Analogue Television Switch-off

– in Westminster Hall at 2:00 pm on 15th March 2005.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2:00 pm, 15th March 2005

I wanted to secure a debate on something about which I know nothing, for a change, and I thought that I would start by lowering expectations.

I am concerned about the welfare of pensioners and their pensions, which is how I became interested in this subject. I got to thinking about how there are many pensioners, particularly the older ones and those who are housebound, whose televisions are a very important part of their lives. In a few years, their telly will not work, and they might have to find the money to sort out the problem. Switching off the analogue signal might cause considerable distress if it is not handled well.

I started to become more parochial about the issue when I discovered that we in the west of England are not the first round of guinea pigs, but are in year two of Ofcom's four to five-year planned roll-out of the switch-off or switchover—call it what you will—from analogue to digital. My first move is to make a special plea on behalf of the west of England. I should say that not only do I not know anything about this subject, but I do not know my party's policy on it, either, so I have been doing some free thinking.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No. I have come up with one or two ideas that I have not come across in any of the literature on the subject, so I thought that I would float them now, as this is the time in the electoral cycle for free thinking and radical ideas, and see where we go from there.

Let me start with a special plea for the west of England. The latest regional figures for those who have digital television and those who have not suggest that the south-west, which incorporates the west of England, where I live and which I represent, as does my hon. Friend Mr. Foster, had the lowest take-up of digital television. That was true a year or so ago, and I imagine that that pattern has not changed greatly.

I understand that technical considerations have dictated the sequence of analogue switch-off, or digital switch-on, to some extent, but I wonder how that could have been modified to reflect the fact that switching off the analogue signal in part of the country where digital take-up is low is more of an upheaval and causes more of a problem than it would in an area in which most people already have digital television.

Does the Minister plan to modify the sequence of switching off the analogue signal and moving to digital, or does he plan to advise Ofcom that there should be a modification of the sequence, so that parts of the country in which digital is more widespread would switch off the analogue signal first, giving the rest of us in the west a chance to catch up, which I imagine would be a less painful experience for everyone?

What about the position of pensioners and, more generally, people who are isolated? Ofcom's document, "Driving Digital Switchover", states that

"the transitional cost of conversion"— in other words, buying a set-top box, and sorting out the aerial or the VCR—

"may remain a significant barrier for some households and risks excluding them from TV after switchover."

That is my concern. I would be interested to hear the Government's response.

The consumer expert group states in the executive summary of its report to, I presume, the Minister, in October 2004:

"Although these issues are now well-known and well-understood, the Government's existing policy does not ensure that they are addressed as part of the switchover timetable."

In a sense, this is four years too early for the west, but in another sense we need to get moving now, and any indications that the Minister can give of how he plans to tackle these obvious problems would be appreciated.

What is the nature of the problem for elderly and isolated people? As I say, television might be an integral part of their lives. They might have no real interest in CBeebies or other digital channels, and might be perfectly happy with what they have. They want to know why they will have to pay what will, by then, be £20 or £30 for a set-top box, and get someone to fix the aerial and sort out the VCR, if they have one—charges for which might run into several hundred pounds. Although it is difficult to get reliable estimates of how many people would need, say, a rooftop aerial, I know from first-hand experience that when my family went digital not so long ago, we had to have a man up on the roof because our aerial was not good enough. With the basic state pension at £80 a week, the cost of a box, a VCR and an aerial could amount to two or three weeks' pension in a bad case, and perhaps even more. I would therefore be interested to hear from the Minister how far the Government have got in their thinking.

Some of the documents that I have read refer to the groups covered by the free TV licence, and the suggestion is that the over-75s and the registered blind might be the main group. Are those the parameters that the Minister is considering? Clearly, that would cover a lot of the people I am concerned about, but there are other vulnerable groups, as the Minister will well know.

In its November 2004 report, the independent consumer panel came up with a couple of suggestions, as I am sure the Minister is well aware. The panel suggested a couple of schemes to ease the switchover to digital, and they would cost between £250 million and £400 million.

This, I guess, is where I do my radical free thinking, although it might be boring and hackneyed for all I know; however, I have never read anything along these lines before. Obviously, the spectrum freed up by the switch-off of the analogue signal is of some value, although I have no idea what the figure is. One can speculate about it, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bath may share it with us if he should catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Clearly, it would be helpful to have the Government's latest thinking on the valuation of that spectrum and some indication of whether the first claim on it might not go to the very people who have, effectively, suffered to make it available. If the elderly and the vulnerable cannot go on watching their old telly without spending some money, and the Government benefit to the tune of, perhaps, billions of pounds, the first claim should go to those who made that possible. If people have to pay, and the Government take all the proceeds, it will almost be taxation by the back door.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend out of his misery. He will no doubt not be surprised to hear that there are huge variations in the estimates, but the most recent estimate is that about £460 million per annum could be achieved.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful, as ever, to my hon. Friend. That suggests that the schemes proposed by the independent consumer panel would swallow a substantial proportion of that money in the first year, so it would be helpful to get the Minister's thoughts on that.

The second set of issues relates to people making buying decisions about equipment now. I am still struck by the fact that the vast bulk of television equipment that people are buying is non-digital. Some of those who understand these things far better than I do have suggested to me that people should not do that and that it is not necessarily such a bright idea, because the digital technology will evolve. I am open to that suggestion, but I wonder how many people are buying cheap sets from the bottom end of the market, which will become obsolete unless they pay almost as much as they did for the telly to get them sorted out. The Government now have a sticker system to give people a bit of a clue when they buy a telly, but I still think that awareness out there is very low.

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

One problem with the wider debate is that people have talked about digital televisions, rather than digital access to homes. It is not the television that causes the problem, but the access mechanism. If the hon. Gentleman were to focus on that, we might resolve a number of the problems that he is highlighting.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I accept that distinction. However, householders who buy a cheap portable television to be used in a teenager's bedroom are buying equipment that, as it stands, will not receive a digital input. Then, a few years down the line, because they had not really caught on to it, they will have to go back to the shop to buy a box, or to get the set connected to a box elsewhere in the house. Consumers need to be made aware of such things now, so that they can make a more informed choice. I am aware, as a consumer, that I do not begin to understand it, and I have some interest in the subject. I wonder how many people will be similarly affected.

I have seen estimates—perhaps the Minister can clarify the matter—that as many as 2 million set-top boxes will be of no use when the new regime comes in, but I am not sure exactly why. That raises questions about the decisions that people are making now and how informed they are, and about how much warning they will get and whether the Government's publicity is being regionally focused.

