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("Postal Services Regulations 1999 (S.I. 1999/2107)

. In Regulation 2(1) of the Postal Services Regulations 1999 (designation of Secretary of State and Postal Services Commission as national regulatory authorities for the postal sector in the United Kingdom) the reference to the Postal Services Commission shall be construed as a reference to the Commission established by section 1 of this Act.").

15 Jun 2000 : Column 1827

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 8, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 9 [Repeals and revocations]:

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 135A to 138:

    Page 96, line 3, at end insert—

("10 & 11 Geo.5 c. 75.Official Secrets Act 1920.Section 5.")

Page 96, column 3, leave out lines 4 to 13 and insert ("The whole Act.").

    Page 96, leave out lines 14 to 18.

    Page 96, line 18, at end insert—

("1967 c. 13.Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967In Schedule 2, the entries relating to the Post Office Users' Council for Northern Ireland, the Post Office Users' Council for Scotland, the Post Office Users' Council for Wales and the Post Office Users' National Council.")

On Question, amendments agreed to.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 139:

    Page 96, line 22, column 3, leave out ("Sections 6 to") and insert—

("Section 6. Section ")

The noble Lord said: I had hoped that I would not have to move the amendment, having been persuaded by the Government Chief Whip. However, in discussion on the matter earlier, I failed to pick up a point to which I should have known the answer. Since the Minister is going to write to me, rather than waste time today, perhaps he will reply to this point in the same letter.

The point in question is that Section 6(4) of the Post Office Act 1969, which is repealed by Schedule 9, authorises Schedule 1 to the 1969 Act. It is all very well to repeal the authorising section but the schedule will be a rogue animal on the statute book. Should not it be removed too? I beg to move.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord on this technical point.

Lord Skelmersdale: I thank the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 140 to 143:

    Page 96, line 32, column 3, leave out ("Section 74(2).") and insert—

("Sections 69 to 75. Sections 80 and 81.")

15 Jun 2000 : Column 1828

Page 96, line 33, column 3, at end insert—

("Section 87.")

    Page 96, line 35, column 3, at end insert—

("Schedules 1 to 3.")

Page 96, line 47, column 3, leave out ("Postal Services") and insert ("Post Office").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 144 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 145 and 146:

    Page 97, column 3, leave out lines 46 to 50 and insert—

("In Regulation 1(3), the definitions of "the 1969 Act" and "the 1981 Act". Regulation 2(2) and (3).")

Page 97, line 52, column 3, leave out ("Regulation 4.") and insert ("Regulations 4 to 6.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 9, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 120 and 121 agreed to.

Clause 122 [Commencement]:

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 147:

    Page 71, line 43, leave out (" 108") and insert ("(Special arrangements with other countries or territories)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 122, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 123 [Short title and extent]:

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 148:

    Page 72, line 6, at end insert—

("(4) Sections 119(1) and 121 and this section, together with sections 114 and 117 so far as they relate to those provisions, extend to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (in addition to any provisions of this Act which so extend by virtue of subsection (2) above).").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 123, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I am sure noble Lords are aware that my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey is to move the Second Reading of the Television Licences (Disclosure of Information) Bill. As I speak my noble friend is in the Moses Room. He is capable of many things, as we know, but being in two places at once is not one of them. I think that it has been understood that we shall adjourn for pleasure for 10 minutes, until 7.25, so that the business in the Moses Room can be completed. We shall then continue with business in the Chamber. I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.15 to 7.25 p.m.]

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Television Licences (Disclosure of Information) Bill

7.25 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Government are introducing free television licences for people aged 75 years or over from 1st November 2000 to help a section of the community, many of whom depend on television as their main source of information and entertainment. Older pensioners are more likely to be in poor health or socially isolated. They are also more likely to be on low incomes.

This initiative will free over 3 million households from the need to budget for their television licence fee, currently £104 for a colour television licence.

The process for claiming a free licence is not, and cannot be, as simple as might at first appear. Many over-75s do not have the necessary documentation to prove entitlement to the concession. The concession is intended to apply to people aged 75 or over for their principal residence. The structure of the scheme needs to incorporate precautions to limit the concession to those for whom it is intended and to safeguard public funds. The arrangement needs to be as simple and as streamlined as possible to minimise administrative costs and to avoid unnecessary burdens on genuine claimants.

The most efficient way to operate this concession is for the Department of Social Security and, in Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development, to make available to the BBC certain limited information about people who are, or will shortly become, eligible for the concession. The information also needs to be made available to third parties providing services to the BBC in connection with the issue of television licences. This information will be used to set up a database, against which the BBC can check applications for free licences, short-term licences, and refunds on unexpired licences. This Bill is required to authorise the disclosure of such information. Clause 1 will give the Secretary of State—in practice, the Department of Social Security—and, in Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development, the legal authority to supply information of prescribed kinds to the BBC.

The information that can be provided to the BBC must be prescribed by order. Under Clause 6, any order will be subject to the negative resolution procedure, offering the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of any proposals.

The Government intend to prescribe only a narrow range of information which can be supplied to the BBC; namely, the age, date of birth, address and national insurance number of persons aged 74 or over. An order will also enable the DSS and the Department for Social Development to disclose to the BBC the fact that a person has died.

Clause 6 enables different provision to be made for different cases. This provides for flexibility and precision in the making of orders.

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We understand concerns about the data protection and privacy implications of disclosing information of this kind to an outside body for purposes other than those for which it was originally obtained. The question of the security of the information is, we believe, fully addressed by the safeguards built into the Bill, to which I shall come shortly.

