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There is an even wider point. The Secretary of State was extremely pleased to tell us that the £600 million
was going to be ring-fenced. Again, however, as my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford, for Poole and for Hexham pointed out, if it is to be ring-fenced, will it be shown on the TV licence? Is every person who gets a television licence going to know that they are paying a digital tax for digital switchover? The Government would like to have us believe that it is cost free; they would like to hide it in the licence fee. If it is to be ring-fenced, there is no logical reason why it cannot be ring-fenced directly on the face of the TV licence.
That leads to a further problem. If the money is to be ring-fenced, how will it be accounted for if, by some miracleI know it would be a miraclethe Government estimate were wrong? If the Government somehow underspentthat really would be a miracleor the BBC underspent its £600 million, would the money be returned to the Treasury, or would there be a remake of Laurel and Hardy, starring the former DCMS Minister, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and the former DTI Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth? What would they do with such a sudden windfall? Whatshock, horrorwould they do if the BBC overspent on the carefully calculated sum of £600 million that the Government have suddenly pulled out of a hat this afternoon? What if they were to overspend? Where would the extra money come from? That is the most important factor.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) was quite right to hold the Government to account on that matter. We are quite right to ask the Government questions. We have been asking them for months when the TV licence fee will be concluded and we asked them again and again for an estimate of the cost of digital switchover. Only today, as I have explained, have we heard from them.
Apart from my hon. Friends rightly holding the Government to account, we have had a very good natured and important debate. Hon. Member after hon. Member volunteered their own services in the cause of digital switchover, which may indeed reduce the costs. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth offered to help, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), but nobody could trump my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, who offered to set up an MP hotline. Even now, I can imagine his Westminster report with his home telephone number going out all over Poole so that my hon. Friend is ready to tell people as soon as they ring him that he is willing to help. I wish only that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) had been in his place to see that we are all in this together, in action, in this Chamber.
The debate started with an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who on this occasion spoke in support of the vulnerable. About two weeks ago, he was attacking the vulnerablenamely, smokersand coming out in favour of a ban. He admitted that he was a subscriber to Sky television, no doubt because of his passion for football. Because he represents a constituency that is covered by Border television, which is one of the first areas likely to see switchover, it is right that he should wish to comment on the issue in the debate.
The hon. Gentleman also rightly raised the extremely important issue of cowboy operators. As
hon. Members have said, there is no doubt that cowboy operators are already out there trying to sell wholly inappropriate digital services to customers who may not benefit from them at all. No doubt, the carefully worked-out estimates provided by the Secretary of State, which will be placed imminently in the Library, will show just how much has been set aside to train the digital installers who will help the vulnerable. In addition and most important, we need to know what regulations the Government may consider introducing to try to restrict the activities of cowboy operators.
The cowboy operators who turn up at someones door offering a wholly inappropriate digital service are not the only ones to be worried about. The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West in his most excellent speech expressed his concern about the companies that sell digital television equipment and effectively offload redundant equipment or equipment that is soon to become redundant. He talked about the need for the trading standards office and trading standards officers to get involved, and I genuinely ask the Minister what discussions he has had with his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry about the work that they can do to discourage rogue tradersif one can put it that wayfrom flogging goods that are about to become useless.
There was a great deal of discussion about the digital divide in the fine speech from the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) and in the lengthy contribution of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out in his 25-minute speech that, when he was a Minister, he had asked a lot of detailed questions of his officials about digital television. I was tempted to think that that might be the cause of the delay in digital switchover.
The right hon. Gentleman also made the excellent point about the need to future-proof the digital switchover and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk echoed that point. It has been echoed time and again by many of the charities that take a close interest in the subject.
Alun Michael: I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentlemans flow, but my point was not about asking questions of officials as though it was for them to answer; it was about engaging in asking the questions with people in the industry and voluntary organisations. They are extremely difficult questions to answer; they are not click-of-the-finger policy solutions.
Mr. Vaizey: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for clarifying that and, if these questions were asked when he was a Minister a year ago, I will refrain from asking why we are still waiting for answers.
Be that as it may, I had moved on to talk about the need, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to future-proof the technology, a point echoed by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. This point is extremely important, because, as the Government have made clear in the estimates that will no doubt be winging their way to the Library so that we can examine them in detail, they are opting for the low-cost option. However, as people in the industry and many charities have pointed out time and again, the lowest
cost option is de facto digital terrestrial television. It is the least interactive option available and risks locking many of the vulnerable groups that are the subject of the Bill into technology that will rapidly become obsolete.
It is extremely important that the Minister tells us when he is winding up what measures the Government will take to ensure that the Bill does not lock in low technology and that it does as much as it can to ensure that vulnerable people have access to a choice of technology. That is the key. Perhaps that is what the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth was talking about in his Rumsfeldian moment, when he said, We know what we dont know, although I read today that the new US Defence Secretary has been appointed, so the right hon. Gentleman cannot apply for that job.
