House of Commons
Monday 29 January 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
We estimate the cost of the scheme at £600 million. The methodology used for estimating the costs was developed with the BBC and the Treasury.
Given the confusion caused by the spiralling costs of the scheme to help older and disabled people with the digital switchover, what specific reassurance can the Minister give to profoundly deaf people and severely disabled people on the higher rates of disability living allowance that any cost overrun will not threaten their access to television, which for them, far from being a luxury, is a vital part of their quality of life?
There is a temptation for me to tell the hon. Gentleman that this is a very good example of gratuitous scaremongering. He will know that there has been extensive consultation with a number of charities. We have done extensive work with the advisory groups to ensure that we deal fairly and that there is maximum take-up across the country. We are concerned to ensure that no particularly disadvantaged groups are left behind and that is why we work so closely with the charities involved.
Last Monday, I was at my local Age Concern in Sittingbourne at a discussion about digital switchover. I commend it to all hon. Members, and they should go to their local sheltered accommodation and Age Concerns to explain it. The question that was asked continually was, “The date for London and the south-east is 2012. When will we be able to say who can get free digital switchover sets?”.
We hope to make that announcement as soon as possible, but may I tell my hon. Friend how grateful we are to him for his work? I hope that other hon. Members will learn from his example to ensure truly that no people are left behind, rather than frightening people into thinking that they might be.
Does my hon. Friend accept that we need to ensure that all older people and disabled people know exactly what is going on? Will he assure me that sufficient money will be set aside for a full-scale communication programme at a very local level?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. A large amount of the money for digital switchover and targeted help has been set aside precisely for a communications campaign to be led by Digital UK. It is essential that that campaign reaches everyone, particularly the most disadvantaged, who, he and other hon. Members know, are not necessarily the most economically disadvantaged but the oldest and most disabled.
The Minister will know that not long from now—in fact, this October, I believe—Whitehaven will have its analogue signal switched off, so digital switchover starts this year. Yet the legislation that will enable the Department for Work and Pensions to provide information about at whom such assistance should be targeted is only going through the House now. Can the Minister assure us that by October of this year, the people who need to be assisted with digital switchover will be assisted?
I put on the record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, who has done a great deal to ensure that digital switchover is a successful policy for the whole country. He rightly raises the issue of Whitehaven. We are, of course, concerned that no one in Whitehaven is left behind. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who has done much work to ensure that that is the case. The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are valid and I reassure him that we have assessed all those issues and that the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, which I am sure that he will support in the House this afternoon, will continue to ensure that no one is left behind.
Channel 4 has asked for a public subsidy of £100 million for digital switchover. In view of its performance over the past few weeks, will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that no public money will be given unless Channel 4 restores the proper sense of broadcasting that it has had in the past? Will he join me in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on winning “Big Brother” and the British people on their good sense?
I join my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that I can speak for all hon. Members, in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on an outstanding performance and on enduring, regardless of the circumstances in the “Big Brother” house, a pretty ghastly few weeks. She truly deserved to win, and I am sure that the whole House congratulates her on winning.
On my right hon. Friend’s question, I simply say that Ofcom is reviewing Channel 4’s finances, and we will pay careful and close attention to its recommendations.
Public Swimming Baths
I can guarantee that if “Big Brother” applies to become a sport, it will not be accepted.
Access to good quality sporting provision, including swimming pools, is an essential part of enabling people to lead healthier lives and to participate in sport. There are currently 4,400 swimming facilities across England that are open to the public. Some 62 per cent. are owned by the local authority or the education sector and more than half are pay-and-play facilities. Analysis of pools opening in 2004-05 shows that 131 have opened across the country. More public pools have opened than closed. Since 1997, just under £250 million of lottery investment has gone to swimming—the largest amount given to any sport.
The Minister may know that I have been part of a campaign in my constituency to get an indoor 50 m swimming pool. Given that the United Kingdom gained 52 medals in swimming at the Athens Olympics, what are the Government doing to encourage local authorities to keep the existing facilities for swimmers, as well as developing new facilities for our elite athletes, so that that record can continue?
The hon. Gentleman may need to do a bit more calculation when it comes to the medals won, but we will put that on one side.
