My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
It is widely recognised that digital switchover will deliver substantial benefits. There are benefits to individuals. Digital TV offers greater choice of channels, better picture quality, more interactivity and access services such as audio description. Consumers can even access a range of digital radio stations.
However, at the moment, 25 per cent of homes cannot get digital TV via an aerial. This figure cannot be increased until analogue TV transmissions end. We believe that it is important that consumers who get analogue services now should have a choice in digital TV provision, and we need to bring about the end of analogue TV broadcasting for this to happen.
There are also benefits to broadcasters in not having to continue to invest in outdated analogue technology and from the end of simulcasting in analogue and digital, which is both costly and inefficient. Finally, there are benefits to the whole country, as efficient digital broadcasting will free up spectrum for other uses. This is often referred to as the “digital dividend”. This spectrum could be used for new services such as high definition TV, more local TV, or mobile data services. Ofcom is consulting on the best way to make this spectrum available for future use.
In September 2005, we set out the economic impact of digital switchover in the regulatory impact assessment. The net benefit to the United Kingdom was then estimated to be £1.7 billion. This is a prize worth having. Other countries feel the same way. Digital switchover is taking place all over Europe. There are no advantages and plenty of disadvantages if the UK is left in an analogue ghetto while everyone else embraces the advantages of digital. Technology is changing rapidly and we must change with it or be left behind. This will, of course, mean that everyone will have to take steps to ensure that they can continue to receive television after the switchover. People will be able to do this in a number of ways—satellite, cable, digital terrestrial via an aerial, or television via the internet. It is not essential to get a new TV, though many people may decide to do so. But everyone will have to have done something if they want to continue to receive a TV signal once their area switches off.
Digital switchover is a massive undertaking, comparable to conversion to North Sea gas or decimalisation. The process cannot be left to chance. It needs proper planning and co-ordination. Broadcasters, transmission companies, government, Ofcom and individuals all have a role to play. Of vital importance is the role of Digital UK. This is a not-for-profit body which has been set up by public service broadcasters and others to co-ordinate digital switchover and advise the public about digital television. It is leading a major information campaign to ensure that everyone knows what is happening, what they need to do, and when. Noble Lords may by now be familiar with Digit Al, the little robot used to get the message across. Between now and switchover, Digital UK will be communicating with every single TV viewing household in the country to ensure that they can prepare for the change.
The results of this co-ordination are impressive, both in take-up and awareness. According to the Ofcom digital television progress report for the third quarter of last year, the proportion of households in the United Kingdom which received digital television services on their primary TV now stands at more than 70 per cent. The DUK Ofcom quarterly tracker shows that awareness of switchover nationally is 80 per cent and even higher in the areas where switchover will happen earliest. The figure for Borders, the first region to switch over, is 91 per cent.
Digital UK is doing important scoping work with charities. I am sure that charities will have a significant role to play, both in communicating the switchover message and in providing practical help and advice. Digital UK is in discussion with major charities to see how it can help people who might have problems with switching over.
This brings me naturally to the digital switchover help scheme. We do not want anyone to be left behind by digital switchover. We have run trials in Ferryside and Bolton, which have taught us valuable lessons. The evidence from these trials and from research, carried out both by the department and the DTI in 2003 and 2004, is that some groups—namely, those aged 75 and over, those with a serious disability and the blind or partially sighted—are likely to have particular difficulty in making the switchover. For example, they may have difficulty installing and operating the equipment.
We are therefore proposing to introduce a help scheme which will provide practical support with selecting, installing and using digital TV equipment. Each eligible household will be provided with equipment to convert one television set. While there will be some choice, this will usually take the form of a digital TV set-top box.
This provision will be free for those on income support, income-related jobseeker’s allowance or pension credit. All other eligible households will pay a modest £40 fee. It is important to recognise that low income as such is not a particular barrier to take-up. Our research shows that digital take-up among low-income households is not that far off the national average. The Ofcom DUK tracker suggests that digital take-up among low income families is 74 per cent compared with 79 per cent nationally.
It is right that those who can afford it should contribute to the costs of the scheme. The level of the charge will be less than the cost of providing assistance, so there is still an element of subsidy. The same tracker suggests that take-up rates among the over-75s are just 45 per cent. Therefore, we will be concentrating help where need appears to be greatest.
The help scheme has a crucial role to play in ensuring that switchover is managed painlessly and brings the benefits of switchover to the whole population. It is designed to be platform-neutral, so all households will be entitled to a choice of options for getting their digital TV services. If a householder chooses a more expensive option, such as an integrated TV or a subscription service, the help scheme will contribute to their costs.
The BBC White Paper makes it clear that the BBC will help to establish and fund the scheme. Universal access is a key part of the BBC remit and only switchover will ensure that all licence fee payers can receive the BBC’s digital services through an aerial. It is therefore right that a trusted institution such as the BBC should take a leading role in making digital switchover happen, by helping to establish and fund the help scheme as part of its wider role in building digital Britain and thereby ensure that no one is left behind.
We have said that the funding, which we believe to be about £600 million, will be ring-fenced to ensure that it cannot be used for purposes other than digital switchover. We have also said that the costs of the help scheme will not have an impact on the BBC’s programme budget. Any cost over-run will be met from the public purse.
We are still discussing with the BBC how the scheme should be developed and run. As the Bill itself makes clear, we expect that it will be the BBC, the Government or a combination of the two. Whatever approach is agreed, some other organisation will be responsible for delivering the scheme, and we have jointly begun the procurement process to identify a suitable contractor. Detailed scheme rules will be set out in a scheme agreement with the DCMS, made under provisions in the BBC agreement, and which the Government hope to conclude shortly.
We want this scheme to be as effective as possible, and to make it as easy as possible for the applicant. We have consulted the Consumer Expert Group and others. The Consumer Expert Group reflects the views of a wide range of charitable and voluntary groups with an interest in this question. It recognises that digital TV offers many benefits for the people it represents, not least in terms of improved access services such as audio description. The Consumer Expert Group’s clear view is that the scheme will be more effective if we actively approach those who are eligible. It said:
“There should be a clear duty on the government to get in touch with people who are eligible for the targeted assistance scheme for vulnerable groups. The administrators of the targeted help scheme should therefore be given access to central databases to help identify people who would be eligible. Data protection issues should not stand in the way of doing this”.
We agree with that view. That is why we have this Bill before us.
