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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 14 October 2008

[Mrs. Humble in the Chair]

Digital Television Switchover

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

9.30 am

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I hope that we do not cause you too much stress and discomfort over the next hour and a half. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to introduce this debate on digital switchover and particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to do so. I also welcome the Minister to her new role within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I appreciate that broadcasting is the responsibility of her soon-to-be noble Friend Lord Carter, but we all look forward to hearing her comments and answers at the end of the debate.

I sought this debate because switchover is very important to my constituency, where, in three weeks, we will see the first stage of switchover when analogue BBC 2 is switched off and moved across to the digital platform exclusively. That will be followed a fortnight later, on 20 November, by all the remaining stations. Over the past three years, since the timetable was published, we in the borders have been getting ready for this, particularly in the Selkirk transmitter area, which serves my constituency. Over that time I have chaired eight different meetings of the borders digital forum, which has brought together community activists and representatives, voluntary groups, broadcasting professionals and many others with an interest, direct or indirect, to ensure that we are on top of the issues and communicating our concerns to those with responsibility for ensuring that switchover is a success. In a couple of weeks I also look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State to the borders, when he comes to see for himself the preparations that are nearly complete.

Just over 70 years ago, the first flickering television pictures came on air courtesy of the BBC. We have since come a very long way from that technological marvel—whether it was moving from black and white to colour televisions, seeing the proliferation of new channels, or learning the different ways in which we can now record programmes or pause them and continue watching afterwards. It is unrecognisable from the service that started all those years ago. Switchover will be another giant step forward and a very welcome development. It will bring together a great many technological advances, provide much more choice—I shall return to that theme—and be compulsory, which makes it different from many previous developments. It is compulsory because of the intention to free up the analogue spectrum to allow it to be used for other purposes—another theme to which I shall return.

Switchover is an exciting prospect for everybody across the country, but as we face up to the imminent change in the south of Scotland, significant issues remain to be addressed. We are not the first part of the United
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Kingdom to transfer: constituents of the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) in Whitehaven were the first to do so, last November. However, the digital switchover taking place in the Selkirk transmitter area in a few weeks represents a significant step change, covering a very large rural area involving more than 100,000 people and a number of transmitters. Whitehaven has just one transmitter, which was converted in a matter of minutes, but we have one main transmitter and 11 relay transmitters, so it will take the best part of a day on each occasion to manage the switchover. That represents a change in scale, and it matters that we get it right.

None of my constituents has complained about the fact that we are right at the front of the queue. Occasionally they have asked why they in particular have been chosen, but we recognise that before certain geographical issues associated with the sorting out of frequencies across Europe are addressed, it is easiest to deal with the borders, because that will interfere least with neighbouring countries. Equally, it is fair to say that most people recognise that there are fewer people in the borders than in many other places, so it is perhaps easier to do a little testing and experimentation. That has led to the guiding philosophy of the digital forums and other local activities: we are happy to be first, but we want to be the pioneers who get it right, not the guinea pigs from whose poor experiences other people learn.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman describes this as an exciting project; he says that various groups in his constituency are engaged in discussions and that 100,000 people will see an improvement with the changeover to digital. However, does he agree that among those 100,000 people will be large numbers of blind, partially sighted and disabled people who will be desperate for the available talking menus and programme guides? Does he think that it is important that that figures very greatly in any of the provisions for switchover? On today’s Order Paper is mention of a statement by the Secretary of State on the digital switchover help programme. Perhaps we will have some more news about how we can help those who are partially sighted and blind so that they can better enjoy the programmes.

Mr. Moore: I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman who has long campaigned on these issues, and I certainly endorse what he seeks to achieve. I hope that the Minister has information that she can share with us this morning and that more information will be made available in due course in the Vote Office. Those with sight difficulties and visual impairments need every help possible to make the experience of enjoying the available broadcasting facilities as good as possible. Surely one of the key features of the new technological era in which we live is the ability to package up many of the points that he raises. I hope therefore that she will also support the thrust of his comments.

