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Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 15 May 2007

Report received.

Clause 1 [Disclosure of information]:

1: 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: My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for ensuring that we did not convene for Report until the Digital Switchover Help Scheme had been published. It has been most helpful to have sight of the scheme.

Amendment No. 1 was tabled in Grand Committee and taken away in order to give the Minister further time to reflect on the problem of ensuring that the digital switchover help scheme is available to those who live in multiple dwellings—blocks of flats, old people’s homes and so on. Paragraph 4 of the scheme gives the administrator considerable flexibility in the treatment of multiple dwellings—rightly so, in my view. After all, the appropriate method of dealing with one eligible person in a block of 100 flats may be quite different from the way that one would deal with an old people’s home with eight residents, all of whom were eligible for assistance.

It would be helpful if the Minister could elaborate a little on how he sees the administrator using his powers. For example, in view of the difficulties that may be encountered with a set-top aerial of the type described in sub-paragraphs 2(6) and (7) of Schedule 3 of the scheme, can the Minister inform the House of the types of assistance that an administrator would be able to provide via a notification under paragraph (2)(b) of Clause 17 of the scheme? As already suggested, it would be of great assistance to the House to have an indication of how far the administrator would be able to go in order to help this category of eligible person. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for moving his amendment and for referring to the fact that we have delayed this Report stage until publication of, and agreement over, the scheme. I am sure that that will assist the House in considering the Bill.

Of course, the noble Lord has already had one attempt at this amendment. He raised it in Grand Committee as a probing amendment to elicit what help would be given to people who accessed television through a communal TV system. During that debate, he referred to the fact that the Bill makes no provision for people in flats or other types of dwelling that may be affected by a failure to upgrade communal TV systems. It will be recognised that the Bill deals entirely with access to DWP and other data necessary for the smooth and efficient administration of the digital switchover help scheme. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is no mention of the issue that the noble Lord raises.

The noble Lord raised several points, to which I should like to respond. I should like to set out in more detail the challenges of ensuring that communal TV systems are upgraded and the implications of no action being taken. Communal TV aerial systems have been with us since the 1960s and were originally installed to overcome difficulties with individual reception; for example, where a dwelling had no access to the roof for an outside aerial or a poor line of sight to the transmitter.

There is no statutory requirement for landlords to provide access to communal TV systems. There may well be obligations under a lease, tenancy agreement or contract for the upkeep of the system. But, like other communal services, such as lifts, roofs, and so on, the costs of maintenance will normally be covered by rent and service charges, so will be allowable for housing benefit. Changes to housing benefit regulations from 1 April clarified the position, making it clear that housing benefit covers all types of communal TV system upgrades where system costs can be separated from subscription charges.

We estimate that as many as 4 million homes may have access to a communal TV system—the majority of properties served, of course, are flats. Communal TV systems are mainly found in medium and large-scale blocks of purpose-built flats. It will be no surprise to the House that almost half of London's households are flats, maisonettes or apartments. Of these, a third comprises purpose-built flats and 14 per cent are part of a converted or shared house. Of the 20 districts with the highest proportion of flats, maisonettes or apartments, 18 are in London. Around 40 per cent of private sector flats, excluding leasehold properties, are also in London.

The majority of communal systems in the UK were originally installed to work with analogue and were designed to carry only four or five televisions. They will need some attention if they are to convey the full range of digital services after switchover. In March 2006, the Digital Television Group—the industry standards body for digital TV—carried out work for the DTI to look in detail at the types of problems that uninspected systems might encounter. The report by the group found that the main problem was likely to be the poor performance of many analogue systems in handling digital signals, with insufficient signal passed through the system to ensure a reliable service.

The Digital Television Group report found that at switchover, some existing systems may provide access to limited digital services while others may perform adequately because of the increase in power levels and within the aerial group transmissions. But the age and condition of existing systems is an important factor in determining how well uninspected systems perform post-switchover. It is important to bear in mind that industry guidance recommends that system components are replaced every 10 years.

The Government’s approach since 2005 has been to ensure that there is a strong and effective evidence base and to ensure that all landlords—both social and private sector landlords—and residents are aware of the issue and take action to upgrade communal TV systems where appropriate. In January 2007, my department published research carried out by the British Market Research Bureau into actions taken by social landlords, local authorities, ALMOs and housing associations. The research found that 32 per cent of social landlords were in the process of completing the upgrade of all affected properties, although a further 18 per cent had made a significant start and were well on their way to completing by switchover. Around half reported little progress.

If we look at national trends in individual households, more than 77 per cent of households have converted at least one TV set to digital, and take-up is still growing strongly. Recent data from the Digital UK/Ofcom tracker survey, which interviews around 2,000 households each quarter, show that take-up of digital TV for people living in flats is more or less in line with the general population at around 75 per cent. There are a number of factors involved, but the differences between the two surveys are most likely to be due to an increasing number of residents making their own arrangements for receiving digital TV—for example by satellite—or residents using communal TV systems that have not been checked and which convey some digital services.

Of course, we recognise that we need to ensure that more work needs to be done to establish the full picture, but it appears that the apparent slowness of landlords to take active steps is not constraining digital television take-up. That is why we think that progress is being made, but the noble Lord was right to identify that anxiety. However, it is clear that, first, people want to avail themselves of the advantages that digital brings; and, secondly, that through the information flows which are circulating around the country people are becoming increasingly aware that digital is the system of the future and that analogue will be switched off. They are therefore making arrangements accordingly.

The help scheme will not cover communal TV systems. That must be the landlord’s responsibility—that is where the obligation lies. However, the scheme will take all reasonable steps to ensure a continuity of reception at switchover and will try to connect to a communal system. At switchover, the power of transmission will be increased. This should give the many flat dwellers an ability to receive digital services on indoor aerials, even if the landlord has not adopted their system. We have evidence of the extent to which the nation is already well aware of the need to switch to digital.

