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6 July 2006 : Column 329WH—continued

However, having heard from the CAI that it was relying on bad weather to blow down aerials for them to be replaced, we were slightly alarmed then to hear from the transmission companies that they were under a very tight timetable to convert the transmission towers but were reasonably confident that that could be achieved as long as there was not bad weather. We eventually discovered that what was needed was bad winters to blow down aerials, requiring them to be replaced, and fine summers, because that is when the
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transmission companies intend to convert their transmitters. With any luck and God’s help, the process should be achieved, but the situation that I have described gives an idea of the potential problems.

My hon. Friend and others on the Committee, particularly the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), were concerned about cowboys. The hon. Gentleman, who unfortunately cannot join us this afternoon, laid great stress on the danger of cowboys exploiting the process. There will be huge ignorance about what is required, and there is a danger that people will call on old ladies, saying, “Have you heard about the switchover? Don’t worry. I’ll sort you out. It’ll only cost you £500.”

I very much welcome the launch of a registered digital installer scheme. I recently attended the conference of the Confederation of Aerial Industries to discuss what it was doing to encourage people to look for the accreditation mark to ensure that an installer is reputable. However, the Government may need to do more not only in encouraging people to look for accreditation and use reputable installers, but to alert the trading standards authorities and enforcement officials to look out for cowboys. I am told that there have already been one or two examples of cowboys seeking to use digital switchover as an opportunity to exploit people.

There are one or two other problems. There are 1,154 transmitter towers, and the Government intend to convert every one, but I am told that, in addition to those, relay transmitters have been installed in some areas of the country, sometimes even by parish councils, to ensure that particularly remote communities can receive a television signal. Those relay stations, which may be small and locally financed, will have to be converted, too, but as far as I am aware we are not sure how many there are, let alone where they are, and who will be responsible for converting them. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

I raised with the Minister on Monday at Culture, Media and Sport questions the problem relating to multiple dwelling units. Some 20 per cent. of the population live in MDUs—some 4.5 million households. The question arises of who will be responsible for converting MDUs. It may require a considerable cost to convert aerials and all the connection network for each household within an MDU. Will landlords be responsible? What about MDUs owned by councils or housing associations? Who will pick up the cost? Will the Government make money available to councils through the revenue support grant to meet the cost of converting MDUs? All those questions have not yet been properly considered.

The area that has caused most anxiety is the assistance package that will be made available. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) mentioned the 1.5 per cent. of people who will not be able to get digital terrestrial television even after switchover, and rightly said that that 1.5 per cent. might not be the same 1.5 per cent. who currently cannot get analogue. The Committee felt that if households currently able to receive analogue television are unable to get either analogue or digital terrestrial after switchover and can therefore probably continue to receive television only if they install a satellite receiver
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at considerable cost, they would deserve extra help in recognition of that additional cost. In their response, the Government indicated that they had at least some sympathy for that view. I hope that the Minister will expand on that.

The Government propose to give assistance to the over-75s and the disabled. For those on benefits, help will be free. However, we are concerned that the group who will need assistance will go considerably beyond that part of the population whom the Government have identified. The Americans have just announced plans to switch off their analogue signal, and the American Government are to set up a fund of $1.5 billion to make available to each of the 21 million households affected two coupons, worth $40 each, to be spent on television set-top boxes. I do not suggest that the Government should finance every household in the country, but it is interesting that the Americans have decided that they need to provide financial help to every affected household to achieve their aims. I hope that the British Government might at least consider providing help a little beyond the narrow group that they have identified.

The Committee shares the view of the Ofcom consumer panel regarding people who are not necessarily over 75 or impoverished, but who are socially isolated. I am talking about people who live in geographically remote areas or who live in urban areas but do not have many friends or family living nearby; people who do not have much contact with the outside world. They will find this whole process very frightening, and they will need help.

In the past, such people might have been able to rely on the nice, friendly local or electrical retailer in the high street, but sadly they are all disappearing. It was put to us that only the voluntary sector could undertake that task and that it is essential that the Government should work with the voluntary sector and provide it with training, so that it can help such people. Often, they are the only ones who know where such people are. It was suggested that the Minister needs to recruit an army of volunteers to assist if we are to ensure that such people will receive the help that they will undoubtedly need.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley made the point—I shall not dwell on this at length—that this matter is the Government’s responsibility and should therefore be paid for by them. They have made it plain that they do not intend to do that and that they think that the BBC should pick up the cost through the licence fee. We do not agree, but the Government will have to justify that decision when the licence fee bills arrive through people’s letterboxes.

