I beg to move,
It is difficult to imagine a more emollient motion for a Supply day. The motion makes three modest requests, which are all easily within the Government's power. First, it asks the Government to acceptThat this House supports the view of the Director-General designate of the British Broadcasting Corporation that "some way has to be found of relieving pensioners of paying full television licence fees annually"; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to consult with organisations that represent pensioners and their interest so as to determine the best way in which a concession can be provided, and to report its conclusions to this House within six months.
Secondly, it asks the Government to consult pensioners' organisations on how such a concession could be organised. Thirdly, it asks the Government"that 'some way has to be found of relieving pensioners of paying full television licence fees'".
Bearing in mind the sheer modesty of the proposals, we are left baffled by the Government's obduracy in refusing even to contemplate them. The need for a concession seems obvious and overwhelming. The obvious and overwhelming argument for a concession will not be diminished by the Home Secretary telling us that the pension is upgraded each November to take account of the increased costs that pensioners have suffered in the preceding year. The pension may be upgraded next November, but the increased licence fee must be paid now. On the Opposition Benches and, I believe, outside the House there is no faith in the willingness of the Government fully and honestly to recompense pensioners by restoring the full value of their pension, taking account of what they have lost during the previous 12 months. It is well known, although the Government continue to deny it, that at least 3 per cent. has been deducted from the pensioner's proper increase this year. That amounts to about £61 for a married couple, which is more than a full television licence fee. Surely a retrospective adjustment is necessary. We believe—it is a belief that is clearly not shared by the Government—that television is the only sustained pleasure for many retirement pensioners. It is their single regular contact with the outside world. I appreciate that the same argument can be advanced for the chronically sick and disabled, but today, believing that the chains of Marley's ghost have not yet clanked loud enough in 10 Downing Street, we ask the Government to repent over only one issue, and that is the retirement pensioner. Therefore, the motion is limited to the pensioner. We know from experience that for many retirement pensioners a fee of virtually £1 a week is more than they can reasonably afford. I concede at once, as did the director-general designate in the broadcast to which the motion refers, that the Government have recently extended the various easy payments systems which have been introduced for paying licence fees. No doubt those systems will help some, but they will not help the poorer pensioners who cannot afford to pay £1 a week any more than they can afford to pay £46 a year. There will be double inconvenience and double disadvantage if, as is the case, they are required to pay next year's licence now. Easy payments systems are always designed for licence fees to be paid by the poor in instalments, but in advance. The House will recall that in April 1978 the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), announced a major extension of the pensioner's concession. A year after that extension was announced we proposed, in the Labour Party's election manifesto, to continue the process that had been begun. We proposed that the phasing out of the licence fee for pensioners should be carried out within the life of the then forthcoming Parliament. We call upon the Government not to implement that policy, but—we make a more modest request—to recognise that the pensioner can be helped in some way. It seems hardly credible in the House—it seems extraordinary outside—that a modest request for an inquiry to ascertain whether pensioners can be helped should be dismissed out of hand. We accept that in an ideal world no concession would be necessary. In that ideal world the pension would be sufficient to allow for the normal payment for the licence fee and for everything else without hardship. It is the ambition of all to ensure that pensioners receive a pension that enables them to receive all the benefits that the rest of us enjoy without any concessions, but we are very far away from an ideal world, and in the world that we inhabit we are getting further and further away from the ideals that I have described. Indeed, the Government are doing all that they can to diminish the pension increase year by year. It is no less than effrontery for the Government to table an amendment that talks about the real answer to the pensioners' problem being"to report its conclusions to this House within six months".
The Government have done less than virtually any other Government in the past 15 years to stick to that principle."the maintenance of the real value of the retirement pension."
If the right hon. Gentleman, with his normal command of statistics, wishes to argue about the 3 per cent. shortfall and the £61 being deducted from pensioners, I shall be delighted to take issue with him. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman's trembling was an indication that he was about to intervene. It seems that I was mistaken. I look forward to learning what he has to sayThe Opposition feel strongly that, in an ideal world, the retirement pension should be high enough to prevent the necessity for concessions. However, in the world that we presently inhabit, regrettably, the pension is not large enough to allow that to happen. Hence, the need for concessionary fares and rent rebates. The Opposition believe that it is only reasonable to extend the same principle, the same help and the same modicum of assistance until pensions can be raised to a level that makes such concessions unnecessary. The Opposition are asking for further help for pensioners. We offer the Government some suggestions about how the revenue may be raised to help to meet the cost of this concession without increasing public spending. If the Labour Party were in the Government's position, it might feel that the economy demanded some public spending increases to finance such a concession. I shall argue this case in the Government's terms to make their rejection of the motion seem all the more extraordinary. I shall offer the Government some suggestions as to how they can meet the shortfall in the licence fee revenue which would be the result of pension concessions. I accept without qualification that the BBC needs to receive the equivalent of the income which the £46 licence fee will produce. One might argue, as I do, that the BBC made a good case for a £50 licence fee. I wish not to reduce the funds paid to the BBC, but to change the way in which they are collected. I wish the collection of the licence fee to continue in much the same form as now. I do not wish the Government to be responsible for funding the BBC. I believe that the licence fee is necessary to preserve the proper independence of the BBC, but there are significant disadvantages in financing the BBC through what amounts to a poll tax which falls equally on all television subscribers, rich and poor alike. I do not believe that the best interests of the BBC are served by a poll tax. That point was made with some force by the director-general designate when I spoke to him yesterday. If we go on collecting the licence fee at a single rate, the time will eventually come—perhaps it has come already—when not enough will be collected properly to finance the BBC, because it will be felt to bear too heavily upon the poor and therefore the licence fee and the overall intake will be artificially held down. I repeat, the same amount of revenue should be collected, but in different ways. I offer the Home Secretary some ways in which this might be done. First, it is a scandal that television sets are being used all over the country for commercial purposes without those who own, use and profit from them paying a penny towards the licence fee and the upkeep of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I was told yesterday by the British Tourist Authority that there are at least 300,000 television sets in hotel bedrooms. As a hotel needs to take out only a single licence, virtually none of those sets attracts a licence fee. I take one example. The Savoy hotel has rather more than 200 bedrooms and rather more than 200 television sets. I was reliably informed by that hotel this morning that it charges £85 per night for a double room. If it paid a proper licence fee for each of its television sets, the cost of a room would be increased by a little under 13p per night. I believe that the Savoy hotel could be required to pay a licence fee for each set without a deeply detrimental effect on the tourist trade or on any of the other matters that are wheeled out by vested interests as arguments for commercial organisations getting away scot-free. I believe that there should be a commercial licence. If it were levied at the present rate on those 300,000 television sets, it would raise about £15 million. I go further. I believe that the commercial licence fee should be higher than the domestic fee. If a person owns a television set that is used for his own commercial purposes and profit, he should clearly pay more to the Government for the licence than should the family watching television at home. I go still further. I would not limit this to hotels. There are organisations all over the country with dozens—perhaps hundreds—of television sets on their premises, ranging from the Shell building across the Thames to the Palace of Westminister, where I understand we pay a single licence fee. That is preposterous. Such people should pay a fee for each set, and I believe that they should pay more than the individual family at home. Such a system would, of course, produce much complaint and a little inconvenience to some commercial organisations, but it would produce the revenue to subsidise the pensioners. I believe that an enhanced fee for all commercial use would produce as much as £50 million. That would be a start—but only a start. I offer a further suggestion. We are trying not to lay down rules but to concentrate the Home Secretary's mind on matters which he might examine. A further suggestion for raising more revenue for the BBC is an exchange of income between the BBC and the commercial companies. If we gave the IBA 20 per cent. of the licence income, the IBA would have the power and influence that it desperately needs but does not have. If it had this money to spend on programmes through programme companies, it would have the teeth that many of us wish it to have. In return, the programme companies could be required to give 20 per cent. of their advertising revenue to the BBC. The extra revenue would give the BBC the strength, power and general income to make it far easier for it to allow a reduced licence fee to pensioners without detriment to its own organisation.
I do not ask the right hon. Gentleman to reveal a private conversation, but did he discuss this with the director-general designate of the BBC and, if so, what was his reaction?
No; that matter was not discussed with the director-general designate. The hon. Gentleman need not worry that he is intruding into a private conversation. Had it been a private conversation, it would not have been mentioned in the debate and the director-general designate's views would not have been broadcast on television and radio on Friday or have appeared in the motion. The proposal was put to me by other authorities on broadcasting, if I may so describe them, but in this respect at least the director-general designate is free of any guilt.It is possible that, even with a substantial amount from the levy and a commercial licence at an increased rate, there might still not be enough to provide the concession for pensioners that I seek. I repeat the view expressed last week by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack). I believe that if there were still a shortfall, most families in this country would be prepared to contribute a little more in their licence fee to give the pensioners a fair deal, if that were the only way to do it. I believe that it would be right for the Government to suggest that, and that the response would be overwhelming. I hope that in moving the Government amendment the Home Secretary will not exaggerate how much such a concession would cost or how great the increased contribution of other viewers would have to be if it were allowed. I know that the size of both the concession and the increase in other licence fees which might be involved depend to some extent on how the concession is calculated and who it is thought should receive it. The motion deliberately makes no attempt to commit the Government to a scheme which might frighten off their more timid supporters. We are asking the Government to examine all possibilities in good faith and with good will and to report their conclusions. We concede at once that, however it is organised, any scheme to extend the concessions allowed to pensioners is bound to include anomalies—some real, and some apparent. Some pensioners who it is popularly believed should not receive the concession will receive it, while others who it is popularly believed should receive it will not. The Government cannot argue with any conviction that the objection to any scheme that we propose must be the anomalies which might be involved. If any scheme is anomalous and causes great anguish, anger and concern as a result, it is the present system of concessions for old-age pensioners. I think that all hon. Members would agree that perhaps the third or fourth most regular subject of their constituency mail is that raised by the pensioner who points out that a friend, a contemporary, a relation or a neighbour receives a concession while he does not. On 5 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) told the House of a block of flats in his constituency in which
The system whereby pensioners currently pay for their television licences is riddled with anomalies. One is the definition of what is appropriate property. Another is the distinction between local authorities which help pensioners—Clay Cross and Rotherham are first-class examples, but there are many others—and local authorities which do not. Every hon. Member must have had large quantities of correspondence from pensioners saying that they are badly treated because others who are identical in every circumstance receive concessions while they do not."a pensioner living in a ground floor flat … receives the concession but a pensioner, in exactly the same circumstances and of the same age, living in the flat above can be denied it".—[Official Report, 5 March 1981; Vol. 1000, c. 406.]
