Concessionary Television Licences (Hansard, 3 December 1990)
HC Deb 03 December 1990 vol 182 cc148-56

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

12.16 am
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

I last spoke in the House of Commons on the issue of concessionary television licences on 19 May 1989. I am not the first person to speak on the subject and, until the Government do away with paying for the BBC through a licensing system, I doubt that I shall be the last.

I wish to draw attention to the situation in Teesside at present, consequent on regulations introduced by the Government a short time ago. I wonder how the average person would feel if he was to receive an official communication from the National TV Licence Records Office, which reads as follows: Dear Mrs. Littlefair, Thank you for your recent letter. I have checked our records concerning the Accommodation for Residential Care concessionary licence for the premises you occupy and confirm that your name is listed on that licence. Therefore, there is no need for you to obtain a full fee licence. The letter resulted in a delighted Mrs. Littlefair until someone realised that a mistake had been made and Mrs. Littlefair was told that the concession was withdrawn.

Did Mrs. Littlefair make the mistake? Was she her own enemy? No, because it was not up to her to make the application, which had to be made by Middlesbrough borough council housing department. Did it do so? Yes, it put in an application for a large number of people in Middlesbrough in February 1987, and it became clear that the department made a mistake when submitting it. Therefore, the relevant authorities received the faulty documentation in 1987. What did they do about it? They waited until it was too late to have it put right—14 months later—before apprising Middlesbrough borough council of the position. Mrs. Littlefair did not make a mistake; the council did—but it made it 14 months earlier. Then Mrs. Littlefair and the other residents of the Easterside estate in my constituency were disbarred from concessionary licences.

The heinous crime of the local authority was having put in a computer printout that quite properly listed the names of all the people, and their addresses, who were entitled to concessionary licences—all but four or six of them. At the time, their names had not been fully entered. I am glad to see that the Minister has a copy of the printout, which contains a handwritten annotation to the effect that those four or six properties would be added as soon as possible. They were added, one month later, but the Government now rigidly maintain that those people did not meet the deadline stipulated in the 1988 regulations. So poor Mrs. Littlefair and her neighbours have lost concessionary television licences for ever, because of a mistake that was not recognised or rectified.

I came across the case accidentally when the son-in-law of Mrs. Littlefair brought it to my attention. I discovered that she was not the only victim of this bureaucratic nonsense: it has happened all over Teesside. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) here. He knows what is happening in our area.

Langbaurgh is the other half of my constituency. There is a two-page printout of people in Langbaurgh who have been disqualified because of computer errors. A computer makes an error, so an elderly person is deprived of the concessionary licence that his When first I raised the matter with Langbaurgh council, hundreds of people were in the same situation, but gradually the numbers have been whittled down. I am sure that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) will say a few words shortly about the exact figures for the whole area.

People who are entitled to concessionary television licences and have done no wrong should be told that the Government did not intend to disqualify them for this sort of mistake. We have had apologies, but apologies from the Minister do not help the people who will have to pay the full £71 licence fee. Sometimes the Government even make a concession. On 20 August I received a letter informing me that my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Knight, qualify because their tenancy commenced in 1986: We believe that they will get the concession. Once we have heard, we will let you know. It is now nearly Christmas and my constituents still have not heard. Fourteen months, six months, apologies, but all the time innocent people are losing the benefits to which they should be entitled.

One apology states that the matter will cause deep disappointment. It will not; it will cause deep resentment, which is a different thing altogether. No Government should treat people in that way if they have made no error themselves. Much of the problem is due to the 1988 regulations, a nonsensical measure that set neighbour against neighbour and family against family. A lady of 58 was married to a gentleman in his late 60s who died. They had a concessionary licence when he died and his widow was allowed to continue to have it. But because any newcomer is under 60, she is disqualified from having the concessionary licence, as that complex of old people's accommodation is outside the scope of the regulations. Is that what everyone wants, and is it what was intended?

The widow's 84-year-old mum moved from one of the estates because she was getting a little frail and took up residence in one of the other houses in the accommodation. She is not entitled to the concession, even though she is 84. However, her daughter, who is only 58, is entitled to keep the concession. Such nonsense does not make for good government.

The Government will have to make a change. I know my hon. Friend the Minister very well. He is in the position that many Ministers have been in of defending the indefensible. Only a few months ago, the House was told by a Minister that the Government could not give additional pensions to war widows before a given date. There was pressure in the House and within a few weeks a Minister said, "We have found the money." There was a chorus of hallelujah. It can be done because, if there is a will, there is a way.

