 75p increase, that enthusiasm among pensioners is draining away? All their proposals are mere gimmicks. They are attacking the contributory principle and trying to drain self-reliance from our pensioners, who will not be fooled by gimmicks such as this.

Mr. Ainsworth

I agree that the Government have displeased many pensioners, but my hon. Friend will have heard me say that I welcome any sensible measure that will improve the lot of pensioners, as the free television licence arguably will.

If television ownership is henceforth to be treated as a right or a benefit, the Government must address why people are not entitled to it on age grounds, as well as why they are. If television is to be treated as a right and the BBC as part of the tax and benefits system, it is only fair to ask what the implications are for television and the BBC. The Bill implies that the Government—or the taxpayer—will take a direct financial stake in the BBC from November. In our enthusiasm to provide free licences to those aged over 75, it would be wrong to overlook the significance of the fact that the state—or, depending on how one defines these things, the taxpayer—will take a stake of nearly 15 per cent. in the BBC. That is a major departure in principle, even if the stake is, for the moment, a minority one.

Were the benefit of the free licence to be extended to all households that contain a 65-year-old, the state—or the taxpayer—would take a direct financial interest in more than a third of the BBC's funding. As the possibility of further extending the benefit in that way, or in others, has been the subject of speculation, and because the order-making power in clause 5 implies that the scheme may be extended, the Secretary of State should tell us whether plans exist to extend it. Do the Government contemplate that? If that question is too direct, will the Secretary of State or the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting tell us whether they welcome extension in principle?

The Bill has significant implications for the BBC and its independent funding arrangements.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I am fairly sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the World Service is funded directly through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Does he think that the World Service's integrity is in any way put at risk by that? Is tonight's proposal any different?

Mr. Ainsworth

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point, but the World Service has existed for a long time and has acquired its own culture—nor does it deal with the domestic market, as she well knows.

For entirely laudable reasons—the desire to help 75-year-olds—the Government propose to unsettle the BBC's unique funding mechanism, which has been in place for 70 years. No doubt the Secretary of State will protest, like the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), that no implications arise for the BBC's impartiality from the fact that the Treasury will take a significant interest in the corporation. Some would say that that view is naive; others would argue that the Government enjoy exercising control and like to put their mouth where their money is.

What assurance can the Secretary of State give that the stake taken in the BBC will not lead to interference in the way in which programmes are made or in editorial independence?

Mr. Bermingham

I have lost the hon. Gentleman's logic. If, for example, I went to Sainsburys in Camden and bought some groceries, I would have invested in Sainsburys, but that would not give me a say in the company. The Government are making good a revenue loss; that is not an investment—it is the return of a revenue loss and does not give the Government a say in the BBC.

Mr. Ainsworth

The hon. Gentleman is wide of the mark. I do not know the hon. Gentleman's age and will not speculate on it, but, under his scenario, in order to help him and to absolve him from paying Sainsburys, the Government would be paying Sainsburys direct; they would be taking a direct stake in the company's future.

Mr. Fabricant

As I am sure that my hon. Friend was not around when the BBC received its royal charter in 1926, I remind him that the corporation argued—the argument is just as applicable at present—that, because it was funded through the licence fee rather than from direct income from the taxpayer, it would remain independent of the Government, who would not be able to alter the amount of money paid every year. The BBC would not be subject to blackmail, as it might be if the amount were increased beyond its current 15 per cent.

Mr. Ainsworth

My hon. Friend makes a compelling point.

Some people see the Bill as a bridgehead for a funding system for the BBC of which they disapprove. Colleagues on both sides of the House do not like the licence fee; they may see the Bill as the first practical blow against a funding mechanism that they consider to be unjust and inappropriate in a multi-channel age.

I do not think that the Secretary of State wants the end of the licence fee, although the best way to undermine confidence in it is to go on increasing it—as he has recently done. I do not think that he wants to undermine the licence fee, although giving the taxpayer a direct stake of £340 million a year in funding it might not be construed as helpful in the long run. Those who claim that the Bill, by allowing the Treasury into the BBC's funding, underlines the Government's commitment to the licence fee as an independent funding mechanism, do not understand either the nature of the licence fee or the notion of independence.

I want to ensure that the Secretary of State is aware—acting, as he is, from the best possible motives—of the law of unexpected consequences. That law has been much in evidence recently, in Scotland, Wales, London and the other place. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman knows what he is doing by rearranging the settlement that established and has maintained the BBC. We hope to return to those issues later in the Bill's proceedings.

The Bill will involve the disclosure to the BBC, or to unspecified persons or companies providing services to the BBC, of potentially sensitive information about individuals that is held by the Department of Social Security, or, in Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development. Such information falls under the Data Protection Acts 1984 and 1988.

The Bill's prime function is to give legality to the plan to allow the BBC access to social security information held on individuals. Although such information is not defined in the measure, the explanatory notes state that it is intended to encompass a range of benefits including retirement pensions, income support, severe disablement allowance and attendance allowance. The relevance of such information in determining whether a person aged 74 or over is eligible to benefit from the measure is not made clear. I note that the precise information that may be supplied to the BBC will be defined in an order to be published by the Secretary of State for Social Security. I was pleased that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport reassured us on that point. None the less, it is a pity that the Bill does not include a clear definition.

It is important to note that, until now, information on the national insurance database has been made available only to national and local government bodies concerned with administering benefits, crime prevention and justice. Although the BBC owes its existence to a royal charter, it is not a public body in the sense that Customs and Excise and local authorities are public bodies. The Bill therefore creates a precedent in the way that it amends the Data Protection Acts.

Concern has been expressed in particular about the way in which previously protected information may in future be made available not only to the BBC, but to any person providing the BBC with services in connection with television licences. That is a wide definition, and clearly includes the possibility of commercial companies being given access to sensitive information. It is regrettable that the identity of those companies is not specified in the Bill.

The explanatory notes state that much of the administration of the television licensing system is carried out on behalf of the BBC by contractors. Just over a year ago, the contract for the administration and enforcement of the licence fee was awarded to a new company, Envision, whose shareholders are the Post Office subsidiary SSL, the WPP Group and Bull Information Systems Ltd. I should be grateful if the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting could, in her winding-up speech, let the House know whether any other contractors may be in receipt of social security information about elderly pensioners as a result of the Bill. It is worth noting that the social security information that will be given to the BBC includes information about all 74-year-olds, whether or not they own a television. That has caused concern to civil rights groups.

Clause 3 sets out several offences designed to safeguard the security of the information that may be disclosed to the BBC and its contractors. Those safeguards are important, and it is essential that they are watertight.

National insurance information and the name, address and age of individuals could, in the wrong hands, be open to abuse. In particular, such information could give rise to benefit fraud or other types of fraud. It could also be used to make commercial gain at the expense of elderly and vulnerable people. We shall want closely to examine those issues at a later stage.

While welcoming the scheme, it would be wrong not to give consideration to its cost. It is a matter of disquiet that nobody has yet produced a definitive number of households that will be eligible to benefit from the scheme. The Secretary of State said tonight that the figure was significantly more than 3 million; we previously heard from the Government that it was upwards of 3 million, and earlier than that it was around 3 million, so it has not been settled.

As a result, there has been considerable variation in the estimated cost of providing free licences to those aged over 75. The Gavyn Davies panel established by the Secretary of State put the cost at £283 million; more recently, the Government put the cost at £300 million. I understand that the BBC recently estimated the cost to be between £320 million and £330 million, and tonight we heard that the figure is £340 million. I wonder what it will be next week.

It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could tell the House how many households he believes will benefit and what the cost will be once the scheme is up and running. In addition, I understand that there will be considerable start-up costs. They are estimated at about £20 million and the annual running costs are estimated to be in the region of £10 million. I should be grateful for confirmation of those figures. It is of course a great relief to the BBC that those costs will be borne by the Government and not by the corporation, which already spends £133 million a year collecting the licence fee.

I have outlined some of the complex issues to which the Bill gives rise. No doubt we will want closely to scrutinise the measures in the Bill's later stages. The Bill does not provide the opportunity to discuss the wider issues of BBC funding, but I want to place on the record Conservative Members' view that the BBC's priorities should be first to define its remit, and secondly to look to reduce the licence fee for everyone. That is the best way to achieve a fair, simple and sustainable method of funding public service broadcasting.

10.54 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I listened to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) with growing incredulity. He put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a question that can be answered only when the Bill is passed. We can only estimate the number of beneficiaries from the measure because the information that the Bill makes available is not yet available. When it is available, my right hon. Friend will be able to assess accurately and with total precision the number of beneficiaries.

The sheer ignorance shown by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues about the origins of the licence and the way in which it is collected and used is extraordinary.

