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14 Oct 2008 : Column 193WH—continued

Mr. Moore: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his victory in the by-election before the summer. I know that he made his maiden speech in the Chamber yesterday
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and am sure that he will contribute hugely to the House. On the point that he has just made, I agree that it goes to the heart of the process of switchover and the consequences for ITV that areas such as mine will not feature as strongly in the news agenda. I do not think that the answer, as Ofcom now seems to think, is to push us in with Scottish Television, whose finances do not seem to be any more robust than ITV’s. I am afraid that I see little in its current news coverage that suggests that it would have a great interest in coming to the south of Scotland and giving us the sort of coverage that we have enjoyed until now.

I hope that there will be a rethink by ITV. If we are to continue to see ITV as relevant to the regional map of Britain, ITV must be asked to rethink its decision. The company must understand that it has a duty to the diversity of Britain and that there is a proud tradition of coverage that ensures that subjects such as rugby in my constituency—indeed, in the whole of the south of Scotland—and local history are properly covered. Broadcasters such as Alistair Moffatt, who have made a career out of writing and broadcasting at senior levels, are now producing first-class programmes that are of interest to people in the borders; Mr. Moffatt’s latest project was about Hadrian’s wall. Under the present proposals, however, I do not see where there will be room for such work in the future, so I hope that the Government will think again.

The digital switchover process is important, and not just because of the precise issues of a technical and support nature it raises in my constituency, or because or the ITV programming questions. It is also important because of the principles that are being laid down. I know that there are different ways of defining the “digital dividend”—whether it is the freeing up of the television spectrum, or the resources that the Treasury may receive from selling off parts of that spectrum. Nevertheless, there are lots of exciting ideas about how that dividend might be used, including new types of services that we cannot really guess at now. Ten years ago, who would have predicted what television we would be enjoying now and its shape? What I do not want to see—I hope that the Minister will agree with me—is that with this switchover process we establish a principle that people in rural Britain will have to accept a second-class service and that new services will not be for everybody. That is the direction that the free market approach of Ofcom and the policy framework within which it operates seem to be leading us. When mobile phones came out years ago, the licence requirements demanded that huge parts of the United Kingdom were covered. The same has not been true of digital television coverage, and I hope that that will change. Otherwise, we will entrench the wrong type of principle.

As I said before, I am looking forward to welcoming the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to my constituency. He was quoted recently in The Guardian’s media section saying:

That is a bold and important statement, which I am delighted to endorse. I hope that it means that the Secretary of State, the Minister and their Department will be willing to ditch large chunks of the Ofcom
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agenda that are not for the whole of the United Kingdom. We cannot have rural Britain marginalised, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is not the intention.

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): In the absence of Back-Bench Members, I call Mr. Don Foster.

10.3 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Thank you, Mrs. Humble. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), both on securing this debate and on an excellent, wide-ranging speech. During his speech, he paid tribute to a very large number of people in his constituency and in the wider borders area who have been working very hard indeed to ensure that switchover goes smoothly. However, I think that it would be amiss if I did not also record that my hon. Friend himself has put in a great deal of effort on this issue, and he deserves the praise of the constituents for the hard work that he has done.

From the outset, my hon. Friend made it very clear that he is fully supportive of the move to digital. He said that it was a giant step, which offered consumers more choice, although he was concerned about the limitation of that choice for some of his constituents, improved viewing quality and at least the opportunity for a very wide range of additional services.

David Taylor: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for his contribution. Would he perhaps expand a little on the suggestion by his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), that people have a right to obtain a substantial amount of regional broadcasting? It is true that they have that right, but could the hon. Gentleman expand that to say that they have a right to receive regional broadcasting for the region in which they live, so that we do not have the situation whereby large numbers of people throughout England, Scotland and Wales receive news of areas that are not in their own region? Without being too parochial, those people want to hear about their own community.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his view about what our own constituents want. People in my constituency in Bath will pay a passing interest to what happens in Bristol, which is only nine miles away; they have very limited interest in what happens in Taunton or Exeter, but under the new proposals they are somehow expected also to be interested in what happens in Truro, which I think is extremely unlikely. Therefore, like the hon. Gentleman, I am very concerned about the current proposals, which will have a huge impact on our opportunity for local and regional viewing as we know it, about the areas in which we live.

Consequently, I very much hope that the Minister will comment on that fascinating quotation from the Secretary of State, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, in which the Secretary of State made it very clear that public service broadcasting was a Government issue and not an Ofcom issue, so that it will be for the Government to examine the concerns that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)
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and many other Members of this House have expressed about how we resolve the current situation and the problems faced by ITV.