The Minister may say that a change requires primary legislation. I have been here for two and a half hours listening to a debate that arose because the Government cocked up and had to put matters right by introducing primary legislation. They could do the same with the 1988 regulations.

Because of my interest in the subject, a little piece of paper from a housing association floated on to my desk. It is a letter about satellite television and I shall read part of it: The film channel is one for which the hire or purchase of a decoder would be necessary. Once the rules on franchising are relaxed on 1 January 1991, Telefusion will offer the Trust the addition of 4 channels of Sky Television. The cost would be an extra 54p on the service charge. For Assured Tenants this would be at the annual rent increase, and for Secured Tenants when the rent is next registered after the completion of the work. This will be eligible for Housing Benefit. Anyone on Housing Benefit, therefore, will receive the service free of charge. Any minute now, all old people in accommodation in which satellite television is available will be able to have it beamed in and paid for out of housing benefit. I bet that the Government have not thought that one through, any more than they thought through any of the matters that cause all the trouble over concessionary licences.

There is only one way to deal with the problem and it is to abolish the licence. The more it is tinkered with, the more anomalies will arise. The time has come for the Government to stop Back Benchers such as me from moaning about an issue that is as indefensible as their stance on pensions for war widows. It is time for action. My hon. Friend the Minister will say that within the regulations he can do nothing. He can get the regulations changed.

12.30 pm
Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

I thank the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) for giving me a chance to participate in the debate. We do not agree on much, and I am pleased that this evening we agree on the issue that he has raised. I am sure that he will maintain pressure on the Minister, as I will. The issue will not go away. If the Minister wants to deal with it, he can do so, as the hon. Member for Langbaurgh said, in a clear and positive way. If he does not want late-night debates and does not want to be harried on the issue, that is what he should do. Given the injustice and the downright stupidity of the present situation, we shall maintain our pressure on the Minister.

As the hon. Member for Langbaurgh said, it is necessary to think things through. We are not interested in apportioning blame. As has been said, a computer fault created the anomaly to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention. As a result, individuals are being discriminated against, unfairly and unjustly. We could take the time of the House to refer to many of the examples that we have to hand, but I shall quote only one. Mrs. Cross, of Shinwell crescent, Southbank, moved into sheltered accommodation in October 1987. It is within the Government's definition of sheltered. There is a resident warden, not a mobile, visiting warden. She became an old-age pensioner on 30 January 1988. She has been denied a concessionary licence because of a computer error, which led to "Not OAP" instead of "OAP" appearing in the final column of the relevant document.

Like many others, Mrs. Cross feels strongly that the Government, by what they are doing, are waiting for her and others to die. It is as crude as that. As the relevant provision applies before May 1988 and not afterwards, the problem will eventually disappear, because those concerned will no longer be with us. If that is how we plan to treat people who have served this country, as many of the pensioners who come to see the hon. Member for Langbaurgh and I would say, we should be ashamed of ourselves. That is not the way in which such people should be treated in their twilight years, but that is exactly what the Government are doing.

As the hon. Member for Langbaurgh said, the basic problem is the nature of the relevant legislation as it found its way on to the statute book. It is discriminatory legislation and it will not work. The outcome is appalling for many pensioners on Teesside.

The solution is simple. Primary legislation could be introduced quickly to achieve the end that we want. We can assure the Minister that if parliamentary time is not made available we shall take other routes and adopt other courses of action. We shall place the matter before the ombudsman and keep the issue on the political agenda. A rational, humane and sane decision from the Minister this evening would save much Government time, a great deal of taxpayers' money and a considerable amount of heartache and suffering for many of the residents of Teesside. I hope that the Minister will make the necessary effort this evening.

12.32 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) on securing this Adjournment debate. I know that the subject of concessionary television licences is one to which he has given much thought, not least because of the unhappy experience of his constituent, Mrs. Littlefair. He has fought with his characteristic tenacity and vigour against the injustice to which he believes that she has been subjected. He has taken the opportunity this evening, as he did during the most recent Home Office questions on 15 November, to ask about Mrs. Littlefair and her Dunbar avenue neighbours.

