Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bermingham: Does the hon. Gentleman actually think that we live in a society where we would prosecute an 80-year-old because they were not able to obtain a free licence? How ridiculous can he be?

Mr. Ainsworth: It may be ridiculous, but my understanding is that that is the law. The hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to his Front-Bench colleagues.

There is also the question of households which include a 75-year-old but which do not possess a television set. Although relatively few in number, they do exist. The free television licence is effectively a £104 a year additional benefit for owning a television; a benefit conferred on anyone who lives in an eligible household, whatever their means or age. Are there any plans to provide an equivalent benefit to those households which have chosen not to own a television set? They may feel that they are more than £100 a year worse off than their neighbours as a result of the scheme.

The scheme is innovative and breaks new ground in a number of ways. Welcome though its objectives are, it is inescapable that it adds further complexity to the tax and benefits system, which many people believe is confusing enough already. It casts the BBC--whose prime function is to make and broadcast radio, television and online services--in the role of welfare agent. Admittedly, the BBC is already responsible for the existing concession arrangements which, by general consent, are unsatisfactory and arbitrary.

Mr. Kaufman: Does the hon. Gentleman understand that the BBC has this power because the party of which he is a member gave the BBC the power to collect the licence, which it did not have before his party provided it? That is the reason--but then he has no memory and no knowledge of any of these matters.

Mr. Ainsworth: I was not in the House when the power was conferred, but there is no doubt that the present concessionary scheme has not worked as everyone would have wished. It is full of anomalies and is in need of reform. The Secretary of State himself has said so, although I have not noticed any specific measures coming from the Secretary of State or the Government to tackle the problem of the 130,000 people--pensioners and mentally and physically disabled people--who will remain on the existing scheme and will not benefit from the Bill.

Mr. Chris Smith: For the record, may I remind the hon. Gentleman--he must momentarily have forgotten it--that we extended the existing concessionary scheme to ensure that men aged between 60 and 65 who are in sheltered housing qualify for it, when, previously, they had not?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am indeed aware of that fact, but the Secretary of State has not addressed the problem that arises when someone under 60 arrives in a qualifying home where he or she may inadvertently disqualify existing residents.

10 Apr 2000 : Column 124

The new arrangements will do nothing for people aged under 75 who are on low incomes. Indeed, the Secretary of State may have heard, as we have done, from people for whom his scheme causes unhappiness. For example, a 55-year-old man on income support has wondered angrily why he is not included while the Duke of Devonshire is.

Mr. Leigh: Is not the point that the Government have realised, following the resignation of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and the derisory 75p increase, that enthusiasm among pensioners is draining away? All their proposals are mere gimmicks. They are attacking the contributory principle and trying to drain self-reliance from our pensioners, who will not be fooled by gimmicks such as this.

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree that the Government have displeased many pensioners, but my hon. Friend will have heard me say that I welcome any sensible measure that will improve the lot of pensioners, as the free television licence arguably will.

If television ownership is henceforth to be treated as a right or a benefit, the Government must address why people are not entitled to it on age grounds, as well as why they are. If television is to be treated as a right and the BBC as part of the tax and benefits system, it is only fair to ask what the implications are for television and the BBC. The Bill implies that the Government--or the taxpayer--will take a direct financial stake in the BBC from November. In our enthusiasm to provide free licences to those aged over 75, it would be wrong to overlook the significance of the fact that the state--or, depending on how one defines these things, the taxpayer--will take a stake of nearly 15 per cent. in the BBC. That is a major departure in principle, even if the stake is, for the moment, a minority one.

Were the benefit of the free licence to be extended to all households that contain a 65-year-old, the state--or the taxpayer--would take a direct financial interest in more than a third of the BBC's funding. As the possibility of further extending the benefit in that way, or in others, has been the subject of speculation, and because the order-making power in clause 5 implies that the scheme may be extended, the Secretary of State should tell us whether plans exist to extend it. Do the Government contemplate that? If that question is too direct, will the Secretary of State or the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting tell us whether they welcome extension in principle?

The Bill has significant implications for the BBC and its independent funding arrangements.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I am fairly sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the World Service is funded directly through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Does he think that the World Service's integrity is in any way put at risk by that? Is tonight's proposal any different?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point, but the World Service has existed for a long time and has acquired its own culture--nor does it deal with the domestic market, as she well knows.

For entirely laudable reasons--the desire to help 75-year-olds--the Government propose to unsettle the BBC's unique funding mechanism, which has been in

10 Apr 2000 : Column 125

place for 70 years. No doubt the Secretary of State will protest, like the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), that no implications arise for the BBC's impartiality from the fact that the Treasury will take a significant interest in the corporation. Some would say that that view is naive; others would argue that the Government enjoy exercising control and like to put their mouth where their money is.

What assurance can the Secretary of State give that the stake taken in the BBC will not lead to interference in the way in which programmes are made or in editorial independence?

Mr. Bermingham: I have lost the hon. Gentleman's logic. If, for example, I went to Sainsburys in Camden and bought some groceries, I would have invested in Sainsburys, but that would not give me a say in the company. The Government are making good a revenue loss; that is not an investment--it is the return of a revenue loss and does not give the Government a say in the BBC.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is wide of the mark. I do not know the hon. Gentleman's age and will not speculate on it, but, under his scenario, in order to help him and to absolve him from paying Sainsburys, the Government would be paying Sainsburys direct; they would be taking a direct stake in the company's future.

