I thank the Minister for very kindly coming to the House to debate something that is not of obvious interest to people beyond myself, my hon. Friend Mr Gale and, of course, the Minister himself. Although we aim to be unique in many ways in Thanet and have a huge amount to be proud about, turning on the television and watching the black snow on our analogue TVs or the even more annoying pixel scramble on current digital TVs is not something that we want to excel in.
Our world is often cut short in midstream: just as the first Chilean miner is released from his lair, we have not the popping of Chilean champagne but the crackle of our TVs with moonscape replacing celebrations; the final moment of "The X Factor" is suddenly replaced by the emergence of a screeching pixel reorganisation that makes chalk on a blackboard seem like an appealing noise; and can hon. Members imagine, when waiting for my right hon. Friend Mr Cameron to emerge as Prime Minister in May, the sound from expensive and aggressively marketed digital radio cracking up on them? We in Thanet no longer want to be left at the end of the line or without a signal. We do not want to be left out of the action. We certainly do want to join the real televisual world, but as we are without reliable television, and with digital radio on the blink, we are yet again left out.
I thank all the agencies involved with TV and radio reception-BBC, Ofcom, Arqiva and my hon. Friend the Minister's Department-for their work to secure better coverage. They have been striving to find solutions to the problem, but the local survey that my hon. Friend Mr Gale and I undertook revealed that the problem was more severe than the authorities realised.
Broadstairs was seen as the black hole for TV coverage, and it most certainly is, but bad-really quite bad-coverage is not the exclusive privilege of Broadstairs. The harbour area of Ramsgate has very patchy coverage, and parts of Cliftonville get no coverage at all. North Thanet has its black spots, too, in Westgate and Westbrook. From our rough calculations, about 6,000 households throughout Thanet do not get adequate coverage, while some do not get coverage at all.
Those problems mean that Thanet is probably the largest population area without adequate television and digital radio coverage, and that has a human impact. I know of an older lady who is housebound in Ramsgate, pays good money for her TV licence-she does not yet qualify for her free TV licence-and can get ITV 1 sometimes but nothing else. I have had letters from residents of large retirement blocks that get virtually no coverage at all. Those who can afford it subscribe to Sky, but Thanet is the 64th poorest district in the country, so not everyone has that luxury.
Why should people pay a licence fee for the privilege of getting television if they are then forced to supplement it with additional fees? It raises questions about the legislation governing the licensing of televisions. Is it fair to license a box or a flat screen that is unable to receive anything? Should the licence not relate to whether the box can deliver its function-that of receiving television programming?
We would like to address two key issues: what we can do now to support our residents with better coverage and, possibly more importantly, what will happen following digital switchover. Today, analogue coverage is bad in some areas and poor in many, and digital services are very sporadic, with even Sky users unable to receive good coverage all the time. Digital radio coverage is also limited.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister's partners have been working hard on the matter, but I should welcome an update on the findings of the BBC's reception assessment, which it undertook a few weeks ago after a request from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet and myself. It was excellent that the BBC was able to go down and undertake that work. I also understand that Arqiva is in talks with Thanet college about putting up a transmitter, and I should welcome an update on that option. If that is not possible, what other options, such as improving the signal from the Ramsgate repeater station, can be investigated?
Some immediate improvement would be most welcome, but the future digital switchover also concerns us, because the expert information that I have received does not indicate a smooth switchover in 2012. EURIM states that if the broadcasting infrastructure is not in place now, digital will not provide a significantly better service than we have today. The service will be a bit better, but not adequate. Mentor Technology, in its submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report in 2006, stated that those areas with existing marginal terrestrial coverage with poor quality today might not receive any digital picture at all. And this year Digital UK stated:
"The digital television switchover programme will aim to ensure that substantially the same proportion of UK households that currently receive analogue terrestrial TV services will continue to receive public service broadcasting in digital terrestrial form. It will not directly address bringing digital television services to those who have not previously had access to analogue terrestrial services."
Its website reveals that quite a few parts of my constituency will get only four to eight channels, with poor or no coverage for the rest of the channels. That does not bode well.
