Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

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Mr. Vaizey: It is clear from the eloquence and passion deployed by the hon. Member for Bath that he used his 48 hours on the planes to and from Australia to incredible effect. We are grateful to the English cricket team for having ended at least one, perhaps two, test matches early to enable him to prepare such a passionate analysis.
There are two fundamental points in the amendment. The first relates to the stakeholders and partners on whom the company that will be established to proceed with targeted help will be able to call for information. The second relates to the criteria governing those who will receive help under the switchover scheme.
I was lucky enough to bump into the Minister last night and to discuss the clause with him. As he will no doubt make clear in his remarks, he recognises the importance of working with local authorities when the Bill becomes law and when digital switchover scheme is under way. As the hon. Member for Bath pointed out, the clause pertains particularly to those who are registered as partially sighted or blind. Paragraph 5.22 of the digital switchover help scheme documents, which are published by the Department on the digital switchover website, says:
“Each local authority keeps a register of blind and partially sighted people living in their area, but this information is not held centrally. We are exploring the best way of how to contact blind and partially sighted about the help scheme and dealing with the overlap with age/benefit qualifications (around 70 per cent. of blind/partially sighted claimants will qualify on age/benefit grounds).”
It is quite clear that the vast majority of blind or partially sighted people will fall into the relevant category for the targeted switchover scheme, and that the DWP does not hold that information. It is also clear that the Bill makes no provision to allow local authorities to hand over the information to the company that is responsible for digital switchover, and must be amended. It is therefore extremely important that we discuss the amendment and that the Minister explains in detail how he expects local authorities to participate in the scheme, given the technical, legal lacunae that prevent them from giving the information to the relevant company.
The hon. Member for Bath made it clear that there is a need to debate who will be targeted by the targeted switchover scheme. The Government have issued a draft order, similar to regulations that were passed under the Television Licences (Disclosure of Information) Act 2000, in which the information that will be made available by the DWP is set out. It includes the name, date of birth, address and national insurance number of subjects, whether the subject lives in a care home and whether the subject is dead. There is other peripheral information, but nothing specific on who will be targeted and which benefits they receive.
The Disability Rights Commission made a useful point in the briefing that I received for the Second Reading debate. It pointed out that the DWP is planning to target only those who have been registered as blind or partially sighted, but the process of certification begins before registration. Those who are certified as blind or partially sighted may also require a great deal of help. The DRC also made the point that there are 74,000 visually impaired people in the UK who are neither certified nor registered as such.
The role of local authorities extends beyond those who are blind or partially sighted. As several hon. Members mentioned on Second Reading, local authorities are the organisations closest to those who will need help. It would be utterly sensible for the company that is responsible for targeting digital switchover to have a dialogue with the social services under council control, to discuss the sort of information that it may need, such as a list of all the care homes in a local authority area.
On a tangential point, perhaps when the Minister replies to the debate, he will talk about the role that charities will play. No amendment has been tabled on the need for charities to give information to the company that is targeting help. From the information that the Government have released, we know that the large charities are keen to help and will act as digital ambassadors to their clients.
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Member for Bath was right to anticipate the first appearance of the hon. Member for Wantage in his capacity as Opposition spokesman on this subject. I hope that we will be able to expedite our debates, while allowing proper time for relevant discussion of the amendments. We might even make the kind of speed that will allow the hon. Gentleman to make his Churchillian appearance in Hammersmith this evening. I am equally conscious that if we are delayed we will have to disappoint the people in Hammersmith—or perhaps spare them, but that is a point for debate.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield raised the issue of blind or partially sighted people on Second Reading. We share his concern that a considerable number of them will not be identified on the DWP database because the information is held by local authorities rather than centrally. We have worked closely with the digital television consumer expert group, which comprises leading charities representing vulnerable people including the Royal National Institute for the Blind, on how we should identify those who are registered blind or partially sighted. Those aged 75 or over will be identified from data held by DWP, but about 20 per cent.—approximately 50,000 or 60,000 people—will be identifiable only from data held by local authorities.
I know that the consumer expert group has actively supported the amendment. I have reservations about its wording, but I pay tribute to the consumer expert group for its contribution with the RNIB in particular. We recognise that allowing local authorities to disclose information on the scheme would help blind or partially sighted people by enabling the scheme operator more readily to identify those who are eligible.
