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6 July 2006 : Column 335WH—continued

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Mr. Don Foster: Does my hon. Friend agree that one solution to that planning problem, particularly in conservation areas, and for listed buildings, might be to urge the manufacturers to develop the flat dishes that used to be available from the precursor to BSkyB? It is technologically possible, I understand, and those dishes would be much more attractive and perhaps solve some of the planning problems.

Mr. Moore: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I hope that the Minister is paying careful attention.

It is clearly important for my constituents in Berwickshire that some of the confusion about what signals people will get in due course should be resolved. There is also a more general issue—the degree of choice that people will have.

Mr. Roger Williams: My hon. Friend represents, as I do, a constituency that is in a devolved nation and on the border with England. Some of my constituents get their public service broadcasting from the midlands, which, because people in Birmingham do not really appreciate the Welsh Assembly, does not have lots of Welsh Assembly news on it. Therefore, when the Welsh Assembly elections are held, people do not seem very engaged. It seems to me that the digital changeover will not help that situation, and I wonder whether his constituents have similar experiences.

Mr. Moore: I am being tempted into dangerous territory, Sir John, and will resist the broadening of the debate. However, I offer my hon. Friend this more optimistic thought: certainly, under some of the digital solutions, there will come a point when it will be possible to choose which variation of the BBC and which regional version of ITV to watch. That must be a good thing, and it will allow people to decide for themselves whether they listen to the news from Birmingham or from Cardiff.

The point that I was making before my hon. Friend raised that important issue was about the degree of choice that people will have. That has to do with the relay transmitters. As I understand matters, the commercial broadcasters are not under the obligation to ensure that their signal gets all the way down the line to every last community where there is a digital terrestrial signal for the main public service broadcasters. The argument is a difficult one. People in Jedburgh will rightly ask why they should receive a service that is less useful and not as wide as the one that people in Hawick, Galashiels or elsewhere receive. I know that one answer will be, “Well, it is better than you had before,” but I do not think that that will be a winning argument. Nor, I hope, will the argument that most of the extra channels are shopping channels.

Although they look slightly strange to me on occasion, I am pretty sure that over time the commercial stations will change, and to rule out large segments of the population from access to them on the digital platform would be to do them a major disservice and to make a major mistake. I repeat what the Select Committee has said—that switchover is compulsory. People are not getting a choice to opt into it. In such circumstances there is a much greater onus on the Government to ensure that everyone is treated equally and receives the full range of services.

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Affordability is another issue on which the Select Committee rightly spent quite a long time. We have seen in the debate how in the past few months the prices of set-top boxes and other bits of kit have been falling. That is welcome, but as the Committee wisely points out, a mismatch is developing between the sales pitch for digital switchover in the first place—which talks about all the wonderful services that will be available—and the cheapness of the some of the kit, which will not be able to provide all those services. There will be a dangerous expectations gap for the Government, or others, to fall into, and it is important to deal with that issue as early in the process as possible. We should not underestimate, either, the difficulty of getting those set-top boxes wired up. The cheaper ones tend to be those that break after a few weeks, and need to be replaced—but perhaps I should not generalise from my own experience.

As the Committee has said, there will be other costs, to do with aerials and electricity costs. What kind of environmental message is being given to people by the lack of off-buttons on set-top boxes, at a time of growing concern about environmental issues? The switchover is compulsory, and for all the reasons that I have identified the Government still have an awful lot to do. I hope that they will take up the task with more urgency than I detect at present.

As to vulnerable groups, I endorse all that the Select Committee has said about the fact that the current proposals are far too restrictive and will rule out a huge number of people. Some of the evidence suggested that a large number of people who are entitled to benefits do not take them up and will therefore be excluded from the assistance scheme as currently drafted. No one would question the need to target the bulk of the resources at such people, but there are many others who, for financial or other reasons, will need some assistance, and we must hope that the Government will realise that before too long. If they do not, that will fuel resentment and disappointment when the switchover process is not handled as smoothly as was promised, and does not, as hoped, fulfil its great potential.

