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16 May 2007 : Column 310WH—continued

Mr. Hollobone: Yes it is. However, my point is not party political. The population will grow so fast that, although investment is welcome, far more will be needed. Will the Minister look favourably upon the trust’s application for foundation trust status? That decision will be made in the next few months, and it is
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critical for the future health of the hospital that the Minister grants that application.

Andy Burnham: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s honesty in answering the question directly and admitting that the hospital is significantly better today than in 1997. The question on foundation trust application is extremely important and, if I understand him correctly, he strongly supports the application. I welcome that. The hon. Member for Wellingborough is nodding, and I welcome that support, too.

At the start of his speech, the hon. Member for Kettering mentioned patient satisfaction. A lot is said about our national health service and the quality of services. Today, a survey has been published by the Healthcare Commission, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It states that 95 per cent. of patients at Kettering general hospital rate their care as good, very good or excellent. That is a tremendous tribute to the staff who serve his constituents, and I was pleased that he began his remarks by recognising the outstanding service that has been provided to local people.

I am also pleased that waiting lists continue to fall at the trust. As of 31 March 2007, there were no patients waiting more than six months for in-patient treatment and no patients waiting more than 13 weeks for their first out-patient appointment. Of course, the trust faces challenges, and I will turn to infection control in a moment, because the hon. Gentleman mentioned that issue. I do not make these introductory remarks to suggest that everything is rosy and that the trust and the local health economy do not face important issues. However, it is important to place on the record the substantial commitment that the Government have shown to improving health services in his constituency.

Both hon. Members mentioned funding, and I know that they have talked about that issue in the House on many occasions and that it is an important concern for them. In our last round of allocations to PCTs, we recognised that areas of the country have historically received less than their fair share of funding. In the last round of allocations, we accepted that such areas should be moved more quickly to receiving their national fair share. In 2003-04, the most under-target PCT was 22 per cent. below target, which, from memory, was Easington primary care trust in the north-east. As a result of our decision to move PCTs more quickly towards target, no PCT will be more than 3.7 per cent. below target at the end of the current financial year. Along with other PCTs that are below target, Northamptonshire PCT has benefited from an increase in allocations over and above the national average.

In 2006-07, the allocation to the PCT increased to £730 million, which is a cash increase of 12.7 per cent., and in 2007-08 it will receive £817 million, which is a further cash increase of 12 per cent. Over those years, that amounts to a cash increase of 26.3 per cent. compared with the national average of 19.5 per cent. I understand the concerns raised properly by Opposition Members today, but I hope that they agree that that represents a significant dent in the problem and significant investment in their local health services. That increase in funding is the joint largest for any PCT in the country.

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Mr. Bone: I appreciate what the Minister has said and understand his point. However, will he acknowledge that Northamptonshire PCT remains in the bottom range with the biggest difference between what it should get and what it will get? And will he tell me when that gap will finally be closed?

Andy Burnham: We will look at those issues during the next funding round. In particular, we will look at the pace of change policy in order to see how quickly we can move PCTs from below target to target funding. However, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman directs his questions to the shadow Health Secretary, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). Like mine, his PCT is under its target allocation and has benefited from the changes that the Government made in order better to pick out deprivation when health funding is being allocated. I ask the hon. Gentleman to direct his questions to his Front-Bench colleagues, because their proposals for changing the funding formula, as I understand them, would leave the constituencies of both Opposition Members present worse off. Perhaps they need to pursue that with their Front-Bench colleagues.

On foundation trust status, I welcome the support indicated for the trust’s bid. In my view, it is absolutely the right way for the trust to go in order to build on the sense of improvement that, it would seem from my discussions with the trust’s management, has got going. I think that, elsewhere, foundation trust status has galvanised momentum and maintained local pride and focus. That is the right way forward, and I hope very much that the support of hon. Members today will be replicated throughout the community and that the trust can make that important step forward.

The hon. Member for Kettering mentioned infection control. It is true that the trust has recognised that it has a particular problem with levels of clostridium difficile. In July last year, it recognised that action was needed to improve matters significantly, and action has been taken—in the first quarter of this year, a significant reduction was made in C. difficile rates compared with the first quarter of 2006. From memory—I do not have the figure to hand—that represents about a 36 per cent. decrease. However, he is right to say that there can be no complacency on that important issue. I was grateful that he acknowledged the money that has been made available by the Department to improve infection control—the £300,000 to which he rightly referred. In my view, that will help the trust further to improve its infection control.

