I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Digital switchover in the United Kingdom is necessitated by the pace of change in consumer choice and by technological change. It brings with it the opportunity to revolutionise the way in which people use media in the UK, but obviously it also brings major challenges. The Bill should be seen as a small part of a much larger jigsaw of public policy that comprises our response to those challenges.
Our approach is based on clear principles—the principles of universal access, platform neutrality and an obligation for the Government, the industry, Ofcom, broadcasters and charities to work in partnership. Our fundamental objective is to ensure that nobody gets left behind during the digital switchover process.
I do not doubt the good intentions behind the legislation—in particular universal access—but I am sure that I am not the only MP who has been contacted by constituents about this subject. A pensioner household asked me to put the following points to the Secretary of State. Some households have significant difficulties with data sharing between Departments, agencies and public bodies as the data was not collected for that purpose. Some households watch hardly any television—they might even switch off when digital arrives. Does the Secretary of State understand the concern that such households have about this process, regardless of the good intentions behind the Bill?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He and I are as one in being concerned that there must be proper protection of the people—according to some estimates there will be 6 million to 7 million of them—who will be the beneficiaries of the provisions. If the Bill continues its passage, I hope that one of the focuses of the debates in Committee will be confidence in the level of protection afforded to the data, and therefore to such individuals.
As one side of the argument has been presented so early in the debate, I rise to ask the Secretary of State whether she also recognises that great damage would be caused to some individuals if they were to be missed out due to a lack of data sharing? Caring for the vulnerable involves appropriate sharing of data, which is why the Bill is essential.
Yes. I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments and I pay tribute to the work that he did when he was a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry to advance switchover to the point that we are now at. We have heard just two sides of the challenge: the necessity both of undertaking the process of data sharing and of ensuring that safeguards are in place in order to build confidence among vulnerable people about the scheme.
On the safeguards point raised by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), once a family that the Bill seeks to help has made the switchover to digital it will have made the switchover—that is a one-off event. As that is the case, why does the Bill not contain a sunset clause?
Effectively, a sunset clause will be operated once switchover is complete in 2012. Members might wish to look at the application of sunset provisions on a region-by-region basis when the Bill is in Committee, but I remind Members that we must uphold the following two imperatives: ensuring that everybody knows about switchover and about the help that is available and whether they are eligible for such help, and ensuring that the sharing of data is not open to abuse, which might lead to people being exposed to risks. That is the balance that we have to strike.
I now wish to make some progress, as I know that many Members wish to speak. Our objective is to ensure that nobody is left behind. In little more than eight years, digital television provision in this country has grown from a standing start to give the United Kingdom the highest level of digital penetration anywhere in the world. Countries all over Europe—Germany, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands—are setting plans to go digital. We are part of a global trend, but we are also leading the way—for example, Digital UK, our partnership for co-ordinating digital switchover and advising the public, is being emulated in other countries facing the challenge of switchover.
In the UK, 17 million households now have digital television of one form or another. That is almost as many as have cars. The reasons for that are clear. Digital offers a great choice of channels, including radio channels, better picture and sound quality, more interactivity and more access to services such as audio-description for people with disabilities.
I gave notice to the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary that I would raise this question, but I should confess in putting it to her that I am a bit of a technophobe. I understand that one consequence of the changeover is that some of the remote microphones used by, for example, rock stars, performers of “The Sound of Music”, church preachers, head teachers and, indeed, some politicians will be useless at the point of changeover. Will any data on that issue be obtained during consideration of the Bill, has cognizance been taken of that effect, what advice has been given to those who use such equipment, and how will this problem be overcome? It was drawn to our attention by a lobby just last Thursday so that Members present would know about it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, but I am afraid that I am unable to give a specific response on the point about microphones. However, almost all equipment used for analogue is adaptable for digital. One reason why it is so important to combine targeted financial help with advice and assistance is that there will, for example, be elderly people with a second television set that is very old, and in such cases there might be some difficulty in fitting it with a set-top box. We will address such specific problems through Digital UK, in part by ensuring that when people buy new digital technology or a new television, they are aware of its compatibility with the new digital regime.
We seem to have some cross-party agreement on this point, which is indeed a good one. I am sure that Digital UK is already looking at the issue and it will be aware of the significance that my hon. Friend attaches to it. Yes, it is highly likely that a significant number of televisions will be redundant at the end of the process.
Well, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—[Interruption.]—it says here—have jointly commissioned research to consider this issue in detail. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point it out, and given that Digital UK will be the body communicating with millions of people throughout the country, we have to make sure that it, too, is carrying this message.
My right hon. Friend is very gracious in allowing these interventions. Has she had words with the trading standards bodies about the fact that people are being sold television sets that will not be compatible following the switchover, or that will need other equipment? It is important that anybody who buys a television is made aware that they will need to buy at least a freeview package to participate in the next stage.
This is an absolutely critical point. Through Digital UK, retailers have undertaken extensive training of staff so that they are alert to precisely such issues and can inform people about the digital-compatible status of the equipment that they are buying when they buy it. However, my concern is that we will reach the point of switchover region by region, and a handful of people will not know about or understand it, or will feel alarmed by it. That is why we have to be forensic in providing the help, advice and assistance in every town, city and village, with special attention to rural areas—I say that to save hon. Members from getting to their feet to make that point.
The Secretary of State referred to people buying new digital sets. One of the difficulties is that they do not always know whether they will be able to get a signal. They are told that if they cannot get a signal now it is because it is at only a weak strength but will be boosted at switchover, and that in the final month before switchover it will run at the higher strength. If that is correct, why is it not possible for the digital signal to be increased for trial periods beforehand, as was done with BBC 2 when it was introduced, say between 2 am and 4 am on a Wednesday?
The technical problem is that if one boosts the digital signal, one knocks out or interferes with the analogue signal. As I will explain—members of the Select Committee are well aware of the finer points about the weakness of analogue interleaving—that is why we have reached the point with digital terrestrial television that we have to mandate switch-off if we are not effectively to lock 30 per cent. of the population out of access to digital.
Given the pressing concern about the proper disposal of equipment, I can provide further assurance that the requirements of the EU waste electrical and electronic equipment directive will be fully complied with.
I wish to make some progress now, but I am not surprised by the number of interventions, because I have received hundreds of representations from Members and the public on why digital cannot be enjoyed by everyone. The simple truth is that some 25 per cent. of homes are not covered by the digital terrestrial signal and will not be until the analogue signal is turned off. That means that, at present, while 100 per cent. of households are paying for BBC digital television services through their licence fee, only three quarters of them can actually get a free service through their aerials. In the interests of basic fairness and choice, we must ensure that access to free-to-air digital TV is as near universal as it can be.
Such a move will benefit the UK in many other ways too. Efficient digital broadcasting will free up spectrum for other uses. Possibilities include high definition television; more national and, especially, local digital terrestrial television, which is strongly supported by the public; new services such as mobile TV; or wireless broadband services. We simply will not be able to meet the consumer demand for such developments unless digital switchover proceeds.
The economic benefits are also clear. The regulatory impact assessment completed in September last year described a boost to the UK economy as a whole of some £1.7 billion as a consequence of digital switchover. There are also advantages to broadcasters in not having to continue investing in outdated analogue technology and ending wasteful simulcasting in analogue and digital. Making best use of any newly available spectrum is clearly critical and Ofcom will tomorrow begin a consultation to ensure we get the very best out of what is called the digital dividend.
Many households in Britain do not need persuading of the case to switch, as they are already choosing the benefits of digital, but because switchover needs to happen everywhere if all are to benefit, Digital UK is leading a major information campaign to ensure that, across the country, people know what is happening, what they need to do and when they need to do it. We should not, however, underestimate the scale of the challenge, which is comparable to conversion to North sea gas or decimalisation. It is a process that requires proper planning and co-ordination. Broadcasters, transmission companies, the Government, Members of the House, Ofcom, and, of course, individuals and families, all have a part to play. We have to mobilise a whole network of information and support right across the country.
I want to make some more progress.
Digital UK, for example, is working closely with the major charities and is soliciting their support both in communicating the switchover message and in providing practical help and advice. Hon. Members may already have seen the adverts starring a little robot, Digit Al. Between now and switchover, Digital UK will be communicating with every single TV-viewing household in the country to ensure that they are prepared for change. Now is a particularly important time, because a large number of new televisions and other digital equipment are bought at Christmas.
The Secretary of State is quite right to point out how successful this country has been in ensuring that digital television already has a huge percentage of digital homes. Much of it is due to the BBC. The BBC is, on the whole, the largest funder of Digital UK and also, in the sense of the licence payer, responsible for funding digital set-top boxes in some extreme cases, so does not the Secretary of State fear, as I do, that because only a limited amount of licence fee is available, it will affect the quality of programming broadcast on analogue and digital terrestrial channels?
The hon. Gentleman has studied the matter over many years and makes an important point. We have to ensure, of course, that the BBC is in existence principally as a broadcaster and BBC support derives from public enthusiasm for programming, so we have to get the balance right. It is worth drawing the House’s attention to the fact that, as a result of growth in the number of households, the BBC secured increased income over this licence fee period of some £600 million.
The Secretary of State has already made half of my argument about the enormous injustice faced by a lot of—no, all—my constituents and many others who have no opportunity to get freeview, do not receive a digital radio service and have no prospect of doing so. When digital switchover happens, it looks as though the freeview service available in constituencies such as mine will be only a second-rate one. Is it not an injustice that we must end if we are really to talk meaningfully about universal access?
Half the channels is absolutely right, but part of the success of freeview has been precisely because there are people out in the country who would love to have 30 channels but do not necessarily want 500 channels. That is part of the reason for freeview’s great success. It has found a very large gap in the market.
The Secretary of State mentioned the conversion to North sea gas and I am old enough to remember it, but the difference is that that was a free service. I know that digital now has about 70 per cent. penetration into people’s homes, but the vast majority have both digital and analogue, so switchover will have its costs for many. My specific point is about blocks of flats in private ownership for which the landlord needs to change the aerial. Is there going to be any legislation to enable that to happen?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In fact, progress is being made and public sector landlords of houses in multiple occupation are paying attention to the issue. We estimate that about 60 per cent. of the houses in multiple occupation are in the public sector, with a smaller proportion in the private sector. The public sector is making good progress and Digital UK will be working with local authorities and other bodies to ensure that the tenants and residents of privately owned houses in multiple occupation are not left behind. I do not underestimate the challenge of that, and I know that my hon. Friend does not either. We will obviously want to keep this issue under review.
The Secretary of State is making a very important point, but she has appeared to elide the issue of high-definition television. If terrestrial television is to be made available in high definition, some bandwidth will have to be made available to the BBC and existing terrestrial television networks. Does she agree that it would be intolerable to ask people to pay a BBC TV licence fee and then not be able to receive high-definition terrestrial TV pictures, especially for the 2012 Olympics?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s conclusion. She will know that Ofcom will publish tomorrow the first stage of its digital dividend review and it will seek to answer some of these complex questions. Those questions also fit with decisions that will be taken about the disposal of spectrum and the opportunities that should be given to the widest range of interests—mobile phone companies as well as the public service and other broadcasters—to improve the service to their viewers through the acquisition of more spectrum.
Frankly, it is too early for me to come to the Dispatch Box to give any kind of categorical assurance about how spectrum will be used, but we all know about the enormous consumer demand for high-definition TV. However, high definition is already responding with technologies that improve the levels of compression and therefore the efficiency with which the spectrum is used. Therefore, as the hon. Lady will remember from the Communications Act 2003, we need to ensure that we regulate and make decisions on public policy in a way that anticipates the rapid pace of technological advance.
I want to return briefly to the issue of freeview. Given the almost postcode lottery nature of the availability of freeview, are we not seeing the emergence of two different types of constituencies? The first type will have access to all the mediums and forums in the run-up to digital switchover and the second will include constituencies such as mine that will not have that access. What can we do to ensure that people will still be encouraged to take digital conversion when freeview and digital television are not available to them?
The principle of universal access drives this whole policy and, by and large, that also creates for the majority of people in this country a choice of platform. They can choose whether they want freeview, satellite or cable. However, people who live in remote areas or areas where the terrain makes the receipt of a signal very difficult will not have as wide a choice as the majority. None the less, as we translate the policy into reality, we will ensure that everybody is able to get a digital signal and that nobody is shut out of the move to digital when the time comes.
In which case, I could keep going until 10 o’clock, but I might lose the House if I proceed on that basis.
Let me return to the “digital tick” logo—a subject that relates to a number of points that hon. Members were making about Christmas shopping. The logo is a certification mark that identifies products and services that are designed to help consumers through switchover. The results, in terms of increased awareness to date, are impressive. According to Digital UK and Ofcom, awareness of switchover nationally is 70 per cent. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will take some reassurance from that. It is even higher in the areas that will switch the soonest. Borders, the first area to switch, shows an awareness of digital of 89 per cent. These steps are not being undertaken without a thorough assessment of risk and of the measures needed to mitigate any unforeseen difficulties in a complex project. The process is regularly reviewed by the Office of Government Commerce.
The structure of the proposed help scheme follows consultation with the major charities and is based on evidence drawn from real-time digital trials in Ferryside and Bolton. The trials taught us valuable lessons about the groups that are most likely to have particular difficulty with switchover. These groups are people aged over 75, the blind or partially sighted, and people with other serious disabilities. Members will have no difficulty in appreciating the challenges that people in those circumstances face—particularly the physical difficulty or, for some, complexity of installing and operating the equipment.
We propose to introduce a help scheme especially for people in those groups. It will provide practical support to help people to select, install and use digital TV equipment. Many people, for example, need help learning to use unfamiliar remote controls and on-screen menus. Under the scheme, each eligible household will be helped to convert one TV set. Provision will be free for the poorest eligible households: those on income support, income-related jobseeker’s allowance or pension credit. Other eligible households will be expected to pay a modest fee, which we propose should be set at £40, for whatever help and equipment is necessary.
The evidence that we have to date suggests that low income alone is not a particular barrier to digital take-up. Some interesting research was undertaken by Ofcom. It showed that take-up runs at 69 per cent. among poorer groups, as opposed to 73 per cent. among people in higher income brackets. However, the evidence also suggests that digital take-up among the over-75s is much lower than for the rest of the population—at around 42 per cent. That is why we are concentrating our help on those who are most likely to need it.
The Secretary of State makes an important case: there are those who will need that support. Given the complexity of modern homes, there is surely a question about whether support for one conversion is sufficient to assist people to change all the different bits of equipment in their household. More immediately, what about people—in the constituencies represented by many Members in the Chamber—who are already making the conversion? We in the Border Television area will be the first to see conversion in a couple of years’ time. Will there be any retrospective provisions that will ensure that people who pay up now get help later?
No, there will not be any retrospective provision, because the help scheme is intended to enable people who are not switching of their own volition and choice—for whatever reason, but by and large because they are elderly and do not find the prospect of digital television particularly appealing. It is a highly targeted scheme to guarantee universal access, but it must take account of the point that was made about keeping the cost to the licence fee payer proportionate as far as possible to the overall need to ensure that nobody is left behind. That is why we are concentrating our help on those who are most likely to need it. We are grateful for the investigations that the Select Committee has undertaken and the debates held in another place, both of which have informed our plans.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State. She says that she has to balance the need to provide assistance to the people who require it with keeping down the cost to the licence fee payer. Can she say how much the targeted assistance scheme will cost?