There was rightly a great deal of focus on the timetable. We heard some excellent speeches from hon. Members who are at the chalk face of digital switchovernone more so than the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed). He reintroduced us to his constituency, pointing out that it had the deepest lake and the highest mountain in Britain, reminding me of the Ike and Tina Turner song River Deep, Mountain High, which was no doubt written about Whitehaven, where the hon. Gentleman went to school. [Hon. Members: Sing it!] I remind the Secretary of State, who is taking her responsibility as the Minister of fun slightly too far, that this is a Dispatch Box and we are not in a karaoke club. The hon. Gentleman rightly used the opportunity to ask for a visit from the Minister, which is an opportunity that most of us would take if we could find a good enough excuse. He also asked for financial help for his constituencyanother opportunity that most of us would take.
There has to be serious concern about whether the Government can meet their self-imposed timetable. The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, who gave an extremely relaxed speech [ Interruption. ] He was not relaxed about my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, but he was relaxed about the timetable. He was also relaxed about something else, which I am going to come to at the end of my speech. We are due to see digital switchover in Whitehaven in Octoberjust 10 months awayand, I have to tell the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, in Scotland by 2010, not 2012. Scotland is going to be the guinea pig for this great experiment, as perhaps it has been for other great experiments, which may not have worked as effectively as Ministers expect digital switchover to work.
How can the Minister seriously claim that we will be in digital switchover mode by the end of 2007 when we are taking part in the Second Reading debate for a Bill that is unlikely to receive Royal Assent until the summer, we have a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the cost of digital switchover of £600 million, and we still do not have a television licence fee agreed with the BBC and will not have one agreed until February? I was intrigued to hear from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, who talked about the people on the groundDigital UK and charitieshelping with the process of digital switchover. The role of charities was also brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and
the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) in his speech, which was in no way petulant or critical of the Government. They all rightly made the point that charities will play an incredibly important role, not least because they are likely to include the people who know the area and its residents best, and who know where help is most needed.
Very little has been revealed to us about the role of charities. We know that there is a consumer group that involves the charities, which the Government are talking to, but we do not know the role of the digital volunteers, who they are, whether they will be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, or whether they will have access to the data to which the Government will give the BBC access. Given that, as the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, charity workers are on the ground, we would love to know more about the role of the charities.
We heard many Members talk about one particularly complex and what might seem rather small issue: that of installing digital television in multiple dwellings. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James)the lady in redgave a comprehensive speech, indicating that she has been involved in the issue of digital television and help for the vulnerable since she entered Parliament last year. It was not just the hon. Lady who pointed out these difficulties, but the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford.
The issue features quite heavily in the excellent report by the Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. He made the interesting point that Camden council has a scheme up and running that will cost several million pounds and involve a levy on tenants. When we see the Governments estimate in detailno doubt it, along with its careful workings, are winging their way towards the Libraryit will be interesting to find out how the Government have accounted for the problem. I discovered in the excellent Select Committee report the little-known fact that one in five of us live in a multiple dwelling or share an aerial with a next-door neighbour. The situation could be incredibly complicated. What have the Government decided to do about this? What discussions has the Minister had with his ministerial colleagues in other Departments about changing the building regulations so that new buildings may have the scope to include the infrastructure for digital?
Many hon. Members speeches touched only briefly on the matter at the heart of the Bill: data sharing. I did the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth a disservice because his Rumsfeld moment came when he was talking not about technology, but about data sharing. When he said that there was much that we did not know, he gave the impression that he would prefer to see a rolling Bill to which additional bits of data that might be useful could be attached.
Although no hon. Member mentioned this point, I am intrigued by the fact that the Bill makes it clear that the BBC may enter into a joint venture. Will the Minister enlighten us about who the BBC is talking about entering such a joint venture? What accountability will there be to the House over the body
that goes into a joint venture with the BBC and thus, by definition, has access to the data?
No hon. Member picked up on the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devonit was also made by our shadow Defence spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)about the extreme risk to people in Northern Ireland who have served in the armed forces, given that unlike the Television Licences (Disclosure of Information) Act 2000, the Bill will allow access to information about war pensions. Naturally, that is a matter of significant concern.
One measure that is almost bound to find its way into our debates in Committee is a sunset clause. It will delight the Minister to hear that I always talk about sunset clauses when I get nearer to my perorationmy sunset and finale. Such a measure was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and, in an equally relaxed fashion, by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West. It is odd that the Secretary of State can effectively admit that the Bill should probably have a sunset clause by saying, Because, you know, its going to kind of collapse at the end when weve got digital switchover. We need only a one-line provision saying that the Bill will cease to have effect when the Secretary of State decrees that digital switchover has been achieved, or perhaps to put it more accurately, that analogue switch-off has taken place.
