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Television Licences (Old-Age Pensioners)

Volume 640: debated on Monday 8 May 1961

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

10.44 p.m.

A high proportion of the 5½ million old-age pensioners in the country today are exceedingly poor and lonely. Some are entirely house-bound through infirmity and illness, and are living completely on their own. They pass days on end without the sound of a human voice, and the object of my proposal is to pierce this sound barrier for the old, the poor, and the house-bound, and to bring them some comfort in their last years.

What a boon a television set or radio would be in such homes. I know of no man better qualified to describe this than James Roberts, the outstanding and devoted Civic Welfare Director fur the City of Salford. He has said:
"This essential amenity of wireless and television is, in my opinion, the greatest factor for alleviating the trials of loneliness arising so easily in this section of the community, breaking down immediately the barriers of isolation."
I know, too, that television can produce remarkable results in lessening mental depression, morbidity, and even suicidal tendencies. I was going through a mental hospital in Lancashire last week, and I was told by one of the greatest authorities on mental ill-health in our country that he knows the effect that television can have in helping those suffering from mental illness.

One of the most striking and unpleasant features of our society is that those who want a thing most are often the least likely to possess it. This certainly applies to television. To illustrate that, I should like to quote the valuable survey undertaken by Dr. R. C. F. Smith, the medical officer for Sunderland Rural District Council. He visited the homes of 1,000 old-age pensioners out of a total population of 4,000 people. Out of 1,000 homes, how many possessed a television set? Precisely two, and Dr. Smith ascertained that in those two cases the sets had been presented to the people on retirement. Yet television would mean more to the very old than it does even to the very young.

Surely there is something radically wrong with an affluent society if old-age pensioners and the disabled are debarred from enjoying television. I am sure that something is equally wrong if Ministers will not make the small concessions needed to help those two classes to become viewers.

Then let us consider the younger people who are disabled—often permanently—by an accident in the pit, in the workshop or on the building site. Consider, also, those struck down by an incurable illness, and who may never work again. Out of the present amounts of sickness benefit, industrial injuries benefit or National Assistance few can afford to pay the £4 a year which is necessary for a television licence. Yet are not they the very people who would derive the greatest satisfaction from having a television set? In addition, are their families to sacrifice the chance of having television?

It is not generally known that shortly before his death, following a conversation he had with Mr. James Roberts, to whom I have referred, Mr. Gilbert Harding arranged for eight television sets to be installed in the homes of people of very advanced age who were house-bound in Salford. He also agreed to foot the installation costs. It was pointed out to Gilbert Harding that, unfortunately, these old people lacked the means to pay the television licence fees. He said that when the sets had been installed the matter could be discussed again.

It so happened that, in the meantime, Gilbert Harding died, but three weeks later a cheque for £342 arrived from the People, and was sent to the Companionship Circle for the Elderly, a magnificent organisation in Salford which embraces the work of voluntary associations, the local authority and local representatives of Government Departments. But a licence should not be dependent on the charity of a newspaper, however generous.

To illustrate how beneficial television sets are in such cases, I would like to quote what some of these old people wrote after the sets had been installed. A widow of 68 wrote:
"This is to tell you I will not have another lonely winter."
A second widow, aged 80, wrote:
"I enjoyed watching the T.V. last night. I have invited a neighbour."
A third wrote:
"I cannot thank you enough for the wonderful present I have received. What great happiness and pleasure it will bring me in my lonely hours".
A fourth, aged 89, wrote:
"I am hoping to see the ladies dancing tonight. I watched last night for the first time in my life, but it was only football."
Finally, another wrote:
"I am delighted. I usually go to bed at 9 o'clock because I am alone, but last night I stayed up until 12 o'clock."
In many cases organisations provide reconditioned sets, but they know this would be useless unless the funds to pay for the licences are forthcoming. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), who, unfortunately, cannot be here tonight, has asked me to stress that in her area Rotary is providing reconditioned sets for old people, but it is confronted once again with this difficulty of the annual commitment of £4 for the licence.

I would advance an additional argument. These old people have lived very hard lives—much harder than those being lived by young and middle-aged people today, and much harder, we hope, than people will have to live tomorrow. Because of unemployment, excessive hours of work, poverty, and two great wars, they have been robbed of the happiness to which they were entitled during their lifetimes. We are pleading that in their last years these people should be given a little of the pleasure which they have missed up to now. I need hardly add that all the arguments applying to television licences apply equally strongly to wireless licences.

I want to make it clear that what I am asking for is no substitute for a better old-age pension. Old people do not want charity. If there were a reasonable and proper pension there would be no need for what I am seeking tonight. But, especially with the present Government, I fear that it will be a long, long time before this miserable figure of £2 17s. 6d. a week pension is raised to a figure substantial enough to cover a £4 annual television licence fee.