The Government have considered whether the Bill complies with the European Convention on Human Rights and, in particular, Article 8 which relates to privacy. Our legal advice is that the disclosure of the kind of information which we propose the DSS should supply to the BBC may not engage a person's rights under Article 8 because such basic information is not an interference in a person's private life for the purposes of the convention. But even if the rights enshrined in Article 8 were affected, we believe that what we propose would be justifiable under Article 8(2) as a proportionate response to a legitimate aim; namely, to set up an efficient but not unduly burdensome system of administration that provides the necessary protection against issuing free licences in response to mistaken or fraudulent applications.

If the BBC had to operate this concession without the information we propose: first, every claimant would have to produce documentary proof of age, in addition to a completed application form, and as we know, many would be unable to do so, and would have to obtain the documentation before they could apply; and secondly, claimants would have to reapply each year, as the BBC would have no other means of knowing they were still alive and at the same or any other address.

Without the proposed information, the concession would also need to be policed more actively. We know from complaints about the existing enforcement arrangements that many people would regard that as unacceptably intrusive. In addition, without this information, the concession would be much more difficult and expensive to administer. We have been informed by the BBC that the concession could not be implemented on 1st November, as proposed, without the proposed information.

Requiring the BBC to clear claims with the DSS and the Department for Social Development has been suggested as a possible solution but is not, in our view, a realistic option. It would still require primary legislation since the verification process itself would entail the disclosure of information. It would involve considerable duplication of effort and cost by the BBC and government departments; and it would delay the processing of claims, by requiring applications to be handled several times over instead of just once.

The Government accept the need to ensure that information of this kind is used only for the purposes for which it has been provided. Under Clause 2, the information may be used only in connection with television licences for which no fee is payable or for reduced-fee licences. The reference to reduced-fee licences provides flexibility in case further concessionary schemes are introduced. The Bill does

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not allow the BBC to use the information to administer any scheme, existing or new, unless an order is made designating the scheme.

Clause 3 of the Bill protects the information supplied to the BBC by creating an offence of disclosing such information without lawful authority. An offence can be committed by any recipient of the information—for example, the BBC or one of its contractors—or anyone who works, or has worked, for such a recipient. The offence extends to companies, including the BBC, to past as well as present employees, and to staff working under other arrangements, such as self-employed people engaged on a consultancy basis.

The maximum penalty, on indictment, is imprisonment for up to two years and an unlimited fine, or both.

Clause 4 of the Bill was introduced by the Government in another place, in response to concerns that the offence of unlawful disclosure, as originally formulated, did not extend to company directors. The Government considered the matter and concluded that it was right to strengthen the protection afforded to sensitive information of this kind and that this could be achieved if there was a possibility of personal criminal liability for directors.

Clause 4 therefore provides that, if an offence by a body corporate is shown to have been committed with the consent or connivance of an officer, or to be attributable to any neglect on his or her part, that person as well as the company is guilty of the offence and so liable to be prosecuted. This will bring the treatment of company directors, in cases of unlawful disclosure, into line with the provisions of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 in relation to DSS contractors.

This Bill will enable the application procedure for a free television licence to be greatly simplified and will benefit both the over-75s and the taxpayer. TV Licensing will send out details of the concession to all households over the coming months, inviting anyone who is over 75 to apply for the concession. Claimants will simply complete and return the form. Applications will be checked against the information to be provided to the BBC under the provisions of this Bill. It will be possible to issue a free licence on the basis of such an application in most cases, with no further effort on the part of the applicant. Additional information will need to be sought only if there is a discrepancy between the information provided in the application form and that held by the BBC. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey).

7.34 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I must admit that on this side of the House we are beginning to wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, can do just about anything in this world. We have finally found out that there is one thing he cannot do; that is, to be in two places at one time. Earlier this evening, the House was asked to submit to an

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innovative procedure by which the Sitting was suspended for 10 minutes to enable the noble Lord to reach this Chamber from the Moses Room. I am delighted to see him here, but I should be all the more delighted if in future government business was so ordered that it did not put such a strain on him by necessitating his presence in two places at once. However, I have particular reason to be grateful to the Minister to which I shall come in a few moments.

First, I shall respond to the Government's Bill and I shall then explain the reasons why I have sponsored the Private Member's Bill on the Order Paper. The two Bills are being given a concurrent Second Reading this evening for the convenience of the House, although the House may consider that that is less convenient when it appreciates that it will mean that I give a longer speech this evening than I have ever yet given in my three-and-a-half years as a Member of this House. I hasten to add that it will still be shorter than the speeches of many other noble Lords. Two in one does not quite go this evening. But I assure the House that the practice will save time overall and enable the House to debate the Private Member's Bill which covers issues which are closely intertwined with the Government's Bill.

After the debate on the Government's Bill is concluded, I shall then formally move the Second Reading of my Bill but then, with relief, speak no further to it today.

At this stage, I thank the Public Bill Office for working at break-neck speed to write my Bill so that it could be debated today. I thank also the Minister for suggesting this procedure as a possibility and for allowing time for it.

I deal first with the Government's Bill. As the Minister has outlined, it is about the conveyance of information. It gives legality to the plan to allow the BBC to have access to some social security information which is held on every single person throughout the country aged 74 and over. Indeed, the BBC can hold that information on its own database. The Government have decided that that is the system that they want to use to police the concession given to all 75 year-olds so that they may have free TV licences.

In Committee, we shall need to examine how that system will operate to try to make sure that it is as fair and effective as possible. Indeed, the question is whether it is, as the Minister described it this evening, the most efficient system.

