[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair] — Analogue Switch-off

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 6th July 2006.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee 2:30 pm, 6th July 2006

I welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to consider both the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport report into analogue switch-off and the wider subject of analogue switch-off, which has not received as much attention in the House as it merits.

Analogue switch-off is a huge undertaking. It will affect almost every household in the land, and for that reason the Committee, which I chair, chose to examine it as our first subject of investigation at the beginning of this Parliament. During the course of our inquiry we received 54 submissions and took evidence from 41 witnesses. The Committee visited Berlin, which is the one place on the globe that has so far switched off its analogue transmission, to see what lessons we could learn from the experience there. I also visited Sandy Heath, which is one of the large transmitters operated by Arqiva, to see at first hand what switch-off entails.

Switching off analogue transmission is a vast task—particularly in this country, where television viewers are more dependent on analogue than in many others, where there is wider penetration of cable and satellite. It will require hugely complicated organisation. The Secretary of State has compared the task of switch-off to decimalisation, and one witness to our inquiry, David Elstein, said that switch-off had

"more potential for chaos and consumer revolt than any other civilian project in our history, including North Sea gas conversion and decimalisation."

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I ask the hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back to North sea gas conversion, although he is probably not old enough for that, whereas I am. The model then was that everybody's appliances were changed by a system that did not require them to do anything except admit the authorised people at the right time. The whole task was carried out for them in a way that is not going to happen this time.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

There are parallels, but they can be taken only so far. It would not be practical to expect the Government to send out a converter to every household, because the cost of doing so would be astronomical—it will be quite considerable as it is. That gives an indication of the scale of the undertaking on which the Government have embarked, and the first question that my Committee addressed was therefore why we are doing it.

Much of the justification given for switch-off is based on the benefits of digital television. I need no persuasion. My life was transformed when I installed my Sky box and had access to multi-channel television. It was transformed again when Sky plus came along and offered personal video recorder capability, and I look forward to a third transformation, when high-definition boxes eventually reach the shelves. Digital television offers huge advantages, particularly for watching 24-hour news channels—[Interruption.] Perhaps not the movie channels, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Evans is devoted.

Digital television has been available to everyone who has wanted it for a considerable time. Anyone who wishes to have access to digital TV can install a Sky dish. In large parts of the country, they can obtain it through cable and in about 70 per cent. of the country through freeview. The question is why we are compelling people to switch to digital, particularly as other means of distribution are coming on stream. There is already freesat from Sky, the possibility of freesat offerings from the BBC and ITV in due course, and IPTV—internet protocol television—through broadband connections, which is a real possibility in the near future, with BT Vision intending to launch in October. So why are we forcing the pace and removing choice from people who say that they are content with their existing analogue service and do not see why they should have any more services?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem is that it is uncertain whether the technology will reach all people after switchover? The complaints that I have heard are twofold. First, people object, as he rightly pointed out, to being railroaded into making a decision prior to switchover. Secondly, constituents are concerned that they might still be ineligible for those services in the new wave of television that the hon. Gentleman described. Does he agree that that is a concern, particularly for older people?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

I agree in part and shall come to extending freeview to universal coverage, which is one of the potential advantages of switchover. The chances are that his constituents will benefit and will have access to freeview once switchover takes place. However, a small number of people might still be unable to receive freeview. I shall come back to that group, because it is deserving of help.

To return to the case that has been made, the Government first advanced an economic cost-benefit analysis. The cost of switchover is relatively easy to quantify, although the figures range considerably, depending mainly on what is thrown into the pot as part of the cost. The Government have said that the cost will be of the order of £5 billion, whereas Mr. Elstein told us that it would be about £13 billion, although he included the public service publisher idea of Ofcom and the power costs of the additional boxes. The Sunday Times told us that the switchover would cost £23 billion but, on examination, that included providing every household with a plasma screen, which might have pushed up the cost a little.

The one thing that everyone would accept, however, is that we are talking about a considerable sum of money. The cost is likely to be borne by almost every household, because the consequence of switchover is that every television receiver will have to be digitally enabled. That will probably require at least one set-top box, and perhaps another for analogue recorders, such as video cassette recorders. Switchover will also require new wiring and perhaps new aerials to be fitted in a number of households, so for each household quite a considerable cost is attached.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Although there will be some help for the very needy, it will be provided through a funding arrangement, via the BBC TV licence. While my hon. Friend is discussing costs, does he not agree that there must be a better way of funding that help? Because the TV licence is set at a flat rate and regressive, the nearly poor will be paying for the very poor.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

I agree and shall come to that argument, but I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that they have a responsibility to help those who are most vulnerable and likely to find the process most difficult by providing an assistance package. However, it was the Committee's view—not only the Committee's, but almost every outside commentator's—that that is a welfare action and should therefore be funded by the Exchequer, not the BBC.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Labour, Rossendale and Darwen

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the BBC is perfectly happy with the suggestion that that help should be funded out of the licence fee?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

At this moment, when it is looking to the Government for assistance in the licence fee settlement, the BBC probably regards it as highly unwise to express anything other than enthusiasm, although I am not sure that it would necessarily say the same thing in private. In a sense, it is immaterial whether the BBC is happy with the arrangement. My view and that of many others is that the cost should have been picked up by the Exchequer. I was just completing the list of costs attached to the process. The other two considerable costs will be the conversion of transmitters and the necessary marketing exercise to inform everybody that that is taking place. If all the costs are added up, the £5 billion estimate may be about right.

Some of the benefits that will flow from switchover are more theoretical. The Government have argued that a monetary value can be attached to the benefit of the new services that will become available to people receiving digital terrestrial television. My argument is in part that if people attached a considerable value to those services, they would have obtained them already and would not be waiting to be compelled to get them.

The Government have come up with a curious concept that they call the imputed consumer benefit of compulsory migration, which the Committee regarded with a degree of scepticism. Nevertheless, there are concrete and quantifiable benefits. There will obviously be a saving to the broadcasters, because they will no longer have to transmit programmes both in analogue and digital. In addition, the spectrum released as a result of the analogue signal switch-off will have a value. When that was first discussed, people got a little bit carried away with memories of the amount of money raised by the 3G auction, but I do not think that we will see such sums again. The return on the spectrum that is released will depend on the use to which it is put.

The Government concluded that there was a net present value benefit to the process of between £1 billion and £2 billion, about which we were not wholly persuaded. We are talking not about a cost-benefit analysis but a decision taken on stronger grounds. There are two main reasons for the analogue switch-off, including to extend the coverage of freeview. However, I have received complaints from some of my constituents who cannot get freeview. I was amused by what I imagine was the look of horror that passed across the face of the chief executive of Digital UK, when he checked the current freeview coverage for each Committee member's constituency and found that mine is one of the worst in Britain.

Another benefit of switchover is that it should allow the power of the digital terrestrial signal to be boosted to enable almost universal coverage of digital terrestrial television. That will extend choice to almost every household, which is a benefit that will restore an element of fairness.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of constituencies in which there is difficulty receiving freeview that might be enhanced by the digital changeover. I understand that 1.5 per cent. of households do not currently get analogue reception and after the change 1.5 per cent. will still not get it—but it may not be the same 1.5 per cent. That will cause a certain amount of aggravation and even chaos for the people involved.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

The hon. Gentleman is right. We were particularly concerned about that 1.5 per cent. That may sound like a small proportion, but it represents a large number of households. Part of the problem is that we do not entirely know who they are, so identifying them should be a priority.

The Committee was also concerned in that although we recognise that it is beneficial to make the DTT signal available throughout the country, DTT technology already looks primitive when compared with some of the alternatives becoming available. Freeview boxes, for instance, are mainly based on MPEG-2 technology, which limits the number of channels that can be transmitted and makes it impossible, for example, to receive HDTV. In time, we may migrate to MPEG-4, but that will require a new generation of boxes to be fitted. DTT will always be subject to some capacity constraints, particularly when compared with the alternatives of satellite reception or internet-provided television. Therefore, we wondered whether it was sensible to promote a technology that might become obsolete. The lifespan of DTT may be no more than 10 years, by which time most people will be more demanding and will want better quality, more choice and interactivity, and something like BT Vision, or its equivalents in IPTV services, will be taking hold. At that point, we may have to consider "Switch-off 2" to shut off the DTT signal and release that spectrum for more valuable uses.

Switching off the analogue signal will release a chunk of spectrum. One of the big questions facing the Government is what they will do with it. The Committee heard about a number of different applications, including wireless broadband and mobile television. The broadcasters are keen to reoccupy the spectrum for HDTV, having only just given up analogue transmission.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Just before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of freeview, does he agree that some people, who are as yet undecided, may need repairs done or a brand new aerial installed? The Committee is still concerned that there may not be sufficient aerial contractors available, and with so many installations or repairs being necessary, this may be the beginning of a cowboy's charter for a small group of people, who may rip off unsuspecting individuals with exorbitant charges.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

My hon. Friend is right; that was a considerable concern for the Committee, and the Government are moving to address it. I agree that there is a risk that the most vulnerable people may be exploited by the unscrupulous.

I return to the allocation of the released spectrum and Ofcom's task as part of the digital dividend review. Traditionally, the Government have decided the general use of a band of spectrum. For instance, it was decided that a particular part of the spectrum should be used for mobile applications in respect of the 3G auction, and a market mechanism—an auction—determined which operators were able to take advantage of it. There has been a suggestion that the entire thing should be done this time through the market and a bidding process, but I am not sure whether that is sensible. Different arguments are already being advanced. Understandably, the broadcasters said, "Look, if we are to continue to offer a choice to viewers, it is important that HDTV be available on freeview as well as satellite."