Mr. Ainsworth

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

I will in a moment. Let me make that point clear. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) spoke quite inaccurately about the origins of the licence and its purpose. The licence was introduced not to fund the BBC, but as a tax on the ownership of a wireless set. It was introduced by a Conservative Government. It was equivalent to the tax on the ownership of a dog, which then existed. The money went to the BBC because the BBC was the only broadcasting organisation.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

No. In the same way, the hon. Member—

Mr. Fabricant

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned my name and said that I had got something historically wrong. He has misled the House—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not rise on a point of order and then make a point that is simply a matter for debate.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not even complain about the hon. Gentleman's use of unparliamentary language when he said that I had misled the House. You did not hear that. If you had heard it, you would have asked him to withdraw it. As the hon. Gentleman is making such a total fool of himself—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps we should proceed in a slightly calmer way.

Mr. Ainsworth

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

There are several points that I wish to make, then I shall certainly give way to the hon. Member for East Surrey.

In a speech full of cheap points, the hon. Gentleman attacked the Government for what he called a paltry increase of 75p a week in the pension. I happen to believe that that increase is too small, and I have encouraged my right hon. Friends to increase it, but the only reason that it is 75p is that the hon. Gentleman's party in office cut the link between earnings and pensions, and linked pensions to inflation. The 75p increase is the result of that link. Whereas Labour Members of Parliament certainly have a right to say that they wish that the increase were higher, Conservatives have not. The formula was introduced by the Conservatives.

Mr. Ainsworth

I am grateful. I hesitate to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman in one of his more vituperative and dyspeptic moods. May I take him back to his opening remarks? He said that the Secretary of State had not been able to produce the definitive number of households because the information did not exist. If the information does not exist on the national insurance database, what is the point of providing the information to the BBC? The BBC does not have access to the information, but that is not to say that it does not exist.

Mr. Kaufman

My right hon. Friend wasted his breath by correcting the hon. Gentleman when he misnamed the Department of Social Security as the Department of Social Services. Since on their showing today the Conservatives will never hold any of those offices, regardless of what they are called, I do not know why my right hon. Friend bothered.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way to me?

Mr. Kaufman

No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because he is behaving immoderately. When he can contain himself, and when his expression changes from the deep red on his face now—

Mr. Fabricant

It is a suntan.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I remind the House that the Bill concerns simply the transfer of information from the DSS to the BBC? Perhaps we can now get back calmly to the content of the Bill.

Mr. Kaufman

I shall do so happily. It had been my only end to deal with that matter—before the Opposition began to make such utter idiots of themselves throughout today's proceedings, something that we shall certainly be communicating to the electorate in, for example, the Lichfield constituency.

Mr. Fabricant

Right: will the right hon. Gentleman now give way?

Mr. Kaufman

Yes, I will now give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Fabricant

I have made it absolutely clear that I welcome the provision. As the right hon. Gentleman probably does not have any understanding of history and would not want deliberately to mislead the House, may I inform him that I was correct? The licence was introduced as a fee when the BBC received its royal charter in 1926, as I said. He is wrong; the radio tax was introduced in 1923, when the BBC was the British Broadcasting Company. We are talking about the British Broadcasting Corporation. Will he now apologise?

Mr. Kaufman

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman feels better for having got that off his chest. Of course, the BBC was founded not in 1923 but in 1922. So, we are all square on that. He can now calm down and recover his breath, and we can go on to discuss the contents of the Bill, as I had always intended to do.

I feel particular pride and pleasure in the Bill because, as shadow Home Secretary, I made free licences for pensioners Labour party policy. The Bill is a partial fulfilment of that. It is a matter of great satisfaction to many thousands of my constituents, as it will be to millions of people all over the country, that the Government have introduced this excellent measure.

The hon. Member for East Surrey, among many other things when the election comes, will have to explain why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said, the Conservatives in 18 years never introduced something that they now say is a good thing and will not oppose. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) would say that he introduced a Bill on the subject during that time. That is absolutely true; he has a record on the issue that is nearly as good as mine.

I am delighted that the Government have introduced the Bill not for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State stated but for those to which the hon. Member for East Surrey alluded. I approve of the measure very strongly indeed, and so will very many of my constituents, but not only because it will introduce free licences for people aged 75 and older. Its provisions make it possible to introduce free licences for a great many others. I very much hope that, as the years proceed, with this Government in power, as they will be, they will use the order-making power to widen the scope of the concession.

I am delighted that more than 3 million people now qualify for free television licences, and so are my constituents. That is excellent, but since the information will be available, there is scope for the provision to be widened, and for all pensioners to receive a free licence. I have sufficient confidence in the way in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor runs the economy to believe that it will not be too long before the Government can introduce free licences for 60-year-old women and 65-year-old men.

The hon. Member for East Surrey—this bit of the Bill he had read and understands—made the point that the Bill refers to disclosure of information about people on income support. I very much hope that the finances of this country, under the enlightened policies of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, will eventually lead us to providing free licences for those on other benefits, too.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I am grateful for the plug that my right hon. Friend gave me, but does he agree that it would be wise for us in the coming general election campaign, whenever it is, to warn the electorate that, if the Conservatives were to take office, what we are introducing would certainly be taken away?

Mr. Kaufman

The possibility of a Conservative Government is not a hypothesis; it is fantasy. My hon. Friend knows that I respect him, but I do not want to speculate on that, because the notion of Conservative Members forming a Government after their antics today is so absurd that it is not worth contemplating for more than a moment.

Mr. Winnick

We should warn the electors all the same.

Mr. Kaufman

Yes, I do not mind issuing a big warning. I shall go to Lichfield among other places to do that.

Mr. Winnick

Is the majority 277?

Mr. Kaufman

No, 238.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he is straying into territory where he should not be.

Mr. Kaufman

I shall now stray back to the theme of my argument before my hon. Friend intervened. As the hon. Member for East Surrey accurately pointed out, the Bill makes it possible to provide free licences for millions of people on social benefits. That is excellent. I told the Chancellor on the night that he announced his comprehensive spending review that I supported his comments about licences because it was an excellent move. However, it is also the thin end of the wedge.

I do not share the fears of the hon. Member for East Surrey that the independence of the BBC will be eroded. The BBC is capable of being hostile to us all without any particular incentive. I do not believe that the Bill will affect its independence, which would not be compromised if many more millions of people got free licences, or if the licence were ultimately abolished. The Bill does not provide for that, it provides for giving information that will lead to free licences for those aged 75 and over. It also creates the basis for many more people to have free licences.

As the country's prosperity increases under this Government and the policies of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, many more people will be able to have free television licences. I am delighted that the basis for that has been created today in the Bill. Although I support the Government with joy in every Division, I shall go into the Lobby with particular pleasure if the Tories, through folly, force a Division even on closure.

Mr. Winnick

I hope that they do.

Mr. Kaufman

I, too, hope that they do, because I would like the names of the people who tried to block the measure to be recorded in black and white. However, I do not believe that they will dare.

11.7 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I do not intend to delay the House for long because the measure is sensible and uncontroversial. It is a matter for other hon. Members if they wish to detain the House; that will become apparent in due course.

The Bill will enact a measure that is welcome to all parties. It will provide free television licences for those aged 75 and over. The Secretary of State has shown that the method is sensible and I am convinced that it is the best way in which to achieve the Government's objective.

It is a pity that pensioners aged between 65 and 75 will not receive free television licences. I hope that the Government aspire to move towards that when the economy allows. I believe that the economy already allows for it, given the amount of money that the Chancellor has stashed away. Perhaps the Secretary of State will put in a claim for some of it to help pensioners aged between 65 and 75 who feel excluded from the measure. By saying that, I do not detract from the measure, which is welcome for those aged 75 and over.

Some hon. Members have mentioned pension levels. Although they are not the subject of tonight's debate, I hope that I can respond to one point. Some hon. Members claimed that although the measure is welcome, it is no substitute for a decent state pension. I wish to put on record that I share that sentiment. However, earlier this year, hon. Members, including Conservative Members who made that point, had the opportunity to support a Liberal Democrat motion stating that the increase of 75p in the pension was inadequate. However, not one Conservative Member supported that motion in the Lobby. Perhaps those with that sentiment might consider how to vote when similar motions come before the House.

The Bill's principle is correct as is the method, which is to make it as easy as possible for a person over 75 to obtain a free television licence. The Secretary of State is right to say that the alternative method—production of documents—would be bureaucratic and expensive. Bringing such documents together might be a worry for some people of that age, so it must be sensible and right to use the easiest method possible.

What are the possible drawbacks? I do not agree about the alleged implications for the BBC's independence as I do not believe that there are any. Government pressure—not pressure from this Government—is generally put on the BBC during the licence fee negotiations. That is the key point at which Government pressure may be applied and I have seen no evidence of it. This arrangement will make no difference whatever to the BBC's income. If anything, it will enhance it by guaranteeing that pensioners over 75 will have a TV licence and that the money will be refunded by the Government. There are no such implications: as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) said, the BBC World Service has been funded directly by the Government for many years and I have seen no evidence that it has been unduly sympathetic to the Government of the day. The BBC's independence is well established and has been continuous. We should all be proud of that, and the drawback does not exist.