I realise from my hon. Friend's frequent representations that the Government's general position must be well known to him. He gave some indication of that this evening. That means that there is nothing very fresh for me to say. I apologise if once again I go over ground that is rather familiar.

I noted what the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) had to say during her short "harry" about concessionary television licences in general and about the position of one of her constituents. I am not familiar with the details of the case to which she referred and I shall acquaint myself with it after the debate. It seems from what the hon. Lady said that it was another instance of a constituent who might have been entitled to a concessionary licence under the rules as they existed previously, that for some reason an application had not been made and, therefore, the lady did, not have a concessionary licence.

It would be sensible to set the issue in context. To do that I must recount briefly the history of the scheme and the background to the changes that we were forced to make to the regulations in 1988 as a result of the Kirklees judgment. The concessionary scheme had existed in much the same form for the preceding 20 years. It was intended to benefit pensioners and, latterly, disabled people living in residential homes or comparable sheltered housing provided by a local authority or a housing association. That aim had been endorsed by successive Governments, whatever their political persuasion.

However, the Kirklees judgment changed all that. One of three tests for eligibility under the regulations was whether a common facility was provided for all the residents. The effect of the Kirklees judgment was not only to widen that part of the definition but to call into question the scope of the other two tests—that the accommodation must form groups and be specially provided for retirement pensioners or disabled people. The judgment thus undermined the long-standing principle of the scheme, and opened the way for its extension to large numbers of people in mainstream housing. That was never the intention. The whole basis of the scheme was therefore on the point of breaking down, while the BBC faced the prospect of a considerable loss of revenue.

We could, of course, have solved the problem by abolishing the scheme—a possibility to which my hon. Friend referred. But we did not want to take away a long-standing concession that had benefited many people.

Mr. Holt

With respect to my hon. Friend, I am sure that, when he checks Hansard, he will find that I did not say that I wanted to do away with the concession. I said that I wanted to do away with the licence.

Mr. Lloyd

I admit that I did not think that it fitted in with the general tenor of my hon. Friend's speech to suggest that the only way to deal with the anomalies was to abolish the scheme. I accept his correction, which makes logic of his argument.

After long and careful consideration, we concluded that the most sensible thing to do was to restore the underlying intention of the scheme. To give effect to that decision, we introduced new regulations which defined more closely the type of sheltered accommodation which would qualify in future. The regulations came into force on 19 May 1988. Under the new regulations, qualifying accommmodation had to form part of a group of at least four dwellings within a common and exclusive boundary, and be served by a full-time or resident warden, so that the accommodation could be seen to form a cohesive, self-contained unit with appropriate care staff to hand, just like a residential home.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

My hon. Friend will be aware that, in an estate of essentially sheltered accommodation of perhaps 50 dwellings, new arrivals can be disqualified from benefiting from the concessionary licence merely because one or two dwellings are occupied by persons who are not entitled to the usual benefits associated with sheltered accommodation. That is hardly fair.

Mr. Lloyd

The concession is for accommodation for those of retirement age. My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh referred to this point. A scheme would not necessarily be excluded by one under-age occupant if that scheme was provided with the intention of being eligible only for certain categories of people. Therefore, the example mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) would not necessarily exclude others in the scheme from enjoying the benefits of it. It is necessary for local authorities to organise their warden-controlled units so that they are for those of retirement age, or otherwise they put the concession in jeopardy.

The tenor of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh was to question why the scheme was not more flexible. In a statutory scheme, which this is, a clear line must be drawn between accommodation that qualifies and that which does not. As the Kirklees judgment signally demonstrated, failure to do that is a recipe for anomaly and invites challenge. We had to provide a formula which was legally coherent and which could be sustained in court.

We recognised that changing the scheme in the way we did could mean that many people who had benefited previously would cease to qualify. We therefore included a provision in the 1988 regulations that preserved the right to existing beneficiaries for their lifetime, provided that they continued to live in accommodation that would have qualified under the old regulations. Consequently, in some schemes residents continue to enjoy the benefit of the concessionary licence, even though the scheme itself no longer qualifies. However, that can apply only to residents who had the concession before the new regulations came into force on 19 May 1988.

People who moved into such schemes after that date cannot obtain the concession unless, of course, they have preserved rights from their previous accommodation. Thus, neighbours in the same non-qualifying scheme may sometimes be treated differently, with existing beneficiaries continuing to enjoy a concession that newcomers cannot enjoy. That, however, is an inevitable consequence of the saving provision in the regulations, and our determination not to take the concession away from someone who already had it.