If the hon. Gentleman will contain his soul in patience for a few minutes, I will set out the costs for him.
The help scheme is designed to be platform-neutral so that all households will be entitled to a choice of options for getting their digital TV services. That takes account of several points that hon. Members have made about the difficulty of getting a consistently good signal in especially remote parts of the country. All who qualify will get help towards the cheapest option. If anyone chooses a more expensive option, such as an integrated television or a subscription cable or satellite service, the help scheme will make a contribution to their costs.
As we have said previously, the scheme will be funded through the licence fee and the BBC will help to establish and run it. Universal access is central to the BBC’s remit and only digital switchover will ensure that all licence fee payers can receive the BBC’s digital services through an aerial. It is thus right that the licence fee is the mechanism used to fund the scheme. In addition, the BBC is a trusted institution that is already playing a leading role in making digital switchover happen.
Hon. Members will be interested in the cost of the scheme and the impact that it could have on other BBC services. Of course, like all such support, the scheme will be demand-led and the precise costs will depend on assumptions that are made about the level of take-up, demographic changes and changes in the demand for benefits that take place over the lifetime of switchover. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the BBC, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury, we have developed a model for calculating costs. Our best estimate at this stage is that the cost of the scheme will fall at around £600 million over the period of switchover. To put that in context, it is worth remembering that over the current licence fee period, the BBC is realising more than £600 million pounds from household growth alone.
As part of the BBC’s overall settlement, the money will be ring-fenced to ensure that it cannot be used for purposes other than digital switchover. We will ensure that the costs of the help scheme will not have an impact on the BBC’s programme budget. We will also ring-fence the amount of licence fee money that the BBC will give to Digital UK to fund its marketing and communication activities, which I referred to earlier.
I know that many hon. Members have taken a keen interest in the BBC’s proposed move to the north-west of England. I can say this afternoon that it is my expectation that the BBC will make that move. I was pleased to hear the governors last week saying that a move of key BBC departments to Salford would represent value for money for licence fee payers. The Government will ensure that the structure of the licence fee settlement makes it clear that the move to the north-west should happen. More details will be given as part of the announcement on the level of the licence fee that I will make in the new year.
The Bill is enabling legislation in the sense that it will permit social security data to be shared with the administrator of the help scheme so that the scheme can get in touch directly with people entitled to benefit. That will enable the scheme to target individuals and confirm entitlement without the need for people to complete a lengthy and complex claim form. The approach will make the scheme easier to use and should, as a result, improve take-up rates. It will also make the scheme more cost-effective.
This approach reflects our detailed consultations with a consumer expert group, chaired by Leen Petré of the RNIB, and including the RNID, Age Concern, Help the Aged and Sense. The group recognises that digital TV offers many benefits for its clients, not least in improved access services such as audio description. The group’s clear view is that the scheme will be more effective if we actively approach those who are eligible. It said:
“There should be a clear duty on the government to get in touch with people who are eligible for the targeted assistance scheme”
and the scheme’s administrators
“should therefore be given access to central databases to help identify people who would be eligible.”
There are certainly precedents: the BBC has had access to social security data since 2000 in order to administer the licence fee scheme for people over 75. In this case, the contractor running the scheme will have access to data only for the purpose of targeting individuals and dealing with eligibility, which takes account of some of the risks referred to by my hon. Friends. There is a range of protections in the Bill and outside to ensure that the information is carefully guarded and used only for the very narrow purpose of supporting the roll-out of the help scheme for digital switchover.
The Bill makes it an offence to disclose such information without “lawful authority”. The Department for Work and Pensions will need to be satisfied that the arrangements put in place by the BBC and the contractors ensure that social security information is properly safeguarded. Finally, the Bill is, in effect, time limited—after switchover has been completed, it will cease to have any effect.
The scheme itself will be operated by a third-party organisation working under contract. The tendering process will begin soon to ensure that there is a help scheme in place by the time of the pilot in Whitehaven, Cumbria in October. The precise oversight arrangements for the scheme are still being finalised between the Government and the BBC and will be published once the licence fee settlement has been finalised.
The Bill will make possible the operation of an effective help scheme, aimed at bringing the benefits of digital broadcasting to some of the most vulnerable in our society, and it will make the process of getting there as smooth and painless as possible. Although it is a modest Bill, it is an important step on the road to establishing countrywide access to digital television services. Switchover is at heart both a matter of fairness and a matter of choice. Like many developments before it—the launch of the BBC and, later, commercial television, colour television, Channel 4, Five, satellite and cable—it is another leap forward for UK broadcasting. We are determined that, to ensure that no one is left behind, all have options and the principle of universal access is honoured throughout. The Bill will help us to put that principle into practice, and I commend it to the House.
I have to confess to a sneaking admiration for the Secretary of State. She certainly does not shirk a challenge. Not content with overseeing the Olympics, she has now taken on digital switchover. The projects have similarities. They are both due to be completed by 2012; they are both huge undertakings; and they are both in danger of being completely mishandled by the right hon. Lady and her Department.
The Secretary of State has compared digital switchover to both decimalisation and the conversion to North sea gas. Other people have said that digital switchover has the potential to cause greater chaos than any other civil project in our history.
The first place in the world to switch off its analogue signal was Berlin in 2003. More than half of Germany has now switched over and the process is due to be completed in 2010—it is likely to be the first complete switchover in the world. I note that Italy has set a target date for switchover for this year, but like many things Italian it is perhaps a trifle ambitious and unrealistic. This means that Britain will probably be only the second country in the world to undertake this task on a nation-wide basis. In that respect, it would be churlish of the Opposition not to recognise the Government’s courageous and brave decision—to use civil service language—to switch off analogue, rather than to wait for a natural migration.
Natural migration is certainly playing a part. We know that some 76 per cent. of households—18 million in total—have now moved to digital television, although those figures do not include every television in those households. Equally encouraging is the fact that some 70 per cent. of households are aware of digital switchover. Two thirds understand the need to convert every set, and almost 90 per cent. intend to convert. However, that would leave more than 10 per cent., or 2.5 million households, with a blank screen when the Secretary of State flicks the switch and turns off analogue. The Bill represents the tip of a very large iceberg.
There is no doubt that the targeted help that the Bill will enable is needed. Although 25 per cent. of pensioners regard digital television as an opportunity, some 57 per cent. regard it as a threat, according to Help the Aged, and those people will certainly want help in switching over. Although we welcome what the Bill is trying to achieve, we find it quite extraordinary that we are debating it today. As everybody knows, digital switchover will cost a great deal of money, and it is to be funded by the licence fee. As the Library notes explain—they are helpful as usual—the “precise details” of how the targeted help scheme
“will operate, and its cost, are linked to the size of the new television licence fee settlement.”
However, as we debate the Bill today, we still do not have any idea, from the Government, of how much the licence fee will be, and therefore how much money will be available for switchover. That is absolutely extraordinary. We were promised a licence fee settlement first in the summer, then in the autumn, and then towards the end of the year. If we are to believe the briefings to the press, we will have to wait until next February for an announcement.
I may disagree with my hon. Friend on that point, but later, I shall try to tease out from the Government what switchover will cost, and what they will do with the vacated spectrum. It is not necessary for us, in opposition, to go into too much detail until we know the costs of the project, and how the Government, who are in charge of it, intend to fund it.
So what is going on? [Laughter.] I can tell hon. Members one thing that is going on—the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has returned to his seat, and he will, no doubt, seek to intervene on me later. It is clear what is going on: the Government and the BBC, on whom switchover has been foisted by the Secretary of State and the big clunking fist—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—are still at loggerheads. According to briefings, the Chancellor wants the licence fee increased by an amount that is below inflation. The BBC is demanding more money because of all the new obligations that are being put on it, and because of its desire to move into emerging markets such as on-demand services. The situation is a shambles. It is riven by internal conflicts, and it lacks “grip and competence”, to quote a well-known memo that is doing the rounds.
I shall make some progress, but I will give way in due course. For the record, can the Secretary of State tell us when the licence fee settlement will be made, and so when we will know the cost of digital switchover? Will Parliament have an opportunity properly to scrutinise those costs? If not, will she at least allow the National Audit Office to do so?
Everyone other than the Government and the BBC is being kept in the dark. Various unofficial estimates of the costs of targeted help for switchover are doing the rounds, and they range from £400 million to £800 million. This afternoon, the Secretary of State went for the middle figure of £600 million, but does that include VAT? It could end up costing
“on the far side of a billion”
pounds, according to the BBC director-general, Mark Thompson. As a comparison, the cost of retuning videos for the introduction of Channel 5 more than 10 years ago was some £165 million. That involved visits to 10 million homes in nine months and was well over budget.
The Department has suggested a cost of between £80 and £570 per household for switchover, and has estimated that 7 million homes will need assistance. However, that figure has gone from 5 million households when the former Minister with responsibility for switchover gave evidence to the Select Committee, to 6.5 million in the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report, and now stands at 7 million. Like the Olympics budget, the figures seem to be going only one way. What assurance can the right hon. Lady give that we now have a definitive figure?
We know that estimates exist within the Department for targeted switchover, but those have been kept confidential. Why have they not been published? What does the Secretary of State have to hide? How can Parliament debate the Bill without having any idea from the Government what it is likely to cost? On myriad factors, we do not know the Department’s thinking. How many new set-top boxes will be needed? What is the cost per household likely to be? How many aerials will need upgrading?
How much will the processing and providing of social security data cost? How many households are likely to take up assistance? How many people will need to be trained to provide that assistance? What are the likely associated costs, such as Criminal Records Bureau checks on engineers? Given that those checks will be taking place at the same time as checks on those working on the Olympic building programme, what estimate has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the agency responsible for those security checks?
Not only do we not know what the cost is likely to be, but we know nothing of the Government’s thinking on the eventual budget when the money has been spent. By making the cost of targeted help part of the licence fee settlement, the Government are storing up trouble for the future. Can the Secretary of State tell us, for example, what will happen to any money that is not spent on targeted help? Will the BBC keep that money, or is it to be returned to the Treasury, or even—perish the thought—to the licence fee payer? More importantly, what if the Government have significantly underestimated the cost of targeted switchover? Where would additional funds come from? Would they come from the Treasury, from a further increase in the licence fee or from elsewhere in the BBC’s budget?
The Government have made up their mind that the BBC should fund and oversee switchover. The Select Committee, of course, came to a different conclusion. Nevertheless, there are many parties involved in the process. It is the responsibility of two Government Departments—the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry, not to mention the Office of Government Commerce; two regulators—Ofcom and the new BBC Trust; and two sets of broadcasters—the BBC and the rest through Digital UK.
My hon. Friend should note that the Ministry of Defence has a responsibility in the matter, in terms of war pensions data. The disclosure of war pensions data is a cause for concern, because in parts of the United Kingdom those data have a security impact. The junior Minister in the Department is well aware of that. There should be a provision in the Bill to ensure that that information is given out only in specified circumstances and that the security impact is properly taken into account.
I am delighted to give pleasure to the hon. Gentleman. I appreciate that he did not want an interruption during the rant that he had obviously been preparing in front of a mirror over the weekend. Can he help us by explaining whether he, on behalf of the Opposition, thinks that digital switchover is good news for the public, for the TV industry and for British industry as a whole, and whether he considers that a Bill that will enable the vulnerable to share in that good news and to be protected from the downside to it is not good news as well?
What is good news is the brevity of the right hon. Gentleman’s question. It is the first time that we have exchanged words since he was switched over to the Back Benches. The answer to both his questions is yes.
One is entitled to ask where the buck stops. If, once the analogue signal has been switched off, it is clear that a significant number of households have not been able to switch, or that there has been a massive overspend, who will take the blame? To whom should we turn for answers? I hope that the Secretary of State will listen to this, because I hope that it will be her.
The Select Committee expressed its concern that
“the complexity of the management structure leaves lines of accountability blurred. There need to be clearer chains of command with precise responsibilities specifically defined.”
The Committee also warned that the decision as to what the released spectrum should be used for needs to be made quickly. What action have the Government taken in response to those recommendations.
Given the complexity of the process, it will not surprise the right hon. Lady that we have other concerns, not least the timetable. Whitehaven is supposed to be the first area in the country to undertake digital switchover in October 2007, only 10 months away. In a briefing received last week, the charities involved in switchover voiced their concern that
“the targeted help scheme might not be ready for Borders in 2008.”
Presumably for Whitehaven to be ready to go ahead in October 2007, the BBC will have had to have received its licence fee settlement. The BBC and the Department will have had to work through the detail of how targeted help is to be carried out, and a tender process will have had to be carried out and an operating company established to undertake the process. At the same time, negotiations will have had to be concluded with parties such as Sky and NTL, as well as other subcontractors who might undertake the work on the ground. In addition, the Bill will have had to have received Royal Assent and sensitive negotiations between the Department for Work and Pensions and the BBC or its operating company will have had to be concluded for the sharing of data.
Is the Secretary of State convinced that all of that can take place by October? What assurances can she give the House that the date for analogue switch-off will not be moved from its target date of 2012? Will she agree to report regularly to Parliament on the progress of the timetable? Because unfortunately the Secretary of State has form when it comes to delays. Not only has the licence fee decision been delayed, we are also awaiting decisions on the Tote, the national lottery operating licence, the next chairman of English Heritage and the location of the new super casino, all of which have been delayed. How can we have confidence in the right hon. Lady and her Department to deliver this vast switchover project on time with that sort of track record? If she and her Ministers were in charge, Christmas would be delayed until Easter.
Turning to the process of targeted help, we have significant concerns that the Government could be encouraging, as was articulated by Opposition Members, a digital divide. As is well known, Ofcom wanted the Government to adopt a voucher scheme as the best way of ensuring that the process was platform neutral. As we understand it, people will instead be offered the cheapest option, a set-top box free of charge. Those opting instead for cable or satellite will receive a credit similar in value to what they would have paid for a set-top box.
One of the great difficulties with digital switchover is that the technology is very fast moving. Current freeview boxes use technology that is not compatible with high definition television. Has the right hon. Lady made any assessment of the likelihood and cost of a switchover II to enable wider spread of high definition and other new services? Has the right hon. Lady discussed any of this with the Chancellor or Treasury officials?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there must be a choice of platforms across the whole country? So far, many people in my constituency have been in danger of having no choice. If they want to go digital, they have to go to Sky, whose Freesat option is barely advertised. Many people are hesitant about taking up apparently expensive subscription services and therefore hesitant about going into the digital era. It is important that the BBC should bring forward plans for its own Freesat option in addition to freeview.
The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in referring to this problem and has spoken for his constituents in digital switchover debates as regards Sky’s monopoly in Rhondda and services for poorer people in rural regions. I would welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on that. As I have said before, it is an entirely legitimate request. When digital television is rolled out, we want it to be available to all with no one left behind. The hon. Gentleman should make those recommendations again, very strongly, to the Department.
