Previous Section Index Home Page

5.49 pm

Mr. Don Foster: I must begin by referring to the remarks of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) about my avuncular role in his development in the
29 Jan 2007 : Column 61
House, particularly during the passage of this Bill. It will not be known publicly until now—perhaps I am breaching a confidence too far—that I helped to draft his first major political speech, which I am delighted to report contained a number of extremely fine jokes. I would be grateful to have it back, because I have forgotten many of them. Such is the passage of time. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and I have enjoyed very much working with him. He has listened intently and he has learned. He has been somewhat rebellious, particularly by continually tabling a regional sunset clause, but I have enjoyed working with him.

Equally, I have enjoyed working with the Minister, because in Committee and this evening hon. Members on both sides of the House have accepted that the Bill, although limited, is extremely important. We all agree that the most vulnerable people in our society need extra assistance in the switch to digital, so that they can reap the rich benefits that all of us will get as the nation moves to become fully digital. Teasing out from the Minister additional assurances has been an important function that we have performed. Amending the Bill to provide for additional data that will help those who are registered blind or partially sighted, and who might not have received assistance otherwise, has also been valuable.

Our deliberations today have ranged widely, just as they did in Committee, despite the narrowness of the scope of the Bill. You will not be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in Committee we were, for instance, able to get into discussions ranging from the democratic or undemocratic rule of Julius Caesar to European legislation on human rights, on which we had lengthy debates. We have therefore had a wide-ranging debate and I am grateful for the opportunity that that has given us to obtain various additional assurances from the Minister.

Like the hon. Member for Wantage, I am saddened that we did not have the opportunity to discuss in more detail the help scheme, to which the data that we have discussed relate. Nevertheless, we have received a crucial assurance from the Minister, which is that the help scheme will not be set in stone. The Minister has said again today that if there are lessons to be learned from the early experiences, whether they be in Whitehaven or in other areas that move to digital before others, those lessons will be learned to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society receive the help that they need.

I am saddened, however, that the raising today of an issue that was discussed at some length in Committee has not led to any conclusion or further knowledge. We understood at the end of our deliberations in Committee that the hon. Member for Wantage was to go and discuss the issue at great length with the good burghers of Hammersmith, but we have not heard how that discussion went.

Mr. Vaizey: I call tell the hon. Gentleman that the discussion went extremely well and I am grateful that I had that opportunity.

Mr. Foster: I am glad. It appears that everything has now come to a conclusion, because we have obtained assurances from the Minister and we have been able to
29 Jan 2007 : Column 62
add amendments to the legislation that make it a better Bill. I genuinely believe that it will leave the House a better Bill than it was when it first came before us.

5.54 pm

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Third Reading, as I serve on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which examined digital switchover in detail. I am also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey)—I think that this is his first outing on a Bill of this type—has done so tremendously well. He has said that he regrets nothing. I remember that one of my former colleagues said “Je ne regrette rien” and his career took a bit of a nosedive following that. However, that will not happen to my hon. Friend, whose star is in the ascendant and will grow brighter by the day, particularly given his handling of the Bill.

The programmes “Lost” and “Big Brother” were mentioned, and that shows the power of television and the media generally. I have not watched “Lost”, but I understand that it is very good. I refuse to watch “Big Brother”—never mind appear on the show, as another hon. Member has.

The Bill is about people being able to watch television, irrespective of what they like and dislike. I hope that my preferences would not govern anybody else’s.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that he is wandering away from the subject of this Third Reading debate.

Mr. Evans: “Lost” again—the programme gets another mention.

In my almost 15 years in this House, I have spoken in many Committees and many Third Reading debates, but I am not sure whether I have ever been able to extract anything except the visit to Whitehaven, mentioned by the Minister this afternoon, for which I am extremely grateful. I have not been there before, and I suspect that the good people of Whitehaven did not know how important they would become in relation to the Bill.

The Bill is about the passing of information, which is important to make sure that the people who need assistance get it. That transfer of data, which will not be possible until the Bill is enacted, is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made salient points about age and how it is treated as opposed to other things; I mentioned the TV licence earlier. If the scheme is a big success and people do not feel that data such as their date of birth are such a big thing, the Government may well look to extend it so that others can benefit in relation to other issues, without having to claim. Many people will be unfamiliar not only with the switchover to begin with, but even with the Government publicity about switchover and the eligibility to receive the benefit.