The noble Lord has identified an issue relating to communal provision. That is the responsibility of the landlord, but we are optimistic on two counts: that landlords will see it in their interest to provide these services to their tenants; and, secondly, that the strength of the signal may mean that in any case the flat dweller is not dependent on what the landlord provides. I hope that that explanation has reassured the noble Lord and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I must apologise for not declaring an interest in that I am chairman of the trustees of the Hospital of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Castle Rising, which is a residence for people who would be able to apply for help. I thank the Minister for telling us about the extra power that will make the set-top aerials work where they might not in other circumstances. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

2: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, at end insert—

“( ) A report shall be laid before Parliament detailing the likely expenditure which the Secretary of State has calculated will be incurred by—

(a) the Secretary of State,(b) the Northern Ireland Department, and (c) local authorities,in supplying information under this Act.”

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for sending me a copy of the scheme agreement between the DCMS and the BBC. It is extremely helpful and will enable us to have a more useful debate today. My amendment attempts to improve the parliamentary scrutiny that will be necessary in the process.

The Bill allows the Government to make the BBC an arm of the Department of Social Security because it gives the BBC an additional £600 million in licence fee, which the BBC will give to those who need help during the switchover. Such schemes would normally be run by the department and not by the BBC. While the BBC has schemes which help those who are receiving a pension, it has never before gone into areas relating to this scheme. It neither has the resources to do so, nor does it have the competence to do it. That is not its own fault—it has never had to do this before. As a result, the BBC will sub-contract the whole operation to a company to be owned 51 per cent by the BBC and 49 per cent by a mystery bidder who will be responsible for processing and handing out the money.

In normal circumstances, if the Government intended to spend £600 million, there would be parliamentary scrutiny, first, of the rules of eligibility; secondly, of the management of the scheme; and, thirdly, scrutiny of whether it has succeeded. However, Parliament has no chance to debate these rules. The Government have published them, and the Minister was kind enough to put Report off until the agreement was published, but nowhere during this process can we debate them. If there is no amendment to the Bill, the other place will have no chance to debate whether the rules are fair or the criteria, the cost, the implementation or anything else. This is the only chance we have to raise this. That is wrong; there should be scrutiny to see whether the Government have the rules right. My amendment does that.

To reinforce my point, I draw the Minister’s attention to the scheme agreement. On page 6, Clause 8(1)(b)(i) states:

“at the relevant time he is entitled to disability living allowance, attendance allowance, constant attendance allowance, or mobility supplement”.

We all know—especially those of us who spent some time in the Department of Social Security—that rules and benefits change. They may change before this comes into place—maybe even during it—and, therefore, the scheme agreement will probably have to be amended.

While that is not certain, if one moves on to page 21 of the scheme agreement, it states:

“The provisions of this Scheme are conditional on no decision or judgement being made by a competent body in relation to any provision of the EC Treaty or legislation based upon the EC Treaty (“EC law”) in respect of the Scheme which has the direct or indirect effect of preventing or obstructing the operation or funding of the Scheme”.

I think that, in simple language, that means the department has not got a clue whether this scheme is legal under EU law. We have seen that in some of the Government’s other attempts; for example, privatising the Tote. They put forward a very good scheme, that would have benefited racing, but it was immediately thrown out by Brussels and the whole thing is in total disarray. Quite clearly, the department does not know whether this scheme is legal, and it has not been tested properly in Brussels. The scheme agreement goes on to describe that it would not be a breach and how the Secretary of State can change it.

Page 27 states that the BBC Trust will;

“ensure that the Scheme is operated in a way that will provide value for money for licence fee payers and will invite the NAO to review the operation of the Scheme at least biennially”.

That is every two years, which seems to be not quite enough, although we may discuss that in greater detail on a forthcoming amendment.

Finally, page 26 states that,

“the Secretary of State may amend the Scheme in such a way she considers necessary to ensure that the Scheme complies with competition law and the law governing State Aids, but only after complying with the provisions of this paragraph”.

It then, in effect, goes on to provide that if there is any change in the law, whether EU law or the law of this country, this scheme can be changed. Therefore, at any moment, the Government can come along and say to the BBC, “We’ve changed our minds. It’s costing too much”. We know that the Government have a complication about that, because, when we asked how they arrived at the figure of £600 million, the Minister was kind enough to write to me and say:

“We cannot give more details on the breakdown of costs at this stage … as this could affect future discussions with potential bidders and the ability of the contracting authority to secure value for money”.

That is a nice argument, usually used by government departments when they are unsure of their figures.

At any moment, the Government can come along and say, “We’ve got the costs wrong”. Although the Treasury has agreed that should the BBC spend more than £600 million, it will make an additional payment, we know that, at the end of the day, the Government will change the scheme. The amount of money could be £600 million or £800 million; we do not know. There is no opportunity for Parliament to debate, amend or have any part in this. There is no oversight or control. It is up to an agreement that the Secretary of State can, in effect, impose upon the BBC Trust, which will be responsible for running this scheme. That is wrong; there should be accountability. I thought this Government believed in accountability. My amendment would ensure that during the operation the Secretary of State must come to Parliament and explain what she is doing and how she is accountable for what we now know is taxpayers’ money because the licence fee is now a tax. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, makes some extremely important points. He has provoked me into speaking earlier than I otherwise would have done about page 26, paragraphs 4(1) and (2). This is a great let-out for the Secretary of State and could lead to considerable changes to the scheme. It is very important that the Minister today explains these circumstances, which, as the noble Viscount says, simply imply that the department does not have a clue what the competition situation is and that there has not been any pre-clearance with the Commission.

What other circumstances do the Government envisage? Are these the only set of circumstances in which the Government envisage changing the scheme, or are there others? That is very important. I am less concerned about the precise cost, but I am very concerned about the accountability points that the noble Viscount has made. I am concerned above all to know, if we are holding in our hands what purports to be the digital switchover help scheme that will be effected, in what circumstances it can or will be changed. What is envisaged might happen?

My Lords, I support my noble friend's amendment. It would require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament. For the reasons outlined by my noble friend, it would be entirely appropriate to include the provision in the Bill.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords, particularly the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, for identifying these issues, which are usefully aired by the amendment. He has taken full advantage ofthe publication of the scheme, but I am not sure that this amendment is adroit enough to meet his requirements. I listened fairly carefully to what has been said; I have also looked at the amendment. It would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on the likely costs attributable to the DWP and other public providers of information under the Bill. That seems to be a recipe for additional and unnecessary bureaucracy.

