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Let me return to the BBC. We have been given many figures about costs. The Secretary of State has settled on a sum of £600 million, but let me raise a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) might be interested in: what would happen if the costs exceeded £600 million? That could happen. Where will the extra money come from? If the cost increases to more than £1 billion, which the director-general at one stage suggested it might, will the BBC have to find the extra £400 million out of its own resources—in which case, as the hon.
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Member for Selby said, that is bound to have a devastating effect on BBC programme quality? Will the Minister give an assurance that if the costs go over the estimate—or rather the guestimate—of £600 million, the BBC, and consequently the licence payers, will not suffer?

Finally, I join other Members in asking for there to be another satellite free-to-air service run by the BBC and the public sector. Although I take my hat off to Sky for what it has done in providing the freesat service, which it did voluntarily, one of the drawbacks for people who have it is that they get bombarded with requests to upgrade to a proper subscription service. Those who do not want a subscription service would be much happier if the BBC were able to go ahead—it would like to do this—with its own satellite service.

7.58 pm

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak in the debate and to raise several issues that I have asked the Minister to address on previous occasions. I am aware that the Bill has a narrow remit, but I hope that he will be able to deal with some of my concerns.

After I was elected to Parliament in May 2005, one of my first written parliamentary questions was about digital television switchover. I asked what assistance would be given to pensioners and people on low incomes to help them make the switch. I was pleased with the answer that I received from the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell). He explained that the Government were committed to ensuring that the interests of the vulnerable would be protected during the switchover. I, along with others, believe that we must at all costs avoid having a digital underclass in this country, and in Wales in particular; after all, the purpose of the change is to provide a better service and I want people to be at the heart of that service.

I was delighted when Her Majesty announced the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill as part of her Gracious Speech. It will provide the information necessary for the BBC in helping to prepare for the task of assisting the elderly, the severely disabled and people on low incomes during the switchover.

Members may be aware that Wales will switch over to digital TV in 2009. From that point, the whole country will get an increased choice of programming via digital services, which is certainly welcome. People in Wales must have reliable digital broadcasts. Many measures are in place to ensure that the switchover is as smooth as possible, but given Wales’s geography, we must invest further to improve matters.

The proportion of households across the UK with digital television has reached more than 70 per cent. It is accepted that everyone in the UK has a right to own a television and to access as many channels as possible. This is a fundamental right, not a threat, and it will enhance the principle of freedom of speech and democracy. The Bill will certainly help a number of my constituents in Swansea, East. They, along with others, should not be left behind, and I am pleased that the Government will provide specific help for the very elderly and disabled. In Swansea, East more than 4,000 households could benefit from such additional help.

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I have raised on previous occasions with Ministers the problems experienced with digital television reception in parts of my constituency. A constituent of mine, Mr. John Preece, wrote to me recently about digital television reliability in Morriston, where he lives. He is correct when he states that people should have a reliable service. It is all very well for the Department for Work and Pensions to provide the necessary information to the BBC; at the end of the day, it is the reliability of service that is important. My hon. Friend the Minister will understand that a number of elderly people have been happy for many years with the analogue service, which has a very good reliability record in my constituency. We need to give them the confidence that, when work is done on their behalf, the new service will be as effective.

Many Members have spoken about the concerns of the elderly, people who live in self-contained units and those in sheltered accommodation. I have spoken to constituents who have expressed worries about how the Bill will affect them. I understand that, as part of the help scheme, the BBC will collect information on whether elderly people live in residential care or in a nursing home. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will take particular note of the situation regarding those who live in sheltered accommodation, who may access such services through a single aerial and box. Their position needs further clarification. Furthermore, some residential nursing homes may already be digitally compatible and operate a feed from a main box to individual rooms. However, I am not clear what will happen in such circumstances, and from where any older person affected would access information. I hope that my hon. Friend will clarify that point.

Many elderly people are eligible and will receive information, but there should be clearer promotional material. I welcome the recent initiative by the BBC to promote digital television during programme breaks. However, will the Minister discuss with BBC Wales and S4C the opportunities for increased indigenous promotion in Wales? Perhaps he could also look into ITV Wales’s responsibility in this matter. That is much needed and would be welcome.

In Swansea, East, the take-up of satellite and cable television is substantial. Those without access to these services will need to take advantage of any schemes, and we will need to ensure clearer definitions of the difference between freeview, cable and satellite services. Further information is also needed for those who are replacing their televisions, as many models are analogue only. Not enough information is available on the differences between a digitally compatible television and a set-top box. By the way, I should like to remind my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) that the author of “Torchwood”, Russell T. Davies, is a Swansea lad and went to school in my constituency.