The Bill will permit social security data and information held by local authorities on people who have registered as being blind or partially sighted to be shared with the administrator of the help scheme so that they can get in touch directly with people eligible for assistance. That will enable the scheme to target individuals, and confirm entitlement, without the need for a lengthy claims procedure. It will make the scheme easier to use and should, as a result, improve take-up rates.
It is worth remembering that the BBC has had access to social security data since 2000 in order to administer the 75 or over licence fee scheme, a scheme which has been widely welcomed. The contractor running the help scheme will have access to data only for the purpose of targeting individuals and dealing with eligibility.
There is a range of protections in the Bill and outside—for example, the Data Protection Act—to ensure that the information is protected and used only for the very narrow purpose of supporting the rollout of the help scheme for digital switchover. The Bill makes it an offence to disclose such information without “lawful authority”. The penalties available on conviction are the same as those under the Social Security Administration Act 1992.
The powers in the Bill are permissive. There is no requirement on the Department for Work and Pensions to share data. That means that the DWP will need to be satisfied that the arrangements put in place by the BBC and its contractors ensure that social security information is properly safeguarded.
In due course, I am sure that the House will want to press me on why there is not a sunset clause in the Bill. The reasoning is straightforward. The data which the Bill allows to be released can be used only in connection with switchover help functions. Therefore, once switchover is complete, the powers are redundant. In other words, the Bill has a de facto sunset clause already. However, I am quite sure that noble Lords will want to return to this matter in Committee.
I hope the House will agree that this is a relatively modest but none the less important piece of legislation. It will involve the disclosure of personal data, but it is for what is clearly a sensible and worthwhile cause; assisting potentially vulnerable groups through the switchover process. Many of those eligible will not need assistance of any sort, and many will have already gone digital, but we want to ensure that everyone can make the switch. This Bill will help to ensure that the benefits of digital TV are universal. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
My Lords, the Bill is to allow information to be passed by various state bodies to the BBC or its agent, so that the elderly and vulnerable can be contacted in order to offer them assistance in changing from analogue to digital television—something that I am sure we all support. It is regrettable, however, that there was no opportunity to debate the subject of digital switchover itself before it became a fait accompli, rather than to debate the narrow Bill in front of us today. As the Minister said, the scale of the change to digital television is huge, and has been compared to North Sea gas conversion and decimalisation.
Several points would have merited discussion. Is now the right time for a compulsory switchover, or should Her Majesty’s Government have waited for more progress to be made on a voluntary basis? The report of the House of Commons committee concluded that the Government should be commended for the bold decision to force the pace of changeover, but there is a strong argument that so major an issue should have come before Parliament at an earlier stage.
Should land-based mast transmitters or satellite transmitters have been the preferred choice? According to the transmitter companies, it will cost in the region of £500 million to convert the masts, on top of which there will be ongoing maintenance and replacement costs. Satellite coverage of the UK is nearly 100 per cent complete, so it would have been possible to encourage the public to take out the satellite option. In any event, the BBC and ITV propose combining to provide a free satellite service. There are arguments both ways. Set-top boxes and dishes will be more expensive for satellite reception, but there will be no mast conversion costs and a much wider choice of viewing and services, including high-definition television. The cheaper boxes which can be used for land-based transmitters provide a limited service, so much so that the Select Committee recommended that the Government make clear to the public the advantages of more advanced boxes over the cheaper models.
If we have a land-based system, will free satellite dishes be made available to those who will not have any reception after switchover? I know that Her Majesty’s Government say that 100 per cent of people will get digital television after the switchover, but my understanding is that there will be blank spots. The choice between the two alternatives would have merited discussion.
The Secretary of State has said that platform neutrality is one of the Government’s guiding principles. How will this be achieved? It must be right that, where public funds are being spent, there should be a level playing field for all participants; it is also a requirement of European competition law. A land-based system is clearly an advantage to existing land-based television companies such as the BBC and ITV. Indeed, a former chief executive of ITV commented that he would rather be four channels out of 40, the proposed land-based system, than four channels out of 400, the satellite system. This advantage is further increased by the planning restrictions on the installation of dishes. Further information on how platform neutrality will be achieved, beyond paying lip service to the principle, would be most welcome, as the arguments by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place are not entirely convincing.
For the changeover, £600 million has been set aside from the licence fee, and I am grateful to the Minister for confirming the statement made when the licence fee was announced—that any costs over that £600 million will be provided by the Government, not from licence fee proceeds. I believe that one assumption was that only half of those entitled to free boxes would apply for them. Yet with no method of policing once boxes have been issued, it would be naive not to assume that those entitled will apply for free boxes whether they already receive digital or not—either for their second televisions, or simply as a gift to a friend or member of the family. Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, was quoted as saying that the scheme could cost,
“on the far side of a billion”,
On the Bill itself, the provision of assistance to the vulnerable is welcome and Her Majesty’s Government are to be congratulated on their concern—although the scheme itself is a welfare scheme and the costs incurred are welfare costs, so it amounts to a stealth tax disguised as a licence fee. Additions to the Bill made in the Commons with respect to provision for the visually impaired are welcomed. However, the current provision in the Bill for the release of sensitive information is a matter of concern.
Her Majesty’s Government have a bad record where data-sharing is concerned, and the release of information by such bodies as the Ministry of Defence is a serious matter. Has the Minister considered whether it is really essential that sensitive information is released? Why can the departments or agencies that have the information not initiate the process by writing to those entitled to assistance, offering to help them? If the recipient is interested, he or she can then be directed to the BBC’s agent in this matter. This would retain confidentiality, as the agent would only know that the individual was entitled to assistance but not for what reason. That way, sensitive information need not be passed over.
I cannot see any problems carrying out the exercise in this way, which would not apply equally if the BBC or its agent received the information and wrote directly to those entitled. It should not be too difficult to include an anti-fraud mechanism. Over-65s are already written to when offered the winter heating allowance. If the information is released as suggested in the Bill—I do not withdraw the reservations I have expressed—then the House should be given a chance to debate and amend the range of information to be sought and released, by including a schedule to the Bill.
It would be a welcome step for Her Majesty’s Government to provide further detail on the matter of communal aerials where, I believe, issues still remain to be resolved. In another place, reference was made to the London Borough of Camden, which is imposing an extra service charge on its tenants.
If the Bill continues in its present form, then a sunset clause must be included. This was rejected in another place, and the Minister has already commented on that. It was rejected on the grounds that as the Bill only allows information to be given for the switchover, it will by definition cease to have effect when the switchover is completed. That still leaves sensitive information in the hands of a third party. A sunset clause should be drafted to ensure that the data are destroyed immediately after use, region by region, as should happen under data protection principles.
