Previous Section Index Home Page

To some that read almost like blackmail. It sounded as though the BBC was saying, “Unless we get the sum we’ve asked for, we’re not going to give you switchover.”

The Secretary of State earlier was very robust in the other area where the BBC had made threatening noises—the proposed move to Manchester. I welcome the fact that she has essentially told it that it is going to move, like it or not. However, she rightly said that although the BBC will pay the switchover costs—as I say, I do not agree with that, but I accept that it is the Government’s decision—that funding will be fully transparent and will be ring-fenced. That ring-fencing will mean that the BBC will be given the necessary money, and so cannot say, “Switchover prevents us from doing other things, because we’ve not had our full settlement.” I hope that when people pay their licence fee, it will clearly be identified that a particular element of it is to be used to meet the switchover cost.

18 Dec 2006 : Column 1210

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): What happens if the director-general of the BBC is right, and switchover costs the BBC more than the £600 million that has been ring-fenced?

Mr. Whittingdale: If the BBC can demonstrate that the assistance package will cost more than it was told it would, it is entitled to expect the ring-fenced sum to be increased to take account of that, but one rather hopes that we are speaking of hypotheticals, as £600 million seems a huge amount as it is. As I was saying, I hope that the system will be fully transparent, and the same point was made by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. The system needs to be clear, so that licence-fee payers can see precisely how much of their licence fee payment will go towards paying for digital switchover, and how much will go towards paying for the BBC.

The measures in the Bill are necessary because when the Government drew up the assistance package, they chose to make it a targeted scheme. Clearly, in a targeted scheme, the first thing that must be done is to identify the target. The United States of America decided to put aside $1.5 billion to give coupons to pay for set-top boxes to all households that will lose analogue signal as a result of switchover. Before the Minister rushes off to say that I am proposing additional expenditure, I should say that I am not. I do not necessarily suggest that we follow the example of the USA. However, the Government’s choice of a targeted scheme, and particularly a means-tested one, inevitably creates problems, the first of which relates to take-up. Let us first consider those who qualify for assistance because they are disabled. The Government propose to identify them by identifying those who receive disability living allowance, or attendance allowance, but as the Minister will know, part of the problem is that not all disabled people claim those benefits; there is still a problem of under-claiming. If people fail to claim their disability benefit, they will not be identified as requiring help under the assistance package.

The same problem will arise for those who are over 75 and on means-tested benefits. Such people will qualify for free, rather than assisted, conversion but, again, not all pensioners take advantage of all the means-tested benefits for which they are eligible. Those people, too, will be difficult to reach, as they will not be in receipt of benefits and so cannot be identified through the social security system.

When the Select Committee considered the targeted assistance package, we had concerns about not only the groups that the Government identified, but groups outside those categories that would be in genuine need. I come back to the concern expressed by the Ofcom consumer panel about those who are socially isolated. Such people may not have family or friends who are readily available to give them advice about what the whole process entails, and to show them how to switch the box on, plug it in and tune it, and meet all the other requirements. They will be quite frightened, as they will keep being told that the date is looming ever closer, and they will find it difficult to know where to go to receive help. That is why it is vital that we mobilise the whole voluntary sector to provide help. I know that Digital UK is already in talks with groups such as Help the Aged, Age Concern, and the WRVS. In many
18 Dec 2006 : Column 1211
constituencies, including mine, the WRVS delivers meals on wheels, and it would be ideally placed to provide advice while it did so. It is essential that we mobilise a large number of people, and I am slightly concerned that not enough attention has yet been paid to that issue.

I echo the worries about the delay in providing details about the assistance package. That raises concerns about whether the details will be ready in time for the beginning of switchover. The concern was expressed that they might not be ready in time for the borders region, and obviously, there is even greater concern that the details about the assistance will not be in time for Whitehaven, where switch-off will take place in less than a year’s time. I hope that the Minister can provide reassurances that all those faced with switchover will be told about their eligibility for assistance in good time.