Will the right hon. Gentleman also define exactly what he means by a pensioner? Does he include Mr. Harold Macmillan? Does he mean every male over the age of 65 and every female over the age of 60? Does he include people on early pensions? Is any kind of means test involved? How do we distinguish the case of the family in which a pensioner lives? It seems important to define what he means.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not imagine for a moment that I did not intend to deal with the subject of qualifying categories. I shall come to that in a moment. When I speculate as to what those categories might be, however, it seems clear that in any concessionary scheme some people will receive a concession that they do not need. I need only to recall the Home Secretary's comment a few weeks ago, that if there were a concession for all pensioners my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition would already be receiving it and he himself would receive it soon. I take it that the Home Secretary looks forward to receiving a free bus pass in a month or two. Despite the implication that he did not need it, I am not suggesting that he should not receive it. It is in the nature of the provision of welfare that sometimes it is received by people who do not need it. I regret that should be so, but I shall explain why we need it. It is one of the things that we have to face, one of the crosses we have to bear, one of the bullets on which we have to bite.Before I move on to that aspect, I shall try to define the categories of persons who should receive the concession. There will be some anomalies, but there are anomalies in the present system, and they cannot be advanced as reasons for preserving the present system. Who should receive the concession, and how much would it cost? The usual calculation is based on 6 million pensioner households. Full exemption for all those households would cost £230 million. That is the equivalent of a £69 licence fee for the rest of us if no household with a pensioner were required to pay for a television licence. The Opposition asks the Home Secretary not to phase out the pensioners' licence fee, but to look for concessions. I note that the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) is in his place. He will obviously be advocating the total abolition of pensioners' licence fees, because that was in the manifesto on which he fought the general election. I know that the Social Democratic Party believes, above all, in sticking to the manifesto. Therefore, I look to him for a robust demand for his election pledge to be fulfilled. I am asking the Government not to abolish the licence fee for pensioners but to examine the alternatives. I concede that if it were phased out completely, there would be a £69 licence fee for all families if the Government made no allowance for the commercial fee or for a contribution from the IBA levy. I hope that the Secretary of State will not quote the £69 fee and the £230 million total. If he is anxious and determined to help pensioners, he can evolve schemes which, allowing for the commercial fee and the contribution from the IBA levy, would make a smaller demand on the licence fee in general. For example, I would welcome as a small step in the right direction a simple exemption for households where the pensioner is the head of the household and responsible for the bills, and subsists on a pension. In short, the rich or the fairly rich young married couple who had a parent living with them would not necessarily be exempt, but an elderly woman who had a single daughter living with her and looking after her would be exempt. I accept that that is not a perfect distinction—there will be some anomalies—but it would absolve from payment a large number of households—perhaps 4 million—in which the retirement pensioner had the prime responsibility for paying the bills and managing the limited money. It would provide a good deal of help for people who desperately needed it. I believe—and I hope the House believes—that while television may be a pleasure for some of us, and perhaps a flippant pleasure on some occasions, for old-age pensioners with little money to spend, confined to their homes, unable to enjoy other pleasures and with no opportunity to go out, it is a near necessity.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that under the previous Labour Government I tried to introduce a Private Member's Bill to relieve the institutes for deaf people of the need to pay the licence fee? That would have cost the Treasury £10,000 but the Government refused to give that concession to those people. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that deaf people do not consider television as vital to them as it is to pensioners? How can he defend the rejection of £10,000 for deaf people, but ask the House to support £200 million for pensioners?
If the hon. Gentleman had followed my perhaps over-convoluted argument, he would recall that I was not defending the £200 million. I was urging the Home Secretary not to quote that figure because my scheme—or a scheme—would cost much less. If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the beginning of my speech—I am sure that he was, but I cannot recall—he would remember two other things.First, I gladly conceded that a wide spectrum of people could benefit under such a scheme. However, today we make a narrow call on the Government, in the obviously mistaken hope that they will respond to it. Secondly, I told the House that the Government in which I served made substantial progress in this matter. We advocated concessions. I do not think that we are subject to legitimate criticism for not going far enough. I ask the Government to look at the ways in which necessitous pensioners can be helped to enjoy one of the few things that provide them with certain and continuing enjoyment. My scheme—or any scheme—would involve some anomalies and administrative costs. It would involve industry paying a fraction more for television reception. It would involve the concession going to some people who did not need it, but it would bring such happiness and end much anguish for pensioners. Therefore the Government ought to agree to our modest request to examine the possibility of concessions. I am astonished, and many hon. Members will be ashamed, that the Government will not do that. No doubt many people outside will be horrified at the hard-faced way in which the Government have responded to our wholly moderate and reasonable motion.
I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:
The House will recall that we had a short discussion on 1 December following my statement announcing increases in the television licence fees to £46 for colour and £15 for monochrome. Since those increases have given rise to this afternoon's Supply Day debate, I think it right that the House should bear in mind the nature and purpose of those increases. It is my firm belief that the licence fee system, for all its difficulties, is the best available method of financing the services which the BBC provides and for securing the independence of the corporation. I welcome the fact that this view commands wide support, particularly from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). In reaching the decision I announced two weeks ago, I considered it to be my duty as Home Secretary to strike a balance between the financial needs of the BBC and what is was fair and reasonable to ask licence fee payers to pay in present economic circumstances. I also saw it as my responsibility to do what I could to make the licence fee system work in the way that it should work. Its value lies in the way in which it distances the Government from the day-to-day affairs of the corporation and also in the way it enables the BBC to plan ahead. This value is greatly diminished if the BBC has to come each year to the Government asking for an increase in the fees. That is why I decided on an increase to last for at least three years. My intention is that the fees will be pegged at least until December 1984. The increased fees will be taken into account in next year's uprating of pensions. Thereafter, until December 1984 at the earliest, although there will be increases in pensions in line with inflation, I intend there to be no increase in the television licence fees. I believe that there is a broad measure of agreement both with my three-year approach to the licence fee settlement and with the actual level of fee increases that I decided. Even at the new levels, the television licence fees continue to give extremely good value for money. They represent a cost of less than 90p per week for colour and less than 30p per week for monochrome for two television services, four national radio services and many local radio services, whose quality, range and entertainment value are matched in few other countries and surpassed in none. As I said two weeks ago, I fully appreciate that it is not easy for some people to find the licence fee in a single lump sum each year. I have been much impressed by the use that is being made of the saving stamps scheme. At present, about a sixth of all licence fee revenue is collected through this scheme, and it is clear that many people welcome the chance to spread the cost of the fee over the year. I recognise, however that this scheme cannot suit everybody, and two weeks ago I said that I proposed to introduce new ways of enabling people to spread the cost over the year, by means of instalments, including cash instalments payable over post office counters. These schemes cannot be introduced overnight into a licensing system which each year has to handle nearly 19 million licences, but I am determined that they should be implemented as soon as possible."this House endorses the Government's decision to increase the television licence fees to £46 for colour and £15 for monochrome on the basis that these will last for at least three years; and believes that the right way to help retirement pensioners is through the provision of a choice of methods of payment and the maintenance of the real value of the retirement pension'.
I say sincerely that I regard the right hon. Gentleman as one of the humane persons on the Government Benches. Will he concede that people who have to renew their licences tomorrow, for example, will not be able to avail themselves of the scheme but will be required to pay the full fee immediately?
Yes, that is true.I come now to the question of concessionary licences. Whenever the licence fees are increased, there are understandably calls for free licences or reduced fees for pensioners—and, indeed, for other groups, such as the disabled. I must tell the House, however, that it would not, in my view, be right or responsible to go down that road. I am not shaken in that view by the motion that the Opposition have tabled. When they had the responsibility for these matters, when they were in office, they did not take the opportunity to introduce concessions. The reason why they did not do so then was that they would have had to face the consequences. Even in the motion they have tabled, they do not face the consequences. They suggest consultations between the Government and organizations representing pensioners, as though the consequences of concessionary licences were confined to pensioners. It is important that I should put these consequences squarely before the House. It would, of course, be easy for me to say that I shall have consultations at the same time knowing very well that some of the consequences of what I put before the House would have to be faced during the consultations. I do not believe that at the end a means would be found of meeting any of these difficulties. Any scheme of concessionary licences would be bound to cost a lot of money. I shall go over the facts, and I shall not be deterred by the right hon. Gentleman from giving the figures as I believe them to be. The House and the country must have the figures plainly and clearly from the Government.
The Home Secretary said that his predecessor did nothing to extend the concessionary scheme. Is he aware that on 6 April 1978, in a written answer, at columns 159–60, of the Official Report his predecessor said that action would be taken that would nearly double the number of recipients of concessions? Surely the right hon. Gentleman does not mean to suggest that his predecessor did nothing to extend the concessionary scheme.
The Labour Government did not make the sort of concession that the Labour Party is now proposing—a complete concession for all pensioners. That is what the Labour Party put forward in its manifesto, but it was not carried out when the Labour Party was in office.A free licence in all pensioner households—that is in any household in which a pensioner resides—would cost, at the present level of fees, about £800 million over the three financial years ending in March 1985—that is not counting the remainder of the current financial year. Half fees for pensioner households would cost about £400 million over the same period. Even keeping the fees at £34 and £12 would cost about £200 million. It may be argued that a concessionary licence should be available, not for all pensioner households, but only for some—for example, for pensioners living alone or with another pensioner only. Simply keeping the fees at £34 or £12 for this group would cost about £120 million over three years. But how is the licensing system to distinguish between the pensioners entitled to a concession and those not entitled? To make that distinction, and to ensure—as the rest of the public would be entitled to expect, particularly if they had to finance the concession—that it was not being abused, would involve costly and, I am bound to say, perhaps distasteful measures of certification and checking. There would be extra work, extra documentation and extra cost for the agencies that would be involved in certifying that a pensioner fell within the class of pensioners entitled to the concession. In many cases it might be impossible to issue a certificate without a visit to the home in question. How would the cost of concessionary licences be met? First, I must tell the House that not enough money could be found from collecting fees for individual sets in hotels, as suggested by the right hon. Gentleman on the last occasion when the matter was debated, and, indeed, on this occasion. I am, as I have said, looking into the question, but the maximum that it would produce would be about £8 million a year. A possible way of meeting the cost of concessions would be by direct Government grant. Such increases in public expenditure would not be acceptable to the Government. Moreover, partial reliance on direct grant would inevitably be the thin end of the wedge and lead to increasing reliance on direct grant. In this way, the value of the licence fee system as a method of financing the BBC so as to secure its independence of the Government would diminish and, in the course of time, disappear. Some will argue that the revenue to finance concessions should come from advertising, but this would be to alter quite fundamentally the character of the BBC and the services that it provides to the public. Indeed, it would change broadcasting in this country in a way which I believe many people in this House would find unacceptable.
My right hon. Friend says that it would provide a worse service if the money were all raised by advertising, but that is precisely what we want, is it not? As it is, we have the whole nation glued to the idiot box.
That may be my hon. Friend's view, but it does not accord with the view previously expressed in the House by many hon. Members, which is that we value the services of the BBC on television and on radio. I believe that they are greatly valued. One of the arguments put forward in the debate is that retirement pensioners greatly value the services. One cannot ride both horses at the same time.
The hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) is a pensioner.
The only remaining way of financing concessions is by increasing the fees for those who do not benefit from the concessions. As I said two weeks ago, at the present level of fees, a free licence for households in which a pensioner resides would mean fees of about £70 for colour and £25 for monochrome for those paying for their licences. A half fee for pensioners would mean fees of perhaps £58 and £20 for others. Simply keeping the fees at £34 and £12 for pensioners would mean fees of £52 and £17 for everyone else.Moreover, it is not simply a question of increasing the fees for those not benefiting from concessions, substantial as those increases would have to be. It is also a question of fairness. We feel, rightly, that we have a special responsibility for the welfare of pensioners. That is why the Government are committed to maintaining the value of the retirement pension. I deeply resent what the right hon. Gentleman said. Indeed, it is impertinent of him, with his Government's record, ever to suggest that the Conservative Government have not met their obligations concerning the value of the pension, as promised by the Prime Minister, and we intend to meet them in the years ahead. We have made that abundantly clear. We have done it in the past and we shall do it again.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what he has just said is manifest nonsense, when inflation is at 12 per cent. and the pension has gone up by only 9 per cent.?
