I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and I also meet representatives from the broadcasting sector from time to time. In addition, on Friday 27 October, I gave the keynote address at a major conference on digital switchover in Scotland.
I have supported the BBC all through my life and I still support it and the licence fee system. However, in my constituency, which is a semi-rural area, the biggest single town in Midlothian, which has some 20,000 people, still cannot get digital transfer. It is not good enough to be told that they will get it in 2010, with whatever problems come at that time. Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC should be looking at the possibility of a rebate for people who cannot get digital transfer? They are getting a bit fed up with the advertisements, when digital is not available to them.
I well understand the frustrations of my hon. Friend’s constituents. As he knows, a number of people in my constituency cannot even get an analogue signal, let alone a digital one, and it is frustrating for them. I well understand how they feel. At the moment, more than 80 per cent. of Scottish homes are able to receive a digital signal through their aerial. That figure will rise to about 98.5 per cent. at the time of digital switchover. We need to switch off the analogue transmitters in order for that number to rise to 98.5 per cent. I am afraid that I am not able to offer him the comfort that he seeks. Having raised this issue with the BBC on a number of occasions, I know that it feels that it has a duty to get to about 98.5 per cent. I hope that when coverage increases from 80 per cent. to 98.5 per cent., many of his constituents will be able to get that signal.
Although it is good news that all those people will be able to get digital coverage, my hon. Friend will be aware that there is grave concern about the ability of people to understand the system—particularly our elderly population. Does he agree that, come digital switchover, voluntary sector organisations, such as CACE—Cumbernauld action for care of the elderly—which works closely with the elderly, will be key in assisting the elderly population to operate and receive the system properly?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I know that she has raised it during the deliberations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is important that we provide a package of help for vulnerable people and older people. It will not just be older people who might need some support and technical assistance in switching over, but, particularly for those people, we need a help package that will give the assistance that they need. Digital UK is taking the lead on that. I know that it will want to work closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that those who are used to visiting older people in their homes, and have their trust and confidence, will be able to take the message on digital switchover to those vulnerable groups.
My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) makes an important point about the condition of analogue systems at the moment. For example, people in a large part of the city of Aberdeen cannot get Channel 5. I was one of them. I recently bought a digital television. I have 20-odd other channels, but I still have not got Channel 5. If the Minister is going to make it worth while for people to invest in digital technology, we need to think about how we are going to get an improved service.
I am sure that, as long as my hon. Friend’s constituents can access the Parliament Channel, they will sleep safely in their beds. He makes an important and valid point: people have chosen to switch to digital because of the opportunities that it gives them, the multi-channel service, and the availability of interactivity on the services. He will know from his time on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that there is a major engineering exercise involved in turning off all the various transmitters that need to be fixed and so on. We need to make sure that that is done in a way that does not disadvantage people, that helps them to make the change over to the digital future, and that allows them to get rather more channels, including Channel 5, than he currently gets.
The Minister is, of course, aware that parts of Scotland will be the first in the United Kingdom to be part of the digital switchover. Will he make it clear to Digital UK that awareness of the switchover is, in itself, not sufficient and that the work with voluntary groups and community groups is vital? For many of those groups, face-to-face contact will be the only way to ensure that there is understanding and, more importantly, no fear of the changeover.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Awareness is key. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and I, he will have seen a lot of the adverts that are running to make people aware of the switchover. Awareness has risen from about 66 per cent. to 70 per cent. in just the last few months, as a result of the campaign. However, it is vital—particularly in borders, which will be the first region of the UK to switch over entirely at the end of 2008—that there is as high a level of awareness as possible. That is why Digital UK has taken a special interest in what is happening in borders. It is also paying close attention to what is happening in Scotland. It has dedicated staff working in Scotlandto raise awareness and achieve the result that he is looking for.
I attended the conference that the Minister addressed and I pay tribute to the fact that he is taking a close personal interest in the subject. He will be aware that huge numbers of people in rural areas depend for their television signal on relay transmitters, rather than main transmitters. Under the current plans, many of them thus stand to get a second-tier service after switchover because they will receive only a fraction of the available channels. Does the Minister think that that is unfair? Will he ensure that Ofcom rethinks the proposals so that everyone can get an equal and fair service?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the borders digital forum that he has set up to help to raise awareness. He was fortunate enough to hear my keynote speech at the major conference on digital switchover a week or two ago. I accept the point that he makes. As I understand it, there is essentially an engineering constraint—this is a major engineering project. However, Ofcom will have to keep the matter under consideration as we move through the process.