So we are calling on the Minister to address our existing and future reception problems. First, is the infrastructure in place to provide us with reasonable analogue reception? Is this about upgrading existing relay masts or adding new ones? In areas where new masts are difficult to install, can the Minister investigate the possibility of connection to the high-speed fibre optic cable running from Broadstairs to Canterbury?
Are we sure that the infrastructure will deliver full digital coverage at the time of switchover? If there are going to be pockets of limited or no coverage, what can the Minister do? Will there be a scheme of free purchase and installation of Freesat? If so, how will that be achieved through the planning process, given that we have several conservation areas? Given our current problems with the reception of Sky, even Freesat does not necessarily guarantee adequate reception.
If we cannot secure reception, what will happen to Thanet? Would anyone move their family to an area that did not receive TV? New essential services would be broadcast-would Thanet need a carrier pigeon system? Would we end up living in a cultural, entertainment and current affairs oblivion? Would my constituents suffer from not being able to see their local MP on regional news?
We need the Minister's assurances that our situation will be significantly improved after switchover and that Thanet will not be yet again left at the end of the line. If we are not guaranteed proper digital coverage, I will personally ensure that throughout the World cup in 2014, the Minister is forced to join my constituents and me for an evening of popcorn, moonscape and French radio.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Laura Sandys on securing this important debate on access to digital television and radio for her constituents. Her speech reflected her passionate work on behalf of her constituents on a whole range of issues. I know from conversations that we have had outside the Chamber how seriously she takes the subject of this debate.
I could find only one mistake in her speech: she said that the issue was of interest only to me, her and our august hon. Friend Mr Gale. However, I see that we are joined by my hon. Friend George Eustice so, clearly, the issue stretches beyond the borders of Thanet.
I take an interest in this matter because I am the Minister responsible for it, but I must also put on record the fact that as a young child I spent every summer holiday in Ramsgate with my Auntie Joan and Uncle Freddy. Freddy Drake was the headmaster of St Clement Danes school, which I assume still thrives strongly, and he received an OBE, having served on the executive of the National Union of Teachers at a time when that trade union was an august and responsible body.
Let me return to the subject before the House tonight, however. I shall start with the national picture. We continue to make good progress on the digital switchover, and by the end of August almost 7 million people, representing about 25% of UK homes, will have completed the switchover, and a further 10.5 million homes will switch next year. It has so far been an almost flawless process, although ironically the only glitch to have occurred so far took place in Oxfordshire, where the new digital TV aerial burned down, thus affecting television coverage for thousands of my own constituents for six months. As a constituency MP, I have some experience of what it is like when constituents are not receiving a good television signal. Next year is going to be equally challenging, with 21 regional switchovers and 25 retuning events. An enormous amount of planning is going into making switchover a success, and I am confident that nationally the TV switchover programme will continue to remain on track.
The status of the digital radio switchover, to which my hon. Friend also referred, is slightly different from that for digital TV. While we are fully committed to securing a digital future for radio, we believe that a digital radio switchover is the right way to deliver a co-ordinated transition. However, we have not set a specific date for digital radio switchover, although we have agreed that 2015 should be the target date. We have also set out a robust digital radio action plan to take this forward.
I want to concentrate my remarks on the issues in Broadstairs that my hon. Friend highlighted. As I say, it is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet, who has represented his constituents so assiduously for many years, here too. As my hon. Friends are aware, Ofcom is responsible for ensuring, as part of the switchover process, that digital terrestrial TV coverage is substantially the same as existing analogue coverage, but analogue covers only 98.5% of the population. It is therefore important, as the starting point of this debate, to recognise that there is, unfortunately, no absolute right to TV coverage. People who currently live outside the analogue coverage area and want to watch television sometimes have to incur additional costs, whether by getting a specialised aerial or another TV platform such as satellite. That does not just mean Sky, as Freesat is now also available.
Nevertheless, it is obviously common sense that we want as many people as possible to have access to a service which the vast majority of the population enjoys, and Ofcom is doing all it reasonably can to ensure that viewers have access to digital terrestrial TV after switchover. There are inevitably constraints, not least the availability of suitable frequencies. In respect of the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, the difficulty, as she must be aware, is the proximity to France. That makes options for Broadstairs more limited, as it is apparently a matter of Government policy that we do not want to interfere with French television signals any more than we want the French to interfere with ours.
