New Clause 1 - Digital television

Office of Communications Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 5th February 2002.

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'It shall be a duty of OFCOM to make proposals to the Secretary of State on the regulatory requirements relating to analogue switch off and full conversion to digital television within one year of OFCOM's establishment.'.—[Miss McIntosh.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am grateful for this opportunity to move new clause 1, Mr. Gale. Several new clauses were tabled that have not been called for debate, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss them on a future occasion.

New clause 1 speaks for itself. Paragraph 72 of the report on the White Paper ''A New Future for Communications'' by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport urges the Government to consider that

Access to the Internet can be an important driver of the take-up of digital television, and the expansion of digital television services can be fundamental to achievement of the Government's objective of universal Internet access by 2005.

This debate gives us an opportunity to ask the Minister to confirm whether that is still the Government's objective. The Select Committee went on to say that it is also

concerned that these links are not readily apparent in the two separate Government policies at present.

It recommends that

the promotion of Internet access through digital television become a more prominent element in Government policy for the Internet and that the promotion of digital television by the Government and the industry lay greater stress than is currently evident on digital television as an easy and affordable gateway to the Internet.

The Government's reply to that was very positive, saying that

the digital television action plan should ensure that the synergies between Internet access, digital television and the delivery of Government services electronically are developed. Linked with a telephone line, the television (analogue or digital) can provide an easy means of gaining access to the Internet for those without a personal computer (PC). Much of the material available on the Internet, however, is designed for access through a PC, and we must be careful to see that consumers are not deterred from using the Internet by a poor early experience through the television.

The BBC told us that the take-up of digital television has been rapid. In three years, more than 9 million homes—more than a third of the country—have gone digital. The BBC reckons that nearly half of the nation's children, 46 per cent., live in a house with digital television. The vast majority of homes with digital television have chosen one of the three pay-television options, and the BBC goes on to elaborate those. The downside is that two thirds of the population remain on analogue, and most have only five channels. Among that group the story is one of overriding confusion about digital, and I would probably count myself as such a person.

Many people are unsure what digital offers or how they could go about getting it if they wanted it. The range of providers, packages and platforms is daunting. Broadly, the older people are, the less they know about digital and the less they think they want it. Just more than one third of people think that they are likely to go digital in the next five years; just under a half think that they may go digital; 21 per cent. think that they will stay analogue. A point that was made forcibly during the Christmas shopping period and the January sales was that nine out of 10 sets sold in 2001 were analogue. The Government seem to want to switch to digital, but we do not see the action to make that a reality.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Does the hon. Lady accept that, from a technical point of view, the best option is to buy traditional television sets and then to obtain digital television access by having a separate set-top box or other device? The sale of analogue televisions is not a measure of the failure to roll out DTV.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware from local BBC that Pace in west Yorkshire has launched a box that will be on sale for £99. [Hon. Members: ''It is already on sale.''] I accept that. The problem is that a separate box is required for each analogue set in a home. Hon. Members who have, as I do, a London flat and a constituency home would need two boxes.

Photo of Derek Wyatt Derek Wyatt Labour, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

In fact, you need only one box to link your other televisions sets at home. You can watch different programmes throughout the house.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Order. I cannot, because I do not have digital television in east Kent. The hon. Gentleman was addressing the Chair.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman's information is most welcome because the briefing that I received from the company that makes the set-top box suggested that one box would be needed for each television.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

NEC helped to develop the box with Pace and carried out the research in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) is correct. Internet access is an active occupation and watching television is a passive occupation. How does the hon. Lady reconcile those?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I always feel that I should be involved when watching television, but perhaps that is at the end of a working day. The hon. Gentleman's intervention was helpful. The Government have made several policy statements to the effect that universal access to the internet will enable more and more people to have access to the technology that they hope will be available throughout the country. On page 32 of the White Paper, the Government envisaged people such as me, who are not as computer-literate as we would like to be. Paragraph 3.10, which is headed ''Supporting individuals in using the new communications technologies'', states that the Government

will ensure that relevant education and training programmes allow everyone to maximise the opportunities afforded by these new communications technologies—both to improve the quality of their lives and to enhance their work prospects.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Upminster

