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John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): It seems very much a déj vu for us to be having this discussion yet again. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s argument and I recall saying at an earlier stage of the Bill that I had some sympathy with it, though I have to tell him that I do not agree with sunset clauses. My fear is not the same as that of the hon. Gentleman, who is concerned about people without digital boxes. I find that if people who already have a digital box move to another house, they take their digital box with them. Anyone moving from an area that receives digital to another area will take the box
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with them. My problem is more about people who live in an area that does not have digital switchover moving to an area that does, so that they are stuck in a house where help with the digital box has been taken away. For that reason, I do not want any sunset clause. There has to be an extension at the end of the period to allow for such movements. Also, elderly people may not cotton on too quickly to these things, particularly if they have spent extensive time in hospital.

Mr. Vaizey: I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point and I hope that I have represented the Minister’s letter correctly. I agree that one particular concern is people moving from an area that has not yet had switchover to an area that has, so that, for example, someone moving from London to the borders in 2010 who is technically eligible for switchover assistance would not receive it when they move. The hon. Gentleman’s point about regional switchover would be particularly good if the Government were going to have always-on switchover. One could then argue quite effectively that a regional switchover clause would be unhelpful because anyone moving to the borders would, by definition, want to be identified by the BBC and Digital UK.

Mr. Don Foster: On that very point and bearing in mind that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) is sympathetic to the people he is describing—those who live in London but move to the borders in 2012, for example—I would like to ask him a question. His helpful new clause refers to the Secretary of State making a decision on the time scale for ending the available help, so I presume that he envisages a fairly long period.

Mr. Vaizey: I am working within the Government’s scheme, which is the nine-month period and the clearly set-out timetable starting with Whitehaven and ending in London. The new clause is relatively loosely drafted in order to allow the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations to switch off the Bill—for example, in the borders at the appropriate time. The Government have said that the scheme will operate on a rolling basis and proceed region by region, which I have taken as my starting point. If that is the case and given that the Bill becomes increasingly redundant region by region, let us make that explicit in the Bill and—in a pioneering fashion, I have to say—remove legislation from the statute book region by region. That is the thinking behind the new clause.

John Bercow: This has proved a rather illuminating discussion. Given that any timetable for the provision of financial assistance is necessarily arbitrary, I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the proposition that the decision on the precise timetable should at least in part depend upon the efficacy of any campaign to ensure that people can access the help to which they are entitled. Given that there is a degree of labyrinthine complexity about this matter, as well as the issue of transient populations—particularly in big industrial cities, but in other areas, too—does my hon. Friend agree that there could be role in public information provision for housing associations and, dare I say it, even estate agents?


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Mr. Vaizey: My hon. Friend raises a number of important issues. For example, when we move on to consider the amendment that envisages a role for local authorities, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Bath, who spotted the incredibly important role that local authorities could play, we may have a chance also to discuss the role of estate agents, which could well be important, as well as that of housing associations, charities and so forth.

Indeed, my hon. Friend, who appears to have grasped the essence of the Bill with remarkable accuracy, probably has in mind the great difficulty that we will face when dealing with housing association tenants, particularly those in multiple dwellings. Although those who have rooms in a housing association-run home for people over the age of 75 would be eligible for assistance, they might find it useless because the communal aerial that serves their televisions cannot be changed over. That might be less the case with housing associations and perhaps more of a problem with registered social landlords.

I commend my hon. Friend on the perceptive way in which he is framing his contributions to this very important debate. Again—it must have been absolutely deliberate—he has given me a neat bridge to enable me to talk briefly about new clause 4, as he has pointed out the need for flexibility in switching off the Bill. When we debated a straightforward sunset clause in Committee, the Minister was quite clear that he did not want the Opposition to move an amendment that would switch off the Bill after six years. I remind hon. Members that the Government have set down a timetable that is due to end switchover at the end of 2012. I therefore tabled a proposed sunset clause in the hope of helping the Government by saying, “Let’s switch the Bill off after six years.”

