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There is extraordinarily little interest in my constituency in news about Bournemouth, although it is a fine place and we have nothing against it. Bournemouth is of great interest to the people who live in it, but to the people of my constituency, who rarely go anywhere
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near it, it is not a place of great interest; it is just a place. News about Bournemouth and Poole, of which one can see a lot on TV screens in South Dorset and West Dorset, if one can get coverage, which many people cannot, is of no interest. Moreover, the southern offices of the news-gathering organisations do not regard Dorset as part of their remit any more than West Dorset regards itself as being part of their culture, so they do not provide any serious amount of broadcast news about events in West Dorset or South Dorset. The south-western parts of the BBC would be keen to do so, because they do regard us as being part of them, but, alas, they are not mainly responsible, and most of the broadcasts do not come from them.

As a result of DorBAG’s efforts, the BBC has made considerable advances on news gathering, particularly for radio news, and it has made partial moves to set up a team of journalists who will work from Dorchester and Weymouth and will concern themselves with events in rural Dorset. Unfortunately, however, the configuration reflects the very problem that I describe, because responsibility for that group of journalists will be shared. There is so-called matrix management. Whenever I hear such words, I know that I am hearing a confusion. Those poor people, who will be earnestly working for truth in the news-gathering organisation that will be established in Dorchester, will have two masters—south-west and south—and will not know whether they are coming or going. Because they have two masters, they will have no patron, as that would not be core to the offering of either. They will be at the margin of each. Their chances of getting the editor of either to take seriously the product that they provide will be reduced. If an editor is fundamentally focusing on a particular area, most of the news that he wants to put on will be from that area. The rather inconvenient fact of a half share in West Dorset and South Dorset news gathering will not make them think that that area should be the centrepiece of their news programming.

Why do I go into this long excursus about news and its origin? Because the very same solution that would solve the three mux, six mux problem, and the problem of some people having very few channels compared with others after switchover, would also solve the problem of news broadcasts. If there were a new main transmitter that provided the full suite of channels for all those in my constituency and South Dorset who can receive terrestrial TV, and if that transmitter were linked to the south-west so that BBC South West were responsible for the news content that went out to the locality, we would get not only all the channels but news programming that was local and became part of the core offering of the south-western part of the Beeb. That would be a huge advance for my constituents.

I do not think that there would be huge expense involved. There would be some—the capital expense of establishing the mast—but that is a very small part of the cost of digital switchover. As I understand it, running costs would not be increased by the manoeuvre. Moreover, we have established that there would be positive enthusiasm in BBC South West about taking on the responsibility for West Dorset and South Dorset broadcasting. We would have a lasting arrangement that would satisfy my constituents and relieve both the Minister and me of an endless stream of irate constituents complaining about getting half as much broadcasting as they have paid for,
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and still not getting the news to which they think they are entitled. Of course, we shall make that proposal to the BBC Trust and the director-general. I hope that the Minister will give it a fair wind and ensure that my constituents are not left at the margins of news and in the unfortunate position of receiving, in many cases, only half the channels that other people receive.

1.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on his success in securing this debate on digital broadcasting and the use of relays in West Dorset, and on his work on the matter as a constituency MP. He really is an example to us all, and the setting up of the Dorset broadcasting action group has obviously already produced some results.

I should like to go through broadly what the Government are doing and some of the reasons for the situation in West Dorset, and then turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestions. As he will know, the process of switching over from terrestrial, or analogue, television to digital television began in earnest on 6 November, with the progressive switch-off of the analogue broadcasting signal in Selkirk and the border region. The process will take four years to complete, and there are sound economic reasons for doing it. The benefits will extend to consumers, because 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, excluding only those white areas on the map to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Public service broadcasters will benefit from efficiencies and long-term cost savings, and the UK economy will benefit because the switchover will allow the development of new services through greater spectrum efficiency. In 2005, when the timetable for switchover was established, it was estimated that there would be a benefit to the economy of some £1.7 billion in net present value. I am glad to say that that estimate is now thought to be somewhat on the low side.