There has been huge investment in swimming. I contacted Sport England before I came here this afternoon and it has received no application from Peterborough about a 50 m pool. If the hon. Gentleman wants to take that up, he can. Corby borough council is starting the construction of a new 50 m pool this week. That is about 45 minutes or 25 miles from the centre of Peterborough. The project is fully funded by the local authority, which is paying £18 million. Even saying that, it will cost the local authority some £500,000 in continued revenue to make sure that the pool stays open. There will be a new pool by 2008.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that there was huge disappointment in Bolsover when we did not manage to get sufficient lottery funds several years ago? We are thankful that we can restore the campaign now because of the Olympics and because it will be necessary to have more swimming pools in other parts of the country. Is everything going okay?
I hope that we can get a swimming pool in Bolsover so that my hon. Friend can have a swim there before he retires. Seriously—[Interruption.] He is a good swimmer. In December last year, a project team was put in place. It will report in mid-March on the feasibility aspect. As I understand it, things are going okay to date. There will be further meetings. I hope that by the end of March, we will be able to report on that feasibility study and that that project will be able to go ahead.
I was pleased to hear the Minister’s commitment to swimming and swimming pools—a view that I am sure is shared by the Liberal Democrats. Is he aware that, of the six pools in my constituency, three of them—in Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne—will be closed by the Liberal Democrat-controlled district council? What can he do to help me in my efforts to persuade the council to change its mind, or to bring in private finance to assist those pools to stay open?
I hope that Liberal Democrat Members were listening to that and will persuade their colleagues on the council to revisit that decision. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for local authorities to determine their sports strategies. They work with Sport England. If he writes to me on the matter, I will contact Sport England and the local authority to see whether what it is doing is in line with the broad policy that Sport England has laid out.
I would not expect my right hon. Friend to be aware of an administrative problem that affects the Portobello water polo club in Edinburgh, but he will know that it is one of the best water polo clubs in the United Kingdom. Will he take this opportunity to express the Government’s full support for water polo and, in particular, will he take the opportunity to visit the club when he comes to Edinburgh?
It is devolved.
That is a devolved matter, but I hope that Scotland will join the water polo team that will compete in the 2012 Olympics. I hope that we will have an excellent water polo team for 2012. If Prince William wants to play, we are more than likely to recruit him as well. We are now investing in the Great Britain water polo team so that, hopefully, they can go to Beijing in 2008, and so that we will definitely have a first class team for 2012. I hope that some of the Scots will be in that team.
As the Minister is apparently selecting the water polo squad, such is his power, perhaps he can select some sites for new swimming pools, too. It is great to have elite swimming pools, but he must remember that the vast majority of people will not be elite swimmers. There appears to be a swimming pool divide in this country between the major cities and towns and smaller rural towns. Will he examine again not only the provision of lottery funding for swimming pools, but the running costs of such pools, which can be very high? Will he also ensure that people living in rural areas have as much access to swimming pools as those who live in cities and large towns?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been taking up with Sport England the question of how we can rationalise on swimming pools. Some pools have a subsidy of more than £6 a swimmer, although several local authorities have got it down to something like 50p a head. As I have indicated, even a brand new 50 m pool will cost a local authority £500,000 a year to keep it operational. There are serious questions about swimming pools. The recent soaring energy prices have hit swimming pools hard. We must make the pools as cost-effective and energy efficient as possible so that we do not have to give subsidies to swimming pools that should be going to other sports. That is not to say that subsidies will not go to swimming pools—that will be inevitable because otherwise the cost of swimming would be prohibitively high. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point up with Sport England so that it can examine the formula.
We estimate that 7.1 million UK households will qualify for assistance from the scheme and that around 4.7 million of those will use the scheme. The cost of the scheme over its lifetime will be in the region of £600 million.
The Government’s estimate of the cost of assistance with digital switchover has increased from £250 million to £600 million. Will the Minister assure the House not only that the vulnerable in my constituency will get the help that they need, but that licence fee payers will not have to foot the bill if the cost continues to spiral?
Despite an intensive advertising campaign and the launch of a dedicated website, a recent survey shows that three in five adults in the United Kingdom believe that the Government have provided no information, or inadequate information, to describe why and how the digital switchover will take place. Fewer than one in five people even know when their region is scheduled for transfer. Will effort be intensified to tackle that situation?
My hon. Friend makes an important contribution, but it might be helpful if I set out some facts. Three quarters of homes in the UK already have at least one digital television and have thus effectively gone digital. Awareness is now running at about 80 per cent. I can tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) that the figure for Grampian in Scotland is running at 87 per cent. One should thus dispute some of the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) cited. However, we are not complacent, which is why £200 million has been set aside for a communications campaign by Digital UK to ensure that no one is left behind.
