Clause 5

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

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn


Question proposed[this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

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

Clause 5 deals mainly with matters of interpretation. One interpretation that we are asked to approve is:

“‘switchover health 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 in pursuance of the BBC Charter and Agreement, as the scheme has effect from time to time.”

I am sure, Mr. Conway, that you would not wish the Committee to agree that clause 5 should stand part of the Bill without some assurance from the Minister regarding the agreement that will be reached between the Secretary of State and the BBC. The Minister said that we will have to wait for the licence settlement statement on Thursday to hear the result of the charter review. However, as we have been very good and dealt with our business quickly, we are where we are without having heard the Secretary of State’s statement. It therefore seems appropriate to ask the Minister to provide a little more information before we simply agree to the clause.

Will the Minister tell us a little more about the scheme? Does he envisage the BBC being in any respect its manager or its deliverer? Is a sum of money for the provision of the scheme to be agreed between the BBC and the Secretary of State, no doubt forming part of the licence fee settlement; and, if so, will he tell us how much? What will happen if the sum of money identified by the Secretary of State, or perhaps agreed between her and the BBC, which we understand might be in the order of £600 million, proves to be inadequate?

Will any change be made to the BBC’s present borrowing arrangements? After all, if the BBC has a responsibility for, for example, the acquisition of large quantities of equipment for the switchover assistance scheme, it may be necessary for it to find a lot of money up front. However, the BBC’s borrowing is limited, so if it had to use its existing funding for that purpose, the programme-making budget would suffer. Will the Minister respond to the question asked by the hon. Member for Poole, who has just taken his place? He asked: if things go wrong, will the BBC, in effect, be hung out to dry and  take all the responsibility for any problems that arise, or will the Secretary of State, who will be party to the agreement, be deemed to be equally responsible?

I note with interest the answers to some parliamentary questions that I have very recently received from the Department of Trade and Industry about the disposal of electrical and electronic equipment when it becomes redundant following digital switchover. Will arrangements between the BBC and the Secretary of State for the digital switchover scheme take into account the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2006, which were laid before Parliament on 12 December 2006? More importantly, how much money has been set aside, within the ring-fenced amount—allegedly £600 million—to defray the cost of disposing equipment that will become redundant in the homes of those who have been assisted by the targeted assistance scheme? Finally, does the Minister have an answer to my earlier question about the number of people that he now estimates will be helped by the “switchover help scheme”, as defined in clause 5(1)?

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, because if I get answers to those questions I should be more than happy, at least at this stage, to agree to clause 5 standing part of the Bill. However, notwithstanding my acceptance of the clause at this stage, I hope that we will have an opportunity, in some guise or other, to debate further the details of the switchover help scheme, once we hear from the Secretary of State on Thursday any information that she deems to share with us.

As I have said on another occasion, I remain firmly of the opinion that the digital switchover help scheme is a Government social policy that should—like giving free TV licences to the over-75s—be paid for by the Government and should not be funded, as I understand is currently proposed, out of moneys raised under the BBC licence fee.

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

The hon. Gentleman deserves an accolade and prizes for trying—and trying he really is. He is trying the parameters of a Bill that, after all, makes provisions for the disclosure of certain information—

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

I will in just a moment, but this is important. The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to go into the details of a forthcoming announcement by the Secretary of State about the BBC and the licence fee and some of the implications of that. This morning, I said that there would be a statement about that in the coming weeks, since when the hon. Gentleman has continually mentioned the day on which the statement will be made, but it does not matter how many times he mentions a particular day. What information he may have gleaned was gleaned through the usual channels and is on a usual-channels basis, and I cannot confirm or deny the date that he keeps mentioning. I can say only that the information that he seeks in this clause stand part debate is, by and large, well beyond the parameters of the Bill. However, I am happy to deal with issues arising appropriately in relation to the clause.

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

Clearly, Mr. Conway, you deemed that my questions were in order, since you have not ruled that they were out of order. I am sure that you accept that now, not later, is the time to ask questions, if we are to agree clause stand part. Although I accept that we will have an opportunity to return to the subject, it is reasonable for Committee members to ask questions about the clause now. It is not the Committee’s fault that the Government have failed to get their act together on the agreement with the Treasury in respect of the licence fee settlement.

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

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but questions about the specifics of the BBC’s borrowing limits go beyond the digital help scheme. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may disagree, but the details of the BBC’s external borrowing limits go beyond the digital help scheme. Those details may be relevant in his eyes, but I will not be tempted by him into a discussion that does not fall within my remit today.

Until the Secretary of State makes a statement to Parliament and details in the appropriate way the agreement and settlement with the BBC, however much the hon. Gentleman presses me—he can do so until 10 pm tonight; I am prepared to sit here and be pressed—however many ingenious ways he asks and however many times he tries, I will be unable to help him. That is not because I do not want to help him, but because I cannot do so at the moment until agreement with the BBC is finally resolved. That matter is not finally resolved. Whatever advance information the hon. Gentleman may have about an intended date for a statement to Parliament, the final agreements with the BBC have not yet been made. They are still being made.

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

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, keeps mumbling “fault”. Fault is not relevant. What is relevant is getting the agreement right. If I am unable to satisfy his appetite for information in advance of an appropriate and proper statement being agreed with the BBC and subsequently made to Parliament by the Secretary of State, I apologise; but I really cannot assist him. I have tried, with some degree of pain, throughout our deliberations to make it clear that once I can make the appropriate declarations to the Committee or the House, I will do so. I will be happy to do so, but at the moment I have a problem. What is it that the hon. Gentleman does not understand about the words, “I am not yet in a position to answer his question; I will do so when I can.”?

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

I genuinely understand the Minister’s difficulty. However, the difficulty faced by members on both sides of the Committee is that, in being asked to agree today to a provision relating to the digital switchover scheme, we are being asked to agree that there will be a digital switchover help scheme, that it will be agreed between the BBC and the Secretary of State, that it can be varied from time to time, and that Parliament will have no say in that decision. In such circumstances, in the normal processes of Committee debate, it would be usual for the Minister to at least give an indication of the nature of the agreement that is envisaged.

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

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s position but—I say this with respect—the Bill is about permitting social security information to be disclosed to the administrator of the digital switchover help scheme. The Bill is not about the digital switchover help scheme. None the less, he constantly presses for a discussion of the help scheme.

I respectfully suggest that there are many ways for the hon. Gentleman to discuss the digital switchover help scheme. He will be as aware as other members of the Committee that he can do so through a number of parliamentary devices. The obvious routes are an Adjournment debate or an Opposition debate. All those routes are available to him, and I would be more than happy to take part in such a discussion.

I have explained to the hon. Gentleman—I do not know why he has difficulty understanding my explanation—that the precise arrangements will remain unresolved for a little longer and that until they are resolved I will be unable to give him the explanation that he seeks. As soon as they are resolved, I will be able to do so. I do not see why he still does not understand that the Bill is about permission being given for the disclosure of social security information.

Our debates, including those on the helpful probing amendments, are about producing a safer system for both those whose information is disclosed and those involved in the handling of the information. It is no more and no less than that. That is an extremely important matter. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the precise governance arrangements and the full extent of the BBC’s involvement are still under discussion. As soon as the matter has been resolved—it will not be affected by the Bill, because that is about enabling the disclosure of information—I will discuss them with him. I will be more than happy to do so.

As I understand it, the clause is about the expressions used in the Bill. I am happy to discuss those matters at length. Once again, I tell all members of the Committee that the Government stand ready to discuss them. The hon. Gentleman may have to wait only a matter of days, rather than weeks or months, before we are in a position to satisfy his lust for debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.