A missing part of the debate, it seems to me—although perhaps it is a secondary concern in the current circumstances—is regional programming. One of the great strengths of Border Television, as it is currently structured, is the fact that a vast amount of regional programming is undertaken. That applies not only to the news service, which is watched by a staggering proportion of people in the constituencies served, but also to documentaries and much of the rest of the output. It seems to me that some trade-offs are being made in the digital switchover process, and that ITV and others are being allowed to reduce regional content. I worry that, as Lord Bragg has recently suggested, in a few years’ time not only arts broadcasting but regional programming will be severely squeezed, and we will not benefit from the diversity for which ITV is at present rightly praised, which has been a real strength of the system for decades.

I want finally to talk about ministerial responsibility, which the Chairman of the Select Committee also
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mentioned. It seems fairly clear, from his presence today and from other circumstances, that the Minister who is to respond to the debate will have responsibility for this matter. I am glad about that, and I hope that he will confirm that it is so. People are a wee bit suspicious when they think no one is in charge. They wonder why no one is willing to take charge, and whether there is something they should know; are the people in question a bit worried? I am sure that that is not what the Minister feels, and I hope that he will reassure us about that this afternoon.

I want to make him an offer, which I also extend to the Secretary of State. On the assumption that the first switchover moment will be hailed as a great achievement and held up as an example not just to the Border Television region but to the whole country, I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister will be able to be present in the Borders, at the Selkirk transmitter. I hope that we will be able to throw a great party for them. The warm welcome that will be available to them will be a nice incentive to come and see the switchover. I hope in the meantime that there will be a chance for them to make constituency visits, to reinforce some of the points that need to be made, although I am sure that the Minister has been well briefed about the technical issues and geography that are so much a part of the Border Television area.

I do not think that any Member of Parliament in the region is opposed to what is about to happen, but there is a reasonable consensus across the parties and across the border that there are still many issues to sort out. This process is irreversible and we do not get a second chance at it. I hope that the Government will ensure that it happens properly.

3.30 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), whose closing invitation to the Minister ought to be considered with some care. The Minister may, on reflection, want to decline the opportunity to throw the switch at the switchover and take the blame from the people who find themselves left out. However, we would, of course, be glad to see him on both sides of the border at the relevant time.

I represent the eastern English part of the Border Television area. There is a substantial English part of it in Cumbria as well. It is in the nature of Border Television that it crosses the border and has a uniting influence. It can sometimes be slightly bizarre, because it also serves the Isle of Man. An announcement on television that income tax might be reduced can cause excitement among my constituents, until they discover that it is being considered in the Isle of Man and not in the rest of the country. However, Border Television is very much valued.

The transmitter structure reflects the difficult geography of the area, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk referred. Some of my constituents get television from the Selkirk transmitter, which he mentioned, while others get it from the Halidon relay transmitter in Berwick, which is linked to the Selkirk transmitter.

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When I hear officials from SwitchCo or Ofcom say that everything is getting sorted out by postcodes and it will be clear, I feel that I must point out that the system is just not going to work. If I ask the Post Office to deliver my annual report, many of my hon. Friend’s constituents get it, because the postcodes system is unable to distinguish where the border is, and things cross it. People do not believe assurances that they will get Border Television or BBC Scotland because they are in the right postcode district. They know that postcodes cross the border. Indeed, such people receive health literature and all sorts of other things meant for the other side of the border. It is in the nature of television transmission that it does not fit artificial boundaries.

I have a meeting on Monday with the chief executive of Border Television and a senior engineer about precisely what will happen at the Halidon transmitter. One of the possibilities is that Border Television will give away part of its transmission area and that those who currently get Border Television from the Halidon transmitter may in future get Tyne Tees television and not Border Television. I do not think that that issue has been resolved.

