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Freeview is extremely limited in my constituency. Living north of the border, people are keen to retain BBC 1 Scotland, but anyone who has freeview at the moment is actually picking up the signal from Cumbria, and as a result they do not get BBC 1 Scotland. I am assured that the engineering technology will improve as time progresses, and as some of the wavebands being used by analogue signals are freed up.
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Even though it is not achievable today, when the time comes, there will be a vast difference and freeview will be available to households and communities where it does not exist at the moment. So for those who have a poor service at the moment, the prospects are definitely rosy.

I commend Digital UK for all its work. It has been on the ground now for many months, working hard—a small team, led by one man. He and his team are finding it difficult to get around because the Border television region is vast. They are working well, along with charities, to assist in disseminating information to the wider public.

In the summer of 2004, I and Lord Cunningham, the then Member for Copeland, went to meet Lord McIntosh, who was then the Minister responsible. Both Lord Cunningham and I were somewhat anxious about the Border television area being first in the switchover. My anxiety was due simply to the fact that my constituency is a low-wage economy, so I was concerned about what the costs would be for households. We asked Lord McIntosh what support might be given, and I am delighted that the financial assistance that he appeared to indicate more than two years ago is being discussed today in relation to this Bill. It should help the most vulnerable households in our communities.

In recent months, the costs to households have been highly exaggerated. There have been reports in my local press of exaggerated costs of £700, £800 or £900 per household. That does no one any good. It merely opens the way for cowboy operators to knock on the doors of vulnerable people, especially the elderly, and to offer them a half-price package, there and then. For what? For absolutely nothing. Such operators cannot deliver anything. Whenever I can, I try to put the word out to constituents that while we are only a couple of years away from switchover, they need not rush into anything at present.

The elderly are vulnerable, but not only to cowboys. When mailshots arrived from Digital UK back in May, Sky soon followed with a mailshot to households that were not subscribers. Again, people were offered an introductory package for a cut price. People did sign up, and they will have digital TV when the switchover comes, and they have it now. People seize such opportunities. It is important that all Members encourage people not to buy any new equipment that might not be compatible when switchover happens. The clear message is that people should only use reputable companies; they should not be conned by others who might be offering a deal that is worthless.

Another big issue relates to estates where local authorities or registered social landlords have operated systems with communal aerials. Who will be responsible for all that? The Secretary of State has indicated today that more work needs to be done on that. Within the past two years, however, the biggest registered social landlord in Dumfries and Galloway has written to every tenant and has basically said, “When your current communal aerial breaks down, we will no longer be responsible.” Even now, therefore, households are under pressure to do something. Those tenants, who were previously tenants of a local authority, have been abandoned by their current landlord.

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Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, as did the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). It is not just a question of the aerial possibly not being sensitive enough to pick up digital signals; it is a question of the distribution amplifiers in blocks of flats. The older designs cannot transmit a digital signal, so the entire system would have to be stripped from some blocks. As the hon. Gentleman rightly asks, who will pay for that?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is correct. There are technical difficulties in all this, which are way beyond my knowledge and beyond even what I expect to learn from the whole process. Once we start considering blocks of flats and communal aerials, various issues arise. In my area a landlord has already abandoned tenants, and had done so even before the decision that the Border television region would be the first to go digital. That is not on.

Mr. Martlew: If it were not for the Solway my hon. Friend and I would be neighbours, and we share the Border television area. Does he agree with me that it would be a crime if the Border area was broken up after the switch from analogue to digital? If that happened, his constituency would be in the Scottish television area and mine would be in the Granada area.

Mr. Brown: I agree with my hon. Friend and—were it not for that stretch of water—near neighbour. He and I are of one mind. Border is dear to our hearts, as I suspect it is to those of all Members, including the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), whose constituency is on the Scottish border. It is unique. Our great fear is that Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish border areas will end up with STV and Cumbria will end up with Granada, and we may not receive the unique coverage that we have had for so long with a much more local base. It is ironic that digital switchover brings the opportunity for much more region-based television, yet there is always the sense, lurking at the back of our minds, that it will bring something else that we never expected but of which we have always been wary in the past.

Mr. Moore: I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) that there is cross-party support for Border. None of us would want a split, with what we have now going either to Glasgow or further south to Manchester. However, apart from regional news coverage, which is split between Scotland and England and involves all sorts of technical achievements, one of Border’s great strengths has been its regional programming. A major concern is that regional programming will be increasingly marginalised as a result of this process.

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right. Other Members will probably be astonished to learn that the 30-minute news bulletin that will be shown on Border at six o’clock this evening has a greater viewing capacity than any other region-wide news service. It is far superior to all the rest.

