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Margaret Beckett: I find myself slightly torn. While I entirely share my hon. Friend’s point of view, both as to what is a desirable outcome and the fact that the EU must contribute to it, I say with some slight regret—as
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this is not easy for us to overcome—that the EU has not been the major stumbling block in the Doha round negotiations. The major reforms of the CAP that we negotiated in 2003 made a huge difference to the stance that the EU was able to take. Unfortunately, until now the failure of others to move has been the stumbling block. I share his underlying view that those stumbling blocks should be removed and that progress should be made.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given the Foreign Secretary’s enthusiasm for Turkish membership of the EU and the experience of the miscalculation over the number of migrants from eastern Europe, do Her Majesty’s Government have any projections about the number of Turkish immigrants expected to come to this country if Turkey accedes?

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that we are rather a long way from an agreement for Turkey to join the European Union. As for miscalculations, I have pointed out to the House previously that the Government made no calculation; we commissioned a piece of research that turned out not to be as accurate as perhaps one might wish.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Further to the question from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), may I ask whether there was any discussion of EU relations with the Russian Federation? Was there any discussion of Amnesty International’s recent report on the widespread use of torture in Russian jails and police cells? Was there any discussion of the murder of 21 journalists in Russia since President Putin came to power? And was there any discussion of the fact that at present, following the undermining of property rights in Russia, many people are finding it difficult to invest in the energy market that we so desperately need for Europe?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend has made a number of points in expressing his concern—which I know many will share—about various events in Russia. No, there was not an extensive discussion about Russia; that was not a major item on the agenda.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I apologise for missing the beginning of the Minister’s statement.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), can the Secretary of State confirm that the situation in Afghanistan is not like that in Iraq, that great progress is being made in terms of both reconstruction and peacekeeping, and that the EU, like Britain, remains firmly committed in the long term to solving Afghanistan’s problems?

Margaret Beckett: I can certainly confirm that there has been substantial progress. One always says that with great trepidation, fearing that someone will come along and describe all the problems that still exist, but the hon. Gentleman is right: a great deal of excellent work has been done in Afghanistan, and we need to continue that work.

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Point of Order

4.16 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I speak, a very damaging postal strike is taking place in Stafford and North Staffordshire, where about half a million people live. I am concerned for members of the public who are waiting for contact from family and friends at this time of the year, and I am concerned for postal workers and their families who can ill afford loss of wages at Christmas. I would like to keep on top of the issue by way of parliamentary questions, but when the recess begins tomorrow there will be no facility for Ministers to answer questions until the second week in January. In September, for the first time, there was a facility for Members to answer questions during a recess. Would it be in order, Mr. Speaker, for that facility to be extended to other recesses, and is there anything that you can do to make this winter recess the first of those occasions?

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair, but tomorrow there will be an Adjournment debate in which Back Benchers can take part. It will give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to raise the matter with the Minister who will respond to the debate.


Crown Employment (nationality)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Andrew Slaughter, Martin Salter, Annette Brooke, Mr. Andrew Love, Keith Vaz, Ms Karen Buck and Mary Creagh, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the removal of general restrictions as to nationality which apply to persons employed or holding office in any civil capacity under the Crown; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 29 June, and to be printed. [Bill 38].

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Freedom of Information (amendment)

David Maclean presented a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to exempt from its provisions the House of Commons and House of Lords and correspondence between Members of Parliament and public authorities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January, and to be printed. [Bill 39].

Provision of Palliative Care

Jim Dobbin, supported by Mr. Frank Field, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. David Crausby, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas, Paul Rowen, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Julian Brazier, John Robertson and Mr. Joe Benton, presented a Bill to require the provision of palliative care for persons suffering from a terminal illness; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January, and to be printed. [Bill 40].

