Not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
New Clause 3
‘(1) Section 1 of this Act shall cease to have effect in specified regions on a date which the Secretary of State shall by regulation define.
(2) For the purpose of this Section “specified regions” shall be such areas as the Secretary of State shall by regulation define.’.—[Mr. Vaizey.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Commencement and duration—
‘(1) Section 1 shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint.
(2) No information may be disclosed under section 1 after the end of the initial period.
(3) In this section “the initial period”, means the period of ten years beginning with the day on which section 1 comes into force.’.
New clause 3 stands in my name and new clause 4 stands in my name and those of the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). In Committee, we had a useful and extensive discussion on the provisions of sunset clauses in the Bill. I was privileged to take the Committee through a history of sunset clauses from the Roman mandate to the present day—last year, we considered the use of a sunset clause in relation to the Terrorism Act 2006.
There are two important points on which all members of the Committee—and all Members of the House—should be agreed. The first is that this is an important Bill, which will allow the Government to proceed with digital switchover and, crucially, to target assistance at those who are most vulnerable and who need help to understand switchover and to get the equipment that they need. However, as the Government recognise, the Bill is also, of necessity, intrusive, in that it gives powers to the BBC to get information from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence on people receiving social security. It is therefore important that it does not remain on the statute book for longer than is necessary.
There are two ways in which one can ensure that the Bill does not have a longer than necessary shelf-life. The first is contained in new clause 3, which is my attempt to secure what is colloquially known as regional switch-off. I have tabled it at the behest of the Secretary of State, who said on Second Reading that
“Members might wish to look at the application of sunset provisions on a region-by-region basis when the Bill is in Committee”.—[Official Report, 18 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1174.]
So I have heard her call, and although I did not deal with that issue in Committee, I did say then that I would do so on Report, which is what new clause 3 seeks to do. As you are aware, Mr. Speaker, the Government propose to introduce digital switchover region by region, starting with Whitehaven later this year, moving on to the borders and ending in London. The new clause would rightly allow the Government to switch off the Bill, as it were, as each region is switched over from analogue to digital.
The Minister sent a detailed letter, which I received today, on how regional switchover—a matter that we pressed him on in Committee—will work. He makes it clear that, effectively, switchover assistance in each region will be available for only nine months: in other words, eight months before the date on which the final transmitter in a given region switches over—or the date on which the transmitter serving the individual in question switches over—and one month after that. There is no need, therefore, for the Bill to survive in a particular region beyond that switchover period.
I confess that, on reading the Minister’s letter, I felt that to a certain extent he wanted it both ways. On the one hand, switchover assistance will be available in a given region for only a short and specific period; on the other and as his letter makes clear, he wants the data to be kept in order to carry out cross-checking functions over the extensive period of switchover. I am not sure that that is entirely necessary. It appears that he wants to keep the data in order to check that people are not moving around the country to get such assistance more than once. I think it highly unlikely that anyone wanting assistance with digital switchover would be in a position to move regularly around the country.
Presumably, the date of expiry that the new clause provides for would depend on the date on which the appropriate level of targeted assistance had been provided. Casting his mind back to the exchanges that took place with the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House on 18 January, is my hon. Friend any clearer now than the Secretary of State allowed us to be then as to the proportion of the total subsidy that will be accounted for by voluntary input, agreed with the Government, from the BBC Trust?
Not really; in fact, a whole host of questions still have to be answered about the cost of digital switchover. Even now, as we debate this Bill, and after the statement on the licence fee settlement, the Government are still negotiating. Indeed, my hon. Friend, through his pertinent and perspicacious questioning, elicited from the Secretary of State on 18 January that negotiations are still ongoing. So apart from the broad figure of £600 million, any other estimate of the cost remains very vague. I hope that we can press the Minister on that issue on Report and Third Reading.
My hon. Friend has an advantage over the rest of us, in that we have not seen the letter from the Minister, so the nine month cut-off point after a given region has been switched over is news to us. There is no reference in the Bill to a nine-month period, so unless the sunset clause that my hon. Friend has tabled is accepted, there will be no obligation on the Government to end such provision.
That is exactly the point. The details of how switchover will work are contained in a Government document that was published in December, which made it clear when people would be eligible to receive assistance in the regions. However, as I hope that I made clear when we pressed the Minister in Committee on the issue, it was at that stage unclear, which is why the Minister has written his long and helpful letter. I am sure that he will make it available in the Library for my hon. Friends to peruse. He wrote the letter because it was unclear whether switchover help would be available beyond the period of nine months.
The specific examples on which we pressed the Minister in Committee were, of course, the obvious examples. Switchover will commence in Whitehaven at the end of this year. Let us say that someone aged 75 or over now living in London were to move to Whitehaven in 2012. Their friends in London will receive free assistance in 2012 when switchover takes place there, but it is not clear whether the person who moved would be eligible for such assistance. The answer given by the Minister in his letter is that the person moving would not be eligible for assistance in Whitehaven in 2012. Therefore, the purpose of the clause—I have heeded the call of the Secretary of State for a white knight to draft a region by region sunset clause—is to switch off the Bill in a region once switchover has been achieved there, so that the data is not held any longer than necessary.
The hon. Gentleman may be a white knight, but he may also be misleading the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) by confirming the period of nine months. In the letter we have received, the period is only one month after the switchover has occurred. Furthermore, the letter acknowledges that no final decision has yet been made about when that one month period will begin.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. It is important to be as accurate as possible and he rightly corrects me. The qualifying period in which people may receive assistance is nine months, starting eight months before and lasting one month after the date that switchover affects an individual. Eight months before a transmitter is to be switched off, help will be available in the region. After the transmitter is switched off, help will be available for those whose televisions suddenly go blank.
As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) makes clear, the hinge date—between the eight month and one month periods—has not been exactly defined. The Minister is still considering that issue because, as he says in his letter, it will either be the date on which the final transmitter in the region switches over, or the date the transmitter that serves the individual in question switches over. So there could be area switchover within the regions, with one area switching over before another. It is fiendishly complicated, but the new clause is designed to switch off the Bill region by region as switchover takes place around the country.
My hon. Friend is giving the House some fascinating detail that I had not quite appreciated before. If people are to be eligible for assistance on the basis of the transmitter that transmits to their home, which could be a small number of houses in some cases, how will they know the period during which they may apply for help?
That is a very perceptive question. I can only assume that Digital UK, which is the body charged with providing the assistance to vulnerable people, will write to specific householders who may be subject to a sub-regional switchover to explain that their transmitter will switch on, on say, 1 June and that their eligibility for help will therefore expire on 1 July. People a couple of miles away who are served by a different transmitter, although they live in the same region, may have a later switchover date and therefore a later eligibility date. Be that as it may, at some stage each region will switch off, so the new clause would allow the Secretary of State, by regulation, to switch off the Act in specific regions to protect the principle that its powers should not survive beyond the absolute need for them.
I represent a constituency in London, and people often move into and out of that part of the country. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is his understanding that the Bill has no specific plan for people who may move from London to an area where switchover has already happened, and that they would receive no assistance even if they needed it?
The Government have set themselves a daunting task. Earlier, the Secretary of State pointed out that she was in charge of building, in effect, two new terminal 5s in respect of the Olympics, and those of us who have followed closely the issue of digital switchover know that she agrees with those who assert that it could be the largest civil project in this country since the switchover to North sea gas. It seems to me that the nine-month period applies whether it be Whitehaven, the borders or London, which are enormously different both in size and, as my hon. Friend indicates, in terms of movement into and out of them. However, my reading of the Minister’s letter is that the rule will be as I described, so London, like the borders, will have only nine months.
As my hon. Friend knows, I sit on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which looked into digital switchover. At that time, we were not aware that the aid would be time-limited from area to area, so would not it be easier if switchover was on a date that applied to everybody nationally? There would then be cover for everybody in need rather than spasmodic cover, which would mean that people moving around the country would be left with no assistance whatever, through no fault of their own.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and use this opportunity to commend him and his colleagues on the Select Committee for a first-class report on digital switchover. It is a matter of regret to me and the hon. Member for Bath that the House has not had much opportunity to debate digital switchover, apart from the Bill, which is, as Members know, technical and short. However, the Committee’s report at least enabled us to hold a debate in Westminster Hall, which raised a number of issues, so I thank my hon. Friend profusely for that. The point he has just raised is valid; the issue was explored in Committee and I hope that I do not put words into the mouth of the hon. Member for Bath when I say that he and I were open-minded about whether switchover help would be available for the switchover period—for six years—wherever one lived or for only a short period in each region. Clearly, however, the Government have decided to go for short bursts of help in the regions, which has no doubt affected their calculation that switchover will cost £600 million. However, I cannot answer my hon. Friend’s question because the Government, despite repeated requests, have failed to make available any of the detail behind their calculation of that figure. They may feel that if switchover help was always on—as it were—it would cost much more.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me one more bite. He will be aware that polls show that up to half the people in the UK are completely ignorant of the fact that switchover will take place, so given that point and the fact that some people may move from one area, for example, from London in 2012, to one where switchover has already taken place, would not it be better for everybody to be on an equal footing irrespective of where they live?
That is the point, and my hon. Friend makes it extremely effectively. There may indeed be issues of education and awareness. Perhaps our friends in the north, in Scotland and the borders will be the first to receive the help because the Government deem them to be more switched on to technology—after all, over the past 200 years, people in those areas have invented a range of technological advances. They will be the first, but after that point, they will get no help, whereas the Government may regard Londoners as slightly behind the curve. They will be the last, so perhaps the Government hope that, by that time, awareness of digital switchover will have trickled down to London. As I said, the 8 million Londoners will have only eight or nine months to be made aware of the issue around 2012.
It seems very much a déjà vu for us to be having this discussion yet again. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s argument and I recall saying at an earlier stage of the Bill that I had some sympathy with it, though I have to tell him that I do not agree with sunset clauses. My fear is not the same as that of the hon. Gentleman, who is concerned about people without digital boxes. I find that if people who already have a digital box move to another house, they take their digital box with them. Anyone moving from an area that receives digital to another area will take the box with them. My problem is more about people who live in an area that does not have digital switchover moving to an area that does, so that they are stuck in a house where help with the digital box has been taken away. For that reason, I do not want any sunset clause. There has to be an extension at the end of the period to allow for such movements. Also, elderly people may not cotton on too quickly to these things, particularly if they have spent extensive time in hospital.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point and I hope that I have represented the Minister’s letter correctly. I agree that one particular concern is people moving from an area that has not yet had switchover to an area that has, so that, for example, someone moving from London to the borders in 2010 who is technically eligible for switchover assistance would not receive it when they move. The hon. Gentleman’s point about regional switchover would be particularly good if the Government were going to have always-on switchover. One could then argue quite effectively that a regional switchover clause would be unhelpful because anyone moving to the borders would, by definition, want to be identified by the BBC and Digital UK.
