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I am delighted to introduce a debate on the future of digital television. Events are moving fast, in terms of both technology and commerce, and important concerns have been raised in the report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, published last month, and the recent survey conducted by the Consumers Association. The latter has attracted much media attention because of the doubts that it raised about the practicability of the Government's timetable for the switch-off of the analogue signal. As the Minister knows, I have a strong constituency interest in the future of digital television because large numbers of my constituents in west Norfolk have long suffered from reception problems with analogue television. Regrettably, when the previous Government legislated for the introduction of digital television, they dismally failed to take account of the problems experienced by my constituents--and, as previous Adjournment debates have shown, those of hon. Members representing many parts of the country. Some 40 or 50 hon. Members have constituents with cause for complaint.
Since entering the House, I have been working to ensure that when the Government legislate--early in the next Parliament, I hope--my constituents' problems will be addressed. I shall briefly remind the House of the nature of those problems. The services of each regional television broadcaster are transmitted from specific locations, but in some areas the lie of the land and the physical characteristics of UHF electromagnetic waves prevent communities from receiving signals from transmitters assigned to their appropriate regional broadcaster; they may be able to receive only the signal from a transmitter targeted at a different region. Those viewers can watch only regional programming services intended for others. That is the nub of the problem. Many of my Norfolk constituents receive regional programmes that are in broad measure intended for Yorkshire and the north of England.
For many years, solutions using additional transmitters or relays have been considered, but constrained by the possible number of channels when using analogue broadcasting, which is greedy in its use of frequency space, and by the severe interference problems that arise when adjacent transmitters are not well separated in frequency. It is a particular problem in my part of the country because of the adjacency of European transmitters across the sea. That is why analogue broadcasting has genuine difficulty in providing more than four universal channels: not surprisingly, many of my constituents cannot properly receive Channel 5.
Many thousands of homes in west Norfolk are affected. The borough council estimated the figure to be as high as 20,000, which represents an audience of up to 51,000 in my constituency alone--and they want something to be done. As I hope hon. Members will understand, they want to watch their own regional television programmes. They are not alone in giving high priority to regional broadcasting. Surveys repeatedly show that 90 per cent. of the British public want regional news, which has more support than any other kind of programme--30 per cent. more than for soap operas. The programmes that many viewers most want to watch are the very ones denied them--and my constituents in particular--by the anomaly in broadcasting.
Issues of community and regional identity are increasingly important, especially since the Government came to office. My constituents are served by health authorities, social services, education services, library services, police services and fire services, all of which are administered on a county basis within Norfolk. Through the establishment of regional development agencies, the Government have made it clear that local and regional identity is increasingly important. Ministers are encouraging communities to become involved in community safety and local transport strategies, and see a strong role for the community in developing policies on access to the countryside.
On the point of regional identities in England and national identities in Wales and Scotland, the National Assembly for Wales does all the work that the hon. Gentleman referred to on a regional and national dimension, and more. However, does he share my concern that 10 per cent. of analogue receivers in Wales do not get any Welsh signals, which means that 10 per cent. of the Welsh population do not know what the National Assembly is doing in their name?
I certainly sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, and I well understand why he is among those who have been pushing for a solution.
Let me return to the importance of regional identity. My comments illustrate a growing and serious democratic deficit--which Mr. Thomas referred to nationally and I see regionally--if people cannot have access to news and information about their own communities via the most popular and effective medium, which is television. Like the majority of viewers throughout the country, my constituents want to know what is going on under their noses and in their communities. Access to television is much more important than might be suggested by its entertainment content. In today's society, access to information is central to quality of life; television is a key provider of that information and will become even more important in the digital era. Technical solutions to our problems exist in the digital era, but there must be the political will to ensure that they are exploited. That is why, on behalf of my constituents, I want to see continued scrutiny of the process of change.
As the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport acknowledged, the success of commercial pay television in the UK since launch has been striking. BSkyB has been so successful in converting analogue subscribers to digital that it expects to switch off its analogue signal later this year, when it will provide digital services to about 5.5 million homes, which is some 20 per cent. of households. ONdigital has built up a new subscriber base from scratch and recently announced that it has more than a million subscribers, which is also roughly the current level of uptake of digital cable television.
Given that fast uptake, one might ask what the problem is. Put simply, the problem is that not everyone will want, or be able to afford, pay television. The Consumers Association survey found that 32 per cent. of people who do not have digital television say that they will never get it. Perhaps more importantly, almost half those surveyed said that they would only want to watch free-to-air channels after analogue switch-off. The latter figure is close to the estimate of 40 per cent. made by the British Radio and Electronic Equipment Manufacturers' Association. Even if we take the BREMA figures--the lower of the two--some 9 million homes will need access to either proper digital sets, which are normally referred to as integrated digital televisions, or appropriate converters by 2006-10 if the Government are to stick to their schedule for analogue turn-off. The scale of the problem is apparent. Some 4 or 5 million sets are sold annually, but only 90,000 were digital televisions last year, despite the fact that analogue televisions will become useless in a few years. Projections for this year say that only 180,000 digital television sets, which have a long and guaranteed lifetime, will be sold.
The hon. Gentleman is making important points. Does he agree that many advertisements for new televisions are grossly misleading in that they refer to digital television sets but are selling sets that are incapable of receiving a digital television service?
I accept that. The Government have started to address the problem of confusion in the marketplace, but need to do more.
With an uptake of 180,000 this year, the figures provide little support for the view that, without further intervention, total sales will be anywhere near 9 million by 2010, let alone 2006. Something must be done. The consumer has clearly found the marketplace unnecessarily confusing.
The chosen marketing tool for digital television has been the provision of free set-top boxes. The service provider suffers a significant initial loss, which it hopes to set off over time by income from subscriptions. That is why the providers are targeting better-off households. A side effect of this market-led process has been that many analogue sets, supported by a continued price differential, are still being sold without the consumer realising that they have a limited lifetime.
I am pleased to note the Government's prompt response to criticism of labelling and the introduction of kite marking so that potential purchasers of non-digital television sets are clearly warned about the potential limited life expectancy. I am also pleased to note that the Government are trialling free provision of digital access in a limited number of areas. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about that, particularly the period of the trials and when we are likely to hear the results.
