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I make that point because some people think that data protection is about secrecy and preventing information from being shared even when sharing information is for the benefit of the individual and the community. I came across that in opposition, when it became blindingly obvious that the police and local authorities up and down the country were failing to share information about the vandals, bad neighbours
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and thugs who ruin so many communities. That is why in 1997 I wanted to put a clause in the Crime and Disorder Bill, as it was then, to make it clear that the exchange of information is legal and appropriate for the purpose of preventing crime. The legal advice that we were given was that that was already the situation and that if the police or the local authority had information that could prevent crime and disorder, they ought to share it. However, practitioners seemed to have enormous doubts. They said that they were not sure and that they were advised, “If in doubt, don’t do it. Hang on to the information. Don’t share it.”

I remember speaking at an Association of Chief Police Officers conference and saying that it was the duty of holders of information on both sides to consider the duty to share information in order to prevent communities from being ruined and to reduce and prevent crime, and, at the same time, to consider how to do so properly and professionally in order to avoid inappropriate disclosure. That is at the heart of one or two of the issues that have been raised in the debate already. Not only was the president of ACPO on my left nodding vigorously, but so was the data commissioner on my right. However, in questions in that very session, when the legislation had only just gone through Parliament, both police and local authority representatives said, “But my data protection officer advises me that the best way to play safe is not to share information.” That can make one despair.

Responsibility to the public interest involves being proactive and showing leadership, not playing safe. It involves risk management, not the avoidance of risk. That is extremely relevant to today’s debate. It is the answer to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Chesterfield about the use of information. The Bill is quite clear that information authorised under it is only for a specific purpose and for specific duties, and that the provision of information ought to be encouraged for that purpose. That is why I would not like to see the Bill amended almost to discourage and frighten people from providing information. There will be consequences, which I want to spell out, if the authorities, in providing help to the vulnerable for digital switchover, are not able to identify all the individuals who need that help.

Digital switchover is an important development. In some ways, I would rather call it analogue switch-off, because digital TV exists already. The problem is that many people get a poor service and that will change only when the signal gets a big boost. The improvement in the digital service can happen only when the competing analogue signal is switched off, enabling the big boost in signal to take place for digital. That is what creates a bottleneck for those who have not rushed to choose to change over to digital and need to be helped so that they do not lose their service at that point of decision making. With the acceleration of take-up already proceeding apace—it is happening quicker than the Government and the industry predicted a few years ago—the Government are right to go ahead with this ambitious programme, but they are also right to try to defend the vulnerable. My concern is that there is an enormous challenge in identifying everyone who needs help in moving from their comfortable enjoyment
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of analogue TV services to a comfortable enjoyment of an improved digital service. If the information is not shared, there is a big danger of people slipping through the net.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend points to the services necessary to protect the vulnerable. He will know that I am immensely interested in the development of technical services and technically trained individuals. Is he confident that individuals who are identified as vulnerable will receive services and support from people who are competent and qualified to provide them and who have been vetted to ensure that they have not committed any crimes in relation to the vulnerable people whom they are attempting to serve?

Alun Michael: I am certainly convinced that those providing the services—people in local authorities and the BBC, and people involved in the retail industry—are committed to trying to make sure that that is the case and that there are safeguards in place. I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be happy to address the way in which that is developing. That is crucial. However, let us face it: an enormous number of individuals are going to have to have people going in to their homes to provide a service. That is one of the complexities that makes it important that the information is shared appropriately, so that people get help, rather than being left vulnerable or, as one or two colleagues have suggested, falling prey to sharks and people who come in with all sorts of alternatives. The scheme needs to be authoritative and to be seen to have those protections built in, and it needs to be, as it clearly is, an official scheme.

