I am supposed to say what we should do if there is a Division, but I do not think that there will be one.
Clause 1 [Disclosure of information]:
1: Clause 1 , page 1, line 2, after “may” insert “, before 17th October 2007 and thereafter”
The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 and 3. I suppose that you could call this group of amendments the Whitehaven amendments. Their purpose is to ensure that those living in Whitehaven—the area that will begin the digital switchover process—are entitled to the help scheme in the same way as the rest of the country. This is a probing amendment that ensures that information about social security entitlements, war pensions and visual impairment is disclosed at the very least before 17 October 2007, which is the date on which switchover will begin in Whitehaven. That date was announced on Thursday, 15 March 2007. Should the Bill receive a speedy passage through Parliament, it should be possible to disclose all the information necessary for people to be entitled to the digital help scheme in Whitehaven before that date.
My colleagues in the other place—in particular, my honourable friend Paul Holmes—raised this issue. They were concerned that there was a danger that people in Whitehaven would lose as the criteria for help had not been made clear, because the Bill is yet to be passed. There is also the danger that people who move to Whitehaven after switchover may not receive any help.
I seek the Minister’s assurance that in that area help will reach all the elderly, disabled or low income households that need it, when they need it. We still do not have many details about how much the Whitehaven switchover will cost; there are still some imponderables there. Perhaps the Minister could give the necessary assurances about the beginning of the switchover process. I beg to move.
I assure the noble Lord and the Committee that Whitehaven is the crucial location and that the date in the legislation, which we hope will receive Royal Assent, is determined by the fact that we want to meet exactly the points that he identified. It is important that we have everything in place for the switchover date for Whitehaven and Copeland, and we intend to do that.
I thank the Minister for that assurance. I hope that this afternoon we will be paragons of virtue and give speedy consideration to the amendments, which will allow the date to be met. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]
4: Clause 1 , page 1, line 13, at end insert—
“( ) The Secretary of State shall publish and lay before Parliament a list of relevant persons.
( ) The Secretary of State shall re-issue the list biennially.”
The noble Viscount said: This amendment, which relates to Clause 1(4) , is about the phrase “relevant person”—or perhaps we should say “relevant people”, since the provisions are in the plural. The reason for the amendment—it is largely a probing amendment—is that subsection (4) is very widely drawn. A “relevant person” can be “the BBC”—or anyone in it—
“the Secretary of State, or … a nominee”,
which means a company that the Secretary of State or the BBC controls. Clause 1 (4)(c) refers to “any person” engaged by them, which covers a wide range of people—it could cover almost anybody. Our concern is that the “relevant person” will have access to all sorts of confidential information, such as someone’s social security status, whether they are employed or unemployed, are in receipt of benefits or receive a war pension. The “relevant person” will know far more about people and their circumstances than would usually be the case because the information will cross over to a number of government departments.
The Government should keep a record of the relevant person who has access to this information. The more people who have access, the more chance of the whole system leaking. Unless we know who they are and how they are operating, the wrong kind of people will have access to the information. There is real scope for information to leak out, which could be extremely detrimental to those involved. I realise that later in the Bill there are various safeguards about information, but those safeguards are somewhat irrelevant if virtually anybody nominated by the BBC or, in effect, anybody nominated by a company where the BBC might control 51 per cent, but does not control day-to-day operations, can come into the scope of that information.
I am concerned because it will open the door to information about people’s circumstances that is normally kept in the hands of one department. It will be pooled by a number of departments and will be open to possible misuse. I beg to move.
I support the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. Many of the amendments tabled are about trying to be more specific about aspects of the help scheme. That is why we have tabled an attempt at a sunrise clause. There is a paucity of information, which is one of the problems with a Bill that is essentially a framework, with the rest being filled in by regulation. That will no doubt give the Government greater flexibility, but there are dangers, as the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said. The Government should carefully consider whether to fill in more details before reaching the appointed day.
We would certainly be only too happy to fill in additional details if we thought them necessary. We think that the amendment is defective in a number of ways, but I do not want to discuss the details because the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, would only put that right on Report. I want to give him the assurances that he seeks, which I hope will render the amendment unnecessary.
We envisage that the BBC will not need access to data disclosed in this Bill. We envisage that a single main scheme contractor will be appointed, with responsibility to safeguard these details. That might change, of course, if one of the operator’s partners were to lead in managing the contact centre operations and fulfilment process, or if the operator was acquired in a takeover, merger or de-merger.
The details would need to be safeguarded but within the framework of a single main scheme contractor, to which no one in the BBC would be privy. It would be neither its responsibility nor its need as it would have contracted-out this operation. The BBC will come into the picture if the arrangements of the scheme or operator need to be terminated.
The OJEU notice issued at the end of January sets out the preference for a single end-to-end operator who will have sole responsibility for the data. Therefore, in asking for a list, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is asking for a very short list indeed—the single operator.
The Bill permits only someone engaged by the BBC or a company where the BBC or a nominee or the Secretary of State or a nominee has at least a 51 per cent shareholding to be regarded as the relevant person. As we think there will be one scheme, by definition the number of relevant persons will be very limited. The scheme operator is not yet known, but there must be a direct relationship between the BBC, the Secretary of State or both with the scheme operator. The relevant person cannot be a sub-contractor, but must be the direct operator. If we had made the appointment, I would be able to tell the noble Viscount who that person will be, but individuals are not specified in legislation, only their function. The noble Viscount is anxious about what we all recognise as important confidential information, and we are seeking to ensure that it is the responsibility of a very limited number of persons.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but it raises as many questions as it answers. If I heard him correctly, he said that the BBC will not hold the information directly. Following the logic of that argument, one could delete Clause 1(4)(a) because there will be a company in which the BBC or the Secretary of State or their nominee holds at least 51 per cent.
Clause 1(4)(c) states,
“any person who is engaged by the BBC”.
Does that mean any relevant person or does it mean any other person? It is not clear who is being referred to because one company will undertake this process.
The BBC is mentioned in case the scheme needs to be terminated. We have to have provision for action on its part but, providing that the scheme operates successfully, we do not envisage the information being made available to the BBC because it is not germane to the purposes of the scheme. The reason why we have to have a provision for the BBC potentially to have access to the information is in case things go wrong and the single operator has its contract terminated or is subject to a takeover or there are changes in the arrangements.
We are talking about the position of the scheme contractor. When the phrase “any person” is used in legislation, it does not mean any inhabitant of the United Kingdom; it means a person who is, by definition, the relevant person in terms of the legislation. The noble Viscount is being literal when I am asking him to be parliamentary when he looks at the legislation.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response. It seems to me that this clause is not drafted quite as precisely as it should be, and I should definitely like to come back at the next stage and improve it. As the Minister is far more expert than I am when it comes to drafting, perhaps he will consider inserting the word “relevant” in paragraph (c), so that it reads “any relevant person” as opposed to “any person”, as that might satisfy some of our concerns. I suggest that the drafting could be better.
I will read with care what the Minister said about the contractor. I was not terribly convinced by it but I am sure that, when I come to study it, it will be more illuminating. No doubt before we get to the next stage, the Minister will, with his usual courtesy, make himself available to explain anything that I have not understood. However, I am grateful for his response and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, at end insert—
“( ) A local authority may, at the request of a relevant person, supply a relevant person with dwelling information for use (by the person to whom it is supplied or another relevant person) in connection with switchover help functions.”
The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment, which seeks to establish what plans Her Majesty’s Government have for ensuring that eligible people living in multiple dwellings are not left behind in the digital switchover due to inadequate rooftop aerials and other associated problems. I declare an interest as chairman of the trustees of the Hospital of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Castle Rising, which is a multiple dwelling.
Provision for multiple dwellings has been entirely ignored in the Bill, yet about 20 per cent of the population, or around 6 million households, are in multiple-occupancy dwellings. The majority of these households are managed by a private landlord, managing agent or social housing provider and will not be covered by local councils.
At an all-party meeting a few weeks ago, the Minister in another place acknowledged that multiple dwellings will prove a difficult hurdle to overcome. I should be grateful if the Minister could inform noble Lords what action will be taken to encourage housing providers in the private sector to undertake the necessary work to communal aerials and related issues to ensure that their tenants are able to switch to digital television. Can the Minister possibly take that further and commit to ensuring that those living in multiple dwellings who are entitled to help under the scheme will be provided with adequate help? The amendment is purely probing. I have tabled it to give the Minister the opportunity to place on the record the Government’s plans, if any such plans exist, to lessen that difficulty as far as possible. I beg to move.
We do not have any problems with the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, and it would appear to be very helpful for the scheme operator and Digital UK to have the information that he mentioned so that help can be tailored and efforts made with landlords to bring systems up to date. Indeed, Digital UK is using data gleaned from the British Market Research Bureau study to build up a nationwide picture of progress by social sector landlords and larger private sector landlords.
The Bill deals with the disclosure of personal information about individuals. Following amendments made in another place, it now covers powers for local authorities to disclose personal information about blind and partially sighted people.
The amendment would cover information that local authorities keep about all dwellings—and could probably, in most cases, disclose without restriction—subject to issues of cost. Indeed, the research carried out by the DCMS collected this information from local authorities and registered social landlords.
For that reason, I hope that the noble Lord will agree that the amendment is not necessary. However, the points about access to information on the status of communal TV system upgrading are well made and will be not only carefully considered but acted on.
We can certainly give the noble Lord assurances that the scheme operator working with Digital UK will seek out this information, where available, to help to ensure that the risk of beneficiaries living in flats and other multi-dwelling units being inconvenienced is minimised as far as possible.
If I may interrupt at this point, I and several other noble Lords touched on this at Second Reading. I simply seek clarification about the difference between public housing, with its communal aerial systems, and social housing, where the costs may fall on people in a way that they would not in public housing. I may not have picked up properly what was said.
We are encouraging landlords to work in partnership with residents and be sensitive to their needs and concerns and go ahead and make the necessary changes in good time for switchover in the regions where they operate. There are a range of legal protections against excessive increases in service charges—for example, Section 19 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, which provides that landlords can take into account only relevant costs in determining the amount of service charge to the extent that they reasonably occur. The important assurance that the right reverend Prelate wants is that people who are socially deprived will not in any way be penalised by this Bill, and we can give that assurance.
I thank the Minister. We should remember that in certain multiple occupations, some will be entitled to help and others will not. There should be some method for landlords to make application, or tenants who are not entitled to help may bear a disproportionate amount of the cost, which may cause resentment and problems within those multiple dwellings. It could be most severe in the case of small places, where there are a lot of old people. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
6: Clause 1 , page 1, line 15, leave out paragraph (a)
The noble Lord said: The reasons I am keen to move this amendment is that we on these Benches feel rather strongly about this issue. These amendments, which refer to the deletion of the BBC in Clause 1, started life as Liberal Democrat amendments in the other place. I want some rationale from the Government that goes further than we got on Second Reading—at which I was unfortunately not able to be present—about why the Government believe that licence-fee payers should have to pay for digital switchover.
The Minister was clearly on the record at Second Reading as saying that the costs to the BBC—to licence-fee payers—were clearly capped at £600 million, so I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. But the rationale as to why the licence-fee payer should even pay that £600 million and not the taxpayer eludes me and many of my colleagues. Indeed, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was particularly eloquent on the subject. He said:
“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 …we were totally united: we walked arm-in-arm on this issue”.—[Official Report, 28/2/07; col. 1520.]