East London Line
The Olympic bid that was submitted in November 2004 committed Transport for London to deliver the first phase of the East London line in time for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, and it is on track to do so. In addition, TFL has committed to completing the Dalston curve section by bringing forward the connection of the line to Highbury and Islington, which had originally been part of phase 2. As yet, no decision has been taken on phase 2 of the scheme, in which my hon. Friend and I have constituency interests and for which he has been an extremely powerful campaigner.
Will my right hon. Friend stress the advantages of starting phase 2 a little sooner so that it can be completed in 2012 rather than 2013? That would help millions of people from south London—from her constituency and mine—to get to the Olympics. It would also help Olympic competitors and visitors to get to Olympic venues in south-west London, such as Wimbledon, and venues with linked cultural events, such as Battersea arts centre—if Wandsworth council has not closed it by then.
I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members with an interest in the subject, whether direct or indirect, will make the case for phase 2 with the Mayor of London, on behalf of their constituents. On Battersea arts centre, I echo the Prime Minister’s words: Wandsworth should do everything that it can to keep the centre open. I should make it absolutely clear that we are talking about a Conservative authority that has had a 25 per cent. plus increase in its grant since 1997, so any decision to close the centre is a Conservative choice, not a Government requirement.
The Secretary of State will be aware that it is not just new lines that London is dependent on for Olympic success; we also need to ensure that existing lines can cope with the extra passengers. One of the lines that I have in mind is the District line, which will be the key line feeding Wimbledon and Olympic tennis, but it is already seriously overcrowded. Has her Department made any estimate of whether such lines will be able to cope, given the extra capacity required for the Olympics?
Very detailed analysis has been made of London’s capacity to handle the additional traffic generated by the Olympics, and that has been incorporated into the transport plan, which has been highly commended for both its timeliness and comprehensiveness by the International Olympic Committee. Because of the timing of the games, commuter traffic levels will be about 20 per cent. lower than normal, but the Olympics will add about 5 per cent. to that. I am sure that the hon. Lady will take every opportunity to raise her specific concerns with Transport for London.
Given all the building work in London, the extension of the East London line, all the work being done in preparation for the Olympics, and the fact that many projects in the early waves of the building schools for the future programme are in London, does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the tremendous need and drive for more skills in London? Is she sure about the planning for 2012, because many of us believe—and this was suggested in evidence to the Select Committee on Education and Skills, which I chair—that there will be dreadful skills shortages in construction if we do not act fast?
I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the subject. The creation of a more skilled work force, particularly in east London, is an important part of the legacy of the Olympics and is a prerequisite for ensuring that all the infrastructure for the Olympics is built within budget and on time. I am sure that he will commend the work of the London employment and skills task force, which addressed that subject specifically and linked it to the commitment to using local labour from the east end wherever that is possible, so that local people can build what will be their facilities.
The Secretary of State will appreciate that 2012 provides a focus for a number of regeneration projects in central London. However, I would like her to give thought to not just phase 2—and if it is to be delayed, let us make sure that it takes place as soon as possible after 2012—but a number of other regeneration projects, particularly those around King’s Cross, which have been put on hold pending the Olympics, often for the reasons that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned, namely, a lack of skills. Will she ensure that we take a proper look at regeneration, both looking to the decade beyond 2012 and focusing on the short term?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that regeneration and legacy are fundamental justifications for holding the games. The decision has been taken to go ahead with the major ticket office project at King’s Cross. He will know that the channel tunnel rail link will convey passengers in seven minutes from King’s Cross to Stratford. We will arguably have the best public transport facilities of any Olympic city ever.
I am responsible for lotteries, and lottery distributors, like Members of the House, strongly support the 2012 games. That includes paying some of the costs from the lottery. Since we first announced our intention to bid way back in May 2003 we have kept distributors informed and will continue to do so.