The co-ordination of the process falls to Digital UK. Ofcom’s digital progress report for the second quarter of 2008 revealed that multi-channel take-up on main sets in the UK is now 88 per cent, so about 88 per cent. of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents already have one television that can receive digital signals. More than half—55 per cent.—of secondary TV sets have now been converted, which means that 69 per cent. of all TV sets in the land can now receive multi-channel TV. The switchover is well on its way, without people having to wait for the Government’s progress. Nationally, about 89 per cent. of the population are aware of switchover and 68 per cent. understand what is happening. Quite a few people even understand when it is going to happen in their area. Those figures suggest that we are heading for a successful process.

The right hon. Gentleman will know about the digital switchover help scheme and the various levels of qualification for it. From work that we have done in Whitehaven and Selkirk, we know that take-up of the scheme has been pretty good. The help that it has given
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to some of the 7 million households in the land that will be eligible for it has been much appreciated. Its key feature is that it should be platform-neutral, not unfairly discriminating between platforms. That is to ensure not only that we secure value for money but that the scheme does not fall foul of EU state aid rules. I am glad to say that reports back from the two regions where we have completed switchover have shown that on the whole, people appreciate the service that they are receiving.

I turn to the west country and the “three mux, six mux” problem. Switchover in Selkirk and the borders will be completed on Thursday 20 November. As one would expect, work is firmly in hand to ensure that switchover in the next region, the west country, can begin in April 2009 as planned. The latest Digital UK and Ofcom tracker survey reveals that nearly nine out of 10 households in the west country TV region— 87 per cent., which is just under the national average—have connected their main set to digital TV. More than half—58 per cent., which is above the national average—have connected and converted every set in their home, and nine out of 10 people in the west country, 88 per cent., know what to do about switchover. Some 28 per cent. know the quarter of the year in which they will switch, so knowledge is quite high. Among older people in the region, however, particularly those aged 75 and over, there are markedly lower levels of conversion to digital TV—73 per cent., as against 87 per cent. nationwide—and of understanding: 54 per cent., as against 68 per cent. nationwide.

Digital UK and its partners are examining ways of improving that situation, which cannot be helped by the marginality of people’s situation in West Dorset. I have enormous sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman for the situation in which he finds himself, because that marginality is repeated in my own constituency and my own region—I am Minister for the East of England. People in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are not that keen on knowing details of life in Great Yarmouth or Lowestoft, of which we sometimes get rather more than we would like because of how our aerials and the transmitters are angled. People there, vice versa, do not really want to know what is happening in Bedford or Stevenage. There is a problem with the way in which the regions have been carved up. They do not correspond to the Government’s regions but to a TV region programme.

There is also a problem with where the transmitters are situated. I happen to live in a white spot. Twenty-nine miles from London, I cannot get six mux; I can only get three mux. The right hon. Gentleman is right: roads and communities are divided, and people can get very angry about the situation. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was not too sure how the lack of coverage had come about. The beginnings of the problem are somewhat lost in the mists of time, but they are to do with the fact that when the ITV franchise came in in 1955, the cost of transmitters was very high. Too few were delivered, especially for rural areas. We have an historical situation in respect of the location of the transmitters, which are expensive to install.

DorBAG’s efforts to alert the BBC and the Government to the situation in the Dorset region is greatly appreciated, and I think that other hon. Members would do well to follow the right hon. Gentleman’s example. There are some inequities that will be difficult and, frankly, exorbitantly expensive to correct. I know that matrix
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management sounds terrifyingly like something from a James Bond film, but it could work, particularly in today’s far more consensual business environment. I hope for the sake of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents that it can be made to work.

I shall give a little more detail on the technical background to the situation in the west country, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, as he has raised the issue of a new transmitter and relays. It may help if I give a quick overview of the transmitters that operate in the region and the dates on which they are expected to switch over.