Returning to the concern about people falling through the net, some people will be known to social services. Some people’s limited competence, blindness or physical disability will be known to the doctor, the health visitor, or the district nurse. Some will be known to all those and some will also be known to local voluntary organisations and perhaps to the Church, neighbours and so on—but some will not. Let us take elderly persons still living alone—perhaps in their 90s and fiercely independent—who are coping in their own way, do not wish the intrusion of too much help and want to carry on in their own homes for as long as they can. Sometimes such people hide the onset of blindness and deafness for fear of being made to give up their home. Answers to visitors—unless they are experienced and expert at recognising such conditions—may discourage what could seem like interference. Such people may depend on the television in the corner as the only friend to provide ongoing interests daily and an eye on a wider world than just the four walls. People who have neither a close family around them nor anyone who is directly involved in helping them could thus easily fall through the net. Once a system is adapted and there is no problem, people are able to continue to enjoy the service. However, if they are not helped through the switchover, problems could be caused.

I agreed entirely with the points made earlier about the need to ensure that the information is used for the purpose envisaged and that purpose only. I also agree that information should not be retained when that would be inappropriate. However, identifying and
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helping such individuals is a continuing challenge to our society. We want them to be confident that we wish to help them to live independently and stay in their homes, rather than thinking that any evidence of weakness will be used as an excuse to move them from independent living earlier than is necessary.

We need an enormous effort that goes beyond those who are known to need help, who are those for whom the exchange of information is important. We need to reach the hard to reach—we need to know what we do not know in advance. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway will become aware of that challenge in his community in the coming period. The problem is not exchanging the information that we know—let us get that done—but knowing what we do not know. We need to keep the risk of people falling through the net to a minimum. The Bill rightly provides for requirements to prevent further disclosure. This is not about being cavalier with information, but about trying to ensure that people are protected.

We have heard concerns about the details of the scheme. When the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), makes his winding-up speech, I hope that he will be able to give us reassuring news about the preparedness of the targeted scheme for the borders in 2008. I also hope that the targeted help scheme for Whitehaven in 2007 will inform the Government’s decision making and help to ensure that the project is implemented satisfactorily in not only the borders, but each of the regions.

I am sure that the Government will want to reassure us about the situation for people aged under 75 who are approaching the borderline of being blind or partially sighted and are unable to fend for themselves. We will need a lot of positive effort and communication. We will need to go looking for people, and voluntary organisations and community groups will need to be fully engaged. In other contexts, the Government have acknowledged that voluntary organisations and the third sector are not an optional extra, but absolutely essential. Nothing illustrates that better than this project.

I am certain that the BBC, which is taking some of the strain—perhaps some doubt was expressed about that by Opposition Members—is the right organisation to play an important and leading role. We were right to go down the road of establishing Digital UK, the hard work and communications of which have justified some of the faith that was placed in creating a fit-for-purpose organisation. I hope that we will allow the BBC to seize the opportunity of a world that is not only digital, but converged, yet ensure that we do not lose people unintentionally as part of the process. With that in mind, I unreservedly welcome the Bill and the wider discussions about important practical details that it has clearly unleashed. My hon. Friend the Minister might not welcome them quite as much as me, but I am sure that he and other Ministers realise the need to be engaged with those details so that they can ensure that the process works well.

6.23 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): As has been said, the purpose of the Bill is relatively narrow, given that it focuses on one
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specific aspect of digital switchover. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) touched on some of the important aspects of the process under the Bill, which I will return to. However, the Bill also gives us a welcome opportunity to debate digital switchover.

Switchover is a huge undertaking. The Secretary of State compared it to North sea gas conversion, as she has done in the past, while others have made comparisons with decimalisation. The project is likely to affect almost every household in the land. Even though the digital penetration of households is more than 70 per cent., the vast majority of the households that the Government deem to be digital still have analogue devices lurking in upstairs rooms, kitchens, or children’s bedrooms. Those sets will have to be converted, unless they are to stop working when switchover occurs.