The Minister made perfectly legitimate points about what could happen in the intervening six years. For example, he pointed to the destruction of a large transmitter in 1969 by a strong wind—it may indeed have been a hurricane—that took some months to repair. He made some important points about the fact that unexpected or unanticipated delays, including those caused by prolonged bad weather or a hurricane, could set back the cause of digital switchover.

As hon. Members are fully aware, switchover requires aerials to be replaced mechanically. Clearly, if one replaces a redundant analogue aerial with a brand new digital aerial but an act of God renders that aerial useless, switchover will be delayed. However, the Minister did not consider—it would have been an opportunity for him—what would then be done about an area that had already been switched off. For example, strong winds are occasionally present in the north, so what would be done about the borders if analogue signals were switched off and those transmitters were thrown down a couple of days later?

Given the reasons why the Minister rejected the proposed sunset clause, I have redrafted it and returned with new clause 4, whereby, under subsection (3), the hon. Member for Bath and I offer the Government 10 years to achieve switchover. On any calculation, that is a 66 per cent. increase in the time available for switchover—an increase of two thirds or four years, which would take us to 2016, towards the end of the
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second Conservative Administration, who will come to power in 2009. That strikes me as enough time for the Bill.

As was repeatedly made clear on Second Reading and in Committee, the legislation will become redundant. All I seek to do is to make that explicit in the Bill and to make it clear that it will be removed from the statute book. We could set an important precedent for Parliament in saying that we will not leave legislation that has served its purpose simply sitting on the statute book. We can begin the task of tidying up legislation.

Miss Kirkbride: For hon. Members who did not serve on the Public Bill Committee, will my hon. Friend let the House know whether the Minister made an offer about being prepared to let a sunset clause apply to the legislation?

4 pm

Mr. Vaizey: I am afraid that the Minister did not. As far as I am aware, having reread the Committee proceedings, he said that he rejected my proposed change because he did not think that six years was long enough. Given the history of the Government on major procurement projects, I fully accepted that point. Also, I think that he felt that the change was redundant, because the Bill would not be used beyond digital switchover. However, that strikes me as an argument that goes either way. Either one is casual and says, “Nobody is going to use this Bill, so we will leave on the statue book the power for the BBC to request information from the Department for Work and Pensions for digital switchover”, or one says, “The Bill is redundant. It is no longer necessary. It will cease to be. It will become a dead Act.” The latter strikes me as a better way of legislating than simply leaving a redundant stump on the statute book.

Mr. Don Foster: To help the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Minister told us that there was no need for such a sunset clause because the whole approach has been

As we have already discussed, decisions have still not been made as to the precise nature of that event.

Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Minister did say that digital switchover is a time-limited event and that that is why a sunset clause is redundant. He certainly made it clear that, in his opinion, six years would not be long enough, despite the timetable of 2012.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention allows me to move on to new clause 4(1), which incorporates a commencement date for the Bill. It had been assumed that once the Bill had been given a Third Reading, it would be able to commence immediately. However, having thought hard about how prepared the Government are for digital switchover, and being aware of the sensitive nature of the Bill in that it gives extensive powers to the BBC or a company that it
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appoints to access sensitive data, it would seem careless to allow the Bill to commence immediately.

The Government are not yet in a position to commence digital switchover. We know that they plan to commence digital switchover in October in Whitehaven. The people of Whitehaven are pioneering digital switchover. The rest of the borders region will follow. We also know that the Government are still conducting negotiations with the BBC—in particular, on the level of borrowing. The BBC wants to be able to borrow money because, as it puts it, the expenditure is lumpy. In this context, lumpy means that there will be bursts of expenditure. The £600 million will not simply be spent in smooth monthly instalments for the next six years. There will be front-ended expenditure in certain periods and the BBC wants to be able to borrow to cover that.