All this means that many people in receipt of targeted help will soon find that they are stuck with obsolete technology while the world has moved on. That is the view of Help the Aged, for example. It has also been argued that the use of such technology, which will restrict access to the full range of channels, will unfairly protect the BBC from competition.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, the European Commission ruled that the switchover programme in Berlin constituted illegal state aid because of the subsidies provided to broadcasters, but that the provision of free set-top boxes to low-income households was within the rules. Have her hands been tied in any way by that ruling?
We have serious concerns about the intention, as stated in the Bill, to hand over people’s personal information such as social security entitlement and benefits details. Given the Government’s appalling record on dealing with such sensitive information, we should proceed with great caution. Their growing Big Brother tendency continues apace, and we must have in place the corrective legislative safeguards.
The Bill should become obsolete once digital switchover is completed in 2012. Why is not a sunset clause built in to ensure that it ceases to be law on the day that analogue switchover is achieved, or at least shortly afterwards? I was relieved when the Secretary of State said that that can be examined in Committee. Under data protection principles, all data should be destroyed once it has been used. On reading the Bill, it is hard to know how those principles will be applied. Will data be destroyed on a rolling basis, as each region is switched over, or when the final stage is reached? If it is the former, will the Secretary of State report regularly to Parliament on when regional data have been destroyed? Will people have the option to opt out so that their information is not shared?
Let me echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said about data security, particularly with regard to Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State knows, many people there still receive Army or Government pensions and could be put in an enormously difficult position were that to become more widely known. Have the Government considered that, and is the Secretary of State able to assure us that there are sufficient safeguards and protections to guard against misuse of the data in that context? On the wider issue of war pension information, it is worrying that no service charities have been consulted in any way on the security implications of the measure.
This is an important Bill because it provides one of the few opportunities for Parliament to debate the process of digital switchover. That is a massive undertaking by anyone’s standards, yet the Government have placed us in an extraordinary position because we do not know what it will cost, what money will be available, or what the process will be. We know almost nothing except that the Government have a woeful track record on major projects.
We are persuaded of the arguments in favour of the digital switchover because we believe that Britain must be at the forefront of the digital revolution if we are to compete in an increasingly technologically driven world. Digital television is here to stay and it has the potential to improve and enhance people's lives and to help communities. We support the principle, but we shall be seeking assurances and answers in Committee, and will be watching carefully to see whether this is one project that the Government can deliver on time and on budget.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure whether I should declare an interest as a BSkyB subscriber, but that said, although I have access to hundreds of channels at home my good lady wife does not allow me easy access to the remote control, so I have a difficulty there.
As the whole House knows, digital switchover comes to the Border television region first and I am encouraged that colleagues on both sides of the House are here to take part in today’s debate. I believe that digital switchover is a major step forward in communication. It brings choice to people, a choice which has been restricted for so many people in the past. That said, I think that we all share the great anxiety that exists out there, and while cost is an issue, by far and away the greatest concern is people’s ability to cope with the technology. I know from contact that I have had with constituents over the past 18 months or so, especially the elderly, that that is of great concern to them.
The Border television region is unique because it covers both sides of the border, as the name indicates, but in my area—I am sure it is the same in Cumbria, as it may well be in the Scottish borders—some people cannot even obtain an analogue signal, so television viewing is impossible for them. However, I know from experiences in my constituency that those who can receive a decent analogue signal get a wide variety of viewing. They get BBC 1 Scotland as well as BBC 1 from the north. They get BBC 2 Scotland as well as BBC 2 from the north. Of course they get ITV, Channel 4 and Five. So for some people, the current analogue signal is an excellent service, and of course their anxiety is shared by all: will they still be able to have those services when digital switchover takes place?
My view, which is informed by discussions that I have had with Digital UK and with those who run Border television, is that there is an element of confidence that those who get a good signal at the moment will see an improvement. But the big question has to be, will those who get nothing at the moment get something when digital switchover happens?
Freeview is extremely limited in my constituency. Living north of the border, people are keen to retain BBC 1 Scotland, but anyone who has freeview at the moment is actually picking up the signal from Cumbria, and as a result they do not get BBC 1 Scotland. I am assured that the engineering technology will improve as time progresses, and as some of the wavebands being used by analogue signals are freed up. Even though it is not achievable today, when the time comes, there will be a vast difference and freeview will be available to households and communities where it does not exist at the moment. So for those who have a poor service at the moment, the prospects are definitely rosy.
I commend Digital UK for all its work. It has been on the ground now for many months, working hard—a small team, led by one man. He and his team are finding it difficult to get around because the Border television region is vast. They are working well, along with charities, to assist in disseminating information to the wider public.
In the summer of 2004, I and Lord Cunningham, the then Member for Copeland, went to meet Lord McIntosh, who was then the Minister responsible. Both Lord Cunningham and I were somewhat anxious about the Border television area being first in the switchover. My anxiety was due simply to the fact that my constituency is a low-wage economy, so I was concerned about what the costs would be for households. We asked Lord McIntosh what support might be given, and I am delighted that the financial assistance that he appeared to indicate more than two years ago is being discussed today in relation to this Bill. It should help the most vulnerable households in our communities.
In recent months, the costs to households have been highly exaggerated. There have been reports in my local press of exaggerated costs of £700, £800 or £900 per household. That does no one any good. It merely opens the way for cowboy operators to knock on the doors of vulnerable people, especially the elderly, and to offer them a half-price package, there and then. For what? For absolutely nothing. Such operators cannot deliver anything. Whenever I can, I try to put the word out to constituents that while we are only a couple of years away from switchover, they need not rush into anything at present.
The elderly are vulnerable, but not only to cowboys. When mailshots arrived from Digital UK back in May, Sky soon followed with a mailshot to households that were not subscribers. Again, people were offered an introductory package for a cut price. People did sign up, and they will have digital TV when the switchover comes, and they have it now. People seize such opportunities. It is important that all Members encourage people not to buy any new equipment that might not be compatible when switchover happens. The clear message is that people should only use reputable companies; they should not be conned by others who might be offering a deal that is worthless.
Another big issue relates to estates where local authorities or registered social landlords have operated systems with communal aerials. Who will be responsible for all that? The Secretary of State has indicated today that more work needs to be done on that. Within the past two years, however, the biggest registered social landlord in Dumfries and Galloway has written to every tenant and has basically said, “When your current communal aerial breaks down, we will no longer be responsible.” Even now, therefore, households are under pressure to do something. Those tenants, who were previously tenants of a local authority, have been abandoned by their current landlord.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, as did the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). It is not just a question of the aerial possibly not being sensitive enough to pick up digital signals; it is a question of the distribution amplifiers in blocks of flats. The older designs cannot transmit a digital signal, so the entire system would have to be stripped from some blocks. As the hon. Gentleman rightly asks, who will pay for that?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. There are technical difficulties in all this, which are way beyond my knowledge and beyond even what I expect to learn from the whole process. Once we start considering blocks of flats and communal aerials, various issues arise. In my area a landlord has already abandoned tenants, and had done so even before the decision that the Border television region would be the first to go digital. That is not on.
If it were not for the Solway my hon. Friend and I would be neighbours, and we share the Border television area. Does he agree with me that it would be a crime if the Border area was broken up after the switch from analogue to digital? If that happened, his constituency would be in the Scottish television area and mine would be in the Granada area.
I agree with my hon. Friend and—were it not for that stretch of water—near neighbour. He and I are of one mind. Border is dear to our hearts, as I suspect it is to those of all Members, including the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), whose constituency is on the Scottish border. It is unique. Our great fear is that Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish border areas will end up with STV and Cumbria will end up with Granada, and we may not receive the unique coverage that we have had for so long with a much more local base. It is ironic that digital switchover brings the opportunity for much more region-based television, yet there is always the sense, lurking at the back of our minds, that it will bring something else that we never expected but of which we have always been wary in the past.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) that there is cross-party support for Border. None of us would want a split, with what we have now going either to Glasgow or further south to Manchester. However, apart from regional news coverage, which is split between Scotland and England and involves all sorts of technical achievements, one of Border’s great strengths has been its regional programming. A major concern is that regional programming will be increasingly marginalised as a result of this process.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Other Members will probably be astonished to learn that the 30-minute news bulletin that will be shown on Border at six o’clock this evening has a greater viewing capacity than any other region-wide news service. It is far superior to all the rest.
I shall end by mentioning a couple of matters, one of which has been mentioned already. It relates to the sharing of information and the issue of a sunset clause. I heard what the Secretary of State said, and I sincerely hope that in Committee, consideration will be given to a measure in the Bill. Once a region has undergone the switchover, it makes sense for the information that has been held to be dealt with appropriately at the time.
That relates to the end of the process. I also want to ask the Minister about the introduction of financial support. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk mentioned retrospective payment. I do not think that that will be possible, but people need to know when financial assistance will be available so that they can have the enhanced service that digital switchover will provide for them. They need to know that vulnerable households will have the choice that means so much to so many people, without it being a financial burden on them. I support the Bill, and I hope that it will be passed on to the Committee stage without us needing to have a Division this evening.
The Bill is a narrow part of the much wider digital switchover process. The Liberal Democrats welcome the principle of the Bill and the benefits that switchover will bring, such as extra choice of television channels and programmes, enhanced reception quality and a more efficient allocation of the spectrum. Digital is already popular with the citizens of the United Kingdom. Up to 75 per cent. of households have already converted at least one TV to digital—whereas in Australia, for example, which has a similar theoretical timetable for switchover, only 29 per cent. of households have voluntary switched so far.
It is agreed—by the panel that advises the Government, for example—that contacting people directly using the information provided for in the Bill is the best way to avoid there being a lengthy process involving people making claims and proving their eligibility. It will also help to minimise the problem, which some Members have referred to, of rogue traders trying to exploit the process to con vulnerable people during switchover.
However, although we support the principle behind the Bill, the whole process is late, vague and offers the Government a blank cheque to impose costs on licence fee payers. It also offers the Government carte blanche to change key parts of the process more or less at will after the Bill has been enacted. It imposes a reverse burden of proof, in direct contradiction of the standards of British criminal law. The technical specifications for the equipment to be used are as yet unknown, and organisations representing the elderly and the disabled fear that many people will be excluded from receiving help because of the provisions and the lesser-known detail behind them about who will be helped.
The Bill and the process of which it is a part are late. Switchover is one of the biggest Government projects of its kind. In an earlier Westminster Hall debate reference was made to the British Gas switchover when North sea gas came on-stream, which I just remember as I was a young child at the time, and this is probably the second biggest such experiment—yet the Government have shown little leadership and progress has so far been extremely slow.
Switchover was first discussed in 1999—almost eight years ago. Why has it taken until now for this essential scheme to be put in place? Why are so few details about it available when it needs to be put in place very quickly? Will there be time to implement the scheme properly before switchover starts in the borders in 2008? That question is especially relevant as the Bill is fairly poorly defined and so many details about how the process will work in practice have not yet been produced—or even discussed, possibly.
As an aside, let me give one small example of the frustration that is being felt by people around the country about the lack of information on how the process will work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has raised that point. He represents a large rural community where there is a village called Elsdon, which is in a valley. At present, with the analogue signals, its inhabitants cannot get signals from either one of two possible transmitters, so they have clubbed together and put an aerial up on a hillside and they run relays down to the houses so that they get their signal.
What will happen when digital switchover occurs? Presumably, the analogue aerial and the relays that they have put in will be redundant and there will not be a direct digital replacement. Will they be compensated for that? When inquiring of the Government what will happen, they have been able to get only one piece of information—it has been suggested, “Well, you can always get a Sky dish.” However, many people who live in rural areas live in national parks and they might be told by the park authorities that they cannot do that. The situation in Elsdon is just one small example, but similar situations affect a considerable number of people in villages across the country, and they do not know what will happen. The people of Elsdon have made provision for themselves under the analogue system, but they do not know what the outcome will be after switchover.
The Whitehaven scheme has been referred to. Because of the time scale that it will have to begin under, inevitably it will have to use existing technology, rather than the specified technology that will result from Government specification for the main part of the switchover. Presumably, it will also use a different support scheme from that which will be developed for the majority of the switchovers. So, although we have had two small pilots, there will be no large trial run, which Whitehaven could have been, because the procedure and equipment will differ from that applying to the main switchover. Surely the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could have started this process much earlier, given that the switchover plans have been discussed for some six, seven or eight years.
The details provided in the Bill and in other aspects of the switchover are vague. Although the Bill is purely about sharing information, rather than the switchover itself, it needs to specify more clearly exactly who is and is not going to receive help. In September 2005, the Department of Trade and Industry’s digital television website suggested some of the groups that the support scheme would help. A Government answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggested that up to 7 million UK households might qualify—25 per cent. of the total number of UK households. Why, therefore, a year later, are the details not included in this Bill?
For example, what exactly is defined as a severe disability, and which disabilities will be excluded? Disability bodies have written to me—I presume that they have written to all Members present—pointing out that 30 per cent. of blind and partially sighted people who could benefit from the scheme will not be identified by the Department for Work and Pensions database, to which the Bill refers. On the other hand, if provision were made for data sharing with local government, many of the 30 per cent. who would otherwise be missed could be picked up. Similarly, representations have been made to the effect that allowing certificates of visual impairment as a passport into the scheme would solve a lot of problems, because many who get that certificate do not then use it as a way to qualify for registration on the DWP database. We understand that the Disability Rights Commission has discussed this issue privately with the Department and that it has been reassured that it will be looked at favourably; however, the Bill says nothing about it. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to reassure us on it at the end of the debate.
Without knowing whom the Bill will help, we do not know exactly what data we will be agreeing to disclose when the Bill passes through Parliament, or exactly whom we are agreeing should receive such help. If such details are to be dealt with through a statutory instrument, a draft of it should be available to us before the Bill is considered in Committee in January. How can we be sure that the Bill will cover all those who should receive help? Will women’s refuges, residential care homes, households receiving money through the Child Support Agency and all disabled people be included? We understand that, in fact, only the severely disabled will be included, but the question then arises of how we define that category. Will all vulnerable elderly people under the age of 75 be included, as well as all elderly people over 75 who are not claiming benefits? Will socially isolated people be included, especially those with low literacy levels? We do not know the details of who will or will not be included.
Will there be different levels of help, and will all help be means-tested? If a person who qualifies has already switched their equipment, will they be able to claim back their outlay? We understand not, but it has been suggested that although they cannot claim back the outlay on switching one TV in their home, they might be entitled to have a second set switched and also to advice on using the new equipment. I am not sure, but I thought that the Secretary of State said earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) that that would not be the case. Again, some clarification at the end of the debate would be very welcome to a lot of people, because potentially this issue will affect many.
Although the Ofcom digital switchover tracking survey uses a sample of only just over 8,000 people and might not therefore be typical—moreover, conducting such a survey might well have raised those people’s awareness of this issue in the first place—it showed that 86 per cent. of people on disability living allowance or attendance allowance have already paid to convert the primary TV set in their home. By way of comparison, only 39 per cent. of those aged over 75 have done so, so a considerable number of the Bill’s target audience—especially among disabled people, who tend to be more housebound and reliant on the TV for aspects of their social life—have already paid for conversion. Many people are interested to know whether they are excluded from any further Government help, or whether they can get further help under the scheme.
