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6 July 2006 : Column 348WH—continued

The Government ought to embrace a completely new pilot study on a scale that will yield significant results and enable them to come up with accurate figures. If the figures for assistance are underestimated,
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there will be huge pressure on the BBC and the licence fee to ensure that its social responsibility is delivered properly.

We are told that the Government will charge the BBC a new tax on the digital spectrum that will be released. The BBC has put a figure of £300 million into its costings for the licence fee negotiations. That £300 million will go straight to the Treasury, and the argument was made earlier that, if the Government take that money, they should put some of it back into the assistance scheme and into assisting the BBC. When the new spectrum is released, there may not be much of it available, because TV companies will bid for it and even more channels than we have now will access it. The switchover is compulsory and determined by the Government, so if money goes to the Treasury, the Government have a moral responsibility to put some, if not all of it, back into the system.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman said he anticipated the BBC being for the spectrum, and he rightly pointed out that the BBC’s costings included money for it, but, possibly to help him, will he make his party’s position clear? I have said that it would be inappropriate to charge the BBC for the spectrum and give the Chancellor money from the licence fee, because it would be a stealth tax. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Moss: We have said that it is another stealth tax, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

There are all sorts of issues that we could go over, but I suspect that we would repeat points that many hon. Members have already made in the debate. The switchover is a massive undertaking. I can see the need for the Government to appear firm in their resolve by setting dates for future activity, but as we heard from those who represent constituents in the border areas, they are concerned about being guinea pigs. There is a lack of understanding. The digital companies’ switchover promotion does not seem to have got through, and the marketing costs will be far more than people have estimated.

I urge caution on the Government, and I recommend a much larger and more important pilot scheme. The longer they leave the switchover, the fewer the people who will need their equipment converted. What is the rush? I do not see the need for it, because the benefits to those who are finally brought in are limited.

If I were in the Minister’s shoes, I would want to hold back on the project at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps from his remarks, we will find out that he has already decided to do just that.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Thank you for calling me, Sir John. I hope that I may with your permission remove my jacket.

Sir John Butterfill (in the Chair): Well, I do regret that Mr. Speaker has determined that the rules for Westminster Hall, which this room temporarily
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represents, are the same as those for the main Chamber, and the removal of jackets is not approved of. I agree that as far as hon. Gentlemen are concerned, it is often an inconvenience when compared with the rules that apply to hon. Ladies. However, it is the rule that I am obliged to enforce.

Mr. Woodward: As always, Sir John, I welcome your guidance. Since I have no intention of erring, I shall keep my jacket on.

Mr. Moss: For God’s sake don’t turn your back on him.

Mr. Woodward: Absolutely.

This civil project is indeed absolutely huge. The Government were right to make the decision to commit themselves to switch off analogue and switch over to digital. It presents a huge challenge, but I must say to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), it is worth the trouble. I shall decline his invitation to move the deadline of 2012. We begin switchover in 2008, we will complete it in 2012, and we are embarking on what might best be described as a digital revolution. It is right that we embrace it, there are huge benefits in it for the United Kingdom economy, and as part of the creative industries, which represent 8 per cent. and growing of gross value added, GVA, the digital revolution and switchover will play its part. It would be foolish in the extreme if we were not to take up the challenge. The question is, how do we deliver it?

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). His understanding of these matters is considerable, and that opinion is held in all parts of the House. His assiduous attendance even at engineering conferences and those of aerial installers commands almost incredulity on my part, but none the less, admiration. He suggested that television transformed his life for the first time, then a second time, and that he looks forward to its third transformation with HDTV. I can say only that I think Mrs. Whittingdale might have something to say about that.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Given the considerable economic benefit that the Minister believes will derive from the switchover, does it not reinforce the Committee’s view that the Government should pay for the cost of providing television and receiving equipment for vulnerable groups? It would in effect be a welfare cost or a means-tested benefit, not a broadcasting cost. The economic benefit of switchover to the country and therefore the Exchequer reinforces the case.

Mr. Woodward: If the hon. Gentleman will be so generous as to be patient, he will discover that I shall address that point in the course of addressing the number of points that hon. Members have made during this discussion.