I agree with ONdigital's proposal, which would require changes to European law to ensure that a date is set for the mandatory inclusion of digital receivers in new television sets. The resulting increase in the production of digital televisions would result in significant economies of scale and a marked reduction of the current high prices.
There is a clear role for the Government. They must ensure that all citizens, not just the wealthy, can share the potential benefits offered by digital television. Disadvantaged groups must not be left behind and we must acknowledge that a significant minority will be unable to afford the premiums for pay TV. The Government's commitment to availability and affordability criteria and the conditions for analogue switch off must remain central to policy development.
I was pleased that the White Paper so clearly acknowledged the specific problems of my constituents. Along with others around the country, some are denied access to regional programming. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can report progress on the consultation process promised by the White Paper. She knows that I am keen to be involved in finding solutions and she is aware of my impatience to do so.
Last year, the Minister visited my constituency and she will recall her visit to Hunstanton and Heacham. On Saturday I was visiting homes close to the sensory garden that she visited on that occasion. She will understand the frustration of my constituent who complained that his family subscribed to ONdigital so that digital terrestrial broadcasts with many more channels were available, yet was still unable even by payment to watch local news and other regional programmes. The same is true for satellite television. We must press for early resolution of that problem.
The introduction of digital television is made immensely more complicated by the need to maintain analogue broadcasts with all the problems of interference that arise. Transmissions are limited by the availability of frequency and by power, which leads to the frustration of subscribers. I fear that the result of consultation on removing the anomalies in my locality will reveal a dependence on analogue turn-off. Only then will the digital era truly have arrived.
In light of the facts highlighted by the Consumers Association, the Government will have to do more than provide a legislative backdrop. It is in the national interest to exploit the opportunities of the digital revolution and a Government who acknowledge the need for encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit of our nation must themselves be willing to encourage and adopt radical solutions to public interest problems.
The National Consumer Council has stressed the complexity of the marketplace for digital television. It argues for clear and accurate information about the differences between analogue and digital and the advantages and disadvantages of different platforms and packages. I strongly support its argument for a high profile, Government-led public information campaign on digital switchover. If people are to continue to buy analogue televisions with a limited lifetime, they must do so knowingly, not because the salesman found it the best sale to make. There is much evidence that digital is often equated with pay television and that is an unattractive proposition for many. The content and services offered by free-to-air public service broadcasters will be of critical importance in increasing digital take-up and making digital broadcasting popular with a wider section of the population.
We must ensure that there is a proper framework for the delivery of public service broadcasting. A large proportion of those who will, at best, be reluctant to transfer to digital television will be pensioners. I have 23,000 of them in my constituency and I am well aware of that fact. The Government should do more to encourage and help them to benefit from the improved services of the digital era. I urge the Government to extend the free television licences available to those of 75 and over to households with elderly people of 65 and over. That extension could be a financial incentive making digital television affordable. It would also address the many anomalies in licence requirements for that age group.
I was disappointed that the Stewart commission failed dismally to resolve a situation where, depending on the nature of accommodation and with no regard to the ability to pay, some pensioners receive free television licences and others do not. I can assure the Minister that an extension of free television licensing would be immensely popular. In a brief period before the Budget I attracted 3,000 signatures to a petition calling for free television licences for people over 65.
Given that the nation stands to benefit financially from the analogue turn-off, further Government measures to encourage the take-up of digital television should at least be considered. Some in the industry believe that it might be appropriate to consider the use of a preferential rate of VAT. Even a limited period of reduction would help to kick start the volume of sales which will themselves reduce prices and address the issue of affordability that the Government have identified as central to the problem.
As I have explained, my constituents have a particular interest in seeing fast progress in the full introduction of digital television. The Minister has shown considerable sympathy for the problems of my constituents and has been generous with her time in discussing them with me. I hope that she can do more today and promise solutions and a timetable. I hope that she will confirm the Government's commitment to legislation, if necessary, to ensure a proper balance between commercial interests and public good in broadcasting. I hope too that she will acknowledge the need to take further action if we are to meet the Government's timetable for analogue turn-off. I strongly commend the help that I have suggested for the elderly to ensure that they too benefit from the early introduction of the digital era.
First, I thank Dr. Turner for initiating this useful debate which is certainly of great interest to many of my constituents and many people in Wales. Access to analogue signals in the past has been a problem in Wales in that up to 40 per cent. of the Welsh population receive signals from the regional stations in England rather than from those in Wales. As I said when the hon. Gentleman kindly allowed me to intervene, 10 per cent. of the Welsh population find it difficult to receive any Welsh signals. That means that they are deprived not only of Welsh language broadcasting, but of information relating to the growth of systems of government such as the National Assembly for Wales.
North-east Wales and the area that you represent, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is one of the areas that traditionally have difficulty in accessing the full range of services. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk was correct to say that digital television provides the opportunity to get rid of that discrimination and to give people in all areas access to the full range of entertainment, information and other useful services that will come on stream.
I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments completely, but would he not also agree that in areas such as my constituency digital television will also enable those who are monoglot English to gain access for the first time to channels such as Channel 4? While he stresses the fact that it will give Welsh speakers access to Welsh language programmes, it will also mean that monoglot English will have access to their choice of channels.
That is true for everyone in the United Kingdom. It is now possible to have access to Welsh-language television here in London, which I welcome, as no doubt the hon. Lady's constituents will welcome access to Channel 4 in Pembrokeshire. We are debating the effects of digital television, and one thing that will disappear in the near future is the idea of an entire community watching the same television programme at the same time. That will end, as television, radio and the internet all merge into digital information, which we will choose to use, download or watch in whichever way we see fit. The hon. Lady's constituents will make their choices, and my constituents will make theirs. However, I am concerned that we should protect Welsh language needs and I will address that shortly. Obviously, the world is dominated by English language broadcasting--if that is the right term for what happens on the web--particularly in digital transmission.
I want to concentrate my remarks on two aspects of the future of television digitalisation: diversity and access. We in Wales attach a particular emphasis and importance to what would pass for regional television in the remarks of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk. It is important to note that, in Wales, regional television is our national television. Our national broadcasting depends on the regional arms of either Carlton Communications through HTV or the BBC, or our one national station, which is S4C -- Sianel Pedwar Cymru. However, S4C is also diversifying into digitalisation and taking up the opportunities that lie beyond the boundaries of Wales.