I turn to some of the other issues. My constituency is not particularly rural, but because of the contours of the land parts of it cannot currently receive a digital signal. I understand that about 25 per cent. of Great Britain cannot do so. Again, I hope that the Minister will explain a little more about the transition process, as people from Thornbury and Charfield in my constituency have written letters to me, angry because they are having to pay for the BBC's digital output but cannot receive it. I understand that the digital signal cannot be boosted until the analogue signal is out of the way, so I could write back to them saying that things will be fine once the analogue signal has gone—but we cannot guarantee it. I know that I can visit a Freeview website and enter my postcode to get information on that, but I wonder how certain it will be. In other words, what will be the sequence of events for my constituents in Thornbury, who cannot receive digital? Will they buy a box once they know that BBC 2 and the other channels are to be switched off, not knowing for sure until D-day whether it was worth buying? It is possible that some will buy the equipment—they will have been told that the chances are that it will be fine—who, when the moment comes, will be among the 0.5 per cent. or whatever percentage it is who still cannot receive a digital signal after the change.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman says that a proportion of his constituents cannot get digital, but that is not true. They may not be able to get a digital terrestrial television signal, but they can receive a satellite transmission. Although they may not wish to subscribe and pay a monthly fee, it is possible to get Freesat—although one has to look rather hard to discover how to go about getting it. Digital is available now.

J

This is not actually true. I live in the Monmouth area and am among a number of people who cannot receive either Freeview from Freesat or through Sky. We have no apparent digital signal from either.

Submitted by Jessica Aidley

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Indeed. It is one of those occasions when one uses language loosely because one is not used to the field of expertise. As the hon. Gentleman said, people could take up the satellite option—it costs in the region of £150 to install—but under existing planning regulations, people in some parts of my constituency would not be allowed to erect a dish. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point; people have a choice, but they have decided not to exercise it, and will thus be at a disadvantage when compared with those who can get digital terrestrial television.

Clearly a number of groups are affected. I have already mentioned the elderly, people with poor English and those with particular disabilities. The work done on the position of disabled people and other vulnerable people by the Ofcom consumer panel is fascinating and thorough. I am used to a social security system in which one takes fairly large categories of people and passports benefits to the entire group. The most interesting conclusion of the consumer panel is that such a blanket approach is not the way forward. Instead, it talks of a more community-based, bottom-up approach, using local organisations. Although I have much philosophical sympathy for that sort of approach, there is always a danger of its being piecemeal and patchy, with people being missed out.

Again, I would be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts. Should we have a blanket approach for the over-75s, with local initiatives to pick up other vulnerable groups? What does he have in mind? The digital take-up is very poor among the over-75s. The 2003 figures show that only 16 per cent. of them had taken it up. More significant is its poor take-up among low-income households. I had assumed that the converse might be true. I assumed, for instance, that lone parents needed television, perhaps to keep the children quiet. Indeed, it is an integral part of life for many lone-parent families. I therefore imagined that digital would have a high penetration among low-income families, but the statistical evidence is to the contrary, showing that poorer households tend not to have taken up digital.

I want to mention a couple of other bits and pieces that concern me. I see that a number of hon. Members are in the Chamber, because it is an important issue for us all. Clearly, multiple-dwelling units, and the implications for people living in those, whether public sector or private sector—I strongly suspect that the latter will be more of a problem—present an issue for consideration. We can, in a sense, probably sort out the public authorities with a bit of kick up the backside, but getting private landlords to sort things out might be more difficult. I should be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on that.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Has the hon. Gentleman seen the briefing from Astra GB, which states that a substantial number of local authorities and social landlords will not allow a dish on their dwellings? He made a point about receiving the changeover via disk, but that will be denied to the relevant tenants unless there is a change in the planning procedures and the attitudes of some social landlords. Does he perceive any such change in the process, along the way?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. My officials have just passed me a note, which enables me to tell hon. Members that so far only 14 per cent. of local authorities—but that is one in seven—and nearly one in three registered social landlords do not allow their tenants to install satellites. I suspect that we can deal with the public sector, but we need to get on with that, because such things will take a long time. Many local authorities may ask, "Is this a top priority for us this year? We will put it back a year." Their tenants will be at a disadvantage.

I want to do a further bit of special pleading. The documents that I have read focus on the first television in the household. I understand that, but I think that they dismiss slightly too glibly the point about the second or third telly, in the teenager's bedroom, with a portable aerial; if the Government are to obtain political consensus, and the electorate's acceptance, for the change, they need to reach out to a much larger group of people who may already have digital on the main television but will still see it as a serious inconvenience and be resistant to it.

I gather that work on televisions with portable aerials and so on is continuing, but my political sense leads me not to dismiss that aspect of the matter by saying, "Well, frankly, who cares? If they have two televisions they are probably well enough off and that does not really matter." If we are trying to overcome resistance on the matter—and I suspect that the Secretary of State, or her successor, whoever that will be, will have to do that—we shall need to deal with that issue, to avoid some of the obstacles that might arise.

My priority is the elderly, the vulnerable and the isolated. According to a horrific statistic in research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, one in nine people aged over 65 see family or neighbours less than once a month. Someone living in such isolation is not likely to have a friendly son-in-law who will say, "You plug this in here, and sort out that." There will be no substitute for people going into people's houses in significant numbers and just sorting things out. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that is what is planned.

I think that this debate will run and run, but I wanted to put down a marker; to clarify whether there will be a resolution of the problems of the parts of my constituency and my hon. Friends' constituencies that do not at present have digital or terrestrial digital; and to ask about the present low digital penetration in the west of England, and why that is in the earlier batch, when that makes life more difficult; but primarily to ask about isolated, elderly and vulnerable people and to seek assurances that they do not have anything to worry about and that the Government plan to tackle those important problems.

Photo of Mr Brian White Mr Brian White Labour, North East Milton Keynes 2:19 pm, 15th March 2005

I congratulate Mr. Webb on raising this important subject and coming at it from a different angle, which does not repeat the tired old arguments that we have heard before. I had intended only to contribute to the debate in an intervention about a constituency issue, but in the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments I shall make a few more remarks.

My constituency problem is that the cable provider there, NTL, has an analogue cable and refuses to switch to digital cable, thereby denying my constituents access to digital television. NTL inherited that from British Telecom, but a range of my constituents will not be able to switch to digital except—as Mr. Whittingdale says, and as I have done—by using satellite digital. That is our only option. We cannot use Freeview because the Sandy Heath transmitter does not reach us, so our only option is satellite. How are we to stop the monopolistic practice that denies my constituents their switchover to digital if NTL, which has a monopoly in the area, will not provide a switchover to digital and the Government's policy is about competition between platforms—although I would argue that it needs to be within platforms as well?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Westminster, where I am—no doubt many hon. Members have this experience—NTL has taken over the old Westminster cable franchise, which does not offer television at all? Every week, I receive fliers through my letter-box inviting me to subscribe to NTL's cable television services, only to be told when I try to do so that I cannot, and that there is no prospect of my being able to do so in the near future.