On Second Reading I said that we were discussing with the Department of Health and the Department for Constitutional Affairs whether and how to make provision to permit local authorities to disclose the necessary information from their register of blind or partially sighted people. The view of the Department of Health is that because of data protection legislation, local authorities would be unable to share that data with central Government or other contractors. As such, blind and partially sighted people would be put at a disadvantage compared with others eligible for assistance. We are also discussing the matter with and seeking the views of the devolved Administrations, who are also important.
We are very sympathetic to the views of Opposition Members and of my hon. Friends on this important issue, and we are actively engaged in consultation to ensure that data on registered blind or partially sighted people can be obtained by relevant bodies; however, some issues remain to be worked though. The Government intend to continue those discussions in the next few weeks, and I hope that at Report stage it will be possible to bring back to the House the result of the consultation process. We want to ensure that the needs expressed by hon. Members on behalf of charities, the consumer expert group and others are met and that we can agree a way forward that will satisfy all members of the Committee.
11 am
Mr. Woodward: I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is worth remembering that in the present case the administrative burden will not be particularly onerous. The problem relates to having the power to share the information: the registers are kept; it is a question of access to them. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, although whether it applies in the present case is moot. Again, in the spirit of wanting to work with all hon. Members I will take their comments on board. We will consider them and if it is appropriate to measure those costs, although I think it probably is not, we will bear that in mind when we bring back any proposals to the House on report.
Mr. Foster: I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Wantage for his impassioned support for the amendment. He has clearly demonstrated that he will make a fine figure of a man in his new post.
The hon. Gentleman may be relatively new to his post, Mr. Conway, but you are not. You have chaired and served on many Committees of this House, so you will be aware that often when a Government like an Opposition amendment but do not want the Opposition to have the credit for it, they try to persuade the Opposition to withdraw it so that they can bring back their own, almost identical amendment, at a later stage and claim the credit for it. It might be argued that that is what we have just seen. But I genuinely do not believe that it is. I have rarely heard a Minister say that he is very sympathetic, that he shares our concerns and that an amendment deals with an important issue that we must get right. I am delighted that the Minister said that. I am delighted that he has been engaged in the consultation that I know began long before the amendment was tabled. Clearly the Government are taking the issue very seriously. We are grateful to the various organisations that have provided the Government with information.
As the Minister has given us an assurance that he will continue the discussions to ensure that an amendment is produced that has a similar effect to that of my amendment but deals correctly with the data protection issue, I will be happy to withdraw my amendment, but before I do so, I wish to say two things. First, I was slightly surprised when the Minister told us that it was the Department of Health and not the Department for Constitutional Affairs that was advising him about the data protection issue. I hope that we will have confirmation that they shared that advice.
Mr. Woodward: It just demonstrates how joined-up the Government are, that the Department of Health can offer that kind of advice.
Mr. Foster: We have to be a little bit careful in that respect. We may see on Thursday, when we have the statement on the licence fee and learn the outcome of that battle, just how joined up the DCMS and the Treasury are.
Secondly, I want to thank the hon. Member for Poole for his helpful intervention. While the Minister may say that the costs for local authorities may be small, none the less the burdens that actions by central Government are placing on local government are increasing. Local government is under significant strain and I would hate this to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for addressing that issue. I am also grateful to the Minister for assuring the Committee that he would also look at this. He will no doubt comment on it when he brings back an amendment on a suitable occasion. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in clause 1, page 1, line 11, leave out paragraph (a).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 9, in clause 1, page 1, line 13, leave out sub-paragraph (i).
No. 10, in clause 1, page 1, line 15, leave out ‘the BBC or’.
No. 11, in clause 1, page 1, line 18, leave out paragraph (c) and insert—
‘( ) the person or persons duly appointed to manage and operate the switchover help scheme.’.
Mr. Foster: Mr. Conway, I hope that as I explain the importance of the amendment, you will not think that I am trying to find a clever way to debate the details of the digital switchover scheme. You will recall that I said in my remarks on the programme motion that we did not know who was going to deliver the scheme; what is clear is that we are unclear about what role the BBC will play.
