Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill
New Clause 2
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 six years beginning with the day on which section 1 comes into force..[Mr. Vaizey.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I hope that the new clause is appropriately drafted. It is what is colloquially called a sunset clauseit is
Effectively, a sunset clause will be operated once switchover is complete in 2012. Members might wish to look at the application of sunset provisions on a region-by-region basis when the Bill is in Committee.[Official Report, 18 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1174.]
Given the quality of my drafting skills, you will probably be grateful, Mr. Conway, that I have not drafted a clause to bring the legislation to an end as switchover spreads through the regions, but we may seek to do that on Report.
The Secretary of State made it clear that she does not think a sunset clause is appropriate and said that
the Bill is, in effect, time limitedafter switchover has been completed, it will cease to have any effect.[Official Report, 18 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1182.]
One could meet the Secretary of State halfway, but it is a matter of good law as well as tidiness and neatness that the legislation should cease to have effect at the end of the digital switchover roll-out process rather than sit idly on the statute book. I suspect that some hon. Members support me on that. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway is not in his seat, but he said on Second reading at column 1192 that he was interested in introducing a sunset clause, although he has not tabled an amendment to that effect.
Conservative Members believe that a sunset clause is extremely important, not least because it will concentrate the Governments mind. As has been said repeatedly, mainly by me, the Bill covers the largest civil project in recent timesto switch over the television sets of millions of people throughout the countryand targets help to millions of people during the six years of the planned switchover. We understand that the target date for analogue switch-off is the end of 2012. It is due to start in Whitehaven in a matter of months, yet, as the hon. Member for Bath said, no company has been set up for that purpose. We still have almost no details of how the scheme will operate or what sort of funding will be available to the BBC to implement the scheme, what equipment it will purchase and how the scheme will operate in detail. The Government have set themselves an extraordinarily challenging task, but they have made absolutely clear the date on which they want the switchover to be completed, so they cannot be concerned about having a sunset clause to bring the legislation to an end when they switch off the analogue signal.
I have done an enormous amount of legal research on sunset clauses, just as I did on reversing the burden of proof. My attempt to elucidate the burden of proof was somewhat curtailed, but I hope that my detailed research on the sunset clause will have a fair wind. I will give the Committee the benefit of my thoughts. We start in ancient Rome
I take the Committee to the ancient city of Rome, where the roots of sunset provisions are laid in the Roman law of the mandate. At the time of the Roman republic, the empowerment of the Roman senate to collect special taxes and to activate troops was limited in time and extent. Those empowerments ended before the expiration of an electoral office, such as the proconsul. The rule was known as ad tempus concessa post tempus censetur denegata. Members of the Committee will not need any translation but for those listening to the debate who are not members of the Committee, it means what is admitted for a period will be refused after the period. The same rule applied to Roman emergency legislation; it was a fundamental part of Roman law until Julius Caesar became dictator for life.
One can see that a sunset clause is very common in a democracy. It appears in some of the greatest democracies the world has ever known. In America, the Sedition Act 1798 was subject to a sunset clause, as was the Alien Friends Act 1798. More recently, the Congressional Budget Act 1974 and the assault weapons ban provision were subject to a sunset clause, as was the USA Patriot Act 2001 and the Estate Tax and Other Tax Cuts Act 2001. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Bath want to intervene on this learned exposition of a sunset clause?
Mr. Vaizey: The best operation of a sunset clause is seen in Texas, the home of the current President of the United States. As hon. Members know, the Texas legislature sits only every other year.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Should not the hon. Gentleman be telling us how the sunset clause applies to the Bill, rather than what it is?
Mr. Vaizey: That is the most depressing intervention I have heard in my time in Parliament. Not to understand the full, rich context of a sunset clause before debating its specific application to this tiny Bill seems to me to be the attitude of a small, narrow-minded individual. [Hon. Members: Oh!] I am sorry. I apologise to the hon. Member. I meant him no offence; it was said in kindness and not as an aggressive statement.
We are now in Austin, Texas
Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman drawing comparisons between the Secretary of State, George W. Bush and Julius Caesar? If so, can he elaborate further, please?