As I say, I commend the Government on deciding to proceed with switchover. I was a sceptic to begin with—I foresaw a huge number of problems, and I still foresee some, but we are now at a point when switchover clearly makes sense. It would be easy for the Government to say, “Let’s just do nothing; let’s leave it for other countries to go first,” but they decided to take a risk. I do not want to depress the Minister, but the speed at which technology is advancing means that before too long, digital terrestrial television, too, may be seen as a somewhat old-fashioned technology. We are experiencing the beginnings of the launch of internet protocol television, and before too long, people may increasingly choose to get their television down wires. That will give them much greater ability to set their own schedules and access video on demand.

Satellite already offers high definition television. Whether or not it is decided to make HDTV available on the digital terrestrial platform, it is unlikely that there will ever be sufficient spectrum available on DTT to match the kind of HDTV offerings that will be available on satellite; there could only be a small number of such channels on DTT. People who want access to more choice and better quality services may in time migrate from DTT to IPT, satellite, cable or some other offering, and before too long, we could well be returning to the Chamber to debate the switch-off of the digital terrestrial signal. However, that is still a little way off. I hope that everything will proceed smoothly, and I hope that the Select Committee’s recommendations have contributed towards achieving that aim. Switchover is in the national interest, but the Minister does not need me to tell him that there is a considerable political risk, if it goes wrong.

6.47 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): If the Minister will allow it, I shall make a few points about some speeches that have been made, because it is important that points made are answered or at least discussed. I shall say at the outset that I agree with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) about the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), whose remarks were very negative. He did not contribute to a debate,
18 Dec 2006 : Column 1212
but asked a group of questions to which he obviously already had answers, although he hoped that he might hear something different from what he had in his brief. He did not make a positive contribution, and that is sad, because this important piece of legislation will affect every person in the nation, and should therefore be treated with a certain amount of respect. Questions may be asked, and we expect the Opposition to do that, but certainly not in the way that he did.

The hon. Gentleman reminded me of Private Frazer in “Dad’s Army”—his attitude was “We’re doomed,” and that was before we even got started. He also reminded me of the pushmi-pullyu in “Doctor Dolittle”, which did not know which way to go. It seemed to be saying: “I didn’t like what was said, I’ve got all these horrible questions, and I don’t agree with anything you’re going to tell me, but I’ll support the Bill, just in case it turns out to be a good thing—then, I’ll have done my bit by supporting it.”

Other speakers have mentioned a sunset clause. I would not object to that, although it is probably a waste of time because once we are fully digitalised, the Bill will disappear. However, can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that before we dispense with the Bill, or before the sunset clause takes effect if we introduce it, we will ensure that every single person has had the opportunity to receive digital television or a digital connection in some form, so that those who are the least well off and those who need help, as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) mentioned, are looked after? Once that is achieved, it might be right to dispense with the Bill.

As chair of the all-party communications group, I feel it is important that when we discuss communications, we do so from a broad perspective and have a genuine debate. Digitalisation will be a fantastic opportunity for many people. They will have access to programmes that they have never had before, and they will have quality that they have never been able to get from terrestrial TV. It will bring much happiness to many people for whom television is not just an entertainment box in the corner, but a necessity of life and one of the few things that bring them pleasure.

We heard earlier that 18 million people receive multi-channel TV in the UK. It comes from various sources—Sky, free satellite, freeview and cable. The take-up of digital over the past year has grown to just over half—52 per cent. of television equipment sold—but 25 per cent. of homes cannot receive digital through their current aerial, and many still cannot get Five. I was at the Scottish Labour party conference a few weeks ago, and I was somewhat shocked to find that I could not get Five in Oban, which I did not think was in the backwoods in the middle of beyond. If there is inadequate reception in parts of Scotland, the problem must be dealt with.

Switchover is scheduled to take place in 2012. If that date was missed by a year or two, it would not matter to me personally. It is more important that it is done properly. Hon. Members have spoken about the time scale. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, thought digital switchover should have happened years
18 Dec 2006 : Column 1213
ago, although perhaps not in the way that we are doing it. Conservative Members thought we were being too hasty, so we have probably got it just about right.