The civil liberties implications, which were referred to by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) from the Conservative Front Bench, could be a drawback. I recognise that the Bill will infringe civil liberties to some extent, but as a member of Liberty and someone who is committed to civil liberties, I have no worries. As the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) said—I beg his pardon if it was not him—it might help if the extent of the information to be used were codified.

Mr. Bermingham

I am at a loss to understand the hon. Gentleman's point. How can asking a person's name, address, date of birth and national insurance number infringe civil liberties? For example, when the hon. Gentleman applies to a loan company or to anyone else, they ask for those details. Although they may not ask for his national insurance number, they may ask about his employment and employer. There is no infringement there; what is the infringement here?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that I speak in support of the Government; I am not attacking them. I should not have given way to him and I always regret it. I shall try not to do so in future.

There could be a civil liberties implication, but, as I said, I do not regard it to be of such magnitude as to warrant any attempt to hold up the Bill. However, it is important to quantify the extent to which information will be used to ensure that there is no extension without parliamentary authority and accountability. The Secretary of State nods; there is no disagreement over that. If we are to discuss civil liberties implications for the country, we might consider closed circuit television, the use of DNA testing or the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. Those could impinge far more than the Bill, whose impingement is minuscule.

On cost, the Secretary of State gave a figure of £344 million and £24.3 million for administration. If the £24.3 million is to be refunded automatically to the BBC by TV Licensing, I am keen to ensure that there is an incentive to minimise the administration charge. If it is to be repaid by the Government, whatever it is, what is the incentive to minimise? I hope that they have a mechanism to ensure that the charge is realistic, not a method of raising funds by the back door. Will the Minister address that point?

Will the Minister also deal with the point about the 75-year-old who buys a licence at full cost, despite any campaign that the Government may launch, putting information through every letterbox? Some people may do that for one or two years until they realise that they qualify for a free licence. That may be unlikely, but it could occur. Will such people be able to reclaim the money for the licence that they did not legally need to buy? Will they be able to say that they made a mistake and have bought a licence for two years, and ask for their £208 back? Will that be possible under the arrangements in the Bill?

I have read the Bill carefully, and it refers to restrictions on a person using information that has accrued. The Secretary of State alluded to that obliquely, but can the Minister confirm that the BBC is covered by those restrictions, and that it will not be allowed to use for other purposes, such as marketing, the information provided solely for this narrow purpose?

Mr. Chris Smith

indicated assent.

Mr. Baker

The Minister nods. I was certain that that would be the answer, but I wanted to get it on the record.

The hon. Member for East Surrey was derided by Labour Members when he raised a legalistically important issue. He asked about the legal position of someone who qualifies for a free licence but does not possess a licence. What is the position of such a person?

Those minor questions need to be answered, and I hope that the Secretary of State will agree that they are important in their own right. The Bill is sensible. It enacts important legislation to give pensioners over 75 a free television licence. In the judgment of the Liberal Democrats it does that in a sensible way and with the minimum of bureaucracy. For that reason, my hon. Friends and I will support the Government should any maverick Conservatives call for a vote on the Bill.

11.17 pm
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in welcoming the Bill. I particularly welcome this measure as it is estimated that it will affect 5,500 of my constituents, who will receive a free television licence on 1 November this year. The Government are beginning to sort out part of the legacy left by the Tories in 1997. I hope that this is the first step in altering the structure of the concessionary licence scheme, which generates many complaints, especially from people in non-qualifying accommodation who have neighbours who qualify. The scheme is unfair and unsatisfactory.

The independent review panel chaired by Gavyn Davies, which reported in July last year, was asked to consider whether an alternative was available. It concluded that the current Accommodation for Residential Care concessionary scheme should be retained, despite its obvious drawbacks, since no superior alternative, funded from the licence fee, has been found. In an annexe to that report entitled "Possible reform of the Accommodation for Residential Care Concessionary Scheme" it stated that a possible reform might consist of four changes.

It has been brought to my attention by borough councillors in my constituency that there has recently been a review in the Rotherham borough by the television licensing authority. More than 200 people have been informed that they no longer qualify for a concessionary television licence. The vast majority of them have qualified for years. The review was prompted by inquiries from other residents. The 200 were informed by letter on 13 March this year that their properties are now deemed by the television licensing authority to fall outside the common and exclusive boundary criteria.

One of the four possible changes suggested by the review panel was to remove the restriction that the scheme must be a group of at least four dwellings within a common and exclusive boundary. If that were implemented, it is likely that none of those 200 would be affected. Of course I recognise that the Government have to respond to the review panel's report comprehensively, and cannot just pick off one or two items. However, the situation is causing great concern to those elderly residents, many of whom exist on means-tested benefits. The ruling implies that they will have to find £100 with which to purchase full licences by 1 May: effectively, they have been given only five weeks' notice. Will the provisions mentioned earlier by the Secretary of State enable my constituents to purchase short-term licences? It is very likely that many of those 200 will be eligible for free licences in the autumn.

I feel that the licensing authority has handled the matter badly. I accept that it is independent of Government, but will my hon. Friend the Minister look into the anomaly as a matter of urgency, and establish whether an internal review could take place inside the authority to—at the very least—stop it from proceeding with the change affecting people who will become eligible for free licences in the autumn? Putting pressure on those people to find money now, when for years they have not had to find more than £5 for their concessionary licences, strikes me as insensitive, to say the least.

I congratulate the Government on the Bill. I hope that it constitutes the first step towards clearing up the mess that we inherited from the Tories—a mess that has caused a great deal of anger and frustration to many of our constituents for far too long.

11.21 pm
Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

I am glad that the Government have finally introduced the measure that I proposed in a ten-minute Bill on 15 July

1997. As the House will recollect, the then Minister—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher)—explained to me that it was not current Government policy to adopt my proposal. I argued then, as a green new Member, that it was those aged 75 and above who depended most on their television sets, and that they were also the poorest members of society. That is an entirely pragmatic argument. I calculated then that the cost would be about £290 million; we have heard what it is today. I stress that I do not think there is the same case for free licences for those aged between 65 and 75, some 70 per cent. of who are relatively well off—often a good deal better off than families bringing up children.

However, I do not understand why the Government have chosen this machinery with which to implement the measure. The arrangement seems to be that people must have a licence, and the Government are to pay. Would it not be much cheaper and simpler if people sent their licence applications along to the Department of Social Security and the Department, which has the records, settled the matter directly with the licensing authority? The Government are going all round the houses by requiring the DSS to give information to the BBC and the BBC to come back with it, whether or not the issue of confidentiality is material. I do not know why such a convoluted route has been chosen to deal with the simple issue of the Government's paying for licences.

Do the Government intend at some stage to extend the free licence to those aged under 75, or to other categories? Other hon. Members have made much play of that possibility. If so, what is the justification in terms of those who are most in need?

Finally—for it is late—what, if any, new ramifications are involved? I believe that there may be requirements for all pensioner benefits to come into operation at a standard age at some time in the future.

11.24 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

I, too, welcome the Bill in general, but what a shame that it has not been funded either by greater efficiency in the BBC—which I am sure that the Secretary of State would also have liked—or by alternative means of financing the BBC, such as sponsorship or even advertising on Radio 1 or Radio 2. I am surprised that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)—who has now left—did not argue, as he normally does in his Select Committee, for the total privatisation of the BBC, rather than its being another burden on the taxpayer.

I am still concerned about the whole issue of funding by the taxpayer. I cannot help but accuse the Secretary of State of being a man—and, indeed, part of a Government—who breaks principles and then builds on the breaking of the principle. For example, some years ago, the principle of additionality was broken when the national lottery was applied by the Secretary of State to fund health and education, which would normally be paid for by the taxpayer.

The principle was that the BBC's domestic services at least should be funded by the licence payer. Now, about 15 per cent. will be funded by the taxpayer. Although the spokesman for the Opposition said that he did not see any difficulty with that, I do. As I said in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Gorton, John Reith, later Lord Reith, knew in 1926, as people know now, that it would be easy for the Government to say that they would pay less or more in a particular year to the BBC for funding. There would be the threat of blackmail.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

I hope that, just for the record, my hon. Friend will clarify his reference to the spokesman for the Opposition. I think that he was referring to the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Fabricant

I thank my hon. Friend—I was referring to the minor Opposition, the Liberal Democrats. I certainly did not mean my hon. Friend, who is far too sensible to have made the points made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker).

Mr. Bermingham

Can the hon. Gentleman explain the logicality in what he has said? He suggested that, if the BBC became totally privatised, it could rely on sponsorship, advertising and such things. If that is so, who pays the costs? The answer is the purchaser of the goods, the advertising and everything else, which means that, eventually, the costs rise for the elderly and there is no concession.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. That is outside the scope of the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) will not respond.

Mr. Bermingham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How can the financing of the matter be outside the scope of the Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is a point of debate. It is not part of this debate, and I have so ruled.

Mr. Bermingham

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not argue with the ruling that I have just made.

Mr. Bermingham

I am going to ask a question on the ruling. Can the occupant of the Chair please explain the following? If we are debating the financing of the BBC, how can a question—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must make it clear that that is not what we are debating. The Bill is concerned with the transfer of information from the Department of Social Security to another body. That is the sole scope of the debate. What the hon. Gentleman is trying to raise is outside the scope.