Our view is simply that the decision to provide all 75 year-olds with a free TV licence will be welcome to every beneficiary, particularly in the light of the minuscule 75 pence per week increase in the basic state pension which was announced in this year's budget. Of course, we believe that it is laudable to help 75 year-olds but there are better ways of doing it. In another place, my right honourable friend William Hague has outlined the ways in which that should be done. We should leave people with the freedom to make their own choices about how they spend their money provided that they are given a solid, reliable income as their basic pension. There are other times at which it would be right to go into the detail of that.

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The reality is that this Bill will pass and will do so at a time when the basic pension has not been greatly improved. The scheme will operate until the next election at least, so we should try to make sure that it operates in as fair a manner as possible.

But the government order passed this March introduced free licences for those who are 75 and over and, in doing so, made the system even more complex and introduced even more anomalies than had previously existed, anomalies which I hope to remove with the terms of my own Bill with which I shall deal shortly.

Clause 1 of the Government's Bill outlines the kind of information which may be disclosed to the BBC. 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 who are concerned with administering benefits, crime prevention and justice. That is a departure from what has happened before. There is concern about privacy and data protection and the implications of disclosure to an outside body of this information, however reputable the body may be, as the BBC is, of course. But that information is held by government departments for social security purposes.

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, as Clause 1(2) states,

    "any person providing the BBC with services in connection with television licences".

I listened with great care to what the noble Lord the Minister said tonight in explanation of that.

It is a wide definition. It clearly means that commercial companies will have access to sensitive information. They need it: indeed the noble Lord said that without this information the BBC simply could not act by the 1st November and get the scheme up and running. That in itself is not an argument for the scheme as it is. The date is a political decision by the Government. One should not simply accept a scheme because of the date having been put in as the start of the scheme. The definition is so wide in referring to providing the BBC's services. Anybody can do that: presumably it even includes the post office counter clerk who physically hands over the licence to the 75 year-old who benefits under this scheme.

The amount of information that may be disclosed brings another concern, because at one and the same time the Government say that Clause 2 places strict limits on the purposes for which the BBC and its contractors are able to make use of the information. Then it goes on in Clauses 5 and 6 to extend the reasons why the information should be passed on to the BBC. I believe that we shall need to explore that further in Committee.

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Clause 3 sets out several measures which are designed to safeguard the security of information that may be disclosed to the BBC and its contractors. After all, in the wrong hands that information could be used to set up benefit fraud and it is important to control that use of information.

In another place, my honourable friend John Greenway identified a problem that the Government have not yet resolved in this Bill; namely, what should happen if there should be accidental disclosure of information simply because an electronic transfer had reached the wrong destination. On another matter regarding Clauses 3 and 4, I was pleased to see that the Government have amended the Bill in another place with a new Clause 4 which extends the offences to include the liability of directors. However, that clause was only introduced at the last minute on Third Reading. It was therefore not possible for the clause to be given as detailed consideration in another place as it would have received at Committee stage.

In that debate my right honourable friend Douglas Hogg raised an interesting point with regard to the word "neglect" in Clause 4(b). I believe we shall need to look further at that in Committee.

The Bill is brief but it introduces a scheme which is complex to operate and may be confusing to many people. It represents a significant departure from the existing licensing arrangements and an unprecedented and unique use of social security information. I look forward to more detailed consideration of the Government's Bill at Committee stage.

Turning to my own Private Member's Bill, which addresses the issue of television licence fees and concessions, I am very much aware that existing licence fee concessions are, by general consent, both unsatisfactory and arbitrary. No party can take any credit at all for improving them. All parties, in some measure, have made the situation more difficult. I am grateful to Abbeyfield and Age Concern—organisations which have great experience of providing accommodation for elderly people—for their helpful briefings on the rules governing concessions, and for highlighting some of the inequities within the system. It was as a result of listening to their expert advice that I was convinced that I should sponsor a Private Member's Bill.

My Bill tries to do two things. First, it attempts to rectify the anomalies introduced this year by the Government and, secondly, to highlight the inequity of other closely related anomalies in the concessions system. The Government's order that went through in March this year raised the cost of the TV licence fee and, at the same time, made two substantive changes to the concession system. First, the television licence fee concession to those in sheltered accommodation was extended so that it would cover all those over 60, instead of discriminating between men and women of pensionable age. Secondly, it provided for free licences for every household in which a person of 75 and over lives.

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I will address first the question of the concessions to those in sheltered accommodation. In another place the Minister for Broadcasting, Janet Anderson, stated that:

    "we have removed one small anomaly in situations in which entitlement to the concession is based on housing provision—namely, in the sheltered housing scheme. Previously, strictly speaking, men over 60 in such a development would have threatened the concession for everyone in that development. We have now said that in future the qualifying age for both men and women in such housing will be 60".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/4/00; col.156.]

Of course that should have been a most welcome procedure which everyone should have applauded—but not quite. While that was a perfectly truthful statement by the Minister, it is not the whole picture. Indeed the order can in practice remove from those over 60 who are currently in sheltered accommodation the right to concessions in certain narrowly defined circumstances. In other words, they will lose the concession they are already receiving. I accept of course that the Government had absolutely no intention of causing that to happen: I have always made that clear. The changes that were introduced by the Government were intended to make the system more certain and above all, I believe, to save the BBC from being taken to court for exercising their discretion in what some might have said was an incorrect manner. However, I believe that most would have accepted it was in a useful manner.