A difficulty that arises is the manner in which regional television sometimes plays out in national terms. I will give two examples. The first is, perhaps, a rather light-hearted one: Anne Robinson's recent comments about the Welsh were not well received in Wales. Many of us treated them with the respect that they deserved. Somebody who wants publicity so that she can enhance her manor house in Gloucestershire is welcome to any publicity she can get. However, people in Wales did not want to see a repeat of that programme. They would have preferred something that was a bit more positive about Wales, or a different "Room 101" programme, but that was not possible. The repeat programme was broadcast nationally throughout the UK. So, through regionalisation, we get a rather warped perception of our national concerns.
The second and more important example concerns news broadcasts in Wales. Although the moves by the BBC to integrate--I would say tag on--Welsh news into the main news are welcome, we must wait for 27 or 28 minutes before we get the news from Wales in the broadcast at 9 o'clock in the evening. That might not seem so important, and it might be that news from elsewhere in the world, particularly from London, is more important. However, in the present foot and mouth outbreak, we are missing an opportunity to transmit a clear message about the situation in Wales with respect to tourism and access to the countryside. Such information is broadcast at the end of other stories that are not as pertinent to the Welsh situation. That skews perception and is one issue that we should examine as we move to digitalisation. We should change the arrangement so that we have a different feed in Mrs. Lawrence said earlier, people would have more choice of news programmes under digitalisation.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's constituents find that very useful. A similar situation exists in parts of Wales along the Severn estuary, where people get news about Bristol before they get news about Cardiff and Swansea.
I emphasise the importance of S4C in terms of diversity--not just for Wales but the UK. Valuable initiatives have been undertaken by the Minister's Department, with the cultural diversity network trying to demonstrate cultural diversity on all platforms of television. As I hope she already knows, S4C is the jewel in the crown of cultural diversity in the UK and Europe. It was difficult to establish S4C, but it has been an undoubted success. It has proved value for money and has shown how Welsh language broadcasting can compete with English language broadcasting; it is just as entertaining, informative and valuable to its own constituency.
Importantly, S4C has also fed a cultural revival in Wales. We have had the metamorphosis of Welsh language bands such as Catatonia and Ffa Coffi Bawb--which became Super Furry Animals--which have become international successes and a Welsh language film, "Hedd Wyn", being nominated for an Oscar. Such success could not have happened without S4C or while Welsh language programming was scattered over various channels. That concentration of resources has been of huge benefit in Wales. Bands such as Catatonia may be rock bands, but they have shown how Welsh language influences come over into English and influence Wales through that medium. We also have the opportunity to create an English language S4C, if that is the right term--a channel devoted to English speakers in Wales that views Wales and the world from their perspective. The BBC has taken up that challenge and is considering BBC2 Choice in Wales to fulfil that role. We need to consider how we can protect it.
Resources are a problem. S4C gets £48 million a year, which I am sure is generous, but Channel 4 gets £650 million a year. One of the problems for S4C is that it cannot buy programmes from sources other than the BBC, HTV and independent producers in Wales, although it makes an increasing number of back-to-back productions with Russia and other European countries. Many hon. Members will have seen over Easter the animated tales of biblical stories that S4C produced in association with other European countries. S4C is therefore an international player, but it cannot simply buy "Friends" or "Frasier" from American channels because they are not in Welsh. Dubbing programmes into Welsh was done to death when we tried to dub "Shane". That experiment has gone down in Welsh history and will never be tried again. Welsh language programming, and the diversity that exists, need to be protected, as I shall explain later.
On the important issue of access, mentioned by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk in opening the debate, the Government have made it clear that the switch from analogue to digital will not take place until around 95 per cent. of all subscribers or consumers have access to digital. That 95 per cent. should not be just a UK figure. There should be a way of disaggregating it down to Wales and Scotland and possibly also to regions of England. If anyone in west Wales--in Ceredigion, for example--wants to buy a mobile phone, he or she may go to a mobile phone service that covers 97 or 98 per cent. of the population. However, the 2 or 3 per cent. of Britain that is not covered comprises west Wales and the highlands and islands of Scotland. It will be difficult to justify a complete switchover to digital in Wales until we can show that the Government's 95 per cent. target is also being met in Wales and that we are not disenfranchising Wales and repeating the mistakes that we have made with analogue. However, the situation is encouraging in that take-up of digital in Wales is higher than in England. I have asked questions on the issue, but official figures are not available; my information is that take-up in Wales is somewhat higher than in England. I am not sure why that should be but it is welcome for the future.
Take-up is mainly of satellite. We have three main digital platforms: terrestrial, cable and satellite. However, most people in Wales cannot access either cable or terrestrial digital platforms. Terrestrial digital take-up in Wales is very poor, as is access to Channel 5, which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned. Cable is available in Cardiff, its environs and some other parts of south Wales, but not in north Wales and certainly not in mid-Wales, which includes my constituency. We therefore need to consider how we can have access not only to digital as such, but to the full range of digital platforms, because there will be differences among what is offered by cable, satellite and terrestrial platforms.
Would the hon. Gentleman say that, for his constituents--and mine--free-to-air broadcasts, which can be received in any room in the house if they have a normal household aerial, are the most desirable platform?
Indeed. That is the most desirable platform as it would not force people to pay for digital. It is vital that we support public service broadcasting. The Government need to recognise that digital is not yet available throughout Wales, and terrestrial digital access will not be at 95 per cent. when the switchover takes place. It is simply not good enough to say that people have access to satellite. Whichever way we consider it, we are paying for satellite. The boxes may be free upfront, but the pressure to subscribe is enormous. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is the only way in which the companies can get their money back. Free-to-air terrestrial broadcasting is also the only way in which an English language channel for Wales will be created.