The lottery will provide £1.5 billion for the Olympics, but there is already a £900 million overspend. If that sum, too, is taken from lottery funds, it will have a devastating impact on spending across the country. The Big Lottery Fund alone would lose £450 million, which would result in every constituency in the country losing £500 million-worth of local projects in the next five years. Will the Minister give us a guarantee that there will not be any further Olympic smash-and-grab raids on lottery funds?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a full account of the budget to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. When the previous Select Committee conducted a hearing in June 2003, at its request the documentation included an appendix on the memorandum of understanding between the Mayor’s office and the Government explaining how any overshoot would be funded. The Government expect to discharge that responsibility through shared arrangements, to be agreed with the Mayor of London, and by seeking additional national lottery funding in amounts to be agreed at the time. Government discussions on the overspend are under way, as my right hon. Friend told the Select Committee.
There is no doubt that the Paralympics and the 2012 Olympics will benefit every part of the UK, but does my right hon. Friend accept that there are genuine concerns that good causes could be affected if increased funding is to be provided by the lottery? Will he assure the House that that decision will be made after full consultation with the Scottish Executive so that they can express their views on the effect on good causes in Scotland?
We have received fantastic support from Scotland for the 2012 Olympics and have been in dialogue with the Scottish Executive on all the issues, without exception. We will continue to hold that dialogue, as we have received first-class support, and we will discuss any decisions that are made.
I am sure that the Minister will accept that many good causes that receive lottery funding help to alleviate the burden on the state in various ways—the South Warwickshire carers support service in my constituency is a good example. Does he therefore accept that if some of those good causes lose lottery funding, the state will bear the burden and that that would be completely unacceptable if it were the result of further overspending on the Olympics because the Government got their sums wrong?
I am not prepared to answer hypothetical questions at the Dispatch Box. I have said very clearly that discussions are under way between the Government and the Mayor’s office on how we can deal with that overspend. Until those decisions are made, such questions are hypothetical.
Does the Minister agree with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the director of the Big Lottery Fund in Scotland that good causes and grass-roots sports could be threatened to the point of closure if the lottery is further plundered? Is it not absurd and unfair that homelessness projects and children’s care groups in Scotland should lose out to pay for the redevelopment of London’s east end?
We have heard all that rhetoric before from the hon. Gentleman on a number of issues connected to the Olympics. May I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) about hypothetical questions? Decisions on funding the £900 million overspend, which was discussed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Select Committee hearing, have not yet been made. Until they are, such questions are hypothetical.
Perhaps I could ask the Minister a question that he will not regard as hypothetical. According to the Big Lottery Fund, the voluntary and community sector will lose more than £300 million if the lottery is used to make up the current £900 million Olympic budget overrun. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be concerned to learn that that would result in an average loss of up to £700,000 to charities and good causes in every constituency. What assurances can the Minister therefore give charities up and down the country that face closure if, as a result, their lottery funding is axed?
I hear from a sedentary position that that makes it worse. The decision to provide £1.5 billion to fund the lottery was not opposed by the Opposition. The Scottish National party—and I have answered its objections—made it quite clear that it does not want the Olympics, full stop. That is on the record, and I remember it being said. Let us park that on the side, as that is an honourable position from Scotland. The SNP may not want the Olympics—that is fine. However, the point is that there was all-party agreement about funding. The memorandum of understanding was put to the House via the Select Committee and was not challenged at the time. We have done no more and no less than what we set out in the memorandum of understanding with respect to the funding of the 2012 Olympic games.
It would help if the Minister confined himself to answering questions that he had been asked, rather than questions that he has not been asked. We, like other hon. Members, have been contacted by dozens of good causes that face a bleak future owing to the Government’s reckless raiding of the lottery. It is worth remembering that the Olympics were won on the basis of cross-party co-operation, but regrettably the Government are keeping us all in the dark about the new budget and the impact that it will have on the lottery. Is it not high time that the Secretary of State and her Ministers admitted that she has lost control of the figures and opened the books up to full public scrutiny?
If there was any substance to the hon. Gentleman’s questions, he might lose the tag “rent-a-quote”, because that is what we increasingly hear from the Opposition, particularly from him. There is no substance behind his questions, and we see that also more and more in the newspapers, especially on a Sunday morning. I say again that we have done nothing more with the lottery than was agreed by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson), who is giggling like a public schoolboy. We have done nothing more than was stated in the memorandum of understanding that was presented to the Select Committee and reported back to the House. The sum of £900 million is still under discussion in Government and will be discussed with the Mayor’s office. When we have reached a decision, we will report to the House and to the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government.
The budget for the Olympic Delivery Authority for the next financial year will be finalised in March. The overall budget is under discussion in Government and with other stakeholders, and will be published in due course.