On that very point and bearing in mind that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) is sympathetic to the people he is describing—those who live in London but move to the borders in 2012, for example—I would like to ask him a question. His helpful new clause refers to the Secretary of State making a decision on the time scale for ending the available help, so I presume that he envisages a fairly long period.
I am working within the Government’s scheme, which is the nine-month period and the clearly set-out timetable starting with Whitehaven and ending in London. The new clause is relatively loosely drafted in order to allow the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations to switch off the Bill—for example, in the borders at the appropriate time. The Government have said that the scheme will operate on a rolling basis and proceed region by region, which I have taken as my starting point. If that is the case and given that the Bill becomes increasingly redundant region by region, let us make that explicit in the Bill and—in a pioneering fashion, I have to say—remove legislation from the statute book region by region. That is the thinking behind the new clause.
This has proved a rather illuminating discussion. Given that any timetable for the provision of financial assistance is necessarily arbitrary, I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the proposition that the decision on the precise timetable should at least in part depend upon the efficacy of any campaign to ensure that people can access the help to which they are entitled. Given that there is a degree of labyrinthine complexity about this matter, as well as the issue of transient populations—particularly in big industrial cities, but in other areas, too—does my hon. Friend agree that there could be role in public information provision for housing associations and, dare I say it, even estate agents?
My hon. Friend raises a number of important issues. For example, when we move on to consider the amendment that envisages a role for local authorities, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Bath, who spotted the incredibly important role that local authorities could play, we may have a chance also to discuss the role of estate agents, which could well be important, as well as that of housing associations, charities and so forth.
Indeed, my hon. Friend, who appears to have grasped the essence of the Bill with remarkable accuracy, probably has in mind the great difficulty that we will face when dealing with housing association tenants, particularly those in multiple dwellings. Although those who have rooms in a housing association-run home for people over the age of 75 would be eligible for assistance, they might find it useless because the communal aerial that serves their televisions cannot be changed over. That might be less the case with housing associations and perhaps more of a problem with registered social landlords.
I commend my hon. Friend on the perceptive way in which he is framing his contributions to this very important debate. Again—it must have been absolutely deliberate—he has given me a neat bridge to enable me to talk briefly about new clause 4, as he has pointed out the need for flexibility in switching off the Bill. When we debated a straightforward sunset clause in Committee, the Minister was quite clear that he did not want the Opposition to move an amendment that would switch off the Bill after six years. I remind hon. Members that the Government have set down a timetable that is due to end switchover at the end of 2012. I therefore tabled a proposed sunset clause in the hope of helping the Government by saying, “Let’s switch the Bill off after six years.”
The Minister made perfectly legitimate points about what could happen in the intervening six years. For example, he pointed to the destruction of a large transmitter in 1969 by a strong wind—it may indeed have been a hurricane—that took some months to repair. He made some important points about the fact that unexpected or unanticipated delays, including those caused by prolonged bad weather or a hurricane, could set back the cause of digital switchover.
As hon. Members are fully aware, switchover requires aerials to be replaced mechanically. Clearly, if one replaces a redundant analogue aerial with a brand new digital aerial but an act of God renders that aerial useless, switchover will be delayed. However, the Minister did not consider—it would have been an opportunity for him—what would then be done about an area that had already been switched off. For example, strong winds are occasionally present in the north, so what would be done about the borders if analogue signals were switched off and those transmitters were thrown down a couple of days later?
Given the reasons why the Minister rejected the proposed sunset clause, I have redrafted it and returned with new clause 4, whereby, under subsection (3), the hon. Member for Bath and I offer the Government 10 years to achieve switchover. On any calculation, that is a 66 per cent. increase in the time available for switchover—an increase of two thirds or four years, which would take us to 2016, towards the end of the second Conservative Administration, who will come to power in 2009. That strikes me as enough time for the Bill.
As was repeatedly made clear on Second Reading and in Committee, the legislation will become redundant. All I seek to do is to make that explicit in the Bill and to make it clear that it will be removed from the statute book. We could set an important precedent for Parliament in saying that we will not leave legislation that has served its purpose simply sitting on the statute book. We can begin the task of tidying up legislation.
I am afraid that the Minister did not. As far as I am aware, having reread the Committee proceedings, he said that he rejected my proposed change because he did not think that six years was long enough. Given the history of the Government on major procurement projects, I fully accepted that point. Also, I think that he felt that the change was redundant, because the Bill would not be used beyond digital switchover. However, that strikes me as an argument that goes either way. Either one is casual and says, “Nobody is going to use this Bill, so we will leave on the statue book the power for the BBC to request information from the Department for Work and Pensions for digital switchover”, or one says, “The Bill is redundant. It is no longer necessary. It will cease to be. It will become a dead Act.” The latter strikes me as a better way of legislating than simply leaving a redundant stump on the statute book.
To help the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Minister told us that there was no need for such a sunset clause because the whole approach has been
“to link the powers directly to the event of digital switchover, which is a time-limited event”––[Official Report, Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Public Bill Committee, 16 January 2007; c. 55.]
As we have already discussed, decisions have still not been made as to the precise nature of that event.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Minister did say that digital switchover is a time-limited event and that that is why a sunset clause is redundant. He certainly made it clear that, in his opinion, six years would not be long enough, despite the timetable of 2012.
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention allows me to move on to new clause 4(1), which incorporates a commencement date for the Bill. It had been assumed that once the Bill had been given a Third Reading, it would be able to commence immediately. However, having thought hard about how prepared the Government are for digital switchover, and being aware of the sensitive nature of the Bill in that it gives extensive powers to the BBC or a company that it appoints to access sensitive data, it would seem careless to allow the Bill to commence immediately.
The Government are not yet in a position to commence digital switchover. We know that they plan to commence digital switchover in October in Whitehaven. The people of Whitehaven are pioneering digital switchover. The rest of the borders region will follow. We also know that the Government are still conducting negotiations with the BBC—in particular, on the level of borrowing. The BBC wants to be able to borrow money because, as it puts it, the expenditure is lumpy. In this context, lumpy means that there will be bursts of expenditure. The £600 million will not simply be spent in smooth monthly instalments for the next six years. There will be front-ended expenditure in certain periods and the BBC wants to be able to borrow to cover that.
There is also the important point, which hon. Members have raised, that the BBC is in no way convinced that £600 million will be the final cost of digital switchover, despite what the Government say. It wants guarantees from the Government that if that £600 million cost is exceeded, the additional money will not come out of its programme budget. The new clause is a two-for-one clause. It offers the Minister not only the comfort and legislative tidiness of switching off the Bill, but the opportunity not to start the provisions until he and the BBC are absolutely ready to commence the immensely complicated task of digital switchover.
The hon. Gentleman and I have known each other for many years and have met each other in all kinds of situations and places, but I have never before met him standing at the Dispatch Box in front of the Opposition Benches. It is a great pleasure to do so. Like the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), I did not have the pleasure of sitting on the Committee. I am glad to be here today.
I seek the hon. Gentleman’s advice. In relation to new clause 3, he seemed to argue that it is important that the finite powers that the Government wish to put in the Bill be rendered infinite—for all kinds of reasons of principle. However, in relation to new clause 4, he seems to be arguing that it is equally important that the indefinite nature of the Bill, which is what the Government intended, be rendered finite. That is almost exactly the opposite of what he seemed to be arguing previously.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, whom I have also known for many years. As the desk officer in the Conservative research department, I did my best to prevent him from being elected to Parliament—not deliberately, but unwittingly, due to my incompetence.
Talking of my incompetence, I must tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) that his confusion arises only due to my incompetence. Let me reiterate my points. New clause 3 would insert a regional sunset clause in the Bill. I am not sure whether such an approach has ever been attempted, so the measure is pioneering stuff. The intention is that given that switchover will proceed around the country—starting in Whitehaven and the borders and ending in London—and because the Bill allows the BBC to access sensitive data, the Bill should cease to have effect in any region in which switchover has been achieved. If the new clause were accepted, the BBC would not be able to request sensitive information from the Department for Work and Pensions about people living in the borders after switchover had been completed in that region.
We have had the perfectly legitimate ensuing debate about whether it is right to have regional switch-off. Several hon. Members have asserted that it would be better for assistance to be available to everyone throughout the country for six years, because if there were only regional assistance, which is the present proposal, there would be an anomaly whereby someone from London who moved to Whitehaven after that area had switched over would not be eligible for assistance.
As I said, new clause 4 is a double whammy—a twofer for the Minister, as they say in America. It would allow him to choose the date on which the Bill would come into force. The Department is still negotiating with the BBC and we are not even at the point at which the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted, so it would be careless to put a measure on the statute book giving such power to the BBC before switchover had even commenced. I work on the principle that Bills should go on to the statute book only when the Government are ready to go. The new clause also offers a general sunset clause providing that after switchover has been achieved throughout the country, the Bill will cease to be, and it will be a dead Bill, a late Bill—I cannot remember the rest of the parrot sketch.
I am not intervening to fill in the rest of the parrot sketch—I bore my children with that far too often.
While considering new clause 3, hon. Members have raised the question—we also debated this in Committee—of whether a regional sunset clause would really be a good idea, because people who moved from a region in which there had been no switchover to a region in which switchover had been completed would be disadvantaged by being told, “Tough, you’ve missed your chance; you don’t get any assistance.” Surely the point of the Bill is that those who need assistance will get it, rather than being denied it by the accident of moving from point A to point B. Have our deliberations led the hon. Gentleman to decide to withdraw new clause 3?
No, I still support new clause 3. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help me, as he and I have both read the Minister’s letter. As far as I am aware, if, after switchover in Whitehaven, a person moves from London to Whitehaven, they will not be eligible for assistance. If they are not eligible for assistance, there is no point in giving the BBC the power to access data on people who are eligible in Whitehaven, other than for cross-reference purposes.
Is not the definition of “after switchover” the key point? Is it after six years, 10 years, when the sunset clause would come into effect, or some other time period that applies to the whole UK? Or are we talking about a rolling programme of six, nine or more regional switchovers?
As far as I am aware, targeted assistance is available in the regions for nine months—that is, for eight months before the transmitters are switched over, and one month after switchover—but I wait to hear from the Minister on whether I have accurately reflected the position. That strengthens the case for a regional switch-off clause, but if the hon. Member for Chesterfield persuaded the Minister of the perfectly legitimate point of view that switchover assistance should be available to all eligible people in every region during the period, I would agree that a regional switch-off clause would become less palatable.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because I know that he is coming to the end of his contribution. I thought that the whole point about the Government’s advertising campaign was that it would be regional, and that is why most people in London would not have the faintest idea about digital switchover, whereas people in the borders would. It is because people are fairly mobile that assistance should be spread over the whole period of the switchover, irrespective of where the eligible people live.