Let my conclude by explaining how we can achieve our objectives in Wales or at least try to protect access and diversity. We need to address questions, not difficulties, about diversity as we work though the rollout of digital broadcasting. The White Paper suggests that we have a new office of communications--an Ofcom. I suggest to the Minister that serious thought is given to the establishment of an Ofcom for Wales. The National Assembly for Wales has said that it would like to have a Wales office of Ofcom and that it would like to appoint the Wales member of Ofcom. However, questions of accountability are raised if one body appoints to another body, which is in turn answerable to another body. My preference and that of my party is to consider an office of communications for Wales that can integrate radio, television and the increasing amount of digital broadcasting that will take place and consider them from the Welsh perspective.
The experience of the BBC Wales governor, sterling though his work is as an individual, calls into question whether we could have in one person sufficient protection of Welsh interests. At the very minimum, we certainly need a Welsh consumer panel in Wales. It would not be acceptable to establish a consumer panel for the UK and simply have a Welsh office of it. We need a Wales consumer panel that is based completely in Wales and considers Welsh consumer needs. Welsh language broadcasting is a unique feature of Wales and needs to be embedded in the future.
We have seen the importance of communications in the cultural life of Wales and the need to protect them. The Welsh language would not be alive today if the Bible had not been translated into Welsh when it was the most important method of communication. That is why the Welsh language is alive, but the Cornish language is not. The most important method of communication was translated into Welsh at the right time, when literacy was growing and people could use it to maintain a sense of Welsh identity through the Welsh language.
That is no longer the case. Wales is not a monoglot Welsh-speaking country; we are a bilingual country. To maintain Welsh culture during globalisation, which involves the break-up of Welsh-speaking communities, people in Wales must have access to Welsh and English language programming that gives them experience, entertainment and information from their own communities. That is provided in the main, but with some difficulty on occasion. Government decisions on the future of digital television and particularly access to it will determine whether we can ensure that we have a thriving Welsh language and English-speaking communities in Wales in the future. I hope that the Minister will act accordingly.
I congratulate Dr. Turner on securing such an important and timely debate.
I should also declare an interest, which is not pecuniary, but a constituency interest. My constituency contains ONdigital's main customer service centre, which employs about 1,400 people. Mrs. Lawrence has an equally important ONdigital customer service centre in Mr. Jamieson and I were keen to have in our city a company that we believed would be at the cutting edge of 21st century communications, and we worked hard to encourage it to come to Plymouth when it was looking for a suitable base for its customer service centre.
Neither the company nor we have been disappointed, and ONdigital has found that Plymouth is a good place to do business. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows from several recent visits, it is a beautiful city with a pool of people who can make an excellent and talented work force and have skills that are adaptable to the high-class customer service that is expected of a company such as ONdigital. The company's expectations have been met, because that work force has been able to attract 1 million customers in two years, which the company set itself as a target, and has made an important contribution to the rollout of digital television services. The company is confident that it will attract 2 million customers within four years, which is its next target.
As constituency Members, we feel that ONdigital has brought something valuable to Plymouth. It is a key player in my constituency and in our city, and has helped us to achieve one of the biggest drops in unemployment in the country. I have visited ONdigital many times and, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, have found it to be a modern, enjoyable and interesting place to work; many constituents who work there confirm that. The general manager, Alan Lawson, not only provides leadership to the customer service base that ONdigital operates, but plays an active role in the call centre forum, which was set up to promote high standards in call centres in Plymouth and to identify common interests. Through that constituency interest, my interest in the future of digital services, including the television services that are the subject of today's debate, has developed.
Of course, the Government want to encourage all platforms, including satellite and cable, but, of the three, terrestrial will have the key role in winning the hearts and minds of those who are yet to commit themselves to digital television services. Those services must be available, affordable and attractive. Digital terrestrial will be the way in which most UK homes ultimately find both availability and affordability. Almost all homes--but not all, as we heard from Mr. Thomas--have an aerial through which the services can be delivered, whereas cable passes by about 50 per cent. of homes, and there are severe cost-effectiveness constraints on rolling out cable to as many homes as aerials can serve.
Availability and affordability are closely linked with the service provided through satellite. The hon. Gentleman referred to predominantly premium pay services that have a target income per consumer of £300 to £400 per annum to sustain the service. In constituencies such as mine, where I inherited from my Conservative predecessor the poorest ward in England, that is an insurmountable barrier for many people. Some might say that if it is attractive, people will pay for it. However, we are sadly some years--perhaps even a couple of decades--away from people across the country having incomes that can sustain that level of payment for television packages.
There are two barriers to the attractiveness of digital television. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk has referred to the confusion about the benefits of digital television. There is also confusion about what equipment can receive digital signals. The question of whether the market is operating in a sufficiently robust and competitive way to allow it to deliver attractive programme packages at affordable prices is another issue. That, as hon. Members will know, is the subject of a Competition Commission inquiry. It is probably appropriate to mention that in passing today, but not to go into the issues that are being examined by the commission. However, those issues are very important to the future availability and--crucially--to the affordability of the pay TV sector.
If rumours in the press over the weekend, in The Sunday Times and in the Financial Times on Monday are correct, there could be an interesting development this week among some of the key players in television and digital services, which might have a significant impact on the market and its ability to operate in a competitive manner.
On customer confusion over equipment, a number of hon. Members have spoken about the difficulties of finding digital televisions. At Christmas--a popular time for buying televisions--if one went into an outlet of one of the major retailers, it was quite common to find 200 televisions on sale, of which only five were digital televisions truly capable of accepting digital signals.
Some hon. Members have campaigned on that issue. I am pleased to say that there is an early-day motion before Parliament congratulating my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce. Her Department, working with the digital video broadcasting consortium, has developed a logo that will be visible on the screen of all digital televisions as well as boxed digital televisions. Hopefully that will give an impetus to sales, helping to create the volume of sales required for cost savings to be made so that digital televisions can become more affordable.
Beyond resolving that particular source of confusion, there is a further need to raise awareness among the 70 per cent. of British adults who do not yet have digital television. They need to know that, in buying a DVB-labelled TV, they get free access to a wider range of channels, including BBC Choice, BBC Knowledge, BBC News 24 and ITV 2. According to the recent Consumers Association report, "Turn on, Tune in, Switched off", which has already been mentioned, only 29 per cent. of respondents to the survey conducted by the association knew that the five existing terrestrial channels would not cost extra after analogue switch-off, let alone that there are new free channels available on digital. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk said, digital television is wrongly associated with pay television, and if we are going to get sufficient numbers of people to switch over to digital initially, we must crack that myth.
