HC Deb 27 October 2003 vol 412 cc134-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]

10.28 pm
Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise this important subject in the House this evening. The timing is opportune, as we will soon have a pre-Budget statement and I want to put down a marker not just to my right hon. Friend the Minister but to the Chancellor about considering ending the crazy anomalies that have existed with television licence concessions since the 1950s.

I want to refer to an anomaly in my constituency in the village of Stonehouse, where those in 30 houses that were built as sheltered accommodation, along with some mainstream housing in the South Lanarkshire council area, are being denied what I argue is their right to concessionary licences. That injustice should be redressed. Before I come to the McLean gardens complex, I want to broaden my appeal to seeking the Minister's views on lobbying the Treasury to end the many injustices suffered by the elderly in the autumn of their lives.

TV licence concessions originated at the beginning of the 1950s, when BBC postal services gave concessions. The scheme grew and local authorities also gave concessions. The first concessionary scheme for the elderly was put on a statutory basis in 1969 and grew out of those gestures by Post Office officials in the 1950s. Local authorities throughout the country gave pensioners and disabled people concessions to help them to pay their television licences. Indeed, when I served on a hung council in Newark and Sherwood district council, I remember that the Labour group negotiated a budget to give £25 to pensioners and disabled people. I think that £25 in 1980 would be commensurate with the cost of a TV licence today, which is £116.

I have pressed this Government and the previous one for years to end the anomalies in the system by introducing free TV licences for all pensioners. Since 1997, I have supported the Government's drive to prioritise pensioner poverty through measures such as the minimum income guarantee, the winter fuel allowance and the pension tax credit. The introduction of free television licences for the over-75s was most welcome but it is now time to go the extra mile and agree to free TV licences for all our elderly people.

We have come a long way since the Annan report in 1977, which argued the case for ending the concession altogether. It suggested that the best way to get rid of anomalies would be to make pensioners and disabled people pay, so we have come down a long road since then. During the 16 years for which I have been a Member, I and many other hon. Members have lobbied against the many anomalies associated with TV licence concessions. Every time we solve one anomaly, we seem to engage in further debate on other anomalies that are exposed. We should end the injustice now, and I invite the Minister to support me on that this evening.

I want to talk about McLean gardens in the village of Stonehouse in my constituency. The problems there have been ongoing since 1997 when the television licensing authority refused to grant concessionary licences to its residents. I gave my right hon. Friend the Minister a copy of a plan of McLean gardens because I was going to refer to it in my speech, but I compliment her and her staff on their research because I understand that she had already seen the plan—I am delighted about that. I am sorry, however, that other hon. Members and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, do not have a copy.

The McLean gardens complex was purpose-built to accommodate people who needed sheltered accommodation and warden care. The forward-thinking South Lanarkshire council purposely intermingled 15 units of normal mainstream housing with 30 units of purpose-built sheltered accommodation. That was the council's positive step toward being socially inclusive, rather than excluding the elderly from the community, and I am sure that that will be much applauded. However, although the measure represented progress and a way forward that we could all take, the result of the council's forward thinking was that the licensing authority has withdrawn the concession to my constituents.

I received a letter dated 8 October from the director of housing and technical resources that supports my case. He said: As you are aware this matter has been ongoing since 1998 when the TV Licensing Authority refused to grant a concessionary licence to the residents in McLean Gardens, Stonehouse. The Licensing Authority's primary reasons appear to relate to the fact that the warden does not provide a service to all of the units and that the properties must be seen to be contained within the common inclusive boundary. If the Minister looks at the plan, she will see that the warden's flat is in the centre of the complex, built on to a group of four houses. Those four houses get the TV licensing concession, which proves how ridiculous the situation is for people in the rest of the complex.

The director went on to say: I would advise you that Housing Services contacted the Licensing Centre in March 2001 appealing the decision to exclude the residents of McLean Gardens from the scheme. In our submission we advised that McLean Gardens was purposely built as a Sheltered Housing Complex and that all housing services are provided. He stated: Additionally we advised that the complex was constructed in such a way as to intersperse sheltered homes with mainstream accommodation. The belief being that this would ensure that the elderly would have every chance to maintain their position as an integral part of the community and not face the very real possibility of social exclusion. He then said: It is also true to say that I have been very disappointed in the stance of the BBC Licensing Authority to date in this matter. I ask my right hon. Friend to press the licensing authority to reconsider its decision on McLean gardens.

