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Digital Switchover

Volume 448: debated on Monday 3 July 2006

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on having got back from his constituency, where, this morning, he opened a new £100 million bridge? We were not sure that he would get back in time. We are very pleased that he is here.

To ensure that everyone, including older people, are able to enjoy the benefits of digital switchover by 2012, we are asking Digital UK to lead the campaign to provide relevant information to all households, as each TV region is switched.

The Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), started off the bridge project, so I should thank him publicly.

Has my hon. Friend had a chance to talk to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills? We have hundreds and hundreds of specialist computer and technology schools, and one of the cheapest ways in which we could carry out the switchover would be to charge those schools with the task of being the local hub for switchover—to go into old people’s homes, to liaise and so on. That would save us millions of pounds and generate great community spirit in those centres.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. We have not held direct discussions on that specific topic with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, but I will, of course, now initiate discussions with Education Ministers and officials. We are actively engaged in discussions with charities and public bodies, particularly those that represent older people and those who are disabled, because we believe that those are the individuals who will face the greatest difficulties in the switchover. We are absolutely confident that we have a very good plan in place, but we take on board his suggestions.

Does the Minister agree that the conversion of multiple dwelling units to digital reception presents particular challenges? What estimates have been made of the cost of converting MDUs, particularly for social landlords and local authorities? Does the Government propose to make any help available to them?

Multiple dwelling units present a particular problem, of which the hon. Gentleman has made particular efforts to make the House and departmental officials aware. There are especial problems associated with MDUs and we must adopt a sophisticated approach to them. We are in active discussion with all the relevant bodies and we believe that we are on course to solve most of the problems. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is still nearly 18 months to two years before we begin the process of switchover. We believe that during the next 12 months the discussions that we are holding will bear the fruits and the policies that the hon. Gentleman wants to see.

The Government already recognise rightly the impact of energy costs on the households of older people. Is the Minister aware that only today the Energy Savings Trust produced a report that showed that the additional energy costs of digital set-top boxes could add £30 a year to household budgets for older people, and an even greater cost with certain new digital television sets? Will the Minister agree to work with manufacturers to find ways of reducing those costs, not least by putting off buttons on digital set-top boxes, and also to ensure that there is energy-use labelling on new equipment, along the lines of that provided on white goods?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Yes, we are aware of the report; yes, we are in discussion with manufacturers about it and yes, it is our intention, when switchover takes place, for special codes to be introduced. It is not a problem that applies only to digital switchover; it applies to all digital equipment—mobile phone recharger units and just about everything in the house that uses the digital system. The Government are aware of the issue and are confronting it. I am sure that there will be bipartisan support for our efforts.

4. How the digital switchover pilot schemes have informed future policy; and if she will make a statement. (81365)

There have been two sets of relevant pilot schemes. The first of those examined the process of switchover in Llansteffan and Ferryside, and the second considered the needs of vulnerable groups in Bolton. Both pilots provided valuable real-time information. Above all, they confirmed people’s enthusiasm, and that, with support, digital television is popular. We will, of course, take those specific lessons into account in future planning. The results of both pilot studies are available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Is not the Secretary of State concerned that there is a lack of public awareness and that there are still people buying analogue televisions? Is there not much more that the right hon. Lady’s Department needs to do so that when switchover takes place in 18 months’ time it is not another Government failure?

There have been many Government successes. The process of digital switchover, commended by the Select Committee as a bold step and a bold decision, will be one of them. The right hon. Gentleman is right that people need to be properly informed, because, then, their apprehension about switchover—apprehension that tends to be higher among elderly and isolated people—falls. There is encouraging information from Digital UK. A £200 million public information campaign is now under way and in May, the first month of that campaign, the awareness in the borders—the right hon. Gentleman knows that that will be the first region to switch over—rose from 39 to 57 per cent. In Wales, awareness across the country rose from 3 to 22 per cent., as a result of targeted promotion and information. We will ensure that that is available consistently in the years up to switchover.

The Llansteffan pilot was a notable success. I am sure that the Secretary of State welcomes the fact that there is a significantly greater take up of digital television in Wales than elsewhere. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the real challenge for future policies is to ensure that all people in Wales have access to television that is produced in Wales for them? At present, 2 to 3 per cent. of people are unable to see Welsh television.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The key answer is the maintenance of platform choice. For example, in the case of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), only 9 per cent. of his constituents can get a decent signal through digital terrestrial television, and so they rely on satellite. There are other parts of the country, however, where satellite may be a more difficult option. The maintenance of platform choice is one of the ways in which the constituents of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) will receive the service to which I believe many of them will be looking forward.