The Consumers Association report identifies a range of challenges that need to be overcome. There is a great deal of confusion. The expense of digital television is a key barrier to take-up. That report identifies many, particularly among the young, those with children and those in lower social grades, who say that they do not need or would not use the extra channels. Just under half of people who have not thus far switched are aware that the Government plan to switch off the analogue signal in the next five to 10 years.
A lot more needs to be done. The challenges that have been identified require a concerted effort to raise awareness, to advocate the benefits of digital television and to bring about action. The DVB consortium was set up in 1993 and I am sure that it will play a role in that process. It is an industry-led consortium of more than 290 broadcasters, manufacturers, network operators, software developers and regulatory bodies that are committed to designing global standards for providing digital television and data services. I do not think that the consortium alone will be able to achieve the required level of awareness, advocacy and action. It played an important part, together with the Department of Trade and Industry, in launching the logo. That is effectively a kite mark, reassuring people that when they pay, at present prices, more than £1,000--sometimes as much as £2,000--on a television, it will at least do what they expect.
A bigger and wider job remains to be done, which calls for a digital services and communications champion. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government intend to institute something of that kind this year, because if we are to achieve analogue switch-off in the time scale that the Government hope for, we need someone to help to develop the appropriate awareness and see that digital services are advocated inside and outside Government. A clear, consistent message is needed to bring about not just action, but joined-up action, across the plethora of meetings and players involved, which include the Independent Television Commission, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the broadcasters. All have an interest in driving matters forward. Many meetings are being held and huge energy and commitment are being expended on the task. Nevertheless, the Government should soon appoint one person to focus that effort on bringing digital services in the required time to as many people as possible. I look forward to the Minister's observations on that question.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk on initiating this important debate, which has been a helpful opportunity to discuss the challenges ahead. My constituents have an important contribution to make. They and the House can count on my interest in and commitment to work on the policy and legislation that will help to develop digital provision.
I congratulate Dr. Turner on initiating the debate. I agree with all his points, as well as those made subsequently. The technology is far reaching, but does not give rise to political differences. That probably makes it a bad story for the media.
Digital technology will make a big difference to our communities. I have identified three key differences: the freeing of spectrum to make space available for extra channels and services; the fact that digital signals are of better quality than the analogue signals that have been around since the 1930s; and the fact that digital signal uses spectrum more efficiently, which means that, at least in theory, it is possible to achieve a better and wider range of services and to deal with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised about regional coverage.
I think that the hon. Gentleman receives Yorkshire television in Norfolk and I touched briefly on a similar problem in an intervention. Part of my constituency receives a signal from the Isle of Wight, which means that we receive lots of interesting local news about Hampshire and Dorset and not very much news about Sussex. That difficulty needs to be rectified. For many people, that is the great bonus of digital television.
Of course, there are not only problems relating to regionalisation. Channel 5 has already been referred to. My constituents and others who live along the south coast cannot receive Channel 5 because of conflicting signals from French television. We cannot even receive French television, but we can receive a series of wavy lines, which, I am told, are not as good as Channel 5 on a good day. I have received a few letters from constituents who want a 20 per cent. reduction in their licence fees on that basis. I have not put their point to the Minister or to the BBC, but I have told them that their plea is unlikely to be successful.
Like Mr. Thomas, other areas of my constituency, such as the village of Kingston, have difficulty receiving normal signals. We must use the digital revolution to improve regional coverage. The capacity exists, but it must be seen in conjunction with what has happened to regionalism generally. There are conflicting developments. There is a move towards regionalism in this country, which I welcome, with greater powers for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament--and, in time, no doubt, for the English regions. That is underpinned by the trend in the European Union towards recognising regions. However, at the same time, regional identity is being eroded. The sort of houses that were distinctive in a certain area are being replaced by Barratt Homes, so that an estate in Ceredigion looks very much like an estate anywhere else, which is unfortunate. A shopping mall in Burnley is not only the same as one in Glasgow, but is probably the same as one in Ohio, with a traditional Tesco toytown clock, like the one in Lewes.
We need to protect and enhance our regional identities, and this technology gives us a way of doing that. However, it is important that technological developments should be mirrored by a political determination to ensure that regional television is protected and enhanced. We are moving towards one ITV, but ITV has been the traditional deliverer of regional services--more so than the BBC. If one lives in Tyne Tees, Yorkshire or the Meridian area, one tends to look to the ITV network more than to the BBC for local news, although that is not the case everywhere. It would be an irony if we did not use the regional capability of digital technology and were instead to retrench towards a national ITV. The Government must make it clear that ITV cannot be allowed to reduce its regional coverage, because that is its main public service element, or its regional production facilities. We do not want everything to come from London.
I have mentioned the potential benefits, as well as some of the problems, of digital television. I understand that the Government are moving towards the introduction of digital neighbourhood schemes, whereby local neighbourhoods will receive digital television free of charge as a way of raising awareness and monitoring people's reactions to the technology. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that in her reply. However, if the Minister is looking for areas of the country to take part in that scheme, I offer her Lewes or any part of my constituency.
No one has mentioned digital radio in any detail, and it is important not to overlook it--[Interruption.] I apologise--Mrs. Lawrence did mention it, but I want to develop the point. It is important for the Government to set targets for digital radio, as they have done for digital television, so that we know when digital radio will kick in. I accept that there may be a longer time frame, and that it might not be as easy. Nevertheless, those for whom radio is their preferred medium, as well as those who prefer to watch television, are entitled to attention. The cost of digital radios is rather high. That needs to be addressed, not simply by the market but, ideally, by Government action to stimulate that market.
Hon. Members have referred to the problem of labelling. I am pleased about the useful initiative that the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce has taken. One of the biggest inhibitors of digital take-up is the uncertainty that exists around the technology. If people could be confident that the digital set was the norm in the shops--so that they did not need worry about it, knowing that it would serve their needs in the years ahead and that it was ready for the technology--they would buy it and take more interest in the matter. If they have to fiddle around and work out what is what, then worry about where it works and what it does, what digital means and whether the sound quality or the signal is an issue, they will say "I cannot be bothered with this" and will wait until it has developed further.