I turn to an issue that has already been touched on. What are the Government doing to inform people who could benefit from the scheme that, if they wait until they switch, they will get help, whereas if they go ahead now they might not get any support.
The delay will cause that problem, and it is also doubtful whether enough people will have been trained to make the aerial alterations and deal with the other ramifications of switchover.
As we have heard from several hon. Members, the BBC has been told to pay the as yet unknown costs of switchover out of the licence fee, but many people believe that general taxation should be used to fund the scheme and its marketing, because it is basically an aspect of Government social policy. The Chancellor will also make considerable sums from selling off the freed-up analogue airwaves. That suggestion is supported by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report and the equivalent Committee in the other place. The licence fee is a regressive tax—like a poll tax or other flat tax—which will take the money to help the most needy disproportionately from the poorest. That is not a logical way to proceed.
The BBC licence fee settlement has not yet been announced. How can Parliament agree to put an undefined burden of costs on the BBC when we do not even know what its budget will be? The costs of the scheme may be enormous, and various figures have been suggested. However, if the 7 million households figure is correct—it is from a parliamentary answer—and the BBC has to pay for the lot, programming quality could suffer and plans for the move to Manchester and the expansion of various services could be under threat. We were assured by the Secretary of State that the move to Manchester will go ahead, so what other services will suffer, given the enormous cost that the BBC might have to meet out of whatever licence fee settlement it gets?
There is a possible disincentive, but the Ofcom tracking survey suggests that many people from the very groups that the Bill would assist are already going digital. That disincentive could also contribute to the logjam if too many people want to be changed over in too short a space of time.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the BBC appears to spend more and more time advertising its digital channels? People can choose to go digital, but it is galling for those who do not have it to see the increasing in-house advertising taking up programming space.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but given that 75 per cent. of households have already switched to digital it would be remiss of the BBC or any other provider not to advertise its digital services. In terms of encouraging the 25 per cent. who have not switched to do so, it would be remiss of anyone involved in broadcasting not to advertise what will, in just a few years’ time, be the only source of television broadcasting.
Ofcom has estimated an average cost of £100 per household, although that figure could rise to £300 if aerials have to be altered. Some 10 per cent. of aerials are likely to require modification. For the 7 million households that might be affected by the Bill, that gives a total cost of £700 million. Another hon. Member suggested £6 million and I have heard higher figures suggested. When will the Government produce some figures? The Secretary of State, in parliamentary answers, has said that the Government cannot reveal the estimated cost because that would bias the tendering process that will get under way shortly. In many tendering processes, the estimated costs are disclosed to enable the bidders to put together a package that meets or betters the expectations and estimates. In many instances, it is part of the bidding process in both the private and public sectors. As long as all bidders are given the same estimated costs, it would not breach competition rules and would not give one person an advantage over another. Given the estimated costs to Parliament so we can take an informed decision during the passage of the Bill, it will surely not prejudice any issues on the bidding process.
The Bill effectively gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to alter at will major and significant parts of the Bill once it has passed through this place. For example, clause 5(1) provides for the agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State to be changed, without the consent of Parliament, at the whim of the Secretary of State and without any further recourse to Parliament once the Bill is passed. It is intended to allow the scheme to be updated as it progresses, but effectively gives the Secretary of State total freedom to make further demands on the BBC without any parliamentary scrutiny.
Clause 2 provides power for the Secretary of State to prescribe, by order, the precise kinds of information that can be supplied under clause 1. Once again, we do not know what information the Secretary of State might, at any given stage, decide to prescribe, and the clause gives the Secretary of State total freedom to prescribe far more information than Parliament, if it were allowed to discuss the matter, might be willing to give at this stage. When the Bill has been through Committee and Third Reading it will be too late—we will no longer be able to contribute to the process. The Bill is far too permissive in the powers that the Secretary of State wishes to accord herself.
Discussions between the Secretary of State and the BBC have been happening late in the process, but they have not been made public. It looks as though Parliament is to debate the Bill, vote it through and take it through Committee without being privy to all the detail of what is happening, what the requirements are and what the costs will be. Parliament should have much more clarity on those issues rather than be asked to give the Government a free hand to do as they like.
With regard to illegal disclosure of information issues, the Bill asks the House to abandon the tried and tested standard of UK law—that people are innocent until proven guilty. That will be subject to detailed discussion in Committee in January, but if satisfactory answers are not forthcoming at that stage, the Government can be assured that that part of the Bill will face a very rough ride in the other place, where the Government have already suffered setbacks in recent years in their attempt to introduce the concept of “guilty until proven innocent” in other contexts.
Other issues arise. One of the defences under the Bill is that the person concerned can say, “I believed that I was acting lawfully,” but how can we establish what a person believed in retrospect? Do we just take the person’s word for it? How will proof of innocence be tested, or is it meaningless? If it is not an offence to release summary data that do not contain personal information for regions, how will the reverse burden of proof be applied if a summary allows people to be identified because of the very small number affected in certain areas? How contextual will the offence be and how can it be applied fairly when data sets are so variable in size across the country?
The Bill does not make specific provision to prosecute a sub-contractor—I understand that it was intended to and may be amended later—but only the people directly employed by the BBC or the Secretary of State. What, then, will prevent sub-contractors from using or selling the sensitive information that we will pass to them if they are not specifically named in the Bill in that way? Many sub-contractors throughout the country will receive lists of names and addresses of vulnerable people in their areas—sensitive information that we in Parliament must be sure cannot be abused by anyone further down the supply chain.
It is not an offence under the Bill deliberately or maliciously to inform a contractor or sub-contractor that the data may be used or disclosed freely, so there needs to be a way to prosecute employees of the BBC or the Secretary of State who misinform contractors about their responsibilities. If the detail is not clear before Committee stage, we need a draft of the statutory instrument that will clarify the prescribed data and all the offences so that we are clear, before we agree to the Bill’s passage, about how those offences would operate.
Many technical issues arise from the process. Late as it is, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has not given the industry a clear brief about the specifications for the equipment required for the big switchover that will affect up to 7 million households, yet the Department of Trade and Industry stated earlier that the industry would need quite a lead time in order to develop that equipment. That was a year ago, but up to now the industry has not been given the specifications to start working on it.
There is a danger of all that becoming a classic Government information technology procurement fiasco—as with the individual learning accounts or the Department for Work and Pensions and NHS projects—as costs spiral out of control because the brief for the equipment is too vague or undefined at the start or keeps changing throughout the process. We must avoid the problem of the Government constantly amending the contracts.
Given the present vague data available to work on and the increasingly short time scale within which to operate the scheme, there is a danger that the industry will not want to bid for the delivery. We need clear terms for the scheme and we need to know what the contractors will be expected to deliver for a fair tendering process. If DCMS wants to shift its risks on to the contractor, it must also hand over full control of the project—otherwise DCMS must retain responsibility, as well as control. Which of the two is it to be? It cannot be both. Will there be a choice of equipment at switchover and will the equipment be usable by the full range of elderly and disabled people who are eligible under the scheme? For example, although it is not strictly part of digital switchover, there is a very large Government procurement programme for the equipment, so what a wasted opportunity if the Government do not specify as part of their requirements that the equipment should have a return path capability built into it. If that happened, the people who secured access to digital in that way could also start to access all the e-government that local government, for example, has been obliged to provide. Those people could then access it from home via that method.
What training provision will be put in place to help people use the new equipment? I am thinking of my 80-year-old mother, who lives in Sheffield. I tried to explain it all to her last weekend. One quick explanation of how the equipment works once it is installed will simply not be enough. I understand that the two small pilot projects that have taken place found exactly that—that one explanation to people in that category is insufficient.
Finally, environmental issues also have to be considered. Let us start with just the single issue of set-top boxes, which cost a typical household £30 extra in electricity while they are on standby around the clock. If we multiply that by however many millions of houses use it, the figures start to reach hundreds of millions of units of energy consumption unnecessarily wasted unless the right specifications switch off after a set period or, if that is not possible because of the delayed recording capabilities, switch to the minimum power stand-down in a short period of time. The industry tells me that it is perfectly feasible, but will the Government enforce the specifications when they are eventually sorted out?
A third of recently tested digital TVs did not meet strict energy efficiency criteria. The Government should have taken the lead in encouraging the industry to produce cleaner and greener equipment. Carbon emissions will go up as a result of digital switchover. The production of waste electronics, as defined in the WEEE directive that was mentioned earlier, will inevitably increase as a result of the switchover from analogue to digital.
The Government knew for a long time that there was going to be a problem with recycling fridges, but they waited for years until the last minute, so we saw the nonsense of fridge mountains around the country. There was one in my Chesterfield constituency, awaiting the provision of the equipment necessary for recycling. More recently and on a slightly smaller scale, we had the same problem with the recycling of car parts, oil, brake linings and so forth. The DCMS and the DTI must learn from the farce of the fridge mountain and ensure that we do not have a WEEE mountain, to coin a phrase.
Finally, we support the Bill’s principle of switchover, but so much more detail is needed—and very quickly if the Committee is only two or three weeks away in January—if we are to consider the Bill in a worthwhile way. If the major project that is to be delivered by the Bill is to happen, we need to know the specifications and costs, but as yet, they are a complete mystery to us all.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) who, in his thoughtful contribution, illustrated perfectly why the Bill deals with such a complex issue, why great care is needed and why it is essential to protect vulnerable people as proposed.
I am glad that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) raised one or two important issues of detail and even acknowledged the complexity of the issues, but that followed a rather disappointing bit of knockabout, which is really not appropriate either to the issue as a whole or to the specific measure before us today.
I do not know why the Conservatives are so unambitious for the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman has looked at all the issues with any seriousness, he must know that natural migration is limited. Natural migration is the way in which many people have chosen to switch to digital, but there then comes a tipping point. As the tip takes place and there is a need to switch off analogue to allow for a boost to digital, we must protect people who perhaps do not want to spend money or to make the choice for themselves. That is why the Bill is so important.
Natural migration is perhaps easier in some parts of continental Europe. We do not have the options open to some less compact nations, because we live in a small island where the change in one nation or region affects its neighbours. Indeed, switchover will take place later in the south of England because of the implications outside the boundaries of the UK. Progress so far makes it urgent to take the step of developing digital television and switching off analogue. The programme that we are considering was quite rightly not put in place years ahead and on the basis of dubious predictions; it follows the choices that have been made by the public and the take-up of digital television.
Of course, people worry about change. However, I say to Conservative Members in particular that Members of Parliament can help constituents over that worry. I commend the public information already circulated to every household by Digital UK, and I concur with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) about the importance of the work that Digital UK is doing. That is very much focused on local and regional needs rather than general information for the whole UK. It is crucial that we understand that point if we are to get the best out of the programme and to avoid the dangers.
My hon. Friend also rightly spoke about the importance of people receiving good information, but that is not easy to achieve. People should be able to make choices and much work has gone into training people in the retail trade, which is where many people get the information that they need to inform their choices. A lot of work has been done to improve skills in the aerial industry at the time that it is needed in each region and not in the wrong region at the wrong time.
The use of video recorders is a point that has been raised with me. I accept that video recorders are not part of the television set, but they are part of the television experience and can be found in 95 per cent. of people’s homes. Some people are concerned about their ability to video channels other than the one that they are watching on digital TV. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to do some work on that issue, because videos are an important part of the overall television experience that many people enjoy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People need such information and the point that I was making—the two points come together—is that we need differential timing in the provision of information, so that we do not worry people unnecessarily when switchover is two years away, but provide the information in the region as the changeover becomes closer. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway focused on an issue that will take place soon for his constituents and a little later for some of us in other regions. However, it is essential for all of us—Opposition Members as well as Government Back Benchers—to work with Digital UK and the Government to make sure that information is teased out in Committee in the way that the hon. Member for East Devon outlined, and that it is then made available to people at the right time, when it can inform the decisions that they need to take.
Technical issues will continue to emerge as the programme works through, but so will people’s issues. In the pilot areas, a number of issues arose that had not been predicted, but some of us who have a background not so much in technical issues but in working with people were able to predict one or two of them, such as the difficulty of identifying the people who need help. I shall return to that point in a moment, because it goes right to the heart of the Bill.
We talk about the complexities, but we should not ignore the fact that they can cloud the fact that the switchover is generally good news. It will provide an improved and expanded service and opportunities for the creative industries and for the export of services. That will help us to make the most of the creativity that we have in this country. One of the constructive features that has been happening quietly over the past couple of years has been the effort, with increasing leadership from Digital UK, towards the development of a partnership involving people from across the television, the retail and manufacturing industries and—this is particularly relevant today—from social services, housing bodies and the voluntary and community sector where a range of leading organisations at a national level are linked with work at a local level and provide an enormous amount of input into ensuring that the problems are understood.
It is also worth underlining the fact that the change will free up a lot of potential, and services such as high-definition TV have been mentioned. I would like the maximum number of people across the country to be able to see in high definition “Torchwood”—an iconic new production that stars Cardiff Bay in my constituency—as we were able to do in the pre-launch preview across the road. It was quite staggering. Indeed, an American commentator said that evening, “New York, San Francisco—eat your heart out.” That is the way I think of Cardiff Bay as well. I could not leave out such a reference to my constituency.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to previous changes such as North sea gas and decimalisation. It took some time for people to understand and appreciate the North sea gas programme but, once started, things were simple right across the country. Decimalisation was a bit different, and I think that I was the country’s only decimalisation correspondent when it took place and I was a young journalist. My editor had been placed on the decimalisation board by my predecessor, the then Chancellor of Exchequer, and he took a greater interest in decimalisation than any other newspaper editor. That influenced the way that I spent my time. My point is that one would have thought that the changeover from 12 to 10 would be fairly simple and straightforward but, my God, did it not half complicate the lives of people. If we compare that relatively simple change with the complexities involved technically and in terms of people in the switch-off of analogue and the transfer to digital, it is not surprising to learn that the switchover is an extremely complicated process that has rightly given rise to many questions in the debate.
Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on from discussing Wales, will he acknowledge that one of the problems with the terrestrial analogue service is that people get either Channel 4 or S4C, the Welsh language service, and not both? Digital switchover might provide people in Wales with the opportunity to choose to receive both channels.
It is rightly said that nothing cannot be made to seem even more complicated than when it is described by a reasonable Welshman. Colleagues across the border may say that we introduced additional complications when we were given what we asked for in Welsh language broadcasting. However, the hon. Gentleman is right. His example makes the choices that people will have to make all the more complicated.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is very close to the one that I was about to make. Whereas change is never easy, the difference in this case is that the changes that we make in one region will have an impact on regions nearby. I would have loved Wales to come earlier in the process—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) illustrated earlier when he talked about the difficulties that he experiences in his valley—but the problem is that that would have an impact on Cheshire and the west midlands and, in south Wales, on the west of England. It is difficult to get the right order other than by allowing the technology almost to dictate.
During my period at the Department of Trade and Industry, I worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), who then had responsibilities at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We both felt that we needed to understand the obstacles and why the issue seemed so complicated. Indeed, I think that we got more involved in some of the detail than officials would have liked, because we ended up asking many of the sorts of questions that the hon. Member for Chesterfield asked in his contribution. As a result, I can certainly agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the principles are clear and that the Government have shown real leadership on the issue, but the details are immensely complex.
