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Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 14 June 2007

Lords amendment considered.

Clause 5


Lords amendment: No. 1.

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

On Report the House agreed to an amendment to extend the Bill to information held by local authorities on registered blind and partially sighted people. The amendment was in response to representations made by the Digital Switchover Consumer Experts Group and to amendments tabled by Opposition Members in Committee.

The definition of “local authority” in the amendment needs further clarity to avoid ambiguity, as it could be read as excluding metropolitan district councils in England. The amendment clarifies that. It may also be helpful if I give further clarification on the progress of the scheme. On 30 April, we and the BBC reached agreement on the terms of the help scheme and—

Order. I must point out to the Minister that this is a debate on the amendment, rather than a general debate.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Without in any way seeking to challenge your ruling, it would be helpful to the House if the Minister could, en passant, refer to the progress that is being made.

The ruling that I have given the Minister applies to all other Members as well. The debate is on the amendment.

Therefore, Madam Deputy Speaker, with your expert guidance, and in the interests of brevity, and complying totally with your implicit and explicit wishes, I commend the amendment to the House.

The House will now, unfortunately, not be treated to the full-length disquisition on the merits of the Bill that I had prepared, as I shall speak only to the amendment.

As the Minister might have said if he had decided to speak at greater length about the amendment, it is an important technical drafting amendment. As the House is aware, clause 1(3) allows local authorities to give visual impairment information to the BBC or to the Secretary of State in order to allow assistance to be given to the visually impaired for digital switchover. As we understand it, in many areas it is a county council that holds this information, so it is the body covered by the definition of a local authority. In some areas, however, it is a district council that holds the information on those with visual impairment. The Bill needs to take account of that. Clause 5(1)(ii) referred to

“a district council for an area in relation to which it has the functions of a county council”.

In his opening remarks the Minister was not clear about the need for this technical change, so perhaps I could illuminate the House in case any hon. Members wish to tease out some of the technical details. The original amendment tabled by the Government would have adequately covered the definition for shire areas with two-tier systems. However, the problem arose because although some metropolitan district councils are the relevant authority, it could be argued that they do not have the functions of county councils. The definition was therefore changed to:

“a district council, other than a council for a district in a county for which there is a county council”.

That is a very important technical change. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) used the word “boring”. I disagree with him on that; I would say that it is interesting, although it could be made more so. I could discuss Roman governance systems, as I did at length in Committee, but that might make it too interesting.

This is a very important change, because there may have been confusion with metropolitan district councils—that is, virtually all unitary authorities not covered—if they were deemed not to have the functions of a county council. In order to help hon. Members to understand the technical and important nature of the amendment, the Minister could have pointed out that a similar amendment was made in the Public Bill Committee to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, and that this technical change will bring the definition of a local authority into line with the corresponding provisions of that Bill. I think that that is correct, but I would be grateful for his guidance.

You have made the important ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we cannot discuss—nor should we—the other issues to do with digital switchover, so focusing solely on this technical amendment I should like to ask the Minister a number of questions.

I understand and accept the ruling from the Chair, but we would all like to know what the Minister was about to tell us when it was decided that he would be out of order. Will my hon. Friend urge him to impart that information in another way, perhaps by placing a letter in the Library or by making a written statement to the House at a later date?

I hear what my right hon. Friend says. In Committee, we pressed the Minister to put into the Bill a mechanism whereby the Government could report back regularly to the House.

The Minister promised—I do not know whether this is in the spirit of the earlier remarks by the Leader of the House—to take me to Whitehaven to see digital switchover in action, but that promise has not been fulfilled. I await a trip to Whitehaven with him to see what is happening on the ground. Having placed in the House copies of the agreement with the BBC, it is important that he writes to the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport or places in the Library a letter bringing us up to date with digital switchover.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not just going to leave it at the shadow Secretary of State, as all Members present are clearly showing an interest in this matter. The amendment will change the range of people who will be identified for assistance through the targeted help scheme. Although the ruling by Madam Speaker means that we cannot hear about progress for all those people, does he agree that it would be helpful to hear what progress is being made in providing help to the new group of people who will be covered as a result of the new definition in the amendment?

