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House of Lords

Tuesday, 23rd June 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester

Digital Broadcasting: Decoder Boxes

Lord Razzall asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are now confident that viewers of digital terrestrial television and viewers of digital satellite television will not be required to purchase separate decoder boxes when digital services are launched later this year.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as I told the House in April, the design of the receivers of broadcasting services is a matter for the manufacturers and broadcasters operating on those platforms, subject to the relevant regulations and licence conditions which apply. It is still not clear whether the digital receivers which will go on sale later this year will provide access to both digital terrestrial and digital satellite services. The Independent Television Commission which licenses and regulates all commercial digital television issued a consultation paper on interoperability and open access on 13th May. The ITC is discussing the issues set out in that consultation paper with all interested parties, including digital satellite and terrestrial television broadcasters.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that response, which is very much in line with his Answer to a Question that I tabled three months ago, does the noble Lord agree that this is a significant issue in which the Government have an interest? Does he agree that if the result of the consultation exercise that is being carried out by the ITC is that people will have to buy decoder boxes to watch digital terrestrial that are different from those required to watch satellite television it will be a significant set-back for the Government's digital television programme? Does the noble Lord agree that the danger is that the switch-off of analogue television that the Government want to see as soon as possible will be postponed?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government have an interest in the sense that it would be deplorable if there were no interoperability between digital satellite and digital terrestrial broadcasting and, therefore, members of the public had to buy two set top boxes. It would not be quite as bad as that because, as in France and Italy, it would be perfectly possible to establish Simulcrypt arrangements whereby both sides provided interoperability. Although the Government's interest on behalf of the public is clear, it does not extend to being able to dictate to the broadcasters what they should do.

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Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, is it government policy that all terrestrial channels should be available on digital satellite and, if so, why?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government do not have a policy on these matters. This is a matter for the Independent Television Commission as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Razzall.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the ITC has insisted that both terrestrial digital and satellite digital should be compatible but what is needed is a commercial agreement between the two companies? Further, does the noble Lord agree that in order to make the two systems interoperable a simple adapter is required to operate the two systems, bearing in mind that in order to receive digital satellite one must buy a new satellite receiver and dish?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am afraid that it is more complicated than that. It is not just a matter of having a commercial agreement. There are two levels of interoperability: one is the application's programming interface and the other is what is provided for conditional access. The noble Viscount is quite right that it is possible to provide interoperability by way of an adaptor or sidecar that goes on the back of the BDB set top-box, but that does not meet all of the requirements of interactivity; still less does it provide for a full electronic programme guide.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm or deny the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, that it is government policy to close down analogue broadcasting of television channels? The noble Lord's statement appeared to imply that everyone would be forced to enter the new digital era.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I did not understand the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, to say that. The Government issued a consultation paper on the future of analogue broadcasting in February of this year. We have always made it clear that, although it is too early to set a date, we do not want to close down analogue television until digital is at least as widespread as analogue television is today.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that one will have take-up of these new services only when the public is offered something simple and cheap on top of the box? At the moment one has a battle between two titans, British Digital Broadcasting and BSkyB, for perfectly good commercial reasons. That process may take some time. How long will the Government tolerate the continuation of that battle and when will they wish to intervene?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am not sure that I follow the noble Viscount's somewhat emotive language. To an extent he is right. Clearly, it is in the public interest and also in the interests of both digital satellite and digital terrestrial television for the two systems to be interoperable, because that is the way

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in which digital television will catch the public imagination and develop successfully. Unfortunately, that recognition does not yet appear to be in the minds and hearts of both broadcasters.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, can the noble Lord give the House an estimate of the cost of one box, if not two?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is difficult to say what the boxes will cost. The price will start high and go down as demand increases. If demand is held back by the need for two set top boxes, clearly it will take longer to get down to the £200 or so which we expect with mass production.

Lord Brougham and Vaux: My Lords, the Minister mentioned the word "sidecar". I thought a sidecar went on a bicycle. What is a sidecar in relation to a television set?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, among the many technical terms that I have had to learn, and which I have tried to spare the House, is the word "sidecar". It means the adaptor put on the back of the set top-box. It is nothing more complicated than that.

Red Squirrel Conservation

2.44 p.m.

Lord Inglewood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider their policies to conserve the native red squirrel are being successful.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the red squirrel is one of the priority species for biodiversity action plans. I can assure noble Lords that the Government are fully committed to conservation of the red squirrel, and will continue to strive for its long-term survival. However, we recognise that the measures currently in place and those being investigated do not identify an immediate quick-fix solution.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, bearing in mind that, on the Forestry Commission's figures, between 1959 and 1991 the distribution of the red squirrel declined in England and Wales by more than 75 per cent., does the Minister agree that it is time for some quick, new and effective policies?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am tempted to ask, "which immediate and effective plan?". We share the noble Lord's concern and compliment him on the work that he does in the North West to try to protect and to enhance the numbers of red squirrels. The Forestry Commission is managing successfully a variety of projects to protect the red squirrel. Research is continuing into new methods of protection. One of the problems is that the red squirrel prefers dense coniferous woodlands. As many noble Lords will be aware, there

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is strong pressure, on other environmental grounds, for the extension of deciduous forests. The Forestry Commission is doing all that it can.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that one of the reasons why red squirrels are deteriorating is that they are being forced out by the grey squirrels? Will the Government take whatever action they can to publicise the damage done by grey squirrels and the fact that they should be wiped out?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the varied response from Members of your Lordships' House indicates the difficulty of adopting a policy of eliminating grey squirrels. There is a conflict of interest. We take the view that it is important to try to protect and enhance the number of red squirrels, but we are advised by all the agencies which are working closely with the Government that a policy of attempting to kill all grey squirrels would not meet with universal approval, patently not even in your Lordships' House.

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