With the huge increase in the cost of the Olympics, will the Secretary of State assure people in my constituency and throughout London that the cost will not be borne by the London taxpayer? The games are a United Kingdom event, so will she undertake to ensure that the costs are spread across the country, and are not paid just from the pockets of people in London?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport has set out clearly the agreement that was reached and signed up to by all parties in the memorandum of understanding, which defines how any cost overrun for the Olympics will be met, so, at a point where we are discussing the apportionment of responsibility for paying for any increase, I will not rule anything out. This is an example of politics at its worst. The Conservatives support the Olympics publicly, but then, in a narrow and populist way, seek to undermine every reasonable attempt by the Government to ensure a proper and sustainable budget.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the Sydney Olympics site, and was heartened to hear there that London was ahead of the game on transport and environmental aspects. Can my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that, when she is helping to set the budget for the Olympics, her eye will be closely and firmly on the ball of sustainable development—from water and transport, all the way through—which is a big concern, and that we will not lose sight of that?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. These will be the most sustainable games ever. Ambitious targets were set for a reduction in carbon emissions and especially for the use of waterways for transporting materials, and there are very demanding targets that exceed those of the Government generally for the disposal of waste. Sustainability was fundamental to the bid and will continue to be a driving discipline in achieving the games in 2012.
If the right hon. Gentleman would like to look at the bid document, he will find that the status of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which at that time did not exist and had not been legislated for, has now been established. There continues to be a discussion within Government about VAT and its recovery, but as the Chancellor has made absolutely clear, that is not an issue for the taxpayer, but a question of managing where the responsibility sits for VAT and its payment.
Teachers in my constituency are telling me that there is genuine enthusiasm among young sportsmen and women and that the thought of the Olympics in London in 2012 is a real motivation for them. That is not just the case in my constituency, but throughout Scotland. Would my right hon. Friend enlarge on any other benefits to Scotland and the rest of the UK from holding the Olympics here in London?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. We will see more and more young people taking part in sport as part of their school day and competing through the establishment of inter and intra-school teams, and the pursuit of real excellence not just as part of the legacy, but in the years in the run-up to the games. We can congratulate all our young athletes who recently did so well and did their country proud in the youth Olympics in Australia.
Of course, Scotland will be a beneficiary not only of investment in sport but of increased tourism, and I hope that we shall see Scots from throughout the country offering to sign up as volunteers. In addition, Scotland will no doubt be looking at the commercial and business benefits that it can derive from the enormous increase in inward investment and visitors that will arise from the games.
Is not the Secretary of State concerned that everything is still under discussion? After all, in relation to VAT, is it not the case that the Government signed off a bid document that said that taxation would not be a problem, and is it not bizarre that the Treasury now wants a 60 per cent. contingency? Specifically in relation to announcements she made earlier about London council tax payers potentially having to pay more, does she recall that on 6 November last year, the Prime Minister said about the Mayor of London:
“Ken is basically right. We have said what should come from Londoners and I don’t think we are looking for more”?
Was the Prime Minister wrong to have said that?
The Prime Minister was expressing his view very clearly indeed, but I am involved in negotiation in Government about the fair and proportionate way in which we cover the costs. It is important that the House remembers that this is the biggest public construction project in Europe. It is like building two terminal 5s, but in half the time.
Precisely. I am in charge of a project where we are years ahead of where Sydney or Athens were at an equivalent stage. Sydney did not conclude its budget until two years before the games. Beijing has promised a revised budget, but the games are next year and that has not yet been published. As far as we can discern, Athens never published a final budget. We intend to proceed by ensuring that the money is there, that the costs are controlled and that we, in time, host the best games ever: a great tribute to the young people of this country.
A number of Members on both sides of the House have asked about the memorandum of understanding. The Secretary of State drew it up. Will she confirm now whether the Mayor does indeed have the power to block any future increase—yes or no?
I think that we can take that as a yes.
The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has just produced a highly critical report of the Government’s management of the Olympic budget. When the London Olympics Bill was going through this House, the Minister for Sport said:
“when the organisers have to ask for more funding…it is seen as a failure.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 13 October 2005; c. 42.]
Does the Secretary of State stand by that, and if so, whose failure is it?
