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I am also worried about whether the BBC will be able to identify all the vulnerable groups that might need assistance. The Government assistance is tied
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exclusively to the benefits system, but, as I have said, many people who are entitled to benefits do not receive them. Will the BBC be able to identify and locate some of the socially isolated groups? How will it target and approach them? Of all groups described in the remit of the Bill, the socially isolated groups concern me most. Ofcom has already stated the potentially important role of community organisations, charities, neighbours and others in helping to locate those individuals. Will the Minister describe how the BBC will work with such charitable and community organisations to identify such groups?

John Robertson: Unusually, I agree with nearly everything that the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that local councils also have a job to do in this regard? In relation to the BBC liaising with various social work groups, local councils have access to all those groups, and might therefore have an important role to play.

Pete Wishart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Councils and local authorities have a vital role to play. A teamwork approach is needed to try to ensure that all the socially isolated and vulnerable groups are identified. Once the Bill is passed, local authorities will be very interested in getting involved in that scheme.

I am concerned that using the pension credit as a gateway to assistance might involve some sort of means-testing. I know that the commitment is for all over-75s to receive assistance, but some of them might not receive full assistance; they might just receive a contribution. I agree with Help the Aged that it is absurd to means-test for a set-top box. I hope that that is considered again.

Outwith the groups included in the Bill, I am most concerned about families on low incomes, and particularly those who rely on television services perhaps much more than other sectors of the community. Although I accept the data suggesting that there is not much disparity in uptake of digital television between low and high-income groups, that conceals the difficulties and financial hardships faced by many low-income groups in making the journey towards digital. Given the licence fee and the demands of an almost permanent revolution in technology and availability, television is not a cheap option for families. Even the technical innovations of the past 10 years, from stereo to surround sound, from widescreen to flat screen to digital television, and from video recorders to DVDs and recordable DVDs, make it almost impossible for families on low incomes to keep up. The cost of digital switchover on top of that places an excessive burden on some low-income groups.

We have heard that the transfer to digital will cost anything from £50 to £500. For a family on low income, however, I would suggest that the cost will be closer to the higher figure. Such a family will not only have one set to transfer; they will have other sets in the house, and video recorders. That will be a significant cost for families on low incomes. I hope that the Government scheme will ensure that families on low incomes receive all the practical assistance available.

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I have spent, as most Members have, quite a lot of time working with pensioners’ organisations trying to convince them that digital switchover is not a challenge and nothing to be anxious or unduly concerned about, and that they will receive a better service once they secure digital. That is difficult, however, when the largest community in my constituency—the people who live in the city of Perth—have no access to freeview, which they will not be able to secure until our analogue transmitter is turned off in 2010. That leads to great concern that some vulnerable groups who will not be able to use and acquire such new technologies before 2010 will have no opportunity to test that equipment prior to switchover.

The city of Perth is one of the largest communities in the UK that cannot secure freeview. As I said in an intervention on the Secretary of State, freeview availability is very much a postcode lottery. The transmitter that serves the city of Perth just happens to have the wrong sets of numbers and letters. It really scunners the majority of my constituents—about 40,000 who live in Perth—that they cannot receive freeview. People in Perth are therefore bemused at public information campaigns encouraging them to be aware of all the different platforms allowing them to access the digital future. I know that other mediums are available for those who cannot get freeview, but those are the expensive or difficult-to-obtain options. Freeview provides the cheapest and most convenient way to secure digital television technology, particularly for those families on low incomes.

Braving the Christmas shoppers this weekend, I visited one of the largest electrical retailers in Perth, and there they were in their titanium glory: freeview boxes, which are more or less completely and utterly useless to those who live in the city until digital switchover in 2010. There was nothing on those boxes to say that they were of no use or value to my constituents, and no further information was given about what they should do to try to secure digital television through other platforms. Those boxes were next to all the televisions that will be redundant in three years’ time in my constituency. I entirely take the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West and other Members that retail operatives need much more training about communicating and discussing these matters with many of our constituents.