The hon. Gentleman makes the excellent move of promoting Madam Deputy Speaker to Madam Speaker, no doubt in order to incur her good will when he rises to speak on the amendment. May I also congratulate him on his bravery in wearing the Olympic logo—

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that he is straying wide of the amendment; he does not need me to correct him.

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

To give credit where it is due, the hon. Member for Bath first raised the issue of local authorities when we discussed the Bill previously. As an expert on this, he rightly points out that the definition of a local authority widens the range of people to whom assistance will be given. Perhaps the Minister could elucidate on that.

My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job in explaining the amendment given that the Minister was unable to do so. Does the change in definition give rise to a danger that it will exclude other authorities such as unitary authorities or other types of authority that may come into existence in future? Should it not be slightly broader to enable such authorities to be incorporated without yet another amendment?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That was one of the three questions that I was going to ask the Minister. Is he confident that the amendment’s definition of a local authority will withstand any future reorganisation of local government? As my hon. Friend is well aware, the Government have put forward a White Paper on local authority reorganisation. In my own county of Oxfordshire, we have had a long debate about reorganisation prompted by the Government, forcing us to spend money that could have been much better spent on council services. That particularly applies to Labour-controlled Oxford city council, which profligately spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on considering becoming a unitary authority.

I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

My question to the Minister is simply this: is he confident that, should the Government ever get round to their long-awaited local authority reorganisation, this definition will stand the test of time, or will we be forced to amend the Bill again to accommodate new definitions of a local authority?

I would like a little more information about how many people will be affected by the change. Do we have a list of the relevant local authorities? Many Members may not know that the amendment could affect their constituents. That information should be in the public domain.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Minister writes to me about digital switchover, it might be helpful if he writes to all hon. Members detailing specifically which councils covered by the amendment have the relevant information, so that when their constituents contact them with concerns about switchover they know which council they should contact in order to assist them.

Clearly this will be a key issue. Many Members will have visually impaired constituents coming to them wanting assistance. It is therefore important that the information should be widely disseminated, specifically in the Library. I hope that when the debate is over a little more information will come into the public domain.

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is a crucial matter. I do not have the statistics to hand about the average number of visually impaired people per constituency, but it will be a significant number, and by definition they will require assistance from their local authority. It is therefore essential that hon. Members are fully informed about the amendment’s implications for their local authority.

Let me turn to another aspect, which is covered in the explanatory notes on the Lords amendment. Paragraph 8 states:

“The amendment is not expected to have any financial effects.”

Any hon. Member with even a modicum of common sense would realise that that cannot be an accurate statement. The amendment brings into the scope of the Bill a wide range of local authorities, particularly metropolitan district councils, which might not have expected to be included before it was passed. It will clearly have financial implications for them in terms of their providing information on financial assistance to the visually impaired. Yet the explanatory notes state baldly that it is not expected to have any financial effects.

If a district council that picks up this responsibility does not already hold the data and is not in a position to assist because it was not expecting to, there must be some form of financial implication for it, even if it is allocating to one person the job of looking into these matters and discovering where the subscribers or non-subscribers might be.

My hon. Friend is right. When the Under-Secretary was questioned about the matter in Committee, he skirted around the cost implications. Indeed, he implied that local authorities could absorb the cost in their normal functions. That cannot be the case. Digital switchover has been described as the largest civil project in this country for 30 or 40 years. Bringing local authorities within the scope of the Bill by accepting the amendment, which would bring metropolitan district authorities within its scope, has serious financial implications. I hope that the Under-Secretary will deal with that when he responds to my remarks and those of the hon. Member for Bath, who is the expert on the matter after drawing it to the House’s attention.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the amendment? It appears to me that it might be defective because, as I read the amendment and the Bill, the amendment relates only to councils in England. What happens in the case of a local government reorganisation in Scotland? Surely the amendment should cover all parts of the United Kingdom.

