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14 Oct 2008 : Column 200WH—continued

10.24 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): It is a delight to debate this important subject under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. May I also congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) on securing this important debate?

It is a delight to have the second chance to welcome the new Minister not quite to the Dispatch Box but to the table in Westminster Hall. It is a reflection of the importance of culture and media issues that I will probably face the Minister for a third time in a debate on a private Member’s Bill on Friday. Therefore, this week, as Parliament returns and the economy collapses around our ears, we have the opportunity to debate many important subjects in the media world.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) took this opportunity to congratulate a few people, so may I add to the mix Digital UK, the organisation responsible for helping with switchover? The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk said kind words about Digital UK. I should like to put on record that, in my dealings with that organisation, I have found it completely professional. As far as I am aware, its work in pushing through switchover seems to be going pretty well.

When we debated the small Bill to enable the sharing of data, thereby enabling digital switchover to take place, we in the Conservative party put on record our support for switchover and switching off the analogue signal. Before that Bill, there had been considerable debate about whether that was right, or perhaps too bold a step. It was compared, at one point, to a combination
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of gasification and North sea oil in terms of the technology and sheer scale of the work being undertaken. At least one important hon. Member—the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale)—moved from being a sceptic to a convert during that debate. All three major parties support compulsory switchover, so the task of Parliament is to scrutinise the process and ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible.

The reason that this debate is so important, and that it was so important that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk secured it, is that it reminds those hon. Members who represent more metropolitan areas—although my constituency is fairly rural, it is just an hour from London and is unlikely to suffer a great deal of difficulty during digital switchover—that rural areas in this country could be the losers in switchover, and that everything possible must be done to ensure that any difficulties are kept to a minimum and that the maximum possible coverage should be achieved.

There is some credibility to the hon. Gentleman’s statement that Ofcom has perhaps been mildly complacent in believing that rural areas will always suffer some kind of second-class service, rather than putting its shoulder to the wheel and thinking about how to ensure that rural areas get a first-class service. That is why this debate is important.

I hope that the Minister will address two key points that came across in the hon. Gentleman’s speech and are worth exploring in some detail. He said that we are seeing the first major switchover. We know that switchover went smoothly in Copeland, but, as he said, the Borders area is a different kettle of fish, with not just one main transmitter but 11 relay transmitters and a rural population spread over a large area. Therefore, we will have to see whether switchover goes as smoothly there as it went in Copeland.

The hon. Gentleman made a good point about patchy Freeview and the failure of some commercial broadcasters to fit their multiplexes to relay transmitters. I shall deal later with the surplus that may occur in respect of the funds set aside to finance digital switchover. As the hon. Member for Bath said, that may be one use to which that surplus could be put. He and I would be interested to know what discussions the Minister has had with Digital UK, Ofcom and the commercial broadcasters about encouraging and supporting them to make technical changes to ensure that Freeview coverage in rural areas rises from two thirds to a substantially higher percentage. The Minister has been in the job for only three days, so she may not yet have had those discussions, but I know that they will take place soon after this debate.

The second issue that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk brought to the debate was news from the front line and, I confess, it surprised me. I was tempted to intervene in a genuine spirit of inquiry to discover more details when he referred to the muddle that many of his constituents find when trying to access the help scheme. It would certainly be a major concern, given the number of different players involved in providing help and assistance—Sky, BBC or Digital UK—if people were confused about what help could be accessed.

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Mr. Moore: I am not suggesting that my constituents are confused, because they are generally able to access helplines that are well publicised and so on. Where it exists, the confusion is among the players about who does what, and the crossover between the official help scheme and the outreach scheme, which must cover all the gaps in the official help scheme and draw in many of the voluntary groups on which so much responsibility is then placed.

Mr. Vaizey: I am grateful for that clarification, but it makes the point even more effectively. A number of bodies are involved, and there may be some confusion and overlap. We want clarity, not least to ensure the effective use of public money.

The issue that is emerging from digital switchover is not significant concern that it will not run smoothly, that technical issues will not be addressed or that people will be unaware. We know that some 26 million analogue televisions remain out there, that about 10 per cent. of the population is unaware of switchover, and that some people feel unprepared for it. There are concerns that perhaps with hindsight the switchover scheme has been drawn too narrowly and that, given the surplus, people who fall outside the narrow remit of the scheme should be able to access some help.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that later today the Secretary of State will make a statement on the very issue to which he refers. I understand that he will say—the Minister may be able to confirm this—that as of today people who have been in a residential care home for six months by the end of the eligibility period will be included among those who will be helped. I am sure that he agrees that that is a welcome step forward by the Secretary of State, and adds another much-needed category to the list of those being helped. However, making that announcement just two weeks before switchover will create great difficulty in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman is right to pull up the Government for adapting the scheme on the hoof, but we should welcome the change if that is the case. I am not privy to the Secretary of State’s inner thoughts, and I have not seen an early copy of the statement announcing that, because of the surplus that has been built up, the Government are prepared to extend the scheme.

