HC Deb 28 February 2000 vol 345 cc3-5
2. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

When he proposes that the free television licence for those aged 75 years and over will start. [110597]

3. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What is the starting date for the television licence concession for those aged 75 years and over; and if he will make a statement. [110598]

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

As I announced in my statement to the House on the future funding of the BBC on 21 February, free television licences for people aged 75 or over will come into force from 1 November this year.

Let me take this opportunity to correct a misimpression that I may have inadvertently given the House last Monday. I indicated then that a copy of the Pannell Kerr Forster report on the finances of the BBC was being placed in the Library of the House. In fact, a copy of the summary and conclusions of the report was being so placed, because the body of the report contains commercially confidential information. I apologise for any erroneous impression that I may have given.

Mr. Winnick

Is not the issuing of free television licences for those aged 75 and over a good illustration of what we do in office and what the Tories refused to do—that is, try to help people? Is it not better to be motivated by the wish to help people than to be motivated by simple personal ambition—naming no names for the moment?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a long and honourable record of campaigning on the issue in the House. According to the figures from the latest census—which, unfortunately, was held nearly 10 years ago—there were 5,930 people aged over 75 in his constituency at that time. The number has almost certainly increased since then, and I am sure that many thousands of his constituents will be very pleased about what the Government are doing.

Mr. Prentice

Meanwhile, 6,500 of my constituents will be celebrating the introduction of this hugely popular policy.

Yesterday, when I was canvassing in a Lancashire county council by-election—[Interruption.] I do not need to register anything. When I was canvassing, a number of pensioners said to me, "Is this not just age discrimination?" I replied, "You will be 75 one day."

Nevertheless, why should such a hugely popular policy involve a cut-off at 75? Why should it not apply to all pensioner households?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend should address part of his question to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, it should be pointed out that as pensioners reach a more advanced age they tend to become less mobile, to spend more time at home and, indeed, to spend more time watching television. At that point—the point at which they reach the age of 75—television becomes more important in their lives, which is why we thought it appropriate to take this step.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

The Secretary of State is trying to pass the blame on to the Chancellor. Is it not the Secretary of State's responsibility that, from April, pensioners who are under the age of 75 will have to pay a television licence tax double the rate of inflation? Is that not totally unfair? Can he explain why he did not disclose the whole of the Pannell Kerr Forster report? Is not the truth that it was politically embarrassing and that is why the Government have not disclosed it? If it is so commercially sensitive, why is it that leaks can be put in The Sunday Times, for example, telling us that there are 200 profit centres within the BBC—information that is not available in the summary of the report, but which apparently is suitable for leaking?

Mr. Smith

No, I cannot accept any of that. The measures that we have put in place will, over the next six to seven years, provide the BBC with a modest and regular increase in its funding to enable it to maintain and improve its position as our premier public service broadcaster. That is one of the reasons I am encouraging the BBC to ensure, for example, that it makes more new programmes and broadcasts fewer repeats. That is one of the things that I expect to result from the measures that we have put in place.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

At the risk of intruding on the Secretary of State's love-in with at least one of his Back Benchers, may I ask him to explain why he has done nothing to address the anomaly whereby people aged between 60 and 74 who are in sheltered accommodation receive concessions on what they have to pay for their television licences, and people of those ages who are not in sheltered accommodation do not? Does he not agree that the fact that people are in sheltered accommodation is no guarantee of what their income really is?

Mr. Smith

I hate to point out to the hon. Gentleman that, throughout the 18 years or more that the Conservatives were in government, they did absolutely nothing—not even the admirable measure that we are taking in relation to the over-75s. We looked carefully, as did the Davies committee, at the concession for people in sheltered accommodation. We thought it right to keep it in place because it would not be sensible to remove a concession that was already there, but we did not feel that it was appropriate at this stage to go further.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Will my right hon. Friend answer a query that has been raised by a number of pensioners in my constituency? Has he given any thought to what will happen to pensioners who have to renew their television licences just before the free licences come in? Will they be entitled to a rebate? If so, will the Government ensure that they are informed about how to apply to get their money refunded?

Mr. Smith

Yes. If the television licence of anyone who will be 75 or over on 1 November falls due after 1 April, they will be able to apply for a part-year licence up to 1 November so they do not have to purchase the entire year's licence. If anyone has already purchased a full year's licence, some of which will be unexpired on 1 November, they will be entitled to a refund. We will ensure that all the details of the scheme are made available directly to everyone who will qualify.

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