My right hon. Friend is a vastly experienced Member and, I suspect, a much better lawyer than me, although I trained and qualified for the Bar many years ago. I confess that I was hitherto unaware of his point. Clause 5(1)(c) states that local authority means

“in relation to Scotland, a council constituted under section 2 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 (c. 39)”.

Given that I am not an expert in local government matters in Scotland, I take my right hon. Friend’s point about possible local authority reorganisation there.

During the Bill’s progress, the Under-Secretary has generously invited hon. Members on occasions to Whitehaven, the first area that will be affected. Does the narrow amendment affect Whitehaven? If we are to visit that area, should we visit other areas to which the narrow amendment applies to ascertain whether it will have a material effect on constituents there?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the effect of the amendment on the progress of digital switchover. As colleagues obviously know, we continue to debate the measure, which has not yet received Royal Assent, but digital switchover continues. We were unable to hear about its progress today, but it is interesting that no legal powers yet exist for Whitehaven district council to share information on the visually impaired. It would be interesting to know how digital switchover is progressing given that Whitehaven does not have requisite powers.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If we agree to the amendment, although it means that the information will legitimately be obtained from Whitehaven council, the people of Whitehaven will not be told that they are eligible and provided with support; they will have to write to say that they believe themselves to be eligible. Does he agree that, if the amendment is accepted, it should still be possible to identify the people who are in need of help and ensure that they receive it in time?

I hope that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the need for speed in ensuring that the people of Whitehaven, who are the pioneers of digital switchover, are adequately taken care of. However, I stray from the narrow amendment and I must refocus on it.

As I said to the Under-Secretary, my chief concern is whether the amendment is sufficiently robust to accommodate the future changes to local authority structures that the Government undertake. Cost implications are my second concern, given that the explanatory notes state that there are none.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) mentioned Scottish local government reorganisation.

We could, by bouncing the amendment back, give the Lords or the Government the opportunity to review it in the light of the fact that it might be better to deal with those matters in a statutory instrument rather than in the Bill. It may therefore be worth considering rejecting the amendment.

I must tell my hon. Friend that we have decided to accept the amendment because it affects an interpretation clause. As I said when I explained— perhaps more fully than the Under-Secretary—the reasons for the technical amendment, we need to ensure that metropolitan district councils are covered by the Bill. However, my hon. Friend’s point is well made in the light of my constant attempts and those of the hon. Member for Bath to ensure that the House gives digital switchover sufficient scrutiny.

How does the amendment relate to the publication of the digital switchover help scheme? The Department for Culture, Media and Sport published it on 4 May 2007 and it details the agreement between the BBC and the Department on digital switchover. The Under-Secretary has probably memorised the document and he knows that it refers to a policy review group, which includes the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the BBC Trust, the executive board of the BBC, the Department for Work and Pensions and Digital UK. The hon. Member for Bath encouraged the Under-Secretary to include local authorities because of their knowledge of the data about visually impaired people, and he has presented an amendment that specifically relates to metropolitan district councils, yet local authorities are not included in the policy review group for the digital switchover help scheme. That is an astonishing omission.

I have listened to my hon. Friend’s remarks with great interest. However, it again strikes me that, if a local council already holds the data, a cost will be incurred in transferring them to a district council. Perhaps district councils will get inquiries and phone calls from the visually impaired and have to pass them on. All those matters take resources and I am not entirely satisfied that the statement that there will be no cost implications is accurate.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which enables me, in summing up, to reiterate the important matters that my hon. Friends and I have raised. We want to know whether the amendment is sufficiently robust to withstand future changes to the structure of local authorities. My excellent hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has repeatedly made the point about cost implications. He is always a steward of the taxpayer’s funds. He rightly points out that, in an era of sky high council tax rises, the amendment will have cost implications. I stress again the need to include local authorities in the policy review group. I do not forget the point of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire about local reorganisation in Scotland. We hope to hear more about that from the Under-Secretary.

