Television Reception (Wales)

– in the House of Commons at 6:29 pm on 30th November 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.——[Tony Cunningham]

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Education) 6:31 pm, 30th November 2005

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House the important matter of television reception in Wales.

There is no doubt that broadcasting is going through a revolution that is allowing more people to access more information and offering more choices. Arguably, the most important of all is the digital revolution in radio and television that is already well under way. Wales will be one of the first to switch off its analogue transmitters in 2009, and by 2012 the UK as a whole will be one of Europe's leading modern broadcasting nations.

This debate, however, is not about the benefits of digitalisation, but about how those benefits can be accessed by all. The success of any nation calling itself modern can be measured only by how it can help those in society who need assistance. More than 30 years ago, the Government commissioned a report into broadcasting coverage in the UK. The Crawford report's findings in 1974 still resonate, 30 years on. It stated that

"the numbers of people unable to receive public service broadcasting are by no means negligible".

Today, 1.5 per cent of the UK population, or just under a million people, do not have television reception of acceptable quality, or even any reception at all. In Wales, that amounts to some 36,000 households. We must be clear about the matter: if the topography of Wales and its hilly landscapes prevent 36,000 households from getting TV reception, those same conditions also prevent 36,000 people from getting the mobile phone, radio or broadband signals on which so many of us rely to stay in touch with each other and the world around us. That is particularly important, given the recent general election and the forthcoming National Assembly elections. The electoral process involves people accessing information, and more people depend on television to follow politics than on any other medium. There is a public service obligation, but many people are unable to access the information they need.

My question to the Minister is: why are we not using the unique opportunity of digital switchover to secure universal coverage, in Wales and further afield? The dispiriting fact so far is that the expectation of digitalisation is merely to achieve parity of cover with analogue.

Digital switchover has opened up a debate that successive Governments have ignored for over 30 years—how we can ensure that everyone in the country gets adequate television reception. The Minister will not need reminding of the Labour manifesto commitment to

"achieve digital switchover between 2008 and 2012, ensuring universal access to high-quality"— and this debate is concerned with the quality of transmission—

"free-to-view and subscription digital TV."

Universal access is non-negotiable and the Government have an obligation to honour their manifesto commitment. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what targets he suggests setting to tackle the problem of the outstanding 1.5 per cent. or 36,000 people in Wales who do not get adequate television reception—or any reception at all.

There is considerable unease. One constituent of mine, a Mr. Loftus of Taliesin in the north of Ceredigion, is currently unable to access Freeview, and asks whether his local transmitter will be upgraded in time for analogue switch-off in 2009. Another constituent, Mr. Shaftoe, is concerned at the lack of public information. The 2009 date is engraved on our minds, but what is the immediate timetable? The Minister will not need reminding that switchover is only four years away.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman displays a keen interest in Welsh affairs and I am happy to give way.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I represent a constituency in Northamptonshire that will be in one of the last tranches for digital switchover. Does he think that it is a good thing or a bad thing for Wales to be in the initial tranche?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Education)

It is certainly unusual for Wales to be in the first tranche and, in that sense, I welcome it. However, as I will say later, we need the reassurance that the mechanisms are in place for digitalisation. If he will forgive me, I will not delve into the details of his constituency, but stay on the right side of Offa's dyke.

I appreciate the work that Digital UK has undertaken, especially its work with retailers, providing the information and staff training necessary to reassure customers. However, Digital UK is only six months old, and there is much to do. Without being alarmist, we surely need to be upping the stakes in terms of public education on the switchover.