The DWP is not required to provide a report for data-sharing gateways other than in relation to the disclosure of information. Therefore, I am not sure why it should be required to do so with regard to this information, unless the noble Viscount is indicating that he would like the amendment drafted slightly differently so that it identifies the BBC as the point at issue.

Clause 41 of the BBC agreement requires the BBC Trust to report to the Secretary of State annually on what the BBC has done in complying with its various obligations under the help scheme. The help scheme agreement makes it clear that that report must contain information about the operation of the scheme, including in particular information about the performance indicators mentioned and the performance of the administrators.

I recognise that the BBC Trust’s report covers only the BBC’s activities and not the DWP’s, but we can certainly refute any suggestion that the BBC is not answerable to this position. Therefore, the amendment throws the whole weight on the DWP as needing to be more in the open. I persist in my point that we do not ask the DWP to produce similar reports for other data-sharing gateways, and I am not sure that the case has been made for this one.

We certainly intend that the costs will be treated as scheme costs and borne by the administrator, rather than the DWP. They will fall within the budget set for the scheme and the reports produced by the trust. As noble Lords have said, details of the arrangements have still to be agreed. We have not completed that.

In Committee, I was pressed to delay Report until we had published the help scheme, which we have, so the broad contours within which we are working are quite clear. Not every ‘i’ has been dotted nor ‘t’ been crossed about administration, but our current work suggests that costs associated with information sharing for the help scheme will be modest. We do not expect them to be more than £10 million for the lifetime of the scheme. That is because the data will be drawn from existing DWP infrastructure, which does not require much adaptation to facilitate the physical sharing of data for the help scheme.

I freely acknowledge that I do not have full documentation on operational details, but I can respond to the amendment by indicating that the DWP is not involved in significant costs for the scheme. Secondly, the DWP is not asked for that information in any other context; I am not sure why it should be here. I emphasise that the BBC will, in its annual report to Parliament, have to give full details of how the scheme is being operated.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, laid the rather formidable charge that we do not know what on Earth we are doing about the European Commission’s attitude to the Bill. Let me allay the noble Viscount’s anxieties by saying that we have done some work in that area. We think that the scheme will probably be defined as a state aid and will therefore need to be notified to the Commission, but we regard it as certain to be judged as compatible with the common market under provisions of the treaty of Rome dealing with assistance of a social character. That is what the scheme is about.

Platform neutrality is of particular importance in successfully bringing an aid within that exemption. We do not anticipate that causing a delay to implementation. There is a later amendment from the noble Viscount about platform neutrality, to which I hope I shall be able to respond positively, but I trail at this stage the fact that, because of those two considerations, we think that we will be totally compatible with Brussels rules on these matters.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that Parliament has not been able either to debate or to scrutinise the rules that are drawn up in the agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC on what the eligibility provisions should be for those receiving help? Does he not think that those rules, which cover how the £600 million will be spent, should be debated by Parliament? If my amendment is not the right way to do that, will he say what the right way is to allow Parliament to debate the matter?

My Lords, we think that we are fully accountable to Parliament for the Bill and our intentions behind the scheme. After all, we had a pretty substantial debate on the BBC charter and the scheme. I understand what the noble Viscount says about details, but it will be recognised that the broad structure of the scheme is well in line with the consensus of Parliament on what help there should be for those for whom it is intended. If the noble Viscount will forgive me, I must address my remarks to his amendment and to his extremely interesting questions, rather than to him, but on his very signal point about the European Community I assure him that we are confident of our position.

The noble Viscount asked me earlier whether the Secretary of State can arbitrarily change the scheme, but I did not have time to reply before he asked me another searching question. Under Schedule 2(4), the Secretary of State has a right to change the scheme, albeit in very limited circumstances; namely, where the scheme is operated in a way that is incompatible with EU law. Any other changes would need to be made by agreement. We would certainly need to make the scheme compatible with European law. That is regular. We do not think that we will have to make any changes at all, except on the extreme margins, because the scheme’s broad concept falls within the criteria laid down by Brussels. I hope that that satisfies the noble Viscount, although I see that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is quite irrepressible, even on Report.

I am afraid so, my Lords. Before the Minister sits down for the second time, may I press him on the point about changes to the scheme? Is he saying that the only changes that can be made under the agreement are in Schedule 2(4), and that, otherwise, the BBC must agree those changes with the Government?

My Lords, the noble Lord has expressed my views and what I intended to say more cogently and with greater emphasis. I am extremely grateful to him.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s response. As always, he has tried to be as helpful as possible. He is quite right that my drafting of my amendment is not of the highest standard and perhaps does not mean exactly what I want it to say, but he was able to respond to the intention behind it. I hope that, between now and Third Reading, I might write to the Minister or be able to have a meeting with him to discuss the amendment, because I am anxious to return with an amendment that explains exactly what I attempted to explain in my speech to it. I recognise that my amendment as it is might not do the job perfectly.

The Minister made a couple of points. In response to my point about the European Court and Brussels, he said probably. We have heard that several times about EC judgments, and we wish the Minister the best of luck. His department has not always had luck when it comes to probabilities in Brussels; it has certainly not had it with the Tote. His other point was that this involves the consensus of Parliament. That is certainly true. Social security legislation is the result of the consensus of Parliament, but the rules that define who gets the money are made by orders in this House and another place. They are debated and subject to parliamentary scrutiny and, indeed, amendment. That is the difference, and that is what we do not have here.

My Lords, my noble friend could add to that. I speak from experience. Who does and who does not benefit, and the exclusions and the inclusions, are some of the most fiercely debated issues.

My Lords, my noble friend is right. Indeed, we had those debates when he represented that department in another place and I represented that department in this House. Some of my more painful experiences were when I was debating some of the issues on the terms of eligibility.

In response to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, the Minister said that any other change has to be done by agreement with the BBC. That is not very difficult for the Secretary of State to do because we know that the BBC has to look to him for its funding and so on. The Secretary of State can go along to the BBC at any time and say, “Listen, I think we need to change the rules here. Do you agree?”. The poor old BBC has to agree because it will not have any choice. That is the problem.