The excellent Library briefing and the Department’s excellently prepared explanatory notes to the Bill contain little or nothing of the detail of the BBC’s role in delivering the scheme. Indeed, any assiduous Committee member will have looked in detail not only at the new BBC charter but at the agreement that accompanied it and came into force on 19 December 2006. Such assiduous readers will have noticed in section 39 of the agreement the following immortal words:
“The BBC must comply with a scheme agreed with the Secretary of State concerning the provision of specified help to specified categories of persons for the purpose of enabling them to continue to view the UK Public Television Services when and after they are affected by Digital Switchover.”
That is it. We have no detailed knowledge whatever of the BBC’s role. We know from clause 5(1) that the details of the scheme are to be agreed between the BBC and the Secretary of State, but beyond that the BBC’s role is extremely murky.
Paragraph 5.1 of the DCMS digital help scheme summary says that
“the help scheme will be managed and operated by a single organisation or a consortium formed for the purpose.”
That gives us further reason to believe that the BBC will not be the body managing and operating the scheme. With those two bits of evidence—the absolute silence about any details of the BBC’s role and the hint in paragraph 5.1 that the BBC will not be managing and operating the scheme—I surmise that there is no reason for the BBC to receive all the detailed data to which the Bill will allow it access.
Mr. Vaizey: I suspect that this amendment will not be received by the Minister with the same joy as the previous amendment. It goes to the heart of the Bill, and I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath. In effect, the amendment asks why the BBC must appear in the Bill. Ostensibly, the BBC has been put in charge of conducting targeted help for digital switchover, but the Bill makes it clear and previous experience with television licence fee administration shows us that, in effect, it will not be the BBC we know and love that will conduct the digital switchover; it will be a company formed specifically for that purpose. As the hon. Member for Bath said, paragraph 5.1 of the document from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport states:
“It is envisaged that the help scheme will be managed and operated by a single organisation or a consortium formed for the purpose. The successful supplier will need to demonstrate a strong track record of delivering large customer facing programmes and with the logistics involved in sorting equipment and delivering in-home assistance and support.”—
so we know that it will not be Capita. The document continues:
“The successful supplier will also need to demonstrate a strong IT capability—
so we know it will not be a Government organisation—
“for the setting up and management of customer accounts tracking those eligible through the scheme and linked with a contract centre designed around and capable of meeting the need of older and disabled people.”
One of the things that concerns me is that there is no provision in the Bill for the Minister to report back to Parliament on who will be responsible for digital switchover. It would be extremely helpful to the House, and right and proper, if the tender documents were made available in the Library for hon. Members to peruse and if the Minister regularly gave the House updates on what is happening. The House should also have a chance to debate the selection of the organisation that is ultimately chosen to conduct digital switchover. Given the Government’s track record of managing large-scale projects, it is important that they should benefit from the input of hon. Members.
As the hon. Member for Bath made clear, the information that we are discussing will be disclosed by the Department for Work and Pensions, and potentially by local authorities, which will identify individuals and households meeting the eligibility criteria based on social security records. The information will therefore be sensitive, but it will be disclosed without the express or implied consent of the individuals concerned. We believe that such information should be made available only where necessary, and the clause fails that test. It is not necessary to put the BBC in the Bill to make the scheme workable. In practice, the only people who need the detailed information on individual households under the scheme are those who are responsible for contacting eligible people—that is, the suppliers.
As the hon. Member for Bath said, the BBC only needs to see aggregated information in order to administer the scheme. It simply needs to know the number of households that are likely to be contacted in any given area so that it can make proper accounting and budgeting arrangements. It does not need to see the individual data. The help scheme will not be operated or managed by the BBC, which is simply the overall supervisor of the scheme, and it is extremely important that, as far as possible, we restrict the distribution of the information.
As we are debating the organisation that will undertake the switchover, will the Minister, when he responds to the amendment, give the Committee some indication of how the digital switchover timetable is progressing? We are a mere nine months away from the launch of the greatest civil project in recent British history, in Whitehaven of all places—a town whose name that will be carved in stone for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren when they sit down to watch digital television in years to come.
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Prepared 19 January 2007