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Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Parliamentary Constituency Boundaries

23. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): When the Commission expects the new parliamentary constituency boundaries to be laid before the House. [111475]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Electoral Commission is responsible for conducting reviews of English local authority ward boundaries, but not parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are the responsibility of the respective boundary commissioners. Statutory responsibility for laying their reports before Parliament, and for laying draft orders to give effect to any proposed new boundaries, rests with the respective Secretaries of State to whom the boundary commissions submit their reports.

Mr. Bone: The hon. Gentleman will know that under sections 16 and 17 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it is in the Government’s power to transfer boundaries to the responsibility of the Electoral Commission. Has he any view on that, in the light of the report that was published recently?

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Peter Viggers: My hon. Friend is right that that is a matter for the Government, who made it clear when the provisions were enacted that they did not intend to take such steps before the current general reviews of all UK parliamentary constituencies had been concluded. My hon. Friend also rightly points out that the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in its recent report on the Electoral Commission that the provisions should be repealed, as part of a wider series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the Electoral Commission no longer has any involvement in electoral boundary matters.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Does Mr. Bercow wish to ask a question?

John Bercow: I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to do so.

I put it to my hon. Friend that even if the Electoral Commission does not have formal responsibility in this matter—which is a source of some surprise, and also disquiet, to me and a number of my hon. and right hon. Friends—it will have a view about the transparency and accountability of the democratic process. Is it not unsatisfactory that instead of the changes having been laid in a timeous fashion, they have not yet been laid at all and we have had too much procrastination and delay? Is it not a good thing that the Leader of the House is present in the Chamber so that he can at least witness our protests and seek to ensure that something is done to address them?

Peter Viggers: The Committee on Standards in Public Life made some robust comments about the timeliness of the reviews of the boundary commissions. I noted that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House said that he thought that the Committee’s report should be debated by the House, and I am sure that that is one of the aspects of it to which Members will wish to give consideration.

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Electoral Commission Review

24. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): When do the Speaker’s Committee and the Electoral Commission plan to respond to the recommendations of the review of the Electoral Commission by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. [111476]

Peter Viggers (Gosport): The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has not yet had an opportunity to meet to consider the report. The chairman of the Electoral Commission wrote to all Members on 19 January setting out its initial reaction to the report, and Mr. Speaker arranged for a copy to be placed in the Library. The Electoral Commission informs me that it intends to publish a formal response to the report within the next three months.

Simon Hughes: Once the Electoral Commission has published its report, will the Speaker’s Committee, in conjunction with the House authorities, make sure that we have an early debate on some of the robust proposals of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to restore confidence in the electoral process and the accountability of the Electoral Commission to all Members of this House? That is a hugely important matter outside the House, and I am keen to know that there will be enthusiasm from inside the House that it gets on our agenda so that we can legislate by changing the law if necessary.

Peter Viggers: The Speaker’s Committee took an initiative to promote a debate in the House by asking the Liaison Committee for time and that was granted. It is open to those on either Opposition Front Bench to table a motion for debate, but I think that the reassurance of the Leader of the House that an opportunity will be given for the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to be debated in the House is broadly welcomed.

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Orders of the Day

Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

Not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

New Clause 3


‘(1) Section 1 of this Act shall cease to have effect in specified regions on a date which the Secretary of State shall by regulation define.

(2) For the purpose of this Section “specified regions” shall be such areas as the Secretary of State shall by regulation define.’.— [Mr. Vaizey.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.33 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4— Commencement and duration—

‘(1) Section 1 shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint.

(2) No information may be disclosed under section 1 after the end of the initial period.

(3) In this section “the initial period”, means the period of ten years beginning with the day on which section 1 comes into force.’.

Mr. Vaizey: New clause 3 stands in my name and new clause 4 stands in my name and those of the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). In Committee, we had a useful and extensive discussion on the provisions of sunset clauses in the Bill. I was privileged to take the Committee through a history of sunset clauses from the Roman mandate to the present day—last year, we considered the use of a sunset clause in relation to the Terrorism Act 2006.

There are two important points on which all members of the Committee—and all Members of the House—should be agreed. The first is that this is an important Bill, which will allow the Government to proceed with digital switchover and, crucially, to target assistance at those who are most vulnerable and who need help to understand switchover and to get the equipment that they need. However, as the Government recognise, the Bill is also, of necessity, intrusive, in that it gives powers to the BBC to get information from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence on people receiving social security. It is therefore important that it does not remain on the statute book for longer than is necessary.