My right hon. Friend has made it clear that the shortfall will be taken into account in uprating the pension. We have said it perfectly plainly and clearly. We have done it over the years and we shall continue to do so.
The Government cannot fool people.
There is no question of fooling people. The only people who tried to fool anybody were the Opposition, who tried to pretend that they did that when they manifestly did not. That is a commitment that we have honoured and will continue to honour.By no manner of means can all pensioners be said to be in need of a free or even a reduced cost television licence. The hon. Member of St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) as a pensioner. Neither my hon. Friend nor the House would suggest that the rest of us should pay to give him a free television licence. Hon. Members would dislike it even more if, in about two years' time, they found themselves paying for me to have one. That would really stick in their throats. Equally, there are many other groups who are no less deserving of our consideration than pensioners. If we go down the road of concessions, where is the line to be drawn? And what answer do we give to those who would have to pay increased fees to finance the concessions but who would find it no less difficult, and perhaps more difficult, to pay the licence fees than those benefiting from the concessions? In the Government's view, it is better to give people benefits in cash, which they can spend in the way that they, rather than the Government, think best in the light of their individual circumstances, rather then benefits in kind where they have only the choice of taking them or leaving them. It is better to keep the base of the licensing system wide and the cost of the licences as low as possible for all than to narrow the base and raise the cost for some. For all of these reasons, I come back to the point that I made at the beginning. I believe that it would he neither right nor responsible to introduce concessions. I do not see how we can both go down the road of concessions and preserve the licence fee system as the method of financing the BBC. I will of course, if I have the leave of the House, answer some of the points that are raised in the debate and some of the other points raised by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I shall now finish my speech.I believe, further, that the decisions that I announced two weeks ago to increase the fees so that they will last for at least three years will maintain that system and will maintain the independence of the BBC and the contribution that the corporation makes to our national life. It is on that basis that I commend the amendment to the House.
I found the Home Secretary's speech extremely disappointing, particularly the part about letting people have the money in their pockets to spend as they wish. That seems to be exactly the message on which the Conservative Party won the last general election. It rings a little hollow in the country at present. I suspect that it might have been better to leave that part of his argument out of his speech.What particularly disappointed me was the Home Secetary's obstinate refusal to consider the possibility—which is all that the motion calls for—of reduced television licence fees for pensioners, and the setting up of an inquiry into, or discussion of the present anomalies, and into the possibility of creating a system to ease the burden on pensioners of the proposed increase in the television licence fee. I accept the Home Secretary's point that the official Opposition cannot brag about what they did in this matter. It was a very late conversion in the lifetime of the previous Government. It was about six weeks before polling day at the last election when the previous Government came to the view that there should be concession for pensioners on television licence fees. Certainly, they cannot claim that they were not aware of the pressure for that concession. I referred to it in my maiden speech in 1972, but many other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House had been pressing in the 1970s for something to be done on this matter.
What about the Lib-Lab pact?
I read the Government amendment with great interest, and I am extremely sorry that they have declined to help in this matter.
The hon. Gentleman was part of the previous Government.
If the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) wishes to intervene, I am prepared to give way to him. Otherwise, he ought to stop muttering, because people will think that he is one of the qualifiers for the concession. He has been muttering like a decrepit geriatric in an old people's home. If he has something to say, let him stand up and say it.It is a pity that the Government amendment does not allow for the sort of inquiry for which the motion calls. The amendment talks about the
The Home Secretary referred to that matter. But the Government are not, for the next 12 months, retaining the real value of the retirement pension. I am prepared to accept in good faith that the Government intend next November to restore its real value, but the fact is that for 12 months until next November the real value of the pension has been reduced by the Government. As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said in his extremely constructive speech, the licence fee is being increased now. The Home Secretary has conceded that point. But the real value of the pension, which is what the amendment talks about, is not to come into operation until November 1982."maintenance of the real value of the retirement pension."
It is reasonable to deal with the value of the pension in the coming year, but to be fair—he is always fair—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will deal with the real value of the pension in the previous year.
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means. I am dealing with the present position. The amendment talks about maintaining the real value of the pension. That is not being maintained over the next 12 months; it is being reduced, in the Government's own terms, by 2 per cent., and in the view of many of us by 3 per cent. over that period. Therefore, I very much hope that during this debate the Government will reconsider their whole attitude to television licence fees and concessions.Many inequities exist now. The principal inequity, to which the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook referred, could be considered by a committee of inquiry, or something of that kind, over the next six months—the principle that some pensioners get their television licence for 5p whereas others must pay the full amount. I totally support the point made by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook about that matter. It is a bone of serious contention among pensioners, who consider it grossly unfair. During the last seven days I have spoken to many pensioners who have told me that they receive their television licence for 5p and that they would be prepared to see a substantial increase in the fee that they pay if all pensioners were to get a reduced fee licence and thereby all paid the same amount. It is grossly unfair that some pensioners get their licence for 5p while others will now have to pay £46 for the same licence. I hope that the Government will look at the legislation which has given rise to this anomaly and which causes such deep resentment among pensioners. A more important question than it has been in the past is that of refunds on television licences for the unexpired part of the period to which the licence refers. People emigrate; people die; people get rid of their television set. But they cannot get a refund on the unexpired portion of the licence. I am not saying that everybody should be able to get a refund for a month or anything of that sort, but when a licence costs £46 a year—£4 a month—things are different. I wrote to the Home secretary in the past two months about a case in which at least 50 per cent. of the licence had not been used; the people involved intended to emigrate and, therefore, were robbed of £20. That does not happen with car licences, for example, because they can be taken out for three months, six months or for any period under 12 months. However, a television licence can be taken out only for 12 months and the odds are, except in rare cases, that once money is parted with it has gone, whether or not the licence is needed for the full 12 months. When the licence cost £7, £10 or £12 it was trivial and not worth arguing about, but as it reaches £46—presumably in three years it will increase again—it becomes a problem. The inquiry called for by the Opposition could include such matters with the many other aspects. So far, the debate has been on the economic argument. The argument for concessionary licence fees for pensioners is basically not an economic but a social argument. Often Governments take the view that the problem of age is the problem of poverty. There are other problems of age and one of the major problems is loneliness. Therefore, the licence fee argument should relate not only to the economic circumstances of pensioners, but to the social circumstances. The argument of loneliness is relevant. Local government has done much to try to combat the problem of loneliness through luncheon clubs, old-age pensioner clubs, the meals-on-wheels services, visiting of old-age pensioners in the homes, warden services, and so on. Such schemes are designed not merely to assist old people, but to help break the periods of loneliness that old people—especially those living alone having lost their partners in life—have to face. The television set is a further weapon in the fight against loneliness among pensioners. I plead with the Government to ensure that they do not price the television set out of old-age pensioners' homes. If they do that, they will do a great disservice to compassion and aggravate the growing problems among the increasing number of old-age pensioners. I hope that even at this late stage the Government will think again on this matter, not merely in economic terms but with a view to ensuring that every pensioner can have a television set and that fewer pensioners sit at home this Christmas—as they did when telephone charges were increased—working out whether they can afford the new fee. To many hon. Members £46 is chickenfeed. I make no secret of the fact that I could afford £46 more than once for a television licence fee. However, for a couple living on a pension, or for a pensioner living alone, £46 is a lot of money in one bite. I welcome all the Home Secretary's wonderful schemes allowing pensioners to pay weekly, buy stamps, and so on, but they need 12 months to prepare for that. If he could not do anything about a concession in the first two years of the new fee, he could at least try to implement one in the final year, because that would allow pensioners to prepare over 12 months for the increase that they would then have to face in 1984 or 1985. I appeal to the Home Secretary and the Government to think again about the motion. Let us not argue on the basis of party politics or stances. Let us argue on the basis of compassion, the need for elderly people's comfort in their old age and their need to have weapons in their homes to combat loneliness. I am sure that if the Home Secretary could be persuaded to think on that basis he would see the merit of an inquiry into the matter, which is all that the Opposition motion calls for.
I address my remarks to the serious anomaly, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), between pensioners who are entitled to the old person's home licence of 5p and those who will shortly have to pay the full licence fee, which for a colour set will be £46.Nobody should underestimate the strength of feeling about this issue. It is almost invariably raised with me when I speak to pensioners' organisations and when I meet pensioners informally. Nobody should be too surprised about that, because everybody tends to consider his own situation not in isolation but in comparison with his peers. The majority of pensioners have to pay the full licence fee and they regularly mix in community rooms and elsewhere with other pensioners who, for all practical purposes, are exempt from paying the fee. They naturally ask why that should be. That is a natural human feeling and even hon. Members are not exempt from having similar feelings. Therefore, nobody can be surprised that pensioners feel that way. I know from my discussions with pensioners that that unfair distinction has become a considerable barrier between many of them. It has even broken friendships. It may be that those who do not regularly discuss issues of the day with pensioners do not fully appreciate how many of them feel very strongly about this matter. It is not an issue about which one reads in the press every day. Pensioners are not a strong and vocal pressure group with ready access to the media. However, nobody should ignore the strong groundswell that exists. It is easy to understand how we have reached the present situation and how the special licence developed to its present form. I wrote about this matter 18 months ago to Lord Belstead and he replied that it exists
The line to which my noble Friend referred has been moved over the years for understandable reasons. As it has been moved, it has extended the numbers of those entitled and, at the same time, has extended the scope for disgruntled feelings. Those entitled to a special licence are, generally speaking, those who have the benefit of a visiting warden. They very often have the good fortune to be provided with that facility but in many ways, financially and otherwise, are better off than others who, for example, live in private rented accommodation, which is often of a considerably lower quality and who may be cut off from the company of other old people. Therefore, although one can understand the logic that has brought about the present situation, there is little fairness about it. I want to consider for a moment how we can do something about the inequity that has arisen. It should be accepted that any solution that required a loss of considerable revenue from licence fees could not be contemplated now. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should not, as he has done in the past, turn his face against any solution that would involve some of those who enjoy the existing concessions having to give them up. My experience, which is similar to that expressed by the hon. Member for Rochdale, and was confirmed by the Calderdale branch of Age Concern, is that the present beneficiaries recognise that the present situation is unfair and unsatisfactory and they would rather be put on an equal footing with all pensioners, even if that meant that they would have to pay a little more. I have suggested in the past that all pensioners living alone should be entitled to a voucher worth, say, one-third of the cost of a full licence, with the cost being offset by the abolition of the 5p special licence. However, I recognise the difficulties involved in that proposal and I have confronted some of the problems, which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was not prepared to do. There would be accounting difficulties and administrative work in checking whether pensioners lived alone. There is not the slightest doubt that the potential For fraudulent claims would be considerable. Therefore, the idea of giving special hell) to pensioners living alone would be difficult to implement."not as a welfare concession, but because residents in certain homes were regarded as if they were exempt from taking out licences while those in other homes were not. A line had to be drawn between accommodation which could be regarded as 'home', so making it eligible for the licence, and ordinary dwellings which could not benefit."
