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The economic benefits are also clear. The regulatory impact assessment completed in September last year described a boost to the UK economy as a whole of some £1.7 billion as a consequence of digital switchover. There are also advantages to broadcasters in not having to continue investing in outdated analogue technology and ending wasteful simulcasting in analogue and digital. Making best use of any newly available spectrum is clearly critical and Ofcom will
tomorrow begin a consultation to ensure we get the very best out of what is called the digital dividend.
Many households in Britain do not need persuading of the case to switch, as they are already choosing the benefits of digital, but because switchover needs to happen everywhere if all are to benefit, Digital UK is leading a major information campaign to ensure that, across the country, people know what is happening, what they need to do and when they need to do it. We should not, however, underestimate the scale of the challenge, which is comparable to conversion to North sea gas or decimalisation. It is a process that requires proper planning and co-ordination. Broadcasters, transmission companies, the Government, Members of the House, Ofcom, and, of course, individuals and families, all have a part to play. We have to mobilise a whole network of information and support right across the country.
Digital UK, for example, is working closely with the major charities and is soliciting their support both in communicating the switchover message and in providing practical help and advice. Hon. Members may already have seen the adverts starring a little robot, Digit Al. Between now and switchover, Digital UK will be communicating with every single TV-viewing household in the country to ensure that they are prepared for change. Now is a particularly important time, because a large number of new televisions and other digital equipment are bought at Christmas.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Secretary of State is quite right to point out how successful this country has been in ensuring that digital television already has a huge percentage of digital homes. Much of it is due to the BBC. The BBC is, on the whole, the largest funder of Digital UK and also, in the sense of the licence payer, responsible for funding digital set-top boxes in some extreme cases, so does not the Secretary of State fear, as I do, that because only a limited amount of licence fee is available, it will affect the quality of programming broadcast on analogue and digital terrestrial channels?
Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman has studied the matter over many years and makes an important point. We have to ensure, of course, that the BBC is in existence principally as a broadcaster and BBC support derives from public enthusiasm for programming, so we have to get the balance right. It is worth drawing the Houses attention to the fact that, as a result of growth in the number of households, the BBC secured increased income over this licence fee period of some £600 million.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):
The Secretary of State has already made half of my argument about the enormous injustice faced by a lot ofno, allmy constituents and many others who have no opportunity to get freeview, do not receive a digital radio service and have no prospect of doing so. When digital switchover happens, it looks as though the freeview
service available in constituencies such as mine will be only a second-rate one. Is it not an injustice that we must end if we are really to talk meaningfully about universal access?
Tessa Jowell: Half the channels is absolutely right, but part of the success of freeview has been precisely because there are people out in the country who would love to have 30 channels but do not necessarily want 500 channels. That is part of the reason for freeviews great success. It has found a very large gap in the market.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): The Secretary of State mentioned the conversion to North sea gas and I am old enough to remember it, but the difference is that that was a free service. I know that digital now has about 70 per cent. penetration into peoples homes, but the vast majority have both digital and analogue, so switchover will have its costs for many. My specific point is about blocks of flats in private ownership for which the landlord needs to change the aerial. Is there going to be any legislation to enable that to happen?
Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In fact, progress is being made and public sector landlords of houses in multiple occupation are paying attention to the issue. We estimate that about 60 per cent. of the houses in multiple occupation are in the public sector, with a smaller proportion in the private sector. The public sector is making good progress and Digital UK will be working with local authorities and other bodies to ensure that the tenants and residents of privately owned houses in multiple occupation are not left behind. I do not underestimate the challenge of that, and I know that my hon. Friend does not either. We will obviously want to keep this issue under review.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Secretary of State is making a very important point, but she has appeared to elide the issue of high-definition television. If terrestrial television is to be made available in high definition, some bandwidth will have to be made available to the BBC and existing terrestrial television networks. Does she agree that it would be intolerable to ask people to pay a BBC TV licence fee and then not be able to receive high-definition terrestrial TV pictures, especially for the 2012 Olympics?
I do not accept the hon. Ladys conclusion. She will know that Ofcom will publish tomorrow the first stage of its digital dividend review and it will seek to answer some of these complex questions. Those questions also fit with decisions that will be taken about the disposal of spectrum and the opportunities that should be given to the widest range of interestsmobile phone companies as well as the
public service and other broadcastersto improve the service to their viewers through the acquisition of more spectrum.