The Government have a major role to play in getting things right. This change is more complicated than previous ones. People in the industry compare it to the change from 405 to 625, or that from black and white to colour, and say that consumers coped. It is not the same. The concepts were simple to master; this is complicated for those who are interested not in the theory, but in the end result. It is up to the Government to make it easy for them to get digital access and to be confident that what they are buying is what they want to buy.
The Government's targets for digital take-up are, by and large, right--99.4 per cent. of households being able to receive a digital signal, 95 per cent. of households signing up to digital television and digital television being affordable. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Ceredigion about the importance of a regional perspective. We have to ensure that those are the percentages in the area in which the consumer lives, rather than national figures that do not apply to him. There is a degree of unanimity across parties and in the country at large. That is healthy. Digital technology can undoubtedly bring many benefits to our communities. It is up to the Government to remove the obstacles that have been identified by me and by other hon. Members in order to ensure that those benefits are freely available, and that their provision is supported.
I, too, congratulate Dr. Turner on securing the debate. It is pleasant and unusual to have a debate in which everybody agrees on the objectives and wants to work towards achieving them as quickly as possible. As Mrs. Gilroy mentioned, I also have a constituency interest in the issue. ONdigital, one of the terrestrial suppliers of digital television, is a major employer in my constituency, so it is important to Pembrokeshire. It represents a growing industry, which has provided 800 jobs in the last 18 months and is set to provide 1,100 by the middle of summer, bringing further benefits to my constituency, which has always had high unemployment.
I am a convert to digital television. Anyone who has watched both digital and analogue broadcasts will know that the difference in sound and picture quality is incredible. Mr. Thomas mentioned choice, and that is another major benefit offered by digital television. A spin-off, of which the broadcasters are aware, is that as the choice increases the onus will be on them to provide ever better quality programmes, because, in the long-term, that will be the only way in which they can secure viewers who have that increased level of choice.
Another element, which I do not think has been mentioned today, is that digital television could contribute significantly to the Government meeting their commitment to get everyone in Britain on-line by 2005, giving people who are not familiar with PCs or other computers access through their television set. That would be very valuable. The main work provided by ONdigital in my constituency is customer service support for ONnet. That is a growing sector and an industry that I hope will be of increasing benefit to my constituents.
Mr. Baker spoke of uncertainty in the public mind. There is more than uncertainty; there is confusion. The problem is that most of the public do not understand the difference between analogue and digital. For example, they do not know that there are three ways in which they can receive digital television--via satellite, cable or terrestrial networks.
It is important to reaffirm the need to ensure that, as digital television signals come in, the current 70 per cent. rate of coverage will be increased dramatically so that everyone is covered, wherever they live. In Wales, we have our own specific problems. Unlike the rest of Wales, the terrain of my constituency is characterised by dips rather than hills. However, it is just as difficult to receive signals in coastal valleys as it is in hilly areas. It is a massive job to ensure that when digital television expands it covers all areas of the UK.
There is also a major problem with shared aerials, which I do not think has been mentioned this morning. In the UK, 6 million homes have shared aerials, and if we want terrestrial digital television to expand, that is important, because many of those homes are owned by councils or housing associations. The Government have a major role to play in encouraging and supporting local authorities and housing associations in providing the facilities to enable those homes to receive digital television.
We must tackle public confusion on the matter. Many people transfer to digital because of an interest in sport. Consequently, digital television has the reputation of being a pay television service. People do not always understand that they can receive the service in a different way, without having to pay great sums of money.
There are three ways in which the Government can help, some of which have already been mentioned. First, there should be a Government-led, not an industry-led, information campaign. That is very important. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton touched on a Office of Fair Trading inquiry. The necessity for that inquiry is testament to the involvement of vested interests and to the fact that the drive to provide people with information about the benefits of digital television needs to be independent and Government-led.
Secondly, the Government should appoint a digital champion with responsibility for driving forward the take-up of digital television and ensuring that people are informed. Finally, considerable effort should be made to ensure that all televisions sold after 2004 contain a digital receiver. Presumably, that would be done through European legislation. Such a measure would go a long way to ending the confusion and protecting the consumer.
I also congratulate Dr. Turner on securing this debate. During his time in the House he has frequently raised the problems of the regional dimension of television broadcasting and how it affects his constituents. I remind hon. Members of my long service as a consultant with ITV and prior to that with Yorkshire Television. I know only too well what a headache the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman was for Yorkshire Television. Digital television undoubtedly provides a great opportunity to correct the problems that this country's analogue signal arrangements have presented for many viewers.
The debate is timely, not just because of the news coverage about the potential restructuring of ONdigital--I was interested in what the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) said about the importance of ONdigital in their constituencies--but also because of the Select Committee report and the comments of the Consumers Association on digital uptake. The starting point for our consideration of this matter must be that it remains in Britain's grasp to become the first country to achieve an orderly roll-out of digital television. That was the previous Government's objective as well as being the present Government's and it largely drives the consensus that exists between the parties on many relevant issues.
As the hon. Members for Sutton and for Preseli Pembrokeshire have shown, there are huge benefits to be gained from technology manufacturing jobs, the manufacturing of television and associated equipment, and the potential export markets. If we become the first country to do what is necessary, that opportunity will open up. None of us need doubt that the project is worth while.
Some worrying signals are being sent concerning key issues relating to take-up. For example, are there not signs that the number of subscription-based packages that consumers are prepared to purchase to gain access to sport and films has reached saturation point? Consumer behaviour in this respect is potentially a key barrier to the take-up of digital television. One wonders, too--this is partly behind the potential restructuring in ONdigital--how much longer those who provide digital television set-top boxes can continue to do so free. Those things are expensive.
Those considerations prompt thought about the resistance referred to in the Consumers Association report--particularly in the households of elderly people, but also among some young adults who watch less television these days--to converting to digital and paying more than the licence fee for television programmes. Such considerations are reasons for encouraging the free-to-air channel development that I know that the BBC and ITV have studied, and that other broadcasters are also preparing.
