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If nothing has yet been done about TV reception, it has nothing to do with technology; it may be more to do with a lack of will. Over and above anything else, I seek from the Minister today a firm commitment that something will be done to remedy the inadequacies of the past three decades. If technology is not the problem, perhaps the Minister will allow me to share my thoughtsperhaps naive onesabout how the difficulties could be tackled.
Ofcom's report published in August 2004, "Vulnerable Consumers in SwitchoverWho Are They And Where Do They Live?", recognised that people living in low population density areas were less likely to receive TV reception and earmarked them as vulnerable groups. That may address the point made by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). Will the Government take Ofcom's recommendations on board and broaden the eligibility criteria, to ensure that people living in rural areas who might just miss the criteria for low income, and the elderly and disabled, have the chance to access that new technology, perhaps involving some form of modulation in proportion to their income?
I applaud the support scheme that the Government have announced, as far as it goes, and its provision for helping with installation of equipment and for follow-up support for people with significant disabilities, and people aged 75 years and olderan important issue that relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Caernarfon about the Welsh language. In a written answer of 22 November to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), the Minister mentioned such a support scheme. When will the details be forthcoming? Definite details would reassure many people and meet many of the anxieties they are experiencing.
Through what mechanisms do the Government envisage support being made available to the elderly and disabled, and those on low incomes? Will they make use of existing structures to assess those in need and to dispense help? There is already a network of Ofcom engineersalbeit not manywho travel the length and breadth of Wales investigating interference problems with TV reception. It would take only a slight broadening of the remit of Ofcom's current powers to enable its expert engineers to hold the deciding vote over whether a satellite was the only way to proceed in a
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reception blackspot. Ofcom would of course require additional funding to meet that extra function. In some ways, its engineers are already performing that duty, as the interference problems with which they have to deal are due to topography. Armed with an official Ofcom certificate, the individual could take a claim to the local authority and access practical financial aid to upgrade the satellite.
We are still in the dark about how and when the Government will dispense the help they have promised to the elderly, the disabled and those on low incomes, but it is obviously not too late to make plans to help those who are media poor. We know that the BBC will have to contribute £400 million to aid the most vulnerable to make the leap to digital, but what estimates has the Department for Culture, Media and Sport made of how much it would cost to solve the problem faced by the 36,000 households I mentioned1.5 million UK-wide? Our estimates, using Government figures, suggest that it would cost the DCMS between £720,000 and £7 million to get those 36,000 households in Wales connected once and for all.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. He has shown much interest in the matter in the past. He met a delegation that included my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), the hon. Member for Caernarfon and me and was receptive to our message. Like others, I feel strongly that small percentages should not disguise the fact that for many people, particularly those clustered in rural areas, things that the rest of us take for granted are not readily available. It is on their behalf that I ask the Minister to respond positively.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing the debate. I also thank the Minister for allowing me to make a short contribution.
The crucial point for a place such as Montgomeryshire, which neighbours Ceredigion, is that although we may be living in the sticks, we should not be rubbing sticks together when it comes to technology. Our idea of a good night in is not Sîan using the old spinning mill, me chopping wood in the back yard, and talking about the good old days. Sometimes we would actually like to watch television. Television is not only for entertainment, because it increasingly provides a range of other important facilities without which one is effectively excluded from important cultural and information-based elements of modern life.
People from the beautiful town of Machynlleth have an extraordinary ability to win pub quizzes. When I asked them why they did so well, they said, "Well, it's basically because the television reception is so poor that we've got nothing else to do than read." One could argue that that is a benefit, but it also means that they are excluded from certain media outlets, as my hon. Friend said. On a practical point, they are reduced to receiving the programming that happens to make its way into the valley. For example, they might not be able to receive Welsh regional television coverage and instead have to depend on the midlands' programmes. Such a situation necessarily causes a serious problem in Wales.
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I would like to watch the programmes that it is possible to watch in the midlands and larger towns. I would like to watch Sîan Lloyd doing the excellent weather forecasts on ITV or "I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!"I declare an interest of a most personal nature. However, thanks to the hills, every time I watch her weather forecasts, they are full of snow. When analogue is switched off, it is likely that a proportion of my constituents will lose access to some of those programmes completely.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, modern technology can solve all those problems, but we need initiative from the Government. Television is about more than entertainmentit is about information. It is about not only soap operas, but ensuring that parts of Wales are not unclassified roads compared with the information super-highway, which dominates much of modern business and culture.
The Minister has been receptive to our points and positive about the problems that have been highlighted. Nevertheless, I hope that he can give us some specifics about what the Government can do to resolve the situation. We are asking not for tomorrow's world, but simply that Wales is not left out. As things stand, however, a proportion of residents in Wales, through no fault of their own, will continue to regard the television reception problem as the weakest link.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): With the Minister's permission, I will make a short contribution. I thank him for receiving the delegation of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). However, the problem does not go away and our constituents refer to it regularly.
I sometimes believe that people who live in large towns and cities think that everyone throughout the country has the same facilities and services, but that is certainly not the case. For example, in the Nedd valley in my constituency, four families will now be receiving mains electricity for the first time. That is costing each family £20,000, so they are not getting something for nothing. One of the main reasons why they have decided to make that investment is so that they can use computer equipment, which they could not do before because they did not have the assurance of a continuous electricity supply. However, people look to the Government, as well as investing themselves, so that they can receive the facilities that the rest of the country takes for granted.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), I am worried about people who live on the border of England and Wales and get their television programmes not from Wales, but from the midlands. It is not surprising that in elections, such as those for the Assembly, it is much more difficult for those people to become aware of the issues. It is also a question of languagejust because someone lives on the border between England and Wales does not mean that they want to receive all their entertainment in the medium of English. Many people in that area speak Welsh as their family language and as their first language, and they would like to receive information
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and entertainment in Welsh. We look forward to hearing the Minister reaffirm the commitment that he made when we met him earlier this year, when he said he would do what he can to ensure that we secure equality of service throughout the country.
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