I shall cover some of the technical and support issues that remain to be sorted out as we head into the final days before switchover in my constituency. I shall also address some of the shortcomings in Freeview, which is the main platform for switchover, and to consider the impact of the process on ITV, and in particular its regional programming and news. Furthermore, I shall set down some markers on what I think that says about broadcasting policy, particularly for rural areas.

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On a practical level—on the ground in the south of Scotland—Digital UK has been working flat out for some time. It has run a very intensive campaign to raise awareness, which has been supplemented by a lot of fieldwork by key local people to ensure that residents are as ready as possible for switchover. Indeed, one cannot drive through Hawick, Galashiels or Kelso in my constituency without seeing the large pink banners with “Digital” emblazoned all over them, along with a warning that switchover is coming. I have no doubt about general awareness, and I am sure that the Minister will produce a raft of the latest statistics to re-emphasise that point. My concern is more about detailed awareness and the need to help people with some of the technical problems that they will face at the beginning—when their screens go blank or they get a caption saying, “This programme will cease to transmit in a matter of days”, which will be someone’s final warning if they have not done much up to that point.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): In his history of television, my hon. Friend mentioned the flickering screens of the past, but in many of the most geographically challenging areas, such as those that he and I represent, flickering screens remain very much a reality. There is still concern that while a sort of picture is still received under the analogue system, there will be no picture at all after the digital switchover. What support should be given to help people in those areas to access Freesat? Should the Government give financial help to access services through Freesat in those geographically challenging areas where people are fearful,? Has that idea been a feature of the consultation in the south of Scotland?

Mr. Moore: The so-called digital one and a half—the 1.5 per cent. of the population who will not get any kind of Freeview picture—are an important part of the equation. About the same percentage of the population does not get an analogue picture at the moment. There is a group on the cusp who get some kind of picture, but under the more brutal broadcasting regime of a digital system, either people will get a picture or they will not. There will be no halfway house, so those people will be anxious about what goes on. I am worried about how many such people will be in my constituency and my hon. Friend’s, because there is no easy way of predicting that. I certainly hope that the Minister will give an assurance that that group will be considered carefully. If the number turns out to be much bigger than her Department and Digital UK have been predicting, will she urgently consider supporting those people? They should not be marginalised during this process.

Last week, during Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions, the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), challenged the Secretary of State regarding the early set-top boxes that are about to become obsolete because technology has moved on. The Secretary of State agreed that finding oneself in that position

and indicated that he would go away and consider that issue. I hope that the Minister will update the House on
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how the groups who should benefit from the help scheme will be supported if they find themselves in that position.

I hope that the detailed understanding of my constituents is as high as the general awareness, and that during the days of switchover plenty of people will be on hand to help with the technical issues that many people will confront for the first time.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing the debate. I see him as a pioneer rather than a guinea pig, because I am next in line after him. I hope that anything that he experiences will be a lesson for future stages of the process. Has Digital UK given him any indication or commitment that it will have enough people available to help, on the ground, during the two or three-week periods when all this will be happening?

Mr. Moore: No specific numbers have been mentioned to me, but I have been given countless assurances that plenty of people will be available either on helplines or in situ in the borders. Certainly, plenty of people have been coming and going during the past few months; let us hope that they are all in position on the day itself. My parliamentary office in the constituency is slightly nervous about what might happen if problems emerge at that time.

As I have said, Digital UK has been ever present. It has attended every digital forum that we have had, as well as countless meetings. I thoroughly respect its team on the ground, particularly John Askew, who has played a blinder and has covered countless miles in the past few months. As soon as he finishes at the Selkirk transmitter, he has to head off and deal with the constituency of the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) and ensure that it is properly looked after as well. I have pushed those people all the way, and they must have been a little irritated at times by all the things that I have been trying to get them to do. However, I respect the fact that they have so far responded to everything that people have asked of them, and I hope that that will continue.