The discussions involved the television industry, and—if that was not complicated enough—service providers and manufacturers, because the timing of supplies needs to fit with the regional roll-out. That is particularly the case in relation to the needs of the most vulnerable, whom the Bill addresses. Retailers, who have to decide on stocking, ordering and advice, often take those decisions on a national rather than a regional basis, but it is at the regional level that people need to make choices to be ready for the date of switchover. Other issues include landlords. There are also the organisations concerned with the elderly, people with disabilities and so on. There are issues about having simplicity of design—above all for vulnerable people—at the same time as allowing people to make choices and trying to future-proof some of the equipment.
My conclusion is that the Bill is not an optional extra and nor is the sharing of data. It is essential. I know that this is breaking a little with the tradition of speeches so far, but the issue of sharing data is at the core of the Bill and it is important for us to understand what we are agreeing to. Data protection is largely misunderstood. Certainly many people talk about it in an ill-informed way. Data protection is about good practice and integrity in the use of information. It is about good management of information and responsible behaviour. It is about sharing information in ways that are appropriate and that bring benefits to individuals and the community.
I make that point because some people think that data protection is about secrecy and preventing information from being shared even when sharing information is for the benefit of the individual and the community. I came across that in opposition, when it became blindingly obvious that the police and local authorities up and down the country were failing to share information about the vandals, bad neighbours and thugs who ruin so many communities. That is why in 1997 I wanted to put a clause in the Crime and Disorder Bill, as it was then, to make it clear that the exchange of information is legal and appropriate for the purpose of preventing crime. The legal advice that we were given was that that was already the situation and that if the police or the local authority had information that could prevent crime and disorder, they ought to share it. However, practitioners seemed to have enormous doubts. They said that they were not sure and that they were advised, “If in doubt, don’t do it. Hang on to the information. Don’t share it.”
I remember speaking at an Association of Chief Police Officers conference and saying that it was the duty of holders of information on both sides to consider the duty to share information in order to prevent communities from being ruined and to reduce and prevent crime, and, at the same time, to consider how to do so properly and professionally in order to avoid inappropriate disclosure. That is at the heart of one or two of the issues that have been raised in the debate already. Not only was the president of ACPO on my left nodding vigorously, but so was the data commissioner on my right. However, in questions in that very session, when the legislation had only just gone through Parliament, both police and local authority representatives said, “But my data protection officer advises me that the best way to play safe is not to share information.” That can make one despair.
Responsibility to the public interest involves being proactive and showing leadership, not playing safe. It involves risk management, not the avoidance of risk. That is extremely relevant to today’s debate. It is the answer to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Chesterfield about the use of information. The Bill is quite clear that information authorised under it is only for a specific purpose and for specific duties, and that the provision of information ought to be encouraged for that purpose. That is why I would not like to see the Bill amended almost to discourage and frighten people from providing information. There will be consequences, which I want to spell out, if the authorities, in providing help to the vulnerable for digital switchover, are not able to identify all the individuals who need that help.
Digital switchover is an important development. In some ways, I would rather call it analogue switch-off, because digital TV exists already. The problem is that many people get a poor service and that will change only when the signal gets a big boost. The improvement in the digital service can happen only when the competing analogue signal is switched off, enabling the big boost in signal to take place for digital. That is what creates a bottleneck for those who have not rushed to choose to change over to digital and need to be helped so that they do not lose their service at that point of decision making. With the acceleration of take-up already proceeding apace—it is happening quicker than the Government and the industry predicted a few years ago—the Government are right to go ahead with this ambitious programme, but they are also right to try to defend the vulnerable. My concern is that there is an enormous challenge in identifying everyone who needs help in moving from their comfortable enjoyment of analogue TV services to a comfortable enjoyment of an improved digital service. If the information is not shared, there is a big danger of people slipping through the net.
My right hon. Friend points to the services necessary to protect the vulnerable. He will know that I am immensely interested in the development of technical services and technically trained individuals. Is he confident that individuals who are identified as vulnerable will receive services and support from people who are competent and qualified to provide them and who have been vetted to ensure that they have not committed any crimes in relation to the vulnerable people whom they are attempting to serve?
I am certainly convinced that those providing the services—people in local authorities and the BBC, and people involved in the retail industry—are committed to trying to make sure that that is the case and that there are safeguards in place. I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be happy to address the way in which that is developing. That is crucial. However, let us face it: an enormous number of individuals are going to have to have people going in to their homes to provide a service. That is one of the complexities that makes it important that the information is shared appropriately, so that people get help, rather than being left vulnerable or, as one or two colleagues have suggested, falling prey to sharks and people who come in with all sorts of alternatives. The scheme needs to be authoritative and to be seen to have those protections built in, and it needs to be, as it clearly is, an official scheme.
Returning to the concern about people falling through the net, some people will be known to social services. Some people’s limited competence, blindness or physical disability will be known to the doctor, the health visitor, or the district nurse. Some will be known to all those and some will also be known to local voluntary organisations and perhaps to the Church, neighbours and so on—but some will not. Let us take elderly persons still living alone—perhaps in their 90s and fiercely independent—who are coping in their own way, do not wish the intrusion of too much help and want to carry on in their own homes for as long as they can. Sometimes such people hide the onset of blindness and deafness for fear of being made to give up their home. Answers to visitors—unless they are experienced and expert at recognising such conditions—may discourage what could seem like interference. Such people may depend on the television in the corner as the only friend to provide ongoing interests daily and an eye on a wider world than just the four walls. People who have neither a close family around them nor anyone who is directly involved in helping them could thus easily fall through the net. Once a system is adapted and there is no problem, people are able to continue to enjoy the service. However, if they are not helped through the switchover, problems could be caused.
I agreed entirely with the points made earlier about the need to ensure that the information is used for the purpose envisaged and that purpose only. I also agree that information should not be retained when that would be inappropriate. However, identifying and helping such individuals is a continuing challenge to our society. We want them to be confident that we wish to help them to live independently and stay in their homes, rather than thinking that any evidence of weakness will be used as an excuse to move them from independent living earlier than is necessary.
We need an enormous effort that goes beyond those who are known to need help, who are those for whom the exchange of information is important. We need to reach the hard to reach—we need to know what we do not know in advance. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway will become aware of that challenge in his community in the coming period. The problem is not exchanging the information that we know—let us get that done—but knowing what we do not know. We need to keep the risk of people falling through the net to a minimum. The Bill rightly provides for requirements to prevent further disclosure. This is not about being cavalier with information, but about trying to ensure that people are protected.
We have heard concerns about the details of the scheme. When the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), makes his winding-up speech, I hope that he will be able to give us reassuring news about the preparedness of the targeted scheme for the borders in 2008. I also hope that the targeted help scheme for Whitehaven in 2007 will inform the Government’s decision making and help to ensure that the project is implemented satisfactorily in not only the borders, but each of the regions.
I am sure that the Government will want to reassure us about the situation for people aged under 75 who are approaching the borderline of being blind or partially sighted and are unable to fend for themselves. We will need a lot of positive effort and communication. We will need to go looking for people, and voluntary organisations and community groups will need to be fully engaged. In other contexts, the Government have acknowledged that voluntary organisations and the third sector are not an optional extra, but absolutely essential. Nothing illustrates that better than this project.
I am certain that the BBC, which is taking some of the strain—perhaps some doubt was expressed about that by Opposition Members—is the right organisation to play an important and leading role. We were right to go down the road of establishing Digital UK, the hard work and communications of which have justified some of the faith that was placed in creating a fit-for-purpose organisation. I hope that we will allow the BBC to seize the opportunity of a world that is not only digital, but converged, yet ensure that we do not lose people unintentionally as part of the process. With that in mind, I unreservedly welcome the Bill and the wider discussions about important practical details that it has clearly unleashed. My hon. Friend the Minister might not welcome them quite as much as me, but I am sure that he and other Ministers realise the need to be engaged with those details so that they can ensure that the process works well.
As has been said, the purpose of the Bill is relatively narrow, given that it focuses on one specific aspect of digital switchover. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) touched on some of the important aspects of the process under the Bill, which I will return to. However, the Bill also gives us a welcome opportunity to debate digital switchover.
Switchover is a huge undertaking. The Secretary of State compared it to North sea gas conversion, as she has done in the past, while others have made comparisons with decimalisation. The project is likely to affect almost every household in the land. Even though the digital penetration of households is more than 70 per cent., the vast majority of the households that the Government deem to be digital still have analogue devices lurking in upstairs rooms, kitchens, or children’s bedrooms. Those sets will have to be converted, unless they are to stop working when switchover occurs.
The fact that the project was huge was the reason the Culture, Media and Sport Committee chose to make it the subject of our first inquiry in this Parliament. Since then, we have had a useful debate with the Minister about several points raised in Westminster Hall in July. However, as far as I am aware, today’s debate is the first opportunity that we have had to discuss the matter in the Chamber. I am glad that we are putting that oversight right.
There are some who still question whether digital switchover is necessary at all. Those who do so are not necessarily Luddites who are resistant to new technology. Indeed, some of our most distinguished broadcasters and experts have raised doubts about the necessity of switchover. Only last month, in The Parliamentary Monitor, David Elstein, in his usual apocalyptic fashion, wrote:
“The process is immensely complex, and fraught with difficulty. The dangers of over-running the estimated timescale … or consumer revolt; or over-spending; or of partial or complete failure, are far too high for comfort … What we have here is the makings of a fiasco, beside which the Dome will be relegated to the status of a footnote in the petty cash column.”
When David Elstein originally gave evidence to the Committee, I could see the colour draining from the faces of several Members who were listing to him. I do not share his pessimism. I think that the project can be made to work and that there are good reasons for proceeding with it.
There are two principal justifications for the project. First, there is a need to extend coverage of freeview to nearly the entire country. There is a target that freeview should cover 98.5 per cent. of the country. Given that large parts of my constituency are among the 25 per cent. of the country that does not get freeview, I understand why people who cannot get it resent being bombarded with advertisements about the joys of what they can see on BBC3 and BBC4. Those people have to commit to a freesat or Sky subscription if they are to access those channels. There is clearly a benefit of extending freeview coverage to as much of the population as possible.
The second justification for the project, which is probably the stronger one, is the need to free up the spectrum. As the proportion of people who have opted to switch to digital continues to climb—it is more than 70 per cent. now—it becomes harder to justify using a prime chunk of the spectrum for the dwindling number of people who have not chosen to switch over. Given that that spectrum is a valuable resource for which there would be several alternative uses, there was always going to be a time, sooner or later, when we said to people, “Look, it is not in the country’s interest that you go on sitting on that spectrum when it could be used for many more beneficial purposes.” To that extent, I accept the Government’s case.
We must recognise, however, that there are considerable costs attached to the project. A range of estimates has been made, but I think that everyone agrees that the costs will be in the billions of pounds. There are also risks attached to the project. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) flagged up the fact that a specific disadvantage of switchover is that families will no longer be able to use video cassette recorders to record one programme while they are watching another following the move to digital. More advanced technology will be required to do such a thing. Other devices, such as personal video recorders, allow one to do so at present, to an extent.
The project will require people to take something of a leap of faith. Households that cannot get freeview at the moment will be told that when switch-off occurs—I share the preference of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth for using the description “switch-off”, rather than “switchover”—they will suddenly find that they will have access to it. It is very difficult for them to know for certain before switch-off takes place.
For that reason it was sensible of the Minister to bring forward to 2007 the switch-off in a specific location, Whitehaven, so that some of the difficulties will be flagged up and we will have time to address them. Whitehaven is served by one transmitter and comprises about 25,000 households. It is a brave choice by the Minister because it is in that part of the country that does not get freeview now, so these are households that are in precisely the category that I described. They will be told that they have to prepare for an event—that they must go out and get their freeview box and be ready for when the switch is turned. But they will not know whether the freeview box will work until switch-off occurs. There are some for whom freeview may not work. They will have been told that all they need to do is buy a freeview box, but actually they may have inferior aerials, and it may require more investment, and the replacement of an aerial and all the attached cabling, before they have access to digital terrestrial television.
When we examined the issue in the Select Committee we were told that there was to be a crafty device whereby broadcasters would transmit a signal that would tell people whether their aerial was good enough. A warning light would show to say, “You have a poor aerial. You need to go out and buy a new one.” That would at least forewarn them and enable them to take action in advance of switchover. Unfortunately, I am now told, it has not been possible to develop such a signal.
That means that if people are to take action ahead of switchover, they will have to go out and do something about it. They will have to get hold of an aerial signal strength meter, plug it in and test their aerial. They may have an inkling already, depending on the quality of the picture that they are now getting. If someone has a very fuzzy picture, the chances are that they will not be able to get freeview. It is possible, however, that people will sit there, having turned on their television in hope, believing all that they have been told—that freeview will suddenly appear on their screens the day after switchover—to find that they get nothing at all. That is a considerable risk for the Government because people will not be very pleased if that is the outcome.
I will be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government intend to try to encourage people to test their aerial if they have any doubt about it; what arrangements will be put in place for testing aerials; and, for instance, whether installers might carry out a test for free in the hope that if an aerial failed the test, they might be employed to fit a new one. Reference has already been made to the danger of cowboys, and we need to know whether such matters will be taken into account by the accreditation scheme being operated by the Confederation of Aerial Installers.
The Minister will be aware that I have in the past expressed concern about the consequences for those people who live in multiple dwelling units and have access to communal television aerial systems. That, too, has been mentioned in the debate. It is a major concern, not only for those who live in rented housing, but obviously for those in buildings that accommodate large numbers, such as hospitals, prisons and hostels. Elderly persons’ homes, in particular, need to be thought about well ahead of switchover.
It appears that in privately rented housing there will be no obligation on the landlord to install an updated communal aerial system. Nor has any consideration been given to the requirements for passing on costs. That has been mentioned already and it needs to be thought about. There are also big questions for those living in social housing. That has thrown up new queries.
My attention was drawn to proposals by the London borough of Camden, which has helpfully published on the net a report setting out how it intends to replace existing communal TV aerials with an integrated reception system. This is an all-singing, all-dancing system that will provide Camden’s housing tenants with choice. They will be able to enjoy freeview or have satellite, all within one system. To some extent, I applaud Camden for taking account of the need to provide their tenants with choice. The system is platform-neutral, which I also regard as important. Camden has also tried to take account of the future development of new services, to ensure that its tenants will be able to enjoy them.
All those things are to be welcomed. The problem, of course, is that, as Camden itself says, the cost of installing these integrated reception systems in all its properties runs to several million pounds. It proposes to pay for them by imposing on tenants a service charge of about £1 a week. Leaseholders in the borough will have to pay a £300 installation cost and then a maintenance charge. I understand, or at least Camden understands, that for those on low incomes, the service charge will be met by housing benefit, but that is something I would like confirmed.
