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Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During business questions I named the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) without having informed her office beforehand. I have been in the House long enough now to realise that that was a mistake, and I apologise to the House.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his apology. I would add that he also did not take the trouble to contact me to check whether the comments attributed to me, which were taken directly from a Sunday tabloid, were accurate. I wish to inform the House that the comments attributed to me in no way reflected the lengthy conversation that I had with the reporter involved. I am just as concerned as any Member of the House to ensure that our armed forces receive excellent medical treatment, which they are receiving at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak. They are receiving treatment at the cutting edge of what is available, healing wounds that in the past would never have been able to receive treatment. I hope that the inquiry by the Defence Committee will reflect
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a humble Back Bencher, may I seek your assistance and advice? With the aid of the Table Office, I have for some time been trying to find out how much the Ministry of Defence spends on feeding Ministry of Defence dogs. With the aid of the Table Office, I received an answer on 5 March which stated:
The information requested is not held centrally and would vary depending on the breed . . . of the dog.[ Official Report, 5 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1648W.]
We tried again, with the aid of the Table Office, and on 23 March I was told that I could not be given the answer as the cost would be disproportionate. Last night a very good journalist from the Daily Mail phoned the Ministry of Defence to ask the question, and 15 minutes later received an answeran answer that we do not believe, but the journalist was given an answer. Is it not disrespectful to the House if we do not get answers to questions, but journalists do in 15 minutes?
Mr. Speaker: Order. Just before the Leader of the House answers, may I say that it is disrespectful to the House and disrespectful to a former Grenadier guardsman that such answers should be given. I hope we can find out how much it costs to feed Army dogs.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I have some information, though not all of it. I am happy to provide him with the information that I have, and I will also follow up the point that he raises. Let me make this clear, and I am sure I speak for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence: if information can be made available to the press, it ought to be made available to the House.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 18th December 2006 (Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendment
1. Proceedings on consideration of the Lords Amendment shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at this days sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement. [Liz Blackman.]
On Report the House agreed to an amendment to extend the Bill to information held by local authorities on registered blind and partially sighted people. The amendment was in response to representations made by the Digital Switchover Consumer Experts Group and to amendments tabled by Opposition Members in Committee.
The definition of local authority in the amendment needs further clarity to avoid ambiguity, as it could be read as excluding metropolitan district councils in England. The amendment clarifies that. It may also be helpful if I give further clarification on the progress of the scheme. On 30 April, we and the BBC reached agreement on the terms of the help scheme and
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Without in any way seeking to challenge your ruling, it would be helpful to the House if the Minister could, en passant, refer to the progress that is being made.
Mr. Woodward: Therefore, Madam Deputy Speaker, with your expert guidance, and in the interests of brevity, and complying totally with your implicit and explicit wishes, I commend the amendment to the House.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): The House will now, unfortunately, not be treated to the full-length disquisition on the merits of the Bill that I had prepared, as I shall speak only to the amendment.
As the Minister might have said if he had decided to speak at greater length about the amendment, it is an important technical drafting amendment. As the House is aware, clause 1(3) allows local authorities to give visual impairment information to the BBC or to
the Secretary of State in order to allow assistance to be given to the visually impaired for digital switchover. As we understand it, in many areas it is a county council that holds this information, so it is the body covered by the definition of a local authority. In some areas, however, it is a district council that holds the information on those with visual impairment. The Bill needs to take account of that. Clause 5(1)(ii) referred to
a district council for an area in relation to which it has the functions of a county council.
In his opening remarks the Minister was not clear about the need for this technical change, so perhaps I could illuminate the House in case any hon. Members wish to tease out some of the technical details. The original amendment tabled by the Government would have adequately covered the definition for shire areas with two-tier systems. However, the problem arose because although some metropolitan district councils are the relevant authority, it could be argued that they do not have the functions of county councils. The definition was therefore changed to:
a district council, other than a council for a district in a county for which there is a county council.
That is a very important technical change. [ Interruption . ] I think that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) used the word boring. I disagree with him on that; I would say that it is interesting, although it could be made more so. I could discuss Roman governance systems, as I did at length in Committee, but that might make it too interesting.
This is a very important change, because there may have been confusion with metropolitan district councilsthat is, virtually all unitary authorities not coveredif they were deemed not to have the functions of a county council. In order to help hon. Members to understand the technical and important nature of the amendment, the Minister could have pointed out that a similar amendment was made in the Public Bill Committee to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, and that this technical change will bring the definition of a local authority into line with the corresponding provisions of that Bill. I think that that is correct, but I would be grateful for his guidance.
You have made the important ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we cannot discussnor should wethe other issues to do with digital switchover, so focusing solely on this technical amendment I should like to ask the Minister a number of questions.
Mr. Greg Knight: I understand and accept the ruling from the Chair, but we would all like to know what the Minister was about to tell us when it was decided that he would be out of order. Will my hon. Friend urge him to impart that information in another way, perhaps by placing a letter in the Library or by making a written statement to the House at a later date?