Finally, although this is not usually the case with the BBC, the large amounts of public money being spent mean that the accounts should be open to scrutiny by the National Audit Office.
My Lords, it is axiomatic to our understanding of democracy in this country that we not only enjoy free speech but we also honour individuals and their proper right to privacy. It therefore behoves us always and in every case to ponder carefully any proposed legislation that requires the disclosure of information about individuals, even when there are precedents for the use of such information—the Minister mentioned 2000 in relation to this—and, as in the case of the Bill, the reasons for such disclosure seem to be common sense. Cliché scenarios about this being the thin edge of the wedge are not appropriate for this debate, yet we would be unwise not to recognise that there are, and always will be, seeds of danger to democracy when legislation, however well intentioned, requires information about individuals and the disclosure of their personal data on the grounds of what is deemed to be in their interests. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, that there are serious data protection and related issues in this.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that almost all, if not all, the people whom this legislation is designed to help will welcome the benefits intended and the process whereby they are achieved. Indeed, I had a conversation only this morning with the policy department of the Royal British Legion, of which I am national chaplain. It is the legion’s view that veterans would almost certainly be happy with the disclosure of such information for the specific purpose proposed in the Bill.
I was also interested in the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howard, about the need to protect people from responding with more information about their particular condition than is actually required by the purpose of the Bill. Nevertheless, even among the veterans, there may still be people who will be among the small number unable to receive programmes after the switch off in their area because, on present plans, digital broadcasts will not reach 100 per cent of the population. The Minister said that no one will be left behind, but that has already been demonstrated to be not quite true, and the points that have been made in this debate on satellite TV are also worthy of deeper consideration.
I want to flag up my concerns about the decision to take 75 as the target age for helping the elderly. We will look at this in more detail in Committee. My understanding is that the DCMS’s digital switchover technical trials found that nearly as many households with people aged more than 65 required assistance with installation as households with people aged more than 75. I want to scrutinise the reasons for that 10-year gap in the Bill in Committee.
There are other people outside the target group, such as families without 65 or 75 year-olds, who may find that the costs of digital switchover place a heavy burden on small budgets, perhaps because of costs imposed by private or social landlords in relation to aerial upgrades or putting up satellite dishes. Charges levied for upgrades to communal aerial systems can run into several hundred pounds per dwelling. I note that people in public housing will not face such charges, but others who are not included in the scheme may genuinely need appropriately targeted help. The report Communal TV Systems and Digital Switchover, which was published by NOP World in February 2005, stated that while only 20 per cent of UK households receive TV signals through communal TV systems, 74 per cent of registered social landlords own or manage properties with such systems.
I suspect that some social landlords are going to—they may have little option to do otherwise—pass those costs on to tenants who themselves will need but will not be eligible to receive help. I am simply trying to think of some of the people in some of the parishes in areas of, say, the Manchester diocese, who could so easily miss out on assistance and fall through the net because their particular vulnerable situation is not covered by this tightly defined Bill.
That leads me to wonder whether the costs of providing help to vulnerable people have been underestimated. Here I raise a vexed question that was addressed by the Select Committee, has previously been debated and was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising; the fact that the costs have to be covered by the BBC licence-fee payer rather than by the Government. I wonder whether financial policy is forcing too narrow a definition of those eligible for help. If the costs are determining the decision to help 75 year-olds rather than younger people, germane to this debate is the DCMS consumer expert group to which the Minister referred and its report in June 2006. The report entitled Supporting Vulnerable Customers with Targeted Assistance at and after Digital TV Switchover said that details of the support package,
“should not be set as a result of what funding is currently allocated, but … should be determined in relation to the level of need of vulnerable people”.
Clearly there is an area to be explored further in later stages of the Bill, but given the more broad-brush opportunity provided by Second Reading, I want to highlight a potential difficulty if the costs of helping the vulnerable turn out to be greater for the BBC than at first thought, either because they have even now been underestimated or because in Committee the definitions of eligibility for help are widened. The money is still below the point at which the Government have undertaken to help, and what would be unfortunate would be the possible impoverishment of creative programme-making were it to become necessary for further BBC funds from the licence-fee payer to be diverted to cover greater digitalisation costs. That would be not only unfortunate but unacceptable.
My Lords, before I move to the major points, I want to ask a technical question of the Minister. The Bill gives the power to the BBC to ask local authorities for relevant information on those who will benefit from the help scheme the BBC is to administer. While there is mention of the Scottish local authorities in the Bill, it appears to impose responsibilities on them but without any mention of the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Executive. Local authorities in Scotland are the responsibility of the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament and not of this place. Although broadcasting is a reserved matter, Scottish local authorities were devolved under the legislation that established the Scottish Parliament. Will my noble friend refer to that matter and point me to the legislation in the Scottish Parliament that allows this provision to be imposed by the British Parliament?
I support the Bill, as I do digital switchover, although my noble friend will be aware that I have reservations about it. If the Government insist that the BBC should have the responsibility of funding from the licence fee the help scheme for those over 75, for those on certain disability benefits and for those registered blind or partially sighted who have not switched to digital when the switchover takes place in their area—we should remember that the first area will be switched over in October this year—the Bill is essential to allow the BBC to gather the information that it requires.
But should the BBC be given this role, and should the licence fee payer be asked to fund it? Many of us on both sides of the House do not think so. Those who cannot pay for services themselves from their income should be helped through the social security system in conjunction with local authorities, and not by the BBC. So far as I understand it, free TV licences for those over 75 is a social security or pension benefit paid out of general taxation. Help with the switchover should be the same. Indeed, the Bill would be totally unnecessary if that was the case, as the BBC would not have to ask social security services and local authorities for the information referred to in the Bill. That would have the further benefit of reducing the number of organisations that have access to what in many cases is very private information. In fact, I am rather surprised that those who usually protest so vigorously in this place about civil liberties are not here today to make that point. I wonder where my noble friend Lady Kennedy is. So, even now, I hope that the Government will think again on this issue.
As the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, said, however, this is not only about the benefit scheme but about the means by which the switch to digital will happen. The method and technology that are being used to implement the switchover are the real problem. Not only are the licence fee payers being asked to fund the help scheme, which is budgeted to cost £600 million, as has already been said, but they, along with broadcasters, must contribute to the funding of the £500 million upgrading of the transmitters in each area to make it possible for everyone to get terrestrial digital television.