We support the intentions behind this, but, in effect, it will allow the spending of a substantial sum of money, which in any other government department would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, without that scrutiny. I am grateful for the Minister’s response. He nodded when I said that I could either write to him or go to see him to determine whether I could come forward with a better amendment, which I will do. In the mean time, I thank him for his reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, leave out paragraph (a)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group. I add my thanks to those of the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, to the Minister for making sure that we are debating the Bill on Report with the scheme in our hands. Of course, it has considerable drawbacks for the Minister who can be interrogated on the detail of the scheme during the debate. I am sure that there are downsides from his point of view, but it is extremely helpful for noble Lords to make sure that there is a satisfactory scheme and that we understand what its impact will be.

This amendment, which I put down in Grand Committee, is a marker designed to show that we still do not believe that the Government have made the case for BBC licence fee payers paying for digital switchover. Why they should pay £600 million from the licence fee, and not the general taxpayer, still eludes us. I rather took that impression from what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, had to say as well. The way in which the scheme is constructed makes it clear that the BBC, effectively, is unnecessary, except for paying the bill. Nearly everything in terms of the project can be done by the contractor. In fact, the BBC’s press release seems to make a big distinction between policy and project. I shall be asking the Minister more about that in a moment.

All that the BBC seems to be there for is to pay money to the contractor. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said that the BBC had to do this because broadcasting technology had changed. Moreover, he said:

“The help scheme will … 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”.—[Official Report, 22/3/07; col. GC 252.]

That is rather circular: it is more or less saying that it is because the Government have decided that that is what should be done. I do not think that there was any real, rational argument behind that.

It was interesting to hear what the Minister had to say about the rationale for the scheme given to the EU. We have always argued that this is a social assistance programme and that it is appropriate for the Government to pay for it, not the BBC. What argument is being made to the EU in order to get this through the competition authorities? It is “assistance of a social character”—I took down the Minister’s words. I believe that the logic is flawed. I do not believe that I will be able to persuade the Government, especially not with an agreement between the BBC and the DCMS in my hand. It would be only realistic to accept that, but I want the Minister to know that in my view the arguments have not been made correctly.

It would be useful for the Minister to explain why there is this distinction between the policy review group and the project board. Certainly to the outside, uninitiated observer, that is not at all clear. So there is that confusion and, even more peculiar, in the light of that confusion the BBC Trust is set up in this agreement as the adjudicator to decide what functions properly fall on the board side or on the policy side. Again, that is a very peculiar way of doing things. Why is there not an integrated way of doing it? If the BBC is genuinely part of this operation and not simply a pass through to the contractor, why are not the board and the policy review group combined? I think we would all like to know a great deal more about that side of things from the Minister. I beg to move.

My Lords, we are used on Report to reiterating quite fundamental amendments and debates that we have had in Committee, but I am not used on Report to having to reiterate discussions and fundamental debates that we have had on a series of other occasions when these matters have been before Parliament. To hear the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, anyone would think that until this Bill appeared on the scene no one had ever considered whether digital switchover and a help scheme had got much to do with the BBC. It was as if we had not had the best part of several years debating the renewal of the BBC charter and this dimension being an important part of it. Not surprisingly for a far-sighted Government, it would have been quite extraordinary if digital switchover had not formed part and parcel of the debates at that time.

I am in a position where, on an issue of quite fundamental principle, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is inviting me to reiterate the government arguments which sustained our position in relation to the charter of the BBC, the situation in relation to the licence fee, the construction of the Bill and the general debate in our community about how we face up to the technological future which beckons with digital opportunities. Believe it or not, I have nothing fresh to say about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, very kindly said that he is unlikely to persuade me. He is absolutely right. But I am as sharp as he is and I think I am unlikely to persuade him. After all, he has just expressed to me why I am going to fail yet again. But if I am obliged to reiterate the arguments, perhaps I may do so in the briefest terms possible in order not to fill the House with reiterative boredom.

We regard digital switchover as a highly significant event in television broadcasting. It will bring a “digital-only” world, with a hugely increased choice for viewers, and there will be a need for help. This is a fundamental change in broadcasting technology and, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will recognise, switching off a signal which people at the present time are equipped to receive but will not be unless provision is made in the not-too-distant future, will be a dramatic act. The Government needed to think about this very carefully indeed. Having thought about the implications and how we would deal with them, the help necessary for those people in our community who would need it, and how we would organise the process, we reached the decision that the country’s significant broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation, should take responsibility for this massive change in broadcasting technology.

We first proposed way back in March 2005 that the BBC should be responsible for helping to establish and fund the help scheme. I recognise what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is saying. He is not convinced by the argument that the BBC should be at the centre of this scheme. We have enumerated on many occasions the reasons for the principled position of the Government on this issue and the noble Lord rightly accepted that we are unlikely to change our minds. The Government are very strong in their commitment to such fundamental principles and rarely, if ever, change their mind. They would change it only when circumstances require flexibility. In this instance, we are committed to the principle that we have reiterated on many occasion.

The noble Lord has recognised that we have now gone a long way down the road of implementing the principle by the agreement with the BBC on the help scheme. I recognise his valiant efforts and I am impressed by his arguments. They are strong, but not as strong as the Government’s.

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, he did not respond to the issue of the policy review group and the project board. Essentially, it is a question of where the buck stops. This division of responsibility appears extraordinarily artificial. Why has it been set up in that way and who has overall responsibility?

My Lords, the Government, of course, are responsible for the overall policy but the BBC is responsible for ensuring that the assistance is delivered in accordance with the agreement which has been assigned and is now before us. The project board and policy review group are separate in order to reflect the distinction. The review group is advisory, not executive; and the project board is the executive board. They are merely the mechanics by which the scheme will be operated. As to the BBC fulfilling its obligations under this scheme, as I indicated earlier, the BBC is not free from scrutiny in Parliament and, in its annual report, it will be expected to comment on the implementation of the scheme.

So those are the broad responsibilities of the BBC and I hope the noble Lord will recognise that they are consistent with a carefully thought-out obligation on the BBC, a principle on which we stand and of which, I recognise, he remains critical.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that vigorous defence of government policy. It is good to see Ministers rising to the challenge in such circumstances.

