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7.9 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I should start by saying that I love watching television. In fact, the one small factor that made me think twice about standing for Parliament was that that one cannot do as much of that because the hours that we work mean that we often miss a lot of prime-time television.

I grew up in an age when the big issue was whether television was black and white or colour, not whether we had all the wonderful technology that is available today. The Secretary of State said that there is a revolution in choice. I agree, but to some extent it has already taken place. Sky has dramatically changed viewing habits and the potential for TV in the United Kingdom. This is the tail end of the revolution, and the question is what we do next. It is important to free up spectrum space and to try to include less able sections of the community. I welcome the digital switchover help scheme.

I commend the Secretary of State for being brave enough to put a figure on the cost of such a scheme—

Mr. Vaizey: At last.

Mr. Syms: At last, as my hon. Friend says. It is remarkably difficult to cost such a scheme because nobody knows exactly what demands will be made on it. The market may help, in that Sky and other companies will provide all sorts of deals against the timetable to encourage people to do what they want to do anyway. We heard about the BBC trailing series and
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programmes on its existing digital channels. People are given an incentive to keep changing when they see something going on that they are not part of.

There is no doubt that substantial costs will be involved. For people who live in more sparsely populated areas where freeview is not an option, Sky may be the only option, and it is a fairly expensive one. Even if they are given help with capital costs, they are left with a substantial sum to find—and they have to pay the licence fee on top of that. For many people, the running costs of their TV will go up substantially. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) mentioned overall costs. Many people who will not get help will have to expend sums of money to maintain something that they have got used to and see as a necessity of life.

This is a brave decision and it is the right decision—and I hope that it is carried out in an efficient manner. However, I have one or two detailed questions. I presume that the charge against the licence fee will start off as a definable amount and will be raised over the five or six years of the ongoing scheme. Cash flow will clearly be an issue. Some of the smaller TV areas switch over first, and in 2012 we end up with those in my area—Meridian and Carlton London. It is a substantial part of the country, but a substantial number of people will need assistance. I suspect that the bulk of the money will be spent at the end of the period towards 2010, 2011 and 2012, rather than in the earlier period of 2008.

Will the scheme be rolled out nationally or working through specific regions? If somebody in Poole who is in the Meridian area and qualifies for help wants it now, when the scheme starts, will they be able to access it although we are four or five years away from the switchover, or will they have to wait for a defined period? It would be unfair if some of the more vulnerable people in Poole who wanted to change over sooner in the knowledge that the date is looming were less able to do so than people in the west country or border regions, where it will occur at an earlier stage. I fear that a lack of help now may lead to a bunching effect whereby people put off making a decision because they know that it will be available 12 or 18 months down the line. A national scheme would be better. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us about how it is rolled out.

I have noticed the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) sitting quietly nodding throughout the debate. No doubt he will face difficulties that most of us will face at some stage. It would be extremely helpful to have an MPs’ hotline, because I suspect that we will get involved in great detail in sorting out the problems of constituents who are aware that some crisis is going to befall them and that decisions have to be made. Today, we have had an inkling of the range of technical problems that can occur. I am sure that by 2012 we will all have become experts in the subject. A dedicated line or dedicated staff to deal with MPs’ complaints would be helpful in getting us through what may sometimes be an extremely fraught period. In defining those to whom help will be available under the scheme, the Bill mostly refers to households or extended households. We must ensure that it covers hostels and houses in multiple occupation, because many people rely on communally provided services.

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The scheme is worthwhile and it is brave of the Government to go ahead with it. There has already been a major change, given that more than 73 per cent. of households have digital television at the moment, but there is still the challenge of ensuring that the remaining 25 per cent. are able to access it by the given dates. It is important to provide help to the less fortunate, many of whom may not be as au fait with the technology and the options before them. There will be the potential for fraud by those who wish to mislead. It is therefore important to have good information programmes so that people understand the choices instead of being told what they are. I am sure that the major reputable companies will play things straight, but some people are after a fast buck. As the scheme progresses, I hope that Ministers are alive to the fact that there will be opportunities for such people to prey on the most vulnerable and that they will crack down on that.

With those few words, I commend what the Government are doing in this respect.

7.17 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): It makes a refreshing change to hear Whitehaven mentioned so often in a debate in the House of Commons—not before time, in my view. It is equally refreshing to see the emergence of a consensus on these issues. That is welcome and significant.

This is obviously a tremendously important issue for me and my constituents, as much of my constituency—Whitehaven and the surrounding towns and villages—has been chosen to be the first area to go completely digital in October 2007, a good year ahead of the switchover for the rest of the border region. Although Whitehaven is in the vanguard of the digital switchover and is leading the nation, it is also inevitable that my constituency is being used as something of a test bed.

I should point out that I am chairman of the recently formed all-party group on digital switchover. For the record, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who takes an impassioned interest in this issue. He insisted that such a group should be formed and has pursued its formation with dogged perseverance. The fact that so many Members are keen to be involved in it illustrates his standing in all parts of the House.