The fact that the project was huge was the reason the Culture, Media and Sport Committee chose to make it the subject of our first inquiry in this Parliament. Since then, we have had a useful debate with the Minister about several points raised in Westminster Hall in July. However, as far as I am aware, today’s debate is the first opportunity that we have had to discuss the matter in the Chamber. I am glad that we are putting that oversight right.

There are some who still question whether digital switchover is necessary at all. Those who do so are not necessarily Luddites who are resistant to new technology. Indeed, some of our most distinguished broadcasters and experts have raised doubts about the necessity of switchover. Only last month, in The Parliamentary Monitor, David Elstein, in his usual apocalyptic fashion, wrote:

When David Elstein originally gave evidence to the Committee, I could see the colour draining from the faces of several Members who were listing to him. I do not share his pessimism. I think that the project can be made to work and that there are good reasons for proceeding with it.

There are two principal justifications for the project. First, there is a need to extend coverage of freeview to nearly the entire country. There is a target that freeview should cover 98.5 per cent. of the country. Given that large parts of my constituency are among the 25 per cent. of the country that does not get freeview, I understand why people who cannot get it resent being bombarded with advertisements about the joys of what they can see on BBC3 and BBC4. Those people have to commit to a freesat or Sky subscription if they are to access those channels. There is clearly a benefit of extending freeview coverage to as much of the population as possible.

The second justification for the project, which is probably the stronger one, is the need to free up the spectrum. As the proportion of people who have opted to switch to digital continues to climb—it is more than 70 per cent. now—it becomes harder to justify using a prime chunk of the spectrum for the dwindling number
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of people who have not chosen to switch over. Given that that spectrum is a valuable resource for which there would be several alternative uses, there was always going to be a time, sooner or later, when we said to people, “Look, it is not in the country’s interest that you go on sitting on that spectrum when it could be used for many more beneficial purposes.” To that extent, I accept the Government’s case.

We must recognise, however, that there are considerable costs attached to the project. A range of estimates has been made, but I think that everyone agrees that the costs will be in the billions of pounds. There are also risks attached to the project. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) flagged up the fact that a specific disadvantage of switchover is that families will no longer be able to use video cassette recorders to record one programme while they are watching another following the move to digital. More advanced technology will be required to do such a thing. Other devices, such as personal video recorders, allow one to do so at present, to an extent.

The project will require people to take something of a leap of faith. Households that cannot get freeview at the moment will be told that when switch-off occurs—I share the preference of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth for using the description “switch-off”, rather than “switchover”—they will suddenly find that they will have access to it. It is very difficult for them to know for certain before switch-off takes place.

For that reason it was sensible of the Minister to bring forward to 2007 the switch-off in a specific location, Whitehaven, so that some of the difficulties will be flagged up and we will have time to address them. Whitehaven is served by one transmitter and comprises about 25,000 households. It is a brave choice by the Minister because it is in that part of the country that does not get freeview now, so these are households that are in precisely the category that I described. They will be told that they have to prepare for an event—that they must go out and get their freeview box and be ready for when the switch is turned. But they will not know whether the freeview box will work until switch-off occurs. There are some for whom freeview may not work. They will have been told that all they need to do is buy a freeview box, but actually they may have inferior aerials, and it may require more investment, and the replacement of an aerial and all the attached cabling, before they have access to digital terrestrial television.

When we examined the issue in the Select Committee we were told that there was to be a crafty device whereby broadcasters would transmit a signal that would tell people whether their aerial was good enough. A warning light would show to say, “You have a poor aerial. You need to go out and buy a new one.” That would at least forewarn them and enable them to take action in advance of switchover. Unfortunately, I am now told, it has not been possible to develop such a signal.

That means that if people are to take action ahead of switchover, they will have to go out and do something about it. They will have to get hold of an aerial signal
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strength meter, plug it in and test their aerial. They may have an inkling already, depending on the quality of the picture that they are now getting. If someone has a very fuzzy picture, the chances are that they will not be able to get freeview. It is possible, however, that people will sit there, having turned on their television in hope, believing all that they have been told—that freeview will suddenly appear on their screens the day after switchover—to find that they get nothing at all. That is a considerable risk for the Government because people will not be very pleased if that is the outcome.