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

When the previous Conservative Government brought cable television into this country, the sweetener was the use of telephones, which took telephone customers away from British Telecom. Cable TV was not the money-spinner; that was the telephones. That did not apply to the two cable networks that remained with BT—Westminster and Milton Keynes—because BT was not going to nick phones from itself. Therefore, there was no incentive in those two areas for the cable companies to invest. That is part of the problem that I have identified through my constituents. It goes back to the way in which the Conservative Government set up cable companies as monopolies in local areas, and it is a fundamental problem. If one believes in competition, one should not create local monopolies. I am not surprised that the Conservative Government did that, but I shall leave the issue aside for now.

That was the history, and the hon. Gentleman is right that there is a similar problem in Westminster. So how do we move forward if the cable company will not do so? To be fair to NTL, it had a financial problem, but even so, how are we to achieve digital switchover? That is an issue for the Government. I ask in relation to the cable company, but the principle could apply to others as well: if it refuses, will we force it?

Consider the history of ONdigital, and the collapse of ITV's digital service. One of the assumptions that was made was that the aerial problem was manageable. It is not. Many aerials in the country need a massive upgrade. The technology boost to the signal has improved matters, as has the restriction on the number of channels on Freeview, but there is still a fundamental problem with the quality of the aerials and how we are to ensure that cowboys do not move into the market and cause more problems. The real issue for the Department is how it will regulate the switchover. I know that that has been identified in the programmes, but it is a key issue that should be highlighted.

There are new technologies. For example, in Finland, Nokia is experimenting with TV on mobiles. When we talk about digital TV, we tend to talk about the television box. That causes a lot of the problems, which is why I have said that we should be talking about digital access. Then wireless networks within the home to cover the remaining televisions, whether via the computer or via the analogue television, would not matter as long as the digital access point was correctly installed.

There is a problem in the United States, where the regulatory authority is mandating certain television companies in relation to the way in which the televisions are designed and manufactured. I hope that the Minister will avoid the type of problem that the film industry has forced on American TV with the copying restrictions on high-definition digital TV.

Astra has been referred to. One of the items in its letter was covenants. In my city, every new home that was built had a covenant that did not allow an aerial. It now turns out that that covenant is unenforceable. Anybody who has challenged it can get away with things, because English Partnerships and the Government cannot legally enforce the covenant that prevents satellite aerials. So, there is hope for some of my constituents yet.

It is also interesting to note the way in which television viewing is changing. Children are watching less TV and using broadband and other technologies more. One of the dangers is that, when we set out on the programme of digital switchover, the patterns of TV usage were completely different from today's. The changing nature of TV watching needs to be brought into the plan more. That change will accelerate in the coming years.

Why did colour TV come in so quickly and so well? It was because of Radio Rentals. People rented their TV and could get the upgrades without worrying about having to spend money on the TV. It was part of the rental contract. Where are the rentals for broadband and digital TV? It is a market that an entrepreneur could step into and fill. We need to recognise why things worked well in the past, because we could apply that to the future.

There is also an issue about the speed of change and technological developments. The UK is ahead of the game on the issue and has a good news story to tell. The digital plan that the Department and Ofcom have put forward identifies most of the problems and identifies ways forward. Issues such as the one that the hon. Member for Northavon raised, of pensioners, need to be addressed. They can be addressed. There is time to do so. He is right that we will get there if we start planning now.

The Government programme is right, but there is one small danger, which is that if Ofcom and the Government disagree, Ofcom, as an independent regulator, has the power to ignore Government policy. That is an important point, which the Department needs to bear in mind. Overall, we are ahead of the game and what is happening in Europe.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way just before he ends his speech. I do not want to introduce a sour note into the debate, but he said clearly that he thought the plans of both Ofcom and the Government were, largely, to be welcomed. What does he think the Government's plans are? One of my real concerns is a lack of leadership from the Government on the issue. They seem to be being driven largely by Ofcom, the BBC and others and do not seem to have a clear line themselves.

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

Given that we set Ofcom up to deal with such matters, I think it is perfectly reasonable to rely on its expertise. The purpose of Ofcom was to deal with convergence. We have spent a large amount of time in this Parliament talking about issues of convergence, for example introducing the Ofcom Bill and the Communications Bill. Much of the discussion of those Bills was about how to achieve digital switch-off. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford and I had a few battles in Committee, a large number of which were about this issue. When setting up Ofcom, one of the key objectives was to give it the task to achieve that. The Government should be criticised for setting up a body such as Ofcom, telling it to get on with it and then not doing the job themselves.

The Department has given an overall strategic direction by setting the dates for digital switchover, which was the key task that many of us were pushing it to do. It is the right way forward for Ofcom to be considering those detailed issues. I am sure that we will debate the issue again and again.

In summary, there are a number of issues. I fear that the speed of change in this area is not being recognised. If we do not recognise the speed of change of technology, the way in which people are viewing TV and the way in which the industry is changing but instead think in the old ways, we will suffer from the problems that have been identified. We need to recognise the speed of change.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:29 pm, 15th March 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Webb on securing the debate. It is on a subject that I, like him, am coming to for the first time and that, clearly, will be of enormous importance to all our constituents in a few years. In my area, Scottish Television is not due for conversion until 2009. That is two years after the guinea pigs in the borders. However, because of the vast empty spaces in the constituency, plenty of problems still arise in the highlands that do not arise in other parts of the country. For example, large swathes of the constituency—I suspect more than half of the population of Argyll and Bute—cannot receive Freeview via their set-top boxes at the moment.

One of the Government's guidelines says that, before switchover can happen, digital television should be affordable for the vast majority of households. The Government have defined the indicator of affordability as being 95 per cent. of households having access to digital equipment before switchover is completed. I went to the Ofcom presentation and I was quite concerned about some of the things that we learned there. I shall be quoting from Ofcom's report to the Secretary of State, "Driving Digital Switchover". Its projection suggests that penetration rates of digital are unlikely to rise above 85 per cent. without a decision being taken to implement the switchover.

Ofcom reports that a "substantial" number of households will need to convert their primary TV to be compatible with digital signals and "many more" households—so that is many more than "substantial"—will need to convert secondary TVs and video recorders if they want to continue using them. Ofcom goes on to report that

"Some disruption will be inevitable".