Mr. Fabricant

Thank you. Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am concerned about the actual cost of the services. I would have thought that, if they were subcontracted to private firms, a cost saving would result, but it seems, unless I have misunderstood the Secretary of State—I may have done—that there will be an approximate 10 per cent. collection charge. That seems extremely high. I hope that the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting can clarify the matter, particularly as there will be no collection: once the information is provided by the Department of Social Security and its similar bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there will be no collection charge. Therefore, I cannot see why 10 per cent. is the amount that has been determined by the Government as the cost for maintaining that system.

I share some concern about making the database available to third parties. I accept that it is only dates of birth, names, addresses and national insurance numbers, but that, too, creates a dangerous precedent. I welcome the Bill's provisions on the high penalties that will come into play if people give information out, but we all know that information is leaked. There are high penalties—under Labour or Conservative Governments—when firms have subcontracted to print White Papers and other Government documents, and information from those documents has been leaked. I should like to know specifically what rigorous controls Ministers will apply to ensure that the information provided by the Bill does not leak out.

I should like briefly to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who argued that the BBC World Service has been funded directly by Government. If memory serves me right, that funding was established, in 1936, as grant in aid from the Foreign Office. However, as the Opposition spokesman my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said, the BBC World Service is not a domestic service, but an international service. Arguably, therefore, the Government may not, for political reasons, wish to intervene—at least on a daily basis—in the editorial decisions of the BBC World Service.

In 1926, the founding principle of the British Broadcasting Corporation was that BBC radio news—which is now BBC radio and television news; in addition to new media, such as BBC Online, that are also funded by the licence fee—was concerned on a minute-by-minute basis, let alone a daily basis with domestic political affairs. It could therefore be argued that, in domestic matters, the Government might well have an interest in interfering with BBC editorial control. It was for that reason that the licence fee was designed to be at one remove from daily interference by the Government.

I do not wish to detain the House. However, I should like to say how very much I welcome the Secretary of State's comment when I intervened on him and he said that people over 75 who live with their younger families could bring to their whole household exemption from the licence fee. My mother lives 100 yd from me, in Lichfield. She is 89 and spends some time watching television. Now, I have an incentive perhaps to ask her to move in with me; then again, perhaps not.

With all the slight doubts that I have expressed, I wish the Bill a fair wind.

Mr. Chris Smith

May I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not one of the legislation's purposes to impose such an awful prospect on his mother?

Mr. Fabricant

I shall not thank the Secretary of State for his intervention. I thought that encouraging older people to live with their families might be part of the Government's social exclusion policy, and that the concession might be quite an incentive in achieving that objective. I am shocked that the Secretary of State, who usually takes such a lateral—even joined-up—view of government, has not discussed that possibility with the social exclusion unit.

Nevertheless, as the hour is getting late, and as the right hon. Member for Gorton is keen to climb into his cot, I shall detain the House no longer.

11.33 pm
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I think that it is important, first, to say that it is outrageous that we are commencing our consideration of the Bill so late at night. The Bill deserved a proper Second Reading, starting at about 3.30 or 4 pm. If Labour Members are complaining that it is rather later in the evening and that we should have started on the Bill earlier, they should realise that the Government should not have scheduled for one day the Second Reading debates of two important pieces of legislation.

I am very concerned at the way in which the Bill goes about trying to secure its purpose. I have no objection whatsoever to free television licences for those who are 75 or over. Unfortunately, the Government do not go far enough—there should be free television licences for everyone. I do not approve at all of the BBC's current funding method, and should like that system to be radically changed.

It was quite interesting listening to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)—who I assume has now managed to make the "Dispatches" programme. I do give him my apologies for the fact that he has missed so many important television programmes today on which he could have aired his views on the Bill.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)

Make a point.

Mr. Maclean

I have some other points, which the Deputy Whip may encourage me to make more quickly or more slowly, depending on his sedentary interventions.

One theme running through the comments of the right hon. Member for Gorton and other Labour Members was how much of an electoral ploy they thought the measure was. It was instructive to hear the right hon. Gentleman threaten to visit Lichfield and explain to my hon. Friend's constituents how generous Labour was and how mean other parties were. Whatever noble causes may have inspired the Secretary of State and the Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Gorton and others consider it purely an electoral tactic. Good luck to them; there is no harm in that. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is as successful in Lichfield as he is everywhere else. That is why the Labour party keeps him off the television all the time.

The Government have gone about this in the wrong way. If they want to ensure that people aged 74 pay progressively less for their television licence and then get a free licence when they are 75, they should not go about it by issuing information on everybody aged 74 and above to a commercial company, which will check that information against television licence applications and decide whether the person is eligible.

The Government should keep all that information to themselves. There should be a little department within the Department of Social Security to which the BBC or its agents apply to get a certificate stating whether someone is eligible. The best analogy that I can give is from my experience in the Home Office, when we set up the system for criminal record office certificates. We are keen that people who may be working with children or applying for jobs in sensitive environments should have their criminal records checked. The Government do not go about that by issuing all the information on the criminal records computers to schools, nurseries, Securicor and employment organisations, which then look at Maclean's criminal record when he comes along looking for a job and decide whether to give him one. We would be appalled if the Government behaved like that, but that is similar to what the Bill would do. The system that we set up for criminal records checks was—

Mr. Bermingham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I was out of order for questioning the way in which the fee was to be paid, how can reference to criminal records be in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As far as I am concerned, the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the method of transfer of information and whether it is desirable. That appears to be in order and within the terms of the Bill.

Mr. Maclean

Thank you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely using the criminal records system as an analogy for the mechanism that we should have. That goes to the heart of the Bill. The mechanism should be similar to the system for criminal records. The Government should keep the information. When someone aged 74 or over applies for a television licence, they should state their name and address on the form and claim that they are eligible. The agencies collecting the licence fee for the BBC would send a computer printout to the Department of Social Security once a month giving the relevant names and would ask the Department to check whether those claiming a free licence were eligible. The DSS would run the names supplied of claimants claiming a free licence through its computers and send back a simple yes or no answer to the BBC or its agents. The Department would merely confirm to the BBC or its collectors whether claimant Maclean was entitled to a free television licence. That is the system we have implemented for criminal record checks, whereby the sensitive information is kept at the centre and the person inquiring is given a little chitty stating eligibility.

Mr. Flight

Given that the Government have to pay, the DSS could pay at the same time; otherwise another transaction would have to take place to pay the money over.

Mr. Maclean

I agree entirely. I would like to hear from the Government, perhaps in Committee—we may have to table amendments to secure the information—whether they have done a costing exercise on the system that they propose. I am certain that they must have done so, but have they done a costing exercise on the system that I have described? What is the difference in cost? Would it be more expensive for the DSS to retain the information and wait for the BBC or its agents to supply a list of names to check for eligibility? If my suggestion, which is more secure and answers the civil liberties question, is more expensive, we can make a qualitative judgment as to whether the civil liberties benefits of my suggestions outweigh the lower cost of the system that the Government have chosen.

The civil liberties implications of the Bill will mean that anyone who turns 74 will suddenly find their information supplied to the BBC's collecting agents, whether they have a television or not. That is my reading of the Bill, although reading the Bill does not take us very far forward. It contains no detail, and the notes tell us everything. The notes tell us that the name, address, date of birth and national insurance number will be supplied, but all that should be in the Bill. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you care to note that the information provided in the explanatory notes is more worth while than normal. That is not to say that the notes are wonderful, but that the Bill is lousy.

The removal of the civil liberties danger is important, because if the DSS hangs on to the information it would not be issuing it willy-nilly the second someone turns 74 or 75. It would give out the information only when it was approached by a licensing authority, or the collectors for the BBC, when someone applied for a free television licence. So the information about the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)— and anybody else who does not have a television and does not want a licence, and who is aged 75 or more—would remain secret on the DSS's computers, as it should. Surely that is the right way round. It is right to keep that information secret and issue it only when an application is made for a free television licence, instead of giving it out to the BBC's agents even for those who are not applying for a free licence.

A dangerous precedent will be set by the methodology that the Government have adopted. The Secretary of State, who is an honourable man, may assure the House that his regulations will cover only what is in the explanatory notes—the age, the address, the date of birth and the national insurance number of persons aged 74 or over. I believe the right hon. Gentleman. However, for the first time, a Government Department will hold sensitive and personal information and will have it ready to issue to commercial companies operating as the agents of the BBC. I have no idea when, but another Government will come to the House with an honourable, noble measure of great importance to our constituents. That measure may require the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise or the Department of Social Security to issue yet more information about citizens to some other commercial organisation.

The Queen's Speech contained no such Bill. The Government have no plans to bounce one into the House next week, but sooner or later the precedent set tonight will mean that it will be quoted whenever a Government want to issue private information from their computers to commercial organisations. If we accept that is all right for a limited amount of such information to be issued to certain commercial organisations, there is nothing to stop another Secretary of State in another Government from exploiting that principle in ways of which this House would thoroughly disapprove.