Look, the Select Committee did not criticise the financial management of the games. Such quoting is highly selective. That is the trick that the Conservatives are now trying to play, and people see through it. The Conservatives pick away at specific criticisms while saying publicly, “We are right behind the games.” They are seeking to undermine public support for the games, which has remained remarkably robust throughout this period. On the specific point made by the hon. Gentleman, we will study the Select Committee’s recommendations closely. It was a very balanced, authoritative and measured report and its conclusions are not at all surprising. I am proud of the progress that has been made with the Olympic games and I think that the Opposition should stop talking the Olympic games down.
The Department regularly provides advice and guidance to members of the public on all aspects of the honours process, including how to nominate someone for an award. We do not keep a record of the number of occasions on which we have provided information to members of the public.
I thank my hon. Friend for that response. He may be aware that more than 1,500 people have signed a petition asking the Queen to grant Ringo Starr a knighthood. Despite my grave misgivings about the honours system—in fact, my opposition to it; I regard it as anachronistic—it appears that at least some members of the public take an interest in who receives the awards. With that in mind, does my hon. Friend agree that it might be an idea to open up the honours system to greater democratic accountability, rather than having the fairly obscure, opaque system that we currently have?
I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that there has been progress on the honours system since the new committees were set up. In effect, they have a panel of experts who can decide who merits an honour on the basis of comparing candidates. My hon. Friend will also appreciate, I suspect, that popularity is just one indication of merit.
Discussions on the comprehensive spending review are still under way.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. [Laughter.] I am sure that there is more to come.
I was at an Arts Council training event in Bradford last Monday, with representatives of a variety of west Yorkshire-based arts organisations, who were extremely concerned about the 2007-08 spending review. May I ask the Minister to make the point, when he has discussions with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that investment in the arts brings social regeneration, tourism, job creation and community pride, and that a pound spent on the arts is a pound well spent?
And Sheffield. If we consider such cities, the arts have made a tremendous contribution, as they have in schools, with creative partnerships touching the lives of many young people. I hope that it is understood, and certainly we continue to make the case to colleagues in the Treasury, that the work that we have been doing over the past few years has huge benefits throughout the country.
Is the Minister aware that the British Library, for one, is acutely concerned about its future? Will he give the House an assurance that he will fight hard to ensure that the greatest library in the world is not jeopardised by a very miserly settlement such as is being threatened at the moment?
The hon. Gentleman is right: the British Library is a No. 1 institution in the world. It has made huge efforts over the past few years to modernise; it has been pivotal in the digital revolution that we are experiencing in this country and in ensuring that all the records in its keep are online for people not only in this country, but throughout the world. It has been very helpful in our negotiations with the Treasury and has provided us with very useful information. I am pleased to be going to the British Library on Wednesday.
Last Friday, I visited the Wilbury Way primary school in my constituency to see the work being carried out by creative partnerships: a partnership between primary schools and community arts organisations to develop learning among young people. Will my hon. Friend do everything that he can to persuade the Chancellor of the efficacy of such arts projects, which provide learning opportunities to our youngest pupils?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Chancellor has been able to see the Ofsted report on creative partnerships, which demonstrated that the programme is not just successful in relation to the arts but in increasing attainment across the school curriculum because of the benefits provided by creativity. My hon. Friend spotlights a programme that is valued in the schools in which it operates, which are mostly in deprived areas. That programme has touched the lives of pupils in more than 3,000 schools across the country.
From September 2007, the Gambling Act 2005 will introduce one of the world’s strictest licensing regimes for remote gambling. New provisions include a duty on operators to act in a socially responsible way. On 31 October 2006, the Government hosted an international summit for more than 30 jurisdictions, and the process of establishing international standards is now under way. There was widespread agreement on further co-operation in several key areas to ensure that gambling remains fair, and that the vulnerable and all those who gamble are protected.
Yes, we considered that issue in our discussions on both national and international regulation. I could not concur more with the hon. Gentleman. This country now has 60 million television sets; 14 million households are connected to the internet; and, on average, we all have a mobile phone. All of those are now platforms for gambling, and that is why it is so important that the legislation comes into effect by 1 September. Those platforms are seeing the real growth in gambling, and the vulnerable people who need to be protected are among their users.