The specific issue regarding the coverage in my hon. Friend's constituency is transmitter location. Ofcom has the power to require the broadcasters to fill an identified gap in digital television coverage by building a new relay transmitter. The problem in Broadstairs, as she is only too aware, is that the only suitable location that Ofcom has been able to identify is Thanet college, which is apparently currently unable to host a mast that would allow a TV signal to be beamed into Broadstairs. She may be more aware of the reasons behind the difficulties that the college faces, although I am led to believe that it may be because it has plans to develop the site in the future and a new relay transmitter might prevent this.
Although this option would clearly offer a solution, it is ultimately, I suspect, a matter for the college what it wants to do with its land and property. It occurs to me, however, that as a Minister one obtains such information, to a certain extent, second hand, and I would be only too delighted to have a meeting with her, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet, Arqiva and representatives of Thanet college if that proved possible to arrange, either in the House or possibly as part of a visit to my late aunt and uncle's home-my old holiday home-in Fitzroy avenue in Ramsgate.
As I understand it, the key issue regarding Thanet college is that there are unfortunately no other suitable sites which are not prohibitively expensive. I shall dwell on that point briefly. Of course, if money were no object, it might be possible to solve the problem, just as it would be possible to provide a signal to the 1.5% of the population who do not currently get an analogue TV signal. However, I am afraid that cost inevitably comes into the equation, particularly on a day such as today, and it would not be right to place on broadcasters a significant cost relative to the number of viewers served.
In the case in question, Ofcom estimates that about 2,500 of my hon. Friend's constituents are affected. That means that their coverage does not meet the threshold for good reception, which is defined as a good service for 99% of the time. However, Ofcom's coverage model suggests that all those affected should have a good service for 95% of the time. I do not want to be dismissive, particularly in the light of being threatened with having to watch the World cup with my hon. Friend. Everyone knows how exasperating it is when the picture freezes just before a penalty kick or a crucial point in a drama, but on Ofcom's analysis, that is not the same as receiving no TV service at all.
I have already mentioned that there may be other ways of getting a television signal, through either satellite or aerials. There is a cost involved, but the cost of Freesat is a one-off and there is no ongoing subscription. My hon. Friend has indicated that the problems are not just limited to Broadstairs, and I am aware of the petition that she referred to, which suggests that reception problems may be more widespread. She is quite reasonably concerned that bad analogue signals now could mean bad signals after digital switchover. I know that Ofcom is taking her concerns seriously, and earlier this week it carried out specific signal quality testing in the area, which may correspond to the BBC testing to which she referred. It will enable Ofcom to record the strength and robustness of analogue signals in the areas that she has identified as having possible problems.
I understand that Ofcom's preliminary analysis suggests that the relatively poor reception of digital terrestrial television signals reported by many of my hon. Friend's constituents could stem from the current low power operation of the local digital transmitters prior to switchover in 2012. When switchover takes place, the power of the local transmitters will be increased and the local relay transmitters will move over to digital operation. They are not currently operating at full power, because they are also having to run a dual analogue signal. That should lead to a significant improvement in the reception of digital television signals. That might offer her some comfort that switchover could improve the problem significantly.
I was delighted by my hon. Friend's kind remarks about the various stakeholders involved, and I am pleased that Ofcom is approaching the problem so thoroughly. I hope that its results may point a way towards ensuring a robust digital television signal after switchover.
TV switchover has been very successful to date, and I have every confidence that it will continue to be so. It is not all plain sailing, and there are some areas where reception is patchy, but I hope I have made it clear that Ofcom is doing all it reasonably can to ensure that people continue to receive a good signal post-switchover. I thank my hon. Friend for raising her concerns on behalf of her constituents, and as I said earlier, I would happily sit down with her to hear at first hand what the problems are and consider whether, by sitting around a table with the key players in her constituency, we might be able to work towards a solution.
Question put and agreed to.
House adjourned .