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House of Lords

Wednesday, 13th March 2002.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

The Earl of Snowdon —Took the Oath.

Digital Television

Lord Razzall asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the switchover from analogue to digital television can be achieved within their proposed timetable.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that terrestrial analogue broadcasting signals are maintained until everyone who can currently get the main public service broadcasting channels can receive them in digital form and switching to digital is an affordable option. We believe that these criteria, although challenging, can be achieved and that switchover can take place within the timeframe of 2006-10.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she accept that the current take-up of digital television has been almost entirely among subscribers to pay television and not those wanting access to free-to-view television? Does she further accept that it is unlikely that more than 60 per cent of the population will ever take up pay television subscriptions and that before analogue can be switched off there must be a significant increase in the take-up of digital free-to-view television services? Does the Minister consider that that is highly unlikely to happen by 2010 in view of the existing constraints on digital terrestrial television and the limited free-to-view services available, not helped, of course, by Tessa Jowell's decision yesterday?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I accept that at present the numbers of people buying sets with integrated digital facilities are quite small. However, I understand that cheap set-top boxes will be available in the shops before Easter. They are expected to cost less than £100. That will lead to a substantial increase in the numbers of people able to go digital. It is extremely hard to anticipate what will happen by 2010. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, is being a little pessimistic about the likely take-up.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, as the owner of one of the cheap boxes described by the Minister—and I must say how greatly my picture has improved—I understand that BBC 4 is now available

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as a free service. However, it is not easy to locate. Why is not more publicity given about how one can receive that free service?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I was not aware that there was a problem in locating the new BBC 4 service. I shall certainly take up the issue. I understand that a lot of information has been provided about how it can be obtained. I shall check with the BBC whether that is the case and, if not, how the situation can be improved.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Ceefax services have been withdrawn from the digital service provided by the BBC through subscription television? That hardly helps the case for switching from analogue to digital television because the text service provided is very much inferior to Ceefax. Viewers are constantly referred to Ceefax numbers—where one can look up addresses and obtain information about programmes which are to be transmitted—but that facility is not available on the digital service. The BBC should be asked why it has done this.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am very interested to hear what my noble friend says. Again, it is not a matter of which I was aware. I shall be very happy to make sure that this issue also is taken up with the BBC. It is vital that viewers and potential viewers have all the information that they need to make choices.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, have the Government estimated the value of the re-engineered analogue channels? If so—and I cannot believe that they have not made some estimate—would that not justify the provision of financial incentives to viewers to ease the transition to digital?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is far too early to talk about subsidising individual viewers to shift to digital. This is an area where the market should be allowed to work. As I said, there will be opportunities in the near future for people to obtain digital boxes at relatively low prices. I suspect that the take-up will be very large. We should be optimistic rather than pessimistic about the likely take-up.

Lord Peston: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that what you do—at least in my case—is switch on the television set, click on the relevant BBC 4 button—and finish up with the most indescribably boring programme you have ever watched in your life? You then wish that it was a good deal harder to get the programme.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my noble friend has strong views about many issues, including television programmes. All I can say to him is that if he does not like it he can switch over to another

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channel. If he has digital facilities he will have a large number of channels available from which to plan an alternative.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, if the Government are keen for us to have access to channels such as BBC 4 from 2006, would they consider the pragmatic step of doing the switchover on a rolling out basis—possibly on a transmitter, regional or channel by channel basis—just to make sure that we do not all find ourselves without access to television on switchover day?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an interesting issue on how the transmission can be managed. It is a point that the Government may want to consider when the time comes. Again, it is a little early to anticipate exactly the best way of managing the transition, but that is certainly a matter we shall want to take into account.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, does the Minister share the view of the chairman of the BBC that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, being a privileged member of the middle classes, should not have asked the question he asked?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my noble friend would be extremely put out if I suggested that he could not ask any question that he wanted to ask in this House, so long as it was put in an amusing and courteous way, as is his wont. Of course, we need to take into account the views of all potential viewers, whatever their social background, their region and their particular interest.

London Underground

2.44 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In what circumstances the capital invested in the London Underground under the public private partnership scheme would count as public expenditure.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the PPP saves £2 billion of public money over the first 15 years of the contracts, in comparison to funding the same projects through conventional public investment. The plans will mean £16 billion of investment over the next 15 years.

In accordance with generally accepted accounting practice, capital invested in London Underground under the PPP would count as public expenditure if London Underground Ltd's accountants and auditors judged that the assets should be on London Underground's balance sheet.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that the Government have issued a letter of comfort

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for the funds that will be borrowed by the infrastructure companies from the banks? In that event, would this count as part of the public sector borrowing requirement, or would it count as part of the balance sheet of Transport for London? In either event, would it not mean that the whole of the risk for investment in the Underground would be borne ultimately by the public sector, thus negating what we thought was one of the objectives of the PPP?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, those are two slightly different questions. On the point about the letter of comfort, yes, it is true that a letter of comfort has been issued, underwriting 95 per cent of the third party debt, which is not the same as shareholder funds. London Underground Ltd is a public corporation. Therefore, what is on its balance sheet affects the public sector net borrowing, which does not have any effect on the targets under our fiscal rules. On the noble Lord's final point, it really does not make any difference to the benefits of the PPP as we see them. That depends on the saving of £2 billion of public money. That applies whether the capital invested is off balance sheet or on balance sheet.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I wonder whether it is too late for the noble Lord to seek to persuade the Secretary of State for Transport—who is somewhat prone to error—to resile from yet another serious mistake in introducing the PPP. Will the noble Lord point out to him that the recent report from Ernst & Young on this matter seems to me to be one of the most Delphic communications ever to emerge from a firm of consultants?


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