I was advised by the TV licensing organisation, who are agents of the BBC, that as a result of the Government's order, if a man aged between the magic ages of 60 and 65—in other words between 60 and 64—lives in sheltered accommodation and also works for 15 or more hours a week, the fact that he works for those hours means that he can no longer be regarded as retired. That, in turn, means that the terms of the order disqualify everybody else in that accommodation from holding a concessionary licence. It just wipes out their right. The BBC can no longer exercise a discretion and people who currently get concessions will lose them.

Are there likely to be cases like this? Yes, most certainly. We are talking about sheltered accommodation, where residents may well enter that accommodation before they are no longer able to work but they want the reassurance and benefits of sheltered accommodation for the future. There are indeed several "good practice" employers like B&Q and Sainsbury's Homebase, who actively recruit older workers. It is therefore possible, nay probable, that the scenario I have described could occur. As soon as I was aware of the problem I alerted the noble Lord the Minister. Unfortunately it was only the day before the debate in this House, and subsequently the Government have taken no further action.

Clause 1(3) of my Bill would make sure that in sheltered accommodation of any kind people who are currently entitled to concessionary TV licences will not lose that right should a man aged 60 to 64, who works 15 hours or more a week, come to live in that sheltered accommodation. I should, however, confess here that

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there was a misprint in Clause 1 (3)(a). It should read "1(b)(i), 1(b)(ii)". Mistakes can creep in everywhere it seems!

The second issue addressed by my Bill is the cost of the TV licence when the television is in a communal room of residential and sheltered accommodation—a TV that is used only by the residents there. I turn first to the situation in sheltered accommodation where there are people aged 75 and above: just that particular group. The Government's introduction of the free TV licence for people who are aged 75 and over with TVs in their own household has highlighted an inequity.

From 1st November this year, if I were aged 75 or over I could have a television licence in my own room in sheltered accommodation, but I cannot have a free TV licence in the common room. It can only be used by me if I am aged 75 or over and everybody else is 75 and over. Are there likely to be such cases? Yes, there are. After all, changes in our life expectancy and quality of life at an advanced age means that in these days it is very common that in sheltered accommodation one finds people who are well over the age of 75. Indeed, Abbeyfield tell me that the average age of residents in their houses is 85.

Abbeyfield is the largest provider of very sheltered accommodation in the voluntary sector. They have around 600 societies in the United Kingdom as whole, managed by about 1,500 volunteers. Almost 600 of the society's houses have residents who are all over the age of 75. That means nearly 9,000 people will be adversely affected in Abbeyfield accommodation alone. In addition, I am told by Methodist Homes that they have about 900 people who will be adversely affected; and Housing 21 will have about 16,000 people affected. That is a minimum, of the people I know about, of some 26,000 who will be adversely affected.

As the law stands now, it is possible to imagine two friends over the age of 75 living next door to one another. One lives in her daughter's house where there are grandchildren, and the other lives next door in an Abbeyfield house. The first friend, the one living in her daughter's house, gets a free TV licence for herself, her daughter, her son-in-law, her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren, and all her visitors to come along and watch the television anywhere in the house. The second friend, the one next door in the Abbeyfield house, can have a free TV licence only if she restricts her viewing to the TV in her own room. That really is very odd.

When I tabled a Written Question on this matter, the Government's response was that the change proposed by my Bill would simply introduce yet another anomaly into the system. But at least my anomaly would be for the benefit of the vast majority of people aged 75 and over, whereas the Government's anomaly means that none of them has the benefit.

I appreciate that the situation with regard to common rooms used only by residents raises many anomalies. I have tried to deal with another such anomaly in Clause 1(2), which provides that the TV used in a common room should qualify for a concessionary licence; that would be enjoyed by a

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wider group of people than only those over 75. It seems generally very odd that people who are in residential care can have concessions for TVs in their own rooms, but not in a common room that only they use.

As one always says about Private Members' Bills—one is always right to do so—the wording in my Bill may not be felicitous. That is not due to any fault on the part of the Public Bill Office, but I may not have properly expressed my wishes in the first place. It may be beyond my wit to frame an effective Bill, but I hope that it is not beyond the combined wit of the parliamentary section of the DCMS, Ministers and their advisers to draft a good Bill.

I hope that the Minister will accept the underlying principles of my Bill and agree that the system should be amended where it is humanly possible to make it more fair.

7.51 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, the proposal to issue free TV licences to those aged 75 and over from 1st November 2000 has, in truth, lost a little of the gilt which surrounded it when it was first announced. One could suggest that most of us are somewhat gullible when little gifts are given by government and are initially grateful for any crumbs from the Treasury table. However, when the munificence of the Treasury towards the elderly of the country was shown up for what it was—namely, a sop to draw attention away from the downright insulting increase of 75p per week on the basic pension, a point referred to by my noble friend—the cynical antennae of many of us were immediately switched on.

This is a shame, in effect, as, first, it does nothing at all to lessen the public's view of the pusillanimity of politicians; and, secondly, it puts people like me even more on my guard when I see a Bill entitled "Television Licences (Disclosure of Information) Bill". Would I be completely wrong if I had a suspicion that here was another issue masquerading as a cover for yet more unpalatable items to emerge in time?

Let me say, firmly, that I am by nature totally unfazed by requests for information from government departments; I am slightly more fazed when such requests are couched in unintelligible English and are contained in forms many pages long; I freak out. Indeed, I am a strong and very keen supporter of the suggestion that we should have a national identity card, but I am suspicious of this piece of legislation.

