Concessionary Television Licences
Mrs Janet Anderson (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport; Rossendale and Darwen, Labour)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) for his well-timed congratulations, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who have campaigned on the issue; to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. King), who sponsored an early-day motion on the issue; and to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has campaigned on it for many years.
I am sure that most, if not all, Members of the House have received numerous representations about concessionary television licences, not only for pensioners, but for other groups such as the disabled, the unemployed and those on a low income. The subject frequently crops up in my constituency mailbag. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin specifically mentioned the position of people who are blind, and we listened carefully to what he said. As he said, and as the Government are very much aware, the system is illogical. It produces a great deal of resentment and a sense of grievance.
The Government are keenly aware of the importance of television to many people, especially to those who are socially isolated as a result of old age, illness or disability, or who are unable to afford other types of leisure activity. I am only sorry that, for the majority of this important debate, the Opposition Benches have been empty. I can only conclude that Opposition Members do not accord this issue the importance that Labour Members do.
Although we believe that the television licence fee, at 27p a day for colour and 9p for black and white, represents good value for money, we appreciate that it is a significant expense for people on a low income. The difficulty is that, for a large number—in fact, a substantial proportion—of households, a persuasive case can be made for a concessionary television licence. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin has gone some way to make the case for several categories of people.
However, the BBC depends on television licence fee revenue for its home broadcasting grant. The Government's current agreement with the BBC guarantees the licence fee as the mechanism for funding the corporation until at least March 2002. Any broadly based concession at a rate likely to be of real help to recipients would lead to a considerable loss of licence fee revenue. As a result, to maintain the level of the BBC's grant, everyone else's television licence fee would have to rise sharply.
I give a few examples. The provision of concessionary television licences for all pensioner-only households would lead to an estimated loss of £489 million in licence fee revenue, and would require an increase of approximately £29 in the standard licence fee. Free licences for all pensioner-only households with at least one member in receipt of income support would cost an estimated £112 million, and would require an increase of about £5 in the full licence fee—an increase which would also fall on non-qualifying pensioners.
Many non-pensioners may be thought to have an equally good case for a concessionary licence, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin eloquently argued. An estimated 19 per cent. of households with television have one or more members in receipt of income support, more than 5 per cent. have a member in receipt of disability living allowance and nearly 4 per cent. a member in receipt of attendance allowance. It would be very difficult to justify to a non-pensioner in such circumstances an increase of as much as 30 per cent. in his or her licence fee to provide a general concession for pensioners.
It is sometimes suggested that the solution is for the Government to make good from public funds the cost of any concessionary arrangements. However, for good reason, the arrangements for funding the BBC have always been kept separate from Government spending. In addition to providing the BBC with a secure source of revenue, licence fee funding of the BBC grant preserves the traditional arm's-length relationship between the corporation and the Government. To abandon that arrangement might be regarded as prejudicing the corporation's independence.
The possibility of funding concessions by charging hotels and other businesses a full licence fee for each television set installed has also been suggested. An estimated £33.5 million in additional revenue might be raised by charging hotels a full licence fee for each television set in use. However, no information is held centrally on the number of television sets installed at other business premises. In any case, the Government are not persuaded that it would be right to impose a significant extra burden on businesses to fund concessionary television licences.
Charging a licence fee for each television set, whether for business premises or generally, would at present also require a significant increase in the costs of administering and enforcing the licensing system, which the Government believe would be unacceptable. Such a system may become possible in future, as digital receivers become the norm, but that day is some way off. Nevertheless, I assure my hon. Friends that it is a possibility, and that we shall keep it under consideration.
Many hon. Members are also familiar with problems arising from the existing concessionary television licence scheme. Under that scheme, television licences are available for £5, but only to pensioners and disabled people living in nursing or residential homes, or in directly comparable sheltered accommodation provided or managed by a local authority, a housing association or a development corporation. Those complications of the present scheme make it very difficult for people to understand how it works.
The Government receive frequent pleas for changes to the concessionary scheme to tackle its perceived shortcomings, usually in relation to specific cases where an individual or a sheltered housing scheme fails to qualify. The concessionary scheme does give rise to many anomalies. Its shortcomings are of particular concern because they directly affect some of the more vulnerable members of our society. Since it was formally established in the 1960s, the scheme has undergone several amendments and extensions. None of them has succeeded in making it more popular, easier to administer or more comprehensible to the layman.
It is clear from the history of the scheme, and from the wide range of criticisms levelled at it, that there is no possibility of resolving its shortcomings by fine-tuning the regulations. The amendments most frequently proposed involve extending the scheme to accommodation that is currently excluded. Examples include sheltered accommodation interspersed with mainstream housing, accommodation without a full-time or resident warden and private sheltered housing. However, such changes would leave out many people who, on grounds of health, social or financial circumstances, deserve a concession just as much.
Another proposal that is often made in relation to the concessionary scheme is that the regulations should be flexible, to allow common sense to prevail in difficult or marginal cases. However, that flexibility would be likely to erode the framework provided by the regulations, increase the number of disputed cases and, in the longer term, make the concessionary scheme impossible to administer.
The Government are by no means complacent about the concessionary scheme. I assure my hon. Friends that we accept that it is less than satisfactory, but we do not believe that changes to the existing scheme would result in arrangements that would be generally acceptable. On the contrary, it is almost certain that pressure for further changes would continue unabated.
As hon. Members know, the Government's current agreement with the BBC guarantees the licence fee as the mechanism for funding the BBC only until March 2002. The agreement provides for a review of the funding arrangements before that date. I give the House an assurance that the Government intend to carry out such a review in good time to allow decisions to be taken before then. We shall use that opportunity to consider in detail not only the future of the existing concessionary scheme, but the wider matter of concessions.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin for introducing this important debate. We have listened to him and others of my hon. Friends, and we shall certainly take their views into account in our deliberations.