It is strange that the one broadcaster which gains less, or little, from the switchover—in other words, the BBC—is being asked to pay the cost of the switchover through the licence fee. After all, those who have not switched to digital are likely to be loyal watchers of the two terrestrial BBC channels, and when they receive the greater choice offered to them even by terrestrial digital TV, some may no longer spend so long watching the BBC. The real beneficiaries are therefore the satellite and cable companies and, certainly by 2012, the mobile and landline telephone companies. They are helping to fund the upgrading of the terrestrial transmitters, but why are they not being asked to help those individuals who need help to make the switchover?
More importantly, we seem to be about to spend very large sums of money on upgrading analogue transmitters to digital, which will give those few people who still do not have some other form of television the right to receive terrestrial digital and nothing else. Even now, the technology has moved well beyond the limited capacity of terrestrial digital, which has little capacity for further development. It cannot be extended in any way. Even now, as we all know, satellite and cable services offer more TV channels, as well as the ability to record and store programmes, and services that allow viewers to look at programmes shown during the previous seven days. With companies such as BT and Tiscali, which for those who do not know was formerly Homechoice, now offering television down broadband telephone lines, we are already nearly at the stage where we will watch what we want to watch, when we want to watch it and, with wireless networks rapidly expanding, where we want to watch it.
For several years, I have been predicting that, as in Japan and South Korea already, television and other services will be delivered by broadband internet rather than by either aerial or satellite, not to a computer elsewhere in your house but to your television screen. If that is the case now, how much further will the technologies have developed by 2012, when the analogue services are finally switched off? Digital terrestrial television by then will be seen to be as out-dated as black and white television appears to us today. If we insist on making it the means by which those who have not switched to digital voluntarily by 2012 will receive digital television, we are likely to be creating two classes of viewers and it will be the elderly, those on disability benefits and the blind and partially sighted who will be the second-class citizens.
Satellite television is, as the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, said, available almost everywhere in the country. In fact, planning permission is about the only thing that stops somebody in this country from getting satellite television. Sky already provides to those who are prepared to pay for it a dish and a Freesat service which they then pay nothing else for. It provides more channels and has the capacity to be upgraded to subscription and pay-per-view channels if desired. The BBC is now going down that same route.
More than 90 per cent of homes also have telephone lines which again by 2012 could be providing a wide range of services, including a large selection of TV services. Again the basic box provided by Sky or BT or some other telephone company—or by 2012 a whole range of other suppliers—could be provided free under the Government’s help schemes, but users would have the capacity to upgrade if they so wished and in my view such a scheme would probably cost considerably less than the scheme we are proposing.
It would be in the commercial interest for telephone companies and satellite companies to provide these boxes free without asking the taxpayer to pay for them. If you take it that probably about 25 per cent of those who are given the free box will then seek to upgrade it to provide, for instance, sport—I can imagine many over 75 year-olds choosing to pay to watch rugby or football on television—I think the companies will gain commercially as a result.
Finally, if my noble friend is so concerned about getting his hands on the analogue spectrum, using either the telephone or cable systems or satellites would free up more analogue than he will get by insisting on using terrestrial television. While I support this limited Bill, I would ask that the Minister look at the whole scheme again to see how we could provide a better system cheaper.
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, who were invaluable members of the Select Committee of this House which looked at the BBC charter. I particularly agreed with some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton.
I think that this is a rather more controversial piece of legislation than the Minister suggests when he describes it as a modest measure. Let us take it for granted that we support the proposal to give help to some vulnerable groups in the process of digital switchover. I do not think there is any division on that. That is certainly my view and it was the view of the BBC Select Committee, which I chaired.
The quarrel—I think it is an important dispute—is about how this is all to be paid for. The main group to be helped are the over-75s. They are also the group helped by having the right to free television licences. So how is that policy for free television licences for the over-75s actually financed? Basically, the Department for Work and Pensions pays to the BBC the cost of the free licences; the BBC gives evidence to the department showing the number of free licences for the over-75s that it has given out and the department reimburses the BBC. It is a simple process which means, above all, that the concession is financed out of general taxation. It was therefore recognised from the start as welfare or social security legislation.
In the case of digital switchover, again, one of the main groups—perhaps the main group—being helped is the over-75s. As you look at the other groups in the Bill—do we help war pensioners or the partially sighted?—it seems again to underline the point that this is welfare legislation. Yet this time the Government have decreed that the licence fee payer and not the general taxpayer should finance the scheme. After all, that is the whole purpose of this legislation. This proposition was examined first by the BBC Select Committee of this House. It was then examined by the culture department Select Committee of the other House. On this we were totally united: we walked arm-in-arm on this issue. Both all-party Select Committees agreed that it was wrong to proceed down this path, but the Government have persisted, hence this legislation.
I do not claim that this policy was invented in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We all know that it was handed down to it by the Treasury, which has one purpose in this. It does not want to explicitly increase the tax take; it wants to hide the increase that is being made. It is a substantial sum—£600 million—provided that the Government’s estimate is correct. I cannot have been the only person who read the Secretary of State’s speech at Second Reading and wondered whether it would keep within that £600 million when she said that,
“the scheme will be demand-led and the precise costs will depend on assumptions that are made about the level of take-up, demographic changes and changes in the demand for benefits that take place over the lifetime of switchover. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the BBC, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury … Our best estimate at this stage is that the cost of the scheme will fall at around £600 million over the period”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/06; col. 1181.]
It seems to me that there were enough qualifications there to indicate that they may well be wrong.
I thought that the Minister made an important statement when—he will correct me if I am wrong—he assured us that if the cost goes over £600 million, that additional cost will be borne by the taxpayer. I think that that was the purpose of what he said; I see him nodding. I regard that at least as a step forward since we started debating this issue.
Let us go to the heart of this matter. Why is the proposition that the licence fee should bear the cost so objectionable? First and foremost, it is not what the licence fee is for. I support the licence fee, and so did the Select Committee, but we supported it so that the BBC could continue to make good programmes, to provide balanced news and, for example, to employ correspondents around the world. The BBC does that well, and its output compares favourably with any other programme-maker and news provider around the world. The licence fee is to sustain that purpose.
