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The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The Government will confirm the timetable once all the remaining issues relating to digital switch-over are resolved and we are satisfied that the interests of consumers, especially the most vulnerable, are well protected. The timetable will be set on the basis that it can be met by the broadcasters. The House will noteI have placed written statements to that effectthat the BBC and Ofcom estimate that the completion of switchover can be achieved by 2012.
Has my right hon. Friend considered that as the south-east is the business engine room for the whole United Kingdom it would be much more sensible for switch-over to be simultaneous for Wales and the south-east so that we could, as it were, make more wealth for the whole United Kingdom?
We have made it clear that switch-off[Laughter]just checking whether Members are listening. We have made it clear that switch-over will take place on a region-by-region basis, and no decision has yet been taken about which region will be first. My hon. Friend may be confusing the switch-over with the
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pilot exercise that is taking place, from which a lot is certainly being learned: it has been successful in demonstrating to sceptics the value of going digital.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): A number of my constituents are unable to receive any digital television at all. They very much resent having to pay the full TV licence. Why do they have to do that?
Tessa Jowell: That is precisely the reason why it is important to set a timetable for digital switch-over. Almost 60 per cent. of households have a digital television, and we are very close to a point where the hon. Gentleman's constituents will be shut out from the opportunity to upgrade their televisions. That is why we are moving switch-over forward at our current pace, and why it is such a very important consideration in the review of the BBC's charter, to which reference has also been made.
David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): For as long as the days of analogue television are numbered, no new investment is going into upgrading the analogue network and analogue receivers, so people in Inverkip and Wemyss Bay in my constituency who cannot get analogue television, let alone digital television, have no prospect of getting a signal in the near future. Does that not indicate that we need to get a move on with digital switch-over, so that more effort is put into ensuring that those areas that cannot get an analogue signal can get a digital signal when the digital switch-over comes?
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): In her answers in relation to digital television switch-over, the Secretary of State has just stressed the importance of a timetable, but is that not equally true of the switch-over to digital radio? Does she recall that, back in the summer, she said that she was considering a date for digital radio switch-over? Can she therefore explain to the House why her noble Friend the Minister for Media and Heritage said at the end of last year:
Tessa Jowell: At the moment, we have not yet got the figures for the number of digital radios that were given as Christmas presents, but far less than 10 per cent. of radios are digital, so digital radio is too new a technologyit is too new a domestic accessoryfor us to be sufficiently confident about the rate of change to say that we will switch off the analogue radio signal. I am sure that, in future years, precisely the same consideration will be given to the future of analogue radio as in our broad decisions to switch off the analogue television signal, but the important thing is to keep pace with public demand and public enthusiasm for the change.
Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)
(Lab): The role that free-to-air broadcasting plays in ensuring that the digital revolution can be shared by those on low incomes should not be underestimated, but can my right
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hon. Friend say why people in the middle of Northampton in NN1 and NN2 postcodes are still not able to receive free-to-air digital broadcasts? If we are to get people in those areasmany of them are on low incomesto switch on, we need to ensure that the town in the centre of the country is not isolated and kept off the network; it needs to be on as soon a possible.
Tessa Jowell: The practical reason why my hon. Friend's constituents are unable to get free-to-air digital television is that we cannot increase the coverage of free-to-air servicesfreeviewuntil the analogue signal is switched off and the power of the transmitters is increased. All those considerations are part of the plan for digital switch-over to which I have referred.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The establishment of a public service publisher was a proposal made by Ofcom in phase 2 of its public service television review. Ofcom has conducted a public consultation on all its proposals, and will publish its final conclusions in due course. Obviously, we in government will consider its recommendations very carefully.
Miss McIntosh: Although I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, it does not answer the question. I asked what role the public service publisher would play. Yorkshire Television, Tyne Tees Television and the other regional broadcast stations play an excellent role in fulfilling their public service obligations, and I cannot believe that this new body will add anything. Will she say what role it will play and who will pay for it?
Tessa Jowell: No, it is not yet possible to do that, because final decisions about the nature of the proposal have not yet been made. Ofcom has just completed the consultation on its phase 2 report in which this proposal for a public service publisher was made. My view is that the proposal merits further consideration, and I am sure that if the hon. Lady wishes to make representations to Ofcom on the basis of her regional experience, it will happily receive them.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If the Secretary of State means what she says when she refers to the priorities and importance of regional broadcastingI am sure that she doeshow does she think that those areas of the country that are near regional boundaries and that are unable to receive news broadcasting from the correct region will be in a stronger position when digital broadcasting is widespread and the relevant signals can be incorporated? For example, parts of the east midlands receive broadcasting only from the west midlands at the moment.
There are two separate issues. The first is the technology and its capacity to extend the reach of free-to-view television. The second is the current debate about the nature of regional content. One of the
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conclusions of the Ofcom review is public enthusiasm for even more very local regional content, particularly in news. Broadcasting and free-to-air broadcasting are a fundamental part of our democracy, and I hope that hon. Members will join in the debate about developing regional television that meets the needs and ambitions of their constituents.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): If the Secretary of State, who is in charge of broadcasting in the UK, cannot think of a role for the public service publisher, what is the point of having it? Surely it is just another excuse for Labour to spend other people's money.
Tessa Jowell: With respect to the hon. Lady, that is not the most original intervention. Ofcom has already set out the nature of the proposal, and it is consulting on it. It is then for it to come forward with a final proposal and in a due courseit is certainly not a proposal for the next three or four yearsthe Secretary of State will take a view on it.
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