There are two ways in which one can ensure that the Bill does not have a longer than necessary shelf-life. The first is contained in new clause 3, which is my attempt to secure what is colloquially known as regional switch-off. I have tabled it at the behest of the Secretary of State, who said on Second Reading that

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So I have heard her call, and although I did not deal with that issue in Committee, I did say then that I would do so on Report, which is what new clause 3 seeks to do. As you are aware, Mr. Speaker, the Government propose to introduce digital switchover region by region, starting with Whitehaven later this year, moving on to the borders and ending in London. The new clause would rightly allow the Government to switch off the Bill, as it were, as each region is switched over from analogue to digital.

The Minister sent a detailed letter, which I received today, on how regional switchover—a matter that we pressed him on in Committee—will work. He makes it clear that, effectively, switchover assistance in each region will be available for only nine months: in other words, eight months before the date on which the final transmitter in a given region switches over—or the date on which the transmitter serving the individual in question switches over—and one month after that. There is no need, therefore, for the Bill to survive in a particular region beyond that switchover period.

I confess that, on reading the Minister’s letter, I felt that to a certain extent he wanted it both ways. On the one hand, switchover assistance will be available in a given region for only a short and specific period; on the other and as his letter makes clear, he wants the data to be kept in order to carry out cross-checking functions over the extensive period of switchover. I am not sure that that is entirely necessary. It appears that he wants to keep the data in order to check that people are not moving around the country to get such assistance more than once. I think it highly unlikely that anyone wanting assistance with digital switchover would be in a position to move regularly around the country.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Presumably, the date of expiry that the new clause provides for would depend on the date on which the appropriate level of targeted assistance had been provided. Casting his mind back to the exchanges that took place with the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House on 18 January, is my hon. Friend any clearer now than the Secretary of State allowed us to be then as to the proportion of the total subsidy that will be accounted for by voluntary input, agreed with the Government, from the BBC Trust?

Mr. Vaizey: Not really; in fact, a whole host of questions still have to be answered about the cost of digital switchover. Even now, as we debate this Bill, and after the statement on the licence fee settlement, the Government are still negotiating. Indeed, my hon. Friend, through his pertinent and perspicacious questioning, elicited from the Secretary of State on 18 January that negotiations are still ongoing. So apart from the broad figure of £600 million, any other estimate of the cost remains very vague. I hope that we can press the Minister on that issue on Report and Third Reading.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): My hon. Friend has an advantage over the rest of us, in that we have not seen the letter from the Minister, so the nine
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month cut-off point after a given region has been switched over is news to us. There is no reference in the Bill to a nine-month period, so unless the sunset clause that my hon. Friend has tabled is accepted, there will be no obligation on the Government to end such provision.

Mr. Vaizey: That is exactly the point. The details of how switchover will work are contained in a Government document that was published in December, which made it clear when people would be eligible to receive assistance in the regions. However, as I hope that I made clear when we pressed the Minister in Committee on the issue, it was at that stage unclear, which is why the Minister has written his long and helpful letter. I am sure that he will make it available in the Library for my hon. Friends to peruse. He wrote the letter because it was unclear whether switchover help would be available beyond the period of nine months.

The specific examples on which we pressed the Minister in Committee were, of course, the obvious examples. Switchover will commence in Whitehaven at the end of this year. Let us say that someone aged 75 or over now living in London were to move to Whitehaven in 2012. Their friends in London will receive free assistance in 2012 when switchover takes place there, but it is not clear whether the person who moved would be eligible for such assistance. The answer given by the Minister in his letter is that the person moving would not be eligible for assistance in Whitehaven in 2012. Therefore, the purpose of the clause—I have heeded the call of the Secretary of State for a white knight to draft a region by region sunset clause—is to switch off the Bill in a region once switchover has been achieved there, so that the data is not held any longer than necessary.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): The hon. Gentleman may be a white knight, but he may also be misleading the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) by confirming the period of nine months. In the letter we have received, the period is only one month after the switchover has occurred. Furthermore, the letter acknowledges that no final decision has yet been made about when that one month period will begin.