The nature of the important information involved should be included on the face of the Bill. I did not accept the earlier explanation from the Secretary of State that only very limited information was involved so it was not necessary to include it on the face of the Bill. Ministers normally say the opposite—that information is too complex, with too many boring, technical regulations to be so included. We are told that this Bill involves only four bits of information—age, address, date of birth and national insurance number.

That is the guts of what I want put on the face of the Bill. If that were to be done, we would not have to take the word of the Secretary of State, honourable man though he is, that the regulations will deal only with that matter. We would also guard against the danger that another Secretary of State might publish regulations requiring a little more information if the BBC or other bodies asked for it. Such bodies may believe that further information from the Government computers would help them, but putting the elements in the regulations on the face of the Bill would reassure those worried about the precedent that the Bill creates, and show that the narrow range of information required will not be widened.

I shall not dwell on clause 2, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will have more to say on free television licences for all.

Clause 3(3) states that it is not an offence under this section … to disclose information in the form of a summary or collection of information so framed as not to enable information supplied under section 1 relating to any particular person to be ascertained from it. I want to raise a point that no one has mentioned before. The Secretary of State did not mention it when he opened the debate: he did not cover it up, but he did not mention it.

Great stress was laid on the penalties that will apply to those who use the information supplied improperly or disclose information that they should not disclose. Everyone is concerned to ensure that if the Government create the precedent of giving private, sensitive, social security information about our oldest and most vulnerable pensioners to a private company, it will never be disclosed. I can accept that—but why on earth does clause 3(3) provide for the ability of the BBC or its agents—the collecting agencies—to disclose information in the form of a summary? I have heard no justification for that.

The clause provides that information about Joe Bloggs and other individuals will not be disclosed; it will be given in summary form. What sort of summary? Will the BBC issue a report in a couple of years saying that in the previous year 1 million people aged 75 to 80, 500,000 aged 82, and 100,000 aged 97 had free television licences? If so, I can understand the Department of Social Security wanting that information, although goodness knows what it would do with it. It might wish to make projections on the cost to the Government, bearing in mind what life expectancy is, and on the declining incidence of free television licences. However, given developments in medical science, and with people living longer, the Government may be facing a rising curve.

There might be some interesting information there for the Department of Social Security, the national statistical office and Government actuaries. But why on earth should the commercial organisations that are receiving this confidential information need to disclose it in summary form? Who will be the user? Who will be the beneficiary? Why should it be done?

It would be more reassuring if the Government said that the limited information that would be disclosed to the commercial companies—name, address, date of birth and national insurance number—would under no circumstances be disclosed further or published in summary form. That information might be used in court cases only if there has been an abuse or someone has been prosecuted. It is not reassuring that clause 3(3) allows a big loophole of disclosure in summary form.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

The right hon. Gentleman has been speaking for 20 minutes, and I am still not clear whether he supports the principle of pensioners over the age of 75 getting free television licences. Can he clarify his views?

Mr. Maclean

I know you listen very carefully to these debates, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you will have heard me say at the start of my speech that I am in favour of free television licences for everyone. I am totally opposed to the way in which the BBC is funded through the licence fee. If the hon. Gentleman listens carefully, he may hear that view expressed by others who might be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The other important loophole is clause 3(4): It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that at the time of the alleged offence he believed— (a) that he was making the disclosure in question with lawful authority, or (b) that the information in question had previously been disclosed to the public with lawful authority. That is a wonderful open house get-out. What is the standard of proof? People in commercial companies who disclose the information or use it improperly can say in their defence, "I believed that I was doing so lawfully," or, "I believed that it was already in the public domain, so it is all right." That is far too low a threshold, and the words "he believed" must be deleted if we are to have proper security for information. Many hon. Members who are lawyers would be delighted to defend someone whose defence in court was that they believed that what they were doing was all right. They would be easy to defend, and that would drive a coach and horses through the provisions of a Bill that demands secrecy and the security of information.

Clause 3 deals with offences, but contains too many loopholes on disclosure. That must be addressed in Committee or on Report. If it is not, many people will believe—with some justification—not only that the Government have taken an unprecedented and wrong route in terms of the supply of information, but that they have done so in a cavalier manner.

We all understand that the Bill was drafted with some urgency. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport had this proposal bounced upon it, and we have all heard on the grapevine that the Government must have the Bill as urgently as possible, as they are bound to an awful timetable. We all know that, with the huge amount of Government legislation, the parliamentary draftsmen are under pressure. I do not blame the draftsmen, but the brief that they received from Ministers may have led to the loopholes.

The Bill requires some tightening up. If we cannot persuade the Government, on principle, to change the methodology that I have described in detail, we must get them to tighten up the drastic loopholes in the Bill on the release and disclosure of information. We must ensure that my constituents who do not have a television and do not need a licence have confidential information about them protected. That information must not be given willy-nilly to commercial companies who might abuse it, and then find that they have a defence because the Bill was not drafted tightly enough.

I am happy for the Bill to proceed, and I support its principle as the first step towards the complete abolition of the iniquitous television licence system. However, I wish to see a considerable tightening up of this sloppy Bill.

11.57 pm
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I appreciate that you have ruled against me on several occasions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall seek not to breach your rulings by referring to sources and methods of funding.

I find it somewhat sad that I listened to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) speaking for 21 minutes; it was a short speech by his standards of recent days.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

It was 25 minutes.

Mr. Bermingham

Twenty-five minutes, I am told. The right hon. Gentleman said that he supported the Bill, and then went on to say nothing at all. In fact, he contradicted himself time and time again. The Bill is rather simple, and can be easily read. It says one thing; that we will give pensioners over the age of 75 a free television licence.

Mr. Forth

It does not say that, actually.

Mr. Bermingham

It says that pensioners will be entitled to a free television licence. I know that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has yet to bore us; but he will no doubt do so, as he bored us earlier this evening. I would not wish to trespass outside the terms of the Bill by saying what I really thought about the one hour and 10 minutes that we had from the right hon. Gentleman earlier, much of which I listened to and the rest of which I watched. As an exercise in filibustering, it was second to none, and I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on that. [Interruption.]He is blowing me a kiss, and I should perhaps treat him to the same—I did not know he was like that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must speak about the Bill. From what he has just said, it seems that his perception of what it is about is fundamentally incorrect. The Bill is about the conveyance of information. That, and nothing else, is what that I am willing to hear the hon. Gentleman discuss.

Mr. Bermingham

I accept unreservedly that I have once again been chastised, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In talking about the transfer of information, I was talking about what information should be transferred on the right to have, or not to have, a free television licence. [Interruption.] I see you shake your head. Mr. Deputy Speaker; obviously, you disagree with what I am saying. So be it. I shall try another approach: I do so, I hope, with grace and gentleness, but perhaps a little sense of worry after my 16 years and 10 months in the House. Free speech is in question. The right to question is in question. The right to comment is in question. The right to express one's views is in question, and I find all of that deeply offensive and worrying.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is once again going wide of the matter before the House. We are dealing with a fairly narrow, technical Bill, and there is no restriction whatever on free speech or expression within the terms of that Bill. The hon. Gentleman, with all his experience, must appreciate that the House can, at any one time, deal only with the particular matter before it.

Mr. Bermingham

I entirely agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. I have listened tonight to long speeches on an extremely narrow subject. I simply say that what is sauce for the goose—myself—should be sauce for the ganders. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I sense an underlying challenge to the occupant of the Chair in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Nothing that has taken place so far can have been out of order. The Chair has had to rule from time to time, but, if hon. Members are able to speak at length while remaining in order, it is a matter for them. The Chair will pick Members up if they stray out of order. I am trying to say to the hon. Gentleman that he may not talk about the general conduct of debate, but must talk about the Bill before us.

Mr. Bermingham

I have made my preliminary points, and I intend to be brief. I hope that my example will be followed.

The Bill is indeed narrow. It deals with a transfer of information. A concession is to be given, and there is a need to qualify for it. That is an extremely narrow point, and the Bill relates to information that the BBC is entitled to obtain or have verified, directly or through an agent, so that it may recoup the fees that it would have received had there been no such concession. It must ascertain that the people to whom the concession is given qualify for it. It must ascertain how many there are.

Comment has been made—I must be careful not to go outside the narrow confines, Mr. Deputy Speaker—about how many such people there are. In truth, that can never be known or quantified. We do not know who will die between today and the date in November when the Bill will come into effect. Nothing is predictable. Actuarial estimates may be made, but accurate predictions are impossible.

Argument made on the basis of such predictions seemed to me to go outside the scope of this rather narrow Bill, which talks merely about a transfer of information. If I am straying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be corrected again, and I may even give up. But I am trying to say merely that the Bill is so simple and straightforward that I cannot understand why there has been so much debate—a remark I make even against myself.