If free licences were granted most of them would cost the Post Office nothing, because additional viewers would not add a penny to the costs of the B.B.C., commercial television, or the Post Office. The Assistant Postmaster-General may argue, "Yes, but we would lose revenue to the Post Office from those old-age pensioners who already possess television licences." My reply is that I will wager that those are precious few. It might be necessary to exclude such people from the free licences.

The alternative method I would suggest is that the programme contractors could well afford to cough up a little out of their fantastic profits of £20 million a year—profits so enormous that even Mr. Norman Collins, the "golden boy of television," referred to them as immoral profits.

There is an important precedent for such a reform by the Post Office. Ever since the early 1920s, when wireless was first introduced, a concession has been made to the blind. They do not have to pay the £1 annual wireless licence. In addition, where television is being used for the benefit of some other member of the household, the annual licence of £4 is reduced to £3. Both these provisions have worked smoothly, successfully and satisfactorily. I do not see why what I am seeking should not operate equally well. It is only an extension of the principle.

I do not know what reply the Assistant Postmaster-General will make. My guess is that her main argument will be that there are grave administrative difficulties. Of course there are. There always will be such difficulties over every reform that is introduced. This was argued against the introduction of free education, of the National Health Service, of unemployment insurance, and against forbidding young children to work in the coal mines. But where there is a will there is a way. The grave administrative difficulties were all overcome and the reforms were established.

I maintain that the same could apply to this if the Government wished to do it. I am proud that this idea originated in the Northern Region Advisory Council of the B.B.C., and I have since found that there has been warm support for the idea wherever it has been broached. Let us hope that this is another idea to spread from the North and capture the imagination of the nation. I am not sufficiently optimistic to think that the Minister will give a definite "Yes" tonight. But it would give millions a gleam of hope if, at least, she will undertake to give the matter further consideration.

10.59 p.m.

It is not my intention to stand between my hon. Friend the Member for Salford East (Mr. Frank Allaun) and the Assistant Postmaster-General for long, but I would like to express appreciation to my hon. Friend for having chosen this subject for debate. I feel sure that there will be thousands of people—the old, infirm and disabled—who will be feeling most grateful to him for having brought this matter to the attention of the Assistant Postmaster-General and the House.

I think that it is generally conceded now that the mass of our people are adjusting themselves with reasonable ease to the changing pattern and tempo of life in our modern society. But there are two groups who are finding it difficult to do so. The first group is the young people and adolescents, and their difficulty springs from the fact that they cannot quite determine what is their place in this new society. The second group is that mentioned by my hon. Friend—the old, the infirm, the disabled and the lonely. Their problem is that they cannot find that there is a place at all for them in this new society. They feel that they are standing on the banks of this stream which is bringing affluence, amenities, pleasure and happiness; they seem, in their isolation, to be standing on the side of that stream.

I read the other day in the Daily Telegraph a report from Blackpool, as follows:
"A new Blackpool home for the blind, now being built at Squires Gate, will have television in the lounge. The old and sick people living there will not be able to see television, but a spokesman explained: 'Without a television set, they would feel out of so many conversations'."
The burden of what my hon. Friend put to the House is that so many of the old people feel that they are out of things and are not part of this new modern society. It would be quite unfair of us to forget that a large amount of good work is being done by many persons of good will and compassion. Many welfare organisations and social societies, such as the women's institutes and women's voluntary societies, are catering for meals and comforts, for example, and the purpose of my hon. Friend tonight is to ask the Minister to do something to help these people and to bring this pleasure into their lives.

There are hundreds of people in Openshaw who are very lonely. The churches send visitors and societies and clubs send them for trips. A number of second-hand television sets are given to some of these old people, but £4 a year is a lot of money for them to find. Some of them have to count their money in threepences and fourpences and £4 a year is a lot of money to them.

My hon. Friend brought to the notice of the House that a recommendation to do this was passed by the North-West Regional Advisory Council of the B.B.C. I know what the hon. Lady's personal view would be in these matters, because I know of her compassion and humanity, but whatever the official decision, may I ask her to convey to her right hon. Friend our desire that he should ask other advisory councils in the other regions to consider this recommendation and to see what can be done in the matter?

I have no doubt that there will be some administrative difficulties, but my experience of the Post Office for well over forty-five years has been that throughout that period they have been up against administrative difficulties and have overcome them. I hope that the hon. Lady will convey our views and our request to her right hon. Friend that he should give serious and sympathetic consideration to the matter raised by my hon. Friend tonight.