I declare to the House that last week I received through the post, slightly to my surprise, a set-top box to allow me to have access to the BBC's current HDTV trial, run from Crystal Palace. I was told that I was one of 450 viewers who have been selected to participate. [Interruption.] Mr. Foster indicates that he too was fortunate enough to be selected as one of those 450 viewers. We are clearly both very lucky.

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

I did not request the box; it came without any explanation. I have discovered that I can use it neither in my flat in London nor my home in Bath, because of the configuration that I have.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

I have not yet discovered whether it will operate in my home, but I will report back to the House.

More seriously, the decision about what use the released spectrum should be put to carries some urgency. Arqiva made the point to the Committee that it is having to order the equipment to fit on transmitters now and that there is a three-year lead time in terms of antennae and equipment to be fitted on transmitter masts. Therefore, unless decisions are taken very soon, there is a danger that its people will have to go up the masts twice: first, to fit the equipment for the digital terrestrial signal, to boost coverage, and then a second time to deal with potential use of the released spectrum. That obviously has considerable cost implications, which may affect the economics, so I hope that the Minister can confirm that now that the radio regional conference has determined the frequency allocations, we will move swiftly to a decision on what the released spectrum should be used for.

I think that the main concern of the Select Committee, having accepted that the decision on digital switchover has been taken and that it will go ahead, is that we address the difficulties that it poses—the practical problems that must be overcome if the task is to be completed successfully. Digital UK has been given the task of leading the process, and the Committee has been impressed by the work that it has done so far, but there was some concern about resourcing and the authority that Digital UK would have in the event of disputes, particularly between broadcasters and others. Considering that Digital UK is owned by the broadcasters, we had some concern about whether it would be able to bang heads together, if that became necessary, when its board members were the people whose heads needed banging. We were also worried that there was some confusion about where responsibility lay in Government and that not necessarily enough attention was being paid to the issue in the higher levels of Government.

At our final evidence session, we had before us the then Minister for Industry and the Regions, Alun Michael, and the then Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who is now the Minister for Pensions Reform, neither of whom was willing to say that he was ultimately responsible for the process. They suggested that it was somehow shared between them, which I think the Committee regarded as unsatisfactory, in that essentially it meant that responsibility did not lie with either of them.

I have been encouraged by the fact that when Mr. Woodward took up the post of Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he was described as Minister for switchover, and although the Government have not formally accepted our recommendation in their response, he does seem to have been given the task of taking a grip of the whole process. We would very much welcome that. I hope that he will pay close attention to the process to ensure that it proceeds smoothly.

On awareness of digital switchover, which is the first requirement, there appears to be encouraging progress. The latest tracker survey, which I was shown by Digital UK, shows that awareness is up to 71 per cent. and understanding of the process at 66 per cent. There were one or two interesting figures in the survey. Slightly surprisingly, it showed that the least aware group was the youngest age group rather than the oldest, which we would not necessarily have anticipated. The survey also showed that ethnic minorities were more unaware of the process than other groups. With regard to support for the process, it showed that roughly one quarter of those questioned were fairly enthusiastic about switchover; one quarter were not enthusiastic and indeed were negative about it; and half were fairly resigned to the process. Clearly, a considerable task remains to explain to people what will happen and to persuade them that it is a good thing that it is happening.

The Government have frequently cited the figure for digital penetration—the number of households that have converted to digital—which has reached almost 75 per cent., but it would be a great mistake to think that we need not worry about those households, because every single household that has a digital set in the main room almost certainly has analogue sets in the kitchen, in the bedroom and in the children's rooms. Therefore, the process will affect them as much as anyone else. Although 75 per cent. of households have gone digital, 60 per cent. of televisions are still analogue. There are 37 million televisions out there that will have to be converted. It is also estimated that 25 million aerials will need to be replaced. That poses very serious problems in terms of the supply chain.

We were concerned when we took evidence from, for instance, DSG International plc, which now owns Dixons, that unless there was a steady migration, there was a danger that there could be a last-minute rush to convert, in the last few weeks before switchover. We were concerned that people would go into the shops on their local high street only to discover that the shelves were empty and that the supply chain simply could not cope with a huge last-minute surge in demand from people wanting to convert in time for switchover day. It is therefore extremely important that we persuade people that they need to act early. That will be harder when we are expecting people in the areas that cannot get freeview at the moment to fit equipment that will not work until switchover takes place. We will be expecting them to make the leap of faith that it will work when switchover does take place. There are real concerns about the supply chain.

Another issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley mentioned, is the replacement of aerials. Some 25 million may need to be replaced. The Confederation of Aerial Industries told us that it thought that replacement would happen in any case because every time there is a bad winter, aerials are blown off roofs and people replace them. That ongoing process of replacement should mean that there will be far more aerials that are compatible and ready for digital reception than there are now, as a result of the natural course of events.

However, having heard from the CAI that it was relying on bad weather to blow down aerials for them to be replaced, we were slightly alarmed then to hear from the transmission companies that they were under a very tight timetable to convert the transmission towers but were reasonably confident that that could be achieved as long as there was not bad weather. We eventually discovered that what was needed was bad winters to blow down aerials, requiring them to be replaced, and fine summers, because that is when the transmission companies intend to convert their transmitters. With any luck and God's help, the process should be achieved, but the situation that I have described gives an idea of the potential problems.

My hon. Friend and others on the Committee, particularly Paul Farrelly, were concerned about cowboys. The hon. Gentleman, who unfortunately cannot join us this afternoon, laid great stress on the danger of cowboys exploiting the process. There will be huge ignorance about what is required, and there is a danger that people will call on old ladies, saying, "Have you heard about the switchover? Don't worry. I'll sort you out. It'll only cost you £500."

I very much welcome the launch of a registered digital installer scheme. I recently attended the conference of the Confederation of Aerial Industries to discuss what it was doing to encourage people to look for the accreditation mark to ensure that an installer is reputable. However, the Government may need to do more not only in encouraging people to look for accreditation and use reputable installers, but to alert the trading standards authorities and enforcement officials to look out for cowboys. I am told that there have already been one or two examples of cowboys seeking to use digital switchover as an opportunity to exploit people.

There are one or two other problems. There are 1,154 transmitter towers, and the Government intend to convert every one, but I am told that, in addition to those, relay transmitters have been installed in some areas of the country, sometimes even by parish councils, to ensure that particularly remote communities can receive a television signal. Those relay stations, which may be small and locally financed, will have to be converted, too, but as far as I am aware we are not sure how many there are, let alone where they are, and who will be responsible for converting them. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

I raised with the Minister on Monday at Culture, Media and Sport questions the problem relating to multiple dwelling units. Some 20 per cent. of the population live in MDUs—some 4.5 million households. The question arises of who will be responsible for converting MDUs. It may require a considerable cost to convert aerials and all the connection network for each household within an MDU. Will landlords be responsible? What about MDUs owned by councils or housing associations? Who will pick up the cost? Will the Government make money available to councils through the revenue support grant to meet the cost of converting MDUs? All those questions have not yet been properly considered.

The area that has caused most anxiety is the assistance package that will be made available. Mr. Williams mentioned the 1.5 per cent. of people who will not be able to get digital terrestrial television even after switchover, and rightly said that that 1.5 per cent. might not be the same 1.5 per cent. who currently cannot get analogue. The Committee felt that if households currently able to receive analogue television are unable to get either analogue or digital terrestrial after switchover and can therefore probably continue to receive television only if they install a satellite receiver at considerable cost, they would deserve extra help in recognition of that additional cost. In their response, the Government indicated that they had at least some sympathy for that view. I hope that the Minister will expand on that.

The Government propose to give assistance to the over-75s and the disabled. For those on benefits, help will be free. However, we are concerned that the group who will need assistance will go considerably beyond that part of the population whom the Government have identified. The Americans have just announced plans to switch off their analogue signal, and the American Government are to set up a fund of $1.5 billion to make available to each of the 21 million households affected two coupons, worth $40 each, to be spent on television set-top boxes. I do not suggest that the Government should finance every household in the country, but it is interesting that the Americans have decided that they need to provide financial help to every affected household to achieve their aims. I hope that the British Government might at least consider providing help a little beyond the narrow group that they have identified.

The Committee shares the view of the Ofcom consumer panel regarding people who are not necessarily over 75 or impoverished, but who are socially isolated. I am talking about people who live in geographically remote areas or who live in urban areas but do not have many friends or family living nearby; people who do not have much contact with the outside world. They will find this whole process very frightening, and they will need help.

In the past, such people might have been able to rely on the nice, friendly local or electrical retailer in the high street, but sadly they are all disappearing. It was put to us that only the voluntary sector could undertake that task and that it is essential that the Government should work with the voluntary sector and provide it with training, so that it can help such people. Often, they are the only ones who know where such people are. It was suggested that the Minister needs to recruit an army of volunteers to assist if we are to ensure that such people will receive the help that they will undoubtedly need.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley made the point—I shall not dwell on this at length—that this matter is the Government's responsibility and should therefore be paid for by them. They have made it plain that they do not intend to do that and that they think that the BBC should pick up the cost through the licence fee. We do not agree, but the Government will have to justify that decision when the licence fee bills arrive through people's letterboxes.