The Government have a leading role to play in raising awareness--something that many hon. Members have alluded to today--and selling the benefits of digital delivery in the long term. Picture and sound quality are not the only issues. I have some sympathy with what Mr. Baker said about radio, but I do not have time to develop that topic now. However, the opportunity to establish a range of additional, free-to-air channels should also be stressed. It should not be necessary for everyone to sign up to a monthly contribution to which the family budget might not stretch in the long term.
I agree with the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire that internet services are also part of the issue. The hon. Member for Lewes argued that the conversion programme is not comparable to the change from black-and-white to colour or 405 to 625; gosh, we are all getting old. It was a long time ago, but it does not seem like it. It is important to make a greater effort to raise consumer awareness about the issues in question.
I want to concentrate my remarks on stressing the important role of Government in relation to the regulatory framework. We welcome what has been revealed about the target date for analogue switch off. I suspect that the date will be nearer to 2010 than 2006. We need to end the confusion about what a digital television set is. We believe that there is a large role for industry to play in that. Digital television should mean digital reception, not analogue reception.
The Broadcasting Act 1996 established a competitive environment. It was a deliberate intention on the part of Government to encourage competition in the development of different digital television systems. However, that development is now hampered by the regulatory framework. A new communications Bill has been delayed for too long and is now an urgent task for the new Parliament. Changes are also necessary in the rules relating to ownership, and the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the possibility of a single ITV, which I believe will become a reality.
It is a matter of resources. We need competing infrastructures to drive down prices and increase innovation, as well as to pay for the major investment that will be needed to ensure digital take-up in every home in Britain. It will not be for the Government or the BBC to provide that. It must be provided by the industry, and the industry must be capable of organising itself in order to achieve that. It is equally important that the Government should recognise the important role of advertising and the need to support the advertising industry in its demands for continuing self-regulation against a tide of opinion in Europe in favour of a more regulatory framework. Without advertising revenue, no one will be able to provide the necessary investment, and advertising revenue will provide many more free-to-air channels.
On regulation, we also need neutral platform delivery and open access changes in the legislative framework. As I have often said--I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I repeat what I have said to her before--as a veteran of the Standing Committee that considered the Broadcasting Act 1990, that we missed a trick when we established the framework, which placed too much power in the hands of one super satellite broadcaster. That has caused difficulties in gaining access.
We need to end the confusion and the restrictions on what channels are available through different platforms. That is driven--understandably--by market share over platform delivery, but in the long run we must have a framework that allows viewers access to all the channels of their choice, regardless of origin. The new regulatory framework should strive for that. There are technical and logistical difficulties, in particular in geographical reach and equality of access, to which hon. Members have already referred, and the Government must continue to press for the digital signal to be strengthened.
I was heartened when the hon. Member for Sutton said--her remarks were echoed by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire--that we must have a clearer view about how universal digital coverage will be delivered. I have already declared my interest in ITV, but hon. Members do not sufficiently appreciate that if we are to have universal digital delivery, a significant contribution will be made by terrestrial digital delivery. That will not be achieved by cable and satellite, or if it is, it will take an awfully long time.
Many of us represent rural constituencies and know that satellite dishes are banned in many parts of our constituencies, and not everyone wants a satellite dish on his or her house. I believe that the hon. Member for Sutton said that the television aerial on the roof provides all that is required. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned shared aerials, and I agree entirely with what she said. If we want universal digital delivery and, eventually, the analogue switch-off that everyone is seeking to achieve, we must allow the terrestrial digital companies the opportunity to compete on fair and equal terms. I hope that I am not making too partisan a point when I say that the most pressing need is for the Government to address the issue of regulation. That, more than anything else, is what the Government can do to speed on the process. There must be an opportunity for real competition.
In the mobile telephone market, the competitive framework and the level playing field for all operators have driven down the cost and created universal access to such a point that the problem now seems to be that consumers wonder why, if they already have a mobile telephone, they need another one. In a sense that is now the situation with television. People need to be convinced that, although they already have five or six television sets, they need to change them all to digital. That is why the awareness programme is important. In the end, that will be achieved by a more competitive environment in the television industry. We are all in agreement and I think that we can pursue the matter on a cross-party basis once the election is out of the way and my hon. Friends and I are, I hope, sitting on the Government Benches. If we want analogue switch-off to be a reality and not merely an aspiration, we have to ensure that the industry can provide what this House desperately wants it to achieve.
I congratulate Dr. Turner both on securing this important debate and on the determination with which he has pursued the matter on behalf of his constituents. Having visited his constituency, I know how important it is there. I can well understand the concern of people who cannot receive their regional ITV service and I hope that we shall be able to do something about that. Let me remind the House of what we said in the communications White Paper where we specifically referred to the issue:
"The potential of digital broadcasting provides an opportunity to look again, in consultation with the industry, at how best to address these problems. We intend now to initiate discussions on this issue with relevant broadcasting companies. Should any viable solutions emerge, we will consult members of Parliament and local communities in the areas affected about whether changes to services to resolve the problem would have the backing of the local population."
Since we published that White Paper, some discussions have taken place. I shall touch on them later. As my hon. Friend said, technically solutions exist; it needs a political will to make them happen. I assure him that that political will is there. He made a number of suggestions to drive the take-up of digital. I assure him that we have taken them all on board and they will form part of our deliberations when we publish a draft Bill, which I hope will be in the summer. The response to the consultation process has been very valuable. We recognise how important Mr. Greenway mentioned an opportunity that he thought had been missed in the 1990 legislation. It is a complicated area, and that is one reason why the Government intend to publish a draft Bill.
Mr. Thomas raised a number of issues, which I shall try to address. I agree with him about S4C; it certainly is a jewel in the crown. He referred to a recent series of animated tales from around the world. I believe that they were broadcast in conjunction with Channel 4. I had the pleasure of helping to launch that initiative, and I remember saying at the time that it would not have happened without public service broadcasting. I am very well aware of the contribution of S4C to diversity and access.
Mrs. Gilroy mentioned the important contribution to her constituency by ONdigital, which employs around 1,400 people there. That is another example of the jobs that can be created by that means. Mr. Baker and the hon. Member for Ryedale emphasised an important point: there are no political differences. We must use this digital revolution. We are united about the need to drive its take-up because it will mean more choice, better quality and a more efficient use of the spectrum.