Even those who are not on low incomes, or at least not eligible to receive housing benefit, are being asked to pay over £50 a year in extra costs. As was pointed out to me, some of them may not want to subscribe to Sky or take advantage of the most sophisticated systems; they may just want basic freeview. They will be required to pay more to subsidise the people who take out subscriptions. In some cases, the poorer tenants will be subsidising the richer ones. Understandably, that has caused some resentment and is seen to be unfair. I will take advantage of my position on the Opposition Benches and say that I do not have a solution to that problem, but it is just one example of the resentments that will be caused by this process.
We have learned a little more detail this afternoon about the assistance package. The Government are correct: clearly it is necessary to provide assistance to those people who will struggle to afford the new equipment required as a result of switchover. The Government have now finally given us an estimate of the likely cost of that package. The Secretary of State said that it would be £600 million. That is a considerable sum. It represents about a fifth of the proceeds of the licence fee in one year, although obviously it will be spread over several years.
In my view that sum should not be met from the licence fee. Although I commend the Government for wishing to give assistance to people on low incomes, I believe that it is, as has been said, a social policy decision—a welfare decision. One can argue that the BBC should meet the broadcasting costs of switchover—the conversion of transmitters and the provision of information through Digital UK—but providing assistance is clearly a welfare cost. Indeed, that has already been recognised by the Government, who pay a subsidy to the BBC for their decision to make free licences available to those aged over 75.
The fact that the Government have decided to put the cost on to the BBC has led to what I suspect the Minister will privately agree has been a rather unedifying spectacle—that of the BBC using digital switchover almost as a bargaining chip in the negotiations on the licence fee settlement. It gave rise to the director-general saying in a recent speech:
“We can’t rob existing core services to pay for switchover. In the event of a low settlement, the BBC Trust will face some difficult choices around delivering the broad mission”.
To some that read almost like blackmail. It sounded as though the BBC was saying, “Unless we get the sum we’ve asked for, we’re not going to give you switchover.”
The Secretary of State earlier was very robust in the other area where the BBC had made threatening noises—the proposed move to Manchester. I welcome the fact that she has essentially told it that it is going to move, like it or not. However, she rightly said that although the BBC will pay the switchover costs—as I say, I do not agree with that, but I accept that it is the Government’s decision—that funding will be fully transparent and will be ring-fenced. That ring-fencing will mean that the BBC will be given the necessary money, and so cannot say, “Switchover prevents us from doing other things, because we’ve not had our full settlement.” I hope that when people pay their licence fee, it will clearly be identified that a particular element of it is to be used to meet the switchover cost.
If the BBC can demonstrate that the assistance package will cost more than it was told it would, it is entitled to expect the ring-fenced sum to be increased to take account of that, but one rather hopes that we are speaking of hypotheticals, as £600 million seems a huge amount as it is. As I was saying, I hope that the system will be fully transparent, and the same point was made by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. The system needs to be clear, so that licence-fee payers can see precisely how much of their licence fee payment will go towards paying for digital switchover, and how much will go towards paying for the BBC.
The measures in the Bill are necessary because when the Government drew up the assistance package, they chose to make it a targeted scheme. Clearly, in a targeted scheme, the first thing that must be done is to identify the target. The United States of America decided to put aside $1.5 billion to give coupons to pay for set-top boxes to all households that will lose analogue signal as a result of switchover. Before the Minister rushes off to say that I am proposing additional expenditure, I should say that I am not. I do not necessarily suggest that we follow the example of the USA. However, the Government’s choice of a targeted scheme, and particularly a means-tested one, inevitably creates problems, the first of which relates to take-up. Let us first consider those who qualify for assistance because they are disabled. The Government propose to identify them by identifying those who receive disability living allowance, or attendance allowance, but as the Minister will know, part of the problem is that not all disabled people claim those benefits; there is still a problem of under-claiming. If people fail to claim their disability benefit, they will not be identified as requiring help under the assistance package.
The same problem will arise for those who are over 75 and on means-tested benefits. Such people will qualify for free, rather than assisted, conversion but, again, not all pensioners take advantage of all the means-tested benefits for which they are eligible. Those people, too, will be difficult to reach, as they will not be in receipt of benefits and so cannot be identified through the social security system.
When the Select Committee considered the targeted assistance package, we had concerns about not only the groups that the Government identified, but groups outside those categories that would be in genuine need. I come back to the concern expressed by the Ofcom consumer panel about those who are socially isolated. Such people may not have family or friends who are readily available to give them advice about what the whole process entails, and to show them how to switch the box on, plug it in and tune it, and meet all the other requirements. They will be quite frightened, as they will keep being told that the date is looming ever closer, and they will find it difficult to know where to go to receive help. That is why it is vital that we mobilise the whole voluntary sector to provide help. I know that Digital UK is already in talks with groups such as Help the Aged, Age Concern, and the WRVS. In many constituencies, including mine, the WRVS delivers meals on wheels, and it would be ideally placed to provide advice while it did so. It is essential that we mobilise a large number of people, and I am slightly concerned that not enough attention has yet been paid to that issue.
I echo the worries about the delay in providing details about the assistance package. That raises concerns about whether the details will be ready in time for the beginning of switchover. The concern was expressed that they might not be ready in time for the borders region, and obviously, there is even greater concern that the details about the assistance will not be in time for Whitehaven, where switch-off will take place in less than a year’s time. I hope that the Minister can provide reassurances that all those faced with switchover will be told about their eligibility for assistance in good time.
As I say, I commend the Government on deciding to proceed with switchover. I was a sceptic to begin with—I foresaw a huge number of problems, and I still foresee some, but we are now at a point when switchover clearly makes sense. It would be easy for the Government to say, “Let’s just do nothing; let’s leave it for other countries to go first,” but they decided to take a risk. I do not want to depress the Minister, but the speed at which technology is advancing means that before too long, digital terrestrial television, too, may be seen as a somewhat old-fashioned technology. We are experiencing the beginnings of the launch of internet protocol television, and before too long, people may increasingly choose to get their television down wires. That will give them much greater ability to set their own schedules and access video on demand.
Satellite already offers high definition television. Whether or not it is decided to make HDTV available on the digital terrestrial platform, it is unlikely that there will ever be sufficient spectrum available on DTT to match the kind of HDTV offerings that will be available on satellite; there could only be a small number of such channels on DTT. People who want access to more choice and better quality services may in time migrate from DTT to IPT, satellite, cable or some other offering, and before too long, we could well be returning to the Chamber to debate the switch-off of the digital terrestrial signal. However, that is still a little way off. I hope that everything will proceed smoothly, and I hope that the Select Committee’s recommendations have contributed towards achieving that aim. Switchover is in the national interest, but the Minister does not need me to tell him that there is a considerable political risk, if it goes wrong.
If the Minister will allow it, I shall make a few points about some speeches that have been made, because it is important that points made are answered or at least discussed. I shall say at the outset that I agree with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) about the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), whose remarks were very negative. He did not contribute to a debate, but asked a group of questions to which he obviously already had answers, although he hoped that he might hear something different from what he had in his brief. He did not make a positive contribution, and that is sad, because this important piece of legislation will affect every person in the nation, and should therefore be treated with a certain amount of respect. Questions may be asked, and we expect the Opposition to do that, but certainly not in the way that he did.
The hon. Gentleman reminded me of Private Frazer in “Dad’s Army”—his attitude was “We’re doomed,” and that was before we even got started. He also reminded me of the pushmi-pullyu in “Doctor Dolittle”, which did not know which way to go. It seemed to be saying: “I didn’t like what was said, I’ve got all these horrible questions, and I don’t agree with anything you’re going to tell me, but I’ll support the Bill, just in case it turns out to be a good thing—then, I’ll have done my bit by supporting it.”
Other speakers have mentioned a sunset clause. I would not object to that, although it is probably a waste of time because once we are fully digitalised, the Bill will disappear. However, can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that before we dispense with the Bill, or before the sunset clause takes effect if we introduce it, we will ensure that every single person has had the opportunity to receive digital television or a digital connection in some form, so that those who are the least well off and those who need help, as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) mentioned, are looked after? Once that is achieved, it might be right to dispense with the Bill.
As chair of the all-party communications group, I feel it is important that when we discuss communications, we do so from a broad perspective and have a genuine debate. Digitalisation will be a fantastic opportunity for many people. They will have access to programmes that they have never had before, and they will have quality that they have never been able to get from terrestrial TV. It will bring much happiness to many people for whom television is not just an entertainment box in the corner, but a necessity of life and one of the few things that bring them pleasure.
We heard earlier that 18 million people receive multi-channel TV in the UK. It comes from various sources—Sky, free satellite, freeview and cable. The take-up of digital over the past year has grown to just over half—52 per cent. of television equipment sold—but 25 per cent. of homes cannot receive digital through their current aerial, and many still cannot get Five. I was at the Scottish Labour party conference a few weeks ago, and I was somewhat shocked to find that I could not get Five in Oban, which I did not think was in the backwoods in the middle of beyond. If there is inadequate reception in parts of Scotland, the problem must be dealt with.
Switchover is scheduled to take place in 2012. If that date was missed by a year or two, it would not matter to me personally. It is more important that it is done properly. Hon. Members have spoken about the time scale. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, thought digital switchover should have happened years ago, although perhaps not in the way that we are doing it. Conservative Members thought we were being too hasty, so we have probably got it just about right.
I shall concentrate the main part of my contribution on those who need the most help. People who have disabilities, the elderly and people on low incomes enjoy television. I have spoken on many occasions about the elderly population in my constituency, Glasgow North-West, which used to be the old Garscadden constituency, for hon. Members who remember when my predecessor, Donald Dewar, was its Member of Parliament. If one drew a circle of about 2 miles radius round the Knightswood, Yoker and Scotstoun areas, it would mark the area with the densest concentration of elderly people anywhere in Europe—about 17,000 people over the age of 60, which I will reach in another six years. The elderly form a significant percentage of my constituents, and I would be a fool not to recognise their needs and try to help them. That is one target group which may suffer if things go wrong.
The hon. Gentleman speaks about people over 60. People do not have to be over 60 to require their nephews or nieces to come and get their video recorder to work because they cannot quite work out which buttons to press and in what sequence. One of the difficulties with the digibox is that one can end up with two remote controls, and if one presses the wrong button on one remote, it disables the whole process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the industry should press forward and that, before the switchover, households—especially those that he is describing—could be provided with one remote control which is more foolproof, so that people do not inadvertently turn off the television and end up frustrated rather than overjoyed by the super new picture that they ought to be able to see?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I know him well and I understand his point. The scenario that he describes applies to many people, including myself at times, when I pick up the remote control. In my previous life I was a telephone engineer. One of the phones that we brought out to help people who had arthritis—the kind of person whom the hon. Gentleman describes, who have difficulty pressing the buttons—was a phone called Big Button. It was a rather large phone with buttons about an inch square and, yes, it worked. If one brought out a remote control with all the available facilities and features on it, it would be a big button remote control about the size of the Chamber. It is a problem.
Having visited my local college, Anniesland college, which produces many IT programmes, I was surprised—maybe I should not have been—to learn that the largest attendance at IT courses consisted of people who were, shall we say, retired. Perhaps it is a little patronising to think that the elderly cannot handle a remote control. Nevertheless, I recognise that there are people—not just the elderly, but people with mental difficulties and others who may slip through the net—who need help, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not to overlook them.
As hon. Members have said, Digital UK and other organisations will do their bit to help, but Members of Parliament can also play an important part in the changeover. We know where those people live and we have contact with the various social work departments and with carer groups, who do not get paid for what they do but look after the kind of person whom we want to ensure is looked after.
We have heard the good news about BBC2 being switched off first to flag up the fact that switchover will take place in a week. A week’s notice is too short. People may not know about switchover until they phone up to complain that BBC2 has disappeared from their television. Elderly people go away on holiday and to visit relatives, and they do so at all times of the year, not just in the summer. A couple of months’ notice might be nearer the mark.
It is important that we go ahead. The service will be vastly superior to what people currently have. The information that they receive will also be better, and the huge number of programmes will entertain them. But there will still be problems. As I said, I was a telephone engineer. I worked for BT, which is not loved by most people, but one thing that BT had was great ideas. Its problem with marketing was getting the new products into the marketplace for people to buy. Everybody wanted the new products, such as mobiles and pagers, but they could not get them. The demand could not be met. Everybody wanted the new phones, they were a great idea, but there was a waiting list of years. 3G was a shining example. People thought that it was a great idea, but the question was whether to create the system or make the terminals that people needed to access it. I have a great fear that one of the main problems that we will face will be outwith our control, and that will be manufacturing. If we are lucky enough to design something to help the elderly in the way that the hon. Gentleman described and we devise a big button for the remote control, we may not be able to manufacture it and meet the demand, and that is something that we need to consider.
I appreciate that the companies have money to make, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the point that it is important that people are informed. However, that is not happening today. Shops have a vast amount of televisions and they are desperate to get rid of their old stock. They do not want to be lumbered with it when the new digital stuff comes in, so they offer people deals that seem unbelievable, but at the end of the day, they will have to buy a digital box to go with it and they are not told that. They are not told that when Scotland switches over in 2010 those televisions will be useless without another piece of equipment. Then they take out a five-year guarantee to maintain their new television. Why? So that they can look at snow in the corner? We must put pressure on the Comets, Currys and Dixons; all those shops that are desperate to get rid of old stock before the new stock comes in.
I do not have the problem about data sharing that some people have. I appreciate that sharing data could be used in the wrong way, but I am much more concerned about the people who really need the service that we are debating today not getting it. For years when we have debated law and order we have talked about rehabilitation and how to put matters right, but we have seldom talked about the victim. I see the elderly, the less well off, the mentally handicapped— those who need the service—as the victims here, or the possible victims, and it is up to us to ensure that that does not happen. Therefore, data sharing is important, and I commend the Government for realising that.
It is said that switchover will be better for people with hearing problems, but many elderly people use subtitles, and with digital there will be only one size, whereas before, the size could be increased. That is not fair. According to Sense, a UK deaf-blind charity, there are about 23,000 deaf-blind people in the UK, and if the problem is not addressed, they will lose out on switchover. Set against the 58.8 million people in the country, that might not seem like many people, but it means a lot to them, and we should do something to help them. It is for the companies to consider the service that they give to such people. It is not good enough if Ofcom, which sets the standards, does not act if manufacturers or broadcasters say that that is the way it is. We must tell Ofcom to set the standards. If we cannot do that, we must look again at the communications legislation and ensure that people have the service that they deserve. I want my hon. Friend the Minister to assure me that he will ensure that those 23,000 people are looked after.
I also want to draw attention to the electronic programme guides. Those who already have digital television and watch Sky or cable programmes will be familiar with those. One can scroll up and down the pages and see what is available. That is easy for someone with good vision, but not for those who are partially sighted. How do such people know the number of a television channel or what programme is available in order to share in this wonderful new digital experience? The really fortunate may have been given satellite television by their children and with the changeover they will have hundreds of channels but they will not be able to access them. The manufacturers must think about how to increase the size of such pages so that the partially sighted can use them.