The Committee concluded that switchover is a hugely complicated task, which poses enormous challenges. Whether or not one thinks that the decision is right, it has been taken. On balance, I now accept that it is the right thing to do, and I commend the Government for doing it, because they did not have to. They could have sat back and allowed people to continue to migrate across naturally, leaving a future Government to decide that the time had come, but they have decided that this country should take the lead and be one of the first in the world to switch off the analogue system, even though it probably affects a bigger proportion of our population than it will in most other countries. That is certainly a brave decision; Sir Humphrey would call it "courageous". I hope that it works. It is in none of our interests that it should go wrong, and I hope that some of the problems are flagged up in the Committee's report, so that we can address them and there is a better chance of switchover being achieved smoothly.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 3:05 pm, 6th July 2006

Thank you, Sir John. Let me be the first to pay tribute to Mr. Whittingdale and the work of his Committee. In its comprehensive report and the evidence that it gathered for the inquiry, it has done not only the House but the country more broadly a great service. The report addresses many important issues that I shall now touch on.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have thought long and hard about this matter and the nature of digital switchover, and I think that it is a good thing on balance. It is a major step forward technologically, which offers great prospects and opportunities in terms of the range of services that will be available to our constituents. In that respect, we should welcome it, but as the hon. Gentleman and his Committee have highlighted, a huge range of issues need to be sorted out before we can be confident that we can do it successfully.

I have a special interest in this issue because I represent a large chunk of the land mass within the Border Television region, which will be the first area of the country to transfer exclusively to digital in 2008, if the current timetable is adhered to. The Selkirk transmitter, in my constituency, is expected to be the first to pass to digital. I visited it a few months ago and was given an explanation of all the technical issues affecting the site. I confess that I did not necessarily understand many of them, but I was at least impressed by the fact that they are many and complex. I am also pleased that some of the finest engineering brains in the country are tackling those issues.

In recognition of the range of issues that will affect my constituents before most people, I, along with Digital UK and other local community groups, established a borders digital forum in my constituency last December. In Melrose, in a week's time, we will have the second one of its kind, which will be supported by representatives of local community councils, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Elder Voice and many other community groups representing those who we anticipate might have the most at stake or, perhaps, some of the biggest difficulties when the moment arrives.

There is no doubt that interest is growing. People are concerned that we should get things in the right order, and that we in the Border Television region should be the pioneers who get it right, rather than the guinea pigs whose experiences other people learn from. The process is irreversible. One day, it will happen and we will no longer have analogue television, so it is absolutely essential that all the different parts of the process are done right.

As people learn more about all this, they are raising more and more issues with me about what will face them. An obvious example is the fact that there is still quite a bit of confusion about whether digital switchover is just about television or whether it includes radio. That confusion is reinforced by the name of the organisation which is there to help the process: the name Digital UK does not suggest that that organisation is concerned only with television. Certainly, much of the correspondence that I have recently dealt with raises concerns about the digital radios that people in my constituency have bought, which have frankly been a massive waste of money because it is not part of the process. I understand that there is no prospect in the medium term that digital radio will be available in my part of the world. I appreciate that it is available through digital television and that, before too long, people will be able to get devices that extend availability from their main television set to other parts of their house. For now, however, there is a false perception in some people's minds about what all that entails.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford made an extremely important point about levels of public awareness and the perception that people are well on their way towards understanding what will happen. Some 70 per cent. of households have now gone digital, and that statistic will give great comfort to those in charge of the process. As he said, however, that often simply means that one or other of the televisions in the house has been converted, which leaves an awful lot of other televisions and bits of equipment that must still be converted. There is still a lot of confusion about that, and many people in my part of the world, where attention is most closely focused at the moment, will need to spend a lot more time than they anticipated with wires and strange bits of equipment over the next 18 months or so.

A recent MORI poll for the Department of Trade and Industry looked at readiness for digital switchover in the Border Television region, particularly among organisations that will be affected. The Committee was again right to focus many of its concerns on multiple dwelling units, but there are major issues relating to hotels, guest houses, hospitals, care homes and the like. Although the awareness level of the organisations surveyed was similar to that of the public as a whole—about 72 per cent.—only 63 per cent. of care homes and 69 per cent. of those responsible for social housing were aware of the switchover date. A lot of people—51 per cent.—have not even begun to prepare for what will be involved or to develop any kind of plan. However, they are only about 18 months from the moment of truth, and it worries me considerably that not enough is being done to prepare for that moment.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I was under the impression that there was to be some sort of advertising campaign in the first area. Has the hon. Gentleman noticed any advertisements in newspapers or leaflets in his area?

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

There has indeed been an advertising campaign, and Digital UK has been at pains to point out to me how extensive it has been. There have been full-page advertisements in newspapers such as the Southern Reporter and the Berwickshire News and East Lothian Herald, and leaflets have been sent out. However, there is a bit of an issue about the technical level of the language that has been used, although the problem is not that it is too technical, but that it is a bit too simplistic. It is not being pitched at the right level, with the result that people cannot gain anything other than a general awareness that a big technological development is coming along the tracks quite soon.

The recent Help the Aged letter, which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will have received, was important because it highlighted the scale of the task at hand. Reflecting on the pensioners' parliament that it held last year, Help the Aged said that 25 per cent. of the participants regarded digital switchover as an opportunity, but that 57 per cent. saw it as a threat, which reinforces some of the Committee's findings. We must not underestimate the scale of the challenge still before us.

Of course, our first and most obvious concern relates to the technical issues. Anybody who represents a rural constituency—indeed, I am sure that this is also true of those who represent urban seats—will know that the availability of digital terrestrial television can be rather patchy. In my constituency, freeview is very limited, even in some of the major towns, such as Hawick and Galashiels. In some cases, people on one side of a town can get it, but those on the opposite side cannot. People are therefore still slightly sceptical about the idea that the power will be boosted and that those who cannot get the service now will get it in due course. In fairness, every engineer I have heard speak about this says that that will happen, but that is now what people expect to happen, so I hope that the Government will be able to deliver.

The Chairman of the Select Committee and my hon. Friend Mr. Williams have highlighted the fact that 1.5 per cent. of people do not get analogue and that it is thought that the same proportion will not get digital. I accept their point that it will probably be a different 1.5 per cent., but I am concerned that the proportion will be rather higher than 1.5 per cent. among my constituents. People will be very worried until the digital mapping is completed later this year and there is a postcode database to show them whether they will get the expanded service in time. I hope that sufficient resources will be put into that database and into making sure that we understand who will and who will not get the signal in due course.

I do not want people to be forced down the satellite route, not least when there is no choice of satellites and no guarantee that there will be a choice, other than through BSkyB. Of course, BSkyB has transformed British television, and it deserves great credit for that, but I doubt that even BSkyB would think that it was fair or appropriate that it should have a monopoly over services to perhaps the most vulnerable people in the country.

The report mentions the cost of converting every last transmitter, and I accept the Chairman's point that there is an issue about whether we have identified every last one. However, I make a plea that we do not go back from the stated position that every transmitter will be converted, because it is vital that we convert them all if we are to achieve even a minimum level of choice for people across the country. This is a matter not only of cost, but of equity and fairness.

The Committee's report also referred to planning permission and asked whether it might get in the way of converting transmitters. However, nothing in the evidence—I apologise if this is not the case and I have not studied the report carefully enough—specifically suggests that Scottish Borders council, which is the council in my constituency, has been getting in the way of planning applications. Nor did I see anything about consultation with the Scottish Executive, who have clearly a locus in planning in Scotland that is not mirrored south of the border. To what extent is the Scottish Executive being brought into the process?

There are going to be quirky situations in many parts of the country, but there is a particular issue in the borders, where we will be the first to make the changes. That is true not least of Berwickshire.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I anticipate a question coming, but if I may, I will just hold the floor for a moment.

Most people in Berwickshire get Border Television, but by a fluke of something or other, a strip on the coast gets its signal from Grampian. I have spoken to ITV engineers about that, and they say that there is no reason on earth why people there should get that signal, but they clearly do. The engineers are at something of a loss to explain why that is the case and what will happen immediately after switchover. Likewise, a number of people receive the Tyne Tees signal, which comes up from south of the border. That is where my right hon. Friend Mr. Beith clearly has a similar interest to me, although he seems to have lost interest in intervening.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I did not want to disturb my hon. Friend's train of thought. His capacity for reading my mind has not yet been perfected, because I was going to ask about his previous point about planning. The planning guidance to local authorities in England has been changed and is now more accommodating of satellite dishes than it was. However, there is still a problem in conservation areas, and the ideal solution is not necessarily even more lax planning requirements, which might spoil some of our most beautiful and historic buildings and areas. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that it would be undesirable to have a great growth of dishes in such areas and that people must be offered help to ensure that they can have access to services without having to despoil areas of particular beauty or historical interest.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I apologise to my right hon. Friend for appearing to think that I could read his mind. I am also grateful to him for that important point, which reinforces what has been said about not forcing people down the satellite route because of the unavailability of a digital terrestrial signal.

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that one solution to that planning problem, particularly in conservation areas, and for listed buildings, might be to urge the manufacturers to develop the flat dishes that used to be available from the precursor to BSkyB? It is technologically possible, I understand, and those dishes would be much more attractive and perhaps solve some of the planning problems.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I hope that the Minister is paying careful attention.

It is clearly important for my constituents in Berwickshire that some of the confusion about what signals people will get in due course should be resolved. There is also a more general issue—the degree of choice that people will have.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend represents, as I do, a constituency that is in a devolved nation and on the border with England. Some of my constituents get their public service broadcasting from the midlands, which, because people in Birmingham do not really appreciate the Welsh Assembly, does not have lots of Welsh Assembly news on it. Therefore, when the Welsh Assembly elections are held, people do not seem very engaged. It seems to me that the digital changeover will not help that situation, and I wonder whether his constituents have similar experiences.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I am being tempted into dangerous territory, Sir John, and will resist the broadening of the debate. However, I offer my hon. Friend this more optimistic thought: certainly, under some of the digital solutions, there will come a point when it will be possible to choose which variation of the BBC and which regional version of ITV to watch. That must be a good thing, and it will allow people to decide for themselves whether they listen to the news from Birmingham or from Cardiff.

