Digital Switchover (North-East Wales)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas PPS (Bill Rammell, Minister of State), Department for Education and Skills 11:00 am, 14th June 2006

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Williams. I hope that the conversation over the next half hour will be of interest to you; I suspect that it will.

Television broadcasting provision in north-east Wales in general and Wrexham in particular is complex. In my living room in central Wrexham, it is possible to receive analogue TV signals from three separate regional broadcasting areas: Wales, north-west England and the ITV Central English region. At present, it is difficult to obtain information about which channels individual viewers watch and, in particular, how many viewers in north-east Wales watch out-of-area services from England. In 1999, at the birth of the National Assembly for Wales, the Welsh Affairs Committee suggested in its inquiry at Westminster that that figure might be as high as 10 per cent. across Wales. I suspect that in north-east Wales the figure might be higher.

My first request of the Minister is to ask him to commission research, perhaps through Ofcom in Wales, on viewing patterns in north-east Wales. That is not merely a subject of academic interest. At present, only Welsh TV channels engage with the development of civic society in Wales—a development that is now rapid. If viewers in north-east Wales do not watch channels from Wales because the services do not interest them, their disconnection from the rest of Wales will grow, which could have profound implications for devolution in Wales.

Local TV signals in north-east Wales are broadcast from three transmitters: the Wrexham-Rhos transmitter, Winter Hill in north-west England and Wrekin in the ITV Central region. In my living room, the signals vary in quality; Winter Hill is best, Wrexham-Rhos is next and Wrekin is worst. Poorer quality signals blur in analogue but they are still perfectly visible.

I raise the issue now to explore the effect that digital switchover will have on TV reception and whether it will limit my constituents' choice of the number of channels that they can watch. With digital signals, poorer quality transmission leads to intermittent signals rather than blurring. When transmission is interrupted viewers are much less likely to stick with a channel. After switchover, I want to see maximum choice for my constituents. Those who wish to must be able to receive transmission from Wales and those who wish to must be able to receive transmission from England. If digital switchover means that the habits of a viewer are disregarded overnight, there will be considerable outcry.

I am certain that the possible impact of switchover has not yet registered in the minds of the vast majority of my constituents. The current position is simply unacceptable. Viewers in Wrexham cannot receive digital services from Wales through freeview. Signals come from Winter Hill in north-west England and thus there is no BBC Wales, HTV Wales or S4C on freeview channels. That has the considerable impact on coverage of Welsh affairs that I mentioned earlier. Can the Minister assure me that following switchover, viewers in Wrexham, which is the largest town in north Wales, who want to receive freeview digital TV services from Wales will be able to do so?

As I said, I want my constituents to have maximum choice and I believe that those who want to watch English television too should have the right so to do. Will it be possible for individual viewers to choose which digital signal they receive? At present, different regions can be viewed on the same television set. Given the break-up effect of poor digital signals, is it possible that choice could be reduced by switchover because channels such as ITV Central might no longer be available to viewers? What steps can a viewer take to ensure that the number of regional channels that are available through analogue signals can be viewed on digital in the future?

I would also be grateful if the Minister clarified what steps will be taken to ensure that the cost of maintaining viewers' level of choice will be met. I anticipate that the costs will include those of not only a digital box, the idea of which is beginning to enter the public consciousness, but additional aerials. If one might require an additional aerial to preserve a signal from north-west England and the ITV Central region, for example, the cost of securing it will be considerable.

Given that the changes are driven by Government policy and that individuals on poorer incomes might not be in a position to fund such extension of reception, will the Government take any steps to support the provision of additional aerials and boxes? In short, what help will there be for consumers who are prejudiced by digital switchover?

As the Minister knows, the changes in Wales will happen in 2009-10. I have been fortunate to receive helpful briefings from Ofcom and Digital UK, and to have had a number of discussions with broadcasters from Wales in particular but also with some from outside Wales. I want to thank them for their help. There is a common interest in ensuring that the digital switchover happens and is successful. I have grappled for some while with the complexities of switchover in order to get my head around them, and it is clear that Digital UK has a big job on its hands in explaining the implications of switchover not only to the general public but to the media and politicians, who at this stage have not appreciated the scale of what is to occur. I have found that one of the most helpful phrases is "analogue switch-off", rather than "switchover". The phrase "switch-off" makes it clear that what is there at the moment will disappear. That has not yet entered the public consciousness as something that will have a profound impact.

It is clear that, for the reasons that I have set out, switchover will have a localised impact. It is vital that the information from Digital UK should be localised. What plans are in place to focus on localised information from Digital UK? Like many others, I recently saw the beginnings of the national advertising campaign, and I have benefited from a briefing meeting with Digital UK, for which I am grateful. We need more localised information.