I shall concentrate the main part of my contribution on those who need the most help. People who have disabilities, the elderly and people on low incomes enjoy television. I have spoken on many occasions about the elderly population in my constituency, Glasgow North-West, which used to be the old Garscadden constituency, for hon. Members who remember when my predecessor, Donald Dewar, was its Member of Parliament. If one drew a circle of about 2 miles radius round the Knightswood, Yoker and Scotstoun areas, it would mark the area with the densest concentration of elderly people anywhere in Europe—about 17,000 people over the age of 60, which I will reach in another six years. The elderly form a significant percentage of my constituents, and I would be a fool not to recognise their needs and try to help them. That is one target group which may suffer if things go wrong.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman speaks about people over 60. People do not have to be over 60 to require their nephews or nieces to come and get their video recorder to work because they cannot quite work out which buttons to press and in what sequence. One of the difficulties with the digibox is that one can end up with two remote controls, and if one presses the wrong button on one remote, it disables the whole process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the industry should press forward and that, before the switchover, households—especially those that he is describing—could be provided with one remote control which is more foolproof, so that people do not inadvertently turn off the television and end up frustrated rather than overjoyed by the super new picture that they ought to be able to see?

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I know him well and I understand his point. The scenario that he describes applies to many people, including myself at times, when I pick up the remote control. In my previous life I was a telephone engineer. One of the phones that we brought out to help people who had arthritis—the kind of person whom the hon. Gentleman describes, who have difficulty pressing the buttons—was a phone called Big Button. It was a rather large phone with buttons about an inch square and, yes, it worked. If one brought out a remote control with all the available facilities and features on it, it would be a big button remote control about the size of the Chamber. It is a problem.

Having visited my local college, Anniesland college, which produces many IT programmes, I was surprised—maybe I should not have been—to learn that the largest attendance at IT courses consisted of people who were, shall we say, retired. Perhaps it is a little patronising to think that the elderly cannot handle a remote control. Nevertheless, I recognise that there are people—not just the elderly, but people with mental difficulties and others who may slip through the net—who need help, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not to overlook them.

As hon. Members have said, Digital UK and other organisations will do their bit to help, but Members of
18 Dec 2006 : Column 1214
Parliament can also play an important part in the changeover. We know where those people live and we have contact with the various social work departments and with carer groups, who do not get paid for what they do but look after the kind of person whom we want to ensure is looked after.

We have heard the good news about BBC2 being switched off first to flag up the fact that switchover will take place in a week. A week’s notice is too short. People may not know about switchover until they phone up to complain that BBC2 has disappeared from their television. Elderly people go away on holiday and to visit relatives, and they do so at all times of the year, not just in the summer. A couple of months’ notice might be nearer the mark.

It is important that we go ahead. The service will be vastly superior to what people currently have. The information that they receive will also be better, and the huge number of programmes will entertain them. But there will still be problems. As I said, I was a telephone engineer. I worked for BT, which is not loved by most people, but one thing that BT had was great ideas. Its problem with marketing was getting the new products into the marketplace for people to buy. Everybody wanted the new products, such as mobiles and pagers, but they could not get them. The demand could not be met. Everybody wanted the new phones, they were a great idea, but there was a waiting list of years. 3G was a shining example. People thought that it was a great idea, but the question was whether to create the system or make the terminals that people needed to access it. I have a great fear that one of the main problems that we will face will be outwith our control, and that will be manufacturing. If we are lucky enough to design something to help the elderly in the way that the hon. Gentleman described and we devise a big button for the remote control, we may not be able to manufacture it and meet the demand, and that is something that we need to consider.

I appreciate that the companies have money to make, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the point that it is important that people are informed. However, that is not happening today. Shops have a vast amount of televisions and they are desperate to get rid of their old stock. They do not want to be lumbered with it when the new digital stuff comes in, so they offer people deals that seem unbelievable, but at the end of the day, they will have to buy a digital box to go with it and they are not told that. They are not told that when Scotland switches over in 2010 those televisions will be useless without another piece of equipment. Then they take out a five-year guarantee to maintain their new television. Why? So that they can look at snow in the corner? We must put pressure on the Comets, Currys and Dixons; all those shops that are desperate to get rid of old stock before the new stock comes in.