The help scheme that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is the next stage of the process, although the jury is still out on whether the scheme will be a success. I tabled a parliamentary question during the recess about the number of people in my constituency who are eligible for the scheme and take-up thus far. In the middle of September—I acknowledge that that was a few weeks ago—less than 10 per cent. of nearly 18,000 eligible people had taken up the scheme. I do not think that people are fully aware of the scheme yet. That could be because people have already prepared themselves or because of confusion, but there is certainly confusion about who is running the help scheme. That is one thing that will need to be reviewed at the end of the process. Many people have been involved along the way—from the BBC having overall responsibility, to the subcontracting to Eaga, to the awarding of the prime contract to Sky, which took everyone by surprise. Many of my constituents have experienced confusion, and we must tackle that problem in other areas.

The fact that the help scheme has been so narrowly drawn has meant that Digital UK and others have had to rush in to fill a gap for those who are older but
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under 75, and those who perhaps do not qualify for some of the relevant disability benefits but still need assistance. I welcome the fact that Digital UK has done that. The Bridge, a group in my constituency that co-ordinates local voluntary organisations, has taken a leading role in that on a very modest budget. I hope that Ministers and their officials will reconsider carefully the adequacy of the scheme. As is so often typical of the way that government is run these days, much is presumed of the voluntary sector. I know that many people in my constituency have spent many hours of their time going out to groups and trying to get to the hard-to-reach individuals who are among the most vulnerable. We do not know yet how successful that has been, but it will need urgent and quick review after the process is complete.

I highlight in particular Elder Voice, a group in my constituency that was set up to look after the interests of older people. That brilliant advocacy group, which deals with a whole range of issues, has gone out to take the message to all the different communities across the south of Scotland. As part of that, it recently held a forum in Newcastleton, bringing in huge numbers of people with lots of questions about switchover. That experience makes me think that specific awareness about some switchover details is not as high as we would like. No doubt the Minister will remind us that there is no shortage of help, but some problems regarding the organisation and co-ordination of that help and how it is resourced have still to be adequately addressed.

As I have said, the adequacy of Freeview is one of the issues that concern me most, as it will go beyond the switchover date. A constant theme of switchover has been the idea that we will all enjoy increased choice, and that is correct—whatever platform they use, everyone will get more TV channels to watch. However, the system is fundamentally flawed, because not everyone will get the same deal, particularly those using the most common form of reception—getting TV through their aerial. Ofcom recently published some research that it had done that highlighted the fact that in my constituency—indeed, across the Border Television region as a whole—as little as 55 per cent. of the population will receive the full Freeview service. That is way below the figure in any other part of the country. It is expected to increase to about two thirds, but even that figure is substantially short of that in just about any other part of the country. The problem arises because we rely on so many relay transmitters—the 11 that I mentioned earlier—reflecting the wonderful topography of my constituency: the hills get in the way of the signal, which then needs to be boosted by relays. However, I do not think that my constituents, just because they have the good fortune to live in a beautiful part of the country, should have the misfortune of being denied the choice and range of television channels that others in this country will receive.

As anyone who already has digital will know, there is a range of channels—about 40—that changes week by week. Frankly, the Freeview setup is a complete mess: there is broadcasting anarchy, where one cannot work out the sequence in which BBC or ITV channels, or any other channels, will come. If regulation and national intervention is the Government’s new mantra, perhaps they might want to look again at how Freeview organises itself so that the poor consumer can understand it a little better.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The central region, in which my constituency is situated, will be switched over in the first full year of the fourth Labour Administration in 2011. His point about topography is particularly relevant to the area I represent, as we are the westernmost constituency of the east midlands. Because of the topography, parts of my constituency, despite being in the east midlands, are unable to receive the signal for east midlands regional TV from Waltham-on-the-Wolds, but instead receive the signal from the west midlands transmitter at Lichfield. Does the hon. Gentleman hope, as I do, that the Minister will be able to encourage the authorities to piggy-back east midlands regional programmes on the back of the west midlands signal, as we now hear more about the undoubtedly fine places of West Bromwich, Aldridge and Coventry than we do about our own communities of Whitwick, Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Coalville. That is a problem in parts of England, as I am sure it is in parts of Scotland also.