Termination of Pregnancy

Mrs. Nadine Dorries, supported by Mr. Michael Howard, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Anne Main, Bob Russell, Mr. John Hayes, Dr. Liam Fox, Mr. Edward Vaizey, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Mike Penning, Mr. Mark Field and Mr. Brooks Newmark, presented a Bill to reduce the time limit for legal terminations of pregnancy from 24 to 20 weeks; to introduce a cooling-off period after the first point of contact with a medical practitioner about a termination; to require the provision of counselling about the medical risk of, and about matters relating to, termination and bringing the pregnancy to term as a condition of informed consent to termination; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March, and to be printed. [Bill 41].

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Orders of the Day

Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

4.18 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Digital switchover in the United Kingdom is necessitated by the pace of change in consumer choice and by technological change. It brings with it the opportunity to revolutionise the way in which people use media in the UK, but obviously it also brings major challenges. The Bill should be seen as a small part of a much larger jigsaw of public policy that comprises our response to those challenges.

Our approach is based on clear principles—the principles of universal access, platform neutrality and an obligation for the Government, the industry, Ofcom, broadcasters and charities to work in partnership. Our fundamental objective is to ensure that nobody gets left behind during the digital switchover process.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I do not doubt the good intentions behind the legislation—in particular universal access—but I am sure that I am not the only MP who has been contacted by constituents about this subject. A pensioner household asked me to put the following points to the Secretary of State. Some households have significant difficulties with data sharing between Departments, agencies and public bodies as the data was not collected for that purpose. Some households watch hardly any television—they might even switch off when digital arrives. Does the Secretary of State understand the concern that such households have about this process, regardless of the good intentions behind the Bill?

Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He and I are as one in being concerned that there must be proper protection of the people—according to some estimates there will be 6 million to 7 million of them—who will be the beneficiaries of the provisions. If the Bill continues its passage, I hope that one of the focuses of the debates in Committee will be confidence in the level of protection afforded to the data, and therefore to such individuals.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): As one side of the argument has been presented so early in the debate, I rise to ask the Secretary of State whether she also recognises that great damage would be caused to some individuals if they were to be missed out due to a lack of data sharing? Caring for the vulnerable involves appropriate sharing of data, which is why the Bill is essential.

Tessa Jowell: Yes. I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments and I pay tribute to the work that he did when he was a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry to advance switchover to the point that we are now at. We have heard just two sides of the
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challenge: the necessity both of undertaking the process of data sharing and of ensuring that safeguards are in place in order to build confidence among vulnerable people about the scheme.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): On the safeguards point raised by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), once a family that the Bill seeks to help has made the switchover to digital it will have made the switchover—that is a one-off event. As that is the case, why does the Bill not contain a sunset clause?

Tessa Jowell: Effectively, a sunset clause will be operated once switchover is complete in 2012. Members might wish to look at the application of sunset provisions on a region-by-region basis when the Bill is in Committee, but I remind Members that we must uphold the following two imperatives: ensuring that everybody knows about switchover and about the help that is available and whether they are eligible for such help, and ensuring that the sharing of data is not open to abuse, which might lead to people being exposed to risks. That is the balance that we have to strike.

I now wish to make some progress, as I know that many Members wish to speak. Our objective is to ensure that nobody is left behind. In little more than eight years, digital television provision in this country has grown from a standing start to give the United Kingdom the highest level of digital penetration anywhere in the world. Countries all over Europe—Germany, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands—are setting plans to go digital. We are part of a global trend, but we are also leading the way—for example, Digital UK, our partnership for co-ordinating digital switchover and advising the public, is being emulated in other countries facing the challenge of switchover.

In the UK, 17 million households now have digital television of one form or another. That is almost as many as have cars. The reasons for that are clear. Digital offers a great choice of channels, including radio channels, better picture and sound quality, more interactivity and more access to services such as audio-description for people with disabilities.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I gave notice to the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary that I would raise this question, but I should confess in putting it to her that I am a bit of a technophobe. I understand that one consequence of the changeover is that some of the remote microphones used by, for example, rock stars, performers of “The Sound of Music”, church preachers, head teachers and, indeed, some politicians will be useless at the point of changeover. Will any data on that issue be obtained during consideration of the Bill, has cognizance been taken of that effect, what advice has been given to those who use such equipment, and how will this problem be overcome? It was drawn to our attention by a lobby just last Thursday so that Members present would know about it.

Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for that, but I am afraid that I am unable to give a specific response on the point about microphones. However, almost all
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equipment used for analogue is adaptable for digital. One reason why it is so important to combine targeted financial help with advice and assistance is that there will, for example, be elderly people with a second television set that is very old, and in such cases there might be some difficulty in fitting it with a set-top box. We will address such specific problems through Digital UK, in part by ensuring that when people buy new digital technology or a new television, they are aware of its compatibility with the new digital regime.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Am I right in thinking that the changeover is likely to give rise to a great deal of redundant receivers and other equipment? Has the sustainable disposal of all that been discussed with the manufacturers?

Tessa Jowell rose—

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Good one!

Tessa Jowell: We seem to have some cross-party agreement on this point, which is indeed a good one. I am sure that Digital UK is already looking at the issue and it will be aware of the significance that my hon. Friend attaches to it. Yes, it is highly likely that a significant number of televisions will be redundant at the end of the process.

Mr. Mullin: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me again. Ought not her Department to take the initiative in this area?

Tessa Jowell: Well, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs —[Interruption.]—it says here—have jointly commissioned research to consider this issue in detail. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point it out, and given that Digital UK will be the body communicating with millions of people throughout the country, we have to make sure that it, too, is carrying this message.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is very gracious in allowing these interventions. Has she had words with the trading standards bodies about the fact that people are being sold television sets that will not be compatible following the switchover, or that will need other equipment? It is important that anybody who buys a television is made aware that they will need to buy at least a freeview package to participate in the next stage.

Tessa Jowell: This is an absolutely critical point. Through Digital UK, retailers have undertaken extensive training of staff so that they are alert to precisely such issues and can inform people about the digital-compatible status of the equipment that they are buying when they buy it. However, my concern is that we will reach the point of switchover region by region, and a handful of people will not know about or understand it, or will feel alarmed by it. That is why we have to be forensic in providing the help, advice and assistance in every town, city and village, with special
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attention to rural areas—I say that to save hon. Members from getting to their feet to make that point.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The Secretary of State referred to people buying new digital sets. One of the difficulties is that they do not always know whether they will be able to get a signal. They are told that if they cannot get a signal now it is because it is at only a weak strength but will be boosted at switchover, and that in the final month before switchover it will run at the higher strength. If that is correct, why is it not possible for the digital signal to be increased for trial periods beforehand, as was done with BBC 2 when it was introduced, say between 2 am and 4 am on a Wednesday?

Tessa Jowell: The technical problem is that if one boosts the digital signal, one knocks out or interferes with the analogue signal. As I will explain—members of the Select Committee are well aware of the finer points about the weakness of analogue interleaving—that is why we have reached the point with digital terrestrial television that we have to mandate switch-off if we are not effectively to lock 30 per cent. of the population out of access to digital.

Given the pressing concern about the proper disposal of equipment, I can provide further assurance that the requirements of the EU waste electrical and electronic equipment directive will be fully complied with.

Several hon. Members rose—

Tessa Jowell: I wish to make some progress now, but I am not surprised by the number of interventions, because I have received hundreds of representations from Members and the public on why digital cannot be enjoyed by everyone. The simple truth is that some 25 per cent. of homes are not covered by the digital terrestrial signal and will not be until the analogue signal is turned off. That means that, at present, while 100 per cent. of households are paying for BBC digital television services through their licence fee, only three quarters of them can actually get a free service through their aerials. In the interests of basic fairness and choice, we must ensure that access to free-to-air digital TV is as near universal as it can be.

Such a move will benefit the UK in many other ways too. Efficient digital broadcasting will free up spectrum for other uses. Possibilities include high definition television; more national and, especially, local digital terrestrial television, which is strongly supported by the public; new services such as mobile TV; or wireless broadband services. We simply will not be able to meet the consumer demand for such developments unless digital switchover proceeds.

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