Mr. Vaizey: I certainly can. Julius Caesar was a dictator; the Secretary of State is a democrat; I am therefore in no doubt that she will support a sunset clause. I can tell that the Committee is tiring of my tour
However, as the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside implied in his intervention, what is relevant is what happens in this country. I did not know before I began my research that income tax is subject to a sunset clause, which may interest members of the Committee, but unfortunately Parliament has made the mistake every year of renewing income tax. The Sex Discrimination (Election of Candidates) Act 2002, which introduced all-women shortlists and brought some of the most formidable politicians to Parliament, is subject to a sunset clause. Sadly, that injection of talent is due to come to an end in 2015, unless Parliament renews that clause. The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, which we debated in a recent Session, was subject to a sunset clause. Parliament is therefore used to introducing sunset clauses, which returns me to the theme of my remarks: a sunset clause is common and well used in democracies across the world. A sunset clause is common and used in this Parliament. A sunset clause is necessary for a Bill that, by its very nature, has a very short shelf life.
Certainly no one will seek to use the Bills provisions after 2012 or 2013, which allows the Minister a little slack in terms of how quickly he gets the provisions implemented. Given the intrusive nature of the Bill, which relates to the ability of a company, the BBC or the Secretary of State to request and have access to data on individuals, a sunset clause would send an important signal that an intrusive Bill such as this will not simply be allowed to hang around, to be picked up 20, 30 or 70 years later in the same way as the selling of honours Actthe Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925was discovered and dusted down 70 or 80 years after its passage.
The Committee, if it puts a sunset clause in the Bill here today, will send a great signal to our colleagues in Parliament as they debate Bills that perhaps, to tidy up our statute book, they should be thinking of a sunset clause not as an exceptional clause to be put into an exceptional Bill, but as something that we can, as a matter of course, include in every Bill. There should be the presumption of a sunset clause unless it can be shown that a sunset clause is not required.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I hesitate to follow the hon. Gentleman and his learned exposition of the origins of sunset clauses, so I will confine myself to more prosaic points. As he said, the proposed sunset clause would terminate the legislation within six years of clause 1 coming into force. Sunset clauses, as has been pointed out, are occasionally used in British legislationI have in mind controversial legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 and the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. We propose a sunset clause in this Bill not because it is controversial in the same way as those two pieces of legislation, but because it relates to a large body of sensitive information about elderly and disabled people
In the early part of the Second Reading debate, the Secretary of State was quite sympathetic to the idea of a sunset clause. She said:
Effectively, a sunset clause will be operated once switchover is complete in 2012.[Official Report, 18 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1174.]
But of course that is not a true sunset clause. There could be an extension to the switchover period unless there is clear legislation saying when it should be completed by. It could extend to 2013, 2014, 2015 or 2016, because without the new clause there will be no clear time limit, only a desire for a time limit. The Bill would be the sort of blank cheque that we heard described as this morninga blank cheque to give the Government the power to do what they like once the legislation is passed. We will not be doing our job as scrutinisers of legislation unless we support the writing into the Bill of a strict sunset clause.
The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has said:
When data protection puts fundamental safeguards in place, we must make sure that some of these lines are not crossed.
One of those lines would be the unnecessary retention of the data on some millions of people to which the Bill relates.
As has been mentioned, the Secretary of State also suggested on Second Reading that Members might want to consider applying a sunset provision on a region-by-region basis. On that, I part company with the hon. Member for Wantage: on closer examination, that seems daft. People move house and TV regions, so we cannot suggest such a strict regional sunset clause. For example, in 2010, someone might move from the Carlton London Weekend Television region, where the process is due to be complete in the first half of 2012, to the HTV Wales region, where it is already complete. If we had a strict regional sunset clause, how would data from one region be moved to another? People would not be able to receive switchover help in those circumstances.
Mr. Vaizey: Will the hon. Gentleman offer some clarification? I realise that I am asking him this as though he were a Government spokesman, but is it his understanding that switchover help will be available for the entire period in every region? It is an interesting point.