Mr. Vaizey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. It is important to be as accurate as possible and he rightly corrects me. The qualifying period in which people may receive assistance is nine months, starting eight months before and lasting one month after the date that switchover affects an individual. Eight months before a transmitter is to be switched off, help will be available in the region. After the transmitter is switched off, help will be available for those whose televisions suddenly go blank.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) makes clear, the hinge date—between the eight month and one month periods—has not been exactly defined. The Minister is still considering that issue because, as he says in his letter, it will either be the date on which the final transmitter in the region switches over, or the date the transmitter that serves the individual in question switches over. So there could be area switchover within the regions, with one area switching over before
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another. It is fiendishly complicated, but the new clause is designed to switch off the Bill region by region as switchover takes place around the country.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): My hon. Friend is giving the House some fascinating detail that I had not quite appreciated before. If people are to be eligible for assistance on the basis of the transmitter that transmits to their home, which could be a small number of houses in some cases, how will they know the period during which they may apply for help?

Mr. Vaizey: That is a very perceptive question. I can only assume that Digital UK, which is the body charged with providing the assistance to vulnerable people, will write to specific householders who may be subject to a sub-regional switchover to explain that their transmitter will switch on, on say, 1 June and that their eligibility for help will therefore expire on 1 July. People a couple of miles away who are served by a different transmitter, although they live in the same region, may have a later switchover date and therefore a later eligibility date. Be that as it may, at some stage each region will switch off, so the new clause would allow the Secretary of State, by regulation, to switch off the Act in specific regions to protect the principle that its powers should not survive beyond the absolute need for them.

3.45 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I represent a constituency in London, and people often move into and out of that part of the country. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is his understanding that the Bill has no specific plan for people who may move from London to an area where switchover has already happened, and that they would receive no assistance even if they needed it?

Mr. Vaizey: The Government have set themselves a daunting task. Earlier, the Secretary of State pointed out that she was in charge of building, in effect, two new terminal 5s in respect of the Olympics, and those of us who have followed closely the issue of digital switchover know that she agrees with those who assert that it could be the largest civil project in this country since the switchover to North sea gas. It seems to me that the nine-month period applies whether it be Whitehaven, the borders or London, which are enormously different both in size and, as my hon. Friend indicates, in terms of movement into and out of them. However, my reading of the Minister’s letter is that the rule will be as I described, so London, like the borders, will have only nine months.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, I sit on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which looked into digital switchover. At that time, we were not aware that the aid would be time-limited from area to area, so would not it be easier if switchover was on a date that applied to everybody nationally? There would then be cover for everybody in need rather than spasmodic cover, which would mean that people moving around the country would be left with no assistance whatever, through no fault of their own.

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Mr. Vaizey: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and use this opportunity to commend him and his colleagues on the Select Committee for a first-class report on digital switchover. It is a matter of regret to me and the hon. Member for Bath that the House has not had much opportunity to debate digital switchover, apart from the Bill, which is, as Members know, technical and short. However, the Committee’s report at least enabled us to hold a debate in Westminster Hall, which raised a number of issues, so I thank my hon. Friend profusely for that. The point he has just raised is valid; the issue was explored in Committee and I hope that I do not put words into the mouth of the hon. Member for Bath when I say that he and I were open-minded about whether switchover help would be available for the switchover period—for six years—wherever one lived or for only a short period in each region. Clearly, however, the Government have decided to go for short bursts of help in the regions, which has no doubt affected their calculation that switchover will cost £600 million. However, I cannot answer my hon. Friend’s question because the Government, despite repeated requests, have failed to make available any of the detail behind their calculation of that figure. They may feel that if switchover help was always on—as it were—it would cost much more.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me one more bite. He will be aware that polls show that up to half the people in the UK are completely ignorant of the fact that switchover will take place, so given that point and the fact that some people may move from one area, for example, from London in 2012, to one where switchover has already taken place, would not it be better for everybody to be on an equal footing irrespective of where they live?

Mr. Vaizey: That is the point, and my hon. Friend makes it extremely effectively. There may indeed be issues of education and awareness. Perhaps our friends in the north, in Scotland and the borders will be the first to receive the help because the Government deem them to be more switched on to technology—after all, over the past 200 years, people in those areas have invented a range of technological advances. They will be the first, but after that point, they will get no help, whereas the Government may regard Londoners as slightly behind the curve. They will be the last, so perhaps the Government hope that, by that time, awareness of digital switchover will have trickled down to London. As I said, the 8 million Londoners will have only eight or nine months to be made aware of the issue around 2012.

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