The absolute consensus is completely against having the licence fee payer do this.
It may well be that the poor old DCMS has been heavied by the Treasury, as ever—I suspect that that is the case. As the Minister has made clear—and that is why his answers to the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, were so revealing—the BBC is frankly quite unnecessary in this Bill except for the purpose of paying the bill. That is all it is. Everything else can be done by the contractor, which will do the necessary. All that the BBC is there for is to pay the money over to the contractor—the £600 million or more.
We have not seen any form of justification for having the BBC being involved as it is, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s rationale as to why the BBC was ever brought into this in the first place. There is no satisfactory precedent for this, although I suspect that the Minister will start talking about colour television, but that is not on all fours at all with this major switchover, which should be borne out of general taxation. I beg to move.
My Amendment No. 10 is grouped with the noble Lord’s amendment, although it is on a slightly different issue; but I agree with much of what the noble Lord has said.
My amendment is a probing amendment about the company to be set up either by the BBC or the Secretary of State and the idea that it would hold 51 per cent of the shares. Could the Minister be a bit more revealing? Under an earlier amendment, he mentioned the fact that they hoped to have one company rather than a multitude of them, and he intimated that some progress had been made. Can he tell us a little more about that? Will the company be funded by either the BBC or the Secretary of State? Will it be funded by the 49 per cent shareholder or do the Government still think that it will be 51 per cent? The clause says “at least 51 per cent”. What progress have the Government made? According to the Minister’s earlier answers, this company will be entirely responsible for the whole thing, so we need to know the Government’s thinking on how it will operate and whether they have made any progress in identifying who it will be. I refer the Minister back to a question that I posed earlier when he said that the BBC was necessary in case the company got taken over. The one issue that he did not address is that it is difficult for a company to be taken over if the Government or the BBC own 51 per cent of the shares.
I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to this interesting group of amendments, although they raise a cardinal point that we seem to have discussed on the Floor of the House on a number of occasions, not least at Second Reading. I recall that when we discussed the whole issue of licence arrangements, we went fully into the question of who should be responsible for switchover. It is a division of principle between us, and I am not sure that at this stage I am in a position to identify fresh arguments on this.
It is clear that digital switchover, as all noble Lords recognise, is a much more significant task than any previous transitions, such as going from black and white to colour. All equipment that is not adapted for digital services will become obsolete at the point of switchover, which has never been the case before, when signals have continued to be received by households even if they have not converted to any new technology.
Our strategy since 2001 has been based on a managed migration led by the broadcasters—I emphasise, led by the broadcasters—and co-ordinated by Digital UK. It has been significantly effective and successful. Through increased information, awareness and advice, and people’s rapid recognition of the huge advantages of new technology, 75 per cent of viewers have already switched to digital, which is impressive progress. However, we want to make sure that the most vulnerable are not left behind, which is a perfectly proper objective which I am sure is shared by all Members of the Committee. The help scheme will give support to some of the most vulnerable citizens in our community and will help in an area which is technical and confusing for many of us, but more likely to be for those who are targeted by the scheme.
The need for the help scheme stems from the change in broadcasting technology. I have heard Members of the Committee advocate why the BBC should not be involved in that, but they cannot deny that the reason for the shift is not to do with any policy of government, least of all to do with benefits or support. It is because broadcasting technology has changed. Without digital switchover, there would be no need for a help scheme, which, therefore, is entirely different from other social policy objectives. It is related to this technological development.
The operation of the help scheme is linked to the complex regional roll-out of switchover and timings when different transmitters will make the switch, which also will be conditioned by broadcasters. The help scheme will, therefore, be most effective if it is fully integrated with the wider programme of work, which is best done by linking it with the wider responsibilities of the BBC for building digital Britain set out in the new BBC charter and agreement.
It was first proposed that the BBC should be responsible for helping to establish and fund the scheme in the March 2005 Green Paper. As I have indicated to Members of the Committee, we have been around this course a few times. The White Paper in 2006 confirmed this. The requirements are set out in the new BBC charter and agreement which came into force on 1 January 1007
I hear the criticism that has been voiced on every occasion the issue has cropped up, and I understand the argument, which again has been well articulated and established today by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones; namely, that this is a social assistance programme and its costs should be met by others, presumably through general taxation rather than the BBC licence payer. We take a different view; namely, that the costs are part of a broadcasting transition and it is appropriate therefore for the BBC to help to establish and fund the scheme.
We need to turn to practicalities and the efficient and effective delivery of the help scheme rather than go back to all those debates, interesting as they were, on the BBC charter. This Bill directs itself to the practicalities. The operation of the help scheme will be more efficient and effective if the scheme operator has access to social security information and other relevant information under the Bill. The Committee will be aware that since 2000 the BBC has had access to social security information to support the TV licence concession scheme for the over-75s, so the Bill breaks no new ground in this respect.
The collective effect of the amendments is to remove the BBC from the definition of relevant persons to whom the DWP, the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland, the Ministry of Defence—in respect of war pensions administered by the Veterans Agency—local authorities and health and social services boards in Northern Ireland can disclose such information. This would make it much more difficult for the BBC to help establish and manage the help scheme, increase the inconvenience for those eligible and, as a result, make the help scheme more costly to administer.
I apologise, but I think the Minister has said something entirely contradictory to what he said on a previous amendment. He said that a company would, as it were, organise that, and the BBC would have no part in dealing with the actual information brought up. He has just said, however, that it is part of his argument that the BBC must have access to this information. Am I confused?
The noble Viscount is never confused; I have just not succeeded in clarifying the situation as accurately as I ought. As I have indicated to the noble Viscount, we trust that the practical operation of the scheme will go to one contracted operator. If that takes the BBC out of one of the “relevant persons”, it will have no status on the position, nor can it deal with any difficulty which might occur with the one contracted operator. The BBC has a crucial role in this; it is the broadcaster of national repute, in which resides considerable trust.
We are dealing with a difficult transition. There is perhaps a tendency to be a little blasé over the movement to digital television. I should not think that there is Member of this Committee who has had difficulties in making that transition; if so, they are in a small percentage of the population. There may be a noble Lord who has not transferred to digital, but neither the actual concept of effecting the transfer not the costs involved would be the most salient issues. We have identified a group of people for whom the signal will be progressively switched off as we go through the regions, starting with the pilot study at Whitehaven. We have identified a group of vulnerable citizens who need help. The over-75s’ take-up of digital is vastly different from the rest of the population. I give way to the right reverent Prelate, who I am sure will help me.
I thank the Minister for so kindly giving way. I gave notice at Second Reading that I would be pressing a particular point, which the Minister has now raised: the definition of the vulnerable in the 75-plus age group. In the Minister’s reply at Second Reading, he clearly indicated that the Government’s view was that there was sufficient argument from research that the people in the 65-plus, as opposed to the 75-plus, bracket did not need that level of help.
Since Second Reading, I have had a further opportunity to look at the DCMS Consumer Expert Group report, Supporting Vulnerable Consumers with targeted assistance at and after Digital TV Switchover. It claims that nearly as many households with people aged over 65 required assistance with installation as those with over-75s:
“We are concerned that help with installation will be necessary for people outside the targeted assistance scheme for vulnerable groups. In the Ferryside and Llansteffan digital switchover technical trials conducted by DCMS it was found that nearly as many households with people aged 65+ required assistance with installation as those with people aged 75+. Further work needs to be done to work out how households with people aged 65+ can be provided”,
with installation assistance. It goes on to talk about the role that volunteers may have in that. I have no doubt that the answer is immediately available to the Minister—as I was speaking I saw the papers coming across. I now look forward to hearing it.
Long before the notes came across, the answer was plain to the Minister—I want to reassure the right reverend Prelate on that point. I have not the slightest doubt that there are vulnerable people and people of limited means for whom the switchover will cause difficulty. The switching off of the system and the requirement to invest in different equipment will create a challenge. That is why it is so important that the broadcasters are involved in a technologically driven action of significance to the nation.
The right reverend Prelate will recognise that we have to draw a line somewhere. If we set out to identify all sections of society that might contain vulnerable individuals, we would be involved in an extremely complex exercise. It would be a means test with a vengeance and one that would not just be about income and resources but would also be about technological understanding and capacity to cope with the modern situation. We have to draw the line somewhere. It is abundantly clear that 65 year-olds fit the pattern of the rest of the population because very close to 75 per cent of them have already moved to digital. However, only 45 per cent of over 75s have made that transition, so there is clear evidence of a group that needs help because it is markedly different from the rest of the population. That is why we are addressing ourselves to that group.
I respect the motives of the right reverend Prelate who is trying to give help wherever it is needed, and I do not deny that help is needed among different sections of society. However, he will recognise that the cost of the scheme—more than £600 million—has already been visited upon licence fee-payers. It would be substantially higher if we extended the scheme to include over-65s. If we did that, we would be extending the scheme to a group that is like every other group and it could then be said that if that group needs help, all categories in society need help. That would raise a challenge that we cannot respond to. However, we have an identifiable group that needs help, and we are addressing it.
In the general debate, one side’s argument is that this a social security issue of assistance and the Government’s argument—which is established in the settlement regarding the licence fee—is that this is a broadcasting change properly visited upon the BBC as part of the licensing cost. On that basis, I am not in a position to accept the amendment.
I am far too rapidly approaching 75, and I find some of what the Minister said rather insulting. The implication that all the over-75s cannot cope with any of this is unfair. Many people say, “All I want to watch is BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. I don’t want to watch anything else, so why should I bother paying a company or buying a box?”. However, let us leave that aside.
In relation to the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, the BBC or the Secretary of State will own a minimum of 51 per cent of the contracting company, but who will own the other 49 per cent? Will other broadcasters—Sky, cable television, BT or other providers—be barred from holding shares in that company? Those companies will benefit from the switchover when it comes. Who will own the other part of the company? How is it going to be set up? When will it be set up?
Let me just deal with my noble friend’s point about me insulting the over-75s. I would not dare to adopt such a strategy, nor would it cross my mind; I am merely reflecting the fact that a much higher percentage of people in that group need help, just in the same way as we recognise that in the 65 to 74 year-old group who will not qualify as of right, we have identified the disabled as having a special need and they will qualify for assistance. So it is a question of where the line is drawn, and we have drawn it in relation to the broadcasting knowledge that we have about who is receiving digital at present, because we are constructing our whole position on this in the context of the broadcasting change that is due to occur. I hope that my noble friend will recognise that.
What my noble friend has done is to reinforce the anxiety of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, about the company that will operate the scheme. As we have made clear, we expect that it is likely to be one company, but the reason why we say 51 per cent is that it allows for a joint venture with the main scheme operator. It is not for us completely to pre-empt that position entirely. We are clear about the structure. The noble Lord pressed me on why the BBC was involved in this legislation in relation to the scheme. It is because there is a hierarchy of power.
The BBC will take responsibility for the operation of the scheme. It will be responsible for ensuring that the contract is drawn up accurately and that the contractor meets the contract. We are not out to be overly prescriptive about how the BBC chooses such a contractor and what that contractor will look like. That is not the basis for legislation; as long as we have broad parameters for who takes responsibility in this, that detail can eventually be worked out. In legislation, what Parliament and the nation need to be assured of is that there is a proper line of responsibility that guarantees that the scheme will be carried out effectively and properly. That is why the BBC has a crucial role in that.