Paul Holmes: I could not possibly comment until the Secretary of State says something on Thursday. That is an extremely difficult question for me to answer, because there is so little detail in the Bill and, as we know from this debate, the Minister will refuse to answer that question, because it is all to come with the blank cheque later on. We simply do not have those details.
Mr. Vaizey: On that basis, the hon. Gentleman cannot dismiss regional sunset clauses as a daft proposal. If help ceases to be available after a certain period, when switchover is complete, it might be good to have such a clause. Indeed, I might come back to it on Report in order to protect data and our civil liberties.
Paul Holmes: It stands in our names as well. If new clause 2, to which the lead name attached is that of the hon. Member for Wantage, but to which my name is also attached, were to be adopted today, the uncertainty that we have just discussed, and which the Government seem keen to maintain, would be ended. If we had a rigid six-year sunset clause across the country, not a regional rolling programme, the Government would have a very short, sharp timetable to stick to.
That leads on to my final point. Some people would say, Well, is six years enough? The Government have set themselves that target, but given themselves a blank cheque so that, if need be, they can extend it. However, the work done by contractors could run over because no clear legislative cut-off point has been put in place by which time the process must be complete2012 is only an aspiration. New clause 2 would establish a strict six-year sunset clause, which would the Government, the BBC and contractors to work with a set purpose towards that deadline, instead of feeling that they could run over.
I certainly support the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Wantage. A sunset clause would be good practice given the large quantity of sensitive information that is to be put into a wider domain. It would focus the minds of the Government and contractors on a clear, definite finish point for the switchover process.
What do we say about this journey through ancient Rome and the Latin lexicon that we have been treated to this afternoon? It has certainly been enjoyable. I fear that last night the hon. Member for Wantage made a wager with some friends that he could mention sunset clauses 52 times and lead us on to a discussion of Austin, Texas, without incurring your wrath, Mr. Conway. He should win a prize, but I am not sure that his speech added anything to our understanding of the value of a sunset clause.
However, in the spirit of the Committees deliberations and the remarks made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield, I want to deal with the matter properly. He rightly reminded us that, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State and I were minded to consider a sunset clause. Prompted by the contributions of hon. Members on Second Reading, it seemed to us as though a sunset clause might be appropriate, so we took the matter away in the best spirit for discussion with officials. However, we were persuaded that, on balance, it would not be right to put
We needed to ensure two things with the duration of powers in the Bill, the first of which was that the criminal offences should continue to operate after the information had been lawfully disclosed, even though the power to disclose had been spent. Secondly, the powers needed to be available to underpin the whole scheme for as long as necessaryno more and no less. A fixed date, with no means of amendment short of legislation would mean that there was no way of extending the provisions if, for some reason, switchover were not completed by 31 December 2012 or if a technical problem arose during the course of switchover; and an express power to extend the duration of powers would give certainty with one hand but, as I shall explain, take it away with the other.
I remind the Committee that clause 1 states:
The Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland department may...supply a relevant person with social security information for use...in connection with switchover help functions.
In other words, once the switchover help scheme has completed its task, the legal basis for using the information and, therefore, for disclosing it, vanishes. How does that translate into practice and how does that provision compare with the proposal put forward by the hon. Member for Wantage, in conjunction with and assisted by other hon. Members? I do not want to cause further dispute between the Opposition parties over new clause 2.
Our strategy for switchover is based on a robust programme and on what we believe to be a realistic and achievable timetable, which was proposed on the best advice of broadcasters and Ofcom and confirmed by our experts. That timetable includes a prudent amount of slack to accommodate unforeseeable or, as we currently regard them, unpreventable delays. However, with the best will in the world, a project of such scopeswitchover is, within the timescale, one of the largest civil projects ever undertaken in this countryundoubtedly carries risk.
We want to avoid an unexpected or unanticipated delay, such as prolonged bad weather preventing work in the final stages of switchover in London or an exceptional event such as hurricane winds bringing a transmitter mast down, resulting in unavoidable delay in completing the full switchover programme. Those who are minded, like the hon. Member for Bath, to follow aerial erection matters may recall that such an incident was suffered in 1969 by the Emily Moor transmitter, which serves Yorkshire. The hon. Member for Wantage poked a little fun at the hon. Member for Bath over his interest, but erections matter. In the case of the Emily Moor transmitter, there was a serious problem.