In conclusion, I shall pick up a couple of further issues. The hon. Gentleman made a general point about the need for health services in the Northamptonshire area to keep pace with anticipated population growth. I think that both Opposition Members present made that point, and it was a point very well made. The hon. Member for Kettering will know that in the last PCT allocation round an adjustment was made to the funding formula to recognise the latest figures on projected population growth, and I assure both hon. Members that the same thing will happen this time. There is no debate about it: a significant increase in population is expected in their area, and it is vitally important that the health service keeps track of it.

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I would like to point out to the hon. Member for Wellingborough that there were some 528 beds in his trust in 2003-04 and that today the number is 598. So there is evidence that the capacity of the service is increasing, and I believe that the trust is looking at increasing further the level of services provided in the surrounding towns. I hope that that is of some comfort to him.

The hon. Member for Kettering said that everyone is doing their best against a difficult background, but I do not accept that. I think that the background is positive. A lot of investment has gone into the trust, which is responding well and improving services, as patients are telling us. However, we are not complacent. I shall work with him to improve matters further and accept his kind invitation to visit the trust and see the improvements for myself.

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Digital Switchover

4.45 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I think that this is the first occasion on which I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is, of course, of general application, but which is of particular concern to people in the northern isles and remote and peripheral communities throughout the country. In the course of today’s debate, I hope to raise a number of issues concerning digital switchover that are of particular concern to the northern isles, including the assistance available to vulnerable groups, the degree of coverage that we can expect on the islands after switchover, the type of service that local people will be able to access, and, briefly, digital radio.

From what has been revealed to date, we know that the digital switchover help scheme will provide one set-top box and assistance with installation and operation to individuals aged 75 or over, to those receiving disability living or attendance allowance, and to those registered blind or partially sighted. The help will be free for those who are eligible for pension credit, income support or jobseeker’s allowance. Others will have to pay a modest charge.

It is my understanding that the assistance scheme will not be retrospective, which means that people who have planned ahead and who would have been eligible for assistance will be penalised, which seems to provide an incentive for inaction until the period in which assistance becomes available. Surely the Government should be encouraging people to prepare for digital switchover as soon as possible.

As I shall explore in a moment, surely there is an issue about end-loading the way in which people convert to digital television. I am concerned that the period during which people will be able to apply for assistance might be too short. Help will be provided only for the eight months prior to the date of switchover and for one month afterwards, which seems to be a very tight time frame. In a written parliamentary answer to me, the Minister stated that 649,000 Scottish households would be entitled to assistance. If all those households applied for help, a small army would be needed to ensure that assistance is provided in the nine months in which it is available.

As things stand, I do not see such an army in place. Indeed, in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), the Government indicated that as of 30 September last year, just 42 people had completed the training necessary to become a registered digital installer. An additional 15 people were enrolled in training in the Border region, four in Grampian and none in the Scottish TV region. Such a small number of people simply will not cope, if they are required to help more than 500,000 Scottish households.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): In a spirit of Celtic solidarity, I invite my hon. Friend to reflect on the position in Wales, where 440,000 households are entitled to the assistance scheme, but where, as of the
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same date, we had only 32 trainees on the registered digital installer scheme. We have the same concerns: we are working to a very tight time scale, and the end result will be, sadly, that many people will miss out on the assistance available to them.

Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. His analysis of the situation is much the same as my own—it is acute. The only issue that I would take, of course, is that my constituents are not Celtic, but Nordic. The Celts start somewhere south of the Pentland firth. However, with that small proviso, I take issue with very little in that intervention.

I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate how many people across Scotland have completed the training and how many installers are currently being trained. Is he confident that enough people will be in place to help those who apply for assistance with digital switchover?

As well as assistance for vulnerable groups it is important that all local people understand the digital switchover process. Figures provided to me by Digital UK suggest that in the STV north region, just 56 per cent. of people are aware of what they need to do to switch compared with a national figure of 64 per cent. How does the Minister intend to ensure that those figures rise dramatically in the months ahead? Has he considered the particular challenges of raising awareness of digital switchover in remote and rural communities?

On the question of coverage, in 1999 the Government set a target of 99.5 per cent. of homes being able to receive digital terrestrial reception. In June 2005, however, Ofcom announced that 98.5 per cent. of households should be covered by the digital network. For most people, those figures would be comforting, but if people live in a community such as Orkney or Shetland, their hearts sink when they hear them, because they know that they will be in the 0.5 or 1.5 per cent. of the country that does not receive the full service. In the previous debate that I initiated on the issue, we questioned the Minister on the applicability of regional targets. I would be interested if, when responding today, he could say whether he still insists on national targets or whether he will seek to achieve the 98.5 per cent. target within each region.