The Committee concluded that switchover is a hugely complicated task, which poses enormous challenges. Whether or not one thinks that the decision is right, it has been taken. On balance, I now accept that it is the right thing to do, and I commend the Government for doing it, because they did not have to. They could have sat back and allowed people to continue to migrate across naturally, leaving a future Government to decide that the time had come, but they have decided that this country should take the lead and be one of the first in the world to switch off the analogue system, even though it probably affects a bigger proportion of our population than it will in
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most other countries. That is certainly a brave decision; Sir Humphrey would call it “courageous”. I hope that it works. It is in none of our interests that it should go wrong, and I hope that some of the problems are flagged up in the Committee’s report, so that we can address them and there is a better chance of switchover being achieved smoothly.

3.5 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Thank you, Sir John. Let me be the first to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and the work of his Committee. In its comprehensive report and the evidence that it gathered for the inquiry, it has done not only the House but the country more broadly a great service. The report addresses many important issues that I shall now touch on.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have thought long and hard about this matter and the nature of digital switchover, and I think that it is a good thing on balance. It is a major step forward technologically, which offers great prospects and opportunities in terms of the range of services that will be available to our constituents. In that respect, we should welcome it, but as the hon. Gentleman and his Committee have highlighted, a huge range of issues need to be sorted out before we can be confident that we can do it successfully.

I have a special interest in this issue because I represent a large chunk of the land mass within the Border Television region, which will be the first area of the country to transfer exclusively to digital in 2008, if the current timetable is adhered to. The Selkirk transmitter, in my constituency, is expected to be the first to pass to digital. I visited it a few months ago and was given an explanation of all the technical issues affecting the site. I confess that I did not necessarily understand many of them, but I was at least impressed by the fact that they are many and complex. I am also pleased that some of the finest engineering brains in the country are tackling those issues.

In recognition of the range of issues that will affect my constituents before most people, I, along with Digital UK and other local community groups, established a borders digital forum in my constituency last December. In Melrose, in a week’s time, we will have the second one of its kind, which will be supported by representatives of local community councils, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Elder Voice and many other community groups representing those who we anticipate might have the most at stake or, perhaps, some of the biggest difficulties when the moment arrives.

There is no doubt that interest is growing. People are concerned that we should get things in the right order, and that we in the Border Television region should be the pioneers who get it right, rather than the guinea pigs whose experiences other people learn from. The process is irreversible. One day, it will happen and we will no longer have analogue television, so it is absolutely essential that all the different parts of the process are done right.

As people learn more about all this, they are raising more and more issues with me about what will face
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them. An obvious example is the fact that there is still quite a bit of confusion about whether digital switchover is just about television or whether it includes radio. That confusion is reinforced by the name of the organisation which is there to help the process: the name Digital UK does not suggest that that organisation is concerned only with television. Certainly, much of the correspondence that I have recently dealt with raises concerns about the digital radios that people in my constituency have bought, which have frankly been a massive waste of money because it is not part of the process. I understand that there is no prospect in the medium term that digital radio will be available in my part of the world. I appreciate that it is available through digital television and that, before too long, people will be able to get devices that extend availability from their main television set to other parts of their house. For now, however, there is a false perception in some people’s minds about what all that entails.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford made an extremely important point about levels of public awareness and the perception that people are well on their way towards understanding what will happen. Some 70 per cent. of households have now gone digital, and that statistic will give great comfort to those in charge of the process. As he said, however, that often simply means that one or other of the televisions in the house has been converted, which leaves an awful lot of other televisions and bits of equipment that must still be converted. There is still a lot of confusion about that, and many people in my part of the world, where attention is most closely focused at the moment, will need to spend a lot more time than they anticipated with wires and strange bits of equipment over the next 18 months or so.

A recent MORI poll for the Department of Trade and Industry looked at readiness for digital switchover in the Border Television region, particularly among organisations that will be affected. The Committee was again right to focus many of its concerns on multiple dwelling units, but there are major issues relating to hotels, guest houses, hospitals, care homes and the like. Although the awareness level of the organisations surveyed was similar to that of the public as a whole—about 72 per cent.—only 63 per cent. of care homes and 69 per cent. of those responsible for social housing were aware of the switchover date. A lot of people—51 per cent.—have not even begun to prepare for what will be involved or to develop any kind of plan. However, they are only about 18 months from the moment of truth, and it worries me considerably that not enough is being done to prepare for that moment.

Mr. Evans: I was under the impression that there was to be some sort of advertising campaign in the first area. Has the hon. Gentleman noticed any advertisements in newspapers or leaflets in his area?