However, I am concerned that the disruption, particularly in scattered rural areas, could be much more than "substantial". Ofcom accepts that a small proportion of existing rooftop aerials and many more existing portable aerials will be unlikely to be able to receive an acceptable digital terrestrial signal. Ofcom's plan appears to rest on the assumption that areas that cannot currently receive Freeview but can receive the four main channels on analogue will be able to receive the digital signal once the analogue signal has been switched off because there will no longer be interference from the analogue signal. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we cannot test that assumption in advance; we can only hope that it will be correct.

The first step in Ofcom's plan, as was outlined at the presentation, is to switch off the analogue signal for one channel, which would probably be BBC2. Presumably, there will be an advertising campaign in advance of the switch-off to advise people that they will need to buy set-top boxes to receive the digital signal, but the obvious problem is that people who buy such boxes living in areas where Freeview cannot be received at the moment will not be able to check that they work until the switchover happens.

We are expecting, through the advertising campaign, people to buy equipment that they do not need at the moment, but which they will need at some time in the future. On the appointed day, BBC2 screens will go blank throughout that region. If I were working in a TV shop, I would expect a flood of calls that day; perhaps we should all be rushing out to buy shares in TV repair businesses. There will be a flood of calls from two groups of people: those who missed all the adverts, did not buy set-top boxes and suddenly find that for no apparent reason BBC2's signal has disappeared; and those who prepared in advance but find that for some reason the untested equipment does not work.

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

There will be a third group, which is the technophobes who do not have a seven-year-old kid to do it for them.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Opposition Whip (Commons)

That is an interesting point.

The failure of equipment to work is likely to be greatest in those scattered rural areas that cannot currently receive Freeview because the equipment cannot be tested in advance. For those in many parts of my constituency, the nearest TV engineer will be 20 or 30 miles away. With a flood of calls all happening at once, it will be a big problem for TV engineers to travel around sorting out those problems. The situation could be even worse for people who live on small islands, where perhaps there is no one who is familiar with the new technology.

The next and final phase, after the phase in which only one analogue signal is switched off, will involve switching off the analogue signals for the other three terrestrial channels. That will clearly lead to a further flood of calls to the TV engineers. I hope that the Minister, in his summing up, can reassure us that the Government do have solutions to the problems that I anticipate.

On affordability, the Government's affordability test is that 95 per cent. of households will have access to digital equipment before the switchover is completed, but Ofcom reports that that target will not be met without a timetable being set. Therefore, there is the problem that the Government might have to commit themselves to the switchover before they know whether their target will be met and then hope that it will. As I have outlined, we will not know whether digital equipment will work in many areas until after the switchover, so we do not know how many people who can ill afford it will be forced to pay a lot of money for a TV engineer to come out and get their digital boxes or aerials fixed in order to pick up new signals.

I hope that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon suggested, the Government will use some of the money that they will make from selling off the spectrum to assist people on low incomes with the cost of carrying out conversions. If they want the switchover to be affordable for people, they must give us cast-iron assurances that affordable set-top boxes will be available to people and that they will be able to pick up the digital signal in all the parts of the country that can presently receive the four main channels in analogue form.

Those are the concerns. I am not an expert on the subject, but I certainly hope that, when he sums up, the Minister will be able to respond to them with assurances.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 2:37 pm, 15th March 2005

At the risk of being the third one in a row, I have to say that I am another Liberal Democrat who is not an expert on this subject, but I am sure that the whole House is waiting in anticipation for my hon. Friend Mr. Foster, who will put us all right if he should catch your eye during the winding-up speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That may be the triumph of hope over experience, but I am willing to go with it today.

My hon. Friend Mr. Webb has raised an important issue. As hon. Members have shown, it is beginning to be an issue in our constituencies and it will become much more of an issue in the years ahead. My part of the world is the south of Scotland and I would make the bold claim—although I am confident about it—that I probably represent the most beautiful constituency in the whole country. [Interruption.] Perhaps Macclesfield is one small exception. The important point is that, in many places, the source of that beauty is the topography—the hills and the valleys. For all that, read that those are difficult technical circumstances in which to supply television and other broadcast signals.

One local worthy recently highlighted to me that it took more than 40 years to get 90 per cent. analogue coverage for our part of the world, yet it is proposed that, somewhere between now and 2008, we will move exclusively to digital and complete the switchover in the first tranche of regions. That seems extremely ambitious, not least when important villages such as Clovenfords in the heart of my constituency currently barely receive the analogue signals for existing terrestrial channels, and when the issue of Channel 5 still dogs many of the communities across all the towns in the region. So, there has been some surprise that the Border Television region has been selected to be in the first group of regions that will transfer over. I do not want that to be interpreted as a denigration of the technical prowess of the people at Border Television or the many other engineers up and down the country who will tackle this matter, but having spoken to different people in Border Television and elsewhere, I remain concerned that there is a lot of doubt about the technical feasibility of the switchover on such an ambitious time scale. Let no one get the wrong signal from me—if Members will pardon the pun. I am not suggesting that anybody in my constituency does not want digital television services. Those of us who have the good fortune to be able to get Freeview or satellite television and the like appreciate that it is a major breakthrough. As Brian White said, it is something of which Britain can rightly be proud, and we all want it as soon as possible. However, it must be introduced in a manageable and sensible time frame, and, as my hon. Friends have remarked, we must take account of some key issues—not least affordability.

I have been in correspondence about that subject on behalf of different constituents over the past year or so with Lord McIntosh in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I am grateful to him for the detailed way in which he has sought to answer those letters and tackle the concerns of my constituents. In response to a recent inquiry, he confirmed that analogue will be maintained until digital

"is an affordable option for the vast majority of people" and said that the Government

"are satisfied that the interests of consumers, especially the most vulnerable, are well protected".

My hon. Friends have already highlighted those issues in the guidelines and other correspondence, and I applaud the Government's intention; but I have yet to see or hear the detailed definitions of "affordable", "the vast majority" or "the most vulnerable" that will assure me that important sections of my local community are not left out. Affordability affects not only one television. The days are long gone when households might have only the one piece of equipment to be affected by such a change. It is not simply about changing the black and white telly in the corner over to colour, or getting one with teletext; in many households every room has a television, with VCRs or DVD players attached. Even now pieces of equipment are being sold that are not digital-compatible. For many who do not have a seven-year-old child, a neighbour or friend who can assist, switchover will be a big burden.

Many people are doubtful. They do not have to be technophobes; they just have to be a tiny bit sceptical about the process, given the fiasco that we endured during the Channel 5 switchover. If that is any indication of what the process will be like in the future, people are right to be worried.

Separately, I am concerned about people's ability to choose between different digital platforms. The experts present—we have already eliminated four or five people from that description—have highlighted that there are a number of platforms out there. Beyond Sky Television, and Freeview where one can get it, most people are unaware of any other options. They do not recognise the prospect of other serious options coming on stream in an affordable and accessible way soon. Many fear that only Sky will be available to them because they are not in an area that enjoys Freeview. They also remain doubtful about the boosted Freeview signal allowing them to receive those services in the future.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

I do apologise; I have actually moved down the Room to get a better reception.