I thank the Minister for his extensive reply. We have teased out some rather interesting aspects. I assure him that I was not necessarily expecting any fresh arguments; I was simply expecting some convincing arguments—but we are clearly bereft of such arguments today. I also assure him that, given my technological skills, I am not at all blasé about switchover.
The arguments are not convincing, but I thought that it was interesting how the Minister veered off and talked about the help scheme and how it would be applied, which was not really a justification of the BBC’s involvement. He referred to the need for broadcasters to be involved. In a way Digital UK is just that—it has been formed by the broadcasters. That does not prove at all that it is best done by the BBC. He illustrated the fact that we have a rather different approach, in that it is more of a social assistance programme than what he calls a broadcasting transition. The more that he talks about the BBC having a crucial role, and attempts to demonstrate it by referring to the national repute of the BBC, the more he shows that the BBC may have some responsibility but without the power to influence. I do not believe that the BBC is geared up to do this kind of thing. It does not own a lot of transmission equipment any more. Digital UK would seem the best body to be the overseeing body for the contractors.
I do not think that the case is made and I do not think that we will find ourselves in agreement with the Government. It comes back to the fact that the BBC is a convenient point from which to collect the £600 million. The Minister mentioned that the cost to the licence fee payer would be more than £600 million. I suspect that that is a mis-statement, because he has assured us on previous occasions that the cost for the licence fee payer would be capped at £600 million and any cost over that would be borne out of general taxation. He said that explicitly at Second Reading, so I hope that we are not going backwards today.
Finally, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the philosophy of support for the over-75s. I accept that, although it would be desirable to go further, the cost will start to unravel to a very great extent if we try to extend the scheme further. Many aspects of the scheme are still rather opaque and, as we go on this afternoon, I hope that we shall learn more. We may well come back to this matter at another stage of the Bill but, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 7 to 11 not moved.]
12: Clause 1, page 2, line 2, after “persons” insert “, including persons who have moved to a specified region that has completed the digital switchover scheme from a specified region that has not completed the digital switchover scheme,”
The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that people who are entitled to the help scheme and who move to a new area that has completed digital switchover will still receive the benefits of the help scheme if they move from an area that has not yet begun digital switchover. We on these Benches are concerned that people who are eligible for the scheme could miss out on help just because they have moved or are moving to a new area. Although I do not believe that this would be a major consideration for people in deciding whether to move to a new area, it may well be something that they do not think about when they are arranging the move.
Such a situation can be illustrated with the example of a partially sighted student who is eligible for help in his university town where switchover has not yet taken place but who, after graduating, gets a job in a town that has completed digital switchover. That student might well fall between the cracks and that would be an unfortunate state of affairs. I am sure that the Minister can think of many other cases of people moving where that could happen, and the amendment is an attempt to seek assurance about those kinds of circumstances. I beg to move.
The philosophy behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is well accepted. I need to describe the position and then we can discuss subsequent matters, should they arise.
In developing the help scheme, we wanted to simplify the basic eligibility rules as far as possible, bearing in mind the complexity that can quickly surround social security benefits. The help scheme will be implemented on a region-by-region basis. It is not possible to organise this in any other way, given the volumes involved and the need to give support close to the point of switchover. That means that an eligibility window needs to be tied to the event in each switchover region.
We are opting for a qualification period starting from eight months before the final switchover date—the date that BBC1 services are removed in an area—until one month after switchover in order to be as generous as possible. We have not gone for a fixed date in a particular region as that would exclude people who became eligible for the qualifying disability benefits some months before switchover.
Following discussions with the consumer expert group, we have opted for a date one month after BBC1 in analogue disappears. That will be the final date on which applications from eligible households will be accepted. Of course the scheme may need to continue helping people for, say, a couple of weeks to deal with post-switchover claims. This means that people meeting the eligibility criteria but moving into an area after that date will not qualify. They will need to make their own arrangements. Before the right reverend Prelate speaks, perhaps I may say in respect of disadvantaged people, and disabled partially-sighted people, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, Digital UK will set up voluntary networks to help disadvantaged people who have problems. Saying that people need to make their own arrangements and excluding those who I have just mentioned may seem unfair, but to extend this period would either widen the eligibility rules or require complex rules to deal with verification of previous addresses. Both approaches would add further complications and costs. More importantly, this would require the scheme operator to have infrastructure in place long after switchover in the region. Again, this would have cost implications.
We believe that the priority should be on helping those affected at the point of switchover rather than people who move into an area subsequently. Those affected will still be able to make use of the communications available from Digital UK. Many of those affected may well already have converted to digital. It is also worth bearing in mind the very important point that these rules do not affect people who move within the same region, so we are probably talking about a small minority of those who are eligible, particularly if we are taking care of the disadvantaged and the disabled.
This raises one of the problems with the BBC being involved. The TV licence is for a property and a household. It is not paid by the individual, as such: it is paid on behalf of the whole house. But the help is to be given to individuals. Suppose that, for instance, a house becomes digital as a result of the help scheme and the person moves on, for whatever reason. Is the equipment purchased by the help scheme for a particular person to remain in the house when someone else moves in or is the person entitled to take it with them?
Let us take the earlier example of a dependent who is a partially sighted child, to whom help has been given. If the child leaves home to go to university or whatever, and the parents remain, does he take that equipment with him or does it remain with the parents?
The problem is that that is not the case. It depends on when switchover takes place. By the Minister’s own admission, everything finishes one month after BBC1 in analogue disappears. If switchover has taken place, it means that the partially sighted student in this example, perhaps living with 75 year-old parents—just to make it even more complicated—would be unable to get help because switchover had already occurred. Perhaps they may move to Whitehaven, to coin a name. The Minister is demonstrating the harshness of this absolute cut-off point. I will read very carefully what has been said.
The Minister has made some play of the voluntary networks for disadvantaged people, which I can see has some benefit. However, one needs to look at that further to see the reality, the geographical coverage and so on. I do not know what kind of resource Digital UK plans to put in for this. I think that we have uncovered something that may affect a small number of people, but could act harshly on people in those circumstances. We are a mobile nation. I do not think that the examples that I have given are outlandish. They are perfectly reasonable, but we shall look at what the Minister has said.
I have one question for the Minister, for clarification. I shall not ask difficult questions about individual circumstances; it is more a question of principle. Will he say how the rules will be defined? Will there be secondary legislation? Who will decide on eligibility? How will it be done by statute?
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raises some interesting points that we want to reflect on.
There is a real problem in that we are talking about a technical switchover. There has to be a time limit, whether it is two weeks, three weeks, or whatever. You cannot construct an example of two 75 year-old parents with a partially sighted child who is moving off to university in, say, 2015, and ask why the Bill does not look after them. Obviously there are networks at social services that will take over the voluntary organisations that I mentioned. Although we will reflect on the issue, there has to be a date on which the process, support mechanism and infrastructure that we have set up for digital switchover disappears. While we reflect on what the noble Lord has said, perhaps he could reflect on the practical implications of his proposal, which is a rather more open-ended arrangement that we are considering.
In answer to the question posed by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, it is under the BBC charter and agreement.
I am not entirely clear about that. I am not aware that the BBC charter and agreement go into details of eligibility into this scheme. I think that the Minister may have misunderstood my question. My question was: when it comes to deciding who is eligible for the help, will that be set out in regulation?
On several occasions the Minister has talked about the role of voluntary organisations. I wonder whether he can give some indication of how those voluntary organisations will be co-ordinated. It is a very good idea to get voluntary organisations in on this, and he may be interested to know that some very early conversations within the churches and the faith communities have been taking place to see whether help can be offered in that way.
It is one thing for an organisation such as Digital UK to say that it will use voluntary organisations, but it is a pretty massive task, and I wonder how the Minister thinks they will go about it.
It will be part of the brief for Digital UK to develop those lines of communication with voluntary networks. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate would agree that not all voluntary networks will be relevant to this technical operation. My guess is that Digital UK can mobilise a number of voluntary organisations to help with this switchover and satisfy the requirements of all those needing the help that it and the voluntary networks can provide.
The more we go into this, the more baffled I am. I first thank the Minister for his undertaking to take this issue away and look at it. I accept that a halfway house may need to be reached in this process, but one month seems rather draconian in the circumstances. This clearly cannot be a right for ever and a day; it must be related to the timing of the switchover in the various areas. If we can pull people into the net, and not rather unfairly have a situation where they are too late to be eligible, that would be satisfactory. One could talk about a range of different dates.
The essence of many of the amendments, as I said earlier, is that it is particularly baffling that, to be specific about the scheme, the Secretary of State must, by order or regulation—I have no idea whether some sort of ministerial fiat is involved—lay down an understood mechanism by which the scheme is brought into effect. I probably misheard the Minister, but I thought he mentioned Clause 39; that sounds rather outlandish, since there are only five clauses in the Bill.
The noble Lord says that he is baffled. I thought that we had agreed that something must happen at a certain period. We argue that the period is of a certain length; the noble Lord says that that is too restrictive. We must both go away and think about that.
I am sorry if I was not clear that the scheme agreement will be made under clause 39 of the BBC agreement. The scheme agreement between the DCMS and the BBC will set out the detailed requirements. The BBC must reflect them in the terms of its agreement with the contractor. The agreement will cover eligibility, customer management requirements and operational requirements for the help scheme and will be published as soon as it is agreed.
I thank the Minister. I was not the slightest bit baffled by his statements about how the scheme’s cut-off points and so on will operate, but about how the scheme will come into effect. He has now said that it is under clause 39 of the agreement; that is a different ball game. In that context, as it is an agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State, we cannot have a debate about the essence of the eligibility and how the scheme will operate. The only opportunities we have to debate details are in this Committee and, no doubt, on Report. That is not fully satisfactory and will be the basis of a number of amendments that we shall deal with this afternoon.
I look forward to further discussions with the Minister about the cut-off point for those who move. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
13: Clause 1 , page 2, line 3, at end insert “or otherwise face excessive costs as a direct result of digital switchover”
The noble Lord said: I make it clear that this is a probing amendment, designed in part to smoke out the kind of information that was intended to be smoked out by Amendment No. 5 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising. The fact that both our amendments are so obscurely worded to get at that point indicates the narrowness of the Bill compared to the extent of the problem.
The motive behind this amendment is to say that a far greater proportion of people will be disadvantaged, or potentially disadvantaged, as a result of switchover than are covered by what is referred to here as the switchover help scheme, which is restricted to those with certain disabilities and the over-75s—the right reverend Prelate earlier made that point in specific terms. As the noble Lord, Lord Howard, said, many of those people will be in areas of multiple occupation, both social housing and private landowners, which will inevitably eventually lead to a call on the public purse to cover their costs at least in part.
If the figures from the London Borough of Camden as quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, at Second Reading are correct—about £200 was charged to the lessees and a similar charge put through the rent to the tenants—the charge on a large council estate, which may be run by a managing authority or directly by the council, would be much higher than the charge faced by the individual householder for digital switchover in his own house, which might be across the road from the council estate. That in itself constitutes some degree of disadvantage. As chair of the National Consumer Council, I say that that is serious consumer detriment because those tenants are getting the same good but having to pay more for it as a result of the decision of a landlord—in this case, a social landlord—to go for a system that is beyond what most individual flat dwellers, whether lessees or tenants, would choose for themselves.