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully, because his sympathies are generally in the right direction. He refers to the possibility of fraudulent claims, but does he not accept that there is sufficient information available to avoid that risk? Pensioners receive rent rebates, rate rebates and other allowances. The necessary documentation exists. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is overstating the possibility for fraudulent claims.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that Government Departments should pass information about people to each other. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes a great interest in data protection and protection of the individual, and I would turn my face against the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. It is a proposition that should be avoided at all costs.The 5p licence results in a £6 million loss of revenue annually. The creation of a scheme along the lines that I previously suggested would cost between £30 million and £35 million a year and, because of the present economic situation, such a proposal is probably not acceptable to the Government. In any case, pensioners' organisations do not favour concessions in kind. They would rather that pensioners received an adequate sum and had the choice of how to spend it. A pensioner who does not like watching television or does not have the faculties to do so would gain nothing from a cheap television licence. Therefore, I shall put a suggestion to my right hon. Friend which I hope he will be willing to accept. Every year pensioners receive a £10 bonus at Christmas. The figure has remained at £10 for several years. The scheme was dropped by the Labour Government, but it was resumed when the present Government took office. I suggest that next year the bonus should be increased to £15, which would restore some of the value lost through inflation. It happens that £15 is the new cost of a monochrome television licence, and the Government should announce that the bonus is intended to cover that cost. If pensioners want to spend it in another way or choose to top it up to buy a colour television licence that is their prerogative. If it is administratively possible, pensioners should have the option of taking the bonus in the form of a voucher that could be exchanged for a television licence when their existing licence fell due for renewal, rather than having the £15 paid over a post office counter. Such a proposition may have certain attractions for the Government, because it would enable the Chancellor of the Exchequer to hold on to the money for a little longer. If pensioners had a voucher that could be exchanged for a television licence it would emphasise the change that the Government were making. I know that many pensioners, including those who have a 5p licence, would welcome such a change, even though it would involve the abolition of the 5p licence, which was introduced by a Labour Government and has become more trouble than it is worth. I am in the curious position of sympathising with the Opposition's fairly moderate motion calling for consultations with pensioners, although I disagree with most of the speech of the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, but of also broadly agreeing with the Government amendment calling for greater choice for retirement pensioners. That complements rather than contradicts the motion. The amendment says that the right way to help pensioners is to maintain the real value of the retirement pension. I agree with that, and I assume that the Government also wish to maintain the real value of the Christmas bonus. My proposal would enable them to go some way towards that. If the Government were willing to adopt it they would meet their own objectives, my objectives and even, to some extent, the objectives of the Opposition.
The hon. Gentleman assumes that the Government want to maintain the real value of the Christmas bonus. Surely he is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. The £10 bonus was introduced in 1973 and at today's prices it is worth only £2.
The Government have done better than their Labour predecessors, who not only did not increase the bonus, but got rid of it at one stage.I seek to be convinced that the Government take the problem seriously. I emphasise to the Home Secretary that the anomaly is the most serious issue. If he can persuade me that he appreciates its importance and is anxious to try to do something about it, I shall have no difficulty in supporting the Government's amendment.
I shall be brief. The Government are defending an increase in the licence fee which many of us who are interested in the media and the health of the BBC welcome. The Home Secretary knows that a number of us wanted to see a radical shift in the power over licence fees away from the Home Secretary, because the political implications that can be involved in the run up to an election and the pressure that Governments can try to bring on the BBC are not good for democracy.However, we would be ungrateful if we did not recognise that financing the BBC with a £46 licence over a three-year period is a move in the right direction and will give the BBC some security. It would have been the best of all worlds if there had been a "three wise men" formula and an inflation-proofed fee of £50, but perhaps that was hoping for too much. Against that increase in the licence fee, we have to balance the Government's deplorable record on the BBC's external services. Even with all the unremitting pressure brought to bear on the Government, we have still not achieved as much as we wanted. That puts into context the Government's relationship with the BBC on more than one front. My position is perhaps a little different from that of many of my colleagues. In my view, the BBC licence has been a security, the means by which we have had an independent and first-class service for many years. The whole population receives that first-class service. There is no better social service for the elderly than being able to sit in their homes and watch the high-quality productions that the BBC provides. It would be a poorer environment if elderly people did not have that service. It is a service which, per day and per programme, does not cost very much, compared with bingo, the cinema and a half-pint of Guinness. It is good value for elderly people. None of us is suggesting subsidies on Guinness, pictures or bingo at present. However, the special position that we are arguing for old-age pensioners is somewhat dangerous. Let us examine the record. There have been attempts to correct anomalies, and those attempts have created worse anomalies. We need consider only the example given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). The Savoy hotel pays only one licence fee, while people in sheltered housing had to pay one licence fee each. So we moved some way towards equity in exempting certain elderly persons' dwellings that looked a little like hotels. Nevertheless, there has been much discontent among elderly people. Tonight we are asking the Home Secretary to look at ways and means of arriving at a more equitable solution, but let us consider what would happen if we exempted elderly people from paying the licence. Poor people in my constituency of Huddersfield, one-parent families, unemployed people and people on low and meagre incomes would come to my advice service in the town hall on Friday evenings and say "The people next door are wealthy retired people, and yet they pay nothing for their television licence". It is not a good idea to exchange one anomaly for another. I do not believe in moving from one anomaly to another. That brings me to a more general position. I belong to a party that encourages dissent. I remember when this proposal was part of our manifesto. I would view with great suspicion anyone who agreed with 100 per cent. of party manifestos. There would be something strangely wrong with such a person—not altogether 16 oz, as they say. I disagreed with the election manifesto commitment in this respect, for the reasons that I have given tonight. Not only would there be more anomalies, but there would be a society in which some people were independent and paid their way, while others had half-price terms on Thursday afternoons, if it was raining, some who had cheap bus fares at certain times of the day, and concessions for this and coupons for that. The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) wants to introduce yet another system, which would make the butter mountains, milk tokens and butter tokens look as nothing compared with the television token system, inflation-proofed or not. I am against concessions that create two classes of people in our society. I disagree with the Government because they have started the old-age pensioner on a steady decline in income, because they will not automatically be proofed against inflation and rising wage costs. The best safeguard for old-age pensioners is to guarantee a good income, and not to give cheap goods, cheap butter, cheap meat or cheap television. That is not the way to achieve equity and equality. My party should stand for a system that is fair for all. That is why I shall not support the motion in the Lobby tonight. I did not agree with the manifesto commitment. I do not like the slightly fudged motion before the House, and I shall continue to fight for a good income for pensioners and no concessions. Even if Disraeli said it, I believe in one nation, not two.
On this subject I have received numerous letters, petitions—which I have already presented to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—and visits to my surgery at the town hall from all groups of pensioners. There is no doubt that pensioners feel very deeply about it.It is wrong to believe that when people get old they become grasping vultures with their hands in the till for handouts. I have yet to meet a pensioner who wants his television licence to be free. I mean free, because 5p for some licences is such a small amount of money that many local authorities—indeed, most—do not bother to collect the 5p because it costs too much to collect. We have a society in which some have to pay the lot and others pay nothing. It sets pensioner against pensioner. When they meet at the shops, one boasts to the other "I do not have to pay", and the other says "It has gone up again to £46." This situation cannot continue. It is no good my Government telling me and Opposition Members that it cannot be changed. If there is the political will within the Conservative Party, of course it can be done. I vote for what I believe is right. I am not stupid enough to go through the Lobby time after time if I believe that my Government's policies are wrong. Moreover, I have proved that on many occasions. How can we find a solution? I was delighted to hear the director-general designate say the other morning that he thought that we should consider some form of concession for old-age pensioners. By that I am sure that he means a fair system. In my view, the House and the BBC could get away with increasing the licence for those who are paying nothing. I am sure that old-age pensioners, who love to pay their way and be independent, would agree if we carne up with a scheme, but to do that there must be the political will. Let us consider one or two ways in which that could be done. When people set out to buy a television set, they find that a colour set costs much more than a black and white unit. It is wrong that for a colour set the licence should be £46, and for a black and white set it should be £15. Let me explain why I say that. The black and white set brings into the home the same artists, athletes, footballers, technicians, researchers, presenters and news readers. The deal is the same. The choice between black and white and colour is for the individual, if he can afford it. Families often rally round to help old mum and dad to buy a colour set. The social services would be forced to put more colour into the lives of old people if the licence for a monochrome set cost very little less than that for a colour set. There are about 300,000 sets in hotel bedrooms. Multiplying 300,000 by £46 produces a figure of about £14 million. If one multiplies that by three years, the total sum involved is about £42 million. We could use that to provide concessions for old-age pensioners. If the monochrome licence were increased from £15 to £30, the yield would be 4 million times £15. I was speaking to the director-general of the BBC a fortnight ago and he said that there were 4 million monochrome sets in the country. If one multiplies £15 by 4 million over three years, £180 million becomes available. When I spoke privately to the Home Secretary about this matter—[Interruption.] I do not mind mentioning that because the Home Secretary has declared an interest. I spoke of the matter in the Lobby, not at a private consultation in his room. He said to me "I am an old-age pensioner. Are you suggesting that I should have a concession?" I asked him who he lived with and he said "My wife." I asked "Is she an old-age pensioner?", and he said "She is, indeed." I said "That is very nice. Do any young people live in the house?" He said "No." I said "I would be delighted to give you a concession." I shall explain. My in-laws live with me. It would be easy for them to obtain a concessionary licence and for me to dine out on it. Only a pensioner who lives on his own, or with another pensioner, should qualify for a cheap licence. When pensioners live with a younger person, the younger person should accept the responsibility for the television licence. Old people believe that the present system is unfair, unjust and almost unbearable. We must have the political will to do something about it. I and others have made suggestions to the BBC about licensing methods. We have suggested that there should be no licence. The BBC believes that if that happened it would lose its autonomy and would have to beg the Government to increase its grant. That is the same as local government saying that it would lose its autonomy if rates were collected in a different way. I believe that to be nonsense, because there are many ways to operate such a scheme. Members of the all-party pensioners group asked the BBC "Why not use advertising?" The BBC spokesman quickly said "We would debase television if we did that." That was based on a comparison with America, but in America there are about 13 channels, and advertisements come on every two minutes. I watched a play on American television once, and I could not tell the difference between the scenes in the play and the advertisements. Such a system would debase television. A fairer comparison would be with ITV in Britain. Nobody would be unfair enough to say that ITV is not equal in every way to the BBC. Both the ITV and the BBC provide good services. We are lucky. I wonder whether there is enough advertising in the country to support the BBC. That would be my only reason for not saying to the BBC "Get some advertising and help us help the pensioners." If we want to do something for the pensioners, we can if there is the political will. We make the decisions, whether or not the BBC likes it.