Does my hon. Friend want to include in the proposals support, help and protection for the many elderly people who may not want to buy a modern television? My mother-in-law was reluctant even to change channels with the remote control and had no interest in developing technology. We do not want to cut off viewers who want to retain their analogue sets. I am sure that my hon. Friend would want to incorporate that in the proposals.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Not only would I wish to incorporate that generation, I would like someone to tell me after the Committee how to set my video recorder when I am not in the room. Many of us will wait until our analogue sets break and we have no alternative but to change to digital television. As a Scot by birth, I can say that the price will have to fall substantially before I am moved to accept it.

The new clause is a challenge to the Government and would make it

a duty of OFCOM to make proposals to the Secretary of State on the regulatory requirements relating to analogue switch off and full conversion to digital television within one year of OFCOM's establishment.

The Opposition would like a target date of 2006. There is a discrepancy between that and this proposal. However, I hope that the Minister is minded to support the new clause.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton 5:30 pm, 5th February 2002

The new clause is important and reasonable. I am sure that the Minister will be tempted to accept it, regardless of what he may have been advised.

The frustration caused by the digital versus analogue debate is considerable. At my instigation, the Broadcasting Act 1996 set up a timetable for guidance. Officials do not sit in Committee, but if they did, they might nod their heads, and I would have noticed them doing so at that point. I was concerned that if the timetable were not included, the concept of analogue switch-off would not be grasped. We set a five-year target of 50 per cent. That was not terribly realistic, but I wanted people to understand that the process would take place. I chide the Government for not having grasped the issue early enough, but I credit them for doing so in the last month or two.

The appointment of Barry Cox from Channel 4 to galvanise interest is a great step forward. ONdigital, now ITV Digital, raised the question of whether new sets were marked as digital. Many people purchased widescreen television sets assuming that they were digital. They then had to either adapt their existing set-top boxes or obtain separate boxes, which meant competitive giveaways for a while.

All of those factors complicate a worthwhile Government objective; the transfer from analogue to digital. That ranges more widely than television. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said, the objective effectively brings the internet into every house in the country. I think that there are about 45 million televisions in the country and the penetration rate is significantly higher than 90 per cent. I will defer to the Minister if he has up-to-date figures. There are 21 million households in this country, so the average would be two sets per house. Digital television would contribute far better than any computer in terms of the Government's target of ensuring that everyone is online. Television, cable and satellite companies are aware of that tremendous opportunity. The Government have a real interest in clarifying a date for analogue switch-off.

The spectrum that surrounds the transmitters is valuable. The analogue signal has to be kicked on each time it hits a transmitter, which causes distortion of the spectrum. Valuable radio spectrum can now be auctioned off. I hate to use the word ''auctioned'' because Ministers' eyes click up pound signs. That spectrum can be used for alternative purposes, which I do not have time to describe. Depending on the latest estimates of the worth of that spectrum, there could be a way of facilitating the buy-out of the residual owners of analogue sets, or some form of cross-subsidy, to enable the Minister to get at the people who might not wish to switch. Unless we make them switch, we will be unable to shut off the analogue transmitters across the country.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point about the value of the spectrum. I tabled a parliamentary question some time ago to ascertain that value, because I thought that any money coming in could be spent on assisting the transfer. The response came back that no calculation had yet been made in any Government Department of the potential value of that spectrum. The digital strategy is entirely altruistic, and the Government have no pounds signs

in their eyes; at least when they are giving parliamentary answers.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

It is always intriguing that when Governments change, files do not pass across. If we return to the files that existed before May 1997, some figures emerge. Even in those days, I took an interest in what it would take to facilitate the last analogue television sets being switched off. Analogue cannot be switched off if a significant number of people in the country are still clinging to it.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes

Is not one of the problems in this debate that we are concentrating on televisions rather than the access methodology? It is the access methodology, whatever it is, that is important, not the number of television sets, which are simply boxes to receive the signal at the end of the process.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

Normally, I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman—learned in the sense of the industry, rather than of law—but I am not sure that I do in this context because of the psychological importance of the television set. Of course, broadcast in whatever form it takes in a digital age can come to any receiver. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that does not have to be the television set. There are active and passive aspects to this. Nevertheless, the television set is an important form and it would be an irresponsible Government who tried to switch off the television sets of people who regarded them as the main way in which they received broadcast information.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's technological point, but there is a psychological issue involved. There is also an economic issue, partly because one cannot release the analogue spectrum until one has switched off all the transmitters. We must also ask how to buy out the last percentages. I hope that now Barry Cox is there, the Government will have a massive campaign to persuade people to switch and that they will encourage set manufacturers increasingly to produce digital televisions and kitemark them.