Uncertainty about whether the powers will remain in place for the lifetime of the scheme carries a risk for the main contractor, which has an implication for costs, as commercial interest will make the contractor look for a higher contract price to compensate for such a risk. The Government of the day could return to Parliament with a Bill to extend the legislation, but there may not be time. Would that be the best use of Parliaments time, particularly as we have anticipated the potential risk at the beginning of switchover? One remedy is to include a power to extend the powers in clause 1 by
Mr. Vaizey: The Minister mentioned a series of quite fantastical acts of God that might disrupt the digital switchover process, although, given the Governments record on climate change, I can understand why he is expecting hurricanes and flash floods. He did not mention Government incompetence as a cause. Given the enormous expedition with which we have pushed the Bill through the House, would it not be possible simply to include a sunset clause and then latersay, in the summer of 2012, just before everyone leaves to go to the Olympicsintroduce a one-word amendment, to change the word six to seven, rather than seeking such convoluted excuses to avoid this important new clause?
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman again tempts me into areas of political provocation, in which, for the benefit of my hon. Friends on the Committee, I shall not indulge him. However, if he continues, I am more than happy to ensure that the honourable burghers of Hammersmith do not enjoy his company tonight.
Given what I have said about the self-limiting nature of the powers, a sunset power would be redundant. No sensible Secretary of State would use it until switchover was finished and the scheme had done its job, by which time the powers in the Bill would be spent and the only purpose of using that power would be to terminate it formally. Therefore, although we have taken on board the proposals made on Second Reading, our considered approach has been to link the powers directly to the event of digital switchover, which is a time-limited event, and the help scheme that supports it. That will have the same practical effect as a formal sunset clause, in that once switchover is completed and the help scheme has done its job, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Social Development Department in Northern Ireland and the Ministry of Defence will no longer be able to disclose the information lawfully.
Paul Holmes: The Minister has made a number of well argued points for why a sunset clause might not be desirable or workable, but could he explain why, early on in the debate on Second Reading, the Secretary of State indicated that the Committee might consider a series of regional sunset clauses? Surely all the Ministers points would apply to those as well.
Mr. Woodward: The same arguments apply to regional sunset clauses as to the broader, overall issue. Despite the political abuse from the hon. Member for Wantagehe is certainly coherent on abuse, if not on substance, although that is perhaps as we would expectwe were trying to show on Second Reading that we were genuinely open to any sensible suggestion from an hon. Member. It occurred to the Secretary of State that, if we did follow through the logic of a sunset clause, one possible route could be to do so on a regional basis. However, the considered advice of the officials who work on the issueand to whom I pay
The analysis that the hon. Member for Chesterfield gave of the problems that might be incurred by regional sunset clauses is absolutely right. There might be a need for the informationfor example, because one side of a street is in one region, whereas the other side of that street is in anotherand a problem may arise. We simply do not want life to be made more complicated for the public, although I understand that the hon. Member for Wantage wants to make our life more complicated now.
Mr. Vaizey: Can I ask the Minister the question that I asked the hon. Member for Chesterfield? Will the Minister make it clear that targeted assistance will be available in every region for the entire six-year period of switchover, rather than rolling around the country, as it were?
Mr. Woodward: In practice, the answer is yes. However, given the consequences of the timetable for rolling through the switchover programme, an individual in an area where switchover is taking place will need the help at that particular time. The help will not be needed two years after, because by then that person will have the equipment or the assistance that they needed.
Mr. Foster: We have suddenly made a bit of progress. We have some information from the Minister about the details of the scheme, so let us press him on that point. He said in response to the question put by the hon. Member for Wantage that, in practice, the answer was yes. Does that mean that a person who would qualify for assistance who moved from London to the Border region in 2010 would be eligible for targeted assistance there at that time?