I am not only critical but sceptical. I think the reason for having a policy review group and a project board is extremely unclear. Although the BBC’s press release claims it is a precondition for its agreement, with the Government responsible for policy and the BBC for delivery of the scheme, it is not a very clear situation. The BBC Trust will act as a kind of referee and so the BBC will decide whether something is policy or whether it is a part of the project, which again is peculiar.

No doubt we will see how the whole thing pans out and whether the agreement works in the way it is intended to, as stated by the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 4 to 7 not moved.]

8: Clause 1, page 2, line 6, 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: My Lords, this amendment also came up in Grand Committee. It would ensure that those entitled to the help scheme could still receive help if they moved to an area that had completed digital switchover from one that had not yet begun the process. As I explained in Grand Committee, we 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.

I gave the illustration 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, which would be an unfortunate state of affairs.

The amendment is an attempt to seek assurance about such circumstances. In Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, accepted the philosophy behind it. He said that, in developing the help scheme, the Government wanted to simplify the basic eligibility rules as far as possible, bearing in mind the complexity that can quickly surround social security benefits. He said that,

“an eligibility window needs to be tied to the event in each switchover region … Following discussions with the consumer expert group, we have opted for a date one month after BBC1 in analogue disappears”.—[Official Report, 22/3/07; col. GC 257.]

That means that people meeting the eligibility criteria but moving into an area after that date will not qualify. The Minister said that they would need to make their own arrangements.

The Minister talked about voluntary networks to be set up by Digital UK and so on. He said that the Government believed that the priority should be to help those affected at the point of switchover rather than people moving into an area subsequently. That was the logic of the Minister’s reply. However, at the end of his response, he acknowledged the harshness of the absolute cut-off point. He said that the amendment,

“raises some interesting points that we want to reflect on”.—[Official Report, 22/3/07; col. GC 259.]

I took some comfort from what the Minister said; therefore, I was extremely surprised to see that the scheme contains no flexibility. The cut-off point is one month, as originally stated. That is disappointing. I hope that the Minister has further comments and comfort to give to those who might be affected, who would fall between the cracks and be unable to get assistance in these circumstances. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for returning to the issue. I recognise his motivation: as he graphically said, people might fall between the cracks and would not receive help. He is concerned that people should be covered as far as possible.

We listened carefully in Committee but, as we said then, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, ought not to exaggerate the number of people in the categories to which he refers. The help scheme is restricted; there will not be a huge number of eligible people. He talked about people moving to a new area after switchover schemes had been completed; but the elderly, for example, have a much lower propensity to move than the rest of the population, for the obvious reasons of their emotional commitment to their home and the disturbance involved in moving. We do not see the potential for the massive social problem that there might be if the scheme applied to the whole population.

The noble Lord will also appreciate the problems arising as a result of the technological basis of the scheme. The help scheme will be implemented on a region-by-region basis—by independent television regions—as digitalisation takes place. The regions will follow the order of switchover. It is not possible to organise the scheme on a basis other than seriatim across the country, as it will take several years to complete. We have tried, therefore, to tie the eligibility period to switchover in each ITV region. In a process that lasts several years, we could not make a more elastic commitment.

The help scheme agreement sets out that the eligibility period begins eight months before the first analogue services in a region cease and extends until one month after the final analogue transmitters in the region are switched off. We have not opted for a single qualifying date in each region, such as six months before switchover; although that would be simpler, it would exclude people who began receiving the qualifying disability benefits some months before switchover. We are mindful of the noble Lord’s point that the scheme should be flexible. The one-month run-on beyond switchover is also important to ensure that people can claim for a short period once analogue services disappear. We recognise that some people will slip through the net, as the noble Lord suggested. The final date on which applications from eligible households will be accepted will be one month after switchover.

Someone moving to a converted area from a region that has not yet converted to digital will not qualify for the help scheme. They will need to make their own arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, says that that is unfair. As in Committee, he gave examples of what he regarded as its unfairness. However, we will require the scheme operator to have in place infrastructure long after switchover occurs in any one region. It is a big operation and the caravan moves on. Switchover will take place by ITV area. The process will take place over a set period and then the whole operation will move to the next region, as we have clearly identified.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, says that in a few residual cases—we maintain that there are likely to be few—there should be a continuing function in the region that has already completed the switchover. The cost of that would be significant, and we do not think that it is merited by the likely size of the problem.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, says and understand his motivation. In an ideal world we would like people to be aware of the system from the day it starts and to be eligible for help at any stage during the process. Indeed, the noble Lord would prefer an extended period after completion to mop up what is left. We live in the real world. This is a big operation, and the vast majority of people will know well in advance that switchover is to occur. They will have time to apply for help and to regularise their position. There is a period beyond actual switchover when they can still apply. It is unrealistic, however, for us to have an entirely open-ended situation. The costs of that would be huge, and we do not believe they are merited by the numbers that are likely to be involved. This is a case where the noble Lord’s principles have to meet the real world. I know that always hurts him, but we find ourselves in this position from time to time. We have a scheme that we think will meet the requirements of our people.

We would want to be reassured on this matter. I cannot think of anything more likely to enrage a population than for a signal to be switched off when they have not been informed; to see their television set die on them when they have not been warned nor given the ability to get help when they were entitled to it. We will ensure that the scheme is scrupulous on those issues. Reality intrudes, though, which is why we have a limited period for exception in each region that the scheme moves through.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Reality keeps intruding into his replies, I see. We are all keen to see practical schemes that are cost-effective. I am just disappointed, and rather sad, that further consideration could not have been given to the question of “mopping up”, as the Minister said. It is a matter of what is practical and cost-effective. A month seems to be unduly short, but I have no doubt that it will be the Minister and his colleagues at the DCMS who will bear the wrath of the public if there are problems with that cut-off date. Who knows what will happen in practice? I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9: Clause 106, page 58, line 26, after “6” insert “of that Schedule”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 10. Amendment No. 9 would place a duty on the BBC to provide the National Audit Office with accounts in order for the NAO to scrutinise them and publish an annual report on the expenditure incurred in the course of disclosing information under the Act. The amendment has been redrafted, taking into account the fact that it would be undesirable to place a statutory duty on the NAO to report on a specific item.