That is a perfectly legitimate point, and it could even end up saving the Government money. For example, if more people were made aware of switchover across all regions, some of them might get on with the job of switching to digital, and then when switchover arrived, they would have already switched over.
Of course, if things go wrong in Whitehaven, everyone will hear about it, and the publicity would ripple across the nation. If digital switchover works well in Whitehaven, people can relax. If it does not, they will hear about it and will, no doubt, have to react to it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution; it also gives me the opportunity to thank him for his valuable contribution during the Bill’s lengthy Committee stage, in which we considered the Bill in great detail, clause by clause. Perhaps I might give him a trailer—I use that word, as we are talking about the media—and say that I will refer to his remarks when we discuss the Government amendments on local authorities, as he made a particularly valuable and effective contribution on the subject. Indeed, it was so valuable and effective that it was adopted by the hon. Members for Bath and for Chesterfield—my colleagues in Committee, and in so many other ways.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) makes the point that if Whitehaven goes wrong, it could inadvertently publicise the issue of switchover, although that publicity could set back the Government’s cause. The Minister and I will visit Whitehaven together in March, and I am grateful to him for the invitation. He extended it to me in Committee, as hon. Members may remember, and I said yes. I was feeling particularly vulnerable in that Committee, and perhaps that is why I accepted with alacrity. Whitehaven will be a pioneer, but I am not sure that it will be subject to the same process that will be followed in the rest of the country. A lot will no doubt be learned from Whitehaven, but it is hard to consider Whitehaven part of the process because, for example, it is not clear whether the vehicle—the third-party company that the BBC will set up—will be established at that stage. Given how long licence fee negotiations continue, it would not surprise me if, when Whitehaven switches over, the Minister is still negotiating with the BBC on the details of switchover. Whitehaven may end up an isolated pioneer on switchover. In fact, it may end up the only place in the country that has switched over, if the Minister is still carrying on his negotiations with the BBC.
As I say, new clause 4 is a twofer—a two-for-one, a double whammy—and it offers the Minister the opportunity to ensure that the Bill does not come into force before he is good and ready. It also offers him a two thirds increase in the time available for switchover, in place of the narrow six-year period that I foolishly proposed, on the basis of the timetable that the Government put forward. In new clause 4, we have offered 10 years, which is an extensive period—so extensive, indeed, that my little boy, Joseph, will be at primary school at the time of switch-off. That is the length of time that we are talking about.
Little Joseph can only gurgle and smile at the moment—I could show the House a picture of him—but under the extended period in the new clause, by the time of switch-off he will be reading ancient Greek and attending a local authority primary school. I now live in Conservative-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, so standards will have improved tremendously by then.
May I begin by apologising, first, to the Liberal Democrat Whips, as I advised them that our deliberations on new clauses 3 and 4 would be extraordinarily brief? Clearly, I was wrong about that. Secondly, may I make a huge apology to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who pointed out that new clause 3 was tabled in his name alone? Unlike new clause 4, which we support, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and I did not add our names to the regional sunset clause. I worked long and hard to persuade the hon. Member for Wantage not to table it on the ground that it was barking mad, and in our private discussions I thought that he accepted that that assumption was correct. I must apologise to him because, having listened to the debate generated by his proposal, I believe that he was wise, sensible and, indeed, profoundly far-sighted not to follow my advice.
If I were making an attack on the Secretary of State I would instantly withdraw my remark.
The new clause has provoked an extremely important debate on a matter about which there remains considerable confusion. On 16 January—hardly very long ago—in Committee, we discussed the question of people moving from one part of the country to another, and whether they would receive assistance after they had moved. The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), was uncertain about whether someone who moved from London in 2012 to the borders would receive help. At column 56, I asked the Minister:
“Does that mean that a person who would qualify for assistance who moved from London to the Border region in 2012 would be eligible for targeted assistance there at that time?”
After asking me to provide various postcodes, the Minister said that he would write me. He added:
“I do not want to speak out of turn, but my instinct is that the purpose of the Bill is to enable people who genuinely need help to receive it”.––[Official Report, Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Public Bill Committee, 16 January 2007; c. 56.]
Basically, he went on to say “yes” to my question. Since then, he has had time to reflect on the matter and to hold discussions, and he sent me an extremely helpful letter setting out the plan to which the hon. Member for Wantage referred. A qualification period would operate eight months before, and one month after, switchover but, as I pointed out in an intervention, there is still confusion about that period. The letter states:
“The dates will be linked to the regional switchover: the date in question will either be the date the final transmitter in a region switches or the date the transmitter which serves the individual in question switches. We and the BBC have not come to a final decision on this”.
That is one of many nitty-gritty issues about which final decisions have not been made. Many of us who served on the Committee and no doubt many in the House are concerned that much of the information is still not finalised, which is why we had hoped that further debate would be possible on clause 5(1), which refers to a switchover help scheme as merely a scheme agreed between the Secretary of State and the BBC.
That was not to be, but the Government have answered the question about whether assistance will be available to people moving from one part of the country where switchover has not taken place to another part of the country where it has taken place. I am grateful for that answer.
The question is what sort of assistance will be available and who will get it. Disabled people, those who are visually impaired and the very elderly will get assistance, but is it not just a matter of going into a shop and buying a £30 box that will allow the TV to be switched over—the problem is the knowledge of what to do and how to do it. Aerials may need to be replaced, which will increase the cost to the person involved. That is why equity is needed in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but sadly, our ability to discuss such matters is constrained by the tight wording of the Bill. All we know about the digital switchover help scheme is that it is
“any scheme for the provision of help to individuals in connection with digital switchover which is agreed between the BBC and the Secretary of State in pursuance of the BBC Charter and Agreement, as the scheme has effect from time to time”,
so it can even vary over time.
The crucial point that the hon. Member for Wantage raises is that although some of the details are shown on the Department of Trade and Industry website and in the regulatory impact assessment, all the details are not there. We are learning more in the course of the debate. I, for example, do not know—perhaps the Minister will intervene and tell me, as I do not have the necessary technical competence—whether somebody has been assisted in one part of the country and moves to another part of the country, taking their box with them, will be able instantly to plug it in and get it to work in the new region, without the need for additional assistance. Perhaps the Minister can help us.
I have resisted the temptation so far to intervene and keep the debate going for longer than necessary. It may be helpful if I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Bill enables social security information to be disclosed. It does not lay out the specifics of the scheme. I have said that as the final details become available and as we learn from the experience of Whitehaven, I am more than happy to sit down with hon. Members from across the House at any time and run through the details. The Bill simply enables social security information to be disclosed.
I am grateful and I accept the Minister’s point, but as he knows, there is more than social security information involved, as there is a Government amendment to extend where the data come from. He is right about the tight constraints imposed on the debate by the wording of the Bill, but I am sure he will accept that we are debating amendments which give us the opportunity to consider the period of time for which targeted assistance will be available.
Is the Minister aware that about 3.2 million people move house every year? Given that, as we are told in the regulatory impact assessment, the Bill is designed to help some 25 per cent. of all households in the country, that means that 750,000 of the affected households are likely to move every year. The issue of moving between one part of the country and another is therefore extremely important, and any change to the amount of assistance that people will get when they move will have a significant impact on the cost of the delivery of the targeted assistance programme, for which, the Minister has told us, £600 million will come from the BBC and the rest from the public purse. As the impact on the public purse could be significant, it is legitimate for us to debate the matter.
We also need to know the answers to basic technical questions that are directly relevant to new clause 3. We need an assurance that the assistance someone gets in one area will be sufficient to enable them to move immediately into the digital age when they move to their new property. Can the Minister assure me that the kit they are given can be plugged in and made to work without the need for additional assistance? Can the Minister say yes or no in response to that question?
The hon. Gentleman will readily recognise that, for obvious reasons, I cannot give a simple yes or no to that. However, I can reassure him that our objective, which I am sure is the objective of the whole House, is to do our level best by all fair and just means to ensure that no one is left behind. In order to deliver the scheme effectively and efficiently, and mindful of the fact that, at the end of the day, it is funded by licence fee payers’ and taxpayers’ money, it must have boundaries. Having said that, if we can improve the scheme during the course of its evolution, we will, because the purpose is to enable everyone to have access to it, as long as it is fair, just and within boundaries that satisfy the controls of the public purse.
The Minister clearly makes the point that it is not a simple question of whether or not the kit, when moved from one place to another, will instantly work. Therefore, there may be a group of people who, when they move, will continue to need assistance, even though they have received it already in a different part of the country. I remind the Minister of what he said previously:
“the purpose of the Bill is to enable people who genuinely need help to receive it”.––[Official Report, Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill Public Bill Committee, 16 January 2007; c. 56.]
I hope that he will at least discuss with his officials whether that second tranche of help will be provided, if it is needed.
It should be remembered that the Bill deals with the disclosure of social security information, although the hon. Gentleman rightly makes reference to the Government new clauses on local authorities, which we shall table later in the proceedings. It is important for him to remember that the scheme will always be open to improvement for a variety of reasons, not least the technological changes that will take place. I want to put on record that it is our intention to achieve the best possible scheme within the framework of looking after the public’s money.
I say to the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that there will be things to learn as the scheme progresses, and the Department and the Government are absolutely open to learning from it. We do not want to close the door on that process at any point. The door is open to Members from all parts of the House to come in to discuss the policy and to help us to improve the scheme.
In that case, I would be grateful if the Minister made a further intervention on me, if he does not mind. Are the contents of the letter that we received regarding the one-month period after the switchover date—whenever that is defined—absolutely cast in stone, and is he prepared to discuss it? Let me suggest to him one reason why he may wish to do that, other than to help people in the way that I have described. He will be aware that the Department for Work and Pensions does not as a matter of course receive timely information about people who move house, and that will be true of other Departments that assist and of local authorities. In fact, there is good evidence to show that the information in the DWP’s database on people’s addresses often lags a long way behind when they have moved. A one-month period may well be insufficient for the DWP to identify a new address and pass it on to those involved in the targeted help scheme, and for help then to be provided.
If it is helpful to hon. Members, let me say that we have had to draw up the guidelines based on what we believe will be a workable practice. That has been done with the BBC, the charities and a whole cross-section of groups, including political parties, and we are happy to continue that discussion.
At the moment, I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that we intend to proceed along the lines that I have laid out in my letter. I will, of course, ensure that a copy of that letter is deposited in the Library. However, if the hon. Gentleman has very clear proof that we may have got the timing wrong and if we, along with Digital UK, can genuinely be convinced that a different time arrangement would be better, of course I can honour his request and agree to look at that. I cannot necessarily promise that the arrangement will change, but if there is a better proposal, which is more effective and efficient, of course we will consider it and we may well implement it.