The west country TV region consists of five main transmitter groups. The Beacon hill transmitter group has 23 relay transmitters serving some 147,000 homes in Torbay and south Devon. It will switch in two stages on 8 and 22 April next year. The Stockland hill transmitter group has 24 relays serving some 218,000 homes in Exeter, parts of Devon, Somerset and Dorset. It will switch in two stages on 6 and 20 May. The Huntshaw Cross transmitter group has 14 relay transmitters serving some 70,000 homes in north Devon. It will switch in two stages on 1 and 29 July. The Redruth transmitter group has 16 relays serving some 129,000 homes in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. It will switch in two stages on 8 July and 5 August. The Caradon hill transmitter group has 29 relay transmitters serving some 279,000 homes in Plymouth, Devon and east Cornwall. It will switch in two stages on 12 August and 9 September. That gives some idea of the complexity and the number of relay transmitters involved.

Some 63 per cent. of households in the west country TV region as a whole can currently receive digital TV through a Freeview aerial. I am glad to say that that will increase to 96 per cent. after digital switchover. It is predicted that 74 per cent. of those households will receive a six-mux package, or all 48 Freeview TV channels. The remainder of the households will be able to receive only three mux, or about 20 channels. That is the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has brought before the House today.

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Households served by local relay transmitters receive only analogue channels at present. At switchover, however, Freeview services will be added to all local relay masts to enable access to 20 of the most popular channels for the first time, including all the public service broadcasting channels and a good deal more. Those viewers who, like me, are in a white spot and require more channels will be able to choose from a range of free or subscription satellite services offering 90 to 400 TV channels. That is the solution that I and others in my constituency have had to pursue.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, the Government and Ofcom are wholly committed to ensuring that digital coverage for the five main public service broadcasting channels substantially matches current analogue services—that is, 98.5 per cent. of UK households—at digital switchover. Coverage by commercial multiplex operators is a matter for them, although regulations will not allow coverage levels post-switchover to fall below current levels. The commercial operators must make a commercial decision about extending coverage, balancing the costs of doing so against the extra coverage that could be achieved. That is obviously the key to the right hon. Gentleman’s problem.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising these important issues. The switch from terrestrial television to digital television is a vital component in the United Kingdom’s journey towards a digital society. By the end of the switchover process, just four years from now, every household with a television set will have entered the multi-channel, interactive age.

I hope that all hon. Members will take as close an interest in the switchover process in their constituencies as the right hon. Gentleman has. By working together, we can ensure that switchover benefits everyone and that no one is left without access to a range of TV channels. That said, I do understand the situation of his constituents who fall in white spots, and I wish him every success in his endeavours to persuade the commercial channels to extend coverage.

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Disability Living Allowance

1.27 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): There are two important campaigns at this time that seek changes to the mobility component of disability living allowance. One, which has been under way for some years and is led by Help the Aged, calls for the benefit to be extended to disabled people who make their claim after the age of 65. I support that objective. The fact that elderly people cannot get help with mobility costs, access Motability or the specialised vehicle fund or get exemption from vehicle excise duty prevents them from living the independent, healthy and active lives that they otherwise might.

The second campaign, which is led by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, aims to make blind people eligible for the higher rate mobility component of DLA. Like many Members of this House, I met a constituent with severe sight impairment at the lobby in Westminster on 15 October. He explained to me what a difference the extra money to help him get around would make to the quality of his life. I know that Ministers have expressed sympathy with the objectives of the campaign, and I look forward to the necessary changes being made in the near future.

However, what I want to talk about this afternoon is how the lower age limit for eligibility for the mobility component of DLA affects some severely disabled young children. In one important sense, it relates to the case for extending the mobility component to sight-impaired people. In both cases, for beneficial reform to take place, we have to stop basing eligibility only on the physical inability to walk.