That is the case in a lot of social housing across our cities. It is also the case in dwellings owned by private landowners, particularly those who have long-standing tenants or lessees who are elderly and who would prefer, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, to stick to the three channels that they knew 30 years ago. However, the landlord decides to go for the top end of the system. There is also the opposite problem, which probably does not apply in the public sector or in those parts of the housing stock managed on behalf of the public sector, when the landlord decides not to do the switchover at all, at least not until the last minute, in which case the price goes up once more.
A large proportion of the 20 per cent of people who live in the dwellings referred to by the noble Lord are disadvantaged in one form or another, but only some of them will come under the scheme. The over-75s are in that sense no different from the over-65s, who may be more technologically advanced and may have already made their choices. However, they are equally disadvantaged if their landlord decides on an over-the-top system that they would not have chosen.
As I understand the matter—and I think that this was confirmed at Second Reading because it certainly seems to be the case with councils that have already done the switchover—if the cost to the tenant is put on the rent, that additional rent will be met by housing benefit. I am not entirely clear where that ruling came from but, in any case, the implications for the public purse are pretty stupendous. More than half of council house dwellers are eligible for housing benefit, which is about 9 per cent of the population, compared with the 2 per cent or 3 per cent covered by the switchover help scheme, which it is estimated will cost the BBC £600 million in its new welfare function financed by poll tax payers through the licence fee. If the cost of switchover is put into the housing benefit system, it will cost more than the BBC-administered £600 million. This is an important point of public policy.
If the landlord is the council, a reputable social landlord or an ALMO, because rents are more or less standard, housing benefit will probably automatically follow. For the elderly tenant or lessee of a private landowner, that is by no means clear. We know that a higher proportion of such disadvantaged and elderly tenants are less likely to claim housing benefit in the first instance. We have a large chunk of people who are disadvantaged vis-à-vis those who live in individual houses and vis-à-vis those who are being helped under the help scheme for whom, at best, housing benefit will pay. It is important that the Government and policymakers understand the full cost of digital switchover and that tenants or lessees involved in this area of deprivation know what their rights are under this system.
There is the additional position of the lessee of such a landlord. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Evans, said that he could apply to the land, valuation and housing tribunal if costs were added to his service charge. However, such a large number of people is involved in this that the workload of such tribunals would significantly increase if that happened rather than costs being offset in other ways.
I am therefore making two points. First, let us be franker about the full cost of this. If a larger cost falls on housing benefit, the case made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about why the BBC should be in the position of administering the smaller cost is even more valid. Secondly, those who are entitled to this help—who are over 75 or disabled—should at least potentially be known to the people operating the switchover scheme. Otherwise, in some parts of the country, in certain estates and in areas of sheltered housing, there will be a last-minute problem. It will cause not only severe distress to the individuals involved but also severe difficulty for the administrators of the scheme, and frankly, political difficulty to the Government or the local authority implementing it. While I do not expect the Government to accept this amendment, I would like to see greater recognition of the public policy problem and the potential distress that it may cause.
Although I was not present at Second Reading, I have read the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, which covers a lot of this ground. Also, clearly, from what he has said today, this is a major issue. He should be congratulated on unearthing a real problem. I very much hope that the Government have had time to give this consideration since Second Reading.
Let me be the second to congratulate my noble friend on having identified an issue to which we intend to pay due attention. I am not in a position to accept his amendment, nor any amendment constructed along these lines. As he will recognise, such an amendment would greatly extend the range of people on whom data would be necessary within the framework of the help scheme. That raises some big questions. But I recognise that he is raising the interests of a significant group of people and I want to give him the most constructive response that I can to the points he made.
It is the responsibility of the landlord to upgrade communal TV systems and reception or other reception equipment for which they are responsible.
The help scheme will have a responsibility to take all reasonable steps to ensure a continuity of reception at switchover. That is the premise on which we are working. Clearly, my noble friend rightly identified, in somewhat dire terms, the danger of not taking that on board significantly. This will include set-top reception where appropriate or connecting the equipment to an upgraded or working communal TV system. But I accept that in some cases this may not be possible. We need to consider those issues in finalising the scheme agreement to which we alluded earlier.
If the system does not convey signals—there might be many reasons why this might be the case—only the landlord can take responsibility, either by taking forward work to do this, or allowing residents to take their own steps. There will be costs associated with any upgrade work needed with implications for service charges, and we encourage landlords to work with residents in determining the best solution. Of course, many responsible landlords have already done so. The recent research by BMRB showed that significant progress was being made in the public sector.
As my noble friend indicated, tenants on low income may qualify for housing benefit which will cover any increase in rents or service charges. Housing benefit regulations are being updated so there is no doubt that integrated reception systems that convey terrestrial and satellite signals are covered. In that area, I can give my noble friend all the assurance that he requires. Steps are being taken to protect those least able to meet increased costs from upgraded aerial systems.
We and Digital UK will continue to communicate with the housing sector to ensure that people are aware of what they need to do and the consequences if they do not—our particular focus will be on private sector residents and landlords who are likely to be less advanced and who were largely the subject of my noble friend’s concerns. We will also continue to work with the housing sector with more practical support—for example, by making landlords aware of the likely costs, and encouraging them to seek effective procurement solutions or integrate this work with other planned developments on their properties. We will also encourage them to think about their charging policies as far as possible.
My noble friend has raised an important area of consideration. I want to give him the reassurance that, as far as housing benefit is concerned, where we are able to act directly, we are taking steps to ensure that appropriate action is taken. He is right. It is in the landlord’s own interests to act in good time. Tenants will also receive information about dates and when things will occur and it is in the interests of the landlord to ensure that he meets tenants’ reasonable expectations in these terms. Landlords may seek to recover the costs of upgrades to communal TV aerial systems from their leaseholders and tenants in the same way as they would for any improvement to the building infrastructure. They will get their capital investment back. Costs arising from these upgrades will certainly be covered by housing benefit and tenants and leaseholders will continue to be protected from overcharging the improvement in the service which the digital switchover represents by the existing range of housing law.
The digital switchover programme will provide advice and guidance for landlords, leaseholders and tenants to facilitate cost-effective upgrades to systems. Landlords will want to consider the whole-life costs and benefits of the upgrade options. After all, if a landlord owns property which has not been upgraded several years after the rest of the region has been upgraded, he will have real problems with the rent that he will be able to charge in comparison with a property that has taken account of the upgrade.
I reassure my noble friend directly on the issue of housing benefit and we take on board the points that he made about the importance of communal systems, but both landlords and tenants, as far as possible, will be made fully aware of the implications of the switch-off date.
I am grateful for my noble friend’s assurance as far as it goes and, as I said, I will not press this amendment. But before the passage of this Bill is complete, we need greater clarity. I am glad that the rules of housing benefit are being formally altered, because that will help. But that is only half the detriment—it is what the landlord charges to a tenant for the communal area and associated wiring, whereas the tenant of that flat will need to pay more. If the landlord goes for an all-singing, all-dancing system because some of his tenants want that, a particular flat dweller will have to pay more for their system on an ongoing basis for the internal own equipment than someone across the road who seeks exactly the same service and can do their own deal. The detriment continues even though the communal part of the cost is covered by housing benefit.
There is a real problem here. It is true that the possibility of the landlord completely abrogating his responsibilities is more likely at the murkier end of the private sector, but the actual problem is bigger in the social housing sector and particularly on large estates where clearly there is a huge range of possible choices. The landlord—the council, ALMO or transferee company—can quite legitimately say, “I have found people who want 95 different channels”, but an individual tenant wants only 10. The landlord would claim that he had support for an all-singing, all-dancing system but there is still a detriment to the person in the particular flat who has particular requirements.
I do not see the way round this problem, but the Government and the help scheme must be aware of it and, if necessary, stand by to provide some assistance to those suffering from that detriment, as well as for those over 75 or subject to the other disablement criteria in the Bill. Subject to that point still floating for the rest of the progress of this Bill, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
14: Clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert “; and
(d) the provision of the same equipment in each specified region to such persons.”
The noble Lord said: I very much welcome the acceptance by the Government of an amendment similar to one moved by my honourable friend Paul Holmes in another place that ensured that the targeted help scheme contractor can have access to registers of blind and partially sighted people in order to provide information to them about their entitlement to help and support with switchover. That will be of huge benefit to the 380,000 people on the registers throughout the UK.
However, I am raising other issues in this amendment on behalf of organisations such as Sense and RNIB. Although they welcome the amendments tabled, there are further concerns. The chairman of the RNIB, the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, would have liked to have been here. In a sense, I am moving the amendment on his behalf with his knowledge.
In seven months’ time, we will be beginning the process of digital switchover in Whitehaven in Cumbria, as we have established. Are the Government yet in a position to describe the access features of the equipment being commissioned for distribution to Whitehaven residents who will qualify for assistance under the targeted help scheme? For example, if that equipment does not have the capability to deliver audio description, then visually impaired people will be completely excluded from television services, there being no digital terrestrial set-top box currently on the market that can receive audio description.
The specification of the equipment to be commissioned has been the subject of a long debate between the consumer expert group—certain aspects of whose report we have heard about today—and the Government. Manufactured goods are excluded from disability discrimination law. However, switchover offers a huge public procurement opportunity to build in access features needed by disabled and older people. The Government must seize the opportunity to make the equipment for the targeted help scheme as accessible as possible and set out a number of minimum features under the specification, however technology changes in the future.
There are additional concerns, such as whether a fully accessible solution will be ready for Borders in 2008. By “fully accessible”, I mean a set-top box that can receive audio description as well as having an electronic programme guide, with audio output functions enabling visually impaired people to access simple but essential information such as what channel and programme they are watching.
The Government are to be congratulated on their movement on the Bill so far. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the accessibility issues, and the minimum specification issues I have raised, will be addressed not only for Whitehaven in the short term, but in the longer term for Borders and beyond. I beg to move.
A key requirement of the help scheme is that it provides suitable equipment to those eligible for assistance. Like the consumer experts group, we were concerned that equipment available in today’s market was designed to reduce costs and therefore might not be suitable for the help scheme. So, with the help of the consumer experts group, we have developed the core receiver requirements for equipment procured by the help scheme.
We consulted on the core receiver requirements between July and September last year, and the results were published on 13 December. The requirement also formed part of the Official Journal of the European Union notice issued in January as part of the procurement exercise. The noble Lord mentioned the pilot in Whitehaven, which has been chosen as a flagship project and will switch in October 2007. Given the timing of Whitehaven, it is possible that there will be no set-top boxes matching the core receiver requirements, so it may be that the scheme operator has to provide boxes currently on the market which most closely match the requirements. Both the BBC and the DCMS expect that boxes for the main scheme will fully comply with the core receiver requirements. The important point is that boxes with audio descriptions and the other important characteristics the noble Lord mentioned may not be the core box that is eventually used, but they will be provided in the Whitehaven experiment to ensure that these people are not disadvantaged. Audio description is already available in Whitehaven via Sky. We would also welcome a DDT audio description solution, to provide residents with that extra choice.
I hope that the noble Lord is reassured on his important point that partially sighted people in the Whitehaven pilot, will not be disadvantaged. It may not be the box that is eventually used, but we will ensure that the equipment provided by the help scheme evolves over time to make best use of advances in technology. The help scheme will make a significant investment in equipment on behalf of those eligible. We and the BBC want to use this investment to ensure, first, that better equipment would make switchover an easier process—the significant work that the DTI led in 2003 and 2004, which was carried out by the Generics Group, identified this as a very important issue—and, secondly, better equipment should reduce the level of support visits needed.