In my view, the licence fee is not there so that it can be raided by the Government for purposes which the Government should finance through general taxation. That is the input of my case, but of course I am not alone in saying that. The Select Committee in the other place said the same. The chairman of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, Jocelyn Hay, said that,
“what we do not think is right is that the BBC should bear the social costs of helping vulnerable viewers to access a highly desirable service which previously and normally would be paid for out of general taxation”.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it was also the view of BSkyB—not perhaps the most notable supporter of the BBC—which said:
“Again it seems perhaps slightly odd to ask for the licence fee payer to bear the costs associated with delivering that benefit”,
the benefit of the sale of analogue.
It was also at least half the view of Mr Michael Grade, then chairman of the BBC. Mr Grade’s name may not exactly be one to conjure with in the BBC at this moment—or, for that matter, in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—as it continues its long search for a new chairman. When Michael Grade gave evidence to us and said that,
“in agreeing with the Government to use the licence fee for that purpose, it is conditional that it is not so onerous that it brings into question, or increases resistance, to the licence fee. It is also a condition that we must not be in a position where, in using the licence fee for this targeted help purpose, we have to cut services in order to meet the requirement”,
we can take it that he was speaking for a substantial number of people at the BBC. I imagine that the reservations he expressed to the Select Committee have been underlined further since the licence fee settlement, which has not necessarily been applauded throughout the BBC itself.
There is a substantial sum of £600 million to be covered here; this will be loaded on to the licence fee. As BSkyB rightly pointed out, this is in the context of the Government making a substantial profit from the sale of now-freed analogue to companies providing everything from mobile telephones to radio-controlled taxis. Estimates of the proceeds to the Treasury vary, but they are unlikely to be less than £1 billion and could be £2 billion or £3 billion. The Treasury has it both ways: it offloads the cost on to the licence fee and keeps the profit from the sale of analogue. It is nice work if you can get it; the trouble is that the Treasury can get it and is getting it.
I fear that loading such costs as those in this Bill on to the licence fee brings the licence fee into some disrepute. I support the licence fee for its BBC programme-making purpose. It is not designed as a general tax. By its very nature it is regressive and everyone understands that it is regressive. The Government are here using the licence fee as a tax. That is to the disadvantage of the BBC, whose programme-making and news delivery is therefore reduced, and to the disadvantage of the public, who do not want to see their money used for purposes that should be covered by the Treasury. That part of the Bill should be very strongly disputed as we go forward.
My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend for miscalculating the start time of this debate, and to the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, for appearing halfway through his words. This Bill is necessary because of the Government’s decision to go for a mandatory rolling programme of switchover. There are things that one could say about that. I partially agree with my noble friend Lord Maxton about the timing, given the technological possibilities down the line. The decision has been made and we therefore need to provide for helping some people switch over and for the arising data protection issues.
I will touch on those issues, but I want to use the Second Reading context to say some wider things about the digital switchover and its impact. I declare a general interest as chair of the National Consumer Council, although not everything I will say is necessarily in line with its policy. My first point concerns the issue of consumer awareness, which has not been much touched on, although it is key. In one sense you could argue that a lot of people, at least in general terms, are aware of digital switchover and are buying digital televisions. At least one set is digital in most households. The recent work of Digital UK and others in raising awareness is ongoing. But the full impact and cost of so doing to individual households has not been fully realised. In recent years, people have replaced their televisions roughly every seven, eight, nine or 10 years, due to the reliability of television technology. That means that people who bought a television two or three years ago, when it could not possibly be digital—or, at the very least, they would be paying a huge premium to get a digital television—are going to have to replace it much earlier.
The argument is made that it is only the cost of the digibox that each household will have to face, but there are two problems with that. First, most households have more than one television, especially households with children. Regrettable or not, most children have a TV in their bedroom, which will not be sorted out by a single digibox in the front room. Secondly, it is a fact to which I can attest myself that not all digiboxes work that well. There may be aerial or location problems—and there are some problems with the quality of digital tuning in any case. So the promised improvement in reception is not necessarily there and in any case will cost households rather more than the figure of £45 to £50 that has been put around.
There has also been some confusion about labelling. I appreciate that there has been some considerable improvement by retailers and manufacturers—at least, leading retailers—in recent years. Only a few months ago, it was quite difficult to distinguish which sets were digitally compatible and which were not. Even now, because three pieces of technology are changing at the same time, with the switch to digital, the offer of high definition and plasma screens, there is a lot of confusion about labelling, advertising and pricing of the various sets. A lot of people remain confused. I do not think that the Government have faced up to the possible public backlash against the switchover because of that confusion or additional cost.
I shall add another point, wearing my environmental hat. The technology of audio-visual equipment and IT equipment are rapidly merging, but both have the unfortunate side effect that the new generation is more consumptive of CO2 than was the past generation. That is in contrast to other areas of consumer goods such as white goods or automobiles, with which substantial technological changes have reduced the carbon take. If we genuinely want sustainable consumption and to ensure that consumers, when so motivated, can make greener choices in buying fridges and cars, the manufacturers need at least to be encouraged to provide less environmentally expensive new generation TV sets and a default to off rather than to stand-by.
My third point relates to issues raised by the right reverend Prelate as well as the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, and others, about people who live in council blocks, with social or private landlords, when the landlord is negotiating with the provider to provide the facility in their estate or block. I declare an indirect interest as the spouse of a lessee. But whether they are councils, ALMOs, stock transfer companies or social or private landlords, they are already making decisions about what deal they are going to do with which provider. For the individual flat owner or tenant, there is no choice of platform—that has already been decided for him. The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, referred to one London borough which is already assessing the cost and passing it on to its tenants and lessees. So not only is there no choice but the cost is substantially much higher than that quoted for the individual household outside such estates or flats. In that London borough, the service charge to lessees will be £300 and the cost to tenants will be £1 or £2 a week for a period of four or five years. That adds up to a lot more than £45 to £50.
That borough is assuring those tenants who are on housing benefit that housing benefit will increase to cover the charge. Is that the case? If it is, that is an additional cost. I assume that the BBC will not be administering housing benefit as well as its other new duties. It could be quite a substantial cost, since well over half the tenants on most council estates and quite a number of lessees are entitled to housing benefit. Those households are not necessarily in the digital switchover support scheme for whom this Bill provides the ability to require information and the associated data protection provisions—the over-75s and the disabled. If it is the case, is there an estimate of the cost of increasing housing benefit? If not, that is an additional cost on people who are almost by definition low-income groups and disadvantaged. By no means are all of them in the categories that the Bill is designed to protect.