I have been active in communication debates for quite a while, and I served on the Communications Bill Committee, although after 39 sittings I just about gave up the will to live, as I think I said on Third Reading. It was a long Bill, but it covered many aspects. Reference has been made to spectrum, and I was given some guarantees that it did not matter how spectrum grew or what happened to it with new technology, it would always be governed by the Communications Act 2003. But those of us who were brought up on communications knew that technology just runs away. Some said that digital would be out of date by the time it was introduced. We must seriously consider manufacturing and how Ofcom can, for example, help to promote the design of the pages to which I have just referred, and ensure that the necessary legislation is put in place. We are not asking that to get anyone into trouble; we want only to ensure that the guidelines are there. If we put them in place, the companies will have to follow them and Ofcom will not have a lot of work to do.
Ofcom requires broadcasters to transmit audio description on a percentage of their output, and can impose sanctions on those who fail to comply. However, it has no power to ensure that manufacturers put the facility to receive audio description into the set-top boxes. In fact, the only box that has the facility is the Netgem box, and that is about to be taken off the market. I referred earlier to the importance of equipment, and that is an example of equipment that works being got rid of without any thought of replacing it.
I want to be a little parochial and talk about Scotland. An independent report commissioned recently by the Scottish technology group, MGT, shows that four out of five Scots do not know when the analogue switch-off will take place in their region. The survey of more than 1,000 consumers revealed that 56 per cent. of Scots do not understand what is involved in the switchover process. Digital UK is making progress in informing the public, as has been said, and it is hoped that by 2012 it will work. In 2012 we will have the biggest sporting event that this nation has ever had. We have had the Olympics before and the World cup, but we have never had anything the size of the 2012 Olympics. How ironic it would be if the British people could not see the Olympics on their digital televisions. We have set ourselves a target, and 2012 is probably a good one, but we must meet it.
I have probably ranted enough, so I simply say that this is an important Bill. The Government are right to be acting now. Whether it is late or early does not matter, but I believe that this is the right time. A lot of people out there have not been getting the service from the television companies that they should have been getting. I believe that the Government will do a good job and I am sure that every hon. Member will ensure that they do.
I should start by saying that I love watching television. In fact, the one small factor that made me think twice about standing for Parliament was that that one cannot do as much of that because the hours that we work mean that we often miss a lot of prime-time television.
I grew up in an age when the big issue was whether television was black and white or colour, not whether we had all the wonderful technology that is available today. The Secretary of State said that there is a revolution in choice. I agree, but to some extent it has already taken place. Sky has dramatically changed viewing habits and the potential for TV in the United Kingdom. This is the tail end of the revolution, and the question is what we do next. It is important to free up spectrum space and to try to include less able sections of the community. I welcome the digital switchover help scheme.
I commend the Secretary of State for being brave enough to put a figure on the cost of such a scheme—
At last, as my hon. Friend says. It is remarkably difficult to cost such a scheme because nobody knows exactly what demands will be made on it. The market may help, in that Sky and other companies will provide all sorts of deals against the timetable to encourage people to do what they want to do anyway. We heard about the BBC trailing series and programmes on its existing digital channels. People are given an incentive to keep changing when they see something going on that they are not part of.
There is no doubt that substantial costs will be involved. For people who live in more sparsely populated areas where freeview is not an option, Sky may be the only option, and it is a fairly expensive one. Even if they are given help with capital costs, they are left with a substantial sum to find—and they have to pay the licence fee on top of that. For many people, the running costs of their TV will go up substantially. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) mentioned overall costs. Many people who will not get help will have to expend sums of money to maintain something that they have got used to and see as a necessity of life.
This is a brave decision and it is the right decision—and I hope that it is carried out in an efficient manner. However, I have one or two detailed questions. I presume that the charge against the licence fee will start off as a definable amount and will be raised over the five or six years of the ongoing scheme. Cash flow will clearly be an issue. Some of the smaller TV areas switch over first, and in 2012 we end up with those in my area—Meridian and Carlton London. It is a substantial part of the country, but a substantial number of people will need assistance. I suspect that the bulk of the money will be spent at the end of the period towards 2010, 2011 and 2012, rather than in the earlier period of 2008.
Will the scheme be rolled out nationally or working through specific regions? If somebody in Poole who is in the Meridian area and qualifies for help wants it now, when the scheme starts, will they be able to access it although we are four or five years away from the switchover, or will they have to wait for a defined period? It would be unfair if some of the more vulnerable people in Poole who wanted to change over sooner in the knowledge that the date is looming were less able to do so than people in the west country or border regions, where it will occur at an earlier stage. I fear that a lack of help now may lead to a bunching effect whereby people put off making a decision because they know that it will be available 12 or 18 months down the line. A national scheme would be better. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us about how it is rolled out.
I have noticed the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) sitting quietly nodding throughout the debate. No doubt he will face difficulties that most of us will face at some stage. It would be extremely helpful to have an MPs’ hotline, because I suspect that we will get involved in great detail in sorting out the problems of constituents who are aware that some crisis is going to befall them and that decisions have to be made. Today, we have had an inkling of the range of technical problems that can occur. I am sure that by 2012 we will all have become experts in the subject. A dedicated line or dedicated staff to deal with MPs’ complaints would be helpful in getting us through what may sometimes be an extremely fraught period. In defining those to whom help will be available under the scheme, the Bill mostly refers to households or extended households. We must ensure that it covers hostels and houses in multiple occupation, because many people rely on communally provided services.
The scheme is worthwhile and it is brave of the Government to go ahead with it. There has already been a major change, given that more than 73 per cent. of households have digital television at the moment, but there is still the challenge of ensuring that the remaining 25 per cent. are able to access it by the given dates. It is important to provide help to the less fortunate, many of whom may not be as au fait with the technology and the options before them. There will be the potential for fraud by those who wish to mislead. It is therefore important to have good information programmes so that people understand the choices instead of being told what they are. I am sure that the major reputable companies will play things straight, but some people are after a fast buck. As the scheme progresses, I hope that Ministers are alive to the fact that there will be opportunities for such people to prey on the most vulnerable and that they will crack down on that.
With those few words, I commend what the Government are doing in this respect.
It makes a refreshing change to hear Whitehaven mentioned so often in a debate in the House of Commons—not before time, in my view. It is equally refreshing to see the emergence of a consensus on these issues. That is welcome and significant.
This is obviously a tremendously important issue for me and my constituents, as much of my constituency—Whitehaven and the surrounding towns and villages—has been chosen to be the first area to go completely digital in October 2007, a good year ahead of the switchover for the rest of the border region. Although Whitehaven is in the vanguard of the digital switchover and is leading the nation, it is also inevitable that my constituency is being used as something of a test bed.
I should point out that I am chairman of the recently formed all-party group on digital switchover. For the record, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who takes an impassioned interest in this issue. He insisted that such a group should be formed and has pursued its formation with dogged perseverance. The fact that so many Members are keen to be involved in it illustrates his standing in all parts of the House.
With regard to my constituency and my constituents, it has to be said—I have said it before and will always say it—that we are an extremely forward thinking, innovative and resilient collective. We sank the country’s first deep undersea mine, we built the world’s first commercial scale nuclear power station, and our hospital was the first new hospital to be built following the creation of the NHS. To put a little colour on to the subject, we are also home to England’s tallest mountain and deepest lake. We are used to leading and being asked to lead, but that willingness must never be abused.
As the first area to undergo the digital switchover, there are many advantages that Whitehaven and the surrounding towns might secure. Increasing the exposure of one of the most beautiful natural and built environments this country has to offer is undoubtedly welcome and important. The town’s profile will be lifted and its reputation enhanced, the local tourism industry should be lifted and local companies involved in supplying and installing equipment for the switchover should materially and professionally benefit.
We know that switching to digital television nationally will free up frequencies that could be used for innovations such as high definition television, wireless internet or mobile television. We know that, by moving to the best available technology, we will ensure that the UK continues to be a world leader as broadcasting technologies converge with broadband and mobile communications. All of that is understood and it is my view that my constituency should similarly be the leader in some of those areas—I will be seeking dedicated help from Government in that regard in the not-too-distant future.
At the end of the switchover process, my constituents will be able to receive many more television channels than they do currently, putting an end, for many but not all of my constituents, to what I consider to be the scandal underpinning the current arrangements. In common with other areas that do not receive digital services, my constituents, through the payment of the television licence fee, are subsidising those digital services that are accessed by the rest of the country by and large. In my view, that is a long-standing disgrace and a genuine case of social injustice, which I am delighted to say will soon be at an end. The notion that members of the public should, by law, be required to pay a public subscription for services that they cannot use is ridiculous and indefensible. Such a tax, as it has been described, either redistributes the revenues gathered or incentivises a particular choice or behaviour, so I am gratified that this irritation will soon be remedied for my constituents.
I welcome, too, the fact that the comprehensive help scheme outlined in the Bill will assist people aged 75 and over, those with significant disabilities and those who are registered blind or registered partially blind. It is estimated that up to 7 million households across the UK will be eligible for help with the switchover. For the purposes of my constituency, according to figures produced by Digital UK, some 6.6 per cent. of people in and around Whitehaven were aged 75 at the time of the last census—approximately 5,000 people for the whole of my constituency, so there are as many as 4,000 people of that age in those parts of my constituency who will be affected by the switchover in October next year.
However, those are only rough estimates, and I believe that effectively to reach all my constituents and to gain detailed knowledge of which other people and other vulnerable groups qualify for targeted help, the Government are right to legislate to allow the operator of the help scheme to have access to benefits records to identify and target eligible people. In my view, that is essential for those people to receive assistance as quickly and effectively as possible. As I understand it, the Bill would allow the Department for Work and Pensions to share social security information and the Ministry of Defence to share war pension information with the BBC and the operator of the digital switchover help scheme, notwithstanding the security implications, which were raised earlier in the debate and which are very important. However, stringent data protection safeguards must be in place to prohibit organisations other than the BBC and the switchover scheme operator from using those data for any other purpose. Vulnerable groups in our society and in my constituency have enough to worry about without being given any cause for concern that some cowboy operation could obtain their personal details.
Other details need to be clarified in Committee. We are told that some eligible households will be charged a “modest, one-off fee” for switchover assistance. The Secretary of State mentioned £40 in the debate, but we need to nail that down. If it is going to be £40, let us have that accepted and understood now. If it is not £40, I think that the definition of modest in Whitehaven might be quite different from that in Westminster.
I also welcome the fact that the Bill attempts to meet the recommendations suggested by the switchover consumer expert panel, incorporating Age Concern, the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Help the Aged, among others. They asked for a clear duty to be placed on the Government to target and communicate with those people eligible for targeted assistance, and I believe that the Bill helps to do precisely that.
The Bill is clearly of more immediate interest to my constituency right now than to any other constituency, so I hope that all Members will vote for the Bill to expedite the introduction of the safeguards and benefits represented in it. In addition, it is hard, if not impossible, to expect my constituents to proceed in October next year without comprehensive targeted assistance being in place. That is far from being a threat—it is mentioned constructively—it is a reality. Accordingly, I should like to make some further suggestions, which I hope to be able to take up with the Department, Digital UK and others outside the Chamber and, as I mentioned, perhaps introduce into the Bill in Committee.
First—I shall be parochial here—as Whitehaven and the surrounding area will make the digital switch first, it is important that those people who would have qualified for help under the targeted help scheme in 2008, the original time of switchover or switch-off, do not lose out by virtue of that date being brought forward. In short, I should like the Minister to give serious consideration to considering as eligible for assistance those who are not technically eligible in October 2007, but who would have been eligible in October 2008. That seems only fair, and a small price to pay when one considers the value of this process to the UK as a whole.
Secondly, I should like the Minister to ensure that Digital UK maximises all the local technical expertise that resides in my constituency—an approach that I think other hon. Members should adopt in their constituencies. In my constituency, that expertise is personified by people like John Clark, David Coyles and Andy Renton, who thoroughly and implicitly understand which signal covers which area from which transmitter. Without acknowledging and using the expertise of these people, the chances of success are clearly reduced, so to that end I suggest the creation of a local technical implementation group in Whitehaven and the surrounding area.
Thirdly, I ask that serious consideration is given to lengthening the switchover period—the switchover window—to two or even three months. There are other issues for consideration, which have been broadly outlined throughout today’s debate. For the purposes of my constituency those precise issues are, with regard to the October 2007 switchover, the omission of Five, the need to tackle disreputable retailers and aerial installers that profiteer by selling goods that are not fit for purpose, and the confusion that surrounds many people who do not understand the difference between digital television and high definition television and all the other new formats and technologies that are developing all the time. All those issues are extremely important and cannot be solved by public relations, but only by public engagement.
A ministerial visit early in the new year to discuss those issues with interested parties would be extremely welcome. I hope that it can be achieved and some measurable outcomes reached. At this stage, the Bill is a welcome step in ensuring that digital switchover is a success and that those who most need help receive that help. More detail will emerge and more help may be needed, but at this stage, and provided that sufficient safeguards exist for my constituents, I welcome the Bill.
I join the overwhelming majority of Members involved in this debate in welcoming the Bill. I think that that includes Members on the Conservative Front Bench, but given the almost petulant tone of the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and the contrast with the very measured contributions by Conservative Back Benchers, I am not particularly sure.
May I say, for what it is worth, that the Government have responded very favourably to the many calls to ensure that vulnerable groups are not left behind in the journey towards digital switchover, and I congratulate them on bringing forward the package of assistance. My only problem—it was mentioned by others—concerns the timing. The Bill should have come before the House sooner. We have heard about digital switchover at the end of 2008 in the border region and in my constituency, and in the rest of Scotland in 2010, and I really hope that these measures are in place before that switchover occurs.
The Government’s stated position is that every household should be able to enjoy the benefits of digital television, and given that the vast majority of the people of the UK now use digital television, we are starting to achieve that. So it is right and proper that we turn our attention to vulnerable groups—those who find it more of a challenge to adapt to technological change, who have concerns and anxieties about the force of progress and who really need assistance.
We have heard that digital take-up is already proceeding. Even from this year the figures have shown an increased uptake of digital technology. We may assume from those figures that digital awareness is capable of being reached throughout the country; that public surveys are right that there is digital awareness, and that people are responding to the public information campaigns. I do not know whether they are responding particularly to Digit Al, the little cartoon figure that the Secretary of State mentioned. It is probably the irritating quality of that character that has attracted people, not its public service occupation.
It is right that we should attend to the groups who are least receptive to public campaigns and who are the last in line to adapt to technological changes. Whereas about three quarters of the general population now have digital television, only about 40 per cent. of over-75s currently have their televisions converted to ensure that they receive digital signals. I am not sure how many people will benefit from the scheme. We have heard estimates ranging between 4 million and 8 million. Whatever number eventually receive the assistance, however, it is clear that the vast majority will be the over-75s. I hope that the Government bear in mind the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) about other groups being involved, particularly the blind and those who have difficulty securing additional assistance. I hope that a range of responses from Government recognise the specific needs of certain vulnerable groups.
We have also heard a lot of concerns about data sharing. I am not too worried about that. Given the time scale, I do not believe that the Government have any other choice. We would all criticise the Government if they were not proactive in trying to locate such vulnerable groups. I do not see that as an encroachment of the Big Brother state or an infringement of civil liberties and human rights, for which the Government have become renowned, but as a real attempt to try to locate vulnerable groups. One of the positive consequences of that approach is that it will probably help the Government to identify some of the 250,000 people, particularly pensioners, who are eligible for but do not claim benefits. That can only be a good thing.