Mr. Woodward: It would be really helpful if the hon. Gentleman could give me that persons postcodes. However, he makes a sensible point, which I should like to review and write to him about. Obviously there will instances in which people will move house and might even qualify for assistance four times over. I do not want to speak out of turn, but my instinct is that the purpose of the Bill is to enable people who genuinely need help to receive it, not to leave a scheme open for abuse. He is clearly not suggesting that people who might want to abuse the system should benefit, but equally there may be absolutely understandable situationsfor example, a family break upwhere such things could occur. Yes, flexibility must be built into the system but these are matters that we have to work out practically; our preparations in Whitehaven are throwing up a number of such issues.
It is important to remind hon. Members that Whitehaven is not a pilot, because there is no going back. For people in Whitehaven, it is the beginning of switchover. We are fully committed to ensuring that it works impeccably. That is why we want the Bill to commence as soon as possible so that we can deliver its benefits to Whitehaven. Lessons will be learned from
My instinctive answer to the hon. Gentlemans question is yes, but I want to give his question full consideration. I will be happy to write to him about it, or to meet him or other hon. Members to discuss the matter.
Mr. Vaizey: I would be grateful to see a copy of that letter from the Minister. It is becoming increasingly apparent that one reason why he did not answer the questions from the hon. Member for Bath in clause 5 is that much of the detail of digital switchover has not been worked out and will probably emerge from the Whitehaven experiment. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland on supporting it.
Is that not part of the difficulty? How on earth has the Ministers Department come up with an estimate of £600 million as the cost of digital switchover when so many fundamental details have not yet been worked out? For example, in respect of a regional sunset clause, will data be available to, say, the organisation conducting switchover in London? Let us suppose that a resident of Whitehaven moved to Londonthat is almost unheard of, I knowat the end of 2008 having got a free set-top box, and he then applied for a set-top box in London when the switchover arrived there. Would the data be recorded in such a way that the organisation carrying out the switchover in London would know that the person had already received their chunk of assistance in Whitehaven?
Mr. Woodward: It is perfectly clear that we have now entered into a round of University Challenge with the hon. Gentleman. He may not have been able to understand the words I was using in reply to the hon. Member for Bath, but I am happy to consider the proposal made by the hon. Member for Wantage and to send him a copy of the correspondence. I suggest that rather than indulging himself in more paperwork, he comes in to discuss these issues.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of rather foolish observations on the scheme. If he spent more time studying the brief on digital switchover rather than on political point scoring, he would learn that the work undertaken by Digital UK and the broadcasters is very comprehensive. If he had spent a little more time with the charitable groups who advised him on some of his amendments he would know that a huge amount of work has been undertaken on the issue.
Mr. Woodward: I will give way in a moment. The hon. Gentleman should be patient. To caricature the work of all those who have been involved in the project undermines the scheme and is foolish because this is a very well thought through set of proposals to achieve the best possible outcome. It is not a political project; the way in which the process has been handled by Digital UK is in no shape or form political. To suggest, therefore, that the people in Whitehaven are part of an experiment is really, really foolish.
Mr. Woodward: I simply say to the hon. Gentleman before he gets to his feetI shall give way to him in a moment
Mr. Woodward: I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he do two things: first, that he come to the Department, where we will give him a comprehensive briefing on the work that has been undertaken. He should give us three or four hours of his time as we will need that long to take him through it. Secondly he should go to Whitehaven to see the work that is being done there. I am happy for him to come with me in the middle of Marchan invitation that I extend to any hon. Member.
What we say in Committee will be examined by those outside, and to suggest that people in Whitehaven are being used in an experiment is grossly unfair to them, to Digital UK and to all those involved in the work there, regardless of the Governments position. A little more time spent on the substance of the matter and a little less on ancient Rome, and we would have achieved a great deal more.
Mr. Vaizey: It is becoming increasingly apparent that every time I have a debate with the Minister whenever he is in the wrong or has been caught out, he takes refuge in accusing any hon. Member who disagrees with him or dares to points out complications in his scheme of playing politics. He did the same after the disaster on the definition of a British film, and it is beyond absurd. I find his attitude extraordinarily offensive. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, puts on mock laughter from a sedentary position, but it is absolutely within my right to ask questions.