Frankly, it is too early for me to come to the Dispatch Box to give any kind of categorical assurance about how spectrum will be used, but we all know about the enormous consumer demand for high-definition TV. However, high definition is already responding with technologies that improve the levels of compression and therefore the efficiency with which the spectrum is used. Therefore, as the hon. Lady will remember from the Communications Act 2003, we need to ensure that we regulate and make decisions on public policy in a way that anticipates the rapid pace of technological advance.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I want to return briefly to the issue of freeview. Given the almost postcode lottery nature of the availability of freeview, are we not seeing the emergence of two different types of constituencies? The first type will have access to all the mediums and forums in the run-up to digital switchover and the second will include constituencies such as mine that will not have that access. What can we do to ensure that people will still be encouraged to take digital conversion when freeview and digital television are not available to them?
Tessa Jowell: The principle of universal access drives this whole policy and, by and large, that also creates for the majority of people in this country a choice of platform. They can choose whether they want freeview, satellite or cable. However, people who live in remote areas or areas where the terrain makes the receipt of a signal very difficult will not have as wide a choice as the majority. None the less, as we translate the policy into reality, we will ensure that everybody is able to get a digital signal and that nobody is shut out of the move to digital when the time comes.
Let me return to the digital tick logoa subject that relates to a number of points that hon. Members were making about Christmas shopping. The logo is a certification mark that identifies products and services that are designed to help consumers through switchover. The results, in terms of increased awareness to date, are impressive. According to Digital UK and Ofcom, awareness of switchover nationally is 70 per cent. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will take some reassurance from that. It is even higher in the areas that will switch the soonest. Borders, the first area to switch, shows an awareness of
digital of 89 per cent. These steps are not being undertaken without a thorough assessment of risk and of the measures needed to mitigate any unforeseen difficulties in a complex project. The process is regularly reviewed by the Office of Government Commerce.
The structure of the proposed help scheme follows consultation with the major charities and is based on evidence drawn from real-time digital trials in Ferryside and Bolton. The trials taught us valuable lessons about the groups that are most likely to have particular difficulty with switchover. These groups are people aged over 75, the blind or partially sighted, and people with other serious disabilities. Members will have no difficulty in appreciating the challenges that people in those circumstances faceparticularly the physical difficulty or, for some, complexity of installing and operating the equipment.
We propose to introduce a help scheme especially for people in those groups. It will provide practical support to help people to select, install and use digital TV equipment. Many people, for example, need help learning to use unfamiliar remote controls and on-screen menus. Under the scheme, each eligible household will be helped to convert one TV set. Provision will be free for the poorest eligible households: those on income support, income-related jobseekers allowance or pension credit. Other eligible households will be expected to pay a modest fee, which we propose should be set at £40, for whatever help and equipment is necessary.
The evidence that we have to date suggests that low income alone is not a particular barrier to digital take-up. Some interesting research was undertaken by Ofcom. It showed that take-up runs at 69 per cent. among poorer groups, as opposed to 73 per cent. among people in higher income brackets. However, the evidence also suggests that digital take-up among the over-75s is much lower than for the rest of the populationat around 42 per cent. That is why we are concentrating our help on those who are most likely to need it.
Mr. Moore: The Secretary of State makes an important case: there are those who will need that support. Given the complexity of modern homes, there is surely a question about whether support for one conversion is sufficient to assist people to change all the different bits of equipment in their household. More immediately, what about peoplein the constituencies represented by many Members in the Chamberwho are already making the conversion? We in the Border Television area will be the first to see conversion in a couple of years time. Will there be any retrospective provisions that will ensure that people who pay up now get help later?
No, there will not be any retrospective provision, because the help scheme is intended to enable people who are not switching of their own volition and choicefor whatever reason, but by and large because they are elderly and do not find the prospect of digital television particularly appealing. It is a highly targeted scheme to guarantee universal access, but it must take account of the point that was made about keeping the cost to the licence fee payer proportionate as far as
possible to the overall need to ensure that nobody is left behind. That is why we are concentrating our help on those who are most likely to need it. We are grateful for the investigations that the Select Committee has undertaken and the debates held in another place, both of which have informed our plans.
Mr. Whittingdale: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State. She says that she has to balance the need to provide assistance to the people who require it with keeping down the cost to the licence fee payer. Can she say how much the targeted assistance scheme will cost?
