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Baroness O'Cathain: I was gratified to hear some of the responses to my noble friend's questions. It would be too big a burden to ask the over-75s to provide the information, particularly for those who are disabled in any way. The mentally impaired might watch television a lot but would not be able to fill in a form. Some people cannot read or write. I am happy with the Minister's responses on that.
The BBC will apparently be spending £24 million on mailings, field forces and other items. I am told that the BBC is not awash with money and needs every penny that it can get, so that is quite a lot of money for it to spend. As I understand it, the BBC has to request the information from the social security database. That could be done in one telephone call because the information will be sent in bulk. Surely there is no need to get people to apply or for the BBC to spend any money. Am I being completely stupid?
Someone who has never had a television set and never wants to watch television will still, willy-nilly, have his information sent to the BBC. The Minister has not given a good enough answer on that. People feel strongly about their social security information being given to anyone other than a government department.
Lord Lucas: I am concerned about what the Minister said about how data will be handled. In his previous existence he was involved with businesses that handled data. I am sure that he knows that one principle of data handling is never to duplicate anything. Running duplicate databases causes endless hassle and pain, yet the Government are planning to run a massive duplicated database. The poor old BBC will be up to 12 months behind with address data. Old people do not just grow roots and stay in the same place. There will be all sorts of occasions on which the address data held on the computer are wrong. That will generate a manual query on each occasion. Even death data are likely to be a couple of months out of date, which will generate another host of manual queries to be sorted out on the telephone. It is a recipe for chaos, confusion and difficulty.
Surely anyone in business would run a little query to the DSS over the Internet asking whether the information that they had on the people applying for a reduced or zero-rated television licence matched DSS records. That would require a simple yes or no answer and the information need never leave the DSS. The information about my bank account does not leave my bank when I stick my card into an ATM belonging to another bank. The machine merely asks whether I am good for the money. Rather than shifting databases around the place, people run queries into them. Why are the Government going against all good practice?
I was relieved to hear the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, say that she basically thought that the system was fine and that, for the reasons that I explained, we should not ask people to fill in forms and justify themselves.
The £24 million will not be a cost to the BBC. It will be reimbursed by the DSS. The BBC and the DSS are in an impossible position when people ask whether that sum is justified. They have been criticised elsewhere--although not here today--for spending
The alternative that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, seemed to be proposing was that the BBC should issue the free licences on the basis of the database provided by the DSS without requiring any application. That would not be appropriate, because there would be potentially millions of free licences swanning around the country, possibly because of errors in the database. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas; all databases are rubbish. That is a basic law of data processing. They all need to be de-duplicated and corrected in many ways. If we simply relied on the database without requiring an application, a significant proportion of licences might be wrongly addressed or not claimed. That would be disastrous and we would be severely criticised.
Baroness O'Cathain: At one stage, the Minister said that a person who cannot write or is not capable mentally of applying for a TV licence will be able to obtain one. How will that be possible if there is to be no application? My proposal is that if a person is in receipt of a DSS application, the name, age and address will be known. Therefore, it may be possible to send out a form which says, "Ask someone to take this to your local post office for a television licence".
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: It is not the application which is the problem; proof of qualification is the difficulty for old people. I do not know how many Members of the Committee have seen the form. I have received a form at home and it is very easy to deal with. There really is no difficulty about it. It is quite possible for anybody else in the household to complete the form on behalf of an old person. It will then simply be checked against the database.
The noble Baroness then asked me again about Mr Valentine, the correspondent of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. That absolutely minimal information--name, address, age and national insurance number--will go onto a BBC database rather than onto a DSS database. But it will not be interrogated unless somebody makes a claim. Mr Valentine will not make a claim; his details will stay in the BBC database with all of the same conditions relating to security and confidentiality that apply to the DSS database and will never be used. I suggest to the Committee that that is a more efficient system than going from the BBC to the DSS each time there is an application.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was suggesting that we should keep the database in the same place. I do not care where it is kept physically and I do not even know physically what it consists of. Those matters are beyond my ken. But for information which is held by the DSS for social security purposes to be used for another purpose by the BBC, whether it is used in DSS or BBC offices or the offices of BBC or DSS contractors, is a step which requires primary legislation. That is what this Bill is about.
I can correspond with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on the technical details for as long as he likes. But it must be done in that way because we must observe proper rules about the protection of public information. We must observe the Data Protection Act 1998 and we must observe the rules of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.
Lord Lucas: The only piece of information for which I should like to trouble the noble Lord by letter is the rate at which people over 75 change address. How many people aged over 75 change their address in an average year?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am sorry, I failed to answer that. The reason that it is done once a year is because the licence is issued for a year. If a person changes his address, he takes his licence with him. Deaths, which would affect the validity of the licence, will be updated monthly.
Lord Lucas: Perhaps I am not understanding the process. If I apply, being over 75, for one of the free licences, I must connect myself with a particular address. If the database of the BBC, being out of date, has me at my old address, that will generate a query. That must be dealt with manually by someone ringing up the DSS and saying, "Has this old codger moved?"
I want to know the number of those exceptions which are likely to be generated in a year. I am sure that that is data which the DSS can supply, given some notice, because that is something about which the wonderful new system can be interrogated.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am sure that I can write to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about that. After all, he is describing what will happen at the very beginning of the system when it is introduced for the first time. I do not know the answer. But this is a better system than one which involves individual searches of the DSS database. It is much better to have the bulk transfer which I have described.
First, the noble Lord rather took me to task and said that I had asked a series of questions which had nothing to do with my amendment. In my defence, perhaps I may say that my amendment sought to strike out the words,
"at the request of the BBC", and since the Government's own legislation shows that the BBC comprises all the contractors who are operating the data system, I feel that I was right to pose the questions which I did.
I am grateful to my noble friends for raising specific questions about how the database will operate. I am not too encouraged that even the Minister was moved to say that all databases are rubbish. I must remember that in future.