The spatchcock availability of freeview is the Achilles heel in the preparation for digital switchover. The fact that about 30 per cent. of households cannot access freeview provides the biggest single challenge to ensuring that digital switchover is a success. Freeview is of vital importance in the preparation for digital switchover. As we approach the start of the turning off of the analogue system, two types of constituencies will emerge in the next few years: those constituencies that have availability of all platforms to secure digital switchover; and constituencies such as mine that will not have all those platforms, and that will face much more of a struggle and challenge in ensuring that digital switchover is a success. Solely out of constituency interest, may I ask the Minister whether all other platforms will be considered in ensuring that vulnerable groups secure digital technology? What more could be done to help those vulnerable groups? If there are to be subscription services, how will the cost be met?

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Those quibbles aside, I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government. I for one will do all I can, as a constituency Member, to ensure that vulnerable groups take up the offer and that digital switchover is a success in my constituency.

7.40 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who made a thoughtful and challenging speech.

Like the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who has left the Chamber—perhaps he has gone to watch “EastEnders” or “Coronation Street”—I love television. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who has just followed the hon. Member for Poole out of the Chamber—no doubt to watch his own favourite programme—said that digital switchover could make people happy, and I should like to think that it could. As well as entertaining people, the best television can widen their horizons and interest them in things that they never knew were interesting.

Like the hon. Member for Poole, I think that BSkyB, which now commands 40 per cent. of television revenues, has changed the face of British television with its sport programmes and programmes from America. It does a marvellous job. However, I hope that digital switchover will enable us to maintain the finest traditions of public service broadcasting in our country, and the original British programming in which some of the other channels specialise.

My brief speech will have two themes. The first is the great opportunity, the great British triumph—much beloved of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—that digital switchover potentially offers. It builds on the success of freeview—a good example of the public-private partnership, also much beloved of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We cannot scrimp and save, however. We must plan and prepare: we must use every available day. We cannot do what the English cricket team did, arriving in Australia just a few days before the main event without proper preparation, hoping that it would be all right on the night and that it would be possible to live on past glories. We cannot adopt that approach to digital switchover and survive.

My second theme has emerged in several other Members’ speeches. There is a relationship between the success of digital switchover and ensuring that there is a proper settlement—whatever that is—for the BBC licence fee. I mentioned freeview earlier. It is fair to say that freeview is a tribute to the work of Greg Dyke when he was director general of the BBC. He built it up from the ashes of ITV Digital, and it has had many surprising effects. It has now reached such a critical mass that it is becoming the dominant digital platform, rivalling Sky. Some pay television channels, such as Film Four and UKTV Gold, are now migrating to freeview and surviving by advertising.

Rather unexpectedly, digital television has given a great boost to digital radio—not just BBC channels, but commercial channels such as Oneword. That must be built on. Targeted help will not be enough in itself, however: three other things need to happen.

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First and most basically, the equipment must work technically and the pictures must be available on time. The cost will be huge. No one has really challenged the BBC’s estimate that it will have to spend more than £4 billion to ensure that its digital switchover works. It has placed a contract worth no less than £1.7 billion just to transfer its own transmitters to digital capability, and that does not include other transmitters for which it will provide help.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who said that, in an ideal world, public service channels would provide freesat. BBC and ITV are discussing that. It cannot be guaranteed that Sky will make its satellite available free for ever; it could change its commercial policy. I hope the fact that BSkyB has now secured a stake in ITV will not mean that ITV will no longer pursue that option.

High-definition television has also been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West spoke of the importance to the Olympics in 2012. Perhaps the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) is right that at some stage in the future, terrestrial digital television will be an outdated technology—but that will not be the case for 10 or a dozen years, and it will not be the case during the Olympics. Freeview is a platform that provides access to high-definition television. Ofcom is currently saying that it will auction the spectrum to the highest bidder and not reserve any for freeview. Public intervention may be necessary, but I think that that approach should be looked at again.