The amendment will not have any positive effect for people eligible to the scheme. In fact, it might have the opposite effect because it would prevent the scheme improving the core receiver specification over time as technology improves.
I thank the Minister for that careful reply. It will be necessary to read carefully what he said. Clearly, there is a two-stage process. On the Whitehaven introduction, the essence of what the Minister said is that the maximum possible will be done and that audio description will be available on Sky, but probably not on other channels, although I do not know whether that is an entirely correct interpretation. But one will have to access through Sky in order to access audio description. It means that there will not be platform neutrality for Whitehaven in that respect, which is to be regretted.
Nevertheless, one has to accept that perhaps that will happen early on, but what will happen thereafter? Is there a plan to replace unsatisfactory set-top boxes with set-top boxes that meet the core receiver requirement in future? It would be rather unfair for people in Whitehaven to be prejudiced by the fact that they are experiencing switchover rather earlier.
I have not had the benefit of reading the core receiver requirement. Clearly, it would be useful if I was able to do so. I entirely accept that technology may change over time, but organisations are concerned about having the minimum. Of course, let us have more bells and whistles—as time goes on that will inevitably be the case. But there must be accessible remote control, voice output of channel announcement, identification displayed on screen, voice output of programme identification and so forth. There are very clear requirements for set-top boxes. I very much hope that the Minister can assure me that the core receiver requirement is essentially a set of minimum specifications that will be the entitlement of those eligible from Whitehaven onwards and that, for Whitehaven, those eligible will have the right to change to satisfactory platform-neutral set-top boxes.
The most constructive thing we can do is let the noble Lord, and any other Member of the Committee who might like to see it, have a copy of the core receiver requirements. We could then address, if necessary, the problem that the noble Lord has raised. There is no difference of view: we want to provide not all the bells et cetera, but the core requirements that disadvantaged people need. If the noble Lord is happy to accept that undertaking, we would be grateful. He makes an interesting point on the boxes used in the Whitehaven pilot and asked whether, if they are different from the boxes rolled out over the country, we would consider replacing them. That point is very well made, and we shall consider it and come back to Members of the Committee on it.
To further reinforce the point about minimum requirements, they will be written into the scheme as the absolute minimum. That also gives an opportunity for the noble Lord and other noble Lords to comment if they so wish.
15: Clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—
“( ) The National Audit Office is to publish an annual report on the expenditure incurred in the course of disclosing information under this Act.”
The noble Viscount said: There are concerns bringing the National Audit Office into play regarding the cost of digital switchover, which, as your Lordships have heard, is estimated to be £600 million. When I tabled this amendment, I believed that it was quite important but, having heard the explanation from the Minister today about how the system is going to operate, I now believe that it is vitally important.
The Minister, his department and the BBC are wonderfully schizophrenic about the National Audit Office. When I asked him in a Written Question why the BBC is not subject to the National Audit Office, the Answer—which was perfectly reasonable—was that it would affect editorial independence. When one then asks whether the remit of the National Audit Office on the amount of money spent by the BBC on its World Service—which is funded by the Foreign Office, for which the National Audit Office does have a remit—affects the editorial independence of the World Service, the answer is of course no. So the Government have it both ways: when it suits them, they say yes; when it does not suit them, they say no.
I believe that it is important to bring the National Audit Office into play. I am sure that the Minister will say that my amendment is in the wrong place and refers to the wrong thing, but I am sure that he will understand that I am not as good at drafting as his department. I hope that he will accept the principle.
We have heard that the estimated cost is £600 million, which will not be subject to any parliamentary procedure. The Secretary of State will decide who will be eligible and how they will be eligible. The rules will then be drawn up and delivered to the BBC, which, under the agreement in clause 39, will make an agreement with the operating company under the Clause 1(4)(b), whereby it will hold 51 per cent. The company will be given a whole load of rules that will decide who will get help and who will not.
At some point, presumably, someone sat down and worked out the exact costing. We have heard that there are enormous variations in who may get help and what happens if they move House. We have had that debate, but there is no form of scrutiny. As I understand it—and I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—if there is an overspend, it will be picked up by the Treasury. If the department gets it right, the Treasury is not involved, but if it gets it wrong it is involved. On the basis of the department’s ability to forecast spending, we have to be dubious about that; after all, this is the department that brought us the dome and that has seen the budget for the Olympics quadruple. So where is the accountability?
The Secretary of State will set the rules, but he will not spend the money. Will the Secretary of State responsible for social security set the rules or will it be the DCMS, given that they relate to the eligibility of vulnerable people? Who will oversee that the help is going to the right person in the right place, at the right time and with the right amount of money? How is that money going to be accounted for? That is important because we know that the BBC licence fee is now classified as a tax; we are all paying for it. This process should be subject to scrutiny by Parliament and the National Audit Office.
I hope that the Government understand the importance of this and will be able to explain that the process is subject to proper scrutiny. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I beg to move.
I support the amendment proposed by my noble friend. Earlier today, I asked the Minister about the cost of the London Olympics—he may remember. He tried as best as he could to disguise the true position with a long list of figures, but the fact is that the costs are now £9 billion and the original estimate has trebled, rather than quadrupled, in two years. Therefore, the Government have form in estimating future costs and, to put it as mildly and as genially as I can, it is not exactly encouraging.
That adds force to my noble friend’s amendment. We need to keep a very close eye on this spending, as we do on the administration of the spending. The estimate is £600 million, all of which will come from the licence fee. The Minister knows my views on that: I think it is wrong for it to come from the licence fee, but there we are. However, the noble Lord has given an assurance—it would be helpful if he repeated it—that, if the costs go above £600 million, the overrun will be borne by the general taxpayer. We are all general taxpayers as well as licence fee payers, so, to the extent that the costs go above £600 million, we will all be required to pick up the bill.
My noble friend’s last point on the National Audit Office was also extremely strong. Looking at the matter objectively—if I can put this politely—I think that most people probably trust the National Audit Office more than they do the department when it comes to making forward financial estimates. The National Audit Office carries more clout in that regard and it certainly has a better reputation on accuracy. Like my noble friend, I do not understand the Government’s position on the National Audit Office. They say that in some peculiar way it affects the independence of the BBC, but it is clear that, when it comes to the BBC’s World Service, the National Audit Office not only operates there but operates very successfully and with absolutely no complaint. Although BBC services are sometimes criticised, when we were looking at the BBC for the charter review, we certainly heard very few criticisms of the World Service.
For all those reasons, there is a great deal to be said for my noble friend’s amendment and it deserves support.
I support the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Astor that the National Audit Office should look at this matter. I talked about this earlier in another debate. I believe that spending £600 million helping the disadvantaged has absolutely nothing to do with editorial independence.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, made an impeccable case for his amendment, which we support. Indeed, when the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, suggested that the BBC should be audited by the NAO, we also supported that. His arguments today are entirely analogous to that and entirely correct. I think that, if the NAO had greater involvement in this area, we would all be more reassured.
We are revisiting some very well trodden territory here, but why not? The Bill deals with the disclosure of personal information from the DWP and others for the purpose of operating the help scheme, so the amendment, which seeks to place obligations not on the BBC but on the National Audit Office, cannot be accepted. However, in his helpful way, the noble Viscount, in what was described as an “impeccable” contribution by another noble Lord, has sought to tease out an important issue regarding the operation of the help scheme and securing value for money.
Our expectation is that the BBC will operate the help scheme. The details of how it will do that have not yet been settled, but it must be open and transparent. The BBC Trust and executive are both absolutely clear on the need for that. The BBC agreement makes provision for it to publish an annual report about its switchover-related activities, which will, of course, include the help scheme. Accounts of expenditure on the help scheme will need to be produced and audited, as required under the scheme agreement made under clause 39 of the BBC agreement.
The NAO does not have unrestricted access to the BBC, for reasons we debated at length during the passage of the Communications Act 2003 and, more recently, as part of the charter review process. However, clause 79 of the agreement puts the BBC Trust under an obligation to examine the value for money achieved by the BBC in the use of public funds, and gives the NAO a key role in contributing to the fulfilment of that obligation. The detailed arrangements set out in the clause are based on those originally introduced following the Communications Act debates in your Lordships’ House. They require the trust to discuss regularly with the Comptroller and Auditor-General the scope of its audit programme and which individual reviews within that programme would be particularly suited to the NAO. The trust must then make arrangements with the NAO and other suitable organisations to carry out individual value-for-money reviews in accordance with the audit programme. The obligations on the trust to secure value for money will apply to its involvement in the operation of the help scheme. I hope that my description of the involvement of the NAO in the process reassures your Lordships that the existing requirements on the trust to act transparently and to secure value for money will also apply to its role in helping to establish and fund the help scheme.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, asked what would happen if there were any overruns on cost. £600 million will be ring-fenced within the settlement and will therefore not form part of the BBC’s baseline at the end of the settlement. If costs exceed the estimates that we have set out, they will not be met by the BBC but by the public purse in different ways; we have yet to determine how that will actually be achieved.
From the Minister’s last remark, one can guess that there will be another raid on the National Lottery if there is an overspend. I am grateful for the Minister’s reply and will study it with care. I take particular note of his points on a possible role for the National Audit Office under clause 79 of the BBC agreement.
The Minister also talked about transparency of accounts. The BBC’s accounts are occasionally interesting, but I have never found transparency in them. It is such a large organisation that it is difficult to discover anything about it. If the BBC is going to keep accounts of this, they will have to be separate and published separately.
There is more important point here, however. If any government department is given £600 million of taxpayers’ money by the Treasury to spend as part of a help scheme, a social security handout or whatever, it is subject to a form of parliamentary scrutiny. First, it is probably subject to an order coming before another place and your Lordships’ House, setting out the terms on which those who are vulnerable or need help will get the money. It consequently appears in that department’s annual accounts and is subject to NAO and various form of parliamentary scrutiny—by a Select Committee in another place or whatever. Here, however, we have something totally different. The Secretary of State, presumably for the DCMS, will decide who gets the help, what the justifications for it are going to be, and what the terms are. As we have heard, none of that will be debated by Parliament. It will in effect be a private agreement—although it may be published—between the BBC and the company that the BBC and/or the Secretary of State employs to manage the scheme.
There needs to be some form of scrutiny. It is entirely unsatisfactory that there should be none because this is taxpayers’ money, and we need to know not only that it is well spent, but more importantly, that it is going to the right place and to the people who matter. There are two elements to this: not just safeguarding the taxpayer but ensuring that those who deserve it get it. I do not think that the Minister fully addressed that issue. I am grateful for the Minister’s response, and I shall study it with care. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed to.
Clause 2 [Kinds of information referred to in section 1]:
16: Clause 2 , page 2, line 33, leave out from “section” to end of line 34 and insert ““information of a prescribed description” means information prescribed in Schedule 1”
The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 30.
This group of amendments would ensure that any information that is essential for the purpose of switchover is released. Amendment No. 16 provides a reference to the proposed new schedule, which sets out on the face of the Bill the information that will be shared under the new powers in the Bill. The new schedule lists the information as shown in paragraph 27 of the Explanatory Notes. It would be preferable for these parameters to be included in the Bill rather than restricted to the Explanatory Notes.