I shall end by mentioning a couple of matters, one of which has been mentioned already. It relates to the sharing of information and the issue of a sunset clause. I heard what the Secretary of State said, and I sincerely
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hope that in Committee, consideration will be given to a measure in the Bill. Once a region has undergone the switchover, it makes sense for the information that has been held to be dealt with appropriately at the time.

That relates to the end of the process. I also want to ask the Minister about the introduction of financial support. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk mentioned retrospective payment. I do not think that that will be possible, but people need to know when financial assistance will be available so that they can have the enhanced service that digital switchover will provide for them. They need to know that vulnerable households will have the choice that means so much to so many people, without it being a financial burden on them. I support the Bill, and I hope that it will be passed on to the Committee stage without us needing to have a Division this evening.

5.35 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The Bill is a narrow part of the much wider digital switchover process. The Liberal Democrats welcome the principle of the Bill and the benefits that switchover will bring, such as extra choice of television channels and programmes, enhanced reception quality and a more efficient allocation of the spectrum. Digital is already popular with the citizens of the United Kingdom. Up to 75 per cent. of households have already converted at least one TV to digital—whereas in Australia, for example, which has a similar theoretical timetable for switchover, only 29 per cent. of households have voluntary switched so far.

It is agreed—by the panel that advises the Government, for example—that contacting people directly using the information provided for in the Bill is the best way to avoid there being a lengthy process involving people making claims and proving their eligibility. It will also help to minimise the problem, which some Members have referred to, of rogue traders trying to exploit the process to con vulnerable people during switchover.

However, although we support the principle behind the Bill, the whole process is late, vague and offers the Government a blank cheque to impose costs on licence fee payers. It also offers the Government carte blanche to change key parts of the process more or less at will after the Bill has been enacted. It imposes a reverse burden of proof, in direct contradiction of the standards of British criminal law. The technical specifications for the equipment to be used are as yet unknown, and organisations representing the elderly and the disabled fear that many people will be excluded from receiving help because of the provisions and the lesser-known detail behind them about who will be helped.

The Bill and the process of which it is a part are late. Switchover is one of the biggest Government projects of its kind. In an earlier Westminster Hall debate reference was made to the British Gas switchover when North sea gas came on-stream, which I just remember as I was a young child at the time, and this is probably the second biggest such experiment—yet the Government have shown little leadership and progress has so far been extremely slow.

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Switchover was first discussed in 1999—almost eight years ago. Why has it taken until now for this essential scheme to be put in place? Why are so few details about it available when it needs to be put in place very quickly? Will there be time to implement the scheme properly before switchover starts in the borders in 2008? That question is especially relevant as the Bill is fairly poorly defined and so many details about how the process will work in practice have not yet been produced—or even discussed, possibly.

As an aside, let me give one small example of the frustration that is being felt by people around the country about the lack of information on how the process will work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has raised that point. He represents a large rural community where there is a village called Elsdon, which is in a valley. At present, with the analogue signals, its inhabitants cannot get signals from either one of two possible transmitters, so they have clubbed together and put an aerial up on a hillside and they run relays down to the houses so that they get their signal.

What will happen when digital switchover occurs? Presumably, the analogue aerial and the relays that they have put in will be redundant and there will not be a direct digital replacement. Will they be compensated for that? When inquiring of the Government what will happen, they have been able to get only one piece of information—it has been suggested, “Well, you can always get a Sky dish.” However, many people who live in rural areas live in national parks and they might be told by the park authorities that they cannot do that. The situation in Elsdon is just one small example, but similar situations affect a considerable number of people in villages across the country, and they do not know what will happen. The people of Elsdon have made provision for themselves under the analogue system, but they do not know what the outcome will be after switchover.

The Whitehaven scheme has been referred to. Because of the time scale that it will have to begin under, inevitably it will have to use existing technology, rather than the specified technology that will result from Government specification for the main part of the switchover. Presumably, it will also use a different support scheme from that which will be developed for the majority of the switchovers. So, although we have had two small pilots, there will be no large trial run, which Whitehaven could have been, because the procedure and equipment will differ from that applying to the main switchover. Surely the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could have started this process much earlier, given that the switchover plans have been discussed for some six, seven or eight years.

The details provided in the Bill and in other aspects of the switchover are vague. Although the Bill is purely about sharing information, rather than the switchover itself, it needs to specify more clearly exactly who is and is not going to receive help. In September 2005, the Department of Trade and Industry’s digital television website suggested some of the groups that the support scheme would help. A Government answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggested that up to 7 million UK households might qualify—25 per cent. of the total number of UK households. Why, therefore, a year later, are the details not included in this Bill?