The rules of eligibility for the mobility component of DLA mean that children under the age of three cannot have it claimed for them. On the face of it, that might seem a perfectly sensible provision. After all, until now, entitlement to the benefit has been based on the inability, or virtual inability, to perform the physical act of walking. It is perfectly logical, therefore, to say that as children in their first years of life do not walk, or certainly do not get around independently, they should not receive the mobility component. Most kids, until they are three, will mostly be pushed around in pushchairs, so there is no reason to take compensatory action because of their inability to walk. That approach is logical but ignores two things: first, the advances in therapeutic technology—often, bulky, heavy technology—to help disabled children develop more successfully as they grow in the early years or just to have a more comfortable life and, secondly, the difference that access to this benefit could make to families with a disabled child in the first years of coming to terms with an entirely new situation.

I became aware of this serious omission in disability provision just over four years ago when I met Mr. and Mrs. Owen—Alison and Andrew—and their daughter Seren, who live in my constituency. Seren was born on 14 April 2002, by caesarean section, in Singleton hospital, Swansea. She was in a very poor way and Alison and Andrew were warned after 18 hours that she was likely to die and the only treatment that might be able to save her was available at Glenfield hospital, Leicester. A Sea King helicopter was sent to Leicester, for necessary equipment and a nurse, and then to Swansea for Seren.
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Alison and Andrew were told that they should name the child in case she did not survive. As it was night time when she was being picked up and taken up into the sky, they called her Seren, which means “star” in the Welsh language.

Seren was, and is, a fighter. She lived and returned to Swansea. When she was 12 days old her parents were told that Seren had cerebral palsy. In fact, she had quadriplegic cerebral palsy with hypertonia in all four limbs and hypotonia in her torso and cerebral visual impairment and some sensory hearing impairment. When I met her, Seren was about two and a half years old. Even at that age, she had already had a lot of medical attention and hospital treatments. The good news, from her parents’ point of view, was that comparatively recent developments in equipment for children with her sort of condition meant that operations and other intrusive treatment that would, in the past, have been necessary as she grew up could be avoided.

Seren’s parents, like all parents, wanted to give her the best, highest quality of life possible so they got hold of a range of positioning and seating equipment designed to aid postural management. I visited the Owen family in their home to see this equipment. I lifted, or tried to lift, some of it. I can tell hon. Members that it was extremely bulky and some of it was very heavy.

I would just like to tell the Minister what the Owens needed to take with them when they took Seren out for a day, or for part of the day, and what they needed if they wanted to take her away for any longer period of time, to visit her grandparents or go on holiday. On a day out in Andrew’s Golf, the first essential was the specialist car seat, which gave total postural support and kept Seren’s spine straight, hopefully helping to remove the need for operations to correct curvature at a later stage. This was extremely heavy and, of the members of the family, only Andrew could lift it, and that was not good for his health. But living and working arrangements meant that it had to be transferred between vehicles at times.

When they reached their destination they also needed Seren’s special wheelchair, which was issued by the artificial limb and appliance centre at Rookwood. This was a CAPS II seating system fitted within a Blade Plus wheelchair, which is what is called an aggressive form of seating and support that, as with the car seat, gave the postural management that she needed. This was a very solid piece of equipment that did not fold down like a normal pushchair or some other wheelchairs. In the Golf, it completely filled the boot. When they added the tubes and feeding sets that Seren needed, as well as all the normal baby stuff for a child of her age, there was only room for mum, dad and Seren. If any members of the extended family, especially grandparents, wanted to accompany them, a second car had to be taken.

At that time, Alison and Andrew only had Seren, but they were conscious that it would be even more difficult for a family with more children, as well as a severely disabled child of under three years. Would they be denied the opportunity of going out as a family at all? Of course, even apart from Alison and Andrew’s determination that they should go out as a family to do all the things that we all do as families, Seren needed to be transported to different places for her development—to physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, the NCH “Stepping Stones” project, occupational therapy, speech therapy and work with her vision impairment teacher.

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