Amendment No. 17 would strengthen and safeguard the release of information provided for in the Bill by ensuring that when the Secretary of State makes an order prescribing information, it will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses.
Amendment No. 18 is a probing amendment. It would delete Clause 2(7), which allows the Secretary of State to make what seem to be extremely wide ranging orders. The wording currently reads that orders,
“may make different provision in relation to different cases”.
That is an unnecessarily broad definition of the types of orders that could be issued for the purposes of data sharing, especially given that, as the Bill stands, they are subject to the negative procedure. I look forward to the Minister’s response and beg to move.
I rise briefly to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howard. Clearly there seems to be a large measure of agreement about what information will be required. It appears both in the Explanatory Notes and in the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report dated 28 February. Clearly evidence was given to that effect to the committee. The amendment follows that entirely. It is not clear why that cannot be specified in the Bill. There is no reason why not if there is agreement that that information is required.
Clause 2 gives a power to define the kinds of information that can be supplied under Clause 1. Setting out the details in secondary legislation means the type of information that can be supplied can be adjusted, depending on operational requirements, without the need for further primary legislation, although it cannot be changed at will because the negative resolution of parliamentary control applies.
We have updated a draft order showing how we plan to use the powers in an order we intend to make immediately after Royal Assent. The order was shared at the Commons Committee stage. If the noble Lord has not seen it, I suggest that we share it with him and other Members of the Committee. Amendment No. 16 would remove this power, changing the definition of “prescribed” to mean information set out in a schedule. Amendment No. 30 sets out the information that can be disclosed.
Amendment No. 17 would require the order to be made using the affirmative resolution procedure. As I have said, orders made under this clause as drafted are subject to the negative resolution form of parliamentary control. Amendment No. 18 removes the provision which allows regulations to be made for different cases. This appears to be consequential on Amendment No. 16.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report of the 2006-07 Session. The committee said that:
“This bill is to give legal authority for the disclosure of social security and war pensions information, with a view to maximising take-up under the proposed Digital Switchover Help Scheme. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport have provided a delegated powers memorandum (printed at Appendix 1) to explain the delegations in clause 2. The delegations are not inappropriate and there is nothing in the bill which we wish to draw to the attention of the House”.
It is worth saying that opposition parties are always quick to point out where the Delegated Powers Committee has concerns. In general, the Government respond very positively to the committee’s recommendations. In this case, it has given our approach a clean bill of health.
This is entirely on the basis of information provided by the department; namely, that those items of information specified in the report of the Delegated Powers Committee were the ones to be prescribed in regulation. So it is an entirely circular argument. There is no argument about the nature of the information. The argument is about the fact that, since the department is very clear about the information required, it could be in primary legislation and not in secondary legislation.
It is fair to say that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee would have made that point had it felt it appropriate so to do. When I say it has given a clean bill of health, it has presumably approved all aspects because it is very thorough in the way in which it looks at matters.
It will not surprise the noble Lord, Lord Howard, that we do not agree with his arguments. Our approach, as set out in Clause 2, strikes the right balance between certainty and flexibility—in an operation like this flexibility is of enormous importance—enabling the scope of information that can be shared with the scheme operator to be narrowed so that only certain descriptions of information essential for the scheme are disclosed while allowing these rules to be adapted if there is an operational case to do so.
Placing the detail in the Bill would not confer any additional protection, but would mean that further legislation would be required if the list of items was not correct. The lack of flexibility may have important implications for the successful delivery of the scheme. I hope that the noble Lord is convinced by those arguments.
In a word, no. I cannot see why this should not be in the Bill or why one needs flexibility over a list of information. It should be possible to produce a list of what is wanted now because there cannot be a great deal more that is wanted. It would be much more satisfactory to have it there, than to give effectively a blank cheque to be able to ask for anything that is wanted. That having been said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 not moved.]
Clause 2 agreed to.
Clause 3 [Offences]:
16: Clause 2 , page 2, line 33, leave out from “section” to end of line 34 and insert ““information of a prescribed description” means information prescribed in Schedule 1”
The noble Lord said: The amendment addresses a serious flaw in the Bill. Clause 3 establishes a new offence for abusing information shared under the powers in the Bill and in doing so places the burden of proof on the individual who would be, in the event of a prosecution, the defendant. What is most disturbing about the reversal of the burden of proof in this context is that it not only shows flagrant disregard for the presumption of innocence, but it strikes me that an offence that not only places the onus on the defendant but also reduces the standard of proof for the prosecution to the balance of probabilities must be wrong.
All these are arguments that have been to some extent rehearsed in another place, and it was the Minister's response to those arguments there that have spurred me to bring this issue back for scrutiny in Committee. The Minister's justification for the level of proof was inadequate. He said that,
“no offence would be committed unless it could be proved that the offender either knew they were disclosing information supplied under clause 1 without lawful authority or was reckless in doing so—in other words, they took an unjustified risk”.—[Official Report, Commons Public Bill Committee, 16/1/07; col. 31.]
The offence carries a possible prison term of two years, or the maximum statutory fine. Those are serious punishments. The Minister knows that I have reservations about the distribution of information but the release of information should not be compensated for by abandoning important legal principles. Noble Lords will be familiar with the description by the sometime Lord Chancellor, Lord Sankey, of the presumption of innocence as the “golden thread” running through the British legal system. I hope that the Minister will be able to take away our amendment and come back with government suggestions at report. I beg to move.
I have a certain sense of déjà-vu about debating the burden of proof with the Minister. I must say from the outset that although we have tabled an amendment later on in the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Howard, has restated the classical reversal of the burden of proof and put it down in a well drafted amendment.
I do not really understand why there is any justification for reversing the burden of proof. It seems to be a popular thing for the department to do nowadays. In the London Olympics Bill, the department was forced, quite rightly, to retreat from that issue, because it soon became apparent when we subjected the clause to scrutiny that there was no particularly good reason why the burden should be reversed. In the case of that Bill it was the London association right. In this case, as the noble Lord, Lord Howard, has frankly stated, disclosing information is something that we do not wish to see happen and there should be a penalty, but the issue is how draconian you can be in expecting someone to prove themselves innocent under Clause 5 before they escape the net, so to speak. As the burden of proof operates in the clause as it stands, they are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. That, by any standard, is a very tall order, and it is particularly difficult taking into account the way that the defence in subsection (5) is drafted.
I fully support the amendment. I think that the Minister has a long way to go, and I certainly saw nothing in the arguments put forward in the other place to justify a reversal. I look forward to seeing whether the Minister can come up with some fresh arguments in this area.
That is an unlikely occurrence, given past efforts in this respect. If there is a problem with offences under Clause 3(1), there is a problem with offences under Clause 3(2) as well, so I am somewhat surprised that attention has been drawn to the offences under subsection (1) but not to those under subsection (2). If we are to debate this issue any further, I hope that at least an amendment will be tabled to cover both.
There does not seem to be any logic in the Opposition’s contention that we will have an extremely principled argument about the law in respect of this matter but that we will gloss over the offences in Clause 3(2). I think that the Opposition always put forward highly principled arguments—it would be beneath them not to do so—but I think they just happen to be wrong in this respect.
It is not the case that we are reversing the law of the land and that the presumption of innocence will be thrown away by the proposals in these subsections of Clause 3. The presumption of innocence is absolutely central to our criminal law and it is also enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, so the department will not disregard it lightly. In fact, that presumption underpins the offences in Clause 3, and I include all the offences there.
In a case of alleged unauthorised disclosure, it will be for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt: that a disclosure of information took place; that it was made without lawful authority; that it was not a disclosure falling within subsection (4)—a disclosure of information already in the public domain, for example; that the information had been supplied originally to a relevant person under Clause 1 of the Bill; that the defendant falls into one of the classes of person who can be prosecuted for the offence—a “relevant person”, for example, or an employee of a relevant person; and that the defendant made the disclosure. So there is no change in British law there, and the prosecution has to prove that before it can secure a conviction.
What is different is that subsection (5) then comes into play. It is open to the defendant to prove—to the lesser standard of the balance of probabilities—that, in short, he or she made an honest and reasonable mistake. Noble Lords who proposed these amendments say that it should be for the prosecution to prove that the defendant did not make such a mistake—in short, that the defendant was culpable to a degree that makes it right to convict him with a criminal offence. That would put subsection (5) on the same footing as the matters mentioned in subsections (1), (2) and (4).
We do not agree with that contention. The Bill requires only that the defendant should prove that it is more likely than not that certain extenuating circumstances applied; then he will be entitled to be acquitted. Those are circumstances which the defendant will be in the best position to know about—perhaps only the defendant will know about them. Those matters relate to his state of mind, or, more precisely, to what the defendant knew or believed at the time of the offence, and the factual circumstances surrounding the offence that made it reasonable for him to have that state of mind. Perhaps, for example, the defendant had been told mistakenly by a manager that it would be within the scope of his job to disclose the information, or perhaps he thought he had seen the information in question published in a local newspaper, or that the person concerned had consented to the disclosure of the information.
If those mistaken views were honestly and reasonably held, then the defendant should be acquitted. But to ask the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they were not so held would place an unreasonable burden on the prosecution. It would make prosecutions too difficult to bring, and acquittals too easy. The deterrent effect of Clause 3 about important information—and to which we attach great importance—would be lost, and the security of citizens’ personal data correspondingly weakened and jeopardised. This is not a unique provision. We need look no further than Section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992—with which at least one noble Lord opposite is probably much more familiar than myself—which makes similar provision in relation to social security information in the hands of the DWP.
I emphasise that we are not changing the burden of proof. We are not making a presumption of guilt, with the defendant having to prove their innocence. We are saying that, in an area where difficult judgments must be made on how the balance should be struck in the operation of the law, it is unreasonable for the prosecution’s case to have to stand on their being able to prove the state of mind of the individual committing the offence, rather than establishing that the offence has been committed.
We are not offending against the presumption of innocence. We are merely saying that this is the nature of the offence. If an individual is guilty of the offence, a breach of the law has occurred. The Opposition’s amendments propose an extra burden of proof which we reject. That is why we hope the amendment will be withdrawn.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Howard, will forgive me for intervening. The Minister made as good a fist of it as he could, but his arguments are pretty thin, talking about good old British law and so on.
The fact is that once the disclosure has been established as having been made by the individual, the onus is on them to use the defences set out in subsection (5) and so on. That is the point at which the onus changes. The Minister is not at all correct in saying that this is the classical situation; indeed, entirely the reverse. It is all very well to say that Clause 3(2) also creates an offence, but if the Minister accepted the wording of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howard, for Clause 3(1), it would also be appropriate to insert it into Clause 3(2). So that is not an argument.
What distinguishes this from theft, burglary, assault and heaven knows what else—ordinary criminal charges with the ordinary onus of proof—is inference from behaviour and conduct, which is how it is done in criminal law. It is not particularly difficult to infer from somebody’s conduct or behaviour whether they had knowledge or belief. Evidence is called and convictions are upheld every single day. It seems a particularly lazy way of drafting a Bill in these circumstances, where a particular defence having to overturn the inference of guilt is inserted into a clause like this.
We will no doubt have a further discussion about this in the next grouping. I feel quite sure, however—and I do not want to put words into the mouth of the noble Lord, Lord Howard—that we will have to return to this in the future.
