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Mr. Dalyell: To pursue the point raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), I would never dream of asking my hon. Friend the Minister to interfere in an investigation; the issue that I raised was the behaviour of the military police, as described in the public prints, which appeared not to be acceptable to a possibly distinguished and brave man.

Dr. Reid: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it is a fine philosophical point to draw a distinction between the behaviour of the police investigating--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr Michael J. Martin): Order. It is time for the next debate.

10 Dec 1997 : Column 977

Digital Television (North-West Norfolk)

1 pm

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): I wonder whether I am the only Member of Parliament who, when sitting down to watch television on the odd occasion at the weekend, consults the weather forecast before looking at the television guide. The problem of poor television reception experienced in my part of rural Norfolk is shared by many other sparsely populated areas, but it is uniquely annoying in north-west Norfolk because, although over the years there have been technical attempts under the analogue transmission system to improve reception, they seem to have failed abysmally for many thousands of my constituents.

Mrs. Ellen Ward from King's Lynn says:

Not only do we have problems with the weather, because reception is marginal from the transmitters designed to serve East Anglia, but, as in Wales, where I understand that 30 per cent. of people get better coverage from English than from Welsh transmitters, we get better reception from transmitters serving Yorkshire and northern England than from those meant to transmit to the people of East Anglia.

Yorkshire Television is transmitted from Belmont and has plenty of news about what is going on in northern England in its regional news programmes. To be blunt, people in Norfolk are more interested in the Canaries and the King's Lynn football team than in the affairs of Barnsley football club. One of my constituents, in a letter to the press, said:

On a more serious note, a constituent tells me:

    "We are just a couple of miles from the coast, with the Ouse and Nene nearby. I am fearful that in not having our own local news, storm and flood warnings might be missed, while we were watching the news from the North!"

One of the best quotations, in the technical environment in which we live, came from a constituent who said:

    "It does seem quite abysmal that men can travel to the Moon and back yet, even with a booster fitted to the aerial you are unable to get reception to my sitting room!"

The problem has been long standing. As an electronic engineer, I at least can understand what the engineers tell me. Since I have been a Member of Parliament--and indeed when I was seeking election--they have told me woefully about the technical problems in transmitting analogue television. I know, because the King's Lynn Citizen mounted a strong campaign, that at least 5,000 people in my constituency have been troubled enough to write and say so.

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I know from the campaigning of some borough councillors, especially Charles Ward and Marcus Liddington, who are bringing the issue to the borough council today, that the problem is large; and the solution, with analogue television, could be expensive and, given that we as a nation have stopped building relay transmission for analogue television, would probably not be achievable in the present regime.

As an electronic engineer, I am also extremely well aware that there is a solution. I am in the fortunate position, I hope, not of merely carping to the Minister but of being confident that the technical problems of the past, so well expressed by my constituents, can be solved by modern technology. I refer in particular to the revolution in communications represented by digital transmission, which is the distinctive way of transmitting information much more efficiently on the same radio waves.

The House will not want a technical lecture on the subject, but let me outline the two major advantages of digital television. First, some clever engineers have ensured that, by compressing data, the frequency spectrum, which is finite and governed by equations not even in the control of the Minister, can be more effectively used. For every television station that we can transmit by analogue transmission, using the same range of frequencies, we can transmit at least four, and probably more next year and the year after, digitally.

We shall have an enormous number of options in terms of picture quality, added services, interactive television and help for the handicapped. Fifty or so frequencies are available but, with analogue transmission, only four or possibly five channels can be received nationally--and those with difficulty, as my constituents know--but without cabling, which will not happen quickly in rural areas, and without people having to subscribe to Sky, we shall, with digital transmission, be able, with the transmitters that are currently in use, to transmit 20 to 30 television channels to every home. That is a huge advantage in terms of the wealth of communications that we can deliver from every transmitter in the land, as we move from analogue to digital.

