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House of Lords

Thursday, 4th November 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Personal Statement

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, during exchanges on Thursday 28th October at cols. 380 to 382 of Hansard I mentioned the additional resources which the Government were making available to the police service. In doing so, I regret that inadvertently I gave some incorrect figures. Instead of referring to the Government increasing police spending by £7 billion, I should of course have said that we were increasing spending to £7 billion this year. In fact, this year police revenue expenditure is expected to be over £7.4 billion. I wish to apologise to the House for that inadvertent mistake.

Digital Television

3.7 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I should add that I own only an analogue television set and do not subscribe to any subscription channels.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to encourage the take-up of digital television by those who do not wish to subscribe to subscription channels.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord makes a general declaration of interest in local government terms which is not required to be followed by other noble Lords. We want to encourage the take-up of digital television by everyone, not just those who are willing and able to pay for subscription services. Our announcement setting out clear criteria for turning off the analogue signal should help drive forward the availability and affordability of digital receiving equipment. We shall review with the broadcasting industry ways of ensuring that consumers are fully informed of the benefits of digital television, know how to get the services they want and are reassured about the conditions to be met in advance of switch-over.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, given that National Economic Research Associates (NERA) estimate that the annual value of the spectrum locked up in analogue is worth of the order of £200 million a year, does the Minister agree that it is important to give every

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encouragement to those who are least well off in society so that the take-up of digital sets is such that analogue switch-off is brought forward as far as possible? Does the noble Lord agree that failure to do so means that the income that the Government might derive from that spectrum will be deferred and, once deferred, will be wasted for ever?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I certainly agree it is important to bring forward analogue switch-off as far as possible, and we have set the criteria for that to be achieved. It is then for both the broadcasting industry and consumers to help to achieve the criteria we have laid down. I believe that it is premature to talk about any help for those in need. Let us see what business progress is made on switch-over.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the affordability of the new technology to which he referred relies to a great extent on the cost of the hardware, which is the television set? Does he agree that particularly in relation to local radio rather than television these sets are very expensive? Is it not the case that unless manufacturers make this equipment in larger runs the price will not come down very quickly? Does the Minister also agree that the idea of a supplementary licence fee for receiving digital is a further inhibiting factor in that area?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Viscount's comment about the affordability of sets is certainly true. It is only when there is large-scale production that prices will come down. The industry has itself recognised that that is the case and is confident that it will be possible to achieve that. As to the second question, the Gavyn Davies Committee, which recommended a small supplementary licence fee of £1.99 a month for access to digital, did a great deal of research which convinced it that that would not have a serious delaying effect on the introduction of digital. The Government have still to reach a conclusion on the matter but they will do so as soon as possible.

Lord Montague of Oxford: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Channel 3 cannot be received on satellite television? That is not made known to consumers and, I believe, should be. It would be good if that channel could be received. Can the Government do anything to influence the position?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is not, strictly, the responsibility of government. The Office of Fair Trading is investigating the issue. However, in the end it is a matter for broadcasters to sort out among themselves.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the manufacturers' trade association. Does the Minister agree that if we are to get the benefit of the research, development and manufacturing capacity in this country, there must be interoperability between the various sets? Does he also agree that at the

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moment the danger lies in trying to create what the Secretary of State has termed "walled gardens"--that is, sets that can receive only one service--and missing that great opportunity? Should the Government not be leading a drive for free-to-air digital awareness? We are very pleased that the Secretary of State has called a meeting of the industry to try to break the deadlock.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is volunteering to answer those questions which I have properly referred to the broadcasting industry as its responsibility rather than the Government's. I hope that he will be on his feet as often as seems appropriate to achieve that. The Government are disappointed that interoperability has not been achieved. It was planned for May last year and still has not been achieved. We shall continue to use what influence we have to try to secure that.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am not a chairman of any manufacturing industry association? Is he further aware that I am merely the humble holder of a television set who wonders whether all this new technology will produce a better quality of programme? Some of the rubbish we see on television today is unacceptable.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I cannot promise that there will be an improvement in the quality of the programmes. There will certainly be an improvement in the quality of the picture, substantially more choice and quality advantages in the availability of interactivity between the customer and the broadcaster, as he is still called, and in Internet access. But, ultimately, all of us as users of television must fight for higher quality.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the Government's target for analogue switch-over is between 2006 and 2010. Does the Minister agree that to succeed in achieving that switch-over at the beginning as opposed to the end of the period will net the Government some £800 million? Does he also agree that it is appropriate to do something positive to bring forward the take-up of digital receiving equipment by those who are least well off in society?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord asked that question earlier and I cannot improve on my answer. Strictly speaking, the Government did not announce a period between 2006 and 2010; we announced the criterion on which the decision on analogue switch-over would be taken. We said that the criterion would be that 99.4 per cent of those who now have access to analogue television would have access

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to digital television at the time of switch-over. It is likely that that will be between 2006 and 2010 and it is certainly desirable from all points of view, not least those to which the noble Lord referred, that it should be as early as possible.

EU Accession Negotiations

3.15 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they support the proposal for a timetable for the completion of the European Union accession negotiations currently under way.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the United Kingdom continues to be a strong supporter of European Union enlargement and wants accession to take place as soon as possible. The Government fully support the European Commission's recent proposal to complete the necessary institutional reforms for enlargement from 2002. We expect the Helsinki European Council to confirm this. Negotiations with the applicants are progressing well. With further progress in negotiations, we should be in a better position to set a timetable for completion that is both ambitious and attainable.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging Answer. She and other noble Lords will be aware that it is 10 years since the end of the Cold War and since the successor regimes expressed their commitment to joining the EU. Some of our fellow governments in the EU are talking of the need for another five years, some seven years and some more before those regimes join. We are all aware of the Prime Minister's commitment, made in his Achen speech, to the "urgency" for enlargement and his statement that we have a moral duty to assist in this. Therefore, is it not time for the British Government to insist that at Helsinki there should be drawn up a definite timetable for negotiations and for the first new members to join?

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