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For example, what exactly is defined as a severe disability, and which disabilities will be excluded? Disability bodies have written to me—I presume that they have written to all Members present—pointing out that 30 per cent. of blind and partially sighted people who could benefit from the scheme will not be identified by the Department for Work and Pensions database, to which the Bill refers. On the other hand, if provision were made for data sharing with local government, many of the 30 per cent. who would otherwise be missed could be picked up. Similarly, representations have been made to the effect that allowing certificates of visual impairment as a passport into the scheme would solve a lot of problems, because many who get that certificate do not then use it as a way to qualify for registration on the DWP database. We understand that the Disability Rights Commission has discussed this issue privately with the Department and that it has been reassured that it will be looked at favourably; however, the Bill says nothing about it. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to reassure us on it at the end of the debate.

Without knowing whom the Bill will help, we do not know exactly what data we will be agreeing to disclose when the Bill passes through Parliament, or exactly whom we are agreeing should receive such help. If such details are to be dealt with through a statutory instrument, a draft of it should be available to us before the Bill is considered in Committee in January. How can we be sure that the Bill will cover all those who should receive help? Will women’s refuges, residential care homes, households receiving money through the Child Support Agency and all disabled people be included? We understand that, in fact, only the severely disabled will be included, but the question then arises of how we define that category. Will all vulnerable elderly people under the age of 75 be included, as well as all elderly people over 75 who are not claiming benefits? Will socially isolated people be included, especially those with low literacy levels? We do not know the details of who will or will not be included.

Will there be different levels of help, and will all help be means-tested? If a person who qualifies has already switched their equipment, will they be able to claim back their outlay? We understand not, but it has been suggested that although they cannot claim back the outlay on switching one TV in their home, they might be entitled to have a second set switched and also to advice on using the new equipment. I am not sure, but I thought that the Secretary of State said earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) that that would not be the case. Again, some clarification at the end of the debate would be very welcome to a lot of people, because potentially this issue will affect many.

Although the Ofcom digital switchover tracking survey uses a sample of only just over 8,000 people and might not therefore be typical—moreover, conducting such a survey might well have raised those people’s awareness of this issue in the first place—it showed that 86 per cent. of people on disability living allowance or attendance allowance have already paid to convert the primary TV set in their home. By way of comparison, only 39 per cent. of those aged over 75 have done so, so a considerable number of the Bill’s target audience—especially among disabled people, who tend to be more
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housebound and reliant on the TV for aspects of their social life—have already paid for conversion. Many people are interested to know whether they are excluded from any further Government help, or whether they can get further help under the scheme.

I turn to an issue that has already been touched on. What are the Government doing to inform people who could benefit from the scheme that, if they wait until they switch, they will get help, whereas if they go ahead now they might not get any support.

Richard Younger-Ross: Is not one of the difficulties with forcing everyone to wait to receive help at the same time that it will create a logjam, which will make it easier for the cowboys to exploit the situation and rip off some of those very vulnerable people?

Paul Holmes: The delay will cause that problem, and it is also doubtful whether enough people will have been trained to make the aerial alterations and deal with the other ramifications of switchover.

As we have heard from several hon. Members, the BBC has been told to pay the as yet unknown costs of switchover out of the licence fee, but many people believe that general taxation should be used to fund the scheme and its marketing, because it is basically an aspect of Government social policy. The Chancellor will also make considerable sums from selling off the freed-up analogue airwaves. That suggestion is supported by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report and the equivalent Committee in the other place. The licence fee is a regressive tax—like a poll tax or other flat tax—which will take the money to help the most needy disproportionately from the poorest. That is not a logical way to proceed.

The BBC licence fee settlement has not yet been announced. How can Parliament agree to put an undefined burden of costs on the BBC when we do not even know what its budget will be? The costs of the scheme may be enormous, and various figures have been suggested. However, if the 7 million households figure is correct—it is from a parliamentary answer—and the BBC has to pay for the lot, programming quality could suffer and plans for the move to Manchester and the expansion of various services could be under threat. We were assured by the Secretary of State that the move to Manchester will go ahead, so what other services will suffer, given the enormous cost that the BBC might have to meet out of whatever licence fee settlement it gets?

Michael Fabricant: While we want to see the most vulnerable given the opportunity to go digital as the Bill describes, will it not also provide a disincentive to going digital now, because people will be able to get it for free if they wait?

Paul Holmes: There is a possible disincentive, but the Ofcom tracking survey suggests that many people from the very groups that the Bill would assist are already going digital. That disincentive could also contribute to the logjam if too many people want to be changed over in too short a space of time.

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