I do not have the problem about data sharing that some people have. I appreciate that sharing data could be used in the wrong way, but I am much more concerned about the people who really need the service that we are debating today not getting it. For years when we have debated law and order we have talked about rehabilitation and how to put matters right, but we have seldom talked about the victim. I see the elderly, the less well off, the mentally handicapped—
18 Dec 2006 : Column 1215
those who need the service—as the victims here, or the possible victims, and it is up to us to ensure that that does not happen. Therefore, data sharing is important, and I commend the Government for realising that.

It is said that switchover will be better for people with hearing problems, but many elderly people use subtitles, and with digital there will be only one size, whereas before, the size could be increased. That is not fair. According to Sense, a UK deaf-blind charity, there are about 23,000 deaf-blind people in the UK, and if the problem is not addressed, they will lose out on switchover. Set against the 58.8 million people in the country, that might not seem like many people, but it means a lot to them, and we should do something to help them. It is for the companies to consider the service that they give to such people. It is not good enough if Ofcom, which sets the standards, does not act if manufacturers or broadcasters say that that is the way it is. We must tell Ofcom to set the standards. If we cannot do that, we must look again at the communications legislation and ensure that people have the service that they deserve. I want my hon. Friend the Minister to assure me that he will ensure that those 23,000 people are looked after.

I also want to draw attention to the electronic programme guides. Those who already have digital television and watch Sky or cable programmes will be familiar with those. One can scroll up and down the pages and see what is available. That is easy for someone with good vision, but not for those who are partially sighted. How do such people know the number of a television channel or what programme is available in order to share in this wonderful new digital experience? The really fortunate may have been given satellite television by their children and with the changeover they will have hundreds of channels but they will not be able to access them. The manufacturers must think about how to increase the size of such pages so that the partially sighted can use them.

I have been active in communication debates for quite a while, and I served on the Communications Bill Committee, although after 39 sittings I just about gave up the will to live, as I think I said on Third Reading. It was a long Bill, but it covered many aspects. Reference has been made to spectrum, and I was given some guarantees that it did not matter how spectrum grew or what happened to it with new technology, it would always be governed by the Communications Act 2003. But those of us who were brought up on communications knew that technology just runs away. Some said that digital would be out of date by the time it was introduced. We must seriously consider manufacturing and how Ofcom can, for example, help to promote the design of the pages to which I have just referred, and ensure that the necessary legislation is put in place. We are not asking that to get anyone into trouble; we want only to ensure that the guidelines are there. If we put them in place, the companies will have to follow them and Ofcom will not have a lot of work to do.

Ofcom requires broadcasters to transmit audio description on a percentage of their output, and can impose sanctions on those who fail to comply. However, it has no power to ensure that manufacturers
18 Dec 2006 : Column 1216
put the facility to receive audio description into the set-top boxes. In fact, the only box that has the facility is the Netgem box, and that is about to be taken off the market. I referred earlier to the importance of equipment, and that is an example of equipment that works being got rid of without any thought of replacing it.

I want to be a little parochial and talk about Scotland. An independent report commissioned recently by the Scottish technology group, MGT, shows that four out of five Scots do not know when the analogue switch-off will take place in their region. The survey of more than 1,000 consumers revealed that 56 per cent. of Scots do not understand what is involved in the switchover process. Digital UK is making progress in informing the public, as has been said, and it is hoped that by 2012 it will work. In 2012 we will have the biggest sporting event that this nation has ever had. We have had the Olympics before and the World cup, but we have never had anything the size of the 2012 Olympics. How ironic it would be if the British people could not see the Olympics on their digital televisions. We have set ourselves a target, and 2012 is probably a good one, but we must meet it.

I have probably ranted enough, so I simply say that this is an important Bill. The Government are right to be acting now. Whether it is late or early does not matter, but I believe that this is the right time. A lot of people out there have not been getting the service from the television companies that they should have been getting. I believe that the Government will do a good job and I am sure that every hon. Member will ensure that they do.

Next Section Index Home Page