Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister for his comments. The fact that the BBC did not go encrypted on 1st June means that we are off to rather a poor start. I believe that all Members of the Committee are aware how nervous everyone is about this enormous Bill and about the fact that the words "might" and "may" occur so often. We shall try hard to obtain the reassurance we seek on the Bill. However, having listened to the Minister's comments, I see no point in pursuing the amendment at this stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 195CC to 195CE not moved.]

Clause 269 agreed to.

Clause 270 [Securing reception of must-provide services in certain areas]:

Baroness Wilcox moved Amendment No. 195CF:

"( ) that all persons providing must-provide services contribute such proportion of the cost of making that facility available as is determined by OFCOM as appropriate;"

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 195CF, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 195CG and 195CH. The effect of these amendments is to give Ofcom maximum discretion to decide who should pay the costs associated with Clause 270, and in what proportions. Clause 270, furthermore, should not be activated until six months prior to the commencement of the digital switchover process at the earliest.

The purpose of Clause 270 itself is to ensure that as far as is practicable, all UK viewers will continue to be able to receive the public service channels free at the point of consumption once the terrestrial analogue television signal is turned off. More specifically, it would mean that anyone who was obliged to adopt satellite technology in order to receive the free-to-air channels post-switchover was not required to pay for the necessary card to decode the signal and receive the

3 Jun 2003 : Column 1198

channels. That card is commonly known as the solus card, and the Bill proposes that once Clause 266 is activated, it shall become the shared responsibility of the public service channels—Channels 3, 4 and 5 and the BBC—to meet that cost.

Clause 270 is a safety net that the Government quite sensibly seek to put in place to protect viewers who are unable to receive the digital terrestrial signal post-switchover. The rationale behind passing the cost of the solus card on to the public service broadcasters is based on an assumption that if they fail to build the digital terrestrial network out so that its coverage replicates that of the current analogue network, it should be their responsibility to pick up the solus card costs for those viewers forced to rely on satellite technology.

However, given that it is government and not public service broadcasters that will be the chief beneficiary of digital switchover in terms of spectrum release, I wonder whether it is right that broadcasters should be required to meet the costs in their entirety. As the Minister in Committee in another place pointed out during the debate on "must carry, must offer":

    "The decision to turn off the analogue signals but to ensure universal access to PSB channels has been taken by the Government and its cost should not be borne by private companies".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee E, 21/1/03; col. 656.]

It also seems premature to be committing the public service broadcasters to what are, at present, unquantified costs. Several questions will remain unanswered until we have a more detailed spectrum plan for switchover. For example, how many people will be entitled to solus cards? How is the cost of the cards to be set? Will the obligation be to provide one card per household or for each TV set? Clause 270(3) merely speaks of viewers being provided with a "facility" for receiving digital TV. What does that mean exactly? Perhaps the Minister will tell me.

I am aware that detailed work is already under way within the digital TV action plan, and that the intention is to produce a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis for switchover in the next few weeks followed by a spectrum plan by the end of the year. It is at that point that it may be appropriate to decide who should bear the costs of the obligations arising from Clause 270. I therefore favour wording the Bill in a way that gives Ofcom discretion to make the final decision. That is what the first of our amendments is designed to provide.

Irrespective of who pays for the solus cards and how many are needed, it is clear that the Government's rationale can sensibly apply only at switchover, at which point the currently universally available analogue services will cease to broadcast. Our second amendment seeks to clarify the position by specifying that fact in the Bill.

I understand that officials have privately reassured the broadcasters that the clause will not be activated in advance of switchover, and my colleague in another place, Mr John Greenway, has received similar assurances from the Minister in written

3 Jun 2003 : Column 1199

correspondence. I hope that further clarification can be given by accepting the amendment. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Clause 270 requires Ofcom to include in the licences for the must-provide services conditions which secure free satellite reception of those services for people who cannot receive them by other means. Nearly everyone will continue, after switchover, to be able to receive their television services through their terrestrial aerial, but a number of households will have to get their digital signals through a satellite dish and a satellite receiver. Like everybody else, they will have to get their digital equipment and pay their licence fee.

As the public service channels have to be encrypted on satellite, however, those households might also need a smart card, software, or some other system allowing them to decrypt the signals and watch the services. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, the current technology is a solus card, but there could be other technologies in future. Those who cannot get their digital public service channels by other means and who have the relevant equipment—the box and the dish—will get the solus card or equivalent system free of charge.

The cost will be shared by the public service broadcasters, including the BBC, and in the event of a dispute Ofcom will determine what each of them has to pay. Although it was not clear to me from what the noble Baroness said, Amendment No. 195CF seems to require Ofcom to set the proportion of the cost that each broadcaster will have to pay a priori, even before any dispute has arisen. That is not how we see regulation. We should let broadcasters discuss together and try to come to an agreement, and only if they fail to do so should Ofcom intervene.

Clause 270 also includes a provision, in subsection (11), to ensure a period of at least six months between the making of a commencement order under Clause 103 and the date on which the clause comes into force. That is to allow time for the licensees of any affected services to apply for a review of the financial terms of their licences under Clause 223, which allows for new terms to be set should those obligations come into force. Amendment No. 195CG would keep the safeguard for the broadcaster, but would prevent commencement from occurring more than six months before digital switchover, which Amendment No. 195CH seeks to define.

I understand the purpose of the amendments, but cannot agree with them. We are working on our plans to implement digital switchover, and we believe that we might need between three to four years to switch off signal access across the whole country. That is because, for technical and logistical reasons, we will not be able to convert all the networks at the same time. The timing that would be imposed by the two amendments might prove totally unrealistic.

3 Jun 2003 : Column 1200

We want as many people as possible to be ready for switchover before it actually happens. We might need to commence the clause in advance of switchover, to ensure that people who will have to rely on satellite can, once they have bought the equipment, get the solus card and other facilities that they need before the analogue signals in their region are switched off. I hope that that explains why we have to resist the amendments.

Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister for that very helpful answer. I shall withdraw the amendment, but I would be interested to know whether he could answer the question about the solus cards. Perhaps he cannot at this stage, but it would be interesting to know whether one card will be provided for a household or for each TV set. Can he give us that information?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The idea is that it will be free for everyone, but the technology will change. I do not expect that solus cards will be restricted to individual sets rather than to households, and I am sure that they will be replaced by other forms of software in due course. If I can add anything to that, I shall gladly write to the noble Baroness. I think the issue is temporary, and we do not want to enshrine an answer to it in the Bill.

Baroness Wilcox: I can understand that. I was just testing. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 195CG and 195CH not moved.]

Clause 270 agreed to.

Clause 271 [Must-provide services for the purposes of s. 270]:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 195D:

    Page 244, line 29, at end insert—

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page