The BBC is entitled to verify only that people who apply for a reduced or nil-cost licence are over 75 or about to attain that age; that they have a home and an address for which computers will show that no other application has been made; and that they have a national insurance number—as we all do from the moment of our birth—from which verification of age can be obtained.

That seems to be what the Bill is all about. I do not understand why I was taken to task when I asked whether there were better ways of doing things, while another Member who said that it would be preferable to have free television licences was not taken to task. I realise that, if I pursue that line, I shall be in trouble yet again. I have had enough trouble for one day—probably today will be as troublesome as yesterday in many ways; that is so often the case.

I hope that other hon. Members' speeches will be as brief as mine so that we can proceed to a vote—if there is to be one. I sincerely hope that no one is daft enough to vote against the Bill.

12.6 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I take my cue from clause 2, which states: Information provided under section 1 may be used only in connection with television licences for which no fee is payable or reduced-fee licences. I shall address my remarks to that point, in conjunction with the sentence in the explanatory notes which states: In November 1999 the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that persons aged 75 or over would become entitled to receive a free television licence. I wondered why the age of 75 had been chosen. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) attempted to give an explanation for that. The Secretary of State also alluded to that point. Two main factors were involved. The first was that 75-year-olds were retired folk, with plenty of time on their hands, who relied heavily on television for enjoyment and relaxation.

However, that argument applies equally to people aged 65 and over. Indeed, it applies increasingly to even younger people. As we know, the age at which people retire is getting lower. That fact puts a large question mark over the arbitrary choice of the age of 75 and makes it difficult to defend. If we are to talk of retirement as a factor—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss that principle under this Bill. The Bill is about the disclosure of information; it is not about debating the age at which a particular form of concessionary licence is made available.

Mr. Forth

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was simply trying to participate and to debate what was said earlier. However, if you do not want me to do so, of course I must follow your guidance.

Clause 2 refers to television licences for which no fee is payable. That again raises the issue of the people for whom no fee should be payable. I am worried that such a provision would have a blanket application to a section of the population, regardless of their income. The Bill refers to television licences for which no fee is payable and then, through a mechanism to which frequent reference has been made and which several Members have queried, attempts to identify the people to whom that would apply. The whole point of the exercise would be lost if that no-fee concession were to be granted to a group of people in a blanket way, regardless of their means to pay for a normal television licence. The application of that administrative process would be misdirected.

A much better approach would be to find a way of allowing everybody to pay a much reduced licence fee, thus eliminating the mechanism suggested in the Bill. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) have suggested ways to do that. My preference would be to reduce the BBC to a core public service broadcasting operation and to dispose of all the other parts of the BBC—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that he is going too wide, as he knows, and I must bring him back to the core of the Bill.

Mr. Forth

That is a pity. I shall certainly seek other opportunities to broaden the debate. I was simply trying to allude to remarks made by other contributors, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but you seem not to favour that approach.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am trying to help the House and to make sure that we keep within the rules of order as I judge them to be. We have a Bill before us, and I can only interpret that in the best way available to me. I believe that I have interpreted the Bill correctly, according to the purposes laid out in it, and I am just trying to encourage right hon. and hon. Members to do the same.

Mr. Forth

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is correct.

Clause 3(2) states: A person who is or has been employed by a recipient or engaged in the provision of services to a recipient, is guilty of an offence if … he discloses information. We enter an area of doubt because the Bill makes the important distinction between a person employed by a recipient and a person engaged in the provision of services to a recipient.

I wonder whether we can be absolutely satisfied that we will be able properly to police that provision. Although I can imagine that the employment of a person provides reasonable control and, therefore, the reasonable possibility of fulfilling the intention in the clause, I wonder whether that is likely when we broaden the measure to those engaged in the provision of services. They will have an arm's-length contractual arrangement, and that may well reduce control to the extent that the intention cannot be fulfilled.

I want briefly to reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). He highlighted the fact that clause 3(4) includes a let-out provision that will allow someone to plead that he believed that information had previously been disclosed with lawful authority. That puts a question mark over the possibility of ensuring that the Bill is adequately executed, to say nothing of clause 3(3)(a), which contains the mysterious concept of a summary or collection of information, which has yet to be fully explained. I hope that the Minister will be able to throw more light on the matter of the summary. If that term is not closely defined, it will inevitably create suspicion about the possibility of unacceptable disclosure of information.

Clause 3(6) refers to offences and penalties, which are severe. The Bill says that a guilty person is liable to a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both, or, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both.

Those penalties seem harsh, and I wonder whether Ministers have given proper thought to whether they will be applied for first offences or whether there will be a gradation of offences for which they will be applied. Normally I am in favour of severe penalties being applied by the law in proper circumstances, but in this case the penalties appear to be disproportionate to the offence, unless it is believed that revealing information would be serious enough to merit such penalties. Some further explanation of that would be in order.

I hope that in Committee and on Report, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will have the opportunity further to explore some of the matters that have not found your favour this evening. I am generally rather unhappy about the approach being taken. I am unhappy about the arbitrary choice of the age, the blanket provisions and the administrative procedures. I should prefer a radically different approach to the matter.

I hope that, in the detailed examination of the Bill in Committee and on Report, we will be able to look more closely at some of those elements, find out more of the Government's thinking than we have been able to do this evening, and tighten up the Bill, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have suggested. That must be our aim. The Bill has come before us in a rather narrow technical sense, even though the intention behind it is much broader.

12.15 am
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I admit to being slightly nervous about addressing the House. Earlier this evening, I was urged to avoid too much detail, and a little later I was urged not to be too general. I sense that I am setting off on a tightrope, so I hope that I will not fall off it.

A couple of matters have caused concern to a number of people in my constituency. Concern has been expressed by several people about the delay between the announcement—the trumpeting of the Government's intention—and its implementation. The announcement was made four months ago or thereabouts. The Bill makes it possible for that announcement to be put into practice, but the delay will not end there, and I suspect that further concern will be expressed to me by my constituents. Some help from the Minister would be useful when I try to explain to them what the Government are trying to do. There will be an eight-month delay after we have passed the legislation before the much-trumpeted benefit to people over 75 takes effect. It would be helpful to know why another eight months must go by after the debate tonight before the Bill produces the benefits that the Government claim for it.

Another aspect that is causing concern in my constituency is the 75-years-old age limit. I have been asked several times why that was chosen. People felt that it should have been lower.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to my previous rulings. We are not going into that matter now.

Mr. Wilshire

I was not seeking to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I was simply trying to tell the House what is worrying my constituents. However, I take your point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that that is fascinating, and the House might find an appropriate occasion to discuss it—but tonight we are discussing the Bill.

Mr. Wilshire

There is no need for me to say it again, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I have already got it off my chest.

I am concerned about the fact that we are having an important Second Reading debate after 10 pm. A matter of this importance—[Interruption.] Labour Members should not complain. It was the Government who decided that the previous debate could continue until 10 pm. It was not me or any member of the Opposition. The Government said that we would debate the previous measure till 10 o'clock, and some of us took them at their word.

Here we are after 10 pm, dealing with a Second Reading, and clearly the House is restive. People are tired and understandably do not want the debate to go on for the usual length of time for a Second Reading debate. I see nothing to be gained by trying to delay the House until 3 or 4 am simply to have a five or six-hour debate. However, a Second Reading deserves such debate.

There are aspects of the Bill that I support—let me get that off my chest, to avoid misunderstandings. I support the principle of free licences, whether for over-75-year-olds or for those over 65, as some of my constituents argue. Whatever decision is taken, we will be thankful for small mercies. That is the message that I get from my constituents. I have no wish to dispute the principle with the Government.

I also have no difficulty with short-term licences. If we are to go down the route of providing free licences in such a way, there should clearly be some arrangements for short-term licences for people who become 75 years old four or six months after they have had to renew a licence.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is persisting in talking about matters that lie beyond the scope of the Bill. There must be other occasions when such matters would be in order. They are not in order in debate on a Bill that is solely devoted to the transfer of information. That is what he must address.

Mr. Wilshire

I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker; that makes a great deal of sense to me as well. The trouble is that others were allowed to introduce such points, so I thought that it was reasonable to comment. Nevertheless, there are two other matters that I support that are clearly raised in the Bill's wording.

The Secretary of State explained that he felt that there must be some means of minimising the administrative burden on applicants who qualified. At the heart of the Bill—not other issues that have been raised by hon. Members—is an attempt to minimise the administrative burden. I should say straight away that I have no difficulty in supporting that principle. The administrative burden is to be alleviated by reference to the Government's national insurance database. In principle, I have no difficulty with that either; it seems sensible. Use of the database would simplify matters, and it would clearly be unreasonable to say that such an aim is wrong. I do not wish to challenge the Government on such matters, but I shall turn briefly to issues that I do not support. They have been mentioned by others, so I do not need to rehearse the whole argument, although I want to make it clear where my reservations lie.

I am concerned, as is my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), about the detailed method that the Government have chosen to give effect to the principle of easing the burden, which I support. Releasing national insurance data to a third party is not a very good idea. I would therefore do everything possible to avoid doing so. I become even more nervous when I discover that the third party that is to receive such information may pass it down the line to a fourth, fifth or sixth party—to heaven knows how many other contractors.