There may be other technical difficulties along the way. When we debated the Bill there was enormous concern about large blocks of flats, and whether switchover could be successfully carried out in such buildings. I hesitate to call on the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk again, but I am not sure that he would have such difficulties in his constituency.

The surplus that could build up in the money set aside to fund the digital switchover scheme is becoming increasingly apparent, and will be subject to debate. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister will have discussions with Ofcom or, indeed, the BBC about that. When we debated that during consideration of the Bill, we secured a commitment, thankfully, from the Government that they would underwrite the process of switchover and that if for some reason the money set
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aside was not enough to fund switchover completely, the BBC’s licence fee would not be raided. The Conservative party, which was supported by the Liberal Democrats, was grateful for that commitment to secure BBC programming to 2012. It is obviously too early to say whether the estimated surplus of £250 million will become reality and, as this debate has shown, there may be technical issues that were not anticipated for which the surplus could provide icing on the cake and finance technical changes in rural areas.

The Government have four, or possibly five, options. The first, which I emphatically would not support, is to give the surplus to a major retail bank. We have given them quite enough money, so I am not calling on the Government to do that. Top-slicing is being debated—we wait to hear the Secretary of State’s thoughts in the new year—and is becoming more popular with Ofcom and may be even more popular for the Government now that the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting, Stephen Carter, who is the father of top-slicing, is going to the Lords. That may be one place for the money. Another option is to let the BBC keep the money to put into programming. A third option might be to give the money back to licence fee payers. A fourth option might be to support the roll-out of super-fast broadband, which will be the next challenge in communications.

It was interesting to hear the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and for Bath talk about the challenge facing regional news, and the rapid technology changes with set-top boxes fitted with internet access. One issue that is of great interest to the Conservative shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), is local television. We are all extremely concerned about ITV’s proposals for regional news, but the advance of technology and the internet in becoming a broadcasting medium may be able to fill that gap and provide low-cost, very local programming, but that will be effective only if we have a strategy to roll out super-fast broadband.

Mr. Foster: I entirely support what the hon. Gentleman says, and surely he acknowledges that even if we moved to local television, it would be far preferable if that were seen on our television screens and not on a computer some way away. Doing that via super-fast broadband and on television is another argument for having an internet connection on digital boxes.

Mr. Vaizey: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that an internet connection on digital boxes will probably be the way forward.

In conclusion, what concerns many people involved in the roll-out of super-fast broadband is that although the plans of commercial companies—British Telecom and Virgin Media—are well advanced, the industry is telling us that it is concerned that there is a complete lack of leadership from the Government. It is not necessarily saying that the Government must provide funding—no one is suggesting that, and estimates of the amount of investment needed vary from £10 billion to £15 billion—but the industry wants certainty from the Government that this is the right way forward, and particularly that it will be supported with regulation and co-ordination. It strikes me that the Minister has an opportunity to put it on record that the coming of
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super-fast broadband is a priority for her and her Department, and that she and the Secretary of State will start to show real leadership in that area.

10.39 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I would like to thank everyone here today who has congratulated me. I am afraid that having a new job often makes one tired and that I have acquired a cold with my new job. I hope that I am audible through the cold.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) on his success in securing an Adjournment debate and on using it to raise some important issues about the switch off of analogue signals in the Selkirk transmitter group area and across the United Kingdom more generally.

As the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said, there is cross-party agreement on the issue. I welcome the Opposition parties’ scrutiny of the way in which digital switchover has been rolled out, particularly the work of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. I know he has taken a great deal of interest in the issue and that he established the Borders Digital Forum in 2005 to review progress on digital switchover. Experience in Whitehaven shows that the support of a local MP is an important factor in ensuring that switchover proceeds smoothly in an area, so his engagement with this giant step is most welcome.

In responding to the hon. Gentleman, I shall say a bit about the progress on switchover generally, and then a few words about what is happening in the Selkirk transmitter area. I shall then turn to the specific points raised by him and other hon. Members during this debate. Hon. Members will be familiar with the reasons for switching off the analogue TV signals and replacing them with digital and will know that there are benefits to consumers. Only by switching off the analogue signal will it be possible to increase the coverage of digital terrestrial television, so that it reaches almost everyone in the UK.

Digital will provide efficiencies and long-term cost savings on terrestrial transmission switchover for public service broadcasters. In addition, allowing the development of new services through greater spectrum efficiency will provide savings for the UK economy. Digital UK is responsible for co-ordinating the switchover process and ensuring that everyone knows what to do, when and where. As the hon. Member for Wantage said, there is no doubt that the work of Digital UK and others is proving to be highly effective. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said, Ofcom’s digital progress report for the second quarter of 2008 shows that 88 per cent. of UK households now access multi-channel TV on their main television sets and more than half—55 per cent.—of all secondary TV sets in UK households have been converted to multi-channel TV. That means that 69 per cent. of all TV sets in UK households can receive multi-channel TV. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that 18 million TV sets are still analogue.