Some 80 per cent. of residents in sheltered accommodation throughout the country are over 75. We are not talking about a king's ransom to end the injustice—far from it. I hope for a sympathetic response and should like the Minister to make representations to the licensing authority to address the injustice at McLean gardens.

10.38 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) on securing the debate. All hon. Members, irrespective of their party, will find his words familiar. We all have constituency examples of how the awarding of concessionary television licences does not make sense. Many people feel aggrieved when they think that they have a right to a concessionary TV licence and do not get one. As Members of Parliament, we have all fought cases to win concessionary licences for our constituents, and more often than not we have lost rather than won.

My hon. Friend asked me to sympathise with the position of his constituents in McLean gardens in Stonehouse, and I do. I cannot offer an explanation that would make coherent sense to his residents. I have looked at the map. The people who live in those units of accommodation know that they are elderly and that it is sheltered housing. They understand why they are there and will not see themselves as different from people who live in sheltered accommodation in other parts of my hon. Friend's constituency.

I can also see that, in its policy, the local authority was brave and, perhaps, right not to make ghettoes for elderly people but ensure that they were integrated into mainstream community life. On that level, I sympathise with my hon. Friend's constituents but, and this is the case that I want to make today, I can sympathise also with the licensing authority, which is trying to make sense of a situation that we would probably not get into if we started from scratch.

I do not want to go through the entire history of the concessionary licence, but it was originally available to people in residential accommodation. We all knew what residential accommodation was; everybody knew that it made sense. It was what, in the old days, we called old people's homes, and nobody could walk past one without knowing what it was. Time moved on and society changed, and we thought that it was right to give people their independence as far as we could. That is when sheltered accommodation came of age, and it was right that it should do so.

I thank my hon. Friend for making me learn about this because I had not understood the origin of the anomalies. When the legislation was originally drafted, local authorities sought to put into the concessionary licence scheme units of accommodation that no one in the House, not even the authority's own MP, would justify being there. For example, a rent collector was deemed to be providing a communal service. I do not think that any of us believes that a rent collector collects rent only from people over 60 or 65. If accommodation had a common room, that was deemed by some local authorities to make it a communal provision.

Twenty or 30 years ago, local authorities were, quite simply, exploiting the system. They were acting in what they thought were the best interests of their constituents, but they were exploiting the system. As my hon. Friend will know, there was a need to draw up criteria that would include those people whom we wanted to include but exclude those who ought not to be included. That proved nigh on impossible. Decade after decade, as he said, attempts have been made to define sheltered accommodation so that its characteristics are as similar as possible to those of residential accommodation, which was the source of the concession. That is the challenge.

I shall briefly list those criteria because they need to be put on the record. Sheltered accommodation has to meet all the following tests. It must form part of a group of at least four dwellings within a common and exclusive boundary. It must be provided for occupation by disabled persons, mentally disordered persons—that is an old-fashioned phrase now—or retired persons aged 60 years or more. It must be provided or managed by a local authority, a housing association or a development, and it must have a person, such as a warden, whose function it is to care for the needs of the residents and who either lives on site or works there for at least 30 hours a week.

My hon. Friend's constituents seem to be falling foul of two of those criteria. First, as he said, they do not all have a warden. Secondly, they do not have common and exclusive boundaries.

Mr. Hood

I am sorry if I have led my right hon. Friend to believe that not all the residents have a warden; that is not the case. The warden services all 30 households on the complex equally, not just the four houses on to which her flat has been built.

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend has not misled me at all. He made that clear. There was a lack of clarity in my phrasing of the situation, and I am glad that he has put that right.

In this case, there are 30 units of accommodation. I can see that one warden can provide a service for all those units, and do so reasonably well. But what happens if there are 50, 60 or even 156 units? What happens if the council claims that one warden, attached to one of the units, is providing a service for the other 155 units?

I know that that is not the situation in my hon. Friend's constituency, but it demonstrates the difficulty of drawing boundaries. I have looked at the plan of the complex and I deem, as he would, that any warden living there can offer a service to all his constituents living there. However, I urge him to accept that making law and regulations to include certain constituents but exclude the rest is nigh on impossible.