And so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I reach the final curtain. We have had a wide-ranging debate on not only a mere six-clause Bill, but an issue that is likely to affect far more of our constituents than almost anything that we will debate in the House this year, next year or the year after, apart from the tax rises that are coming with the big clunking fists Budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham who kindly apologised to me for the fact that he had to leave to go to a dinner, was thus quite right to say that the Government have a whole range of questions to follow. They have to answer questions about their back-of-the-envelope costings for digital switchover, the complex procedure of putting together an army of people to carry out switchover and an army of volunteers from charities to help with switchover, the sensitivity of data sharing and whether there will be a rolling programme to destroy data as it is shared, the complexities of multiple dwellings, and many more issues. That is why we intend to detain the Government in Committee for at least two days next month.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I welcome the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) to his new portfolio. I am sure that he will add great skill not only to his hon. Friends, but to the Chamber as he knows a great deal about the arts. It will be entertaining to see him at the Dispatch Box rather than presenting Sky News at a quarter to midnight most evenings.
Unfortunately, after the excellent opening by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the debate took a downward turn when the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) got to his feet. He rightly addressed the House by asking, What is going on? Perhaps I
can provide him with a little targeted help in this final speech in the debate. As the hon. Gentleman had a little hearing difficulty throughout my right hon. Friends remarks, I remind him of the most important point, which is that my right hon. Friend did indeed give him the figure that he thought he would not be given, which is how much the scheme will cost. The Secretary of State was perfectly clear, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman one more time
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman seems to have remembered the figureit is £600 million. He thought that he would not be given that figure. To answer his secondary question, that estimate does indeed take full account of VAT. In a subsequent question he asked what would happen if the scheme cost less than £600 million. Of course, that would be factored in for the next licence fee settlement. We will ensure that the costs of the scheme will not impact on the BBCs programme budgets.
One of the most serious issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, which obviously requires proper reflection, is the security implications of data release, particularly, as one or two other Members mentioned, in relation to the Army and Northern Ireland. There are strong protections in the Bill, including criminal sanctions for misuse, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) pointed out from his experience of data protection issues, we need to pay particular attention to those areas. I say to the hon. Member for East Devon that we will work with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence to make sure that sensitive information is not disclosed, and we will consider with the Veterans Agency the points made in order to protect service personnel, particularly in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether people would be able to opt out of data sharing. Claimants will be notified by the help scheme administrator that their details are being used for the purposes of the scheme. Of course, under the Data Protection Act 1998, an individual can request that processing of his details ceases.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a second switchover being necessary to achieve high definition, and I simply make the rather obvious but none the less important remark that equipment provided by the scheme will of course improve over time. Similarly, as we all know from DVD players, equipment becomes obsolete. The main point now is that the scheme will provide those who are eligible with equipment that takes account of their special needs.
My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) not only gave us their support, but made the important observation that the Bill will help some of the most vulnerable communities in our society. They raised the issue of multiple dwellings and communal aerials. We are working with Digital UK, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that, through partnership, we can address this serious issue. We have discussed it with the Chairman
of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is a problem and we need to work very hard on it, but I am confident that we can do it.
Already there is progress. We see that in the figures and we see it in the response of the Audit Commission, which, inspecting social housing providers in November, amended its guidance to highlight good practice in estate management, saying that it expects to see clear policies and advice regarding the siting and installation of satellite dishes and aerials. I hope that we will achieve that through a programme of voluntary self-regulation, and I believe that the public sector will set the standards that the private sector will follow. We will pay close attention to the matter and we are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to achieve those aims.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) asked whether we could implement the scheme by 2008, and the answer is yes. He also asked whether a draft of the order, setting out the sort of data that will be disclosed, would be available to the House, in relation to the memorandum of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. We intend to prepare a draft of that order and we will make it available during Committee.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Will the Minister be specific about the £600 million cost? If the cost ultimately proves greater than that, does he have a Treasury guarantee that there would be no impact on licence fee payers?
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not indulge him in giving him an answer to that. [Interruption.] However, if the hon. Member for Wantage can contain himself, I will address part of that issue later, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it perfectly clear when she set out that figure this afternoon that she would give more detailed information at the beginning of next year. [Interruption.] It is important for the hon. Member for Wantage, on the Conservative Front Bench, to contain himself, because what matters is getting it right. I know that he likes to play politics, but at the end of the day the issue is more important than that. We must get the settlement right for the BBC and for digital switchover, and we must get the targeted help rightthat is what matters, and that is what the public think we should be doing, rather than playing public school games.
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