The Minister promisedI do not know whether this is in the spirit of the earlier remarks by the Leader of the Houseto take me to Whitehaven to see digital switchover in action, but that promise has not been fulfilled. I await a trip to Whitehaven with him to see what is happening on the ground. Having placed in the House copies of the agreement with the BBC, it is important that he writes to the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport or places in the Library a letter bringing us up to date with digital switchover.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not just going to leave it at the shadow Secretary of State, as all Members present are clearly showing an interest in this matter. The amendment will change the range of people who will be identified for assistance through the targeted help scheme. Although the ruling by Madam Speaker means that we cannot hear about progress for all those people, does he agree that it would be helpful to hear what progress is being made in providing help to the new group of people who will be covered as a result of the new definition in the amendment?
Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman makes the excellent move of promoting Madam Deputy Speaker to Madam Speaker, no doubt in order to incur her good will when he rises to speak on the amendment. May I also congratulate him on his bravery in wearing the Olympic logo
To give credit where it is due, the hon. Member for Bath first raised the issue of local authorities when we discussed the Bill previously. As an expert on this, he rightly points out that the definition of a local authority widens the range of people to whom assistance will be given. Perhaps the Minister could elucidate on that.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job in explaining the amendment given that the Minister was unable to do so. Does the change in definition give rise to a danger that it will exclude other authorities such as unitary authorities or other types of authority that may come into existence in future? Should it not be slightly broader to enable such authorities to be incorporated without yet another amendment?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That was one of the three questions that I was going to ask the Minister. Is he confident that the amendments definition of a local authority will withstand any future reorganisation of local government? As my hon. Friend is well aware, the Government have put forward a White Paper on local authority reorganisation. In my own county of Oxfordshire, we have had a long debate about reorganisation prompted by the Government, forcing us to spend money that could have been much better
spent on council services. That particularly applies to Labour-controlled Oxford city council, which profligately spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on considering becoming a unitary authority.
My question to the Minister is simply this: is he confident that, should the Government ever get round to their long-awaited local authority reorganisation, this definition will stand the test of time, or will we be forced to amend the Bill again to accommodate new definitions of a local authority?
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I would like a little more information about how many people will be affected by the change. Do we have a list of the relevant local authorities? Many Members may not know that the amendment could affect their constituents. That information should be in the public domain.
Mr. Vaizey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Minister writes to me about digital switchover, it might be helpful if he writes to all hon. Members detailing specifically which councils covered by the amendment have the relevant information, so that when their constituents contact them with concerns about switchover they know which council they should contact in order to assist them.
Mr. Syms: Clearly this will be a key issue. Many Members will have visually impaired constituents coming to them wanting assistance. It is therefore important that the information should be widely disseminated, specifically in the Library. I hope that when the debate is over a little more information will come into the public domain.
Mr. Vaizey: My hon. Friend is right to say that it is a crucial matter. I do not have the statistics to hand about the average number of visually impaired people per constituency, but it will be a significant number, and by definition they will require assistance from their local authority. It is therefore essential that hon. Members are fully informed about the amendments implications for their local authority.
The amendment is not expected to have any financial effects.
Any hon. Member with even a modicum of common sense would realise that that cannot be an accurate statement. The amendment brings into the scope of the Bill a wide range of local authorities, particularly metropolitan district councils, which might not have expected to be included before it was passed. It will clearly have financial implications for them in terms of their providing information on financial assistance to the visually impaired. Yet the explanatory notes state baldly that it is not expected to have any financial effects.
Adam Afriyie: If a district council that picks up this responsibility does not already hold the data and is not in a position to assist because it was not expecting to, there must be some form of financial implication for it, even if it is allocating to one person the job of looking into these matters and discovering where the subscribers or non-subscribers might be.
Mr. Vaizey: My hon. Friend is right. When the Under-Secretary was questioned about the matter in Committee, he skirted around the cost implications. Indeed, he implied that local authorities could absorb the cost in their normal functions. That cannot be the case. Digital switchover has been described as the largest civil project in this country for 30 or 40 years. Bringing local authorities within the scope of the Bill by accepting the amendment, which would bring metropolitan district authorities within its scope, has serious financial implications. I hope that the Under-Secretary will deal with that when he responds to my remarks and those of the hon. Member for Bath, who is the expert on the matter after drawing it to the Houses attention.
Mr. Greg Knight: Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the amendment? It appears to me that it might be defective because, as I read the amendment and the Bill, the amendment relates only to councils in England. What happens in the case of a local government reorganisation in Scotland? Surely the amendment should cover all parts of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Vaizey: My right hon. Friend is a vastly experienced Member and, I suspect, a much better lawyer than me, although I trained and qualified for the Bar many years ago. I confess that I was hitherto unaware of his point. Clause 5(1)(c) states that local authority means
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