Figures show that 88 per cent. of UK households now have digital TV on at least one TV set, and that is far higher than the Government’s predictions. That is good news. Also, the market for digiboxes is working very well now. A few years ago, a set-top box would cost about £100; now people can get one for about £25 to £35, and indeed on some occasions boxes can be bought for as little as £9.99. In very recent times, we have also seen the launch of Freesat, which was referred to earlier in this debate. That launch was in May and already 100,000 homes have subscribed to that very exciting new digital service.

In general, the picture is encouraging. Therefore, although I want to concentrate on some areas of concern, in no way do I want that to diminish the clear view that I have that digital is an exciting development within television and that it is providing more choice and more services. Nevertheless, I want to pick up on some areas of concern—I hope that the Minister will understand why I want to do that—and to echo some of the concerns that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

My first concern, obviously, is that having said that 88 per cent. of UK homes have at least one digital TV set, we must of course recognise that the vast majority of UK homes with a television set have more than one set. The latest figures point out that there are something like 18 million TV sets in this country that are still analogue, so there is a lot of work still to be done in ensuring that all of the TV sets in a home move to digital.

There is a particular issue that I hope that the Minister might be able to comment on. I would like to see much more urgent work being done about the issue of switchover in rented accommodation with communal areas, in other words in all forms of houses of multiple occupation. I believe that private and social landlords need to do very much more, and they need to be encouraged to do very much more, to take action to ensure that their tenants are ready for switchover.

I am well aware that Digital UK is about to commission pilot research to evaluate and monitor the progress and attitudes among people in the privately rented and leasehold residential housing sector in Manchester. However, the results of that research will come far too late to inform what happens, for instance, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and in the wider borders area, where, as we have heard, switchover is about to begin.

I am also concerned that although the switchover in the Copeland area was extremely successful, given the time scale involved, it seems that there will not be an opportunity to use in the borders the lessons learned from it. It is worth reflecting that the National Audit Office points out in a report that it prepared for the BBC Trust that

That is a great pity.

I have concerns that echo those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk about the targeted help scheme, which is the
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joint responsibility of the Departments for Culture, Media and Sport and for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I have said in previous debates that I believe that the targeted help scheme is a Government policy and, as such, ought to be funded by the Government. It is wrong to fund it from the BBC licence fee.

I am also concerned that, in setting up the targeted help scheme—this is mentioned in a recent Public Accounts Committee report as well—the two Departments did not really do enough work on getting adequate safeguards and ensuring ensure value for money from the scheme. My hon. Friend listed the many organisations that are involved in it—undoubtedly, there is a tangled web of accountability. Because the estimates to date for the targeted help scheme have been so wrong, a large amount of the money is, in fact, unlikely to be used. Only 28 per cent. of the people in Copeland who it was predicted would use it actually did, and some figures suggest that as much as £250 million of the fund set aside for it will not be used and may become available.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con) rose—

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is desperate to get to his feet, and I am delighted to give way to him.

Mr. Vaizey: I do not wish to stop the flow of the hon. Gentleman, who, as many Members will know, is my mentor in this House, but he mentioned a possible £250 million surplus. Could he indicate what his party would do with that surplus, were it to form the first Liberal Democrat Administration for almost a century?

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question, which I indicated prior to the debate that I would ask him during his contribution. It would be inappropriate for me to reveal at this stage the response that he gave, but I hope very much that he will answer the question himself when he makes his contribution.

There are many interesting opportunities for using the money. Some might argue that it could go back to the licence fee payer who provided it—not, of course, the taxpayer. Others might suggest that it form part of the solution to the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. I suspect that £250 million might easily help commercial broadcasters to provide their bits of kit for the relays in his constituency. Of course, there are other opportunities: we could look at some of the possibilities for providing a wider range of services for people who move to digital. I shall return to that point in rather more detail in a minute, if the hon. Member for Wantage will allow me.

So there are concerns about the targeted help scheme’s tangled web of accountability and about the inadequacy of the planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised several specific problems in his own constituency and spoke about what even Digital UK itself has termed “Freeview Lite”. I genuinely believe that the Government must help to find a solution to that problem so that all parts of the country are able to benefit to a fairly equal degree from the move to digital.

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However, my hon. Friend did not raise other concerns about how the targeted help scheme will work in his constituency. One that has been raised by several people is the awarding of the contract to Sky. I have no problem with Sky getting the contract. Indeed, its offer to those who will benefit from it seems to be a good one. I have no criticism of Sky’s winning the contract or of what it is offering. Where I do have a problem is with the use of data that will now come into its possession.

During passage of the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, I expressed considerable concern about the uses that could be made of the data that will become available. After all, whoever gets the contract to provide services under the targeted help scheme will have access to details—a great amount of information—about the large cohort of people who fall under the various categories that are covered by the scheme. I was concerned that we ensure that they are not able to use that information for any form of marketing purposes, because, otherwise, they would have a considerable commercial advantage over any similar organisation. During the passage of the Bill, I was given absolute assurance that there would be no ability to use the data for purposes other than delivering the targeted help scheme.