Secondly, the programmes must obviously be on the digital channels if the switchover is to be a success. I disagreed with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire when he criticised the quality of BBC digital output. I suppose he is right to the extent that there will not be thousands of people buying digital boxes to watch, for instance, BBC Parliament. I imagine that I am now speaking to no more than 20,000 or 30,000 people, although that is more than I normally speak to in Selby. Having said that, I should add that 1 million or 2 million people watched the debates on Iraq and on top-up fees.

BBC children’s services are probably more valued, particularly by parents, who welcome the absence of advertisements on those high-quality channels. “Torchwood” on BBC 3, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), has been a great success. The other night it was up against “Lost”, which Sky One bought from Channel 4, which had bought it from the United States. It is a well-established programme, but “Torchwood”, a British-made programme, beat it hands down. That demonstrates the value of the digital channels. Other examples are “The Thick Of It” and “Little Britain” on BBC 3. Last week’s documentary on the abdication was typical of some of the quality on BBC 4. However, the BBC must have the resources it needs to continue to invest in programming on the digital channels if they are to be a success. Replacing low-cost programmes with programmes of the quality of “Planet Earth” for one hour a week would cost the BBC £150 million throughout the period of the next licence fee.

There was some debate about the size of buttons on remote-controls and so on. That may appear to be a
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side issue, but during the trials of digital television that were carried out in various areas, it was one of the main issues. Some people may not want a multi-functional digital box, but want one that makes clear how channels and volume can be changed easily. One-to-one visits will be an important part of the switchover.

Where does all that leave us when it comes to the big numbers involved in the BBC licence fee? How much will be enough to secure the success of this process? According to figures leaked by the Treasury, the BBC can expect a figure of, perhaps, RPI minus 1. In the event of a settlement requiring the BBC to meet the full costs of targeted help as well, in effect the figure would become RPI minus 2. That represents the cost of BBC 2 over the licence fee period. The BBC would be short of £400 million, which would be bound to have an effect on programming.

I am pleased, incidentally, that the final decision has been put off. It is better to reach the right decision after Christmas than to reach the wrong decision before it. I urge Ministers to reflect carefully on the importance of a balanced package that provides value for money. Perhaps the BBC could be allowed some leeway in terms of the licence fee for targeted help and digital switchover. There need not be a permanent increase; the increase could end after the switchover period, because the BBC would not need it in the long term. The BBC’s borrowing powers should also be looked at carefully. At present the BBC can borrow only £200 million a year, which is a pretty low figure given its turnover.

A number of things could be done to help, but the settlement must be right. That is in the interests of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as much as anyone. Let us remind ourselves of the switchover timetable as we approach the next general election. We have heard that Border will be switched over in 2008, Westcountry, Wales and Granada in 2009, and West, Grampian and Scottish in 2010.

As a Member with a small majority, I am a great believer in a five-year Parliament: I think we need every last day to implement our manifesto. Nevertheless, channels in quite a few sensitive areas will be switched over before the next election. We can imagine the furore if the BBC had to scrimp and save, if there was no investment in the digital infrastructure, if the picture did not come on at the right time, if it was a bit wavy, if the targeted-help scheme did not work, if there were more repeats because the BBC did not have the resources to put into new programming, or if there was no money to secure the sports rights for the red button. It would not be a popular move. The Government must carefully reflect over the Christmas period. They have got in place the targeted-help scheme and the Digital UK organisation; all they have to do now is will the means.

7.50 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and I agree with much of what he said, particularly on the BBC and its licence fee problem. I must, however,
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disagree with his comment that 20,000 people are tonight watching our debate on the parliamentary channel; I cannot believe that, and I think that he probably meant to say about 200. The thought that 20,000 people might be watching us terrifies me. Therefore, I shall keep my remarks brief, especially as we have properly covered much of what ought to be debated.