The hon. Gentleman and I share the Border Television area, and there is a contentious issue for those who seek to turn to Freeview to get the digital signal. On our side of the border, people want to see BBC Scotland. If they invest in the equipment and pick up a signal from Cumbria, for example, they will not get BBC Scotland. People will be investing without realising the reception that they will get, or the service that will be delivered.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, not least because we are talking about an area in which Border Television, the ITV provider, has managed to split its signal, so that on the Scottish side of the border we can enjoy Scottish news opt-outs and different programmes from the south of the border. It would be a strange and backward step for people north of the border to be denied access to the Scottish version of the BBC.

I understand that in future people will able to dial up and plug into whichever variation of the BBC they wish to have, through the Freesat alternative. However, many will object to having to have a satellite dish installed in the first place, while there will be others who are not yet aware of the opportunity. The Government and other agencies, such as the BBC and Ofcom, still have a lot of ground to cover in getting awareness of that choice fixed in people's minds. There is serious anxiety that the reality of the digital switchover, particularly in its accelerated state, will mean that people will have no choice and will have to go for Sky or, in limited areas, Freeview.

Digital television is a major breakthrough, as other hon. Members have said. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East pointed that it affects not only television, but the whole range of digital services, which are exciting and for which the Government deserve credit on pushing forward. However, I am concerned that we run the risk of falling flat on our face if certain issues that have been raised today are not tackled quickly.

It is proposed that we in the Borders will switch over to digital exclusively in three years' time. Very few people in south-east Scotland now believe that that will be possible. Whether because of the feasibility or affordability, or because of the choice that they have been given, people believe that there are still serious questions to answer and they will take a lot of persuading. I hope that the Minister will give some of the assurances that we seek and ensure that the Government heed our warnings as they plan the roll-out over the next few years.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 2:47 pm, 15th March 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Webb on introducing a debate on an important issue, about which many people still have many concerns. Before I turn to his remarks and to the contributions that other hon. Members made, however, I refer to the comment by my hon. Friend Mr. Moore about what a major breakthrough digital is. None of us should forget how significant it is. Put simply, digital is better. The picture, the sound and the add-ons are better than with analogue, and there are huge benefits with the electronic programme guides and interactive services. Digital is an exciting development.

The title of the debate refers to television, but let us remember that, along with America, we are definitely leading the way on the wider move to digital, including digital radio. We should be proud of that and acknowledge the benefits. I hope that none of us is suggesting that we do not wish to move forward as quickly as possible, so that as many people as possible can benefit from the new technology.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon began by saying that he knew little about the topic and did not even know what his party's policy on it was. I assure him that his party—our party—is enthusiastic about the digital switchover. We believe that it offers enormous benefits and that a lot of good work has been done on it. However, our biggest concern is that there has been a lack of political will and political leadership to help us to move forward.

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

The hon. Gentleman has just acknowledged that Britain leads the world in digital activities and technology, so how can he say that there has been no political leadership from the Government?

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question. If he will bear with me, I will give him a detailed, precise answer. I acknowledge that the question is fair.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon raised a number of concerns, and I look forward to the Minister's response to them. I will touch on some of the issues that he raised about the timetable. He talked about the region that we both live in being low on digital take-up so far, but high on the list for switch-off. He rightly raised concerns that have been picked up by others about the need to provide help to various disadvantaged groups such as the isolated, the elderly and the vulnerable.

My hon. Friend pointed out that we should not get too excited about how far the digital take-up revolution has spread. We all know that when the Government and others talk about take-up of about 60 per cent.—the figures vary—that refers largely only to the first and main television set in the home and does not take into account the second or third, or even in some cases the fourth or fifth. He touched on other issues, to which I will return, about houses in multiple occupation.

Brian White made some important points in a useful speech. I was amused by his exchange with the hon. Member for Chelmsford and East Maldon—

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I am grateful. I should know it by now, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to his constituents for my failure to get it right.

The exchange was interesting. The hon. Gentleman referred to his problem getting a television service from NTL. NTL could provide him with a television service. I have it, it is an analogue service and frankly—I will get into trouble with NTL for saying this—it is not worth having. However, it is available and he could have it.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out how bizarre it was that various advertising leaflets streamed through his door advertising a service that he cannot get. No doubt, like me, he receives a large number of advertisements from Sky advertising what it can deliver but failing to take into account that, because of my local authority, Westminster, and because I am in a property of multiple occupation, we are not allowed to have a Sky satellite dish to receive Sky's services. A lot of firms waste a lot of money putting literature through doors, adding to the confusion. We need to return to the issue of how confused many people are.

The hon. Gentleman was right to draw our attention to the number of alternatives that are increasingly becoming available as platforms for the delivery of digital offerings. He referred in particular to broadband. Many of us have had briefings on that and know that within two or three years the speed is likely to be such that we will be able easily to get live streaming TV through our computers.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

It can be done now, but it is not that effective. It raises additional issues about the licence fee for people who might decide not to have television sets but to rely on their computers. Perhaps that is another issue.

There is also the possibility, which we are beginning to see trialled already, of receiving TV through mobile phones. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East is right to say that we have to take account of some of the new developments in the switchover. However, I fundamentally disagree with him—this comes back to his question—about Government leadership. He implied that, because we have got on with digital and are to some extent leading the way, that brings great credit to the Government.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in the royal television lecture in 1999, Mr. Smith, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, told us that it would be possible to achieve switchover by 2010. That date has now been dropped because, I argue, we have not seen leadership from Government. We have seen a number of other bodies, particularly Ofcom and the BBC, at work in that area. However, there has been real confusion in the Government's mind about how things will go forward. I asked the Government in September 2004 why Ofcom was offering new licences with the 2012 date in them and whether it had pre-empted anything that the Government might say. The Independent reported the Department's response, saying:

"The DCMS said Ms Jowell referred to 2012 in a speech she gave in the Commons in July."

That implied that she had given a date in July, so I checked precisely what she said in her statement to the House:

"While the broadcasters have not reached a full consensus on the optimum timetable, some—including the BBC—have suggested that 2012 may be the most appropriate date for the completion of switchover."—[Hansard, House of Commons, 22 July 2004; Vol. 424, c. 82WS.]

That is hardly a ringing endorsement from the Secretary of State of the idea that 2012 is Government policy.

Indeed, much more recently, on the day the Secretary of State announced the Green Paper on BBC charter renewal, it was clearly stated that she was giving major responsibility for building digital Britain to the BBC. It appeared to me, at least, that she was asking the BBC to write a blank cheque. There was no clarity about the level of responsibility that the BBC would take or about how much licence fee payers' money it was expected to spend.