I support the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about the Minister’s brilliance in defending a completely hopeless case. We watch him do it day after day, and he is absolutely marvellous. I am lost in admiration.
The idea of disposing of a fundamental piece of British justice because it is difficult to prosecute is absurd. The whole point of it being there is to make it difficult to prosecute. We shall have to return to this later, but in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
20: Clause 3, page 3, line 18, leave out “a defence for a person charged with” and insert “not”
The noble Lord said: I rise with huge optimism at this stage that the Minister, having argued so cogently in the previous grouping, will realise that what he is really seeking is a compromise over the issue of the burden of proof.
This is intended to be a halfway house, so that the defence is more easily available when the burden of proof effectively remains the same, but belief is more easily established. I am sure that the Minister has looked at this long and hard, and perhaps he thinks that this is preferable to completely reversing the burden of proof. It does not go right back to the classical situation of mens rea in terms of knowledge, intent or recklessness, but it would change the way in which subsection (5) operates.
It is usually open to the prosecution to establish a case beyond all reasonable doubt. Even this amendment establishes a rather strange animal, and it is not particularly desirable, but I hope that if the Minister is adamant that he will not accept the earlier amendment, he might at least see the benefits of this one. I beg to move.
There has been the most serious consideration of where the balance should be struck on what we recognise is a difficult issue. After serious consideration in the department and in the other place, and very serious consideration when I responded in terms of principle a few moments ago, I have been invited to change my mind. I have not done so. I recognise that the noble Lord holds no responsibility for any previous legislation. I have been unable to go back to 1916 or earlier for my illustration, but I have given the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, a reference to legislation passed in 1992, before this Administration came into power. Exactly the same concept was employed with regard to an Act of Parliament on social security. Others, besides me and my colleagues, fought through these issues and reached the same judgment on where the balance should be struck with regard to the offence. I have not changed my mind, despite the blandishments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who tried his hardest to win me over five minutes after I had rejected the concept. He has not succeeded, and I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for that deeply unsatisfactory reply. I understand, but I have no doubt that we will marshal our forces for the next stage of the Bill and come back into the fray with fresh vigour. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 not moved.]
23: Clause 3, page 3, line 29, leave out paragraph (b)
The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment intended to clarify the function of paragraph (b). I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate under what circumstances he would expect information to be released under a court order or other enactment. While paragraph (b) looks like a standard component of legislation, in the context of information-sharing, it is important to clarify on the record in what instances information could be shared other than as set out in the Bill. I beg to move.
The noble Lord said this is a probing amendment, and I hope to respond to his probe as effectively as possible, although I will not be able to meet it in quite the way he suggests. The purpose is quite straightforward. There are no hidden meanings attached to Clause 3(6)(b). Its purpose is to make clear to the relevant person—the scheme operator, in other words—that information provided in accordance with a court order or enactment constitutes lawful disclosure. It just makes that clear; that is all the paragraph does. Without it, whether the disclosure was lawful might depend upon individual circumstances. Having an express provision in the legislation makes it absolutely clear and helps the scheme operator understand its obligations.
The noble Lord asked for examples of when a court might require the scheme to disclose information. That largely misses the point. The provision is not to indicate how a court might place a requirement on the scheme, but to give a lawful defence for compliance with any such court order. It is as straightforward as that, and I hope the noble Lord will think that his probe has struck home.
24: Clause 5, page 4, line 19, leave out from “council” to “a” in line 20 and insert “, other than a council for a district in a county for which there is”
The noble Lord said: On Report in another place, my honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for creative industries and tourism moved an amendment to the Bill to extend it to information held by local authorities on blind and registered partially sighted people. The amendment responded to representations made by the digital switchover consumer expert group and to amendments tabled by Opposition Members. The definition of “local authority” did not reflect the variety of local authorities in England that might hold information on blind and partially sighted individuals. In particular, it could be read as excluding 33 metropolitan borough councils in England. A similar amendment was needed to similar provisions contained in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. The amendment corrects that drafting defect and ensures that the powers will enable information about registered blind and partially sighted people to be shared with a help scheme. I commend the amendment to your Lordships and I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
25: Clause 5, page 4, line 40, at end insert “, whether by digital terrestrial, digital satellite, digital cable or any other platform and regardless of provider”
The noble Lord said: This amendment makes clear that no preference is to be given to any particular type of platform and that full information on all providers and facilities will be made available. This relates to the earlier comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. It is a permissive amendment in that it does not restrict or prescribe the use of any particular platform in any particular concentration. I note that, when colleagues in another place sought to amend the Bill in the same vein, the Minister rejected their amendment on the basis that altering the definition of the help scheme would not contribute to digital switchover in the wider context.
The Minister in another place made it clear that his resistance to the amendment was because:
“It is neither workable nor practicable to amend the definition by placing substantive conditions on the way in which the scheme operates”.—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee, 16/01/07; col. 40.]
In the light of that, Amendment No. 25 seeks to amend the Bill in terms of the wider definition of digital switchover. The amendment would serve to underpin the Government’s commitment to platform neutrality, as set out in the help scheme document published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and deposited in the Library before Christmas.
This is an important amendment. The wide choice of digital television platforms is a great asset to broadcasting and represents a welcome departure from just one analogue spectrum. It is important that information on all providers is widely distributed so that those whom the Bill is trying to assist are able to choose what they want in the full knowledge of what is available. I doubt that outside this Committee many people would be able to list all the providers available—from the well known Freeview, as provided on the digital terrestrial television platform, to lesser-known providers such as Homechoice on the digital subscriber line and the various operators on Sky and cable.
The amendment will send out a message to whoever runs the digital help scheme that platform neutrality is properly endorsed by the Government. I beg to move.
I support in principle what the noble Lord, Lord Howard, has put forward. In a way, it is rather surprising that this definition does not appear in the Bill, or at least in the description in the help scheme, because, in a sense, it has been implicit in everything that Ministers have said, especially with regard to issues relating to partially sighted people and so on. It seems to me that such a definition would be a useful signpost, and it would be beneficial to make it explicit, rather than having to look at the no doubt wise words of Ministers in Committee in the House of Lords. It would be useful to have it in the Bill, and therefore I consider the amendment very sensible.
The simple fact is that in principle there is absolutely no disagreement between us in what we seek to see occur and in what I confidently forecast will occur. The difference seems to be that noble Lords opposite will be reassured only if something is included in the Bill.
The Bill is about the digital switchover help scheme, and the definition of the scheme in the Bill is just that—it is a definition. It is used to define switchover help functions, for which purpose the DWP and others can disclose the necessary information.
The current wording is neutral on the form in which digital broadcast takes place, and that is why there is no need for amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in his extremely generous way, freely admitted that the Government seem to be thinking in that way, but, in fact, that is how we are acting. One obvious illustration is that, when it looked as though some planning rules were not platform-neutral because they might have raised difficulties for certain forms of broadcasting with regard to satellite dishes, we set about relaxing the rules to ensure that any such disadvantage did not obtain. So I give to the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, every reassurance that, as our White Paper says, the Government will continue to be platform-neutral in their public policy. That underpins what we are about, even in this modest little Bill.
I am resisting an inappropriate and entirely unnecessary amendment. We are already acting, and have acted, completely consonant with the objective, as the noble Lord enjoins us to do. Therefore, there is no difference on principle; merely, it is our view that the amendments are redundant and unnecessary, which I hope the noble Lord will think too.
I thank the Minister. Help can mean providing full information to assist people. All the amendment does is underline that. If the Minister is in such agreement, it is difficult to understand why he cannot include this modest wording in the Bill. In practice, the provision of help is being given to the BBC, which would not be human if it did not occasionally think, “Well, why should we be giving out too much to help our competition?”. That is why the maximum amount of clarity is desirable in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will come around to my way of thinking.
The significant actor on this scene is Digital UK, which has worked closely with all platforms and comes to a consensual approach in describing the different platforms which it obviously is obliged to do. This is of course difficult. Digital UK should be congratulated on the skilful way in which it has managed this. It will be responsible for the generic scheme communications and will have to abide by platform-neutrality issues. It has made enormous strides in reassuring all parties that it is working successfully towards this objective and is further proof that absolutely everyone recognises the principle on which the Government are working and on which all others seeking to achieve this objective on successful switchover should work. That is why the noble Lord should be generous and withdraw his amendment.
26: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Commencement and duration
(1) Section 1 shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint.
(2) No information may be disclosed under section 1 after the end of the prescribed period.
(3) No record of information disclosed within the prescribed period shall be held after the end of the prescribed period.
(4) In this section “the prescribed period” means the period beginning with the day on which section 1 comes into force and ending one month after the completion of the digital switchover help scheme in the United Kingdom.”
The noble Lord said: There has been much discussion here and in another place about including a sunset clause. The argument was rejected on the grounds that powers granted in the Bill exist only until switchover has been completed and, therefore, will automatically cease. Yet again, we wonder why Her Majesty's Government are reluctant to put things in the Bill. The amendment incorporates the principles that have come out of debate in another place. The heart of the amendment lies in subsections (2) and (4), which would ensure that when the switchover help scheme has ended—up to a month after the digital switchover, according to the Government’s guidance—the power to have access to and share information would cease. The amendment includes a commencement provision in subsection (1). The Secretary of State could fulfil the Government’s wish to link the powers directly to the event of digital switchover by laying an order that would commence the Bill at an appropriate time. In practice, that would need to be quite soon after the passage of the Bill if adequate provision is to be made for Whitehaven.
Subsection (3) of the amendment is important. It includes a provision that the information shall be disposed of after the switchover has been completed. It will help to avoid abuse and, as the information is no longer required, should not be any impediment to a smooth switchover. We have the opportunity to set two important precedents; that is, a parliamentary precedent that clears the statute book of legislation that has served its purpose. Following on from that, we have a security precedent that shows that, while government may need access to personal data for beneficial reasons, they take seriously the importance of that data and will cease access once the data have served their purpose.
The amendment matches the flexibility of the scheme with the flexibility of the supporting legislation. For as long as it takes to implement digital switchover, which may, as the Minister in another place acknowledged, take longer than advertised, the legislation to enable the help scheme will remain on the statute book, yet the information, having served its purpose, will be afforded the greatest possible protection. I beg to move.
Just to be helpful to the Minister, there is a choice of sunset clauses on offer. I am sure that he is tempted by both of them. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, made all the arguments in favour of sunset clauses. Our amendment has the benefit of simplicity. But in many of his utterances on the Bill, the Minister is resisting amendments and seems to be saying, “We are doing it anyway so why do we need it on the face of the Bill?” That seems to have been the line taken in the other place. Perhaps the real reason is that these amendments were not invented here. I suspect that the Government think the Bill is so finely crafted already that it is not capable of further improvement. That is probably the line being taken.
However, the Bill certainly is capable of further improvement and sensitive data are involved. A hulk will be left behind on the statute book after the switchover. The Secretary of State said that there is effectively a sunset clause because it will be operated once switchover is completed in 2012, which must be the Tyne Tees and Ulster switchover. But I seriously suggest to the Minister that there is a cut-off point and that the Bill is taken off the statute book at a particular time. These are important powers of disclosure and it should be explicit that they come to an end. I hope that the Minister will consider either the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howard, or our own humble amendment favourably.
I support both amendments if necessary, but certainly the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising. It would be reassuring for all concerned if there were something rather more specific in the Bill, as other Members of the Committee have said. Delicate and sensitive areas of information are involved and people would be reassured if they knew that there was a definite date for removing data.