In the past, the excuses have included lack of funding, and there are two community-funded transmitters in my constituency. Local communities had to find the £50,000 to have the transmitters in Ystumtuen and Bronnant in Ceredigion. More recent excuses have been that the technology did not exist to solve the problems of television reception, but that is not a valid excuse today. Although satellite television is by no means a panacea, it will enable most people who do not have reception today because of Welsh topography to get reception. Since the welcome announcement of a BBC and ITV Freesat in September this year, it will be much easier for the Government to avoid the sort of competition issues that promoting a Sky satellite package as the solution would have raised.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that lack of access to television signals coincides geographically with low wages in rural and deep rural communities and the most Welsh-speaking areas? Should not that concern the Government?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Education)

As the Member of Parliament for a constituency in which the majority of people speak Welsh as their first language, that is an issue of concern. I shall come to the issue of low incomes later in my speech, but the ability of constituents to access such services means that the Minister should look carefully at Welsh language provision.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

Like my hon. Friend, I represent a constituency in which people have difficulty with television reception, and some communities have banded together to enhance the signal. However, when some people take advantage of satellite reception, the community spirit breaks down because they no longer want to be involved. It is therefore the poorest people in the community who suffer because they cannot afford satellite equipment.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. I shall return to the issue of low income and some of the financial implications later.

If nothing has yet been done about TV reception, it has nothing to do with technology; it may be more to do with a lack of will. Over and above anything else, I seek from the Minister today a firm commitment that something will be done to remedy the inadequacies of the past three decades. If technology is not the problem, perhaps the Minister will allow me to share my thoughts—perhaps naive ones—about how the difficulties could be tackled.

Ofcom's report published in August 2004, "Vulnerable Consumers in Switchover—Who Are They And Where Do They Live?", recognised that people living in low population density areas were less likely to receive TV reception and earmarked them as vulnerable groups. That may address the point made by Hywel Williams. Will the Government take Ofcom's recommendations on board and broaden the eligibility criteria, to ensure that people living in rural areas who might just miss the criteria for low income, and the elderly and disabled, have the chance to access that new technology, perhaps involving some form of modulation in proportion to their income?

I applaud the support scheme that the Government have announced, as far as it goes, and its provision for helping with installation of equipment and for follow-up support for people with significant disabilities, and people aged 75 years and older—an important issue that relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Caernarfon about the Welsh language. In a written answer of 22 November to David T.C. Davies, the Minister mentioned such a support scheme. When will the details be forthcoming? Definite details would reassure many people and meet many of the anxieties they are experiencing.

Through what mechanisms do the Government envisage support being made available to the elderly and disabled, and those on low incomes? Will they make use of existing structures to assess those in need and to dispense help? There is already a network of Ofcom engineers—albeit not many—who travel the length and breadth of Wales investigating interference problems with TV reception. It would take only a slight broadening of the remit of Ofcom's current powers to enable its expert engineers to hold the deciding vote over whether a satellite was the only way to proceed in a reception blackspot. Ofcom would of course require additional funding to meet that extra function. In some ways, its engineers are already performing that duty, as the interference problems with which they have to deal are due to topography. Armed with an official Ofcom certificate, the individual could take a claim to the local authority and access practical financial aid to upgrade the satellite.

We are still in the dark about how and when the Government will dispense the help they have promised to the elderly, the disabled and those on low incomes, but it is obviously not too late to make plans to help those who are media poor. We know that the BBC will have to contribute £400 million to aid the most vulnerable to make the leap to digital, but what estimates has the Department for Culture, Media and Sport made of how much it would cost to solve the problem faced by the 36,000 households I mentioned—1.5 million UK-wide? Our estimates, using Government figures, suggest that it would cost the DCMS between £720,000 and £7 million to get those 36,000 households in Wales connected once and for all.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. He has shown much interest in the matter in the past. He met a delegation that included my hon. Friend Mr. Williams, the hon. Member for Caernarfon and me and was receptive to our message. Like others, I feel strongly that small percentages should not disguise the fact that for many people, particularly those clustered in rural areas, things that the rest of us take for granted are not readily available. It is on their behalf that I ask the Minister to respond positively.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 6:44 pm, 30th November 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Williams on securing the debate. I also thank the Minister for allowing me to make a short contribution.