Mr. Moore: There has indeed been an advertising campaign, and Digital UK has been at pains to point out to me how extensive it has been. There have been full-page advertisements in newspapers such as the Southern Reporter and the Berwickshire News and East
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Lothian Herald
, and leaflets have been sent out. However, there is a bit of an issue about the technical level of the language that has been used, although the problem is not that it is too technical, but that it is a bit too simplistic. It is not being pitched at the right level, with the result that people cannot gain anything other than a general awareness that a big technological development is coming along the tracks quite soon.

The recent Help the Aged letter, which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will have received, was important because it highlighted the scale of the task at hand. Reflecting on the pensioners’ parliament that it held last year, Help the Aged said that 25 per cent. of the participants regarded digital switchover as an opportunity, but that 57 per cent. saw it as a threat, which reinforces some of the Committee’s findings. We must not underestimate the scale of the challenge still before us.

Of course, our first and most obvious concern relates to the technical issues. Anybody who represents a rural constituency—indeed, I am sure that this is also true of those who represent urban seats—will know that the availability of digital terrestrial television can be rather patchy. In my constituency, freeview is very limited, even in some of the major towns, such as Hawick and Galashiels. In some cases, people on one side of a town can get it, but those on the opposite side cannot. People are therefore still slightly sceptical about the idea that the power will be boosted and that those who cannot get the service now will get it in due course. In fairness, every engineer I have heard speak about this says that that will happen, but that is now what people expect to happen, so I hope that the Government will be able to deliver.

The Chairman of the Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) have highlighted the fact that 1.5 per cent. of people do not get analogue and that it is thought that the same proportion will not get digital. I accept their point that it will probably be a different 1.5 per cent., but I am concerned that the proportion will be rather higher than 1.5 per cent. among my constituents. People will be very worried until the digital mapping is completed later this year and there is a postcode database to show them whether they will get the expanded service in time. I hope that sufficient resources will be put into that database and into making sure that we understand who will and who will not get the signal in due course.

I do not want people to be forced down the satellite route, not least when there is no choice of satellites and no guarantee that there will be a choice, other than through BSkyB. Of course, BSkyB has transformed British television, and it deserves great credit for that, but I doubt that even BSkyB would think that it was fair or appropriate that it should have a monopoly over services to perhaps the most vulnerable people in the country.

The report mentions the cost of converting every last transmitter, and I accept the Chairman’s point that there is an issue about whether we have identified every last one. However, I make a plea that we do not go back from the stated position that every transmitter will be converted, because it is vital that we convert them all if we are to achieve even a minimum level of
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choice for people across the country. This is a matter not only of cost, but of equity and fairness.

The Committee’s report also referred to planning permission and asked whether it might get in the way of converting transmitters. However, nothing in the evidence—I apologise if this is not the case and I have not studied the report carefully enough—specifically suggests that Scottish Borders council, which is the council in my constituency, has been getting in the way of planning applications. Nor did I see anything about consultation with the Scottish Executive, who have clearly a locus in planning in Scotland that is not mirrored south of the border. To what extent is the Scottish Executive being brought into the process?

There are going to be quirky situations in many parts of the country, but there is a particular issue in the borders, where we will be the first to make the changes. That is true not least of Berwickshire.

Mr. Beith: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Moore: I anticipate a question coming, but if I may, I will just hold the floor for a moment.

Most people in Berwickshire get Border Television, but by a fluke of something or other, a strip on the coast gets its signal from Grampian. I have spoken to ITV engineers about that, and they say that there is no reason on earth why people there should get that signal, but they clearly do. The engineers are at something of a loss to explain why that is the case and what will happen immediately after switchover. Likewise, a number of people receive the Tyne Tees signal, which comes up from south of the border. That is where my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) clearly has a similar interest to me, although he seems to have lost interest in intervening.

Mr. Beith rose—

Mr. Moore: Oh no, he has not.

Mr. Beith: I did not want to disturb my hon. Friend’s train of thought. His capacity for reading my mind has not yet been perfected, because I was going to ask about his previous point about planning. The planning guidance to local authorities in England has been changed and is now more accommodating of satellite dishes than it was. However, there is still a problem in conservation areas, and the ideal solution is not necessarily even more lax planning requirements, which might spoil some of our most beautiful and historic buildings and areas. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that it would be undesirable to have a great growth of dishes in such areas and that people must be offered help to ensure that they can have access to services without having to despoil areas of particular beauty or historical interest.

Mr. Moore: I apologise to my right hon. Friend for appearing to think that I could read his mind. I am also grateful to him for that important point, which reinforces what has been said about not forcing people down the satellite route because of the unavailability of a digital terrestrial signal.

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