Reading through the Bill and the Explanatory Notes, I felt completely bemused by the complexity of the information required and the extent of the process necessary to get it. In these days of electronic data transfer, surely there must be a way whereby the submission of just one piece of data—namely, one's national insurance number—could achieve the objective of discovering whether an individual was or was not eligible for a free television licence. There must be a software programme somewhere which could produce this information from the national insurance records. I am sure that the Minister will tell me why

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this is not possible, but it appears to me that at every turn we try to make life a lot more complicated than it needs to be and open more opportunities for fraud.

The unwelcome development of a suspicious mind where heretofore all was innocence and light has led me to cogitate on what possible reason there could be for so much information, in addition to the national insurance number, being placed in the hands of the BBC or the organisation subcontracted to the BBC for the purposes of collecting the licence fee. I hope that I may not have stumbled on a genuine move to erode the principle that the licence fee funds public service broadcasting in this country.

I agree that the granting of free TV licences to those aged 75 and over—a segment of the population which probably has little alternative entertainment—can be viewed as a good thing. But there are many other segments of the population which could have almost equal claims to such a gift from the Treasury—single mothers, young disabled, youth unemployed, people suffering from agoraphobia, people who have incipient claustrophobia; the list is endless. All such people could produce a genuine, well-argued case stating that TV is the only form of entertainment and education they enjoy. This would be the thin end of the wedge, which could do away with the funding by the licence fee principle. I hope that I am wrong.

Sadly, however, in his opening speech the Minister made me feel that I may not be wrong. When he was describing the meaning behind the clauses he indicated that the inclusion of the words in Clause 2,

    "for which no fee is payable or reduced-fee licences",

could cover further situations where there may be free TV licences.

The noble Lord referred to people of 75 and over as being in the sector where more people are in poor health or socially isolated. If people who are in poor health or socially isolated are to be regarded as candidates for free TV licences—as we all know, there are people in poor health and socially isolated in all areas of the population—as I said, this could be the thin end of the wedge which could do away with the principle of funding public broadcasting by the licence fee. Is this being set in motion?

Turning to my noble friend's Bill, I do so admire the punctilious nature of the immensely hard work that she conducts on every bit of legislation that she takes on board. Yet again she has discovered a flaw in the proposed legislation and, to me, it makes eminent sense to support her Bill. I hope that the Minister will agree with her and iron out the wrinkles in the proposed legislation.

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Fookes: My Lords, I shall not detain the House long because, between them, my two noble friends have covered many of the points I wish to raise.

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Turning, first, to the Government's Bill, I understand that, given the policy they have adopted, they need some practical means of ensuring that the right people get the concession. However, I have reservations about extending this principle to something other than criminal or other matters. It is widening the disclosure of information and I want to be convinced that this is the only way that it can be done.

My main concern is the principle of having free television licences for people of 75 and over because, however attractive this may look—and it looks very seductive at first glance—it is the wrong way of bringing benefits to pensioners. I believe firmly that people should be given as great a choice as possible, which means giving them money rather than a particular benefit of which they may or may not be able to make use.

I agree that these days most people have a television, but what of the minority who do not, for whatever reason? Would they not welcome the equivalent in money of £104 a year? For those who do not have a television set, £2 a week in money would have been very welcome. It illustrates the point I am trying to make: that this is not the right route to go down. In my past experience of dealing with constituents, nothing makes people more aggravated and annoyed than a concession which all cannot enjoy or where anomalies arise.

That brings me to my noble friend's Bill. I applaud her for seeking to bring some sense into the anomalies that exist, but, when one goes down this route, anomalies are likely to arise One is reminded of the Hydra in Greek legend. The Hydra was a creature with many heads. As fast as one head was cut off three sprang up in its place. I believe that that is the kind of scenario which will result from the introduction by the Government of this set of concessions. That was clearly illustrated by the introduction of an order which contained a mistake in its wording. What was intended to be a concession made matters far worse, which my noble friend now seeks to put right. That was wonderfully illustrated by my noble friend.

Those in sheltered accommodation aged over 75 can have a free television licence for televisions in their rooms but not in the communal room. That is an absurdity. I hope that the Government are prepared to look favourably on my noble friend's Private Member's Bill; or, if not, at least to take it on board in their own legislation. It is unfair to continue in this way. In short, I believe that the Government have made a serious mistake in introducing a major concession which leads to administrative cost and anomalies. I hope that the Government do not go further down that road.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister one question. Apart from the cost to the Government of this concession, how much will it cost administratively on the basis of the Bill that they have introduced? Is that cost likely to remain the same or could it increase? I give my noble friend's Bill a warm welcome, but I am less happy about the Bill introduced by the Government.

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8.1 p.m.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, as has been said by the noble Baronesses who have spoken, offering the over-75s the opportunity to have a free television licence is an attractive idea. Why it should be introduced at this stage is a mystery, because there are other things in our national life which are as urgent. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, said that there were several other classes of people who might well benefit from a similar concession. I agree. However, this is the idea that has been arrived at.

As I understood the observations of the Secretary of State in the other place, it is necessary to guard against the possibility of multiple licences being sought by persons who are relatives of the old age pensioner, or the man next door, the window cleaner and so on. Therefore, some means must be found to limit fraud, as far as possible, in providing these concessionary licences. The Bill gives the BBC the right to apply to the Department of Social Security for certain information. On the face of it, the information is fairly basic and does not pose a danger to society by way of the release of information which should be held confidential. However, this may well be the thin end of the wedge.