The crucial point for a place such as Montgomeryshire, which neighbours Ceredigion, is that although we may be living in the sticks, we should not be rubbing sticks together when it comes to technology. Our idea of a good night in is not Sîan using the old spinning mill, me chopping wood in the back yard, and talking about the good old days. Sometimes we would actually like to watch television. Television is not only for entertainment, because it increasingly provides a range of other important facilities without which one is effectively excluded from important cultural and information-based elements of modern life.

People from the beautiful town of Machynlleth have an extraordinary ability to win pub quizzes. When I asked them why they did so well, they said, "Well, it's basically because the television reception is so poor that we've got nothing else to do than read." One could argue that that is a benefit, but it also means that they are excluded from certain media outlets, as my hon. Friend said. On a practical point, they are reduced to receiving the programming that happens to make its way into the valley. For example, they might not be able to receive Welsh regional television coverage and instead have to depend on the midlands' programmes. Such a situation necessarily causes a serious problem in Wales.

I would like to watch the programmes that it is possible to watch in the midlands and larger towns. I would like to watch Sîan Lloyd doing the excellent weather forecasts on ITV or "I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!"—I declare an interest of a most personal nature. However, thanks to the hills, every time I watch her weather forecasts, they are full of snow. When analogue is switched off, it is likely that a proportion of my constituents will lose access to some of those programmes completely.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, modern technology can solve all those problems, but we need initiative from the Government. Television is about more than entertainment—it is about information. It is about not only soap operas, but ensuring that parts of Wales are not unclassified roads compared with the information super-highway, which dominates much of modern business and culture.

The Minister has been receptive to our points and positive about the problems that have been highlighted. Nevertheless, I hope that he can give us some specifics about what the Government can do to resolve the situation. We are asking not for tomorrow's world, but simply that Wales is not left out. As things stand, however, a proportion of residents in Wales, through no fault of their own, will continue to regard the television reception problem as the weakest link.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:48 pm, 30th November 2005

With the Minister's permission, I will make a short contribution. I thank him for receiving the delegation of my hon. Friend Mark Williams and Hywel Williams. However, the problem does not go away and our constituents refer to it regularly.

I sometimes believe that people who live in large towns and cities think that everyone throughout the country has the same facilities and services, but that is certainly not the case. For example, in the Nedd valley in my constituency, four families will now be receiving mains electricity for the first time. That is costing each family £20,000, so they are not getting something for nothing. One of the main reasons why they have decided to make that investment is so that they can use computer equipment, which they could not do before because they did not have the assurance of a continuous electricity supply. However, people look to the Government, as well as investing themselves, so that they can receive the facilities that the rest of the country takes for granted.

Like my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik, I am worried about people who live on the border of England and Wales and get their television programmes not from Wales, but from the midlands. It is not surprising that in elections, such as those for the Assembly, it is much more difficult for those people to become aware of the issues. It is also a question of language—just because someone lives on the border between England and Wales does not mean that they want to receive all their entertainment in the medium of English. Many people in that area speak Welsh as their family language and as their first language, and they would like to receive information and entertainment in Welsh. We look forward to hearing the Minister reaffirm the commitment that he made when we met him earlier this year, when he said he would do what he can to ensure that we secure equality of service throughout the country.

Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Media and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport 6:50 pm, 30th November 2005

May I begin by congratulating Mark Williams on securing this debate, and on the cogent way in which he made his case? I welcome the support from everyone who spoke in our debate for the commitment to switchover, which was universally welcomed. Rather than express opposition to the concept itself, Members were concerned that digital access will not extend far enough. The fact that Wales is one of the first two regions to go down that route was welcomed. Wales leads the world in the amount of digital TV that it receives, as 70 per cent. of households have digital TV sets—no other nation has such a high a percentage. There is therefore a genuine opportunity for Wales and the border region, when they go first in 2008, to secure leading-edge advantages for the local economy. I encourage hon. Members to work with the regional development agency, local authorities and the Welsh Assembly to make sure that Wales capitalises on that economic opportunity.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the digital switchover in September this year. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, that announcement confirmed that HTV Wales would be switched off in 2009. We decided that Wales should be one of the first to switch over because 43 per cent. of homes in Wales—nearly double the national average of 25 per cent.—cannot gain access to digital terrestrial television. We receive hundreds of letters every month from the constituents of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House complaining about the fact that they cannot gain access to digital terrestrial television. Without the digital switchover we could not respond to those concerns, because we would be unable to extend digital coverage.