The second advantage is that digital television will be much less susceptible to interference than the analogue that it replaces. We are about to enter an interim period during which analogue television may well be interfered with by digital. That is a jolly good argument for speeding up the process by which we move to the digital domain with its much greater efficiency. Under digital, much lower signal levels will allow high-quality pictures to be received, which will be a godsend in the sparse rural environments and the difficult patches of Norfolk to which I have referred. As an engineer, I have a clear understanding that there are no technical objections to the solution, which should be explored and implemented.

As a nation, we should have a social requirement that the key channels--bluntly, it is BBC1 and channel 3 that have the proper regional variations--should be, as of right, universally received in the United Kingdom. To do that, all we need to do is to ensure that transmitters that are now technically capable of transmitting only four channels and which will, as we move forward, be able to transmit 20 or 30, include within their expansion the channels that the people who receive broadcasts from that transmitter want to watch. Greater priority should be given to ensuring that people get the television reception that they want before they are plagued with requests to

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pay for the extra facilities, many of which they will not want, that the new technology opens up. People will not thank the Government if, in several years, they can receive 20 channels, but they still cannot receive the key local coverage and the channels that they most want to receive.

I am particularly grateful to the Library for trying to bring me up to speed on the legal side of the issue. Emma Downing has served me especially well in guiding me through the labyrinth of legislation. I shall summarise what I have gleaned from that. It seems to me that there is nothing in the legislation which stops us achieving what I have suggested, but there is possibly not too much that encourages it. The responsibility to ensure universal coverage, or the nearest to it that we can obtain, seems to be divided between the Minister, the Independent Television Commission and the BBC.

I have had mixed responses from the BBC. When complaints were made some time ago, its local spokesman said that the television licence was like a fishing licence. It enabled people to receive television, but it did not guarantee that they could do so. That was not an acceptable response to my constituents, given the extra facility that the BBC is given in legislation to transmit extra information around the country. I must say that I received a much friendlier hearing from the chairman of the governors last week. He has at least offered some meetings, so that I can discuss with BBC technical advisers a more satisfactory route forward.

Neither has the ITC held out any prospect of an easy solution. My predecessor was told that it did not see the prospect of a solution with the move to digital television. Bluntly, that is not acceptable. Today I have my opportunity to ask the Minister to ensure that a fresh look is taken at the matter. It seems to me that a fresh look is appropriate for a new Government.

I and the many other hon. Members who represent sparsely populated rural areas do not expect immediate solutions, but given the wealth that the technical advances have given us in terms of our ability to communicate better, I hope that we can hold out a prospect today that we shall not wait for ever--manana, manana--for our problems to be solved. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept the validity of my complaints on behalf of my constituents, but will also acknowledge that many others in other rural parts of the country could argue similarly.

I have already mentioned that one third of the people in Wales receive English television more clearly than Welsh. They, too, could be helped by my proposed solution. In taking a fresh look at the problem, does the Minister accept that, in the array of opportunities made available by the move to digital broadcasting, there is a possibility of solving the problem that I have emphasised today at least for the vast majority of my constituents, and possibly for many others in this interim period of mixed analogue and digital broadcasting?

Will my hon. Friend the Minister undertake to ensure that those responsible--it is a divided responsibility, and that is one of the problems--face up to the issues that I have raised and give proper priority to universal reception of core television channels? The new Government have made much of the need for communities to act, and for community solutions to problems, whether crime or problems of regional

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development. We have an obligation to ensure that those communities are given the support of community television, at least in the regional variations that the main broadcasters provide. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to use not only his power under the Broadcasting Act 1996 but, probably more important, his influence.

I suspect that technology will ensure that we legislate yet again on broadcasting during the lifetime of this Parliament. The fact that telephone, computer and broadcasting communications are merging technologies will necessitate that. I should have thought that my hon. Friend the Minister would tell those who had vested interests to protect and wanted to see the licence fee retained that constituents such as mine were not prepared to pay the licence fee while the BBC viewed it as an opportunity to receive television signals, but did not put enough effort into making sure that its services could be watched.

I have a more personal plea. As a former lecturer in digital electronics, I am confident that the fastest possible track should be given to the revolution that engineering has made possible and which politicians now need to ensure that we exploit.

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