I remind all my colleagues to keep their diaries free. The Under-Secretary will hire a minibus and we will go to Whitehaven to see digital switchover in action.

I apologise for the early promotion that I gave you in my intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and I thank him for his praise for me as the expert on the matter that we are considering. He and I share the view with many hon. Members that digital switchover is important and will bring huge benefits to everyone in this country, and we were anxious to support the Bill to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society also benefited from the changes that digital switchover will bring. We were therefore surprised during the Bill’s passage that the Government had missed out a large number of disadvantaged people because they had failed to consider the data available to local councils. We now know from a parliamentary answer of 26 April this year that some 50,000 people will be assisted because the Government have decided to include within the legislation the obtaining of information from local councils as well as from Government Departments.

The amendment is important to ensuring that we get right the definition of those councils from which that information can be obtained. I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that that suggestion came from the Liberal Democrat Benches and I am grateful that the Government brought forward an amendment in the other place to ensure that it takes place. Having acknowledged my acceptance of what the Government are doing, I, too, like the hon. Member for Wantage, wish to ask the Minister questions—four very specifically about the amendment.

The first question is specifically about Whitehaven, which has been referred to on a number of occasions. Different people will have different views on whether Whitehaven is leading the way or is a guinea pig, or whether what is happening there is a trial. The Minister has told us on a number of occasions that it is not a trial for the main scheme, but that it is none the less an experiment from which we will learn.

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that when we referred to Whitehaven as a guinea pig, the Minister became extremely upset? I would therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to refer to Whitehaven as a pioneer.

That is why I chose my words carefully, pointing out that there was some concern about the definition. As I suggested in an intervention on the hon. Member for Wantage, the new definition ensures that Whitehaven council will be able to provide the information. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that I am right. If that is the case, will the Minister explain why in the rest of the country people who have been identified from the information from local councils as well as from Government Departments will be informed that they have been identified and then offered the targeted help scheme, but in Whitehaven the reverse will happen, whereby people who believe themselves to be eligible will have to apply and have their eligibility checked out?

If the amendment is passed, we will know the procedure in the rest of the country when digital roll-out takes place for gathering information and from whom that information would come, but would it not still be possible within the time scales to use the same procedure in Whitehaven? Given the importance of the issue—I should point out that, on the Government’s own estimates, we are talking about 8,600 people—I hope that we will receive a positive response to that question.

The amendment refers to the obtaining of information from a particular category of councils. We know that many other councils and Government Departments are to provide the information, but, bearing in mind your earlier ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, has the Minister changed his mind about whether information gathered from that category of councils is to be made available to the BBC? In Committee, we were clearly told that the BBC would have access to this information. Indeed, I moved an amendment to exclude the BBC from the groups of people who would have access to the information, but it was denied by the Government. However, I read that in other place—

Order. Whatever the hon. Gentleman may or may not have done in Committee, we are now discussing this amendment, which, as I have already ruled, is very narrow in its definition.

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am seeking to ascertain whether the information that as a result of the amendment will be obtained from a particular class of local authority will be made available to the BBC. That is my point about this information The reason I ask that—[Interruption.] I hear the Minister saying yes, but in the other place, Lord Davies of Oldham said:

“We envisage that the BBC will not need access to the data disclosed in this Bill.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 247.]

That is clearly a contradiction. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why we were told in the other place that the BBC will not have access, but he has just said from a sedentary position that it will have access.

My third question relates to the data that will be obtained from this category of council. Does the Minister envisage any end point at which it will be deemed that such information will no longer be made available? The Minister will be aware that much debate took place in Committee about a proposed sunset clause—a provision that I believed was crucial. The Government have not agreed to a sunset clause for data from all the other sources of information, but will the Minister consider one at least in respect of the data that will be collected from this category of council?