Of course, many people prefer to receive their digital TV via satellite, cable or, in some areas, via broadband. In Wales, many viewers have already opted for satellite services. Some have done so specifically to resolve longstanding reception difficulties, including the lack of availability of Channel 4 on analogue in Wales, and to receive new digital services. For many other people, however, digital TV through an aerial is still the cheapest and most convenient option, which is why we are committed to extending the service.

Extending digital terrestrial in Wales is particularly challenging. Terrestrial reception requires a line of sight to a transmitter, but the hills and valleys in much of Wales make that difficult to achieve with ground-based transmitters. The solution adopted during the 1960s and 1970s was to build a network of relay transmitters to boost coverage, and there are more than 200 relay transmitters in Wales—a far higher number than in any other TV region. It would be fantastic to extend digital TV coverage without switching off analogue, but we are unable to do so. Only by removing analogue from the equation can we enable the digital network to be replanned and allow digital transmissions to use frequencies that are cleared internationally for high-powered use. That will be a huge amount of work. Removing analogue will create space for the network of 1,154 transmitters, including those small relay stations, to be upgraded.

This means that at switchover the same proportion of homes as can currently receive analogue services—that is, 98.5 per cent. of homes—will be able to receive channels on the three public service multiplexes. We have been clear that that is our commitment to universal coverage ever since Chris Smith laid down those criteria when he announced the Government's commitment in principle to digital switchover.

We recognise that for the 1.5 per cent. of homes that have no access to services, the figure of 98.5 per cent. offers no comfort. Even if it is a small number of households relative to the whole country, it is still extremely frustrating for people who do not have reception. Being able to play pub quizzes may be a compensating advantage, but it does not make up for being unable to receive television in Machynlleth or anywhere else.

In Wales digital terrestrial coverage will increase from around 57 per cent. to match current analogue coverage, which in Wales will be 97.4 per cent. It will be slightly lower than in the rest of the country because that is the current percentage. I recognise the point that the hon. Member for Ceredigion makes. We are seized of the need to see what can be done to help the remaining 1.5 per cent. Clearly, a number of them can currently receive satellite television, but we are working with Ofcom to conduct further research to find other ways of extending digital TV to those households.

Many homes are considering installing a taller or higher spec aerial or booster. Self-help schemes have sprung up around much of the country, allowing small communities to install their own community relays at their own expense to extend analogue TV into their locations. However, over recent months some of those schemes have started to fold as more and more people tip over into getting satellite TV. That can make self-help schemes unsustainable. Nevertheless, we will continue to work with Ofcom to see what can be done through self-help schemes and other technological solutions to expand coverage to that 1.5 per cent. We are confident that the eventual coverage will be even higher than the current rate for analogue television.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we are not extending the digital terrestrial transmitter network even further. It is a matter of cost effectiveness. We have already been criticised for our plans to extend digital terrestrial coverage to the 98.5 per cent. There were representations to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recently, to the effect that instead of expanding digital terrestrial, we should rely on satellite for the last 10 or 20 per cent. The hon. Gentleman would probably agree that that would be of little comfort to his constituents, particularly those who are unable to receive satellite television because of proximate hills or buildings. Because of that concern, we have committed to go to 98.5 per cent., but to go further would, we believe—and Ofcom shares that belief—mean investing in transmission facilities which could not be justified on cost-effective grounds. That is why we are exploring other solutions such as satellite and self-help schemes, and even piloting the use of electricity wires to distribute television.