If my memory serves me well, this country is a significant manufacturer of television sets. It would boost us in our world leadership of television manufacturing if we could generate more purchases of digital televisions. The old days in which television were hardly ever changed are beginning to alter. There is an opportunity to renew through obsolescence rather than for other reasons. If people want to change their set, we should make sure that they buy a digital one.

In any event, there will have to be some campaign to get through the critical mass. Ways must then be found to complete the removal of analogue sets, and they may well require Government funding. Patricia Hodgson, who is now at the Independent Television Commission, has been thinking innovatively—I am not saying that her proposals have my entire support—about how to arrive at an analogue switch-off, and I urge the Minister to take that very seriously.

Returning to the contents of the new clause, the timetable proposed seems to be de minimis. We should not leave things too long and at least this would place a burden on Ofcom to get its act together quickly. In

doing so—and taking into account the point made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East that we are talking about not only the television set but a whole range of broadcasting platforms—we could find a way of reaching the objective of analogue switch-off, and of putting Britain ahead of other countries in that process.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

In some ways, we are ahead of other countries. There is already 33 per cent. penetration of digital television reception among households in the United Kingdom. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), television penetration stands at about 98 per cent. of households. We have to applaud the BBC and the independent television companies, and latterly Castle Communications and NTL, for achieving that in a country that is not as topologically suitable for terrestrial television as, say, Holland, owing to its lumps and bumps.

The whole raison d'etre of the Bill is the acknowledgement that there is convergence between various technologies. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East rightly pointed out that this is not only about television, but about the internet and a two-way flow of digital data. However, in relation to new clause 1, it is right to talk primarily about television because that is what is involved in the analogue switch-off. If the new clause said that there should be a deadline of one or two years for analogue switch-off, I would have difficulty in supporting it, but it does not. It simply asks for Ofcom to address itself to the problem and to make proposals.

Why is there urgency in doing so? As you will know, Mr. Gale, from your past experience before coming to this place, for a long time there has been a limit to the amount of spectrum that is available to radio and television broadcasters. We cannot enjoy the situation that exists in the United States, where there is five times the population and about 50 times the land mass. You said, Mr. Gale, that digital television is not available in your part of Kent—nor is it available in Sussex and elsewhere—because of the co-channel interference that it might cause with France, Belgium and Holland. That is a real problem, given the amount of frequency that is available. Yet in this country we have, and are pleased to have, many programme production houses, and there is not sufficient channel space to enable all their programming to be made available unless we go digital.

We should continue to stimulate the digital economy to force Ofcom to come up with proposals. It is all very well for the Government to say that they would like to see analogue switch-off, but it needs to be dealt with. I wish that I could cast my mind back to the days when we switched off 405 lines—VHF transmission—and went on to 625 lines. I do not know how many television sets were still receiving black and white television on VHF, but I think that it was quite a large proportion.

I understand that members of the Committee may be worried that analogue switch-off will deprive people of being able to watch television. There has already been talk about auctioning off frequencies that would be made available by the switchover. Will the Minister

consider earmarking a small part of the money from that to provide digital set-top boxes to enable everyone to watch digital television?

I disagree with my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of York and for Esher and Walton in that I do not believe that the way forward is to stimulate manufacturers to produce digital televisions. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said, there are many ways of delivering digital television—as well as various platforms—such as different sample rates and so on. Technology changes. As a consequence, set-top boxes can and will change in future.