The point that I was making before my hon. Friend raised that important issue was about the degree of choice that people will have. That has to do with the relay transmitters. As I understand matters, the commercial broadcasters are not under the obligation to ensure that their signal gets all the way down the line to every last community where there is a digital terrestrial signal for the main public service broadcasters. The argument is a difficult one. People in Jedburgh will rightly ask why they should receive a service that is less useful and not as wide as the one that people in Hawick, Galashiels or elsewhere receive. I know that one answer will be, "Well, it is better than you had before," but I do not think that that will be a winning argument. Nor, I hope, will the argument that most of the extra channels are shopping channels.

Although they look slightly strange to me on occasion, I am pretty sure that over time the commercial stations will change, and to rule out large segments of the population from access to them on the digital platform would be to do them a major disservice and to make a major mistake. I repeat what the Select Committee has said—that switchover is compulsory. People are not getting a choice to opt into it. In such circumstances there is a much greater onus on the Government to ensure that everyone is treated equally and receives the full range of services.

Affordability is another issue on which the Select Committee rightly spent quite a long time. We have seen in the debate how in the past few months the prices of set-top boxes and other bits of kit have been falling. That is welcome, but as the Committee wisely points out, a mismatch is developing between the sales pitch for digital switchover in the first place—which talks about all the wonderful services that will be available—and the cheapness of the some of the kit, which will not be able to provide all those services. There will be a dangerous expectations gap for the Government, or others, to fall into, and it is important to deal with that issue as early in the process as possible. We should not underestimate, either, the difficulty of getting those set-top boxes wired up. The cheaper ones tend to be those that break after a few weeks, and need to be replaced—but perhaps I should not generalise from my own experience.

As the Committee has said, there will be other costs, to do with aerials and electricity costs. What kind of environmental message is being given to people by the lack of off-buttons on set-top boxes, at a time of growing concern about environmental issues? The switchover is compulsory, and for all the reasons that I have identified the Government still have an awful lot to do. I hope that they will take up the task with more urgency than I detect at present.

As to vulnerable groups, I endorse all that the Select Committee has said about the fact that the current proposals are far too restrictive and will rule out a huge number of people. Some of the evidence suggested that a large number of people who are entitled to benefits do not take them up and will therefore be excluded from the assistance scheme as currently drafted. No one would question the need to target the bulk of the resources at such people, but there are many others who, for financial or other reasons, will need some assistance, and we must hope that the Government will realise that before too long. If they do not, that will fuel resentment and disappointment when the switchover process is not handled as smoothly as was promised, and does not, as hoped, fulfil its great potential.

A missing part of the debate, it seems to me—although perhaps it is a secondary concern in the current circumstances—is regional programming. One of the great strengths of Border Television, as it is currently structured, is the fact that a vast amount of regional programming is undertaken. That applies not only to the news service, which is watched by a staggering proportion of people in the constituencies served, but also to documentaries and much of the rest of the output. It seems to me that some trade-offs are being made in the digital switchover process, and that ITV and others are being allowed to reduce regional content. I worry that, as Lord Bragg has recently suggested, in a few years' time not only arts broadcasting but regional programming will be severely squeezed, and we will not benefit from the diversity for which ITV is at present rightly praised, which has been a real strength of the system for decades.

I want finally to talk about ministerial responsibility, which the Chairman of the Select Committee also mentioned. It seems fairly clear, from his presence today and from other circumstances, that the Minister who is to respond to the debate will have responsibility for this matter. I am glad about that, and I hope that he will confirm that it is so. People are a wee bit suspicious when they think no one is in charge. They wonder why no one is willing to take charge, and whether there is something they should know; are the people in question a bit worried? I am sure that that is not what the Minister feels, and I hope that he will reassure us about that this afternoon.

I want to make him an offer, which I also extend to the Secretary of State. On the assumption that the first switchover moment will be hailed as a great achievement and held up as an example not just to the Border Television region but to the whole country, I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister will be able to be present in the Borders, at the Selkirk transmitter. I hope that we will be able to throw a great party for them. The warm welcome that will be available to them will be a nice incentive to come and see the switchover. I hope in the meantime that there will be a chance for them to make constituency visits, to reinforce some of the points that need to be made, although I am sure that the Minister has been well briefed about the technical issues and geography that are so much a part of the Border Television area.

I do not think that any Member of Parliament in the region is opposed to what is about to happen, but there is a reasonable consensus across the parties and across the border that there are still many issues to sort out. This process is irreversible and we do not get a second chance at it. I hope that the Government will ensure that it happens properly.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee 3:30 pm, 6th July 2006

I am glad to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Moore, whose closing invitation to the Minister ought to be considered with some care. The Minister may, on reflection, want to decline the opportunity to throw the switch at the switchover and take the blame from the people who find themselves left out. However, we would, of course, be glad to see him on both sides of the border at the relevant time.

I represent the eastern English part of the Border Television area. There is a substantial English part of it in Cumbria as well. It is in the nature of Border Television that it crosses the border and has a uniting influence. It can sometimes be slightly bizarre, because it also serves the Isle of Man. An announcement on television that income tax might be reduced can cause excitement among my constituents, until they discover that it is being considered in the Isle of Man and not in the rest of the country. However, Border Television is very much valued.

The transmitter structure reflects the difficult geography of the area, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk referred. Some of my constituents get television from the Selkirk transmitter, which he mentioned, while others get it from the Halidon relay transmitter in Berwick, which is linked to the Selkirk transmitter.

When I hear officials from SwitchCo or Ofcom say that everything is getting sorted out by postcodes and it will be clear, I feel that I must point out that the system is just not going to work. If I ask the Post Office to deliver my annual report, many of my hon. Friend's constituents get it, because the postcodes system is unable to distinguish where the border is, and things cross it. People do not believe assurances that they will get Border Television or BBC Scotland because they are in the right postcode district. They know that postcodes cross the border. Indeed, such people receive health literature and all sorts of other things meant for the other side of the border. It is in the nature of television transmission that it does not fit artificial boundaries.

I have a meeting on Monday with the chief executive of Border Television and a senior engineer about precisely what will happen at the Halidon transmitter. One of the possibilities is that Border Television will give away part of its transmission area and that those who currently get Border Television from the Halidon transmitter may in future get Tyne Tees television and not Border Television. I do not think that that issue has been resolved.

Whichever way things go, it will create a lot of discussion among my constituents, particularly between the rugby fans and the English football fans. Rugby fans tend to like Border Television, because it gives a lot of reporting to rugby union and rugby league. English football fans do not want to be switched over to a Scottish game when an important English game is on. The issue arouses strong feelings and there remains some uncertainty about what will happen.

I am not even sure that the broadcasters are clear about who transmits to where and who gets which bit of the transmission. All that will be fairly graphically highlighted when the digital switchover takes place. Some people manage to get both and manage to have a choice—I am in that category—by getting a poorer signal from one of the transmitters. That will be relevant when I talk about another part of my constituency in a moment.

In terms of the regional issues that my hon. Friend mentioned, it would be helpful to have a clear guarantee that everybody will have access to their neighbouring region's output if they get digital reception. Such access is technically perfectly possible. I understand that in many cases it will happen without anybody even asking for it. It will help to solve the problem if people have the choice—most do not have such a choice now—to switch between Border Television and Tyne Tees, English BBC1 and Scottish BBC1, and English BBC2 and Scottish BBC2. That is technically feasible. If such a choice were made available, it would reduce one of the sources of difficulty that we have in the process.

Another part of my constituency, the area around the village of Elsdon, gets Border Television. It cannot get a major signal from any transmitter at all. I remember Ofcom writing to me to state:

"Elsdon lies outside the official service area of any of the terrestrial television transmitters"

The letter went on to explain how that situation was not likely to change. People in that area depend on one small relay system. Some people have bought Sky. Quite a number of people get Border Television from the Caldbeck transmitter; it is a Cumbrian transmitter of Border Television. Such people get a poor signal but they can watch it.

The crucial difference between getting a poor signal on analogue and a poor signal on digital is that one can watch a poor signal on analogue, although it looks a bit fuzzy, but a poor signal on digital results in either a blank screen or a freeze frame, and people just cannot watch it. If they find themselves in the position—no one seems to know the answer to this issue—of getting a poor digital signal, they may have no television service at all, unless they are prepared to pay for Sky. People ought not to be put into such a position.

Therefore, I hope that, as part of the help for the 1.5 per cent. of people who do not get analogue, the Government will re-examine the potential impact of the switchover on people who are already getting a poor analogue signal and who in future might not get any television at all. Such a situation is unreasonable and unacceptable in an age when it is technically possible to meet their needs.

Another problem in an area such as mine is that, whereas the Tweed valley area and parts of the west of my constituency get Border Television, most of the area gets Tyne Tees. They are all subject to publicity that says, "We are going digital in 2008". People therefore say, "Oh dear, I must buy this free box and this special set. I must get my aerial renewed because we are going digital". Such people are not actually going digital until 2012, if the present timetable is followed. A number of people are getting frightened that they will lose their television service completely when they have no need to do so, because they will continue to get Tyne Tees television. As my hon. Friend said, more needs to be done to make the picture clearer and more understandable to people, so that they know whether there is a real reason to spend some money.

