Since 1 January this year four petitions forwarded by hon. Members have been received, and 42 hon. Members and 72 members of the public have written seeking either free or concessionary television licences for pensioners and disabled people.
Is the Minister aware that that is a significant number of representations? Does he accept that pensioners and disabled people in residential care get the television licence for 5p under the 1978 regulations, whereas if they come out of residential or institutional care into the community they must pay a thousand times as much for their licences? In view of the Government's policy of trying to move people into the community and of bolstering community care, is that not a contradiction? Is it not time to look again, at least in part, at those regulations?
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point and the similar points that have been made to me by other hon. Members on both sides of the House. There are anomalies in the scheme and we are currently examining whether it would be appropriate to amend it.
Is the Minister aware that pensioners and many others in the community are bound to ask why, on Tuesday, the Chancellor could give substantial tax concessions to the super-rich while the Government deny free television licences to the elderly? Does the hon. Gentleman not know that most pensioners live on a small income and that television plays an important part in their lives? When will the Government end this mean-spirited squalid attitude towards our elderly?
I shall take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman about the treatment of pensioners, given that the last labour Government cancelled their Christmas bonus two years out of five. After the Budget, the average single pensioner will be more than £68 a year better off and married pensioner couples will be £147 a year better off. That compares with an increase in the television licence of only £4·50—the first for three years. If we gave a free licence to all pensioners, many better-off pensioners would receive one at the expense of some non-pensioners who are on low incomes.
Is my hon. Friend aware that it is now more than 12 months since the Melton borough council wrote asking him to sort out the problems of concessionary licences following the Kirklees judgment, and five and a half weeks since I brought a deputation to him on this matter? May we have a decision in weeks, rather than months — to use Lord Wilson's famous phrase?
I am aware of this. I told my hon. Friend when he brought the deputation to see me that there were anomalies in the scheme. That is why I told the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) that we are considering ways of amending it.
I agree that the Labour party has nothing to be proud of on pensions, but does my hon. Friend accept that there are anomalies in expenditure on television licences in sheltered accommodation and the like? He will recall that there was recently a court case in Norfolk about this matter and that I have corresponded with him on behalf of the residents of the Felbrigg Green residents' home in Hellesdon in Norwich. Does he accept that this anomaly must be sorted out?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I am aware of the case to which he refers. It is because of that and other cases that we are now considering why those in sheltered housing and accommodation provided by housing associations or councils should receive this substantial benefit while others in other types of sheltered housing in the private sector do not. That is why we are now considering ways of amending the scheme.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to bide his time and exercise his patience, because if we are to reform a scheme that is clearly full of anomalies, we wish to come up with one that is fairer and more just.
Will my hon. Friend quantify the number of people who could have a licence at a reduced fee, how it would be paid for, what its cost would be and the effect of that cost being included in the licence fee?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Following the Kirklees judgment there is a considerable inclination for local authorities—one understands why—to try to change their existing sheltered accommodation housing schemes to bring them within the ambit of the scheme. The fact is that if all pensioners were able to obtain that benefit it would cost about £350 million per year, which would have the effect of increasing the licence fee by 50 per cent. for everyone else.
Before the Minister starts lecturing us about pensioners, does he accept that the problem would not arise for millions of pensioners if his Government had not snapped the link between rises in incomes and rises in pensions? Will he now think again about the answer that he gave about refusing to give an undertaking to the House that, as part of the review of the anomalies, he will not withdraw the treatment that those now living in sheltered accommodation receive? Can he explain to the House why it would be an anomaly to offer all pensioner households free television licences, irrespective of levels of income, when every state pensioner is entitled to the Christmas bonus?
The hon. Gentleman should not forget that during the five years when the Labour Government were in power pensioners' average annual incomes increased by only 3 per cent. in real terms — that was over the entire five-year period—whereas since we have been in office pensioners' average incomes have increased, after inflation, by the same figure—by 3 per cent. every year that we have been in Government. It is for that reason that one cannot accept lectures from the hon. Gentleman.