The new Amendment No. 10 would enable the National Audit Office to investigate the BBC’s expenditure under the disclosure of information in the scheme. Importantly, the amendment gives the NAO the power to insist on being given the relevant information. It would have been preferable to be able to require a report on the cost of the scheme itself; however, as the Bill is drafted, that is not possible. Paragraph 5(c) of Schedule 2B of the help scheme goes some way towards that, though I note that there is no requirement or encouragement for the NAO to make available a report. Will that provision stay in the scheme if the scheme is revised?

My noble friend Lord Astor has highlighted on a previous occasion the inconsistency of exempting the BBC in general from scrutiny by the National Audit Office, as that might compromise editorial independence, and the compulsory scrutiny by the NAO of the BBC World Service. Spending £600 million to help the disadvantaged has nothing to do with editorial independence, and not a lot to do with broadcasting. As has been said today and on several previous occasions, it is a social service dressed up as part of the licence fee to avoid being classed as taxation. As such, it should be monitored.

While on the subject of the £600 million, will the Minister confirm that, just as any surplus to the £600 million already set aside will be met by the taxpayer, so any of the £600 million not spent will be returned to the taxpayer? It would be quite wrong for the taxpayer to take the obligation and not have the corresponding benefit if costs are below expectation. I beg to move.

My Lords, Amendment No. 9 was originally my amendment in Committee. Since then, my noble friend Lord Howard has put forward Amendment No. 10, which is much superior to Amendment No. 9, but as they are a group we can debate them together. I realise, having received a letter from the Minister, that one cannot command the National Audit Office to do something; one can only prod, advise or otherwise encourage it, and that is what Amendment No. 10 does. This is important. Subsection 5(c) of Schedule 2B of the agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC, which mentions the NAO, does not go far enough. My noble friend’s Amendment No. 10 goes further. For all the reasons we talked about on the previous amendment, we must remember that although it is licence fee money, the licence fee is a tax and this is taxpayers’ money. It should therefore be scrutinised. I support my noble friend’s amendment.

My Lords, I shall come in on the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, on what happens if there is a surplus rather than an overspend on the £600 million. It has always been my view that the speed at which people are moving to the digital switchover and the way in which the cost of technology is constantly being driven down mean that there probably will be a surplus. If this money is coming out of the licence fee, there is only one place it can go back to if there is a surplus, and that is to the BBC. It cannot somehow be given out to the taxpayer in any other way. That would be to the benefit of the BBC, as it could then use any surplus to improve its programmes.

My Lords, I support in particular Amendment No. 10, which I agree is a better amendment than the previous one. I am slightly disappointed because it looked as though this was going to be an Astor family set of amendments. On the original Marshalled List, the new amendment was in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, and I thought there was some family conspiracy here to make sure that these amendments were agreed to.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, made it clear exactly what the obligations under the Communications Act 2003 were regarding the BBC. It is effectively the BBC Trust that is under an obligation to examine the value for money achieved by the BBC in the use of public funds, and then the NAO is tasked with carrying out individual value-for-money reviews. The logic of what he said in Grand Committee was entirely consistent both with the principle of the previous amendment and with this one. The NAO genuinely seems to have a role to play, in terms of value for money, in this project with which the BBC is entrusted. I am sure the Minister has looked back on what was said, but, in everything but name, it would be right and proper for the NAO to carry this out. The logic ofthe Minister’s previous speech seems to have been directed towards that.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howard, referred to previous occasions on which the National Audit Office and the BBC had cropped up and, by heavens, I certainly recall those occasions. There is an issue of principle here: the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and some other noble Lords were very keen that the National Audit Office should have pretty well unhindered access to the BBC. We resisted that view at the time of the Broadcasting Bill, we resisted it on the charter renewal, and we are going to resist it now.

On principle, we do not think that the National Audit Office should have unhindered access to the BBC because we do not think that that is the way in which the BBC should be accountable to the nation. But clause 79 of the BBC agreement requires the trust to examine the value for money achieved by the BBC in the use of public funds and gives the National Audit Office a key role in contributing to the fulfilment of that obligation. The trust is required to discuss regularly with the Comptroller and Auditor General the scope of its value-for-money audit programme and which individual reviews within that programme would be especially suited to the National Audit Office. The trust must then make necessary arrangements with the National Audit Office or with suitable organisations to carry out individual value-for-money reviews in accordance with the audit programme.

I understand the pressure for the National Audit Office to have a stronger role. I have listened to those arguments enough in the past, and they have some merit. We have had those debates of principle and they have been settled in far more significant fora than the debate on this Bill, which is limited to a help scheme for digital switchover. We agree that robust arrangements are necessary to guarantee that the right amount of help goes to the right people and we believe that the Bill provides for them.

Clause 41 of the BBC agreement already makes provision for the BBC to publish an annual report about its switchover-related activities, which will include the help scheme. Schedule 2 paragraph 5 of the help scheme agreement deals with value for money and makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the trust to secure value for money in the BBC’s operation of the help scheme. Schedule 2 paragraph 7 of the help scheme agreement requires the BBC to prepare annual accounts, which will of course be published and audited independently.

Perhaps I can give the House some solace. The BBC trust has already initiated discussions with the National Audit Office about the arrangements for reviewing the value for money of the BBC’s implementation of the help scheme. Amendments to the Bill are not the right way to structure these arrangements. Our view is that arrangements for National Audit Office value-for-money scrutiny of the BBC need to work within the current framework of its regular involvement, as set out in the BBC charter and BBC agreement, about which the House had many long hours of useful debate.

In addition, the National Audit Office may consider the implications of the continuing role for the DCMS in relation to determining scheme policy under clause 2 of the scheme agreement. The agreement in no way affects the National Audit Office right to scrutinise the department’s ongoing responsibilities for the help scheme.