The help scheme is designed to be platform-neutral so that all households will be entitled to a choice of options for getting their digital TV services. That takes account of several points that hon. Members have made about the difficulty of getting a consistently good signal in especially remote parts of the country. All who qualify will get help towards the cheapest option. If anyone chooses a more expensive option, such as an integrated television or a subscription cable or satellite service, the help scheme will make a contribution to their costs.
As we have said previously, the scheme will be funded through the licence fee and the BBC will help to establish and run it. Universal access is central to the BBCs remit and only digital switchover will ensure that all licence fee payers can receive the BBCs digital services through an aerial. It is thus right that the licence fee is the mechanism used to fund the scheme. In addition, the BBC is a trusted institution that is already playing a leading role in making digital switchover happen.
Hon. Members will be interested in the cost of the scheme and the impact that it could have on other BBC services. Of course, like all such support, the scheme will be demand-led and the precise costs will depend on assumptions that are made about the level of take-up, demographic changes and changes in the demand for benefits that take place over the lifetime of switchover. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the BBC, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury, we have developed a model for calculating costs. Our best estimate at this stage is that the cost of the scheme will fall at around £600 million over the period of switchover. To put that in context, it is worth remembering that over the current licence fee period, the BBC is realising more than £600 million pounds from household growth alone.
As part of the BBCs overall settlement, the money will be ring-fenced to ensure that it cannot be used for purposes other than digital switchover. We will ensure that the costs of the help scheme will not have an impact on the BBCs programme budget. We will also ring-fence the amount of licence fee money that the
BBC will give to Digital UK to fund its marketing and communication activities, which I referred to earlier.
I know that many hon. Members have taken a keen interest in the BBCs proposed move to the north-west of England. I can say this afternoon that it is my expectation that the BBC will make that move. I was pleased to hear the governors last week saying that a move of key BBC departments to Salford would represent value for money for licence fee payers. The Government will ensure that the structure of the licence fee settlement makes it clear that the move to the north-west should happen. More details will be given as part of the announcement on the level of the licence fee that I will make in the new year.
The Bill is enabling legislation in the sense that it will permit social security data to be shared with the administrator of the help scheme so that the scheme can get in touch directly with people entitled to benefit. That will enable the scheme to target individuals and confirm entitlement without the need for people to complete a lengthy and complex claim form. The approach will make the scheme easier to use and should, as a result, improve take-up rates. It will also make the scheme more cost-effective.
This approach reflects our detailed consultations with a consumer expert group, chaired by Leen Petré of the RNIB, and including the RNID, Age Concern, Help the Aged and Sense. The group recognises that digital TV offers many benefits for its clients, not least in improved access services such as audio description. The groups clear view is that the scheme will be more effective if we actively approach those who are eligible. It said:
There should be a clear duty on the government to get in touch with people who are eligible for the targeted assistance scheme
should therefore be given access to central databases to help identify people who would be eligible.
There are certainly precedents: the BBC has had access to social security data since 2000 in order to administer the licence fee scheme for people over 75. In this case, the contractor running the scheme will have access to data only for the purpose of targeting individuals and dealing with eligibility, which takes account of some of the risks referred to by my hon. Friends. There is a range of protections in the Bill and outside to ensure that the information is carefully guarded and used only for the very narrow purpose of supporting the roll-out of the help scheme for digital switchover.
The Bill makes it an offence to disclose such information without lawful authority. The Department for Work and Pensions will need to be satisfied that the arrangements put in place by the BBC and the contractors ensure that social security information is properly safeguarded. Finally, the Bill is, in effect, time limitedafter switchover has been completed, it will cease to have any effect.
The scheme itself will be operated by a third-party organisation working under contract. The tendering process will begin soon to ensure that there is a help scheme in place by the time of the pilot in Whitehaven, Cumbria in October. The precise oversight arrangements for the scheme are still being finalised
between the Government and the BBC and will be published once the licence fee settlement has been finalised.
The Bill will make possible the operation of an effective help scheme, aimed at bringing the benefits of digital broadcasting to some of the most vulnerable in our society, and it will make the process of getting there as smooth and painless as possible. Although it is a modest Bill, it is an important step on the road to establishing countrywide access to digital television services. Switchover is at heart both a matter of fairness and a matter of choice. Like many developments before itthe launch of the BBC and, later, commercial television, colour television, Channel 4, Five, satellite and cableit is another leap forward for UK broadcasting. We are determined that, to ensure that no one is left behind, all have options and the principle of universal access is honoured throughout. The Bill will help us to put that principle into practice, and I commend it to the House.
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