The procedures for claiming the free licence appear to be simple enough. However, one is concerned that a good number of people do not understand their right to claim. Often the literature and publications which go out are not easy to comprehend, even for those who are used to reading a lot of material. Perhaps the Minister can tell us something about the Government's plans to promote proper information for the benefit for those who qualify for this concession. For some years the Campaign for Plain English has pointed out, effectively and very amusingly, the convoluted nature of some of the information that is provided. I hope that that is not necessary here.

I am not as sanguine as the Secretary of State who believes it is unlikely that there will be any significant fraud. I am not necessarily a suspicious person, but I believe that there will be attempts at fraud, as there always are when benefits are available. I know not whether there will be widespread copying or forging of these documents. I hope that the Government have carefully thought out all the possible methods by which this benefit can be abused. The principles seem right to us and we do not question the good will behind them.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, referred to the insignificant rise in the old age pension. I do not follow her down that road. However, as I understand it—it is not my subject—the increase of 75p is linked to the cost of living index and there is no room for generosity in that area. The noble Baroness appears to ridicule my remarks. If I am wrong, I shall be put right. It is an insignificant amount, but if that is the way it is calculated so be it. If the Conservatives get in at the next election, perhaps they will change it. We on these Benches regard that as an unlikely scenario. However, I am a betting man and if anyone tells me otherwise I shall have a wager on it.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, highlighted two anomalies in this area. In the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, both seem to be absurdities. If they cannot be corrected, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what the complications are. I say nothing further on that.

On the face of it, the cost—£350 million-odd, not counting any fraud and the policing of it—seems to be very high. I believe that there is widespread evasion of the payment of the television licence fee. I wonder whether with these procedures the Government have at the back of their mind better ways to limit the number of people who evade that payment. From my own observations—the Minister should not feel obliged to deal with this matter—the detector vans remind me of my military service. In those days, one had vehicles made of wood which looked like tanks. A good number of these vans, which appear to have only one casual occupant, perambulate about. I wonder whether they really do anything or simply alarm people so that they scurry to the Post Office for a TV licence. If so, how many people scurry to the Post Office, and what is the cost of the operation? Is it cost effective? That is purely a personal observation and perhaps I fantasise.

I have nothing further to say. I am happy for those who will enjoy this benefit and hope that it does not lead to any unforeseen problems or troubles.

8.9 p.m.

Lord Luke: My Lords, this has been a most interesting debate. As my noble friend Lady Anelay said, we on these Benches believe that pensioners would prefer to have monetary concessions integrated into their state pension so that all pensioners would benefit from any spare money that the Chancellor has available. However, as it stands, we support the TV licence concession for those aged over 75 and I support my noble friend's Private Member's Bill for the reasons that she gave.

The concession does nothing for those who receive a pension but who are aged under 75. The question also arises of households which include a 75 year-old but which do not have a TV set. Effectively, the free TV licence is a £104 per year additional benefit for owning a TV set. That benefit is of course conferred on anyone who lives in a household which includes a 75 year-old, whatever their means or age. What about those who live in an area where the analogue signal cannot be received?

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked the Government in a Written Question on 25th May last (WA 107) whether they would pay those pensioners who do not have a TV set the equivalent of the cost of a licence. On that occasion, the Minister replied that the purpose of the concession is to assist access to television and not to provide a cash benefit. Does not the Minister agree that those pensioners may feel aggrieved that they are some £100-odd a year worse off than their neighbours as a result of this scheme?

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The scheme holds many implications for the BBC. My noble friend Lady O'Cathain made plain her suspicions that it seems to imply that the taxpayer is taking a direct financial stake in the BBC. As the Government determine each year whether or not to continue funding the scheme, that means that nearly 15 per cent of the BBC's income will come to depend on government goodwill. That, in its turn, unsettles the BBC's unique funding mechanism.

Of course, if the benefit were to be extended to households which included a 65 year-old—here I must state a small personal interest in such a possibility!—then the taxpayer would take a direct interest in more than one-third of the total BBC funding. As my noble friend Lady O'Cathain said, it could go even further.

Can the Minister assure us that the stake taken in the BBC will not lead to interference in the way that programmes are made or to a change in the editorial independence of the corporation? Of course, it is natural for the BBC to welcome the scheme as it not only guarantees income from 3 million viewers without having to chase up non-payers (provided, of course, the Government pay up), it also underpins the system of holding a licence before anyone can view a TV or video.

It would be wrong not to give great consideration to the cost of the scheme. Estimates seem to vary. At Second Reading in another place the Minister, Janet Anderson, stated that the costs could be higher than in earlier estimates. Of course, the costs are bound to depend on the number of beneficiaries. When can we expect to receive indications of that number and, therefore, the subsequent definitive cost estimates?

The Bill is short, but it introduces a scheme which appears to be complex to operate and which therefore may be confusing to many people. For example, the measure will require 75 year-olds to opt into the scheme. They will not receive the benefit automatically. They will still have to apply for a TV licence, even though they will not have to pay for it.

Therefore, we need to hear what steps the Government are taking to ensure a proper understanding of the measure among those whom it is intended to benefit. For example, how will the Government ensure that eligible pensioners do not confuse free licences with no licences? And will the Minister confirm that pensioners aged 75 and over who have a TV and no licence will still be liable to prosecution for a criminal offence and therefore subject to fine?