The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) said that old-age pensioners could not answer for themselves because they did not have a strong enough voice. I do not know whether he meant that. I should like to correct the hon. Gentleman, because it is not true. I remind him of the recent pensioners' campaign when 1 million signatures were put on a petition. The hon. Gentleman should know about the National Federation of Old Age Pension Associations and its campaigns. Jack Jones, the ex-general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, is connected with the British pensioners trade union group. Age Concern, Help the Aged, the British Association of Retired Persons and other organisations have a tremendous voice. That voice is not reflected in Government policy, but it will be as the groups become more organised.The Home Secretary was probably the worst offender in misrepresenting the shortfall. He and other hon. Members gave the impression that the Government are making up the shortfall and that pensioners are not losing anything. That is not true. The pension was increased by 9 per cent. this November. That was 1 per cent. below the estimated rate of inflation for the year November 1980 to November 1981. The Government said that they had over-estimated the rate of inflation by 1 per cent. in the previous year and had given the pensioners too much. A special piece of legislation was introduced to claw back the so-called 1 per cent. overpayment. The pensioners did not owe the Government money, but the Government owed the pensioners money. Pensioners had already lost 95p a week for a single pensioner and £1·95 for a married couple, as a result of breaking the link with earnings. They lost £7·70 for a single person and £12·30 for a married couple because of the delay in paying the pensions. I say that to put in its true perspective the Home Secretary's statement about the shortfall. The Government have made another miscalculation. Inflation is not 10 per cent. but 12 per cent. The Government say that that will be made up by next November, but they know that between now and next November there will be another increase in inflation. About half a million pensioners will be dead before then so they will never have the under-payment made up. It is silly to say that that is part of the Government's policy. I do not go that far, but it could be construed in that way, and it should be understood that the shortfall has never been made up since 1948.
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will come to the point about television.
I shall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the point I am making is important. The Home Secretary introduced the subject of the shortfall and I felt that it could be misconstrued if people outside the House got hold of the wrong end of the stick. How many times have we heard it said that pensioners are well off? The Home Secretary's remarks will be quoted to prove the point, but it is not true and that is why I want to make it clear that the pensioners are not as well off as they should be.My final point on the shortfall is that when it is made up next year, or whenever, it will be on a lower base rate because the base has been depressed and the percentage increase will not take account of that. Although I should like to develop that point, I shall leave it at that.
My hon. Friend no doubt appreciates that the central plank of the Home Secretary's argument in refusing to meet the case put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is that the Government allege that they are maintaining the real value of pensions. That is clear from the Government's amendment. My hon. Friend is, therefore, within his rights to challenge the Government's amendment.
I am grateful for that intervention. I was trying to be reasonable, but perhaps that quality exists only on the Labour side of the House. My hon. Friend is right that the point I make is relevant. It is even more relevant since so much play has been made with it. However, I shall say no more about the matter.There is a more relevant issue. We can seldom discuss television licences in isolation, as has been seen in the debate. I can never talk about television licences for old-age pensioners without also discussing standing charges generally. I can never separate the two. I shall certainly support the motion because consultation is long overdue. On a rough calculation—I have probably underestimated—a pensioner in London using gas, electricity, water and a telephone pays about £117 each year in standing charges. If we add the television licence to that at about £50 for colour, the figure is £167—about £3·25 per week. That is the amount a pensioner pays in standing charges whether or not the services are used. I know that many of my constituents do not use anything like the amount of gas and electricity to justify what they pay in the standing charges. That is a considerable amount for pensioners. In my discussions with them they always enlarge the discussion to cover television licences because that is is important to them, and £3·25 a week is a hefty sum from an already depleted pension. Those two issues are extremely relevant and I am sorry that the Home Secretary seems to have shut the door on discussions. The only bright light is that many Conservative Back Benchers who regularly attend the all-party group of pensioners do not take the same attitude. The Home Secretary is totally out of tune with many of his own Back Benchers who have a much more constructive approach and have been honestly seeking ways and means whereby a constructive solution can be found. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) was, in his own way, seeking to do that. He is not averse to consultation and I hope that he will support the Opposition motion in the Lobby tonight. The motion is about the sort of consultation in which the hon. Gentleman and I have recently indulged with the director-general of the BBC. We were pleased that his successor-elect holds the same view and shares the concern of the BBC about licences. I am pleased that no one has doubted the need for revenue for the BBC. We are not discussing the merits or qualities of the programmes—with some of the rubbish on television we would be here for a week if we did so. Indeed, an increase in the licence fee to £50 might have been justified provided that certain factors were taken into account. The BBC was entitled to ask for a higher fee. I wish to cross swords with the Home Secretary on his claim that there is nothing wrong with the amount charged for the licence provided that pensioners are given easy payment terms such as hire purchase pay-as-you-go schemes and weekly stamps. I recently sent the right hon. Gentleman a letter—he has not yet replied—about a constituent who had been saving all year for a television licence. Her current licence expired the day after the announcement of the increase. On the day before the announcement when she would normally have bought her stamp, she was told that none were available and that the stamps were not in the post office. She is a fairly bright lady and she asked for that to be put in writing so that she could send it to me. She felt that the stamps should have been available. She was given such a note. When she returned to the post office a couple of days later she had to pay the increased fee. That is sharp practice which raises a number of doubts about the Home Secretary's glib remarks about the purchase of stamps. What happens to all the anomalies and those people, especially the pensioners, who are caught when the fee is increased? Will the right hon. Gentleman recommend that interest be paid on the stamps that pensioners have bought for 12 months? The Government have the revenue, so why do not the pensioners have the benefit of any interest that accrues? We have not been told that that suggestion will be considered. I have a number of suggestions to make, but the most important is the abolition of television licences. The general tax system could take care of the shortfall, which I am assured would amount to a 1p increase in income tax. However, the BBC and the pundits say that such a system would mean Government interference. They fear that the BBC would lose its independence. I am not convinced that that would be the case. I have asked whether there is not a charter to protect the BBC from such interference. If it does not offer that protection, it should be strengthened. Such a charter must exclude Government interference. I have heard no good reasons why the television licence fee should not be included in the general tax system. A wise man—I do not know who—once said that broadcasting was too important to be left to the broadcasters. It might be useful to have a little interference from elected representatives who are aware of the views of consumers. I have yet to hear a reasoned argument that the abolition of television licences is a non-runner. I hope that even between now and the end of the debate the Home Secretary will realise the benefit of holding discussions, even with Conservative Back Benchers—especially those in the all-party group—among whom he will find a great deal of sympathy for the pensioners' plight. Perhaps he will then agree to join in consultations with the various organisations concerned with the matter in the hope that we can reach a workable solution that will help not only pensioners but those in receipt of social security benefits and those on low incomes.
Hon. Members know the interest that the hon. Member for St Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) takes in the plight and difficulties that face people on low incomes, especially pensioners on low incomes. I followed the hon. Gentleman's arguments carefully. I hope that he will not think that I am any less concerned if I come to a different conclusion. I do not believe that the system is in nearly such a mess as one might imagine from what Opposition Members say to warrant the motion. If that was the case, hon. Members would have to show conclusively what was wrong.It would have to be shown that the level of pension had fallen so far behind the rise in the cost of living over the past few years that special measures were required in respect of television licence fees and other costs that pensioners face. We would have to show that if pensioners' standard of living had fallen so far behind that of the rest of the community there was a need to examine what further help was required in respect not only of television licences but of other things that some hon. Members might think far more important. I recognise that some people rely on television. They rely on it perhaps too much, but one cannot criticise them for doing so. Whatever their age, some people find enormous satisfaction in watching television. It compensates old people for loneliness. The argument is not merely an economic one. The question that arises is whether loneliness is enough to warrant the special action suggested by some Opposition Members at a time when many other social problems afflict the old. Many categories of incapacity are probably more demanding of our sympathy than subsidising the licence fee for retirement pensioners, particularly as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) did not disguise the fact that his proposal for a special licence for old-age pensioners was shot through with anomalies. That is known. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) was right in saying that some of the anomalies that have already arisen out of our sense of fair play have actually given rise to bitterness, criticism and envy among groups that have not benefited. The right hon. Gentleman's proposal, by creating more anomalies, would make the situation worse. I believe that the general policy of Governments since the war has been correct. Where a general uprating of benefit helps old-age pensioners, this should be done. The richer pensioners, with bigger incomes, will pay tax, but old-age pensioners as a whole benefit and have the freedom of choice to use the money as they think fit. I was not an hon. Member at the time, but some hon. Members will recall the debate that took place after the war over the ending of tobacco tokens. Those who did not smoke felt hard done by: it was better to get rid of the tokens and to view the pension as a pension. The Opposition's case is not well founded on administrative grounds or on compassionate grounds. There are plenty of other things that would benefit pensioners. The argument throughout the debate has centred on whether the Government have fulfilled their election promise to keep the pension in line with the rise in the cost of living. Is it claimed by the Opposition that the Government have decided to default on this promise? Is that really the suggestion? I do not believe it. I do not believe that Opposition Members really believe it. The figures do not confirm their view. Since the election, the pension has been increased by 51·8 per cent. If anyone can challenge those figures and prove them wrong, I shall withdraw. The rise in the cost of living since the election is 49·9 per cent. Why should anyone with any sense of justice or fair play wish to make any political point out of those figures? The pension has kept slightly ahead of the rise in the cost of living.
No one is arguing about the figures since the election. Between the pension increase in November 1978 and this November, the pension rose 2 per cent. more than the increase in prices. The reason, confirmed in answers given by Ministers, is that prior to the election pensions were raised in line with prices or earnings, whichever were the higher. In 1978, earnings were ahead of prices. The Opposition thought it was right that pensioners should share in the general increase in the standard of living for the general population. While the 2 per cent. figure is correct, the hon. Gentleman should not give the credit to the present Government.
I am not taking credit, I am stating a fact. The rise in the cost of living has been less than the rise in the pension.
The hon. Gentleman asked if the Opposition believed that it was the Government's deliberate policy to default on an election promise. I have to say "Yes." The Government introduced legislation to claw back what they considered to be an underestimate but they refused flatly, despite hours of argument, to introduce legislation that would make amends the other way. It is therefore deliberate Government policy to deal with the matter on one side but not on the other.
I am afraid that that is not the case. My right hon. Friend has made clear the Government's pledge for next year. The rise in pensions has been greater under this Government than the rise in the cost of living. That is a fact. There is no ground for trying to make a mountain out of this issue and trying to establish that a section of the community should have special consideration in respect of the television licence fee.I should like to compare the value of the pension with the cost of a television licence. This is essential to the argument put by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook. In real terms, the cost of a television licence to the pensioner has not increased. It has declined over the years. A smaller proportion of the retirement pension is now required to pay for a television licence than 15 years ago. The cost of a monochrome licence, expressed as a proportion of the retirement pension, is slightly under one-half of what it was in 1968—the year when a separate colour licence was first introduced. It is the colour licence with which most people are concerned. The cost of a colour licence to a pensioner is less than three-quarters of what it was in 1968, expressed in terms of the value of the retirement pension. I respect the fact that a licence fee of £46 compared with £6 or £7 not many years ago seems an enormous increase. The perceived cost may appear high but the fact is that in real terms the cost is lower. Why should hon. Members seek to persuade my right hon. Friend and the Government to spend a great amount of time considering what to some extent is a non-problem. Some people might argue that it is not a problem and that there are plenty of other matters that should be considered to improve the lot of the retirement pensioner. The motion proposed by the Opposition is perfectly fair. It is known that an instalment system will shortly be introduced. There have been advertisements from the BBC showing how people can buy tokens. Overcome by the spirit of Christmas, people can buy tokens for their elderly friends. The moral argument lies with those who, like the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East, want to get away from the begging bowl concept in relation to retirement pensioners whose sense of dignity and independence is not improved by extending concessions of this kind. Another thread that has run through the debate is that of the BBC licence fee. The hon. Member for Sparkbrook drew attention to a conversation that he had with the director-general designate of the BBC. Later he went on to suggest—I asked him whether it was part of the conversation and he said that it was not—that one way of relieving the cost of financing the BBC would be for the IBA to give some of its advertising revenue to the BBC and for the BBC to give part of the licence fee to the IBA. We have good value for money in British broadcasting because we have developed two systems, one of which is based on advertising where the market principle is usually predominant, although not always. When television companies try to renew their franchises there is a tendency to put out programmes with more minority appeal and less dependence on the market place and revenue. Perhaps I should reveal that I have recently been appointed a non-executive director of London Weekend Television, but I have no knowledge of a commercial television company as it comes close to renewing its franchise. The dependence upon the market place has created a system of television which leads those who have been involved with the BBC, as I have, to conclude that one is working in a competitive market place. The BBC must also pay attention to the market place. If it has too small an audience, people will resent paying the licence fee. The system of working for the public good has led the BBC to be extraordinarily courageous on many occasions regardless of the effect of the programme or whether it has a large or small audience. That is why the BBC has earned such a reputation. Sometimes it make us cross but on balance we should agree that the BBC is the finest broadcasting organisation in the world. Such a cross-fertilisation of money as is suggested would lead to the worst of all worlds. Although such a mixed economy may work well in other areas, the present system has led to much competition between the two rivals and I would rather stick with it. I say to the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North that if an individual who is paying the licence fee writes a cheque or goes to the post office he knows that his money will go directly to the organisation. The BBC knows that if it wishes to have a battle with the Government, it can make an appeal to the licence fee payers. It knows its constituency and the size of it. If the money is paid into his general tax bill, it is lost sight of for ever. No one knows what happens when Ministers argue in the Cabinet about whether the rate of tax should be changed. Someone may say that the rate should be increased because of the extra money being given to the BBC. The arguments become muddled and politicised and a weak Minister may lose to a strong one. We know that the licence fee is a direct charge between the individual and the corporation. Most people, if given a free choice in the matter, would rather pay the licence fee directly to the corporation than have their money sucked into the maw of the Treasury.