The National Audit Office will play its part within the framework of its responsibilities with regard to the scheme. The amendments would act as a relatively modest Trojan horse but let us remember that the Trojan horse, while not that huge, brought disaster to one of the most significant cities in that part of the world. It is a Trojan horse to indicate that the way in which the BBC should be accountable is through the National Audit Office, and I have no doubt that if noble Lords can find a way, they will bring Ofcom into the frame again, and we will go back over all the other debates in principle that we have had over the past three or four years. I hope that we will not do that today. We have a robust framework in place; the National Audit Office has its limited part to play in that, but the amendments are a considerable step too far. I hope that the noble Lord will accept the argument and withdraw the amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks and to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his support. I cannot say that I agree with the Minister, but I do not expect that he thought I would. I suppose I should be grateful for the miserable crumb of solace that he gave me. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Clause 2 [Kinds of information referred to in section 1]:

11: Clause 2, page 2, line 37, leave out from “section” to end of line 38 and insert ““information of a prescribed description” means information prescribed in Schedule 1”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 11 goes hand in hand with Amendment No. 18.

My Lords, Amendments Nos. 11 and 18A would ensure that the type of information to be disclosed under the legislation was set out clearly and unequivocally in the Bill. The new schedule lists the type of information as set out in paragraph 27 of the Explanatory Notes except for the national insurance number. It seems surplus to include the national insurance number, which, as has been acknowledged by the Government during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, is not always reliable data.

The Minister noted in Committee that the Government have a draft order showing how they intend to use the powers to disclose information. It seems odd, therefore, that if the Government are so sure of how they will use these powers, they will not commit to including them in the Bill. In addition, there is no guarantee that the present Minister will remain in her post. Therefore, it would be even more appropriate for the Government to commit to including the information-sharing powers in the Bill. I beg to move.

My Lords, we had a certain amount of debate on this in Committee. When the Bill was being debated in another place, we produced a draft order setting out how we plan to use the powers in an order that we intend to make immediately after Royal Assent. The amendment would effectively remove this power and introduce the new schedule.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee agrees that the power that we are seeking is a legitimate use of delegated power. If it were not so, I have not the slightest doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, several supporters from the Back Benches and the redoubtable noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would be on their feet, seriatim or even together, to attack the Government for having fallen foul of the views of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and its critical position and asking what the Government were going to do about it. They cannot voice that criticism on this occasion because, in its sixth report of Session 2006-07, the committee said:

“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 … 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”.

That was mentioned in Grand Committee, and the House will forgive me for mentioning it again. If we have a clear position from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee that we are operating well within our powers, the criticism must be greatly reduced.

We do not expect the information needed to be different from that set out in the draft order and the Explanatory Notes. It would be foolish for us to lose the flexibility that the use of delegated legislation would confer and which, as I have just indicated, we are fully entitled to utilise. We do not agree that the use of secondary legislation amounts to a blank cheque. We would have had criticism from that committee if that were the case.

In our view, including the detail in the Bill would not confer any additional protection. All it would mean, in the absence of an order-making power to extend categories, is that we would have to introduce further legislation if the list of items was not absolutely correct. Nothing would be gained, but we would lose essential flexibility.

I understand the concerns of the noble Lord, but he will recognise that we are acting in full compliance with the appropriate powers. We have an obvious resistance to detail being included in the Bill, because everyone will recognise the rigidity that that imposes in circumstances where change may need to be effected. I hope that the noble Lord, on reflection, will think that the Government have got the position about right.

My Lords, I am sure that the Government have got the position just about right. But if they are right, why can it not be included in the Bill? I do not believe that the Government need the flexibility that the Minister seeks. They should know by now what is required for this rather simple operation. Nevertheless, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Offences]:

[Amendments Nos. 12 to 15 not moved.]

Clause 5 [Interpretation]:

16: Clause 5, page 4, line 42, at end insert “, whether by digital terrestrial, digital satellite, digital cable or any other platform and regardless of provider”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment was raised in Committee, where I was glad to receive the support of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who thought the amendment “very sensible”. The Minister also supported the argument, stating that,

“there is absolutely no disagreement between us in what we seek to see occur”.—[Official Report, 22/3/07; col. GC 281.]

The Minister commented in Committee that, as the Bill is drafted, it is platform neutral. I accept what he says but, whereas he is confident that the wording in the Bill is adequate, I believe that it would benefit from being strengthened as suggested in the amendment.

Platform neutrality means informing the public of all available services. Exemplary though the BBC is, it must inevitably be contrary to the BBC’s natural instincts to promote the activities of its competitors. The digital help scheme could be changed in the light of what happens at Whitehaven, and the BBC may well be consulted on changes. It would be valuable to include this modest amendment in the Bill to help to ensure that the present commitment to platform neutrality in the scheme is preserved. As it is government policy, I very much hope that the Minister will accept this amendment, which underlines that policy. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the terms in which he moved this amendment, which would extend the definition of digital switchover in the Bill to cover all current methods by which digital television can be provided. When we discussed this matter in Grand Committee, I emphasised that what is contained in the Bill is a definition; it is used to define “switchover help functions”—that is to say, the purpose for which the DWP and others can disclose information. The current wording is certainly neutral on the form in which digital broadcasting takes place. That is why we do not think that there is any need for an amendment.

However, the noble Lord has pressed me again and therefore was not entirely reassured by what I said in Grand Committee. In direct response to his question, I want to emphasise to him that the Government have consistently said that the help scheme will be platform neutral. I can on this occasion assure him that the Government will not agree to amendments that alter that position. I hope that he will accept that I could scarcely be more categorical than that. I hope, therefore, that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his assurance. It is good of him and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

17: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—

“Digital switchover scheme

This Act shall not come into force before the digital switchover scheme is published and presented to both Houses of Parliament.”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is the same sunrise clause that I put forward in Grand Committee, but this time it is with rather different motives. In Grand Committee, the amendment reflected the uncertainty surrounding the scheme. That was before we had in our hands the digital switchover help scheme, which has been welcomed. It certainly gives a great deal of certainty about the shape of the scheme. Now we can make a judgment on the scheme and the Bill as a whole. But there are still a few loose ends.

As I mentioned in Grand Committee, in slightly less than seven months’ time, we will be beginning the process of digital switchover in Whitehaven in Cumbria. In Grand Committee, we discussed whether the procurement of accessible equipment for audio description could be made in time for switchover in Whitehaven. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, said:

“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”.—[Official Report, 22/3/07; col. GC 266.]