With regard to my constituency and my constituents, it has to be said—I have said it before and will always say it—that we are an extremely forward thinking, innovative and resilient collective. We sank the country’s first deep undersea mine, we built the world’s first commercial scale nuclear power station, and our hospital was the first new hospital to be built following the creation of the NHS. To put a little colour on to the subject, we are also home to England’s tallest mountain and deepest lake. We are used to leading and being asked to lead, but that willingness must never be abused.

As the first area to undergo the digital switchover, there are many advantages that Whitehaven and the surrounding towns might secure. Increasing the exposure of one of the most beautiful natural and built environments this country has to offer is undoubtedly welcome and important. The town’s profile will be
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lifted and its reputation enhanced, the local tourism industry should be lifted and local companies involved in supplying and installing equipment for the switchover should materially and professionally benefit.

We know that switching to digital television nationally will free up frequencies that could be used for innovations such as high definition television, wireless internet or mobile television. We know that, by moving to the best available technology, we will ensure that the UK continues to be a world leader as broadcasting technologies converge with broadband and mobile communications. All of that is understood and it is my view that my constituency should similarly be the leader in some of those areas—I will be seeking dedicated help from Government in that regard in the not-too-distant future.

At the end of the switchover process, my constituents will be able to receive many more television channels than they do currently, putting an end, for many but not all of my constituents, to what I consider to be the scandal underpinning the current arrangements. In common with other areas that do not receive digital services, my constituents, through the payment of the television licence fee, are subsidising those digital services that are accessed by the rest of the country by and large. In my view, that is a long-standing disgrace and a genuine case of social injustice, which I am delighted to say will soon be at an end. The notion that members of the public should, by law, be required to pay a public subscription for services that they cannot use is ridiculous and indefensible. Such a tax, as it has been described, either redistributes the revenues gathered or incentivises a particular choice or behaviour, so I am gratified that this irritation will soon be remedied for my constituents.

I welcome, too, the fact that the comprehensive help scheme outlined in the Bill will assist people aged 75 and over, those with significant disabilities and those who are registered blind or registered partially blind. It is estimated that up to 7 million households across the UK will be eligible for help with the switchover. For the purposes of my constituency, according to figures produced by Digital UK, some 6.6 per cent. of people in and around Whitehaven were aged 75 at the time of the last census—approximately 5,000 people for the whole of my constituency, so there are as many as 4,000 people of that age in those parts of my constituency who will be affected by the switchover in October next year.

However, those are only rough estimates, and I believe that effectively to reach all my constituents and to gain detailed knowledge of which other people and other vulnerable groups qualify for targeted help, the Government are right to legislate to allow the operator of the help scheme to have access to benefits records to identify and target eligible people. In my view, that is essential for those people to receive assistance as quickly and effectively as possible. As I understand it, the Bill would allow the Department for Work and Pensions to share social security information and the Ministry of Defence to share war pension information with the BBC and the operator of the digital switchover help scheme, notwithstanding the security
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implications, which were raised earlier in the debate and which are very important. However, stringent data protection safeguards must be in place to prohibit organisations other than the BBC and the switchover scheme operator from using those data for any other purpose. Vulnerable groups in our society and in my constituency have enough to worry about without being given any cause for concern that some cowboy operation could obtain their personal details.

Other details need to be clarified in Committee. We are told that some eligible households will be charged a “modest, one-off fee” for switchover assistance. The Secretary of State mentioned £40 in the debate, but we need to nail that down. If it is going to be £40, let us have that accepted and understood now. If it is not £40, I think that the definition of modest in Whitehaven might be quite different from that in Westminster.

I also welcome the fact that the Bill attempts to meet the recommendations suggested by the switchover consumer expert panel, incorporating Age Concern, the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Help the Aged, among others. They asked for a clear duty to be placed on the Government to target and communicate with those people eligible for targeted assistance, and I believe that the Bill helps to do precisely that.

The Bill is clearly of more immediate interest to my constituency right now than to any other constituency, so I hope that all Members will vote for the Bill to expedite the introduction of the safeguards and benefits represented in it. In addition, it is hard, if not impossible, to expect my constituents to proceed in October next year without comprehensive targeted assistance being in place. That is far from being a threat—it is mentioned constructively—it is a reality. Accordingly, I should like to make some further suggestions, which I hope to be able to take up with the Department, Digital UK and others outside the Chamber and, as I mentioned, perhaps introduce into the Bill in Committee.

First—I shall be parochial here—as Whitehaven and the surrounding area will make the digital switch first, it is important that those people who would have qualified for help under the targeted help scheme in 2008, the original time of switchover or switch-off, do not lose out by virtue of that date being brought forward. In short, I should like the Minister to give serious consideration to considering as eligible for assistance those who are not technically eligible in October 2007, but who would have been eligible in October 2008. That seems only fair, and a small price to pay when one considers the value of this process to the UK as a whole.