The Minister is extremely generous in his response and I am extremely grateful to him for making it. I certainly undertake to provide him with the information to which I referred.
The more sensible new clause, if I can be polite and put it that way, is the second one, new clause 4. That is the more traditional—
I simply wanted to detain the hon. Gentleman briefly before he moved on to new clause 4, because of the discussion that he has been having with the Minister—I felt slightly left out. First, I think that the hon. Gentleman and I have been transformed into sirens, because every time that we debate this subject the Minister keeps telling us that he is subject to temptation, which he occasionally caves in to. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised an extremely important point that is worth further discussion—technology transfer. One issue that we raised on Second Reading was the importance of platform neutrality, and one issue raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson)—
Order. May I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that even though he is replying to a response from another hon. Member, he must address his remarks to the Chair? Also, interventions should be reasonably brief.
Order. We are not discussing the question of training.
The hon. Gentleman began his remarks by saying that he had been feeling somewhat left out of the debate. He has clearly shown with his intervention that there is no fear of that. He makes a helpful point and one that I think we will have an opportunity to return to perhaps, somewhat bizarrely, when we come to the next string of amendments.
I was saying that new clause 4 is a more helpful way of addressing sunset clauses. I am certain that the Minister, although he has had to leave us briefly, will, when he responds to the debate, use exactly the same arguments as he used in Committee when opposing a sunset clause that was similar, although a much shorter period was proposed at that time. The hon. Member for Wantage now seeks to extend the period, which I think is welcome, and adds, helpfully, a proposition on commencement of the legislation. That commencement period, although he did not quite put it like this, would certainly be valuable from my point of view, because it would provide an opportunity to ensure that everyone was happy with all the details of the switchover help scheme before Parliament authorised the commencement of the legislation. It would be one way of ensuring that Parliament had an opportunity to discuss the very important nitty-gritty details of the digital switchover help scheme.
The addition of the proposition on commencement is excellent and the extension of the period for the sunset clause is also welcome, but no doubt the Minister will deploy exactly the same arguments as he used before. Just in case he is minded to do that, I will outline those arguments and why it would not be sensible to repeat them on this occasion.
The Minister gave us three reasons why we should not accept the proposal. He said that
“criminal offences should continue to operate after the information had been lawfully disclosed, even though the power to disclose had been spent.”
The Minister was absolutely right; I would entirely agree with his argument were it relevant to the sunset clause proposed then or now. However, as he will be aware, the sunset clause applies only to clause 1, but the offences are in clause 3. The sunset clause did not apply to clause 3, so his argument fell. The Minister went on:
“with the best will in the world, a project of such scope…undoubtedly carries risk”
He gave us the example of things that fall down in the night. You will not be aware of why, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do not want to go into matters involving erections on this occasion; “things that fall down in the night” is more appropriate. In new clause 3, the hon. Member for Wantage would give us a longer period, a greater buffer zone, to cover all the things that could go wrong, so the Minister’s argument would fall.
Finally, the Minister gave his third reason:
“once the switchover help scheme has completed its task, the legal basis for using information and, therefore, for disclosing it, vanishes.”––[Official Report, Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Public Bill Committee, 16 January 2007; c. 54.]
In other words, the implication is that there is a natural sunset clause—the data protection legislation would kick in and people would not be allowed to disclose the information anyway.
I have taken advice on the matter. Unfortunately, that advice is—perhaps the Minister will assure me that it is incorrect—that the clause referred to states specifically:
“in connection with switchover help functions.”
As there is no detail in the Bill on what the switchover help functions are and no explanation of what is in connection with those unspecified help functions, it is perfectly possible that people would find a legal loophole in the phrase
“in connection with switchover help functions.”
Frankly, the Minister does not have a leg to stand on in opposing something that the Secretary of State herself said would be a good idea, which in the past the Minister has said would be worth considering, and which would give absolute certainty.
The Minister may be broadly right about the role of data protection legislation; surely, then, a belt-and-braces approach, as proposed by the hon. Member for Wantage, would make a great deal of sense. Although I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his new clause 3, which I fear we would not be able to support, to a vote, we certainly hope that the Minister will take new clause 4 seriously.
To some extent, I support what the Minister was saying— if a scheme is rolled out over four or five years, there will inevitably be a degree of change; technology will change. Being too speific at this stage could be a mistake.
However, I want to raise one specific point. We are talking about regions. The Minister said that a scheme would run for eight months in a region and a month after switch-off. The helpful note that he sent refers, at paragraph 5.21, to final transmission switch-off in a region or transmitter area. However, transmitter areas overlap. It was the case—I suspect that it is still true—that some people on the English side of the Bristol channel got Welsh television and one or two people on the Welsh side got HTV West. The regions are not as neatly defined as they seem on a map of ITV areas. There is overlap, and some of the transmitters may well overlap. In one or two areas, people have the choice of which transmitter they tune into.
I can give some credence to what my hon. Friend says. Some people who used to live in Wales but have moved across the border still want to receive Welsh-language television. They point their aerials to get the signal from the relevant receiver, and fall into the category that my hon. Friend is talking about.
Those are people who elect to do it, but there are certainly others who have no choice because of geography or how transmitters broadcast. If we are too specific about a region, we may find that there is a problem for small groups of people on the fringes.
As Mr. Deputy Speaker has made clear, the Bill is about information. However, it may well be that information has to be got out of, say, North Somerset social services to help one or two people at the point of, say, the Welsh switch-off. What I am grappling with when the Minister talks about region and the transmitter area in his note is that there may be an overlap between television companies, and a small number of people may need additional help. If one is too regional specific, we may well find that people tune into a particular transmitter in areas where we do not expect them to because it does not conform to the timetable. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) made a good case, providing that we get the definition right of what is a region or a transmitter area. I would want further reassurance before going down the route of new clause 3.
On new clause 4, we did not get into a debate about the ancient Romans as we did in Committee, but my hon. Friend set out generously his proposal for what in effect would be a sunset clause. I hope that when the Minister responds he gives a reassurance about the transmitter area.
I come to the House in some ignorance because I was not lucky enough to be selected to serve on the Committee and have not seen the Minister’s letters. As always with these debates, we are allowing the technical details to get in the way of some of the points of principle. The Minister reminded us that the Bill is about the disclosure of social security information. That is a serious and salient point. Highly confidential information will be made available to a large number of people. The BBC, the BBC company and all those who are described as BBC nominees, which I assume are subcontractors, will have sensitive personal information. That is why I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and new clause 3, which hopefully the Government will ultimately accept.
The sensitivity attached to the position of military pensioners in Northern Ireland has been discussed, but there are other sensitive situations. People do not necessarily want their neighbours to know that they are in receipt of particular benefits. As someone suggested, not all couples are honest about their ages when they form relationships and it might be embarrassing if a television contractor knocks on the doors and says, “Mr. So and so,” or “Miss So and so, you’re eligible for a pension” when the other partner is not aware that they have reached that age. I can see a number of awkward and sensitive matters that might arise.
There will be an element of rough justice. We talked about people moving house. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said, many people will move, although a lot of them will move only short distances and in the majority of cases they will stay within their TV region. However, some will move from London to the borders, and they will be disadvantaged, but that is a minor point. In some ways, I sympathise with the Minister. We have to encompass the scheme in boundaries because otherwise it will run out of control at a cost to taxpayers and licence-fee payers. I urge the Minister to consider new clause 3 seriously.
I am slightly surprised by the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s last remarks. Although the number may be relatively small, many hundreds will move into each TV region after switchover and will fall within the categories that we are talking about—severely disabled, blind or partially sighted and very elderly. Those people need help. I hope he at least agrees that the Government should look at ways of helping those people when they move.
I do not necessarily disagree, but new clause 3 is important because privacy—the issue of divulging confidential information to a large number of people—is vastly more important than the injustice that might be caused to a number of people who subsequently will have difficulty or who will not receive a small amount of help as a consequence of moving house. That is my point. Disclosure of such information is serious. I believe that new clause 3 is the best way to corral it to the minimum amount. As people move from region to region, the disclosure of information should shut down. I do not understand why the Government cannot consider a sunset clause.
I thank all Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) raised an important issue, which we also discussed in Committee. The BBC has had access to social security data since 2000 in order to administer the over-75 licence fee scheme and has been trusted with that information, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that essential safeguards are provided under the Data Protection Act 1998. They include the common-law duty of confidentiality and contractual arrangements between parties participating in the delivery of the switchover scheme, and are likely to contain provisions relating to the need to protect the confidentiality of social security data.
The power to disclose the information is a permissive power, but before passing on information the Department for Work and Pensions would need to satisfy itself that the security and information technology procedures for handling data were appropriate. That is an important safeguard.
In Committee we discussed the specifics of the way in which the Bill is likely to work in practice. Sensitive social security information is not likely to be in the hands of everyone at the BBC; its availability will be very carefully controlled and limited. There are other examples of where it will be available, but at no stage will this or any future Government be complacent about its handling, and we believe that we have safeguarded that in our discussions with the BBC.
When people become eligible for a free television licence at the age of 75, they must apply for it. It is not a case of being told that as the household contains someone aged 75, the licence will be supplied. Why has a different approach been adopted to this particular assistance?
As I have said, I am happy to discuss the details of the help scheme outside this specific debate, which concerns the use of social security information. It would be possible to delay the House for a very long time in discussing a matter that is not strictly related to the new clauses or the Bill. I shall be happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the details of this scheme, and comparisons with the over-75 scheme, whenever he wishes.
I am grateful for the Minister’s forbearance, but my point does relate to the Bill. If it had been decided to adopt the same approach in the Bill as is taken to the free television licences we would not be considering these proposals now, because people would have to apply for the assistance. In fact, my point is incredibly pertinent.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, what is pertinent to the Bill is the administration of the targeted help scheme, which under the terms of the Bill requires us to have access to social security information. The hon. Gentleman will know what information we require, and the way in which we wish to acquire it is set out in the Bill. The new clauses are intended to control the way in which the information is handled, and that is what I propose to deal with this afternoon.
I am happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and talk to him in detail about the targeted help scheme and how it compares with other gateway schemes handled by the DWP. I am also happy to recognise that there may be ways of improving the scheme as time rolls on. If it can be administered more efficiently and effectively, my invitation to the hon. Gentleman to talk to me is open not just at any time during the next weeks, but for as long as the Prime Minister thinks that I am doing a reasonable job in the Department. But I must respect your office, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and curtail a discussion in which I suspect you have allowed us to range rather widely for the last few minutes.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), yet again, raised serious issues. Yes, there is an overlap of sorts, and I shall try to deal with some of his points shortly. In order to deal with the anticipation and eagerness of the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), I should say at the outset that despite what might be described, particularly in relation to new clause 3, as the beautiful plumage of some of the arguments of the hon. Member for Wantage, I fear that they have reached “the choir invisibule”—that is a reference to a Monty Python sketch that he was unable to complete at an earlier stage of our proceedings. None the less, I hope to convince Opposition Members of our point of view. We understand their arguments, and our disagreement with them is about not their principle but the workability of the scheme proposed under new clauses 3 and 4. Our objective is to ensure that the help scheme has the information that it needs when it needs it—and no more and no less than that.