There is also the important point, which hon. Members have raised, that the BBC is in no way convinced that £600 million will be the final cost of digital switchover, despite what the Government say. It wants guarantees from the Government that if that £600 million cost is exceeded, the additional money will not come out of its programme budget. The new clause is a two-for-one clause. It offers the Minister not only the comfort and legislative tidiness of switching off the Bill, but the opportunity not to start the provisions until he and the BBC are absolutely ready to commence the immensely complicated task of digital switchover.

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman and I have known each other for many years and have met each other in all kinds of situations and places, but I have never before met him standing at the Dispatch Box in front of the Opposition Benches. It is a great pleasure to do so. Like the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), I did not have the pleasure of sitting on the Committee. I am glad to be here today.

I seek the hon. Gentleman’s advice. In relation to new clause 3, he seemed to argue that it is important that the finite powers that the Government wish to put in the Bill be rendered infinite—for all kinds of reasons of principle. However, in relation to new clause 4, he seems to be arguing that it is equally important that the indefinite nature of the Bill, which is what the Government intended, be rendered finite. That is almost exactly the opposite of what he seemed to be arguing previously.

Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman accurately tells the House that he and I have been friends for a long time. I have immense admiration for him, and the fact that he is probing me about the new clauses shows the House yet again his enormous talent that lies—

Mr. Evans: Wasted.

Mr. Vaizey: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, whom I have also known for many years. As the desk officer in the Conservative research department, I did my best to prevent him from being elected to Parliament—not deliberately, but unwittingly, due to my incompetence.


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Talking of my incompetence, I must tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) that his confusion arises only due to my incompetence. Let me reiterate my points. New clause 3 would insert a regional sunset clause in the Bill. I am not sure whether such an approach has ever been attempted, so the measure is pioneering stuff. The intention is that given that switchover will proceed around the country—starting in Whitehaven and the borders and ending in London—and because the Bill allows the BBC to access sensitive data, the Bill should cease to have effect in any region in which switchover has been achieved. If the new clause were accepted, the BBC would not be able to request sensitive information from the Department for Work and Pensions about people living in the borders after switchover had been completed in that region.

We have had the perfectly legitimate ensuing debate about whether it is right to have regional switch-off. Several hon. Members have asserted that it would be better for assistance to be available to everyone throughout the country for six years, because if there were only regional assistance, which is the present proposal, there would be an anomaly whereby someone from London who moved to Whitehaven after that area had switched over would not be eligible for assistance.

As I said, new clause 4 is a double whammy—a twofer for the Minister, as they say in America. It would allow him to choose the date on which the Bill would come into force. The Department is still negotiating with the BBC and we are not even at the point at which the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted, so it would be careless to put a measure on the statute book giving such power to the BBC before switchover had even commenced. I work on the principle that Bills should go on to the statute book only when the Government are ready to go. The new clause also offers a general sunset clause providing that after switchover has been achieved throughout the country, the Bill will cease to be, and it will be a dead Bill, a late Bill—I cannot remember the rest of the parrot sketch.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage) (Lab): It will go to join the choir invisibule.

Mr. Vaizey: Exactly. The hon. Lady should intervene again.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I am not intervening to fill in the rest of the parrot sketch—I bore my children with that far too often.

While considering new clause 3, hon. Members have raised the question—we also debated this in Committee—of whether a regional sunset clause would really be a good idea, because people who moved from a region in which there had been no switchover to a region in which switchover had been completed would be disadvantaged by being told, “Tough, you’ve missed your chance; you don’t get any assistance.” Surely the point of the Bill is that those who need assistance will get it, rather than being denied it by the accident of moving from point A to point B. Have our deliberations led the hon. Gentleman to decide to withdraw new clause 3?


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Mr. Vaizey: No, I still support new clause 3. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help me, as he and I have both read the Minister’s letter. As far as I am aware, if, after switchover in Whitehaven, a person moves from London to Whitehaven, they will not be eligible for assistance. If they are not eligible for assistance, there is no point in giving the BBC the power to access data on people who are eligible in Whitehaven, other than for cross-reference purposes.