There is flexibility in having an analogue set that can be attached to different types of set-top box. If one buys a digital television, one might be quickly lumbered with old technology; different ways of delivering digital encryption to enable the picture to be shown will create real problems if decryption, or decoding, from digital to analogue is built into the television. It is not as easy as merely switching over to a set-top box.

I plead with the Minister not to get too many pound, dollar or, God forbid, euro signs in his eyes with regard to the auction. It was interesting this morning when Sir Christopher Bland, the new chairman of BT, was giving evidence to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I asked him about the burden of debt that BT has and he was able to reassure us that it has reduced somewhat. I also asked him whether he thought it had been an effective sell-off and he said, ''Well, it was a good auction for the Treasury, but in the long term not necessarily a good auction for Great Britain Ltd., because in some ways it will restrict the actions of BT and others who have paid such an inflated rate.''

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton 5:45 pm, 5th February 2002

That is an intriguing point. As the auction was thought up by the previous Conservative Government, I find it difficult to criticise it. However, I must say that it was not the Government who upped the bidding, or who delayed the process until we hit the boom in the stock market. The then British company One–2-One delayed the whole exercise through legal processes until the bidding became frenzied. My criticism is not of the amount of money that was raised from consenting adults in companies, but of the fact that the Government did not use some of that money to reinvest in the process of analogue switch-off.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I welcome that intervention, and I suspect that I shall have an interesting discussion on that subject with my hon. Friend outside this Committee Room. Of course, they were consenting adults working for consenting companies, but the bottom line is that the Treasury was effective in ensuring that it gained the maximum amount of money from the auction. Whether that will benefit the industry in the long term is a moot point.

There is a sad and major omission from the Bill of any discussion about analogue switch-off. I cannot recall the complexion of the Government who took the bull by the horns and made the brave decision that

there would have to be a switch-off from VHF television—bands 1 and 3—to enable UHF television, which has 625 lines, to go ahead. Perhaps it was a Labour Government. This Government must also make a decision sooner or later. If they leave it too long, a Conservative Government will make it in three, four or five years; possibly sooner, depending on industrial action.

The Government are going to have to address the question of analogue switch-off, which is a major omission that has not yet been addressed. I am now tired; I have spoken at length and shall now be seated.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

As the hon. Member for Esher and Walton informed us, the amendment would place a similar requirement on Ofcom to one that is in force under section 33 of the Broadcasting Act 1996, upon which his distinguished fingerprints are clear. Section 33 requires the Secretary of State to keep under review the development of digital terrestrial television, the availability of existing analogue services in digital form and the possession of digital receiving equipment in order to decide when analogue services should be switched off. For that purpose, the 1996 Act requires the Secretary of State to ask the ITC and the BBC for a report on or before the fourth anniversary of the day on which the first television multiplex was granted.

The hon. Member for Esher and Walton will be pleased to learn that I made a formal request to the ITC and to the BBC in December 2001 jointly to undertake a review into the progress towards switchover, and that report must be submitted to me within 12 months. We have heard some fascinating contributions on this important issue. During the course of the substantive communications Bill, we shall hear many more informed contributions, but in the context of the Bill, the Government oppose the new clause.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am most grateful for the positive contributions from all those who have participated in the debate, and I am especially grateful for the contributions from my hon. Friends.

I welcome the comments by the hon. Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and for Milton Keynes, North-East. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said, we are considering various types of communication such as television, internet and mobile phones. As the useful document circulated by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology states, using television as a monitor for viewing internet content is something that all of us would support and approve. It can only help the Government to achieve greater take-up of digital television if we can encourage digital television operators to provide full internet access through set-top boxes using the phone line to send and receive data. That is something of which we are mindful.

We can argue, although this is not the context in which to do so, what the take-up by consumers should be. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton did that when he was the Minister responsible for the Broadcasting Act 1996. It is important to place on the record that we want the Government to ensure that Ofcom has a duty to make these proposals, and we would want to proceed with the vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Division number 9 Adults Abused in Childhood — New Clause 1 - Digital television

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

On behalf of the Committee, I thank the Officers of the House, the police, the Hansard staff and all concerned who have facilitated the Committee's discussions.

Committee rose at five minutes to Six o'clock.