The figure of 98.5 per cent. is equivalent to the proportion of people who currently receive analogue reception. However, once switchover occurs, not all those who currently receive analogue reception will be able to receive digital terrestrial television. Viewers in rural areas who receive weak television signals are the most likely to be affected, because weak analogue television signals can often be picked up by aerials and converted to reduced-quality television pictures, but digital signals are either received or they are not. The flipside is that many people who currently need to use a satellite to access television stations might find that they can access digital using a normal aerial once switchover happens.

I was interested to read in the briefing material provided to me for the debate by Digital UK that 98.5 per cent. of people will be able to get a digital signal, but that a further 1.2 per cent. of households
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will get what it terms a “mostly reliable service”. That was news to me—I had not come across the term before—and it causes me concern. I wonder on whose judgment the service will be deemed “mostly reliable”. I would be grateful if the Minister in his reply could expand on exactly how reliable a service has to be to be “mostly reliable”.

The problem for many people in Orkney and Shetland is that they simply do not know what reception they will be able to receive after switchover. That means that people do not know whether it makes sense to purchase set-top boxes. I understand that Ofcom has looked into the matter, but its research has not been made public. Will the Minister ensure that as much information as possible is made available, so that people can make informed decisions?

Of course, it is important to ensure that the people who will not be able to receive a digital terrestrial signal have affordable alternatives. I welcome the fact that the BBC Trust has brought forward Freesat, but can the Minister tell us what assistance will be available to households that have to purchase Freesat in order to receive a television signal once switchover happens? Will the digital switchover help scheme, for example, include the cost of installing satellite equipment where there is a poor digital terrestrial signal? Can he also guarantee that the households that have to rely on satellites to access television stations will receive the same level of service as other viewers?

It is essential that people who live in rural and remote areas can access the same level of service as people who live in other parts of the country. I am particularly concerned, therefore, about the situation with regard to relay stations. In rural areas, many people rely on relay stations to receive a television signal. However, only the public service broadcasters—the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Five—are obliged to broadcast on relay stations. Surely other commercial operators should also broadcast on relay stations. If that is not sorted out, it will mean that, after digital switchover, many people who live in rural areas will receive a worse service than those who live in towns and cities.

I am eager to allow sufficient time for the Minister to give as full a reply as possible and to take any interventions that he can from hon. Members who are present, but before I conclude, I would like to ask a few questions about the future of digital radio. The Minister will be aware that more than 85 per cent. of the population can currently use DAB—digital audio broadcasting—radios and the BBC is committed to increasing that to 90 per cent. However, although the BBC has what it terms “outline plans” for transmitting stations to serve Orkney and Shetland, it has not shared with people in the isles what those plans involve. In March this year, I was informed that, as the BBC put it:

before the plans are realised. It is the lack of openness and perhaps the reliance on the funding issue that cause us some concern.

I receive a steady stream of complaints from constituents who cannot use DAB radios, and it is frustrating to have to tell them that we have no idea when that situation will change. It is made worse by the
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fact that many retailers now stock only digital radios. One notices that the larger, nationwide retail operations in Orkney—we are fortunate that we do not have too many, yet—often introduce DAB radios, which they offer tremendous deals on and which I am sure must generate more work for their customer complaints departments and more returns than anything else.

One e-mail on the issue was sent to me by a constituent on Christmas day. I never particularly like the business of hon. Members naming constituents in parliamentary debates, so I will not name the constituent, but he is known to a number of people in this place—he was, until not long ago, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, and he ought to know better than to send his Member of Parliament an e-mail on Christmas day. He had received a digital radio from his wife for Christmas. It would be a belated Christmas present for him if the Minister could commit to ensuring that everyone can use digital radios in the future. Until that is the case, many of my constituents will continue to complain, with some justification, that it is unfair that they have to pay the licence fee in full, but can receive only in part the services provided by the BBC.

4.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate on digital switchover.

It might be helpful to remind hon. Members that according to Ofcom, by the turn of the year three in four UK households received digital television services on their primary television. The Digital UK and Ofcom quarterly tracker shows that awareness of switchover nationally is 82 per cent. and it is even higher in the areas that will switch at the beginning. The figure for Border, the first region to switch, is 96 per cent. The figure for the Grampian/Scottish TV region, which switches in 2010, is 82 per cent.

Far be it from me to come between the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) in their Nordic-Celtic alliance, but I will offer a word of advice, particularly to the Celtic dimension of that alliance. I would be presumptuous to assume that what we have seen is in line with Liberal Democrat campaigning, but it is important to have up-to-date figures. The hon. Member for Ceredigion issued a press release today, a move that I absolutely understand, entitled “Digital Help Scheme must reach all in need”. The answer is that it is doing so.

It is terribly important that the hon. Gentleman checks his facts. In his press release, he says:

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