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

The hon. Gentleman will obviously remember the ITV Digital disaster, which was based on some crazy decisions by its board. He will also remember the rescue of digital carried out by the BBC, which should be praised for what it has done to promote digital through its services. At one point, it was easy to think that the whole thing would go down the pan, and the BBC deserves credit for rescuing digital from the disaster at ITV.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and there is no doubt that the BBC will, and should, continue to play an important role. Indeed, its technological developments have been important not only for the corporation and its programmes, but for a number of public service and commercial broadcasters, and we would all do well to recognise that. It is fine to require the BBC to play a leading role, and I have no problem with that, but I do have a problem when neither the parameters for that responsibility nor the financial envelope within which the BBC is expected to operate are clearly laid down.

Several issues have been raised. My hon. Friend Mr. Reid rightly expressed concern about the potential for people in his constituency to lose out. He and other colleagues mentioned the confusion in the minds of many people. He said, tellingly, that there will presumably be an advertising campaign. I say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East that, with such a large number of people currently buying new television sets and new equipment, we need much greater clarity about what they should be looking for. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon talked about stickers on the telly, and that is a move in the right direction, but there is huge confusion in people's minds when they buy a digital television set about whether it will deliver.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I will in a second. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that we should be talking about the input, and before he intervened—he can happily do so again—I was about to say that he was 100 per cent. right. Unfortunately, a large number of those who have been buying digital television sets simply have not got that message and have been buying things that may not be helpful to them for quite some time. I think he agrees that I have covered the point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale raised a number of concerns about technical feasibility in his area, although he was in no way knocking the skills of the people there, and he rightly pointed that out. He asked whether it would be possible to resolve the technical problems under the very tight and, as he put it, challenging timetable for his area. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute, he took up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon about affordability. Several such issues have been raised in reports, not least the Ofcom consumer panel's November 2004 report, which states that there is an urgent need to consider who the disadvantaged groups will be who might lose out and what support they will need. The panel drew particular, but not exclusive, attention to the over-75s.

Although the overall envelope of financial help might be in the region of £250 million to £400 million to provide such people with support, it is worth reflecting that the panel estimates that the cost of providing such support to those aged 75 and over will be between £134 million and £270 million. Of course, others will have to be considered.

There are concerns about whether we are driving forward enthusiasm for take-up and dealing with the technophobes without 7-year-old children, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East put it. I assume, from the way in which he said that, that he does not put himself in that category, so if he wants to pop around to my flat afterwards to tune my video in, I would be grateful; I have been trying to get it right for two months.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon raised a particularly important issue, which was picked up by others: houses in multiple occupation. The question of what options are available has already been asked. An option for some is to get Freeview, but it is not available to people who do not have access to Channel Five, such as many of my constituents in Bath, so that is not an option.

The second option is Freesat, which costs money—£150, give or take. That is an option for many, but not for those who live in private property covered by planning legislation that does not allow a satellite dish. Those who rent property from a registered social landlord or a local authority are completely stuck unless the landlord or authority has got their act together and done something about the situation.

It is important that we acknowledge those issues. Above all, I want the Government to give clearer leadership and to announce their preferred date, rather than the one to which everybody else says that they should agree.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 3:02 pm, 15th March 2005

I, too, congratulate Mr. Webb on securing the debate. He was honest enough to say that he did not know much about this subject when he first examined it. However, that is the same for the vast majority of the population. One of the problems is that few people know anything about it, yet the timetable set by the Government is coming up fast. Analogue switch-off may start in just three years, yet little has been done to prepare for it, and there are number of problems attached to it, which have been mentioned.

I have considerable concerns about analogue switch-off and what it will involve, but I am an enthusiast of digital television. I have been a Sky satellite subscriber for many years, and now subscribe to Sky Plus, which is an extraordinary technology. For anybody who acquires Sky Plus, or a PVR—personal video recorder—life is never quite the same again, because of the extra choice that it provides: hundreds of channels; the possibility to interact; and in the long term, the possibility of high-definition television, which has not yet arrived in this country but could represent a whole new dimension.

I am also a Freeview box owner, principally because I have been unable to obtain the television service from my cable provider. Therefore, I am aware of the limitations on Freeview. Even though I live in central London I cannot get Channel 5 on Freeview because, I am told, it is on a lower multiplex.

To complete the picture, I am the enthusiastic owner of two digital radio sets. Nobody has yet mentioned digital radio. It, too, represents a technological development that is beginning to take off, and it raises questions to which I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response. Do the Government plan, eventually, to turn off the analogue radio signal?

Having set the picture and, I hope, made it clear that I am in no way averse to the technology, I recognise that many people do not necessarily want more choice. They are content with their analogue service, and are at best alarmed by and at worse positively opposed to the suggestion that that service will cease and that they will be compelled to move over to digital take-up.

I suspect that when the idea was first mooted, its attraction for the Government was financial. I remember that, four or five years ago, in the heady days after the 3G auction, this was regarded as a pot of gold that would be available to the Treasury and might well pay for half the public spending programme. At that time, there was real enthusiasm for pushing ahead as fast as possible. I do not think that that is any longer the case. Indeed, there is considerable dispute about the net benefit that will accrue to the economy as a result of switchover. The Government have given us a figure of between £1.5 billion and £2 billion, but the consumer group that reported to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport cast considerable doubt on that figure. It pointed out that the cost was measured only in terms of those viewers who currently do not have access to digital TV and will, therefore, incur costs in making the necessary changes, including acquiring set-top boxes, whereas the benefit was measured in the overall bonus to the economy from the whole population acquiring digital television. It was not comparing like with like.

On top of that, there is considerable doubt as to whether the Government's estimate takes full account of all the costs involved. For instance, they have said that the net penalty cost of forced conversion is £25. However, it is not yet possible to obtain a box for £25, and considerable extra costs might be involved. For that reason, the consumer group concluded that the cost-benefit analysis greatly underestimates the penalty costs for consumers of switchover by underestimating the costs and overestimating the benefits. It went on to say that

"the methodology appears to be flawed and it ignores many consumer costs" and it recommended that

"a parallel consumer cost benefit analysis should be developed."

That is urgently needed. If we are to take this huge step, we need at least to be convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs.