On the point made by Mr. Williams, we discussed that during the session on the issue. Of course it is frustrating for people who want to access Welsh services if they can get only English-language services. It is a difficult issue to resolve, as the mountains in the area shield those households from the Welsh transmitters. The Welsh services are available on satellite, which, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly says, can already be accessed free from Sky, and the BBC and ITV are planning a freesat service, which we hope will help.

We will continue to look into the matter, and I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to see whether there have been any new developments. That is the answer that I can give him with regard to the 1.5 per cent.—the important minority of people who cannot get access to analogue television. We are confident that we will be able to provide access to more people. I cannot guarantee that we will be able to provide digital terrestrial access to everybody, but we are working with Ofcom and we will be happy to continue to work with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on seeing what we can do to provide further coverage.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Tony Cunningham.]

Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Media and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that preparations for digital switchover are extremely important and, like him, we have great confidence in the work that Digital UK is doing to ensure that there is full awareness of the switchover process. He will be happy to know that Digital UK has already started to advertise, both regionally and nationally. It is being very competently led by Ford Ennals and his team, and we have great confidence in their ability to carry out that task. He may be interested to know that Digital UK is planning to start its regional campaign in Wales in the first half of 2006, so that is imminent and I hope that that will reassure him that we are focusing on trying to ensure that his constituents are aware of the switchover date.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the targeted help schemes. We had to make some trade-offs when we were making the decision about whom to include within the help scheme. It is important to understand that our starting point for that is not one of affordability. Based on the evidence and the research that we had, we thought that with the price of set-top boxes already falling and available for about £25, affordability would not be the key barrier to people going over to digital. We thought that the key barrier—again this was backed up by our research in Llansteffan and Ferryside—was technical understanding and people being able to obtain the new equipment, have it fitted and learn how to use it. That is why we focused on the people who our research highlighted as having the greatest technical barriers to being able to make the switch.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the Minister also appreciate that, as Hywel Williams mentioned, language is an important barrier that needs to be overcome as well? The Welsh language therefore needs to be heavily borne in mind in any support that can be given to those groups.

Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Media and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

That is an important point and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that Digital UK is already well seized of it. I believe that it is developing a Welsh language scheme. It is certainly committed to providing bilingual advertising material and services, and that will apply to its phone lines as well as to its other services. Thus we are ensuring from the start that we are building bilingual services into the plans for Wales. If there are any issues where he or his colleagues feel that that is not being done sufficiently, we would obviously be happy to look into the matter.

Assistance through the targeted help scheme is focused on people who will have technical issues in making the switch to digital, and that is why we focused on people over 75 and people with severe disabilities. We are still researching the precise way in which that scheme will work. We have a trial in Bolton that is looking at the technical and logistical issues around giving people advice, making home visits, and a range of such issues that we need to resolve before we can make a robust estimate of the costs. We will be publishing those next year once we have a proper understanding of the matter. It would be inappropriate to make a forecast without enough data on which to base it.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to people who live in rural communities, and Digital UK will look at the role that local communities can play in reaching those people. We do not believe that it would be appropriate to make them a category in their own right, because we believe that a strong proportion of those people will be able to make the switch without any extra help. However, we are clear that we will not be turning anybody away. The basic level of services that Digital UK will be offering will be available to people whether they are in those two vulnerable groups or not.

Digital switchover is an extremely important policy for the future of UK television. British television is among the best in the world and that has been achieved because we have always been at the forefront of technology, whether it was the creation of the BBC, the pioneering of commercial television through ITV, the invention of Channel 4, or, more recently, satellite and cable television, or the development of mobile telephony. Our media industries have succeeded partly because instead of following technology we have decided to lead from the front and ensure that we were the first to develop new services. We believe that that will be good for consumers, for industry and for Britain, and we look forward to working with hon. Members on both sides of the House on that important project.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Seven o'clock.