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Grand Committee

Thursday, 22 March 2007.

The House met at two o’clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (LORD BROUGHAM AND VAUX) in the Chair.]

Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux): I am supposed to say what we should do if there is a Division, but I do not think that there will be one.

Clause 1 [Disclosure of information]:

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 and 3. I suppose that you could call this group of amendments the Whitehaven amendments. Their purpose is to ensure that those living in Whitehaven—the area that will begin the digital switchover process—are entitled to the help scheme in the same way as the rest of the country. This is a probing amendment that ensures that information about social security entitlements, war pensions and visual impairment is disclosed at the very least before 17 October 2007, which is the date on which switchover will begin in Whitehaven. That date was announced on Thursday, 15 March 2007. Should the Bill receive a speedy passage through Parliament, it should be possible to disclose all the information necessary for people to be entitled to the digital help scheme in Whitehaven before that date.

My colleagues in the other place—in particular, my honourable friend Paul Holmes—raised this issue. They were concerned that there was a danger that people in Whitehaven would lose as the criteria for help had not been made clear, because the Bill is yet to be passed. There is also the danger that people who move to Whitehaven after switchover may not receive any help.

I seek the Minister’s assurance that in that area help will reach all the elderly, disabled or low income households that need it, when they need it. We still do not have many details about how much the Whitehaven switchover will cost; there are still some imponderables there. Perhaps the Minister could give the necessary assurances about the beginning of the switchover process. I beg to move.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I assure the noble Lord and the Committee that Whitehaven is the crucial location and that the date in the legislation, which we hope will receive Royal Assent, is determined by the fact that we want to meet exactly the points that he identified. It is important that we have everything in place for the switchover date for Whitehaven and Copeland, and we intend to do that.

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Lord Clement-Jones: I thank the Minister for that assurance. I hope that this afternoon we will be paragons of virtue and give speedy consideration to the amendments, which will allow the date to be met. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 4:

The noble Viscount said: This amendment, which relates to Clause 1(4) , is about the phrase “relevant person”—or perhaps we should say “relevant people”, since the provisions are in the plural. The reason for the amendment—it is largely a probing amendment—is that subsection (4) is very widely drawn. A “relevant person” can be “the BBC”—or anyone in it—

which means a company that the Secretary of State or the BBC controls. Clause 1 (4)(c) refers to “any person” engaged by them, which covers a wide range of people—it could cover almost anybody. Our concern is that the “relevant person” will have access to all sorts of confidential information, such as someone’s social security status, whether they are employed or unemployed, are in receipt of benefits or receive a war pension. The “relevant person” will know far more about people and their circumstances than would usually be the case because the information will cross over to a number of government departments.

The Government should keep a record of the relevant person who has access to this information. The more people who have access, the more chance of the whole system leaking. Unless we know who they are and how they are operating, the wrong kind of people will have access to the information. There is real scope for information to leak out, which could be extremely detrimental to those involved. I realise that later in the Bill there are various safeguards about information, but those safeguards are somewhat irrelevant if virtually anybody nominated by the BBC or, in effect, anybody nominated by a company where the BBC might control 51 per cent, but does not control day-to-day operations, can come into the scope of that information.

I am concerned because it will open the door to information about people’s circumstances that is normally kept in the hands of one department. It will be pooled by a number of departments and will be open to possible misuse. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones: I support the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. Many of the amendments tabled are about trying to be more specific about aspects of the help scheme. That is why we have tabled an attempt at a sunrise clause. There is a paucity of information, which is one of the problems with a Bill that is essentially a framework, with the rest being filled in by regulation. That will no doubt give the Government greater flexibility, but there are dangers, as the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said. The Government should carefully consider whether to fill in more details before reaching the appointed day.

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Lord Davies of Oldham: We would certainly be only too happy to fill in additional details if we thought them necessary. We think that the amendment is defective in a number of ways, but I do not want to discuss the details because the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, would only put that right on Report. I want to give him the assurances that he seeks, which I hope will render the amendment unnecessary.

We envisage that the BBC will not need access to data disclosed in this Bill. We envisage that a single main scheme contractor will be appointed, with responsibility to safeguard these details. That might change, of course, if one of the operator’s partners were to lead in managing the contact centre operations and fulfilment process, or if the operator was acquired in a takeover, merger or de-merger.

The details would need to be safeguarded but within the framework of a single main scheme contractor, to which no one in the BBC would be privy. It would be neither its responsibility nor its need as it would have contracted-out this operation. The BBC will come into the picture if the arrangements of the scheme or operator need to be terminated.

The OJEU notice issued at the end of January sets out the preference for a single end-to-end operator who will have sole responsibility for the data. Therefore, in asking for a list, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is asking for a very short list indeed—the single operator.