I also compliment the hon. Gentleman on giving credit where credit is due—to the BBC. I am a great supporter of the BBC, and what it has done in terms of its digital channels has encouraged more people to opt for the freeview service. Without its efforts, the take-up would have been minimal in comparison with the current take-up. I disagree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart); if he were to do some research he would find that there are many good programmes on the BBC digital channels.

The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) criticised the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). I support my hon. Friend entirely. He is absolutely right to express concern about whether the Government will be able to deliver this major transition. It is a huge, multi-billion pound programme, and given the Government’s track record there are considerable doubts about whether they can conclude it sensibly and properly without huge cost overruns. My hon. Friend asked questions and he was attacked for doing so, but there are questions that should be asked. We are debating this topic tonight, but so much of relevance has not been disclosed to us. The Secretary of State said that this is enabling legislation but, although we do not expect every dot and comma in such legislation to be checked by Ministers, the Bill is shot full of holes. The number of questions asked by Members of many parties highlights how much work must be done on the whole switchover project before the Bill proceeds.

Mention has been made of the BBC television licence, which is germane to the Bill. Before the Bill was introduced, Members should have known about the BBC licence settlement because that is clearly part and parcel of the rather protracted and unhealthy negotiations that are currently going on between the Treasury, the Minister’s Department and the BBC. We should have known about that. Also, doubts remain about eligibility and those who will get assistance—either free or with some contribution. Many charities are very unhappy about the definition of some of the categories of people in that regard. Nobody has said anything about the cost to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence, which will have to deal with many requests to reveal information. Will they charge a fee for that, or will they absorb the costs? There is also the whole issue of the sale of the analogue channels. We have not been given the slightest idea about that, except that they will be put up for auction. What will happen? Will that be like the previous great sale which raised a colossal sum for the mobile telephone companies, or will the sums be small? All such matters are relevant information that should have been put before the House before Members moved on to this Bill. The introduction of the Bill should have been delayed until such time as we had all that information.

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I want to raise a couple of points about my constituency. Some of my constituents receive Border Television programmes, but the majority are in the Tyne Tees region. Therefore, an interesting question will be posed for some of them. The first of them will potentially be switched over in 2008, whereas the last ones will be switched over in 2012. Situations could arise in which people who live only 1 mile apart will get switched over four years apart. Today, with the analogue system, some households who can receive both, do so. They have one aerial that can receive Border and Granada, and another that can receive Tyne Tees and the BBC north-east service. I believe that there is a similar situation in the west of Scotland; parts of west Scotland can receive Ulster Television so viewers have a choice of programmes. What will happen to them? Will they still have that choice after the digital switchover happens, or will they have to opt for one service or another? The answer to that is unclear; can the Minister provide clarification?

Many of my constituents also cannot receive freeview because they rely on a relay transmitter. That covers thousands of people living in the Tyne valley. All they can do is opt for satellite television. Some of them have even been told that they cannot receive satellite television because of their location. Therefore, some people will have a curious dilemma; they will lose their analogue, they cannot get DTT and nor can they get satellite. That will cause a problem.

In the north Pennines there are a number of people who are among the 1.5 per cent. of the country that cannot at present receive proper analogue signals. What will happen to them? I am not a great technical expert, but I am told that even if they can get some poor quality analogue pictures, as soon as the new signal comes on, their screens will go blank, so they will have no option other than to switch to a satellite service.

That brings me on to another point about eligibility for receiving help. The Secretary of State did not make the following matter clear. If a constituent over 75 is eligible for help—presumably that will be the case—but they cannot receive digital terrestrial television and have to opt for a satellite service, will the cost of the satellite service, which is currently provided by Sky, be entirely paid for by the scheme? If someone who belongs in what we might term the second class of those eligible for help—the Secretary of State talked about a £40 contribution towards the cost of a digital decoder box—were to need a satellite service as well, would they simply get £40, which is the cost of a digibox, and have to find the rest of the costs for satellite provision themselves? I would like the Minister to provide clarification on those points because they are of considerable importance to my constituents.

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