I have a number of other concerns. First, as I said, the Government have completely failed to persuade those who are aware of their policy that it is a desirable policy. A survey for the Department of Trade and Industry of 4,000 viewers found that more than 70 per cent. are angry about switch-off and suspicious of the Government's motives. More than 3 million householders said that they would refuse to buy digital equipment and half of them said that they would maintain their defiance even if they had to give up TV completely. So there is a huge amount to do if people are to be persuaded that it is a good idea. To do that, we must have answers to a lot of the questions that have been asked. At the moment, we have digital penetration of about 55 per cent. The Government originally said that it was unthinkable to go ahead until digital penetration had reached 95 per cent. It then became apparent that we could not get up to 95 per cent. unless we switched off the analogue signal in order to convert the transmitters to digital terrestrial television. However, that requires the leap of faith that has been referred to. It means that viewers will have to have set-top boxes sitting on their televisions ready for the time when the off-switch is pulled, in the confidence and belief that they will, on pressing a button, have access to DTT.

However, this is not just a matter of set-top boxes. There are a host of other problems. The Government's figure of 55 per cent. digital penetration is encouraging and undoubtedly that figure is growing, but as has been mentioned, that 55 per cent. refers to the main household television set. As I have said, my main household television set is digital, but I have three more, which are analogue. I do not think that I am all that unusual in that.

Therefore, the vast majority of those households that are already classified as digital households will incur significant extra costs in converting their other television sets to receive digital transmission. In some cases it may not even be possible. Of my three extra sets, two have portable aerials on the top; it does not seem likely at the moment that it will be possible to convert them.

There will be a significant extra cost and possibly a significant loss of consumer benefit when switch-off happens. People may well have to incur substantial extra expenditure to continue to receive television on all the sets on which they currently receive it. It is not, therefore, all that surprising that people are unconvinced that they should incur a cost simply to continue to receive what they now receive without paying.

It is estimated that about one in three households need to change aerials and downleads. Around one in five television sets is portable or uses a portable aerial, and reference has also been made to the problem of people who live in multiple-dwelling units. Astra has put forward a good case on why an integrated system with a mast to allow DTT reception, a dish to allow satellite reception and a digital audio broadcasting aerial to allow digital radio reception is desirable. However, in many cases that is not possible at the moment. That, too, needs to be dealt with if we are to maintain the position, and the Government's declared objective, of allowing everyone who currently receives analogue television to receive digital television when switch-off happens.

Affordability has also been mentioned. Some work has been done to suggest that those on the lowest incomes are likely to incur the greatest costs. Recommendations have been made about the necessity of offering a financial package. The Ofcom consumer panel has produced a useful report, to which Mr. Foster referred, about the potential size of the necessary package of financial assistance, which, in total, as he said, may amount to between £250 million and £400 million. That is another cost that must be compared with the potential benefit that we are told will accrue as a result of switch-off.

Much more information needs to be given to consumers. The stickers with little ticks on them, which are being placed on television sets, somehow suggest that the Government are telling people that it is a good idea to buy an integrated digital TV set. However, many people, as Brian White suggested, do not think that it is a good idea to buy an integrated digital TV, because that means locking oneself into the present technology and, if it advances, having to buy a whole new television set rather than a new box. The Government need to consider whether they are offering people the right advice.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I am sure that he has done his research and talked to people—that, bizarrely, buying a new integrated digital set is often also more expensive than buying the kit separately?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

That is probably the result of the fact that at the moment demand for integrated sets is relatively low, but it is certainly true. Therefore it is difficult to see any reason why someone should want to buy an integrated set.

There have been many references to the fact that we lead the world in the take-up of digital television. That is true. Of those who can principally claim credit for that—there are two, and they do not include the present Government—the first is Rupert Murdoch, who launched satellite and then digital satellite in this country, and the second is the previous Conservative Government. I recall serving on the Committee that considered the 1996 Broadcasting Bill, which ushered in digital terrestrial television. That television, it is fair to say, had some teething problems. Nevertheless, the previous Conservative Government were the ones who paved the way for it.

Ofcom has announced a timetable, which will start very shortly. In last week's Green Paper, the Government placed considerable responsibility on the BBC, yet all the questions that have been asked in this debate have not been properly addressed. Analogue switch-off is classified as a brave decision for a Minister to take. It is desirable that we get there eventually, but I have considerable doubts about the timetable that we are following and whether it is sensible to compel consumers to switch to digital terrestrial television when they might not want to do so. We need to consider the issues much more carefully, but the Government have not provided answers to the many questions that have been asked.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Sport and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport 3:16 pm, 15th March 2005

I, too, congratulate Mr. Webb on securing the debate and on his work as vice-chairman of the all-party group on poverty. As he said, that work was one of the major reasons why he secured the debate today.

I do not know the origins of digital television, but we would all agree that digital switchover will bring significant benefits to the wider economy of the United Kingdom as well as to consumers, from both the extension in coverage of digital terrestrial television and the considerable number of new services that will use the freed-up spectrum that it will offer.

Since 2001, the Government's objective has been to work with public service and other broadcasters, industry and consumers to develop a collective strategy for digital television, which includes ensuring that all households have access to affordable digital television services.

The prices of set-top boxes and integrated digital televisions have fallen to the level at which switchover is affordable for the vast majority of households. Although take-up is healthy—at the last count, it was about 55 per cent., according to Ofcom figures—it cannot be left to the market alone if we are to achieve switchover.

The Ofcom report, "Driving Digital Switchover", expresses a belief that the digital take-up rate will approach 80 per cent. by 2012 and will rise very slowly afterwards. The vast majority of viewers will need only a source of good information to help them through the switchover. I take on board the comment made by many hon. Members that we must convince them that switchover is right. We are, however, fully aware that some people will need much more information. They may need help to understand what they have to do to install their boxes and check their aerials, and help to understand how to use their new equipment, and we acknowledge that a few might also need financial assistance, as Mr. Foster said. I will talk about that shortly.

The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone who can currently receive the main public service broadcasting channels—BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, Channel 4, S4C, Channel 5 and teletext—in analogue form will be able to receive them on digital systems on switchover. That is the object of the exercise.

Ofcom has indicated that switchover could be completed in 2012, and has published an indicative regional order to that effect. A final decision on switchover will need to take account of the impact on everyone, not least on the most vulnerable consumers.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

The Minister is absolutely right to say that the Government need to decide, among other things, the precise date of the switchover. He will know that I, and I suspect others, have received a letter from the chief executive of Ofcom who says quite categorically:

"We will, by late Spring/early Summer be at the point where operational decisions and political decisions must come together" for various reasons.

"In short, a decision crunch point is approaching when a political decision—either to go ahead with switchover or to postpone it indefinitely—needs to be taken."

May we have an assurance that the Government will make that decision and announce it by the deadline of late spring or early summer?

