No, Sir. The Government consider that it is better to continue to assist retirement pensioners by benefits in cash which they can spend as they choose rather than by benefits in kind such as concessionary television licences. Any concessionary scheme would make the licensing system more costly and difficult to operate.
Will the Minister accept that that is a disappointing reply, especially to so many of our elderly constituents? Will the Government recognise the justice of the claim made by so many retired pensioners that they should not have to pay the full television licence fee, for reasons which must be obvious to the Minister? Cannot a start be made by reducing the fee for those people by at least a half?
What must be borne in mind is that any concessions to this class of television viewer should be paid for only out of additional costs imposed upon other licence holders. If we were to make a free licence available for all pensioner households the amount involved would be between £155 and £170 million a year. That is about one third of the licence revenue.
Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that that is a disappointing reply, especially as the colour TV licence is likely to increase to £50 fairly soon? That figure is well beyond the reach of the average pensioner. Will my hon, and learned Friend look at this matter again to see whether there is any possibility of introducing a scheme whereby old-age pensioners may have a black and white TV licence without charge?
I naturally share my hon. Friend's concern that those who are by far and away the poorer section of the community should have such benefits as the country can afford. However, my hon. Friend knows, equally, the extreme financial stringency which applies to all areas of Government expenditure. I am afraid that it applies here.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman assure the House that the licence fee will not be increased? Is he aware that, if there is a further increase, pensioners will find it far harder than they already do to meet that cost? Does he accept that either he should allow them a concession or should assure them that the fee will not be increased?
With her experience in this office the hon. Lady knows very well that I could not give that assurance. She knows that what the Government are being asked to do is something that her Government neglected to do.
Will my hon. and Learned Friend consider getting out of all this trouble about the television licence fee by not renewing the BBC franchise when it falls due for renewal and instead making the whole thing subject to advertising revenue? Does he accept that he need not worry about the unpopularity of such a move because the fewer people who watch television the better off the nation will be?
I should be delighted to get out of this trouble, but I think that I should get into more trouble if I advocated the policy enshrined in my hon. Friend's last sentence.