The Minister mentioned the certified and registered blind. I am grateful for his assurance on the visually—

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman has raised something immensely helpful that I do not think has been suggested before. We know that some people who get targeted assistance will have to pay, although we are
29 Jan 2007 : Column 63
not clear about how much. Was he suggesting that that help scheme might be made more widely available to people who chose to buy into it, even if they were not eligible, as a way of spreading the cost?

Mr. Evans: I am not sure that I was suggesting that, although I may do so now that the hon. Gentleman has put the idea into my mind. I may even say that it was my idea. Clearly, the scheme could expand.

The Bill is doing an amazing thing. I talked earlier about Border Television being a pilot—or “pioneer” as we are now supposed to call them—on this issue. However, it is not only a pioneer for this scheme in seeing how effective the switchover will be— although we all pray that it goes as well as the Government say and that the preparations are in place—it is also a pioneer in respect of the number of people eligible for the assessment and other related matters. I hope that there is flexibility and that the Minister feels that he has enough of it in case all of a sudden there is a dramatic increase in the number of people who become eligible, such as certified blind people who decide to register simply because of the Bill and the fact that they want to take advantage of an important benefit.

We do not know how much cost will be involved per individual. Earlier, one of my hon. Friends asked how many people and how much money would be involved—surely the cost of a digital box would be only £30, he said. The cost of digital boxes is falling all the time. However, the issue is much wider than that; the costs for the elderly and those with disabilities may be larger than we think.

Mr. Vaizey: That is exactly the point. It brings together my hon. Friend’s suggestion, praised by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), and the reference to “Lost”. One of the crucial elements that affects the cost is platform neutrality and the importance of giving vulnerable people access to the three different types of technology. If they only get access to freeview—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman himself is straying away from the Bill and encouraging others to do so.

Mr. Evans: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not need much encouragement to stray, but I shall desist.

The Minister has given us assurances about confidentiality. That is important. I want more joined-up government in any event, with more Departments talking to other Departments and sub-agencies of Departments—those who are acting on behalf of the Government—so that the information is properly spread around.

The Minister has asked us to trust him. I remember the “Trust me, I’m Tony” campaign. Several years ago, many people did just that, but we are all a bit wiser now. However, I have more trust in the Minister’s assurances, which is why I am happy to support the Bill. I hope that those who are vulnerable will get the assistance that they need to ensure that they fully benefit from the extra choice that the switchover will give them. The quality of their lives will be improved simply because of the extra choice that they get when digital switchover comes.

29 Jan 2007 : Column 64
6.1 pm

Mr. Syms: The Minister sent out a helpful note setting out estimates of between 4.2 million and 5.2 million sets of equipment that will be needed over five or six years. That shows the amount of information that needs to be processed. The Bill is important. It is narrow in scope. Hon. Members have had to use their ingenuity on occasions to pull information out of the Minister. He has on the whole been good hearted. I welcome the assurances that he has given at this stage of the scheme, which will develop. It is important not to have a closed mind now because things will progress. The pace of change is such that we have seen a remarkable degree of change in technology in particular. It is important to encompass that in changes to the scheme.

One further thought relates to people who are not on benefit but who are appealing to be on it. Given what the Minister said about the eight-month run-in and the month after switch off, some people might get help but they have not got through the benefits system. We all have letters on our desk about people who take months to sort something out. Most appeals fail, but some succeed, and there will be a bit of overspill. The Minister should reflect on that.

Mr. Woodward: This is exactly the kind of collaboration and co-operation that is so valuable. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It may well be the case that officials have greater psychic powers than he does, but if they have not anticipated what he asks for, I give an undertaking that we will consider that and consult the Department for Work and Pensions on the practicalities of the suggestion. I do not want to create a precedent that would not achieve the ends that he wants but which creates a problem elsewhere. I suspect for that reason that it could raise issues that go well beyond the Bill and prevent what he wants from happening. None the less, I undertake to consult the DWP and am more than happy to write to him with the answer to his questions.

Mr. Syms: I thank the Minister for that assurance. No doubt the officials will be able to read our exchanges in Hansard and will take it from there.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Cawsey.]

Question agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Six o’clock.

    Index Home Page