For the Minister to pretend that my use of the word experiment is somehow offensive to Whitehaven is a grotesque caricature of my point. I was simply pointing out that the Secretary of State cited a regional sunset clause as a possibility for the Committee to consider. The House might consider it on Report. The hon. Member for Chesterfield dismissed the option, saying that such a clause would not work because if people were to move around the country they might be entitled to help after it had theoretically ceased in a region such as the Border region. I am not attacking him for saying that but I pointed out to him that a regional sunset clause would only be absurd if switchover help were not available throughout the country all the time.
On Second Reading we made the point, as, I believe, did the hon. Member for Chesterfield, that hon. Members should be entitled to see a document explaining how the Department came up with the figure of £600 million for the cost of targeted help. I would be more than delighted to spend hours researching the matter if such a document were available. That figure must have been reached through
Mr. Woodward: I am sure that hon. Members found some content in the hon. Gentlemans intervention. It seemed to me that he was a little exercised about my remarks I made about writing to hon. Members, but that is a sensible way to proceed. The full details have not been worked out simply because we have not done the first region yet, so we must recognise that we will learn as we go along. In so far as we can anticipate problems, we shall do so.
My objection to the hon. Gentlemans point about Whitehaven was the idea that the Government are treating it as an experiment and that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland are being treated as guinea pigs. That is simply not the case. They will be the first people to benefit from switchover and are, quite rightly, receiving a great deal of help to ensure that it is a success. Lessons will arise from that work and it is perfectly proper that we all learn from them. However, it is absolutely in no shape or form an experiment. It is the beginning of the roll-out of digital switchover with the full commitment of the Government, Digital UK and all those involved in it. My concern is that my hon. Friends constituents do not have any sense whatever that they are an experiment. They are not. I was at pains to make that clear. I am sorry if that upset the hon. Gentleman and led to his somewhat lengthy intervention.
The hon. Gentleman referred to my comments about film. I do not think that you, Mr. Conway, were the Chairman of that Committee
Mr. Woodward: In which case, you may remember that the hon. Gentleman made several accusations about what a disaster the provision was to the film industry. I think that you may well have read the exact opposite being said in yesterdays newspapers by film producers and those involved in the industry[ Interruption. ]
The Chairman: Order. I am giving the hon. Member for Wantage a lot of leeway because this is his first Bill as a Front-Bench spokesman. However, he must not stretch it too far. We must all calm down a little. I am sure that the Minister will stick to sunsets rather than the globe.
Mr. Woodward: Indeed. Your strictures are helpful, Mr. Conway, because it is important to put clothes on the fact of what a success the film scheme has been and will continue to be.
I have explained why we considered a sunset clause. We did so in good faith, but we rejected it because it
I believe for the best of reasons and, on balance, that it is right not to accept the new clause. I wish to say to the hon. Gentleman that we absolutely understand the spirit that lies behind it but, regrettably, it would not have fulfilled that spirit.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill to the House.
Mr. Woodward: By and large, this has been a well-tempered Committee. I am sorry for the anxiety that I caused the hon. Member for Wantage when we discussed new clause 2, but I hope that he understands that we firmly recognise the value of his contributions to the debate. Obviously, if members of the Committee wish to draft amendments for further consideration, there will be an opportunity for them to do so on Report. By the time that the Bill is discussed on Report, however, it will have been possible for us to given the clarification that hon. Members have sought on certain issues.
I simply say to the Opposition Front-Bench Members and indeed to all members of the Committee that, between, now and Report and Third Reading in the House, if I can within the parameters of a settlement being agreed with the BBC give further and detailed briefings that would help hon. Members, I shall do so. I would be happy to make my time, that of my officials and the resources that we have between us available comprehensively to answer the genuine questions of hon. Members that would be helpful to the deliberations of the House on Report and Third Reading
With that, Mr. Conway, I thank you for your guidance. I thank the Clerks and the officials of the House for their help in the consideration of the Bill. I also thank all hon. Members and my hon. Friends for their time in allowing us to undertake speedy but important debates about issues pertaining to a small but important Bill. It will make information available so that digital switchover is a success for the most vulnerable people in our society, and it will provide the safeguards for them in so doing.