I agree that the BBC provides excellent value for money. It has been dramatically under-financed for years and it deserves the increase in licence fees. Its production costs are a third of those in the United States of America and it is without parallel in the world. It runs not only two television channels but national radio networks and a series of local radio stations.The debate is about pensioners and how much they should pay. One must remember, however the statistics can be interpreted, that for a pensioner today an increase from £34 to £46 seems to be enormous. Both in real and psychological terms the pensioner is appalled by the increase. As has been said, because there is a pre-existing anomaly whereby some pensioners pay very little, there is more resentment of the increase. How does one tackle the problem? One way is to raise money from other sources. Hotel television charges have been mentioned. It is strange that an hotelier pays less in real terms for the one licence that he must buy than does the ordinary pensioner, because his expense is tax deductible. The Savoy hotel has been mentioned. The licence will cost the Savoy hotel less, because it is deducted from what would otherwise be net profit. There is something to be said for the argument that hotel companies should pay all or some part of the normal colour television licence fee for every guest room equipped with a television set. It would be less of an expense to the hotel than would at first seem to be the case. I agree in part with the courageous speech of the hon. Member for Huddersfield" East (Mr. Sheerman). He pointed out the anomalies created by certain concessions. It is possible to have concessions that do not create anomalies if the matter is approached in a different way. However, it is fairly obvious that if one says that retirement pensioners should not pay the licence fee or should have a concession, one must ensure that the pensioner is the householder and that no salaried person lives with him. Where a husband and wife are householders, if the house is in the name of the younger of the two—who may not receive a pension—no concession would be available. Inspectors would be required to check fraudulent claims. Bureaucracy would be created, and I agree that such concessions produce many problems. Furthermore, they also produce widespread resentment among others who feel that they should have them. Although I do not favour that kind of concession, the problem can be dealt with in other ways which do not produce a new bureaucracy and which treat everyone fairly. I suggest two methods. First, the Government could increase in real terms the retirement pension. Secondly, they could increase the Christmas bonus. The bonus is £10. Reforming television licensing in hotels would bring in some money, but the proposal may involve a little Government expenditure. The Government could say that they were giving a specific increase above the £10 to all retirement pensioners, as they realised what the increased cost of the licence meant to them. An increase in the bonus of £6 would be half the increase in the licence fee. In a household with two pensioners, the total would be £12, which would cover the entire increase. Pensioners who did not have television sets would also get the increased bonus, but so what? The system would involve no administrative inconvenience or additional bureaucracy. No one could complain. Pensioners would get the increase and would know that the Government were making a special case for them. The other solution is to give more money to retirement pensioners generally. Whatever is said about Governments of all stripes, we can all agree that people who live solely on their retirement pensions have not found and do not find it easy. Many hon. Members wish to see pensioners have a better deal. The pension could be increased above the rate of inflation, for instance, and the money could be recouped in other ways, such as those outlined by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and others. The increase in the monochrome licence fee of £3 will produce little revenue. The poorest members of society buy or hire monochrome sets. When the Home Secretary made the announcement, I asked whether it would be possible to freeze the monochrome licence fee. Among others, a lady in Sussex wrote thanking me for raising the question. She told me that she could not afford a colour television licence, so has to manage with a monochrome set. It would not cost the Government a great amount to freeze the monochrome licence. Each year, more and more people change to colour television, so the number of people using monochrome sets is becoming fewer. The expense for the Government would, therefore, diminish. Most people would prefer a colour set, but some who are badly off cannot afford one. The Government should freeze the fee at £12, although others may argue that it should be scrapped altogether. The economic situation has gone from bad to worse since the Labour Party made its election promises, but the Government could make a concession on the £3. The Home Secretary was keen to do his sums. He should compare the loss from forgoing the £3 increase with what would come in from licensing hotel television sets, and he may find that he could make a concession. A concession would show the Government's humanitarian concern. Governments should show their concern for the elderly. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) said that there is a social problem. The loneliness of many old people is made tolerable only by being able to watch television, so there is a case for special treatment. A set may be a luxury for some, but for many others it is an essential social service and may do more for the quality of their lives than other social services. I ask the Government sympathetically to consider the motion, which is moderately worded. A motion worded by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) in 1980 urged the abolition of the fee for pensioners. In the face of the deteriorating economic situation, today's motion is a retreat and it recognises that things are difficult. The Opposition ask only that pensioners be consulted on ways to ameliorate the situation. If the conclusion was that it would not sensibly be done, the Government would have proved their stance to be correct and the Opposition to be wrong, but at least let us have consultation in view of the importance of the matter and the fact that pensioners are stunned by the heavy increase.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) on his sensible speech, which struck the Opposition to silence. They implied originally that it was an enormous burden for pensioners to pay the licence fee, but it has been shown that the burden has decreased under Governments of both parties, although it is still a burden. The payment of what amounts to £1 a week from a retirement pension could cause difficulty.I was much taken with the reasonable, reasoned, compassionate and caring speech of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), but decided that there must be something wrong with his argument. He is not asking the Government to do what the Labour Party promised. His request is more moderate. He merely wants discussions. I forgive him his temporary amnesia about the Labour Government's performance. However, if the Government accepted the motion, the newspaper headlines next day would read "Government accept need for a concession for old age pensioners". I appreciate the fact that conceding discussions is not accepting the need for action, but there would be pressure on the Government to take action at the end. The organisation set up to discuss the matter would dream up a scheme, and the right hon. Gentleman could take great credit if the Government refused to act. He could say that they were hard-faced and did not consider the plight of pensioners. The word "hypocrisy" does not spring lightly to my lips and, therefore, I shall not use it, but it comes ill from a party that failed to take that action in government to suggest now, in a difficult economic time, that it should be taken, in part if not wholly, immediately. I was much taken with the speeches of the hon. Members who could be described as the Laurel and Hardy of Huddersfield—my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) and the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman). My hon. Friend seemed to agree with the Opposition's view, but I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East, who said that we should not be in the milk token business, the concessionary bus pass business or the concessionary television licence business. We should be doing what we can in difficult economic circumstances to make sure that the pensioner gets the fair deal to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Every hon. Member, of whatever party, wishes to see the real value of pensions increased and the pensioner choose whether he wishes to have a television, go to the public house or go to a bingo hall. What concern is it of ours what people do with their money in that sense? We all know that it has not been possible, under Governments of either party, to do everything that we should like to do for pensioners. The argument about percentages has been bandied back and forth in the House for years—whether we have done more or whether the Opposition have done more, and so on. Presumably we can go back to 1906 or 1911 if the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) wishes to join the argument. There is no point arguing about percentages. People outside this place are not interested in that. They are interested in why money is in the hands of the pensioners at the end of the week. Let us start talking in absolutes. I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that this is not the sort of issue on which we should be scoring catty party points about whether there was a ½ per cent. here or 1 per cent. there in whatever year. That is pointless and stupid. While people outside the House may hear those remarks, I am very glad that they cannot see us making them.
Does my hon. Friend accept that at present we have a bitterly unfair concessionary system for pensioners?
I do not go as far as that. I agree that there are anomalies in the present system that require sorting out. I do not believe that we need a dramatic concession by the Government to say that they will look at these matters. They should be looked at during the normal course of day-to-day Home Office business.There are reasons why we should be discussing the possibilities in detail. I take the view that we should not have concessionary television licences for pensioners, but other hon. Members take contrary views. I do not believe that a three-hour debate on the Floor of the House is the right way in which to discuss the matter in detail. I do not know whether the appropriate Select Committee has thought fit to take evidence over a long period on the matter. It will require a long-term solution—either my solution or that of the Opposition. The appropriate Committee could take evidence from a number of concerned people, including representatives of the Home Office. I am told, although I cannot believe it, that Governments of either party do not like Select Committees because occasionally they put forward recommendations that are not satisfactory to the eminent gentlemen who run the business of the House and the country. I believe that a Select Committee would be a more appropriate forum for discussing the matter properly without party points necessarily having to be made. The Government would still be open to accepting or rejecting the recommendations of the Committee and could then debate a proper document on the Floor of the House, with all the evidence and facts available. We have talked today more about what we should like to believe is the case, and we should riot take a decision on that basis. I shall happily follow my right hon. Friend into the Lobby tonight.
I wish to place one point on the record. There are, and have been over the years, remarkable excuses for not proceeding on the increasingly vexed subject of assisting pensioners. It is no good hon. Members—some of whom are so financially well lined that it is almost indecent for them even to speak on the subject—saying that we should give the pensioners the real value of their pensions so that they are free to do what they like with it. That has never been possible. Therefore, the alternative is to give an easement in kind by a concession that will remove some of the injustices.The point that I wish the House to consider is simple, irrevocably clear and should concern every hon. Member. Under Standing Order No. 18(10) the House will be asked to vote the sum of £5,583 million in the Defence Estimates. To halve the television licence fee would cost £400 million, but tonight, without a debate, we are to be asked to approve £5,583 million for defence. I should have thought that the Defence Estimates were worthy of considerable debate. I do not stand for any weakening of our defences, but I wish to end the argument that we cannot afford what everyone outside the House believes to be socially good and justifiable. Let us be honest with ourselves. This is not the place in which to argue the details of schemes. We should not tax ourselves with the question whether we can afford certain measures. Any hon. Member can use any argument under the sun on that assertion. We should be talking about the sensible distribution of the national income so that we obtain equity in our social and economic responsibilities. Whatever subject we discuss, Ministers come to the House with briefs from their officials and, having arrived at a view, tell us that we cannot afford this or that. Opposition Members, with their Socialist commitment, should be talking more in terms of the distribution of the national wealth, so that our social and economic responsibilities can be seen to be treated in a valid and responsible manner. I hope that I have put clearly on record the comparison between spending our time on a fiddling sum of £400 million and not debating the sum of £5,583 million in the Defence Estimates.