Sky is offering an extremely good deal. For two months, people will get not only its basic service but also Sky Plus. After two months, Sky will write to those people, tell them that their free opportunity has come to an end, and ask them whether they would like to pay a subscription to continue receiving its wonderful service. I do not know how hon. Members would define that, but I would say that it is marketing the sale of a particular service to a particular group of people. I genuinely believe that that comes within at least the spirit of what was agreed during passage of the Bill, and I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s views on it.

My other disappointment with the targeted help scheme is that the boxes that are on offer will not include an ethernet connection—a connection to the internet. The specification for the box does not include a return path; it is not part of the core receiver requirement.

Providing a return path would open up a wide range of additional services. On 27 February, the Department for Communities and Local Government produced a detailed document about the benefits of including a return path with digital set-top boxes. They ranged from smart metering to helping people with independent living to extending local government e-services. In short, the Department said that a return path would improve the delivery of a wide range of services to those who most use them, and that it would improve the quality of life of the recipients. Indeed, the paper concluded that such opportunities deserved to be “robustly explored”.

Sir John Bourn of the NAO said that the Government need to do more to encourage technology-shy older people. He stated that

He is another person advocating technological developments, which are perfectly feasible if a return path is added to the set-top box. The Secretary of State himself said:

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The Secretary of State wants to ensure that people can link up to and get the benefits of new technologies, Sir John Bourn said that there are great benefits, and the DCLG said that one of the ways of achieving that is to stick an internet connection into the box. So what has been the response of the DCMS? During a series of parliamentary questions, I asked the Secretary of State what he knew about the work that was going on. I knew that it was happening well before the report was published, yet in his answer the Secretary of State told me that the first he knew about it was on the day that the document was published. He and his Department seemed to have had no involvement in the work that was going on.

Despite all that evidence suggesting that a return path is a good idea, it is currently not going to happen, because the DCMS—the Minister’s own Department—has consistently refused to include it as part of the specification and, before that, it refused to say that we should look at what the cost might be. In April, in a meeting of the emerging technologies group, in which the Department is represented, it was decided that, despite the evidence from the DCLG on the benefits of a return path, its inclusion would “unnecessarily complicate matters” and, as a result of that, the industry’s advice on how to move forward on this issue was not to be sought. That is a disgrace.

There is a real opportunity to get the whole country connected up and to get e-services and a range of other services that could help to the most disadvantaged people in our society in particular. One Department is saying, “It’s a wonderful idea and we ought to be doing it”, but the Minister’s Department is saying, “We’re not going to look at it; it’s technologically too complicated.” So technologically complicated is it, that when the Freesat box was introduced—100,000 people already have it, as I said earlier—it had an internet connection included. The kit is already being made in respect of the satellite receiver system. If hon. Members do a Google search, they will find that a number of boxes with such an internet connection are available. Although it is not much use if the software is not contained in the box to make it do things, at least it is already there in the specification of some of the commercially available boxes. I fail to understand why this idea is not going forward and I should love to hear the Minister’s explanation about why that is so. The Minister has now made it even more difficult to move forward, because the latest technological specification for boxes in the core receiver requirement has within it an energy maximum figure set at such a level that, to meet it, it would be impossible for an internet connection or even a hard drive to be included. I hope that the Minister will agree to look at this matter.

One aspect of digital switchover, that of radio, was not touched on by my hon. Friend. We have real opportunities with digital radio as we move ahead. The evidence to date is that, until a switchover date is agreed—this is demonstrated by the example of television—we will not make the step-change progress that is needed.

Mr. Moore: I did not mention that issue because, although it was raised in our digital forums, people were confused that television is changing but radio is
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not. As a result of our campaigning, we persuaded the BBC to bring digital radio to the Borders for the first time. However, people are now frustrated that they cannot get Radio Scotland and other local services on digital radio. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time we moved that element on, at least?

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is right. The move to digital radio has been slow off the mark, in comparison with television. That is particularly worrying in view of the recent announcement by Channel 4 that it is not proceeding with its planned digital radio venture. Of course, that offers a number of alternatives. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to discuss with colleagues in other Departments the way in which that space might possibly be used for ventures, such as those proposed by many in respect of children’s radio, which has huge educational benefits that should be explored.

Digital switchover for television is a huge step change; it brings huge benefits, including increased choice, better quality of viewing and opportunities for a wide range of new services. I do not think that we have got it all right, but it is still exciting and I am sure that we will all benefit from it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk has rightly pointed out, those benefits are not going to be shared equally around the country and it is critical that something is done about that. It is equally important that we find ways of learning the lessons as we gradually roll digital switchover out across the country. Above all, I hope that the Minister will give some response in respect of the real missed opportunity of the ethernet connection.

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