Finally, and I hope very helpfully to the Minister, this category of council and the data that will obtained from it will enable a group of people who might otherwise not have been assisted to benefit from the targeted help scheme. I am sure that that group of people—if, because of your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, no other—who might be assisted by the new definition would be interested to know about the progress of the targeted help scheme. Will the Minister provide an update of progress on the assistance that that group of people might be able to get? I look forward to hearing the answers to those four questions.

I pressed my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on the point about costs related to the amendment. If a local council has access to the data on the visually impaired and those who may benefit from the scheme in the Bill, that information will have to be passed on. The local council will have to respond to individuals who may be claiming their entitlement or, conversely, depending on how the land lies in the Bill proper, the council will have a duty to initiate contact with those individuals.

As a result of the amendment, those councils will now include district councils, which until now may not have expected to be included as a data-gatherer or passer-on of that data. The councils that need to transfer the data may not have been aware that they had that extra function to perform. It thus strikes me, without a shade of doubt, that there are cost implications for the council collecting the data, and even just for the transfer of data that has already been collected to the district council or authority and thereon to the BBC or the Government, and vice-versa.

I reiterate to the Minister that I have some concerns about point 8 of the explanatory notes, which states:

“The amendment is not expected to have any financial effects.”

That simply cannot be true in this context. I recognise, of course, that explanatory notes do not constitute the Bill and I also recognise that those outside the House should not draw too much from them, but I draw the Minister’s attention to the problem. May I ask him to explain in very specific terms why this transfer of data and function that already exists will have no cost implications whatever? That just seems incredibly unlikely.

I am faced with a difficult choice, Madam Deputy Speaker. Hon. Members have tested your ruling to destruction. Your generosity in holding back from reminding them of your ruling has resulted in their taking advantage of their position. My choice is whether to do the same, but owing to my long-term interest in currying favour with you, I will not test your patience. I shall therefore simply summarise the matter, not least because there is a real danger of hon. Members losing themselves in the detail to the extent that they cannot see the wood for the trees.

This is a very narrow amendment, whose purpose is to provide clarity. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) did anything but provide clarity in his remarks, but I shall provide that clarity by telling the House that the purpose of the amendment is to remove the ambiguity that arose when it was thought that a certain group of councils might not be part of the scheme. We want to ensure that that is not the case.

Questions about local authorities that might be involved in the future take us into the wonderful realms of the hypothetical, but they waste the time of the House. The Government’s purpose in the Bill, and in this amendment, is to ensure that the help scheme and the access to the necessary data can be provided.

No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman has had nearly an hour in which to wax lyrical about all this—

He has spent 22 minutes on something that, frankly, should have been dispensed with in two.

There is a separate definition of “local authority” in Wales and Scotland, but we have ascertained that the necessary information can be made available in Wales and Scotland; we are satisfied that that is the case.

The only substantial point that has been made in the debate was made by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who rightly raised the concern about the cost to local authorities. Had he been part of the incredibly enjoyable debate that we have been conducting on the Bill over the past few months, he would know that this issue has been fairly raised by the hon. Members for Wantage, for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others.

Our view, which has been formed on the basis of consultation with the charities involved in this process as well as with the local authorities, is that there will be no disproportionate costs involved. We were more concerned about the costs to organisations such as Sense and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. Had there been a possibility of disproportionate costs, we would have ensured that it was dealt with. It is part of our ongoing dialogue with local authorities, the RNIB, Sense and the other organisations involved to ensure that any inconvenience or costs involved do not get in the way of the delivery of the scheme. There is no evidence of that happening, but Digital UK stands ready to deal with any problems that might arise.

We are doing this in the interest of not adding unnecessary regulation or bureaucracy. There was a time when the Conservatives argued in favour of deregulation and less bureaucracy, but they now seem to be led by the hon. Member for Wantage, who constantly wishes to add all sorts of totally unnecessary new regulations and costs.

Lords amendment agreed to.