Secondly, I should like the Minister to ensure that Digital UK maximises all the local technical expertise that resides in my constituency—an approach that I think other hon. Members should adopt in their constituencies. In my constituency, that expertise is personified by people like John Clark, David Coyles and Andy Renton, who thoroughly and implicitly understand which signal covers which area from which transmitter. Without acknowledging and using the expertise of these people, the chances of success are clearly reduced, so to that end I suggest the creation of a local technical implementation group in Whitehaven and the surrounding area.

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Thirdly, I ask that serious consideration is given to lengthening the switchover period—the switchover window—to two or even three months. There are other issues for consideration, which have been broadly outlined throughout today’s debate. For the purposes of my constituency those precise issues are, with regard to the October 2007 switchover, the omission of Five, the need to tackle disreputable retailers and aerial installers that profiteer by selling goods that are not fit for purpose, and the confusion that surrounds many people who do not understand the difference between digital television and high definition television and all the other new formats and technologies that are developing all the time. All those issues are extremely important and cannot be solved by public relations, but only by public engagement.

A ministerial visit early in the new year to discuss those issues with interested parties would be extremely welcome. I hope that it can be achieved and some measurable outcomes reached. At this stage, the Bill is a welcome step in ensuring that digital switchover is a success and that those who most need help receive that help. More detail will emerge and more help may be needed, but at this stage, and provided that sufficient safeguards exist for my constituents, I welcome the Bill.

7.27 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I join the overwhelming majority of Members involved in this debate in welcoming the Bill. I think that that includes Members on the Conservative Front Bench, but given the almost petulant tone of the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and the contrast with the very measured contributions by Conservative Back Benchers, I am not particularly sure.

May I say, for what it is worth, that the Government have responded very favourably to the many calls to ensure that vulnerable groups are not left behind in the journey towards digital switchover, and I congratulate them on bringing forward the package of assistance. My only problem—it was mentioned by others—concerns the timing. The Bill should have come before the House sooner. We have heard about digital switchover at the end of 2008 in the border region and in my constituency, and in the rest of Scotland in 2010, and I really hope that these measures are in place before that switchover occurs.

The Government’s stated position is that every household should be able to enjoy the benefits of digital television, and given that the vast majority of the people of the UK now use digital television, we are starting to achieve that. So it is right and proper that we turn our attention to vulnerable groups—those who find it more of a challenge to adapt to technological change, who have concerns and anxieties about the force of progress and who really need assistance.

We have heard that digital take-up is already proceeding. Even from this year the figures have shown an increased uptake of digital technology. We may assume from those figures that digital awareness is capable of being reached throughout the country; that public surveys are right that there is digital awareness, and that people are responding to the public information campaigns. I do not know whether they are responding particularly to Digit Al, the little
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cartoon figure that the Secretary of State mentioned. It is probably the irritating quality of that character that has attracted people, not its public service occupation.

It is right that we should attend to the groups who are least receptive to public campaigns and who are the last in line to adapt to technological changes. Whereas about three quarters of the general population now have digital television, only about 40 per cent. of over-75s currently have their televisions converted to ensure that they receive digital signals. I am not sure how many people will benefit from the scheme. We have heard estimates ranging between 4 million and 8 million. Whatever number eventually receive the assistance, however, it is clear that the vast majority will be the over-75s. I hope that the Government bear in mind the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) about other groups being involved, particularly the blind and those who have difficulty securing additional assistance. I hope that a range of responses from Government recognise the specific needs of certain vulnerable groups.

We have also heard a lot of concerns about data sharing. I am not too worried about that. Given the time scale, I do not believe that the Government have any other choice. We would all criticise the Government if they were not proactive in trying to locate such vulnerable groups. I do not see that as an encroachment of the Big Brother state or an infringement of civil liberties and human rights, for which the Government have become renowned, but as a real attempt to try to locate vulnerable groups. One of the positive consequences of that approach is that it will probably help the Government to identify some of the 250,000 people, particularly pensioners, who are eligible for but do not claim benefits. That can only be a good thing.

We have also had a thorough debate about the role of the BBC. Again, I am not too worried about who does the work; I am concerned about the quality of the work. If the BBC does a good job in identifying and locating those vulnerable groups, we will all be satisfied. The BBC also has experience, which I am sure it will bring to bear, of dealing with the over-75s in the provision of free licences. My only problem with the BBC relates to the funding issue. I take on board the many points made about the licence fee being a regressive form of taxation, which we must all endure, but why cannot the BBC administer the scheme and the Treasury make some contribution to the running of it? Why is that difficult? Why cannot we entrust the BBC, with its experience, to get on with that task, and get the Government to pay for it or at least make some contribution to ensuring that it happens?

I also have a concern about the quality of BBC programmes in the run-up to switchover. I would describe many of the BBC’s current digital services as woeful. I remember the BBC saying that supplying those future digital services was one of the reasons that it needed an inflation-busting licence fee increase. It had better get its act together, because the digital services that it supplies now are particularly inadequate.

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