Mr. Whittingdale: The Minister has been very generous in his remarks to me. I can return the
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compliment by telling him that I found the conference of the Confederation of Aerial Industries extremely valuable, so I have encouraged the confederation to invite him next year.

Mr. Woodward: I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I heard a rumour that next year’s bonding session of the Conservative party will also be held at the confederation’s conference. I would not want to intrude on that.

One of the critical questions is, why are we undertaking the switchover? I have already mentioned the position of the creative industries in the United Kingdom economy and the role that the digital revolution and digital television play in that, but there is also the specific context of the timing. First, we need to manage the transition. Secondly, more and more people are turning to digital services. The figure for penetration is 75 per cent. of this country—the highest almost anywhere around the globe. Without any Government coercion, as it was almost described this afternoon, people have made a free-market choice to have a digital television. Again, it is important to emphasise that we are not forcing it on people, as 75 per cent. have, without any of the implications of switch-off, voted with their feet and gone out and put themselves into the ambit of digital services either now or in the future.

It is also critically important for all hon. Members to understand—I know that some do, but I want to ensure that everyone does—that in the long term it would not be economically viable for broadcasters to sustain dual transmission costs. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire raised that issue, but it is important to understand that it would be incredibly economically inefficient if we were to demand of the broadcaster that they maintain dual transmission standards.

Another question raised by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and the Chairman of the Select Committee was why we are investing so much in DTT when there are newer, perhaps better, technologies in the offing. At the moment, and for many, television via an aerial remains the cheapest and most convenient option. The Government want to ensure that as far as possible people have a choice of platforms, although we remain platform-neutral. It will be only through switching off the analogue signal that freeview coverage can be extended beyond its current levels.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and others raised questions about aerials. I shall deal with some of those points now. First, Ofcom estimates that only 10 per cent. of outdoor aerials might need to be improved in relation to receiving analogue signals. The actual number of aerials that need to be upgraded for digital might be as low as 2 per cent.

In relation to the important question of aerial contracts and the possible abuse of them as a result of digital switchover, in March the Government launched the registered digital installer scheme to instil in consumers a sense of trust in the advice they are given when they seek help to upgrade their aerials. Already, 250 installers are training for that and another 500 are registered to undertake the training. It is important to add a codicil that the RDI licensing body will have an
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inspectorate that will investigate complaints, and that it has already alerted trading standards officers to remind them of the need to protect consumers in the run-up to digital switchover.

Mr. Moore: I do not expect the Minister to have this information at his fingertips, but would he be able to let us know how many of those registered installers are in the Border television region at the moment and whereabouts they are? It is a vast area, and having access to those people is rather crucial.

Mr. Woodward: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that question, and I shall be coming to it later. He was kind enough to extend an invitation to the region. I shall perhaps disappoint him by telling him that I have already been.

Mr. Moore: To Carlisle.

Mr. Woodward: I came to a conference specifically about some of the issues that were raised about the Border region as the first area for switchover. Many issues were raised and I spoke to a number of people who were involved in training in aerial installation. The numbers are increasing all the time but I am happy to maintain an ongoing correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on the subject, for one simple reason—we have to get it right, and I believe that we will, but it will be through dialogue rather than assumptions on my part or anybody else’s. It will happen. As the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have had genuine issues raised either by their constituents or those in the industry, I extend the open invitation to make it an ongoing dialogue. It is in everybody’s interests that we get this right.