What discussions have the Government had with the TV licensing authority about its policy on this matter and, indeed, what discussions have they had with the Magistrates' Association? Will people who fail to apply for a licence be treated differently from those who refuse to apply after having been advised of the procedure? Indeed, will they be subject to fine and,

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if they refuse to pay, to prison? That seems to be the implication of the statement made by the Minister, Janet Anderson, again at Second Reading in another place:

    "the Government are not in the business of sending 80-year-olds to prison because they were perhaps confused about the rules".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/6/00; col. 154.]

Therefore, if they know the rules but do not want to apply for a free licence, will they be punished?

We all want to do the best that we can for our pensioners, who so patently have earned their rewards, though, as my noble friend Lady Fookes said, this is not really the best way to help them. However, as I and my noble friend Lady Anelay said, in the circumstances, we shall certainly support the measure as it stands.

I look forward to hearing the Minister respond to the debate. It must be his umpteenth speech today and his last. I congratulate him on his stamina.

8.16 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. Perhaps I may be allowed to say that on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, too.

I should like, first, to respond to the issues raised by her Bill and then to say something about the debate on the government Bill. I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness on her eloquent advocacy of her Bill, and pay tribute to the way in which she has approached it and to the advice that she has received from Abbeyfield and Age Concern. I have an interest in Abbeyfield. I am president of one of its societies and I have a step-mother-in-law who is aged 96 and in an Abbeyfield extra-care home. That gives me some knowledge of one or two of the issues raised in the Bill.

The starting point must be that the accommodation for residential care concessionary television licence scheme is full of anomalies. It has been full of anomalies right from the beginning. It generates complaints from residents in sheltered accommodation which fails to qualify, from managers of that accommodation, and from elderly and disabled people in mainstream accommodation who feel that they are equally deserving of special treatment. The scheme has been reviewed on several occasions since it was first introduced in the 1960s. A number of changes have been made to it to try to address those anomalies, but none of them has been successful.

The most recent review was that undertaken last year by the independent review panel on the future funding of the BBC, chaired by Gavyn Davies and commissioned by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The panel considered the structure of the scheme and whether a suitable alternative might be found. In its report, which it published last July, the panel recommended that the current scheme should be retained as no superior alternative funded from the licence fee could be found. The Government accepted that recommendation. However, we made one minor change to the regulations which govern the scheme in order to bring the qualifying age for men and women

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into line at 60, whereas previously the regulations referred to "pensionable age", so that women could qualify from the age of 60 but men were eligible only from the age of 65.

Most of the difficulties of the scheme stem from the fact that the entitlement depends on the accommodation occupied and the way in which it is provided or managed, rather than on the circumstances of the individual. That means that the rules which govern the scheme are often arbitrary or unfair. In our view, our introduction of half-price television licences for registered blind people from 1st April this year and of free television licences for people aged 75 or over from 1st November target concessions where they are needed.

Over 3 million households will benefit from free licences for the over-75s, compared with about 650,000 beneficiaries of the current concessionary scheme. The rationale for these concessions is well understood both by claimants and by the general public. Many of those receiving a free licence from 1st November are likely to be people who narrowly fail to qualify for the £5 concessionary licence.

The noble Baroness's Bill would make a number of changes to the concessionary scheme. The £5 concessionary licence is currently available only for television sets installed in the private accommodation of people living in residential homes or qualifying sheltered housing. The Bill aims to extend the concession to cover TV sets installed in communal rooms in qualifying accommodation, provided they are intended for use solely by residents. If all the residents are aged 75 or over, the Bill would provide a free television licence to cover any sets installed in communal areas.

That concession would benefit housing managers rather than residents because housing managers pay the licence fee for the communal set. Some managers may pass on the benefit to residents via a reduction in their charges, but there will be no requirement to do so. Those changes would represent an additional concession for accommodation where the residents already qualify for a concessionary licence. They would not help housing schemes which fail to qualify, to which the great majority of complaints about the concessionary scheme relate.

The provision that, in order to qualify for the concession, communal rooms must be intended for use solely by residents may also cause problems. Anyone who has been to one of these homes knows that visitors kneel or sit by the side of their elderly relatives. That cannot be avoided and visitors cannot be excluded in order to secure entitlement to the concession. The requirement for all residents to be over 75 would present difficulties. A single resident below that age would disqualify the scheme. Would it provide a perverse incentive to exclude someone from admission to the home because they were under 75 and the home would lose the licence? I do not believe so, but that is still an anomaly.

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The Bill also seeks to ensure that people over 75 who currently qualify for the £5 licence get a free television licence for their private rooms. Of course, they will do so under the Government's Bill.

Clause 1(3) of the noble Baroness's Bill would extend the concessionary scheme to sheltered housing schemes which included male residents aged 60 to 64 who continue to be employed. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has explained that this provision is intended to address an anomaly created by the extension of the concessionary scheme to men aged between 60 and 64.

The requirement for residents to be retired has long been a part of the regulations. It applies not only to men aged between 60 and 64 but also to other residents in sheltered housing schemes. Therefore, the effect of this provision would be to create a situation where sheltered housing schemes could qualify for the concession if they included male residents aged 60 to 64 who continued to work but not if they included a woman aged 60 or over who continued to work, nor a man aged 65 or over who continued to work.

I am sorry to have been critical about the detail. Of course, the Government are strictly neutral on Private Members' Bills and we shall not seek to obstruct the Bill's passage in any way. But we are not persuaded that the Bill would improve the scheme or resolve what we acknowledge are major anomalies. In defence of the Bill, over the years a number of able and eminent people have turned their minds to how the concessionary scheme may be improved, most recently by the Gavyn Davies review. But they have been unable to identify any improvements which would make the scheme generally acceptable, and I am afraid this Bill is no exception.