Alun Michael: We should note that Russell T. Davies has chosen to live in Manchester, however, and to have the associated events filmed in Cardiff. That said, I am sure that the two cities can share in the glory.

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Mrs. James: I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that filming has gone on in his constituency and in mine, which is very welcome.

Digital UK says that the majority of televisions will not become obsolete overnight. People on fixed incomes might become concerned about the confusing messages, and we need to clarify matters. I hope that BBC Wales will help people with their concerns and avoid making confusing statements during the switchover period, and when the scheme is up and running. I hope, too, that there will be clearer, transparent information about funding for the help scheme, whether it is done centrally—from London—or in Wales.

I welcome the Bill and its implications for people in Wales, and in Swansea, East in particular. Nobody should be left behind in this process, particularly those on fixed incomes or those who are disabled. It will provide them with a stepping stone to the future, to greater choice and to a much improved service.

8.5 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James), who has continued the theme of the day. Many different Members in all parts of the House, representing all the various parts of the United Kingdom, have raised specific concerns about what is happening, but in general there is broad support for the Bill, and I wish to echo that approach.

This is one of the most important developments in television that we will witness for a generation or two. The efforts that have already been made—not least, as many have said, by the BBC—to promote digital, to expand its capabilities and to make it into the must-have acquisition for most households show that this is a worthwhile event that we should all embrace. The more that people have got to know about it, the more supportive they have become.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) said at the beginning of his contribution that he wanted to be a bit parochial, and if the House does not mind, I wish to be a lot parochial and to focus on what will happen in my constituency and in the Border television region more generally. A number of Members representing the region have already contributed to this debate. The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who chairs the all-party group dealing with digital switchover, made a very important point. He not only highlighted his own constituency’s prime place in this process, he said that although this was a great opportunity, he did not want his constituents to be taken for granted. That echoes the recurring theme that many people in the borders express—that we wish to be pioneers who get this right, not the guinea pigs from whom other people learn. I hope that the Government, the BBC and Digital UK fully understand that point, and I have to say that, thus far, there is a great deal of willingness to pay a fair bit of attention to what is going on in our region.

The process is very complex and technical, as today’s contributions have highlighted. There are some serious technical issues, but serious regulatory ones are also emerging. I have a number of concerns about the
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broader process of digital switchover, particularly the increasingly obvious fact that there will be some form of two-tier service after switchover, whereby not all the services available to those on freeview will be available to all the people. I was recently taken to task by an industry insider for describing it as a two-tier service; they said that they preferred to use the term, “freeview-lite”. I said, “Well, if you think that that is somehow a better description of what is going on, I am happy to use that term.” However, the principle is not altered that some people in Kelso, Jedburgh and Hawick, and in the parts of Galashiels in my constituency, will get a lesser service after switchover than people in other parts of Galashiels, or in Selkirk. It is very hard to make the case that that is somehow fair or appropriate.

A related matter is what we might call the digital “one and a half”. The commitment is that a proportion similar to the 98.5 per cent. of the population who currently receive an analogue signal will receive the digital signal from a terrestrial source in due course. Of course, we do not yet know whether the same 1.5 per cent. of the population will be excluded. In addition, there is a strong chance that in rural areas such as the ones that I represent, the 1.5 per cent. figure will in fact be larger. A larger proportion of our constituents will not be able to get digital terrestrial television. I hope that we will be able to identify who they are as soon as possible and work out, as other hon. Members have said, what alternatives can be offered to ensure that they are properly included in the digital switchover.

Much of the issue involves basic details, as other hon. Members have pointed out. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) raised the issue of how many remote controls will be available and others have spoken of the internal or external aerial question. I applaud the fact that the Government have tried to set up a proper, organised aerial installation scheme, but months after it was first mentioned, there are no registered members of the scheme in the Border television area that I represent. People are being exhorted by Digital UK to use one of the authorised installers, but they are unable to do so. Many small family businesses and others in the borders have the skills, reputation and the trust of local communities and could do the work technically, but they have been put off by the complexities and costs of the schemes introduced so far. I hope that before it is too late the Government will look again at the issue and consider other ways to roll out a programme that will allow recognised community experts to play a role in that important scheme.