All of us agree that such information is sensitive and needs to be kept confidential. The chances of a leak on releasing it to a third party are significant, but when that third party is given the power to release it to a fourth party and so on, the risk of a breach of confidentiality is compounded. In those circumstances, it is important that the Government look for another way of achieving an objective with which, in principle, most of us would agree.

Mr. Fabricant

Was my hon. Friend as surprised as I was to discover that, given such an inherent risk in offering information to private companies, there will apparently be no saving from doing so?

Mr. Wilshire

I shall say something in a moment on the question of cost. I have doubts about the wisdom of such an approach and suggest that the Government give further thought to turning the procedure around. Instead of easing the burden by the Government releasing the information to the BBC, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border that it would be no more difficult for the BBC to pass the queries to the Government and for them to say either yes or no. I cannot see how there could be more work one way than the other, because the same process would be undergone, just by a different group of people. The alternative way would allow the Government to achieve their objective of easing the burden without running the risk of a breach of confidentiality.

We were told at the beginning of the debate that the provision would be a blanket concession to all households in which one person is over the age of 75. I find it difficult to accept that that is a good way to give benefits to people. Although I fully support the principle of free television licences for those aged over 75, I question whether every household that includes someone of that age needs such help from the Government.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that people should care for the elderly, and that the measure is an incentive for doing that?

Mr. Wilshire

I accept that it is important to debate ways in which to provide incentives for families to look after elderly relatives. However, I suspect that if I responded to the question in detail, Mr. Deputy Speaker would rightly say that my comments were outside the scope of the Bill.

I would be prepared to participate in a discussion about methods of providing incentives, but I question whether the Bill and its approach is an effective method. I do not claim to be against it in principle, or that no family should qualify, but we ought to question whether the blanket approach of applying the Bill to all families is a sensible way to achieve the objective that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) mentioned. I am sure that, like me, he can think of families who do not need that help.

I have a query, which has also been raised by other hon. Members, about clause 5(1), which states: An order under this Act must be made by statutory instrument. Enough of us have mentioned worries about the detailed procedures in the Bill to make a strong case for some sort of reassurance from the Government. It would reassure me if the Government reconsidered that provision and decided to include the order in the Bill instead of doing it by statutory instrument. It would be up-front and would meet our anxieties part way.

I have two queries about the explanatory notes. On this occasion, they are enormously helpful. There may be a good answer, which has escaped me, to my first query. Page 3 of the explanatory notes details the information that will be included in an order. I understand the reasons for mentioning the name, address and date of birth, but I am puzzled by the requirement for the national insurance number. It would be helpful if someone could put me out of my misery on that point.

My second query, which has already been mentioned, is about item 15, which states: There will be no effects on public sector finances or manpower. At the beginning of the debate, I heard that there would be £340 million of administrative costs and that the cost of free licences would be another £340 million or some such figure. I hope that I wrote down the figures correctly, but if I got them wrong, I would be happy to be told differently. The Minister is not leaping up to tell me that I am wrong, so I shall persevere.

Someone, or a group of people, in the Government will have to answer the questions that the BBC posed. They have manpower implications. The explanatory notes state that the Bill will have no effect on public sector finance or manpower, but even if my figures are wrong—perhaps Hansard will correct them if necessary—I believe that I heard the Secretary of State explain the costs at the beginning of our proceedings. Perhaps the Minister will sort that out.

One other matter causes me anxiety. By introducing the method in the Bill to help people who are over 75, and to try to achieve that goal as painlessly as possible, we are removing one of the key reasons for the way in which we fund the BBC. Although I support the Bill in principle, I slightly regret that we are taking away one of the arguments that puts a great deal of pressure on the BBC and on the Government to have a comprehensive look at the whole question. That is a pity, and I make the point in passing.

Let me make it clear that I am perfectly happy with the principle that makes the Bill necessary. I have no quarrel with free licences for the over-75s or with what the Bill seeks to achieve by easing the administrative burden. which is a good idea. However, I am not happy with the way in which the Government are going about that. I do not have the slightest intention to oppose the Government this evening, but, in return, I hope that the Minister will respond positively to my detailed queries and, either in Committee or on Report, to the objections raised by myself and others.

12.31 am
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) set out the Conservative position. We support the measure, as I made clear during our recent debate on the order that introduced the licence fee increase as well as the free licence concession for over-75s. Given that a number of Members have queried our position throughout the debate, I can do no more than confirm that we would vote with the Government in support of the Bill in the unlikely event of the House dividing.

My hon. Friend nevertheless outlined a number of concerns. I do not intend to repeat them in detail at this late stage, except to say that the Bill represents a significant departure from the existing licensing arrangements and an unprecedented and unique use of social security information. For that reason, we welcome the Secretary of State's comment about the need to incorporate sensible precautions. However, we wonder whether it would not be preferable to specify in the Bill rather by order the type of information and data to be provided, which he said would be narrow. We can debate that in detail in Committee.

We also urge the vital need for an information campaign. It is tempting to suggest that one in advance of the debate might have been appropriate. Such is the potential confusion, elderly people need to know where they stand. More than one hon. Member raised the question of what would happen if a pensioner aged over 75 had no licence. In the light of the Government's clear objective that over-75s should have a free licence, we would all agree that some special arrangement needs to be made for those without a licence. Prosecuting a pensioner for not having one would clearly be at odds with that objective, which came across in one of the exchanges. We would also welcome the Minister putting on the record a clear assurance that there will be no marketing use of the information made available to the BBC and its subcontractors.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) welcomed the thought that the concession's scope may be widened. On our reading, the Bill clearly allows for that in respect of the availability to the BBC of the social security information of under-75s. He referred to his own interest in making this concession available to all pensioners and to some income support claimants. He acknowledged that that could be the thin end of the wedge. I mention that because I thought that he was surprisingly relaxed about the assertion that the impartiality of the BBC would not be compromised. That is somewhat at odds with the criticism of the licence fee increase in the recent report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which he chairs. The Conservative party is also critical of the increase in the licence fee.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) acknowledged the potential for some abuse of civil liberties, and the need to quantify the extent of the information that will be made available, to which I have already referred. He also mentioned the legal position of a pensioner over 75 who does not have a licence.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) helpfully drew attention to the problem of the concessionary licence scheme. Hon. Members on both sides of the House appreciate the difficulty that that anomaly poses. He referred to 200 householders in his constituency who have been advised that they will lose the concession, and he criticised the licensing authority. Those of us who have considered this matter and the Davies panel recommendations recognise that there is no easy answer to that anomaly.

I hope that we can achieve some consensus, because it seems incongruous, to say the least, that people who have the concession suddenly lose it if someone under the age of 60 moves into the sheltered accommodation where they reside and which allows them to enjoy it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) reminded the House of his ten-minute Bill in July 1997, which would have introduced free television licences for the over-75s. He seemed to support the Secretary of State in arguing that the over-75s were a special case. However, he did not approve of the machinery, and asked why we should not allow pensioners to send the licence fee application to the Department of Social Security. We shall want to explore that issue in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) referred to the need to ensure that the BBC achieves proper savings. We all agree with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) queried the cost of this measure. It is important to note that, although it would appear from what the Secretary of State said that the total cost to the Treasury of the free licence will be £344 million—as my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey said, the figure grows every time we debate this issue—the Secretary of State also said that the cost of implementation would be £24.3 million. I therefore think it right for the House on Second Reading and when we examine these matters in Committee to have regard to the greater efficiency of the scheme and to ensure that the costs are kept to a minimum.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) drew attention to the difficulty of exercising proper scrutiny of the Bill and the scheme if anyone who raised any concern stood the risk of being accused of hostility towards the granting of free television licences for the over-75s. That is not our position. We want to examine in detail the Government's proposed scheme to ensure that it is given proper scrutiny.

My right hon. Friend also raised some proper concerns about the mechanism for the transfer of information. He questioned whether the DSS could provide the necessary information in a different way. I will read carefully what he said. I think that the Committee stage will give us a good opportunity to test whether the Government's scheme is the most sensible, or whether we could find an alternative that would avoid the need to give the information about people's social security records to the BBC or other third parties.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) feared that the penalties might be disproportionate to the offences. That, too, will need to be considered in Committee.

It should be clear from what my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey and I have said that we warmly support the Bill's objective, which is laudable. However, it represents a major change, and it is reasonable for us to ask whether the assurances given by the Secretary of State are adequate. I also think that we need to be clear that the £344 million direct payment to the BBC does not undermine its impartiality and independence. More to the point, will free licences for so many residents of the country begin to undermine the concept of the television licence itself? It will certainly encourage some to challenge the requirement for them to pay.