Again, that issue is particularly confusing for elderly people. They might well say, "I don't think I am going to bother buying all this if I know that I have got another four or five years of analogue. If I am still in good health and strength in four or five years' time, I will do it then. I do not need to do it now." Currently, such people feel under some pressure to change.

I want to mention a couple of further issues. The first is the situation for blind people, about which the Royal National Institute of the Blind has written to us. Blind people make good use of television. Their ability to do so will be impaired if they depend on using a remote control. The RNIB has made it clear that blind and partially sighted people, and some other categories of disabled people need an alternative mechanism for controlling the digital box if they are to have access to television. The Government have included blind and disabled people in the category to which they want to give special help, but we want to be sure that the right to special help is available. That would enable those people not to be denied access because the system is more technologically complicated to operate.

Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned the energy issue relating to free boxes, but there is a further point. Not only do some of them not have a switch-off mechanism, but a number of free boxes lose all the stations if they are switched off at the plug. People have to retune them all over again. I have a radio that does that as well, and there is nothing more exasperating than coming home, discovering that there has been a power cut during the week and having to retune the stations on the radio. If people have to do the same on the television with the free box, they will opt to leave the free box on all the time, so wherever there is a television that might be left on standby, a free box will be left on standby as well. That would mean a significant net increase in the use of energy across the country at a time when we are trying to reduce energy use. The Government need to address that as well.

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

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the recent survey by the Energy Saving Trust says that the average household's energy bill will go up by £30 a year for the reason that he just described?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of that figure. It is also an issue for Government, quite apart from anything else, because of the fuel poverty problem. The key issue of energy conservation is one that they ought to address.

A number of decisions remain to be resolved, including who will receive English television and who will receive Scottish television. Which BBC channel people receive is also affected by this. Not only is BBC1 different in England and Scotland, but BBC2 is different. There are unresolved issues and great uncertainty about how areas with very poor reception will be served. Many people still face difficulties and the Select Committee Chairman, whose work we appreciate, said that the issue has the potential to cause great concern and distress. I warn my hon. Friends that it has great potential to increase the number of letters, calls and surgery visits from our constituents, who will want to know why they have been landed with the problem and why it is so complicated. They will hark back to the days of natural gas conversion when they were looked after, partly because of the safety aspect. All they had to do was to admit an officially designated person to their house to adjust the equipment and in almost all cases everything was all right. However, even that switchover was not perfect and there were a few problems because some so-called cowboys turned up, but it demonstrated that there is a more hands-on way in which the Government and broadcasters could help people. There are significant dangers if we do not get it right.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 3:41 pm, 6th July 2006

I was slightly taken by surprise when you called me, Sir John, because I had hoped that other colleagues would enter this crucial debate. I want to begin, as others who follow me will, no doubt, by congratulating not only Mr. Whittingdale, but all the members of his Committee on an excellent report that has undoubtedly stimulated a lot of thought. His crucial point, which was absolutely right, was that insufficient attention has been devoted to the issue in the House. Perhaps as a result of his Committee's report, the issue will now receive the wider airing that it deserves because over the next few years it will affect every single one of our constituents. It is crucial.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that, whatever the problems, it is worth reflecting on the enormous benefits that will arise if the procedure for switchover—perhaps we should call it switch-off—is right. There will be enormous benefits in terms of additional channels, greater quality and consumer choice, new features, such as interactivity, better allocation of scarce spectrum space and social or economic benefits, or a combination of the two, from the release of the analogue spectrum.

There is no doubt that the move to digital is already popular. Around 18 million households have already decided freely that they want to move into the digital era, although I point out in passing that I was slightly taken aback by one statistic in the important trial carried out in Bolton about targeted assistance packages. It showed that 7 per cent. of those who were surveyed said that they were very satisfied with the digital services they received, when in fact they did not receive any digital services. That is further evidence of the additional explanatory work that needs to be done.

There is no doubt that, if we manage the switchover carefully, it will bring huge benefits to the vast majority of our constituents. Reference has rightly been made to the 1.5 per cent. of people who will lose out if the plans go ahead as currently constructed. Planning and managing the switchover properly is crucial. I do not want to be over-critical, but it is worth reminding ourselves that the former Secretary of State, now Lord Smith of Finsbury, proposed that we should achieve that by 2010. There has been a two-year slippage. It was equally disappointing that Ofcom had to urge the Government in letters to get on and decide when the date would be and, if it was to be 2012, to announce that so that the planning could begin. It took the Government a long time to make the announcement and it was done, strangely, by burying it somewhere in the Labour party's manifesto for the last general election. Be that as it may, a decision was made. The Select Committee was right to say that it was a bold decision and that, if properly managed, huge benefits would accrue from it.

There is no doubt—other hon. Members have touched on this—that there is an urgent need to improve the information given to the public on a variety of issues relating to the digital switchover. We know that 25 per cent. of the population are still in analogue homes. We know that, although 75 per cent. now have some form of digital equipment, as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford rightly said, that often refers to just one television set, when there are two or three sets, video recorders and so on. There is still a lot of work to be done.

I welcome the decision by Digital UK to launch its £200 million information campaign a few months ago. As my hon. Friend Mr. Moore said, the first area to be affected is the borders area represented by him and my right hon. Friend Mr. Beith. They are the first to enter this brave new world. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to demand that the procedure must be right, so that the borders are not the guinea pigs from whom others learn.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, but one area of comfort from a recent survey in his constituency is that 75 per cent. of people recognise what needs to be done for the digital switchover. They fully understand what will happen, whereas only 66 per cent. of the rest of us understand. His constituents are already ahead of the game in terms of understanding, but that leaves 25 per cent. who do not understand, with only 18 months to go. He is absolutely right to say that there is a lot of work still to be done.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I appeal to my hon. Friend to distinguish between people being aware that there is a big process going on and those who fully understand the details and issues arising from it. They have got to the point where they know that it is happening, but they are beginning to worry about the particulars.

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

I shall perhaps share the statistics later with my hon. Friend. The survey is even more encouraging than he suggests, but he is right to say that there is a lot of work to be done in a short period and it is crucial to ensure that we get it right.

My hon. Friend and a number of other hon. Members raised some issues that are important to touch on, so that we can hear the Minister's response to them. We have already heard about the supply chain, the huge amount of work that will be done, the large number of television sets, digital boxes and 25 million aerials that will be needed and the need to ensure that orders are placed early so that the kit will be available when it is needed. Concern was also rightly expressed in the report in relation to potential problems from cowboy operators. I was delighted that in their response to the report the Government said that they would work with the relevant trade organisations to try to find ways of overcoming that. That is welcome.

Other hon. Members have raised concerns about various aspects of planning. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to conservation areas and listed buildings and the difficulties of having a satellite dish, which are not permitted under planning rules. I declare an interest because that applies to many parts of the wonderful city of Bath, where people cannot have satellite dishes in the very area where they are unable to get Channel 5, so they do not have access to those digital terrestrial television services. They feel as though they are losing out.

As I have already said, the development of new technology and new ways of receiving satellite broadcasts, especially the flat-surface receivers that were in use some years ago, may provide part of the solution to that planning problem, but the issue must be taken more seriously. I note from the Government's response to the Select Committee report that the relevant Departments here and in the devolved Administrations are considering the planning issues at the moment.

Another crucial matter, to which the Chairman of the Select Committee referred and which affects 25 per cent. of the population, is that of people living in houses in multiple occupation, or MDUs, to use the hon. Gentleman's more recent jargon. There is concern that, in many cases, the owners of those properties, whether they are local councils, housing associations or private landlords, are not taking enough action to prepare themselves for what is necessary. A campaign is clearly needed to persuade the owners of houses in multiple occupation to take more vigorous action. I was pleased that reference was made to some of the other types of property—for example, care homes, hotels and so on—where there are similar problems.

Several other issues were mentioned. I have already referred to the assistance package. Like others, I believe that the Government will have to consider a wider range of people who will need support under that package. The matter will no doubt be debated as further research is done. However, what many of us want, very quickly, is the answer to the crucial question who will pay for it. It would be absolutely wrong if that money were lumped with the BBC's licence fee.

It is the Government's social policy that there should be free television licences for the over-75s, which I welcome, and the Department for Work and Pensions gives hundreds of millions of pounds to the BBC to make up for its lost source of income from potential licence fee payers. Targeted assistance is exactly the same: it is a social policy of the Government and it should be funded by them. The Minister may challenge me to say where the money will come from, but clearly there will be huge financial dividends to the Exchequer from the release of the analogue spectrum and potentially from spectrum charging, issues to which I will return in a second.

Funding is a crucial issue. I am delighted that other hon. Members have voiced their concerns about the energy consumption of some of the new equipment. I said when I intervened in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that the latest survey shows that the additional energy used by the new digital set-top boxes will cost each household £30 more. That does not include the additional cost of running some of the high energy usage television sets that are increasingly coming on to the market. Those costs can be reduced if the equipment can be manufactured to have an "off" button, but at present few of them do.

I was pleased that, during DCMS questions on Monday, the Minister agreed to discuss the issue with the industry to see what can be done about it. In response to my question on the need for energy labelling on equipment, a matter that was referred to in the Select Committee report, the Minister said that the Government would work with the relevant bodies to find a form of labelling. Digital UK said that it may be prepared to incorporate it in the logos that it puts on the equipment.