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Sport and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

That is our intention. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with something that the debate has shown clearly. As he said, we can go for dates, but if we are not reassured that we will deliver a service to everyone, including the vulnerable, it would be a mistake to start giving out dates. The first question that must be asked is, "Can we deliver the service?" We as a Government must be sure that we can give clear political leadership. The issue is not just about dates, which are important but just one part of the debate. We must be reassured that the technology is in place and that we can deliver.

This afternoon, I want to try to lay out how we believe that we can deliver the technology to the people that the debate has been about and central to—vulnerable people. Once we are reassured on that point, I will be much more assured about giving dates. That is also the case as far as the Secretary of State is concerned. Ofcom and the BBC do not have the responsibilities that Government have to deliver the service to all sectors of society. That is a political decision of the Government. It is one that we will make when we believe that we have all the information. We think that that is important. What has been useful about the debate is that it has brought that into political focus.

At the heart of the Government's plan is the key role that the BBC will play in switchover. We agree with the BBC's view, expressed in "Building Public Value", that it should have a lead role in the switchover. We will ask the BBC to help establish and manage the organisation that will co-ordinate the implementation of switchover. We will also ask it to take a lead role in public information campaigns, telling consumers what will happen and when and what consumers need to do. That has been clearly emphasised in the debate.

We know from reports from Generics, the consumer expert group, and Ofcom that some people will need considerable help at switchover. We therefore agree with the consumer expert group and Ofcom's independent consumer panel that the vulnerable consumer should be assisted throughout that stage of the switchover. We will also ask the BBC to help establish and fund schemes for the most vulnerable consumers. We are not able to announce details of who will get help at this stage, but we continue to work with the charities that deal with vulnerable households and will set out our proposals in conjunction with the BBC. So, there will be a wide consultation in the area. Details will be set out at the time of an announcement.

Whatever we do, we must ensure that the public have an awareness and understanding of switchover. Broadcasters, and the supply chain to them, will hold the primary responsibility for ensuring that everyone gets all the information that they need about the switchover process. However, the Government will continue to take responsibility for communicating their switchover policy. In November 2004, the Government launched a public awareness campaign that aims to use the mainstream media to educate the media and the public about switchover.

The switchover logo has been referred to, the development of which is a crucial part of the support. The logo indicates digital-ready products and services and reliable information about switchover. So far, 20 manufacturers and more than 200 retailers, representing more than 2,300 retail outlets, and a number of aerial installers, as well as Top Up TV, have signed up to the use of that logo. We are making progress. Information leaflets are readily available at all major stores, including Dixons and Comet. We are also working with charities on plans to ensure that everyone, including those who are hard to reach, get the right information and support. We are working with shadow SwitchCo, the switchover organisation that is being set up by broadcasters and the supply chain to ensure that communication and marketing plans reflect the needs of consumers. We understand that it plans a proactive information campaign at both the national and the regional level. There is surely no clearer message to focus people's minds than the Government's announcement that confirms the timetable of that switchover.

As I mentioned, the Government will confirm the timetable once all remaining issues are resolved and we are satisfied that the interests of consumers—especially, I repeat, the most vulnerable consumers—are protected. One of those interests is the precise coverage requirements. That comprises the number of transmitters to be converted, modes and power combinations. On 9 February, Ofcom published a consultation paper setting out options on how best to deliver substantially the same coverage with digital terrestrial as with analogue transmission. That includes details of the benefits of particular options for availability and trade-offs that would be needed. It has invited responses by 21 March.

Ofcom also published a technical briefing paper on 9 February setting out the proposed regional order for switchover by 2012 as part of its wider spectrum management responsibilities. The order in which the regions will be switched off is based on technical criteria that have been agreed between broadcasters, multiplex operators and Ofcom. The specific dates of the process remain, of course, a matter for Government. The switchover process involves a number of different parties with different interests. For switchover to be successful, there needs to be in place an organisation to manage the process and see it through, hopefully, to a successful completion.

Both the BBC's and Ofcom's reports into switchover supported the idea of a SwitchCo organisation to take forward the switchover project. SwitchCo has been set up as the primary body charged with ensuring the successful achievement of switchover in the United Kingdom. It will need to build constructive relationships with the industry to educate consumers on the benefits of switchover, and allow regions plenty of time to prepare. The structure of the new organisation is being developed and will involve public service broadcasters, multiplex operators and representatives from the supply chain.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way as I know that he has only a couple more minutes. However, could he clarify the specific point about people who cannot currently receive digital terrestrial? Will they be expected to buy digital equipment in the hope that on the day that the plug is pulled, it will all be fine? What will happen if it is not?

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Sport and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

They are issues that have to be worked through. I want to answer some of the specific questions that have been asked if I have time, but I should like to conclude.

The Government are committed to switchover: the question is not "whether" but "when". Switchover is in the UK's interests, and everybody agrees with that. The Conservative Opposition can smirk about that, and giggle and laugh, but we are genuinely trying to manage the system responsibly. We are at the leading edge of technology in this country and intend to stay there. In that position, some difficult questions have to be resolved, but we shall try to do that in the most common-sense and transparent way possible. Giggling from a sedentary position does not help.

The cost-benefit analysis published on 10 February showed the quantifiable benefits of switchover to be around £1.1 billion. Ofcom figures for digital television penetration were estimated to have reached 55 per cent. of UK households. Based on Freeview projections and Sky's figures, that is almost certain to top 60 per cent. of households. However, only 73 per cent. of UK households can access digital terrestrial television services. That figure cannot be increased before switchover, but the analogue switch-off should be seen as not a switch-off, but a switch-over.

I shall quickly respond to some of the specific questions that were asked. In the south-west, take-up is low because digital terrestrial coverage is limited. We need the switchover to happen before we can remedy that. Lack of Freeview is a major issue during the charter review, and will continue to be considered.

We accept that flats will be a challenge. We are working with the industry and the Chartered Institute of Housing on guidance for the housing sector, and I hope that we can resolve some of the questions that have been raised on the matter.

We are looking at the Ofcom plan for voluntary help, and we shall announce who will receive voluntary help and what help they will receive. On the spectrum valuation, that will be released only in 2012 when switchover is complete. Spectrum release can be used only for broadcasting. That may change but we have made cautious assumptions about future worth; we do not think that it is possible to fund switchover costs from the future proceeds.

On covenants, Astra has raised the matter and we have asked it to give us further evidence but we are still not convinced that there is a real problem in that area. On aerials, we have found that in the technical trials that have been done in Wales, the aerials stand up quite well. Switchover signals will be within the aerial groups and at a higher power. Some people will need to upgrade, but much fewer than some of the figures that have been quoted in the media. We believe that on NTL issues, switchover will create competition: all those who receive analogue will get digital at switchover. We hope that Freesat will emerge so that people will have a choice other than Sky as a free-to-view satellite option.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. I am afraid that we have run out of time.