That brings me to my final point: the way we are financing switchover. That has been expounded well, and at greater length than I intend, by my noble friend Lord Maxton and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. I am a great supporter of the BBC. I am glad to see the proposal in the press this morning about the BBC providing a Freeview platform as a rival to other providers. I hope that it comes off. In debates about the future of the BBC, I always try to preserve its rights and support the licence fee. While there may be organisations that are better at administering social security and welfare provision than the DWP, I doubt very much that even the strongest supporter of the BBC would feature it among them. It is an abuse of the licence fee, which is essentially a poll tax for a given service, for part of the welfare programme to be raised in that way. At the very least, I would hope that the Minister could give the assurance for which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, asked; that if the costs go over £600 million then that will not be charged again to the BBC. Even as it is, it has distorted two things. It has distorted the BBC’s priorities in terms of what licence fee is defensible and it has distorted what the public who pay the licence fee think of the BBC. That £600 million does not relate to its programme-making capacity; it relates to something which ought to be a function of central government, funded by direct taxation.
While I recognise the necessity for the Bill, I have severe reservations about the whole programme. I am concerned about the impact on lower-income groups in social housing and other situations, where decisions are taken above their heads and the choice of platform does not exist. I am also concerned about the basis of funding.
My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for being late for his opening remarks, I was attending a memorial service in the Guards Chapel. I am sure he will understand that I was unable to leave before the sovereign, even to come to listen to a speech as important as the one the Minister made. I hope that he and the House will accept my apologies.
Digital switchover will bring significant benefits to this country by giving consumers more choice, better quality and greater interactivity while at the same time freeing up spectrum for other uses. However, the Government have serious questions to answer about how switchover is going to happen. I hope that the Minister will be able answer some of them today.
First, what will be the cost of switchover? The Minister in another place estimated that it will cost £600 million but failed to explain how the Government arrived at that figure. Experience has taught us that we need to take DCMS estimates with a rather large pinch of salt. After all, this is the department that forgot to factor VAT into the Olympic budget, which now looks to cost at least three times more than we thought. I am sure the Minister will understand when I say that we need to see the details of how those costs were arrived at. They are much lower than the BBC’s original estimate.
Given that the sale of the released spectrum could raise between £1 and £3 billion at auction, as pointed out by my noble friend Lord Fowler, can the Minister explain why some of this money, which is effectively a windfall tax, will not go to meeting the cost of switchover? Perhaps he can also say whether he believes that estimate of between £1 billion and £3 billion is right, and if not, what the figure may be.
The Government intend to pay the cost by increasing the licence fee. As we know, that licence fee is now regarded as a tax, so the BBC is in effect taxing its consumers. However, none of the money released by the sale of spectrum is going back to help with that process. Who will oversee the way in which the BBC uses that money? Does the Minister believe that my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising was right that the process should be subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office? That is important because the BBC is going to contract out much of the day-to-day management of the operations of the switchover help scheme, so third parties will be doing that. Who will audit that process?
The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, talked about Scotland. Broadcasting is a reserved matter in Scotland, so I presume the Scottish Parliament will be responsible for introducing its own legislation. Will it keep the receipts from the sale of spectrum in Scotland? What will happen if that spectrum covers both England and Scotland?
There is the issue of old analogue televisions. There will be a flood of new televisions and new set-top boxes, which will mean that a lot of old ones will be thrown out. What are the rules going to be? Will they have to be disposed of separately, and if so what arrangements have been made with local authorities? I presume that there may be EU rules covering that. It is important that a television mountain does not replace the recent fridge mountain.
On the £600 million of help for the over-75s and the vulnerable, there will be a massive pooling of information from government departments. All that information will be available to the BBC, which already since 2000 has had access to social security data. It will also be available to any “relevant” body engaged by the BBC or by the Secretary of State. What safeguards will there be? For example, what happens if someone feels that the information held on them is wrong? Will they be able to use the rules or laws under data protection or freedom of information to have access to and to correct erroneous information? Help will be available to people receiving benefits. As we know, many people go on and off benefits quickly; it is a fluid situation. There are also people who are denied benefits who successfully appeal, but the appeal process can take many months. What system will there be to catch those people and make sure that they do not fall out of the net? It is very important that all those who are eligible will get help.
On coverage, we have heard that at switch-off there may be up to 2.5 million households not ready to receive digital signals. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that. If that is right, is that figure not too high? If it is, what figure for take-up do the Government believe there should be before switch-off? Do they have an estimate? About 1.5 per cent of the population, the same as for analogue now, will not be able to receive the terrestrial digital signal. What will those households do? Will they get it via satellite or down the telephone? Do the Government have any idea how that would work? The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said that he thought by then the telephone lines would be able to receive anything. What planning have the Government made for those people who will not be able to receive a terrestrial digital signal?
As has been mentioned recently, when the Treasury reaps its digital rewards from the sales, which will include the wireless spectrum, that will include frequencies that are currently in use in theatres and concerts. If all that spectrum is sold to the highest bidder by Ofcom, it will probably go to the mobile telephone companies. That could be a disaster for theatres, as they will lose out. It could also affect the coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. Can the Minister assure us that Ofcom will be able to take all factors into account when selling spectrum, not just the highest bid? Otherwise, we may need to table an amendment to the Bill.
The cost of switchover for an average household, by the department’s own estimate, will be between £80 and £570. That is a large difference. An increase seven times greater than £80 does not exactly inspire confidence in the analysis of the figures prepared by the Government. However, the rewards will be great. There will be a greater choice of channels, better picture and sound reception and interactive services that will benefit many from the very young to the elderly at home.
I welcome the Bill. However, if it is to have a speedy passage through this House, the Minister will need to answer a number of questions.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the purpose and aims of the Bill so clearly.
It is an important Bill, which will allow the Government to proceed with digital switchover and, crucially, as we have heard today, target assistance for the most vulnerable. It will allow data to be made available so that the Government can go ahead with a package of help for such people. We on these Benches welcome the principle of the Bill and the benefits that switchover will bring; namely, as mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, more TV channels and programmes, enhanced reception quality and more efficient use of spectrum.
However, we have concerns about where we are in the process; the methods and means mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton; the fact that very limited information appears to be available; and the fact that much of that information is still not finalised. Switchover was first discussed in 1999—almost eight years ago. Why has it taken so long to reach the point at which we are today? Why, when the Bill has already been through another place, do we still not have all the details about the proposed help scheme?
The Government have decided that the BBC will administer the scheme as part of the new royal charter, agreement and licence fee settlement. However, as the Minister told us at the beginning of this debate, the BBC will not deliver the scheme on the ground. That function will be contracted out. As we can see from the Explanatory Notes on Clause 1,
“the exact structure has not yet been finally determined”.