There is no DTT box currently on the mainstream market that can receive audio description, which is one of the main core receiver requirements. There is a specialist DTT receiver available from Portset that delivers audio description and talking menus, but it has been indicated to those who have briefed me that this product is likely to be prohibitively expensive. However, as the Government have acknowledged, audio description is currently available in Whitehaven via Sky subscription and the Sky freesat service.

The noble Lord, Lord Evans, also said that the Government would welcome a DTT audio description solution. It is only fair to point out that the Government were in a position to deliver a DTT audio description solution by commissioning accessible equipment as recommended by the consumer expert group, but they have not done so in time for Whitehaven. Unless the Government can commission a set-top box that can receive audio description before November, blind and partially sighted people in Whitehaven are likely to be offered Sky freesat to be able to receive audio description. There are three reasons why that is not an ideal solution.

First, as was pointed out in Grand Committee, freesat gives access to audio description but does not deliver accessible remote controls or other useful features such as voice output of channel or programme identification. As the noble Lord, Lord Evans, acknowledged in Grand Committee, better equipment should reduce the level of support visits needed by staff working for the targeted help scheme contractor.

Secondly, it will undermine the principle that there should be one standard equipment offer available under the scheme, designed to meet minimum agreed standards for accessibility as set out by the Government. The position of the Consumer Expert Group is that providing accessible equipment as standard will benefit the maximum number of people while excluding no one.

Thirdly, it will also undermine the Government’s policy of platform neutrality, which the Minister has been eloquent about, in the promotion of digital television.

Organisations such as Sense and the RNIB are seeking the following commitments from the Government: that they will explore all options to ensure that the Whitehaven targeted help scheme delivers a fully accessible box to all help scheme recipients rather than an off-the-shelf, inaccessible box; that if option 1 is fully explored and proved not to be possible, they will discuss with specialist equipment manufacturers such as Portset the possibility of providing blind and partially sighted people in Whitehaven with a solution that provides audio description and some form of spoken menu output—at a minimum, spoken channel and programme identification; or, if those two options are not possible and blind and partially sighted people in Whitehaven are given off-the-shelf equipment that delivers audio description but does not meet the other core receiver requirements agreed by the Government, they must be offered the chance to exchange that for more accessible equipment when it is commissioned by the Government for use in other regions. In Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Evans promised to consider these points. I look forward to hearing more about the Government’s plans in that respect.

Fourthly, equipment commissioned for use in other regions of the country, including borders in 2008, must meet the core receiver requirements. The organisations briefing me have been told that the BBC and the DCMS expect that boxes for the main scheme will fully comply with the core receiver requirements but would appreciate a significantly more robust assurance than this. I hope that the Minister can give some of those assurances, as that has been the entire point of moving the amendment. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. We are finishing on a high and constructive note. The noble Lord has expressed his anxieties about the first stage of digital switchover and the need for reassurance that good progress is being made. I hope to reassure him on that. Whitehaven is not a guinea pig or an experiment. Digital technology is robust and proven and already in use across the country, and switchover is the product of years of planning. What is important is that Whitehaven is the first area in which switchover is taking place, so I am pleased to be able to take this opportunity to reassure the House on the successful work that has been done thus far.

Digital UK wrote to all households in Whitehaven in March and has taken responsibility for claims, and more than 2,000 claims have been submitted so far. Details will be transferred to the operator as soon as the decision has been taken on who the operator should be. So far, four bidders have tendered full bids as best and final offers for Whitehaven. They are: BT, Capita, Eaga and Vertex. It is expected that contracts for Whitehaven will be awarded in June. The tender of the main scheme is being taken forward in conjunction with the Whitehaven procurement. Contracts for the main scheme will not be concluded until December.

On the point that the noble Lord raised about equipment, we are optimistic that the equipment provided in Whitehaven meets or is very close to meeting the core receiver requirement and are confident that audio description on digital for blind people will be available for Whitehaven.

The noble Lord also mentioned the core receiver standard requirements for equipment for the main scheme. The agreement ensures that the equipment for the main scheme must meet minimum requirements and I can give the noble Lord and the Consumer Expert Group that assurance.

I emphasise that the anxieties that the noble Lord expresses will be at the front of the minds of those involved with the scheme—and Whitehaven is soon upon us. I heard his point about not infringing the principles of the scheme with regard to platform neutrality. That is an important consideration, but we feel that progress is being made within the dates that I identified, with regard to Whitehaven and the contracts for the scheme as a whole. I am grateful to the noble Lord for using this amendment to give me the chance to update on progress.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which was helpful. These are very technical matters and I simply ask that the Minister and his colleagues look carefully at the various options set out in what I have to say, which comes directly from those organisations concerned with whether the core receiver standard requirements will be met in the Whitehaven project. There are considerable anxieties. I am very pleased that the Minister is delivering an optimistic message about the ability to meet those standards for the Whitehaven project.

The answer to a lot of this is to have continuing dialogue with those delivering the scheme in Whitehaven, whichever of the four organisations it may be, and ensuring that it is open for the voluntary organisations that have concerns to be kept in touch on progress on procurement of the equipment. I am not sure that they are fully briefed about the exact progress being made; I am pleased that the Minister believes that the equipment will meet the standards, as that is all that those organisations want. If it does not meet the requirements, there is a very strong case for substitute equipment being put in place subsequently. I realise that the Minister cannot give me an undertaking about this. After all, Whitehaven might be the one place where the core standard requirements are not being met, which would be extremely unfair to those partially sighted and others who are the users of that equipment. I hope that the department will consider that point when it comes to procure and deliver the equipment.

My Lords, I owe an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and my noble friend Lord Maxton. I was asked on an earlier amendment what would happen to the £600 million if it were not all spent. I regret that in my reply I forgot to respond to that highly specific and germane point. We do not regard that money as part of the BBC licence settlement as such; it is additional to that and is specifically for the help scheme. If less than £600 million is spent on it—the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, indicated that he thought that might be the case; certainly my noble friend Lord Maxton said that—the Government would take into account any surplus, which would obviously affect the settlements for any future licence fee. We do not regard the £600 million as just an additional extra to the licence fee; it is intended for the specific purposes of this scheme.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that intervention. It was an opportune moment to intervene. Even on Report the Minister is irrepressible. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 18 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 18A not moved.]