Whichever way things go, it will create a lot of discussion among my constituents, particularly between the rugby fans and the English football fans. Rugby fans tend to like Border Television, because it gives a lot of reporting to rugby union and rugby league. English football fans do not want to be switched over to a Scottish game when an important English game is on. The issue arouses strong feelings and there remains some uncertainty about what will happen.

I am not even sure that the broadcasters are clear about who transmits to where and who gets which bit of the transmission. All that will be fairly graphically highlighted when the digital switchover takes place. Some people manage to get both and manage to have a choice—I am in that category—by getting a poorer signal from one of the transmitters. That will be relevant when I talk about another part of my constituency in a moment.

In terms of the regional issues that my hon. Friend mentioned, it would be helpful to have a clear guarantee that everybody will have access to their neighbouring region’s output if they get digital reception. Such access is technically perfectly possible. I understand that in many cases it will happen without anybody even asking for it. It will help to solve the problem if people have the choice—most do not have such a choice now—to switch between Border Television and Tyne Tees, English BBC1 and Scottish BBC1, and English BBC2 and Scottish BBC2. That is technically feasible. If such a choice were made available, it would reduce one of the sources of difficulty that we have in the process.

Another part of my constituency, the area around the village of Elsdon, gets Border Television. It cannot get a major signal from any transmitter at all. I remember Ofcom writing to me to state:

The letter went on to explain how that situation was not likely to change. People in that area depend on one
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small relay system. Some people have bought Sky. Quite a number of people get Border Television from the Caldbeck transmitter; it is a Cumbrian transmitter of Border Television. Such people get a poor signal but they can watch it.

The crucial difference between getting a poor signal on analogue and a poor signal on digital is that one can watch a poor signal on analogue, although it looks a bit fuzzy, but a poor signal on digital results in either a blank screen or a freeze frame, and people just cannot watch it. If they find themselves in the position—no one seems to know the answer to this issue—of getting a poor digital signal, they may have no television service at all, unless they are prepared to pay for Sky. People ought not to be put into such a position.

Therefore, I hope that, as part of the help for the 1.5 per cent. of people who do not get analogue, the Government will re-examine the potential impact of the switchover on people who are already getting a poor analogue signal and who in future might not get any television at all. Such a situation is unreasonable and unacceptable in an age when it is technically possible to meet their needs.

Another problem in an area such as mine is that, whereas the Tweed valley area and parts of the west of my constituency get Border Television, most of the area gets Tyne Tees. They are all subject to publicity that says, “We are going digital in 2008”. People therefore say, “Oh dear, I must buy this free box and this special set. I must get my aerial renewed because we are going digital”. Such people are not actually going digital until 2012, if the present timetable is followed. A number of people are getting frightened that they will lose their television service completely when they have no need to do so, because they will continue to get Tyne Tees television. As my hon. Friend said, more needs to be done to make the picture clearer and more understandable to people, so that they know whether there is a real reason to spend some money.

Again, that issue is particularly confusing for elderly people. They might well say, “I don’t think I am going to bother buying all this if I know that I have got another four or five years of analogue. If I am still in good health and strength in four or five years’ time, I will do it then. I do not need to do it now.” Currently, such people feel under some pressure to change.

I want to mention a couple of further issues. The first is the situation for blind people, about which the Royal National Institute of the Blind has written to us. Blind people make good use of television. Their ability to do so will be impaired if they depend on using a remote control. The RNIB has made it clear that blind and partially sighted people, and some other categories of disabled people need an alternative mechanism for controlling the digital box if they are to have access to television. The Government have included blind and disabled people in the category to which they want to give special help, but we want to be sure that the right to special help is available. That would enable those people not to be denied access because the system is more technologically complicated to operate.

Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned the energy issue relating to free boxes, but there is a further point. Not only do some of them not have a switch-off mechanism, but a number of free boxes lose all the stations if they are switched off at the plug. People
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have to retune them all over again. I have a radio that does that as well, and there is nothing more exasperating than coming home, discovering that there has been a power cut during the week and having to retune the stations on the radio. If people have to do the same on the television with the free box, they will opt to leave the free box on all the time, so wherever there is a television that might be left on standby, a free box will be left on standby as well. That would mean a significant net increase in the use of energy across the country at a time when we are trying to reduce energy use. The Government need to address that as well.