The hon. Member for Lewes mentioned in particular ITV and the move towards one ITV company and expressed the hope that that would not diminish regional coverage or regional programming which is perhaps even more important. I remind him that ITV was born in the regions. I am confident that that will not happen. I speak as the Member of Parliament for a north-west constituency and we in the north-west are proud of Granada. He also mentioned digital radio. That is much further down the road. I hope that as the price of digital radio comes down, more people will take it up. There were some reasonable ones on offer last Christmas. We are hopeful that the same will happen this Christmas and encourage more people to buy them.
Mrs. Lawrence also spoke about the contribution of ONdigital in her constituency. There are 800 jobs now, increasing to 1,100. She also mentioned the better quality programming that was available and the proliferation of channels. That is one good reason why public service broadcasting will be so important in this digital revolution. She also mentioned access to the internet, which I will touch on in a minute.
The hon. Member for Ryedale is much more knowledgeable about these issues than I am. He has a background in broadcasting. He emphasised the need to encourage free-to-air development and said that digital terrestrial would be the platform that would drive that. I could not agree with him more. I am grateful to him for his support on this. I can reassure him that the whole intention of the White Paper was to produce lighter regulation in order to ensure a dynamic market and protect services for the consumer. We understand the importance of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk was particularly concerned about those viewers in his constituency who cannot receive the appropriate regional service for their area. Although the priority in utilising limited spectrum is to ensure that as many viewers as possible can receive a service, the provision of correct regional services was also an important issue for the BBC and the Independent Television Commission in developing the present analogue transmitter network and we very much hope that the position can be improved with digital broadcasting. We recognise that there are problem areas where typically local news and features and other regional variations are not available to viewers, and we fully appreciate the frustration that that can cause. We hope that the development of digital television will offer some solutions.
In our White Paper, "A New Future for Communications", which we published last December, we emphasised our commitment to the provision of regional programming. We fully recognise the important part that regional programming plays in identifying and reflecting the concerns and interests of local communities and we also believe regional programming to be a vital element of public service broadcasting in the UK and that viewers should be able, wherever possible, to receive the regional programming intended for their community.
Digital technology has the potential to provide a fresh opportunity to consider how best to resolve the problem of regional anomalies. We hope that that can be achieved before the full switchover to digital broadcasting. We have already initiated some discussions within Mr. Chapman, who, sadly, is unable to be here today, has also been quite determined in his pursuit of that issue on behalf of his constituents.
Since the communications White Paper was published, ITV has announced that it has secured transponders on an Astra satellite that will provide enough capacity to enable it to provide 16 regional ITV services. I understand that a number of technical issues are still to be resolved and that ITV hopes to launch its services on satellite by the end of this year. Of course, we recognise that viewers who do not have digital satellite receivers may face additional costs, but it is an encouraging development and will be an important step towards increasing access to the correct regional services in problem areas.
We are also keen to find digital terrestrial solutions to regional anomalies. For example, it may be possible to take advantage of the fact that digital technology enables multiple broadcast services to be carried simultaneously on a single frequency channel. In theory, some digital transmitters might broadcast more than one regional service--one appropriate to the transmitter's location and an out-of-area service to resolve a regional anomaly. It is still not an easy technical option. In particular, it would require sufficient digital capacity to accommodate additional programme services on multiplexes that are already full. It remains one of the possibilities being explored.
Several hon. Members stressed the need to drive the take-up of digital. I assure them that the Government are similarly gripped by the need to do so. We are working with the broadcasting industry on a number of fronts to develop digital television in the UK. Work is under way to equalise coverage across all six digital terrestrial multiplexes, which aims to increase the core coverage to 73 per cent. of the UK population.
The Government are also working with the ITC, the BBC and the broadcasting industry on how to extend digital television services further to achieve the best possible coverage and reception. To that end, the Government recently wrote to digital broadcasters, seeking their commitment to plans to double the power of digital signals on eight key transmitters. The plans were developed by the ITC and will improve the signal quality, giving more homes access to terrestrial free-to-air and subscription services. That announcement will be widely welcomed by hon. Members who have spoken about the issue today.
On consumer issues, we are aware of viewers' concerns about switchover to digital television and we need to ensure that consumers are made fully aware of all aspects of digital television, especially to enable them to make informed decisions about purchasing equipment and services. We have been working closely with broadcasters, manufacturers, retailers and consumer groups to ensure that viewers receive accurate and sensible information and that misconceptions are corrected promptly. A set of clear and simple messages has been agreed, which can be used to promote and encourage take-up. Broadcasters have launched information leaflets on free-to-air digital television, which are available to consumers from electrical retail outlets and from broadcasters.
The problems of people who live in blocks of flats with a communal aerial have been mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were aware of the problem some time ago. It is interesting to note that 20 per cent. of the population live in such housing. My officials are in discussions with the Local Government Association, the Housing Corporation, the National Housing Federation, the ITC and other Departments to ensure that landlords and tenants are informed about the options for receiving digital television. Local authorities have an important role to play. Some are more advanced in that respect than others. We continue to liaise with the Local Government Association to do whatever we can to drive that agenda forward.
The Government are particularly keen to ensure that consumers can shop for digital television sets with confidence and are not misled into buying sets with digital features such as digital sound, under the mistaken impression that they are actually getting a digital television. Following discussions with television manufacturers, retailers and broadcasters it was agreed to promote the DVB--digital video broadcasting--logo as a means of identifying televisions that can genuinely receive digital transmissions.
UK manufacturers and retailers are also working together to ensure that all new digital televisions carry the logo, and that sales staff are trained to understand and explain the advantages and differences of digital televisions over both analogue and so-called "digital ready" sets. The Government announced this initiative on
The Govt also recently announced plans for a programme providing a series of neighbourhoods located across the country with free conversion to digital television. Our aim is to help both Government and industry to understand better the practical and social issues that people face in deciding whether to switch from their existing analogue to digital television. We expect that the first digital neighbourhood will be identified in the next two months and actioned in the next six months. One important part is that people in the pilot areas will also be able to use their television set to access interactive internet services, including learning and shopping, and send and receive e-mail--