11.4 p.m.

We all welcome this debate on the needs of the old and the needy in our society and we welcome the warmth and sincerity with which hon. Members have expressed their views. All of us want to see every section of the community share in our increasing prosperity and see that we give to every section the best possible standard of living.

I do not wish to deny the great benefits which television can bring to the old, the needy, the sick, the lonely and others who are afflicted in any way. From my own experience as a welfare worker before I came to the House, and from my experience as a Member, I could give examples, such as hon. Members have given, of the very great benefit which this medium can give in interest, entertainment and education to those who are old, bedridden, or needy in any way.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) said that possibly this problem would not arise if everybody could have the level of retirement pension which would enable them to provide these things for themselves; but I would remind him that the Government have pledged themselves to ensuring that they would try to share the increased prosperity throughout the community and to give help where that help was most needed.

I would remind him that, under this Government, the pension has been increased no fewer than four times, to as much as 90 per cent. more; that it is worth 17s. a week more in real terms than it was ten years ago. The Government hope that this increase will go forward, and we have to remember that, apart from retirement pensions, disablement pensions and widows' pensions are all worth more; and Income Tax allowances for dependants and the elderly have all been increased. We have carried out our pledge and we are trying to give help where there is the greatest need.

I would also remind the hon. Gentleman that there has been a very marked increase in the general prosperity of the nation, with increased wages and earnings, which, it is important to remember, are higher in real terms. All these things are much higher in real terms than in the past, and so it is with retirement pensions. A large proportion of our people who are on these pensions, or are disabled, have other resources; they possibly have occupational pensions, or are living with families that are becoming increasingly prosperous and whose real standard of living is rising all the time.

It is for these reasons that I would suggest the category is a good deal smaller than the hon. Gentleman indicated. That does not mean that the need does not exist in some cases; it does, but to give the sort of help asked for, means that we must have an easily identifiable category. It would be difficult to define such a category of need without a test of means, which none of us would wish to see. To grant this concession to all disablement and retirement pensioners and disabled people would be indiscriminate and, therefore, wasteful and expensive.

One could quote the example of the old mother or father living with a family. Possibly such a person's only source of income would be the retirement pension, but the resources of the family, being reasonably prosperous, would be such that the cost of the wireless or television licence was no real hardship. As we all know, there are other categories of people on small fixed incomes; lonely people, and those who would otherwise come in this indefineable category. A large category such as the hon. Member suggests would lead to abuse which could bring the whole system into disrepute. That might very well happen if we brought in all those people and, furthermore, the cost would be considerable.

The hon. Member said that there were more than 5½ million people on retirement pensions, but we estimate that, with the disabled, there are about 6 million. That would break down into about 4½ million family units and, assuming that half of those had wireless or television sets, the cost would be about £9 million. If radio licences were included, they would add another £2 million, and this £11 million represents 22 per cent. of the whole of the revenue obtained at present from radio and television licences.

That revenue, going, as it does, 100 per cent. to the B.B.C—apart from administrative costs that we collect in the Post Office for doing the job, as it were, for the B.B.C.—would have to be made up for the B.B.C. That would possibly mean increased licence charges for the rest of the community. I would suggest to hon. Members that to do that would possibly bring great hardship to that category of persons I have mentioned; the persons living on small fixed incomes, widows with families, and people living in very difficult circumstances.

Our difficulty would be, if we gave this concession, to know where to draw the line. My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General is frequently pressed in the House to give concessions in postal rates to charitable organisations. We are pressed to give concessions in telephone rates in hospitals. One can readily think of a large number of categories of people which, once the door was open, could possibly come into the category of need such as has been described tonight.

I am, therefore, sorry that this suggestion cannot be accepted by my right hon. Friend. He, like myself, readily accepts the strength of the hon. Member's arguments, and the warmth of their sincerity and sympathy. We are North Country people as well, and we want to do what we can to help those in need, but we feel that the better way is to concentrate all our help in assisting where the need is greatest, and not to give aid in this indiscriminate and wasteful way. To use resources in such a way would mean that there was less to apply where the need is the greatest.

As I say, we feel that the better way of trying to discharge our obligations to society, of trying to discharge our obligations to those elderly people, and those who are lonely and afflicted in any way and who are the responsibility of the nation as a whole, is to continue always to ensure that where we give our help, we concentrate it where there is the greatest need, and not to dissipate it by large-scale measures of this kind which, as I have repeated, so often, could be too wasteful and too indiscriminate.

That does not mean that we do not look with the greatest sympathy on this particular case, or that we do not recognise the tremendous help and benefit that television can bring into the lives of these people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.