I did not intend to speak in the debate. I have not spoken in any debate for some time. I am slightly nervous about suggesting that it might be sensible to get rid of the present system of funding the BBC, but I am now emboldened to do so.The present system should be replaced by a television network financed by the sale of advertising time. That approach has been laughed at and not taken seriously. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith), it is a mistake to laugh at such a suggestion. It is a mistake to refuse even to think of the easy way out of the problem facing us. It is the easiest thing in the world to solve the problem. There is no need to take weeks to set up a committee of pensioners, as has been suggested by the Opposition, which will discuss the problem ad nauseam. There is no need for a three-line Whip on the motion and the amendment, both of which might be said to be unexceptionable. It does no harm to talk about the matter, but it is unnecessary to do so. We have only to accept what hundreds of millions of viewers throughout the world accept. I have no idea how it happens, but somehow they manage to survive. They accept television advertising and television which is funded by advertising. Of course, riot everybody agrees with that. Most right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber this evening have appeared on Anglia Television at some time. Anglia is probably the best private television company, financed by advertising, in the country. It is, therefore, perhaps an unfair example, and I am willing to accept that I am being unfair. The House is getting itself into a great lather trying to find a way of relieving pensioners of a small part of the enormous sum that they will be forced to pay for their television licences, but the solution to the problem lies within our grasp, and it is to introduce television financed by advertising. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) made a most amusing and interesting speech in which he said that the advertising revenue would be insufficient. My hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead knows that shortly before television advertising was introduced there were doubts about the revenue that would accrue to the companies. Charles Hill, as he then was, said to me "The trouble is that the advertising industry will be unable to afford to set up these stations." In fact, the television companies were vastly over-subscribed, and to have shares in a television company was to be given a mint. Television companies have never been short of money, as is generally known, and nobody will convince me that the BBC could not be financed by advertising revenue. My humble appeal is that television, solely financed by advertising revenue, should be not laughed at, but seriously considered. Moreover, we should not laugh at the possibility of getting rid of the problems that we have been discussing this evening by getting rid of the franchising of the BBC in return for Parliament voting it enormous licence fees.
We are discussing a serious problem, and in many respects I agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens). There are probably more letters in my postbag on concessionary licences than on any other issue, especially at this time of year. The elderly meet more frequently shortly before and after Christmas and they discuss licence fees generally. These discussions often lead to animosity among themselves because of the anomalies.The Home Secretary talked about easy payment schemes. Why have these schemes been introduced? Their purpose is to ease the burden that falls especially on the elderly, certainly in the area that I represent. There are some who ask "Why talk about concessions when we should be discussing increasing the retirement pension?" I should accept that approach if we knew that the pension link between prices and wages was to be reestablished and if the loss that pensioners have suffered since that link was broken was to be restored, but we know that the current pension is insufficient to overcome pensioners' problems. Those who have a licence for colour television are having to revert to black and white television, and those who have a licence for black and white television are having to go without television. In my constituency it is clear that television is a necessity of life for many pensioners. In the present economic climate television is becoming a necessity for more and more members of the community. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West and I agree on the need for concessionary licences. As he is one of my constituents, he is familiar with conditions in my constituency. In many homes the fireplace is no longer the focal point. It has been replaced by the television. It is the most important item for those who are housebound and for those who have difficulty in getting about, especially in bad weather. In rural areas public transport has been curtailed by Government cuts and local government's lack of finances. For many of the elderly television is a source of pleasure and entertainment, a way of obtaining news and a stimulus for conversation. There are purpose-built centres for the elderly in my constituency, and those who live in them receive concessionary licences. The residents of bungalows that are linked to a warden service similarly receive concessionary licences. There are many others who are debarred from the concession, including those in tenanted accommodation and owner-occupiers. There are other anomalies. Some local authorities have felt obliged to help pensioners in their areas who do not enjoy concessionary licences, but there is no uniform pattern. Those who live on one side of a street may enjoy the 5p licence, whereas those who live on the other side have their licence fees reduced by £7 or £8 because of local authority intervention. Those who live at the other end of the street may have no assistance, because of a local authority boundary. In one instance that I came across, an 83-year old mother was living in upstairs accommodation that was not classed as part of a purpose-built dwelling although its dimensions and all the other features were exactly the same as the downstairs accommodation, which was so designated. The 83-year old's daughter, who lived downstairs, was able to enjoy a concessionary licence, while her mother was not. That is one of so many ridiculous anomalies that have come to my attention. I was sorry that a Minister said on television that as this was the season of good will she hoped that the children would pay for their elderly parents' television licences. She forgot that the 3½ million unemployed will be hard put to do any such thing. The Labour Party manifesto promised to phase out television licence fees for pensioners during the lifetime of this Parliament. That is not too big a burden for any Government. I hope that it will appear in the next Labour Party manifesto, but I hope, too, that the Home Secretary will consider it in that light. I do not ask him to abolish the fee immediately. If he will phase it out over a period, people will understand the position. We should then have the same for all. I accept that there will be fringe areas in which people may grumble, but one must start somewhere. We should start by phasing out television licence fees for old-age pensioners.
The longer the debate continues, the more the existing anomalies are revealed. Any attempt to cobble up a scheme to give increased concessions for pensioners' television licences will simply create more anomalies.My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) referred to identifying necessitous pensioners. I am appalled to think that we might thereby introduce a further means-tested benefit. With the best will in the world, such a prospect fills me with foreboding. No section of the community suffers as much distress as old-age pensioners do at the prospect of applying for any kind of benefit that entails a visit from the local DHSS. I should say at once that, without exception, visitors from my local DHSS office are more than fair and helpful to all pensioner clients, but that does not stop an old dear from suffering an upset stomach and an attack of nerves at the prospect of a visitor arriving at her door. Let no one misunderstand me. I am all for old-age pensioners enjoying a 100 per cent. concession on television licences. As we said in our manifesto, their television viewing should be free. To achieve that while still retaining television licences, however, will mean that many of my hard-pressed constituents will have to pay £70 instead of the present fee. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) said, we should be giving free television licences to many people who could well afford to pay for them. There is only one solution to the problem of anomalies—to do away with television licensing altogether. Let the BBC be properly financed through taxation. Those with the biggest purses will then pay the biggest share, and the countless people who now view for nothing and never buy a licence will have to pay their way. The only way to prevent many old-age pensioners from being forced to send back their televisions because they cannot afford the licence fee is to do away with licences altogether and finance the BBC through taxation.
The Opposition initiated the debate because of our deep and long-standing concern for retirement pensioners. We do not oppose the television licence fee as a method of financing the BBC. Nor do we oppose an increase in that fee, which I believe is the best value in the world for broadcasting. We accept that the BBC's total expenditure now exceeds £500 million and that it will continue to increase. We simply ask the Government to consult organisations representing pensioners to determine the best way to provide a concession and then to report back to the House. That is a reasonable, sensible and humane request.The Government amendment appears to say that pensioners should receive no special help but should pay the fee out of the pension in their pocket. As many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, the money is simply not in their pockets. It is therefore an unreasonable, unrealistic and heartless amendment. The Government seem not to appreciate the difficulties experienced by millions of elderly people with the existing retirement pension. My hon. Friends the Members for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) have pointed out that the increase in the licence fee comes at the same time as a pension increase which is 2 per cent. less than the rate of inflation. The Government amendment, in referring to
is therefore utterly deceptive. The pension today is less than one-half of the average gross earnings for a married couple and less than one-third of the average gross earnings for a single person, the latter being the aim of most pensioners' organisations. I cannot speak for Conservative Members, but we receive letters almost daily from constituents saying that they cannot manage on their pensions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. McKay) stressed. We welcome the proposals to offer a choice of methods of payment, but they do not affect the main issue before us. Millions of pensioners cannot afford to choose how to pay, so choice does not come into it. Many hon. Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friends, have said that they would like to do away with concessions, handouts and Christmas bonuses. In an ideal world, nobody would wish either to give or to receive handouts, but in today's world some concessions for the elderly are necessary. Many of them do not have enough money for basic necessities, such as clothes, light, rent and food. For these people, television is not a luxury. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, it is almost a necessity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) pointed out, it is not simply something that is nice to have, such as cigarettes, bingo or Guinness. For many of these people, the television in their room is their only window on the world. It is not simply a moving picture; it is there to educate, stimulate and inform them. Those are the objects of the BBC. It not only combats loneliness but provides the companionship that retired people need."the maintenance of the real value of the retirement pension",
If the hon. Lady is so keen for pensioners to have this wonderful panorama of the world, why does she not wish them to have colour television, which would be the easiest thing in the world? Most of them have black and white television. The hon. Lady has referred to their poverty. I have said that they should pay no licence fee at all.
If the hon. Gentleman will wait, I shall come to that very point. If pensioners are to have visual and mental stimulation and to broaden their horizons, they certainly deserve colour television. The prospects for broadcasting are not static. They are dynamic and challenging. It is a medium which influences every man, woman and child. Within the next decade there will be more channels, more choice and major technological changes in television.The chairman of the BBC, Mr. George Howard, has stated that we are on the brink of an explosion in broadcasting. Every retirement pensioner has the right to be part of that revolution and to benefit from those changes in enjoyment and instruction. Labour Members are pledged to phase out pensioners' licence fees completely. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook pointed out that his proposal for charging a licence fee on the estimated 300,000 television sets in hotel rooms would raise about £15 million. How does the Home Secretary arrive at his estimate of only £8 million? It seems to vary from that of my right hon. Friend. Will the Home Secretary tell us when the working party on the administration of the broadcast receiving licence system will complete its study of the matter and announce how it will be implemented? I welcome the realistic and refreshing attitude of the director-general designate of the BBC to this matter. Mr. Alasdair Milne has shown commendable concern about the difficulties which will face retirement pensioners in meeting the increased cost of the licence. His words, quoted in our motion, are that
In one of his first interviews after his appointment, Mr. Milne suggested that the matter should be given priority. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) seemed to imply that black and white is good enough for retired people. Even if they could afford the £15—which is not always the case—why should they have to be satisfied with black and white, which is a second-class picture? They deserve colour in their lives, especially as most of them have little enough under the Government. Hon. Members on both sides of the House rightly condemn the anomalies in the existing television licensing arrangements for pensioners. Those anomalies cause justifiable anger and resentment among pensioners. The debate has shown that the issue is not as simple as it looks at first sight. There are no easy solutions, and the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West made the problems more complicated with every sentence that he uttered. That is why we are asking not only for help for pensioners but for the Government to consult pensioners' organisations to determine how a concession can be provided, to examine alternative methods and to report back to the House. The debate has shown a need for such consultation, which could produce a great deal of useful information. The Opposition proposal is modest. It is designed to enhance the quality of life for retired people. People are living longer now and can expect decades in retirement. If they are physically fit, they need the mental and visual stimulation and company of television. It is an uncontroversial motion, and it is to the shame of the Conservative Party that it cannot see fit to support it. The case put by the Home Secretary was unconvincing and lacking in compassion and understanding for the needs of the elderly. The Labour Party is making a practical, realistic and humane proposal. I ask all hon. Members to support it in the Lobby."some way has to be found of relieving pensioners of paying full television licence fees annually".