Is not this getting close to brinksmanship?
Can we be assured that when the agreement with the BBC is finally reached, we shall receive the details? Is it not the case that unless decisions are made very soon, there will be no time to implement the scheme properly before it starts in the Borders in 2008? Is it not the case that the Whitehaven scheme, scheduled to start this autumn, will not, for example, use the same equipment as that likely to be used elsewhere? Is this a sensible way in which to proceed?
The Government are still in discussion with the BBC about its exact role. Due to what the BBC Trust called a challenging licence fee settlement, it
“is seeking further reassurance from the Government that involvement with the scheme will not impact on the BBC’s programmes and services”.
Will the Minister reassure the House that the trust will receive those reassurances, that should matters go awry, the BBC will not in effect be left to carry the can, and that the Secretary of State, not the licence fee payers, will pick up any extra bill?
Together with everyone who has spoken across the House today, we would argue that the licence fee payer should not fund the scheme at all. However, under the Bill’s proposals, not only will the BBC oversee this targeted help scheme but it will be funded through the licence fee, thus distorting its function, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said.
I know that the Secretary of State’s view is that it is a broadcasting cost; it is not. As your Lordships have heard from so many, as with free TV licences for the over-75s, it is dictated by government social policy, and the Government should pay. The Government have set a figure of £600 million for the scheme, but we do not know how that figure has been arrived at. The limited scope of the Bill means that it appears to be impossible to clarify who exactly will be helped. It has emerged from answers to a range of parliamentary Questions that the number of people who will need help is growing. During the past year, it rose from 5 million to an estimated 7.1 million people. Obviously, this has cost implications. Like the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, I was glad to hear from the Minister that the £600 million will be ring-fenced.
I make a final point on the BBC’s role. Why, if it is to contract out the implementation of the scheme, does it need access to the detailed information that this Bill will provide? The agents on the ground need the detail; aggregate figures should be sufficient for the BBC. As the Minister anticipated, we would like to see a sunset clause designed to address our concern that information released should not be kept longer than needed.
The Government intend to introduce switchover region by region, starting with Whitehaven this autumn, as I mentioned. Switchover assistance will apparently be available in each region eight months before the final transmitter in a given region switches over—or the date on which a transmitter serving the individual switches over—and one month after. In other words, the Bill dies a month after the switchover period in each region. Can the Minister clarify when that one-month period begins? What happens to someone who moves during the process; for example, the old lady who leaves London in 2009, before it switches over, but moves to the Borders after the process there has finished? Is she entitled to any assistance and, if not, why not? For this same reason, these Benches do not support the belief of the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, that there should be a sunset clause region by region. We shall no doubt return to both these issues in more detail in Grand Committee.
I will not repeat the arguments that were so eloquently made, but these Benches share the concern expressed across the House about those in rented accommodation. I am particularly intrigued by the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, about those on housing benefit. I look forward to hearing the answer to that.
We welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the issue raised by my honourable friends in another place, the Member for Chesterfield and the Member for Bath, and have amended the Bill to enable the help scheme contractor to have access to information held by local authorities and health and social services boards on people registered blind and partially sighted. This will mean that those not over 75 and not on benefits, and so not registered with the Department for Work and Pensions, will not fall through the net and that, in accordance with the advice that the Minister told us the Government received, the contractor can proactively contact them. Thanks to this amendment, 60,000 blind and partially sighted people will now be eligible for assistance. We also congratulate the Government on ensuring that the information they receive will be in appropriate forms: Braille, large print and so on.
We are pleased that the process will be platform neutral; that people can choose how they wish to get their digital channels, but I was interested in the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, in that regard. The announcement yesterday that the BBC Trust has approved BBC management’s proposal to develop and launch Freesat is welcome news and is an additional means of offering licence fee payers free access to digital services.
Finally, we welcome assurances received from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for broadcasting in another place that this will be a fluid process and that lessons learnt along the way will be acted upon. He said:
“We do not want to close the door on that process at any point”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/07; col. 37.]
This seems an eminently sensible way to proceed with such a complex and huge project. I look forward to Grand Committee.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke. They succeeded in worrying me that we will have an intensive Committee stage on this modest little Bill. However, given the nature of your Lordships’ House, I was prepared for some trenchant points.
The debate got off to a vigorous start. The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, offered an alternative proposal for tackling switchover and helping those categories that we have defined as requiring help.
The noble Lord provided an alternative perspective of some significance, and he repudiated in some ways what the Bill states. For instance, he—and, I think, one or two other noble Lords—doubted whether my assertion that the Bill had written into it a sunset clause on information was satisfactory. He will be proposing a schedule to give greater definition to that. We will have time to debate that, and I am open-minded about constructive suggestions wherever they come from, particularly the opposition Front Bench.
We are all too well aware that we are dealing with sensitive information for a specific purpose against a fairly obvious timescale. Within that framework, the Bill provides the equivalent of a sunset clause by providing closure on that. Although we will discuss the matter further, I recognise the noble Lord’s rightly expressed anxiety.
The noble Lord asked other questions some of which, even at this early stage, I might be able to answer—I expect to be under greater pressure in Committee to answer certain questions. We are committed to the concept and the principle of providing support that is platform-neutral. The noble Lord asked whether claimants would get a free satellite service if no terrestrial service was available, and the answer is yes. We recognise the necessity of ensuring that people are treated fairly and equally, wherever they are. My noble friend Lord Maxton raised some rather more extensive issues than that. I will come on to those points in a moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Howard, asked some general questions about service provision. As far as the Government are concerned, this is a crucial principle in this legislation. At this stage, I can only acknowledge that the noble Lord disagrees with the Government’s approach to some of these problems. I have no doubt that he will articulate his position with great fervour in Committee and I will listen carefully to what he has to say. However, he will also recognise that the Bill represents a series of clear decisions by the Government. We hope to defend our structure and will seek to do that in Committee, when these issues can be debated more intensively.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester asked about the degree to which the help scheme could be extended to low-income families. He also mentioned that over-65s may need the same consideration as over-75s. I recognise the right reverend Prelate’s excellent motivation in seeking to extend help to the deserving wherever he identifies them. He will appreciate that the Government must draw lines on certain aspects of help and defend their position on the grounds of cost. In my opening contribution I referred to the simple reason why we emphasise the need for help to the over-75s; namely, that the take-up of digital among the over-75s is very low in comparison with the general population. It is about 45 per cent, whereas among the general population the figure is well over 70 per cent. The over-65s are very close to that figure. While we can clearly see a problem with the older age group, we are not able to identify a major barrier to the over-65s keeping up with the rest of the population. That is why we have identified that figure.
