Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee am ar 16 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Derek Conway in the Chair]

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup 10:30, 16 Ionawr 2007

Good morning. I am sorry that we could not secure a larger Committee Room, but we will have to make do with this one. I remind Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting. I am quite content for Members to remove their jackets if they wish to do so.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I beg to move,

That—

(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 16th January) meet—

(a) at 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 16th January;

(b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 18th January;

(2) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 p.m. on Thursday 18th January.

Good morning Mr. Conway. I welcome you to the Chair, and I welcome the Clerk and other Officers of the House to the Committee as we debate this important Bill and the motion before us. Mr. Conway, I am sure that you will add your normal skill and customary guidance to our deliberations. The room is cavernous, but as we know, size is no indication of quality, and I am sure that you will keep us in order during our sittings.

There have been a number of discussions through the usual channels on the programme motion. The discussions have been full and comprehensive, and I understand that all parts of the House have satisfactorily resolved that we have adequate time to discuss the important clauses, if hon. Members so wish, and any relevant amendments.

It is fair to say that, as a matter of principle, the Bill is not controversial. It has support from all parts of the House, and I am sure that hon. Members will wish only to improve the content of the legislation before the Committee and the House.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway. As this is the first Public Bill Committee that I have attended in my capacity as a Front-Bench spokesman, you can imagine that I am incredibly nervous. It is therefore reassuring to have a Chairman of your standing and experience in the Chair. I hope that you will indulge me, as I am almost certain to make a series of terrible faux pas and mistakes, and that you will use your experience to guide me through the maze of proceedings.

The Minister is correct: the Opposition believe that there is adequate time to debate the Bill. However, I note, and my inexperience will now show through, that on Thursday when the Committee is due to sit at 1 o’clock, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be making an important announcement on the licence fee.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

Mr. Conway, it may be helpful for you as Chairman to know that through the usual channels, there has been discussion about that point. We are more than prepared and very happy to sit until at least 10 o’clock this evening if that would help the Committee to avoid the problem that the hon. Gentleman has posed. I thank my colleagues and hon. Friends in advance for that.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

It would certainly help the Committee, but it would be a blow to the new constituency of Hammersmith, because it is expecting me to launch the new Hammersmith Conservative Association, whose parliamentary candidate will take control of that seat, and whose local authority has already reduced its council tax by 3 per cent. after taking over from a hideous left-wing regime that taxed its residents through the nose. But I digress. I should not want the House to be deprived of the talents of the hon. Member for Bath or of the Minister when the TV licence fee is debated.

As the Minister said, the Bill is important but small. It is technical, but no doubt it will give members of the Committee an opportunity to raise some important issues. It is a great pleasure to see present so many Members who contributed in such a distinguished fashion on Second Reading. I exclude myself from that praise. Although the Bill is small, it represents the biggest civil project in Britain’s recent history, as the Secretary of State herself has said. We will want to probe the Minister on many of the details of how the scheme will operate. Some issues will be raised through the amendments and others will emerge as we debate the Bill clause by clause. I echo the Minister’s sentiment that there is consensus in the Committee that the Bill is necessary, and we wish it a speedy passage.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Conway.

We are looking forward to relatively brief deliberations on this important Bill. The Minister says that it is not controversial, and in one sense he is absolutely right. We saw on Second Reading that there is a great deal of support on both sides of the House for digital switchover. There is also recognition that, because the more vulnerable in society will need assistance, data should be made available so that we can go ahead with a package of help for such people. In that respect, the Bill is not controversial.

However, a number of issues need to be raised, so it is important that the programme motion should allow the necessary time for the debate to take place. The Bill is about making available data for a targeted help scheme, yet its scope is so limited that we will not have the opportunity to discuss who is going to be helped by the scheme. We see in the answers to a range of parliamentary questions that the number of people who are to be helped appears to grow almost daily. At the beginning of January last year, the Minister told us that 5 million  people were going to be helped, and by the end of the year the figure had risen to 7.1 million. Although we do not know who these people are going to be, we are meant to be discussing access to data that will enable us to assist them.

We are not told how the help is going to be provided or by whom, how much it is going to cost or who will pay. Perhaps that will be the subject of Government amendments following the Secretary of State’s announcement on Thursday about the licence fee. Sadly, then, there are many matters with regard to the targeted help scheme that we cannot discuss. That will make some of our deliberations somewhat difficult.

Despite the limitations of the Bill, we have the opportunity to discuss some issues that need to be sorted out—for example, whether data will be needed not just from the bodies that are listed in the Bill but from others, such as local authorities, that provide information that relates to people who will, we are led to believe, be helped by the targeted assistance scheme. We will also be able to debate whether we need to be clearer about the way in which information is provided, not least to blind and partially sighted people; whether it is right for the Bill to create an offence in respect of disclosure of information, under which a person is deemed guilty unless he or she can prove innocence—a complete reversal of the normal procedure of innocent until proved guilty; whether there should be a time limit on the sharing of data, which will be particularly significant in the current climate of debate about the Government’s proposals for a much wider data-sharing scheme; and whether more should be said in the Bill about the targeted help scheme’s being platform neutral.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

It might be helpful to remind the Committee that the Bill is not about the help scheme; it is about access to information, about social security information and about the careful handling of that information. I am sure, Mr. Conway, that you will keep us in order in the course of our debates, but it is useful to remember that the Bill is about access to the information that will enable us to ensure that the scheme is effective.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I accept entirely that that is the scope of the Bill, Mr. Conway, but my point was that that is somewhat difficult for us. The Committee will be aware that what the Bill says about the scheme is in clause 5(1) which says that a

“‘switchover help scheme’ means any scheme for the provision of help to individuals in connection with digital switchover which is agreed between the BBC and the Secretary of State”.

That is all we are told about the scheme in the Bill, yet we are being asked to debate the provision of data on people who will be assisted by the targeted help scheme when we do not have in the Bill any details of who those people will be. That is why I hoped for a wider debate on the details of the scheme. However, I accept that we cannot have that debate, that the Minister is right, and that the Bill is limited in scope and will be difficult to debate for the reasons I have given. The programme motion gives us the opportunity to have a limited debate on that limited range of issues, but, sadly, they are the only ones that can be debated because of the limited scope of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

Before I put the next motion, and for the guidance of the Committee, when it suspends tonight is in my gift as Chairman, but when it adjourns is in the gift of the Government Whip. If we are still sitting at around 8 o’clock, it will probably be wise for us to suspend for dinner because we must bear in mind those who serve the Committee and not just those who wish to take part in it.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I beg to move,

That, subject to the discretion of the Chairman, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.

I welcome the opportunity to move the motion as part of the new process that I believe will help all hon. Members. It allows the Committee to report written evidence to the House and for it to be published.

Question put and agreed to.