It might be helpful to take a look at clause 1. It says:
“The Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland department may…supply a relevant person with social security information for use…in connection with switchover help functions.”
Therefore, when the switchover help scheme has completed its task the legal basis for using the information, and therefore for disclosing it, will be dissolved. We have linked those powers directly to the event of digital switchover—a time-limited event—which has the same practical effect as a formal sunset clause. Once switchover is complete and the help scheme has done its job, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Defence and any other agencies will no longer be lawfully able to disclose information. I understand the issues raised in relation to new clauses 3 and 4, and I do not disagree with the principle behind them. What I wish to examine is the workability.
On new clause 3, we believe that it is best to leave matters to the judgment of public bodies working with the scheme’s administrators. It should be for them to oversee the disclosure arrangements and to determine the timing of the release of information, and I give a reassurance that the Bill, along with other legal duties including those under the Data Protection Act 1998, deals with the points that have been raised. For example, when the scheme administrator requests information needed in connection with the switchover help scheme, clause 1 enables, but does not compel, the public bodies to disclose necessary information for that purpose. Those public bodies must be satisfied that the information is necessary for the digital switchover help scheme to comply with their own obligations under the 1998 Act.
In relation to new clause 4, let me explain why the provision in question is not unnecessary and why the approach that we have adopted, and that links the powers to a scheme with a definite timetable, is a neater and more effective way of dealing with the issue than a sunset clause. The digital switchover help scheme will receive information based on definitions of ITV regions and on information from Digital UK, and drawn from the new digital coverage postcode checker which will be available later this year. The scheme will need information for a particular region just before the appropriate qualification period starts. That data, provided through the DWP, other than local authority information on people who are blind and partially sighted, will be refreshed regularly to identify people who become eligible within the qualification period. It will also be refreshed weekly with details of those who have died as that helps reduce the risk of the scheme inadvertently contacting people in cases where the DWP already knows that the eligible person has died.
Once the regional period ends, the scheme will no longer need or receive information for the region in question. However, when switchover is later taking place in an adjacent region the scheme might need details on particular individuals who had been identified in a region previously subject to digital switchover, whether or not they were targeted. That might happen in respect of people living in a boundary area, where more than one service was possible or if the judgment about where boundaries lay were to change even slightly during switchover.
It is my understanding that the rationale behind new clause 3 is to ensure that the DWP, MOD and other agencies are not able to disclose data on people living in regions that have already switched under the Bill. However, the scheme can be provided with information only in connection with switchover help functions.
I understood everything that the Minister said, but is he now referring to specific data about individuals? If so, there is a problem with the making available of aggregate data on, for example, the total number of people who will be affected in a given region. Such data will be needed much earlier for purposes such as identifying the amount of equipment to be purchased, the number of people to be trained in the provision of switchover assistance, and so on. So can the Minister confirm that the timing of the release of information will be different, depending on whether we are talking about aggregate information or specific information on individuals?
The provision refers to individual information. I am happy to look at the question that the hon. Gentleman raises about aggregate information, and I shall ask officials to advise me on it. If I am unable to have that advice in time for the end of Third Reading, I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about the matter.
New clause 4, which is in the names of the hon. Members for Wantage, for Bath and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), is also concerned with the provision of a sunset clause. Under it, the powers would be available for the lifetime of the scheme. That approach is a step forward from the amendment that we discussed in Committee, but we believe that the Bill already adequately meets such concerns, and more simply and effectively than the new clause would, although I accept that the intention behind it is to improve the Bill. On balance, we do not agree that the disclosure gateway could be kept alive after switchover to support a scheme that continues after switchover for other purposes; the definition of digital switchover in clause 5 is far too precise for that.
Even if ambiguity did exist—we believe that it does not—we cannot see how an extension of the scheme might come about, given that the BBC would need to agree to continue to help provide and fund a scheme for an event that had finished. Our approach meets the concern that Members have expressed—that the powers are available for the duration of the switchover help scheme. If it helps, I will give the House an assurance that there are no plans for the help scheme to continue, or for the powers to be exercised, after switchover has completed and no more help needs to be delivered. We would like the Bill’s powers to be available as soon as possible, in order that they can support the switchover in Whitehaven at the end of the year. That is why we need an early commencement. There will be a short pause, because clause 1 cannot have practical effect until an order defining the information that can be disclosed has been made.
These are important issues and I am grateful to the Members concerned for raising them; I hope that we have been able to reassure them that we genuinely share their concerns. We believe that, on balance, ours is a more practical way of dealing with those concerns, which is why, while we understand the points that they have made, we will none the less resist their new clauses. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, they will agree to withdrawn the motion.
As I understood it, the Minister said a moment ago that he did not expect any changes to the scheme. Is he categorically assuring us that once an agreement is reached between the Secretary of State and the BBC, there will be no subsequent changes to the scheme, regardless of what happens in Whitehaven or in any other region? That is the implication of what he said and it would be a pity if he made such a categorical statement; however, we need to be clear that that is what he is telling the House.
Is the Minister saying that, if information comes to light that enables the Government to help improve the scheme in the light of experience in the early phase, it is likely that they will go back to the BBC and, with the BBC, change the nature of the help scheme?
Somewhere within the hon. Gentleman’s question, he is, I think, making an important point, although there is a danger that, at the same time, a degree of scaremongering is going on. Let us be absolutely clear. As I have said throughout the debate, if we can improve the scheme as it goes along, we will; if there are things that we can learn as we go along, we will. However, it is our intention to enable the BBC to deliver this scheme, so when I said “we can learn”, I was using the phrase in the round. For the sake of splitting hairs, I should point out that I do not believe that I am speaking on behalf of the BBC; indeed, I have no remit to speak on its behalf. However, I cannot believe that an organisation as committed as the BBC is to ensuring that it delivers the finest quality broadcasting in the world would not also want to learn as it goes along. All Members in this House would be surprised if the BBC were to operate a scheme in any other way.
In the light of those remarks, I ask the hon. Member for Wantage to withdraw the motion.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the Minister’s remarks. I also commend the contributions by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). The hon. Member for Bath teased out some important points in his questioning of the Minister, not least on the opportunity for technology transfer, which is perhaps not strictly to do with the new clause, but was a very valuable contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole also made an important contribution on the nature of radio transmission areas, which addressed the specific point about regional switchover. He reminded the Minister of the importance of not simply looking at a map and saying, “Well, that region has been switched over, so we can now move on.” The lines are slightly more blurred in practice.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham for his unequivocal support of both new clauses and he made several important points that have not yet been canvassed in consideration of the Bill, including some vivid examples of why individuals may wish to preserve the confidentiality of the fact that they receive age-related benefits. He revealed—and it was news to me—that apparently some people lie to their partners about their age. That is not something that I would dream of doing, having only yesterday discussed with Mrs. Vaizey the arrangements for my 21st birthday party. Nor will my hon. Friend have to worry about the arrangements for digital switchover, given that at the tender age of 30 he is many years away from requiring such assistance.
During consideration of the Bill, I have got to know the Minister and his characteristics quite well. As I mentioned earlier, one of them is an ability to resist temptation. Another is to take refuge in the fact that the Bill has a narrow scope. Notwithstanding that, I hope that he appreciates that—with the indulgence of the Chair on several occasions—we have been able to range slightly wider and have teased out some important points. It may be that when he takes an intervention from, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), he would find it easier to answer him on the Floor of the House rather than have to arrange a specific meeting to discuss it with him. However, the Minister may have to hire a coach because so many of us will want to go on our holidays with him to Whitehaven. September would be an appropriate time.
It would be a real pleasure to hire a charabanc to take as many hon. Members as wish to come. However, the whole point is for us to learn from the experience in Whitehaven, and the offer is therefore genuine and open to all hon. Members who actually want to see how well the scheme has been prepared by the Government with Digital UK. We are not complacent and if lessons can be learned to make the scheme better and more effective, we will learn them and put them into practice. What better place to start than with a day out at Whitehaven?
I look forward to it. I hear what the Minister says about wanting to learn from experience, but I think that it is the feeling of the House that the period of time for switchover in the regions may not be long enough. Although that period is not in the Bill but in documents supporting it, the fact that we have debated a regional sunset clause ensures that hon. Members have been able to convey to the Minister their feeling that nine months may not be long enough. I hope that he appreciates that point.
I make no apology for tabling the new clauses and amendments. As I said when I moved the new clause, I was heeding the Secretary of State’s call. No doubt, the Minister will be able to point to splits between me and other Members along the way, but it is clear that there is also a split in his Department; the Secretary of State would like a regional sunset clause, but he resists it. However, my proposal is made in good faith to support the Secretary of State and to ensure that the measure can be switched off as switchover happens across the country.
As these things go into the record, I shall have to correct the hon. Gentleman—despite the temptation he offers. The Secretary of State was minded during Second Reading to consider the proposal, as she is always minded to consider all sensible proposals. However, having reflected on it and taken advice, she has switched over and recognises that in this digital age the position the Government now take is the right one, and that however attractive superficially the idea of a sunset clause by region might be, on balance, in terms of workability, it would not achieve the ends we would all like.
I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Secretary of State has changed her mind, although it causes me some concern that on Second Reading—an important point in a Bill’s proceedings, after it has already been carefully considered in the Department—the Secretary of State could put her name to a superficial proposal and set hares running, thereby giving me much detailed work and analysis so that I could present the House with a proposal for proper debate that I thought she had carefully considered. On the subject of the Secretary of State’s flights of fancy, perhaps the Minister could confirm that she will not switch over on her commitment to fund cost overrun on the £600 million from the public purse, nor—
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the indulgence of the Chair. I hope that I have not been indulgent in any way and I shall certainly not be indulgent if he goes off—again—at a tangent.
I am most grateful to you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
In conclusion, the Minister has resisted the new clauses on every point, yet on every point he has accepted the principle. He has said again and again that the proposals are unnecessary, because he claims that the Bill will have no force after switchover has been achieved, and that switchover assistance is narrowly defined in the measure. As I said in my opening remarks, there are two points of view. The first is that the Bill will die a natural death and there is no need for a sunset clause to put an end to it. The alternative view, which I suspect is more instinctive on the Conservative Benches, where we are reluctant to pass unnecessary legislation and certainly reluctant to keep otiose legislation on the statute book, is that if the Bill is redundant, we should let a sunset clause hasten it on its way.