The national take-up rate of 79 per cent is almost matched by lower-income households, where 74 per cent have already gone digital. That goes to show the point that underlies the whole approach to the funding of the BBC and the significance of the role of the BBC. I might also add to that other television services; they mean a great deal to our citizens. That is why, even on very limited budgets, people are prepared to meet very considerable, obvious costs to be able to participate, like the rest of the nation, which shows that television provides for a range of obvious needs.
I have no doubt that the right reverend Prelate will press me on this in Committee and that we shall debate it further. He will recognise that the Government have drawn a line for very good reasons. He was the first to advance the point, which I anticipated that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, would put with his usual perception and strength, about whether additional cost might impact on the BBC programme budget. I can give a categorical reassurance that we do not intend that to happen. If there are costs beyond the £600 million that has been identified, we intend that they will be analysed separately and come out of the public purse, so that they do not affect the planning, programme budgeting and other aspects of the BBC which are contained at present. There was scarcely a contribution to the debate that did not at some stage raise this very important point; the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, also raised it. I want to reassure all noble Lords on that cardinal point.
I was grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his testimony from the British Legion. Of course, we have been in widespread consultation with all groups that have a perspective on the needs of the over-75s and others, so I am grateful for the point that he made—that the Bill will be welcomed. I do not have the slightest doubt that the assistance that we intend to give will not only be welcomed among those who receive it—and among those close to them who recognise the need—but will also be an essential dimension against costs that are being thrust on people as switchover occurs and as the old analogue sets will no longer be capable of receiving the signal.
My noble friend Lord Maxton, as ever, anticipated that I would not follow him very closely down the route of technological change. I shall not do so, save to say that we are platform neutral on this assistance. We do not think that the technological change will move with quite the rapidity that he advances in his more optimistic vein, but the obvious point is that people will receive broadcasting signals—radio and television—through very different technologies compared with the present broadcasting mechanism. That is already going on to a limited extent. It will move apace, but we have a very real challenge with regard to terrestrial television. The Bill starts by addressing the switch from analogue to digital. I bear in mind that other dimensions will have to be taken into account, and have no doubt that the noble Lord will press these points upon me in Committee.
I am afraid that I cannot quite follow the noble Lord on Scottish local authorities. If he were right and I were wrong, I would currently be shuddering at the Dispatch Box. I would worry about nothing more than the consequences of devolution upon this kind of broadcasting strategy, and the Bill being caught athwart the issues of Scotland’s reserved powers. First, these are reserved powers on broadcasting. Legislation on the information that local authorities may give about their blind and partially sighted citizens is permissive. Whether they participate or not is therefore entirely their decision; no enforcement is involved. Local authorities are therefore not an issue, and I am not going to run foul of his worst fears that, in broadcasting, we are caught up with the proper powers of the Scottish Assembly. Far be it from me to raise the issues of the Scottish Assembly at this juncture, in the context of this modest little Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, identified an important issue, which we must investigate in Committee to some degree. He will recognise that we take seriously whether certain tenants could be exploited because of the charges in force; the charges might be defrayed by housing benefit, but if that were not available individuals would suffer grievously. We will have to work through the details with the noble Lord in Committee. I do not have many technical answers to his point at this stage, except to say that we would worry about the success of the scheme if what he has identified—and I have no reason to doubt his information—proves to be a real problem. Because of the technical nature of his question, and because I am currently singularly ill-equipped to meet it, I shall not write to him, as suggested in my notes—that would be otiose at this stage—but expect that we can discuss the issues in Committee. I have no doubt that he has raised something of great interest to all interested in the Bill. There is no question that we would have to get help and support right if there were a development exploiting the switchover to particular pecuniary advantage, leaving some of our fellow citizens considerably worse off. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising his point, and apologise for not being able to respond in great detail today. He will recognise its significance, and must give me a little time to worry about it further.
Several noble Lords—including the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler—indicated that because the scheme involved additional, and a different kind of, expenditure by the BBC, it would be subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office. We had an intense debate on the whole question of the licence fee, and noble Lords opposite will recognise our principle on this. They are quite properly addressing themselves to the scrutiny of the scheme’s operation. I want to respond to the demands of noble Lords that we should proceed with some flexibility, and learn aspects as we go along. It would be extraordinary to think that all aspects of a scheme of this complexity had been fully covered at this point, but the issue of the role of the National Audit Office in relation to the BBC raises wider issues of principle. We have discussed those in the past, and I am not prepared to concede that point.
My Lords, the Minister implied that he objects to any role of the National Audit Office with regard to the BBC. Does he accept that it already has such a role regarding the BBC with the World Service, which is funded by the Foreign Office? It does not seem to be a problem there, and the department does not regard that as giving it any interference in any form of broadcasting control.
My Lords, the noble Viscount has, with his usual astuteness, identified the one area where the NAO has a role. Of course he will also recognise that as a particular funding mechanism for the BBC, outwith the licence fee arrangements. However, I hear what has been said, and no doubt he will press me in Committee. I will seek to respond as constructively as I can on that occasion, but he ought not to hold his breath on the basis of success in persuading me of that argument—at this stage, at least.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, asked specifically why the BBC will need the amount of data that the Bill identifies. In practice, the BBC will not get information if the scheme is run by a separate operator. There may be circumstances, however, where the BBC may need to get involved; for example, if the main scheme operator had to be removed. So, while the BBC stands as the responsible body charged with successful implementation of the scheme, we do not anticipate that in the contractual arrangements.
There was a question about some aspect of the costs involved in those, but I am not able to go into detail as contracts have not been signed on the matter. Yet the BBC would potentially need to get involved if there were contractor failure—something that we hope would not happen. Otherwise, we see the situation as one in which the terms being drawn up for the contractor are such that they guarantee the security of this information within the framework of the Bill. As I have emphasised all along, that information would solely be in relation to this scheme and would come to an end the moment that the scheme ended.
We have had a useful and interesting debate that portends an interesting Committee. I have already identified one or two areas where I recognise that I will be pressed quite vigorously. If my answers this afternoon have not been totally comprehensive, it is merely because some of the points raised have been so detailed that we will need to listen most carefully in Committee, and respond then as constructively as we can. I look forward to that Committee.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.
House adjourned at 5.44 pm.