The latest Digital UK/Ofcom tracker, which was published yesterday, also tells a good story. National awareness of switchover stands at 89 per cent. Slightly more worryingly, understanding is now at 68 per cent., so there is something of a lag in relation to that. Clearly,
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switchover is still a few years away for many people and it is not surprising that although they might be aware of it, they do not yet fully understand the subject. However, in the areas where switchover is about to happen, levels of understanding are much more positive.

For example, in Selkirk, awareness stands at 99 per cent and understanding at 92 per cent.—much of that is probably thanks to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. Moreover, actual conversion to digital TV stands at 88 per cent. Only around 6,420 analogue-only homes remain, compared with about 45,000 homes that have already converted. Those figures suggest that we are on track for a successful switchover in Selkirk. Comparison with Whitehaven at the same point suggests that Selkirk is in a better position, but I stress that no one is being complacent. Digital UK’s promotional and information activities will continue right until switchover and beyond to ensure that everyone understands what is happening and knows what to do. I know that the hon. Gentleman will also do everything he can to encourage his constituents to take the necessary steps in good time.

I shall now turn to the switchover help scheme both in general and in Selkirk in particular. The Government have been clear from the start that practical help will be available for those who might otherwise struggle to make the switch to digital TV. That is why we and the BBC have established the switchover help scheme. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the scheme is open to people who are 75 or over, or to those in receipt of social security benefits, such as disability living allowance or constant attendance allowance

Mr. Moore: I thank the Minister for her earlier kind comments. She has pointed out that the scheme is open to those who are over 75 and we passed legislation in this place to ensure that the database that allowed access to the right age groups was made available to the help scheme. Can she therefore explain why Professor Fenton Robb, one of the doughtiest campaigners in my constituency on the subject of switchover, was asked to produce his birth certificate to prove his age when that information should already have been available? He has been campaigning about a lot of things and that was the final straw for him.

Barbara Follett: I apologise to Professor Fenton Robb. I hope that that situation occurred because he looks young. I do not know exactly why that has happened, but I will ask my officials to look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman and to Professor Fenton Robb.

As heralded by the hon. Members for Bath and for Wantage, the Secretary of State has today put out a written ministerial statement formally announcing that the help scheme will be extended to include everyone normally resident in care homes. Letters seeking information on residents have been sent to all care homes in the Selkirk transmission area, so that those people know that the help scheme can offer them assistance. As the hon. Member for Bath said, someone is normally considered to be a resident if they have been in a care home for six months or more, or if the care home manager expects them to have been resident for more than six months by the end of the eligibility period.

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Mr. Don Foster: I am grateful to have confirmation about the expansion of the scheme and, as I said earlier, I welcome that. On the eligibility period, can she confirm that once digital switchover is completed in the UK, no one after that will be eligible for support? Surely an issue in relation to that needs to be addressed: we need to ensure that people who were refuseniks early on and want to move into the digital world at a later stage can access support?

Barbara Follett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to my attention. I will discuss that with my officials because I agree: people tend to be refuseniks at the beginning and when they realise how difficult it can be to do the switchover. Thankfully, as an older woman of 65—

Mr. Vaizey: Surely not.

Barbara Follett: I have children and grandchildren who help with such things. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his chivalry.

Points were made about take-up rates in Copeland compared with elsewhere and the possibility that there might be £250 million in over-funding. Based on only 0.1 per cent. of the country having switched over, it might be a bit early to speculate in that way—although I am sure that we all hope some excess money will be left over at the end. If that is the case, the Government have agreed to first discuss it with the BBC trust and to look into innovative and useful ways of using that money.

The hon. Member for Bath also asked about social housing providers and people in buildings of multiple occupation. We picked up on that issue from the Copeland switchover and as a result have done a great deal of extra work to engage landlords in Selkirk. Private landlords have been contacted via letting agents, managing agents, the Scottish Borders council private landlords’ forum and, more recently, through the tenancy deposit scheme.

In addition, all householders in the area have received direct communication, which includes information about what to do if they live in a building with a shared aerial. Digital UK has a dedicated website, which gives specific advice on that, and social housing providers in the area have had specific advice sheets from Digital UK. I hope that that covers the issue, but it will be interesting to see what happens in Selkirk.

Mr. Foster: I was slightly taken aback by the Minister saying that the Government picked up the issue of houses in multiple occupation in Copeland, because we had a lengthy debate about that issue, raised, as it happens, by me, in Committee two years before that, so it has been around for some time. Another issue raised at the same time and connected to it concerns the problems faced by people living in conservation areas, where planning issues prevent the erection of, for example, dishes or even, in some cases, television aerials. What progress has been made on that issue or was it picked up only in Copeland?

Barbara Follett: The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me. I am a wet-behind-the-ears Minister in this case and I did not know about his contribution. Nor can I give him an answer now on conservation areas, although I know about the issue because I happen to live in one. However, I will ask my officials to write to him about that.

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