We have no power other than our ability to stop those sites advertising in this country. We now have a white list, and those who want to operate in the United Kingdom must comply with its conditions: that we can have access to the information; that their licensing regime is robust and transparent; and the three core conditions, which are that their operation is crime-free, that it looks after the vulnerable, including children, and that it ensures people a fair bet. If they comply with those requirements and are open to scrutiny, they can operate here, but they must be on the white list.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church Repairs (VAT)
Parish estimates indicate that in 2003, the latest year for which we have figures, the estimated cost of major repairs required to the 4,000 unlisted Church of England churches was £50 million. At the full rate, VAT of £8.75 million would be charged on those works, if they were carried out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reply, as he will understand the enormous burden on congregations of ordinary churches of trying to raise the large sums of money necessary to maintain their buildings and grounds. My church happens to be on a corner, so members of the public, as well as members of he church, take a short cut through the grounds, and last year our pathways needed to be relaid. When VAT was added to the bill, it came to the enormous sum of £45,000, which is very difficult to raise. As he will understand, the burden of VAT on such small numbers of people is extremely onerous.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. The listed places of worship grant scheme, introduced by the Chancellor in 2001, has paid out more than £42 million to English churches. I recognise the difficulty for unlisted churches, and in “Building faith in our future” we asked for a fresh funding partnership between the church and state. As I have said many times in the House, those who have ears, let them hear.
The hon. Gentleman will be conscious that unlisted buildings usually come after listed buildings in the pecking order, and listed buildings are very dependent on grant from English Heritage, which, over the past few years, has had an increase of just a miserly 3 per cent. in its budget. Presumably, he answers questions because he is part of the Government, so when he negotiates the settlement for English Heritage with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will he lobby the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who is at the Dispatch Box, and say that English Heritage needs a much greater chunk of cash to help our churches—
I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker.
In relation to grant money, we have a new memorials grant scheme, which has paid out more than £190,000 in England since this time last year. On the question of lobbying the heritage fund and the appropriate Department, that is done mercilessly and without ceasing, and, one hopes, at the end of the day, with some results.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The vast majority of 16 and 17-year-olds are decent, caring and responsible youngsters who have complex and important decisions to make about their careers and education, and they pay taxes and can join the services. They have a bigger stake in democracy than any of us in the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not be afraid of trusting them with the vote? Will he ask the commission to drive the issue up the agenda?
That is ultimately a matter for the Government. I recall that on a previous occasion, my hon. Friend asked whether there could be a discussion about that during the passage of the Electoral Administration Bill, and there was indeed such a discussion. At that point, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, said:
“We will keep this under active consideration, not because we believe that there is some absolute right figure or because we believe that it is an exact science, not even necessarily because we think that it is a question of rights, but because we are concerned about participation.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 22 November 2005; c. 167.]
My understanding is that that remains the Government’s view.
It is my impression that as citizenship is being taught in schools, the rising generation know a lot more about the electoral system than their predecessors and their parents. However, one thing they lack is a philosophical understanding of the differences between the various political views. Will the hon. Gentleman recommend that some component of philosophy be built into citizenship studies so that young people know what they are voting on as well as how to vote?
The commission is concerned about that and it is happening. It has said that the developments in citizenship education and new research information may lead to different conclusions over time. Its position is that it stated in 2004 that it would undertake a further review of the issue within seven years, but it will need to consider whether that remains appropriate in the light of any changes to its mandate following the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Two hundred and sixty seven men and 238 women were ordained in 2005, the latest year for which figures are available.
Will the hon. Gentleman meet me either here or in Church house to discuss ways in which we can improve the collection and updating of church statistics, which are a little less forthcoming than we might hope for some of the complicated debates that we have? Notwithstanding that, the figures that he gave are remarkable. They are up 100 in a decade for the Church of England and compare remarkably with other figures of ordination for Great Britain in the last year for which they are available, when only 25 priests were ordained for the Roman Catholic Church.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for suggesting that we meet in Church house. As he knows, it will reopen in March, and that would be a good inaugural meeting.
I think that the Church would be amenable to any suggestion that we expand the information we provide, although clearly there are resourcing implications, which will need to be worked out. I shall, however, put the hon. Gentleman in touch with the relevant colleague at the Archbishops Council and together we will see how his point can be taken forward.
As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) observed, those are remarkable figures. What is particularly welcome is the near-parity between women and others who are ordained. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the future of our Church will depend increasingly on the availability of high-quality, committed non-stipendiary ministers? Of the 500 who were ordained, how many went into non-stipendiary posts and how many were to be paid clergy?
The number of ordinations rose from 493 in 2003 to, in fact, 505 in 2005. As the hon. Gentleman says, the number has increased. As for the non-stipendiary ministers, he should be aware that there are vocational events helping people to explore their calling. We hope that that will encourage people to come forward in the interests of the Church’s ministry and its administration.