The Bill permits only someone engaged by the BBC or a company where the BBC or a nominee or the Secretary of State or a nominee has at least a 51 per cent shareholding to be regarded as the relevant person. As we think there will be one scheme, by definition the number of relevant persons will be very limited. The scheme operator is not yet known, but there must be a direct relationship between the BBC, the Secretary of State or both with the scheme operator. The relevant person cannot be a sub-contractor, but must be the direct operator. If we had made the appointment, I would be able to tell the noble Viscount who that person will be, but individuals are not specified in legislation, only their function. The noble Viscount is anxious about what we all recognise as important confidential information, and we are seeking to ensure that it is the responsibility of a very limited number of persons.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but it raises as many questions as it answers. If I heard him correctly, he said that the BBC will not hold the information directly. Following the logic of that argument, one could delete Clause 1(4)(a) because there will be a company in which the BBC or the Secretary of State or their nominee holds at least 51 per cent.

Clause 1(4)(c) states,

Does that mean any relevant person or does it mean any other person? It is not clear who is being referred to because one company will undertake this process.

The BBC is mentioned in case the scheme needs to be terminated. We have to have provision for action on its part but, providing

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that the scheme operates successfully, we do not envisage the information being made available to the BBC because it is not germane to the purposes of the scheme. The reason why we have to have a provision for the BBC potentially to have access to the information is in case things go wrong and the single operator has its contract terminated or is subject to a takeover or there are changes in the arrangements.

If the BBC or the Secretary of State holds at least 51 per cent of the ordinary share capital and has voting rights in the company, it is rather difficult for it to be taken over.

We are talking about the position of the scheme contractor. When the phrase “any person” is used in legislation, it does not mean any inhabitant of the United Kingdom; it means a person who is, by definition, the relevant person in terms of the legislation. The noble Viscount is being literal when I am asking him to be parliamentary when he looks at the legislation.

Viscount Astor: I am grateful for the Minister’s response. It seems to me that this clause is not drafted quite as precisely as it should be, and I should definitely like to come back at the next stage and improve it. As the Minister is far more expert than I am when it comes to drafting, perhaps he will consider inserting the word “relevant” in paragraph (c), so that it reads “any relevant person” as opposed to “any person”, as that might satisfy some of our concerns. I suggest that the drafting could be better.

I will read with care what the Minister said about the contractor. I was not terribly convinced by it but I am sure that, when I come to study it, it will be more illuminating. No doubt before we get to the next stage, the Minister will, with his usual courtesy, make himself available to explain anything that I have not understood. However, I am grateful for his response and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

2.15 pm

Lord Howard of Rising moved Amendment No. 5:

The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment, which seeks to establish what plans Her Majesty’s Government have for ensuring that eligible people living in multiple dwellings are not left behind in the digital switchover due to inadequate rooftop aerials and other associated problems. I declare an interest as chairman of the trustees of the Hospital of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Castle Rising, which is a multiple dwelling.

Provision for multiple dwellings has been entirely ignored in the Bill, yet about 20 per cent of the population, or around 6 million households, are in multiple-occupancy dwellings. The majority of these households are managed by a private landlord, managing agent or social housing provider and will not be covered by local councils.

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At an all-party meeting a few weeks ago, the Minister in another place acknowledged that multiple dwellings will prove a difficult hurdle to overcome. I should be grateful if the Minister could inform noble Lords what action will be taken to encourage housing providers in the private sector to undertake the necessary work to communal aerials and related issues to ensure that their tenants are able to switch to digital television. Can the Minister possibly take that further and commit to ensuring that those living in multiple dwellings who are entitled to help under the scheme will be provided with adequate help? The amendment is purely probing. I have tabled it to give the Minister the opportunity to place on the record the Government’s plans, if any such plans exist, to lessen that difficulty as far as possible. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: We do not have any problems with the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, and it would appear to be very helpful for the scheme operator and Digital UK to have the information that he mentioned so that help can be tailored and efforts made with landlords to bring systems up to date. Indeed, Digital UK is using data gleaned from the British Market Research Bureau study to build up a nationwide picture of progress by social sector landlords and larger private sector landlords.

The Bill deals with the disclosure of personal information about individuals. Following amendments made in another place, it now covers powers for local authorities to disclose personal information about blind and partially sighted people.

The amendment would cover information that local authorities keep about all dwellings—and could probably, in most cases, disclose without restriction—subject to issues of cost. Indeed, the research carried out by the DCMS collected this information from local authorities and registered social landlords.

For that reason, I hope that the noble Lord will agree that the amendment is not necessary. However, the points about access to information on the status of communal TV system upgrading are well made and will be not only carefully considered but acted on.