Mr. Moore: I might not share the hon. Gentleman’s confidence about that fourth Labour term, but I share his concerns about the impact that the new form of transmission will have on smaller communities such as mine. He has given the Hansard reporters a nice little challenge with the different communities he mentioned.

Although the technology exists to get around all those problems, my worry is that the Government have thus far let the broadcasting industry off the hook. We have a two-tier service. I was rebuked by Digital UK when I started referring to a two-tier service some years ago—I was told that it prefers the term “Freeview Lite”. I said that I was happy to call it “Freeview Lite” too, but they are now irritated by that and claim that such a name suggests that it is not the full service. However, it is not. There has never been a good reason for that, other than the fact that the commercial broadcasters have been let off the hook and are not obliged to put their multiplexes in all of the relay transmitters. I have not yet been given a costing for doing that, so perhaps the Minister could share with us today how much it would cost the broadcasters to put their bits of kit in all of the relay transmitters. What sum are we talking about? With that information, we could start to debate the public policy questions about who should fund it. For now, it looks like we will end up in a position where only part of Britain will get everything and large parts in rural areas will receive a much reduced service.

Currently, the case could be made that some of those extra services are not exactly wonderful television, but top-up television—Setanta Sports, which has been controversial for other reasons recently—and many of the other channels that are held at the moment for ITV or Channel 4 for their more peripheral services, although I am sure that they will not like me using that term, are in that extra segment of transmission. I simply do not understand why people in rural Britain should be excluded and why that should have been allowed to happen.

I recently attended an event in Scotland at which the Ofcom advisory committee and various Ofcom officials were present. Without talking out of turn, it was clear to me that the attitude within Ofcom was that people in rural Britain accepted that they will receive some sort of second-class service. It is not only broadcasting, but lots
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of other things that are important. I was absolutely appalled by that attitude and hope that the Minister will distance herself from it. I hope that, regardless of our political positions and parties, her Government remain a Government for the whole UK and not only urban Britain. This will be an important test of that.

Choice is one of the key themes of the digital switchover, as I have already mentioned, but choice also has to be about diversity. We have been told how much more we will have to enjoy, but at the same time ITV is predicting meltdown and suggesting that the public service broadcasting licence requirements are perhaps too onerous and that it might just give up the licences in due course. I have not seen ITV offering to give up position three on any of the different channel guides or anything that goes with that, so perhaps there is an element of bluff to be called in that regard.

However, we can see ITV’s intent, and without diminishing or underplaying the serious economic challenges facing it, we have seen in the past few weeks the latest announcement about what it plans for regional news and programming. In the Border Television region, those plans amount to broadcasting vandalism, and what Jim Graham and Paddy Merrall put in place over decades on behalf of Border Television is to be swept aside. Michael Grade met with MPs from across the Border Television region a year ago and has agreed to come back to discuss the detailed proposals with us, so I hope that there is still a chance that those in charge at ITV will change their minds.

Border Television has had a really important role in the past and I am concerned that it is about to lose its relevance to people in my constituency. Such was its commitment to ensuring that parts of my constituency and parts of the constituency of the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway were on the television, that cameramen would report stories in far-flung parts of the borders, relative to Carlisle, and rush across to put the tapes on the X95 bus to Galashiels, waiting and hoping that someone would be there to pick it up at the other end and put it on. It was a bit of a threadbare system, but it worked, and it meant that the communities that I represent were regularly featured on television and that local news was relevant to them. Since that cameraman retired, coverage of my constituency and those neighbouring it has declined. There are no two ways about it. There has been no replacement reporter.

Under the new plans, we have been promised that there will be a dedicated opt-out for the south of Scotland in the bigger mish-mash of the Border and Tyne Tees arrangements, which will cover St. Abbs to Stranraer and Sunderland. What sort of region is that, and what relevance will news from Sunderland have for many of my constituents?

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it is incredibly worrying that so much news should be compressed into such a short time, when people in the borders want Scottish national news, UK news and local community news as well? That could be a cause of worry across Scotland and England.

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