Mr. Moore: I welcome that statement. I do not want to be churlish about the visit that the Minister made to Carlisle. I want to point out, as I have already pointed out to some of the people who organised the conference, that it was hard for people from the Borders and the north-east of England to get to. The information is being fed to him, and I hope that he will have the chance to come back to us at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Woodward: I am sure, Sir John, that you will not want me to delay too long on the subject of invitations. We have nearly two years before switchover, and it is inconceivable that we will not spend time in the constituencies involved. I accept the invitation willingly.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Sadly, the invitation to the aerial installers’ conference was only extended to the Chairman of the Select Committee, so the rest of us ordinary members did not get the opportunity to go along. Clearly, the market has recognised that, like the Select Committee, the Government have made a brave and bold decision, which is very welcome. I am concerned that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), is urging prevarication. Within this ambitious and bold
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timetable, the biggest potential variable in terms of cost is the cost of aerial installation and the potential for abuse. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do all in our power to ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer from cowboy installers?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can only underline the importance of that. It is in nobody’s interest that we see anybody exploited. All hon. Members from all parties would rightly be concerned if vulnerable people, in particular, were exploited. We shall need to confront some issues that are not obvious examples of exploitation. For example, some hon. Members are concerned about the number of retailers that are still selling television sets that are only analogue compliant. Although we have a digital box scheme on hand, we might need some discussions with retailers to oblige them, when they sell a television set, to advise people—or if it is being sold online, to oblige retailers to use a pop-up—that the equipment they are buying will require further modification and incur further expense either for them or, if they fall under the Government’s targeted assistance scheme, for the Government.

We need to consider a number of issues to prevent not merely exploitation but people making genuine mistakes. By working through self-regulation rather than Government intervention, we can, I hope, get the outcome that we all want. It is important for all hon. Members to note that the Government will come down strongly on the side of protecting consumers and the most vulnerable.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. Indeed, I posed a question during one of our hearings about the number of analogue TVs still being sold, particularly approaching Christmas. Is it not the case that his discussions with the industry should not only include the winding-down of the sales of the remaining analogue televisions, but encourage them to sell high-definition televisions as the norm? The more are produced, the cheaper the cost will be. We have already noticed a big reduction in the initial costs of those TVs.

Mr. Woodward: I recently got into trouble with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire in an Opposition debate for speaking at length. When I went back through the Hansard report, I found that I took 31 interventions, most from Conservative Members. I foolishly chose to reply to them in the way that I thought the House would want. I am conscious that if I reply to every comment about high-definition television, the hon. Gentleman will be at me once again.

Mr. Moss: No; do feel free.

Mr. Woodward: I shall try to resist that one.

Hon. Members raised the question of residences of multiple occupation. That is an important point, which was rightly raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee and by the Committee. Landlords have
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been upgrading communal television aerial systems since the launch of digital television in 1998. By 2004, NOP estimates were that about one third of the systems had been upgraded. None the less, progress is not quick enough. It needs to move more quickly and we are in discussion with the industry. With Digital UK, we have recently appointed Ross Fraser, chief executive of HouseMark, which was established by the National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing, to chair a group of housing stakeholders to help advise Digital UK and the Government on how best to reach all landlords in both the private and social sectors.

Progress is an issue and will continue to be in some constituencies more than others. Although we will not begin the switchover programme for two years, constituencies will face the problem within the next two years and that must be addressed. I hope that Ross Fraser will help lead us through the problem, but the Government are already aware of it and acting to resolve it.

Hon. Members asked about the 1.5 per cent. of people who will not be able to receive DTT—another important issue. I remind the House that at the moment 1.5 per cent. of people cannot receive television pictures, although it has been pointed out that getting a poor picture on analogue is different from a poor picture on digital if it simply does not exist. We are aware of that, as are Ofcom and Digital UK. We are trying, as far as we can, to identify those households that may be affected. I say “may” because we are still in a speculative period, but for those hon. Members whose constituencies face switchover in two years, time is now moving quickly. I assure them that they are the focus of our attention, and that we will be addressing the problem. However, as I say, it is an ongoing dialogue, and we take the problem extremely seriously.

Mr. Whittingdale: Before the Minister leaves that point, will he assure me that he is also considering another group of people, whose existence was brought to my attention by the aerial industry—those remote communities that can receive television only because they have installed small, local relay transmitters? They are not part of the 1,154 transmitter network. I understand that it is not clear exactly where they are. Are the Government working to identify them, and will they then provide the help needed to convert those relays?

Mr. Woodward: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to self-help transmitters—

Mr. Whittingdale: Yes.

Mr. Woodward: I can tell him that there are 330 of them, and that Ofcom is looking into the situation. I hope, Sir John, that my answer impressed the hon. Gentleman. It shocked me.

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