I shall refer now to sources of income from the Government, particularly the use of the release spectrum. Most people accept that there are two potential uses and that we will end up with a mixture of both. One will be social use—the release spectrum might be used for hospital television, local TV and so on. The economic benefits will be from the sale of the spectrum to a range of potential users, for example, the provision of television services through mobile phones. Many other options are being considered.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford referred to the box that he was sent; I, too, was sent one. There is no doubt that the BBC, ITV and others are pressing hard to persuade us of the merits of high-definition television. However, we should be aware that, under current technology, high-definition television makes a great deal of use of the spectrum.

If we are to go in the direction of high-definition television and we stoke up too much demand at this stage, we will remove some of the potential alternative uses. I am not saying that that is a bad thing, but we need to think about it. That is why the Select Committee was absolutely right to say that the decision on what we will do in respect of the release spectrum must be made very quickly, or we will be in all sorts of difficulties further down the track.

The Government have consistently hinted at the possibility of spectrum charging. We keep being told in parliamentary answers that taxation is a matter for the Chancellor and that the Chancellor has made no decision in that respect. However, we know that Ofcom is looking at the matter at the moment.

Once we move into the exciting digital arena and the Chancellor starts considering the introduction of a charge for the use of the spectrum, I hope that the Minister will lobby his right hon. Friend definitely not to use it to charge for those services that provide what we call public service broadcasting. That is crucial.

We must not underestimate the huge challenges ahead. If they are properly handled and dealt with, there will be great benefits.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister (Culture, Media & Sport), Culture, Media & Sport 3:57 pm, 6th July 2006

May I begin by commending the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale, and his team on an extremely important report? I was about to say that it was overdue, but it got there in time.

From my reading of the conclusion, it appeared that the Chairman chose his words extremely carefully, perhaps with some content from his Clerk. It stated:

"The Government's adoption of a firm and early timetable for analogue switch-off is a bold, and some would say brave, decision."

The two key words in that quotation are grossly understated; as one reads the report, the word "rash" springs to mind, and the word "spatchcock", which was used in a Select Committee report when energy was being privatised in the 1980s. It had the press rushing out to consult their dictionaries on what "spatchcock" meant. Hon. Members can rush to their dictionaries tomorrow to find out. It means a cobbled-together process that does not stack together in a meaningful, logical way.

Behind the Select Committee's report is an assessment that, if the Government are not careful, they will have serious problems on their hands that will affect the whole electorate. It will not be piecemeal; it will affect everybody, not just one or two people.

I urge the Minister to address the matter, as I am sure he will. He probably did not realise when he took up his position as Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with responsibility for the creative industries that, in the words of David Elstein,

"This will be the biggest single civil project in the history of this country."

I do not suppose the Minister realised that he was landing himself with a project of that size.

The report states that the project needs leadership. It needs a central organisation and critical leadership, probably from the Minister who is designated to deliver it. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he is also the Minister who will be seen to deliver the package, to whom Parliament can turn, and who bangs heads together, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said earlier. That will be necessary, because there are so many vested interests. Bringing together all those involved will be a massive task. It needs ministerial authority to push that through, as is well stated in the report.

If I were in the Minister's shoes, I would listen carefully to the experts who gave evidence to the Select Committee. I would carefully read what they said and wrote, and would have them in to discuss their experiences. Those who gave evidence to the Committee have been in the business for 30 or 40 years and know that what is proposed will be incredibly difficult to do. One commentator, Chris Goodall, said that:

"for a large fraction of the population...digital TV"— that is, digital terrestrial TV—

"represents nothing of benefit whatsoever".

He went on to say that it would be "costly and extremely stressful". He was involved in the introduction of Channel 5, during which Channel 5 had to do all the video cassette recorder tuning. That went well over budget; I think that it cost £165 million in the end. However, that is nothing compared with what is proposed for the switchover.

Of course, it is the Government who are undertaking the programme, which is compulsory, as was mentioned earlier. They have dictated that it will happen, and they have set a time scale. The Government took that unilateral decision, and I agree with other hon. Members that their level of responsibility is therefore elevated right to the top. They cannot just move problems on and pass the buck to individuals in other organisations. They decided on this major undertaking, so they must have a critical responsibility. Of course, as many hon. Members have said, that means that they will have to put their hand in their pocket along the line.

It might be helpful, in selling the idea to all who will be involved, if the Government came clean on their cost-benefit analysis. They are saying, "This is good for you; we believe there are benefits here," but they are not showing transparently the figures for the workings that they have had done internally, so that others can come to their own conclusions on whether this incredibly expensive project will be worth all the trouble.

It has been costed that the average household will pay between £80 and £570, but, again, what is the average household? Apparently it is 2.4 television sets. The figures of between £80 and £570 were in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee press release of 29 March. Even the lowest level of £80 is, for many people, a pretty substantial amount. It is nearly as much as the licence fee, which many people at the threshold of claiming benefits find incredibly difficult to pay. There will be significant financial pressure on a large number of people who will not fall into the group that qualifies for the assistance.

The Government have answered that compulsory switch-off is necessary because about 27 per cent. of UK households will be unable to watch digital television via the terrestrial freeview service until the analogue signal is switched off. That first surfaced in the Government's Green Paper on the future of the BBC, which went on to conclude that digital switchover would be pursued as the only way to ensure that the benefits of high-quality free-to-air television were available to all. But of course, as has been mentioned, high-quality free-to-air TV is already available to that 27 per cent. through satellite delivery.

Why have the Government opted for the least useful of all the digital platforms as an essential requirement for consumers, irrespective of the cost of provision? Digital terrestrial television offers the least choice, little or no interactivity, the smallest number of channels and limited scope to upgrade to the newer technologies that have been mentioned, such as high-definition TV. As the Select Committee Chairman said, "Switch-off 2" looms large in the not-too-distant future.

Who benefits? I would argue that it is not the consumer. Everyone will pay higher costs, and for many there will be limited increases in viewing choice. Nor will the satellite and cable TV companies benefit. The main benefits will of course go to the terrestrial broadcasters, led by the BBC. In fact, it would seem that it was the BBC that pushed for DTT when no one else wanted it. The reasons are obvious: the BBC will get a digital platform to which it has been given privileged access—a platform that, by restricting the number of channels available, protects both the BBC from the competition of new entrants and its audience from a proliferating digital market.

Ironically, when the BBC argued for DTT, it certainly did not factor in the fact that it would be made responsible for the assistance package and would have to load the licence fee to cover the costs. That is all linked in with the negotiations that are now going on about not just the charter, but the licence fee.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. All I can see of the hon. Gentleman is his back. There is a convention that Members address the Chair.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister (Culture, Media & Sport), Culture, Media & Sport

I beg your pardon, Sir John.

The BBC argued for DTT to end the unfairness of a significant group of licence fee payers funding BBC digital channels without having access to them, so it seems bizarre that it is now tasked with addressing that so-called unfairness by increasing the licence fee burden, with which many people already struggle. It is those people, of course, who cannot afford digital, whether satellite or cable. They are the people on benefits and the elderly. Is it right that that most regressive of funding mechanisms be used for a Government-determined engineering project, rather than for the broadcast services that it was originally designed to pay for?

The Government have yet to announce the details of the targeted assistance programme to help the vulnerable groups with switchover, although they have said that the BBC will be expected to fund the programme. Although still uncosted, the assistance scheme could end up costing

"on the far side of a billion".

That is a direct quote from the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, from October last year.

The BBC's bid for a new licence fee settlement of the retail prices index plus 2.3 per cent. includes the technical cost that the corporation will face in switching over, but crucially it does not include the targeted assistance package. We are therefore still waiting for the final licence fee figure and for the details of the assistance package. At the BBC, there are concerns that, if the amount of targeted help needed is high, the figures in other parts of its licence fee bid may end up being cut in order to keep the overall settlement at a politically acceptable level.

On the assistance package and who it will help, 57 per cent. of the elderly respondents to the Help the Aged survey that was commented on earlier saw digital television as a threat and not an opportunity. Furthermore, it has been estimated that some 10 per cent. of UK households are likely to be either unable or unwilling to switch to digital. The Select Committee estimated that training local voluntary workers to visit isolated people would cost as much as £100 per household.

It seems strange that all those figures have not been factored in at this early stage. Some so-called pilots have been done; there were two in Wales, and of course the Boston pilot alluded to earlier.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister (Culture, Media & Sport), Culture, Media & Sport

What did I say? [Hon. Members: "Boston."] I apologise; I meant the Bolton pilot.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister (Culture, Media & Sport), Culture, Media & Sport

Yes.

People in the industry would argue that those pilots were not proper pilots; a very small number of households were involved. However, they found that introducing the new technology, particularly to the elderly, took repeated visits by skilled technicians and people who were able to take them through the whole process. It might be argued that, if one were to roll that out throughout the country, one might not have the problems that were met in the small, focus communities. However, I would argue the opposite. We must not underestimate the ability of many elderly people to embrace that technology, but with all the channel-switching opportunities that it presents, it is confusing for them. To satisfy those people who, at the end of the day, take delivery of the new system, the people introducing the switchover must factor in and cost more hours than they have hitherto.

The Government ought to embrace a completely new pilot study on a scale that will yield significant results and enable them to come up with accurate figures. If the figures for assistance are underestimated, there will be huge pressure on the BBC and the licence fee to ensure that its social responsibility is delivered properly.

We are told that the Government will charge the BBC a new tax on the digital spectrum that will be released. The BBC has put a figure of £300 million into its costings for the licence fee negotiations. That £300 million will go straight to the Treasury, and the argument was made earlier that, if the Government take that money, they should put some of it back into the assistance scheme and into assisting the BBC. When the new spectrum is released, there may not be much of it available, because TV companies will bid for it and even more channels than we have now will access it. The switchover is compulsory and determined by the Government, so if money goes to the Treasury, the Government have a moral responsibility to put some, if not all of it, back into the system.