Mr. Don Foster: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the recent survey by the Energy Saving Trust says that the average household’s energy bill will go up by £30 a year for the reason that he just described?

Mr. Beith: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of that figure. It is also an issue for Government, quite apart from anything else, because of the fuel poverty problem. The key issue of energy conservation is one that they ought to address.

A number of decisions remain to be resolved, including who will receive English television and who will receive Scottish television. Which BBC channel people receive is also affected by this. Not only is BBC1 different in England and Scotland, but BBC2 is different. There are unresolved issues and great uncertainty about how areas with very poor reception will be served. Many people still face difficulties and the Select Committee Chairman, whose work we appreciate, said that the issue has the potential to cause great concern and distress. I warn my hon. Friends that it has great potential to increase the number of letters, calls and surgery visits from our constituents, who will want to know why they have been landed with the problem and why it is so complicated. They will hark back to the days of natural gas conversion when they were looked after, partly because of the safety aspect. All they had to do was to admit an officially designated person to their house to adjust the equipment and in almost all cases everything was all right. However, even that switchover was not perfect and there were a few problems because some so-called cowboys turned up, but it demonstrated that there is a more hands-on way in which the Government and broadcasters could help people. There are significant dangers if we do not get it right.

3.41 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I was slightly taken by surprise when you called me, Sir John, because I had hoped that other colleagues would enter this crucial debate. I want to begin, as others who follow me will, no doubt, by congratulating not only the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), but all the members of his Committee on an excellent report that has undoubtedly stimulated a lot of thought. His crucial point, which was absolutely right, was that insufficient attention has been devoted to the issue in the House. Perhaps as a result of his Committee’s report, the issue will now receive the wider
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airing that it deserves because over the next few years it will affect every single one of our constituents. It is crucial.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that, whatever the problems, it is worth reflecting on the enormous benefits that will arise if the procedure for switchover—perhaps we should call it switch-off—is right. There will be enormous benefits in terms of additional channels, greater quality and consumer choice, new features, such as interactivity, better allocation of scarce spectrum space and social or economic benefits, or a combination of the two, from the release of the analogue spectrum.

There is no doubt that the move to digital is already popular. Around 18 million households have already decided freely that they want to move into the digital era, although I point out in passing that I was slightly taken aback by one statistic in the important trial carried out in Bolton about targeted assistance packages. It showed that 7 per cent. of those who were surveyed said that they were very satisfied with the digital services they received, when in fact they did not receive any digital services. That is further evidence of the additional explanatory work that needs to be done.

There is no doubt that, if we manage the switchover carefully, it will bring huge benefits to the vast majority of our constituents. Reference has rightly been made to the 1.5 per cent. of people who will lose out if the plans go ahead as currently constructed. Planning and managing the switchover properly is crucial. I do not want to be over-critical, but it is worth reminding ourselves that the former Secretary of State, now Lord Smith of Finsbury, proposed that we should achieve that by 2010. There has been a two-year slippage. It was equally disappointing that Ofcom had to urge the Government in letters to get on and decide when the date would be and, if it was to be 2012, to announce that so that the planning could begin. It took the Government a long time to make the announcement and it was done, strangely, by burying it somewhere in the Labour party’s manifesto for the last general election. Be that as it may, a decision was made. The Select Committee was right to say that it was a bold decision and that, if properly managed, huge benefits would accrue from it.

There is no doubt—other hon. Members have touched on this—that there is an urgent need to improve the information given to the public on a variety of issues relating to the digital switchover. We know that 25 per cent. of the population are still in analogue homes. We know that, although 75 per cent. now have some form of digital equipment, as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford rightly said, that often refers to just one television set, when there are two or three sets, video recorders and so on. There is still a lot of work to be done.

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