Let me begin by reassuring the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that we would never be so arrogant as to suggest that a Bill we introduced was absolutely perfect. As proof, with regard to this particular Bill, he will know that we accepted some opposition amendments in another place. Improvements have been effected. We approach all our work with undue modesty. That does not mean that I will accept every amendment that is tabled and I am not going to accept either of these, largely because it obviates me from the obnoxious choice of which amendment I would accept.
We are a little early, so the Committee will not mind if I digress momentarily. The other day, when the Government sustained a defeat on yet another amendment that asked for an annual report to be inserted in legislation, the Chief Whip told me that he would be very happy if I gave him a pound for every time such an amendment was proposed. I replied that I would happily do that provided he gave me a pound for every amendment that recommended a sunset clause—knowing full well that with the digital switchover Bill I had two, so I was already in profit for the week. That does not make the concept any more attractive, however.
Let us be clear: the objective of the Bill is to ensure that the help scheme gets the information it needs when it needs it; no more, no less. We should reflect, after all, on what Clause 1(1) says:
“The Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland department may… supply a relevant person with social security information for use… in connection with switchover help functions”.
That is the legal basis the Bill creates by which they can deliver such information. Once the help scheme has completed its task, the legislative basis for using the information, and therefore for the DWP or anyone else disclosing it, vanishes. Drafting the powers to link them directly to the event of digital switchover—a time-limited event—therefore has the same practical effect as a formal sunset clause. We already have it; the right to obtain or disclose the information dies with the completion of the function. Once switchover is complete and the help scheme has done its job, the DWP, the MoD and the other agencies will no longer be able to lawfully disclose such information.
Once again, we are not disagreeing about principle. Both noble Lords opposite and the Government want to be absolutely secure in understanding that, once the process has ended, disclosure of information must also come to an end. I am glad to give the assurance that there are no plans for the help scheme to continue, or for the powers to be exercised, after switchover has been completed and no more help needs to be delivered.
I emphasise that the problem with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, the first amendment tabled this afternoon, is that it contains a requirement for information to be destroyed one month after the switchover help scheme has been completed. That is an obligation anyway. The fifth data protection principle in Schedule 1 to the Data Protection Act 1998 is as follows:
“Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes”.
The Data Protection Act is essentially the bedrock by which data protection in this country obtains. All data controllers must abide by those principles. If we made a specific provision for data destruction in the Bill, would we not be calling the effectiveness of the Data Protection Act—the guarantee for citizens across the board that data cannot be kept or used when it no longer has a purpose—into question?
The Bill did not start out perfectly but, thanks to its consideration, we have made improvements. These amendments are not improvements, and I invite the noble Lord to consider withdrawing them.
27: After Clause 5 , insert the following new Clause—
The Secretary of State shall annually lay before Parliament a report on the progress of the disclosure of information in connection with any digital switchover help scheme.”
The noble Lord said: I am rather reluctant to introduce this amendment because it might take away the Minister’s profit.
The amendment would place a duty on the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the progress of the disclosure of information under the digital switchover help scheme. This is especially relevant if the amendments to introduce overseeing the operation by the National Audit Office are rejected.
Despite the fact that the Bill introduces a new office to deter malpractice among those who have access to the information, there is no system of accountability for the help scheme as a whole, despite the cost of the scheme being estimated at £600 million.
Owing to the narrow scope of the Bill, it proved impossible to table an amendment requesting a yearly report on the whole digital switchover scheme. The amendment is therefore a probing one; it cannot go as far as I would like, but I hope that it will provide the Minister with some food for thought, so that he will come back with a proposal at Report on some method of ensuring greater accountability of how the help scheme works, either by this method or by use of the NAO. I beg to move.
I understand and support the reasoning behind the amendment. However, for the reasons I shall give, I believe that the amendment is not necessary.
It is our intention that the digital switchover should be established under the BBC charter and agreement. Clause 39 of the agreement says that the BBC must comply with a help scheme agreed with the Secretary of State. Once a scheme has been established under the agreement, I readily accept that it is very important that the BBC, in the form of the trust, should report on the operation of the help scheme.
That is why clause 41 of the agreement deals with annual progress reports and provides that the trust must provide the Secretary of State with an annual report on what the BBC has done in respect of the help scheme, and indeed all its activities in respect of digital switchover.
It is our intention that this report should be laid before Parliament as a matter of course. While I sympathise with the intention behind the amendment, I suggest that the provisions of the BBC charter and agreement make it unnecessary.
We also believe that as a matter of policy and good law making, it is not desirable to include in statute provisions that are unnecessary or otiose. Apart from anything else, it would imply that the provisions of the charter and agreement are not binding on the BBC, and consequently call into question the nature of all the other requirements in the charter and agreement. That would not be helpful.
I hope that the noble Lord has been reassured by what I say, and I should be grateful if he would withdraw the amendment.
28: After Clause 5 , insert the following new Clause—
This Act shall not come into force before the digital switchover scheme is published and laid before both Houses of Parliament.”
The noble Lord said: I realise that the Minister has not been very sympathetic to sunset clauses, but I hope that he will be entirely sympathetic to a sunrise clause.
The amendment reflects the uncertainty surrounding the scheme, which has been debated and discussed throughout today. It has been interesting to see how much the interventions of Members of the Committee such as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and those on the Opposition Benches, have uncovered how little we know about much of this scheme—not only its essence but its costs. This extends to looking not only at the costs of the scheme and specification of equipment. The Minister talked about the possible narrowing of the required information, so even the exact extent of the information is not known. The agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC under clause 39 has clearly not yet been agreed or promulgated. We do not know which organisation will be running the scheme—the scheme contractor. Will it be a hybrid, a joint venture or outsourced from the BBC?
There are a number of imponderables. One of the Bill’s problems is that it just provides a framework. We know a little about the help scheme from the website, but we do not know enough to make a judgment on the Bill as a whole. Either the Government come forward with more detail at this stage so that the Bill can move forward—that would be my preference—or we must put something in the Bill to give us the opportunity to discuss the full scheme at a future date. That is a less preferable way of going forward, but if details of the scheme are not available now, it seems the only course. Otherwise we do not have an understanding of the detail when we debate this Bill.
We are in a difficult position. The sunrise clause is designed to stop the Act coming into force until we have had a proper debate about the scheme. If the Minister can reassure us that we will get full details by Report stage, for instance, we would be satisfied. Ministers have certainly not held out any prospect of that today, however. In a sense, this amendment therefore sums up a lot of the sentiment around the Committee today. We need to know more before we can make a proper judgment. This is a skeleton on which to hang a scheme, not the scheme itself. I beg to move.
I support my noble friend’s amendment. There is a painful lack of detail on how the scheme will operate. If Her Majesty’s Government intend to have a switchover in Whitehaven on 17 October, they must surely be able to provide those details by now. If they cannot, it is difficult to see how they will get Whitehaven up and running by the required date. If they have the details then, as my noble friend has suggested, they should provide them to us.
I add my support to the amendment. The same thread has become evident at various points throughout this afternoon. It is precisely as has been said: we are left not knowing quite where to go because the amount of information required for us to be able to understand the scheme—and therefore some of the problems that the Government say they wish to avoid, to protect vulnerable people—will not be made available for some reason. That is unsatisfactory, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is right to say that every part of the Committee represented here this afternoon has expressed that concern.
I, too, support the amendment. One problem is that so little is known in either House about what is going on. The awareness that this is outwith the parliamentary process and that decisions are made behind closed doors has a disquieting effect on Members of both Houses, who feel that they should be safeguarding what will be required as a result of this digital switchover. If nothing else, can we have rather more reassurance from the Minister that more information will soon be available about what is going to happen and when? I do mean soon.
The noble Baroness is always sweet reasonableness. If I could take “soon” as the definition of when it would be available, I would be reasonably happy. I recognise the understandable concern expressed by all parts of the Committee about this issue. It is clear that we would like to be further advanced than we are. There have been some difficulties. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State made clear in another place on 18 January that we expect the BBC to lead the delivery of the help scheme. However, the Government will have a continuing responsibility for setting the policy, including helping with procurement and determining eligibility for the scheme. That will be reflected in the scheme agreement that is currently being finalised with the BBC.
I would have preferred to have been able to say that the scheme has been finalised. There has been delay, which reflects the fact that there have been substantial changes at the BBC. When the new board of governors was succeeded on 1 January by the trustees, eight of the 11 trustees were new and were not party to previous deliberations with the Government. It is not surprising that they wanted to consider the issue and reach a view on the detailed terms of the agreement. Now that the overall licence fee settlement has been determined, we are able to discuss detailed governance arrangements with the BBC Trust and the Executive Board. We will conclude those discussions very shortly and see the emergence of the scheme.
It is right that we are pressed on this matter. I cannot give a specific date, but if the noble Baroness's request for “soon” is my interpretation of “weeks not months”, then we are at one. If by “soon” she means “next week”, we have cause for some disagreement. I want to assure the Committee that we recognise the proper anxiety about this. We are eager to see the scheme published. We have made considerable progress and we are working closely with the BBC team to develop the procurement strategy. On behalf of the DCMS and the BBC, we issued a notice in the official journal of the European Union seeking a potential scheme operator. A briefing session has been held and a long-list of potential bidders drawn up. The aim is for the main contractor to be let by the end of the year.
The grass is not growing under the Government's feet. After all, Whitehaven is not too far away from us in terms of date, although a little further away in location, and we intend to meet that date. This scheme has to be in place before then.
As noble Lords will know, I am always eager to treat all aspects of, and consideration on, Bills in which I am involved as the top priority, and I am working with expedition to ensure that we deal with this Bill as expeditiously as possible. That means that I cannot meet the noble Lord’s request. However, it will be recognised that the Government have a clear objective with regard to the passage of this Bill because we are aware of the significance of Royal Assent in relation to setting up the scheme. By the same token, we cannot reach that end date and not meet the obvious expectation in all parts of this House and another place that the nature of the scheme will be published and clear.
There are dual objectives to be arrived at as rapidly as possible. Far from the Government showing lethargy in this respect, quite the opposite is true. We have our foot down as hard on the accelerator pedal as is legitimate in terms of speed, but we have some constraints. As I have said, there are other significant actors in this situation and there are reasons for some slight delay, so we are a little further from the end than we would have wished. In general, I hope that the Committee will recognise that, in pressing this issue today, the noble Lord is pressing at an open door with regard to what we want to achieve. I hope that he will think the amendment is unnecessary.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I thought that at one stage he was going to say not “open door” but “open wound”. Clearly he is impatient, and I can tell that he is in a bit of a Catch-22 situation because, for business reasons, it is important to get Bills through, but we really have to see the scheme before the parliamentary process is complete. It would be completely wrong for us not to consider that before the next stage of the Bill. I thought that the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Howard, was a good one, because we want to see the emergence of the scheme before the parliamentary process is through.
That said, I can see that the Minister is in difficulty and that he will be cracking a very firm whip—and no doubt the Secretary of State will do likewise. The best thing that I can do is to help the Committee to terminate its proceedings so that officials can get on with putting the scheme together. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 29 not moved.]
Clause 6 agreed to.
[Amendment No. 30 not moved.]
Bill reported to the House with an amendment.
The Committee adjourned at 5.08 pm.