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

The hon. Gentleman said he anticipated the BBC being for the spectrum, and he rightly pointed out that the BBC's costings included money for it, but, possibly to help him, will he make his party's position clear? I have said that it would be inappropriate to charge the BBC for the spectrum and give the Chancellor money from the licence fee, because it would be a stealth tax. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister (Culture, Media & Sport), Culture, Media & Sport

We have said that it is another stealth tax, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

There are all sorts of issues that we could go over, but I suspect that we would repeat points that many hon. Members have already made in the debate. The switchover is a massive undertaking. I can see the need for the Government to appear firm in their resolve by setting dates for future activity, but as we heard from those who represent constituents in the border areas, they are concerned about being guinea pigs. There is a lack of understanding. The digital companies' switchover promotion does not seem to have got through, and the marketing costs will be far more than people have estimated.

I urge caution on the Government, and I recommend a much larger and more important pilot scheme. The longer they leave the switchover, the fewer the people who will need their equipment converted. What is the rush? I do not see the need for it, because the benefits to those who are finally brought in are limited.

If I were in the Minister's shoes, I would want to hold back on the project at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps from his remarks, we will find out that he has already decided to do just that.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism) 4:15 pm, 6th July 2006

Thank you for calling me, Sir John. I hope that I may with your permission remove my jacket.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Well, I do regret that Mr. Speaker has determined that the rules for Westminster Hall, which this room temporarily represents, are the same as those for the main Chamber, and the removal of jackets is not approved of. I agree that as far as hon. Gentlemen are concerned, it is often an inconvenience when compared with the rules that apply to hon. Ladies. However, it is the rule that I am obliged to enforce.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

As always, Sir John, I welcome your guidance. Since I have no intention of erring, I shall keep my jacket on.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

Absolutely.

This civil project is indeed absolutely huge. The Government were right to make the decision to commit themselves to switch off analogue and switch over to digital. It presents a huge challenge, but I must say to Mr. Moss, it is worth the trouble. I shall decline his invitation to move the deadline of 2012. We begin switchover in 2008, we will complete it in 2012, and we are embarking on what might best be described as a digital revolution. It is right that we embrace it, there are huge benefits in it for the United Kingdom economy, and as part of the creative industries, which represent 8 per cent. and growing of gross value added, GVA, the digital revolution and switchover will play its part. It would be foolish in the extreme if we were not to take up the challenge. The question is, how do we deliver it?

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Mr. Whittingdale. His understanding of these matters is considerable, and that opinion is held in all parts of the House. His assiduous attendance even at engineering conferences and those of aerial installers commands almost incredulity on my part, but none the less, admiration. He suggested that television transformed his life for the first time, then a second time, and that he looks forward to its third transformation with HDTV. I can say only that I think Mrs. Whittingdale might have something to say about that.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Given the considerable economic benefit that the Minister believes will derive from the switchover, does it not reinforce the Committee's view that the Government should pay for the cost of providing television and receiving equipment for vulnerable groups? It would in effect be a welfare cost or a means-tested benefit, not a broadcasting cost. The economic benefit of switchover to the country and therefore the Exchequer reinforces the case.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

If the hon. Gentleman will be so generous as to be patient, he will discover that I shall address that point in the course of addressing the number of points that hon. Members have made during this discussion.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

The Minister has been very generous in his remarks to me. I can return the compliment by telling him that I found the conference of the Confederation of Aerial Industries extremely valuable, so I have encouraged the confederation to invite him next year.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I heard a rumour that next year's bonding session of the Conservative party will also be held at the confederation's conference. I would not want to intrude on that.

One of the critical questions is, why are we undertaking the switchover? I have already mentioned the position of the creative industries in the United Kingdom economy and the role that the digital revolution and digital television play in that, but there is also the specific context of the timing. First, we need to manage the transition. Secondly, more and more people are turning to digital services. The figure for penetration is 75 per cent. of this country—the highest almost anywhere around the globe. Without any Government coercion, as it was almost described this afternoon, people have made a free-market choice to have a digital television. Again, it is important to emphasise that we are not forcing it on people, as 75 per cent. have, without any of the implications of switch-off, voted with their feet and gone out and put themselves into the ambit of digital services either now or in the future.

It is also critically important for all hon. Members to understand—I know that some do, but I want to ensure that everyone does—that in the long term it would not be economically viable for broadcasters to sustain dual transmission costs. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire raised that issue, but it is important to understand that it would be incredibly economically inefficient if we were to demand of the broadcaster that they maintain dual transmission standards.

Another question raised by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and the Chairman of the Select Committee was why we are investing so much in DTT when there are newer, perhaps better, technologies in the offing. At the moment, and for many, television via an aerial remains the cheapest and most convenient option. The Government want to ensure that as far as possible people have a choice of platforms, although we remain platform-neutral. It will be only through switching off the analogue signal that freeview coverage can be extended beyond its current levels.

Mr. Foster and others raised questions about aerials. I shall deal with some of those points now. First, Ofcom estimates that only 10 per cent. of outdoor aerials might need to be improved in relation to receiving analogue signals. The actual number of aerials that need to be upgraded for digital might be as low as 2 per cent.

In relation to the important question of aerial contracts and the possible abuse of them as a result of digital switchover, in March the Government launched the registered digital installer scheme to instil in consumers a sense of trust in the advice they are given when they seek help to upgrade their aerials. Already, 250 installers are training for that and another 500 are registered to undertake the training. It is important to add a codicil that the RDI licensing body will have an inspectorate that will investigate complaints, and that it has already alerted trading standards officers to remind them of the need to protect consumers in the run-up to digital switchover.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I do not expect the Minister to have this information at his fingertips, but would he be able to let us know how many of those registered installers are in the Border television region at the moment and whereabouts they are? It is a vast area, and having access to those people is rather crucial.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that question, and I shall be coming to it later. He was kind enough to extend an invitation to the region. I shall perhaps disappoint him by telling him that I have already been.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I came to a conference specifically about some of the issues that were raised about the Border region as the first area for switchover. Many issues were raised and I spoke to a number of people who were involved in training in aerial installation. The numbers are increasing all the time but I am happy to maintain an ongoing correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on the subject, for one simple reason—we have to get it right, and I believe that we will, but it will be through dialogue rather than assumptions on my part or anybody else's. It will happen. As the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have had genuine issues raised either by their constituents or those in the industry, I extend the open invitation to make it an ongoing dialogue. It is in everybody's interests that we get this right.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I welcome that statement. I do not want to be churlish about the visit that the Minister made to Carlisle. I want to point out, as I have already pointed out to some of the people who organised the conference, that it was hard for people from the Borders and the north-east of England to get to. The information is being fed to him, and I hope that he will have the chance to come back to us at the earliest opportunity.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I am sure, Sir John, that you will not want me to delay too long on the subject of invitations. We have nearly two years before switchover, and it is inconceivable that we will not spend time in the constituencies involved. I accept the invitation willingly.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Sadly, the invitation to the aerial installers' conference was only extended to the Chairman of the Select Committee, so the rest of us ordinary members did not get the opportunity to go along. Clearly, the market has recognised that, like the Select Committee, the Government have made a brave and bold decision, which is very welcome. I am concerned that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, Mr. Moss, is urging prevarication. Within this ambitious and bold timetable, the biggest potential variable in terms of cost is the cost of aerial installation and the potential for abuse. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do all in our power to ensure that vulnerable people do not suffer from cowboy installers?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can only underline the importance of that. It is in nobody's interest that we see anybody exploited. All hon. Members from all parties would rightly be concerned if vulnerable people, in particular, were exploited. We shall need to confront some issues that are not obvious examples of exploitation. For example, some hon. Members are concerned about the number of retailers that are still selling television sets that are only analogue compliant. Although we have a digital box scheme on hand, we might need some discussions with retailers to oblige them, when they sell a television set, to advise people—or if it is being sold online, to oblige retailers to use a pop-up—that the equipment they are buying will require further modification and incur further expense either for them or, if they fall under the Government's targeted assistance scheme, for the Government.

We need to consider a number of issues to prevent not merely exploitation but people making genuine mistakes. By working through self-regulation rather than Government intervention, we can, I hope, get the outcome that we all want. It is important for all hon. Members to note that the Government will come down strongly on the side of protecting consumers and the most vulnerable.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. Indeed, I posed a question during one of our hearings about the number of analogue TVs still being sold, particularly approaching Christmas. Is it not the case that his discussions with the industry should not only include the winding-down of the sales of the remaining analogue televisions, but encourage them to sell high-definition televisions as the norm? The more are produced, the cheaper the cost will be. We have already noticed a big reduction in the initial costs of those TVs.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I recently got into trouble with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire in an Opposition debate for speaking at length. When I went back through the Hansard report, I found that I took 31 interventions, most from Conservative Members. I foolishly chose to reply to them in the way that I thought the House would want. I am conscious that if I reply to every comment about high-definition television, the hon. Gentleman will be at me once again.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I shall try to resist that one.

Hon. Members raised the question of residences of multiple occupation. That is an important point, which was rightly raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee and by the Committee. Landlords have been upgrading communal television aerial systems since the launch of digital television in 1998. By 2004, NOP estimates were that about one third of the systems had been upgraded. None the less, progress is not quick enough. It needs to move more quickly and we are in discussion with the industry. With Digital UK, we have recently appointed Ross Fraser, chief executive of HouseMark, which was established by the National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing, to chair a group of housing stakeholders to help advise Digital UK and the Government on how best to reach all landlords in both the private and social sectors.