Paul Holmes: Is not the definition of “after switchover” the key point? Is it after six years, 10 years, when the sunset clause would come into effect, or some other time period that applies to the whole UK? Or are we talking about a rolling programme of six, nine or more regional switchovers?

Mr. Vaizey: As far as I am aware, targeted assistance is available in the regions for nine months—that is, for eight months before the transmitters are switched over, and one month after switchover—but I wait to hear from the Minister on whether I have accurately reflected the position. That strengthens the case for a regional switch-off clause, but if the hon. Member for Chesterfield persuaded the Minister of the perfectly legitimate point of view that switchover assistance should be available to all eligible people in every region during the period, I would agree that a regional switch-off clause would become less palatable.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because I know that he is coming to the end of his contribution. I thought that the whole point about the Government’s advertising campaign was that it would be regional, and that is why most people in London would not have the faintest idea about digital switchover, whereas people in the borders would. It is because people are fairly mobile that assistance should be spread over the whole period of the switchover, irrespective of where the eligible people live.

Mr. Vaizey: That is a perfectly legitimate point, and it could even end up saving the Government money. For example, if more people were made aware of switchover across all regions, some of them might get on with the job of switching to digital, and then when switchover arrived, they would have already switched over.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): Of course, if things go wrong in Whitehaven, everyone will hear about it, and the publicity would ripple across the nation. If digital switchover works well in Whitehaven, people can relax. If it does not, they will hear about it and will, no doubt, have to react to it.

Mr. Vaizey: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution; it also gives me the opportunity to thank him for his valuable contribution during the Bill’s lengthy Committee stage, in which we considered the Bill in great detail, clause by clause. Perhaps I might give him a trailer—I use that word, as we are talking about the media—and say that I will refer to his remarks when we discuss the Government amendments on local authorities, as he made a particularly valuable and effective contribution on the subject. Indeed, it was so valuable and effective that it was adopted by the
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hon. Members for Bath and for Chesterfield—my colleagues in Committee, and in so many other ways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) makes the point that if Whitehaven goes wrong, it could inadvertently publicise the issue of switchover, although that publicity could set back the Government’s cause. The Minister and I will visit Whitehaven together in March, and I am grateful to him for the invitation. He extended it to me in Committee, as hon. Members may remember, and I said yes. I was feeling particularly vulnerable in that Committee, and perhaps that is why I accepted with alacrity. Whitehaven will be a pioneer, but I am not sure that it will be subject to the same process that will be followed in the rest of the country. A lot will no doubt be learned from Whitehaven, but it is hard to consider Whitehaven part of the process because, for example, it is not clear whether the vehicle—the third-party company that the BBC will set up—will be established at that stage. Given how long licence fee negotiations continue, it would not surprise me if, when Whitehaven switches over, the Minister is still negotiating with the BBC on the details of switchover. Whitehaven may end up an isolated pioneer on switchover. In fact, it may end up the only place in the country that has switched over, if the Minister is still carrying on his negotiations with the BBC.

As I say, new clause 4 is a twofer—a two-for-one, a double whammy—and it offers the Minister the opportunity to ensure that the Bill does not come into force before he is good and ready. It also offers him a two thirds increase in the time available for switchover, in place of the narrow six-year period that I foolishly proposed, on the basis of the timetable that the Government put forward. In new clause 4, we have offered 10 years, which is an extensive period—so extensive, indeed, that my little boy, Joseph, will be at primary school at the time of switch-off. That is the length of time that we are talking about.

Little Joseph can only gurgle and smile at the moment—I could show the House a picture of him—but under the extended period in the new clause, by the time of switch-off he will be reading ancient Greek and attending a local authority primary school. I now live in Conservative-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, so standards will have improved tremendously by then.


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