I will be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government intend to try to encourage people to test their aerial if they have any doubt about it; what arrangements will be put in place for testing aerials; and, for instance, whether installers might carry out a test for free in the hope that if an aerial failed the test, they might be employed to fit a new one. Reference has already been made to the danger of cowboys, and we need to know whether such matters will be taken into account by the accreditation scheme being operated by the Confederation of Aerial Installers.

The Minister will be aware that I have in the past expressed concern about the consequences for those people who live in multiple dwelling units and have access to communal television aerial systems. That, too, has been mentioned in the debate. It is a major concern, not only for those who live in rented housing, but obviously for those in buildings that accommodate large numbers, such as hospitals, prisons and hostels. Elderly persons’ homes, in particular, need to be thought about well ahead of switchover.

It appears that in privately rented housing there will be no obligation on the landlord to install an updated communal aerial system. Nor has any consideration been given to the requirements for passing on costs. That has been mentioned already and it needs to be thought about. There are also big questions for those living in social housing. That has thrown up new queries.

My attention was drawn to proposals by the London borough of Camden, which has helpfully published on the net a report setting out how it intends to replace existing communal TV aerials with an integrated reception system. This is an all-singing, all-dancing system that will provide Camden’s housing tenants with choice. They will be able to enjoy freeview or have satellite, all within one system. To some extent, I applaud Camden for taking account of the need to provide their tenants with choice. The system is platform-neutral, which I also regard as important. Camden has also tried to take account of the future development of new services, to ensure that its tenants will be able to enjoy them.

All those things are to be welcomed. The problem, of course, is that, as Camden itself says, the cost of installing these integrated reception systems in all its properties runs to several million pounds. It proposes to pay for them by imposing on tenants a service charge of about £1 a week. Leaseholders in the borough will have to pay a £300 installation cost and then a maintenance charge. I understand, or at least Camden understands, that for those on low incomes, the service charge will be met by housing benefit, but that is something I would like confirmed.

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Even those who are not on low incomes, or at least not eligible to receive housing benefit, are being asked to pay over £50 a year in extra costs. As was pointed out to me, some of them may not want to subscribe to Sky or take advantage of the most sophisticated systems; they may just want basic freeview. They will be required to pay more to subsidise the people who take out subscriptions. In some cases, the poorer tenants will be subsidising the richer ones. Understandably, that has caused some resentment and is seen to be unfair. I will take advantage of my position on the Opposition Benches and say that I do not have a solution to that problem, but it is just one example of the resentments that will be caused by this process.

We have learned a little more detail this afternoon about the assistance package. The Government are correct: clearly it is necessary to provide assistance to those people who will struggle to afford the new equipment required as a result of switchover. The Government have now finally given us an estimate of the likely cost of that package. The Secretary of State said that it would be £600 million. That is a considerable sum. It represents about a fifth of the proceeds of the licence fee in one year, although obviously it will be spread over several years.

In my view that sum should not be met from the licence fee. Although I commend the Government for wishing to give assistance to people on low incomes, I believe that it is, as has been said, a social policy decision—a welfare decision. One can argue that the BBC should meet the broadcasting costs of switchover—the conversion of transmitters and the provision of information through Digital UK—but providing assistance is clearly a welfare cost. Indeed, that has already been recognised by the Government, who pay a subsidy to the BBC for their decision to make free licences available to those aged over 75.

The fact that the Government have decided to put the cost on to the BBC has led to what I suspect the Minister will privately agree has been a rather unedifying spectacle—that of the BBC using digital switchover almost as a bargaining chip in the negotiations on the licence fee settlement. It gave rise to the director-general saying in a recent speech:

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