We should keep those concerns in mind, and recognise that, in a multi-channel age, as the principle of the universal licence fee comes under attack, it will be essential for both the BBC and the Government to demonstrate that resources are being used efficiently, that licence-fee increases are being kept within reasonable bounds, that the BBC continues to be independent and impartial, and—with specific reference to the Bill—that concessions such as free licences command popular support. While we are more than satisfied that the proposal for a free licence for older pensioners is genuinely welcomed by the public, we have a duty to ensure that it is implemented—as the Secretary of State himself said—as simply as possible, but with efficiency and security. We look forward to ensuring in Committee that those aims are realised, so that the 1 November implementation date can be achieved.

12.43 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Janet Anderson)

We have had a useful and wide-ranging debate on what is necessarily a narrowly focused Bill. Its purpose is clear: to assist in the provision of free television licences for people aged 75 or over. I was pleased to note support for the concession, although I know that some Members would like it to be more widely available. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made that point.

It is clear from the responses that we have received since the announcement of our proposal that the concession is much welcomed by older pensioners, but that many are concerned about what they must do to obtain their free licence, and are anxious not to miss out. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have received many letters from Members who are eager to know the details. The Government are especially keen to ensure that the administration of free licences for the over-75s does not impose unnecessary burdens, and thus undo much of the good of the concession. Our aim is as far as possible to enable elderly people to claim it from the comfort of their armchairs.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) welcome the concession, because I believe that, in the past, he has described it as a hollow gimmick. I am glad that he no longer takes that view.

There must be a proper understanding of how the arrangement will operate, and we are working closely with TV Licensing and the Department of Social Security to ensure that people have the information that they need.

I telephoned TV Licensing this morning. Any hon. Member who does so will find that, in the recorded choices, there is clear instruction on which number to press for information about the free television licence. This week, I received my new licence in the post from TV Licensing. It says clearly that pensioners over 75 will be entitled to a free licence from 1 November.

Mr. Fabricant

I am curious. The Minister telephoned TV Licensing and got the recorded messages. Did she eventually manage to speak to a real human being?

Janet Anderson

I did and she was very courteous. She dealt with my point very competently.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)

It was his mother.

Janet Anderson

I do not know whether it was the hon. Gentleman's mother.

Many hon. Members have asked what will be the position of pensioners over 75 who do not hold free television licences when they should. I am sure that TV Licensing will be sensitive to that matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) said, the Government are not in the business of sending 80-year-olds to prison because they were perhaps confused about the rules, but it is our job and that of TV Licensing to ensure that as much information is available as widely as possible.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who is no longer in the Chamber, also referred to the scheme as a gimmick. He raised the question of whether it would mean the Government interfering with the independence of the BBC. It is wrong even to suggest that. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on the other Opposition Bench confirm that he believed that to be the case, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton.

One of the reasons for doing it in that way is that it is very simple. We want pensioners to be able easily to avail themselves of the free licence from their armchair, but it is important to retain the licence principle. There is no question of the Government, through the process, taking a stake in the BBC. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South said, the Government are making good a revenue loss. I clarify the position. As the Secretary of State and I have said on numerous occasions, we believe that the licence fee is the best possible way in which to fund the BBC for the foreseeable future.

The hon. Member for East Surrey asked why the over-75s must apply to opt in. As I say, that is because it preserves the long-standing tradition that everyone who has a television must have a licence and that the fee goes to fund the BBC. The introduction of the concession does not provide sufficient cause to question that basic principle.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Secretary of State's part in the matter. I refer him to subsections (3) and (4) of the Bill, which refers to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who will make orders describing the sort of information that may be supplied to the BBC. I repeat for the benefit of the House: it is intended to define only a very narrow range of information: the age, address, date of birth and the national insurance number of persons aged 74 or over.

It is intended that an order under the Bill should enable the Department of Social Security and Northern Ireland Department to disclose to the BBC the fact that such a person has died. That is important. Under the amendment that was tabled by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and subsequently withdrawn, the information would have to be sought every year and information about when an eligible pensioner had died would not automatically be passed to the BBC, and that could cause great distress to families.

Several hon. Members have asked whether the information to be disclosed can be in the Bill. Although the information that may be disclosed is not in the Bill, I assure the House that it will appear in an order, subject to negative resolution of either House. I hope that that gives hon. Members the reassurance that they seek.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton dealt very competently with the question that was asked about the number of households. Although it is difficult for us to be accurate about the number now, we estimate that it is about 3 million households.

I should also deal now with the issue of costs—as it has been raised by various hon. Members who seemed to be a little confused. We estimate that, in 2000–01, the cost of the concession will be £344 million, with an additional £23.4 million in administration costs in the first year. It is important that those administration costs are kept to a minimum, and I assure the House that we shall be ensuring that there is pressure on TV Licensing and on the Department of Social Security to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

The administration costs in the first year will of course include start-up costs. Could the Minister give a figure on the start-up costs and also a figure on what she expects the administration costs to be in subsequent years?

Janet Anderson

I do not have that information now, but perhaps we can discuss the matter in Committee. I suspect that the matter will become clearer as arrangements for the scheme are implemented.

I thank the hon. Member for Lewes for his welcome for the provision and for his confirmation that he does not believe that it will affect either the BBC's independence or the BBC's income. On his point on administration costs, we understand that hon. Members are rightly concerned about those costs. Everything that needs to be done will be done to keep down those costs.

The hon. Member for Lewes also asked whether claims of arrears would be considered when pensioners had been entitled to the concession but had not known about it. Claims of arrears in such a concession pose various difficulties, especially as they would involve cash refunds. In particular, as I am sure that he will appreciate, retrospective proof of entitlement covering several years will not be straightforward. However, we are willing to consider that issue further in introducing the concession.

Mr. Baker

The Minister's comments underline the need to ensure that the information provided now is as full as possible, so that the situation does not arise. May I also tell her that I renewed my television licence earlier today—in time for this debate—and that there was no mention anywhere on it of the forthcoming change allowing those over 75 to qualify for a free licence? Why is the information not on the television licence itself?

Janet Anderson

I received my television licence, and there were some details—although I cannot remember the exact words—of the concession on it. Nevertheless, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that TV Licensing will be writing to everyone with full details of the concession, including details on the provision of part licences, to ensure that as much information as possible is available as widely as possible.

Hon. Members also asked questions about the reason for the delay in introducing the legislation and in implementing the concession until 1 November. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is important that we get this right and ensure that all those who are entitled to the concession receive it. We therefore have to provide time for the BBC and TV Licensing to prepare for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) raised an issue that I know concerns various hon. Members who have had similar experiences in their own constituencies. The issue is also often raised with us in correspondence. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier in the debate, we have removed one small anomaly in situations in which entitlement to the concession is based on housing provision—namely, in the sheltered housing scheme. Previously, strictly speaking, men over 60 in such a development would have threatened the concession for everyone in that development. We have now said that, in future, the qualifying age for both men and women in such housing will be 60. The change was introduced with the order that increased the television licence fee.

In our response to Davies, and in considering what to do, we have made it plain that, although we accept that the concessionary licence scheme is unfair and unsatisfactory, we believe that to try to tinker around with it would produce only more anomalies. We believe that, by introducing the provision to give free licences to all over-75s, we have started to strip unfairness out of the scheme. We shall look into the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley raised.

From 1 May to 1 November, when the scheme comes in, is a period of six months. Those who will be eligible on 1 November need purchase only a six-month licence.

Mr. Fabricant

I do not want to delay the House, but what will be the arrangement for those who pay by direct debit?

Janet Anderson

I imagine that it will still be possible for them to purchase part-licences, but we shall have to look at the detail. That is one reason for trying to approach the issue in a measured and responsible way, so that we can ensure that pensioners are able to avail themselves of the concessionary scheme in the simplest way possible.

I assure the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) that the scheme is purely for over-75s. Like the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, whose proposed amendment was subsequently withdrawn, he said that it should be possible to apply directly to the Department of Social Security. We decided that such a system would duplicate bureaucracy and administration, and therefore the cost. We thought that it was much simpler to have a unit at one end—at the BBC—that would have the necessary information, rather than having two units.

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) raised a number of points that have already been covered. We did not envisage that one of the likely consequences of the legislation would be to persuade his ageing mother to move in with him, but I am very pleased that she will benefit from the concession and I hope that he will constantly remind her that it was given to her by a Labour Government.

We have dealt with most of the issues and we shall look at the rest in Committee. I am sorry that the right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) took so long on this Bill and the earlier Bill that the House considered, delaying us until this late hour. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border mentioned the way in which criminal records were dealt with at the Home Office. A system that is regarded as proportional for information such as criminal records is not proportional for a national insurance number. We are talking about different kinds of information. I think that most hon. Members accept that the Bill is essential to ensure that pensioners get the concession.

I do not intend to delay the House much longer. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) raised several issues that we can deal with in Committee. I have confirmed the cost and administration implications. I thank the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for his measured and thoughtful response. I hope that he will be able to ensure that Conservative Members facilitate the passage of the Bill. Around 3 million pensioners will benefit from the concession, which was fiercely resisted by the Conservatives when they were in government. We want to ensure that those pensioners benefit as quickly as possible. I look forward to co-operation from all hon. Members to facilitate that. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).