Ms. Mowlam

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lloyd

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, because time is creeping on. If I have a moment at the end, I shall certainly do so.

The redrawing of the regulations also meant, of course, that some pensioners living in accommodation which might have qualified under the old regulations, and who had not yet applied for the concession—for whatever reason—ceased to be eligible. But, once the regulations had changed, we could no longer deal with new applications under the old regulations. To have done so would, of course, have undermined the purpose of the new regulations.

However, provided that an application had been submitted before the regulations changed, we were still able to consider it under the old regulations, although—because of pressure of work at the National Television Licence Records Office—it often took some time to process. Over the transitionary period, therefore, the date of application became a crucial factor, and many councils and individuals sought to argue that they had applied before the regulations changed. Provided that they could substantiate that claim, we were quite ready to judge their case under the 1984 rules.

The case of Mrs. Littlefair and the other residents of Dunbar avenue to which my hon. Friend has referred is a case in point. I can imagine Mrs. Littlefair's feelings, and understand why my hon. Friend has taken the trouble to present her case afresh. There is no doubt that she was resident in Dunbar avenue before the regulations changed, and that, once her home had been connected to the mobile warden system, the address would have qualified under the old regulations.

However, the issue here is whether an application for the concessionary licence was made prior to 19 May 1988. This hinges on the status of an annotated computer printout sent to the records office by Middlesbrough council in 1987, to which my hon. Friend referred. It was submitted in support of some supplementary applications for the concessionary licence. The printout listed the names and addresses of several people whose homes had been connected to the mobile warden system, and for whom the licence was now being sought. It also indicated that a number of properties, including Mrs. Littlefair's, were being connected up but at the moment not applicable". Long after the event—some nine months later, I believe—the council sought to argue that the printout constituted an application for Mrs. Littlefair. The records office disagreed. No names had been listed against the Dunbar avenue properties, and the records office was accordingly unable to regard it as anything more than a list of properties which might, at some future date, meet the qualifying criteria then in force.

It seems clear from the endorsement—alas—that it was not meant to be regarded as an application at the time; nor, in fact, could it have been, as under the 1984 regulations a concessionary licence could be issued only to a named person at a particular address, and no name was given. We reviewed—and had no option but to uphold—the NTVLRO decision when representations were made to us subsequently by Middlesbrough council and later by my hon. Friend. The law leaves Ministers with no discretion in this regard.

I fully accept that the circumstances of Mrs. Littlefair's case are particularly unfortunate. It is most regrettable—as my hon. Friend has said—that her hopes should have been raised by a letter from the records office, telling her at one stage that she had been granted the concession. That was quite wrong. The records office employee made a genuine error in interpreting the preserved-rights provision of the regulations. That came to our notice soon afterwards, when the renewal licence for the scheme was processed.

The simple fact is, however, that there is no discretion for us to perpetuate such an error once it has come to light. We have no power to allow an ineligible person to benefit from a concessionary licence to which he or she is not entitled by law. We could not, therefore, overturn the subsequent decision to withdraw the licence. I can only repeat my regrets to my hon. Friend, and through him to Mrs. Littlefair, that this mistake has occurred.

I shall reflect carefully on all that my hon. Friend has said, but I am afraid that I can offer no prospect for any change in the law which would help his constituents, although I well understand how unfair he feels that is.

Ms. Mowlam

The Minister pointed out in some detail how, as a result of trying to avoid inequalities in the 1988 regulations, the present inequalities have resulted. He has made that clear. He said that that is regrettable. Is he prepared to put it on record tonight that he thinks that the decision is unfair and unjust?

Mr. Lloyd

In these circumstances, there are bound to be some hard cases, because preserving the rights of people in accommodation that no longer qualifies would be seen as hard for those who move in, who were not there beforehand, and who have no claim on a concessionary licence. I believe that, after the Kirklees judgment had knocked a hole in the scheme, we had no option but to bring in new rules, and there were bound to be hard cases. I regret them, but that does not mean that the Government were mistaken in bringing in the new rules or in the form that they take.

Like the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) and my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh, I am saddened that this led to problems in particular places, especially where an application might have been made but was not made. If applications were made, we are happy to see them properly processed and the concession continued. If they were not made, it cannot be a matter for the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.