Mr. Fabricant: As I am sure that my hon. Friend was not around when the BBC received its royal charter in 1926, I remind him that the corporation argued--the argument is just as applicable at present--that, because it was funded through the licence fee rather than from direct income from the taxpayer, it would remain independent of the Government, who would not be able to alter the amount of money paid every year. The BBC would not be subject to blackmail, as it might be if the amount were increased beyond its current 15 per cent.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend makes a compelling point.

Some people see the Bill as a bridgehead for a funding system for the BBC of which they disapprove. Colleagues on both sides of the House do not like the licence fee; they may see the Bill as the first practical blow against a funding mechanism that they consider to be unjust and inappropriate in a multi-channel age.

I do not think that the Secretary of State wants the end of the licence fee, although the best way to undermine confidence in it is to go on increasing it--as he has recently done. I do not think that he wants to undermine the licence fee, although giving the taxpayer a direct stake of £340 million a year in funding it might not be construed as helpful in the long run. Those who claim that the Bill, by allowing the Treasury into the BBC's funding, underlines the Government's commitment to the licence fee as an independent funding mechanism, do not understand either the nature of the licence fee or the notion of independence.

I want to ensure that the Secretary of State is aware--acting, as he is, from the best possible motives--of the law of unexpected consequences. That law has been much in evidence recently, in Scotland, Wales, London and the other place. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman knows

10 Apr 2000 : Column 126

what he is doing by rearranging the settlement that established and has maintained the BBC. We hope to return to those issues later in the Bill's proceedings.

The Bill will involve the disclosure to the BBC, or to unspecified persons or companies providing services to the BBC, of potentially sensitive information about individuals that is held by the Department of Social Security, or, in Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development. Such information falls under the Data Protection Acts 1984 and 1988.

The Bill's prime function is to give legality to the plan to allow the BBC access to social security information held on individuals. Although such information is not defined in the measure, the explanatory notes state that it

The relevance of such information in determining whether a person aged 74 or over is eligible to benefit from the measure is not made clear. I note that the precise information that may be supplied to the BBC will be defined in an order to be published by the Secretary of State for Social Security. I was pleased that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport reassured us on that point. None the less, it is a pity that the Bill does not include a clear definition.

It is important to note that, until now, information on the national insurance database has been made available only to national and local government bodies concerned with administering benefits, crime prevention and justice. Although the BBC owes its existence to a royal charter, it is not a public body in the sense that Customs and Excise and local authorities are public bodies. The Bill therefore creates a precedent in the way that it amends the Data Protection Acts.

Concern has been expressed in particular about the way in which previously protected information may in future be made available not only to the BBC, but to

That is a wide definition, and clearly includes the possibility of commercial companies being given access to sensitive information. It is regrettable that the identity of those companies is not specified in the Bill.

The explanatory notes state that

Just over a year ago, the contract for the administration and enforcement of the licence fee was awarded to a new company, Envision, whose shareholders are the Post Office subsidiary SSL, the WPP Group and Bull Information Systems Ltd. I should be grateful if the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting could, in her winding-up speech, let the House know whether any other contractors may be in receipt of social security information about elderly pensioners as a result of the Bill. It is worth noting that the social security information that will be given to the BBC includes information about all 74-year-olds, whether or not they own a television. That has caused concern to civil rights groups.

Clause 3 sets out several offences designed to safeguard the security of the information that may be disclosed to the BBC and its contractors. Those safeguards are important, and it is essential that they are watertight.

10 Apr 2000 : Column 127

National insurance information and the name, address and age of individuals could, in the wrong hands, be open to abuse. In particular, such information could give rise to benefit fraud or other types of fraud. It could also be used to make commercial gain at the expense of elderly and vulnerable people. We shall want closely to examine those issues at a later stage.

While welcoming the scheme, it would be wrong not to give consideration to its cost. It is a matter of disquiet that nobody has yet produced a definitive number of households that will be eligible to benefit from the scheme. The Secretary of State said tonight that the figure was significantly more than 3 million; we previously heard from the Government that it was upwards of 3 million, and earlier than that it was around 3 million, so it has not been settled.

As a result, there has been considerable variation in the estimated cost of providing free licences to those aged over 75. The Gavyn Davies panel established by the Secretary of State put the cost at £283 million; more recently, the Government put the cost at £300 million. I understand that the BBC recently estimated the cost to be between £320 million and £330 million, and tonight we heard that the figure is £340 million. I wonder what it will be next week.

It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could tell the House how many households he believes will benefit and what the cost will be once the scheme is up and running. In addition, I understand that there will be considerable start-up costs. They are estimated at about £20 million and the annual running costs are estimated to be in the region of £10 million. I should be grateful for confirmation of those figures. It is of course a great relief to the BBC that those costs will be borne by the Government and not by the corporation, which already spends £133 million a year collecting the licence fee.

I have outlined some of the complex issues to which the Bill gives rise. No doubt we will want closely to scrutinise the measures in the Bill's later stages. The Bill does not provide the opportunity to discuss the wider issues of BBC funding, but I want to place on the record Conservative Members' view that the BBC's priorities should be first to define its remit, and secondly to look to reduce the licence fee for everyone. That is the best way to achieve a fair, simple and sustainable method of funding public service broadcasting.

Next Section

IndexHome Page