Mr. Hood

I know that my right hon. Friend is not looking for excuses to justify the unjustifiable, but the council did not build a complex of 45 houses, including 30 units of sheltered accommodation, to deal with the television licence issue but because it was a good and sensible thing to do. Local authorities have a legal responsibility to service people in need of sheltered accommodation and care. If my right hon. Friend does not mind my saying so, it is like chasing rainbows.

Estelle Morris

I take my hon. Friend's point, but the fact is that regulations were drawn up following abuse by local authorities that tried to include in the scheme units of accommodation that should not have been included. Our debate demonstrates the difficulty of getting a set of criteria that includes people who should have a concessionary licence and excludes people who should not.

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention, although perhaps I should not, to a group of people who would never qualify—pensioners under 75 on low incomes who do not live in sheltered accommodation? Whatever we do about concessionary allowances for people with disabilities and pensioners, we constantly come across anomalies. The problem with the present scheme is that we are trying to define a group of people with a shared need according to the houses or accommodation in which they live, which is nonsensical and illogical. If we were starting from scratch and said that we would like to give financial help to a group of people who are old or disabled and are on low incomes, have served their community and could be socially excluded if they do not have access to television, nobody in their right mind would want to define the houses that they live in before giving them a concessionary licence. Whoever responds to such a debate in the House and whoever introduces it will end up with that problem.

Mr. Hood


Estelle Morris

I do not like not taking interventions in an Adjournment debate, but I shall give way to my hon. Friend and then deal with his solution to the problem.

Mr. Hood

Perhaps I am pre-empting my right hon. Friend's response, but my solution was to give concessionary TV licences to all the elderly.

Estelle Morris

In an ideal world in which our Treasury colleagues are even more generous than normal, I would agree. In some ways, that would be a preferable solution, because the concessionary licence fee is subsidised by other licence payers. It is paid for by the BBC from its settlement, and is administered, as my hon. Friend knows, by the licensing authority acting on behalf of the BBC, not by the Government. To make things clear for my hon. Friend's constituents, under the criteria that I set out, the licensing authority has no discretion whatsoever. If it had, it would be making up the law as it went along, resulting in appeals and judicial reviews. The matter would come back to the House, which would be difficult. The funding for concessionary licences for the over-75s introduced by the Government comes from taxpayers or Treasury money. Those of us who pay income tax on higher incomes subsidise free licences for the over-75s. I believe that that is a better and fairer way of dealing with the issue. I know how assiduous my hon. Friend has been in fighting for support for pensioners, who are usually on a lower income, and for an end to pensioner poverty. He was generous enough to recognise the work that the Government have done.

The decision to give the free licence to those over 75 may seem arbitrary. Why not give it to those over 70 or over 65? The average income of pensioners over 75 was £19 a week lower than that of pensioners under 75, so we have done right by targeting the pensioners in greatest need. The Treasury moved in the right direction by targeting that group of pensioners. As a result, 3.8 million people now get free licences. The concessionary scheme, about which my hon. Friend and I have been arguing, only ever helped 650,000 people. With one generous move from the Treasury and a huge commitment from the Labour Government, 3.8 million people now get free licences, as opposed to 650,000 who paid £5.

Of course, it would be possible to extend the scheme to the over-70s, the over-65s or the over-60s. We could bring the age further and further down. It is a matter of judgment for the Treasury how it spends the money that we collect from the people whom we represent. If we extended the free licence scheme to the over-60s, the total cost would be £956 million. If it were extended to all households with someone over 65, it would cost £836 in total. If all households with someone over 70 were eligible, the cost would be £616 million in total. By giving a free licence to the over-75s, we have undertaken a huge financial commitment, which has helped more than 3.8 million people. We have made a start.

My hon. Friend made a powerful case for a system for helping our pensioners, who tend to be on lower incomes and are at risk of social exclusion. The television is often their sole companion, especially during the cold, dark nights. He knows that I am not in a position to commit the Government, but I undertake to make his views known to the Treasury. All I ask in return is that he explain as best he can that his constituents in McLean gardens are on the rough end of a fairly tricky piece of legislation. It offers them no money and no concession, but I can hope only that the debate makes them feel that somebody understands their plight, and that they have an MP who has argued robustly on their behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.