I inadvertently tripped over another issue about 10 months ago when a constituent asked me whether someone who has a black and white television licence and acquired a freeview box would then need a colour television licence. When he asked that question I do not think that he could have understood just what he would unleash. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 20 January. It is a poor reflection on my internal office practices, but it was 5 May before we chased up that letter. A further follow-up was required on 30 August. In frustration, I tabled a parliamentary question on 9 October, immediately after the House returned from recess. I received a holding answer on 17 October and a response, of sorts, on 15 November, when the Minister
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said that regrettably it had not been possible to answer my question before the end of the Session. As a sporting gesture I retabled the question as soon as the new Session began and as of 14 December, I received the latest holding answer, which stated:

I am grateful for that pledge, but I am slightly worried that it is symbolic of wider issues that will emerge from the digital switchover. I hope that they will receive a swifter response.

The main focus of the debate is the narrower issue of the financial assistance scheme. Like others, I support the Bill, subject to the safeguards that many others have said that they wish to see, including the spokesman for my party, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). Ministers are giving us a little more detail, and I welcome that, but it was disappointing that the Secretary of State—I am glad that she is in her place—said that there will be no retrospection for those who have already purchased their equipment. Digital UK is doing its job in local communities, encouraging people to sign up. Indeed, it would be a fiasco if it were not doing that. Therefore, I do not understand why people who are over 75 or have severe disabilities should be penalised if they have gone ahead of a scheme over which they have no control and put their equipment in place. For relatively modest cost, perhaps through an agreed set payment, that small group, which the Government have already assessed as being eligible, could be compensated retrospectively. Otherwise those people will lose out. At the very least, there will be no incentive for people in that group to switch over ahead of the formal process.

Another concern that has been raised with me is what the scheme will cover, especially in terms of the organisations that may win the bidding war for the contracts. I accept that the public purse has to be carefully controlled and it is right to have a competitive process, but the chances are that small local businesses, which have the skills and the place in the community, will be excluded because they do not have the scale or ability to compete for those contracts. We have heard no good reason for that and I hope that as the details emerge local small businesses will have a genuine opportunity to have an input into the system.

I echo the concerns about those who will be excluded, such as the 250,000 who have not applied for pension credit and whom Help the Aged have identified. That is a harsh decision and unnecessary in the circumstances.

The issues have regularly been discussed in communities all over the country and I have been glad of the support of Digital UK, community council representatives and many others for the Borders digital forum, which has met two or three times. We plan to have some other meetings in the new year so that we have an opportunity to discuss the plans as they are rolled out. I hope that those meetings will continue to have the support of Digital UK and I look forward to the Minister making good on the pledge he gave in the debate in Westminster Hall in July that he would come and speak to representatives in the borders in due course. I am sure that he is looking forward to his visit to south-east Scotland. He has made one offer of a date and I hope that we will be able to sort something out before too long.

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This is a hugely important matter and the breadth of contributions has more than illustrated that. As I said at the beginning, it is important that we get this right and that all the details are sorted out so that we can enjoy all the benefits without any of the downsides.

8.18 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): It has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate. We have had 11 speeches from Back Benchers, covering a huge range of issues, and I hope to get to grips with them as I wind up. I seem to have an hour and 10 minutes in which to do so. May I say what a pleasure it is to have the Minister for Pensions Reform, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) on the Front Bench to hear my remarks? As we all prepare for a Christmas of repeats, it is nice to see him, a former Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in his place just as it would have been nice to see the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), a former Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, who has not, I am afraid, had the courtesy to hear my debut on the Front Bench. It would have been nice to have had them both here to debate this important issue, as they were both in their ministerial posts at the start of it.

A huge range of issues has been covered in the debate, which has been remarkable for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee and an extremely distinguished Member and contributor to the debate—he is with us in spirit—said that this is the first time that the House has had a chance properly to debate digital switchover. As far as I am aware, it is the first time that the Government have let us have even an inkling of what digital switchover is likely to cost. The Secretary of State produced the figure of £600 million and pleased as punch though she was to give it to us, that means, if my maths is correct, roughly £25 a TV licence.

I suspect that the Government thought that the debate would end there, but my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford, for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson)—it is no coincidence that they are all Conservative Members—chose to hold the Government to account on that figure. I have to say that they were also joined by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in holding the Government to account, but I suspect that he wanted the Government to spend even more money on digital switchover.

There is a serious problem with the Government’s figure. As far as I am aware, no document has been given to any Member of Parliament to explain how the Government came to the conclusion that it would cost £600 million. The Government have not, as my old maths teacher used to say, shown their workings and they have not come up with an evidence-based document to show how the figure was arrived at. We would be right to say that it was calculated on the back of an envelope.

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