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IsItFair Campaign

6.29 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I wish to present a petition in the name of my constituent, Mr. Yates of Rodden road, Frome, and many other constituents. It is couched in terms that are familiar to the House, as similar petitions have been raised in other constituencies. I entirely concur with the terms of the petition, which talks about the iniquities and unfairness of the council tax, especially for people on fixed incomes, and for pensioners in particular. It also mentions the upward pressure on council tax bills caused by the policies of central Government, rather than local government. It says that there is a need to scrap council tax and replace it with a fair tax based on the ability to pay.

The petition states:

I concur, and I am very happy to present the petition to the House.

To lie upon the Table.
30 Nov 2005 : Column 355

Television Reception (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.——[Tony Cunningham]

6.31 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House the important matter of television reception in Wales.

There is no doubt that broadcasting is going through a revolution that is allowing more people to access more information and offering more choices. Arguably, the most important of all is the digital revolution in radio and television that is already well under way. Wales will be one of the first to switch off its analogue transmitters in 2009, and by 2012 the UK as a whole will be one of Europe's leading modern broadcasting nations.

This debate, however, is not about the benefits of digitalisation, but about how those benefits can be accessed by all. The success of any nation calling itself modern can be measured only by how it can help those in society who need assistance. More than 30 years ago, the Government commissioned a report into broadcasting coverage in the UK. The Crawford report's findings in 1974 still resonate, 30 years on. It stated that

Today, 1.5 per cent of the UK population, or just under a million people, do not have television reception of acceptable quality, or even any reception at all. In Wales, that amounts to some 36,000 households. We must be clear about the matter: if the topography of Wales and its hilly landscapes prevent 36,000 households from getting TV reception, those same conditions also prevent 36,000 people from getting the mobile phone, radio or broadband signals on which so many of us rely to stay in touch with each other and the world around us. That is particularly important, given the recent general election and the forthcoming National Assembly elections. The electoral process involves people accessing information, and more people depend on television to follow politics than on any other medium. There is a public service obligation, but many people are unable to access the information they need.

My question to the Minister is: why are we not using the unique opportunity of digital switchover to secure universal coverage, in Wales and further afield? The dispiriting fact so far is that the expectation of digitalisation is merely to achieve parity of cover with analogue.

Digital switchover has opened up a debate that successive Governments have ignored for over 30 years—how we can ensure that everyone in the country gets adequate television reception. The Minister will not need reminding of the Labour manifesto commitment to

and this debate is concerned with the quality of transmission—

Universal access is non-negotiable and the Government have an obligation to honour their manifesto commitment. I look forward to hearing from the
30 Nov 2005 : Column 356
Minister what targets he suggests setting to tackle the problem of the outstanding 1.5 per cent. or 36,000 people in Wales who do not get adequate television reception—or any reception at all.

There is considerable unease. One constituent of mine, a Mr. Loftus of Taliesin in the north of Ceredigion, is currently unable to access Freeview, and asks whether his local transmitter will be upgraded in time for analogue switch-off in 2009. Another constituent, Mr. Shaftoe, is concerned at the lack of public information. The 2009 date is engraved on our minds, but what is the immediate timetable? The Minister will not need reminding that switchover is only four years away.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Williams: The hon. Gentleman displays a keen interest in Welsh affairs and I am happy to give way.

Mr. Hollobone: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I represent a constituency in Northamptonshire that will be in one of the last tranches for digital switchover. Does he think that it is a good thing or a bad thing for Wales to be in the initial tranche?

Mark Williams: It is certainly unusual for Wales to be in the first tranche and, in that sense, I welcome it. However, as I will say later, we need the reassurance that the mechanisms are in place for digitalisation. If he will forgive me, I will not delve into the details of his constituency, but stay on the right side of Offa's dyke.

I appreciate the work that Digital UK has undertaken, especially its work with retailers, providing the information and staff training necessary to reassure customers. However, Digital UK is only six months old, and there is much to do. Without being alarmist, we surely need to be upping the stakes in terms of public education on the switchover.

In the past, the excuses have included lack of funding, and there are two community-funded transmitters in my constituency. Local communities had to find the £50,000 to have the transmitters in Ystumtuen and Bronnant in Ceredigion. More recent excuses have been that the technology did not exist to solve the problems of television reception, but that is not a valid excuse today. Although satellite television is by no means a panacea, it will enable most people who do not have reception today because of Welsh topography to get reception. Since the welcome announcement of a BBC and ITV Freesat in September this year, it will be much easier for the Government to avoid the sort of competition issues that promoting a Sky satellite package as the solution would have raised.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that lack of access to television signals coincides geographically with low wages in rural and deep rural communities and the most Welsh-speaking areas? Should not that concern the Government?

Mark Williams: As the Member of Parliament for a constituency in which the majority of people speak
30 Nov 2005 : Column 357
Welsh as their first language, that is an issue of concern. I shall come to the issue of low incomes later in my speech, but the ability of constituents to access such services means that the Minister should look carefully at Welsh language provision.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Like my hon. Friend, I represent a constituency in which people have difficulty with television reception, and some communities have banded together to enhance the signal. However, when some people take advantage of satellite reception, the community spirit breaks down because they no longer want to be involved. It is therefore the poorest people in the community who suffer because they cannot afford satellite equipment.

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