Of the total number ordained, how many applied for and were recruited to rural parishes, and what is the level of recruitment generally? Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern, and the concern in rural communities, about the number of rural parishes that are having to “double up” when there is only one parish priest looking after three or four parishes?
I do not know the exact recruitment figure, but I shall be happy to relay it to the hon. Lady. I know of her concern about the ministry in rural areas, which her question reflects. The Church recognises that worshipping congregations are at the heart of rural life and it seeks to appoint a stipendiary, resident priest where possible, but as the hon. Lady knows, it is not always possible. That it why it is sometimes difficult to attract stipendiary clergy into rural areas.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, such programmes are arranged locally, but the commissioners are aware that there are all kinds of initiatives to encourage as many people as possible to visit our cathedrals and appreciate their special significance.
My hon. Friend has been, at my invitation, to the Lichfield festival of the arts, which is held mainly in Lichfield cathedral. I know that he has also been to a number of other non-worshipping events in the cathedral. He says, rightly, that it is up to local communities to decide what they can do, but can there not be a sharing of knowledge between cathedrals and churches about what they do? Are not the Church Commissioners the ideal fountain to pool such information and disseminate it to all bodies?
I am grateful for that excellent suggestion. I agree that there ought to be a body to co-ordinate the work of the cathedral chapters, provide a benchmark and pass on information.
As the hon. Gentleman said, I have visited Lichfield. I know that it has many visitors, and that some may participate in worship and some may not. The fact that people visit at all is greatly encouraging, and if they do worship in the Christian faith, so much the better.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Parliamentary Constituency Boundaries
The Electoral Commission is responsible for conducting reviews of English local authority ward boundaries, but not parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are the responsibility of the respective boundary commissioners. Statutory responsibility for laying their reports before Parliament, and for laying draft orders to give effect to any proposed new boundaries, rests with the respective Secretaries of State to whom the boundary commissions submit their reports.
The hon. Gentleman will know that under sections 16 and 17 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it is in the Government’s power to transfer boundaries to the responsibility of the Electoral Commission. Has he any view on that, in the light of the report that was published recently?
My hon. Friend is right that that is a matter for the Government, who made it clear when the provisions were enacted that they did not intend to take such steps before the current general reviews of all UK parliamentary constituencies had been concluded. My hon. Friend also rightly points out that the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in its recent report on the Electoral Commission that the provisions should be repealed, as part of a wider series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the Electoral Commission no longer has any involvement in electoral boundary matters.
I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to do so.
I put it to my hon. Friend that even if the Electoral Commission does not have formal responsibility in this matter—which is a source of some surprise, and also disquiet, to me and a number of my hon. and right hon. Friends—it will have a view about the transparency and accountability of the democratic process. Is it not unsatisfactory that instead of the changes having been laid in a timeous fashion, they have not yet been laid at all and we have had too much procrastination and delay? Is it not a good thing that the Leader of the House is present in the Chamber so that he can at least witness our protests and seek to ensure that something is done to address them?
The Committee on Standards in Public Life made some robust comments about the timeliness of the reviews of the boundary commissions. I noted that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House said that he thought that the Committee’s report should be debated by the House, and I am sure that that is one of the aspects of it to which Members will wish to give consideration.
Electoral Commission Review
The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has not yet had an opportunity to meet to consider the report. The chairman of the Electoral Commission wrote to all Members on 19 January setting out its initial reaction to the report, and Mr. Speaker arranged for a copy to be placed in the Library. The Electoral Commission informs me that it intends to publish a formal response to the report within the next three months.
Once the Electoral Commission has published its report, will the Speaker’s Committee, in conjunction with the House authorities, make sure that we have an early debate on some of the robust proposals of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to restore confidence in the electoral process and the accountability of the Electoral Commission to all Members of this House? That is a hugely important matter outside the House, and I am keen to know that there will be enthusiasm from inside the House that it gets on our agenda so that we can legislate by changing the law if necessary.
The Speaker’s Committee took an initiative to promote a debate in the House by asking the Liaison Committee for time and that was granted. It is open to those on either Opposition Front Bench to table a motion for debate, but I think that the reassurance of the Leader of the House that an opportunity will be given for the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to be debated in the House is broadly welcomed.
Orders of the Day
Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill
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?