Given that the Minister accepts the principle and that the Secretary of State—his boss—was tempted by it and set me down the path, I am surprised that he continues to resist. However, I do not want to put the House to further inconvenience. I have made my points, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Disclosure of information
I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 9, at end insert—
‘(2A) A local authority, or in Northern Ireland, a Health and Social Services Board may, at the request of a relevant person, supply a relevant person with visual impairment information for use (by the person to whom it is supplied or by another relevant person) in connection with switchover help functions.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 7, in page 1, line 9, at end insert—
‘(2A) Local authorities may, at the request of a relevant person, supply a relevant person with information on the persons registered as blind or partially-sighted in their area for use (by the person to whom it is supplied or by another relevant person) in connection with switchover help functions.’.
Government amendments Nos. 5 and 6
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), along with many other Members, raised this important issue on Second Reading and in Committee. All of them, including the hon. Gentleman, did so with distinction. Although the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) sometimes confuses principle and workability, I have to tell him that when Members table amendments or make proposals that would improve legislation, the Government are always open to entertain and consider them. In this case, there is no question but that the proposals and comments of Members, especially the hon. Member for Chesterfield, the work done on the proposals by the hon. Members for Wantage, for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Poole (Mr. Syms), as well as comments and representations from digital switchover consumer expert groups have contributed to our proposing the amendments. Permitting local authorities and health and social services boards in Northern Ireland to disclose this information to the scheme will help blind and partially sighted people, allowing the scheme operator more readily to identify those who are eligible. That will mean that the claims procedure can be streamlined, avoiding the need to fill in forms to establish eligibility, making the scheme easier for them to access and benefiting the scheme operator.
We have worked closely throughout the switchover process with the digital television consumer expert group—comprising leading charities representing vulnerable people, including the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Sense—on how best to identify those who are registered blind or partially sighted. The over-75s will be identified from data held by the Department for Work and Pensions, but we estimate—as other hon. Members have done—that about 20 per cent. or 50,000 people can be identified only from data held by local authorities or health boards.
I explained in Committee that we were very sympathetic to the views of hon. Members and that we were actively engaging in consultation to ensure that data on registered blind or partially sighted people could be obtained by relevant bodies. Those consultations have now been completed and I am very grateful for the advice that officials received from all at RNIB, particularly Leen Petré, and also from Sense, particularly Katie Hanson, about how to tackle the problem. I know that both organisations are very supportive of the amendments that we are proposing today.
I am now able to introduce this group of amendments, which, taken together, will permit the relevant authorities to disclose information from their register on registered blind or registered partially sighted people. The provisions cover the UK and we have, of course, consulted the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Departments affected by the new provisions to ensure that they are effective across the entire UK.
I shall deal now with the specific amendments. Government amendment No. 4 extends clause 1 to enable a local authority or a health and social services board in Northern Ireland to disclose “visual impairment information” to a “relevant person”—in practice the help scheme operator, for switchover help functions. Government amendment No. 7 covers similar ground to Government amendment No. 4 and Government amendment No. 5, linked in turn to amendment No. 4, defines “visual impairment information” as information of a prescribed kind, drawn from registers of blind and partially sighted people. We have yet to finalise details of what will be prescribed covers, but it will probably be limited to name, alias, date of birth and address, possibly the national insurance number, if known, and preferred method of communication—for example, large print, tape or Braille. The order will be made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Amendment No. 6 defines a local authority for England, Wales and Scotland. The definition restricts the application of the amendment to the definition to local authorities with social services functions as registers are not maintained by other councils. The provisions are permissive and will not oblige the relevant authorities to disclose information. That is in line with the provisions relating to social security and war pensions information. The powers are triggered by a request from the scheme operator, which we envisage will be timed at the start of the qualifying period in a region. There is no obligation to provide information, but we hope that local authorities will want to co-operate. The powers mean that the provisions that would make disclosure unlawful are not a consideration.
The question of costs was raised in Committee. Having discussed the issue with the RNIB and Sense, we are satisfied that although the hon. Member for Poole and other members of the Committee were concerned that the costs might be large, they are, in fact, minimal. We may be looking at an expense of perhaps a few hundred pounds at most per authority. At this stage, therefore, the process of reimbursement might—ironically—be more expensive if done administratively than otherwise. However, as I have already said, it is our intention to help and enable during the Bill’s passage. If we were to discover that the advice and information that we have taken so far from the RNIB, Sense and some local authorities turned out to be contrary to what I have just said, we would of course look at it further with Digital UK.
We will still need to discuss the practical details with the Local Government Association and we will keep an open mind on reimbursement of costs. I hope that hon. Members across the House will understand that these issues are best dealt with in discussions and, if necessary, through a memorandum of understanding between the scheme and the LGA.
The Minister refers to the LGA. This is a small and pedantic point, but I just wonder whether, in this modern day and age, the Minister’s Department has held discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the definition of local authorities. I note that amendment No. 6 still refers to what we all know now as a unitary authority as
“a district council for an area in relation to which it has the functions of a county council”.
It is surely about time that that definition, which has been around for a long time, went.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and I am sure that officials will have noted his remarks. As I have said, the practical details are best worked out with the LGA and local authorities, and we will do so.
Again, I thank all hon. Members who raised this issue. Although doing so is always invidious, I particularly single out the work done in pursuing it by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. Although this is shown as a Government amendment, it is truly an amendment that has been inspired by many hon. Members from all parts of the House and with the co-operation and collaboration of the many charities and groups that want to ensure that the scheme is just, fair and reaches those who most need it.
I thank the Minister for his kind words. Obviously, we entirely support amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 6, which achieve in a much more detailed and comprehensive way what we propose in amendment No. 7, which stands in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and myself. As the Minister says, we raised and discussed the issue in some detail in Committee, and bodies outside the House, such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind, Sense and the Disability Rights Commission, were very keen to ensure that such a provision was written into the Bill, rather than relying on an understanding of good will in the negotiations that had taken place privately with the Government.
As has been said, in this case, local authorities are more likely to have more comprehensive data on those who are registered blind or partially sighted but who are not over 75 and not on benefits and so registered with the Government or the Department for Work and Pensions. Such individuals are more likely to be signed up with the local authority, although not all of them will be, because local authorities administer and run different schemes, such as those for free bus passes, that attract people who are partially sighted or registered blind to sign up.
As was discussed in some detail in Committee, a significant body of people would benefit from the switchover provision but would not be identified if we relied entirely on data held centrally by Departments. In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, the Minister revealed, for example, that the Government estimate that perhaps 60,000 people would fall into that category. So it is welcome that Government amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 6 should be written into the Bill to deal with that target group.
The only slight caveat that I would add is that if the Government had carried out a full quality impact assessment, as they are required to do under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, they might have picked up the flaw that may otherwise have been missed. That target group might have been identified perhaps earlier in the process and the Government could have written the provision into the Bill from day one. None the less, we have been able to get these amendments written into the Bill in a fairly short space of time, since the debate on Second Reading took place only a few weeks ago in December. That is welcome, and I offer wholehearted support for these Government amendments, which meet the requirements that we raised in Committee.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak to these amendments. When the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) moved the relevant amendment in Committee, where the Minister resisted it, he accurately predicted that the Minister would return with something similar, but he was inaccurate in the sense that he said that the Minister would claim credit for the amendment. It is much to the Minister’s credit that he has singled out the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) for being so tenacious in ensuring that this point was debated.
It is correct, as the Minister says, that a considerable number of blind or partially sighted people are not identified on the database of the Department for Work and Pensions because the information is held by local authorities. As we have heard, it is estimated that something like 20 per cent. of those eligible can be identified only through local authorities. That is some 50,000 to 60,000 people. I am sure that the whole House will join me in saying that it is incredibly important for those people, in particular, that the amendment goes through.
There are a number of technical points that I am not sure that I fully understand. One is a point that I raised in Committee and that was made to me by the Disability Rights Commission. There is a difference between somebody who is registered blind and somebody who is certified blind. Will the amendment ensure that those who are certified blind—which, as I understand it, is a stage before being registered as blind or partially sighted—will be eligible for the relief? The DRC also said that there are something like 75,000 people who are neither registered nor certified blind or partially sighted, but who are in need of the assistance. I simply raise that issue. I am afraid that I can offer no particular solution to the question of how to target those people. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s points.
When we discussed the changes in Committee, the Minister said that he had been in discussion with the Department of Health and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. At that point, he said that the Department of Health was resisting the changes because, as I understand it, it said that data protection legislation could not be overcome. I am sure that it would be of immense value to Opposition Members—if not for this amendment, for future amendments—to learn how those objections were overcome.
I think that, if the hon. Gentleman goes back through the Committee proceedings, he will find that I said that the Department of Health was in consultation with us because it was concerned that there could be problems. It quite rightly raised those concerns, because we do not want to bring forward legislative proposals that do not work. I pay tribute to and thank health officials who, by speedily working with a variety of groups, ensured that we were able to come up with an amendment that will work.
I am pleased that I raised that point because it has given the Minister the opportunity to thank another group of people—Department of Health officials—for their hard work. We can put on the record our thanks to them for working so diligently on the issue between Second Reading and Report and Third Reading. I join the Minister in extending my congratulations to them.
Finally, I want to address the issue of cost, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) in Committee and addressed by the Minister when he moved the amendments. It is perfectly predictable that we on the Conservative Benches, who are used to careful stewardship of the public finances, both at local authority and national level, should spontaneously want to raise the issue of cost. Although we support the amendment and think that it is important that the BBC and the vehicle that it creates for digital switchover are able to request access to local authority records, we understand that that will come at a cost. The Minister indicated that the cost would be a few hundred pounds per local authority. Given the consensual style of the debate, I do not wish to appear churlish, but it is a source of immense frustration to Opposition Members that the estimate of £600 million for the whole of switchover has been given to us with no workings. We were told of the estimate, but the Minister did not give us any details about how he arrived at that estimate. It would help if he set out in a few sentences the practical, physical work that a local authority would undertake in order to comply with the provision. I have indicated that we do not intend to resist the amendment—partly on the basis of a great deal of trust.
Order. We cannot have a debate on the overall financing of the Bill. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) is aware of the tight nature of the amendment.
I certainly am, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although I do not wish to compare myself with the Minister in any way, I was about to borrow one of his key characteristics: knowing the mind of the Speaker, Deputy Speaker or Committee Chairman. I had anticipated that it might not be in order to respond to the interesting inquiry made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). If I may mimic the Minister again, perhaps my hon. Friend and I can have a meeting after the debate to discuss the matter in detail.
Although we should not get into such a debate, I hope that my hon. Friend thinks that sufficient funding will be made available for all who will be able to claim for assessments. The borders area will be the first to switch-over. It will be a guinea pig not only for the switchover itself—we will have to see who cannot get television after the switchover date—but for the assessments made in the lead up to the switchover, including during the prior month.