I sense that the House is anxious to come to a quick decision. There is another important debate to follow. For those reasons, I shall reply briefly. If I do not answer some of the points that have been made by hon. Members, I undertake to write to them in detail. That particularly applies to the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) who asked me about the detail on costing of hotels. I shall write to her with full details of exactly how the figures were arrived at. I owe her that.The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port (Mr. Porter) put their fingers on one of the great difficulties which I found last night when I saw what was described by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) as "a modest motion". The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West said that he would be content if the consultations proposed under the Opposition motion were to take place, and if at the end of those consultations it were reported to the House that there was no reasonable way of meeting the concessions. That would have been an easy road for me to go down, but it would have been false to the House, wrong and dishonest to accept the motion. The words in the Opposition motion are
Once we go down that road a concession has to be found."so as to determine the best way in which a concession can be provided".
I note that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook accepts that. The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West cannot have what he proposed. I do not believe—and a good many hon. Members clearly do not believe—that such a concession could be found as a result of consultation. It would be totally dishonest to mislead pensioners in that respect.The contribution of the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) cancelled out that of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens). I do not complain about that; I am quite content. My hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) made an excellent speech, which I greatly admired, and effectively answered the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook concerning the possibility of cross-fertilisation between the two different systems. Our public service broadcasting system has considerable value, because it depends on two different and separate systems, one dependent on licence fees and the other on advertising. It would, I believe, be a mistake to cross-fertilise. The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) suggested the abolition of the licence fee, as did some other hon. Members. He said that he had never seen the case argued in depth, but it was argued in depth by the Annan committee, which concluded that the BBC should be financed by the licence fee. The Annan committee thought that a concessionary licence for old-age pensioners and others should not be introduced. My predecessor in office at the time accepted that view. The Annan committee suggested that the present concession—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) that it causes anxiety and irritation—should be phased out. It would be a hard-faced decision to take away something that people already have, and I do not think that it would be accepted by the House. That is the danger of going down the concession road. Even those who, like the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Brown), would like to end the licence fee, do not favour the idea of concessions. We have tabled an honest amendment which sets out the position fairly. I shall not go again into the arguments about the level of pensions, except to say that the Government are absolutely committed to keeping retirement pensions in line with the rise in the cost of living. We have made that abundantly clear and will stand by our decision. We are always ready to enter into consultations, but it would have been dishonest to accept what is admittedly a modest motion and then fail to come up with a satisfactory answer. I am glad to note that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook agrees with me in that respect. For those reasons, I ask the House to reject the motion and to support the amendment.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
The House divided: Ayes 241, Noes 296.
Division No. 30]
|Abse, Leo||Ellis, R.(NED'bysh're)|
|Anderson,Donald||Ennals, Rt Hon David|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Evans, John (Newton)|
|Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (H'wd)||Fletcher, L. R. (Ilkeston)|
|Beith, A. J.||Fletcher,Ted (Darlington)|
|Bennett,Andrew(St'kp'tn)||Foot, Rt Hon Michael|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Forrester,John|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Garrett, John (NorwichS)|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Brown, R. C. (N'castle W)||Golding,John|
|Brown, Ronald W. (H'ckn'yS)||Graham, Ted|
|Brown, Ron (E 'burgh, Leith)||Grant, George(Morpeth)|
|Buchan,Norman||Grant, John (IslingtonC)|
|Callaghan,RtHonJ.||Hamilton, W. W. (C'tralFife)|
|Campbell,Ian||Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith|
|Campbell-Savours,Dale||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy|
|Carmichael,Neil||Healey, Rt Hon Denis|
|Cartwright,John||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Hogg, N. (EDunb't'nshire)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stolS)||Holland,S.(L'b'th,Vauxh'll)|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||Hooley, Frank|
|Cook, Robin F.||Horam,John|
|Cowans, Harry||Howell, RtHonD.|
|Craigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill)||Howells,Geraint|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Hudson Davies, Gwilym E.|
|Cunningham, G.(IslingtonS)||Hughes, Mark(Durham)|
|Cunningham, DrJ. (W'h'n)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Dalyell,Tam||Hughes, Hoy (Newport)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Davies, Ifor (Gower)||John.Brynmor|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)||Johnson, James (Hull West)|
|Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd)||Johnson, Walter (Derby S)|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)|
|Dempsey, James||Jones, Barry (East Flint)|
|Dewar,Donald||Jones, Dan (Burnley)|
|Dickens,Geoffrey||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Dixon, Donald||Kerr, Russell|
|Lestor, Miss Joan||Rooker, J. W.|
|Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Roper,John|
|Litherland, Robert||Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)|
|Lofthouse,Geoffrey||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Lyons, Edward (Bradf'dW)||Rowlands,Ted|
|McKay, Allen (Penistone)||Sheldon, RtHonR.|
|McKelvey, William||Shore, RtHon Peter|
|Maclennan,Robert||Silkin, RtHonJ. (Deptford)|
|McMahon, Andrew||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)|
|McTaggart,Robert||Smith, RtHonJ. (NLanark)|
|Marshall, DrEdmund (Goole)||Spriggs,Leslie|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Stallard, A. W.|
|Martin,M (G'gowS'burn)||Steel, RtHon David|
|Mason, RtHon Roy||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Mellish, RtHon Robert||Straw,Jack|
|Millan, RtHon Bruce||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)|
|Miller, DrM.S. (EKilbride)||Thomas, DrR. (Carmarthen)|
|Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)||Thorne, Stan (PrestonSouth)|
|Mitchell, R.C. (Soton Itchen)||Tilley,John|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)||Tinn, James|
|Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)||Torney,Tom|
|Morris, RtHon J. (Aberavon)||Urwin, RtHon Tom|
|Morton,George||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Mulley, RtHon Frederick||Wainwright,E. (Dearne V)|
|Newens, Stanley||Wainwright,R. (ColneV)|
|O'Halloran, Michael||Walker, Rt Hon H.(D'caster)|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Weetch,Ken|
|Parry, Robert||White, J. (G'gowPollok)|
|Penhaligon, David||Whitlock, William|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Williams, Rt Hon A.(S'sea W)|
|Prescott,John||Williams, RtHon Mrs (Crosby)|
|Price, C. (Lewisham W)||Wilson, Gordon (DundeeE)|
|Race, Reg||Wilson, RtHon Sir H.(H'ton)|
|Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)||Woodall,Alec|
|Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)|
|Roberts.Gwilym (Cannock)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Robertson,George||Mr. James Hamilton and Mr. Walter Harrison.|
|Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|Rodgers, RtHon William|
|Adley, Robert||Biffen, RtHon John|
|Alison, RtHon Michael||Blackburn,John|
|Amery, RtHon Julian||Blaker,Peter|
|Atkins, RtHon H (S'thorne)||Bottomley, Peter (WwichW)|
|Atkins, Robert (PrestonN)||Bowden,Andrew|
|Baker,Kenneth (St.M'bone)||Boyson,Dr Rhodes|
|Baker, Nicholas (NDorset)||Braine,SirBernard|
|Bell,SirRonald||Brittan,Rt. Hon. Leon|
|Bendall,Vivian||Brooke, Hon Peter|
|Benyon,Thomas (A'don)||Brotherton, Michael|
|Best, Keith||Brown, Michael(Brigg&Sc'n)|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Browne, John (Winchester)|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt. Hon. A.||Hastings,Stephen|
|Buck,Antony||Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael|
|Carlisle, John (LutonWest)||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Hicks,Robert|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Chalker, Mrs. Lynda||Hogg,HonDouglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Channon,Rt. Hon. Paul||Holland,Philip (Carlton)|
|Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n)||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Howell,RtHonD.(G'ldf'd)|
|Clarke,Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Howell, Ralph (NNorfolk)|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Colvin, Michael||Irving,Charles (Cheltenham)|
|Cope,John||Jenkin, RtHon Patrick|
|Dean, Paul (NorthSomerset)||King, RtHon Tom|
|Douglas-Hamilton, LordJ.||Knox, David|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Lang, Ian|
|Eden, RtHon Sir John||Lawson, RtHon Nigel|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||LeMarchant,Spencer|
|Elliott,SirWilliam||Lester, Jim (Beeston)|
|Eyre,Reginald||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)|
|Fairbairn,Nicholas||Lloyd, Ian (Havant &W'loo)|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||MacGregor,John|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey||MacKay, John (Argyll)|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel||Macmillan, RtHon M.|
|Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'ghN)||McNair-Wilson,M.(N'bury)|
|Fletcher-Cooke,SirCharles||McNair-Wilson, P. (NewF'st)|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||McQuarrie,Albert|
|Forman, Nigel||Madel, David|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Major,John|
|Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh||Marlow,Antony|
|Fraser, Peter (South Angus)||Marshall,Michael (Arundel)|
|Gardiner,George (Reigate)||Marten, RtHon Neil|
|Gardner, Edward (SFylde)||Mates,Michael|
|Gilmour, RtHonSirlan||Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus|
|Glyn, DrAlan||Mawby, Ray|
|Gower, Sir Raymond||Meyer,SirAnthony|
|Grant, Anthony (HarrowC)||Miller,Half (B'grove,)|
|Gray, Ham ish||Mills,Iain (Meriden)|
|Greenway, Harry||Mills, Peter (WestDevon)|
|Grieve, Percy||Mitchell,David (Basingstoke)|
|Griffiths, E.(B'ySt. Edm'ds)||Moate, Roger|
|Griffiths, Peter Portsm'thN)||Monro,SirHector|
|Gummer,JohnSelwyn||Morris, M. (N'hamptonS)|
|Hamilton, Hon A.||Morrison, HonC. (Devizes)|
|Hamilton, Michael(Salisbury)||Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)|
|Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)|
|Page, John (Harrow, West)||StradlingThomas,J.|
|Page, Richard (SWHerts)||Tapsell, Peter|
|Parkinson, RtHonCecil||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Parris, Matthew||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Patten, John (Oxford)||Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.|
|Pattie,Geoffrey||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Pawsey, James||Thompson, Donald|
|Pollock,Alexander||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Porter, Barry||Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)|
|Prentice, Rt Hon Reg||Trippier,David|
|Price, SirDavid (Eastleigh)||Trotter,Neville|
|Prior, Rt Hon James||vanStraubenzee,SirW.|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Vaughan,DrGerard|
|Pym, Rt Hon Francis||Viggers, Peter|
|Rees-Davies, W. R.||Waldegrave,HonWilliam|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Walker, Rt Hon P.(W'cester)|
|Rifkind,Malcolm||Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D.|
|Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Wall,SirPatrick|
|Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)||Walters,Dennis|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conway)||Ward,John|
|St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.||Whitelaw,RtHonWilliam|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Wickenden, Keith|
|Shelton,William (Streatham)||Williams,D. (Montgomery)|
|Silvester, Fred||Younger, RtHonGeorge|
|Skeet, T. H. H.||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Smith,Dudley||Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. Anthony Berry.|
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 32 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.
Mr. SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question as amended, to be agreed to pursuant to Standing Order No. 32 (Questions on Amendments).
That this House endorses the Government's decision to increase the television licence fees to £46 for colour and £15 for monochrome on the basis that these will last for at least three years; and believes that the right way to help retirement pensioners is through the provision of a choice of methods of payment and the maintenance of the real value of the retirement pension.