We can certainly give the noble Lord assurances that the scheme operator working with Digital UK will seek out this information, where available, to help to ensure that the risk of beneficiaries living in flats and other multi-dwelling units being inconvenienced is minimised as far as possible.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: If I may interrupt at this point, I and several other noble Lords touched on this at Second Reading. I simply seek clarification about the difference between public housing, with its communal aerial systems, and social housing, where the costs may fall on people in a way that they would not in public housing. I may not have picked up properly what was said.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: We are encouraging landlords to work in partnership with residents and be sensitive to their needs and concerns and go ahead and make the necessary changes in good time for

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switchover in the regions where they operate. There are a range of legal protections against excessive increases in service charges—for example, Section 19 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, which provides that landlords can take into account only relevant costs in determining the amount of service charge to the extent that they reasonably occur. The important assurance that the right reverend Prelate wants is that people who are socially deprived will not in any way be penalised by this Bill, and we can give that assurance.

Lord Howard of Rising: I thank the Minister. We should remember that in certain multiple occupations, some will be entitled to help and others will not. There should be some method for landlords to make application, or tenants who are not entitled to help may bear a disproportionate amount of the cost, which may cause resentment and problems within those multiple dwellings. It could be most severe in the case of small places, where there are a lot of old people. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 6:

The noble Lord said: The reasons I am keen to move this amendment is that we on these Benches feel rather strongly about this issue. These amendments, which refer to the deletion of the BBC in Clause 1, started life as Liberal Democrat amendments in the other place. I want some rationale from the Government that goes further than we got on Second Reading—at which I was unfortunately not able to be present—about why the Government believe that licence-fee payers should have to pay for digital switchover.

The Minister was clearly on the record at Second Reading as saying that the costs to the BBC—to licence-fee payers—were clearly capped at £600 million, so I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. But the rationale as to why the licence-fee payer should even pay that £600 million and not the taxpayer eludes me and many of my colleagues. Indeed, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was particularly eloquent on the subject. He said:

The absolute consensus is completely against having the licence fee payer do this.

It may well be that the poor old DCMS has been heavied by the Treasury, as ever—I suspect that that is the case. As the Minister has made clear—and that is why his answers to the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, were so revealing—the BBC is frankly quite unnecessary in this Bill except for the purpose of paying the bill. That is all it is. Everything else can be done by the contractor, which will do the necessary. All that the BBC is there for is to pay the money over to the contractor—the £600 million or more.

We have not seen any form of justification for having the BBC being involved as it is, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s rationale as to why

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the BBC was ever brought into this in the first place. There is no satisfactory precedent for this, although I suspect that the Minister will start talking about colour television, but that is not on all fours at all with this major switchover, which should be borne out of general taxation. I beg to move.

Viscount Astor: My Amendment No. 10 is grouped with the noble Lord’s amendment, although it is on a slightly different issue; but I agree with much of what the noble Lord has said.

My amendment is a probing amendment about the company to be set up either by the BBC or the Secretary of State and the idea that it would hold 51 per cent of the shares. Could the Minister be a bit more revealing? Under an earlier amendment, he mentioned the fact that they hoped to have one company rather than a multitude of them, and he intimated that some progress had been made. Can he tell us a little more about that? Will the company be funded by either the BBC or the Secretary of State? Will it be funded by the 49 per cent shareholder or do the Government still think that it will be 51 per cent? The clause says “at least 51 per cent”. What progress have the Government made? According to the Minister’s earlier answers, this company will be entirely responsible for the whole thing, so we need to know the Government’s thinking on how it will operate and whether they have made any progress in identifying who it will be. I refer the Minister back to a question that I posed earlier when he said that the BBC was necessary in case the company got taken over. The one issue that he did not address is that it is difficult for a company to be taken over if the Government or the BBC own 51 per cent of the shares.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to this interesting group of amendments, although they raise a cardinal point that we seem to have discussed on the Floor of the House on a number of occasions, not least at Second Reading. I recall that when we discussed the whole issue of licence arrangements, we went fully into the question of who should be responsible for switchover. It is a division of principle between us, and I am not sure that at this stage I am in a position to identify fresh arguments on this.

It is clear that digital switchover, as all noble Lords recognise, is a much more significant task than any previous transitions, such as going from black and white to colour. All equipment that is not adapted for digital services will become obsolete at the point of switchover, which has never been the case before, when signals have continued to be received by households even if they have not converted to any new technology.

2.30 pm

Our strategy since 2001 has been based on a managed migration led by the broadcasters—I emphasise, led by the broadcasters—and co-ordinated by Digital UK. It has been significantly effective and

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successful. Through increased information, awareness and advice, and people’s rapid recognition of the huge advantages of new technology, 75 per cent of viewers have already switched to digital, which is impressive progress. However, we want to make sure that the most vulnerable are not left behind, which is a perfectly proper objective which I am sure is shared by all Members of the Committee. The help scheme will give support to some of the most vulnerable citizens in our community and will help in an area which is technical and confusing for many of us, but more likely to be for those who are targeted by the scheme.

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