I must say to my hon. Friend that it is important that we choose carefully the language that we use. The Secretary of State admonished me when I made the mistake of describing Whitehaven as an experiment. My hon. Friends should use the word “pioneer” from now on, because phrases such as “experiment” and “guinea pig” invite criticism from Government Members, and I would not want any of my hon. Friends to be subject to such criticism.
My psychic powers are not working to their full potential today. I remind the House that I made it quite clear that the advice on costs had been produced by the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Sense, so those are the organisations to which hon. Members should look. As I said in Committee, I am happy to share the workings on the wider scheme with the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) when it is possible for me to do so. I remind him that I have put it on the record that in the event that the costs turn out to be greater than those estimated, with their expertise, by RNIB and Sense, we have moneys available to reimburse organisations that work with people with specific handicaps.
The Minister has detained me on the Floor of the House on the point of cost. He made the point that the estimate of a few hundred pounds for each local authority that he cited as he moved the amendment came from the RNIB and Sense. I have not seen the estimate and neither organisation has contacted me to demonstrate how it calculated the figure. However, we are considering Government measures that will allow the BBC to ask local authorities for information about the blind and partially sighted. Although I do not in any way impugn the ability of RNIB and Sense to make an estimate, it is my submission that it is important that the Minister should have analysed those figures and reached a conclusion.
Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman. The Bill is about the disclosure of information. We have estimates of the costs on the best authority from the organisations that work with these particular individuals. I have given the House an undertaking about what will happen if the costs turn out to be considerably greater than the estimates. It is thus not entirely appropriate, given the confines of the amendments and the Bill, for the hon. Gentleman to delay the House with a consideration of something that I have offered to discuss with him outside the House. I have assured the House that if the costs exceed the estimates, we have in place a mechanism to assist the organisations that will be out of pocket. The scheme is designed to enable information to be disclosed, and the amendments will allow precisely that.
The Minister has rowed out on the issue of costs, and now he is attempting to row back. I do not want to be delayed a moment longer on the subject, but it is important to note that the Minister is using the low cost estimate to persuade the House that the amendments should be made. If the House agrees to the amendments without a vote, it will be doing so on the basis of the Minister’s assurances that the costs will be low. The Minister is effectively saying, “Don’t worry, whatever the cost, we’ll reimburse local authorities.” In my view—I do not have any formal responsibility for the Bill—that is a highly irresponsible undertaking to give to the House. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the “big clunking fist”, is not listening. The Minister told us that he estimates the cost to be a few hundred pounds per local authority—
Order. The amendments do not deal with cost in any way.
Order. The hon. Gentleman may refer to the amendments before the House, and that is all.
I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that he must deal with the amendments before the House, and if they do not involve the question of cost, he may not deal with that subject.
I hear what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I made my point as effectively as I could.
I return to my original submission about the amendments, which provides local authorities with the power to give information to the BBC if it requests it, to help registered blind and partially sighted people. The Minister detained me for a considerable time on the issue of costs, through his numerous interventions on me, so he may have forgotten that I asked him some important questions about whether, under the amendments, someone who is certified blind is eligible to receive help. I also asked whether someone who is neither certified nor registered blind, but still needs help—some 75,000 such people have been identified—would be eligible. In all other respects, we support the amendments, even though we cannot discuss their financial implications.
In the spirit of helping each other out, I want to make sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his large, clunking paragraphs, understands the distinction between certified—it is not to be confused with certifiable—and registered. “Certified” means certified by an ophthalmologist. To be registered, a certified person must go to a local authority to register. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was conscious of that distinction, or of the value of that distinction. In order to benefit, a person would have to be registered, and to be registered they would have to be certified.
That is precisely my point. My comments were made in the spirit of inquiry; they were not an attempt to catch the Minister out. In fact, the point of the question was to enable us to do precisely what the Minister has urged Members on both sides of the House to do—to consider the substance of the Bill, and to remind ourselves that it enables help to be targeted at the most vulnerable.
We Conservative Members agree with the Minister that we must work as hard as we can with him to ensure that the Bill does precisely that. I am grateful to the Minister for clearing up the matter raised by the Disability Rights Commission, and for accepting that there is a clear distinction between being certified blind or partially sighted and being registered blind or partially sighted. As he said, someone who is certified blind or partially sighted goes to their optician or, more accurately, their ophthalmologist, to receive certification, but that does not mean that they are eligible for benefits. As such people are not registered blind or partially sighted, they are not on the local authority list.
It is important to receive assurances from the Minister about costs, because some people would not have had the faintest idea of the difference between being certified blind and being registered, but they will now be proactive in using the certificates that they have received from their ophthalmologist to register themselves. That could increase costs, so it is important that we receive those assurances today.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. However, I shall not allow myself to be detained any longer on the issue of cost, so I shall not succumb to the temptation to develop the argument that costs could increase if people who are certified blind become registered. I want to focus on the absence in the Government amendments of any mention of people who are certified blind or partially sighted and are not on a local authority register.
In keeping with the spirit of everything that the Minister has said about the Bill, we wish to ensure that the scheme works as effectively as possible, and that all relevant organisations are brought into the net so that the information that they hold can be used to target assistance. We could therefore introduce specific measures to allow people who are certified blind or partially sighted to be covered by the scheme—that is the essential point that I wish to make. We are flying blind on the cost of the scheme, so I accept the Minister’s assurance and shall certainly discuss the matter with him on our way to Whitehaven. I congratulate him on tabling the Government amendments, and I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Chesterfield, who initiated them and will be able to tell his grandchildren about them when they appear on the statute book. I look forward to clarification from the Minister of the implications for people who are certified blind.
We have had a long discussion about these issues. As I said, someone who is “certified” is certified blind by an ophthalmologist. To be registered blind, people must first be certified. At the risk of becoming certifiable in our circular and, at times, extraordinarily inward-looking discussion of an issue whose importance is not to be underestimated, may I remind hon. Members that they have had a chance to debate the issue? I hope that they all accept the Government’s undertaking not to be profligate with public money.
Sometimes it is best to defer to experts, and our best advice is from Sense and the RNIB, which have provided an estimate of costs. It is not a blank cheque from the Government—there is no reason whatever to believe that it is—and we have made it clear for the benefit of local government and local authorities that are unnecessarily worried by the comments of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) that they have no cause to be anxious. We intend to honour our commitment to all organisations working with disadvantaged, disabled and, particularly, elderly people that, where appropriate, we will fund the scheme that we have introduced, as we have the means to do so. Of course, we will seek value for money, and there is no suggestion in any shape or form that the scheme should escape such a requirement. This is not a blank cheque but, none the less, we guarantee that the organisations we asked to undertake the work will not be financially disadvantaged as a result.
Amendment agreed to.
“Social security information” and “war pensions information”
Amendment made: No. 5, in page 2, line 18, at end insert—
‘(3A) “Visual impairment information” means information of a prescribed description about persons who—
(a) are registered as blind or partially sighted in a register maintained by or on behalf of a local authority in England or Wales under section 29 of the National Assistance Act 1948 (c. 29) (welfare services),
(b) have been certified as blind or partially sighted in Scotland and in consequence are registered as blind or partially sighted in a register maintained by or on behalf of a local authority in Scotland, or
(c) have been certified as blind in Northern Ireland and in consequence are registered as blind in a register maintained by or on behalf of a Health and Social Services Board in Northern Ireland.’. —[Mr. Cawsey.]
Amendment made: No. 6, in page 4, line 3, at end insert—
‘“local authority” means—
(a) in relation to England—
(i) a county council,
(ii) a district council for an area in relation to which it has the functions of a county council,
(iii) a London borough council,
(iv) the Common Council of the City of London, in its capacity as a local authority, or
(v) the Council of the Isles of Scilly,
(b) in relation to Wales, a county council or a county borough council, and
(c) in relation to Scotland, a council constituted under section 2 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 (c. 39);’—[Mr. Cawsey.]
Order for Third Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill is a small but important measure that will help us achieve the goal of completing digital switchover between 2008 and 2012. It will ensure that the most vulnerable—those who are over 75, disabled or visually impaired—have access to an efficient and effective system of help to support them through the changes.
Our debates have covered a number of subjects, which is not surprising, given the range and scope of the digital switchover programme, even though the Bill has such a small number of clauses. We have looked in detail at the information that the Bill permits to be disclosed to the help scheme. I am pleased that we were able to table Government amendments on Report to widen the scope of the power to cover information held by local authorities on people who are registered blind or partially sighted.
Undoubtedly, the House has improved the Bill. For that, I pay tribute again to the efforts of the digital switchover consumer experts group and all hon. Members from all parts of the House who raised the issue, including the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who regrettably, even with his psychic powers, failed to predict that I would give him the credit that he deserves and which was rightly bestowed on him by the hon. Member for Wantage.
We will continue to work with the consumer experts group and with the RNIB and Sense to ensure that we continue to improve the practical side of the Bill, and with local authorities and the Local Government Association. The Bill permits social security and similar data to be disclosed to the administrator of the help scheme so that people entitled to help under the scheme can be contacted directly. Naturally, sensitivities have rightly been expressed about the use of personal information for wider purposes, and much of our discussion has rightly focused on the protection of the information disclosed, the criminal powers included in the Bill, and the duration of the powers to disclose information. I take the opportunity again to thank all those who have been involved in shaping the arguments. I hope we have provided the necessary reassurances to all hon. Members.
I thank all members of the Committee, the Chairman who presided over the proceedings, and other hon. Members who contributed to today’s debate and on Second Reading. On behalf of all who served in Committee, I thank the Committee Clerk, the Bill team, and officials at the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Department of Health for helping to develop the proposals.
The Bill, though modest in size, is an important measure. It will improve the efficiency of a help scheme covering those who are at most risk of having difficulty in adapting to the change. It involves the disclosure of personal data, but that is for a sensible and important cause—assisting potentially vulnerable groups through the switchover process. Many of those eligible will not need assistance of any sort, as the figures already show. It is encouraging, though perhaps not surprising, to see that in the areas where digital switchover will begin, people already show an extremely high level of understanding, or have already purchased their first television set or the equipment that will enable them to benefit from digital switchover. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that everybody benefits from digital switchover, and we are grateful to all hon. Members for helping to ensure that the scheme will be a success and that the benefits of digital television will be universal. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for his convivial summing up. I join him in congratulating everyone involved in bringing the Bill to Third Reading before we send it to another place. In particular, I am grateful for the effective help of the Minister’s officials, and grateful to the Committee Clerk, and the very experienced Chairman who guided me through my first Committee. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) seems to be the only Member to receive singular praise and thanks, may I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who has been for me like a guiding uncle throughout the proceedings, or a guide through the jungle, pointing out mantraps and pits, some of which I have fallen into despite his guidance?
