Clause 2

Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:45 am ar 16 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

“Social security information” and “war pensions information”

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

The previous debate was very enjoyable. I am intrigued by the hon. Member for Bath’s apparent obsession with the erection of inanimate objects, but no doubt it took the debate further.

I have very little to say on clause 2, but it would be useful if the Minister used the opportunity during our debate on the clause to address a matter that was raised on Second Reading. As far as I am aware—I stand to be corrected by the Minister—in bringing war pensions information into play the Bill differs from the Television License (Disclosure of Information) Act 2000. As the Minister is aware, one or two hon. Members made the point on Second Reading that war pension information is more sensitive than social security information in the context of disclosure. In Northern Ireland, for example, those in receipt of a pension via the Ministry of Defence may not want their neighbours or contractors to know about it. Will the Minister let the Committee know whether any additional security measures are being put in place to ensure that such information is well protected? I gather that the Secretary of State for Defence has input into the Bill as a consultee. I also understand that the Bill is permissive and that the BBC and related organisations will not have the right to see such information, so in that sense strong protection is already in place, but I wonder whether the Minister could elaborate.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 12:00, 16 Ionawr 2007

I will make two very quick points. First, clause 2 states that the description of the information will be prescribed by the Secretary of State and that that prescription will be the subject of an order made by the Secretary of State. In other words, the House will have the opportunity to debate the details of that prescription and therefore the information that will  come from the data and to whom those data refer. I wonder whether the Minister can explain to the Committee something that has been puzzling me for a very long time. Why is the prescription—a relatively small issue—to be the subject of an order when the description and the detail surrounding the whole scheme and its delivery are not to be the subject of such an order?

My second question, which I mentioned earlier, is simple. Will the Minister update the Committee on the number of people who will be covered by the data? He will recall his predecessor, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), telling the Department Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 10 January that

“what we are doing is providing help to up to five million vulnerable households.”

I note that the 7 June report of the DCMS Committee states:

“We recognise some people will face practical issues in coping with switchover. This is why we are setting up with the BBC a very comprehensive programme of assistance to which 6.5million households where one person is aged 75 or over, or where one person is severely disabled, will be eligible.”

On 22 November, in a parliamentary answer to me, the Minister himself said:

“We estimate that around 7 million UK households will qualify for assistance”.—[Official Report, 22 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 113W.]

That is slightly bizarre given the number of households in which there may be more than one eligible person. In another parliamentary answer from the Minister on 19 December—only a month later—the number of households that qualified for assistance had risen to 7.1 million. Given that the number is going up by about 200,000 a month, can the Minister give us his latest estimate of the number of people who will have to be helped by a scheme that will be fully funded by the BBC—totally unfairly—out of the licence fee payers’ pockets?

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

The hon. Gentleman deserves a medal for temptation. He puts before me numerous opportunities to go far and wide and journey through many areas. However, I am sure, Mr. Conway, that you quite rightly will want to remind us that clause 2 is actually very clear. It defines the key expressions used in clause 1. The temptation is great to discuss at this stage how many people will be covered and what parts of the UK it will refer to, but I think that you would swiftly rule me out of order were I to respond, so I shall resist.

Clause 2 defines the key expressions used in clause 1, and provides a power that we envisage will be exercised by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to define precisely the types of social security and war pensions information that can be supplied. As such, clause 2 plays the important role of allowing for the scope of information to be defined in detail, rather than leaving it to the discretion of the Department for Work and Pensions and scheme operators.

The hon. Member for Wantage raised an important issue that, as a former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with responsibility for security, I am particularly concerned about: whether a risk might be caused, inadvertently or otherwise, to individuals in  Northern Ireland as a consequence of being identified by the scheme. Indeed, concerns about war veterans other than those from Northern Ireland were raised by staff in my Department as well as by hon. Members on Second Reading. As a result, officials in my Department and others investigated to ensure that there is no possibility that sensitive data will be released to a switchover provider. The Veterans Agency of the Ministry of Defence was particularly conscious of the risks to people in Northern Ireland, but it is satisfied that a switchover provider should not receive any information that would place a Northern Ireland security veteran at risk by identifying individuals as ex-service personnel.

Another point raised by the hon. Member for Bath relates to the nature of the legislation. The details of the secondary legislation mean that the type of information that can be supplied can be widened or narrowed depending on operational requirements, without the need for further primary legislation. However, the type of information cannot be changed at will—it must be the subject of an order, which will be subject to the negative resolution form of parliamentary scrutiny and control. There is no intention to include sensitive personal information in such orders. I hope that that has answered the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

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

The Minister rightly says that the advantage of an order is that the details of the data that are needed can be changed from time to time, as circumstances change, without the need for primary legislation. I understand that. However, he has not answered my question. Why is it so important to have an order and to have the House make a decision on any changes that may take place when the Government do not think it necessary to have an order giving the House the opportunity to have a say on the details of the scheme to which the data relate? I do not understand why one matter should be subject to the House’s approval, and the other not.

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

What I have set out relates specifically to the Bill, which is not about the whole scheme, but about the disclosure of information. In so far as I can do so and remain in order, Mr. Conway, I believe that I have answered the question raised by the hon. Gentleman about why the capacity to disclose information is dealt with in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.