Mr. Vaizey: The Bill is short and, as the Minister reminded us at certain points, it has a specific and narrow focus. It will allow the BBC and relevant organisations to help vulnerable people who need assistance as the country moves towards digital switchover.
We have debated today a number of small but important points, including the role of local authorities. Although the Minister could not accept the amendments, he made it clear that local authorities may have an important role to play. We anticipate his
We debated an important point for many commercial operators: the need for the switchover company, whatever that might be, to present information in a technologically neutral way. I and the hon. Member for Bath sought to amend the Bill to limit at its heart the spread of sensitive information from the relevant company. For my part, we also had a particularly interesting debate on reversing the burden of proof in the Bill. Finally, we had an important debate about the principle and opportunity for a sunset clause, and we referred to the Secretary of States strength in raising the issue of a regional or general sunset clause, which I wholly support.
For me, on my first outing on the Front Bench, it was sad that the last 10 minutes of the debate descended into rancour. Be that as it may, the hon. Member for Bath best raised an important point. Owing to the Bills narrow scope, we cannot debate the detail of digital switchover. Further, because the BBC is constituted by royal charter rather than by Act of Parliament, and because it is not subject to formal scrutiny by the National Audit Office, we, as Opposition parties and not as members of the Government, are at the beck and call of the BBC and the Government as to when we can scrutinise in detail. That is sad when the cost of targeted help for digital switchover has been estimated at £600 million. When the Minister was pressed about the provisional timetable, instead of providing greater detail about how the scheme will work, he descended into unpleasant political abuse. That makes me sad, having known the Minister for many years.
Apart from those 10 minutes, the hours in Committee have been by and large enjoyable, thanks to the Ministers courtesy and to the opportunity to work almost as a partner with the hon. Member for Bath. The Minister talked about lust and temptation. It has been an enjoyable occasion. Ultimately, Mr. Conway, your chairmanship crowned our sittings. Under your chairmanship, and with the support of your superb Clerks and Bill team, I have had an immensely enjoyable first run out, and I am extremely grateful.
Mr. Foster: Despite the limited scope of the Bill and the limited time that we have devoted to its discussion, we have had a wide-ranging debate. We have ranged from the use of large print to the role of aerial erection companies, from the WEEE directive to the European convention on human rights, and from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar to the Secretary of States apparently benign approach to democratic institutions.
We have seen the Minister promoted on three occasions. He was promoted to Secretary of State by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield; he was then promoted to being a judge by you, Mr. Conway; and latterly in our deliberations he was raised even higher, to consular status. We have seen some of the legal skills of the hon. Member for Wantage, as a result of which some of us fear for the good burghers of Hammersmith, to whom he will be speaking this evening.
We have seen the Minister playing a fairly straight bat, refusing, sadly, to give us further information about the details of the targeted help scheme. He assured us, however, that the information is to appear at some time in the relatively near future. Apparently, I am not to say when I think that that may bepossibly later this week.
In all those deliberations, we have genuinely been assisted by the Ministers approach. He was helpful on many of the amendments and on many of the points that were made, for which we are grateful. I am sure that a number of the Committee members who have benefited from the assistance of the officials in his Department would wish to pass on, through him, our thanks. We certainly give our thanks to the Committee Clerk who has done sterling work and who was particularly helpful to me and the hon. Member for Wantage. We would like to apologise to her through you, Mr. Conway, for not necessarily having done full justice to the efforts that she has made on our behalf.
Finally, may I thank you, Mr. Conway, as others have, for the way in which you have chaired our brief deliberations on this important Bill? Notwithstanding the last few minutes, you have ensured that we have been remarkably good humoured and therefore, I believe, genuinely productive.
The Chairman: I am very grateful to hon. Members for their comments. They will be noted and appreciated by the staff who serve us.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill to be reported, without amendment.
Committee rose at seven minutes past Five oclock.
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