As the Minister pointed out, the Bill is designed to help the most vulnerable in society take advantage of one of the most important events in the United Kingdom. It is no exaggeration to say that television is a friend to many people, particularly the most vulnerable. I commend the Government’s bravery in deciding to go for digital switchover. On Second Reading, it was telling that the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, having previously been a sceptic, freely admitted that he had become a convert. Given the magnitude of the undertaking, and the importance of television to the most vulnerable people in our society, it is vital that we get the switchover process right.
Several points are worth raising as the Bill speeds on its way to the other place. As the Minister is aware, we accept that the Bill is permissive, in that it allows the BBC to make a request and allows the DWP and the Northern Ireland Office to accede to that request, if appropriate. However, we raised serious concerns about the security of information in relation to Northern Ireland and we were content to accept the Minister’s assurances in Committee, so far as he was able to give them.
We are also concerned about the timing of the Bill, which is a matter I attempted to explore through my sunset clauses. Clause 1 allows the BBC to establish a company to carry out switchover. Although that clause is in the Bill, we have heard nothing from the Minister about the state of negotiations or the likely nature of the company that will undertake the digital switchover proceedings. I hope that the Minister will return to the House when he concludes his negotiations on switchover with the BBC, update us on the progress of that joint venture, and allow, if not for a parliamentary debate, at least for enthusiastic Members such as my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) to inspect up-to-date documents in the Library.
It is extremely important that Conservative Members should register our concerns about the punishments contained in the Bill for breaching its strictures and the criminal offences that lie within it. I place on the record my extreme gratitude to the Minister, not only for not completely destroying me in Committee when my amendments went awry, but for a full and detailed letter in which he answered my points about the Official Secrets Act. I hope that he will place that letter in the Library for any constitutional lawyers who are interested in the reverse burden of proof contained in clauses 3 and 4. I have to say that that is something I would not want the Bill to contain, if I were responsible for it, but I fully understand the Minister’s reasoning.
As we have said, this is a small, but important and perfectly formed Bill that is wending its way through Parliament. Although it shines light on a small part of this immense undertaking, I am afraid that it leaves us otherwise entirely in the dark because of its narrow focus. It is a matter of great concern to Conservative Members that Ministers remain utterly unaccountable to this House on the details of the scheme. As I have said on many occasions, we have been given a figure on the cost and told to like it or lump it. No estimate has been put before the House, or details of how the costs were arrived at—
Order. Do I take it that the hon. Gentleman is coming to the conclusion of his remarks?
I am coming to my conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As a democrat, and as someone who came to this House to hold the Government to account on such matters, I simply wanted to register my sadness, while debating this particular Bill, that Parliament is unable to hold the Government to account on the wider issues. This is the largest civil project that this country has seen for 40 years, and we are unable to debate its detail. That is a matter of regret, but apart from that, I regret nothing.
I must begin by referring to the remarks of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) about my avuncular role in his development in the House, particularly during the passage of this Bill. It will not be known publicly until now—perhaps I am breaching a confidence too far—that I helped to draft his first major political speech, which I am delighted to report contained a number of extremely fine jokes. I would be grateful to have it back, because I have forgotten many of them. Such is the passage of time. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and I have enjoyed very much working with him. He has listened intently and he has learned. He has been somewhat rebellious, particularly by continually tabling a regional sunset clause, but I have enjoyed working with him.
Equally, I have enjoyed working with the Minister, because in Committee and this evening hon. Members on both sides of the House have accepted that the Bill, although limited, is extremely important. We all agree that the most vulnerable people in our society need extra assistance in the switch to digital, so that they can reap the rich benefits that all of us will get as the nation moves to become fully digital. Teasing out from the Minister additional assurances has been an important function that we have performed. Amending the Bill to provide for additional data that will help those who are registered blind or partially sighted, and who might not have received assistance otherwise, has also been valuable.
Our deliberations today have ranged widely, just as they did in Committee, despite the narrowness of the scope of the Bill. You will not be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in Committee we were, for instance, able to get into discussions ranging from the democratic or undemocratic rule of Julius Caesar to European legislation on human rights, on which we had lengthy debates. We have therefore had a wide-ranging debate and I am grateful for the opportunity that that has given us to obtain various additional assurances from the Minister.
Like the hon. Member for Wantage, I am saddened that we did not have the opportunity to discuss in more detail the help scheme, to which the data that we have discussed relate. Nevertheless, we have received a crucial assurance from the Minister, which is that the help scheme will not be set in stone. The Minister has said again today that if there are lessons to be learned from the early experiences, whether they be in Whitehaven or in other areas that move to digital before others, those lessons will be learned to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society receive the help that they need.
I am saddened, however, that the raising today of an issue that was discussed at some length in Committee has not led to any conclusion or further knowledge. We understood at the end of our deliberations in Committee that the hon. Member for Wantage was to go and discuss the issue at great length with the good burghers of Hammersmith, but we have not heard how that discussion went.
I am glad. It appears that everything has now come to a conclusion, because we have obtained assurances from the Minister and we have been able to add amendments to the legislation that make it a better Bill. I genuinely believe that it will leave the House a better Bill than it was when it first came before us.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Third Reading, as I serve on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which examined digital switchover in detail. I am also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey)—I think that this is his first outing on a Bill of this type—has done so tremendously well. He has said that he regrets nothing. I remember that one of my former colleagues said “Je ne regrette rien” and his career took a bit of a nosedive following that. However, that will not happen to my hon. Friend, whose star is in the ascendant and will grow brighter by the day, particularly given his handling of the Bill.
The programmes “Lost” and “Big Brother” were mentioned, and that shows the power of television and the media generally. I have not watched “Lost”, but I understand that it is very good. I refuse to watch “Big Brother”—never mind appear on the show, as another hon. Member has.
The Bill is about people being able to watch television, irrespective of what they like and dislike. I hope that my preferences would not govern anybody else’s.
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that he is wandering away from the subject of this Third Reading debate.
“Lost” again—the programme gets another mention.
In my almost 15 years in this House, I have spoken in many Committees and many Third Reading debates, but I am not sure whether I have ever been able to extract anything except the visit to Whitehaven, mentioned by the Minister this afternoon, for which I am extremely grateful. I have not been there before, and I suspect that the good people of Whitehaven did not know how important they would become in relation to the Bill.
The Bill is about the passing of information, which is important to make sure that the people who need assistance get it. That transfer of data, which will not be possible until the Bill is enacted, is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made salient points about age and how it is treated as opposed to other things; I mentioned the TV licence earlier. If the scheme is a big success and people do not feel that data such as their date of birth are such a big thing, the Government may well look to extend it so that others can benefit in relation to other issues, without having to claim. Many people will be unfamiliar not only with the switchover to begin with, but even with the Government publicity about switchover and the eligibility to receive the benefit.
The Minister mentioned the certified and registered blind. I am grateful for his assurance on the visually—
The hon. Gentleman has raised something immensely helpful that I do not think has been suggested before. We know that some people who get targeted assistance will have to pay, although we are not clear about how much. Was he suggesting that that help scheme might be made more widely available to people who chose to buy into it, even if they were not eligible, as a way of spreading the cost?
I am not sure that I was suggesting that, although I may do so now that the hon. Gentleman has put the idea into my mind. I may even say that it was my idea. Clearly, the scheme could expand.
The Bill is doing an amazing thing. I talked earlier about Border Television being a pilot—or “pioneer” as we are now supposed to call them—on this issue. However, it is not only a pioneer for this scheme in seeing how effective the switchover will be— although we all pray that it goes as well as the Government say and that the preparations are in place—it is also a pioneer in respect of the number of people eligible for the assessment and other related matters. I hope that there is flexibility and that the Minister feels that he has enough of it in case all of a sudden there is a dramatic increase in the number of people who become eligible, such as certified blind people who decide to register simply because of the Bill and the fact that they want to take advantage of an important benefit.
We do not know how much cost will be involved per individual. Earlier, one of my hon. Friends asked how many people and how much money would be involved—surely the cost of a digital box would be only £30, he said. The cost of digital boxes is falling all the time. However, the issue is much wider than that; the costs for the elderly and those with disabilities may be larger than we think.
That is exactly the point. It brings together my hon. Friend’s suggestion, praised by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), and the reference to “Lost”. One of the crucial elements that affects the cost is platform neutrality and the importance of giving vulnerable people access to the three different types of technology. If they only get access to freeview—
Order. The hon. Gentleman himself is straying away from the Bill and encouraging others to do so.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not need much encouragement to stray, but I shall desist.
The Minister has given us assurances about confidentiality. That is important. I want more joined-up government in any event, with more Departments talking to other Departments and sub-agencies of Departments—those who are acting on behalf of the Government—so that the information is properly spread around.
The Minister has asked us to trust him. I remember the “Trust me, I’m Tony” campaign. Several years ago, many people did just that, but we are all a bit wiser now. However, I have more trust in the Minister’s assurances, which is why I am happy to support the Bill. I hope that those who are vulnerable will get the assistance that they need to ensure that they fully benefit from the extra choice that the switchover will give them. The quality of their lives will be improved simply because of the extra choice that they get when digital switchover comes.
The Minister sent out a helpful note setting out estimates of between 4.2 million and 5.2 million sets of equipment that will be needed over five or six years. That shows the amount of information that needs to be processed. The Bill is important. It is narrow in scope. Hon. Members have had to use their ingenuity on occasions to pull information out of the Minister. He has on the whole been good hearted. I welcome the assurances that he has given at this stage of the scheme, which will develop. It is important not to have a closed mind now because things will progress. The pace of change is such that we have seen a remarkable degree of change in technology in particular. It is important to encompass that in changes to the scheme.
One further thought relates to people who are not on benefit but who are appealing to be on it. Given what the Minister said about the eight-month run-in and the month after switch off, some people might get help but they have not got through the benefits system. We all have letters on our desk about people who take months to sort something out. Most appeals fail, but some succeed, and there will be a bit of overspill. The Minister should reflect on that.
This is exactly the kind of collaboration and co-operation that is so valuable. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It may well be the case that officials have greater psychic powers than he does, but if they have not anticipated what he asks for, I give an undertaking that we will consider that and consult the Department for Work and Pensions on the practicalities of the suggestion. I do not want to create a precedent that would not achieve the ends that he wants but which creates a problem elsewhere. I suspect for that reason that it could raise issues that go well beyond the Bill and prevent what he wants from happening. None the less, I undertake to consult the DWP and am more than happy to write to him with the answer to his questions.
I thank the Minister for that assurance. No doubt the officials will be able to read our exchanges in Hansard and will take it from there.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Police and Criminal Evidence (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 4th December, be approved.—[Mr. Cawsey.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cawsey.]
Question agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Six o’clock.