I now turn to the points raised on the Government's Bill and I shall seek to address those as succinctly as I reasonably can. First, I recognise the sincerity of the noble Baronesses, Lady O'Cathain, Lady Fookes and Lady Anelay, who have expressed reservations about the fundamental policy behind it—the over-75 licence concession. I recognise the sincerity and I understand the arguments that they use. As they are Members of the Opposition, I shall simply say that the Members of the Opposition in another place, although willing to wound, were not prepared to strike, in the sense that they were not willing for anybody to go to their constituencies and say, "Your Conservative MP voted against free television licences for the over-75s". That has been the limit of the disagreement on the issues of policy.

I have not heard, even from the noble Lord, Lord Luke, who was the only noble Lord to address the issue, any serious suggestion that there are alternative ways of achieving that policy other than that proposed in the Bill. Fears have been expressed, and I shall try to address them as best as I can, but nobody has suggested a better alternative. In my opening speech I hope that I indicated why we came to the conclusion that this is the best way of dealing with the matter.

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I shall turn now to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on Clause 1(2) relating to BBC subcontractors. I can give her a full assurance on that. The regime proposed for BBC subcontractors is exactly the same as that used by the DSS, which for many years has used subcontractors to process the data in question. That has been done under the social security administration legislation, the most recent Act being in 1992. At the same time, the BBC does not have a diverse group of contractors carrying out the work; it has a tightly knit group coming under the heading of TV licensing, with four companies that join together to provide those services. I have no reason to suppose that there have been significant breaches of confidence in the use of contractors, and I have no reason to suppose that there will be for the BBC. Incidentally, Post Office counter clerks will not have access to any confidential data.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred to the problem raised by Mr Greenway in another place about the dangers of accidental disclosure of information. Of course, we are sympathetic. If one is reckless or just stupid one can easily release information by accident, particularly with electronic communications in place. The noble Baroness may have read Philip Roth's latest novel in which one of the characters produces on her PC a lonely hearts advertisement that she intends to send to a lonely hearts contact club and by accident she presses the "Send all" button and the information is sent to all her colleagues in her university department. Such things can happen.

As regards personal information, we have the same protection in this Bill as in Section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, which makes it an offence to release personal information. It gives a defence in that the person charged with the offence has to prove that the disclosure was made in the reasonable, even mistaken, belief that he or she was making the disclosure with lawful authority, or that the information was already public. I do not know whether that reassures the noble Baroness. I am not sure that it entirely reassures me, because I do not believe that this is a problem to which there is any easy answer.

The noble Baroness raised the point on the new Clause 4 about defining the directors' duty to include whether neglect can be attributed to them. We do not believe that it is possible in every circumstance in legislation to define what a director must do. That must be a matter for the courts to apply. It is a well-precedented provision that we do not believe has caused any difficulty in the past. In this particular case we believe that it should be clear to directors that their organisation must put in place systems to prevent unlawful disclosure if they are not to risk mistakes that could lead to prosecution. Of course, if there are any amendments on that point in Committee, we shall listen carefully to them, as we always do.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, said that this Bill had raised her cynical antennae. I do not think of the noble Baroness as cynical; I think of her as an exponent of the highest scepticism—except, of course,

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in religion. I do not believe that her fears are justified here. The additional information required other than a person's national insurance number is only that which is absolutely essential for administrative purposes: name, address and date of birth. I do not think it would be possible to require less than that.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Luke, expressed concern about the licence fee principle. I should have thought that that point had already been answered fully when we set up the inquiry into BBC funding led by Gavyn Davies and published its report in July last year. We also published our response which makes it clear that, for the foreseeable future, we are dedicated to maintaining the principle of funding the BBC via the licence fee. I do not believe that any erosion of the licence fee funding principle will take place once 15 per cent of the funds come from the taxpayer. That is because no additional powers have been put in place for the Government to influence the amount of money that goes to the BBC. The Government have no control over the quantity of money that is taken from the taxpayer through concessionary licences for over 75 year-olds. That money will, as always, go directly to the BBC.

As regards the commitment to public sector broadcasting, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Luke, will be reassured by the fact that the BBC charter is still in effect. It has been extended on a number of occasions. Although eventually there must be a review of the charter, nothing that this Government have done could give rise to any suspicion that we are in any way damaging the independence of the BBC.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, asked about the costs of setting up and maintaining this concession. Costs in terms of the amount taxpayers will have to pay for the replacement of paid licence fees are roughly £340 million per year. In terms of administration, in 2001 the costs will amount to around to £24.3 million; a great deal of that sum will form the set-up costs. The figure will reduce in succeeding years to around £10 million per year. In terms of the amount of tax collected, that sum will not be particularly significant.

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The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Lord, Lord Luke, asked about our plans for promotion. In my opening speech, I told the House that a mailshot will be sent to every household within the next few months, well before 1st November—including to all Members of this House. If, as I hope, the mailshot is properly designed, it will make clear not only who is entitled but how that entitlement is to be exercised.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked about the rate of television licence fee evasion. My understanding is that 95 per cent of all licence fees are paid. I do not think that it is a significant issue as regards the granting of this concession.

I apologise to the House if I have missed any questions. I shall read in Hansard what has been said during our debate and write to noble Lords if that is necessary. I am grateful that no objections in principle have been expressed as regards the government Bill, or to the way—other than on points of detail which will be dealt with in Committee—in which the Government have implemented the necessary procedures to give effect to free television licences for those aged 75 and over. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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