Progress is an issue and will continue to be in some constituencies more than others. Although we will not begin the switchover programme for two years, constituencies will face the problem within the next two years and that must be addressed. I hope that Ross Fraser will help lead us through the problem, but the Government are already aware of it and acting to resolve it.

Hon. Members asked about the 1.5 per cent. of people who will not be able to receive DTT—another important issue. I remind the House that at the moment 1.5 per cent. of people cannot receive television pictures, although it has been pointed out that getting a poor picture on analogue is different from a poor picture on digital if it simply does not exist. We are aware of that, as are Ofcom and Digital UK. We are trying, as far as we can, to identify those households that may be affected. I say "may" because we are still in a speculative period, but for those hon. Members whose constituencies face switchover in two years, time is now moving quickly. I assure them that they are the focus of our attention, and that we will be addressing the problem. However, as I say, it is an ongoing dialogue, and we take the problem extremely seriously.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Before the Minister leaves that point, will he assure me that he is also considering another group of people, whose existence was brought to my attention by the aerial industry—those remote communities that can receive television only because they have installed small, local relay transmitters? They are not part of the 1,154 transmitter network. I understand that it is not clear exactly where they are. Are the Government working to identify them, and will they then provide the help needed to convert those relays?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I can tell him that there are 330 of them, and that Ofcom is looking into the situation. I hope, Sir John, that my answer impressed the hon. Gentleman. It shocked me.

I was asked whether the cost should be met by the Exchequer rather than through the licence fee. I know that hon. Members across the House have been concerned about that. I appreciate the arguments, but I remain unconvinced of the conclusion reached by some that it should be funded by the Exchequer. We believe that it is a broadcasting cost. We also want to ensure that everybody has access to all BBC services. Licence fee payers will benefit from more choice, better picture quality and new services. That best fits with the principle of maintaining universality of access to the broadcasting system. It should be remembered that people buy their television sets: we do not give them sets as part of the licence fee arrangements. In our view, it is more analogous to the purchase of a television set than to the receiving of the programmes.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Clearly that issue exercised the Committee more than most. In fact, during some of our discussions on tax theory and practice I found myself drifting off to the dreaming spires and the economic tutorials of half a lifetime ago.

Although we commended the Government on most of their recommendations, we did not agree on this one. Given subsequent debates about the licence fee, I fear that if the BBC were to fund it the issue would become even more of a political football. Another thing that exercises me is the question of accountability. If it goes wrong—if it is insufficient—can Ministers of whichever political hue simply blame the BBC? I note that in their response, the Government said that they are working with the BBC to address accountability issues. How does the Minister see those issues being resolved?

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. May I give the Minister some brief comfort? I have now been informed by the Clerk that following representations about the lack of air conditioning, the Speaker has ruled that the dress rule can be relaxed. If the Minister wishes to remove his jacket at this rather late stage, he is at liberty to do so, and other hon. Members may remove theirs.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

As always, Sir John, your characteristic generosity knows no bounds. I shall remove my jacket, not least because it will complete the picture being taken by the camera behind me—if the BBC is generous enough not to caricature it.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am unable to answer him as he would wish. Our discussions with the BBC are ongoing, but I do not want to give him a false sense of hope. We are committed to the present route. My hon. Friend should not expect it to change. None the less, I hear what he says.

Our discussions with the BBC on accountability, too, are ongoing. My hon. Friend will have the chance to ask the Secretary of State that question on Monday, and I am sure that he will wish to avail himself of that opportunity. He may be a little disappointed, and he may have to wait for clarity on the subject. However, I respect the question, and I believe that we will shortly be able to answer it.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and the Select Committee Chairman asked about the sale of spectrum. We have not yet got a precise estimate. It is not possible at this stage to make a reliable assumption of the market value or of the potential auction proceeds of the spectrum to be released by the switchover. Indeed, it will be a matter primarily for Ofcom. However, it clearly has a value.

In answer to the questions posed by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire—and, perhaps, the hesitation that he encouraged—I would simply say that there are values to be received by the Treasury. They are worth having, and delaying and frustrating them will lead not only to a loss of sales for the Treasury; it will lead also to a significant loss of opportunity for the television and broadcasting industries, the telecommunications industry and the other public service bodies that would wish to make use of that spectrum.

It is necessary to provide clarity as soon as we can, within a decisive framework that recognises that we are dealing with a fast-moving target. The technologies that may wish to avail themselves of the use of spectrum are fast-changing, both in hardware and software, and the true value can be determined only once the spectrum space is available. It would be foolish to speculate on its value. Equally, it would be foolish simply to prevaricate for the sake of it.

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

Will the Minister clarify something? He said that it is primarily a matter for Ofcom. Given that there are two options—one is the social benefit accruing from the use of the released spectrum, and the other is the economic benefit, largely to the Treasury—the Government have a key role in deciding which bit of the spectrum they intend to release for economic reasons and which for social. That, surely, is not for Ofcom to decide.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

The answer is yes and no. There are good reasons for that. It is important to recognise the nature of the fast-moving technology with which we are dealing. The anticipated value of the spectrum sale two years ago was very different from what it would be now, and I dare say it will be different in two years' time. It will depend on the demands made of that spectrum space. The way spectrum is going in the long term, with the ability to get more and more on ever less width, is another dimension that has to be considered. In the pre-Budget report, the Government stated their position and declared policy that the future use of spectrum released through the digital switchover should be determined in a technology-neutral auction or auctions, and that Ofcom would apply administrative incentive pricing when spectrum had not been auctioned.

I suspect that this discussion could delay us a long time. I am happy for it to do so, but I imagine that some hon. Members would prefer me to enter into correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, which I would be pleased to do.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister (Culture, Media & Sport), Culture, Media & Sport

I commend the Minister for his honesty. This is the first time that we have heard from the lips of a Minister that this is being driven partly by the Treasury's need to fill its black hole. Will he give us some indication in percentage terms of the impetus on the Treasury to get this thing through within the time limits, and the impetus on DCMS and the service industry to broaden out digital reception for the bulk of people?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I am obviously being invited to talk about the state of the Government's economic affairs; as you are aware, Sir John, they are in excellent condition, thanks to the undoubted and highly commendable prudence of the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman invites me to talk about black holes, and no doubt I could delay the Chamber for some time on the subject. However, I have the feeling, Sir John, that you would quickly bring me to order—

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

—and remind me that the subject of debate was the digital switchover, not the incompetence of the Conservative party, in government or otherwise. I shall therefore attend to the matters before us.

I congratulate Mr. Moore on setting up his Borders digital forum, which is enlightened and right. The hon. Gentleman is bringing together the core people and focusing particularly on bodies in the voluntary sector that can help older constituents and those with disabilities. That is vital, and it is good to hear of their role. The hon. Gentleman is an example to everybody in leading his constituents in the right direction, to ensure that they are best able to take full advantage of digital switchover. As has been observed, the hon. Gentleman's region will be the first to switch over, in the second half of 2008. I am a little cautious about the mention of 18 months; by my count, it will happen in 24 months, although my maths may not be as good as the hon. Gentleman's.

We should get the expectation gap right; needs have to be addressed in respect of that. The hon. Member for Bath brought up the other dimensions of services, touching on high-speed broadband. We have a fast-moving target and we need to look closely at the correlation between digital switchover and high-speed broadband. It is perfectly clear that convergence is taking place between the creative industries—the broadcasting, digital games, film and music industries and others—and that services that have traditionally used analogue, or now digital, will also develop interactive programmes that require high-speed broadband. Such channels may well be offered.

The issue is moving fast, and a fast-moving target is before us, with which the Government are trying to keep pace. We will endeavour to do so and recognise the issues in respect of the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

Questions were asked about the involvement of the Scottish Executive. We are working with all Government Departments and the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are fully engaged in the process—particularly in helping to ensure that the public are as informed they can be and that their television sets are converted on time and as they should be. Of course, we always welcome advice from hon. Members if they feel that, for example, the Scottish Executive are not at the same speed as us. In a spirit of constructive dialogue I say, let me know and we will deal with it.

Questions were asked about energy use in respect of digital switchover. On Monday, I said in the House that we welcome the action taken by Intellect to support the use of energy labelling and investment in energy-efficient products. All hon. Members are becoming increasingly aware of such issues, and we shall play our part in ensuring that the industry factors in the energy issues and makes them a part of the digital switchover.

Mr. Beith raised questions about access to other television regions. Although we have no plans to change the boundaries of the ITV regions, I am happy, having noted his comments, to ensure that those representations are passed to Ofcom for further discussion. In a spirit of constructive dialogue, I am happy to enter into correspondence about suggestions made by the right hon. Gentleman. However, I should say that those currently able to tune their aerials to more than one transmitter should be able to continue to do so after switchover, although, as now, they will need an aerial adjustment or upgrade to make the change.

I have tried to cover the points raised by hon. Members. This issue will be ongoing and we must recognise that, as we roll out switchover from 2008 to 2012, things will change. The Government have a duty to get the framework right and work with Digital UK, Ofcom and all partners to ensure that we get maximum benefits from digital switchover for all consumers and everybody who pays a licence fee.

We also have a duty to recognise the needs of the industry and those creating the many jobs in this country that will come from the benefits of switchover. At the same time, we should try to avoid any possibility of waste, which might be caused if switchover were delayed and if dual transmission, which would be money wasted, were to happen. I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity for us to debate the issues again, and I welcome the Select Committee's report.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Five o'clock.