We have also had a thorough debate about the role of the BBC. Again, I am not too worried about who does the work; I am concerned about the quality of the work. If the BBC does a good job in identifying and locating those vulnerable groups, we will all be satisfied. The BBC also has experience, which I am sure it will bring to bear, of dealing with the over-75s in the provision of free licences. My only problem with the BBC relates to the funding issue. I take on board the many points made about the licence fee being a regressive form of taxation, which we must all endure, but why cannot the BBC administer the scheme and the Treasury make some contribution to the running of it? Why is that difficult? Why cannot we entrust the BBC, with its experience, to get on with that task, and get the Government to pay for it or at least make some contribution to ensuring that it happens?
I also have a concern about the quality of BBC programmes in the run-up to switchover. I would describe many of the BBC’s current digital services as woeful. I remember the BBC saying that supplying those future digital services was one of the reasons that it needed an inflation-busting licence fee increase. It had better get its act together, because the digital services that it supplies now are particularly inadequate.
I am also worried about whether the BBC will be able to identify all the vulnerable groups that might need assistance. The Government assistance is tied exclusively to the benefits system, but, as I have said, many people who are entitled to benefits do not receive them. Will the BBC be able to identify and locate some of the socially isolated groups? How will it target and approach them? Of all groups described in the remit of the Bill, the socially isolated groups concern me most. Ofcom has already stated the potentially important role of community organisations, charities, neighbours and others in helping to locate those individuals. Will the Minister describe how the BBC will work with such charitable and community organisations to identify such groups?
Unusually, I agree with nearly everything that the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that local councils also have a job to do in this regard? In relation to the BBC liaising with various social work groups, local councils have access to all those groups, and might therefore have an important role to play.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Councils and local authorities have a vital role to play. A teamwork approach is needed to try to ensure that all the socially isolated and vulnerable groups are identified. Once the Bill is passed, local authorities will be very interested in getting involved in that scheme.
I am concerned that using the pension credit as a gateway to assistance might involve some sort of means-testing. I know that the commitment is for all over-75s to receive assistance, but some of them might not receive full assistance; they might just receive a contribution. I agree with Help the Aged that it is absurd to means-test for a set-top box. I hope that that is considered again.
Outwith the groups included in the Bill, I am most concerned about families on low incomes, and particularly those who rely on television services perhaps much more than other sectors of the community. Although I accept the data suggesting that there is not much disparity in uptake of digital television between low and high-income groups, that conceals the difficulties and financial hardships faced by many low-income groups in making the journey towards digital. Given the licence fee and the demands of an almost permanent revolution in technology and availability, television is not a cheap option for families. Even the technical innovations of the past 10 years, from stereo to surround sound, from widescreen to flat screen to digital television, and from video recorders to DVDs and recordable DVDs, make it almost impossible for families on low incomes to keep up. The cost of digital switchover on top of that places an excessive burden on some low-income groups.
We have heard that the transfer to digital will cost anything from £50 to £500. For a family on low income, however, I would suggest that the cost will be closer to the higher figure. Such a family will not only have one set to transfer; they will have other sets in the house, and video recorders. That will be a significant cost for families on low incomes. I hope that the Government scheme will ensure that families on low incomes receive all the practical assistance available.
I have spent, as most Members have, quite a lot of time working with pensioners’ organisations trying to convince them that digital switchover is not a challenge and nothing to be anxious or unduly concerned about, and that they will receive a better service once they secure digital. That is difficult, however, when the largest community in my constituency—the people who live in the city of Perth—have no access to freeview, which they will not be able to secure until our analogue transmitter is turned off in 2010. That leads to great concern that some vulnerable groups who will not be able to use and acquire such new technologies before 2010 will have no opportunity to test that equipment prior to switchover.
The city of Perth is one of the largest communities in the UK that cannot secure freeview. As I said in an intervention on the Secretary of State, freeview availability is very much a postcode lottery. The transmitter that serves the city of Perth just happens to have the wrong sets of numbers and letters. It really scunners the majority of my constituents—about 40,000 who live in Perth—that they cannot receive freeview. People in Perth are therefore bemused at public information campaigns encouraging them to be aware of all the different platforms allowing them to access the digital future. I know that other mediums are available for those who cannot get freeview, but those are the expensive or difficult-to-obtain options. Freeview provides the cheapest and most convenient way to secure digital television technology, particularly for those families on low incomes.
Braving the Christmas shoppers this weekend, I visited one of the largest electrical retailers in Perth, and there they were in their titanium glory: freeview boxes, which are more or less completely and utterly useless to those who live in the city until digital switchover in 2010. There was nothing on those boxes to say that they were of no use or value to my constituents, and no further information was given about what they should do to try to secure digital television through other platforms. Those boxes were next to all the televisions that will be redundant in three years’ time in my constituency. I entirely take the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West and other Members that retail operatives need much more training about communicating and discussing these matters with many of our constituents.
The spatchcock availability of freeview is the Achilles heel in the preparation for digital switchover. The fact that about 30 per cent. of households cannot access freeview provides the biggest single challenge to ensuring that digital switchover is a success. Freeview is of vital importance in the preparation for digital switchover. As we approach the start of the turning off of the analogue system, two types of constituencies will emerge in the next few years: those constituencies that have availability of all platforms to secure digital switchover; and constituencies such as mine that will not have all those platforms, and that will face much more of a struggle and challenge in ensuring that digital switchover is a success. Solely out of constituency interest, may I ask the Minister whether all other platforms will be considered in ensuring that vulnerable groups secure digital technology? What more could be done to help those vulnerable groups? If there are to be subscription services, how will the cost be met?
Those quibbles aside, I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government. I for one will do all I can, as a constituency Member, to ensure that vulnerable groups take up the offer and that digital switchover is a success in my constituency.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who made a thoughtful and challenging speech.
Like the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who has left the Chamber—perhaps he has gone to watch “EastEnders” or “Coronation Street”—I love television. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who has just followed the hon. Member for Poole out of the Chamber—no doubt to watch his own favourite programme—said that digital switchover could make people happy, and I should like to think that it could. As well as entertaining people, the best television can widen their horizons and interest them in things that they never knew were interesting.
Like the hon. Member for Poole, I think that BSkyB, which now commands 40 per cent. of television revenues, has changed the face of British television with its sport programmes and programmes from America. It does a marvellous job. However, I hope that digital switchover will enable us to maintain the finest traditions of public service broadcasting in our country, and the original British programming in which some of the other channels specialise.
My brief speech will have two themes. The first is the great opportunity, the great British triumph—much beloved of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—that digital switchover potentially offers. It builds on the success of freeview—a good example of the public-private partnership, also much beloved of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We cannot scrimp and save, however. We must plan and prepare: we must use every available day. We cannot do what the English cricket team did, arriving in Australia just a few days before the main event without proper preparation, hoping that it would be all right on the night and that it would be possible to live on past glories. We cannot adopt that approach to digital switchover and survive.
My second theme has emerged in several other Members’ speeches. There is a relationship between the success of digital switchover and ensuring that there is a proper settlement—whatever that is—for the BBC licence fee. I mentioned freeview earlier. It is fair to say that freeview is a tribute to the work of Greg Dyke when he was director general of the BBC. He built it up from the ashes of ITV Digital, and it has had many surprising effects. It has now reached such a critical mass that it is becoming the dominant digital platform, rivalling Sky. Some pay television channels, such as Film Four and UKTV Gold, are now migrating to freeview and surviving by advertising.
Rather unexpectedly, digital television has given a great boost to digital radio—not just BBC channels, but commercial channels such as Oneword. That must be built on. Targeted help will not be enough in itself, however: three other things need to happen.
First and most basically, the equipment must work technically and the pictures must be available on time. The cost will be huge. No one has really challenged the BBC’s estimate that it will have to spend more than £4 billion to ensure that its digital switchover works. It has placed a contract worth no less than £1.7 billion just to transfer its own transmitters to digital capability, and that does not include other transmitters for which it will provide help.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who said that, in an ideal world, public service channels would provide freesat. BBC and ITV are discussing that. It cannot be guaranteed that Sky will make its satellite available free for ever; it could change its commercial policy. I hope the fact that BSkyB has now secured a stake in ITV will not mean that ITV will no longer pursue that option.
High-definition television has also been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West spoke of the importance to the Olympics in 2012. Perhaps the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) is right that at some stage in the future, terrestrial digital television will be an outdated technology—but that will not be the case for 10 or a dozen years, and it will not be the case during the Olympics. Freeview is a platform that provides access to high-definition television. Ofcom is currently saying that it will auction the spectrum to the highest bidder and not reserve any for freeview. Public intervention may be necessary, but I think that that approach should be looked at again.
Secondly, the programmes must obviously be on the digital channels if the switchover is to be a success. I disagreed with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire when he criticised the quality of BBC digital output. I suppose he is right to the extent that there will not be thousands of people buying digital boxes to watch, for instance, BBC Parliament. I imagine that I am now speaking to no more than 20,000 or 30,000 people, although that is more than I normally speak to in Selby. Having said that, I should add that 1 million or 2 million people watched the debates on Iraq and on top-up fees.
BBC children’s services are probably more valued, particularly by parents, who welcome the absence of advertisements on those high-quality channels. “Torchwood” on BBC 3, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), has been a great success. The other night it was up against “Lost”, which Sky One bought from Channel 4, which had bought it from the United States. It is a well-established programme, but “Torchwood”, a British-made programme, beat it hands down. That demonstrates the value of the digital channels. Other examples are “The Thick Of It” and “Little Britain” on BBC 3. Last week’s documentary on the abdication was typical of some of the quality on BBC 4. However, the BBC must have the resources it needs to continue to invest in programming on the digital channels if they are to be a success. Replacing low-cost programmes with programmes of the quality of “Planet Earth” for one hour a week would cost the BBC £150 million throughout the period of the next licence fee.
There was some debate about the size of buttons on remote-controls and so on. That may appear to be a side issue, but during the trials of digital television that were carried out in various areas, it was one of the main issues. Some people may not want a multi-functional digital box, but want one that makes clear how channels and volume can be changed easily. One-to-one visits will be an important part of the switchover.
Where does all that leave us when it comes to the big numbers involved in the BBC licence fee? How much will be enough to secure the success of this process? According to figures leaked by the Treasury, the BBC can expect a figure of, perhaps, RPI minus 1. In the event of a settlement requiring the BBC to meet the full costs of targeted help as well, in effect the figure would become RPI minus 2. That represents the cost of BBC 2 over the licence fee period. The BBC would be short of £400 million, which would be bound to have an effect on programming.
I am pleased, incidentally, that the final decision has been put off. It is better to reach the right decision after Christmas than to reach the wrong decision before it. I urge Ministers to reflect carefully on the importance of a balanced package that provides value for money. Perhaps the BBC could be allowed some leeway in terms of the licence fee for targeted help and digital switchover. There need not be a permanent increase; the increase could end after the switchover period, because the BBC would not need it in the long term. The BBC’s borrowing powers should also be looked at carefully. At present the BBC can borrow only £200 million a year, which is a pretty low figure given its turnover.
A number of things could be done to help, but the settlement must be right. That is in the interests of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as much as anyone. Let us remind ourselves of the switchover timetable as we approach the next general election. We have heard that Border will be switched over in 2008, Westcountry, Wales and Granada in 2009, and West, Grampian and Scottish in 2010.
As a Member with a small majority, I am a great believer in a five-year Parliament: I think we need every last day to implement our manifesto. Nevertheless, channels in quite a few sensitive areas will be switched over before the next election. We can imagine the furore if the BBC had to scrimp and save, if there was no investment in the digital infrastructure, if the picture did not come on at the right time, if it was a bit wavy, if the targeted-help scheme did not work, if there were more repeats because the BBC did not have the resources to put into new programming, or if there was no money to secure the sports rights for the red button. It would not be a popular move. The Government must carefully reflect over the Christmas period. They have got in place the targeted-help scheme and the Digital UK organisation; all they have to do now is will the means.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and I agree with much of what he said, particularly on the BBC and its licence fee problem. I must, however, disagree with his comment that 20,000 people are tonight watching our debate on the parliamentary channel; I cannot believe that, and I think that he probably meant to say about 200. The thought that 20,000 people might be watching us terrifies me. Therefore, I shall keep my remarks brief, especially as we have properly covered much of what ought to be debated.
I also compliment the hon. Gentleman on giving credit where credit is due—to the BBC. I am a great supporter of the BBC, and what it has done in terms of its digital channels has encouraged more people to opt for the freeview service. Without its efforts, the take-up would have been minimal in comparison with the current take-up. I disagree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart); if he were to do some research he would find that there are many good programmes on the BBC digital channels.
The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) criticised the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). I support my hon. Friend entirely. He is absolutely right to express concern about whether the Government will be able to deliver this major transition. It is a huge, multi-billion pound programme, and given the Government’s track record there are considerable doubts about whether they can conclude it sensibly and properly without huge cost overruns. My hon. Friend asked questions and he was attacked for doing so, but there are questions that should be asked. We are debating this topic tonight, but so much of relevance has not been disclosed to us. The Secretary of State said that this is enabling legislation but, although we do not expect every dot and comma in such legislation to be checked by Ministers, the Bill is shot full of holes. The number of questions asked by Members of many parties highlights how much work must be done on the whole switchover project before the Bill proceeds.
Mention has been made of the BBC television licence, which is germane to the Bill. Before the Bill was introduced, Members should have known about the BBC licence settlement because that is clearly part and parcel of the rather protracted and unhealthy negotiations that are currently going on between the Treasury, the Minister’s Department and the BBC. We should have known about that. Also, doubts remain about eligibility and those who will get assistance—either free or with some contribution. Many charities are very unhappy about the definition of some of the categories of people in that regard. Nobody has said anything about the cost to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence, which will have to deal with many requests to reveal information. Will they charge a fee for that, or will they absorb the costs? There is also the whole issue of the sale of the analogue channels. We have not been given the slightest idea about that, except that they will be put up for auction. What will happen? Will that be like the previous great sale which raised a colossal sum for the mobile telephone companies, or will the sums be small? All such matters are relevant information that should have been put before the House before Members moved on to this Bill. The introduction of the Bill should have been delayed until such time as we had all that information.
I want to raise a couple of points about my constituency. Some of my constituents receive Border Television programmes, but the majority are in the Tyne Tees region. Therefore, an interesting question will be posed for some of them. The first of them will potentially be switched over in 2008, whereas the last ones will be switched over in 2012. Situations could arise in which people who live only 1 mile apart will get switched over four years apart. Today, with the analogue system, some households who can receive both, do so. They have one aerial that can receive Border and Granada, and another that can receive Tyne Tees and the BBC north-east service. I believe that there is a similar situation in the west of Scotland; parts of west Scotland can receive Ulster Television so viewers have a choice of programmes. What will happen to them? Will they still have that choice after the digital switchover happens, or will they have to opt for one service or another? The answer to that is unclear; can the Minister provide clarification?
Many of my constituents also cannot receive freeview because they rely on a relay transmitter. That covers thousands of people living in the Tyne valley. All they can do is opt for satellite television. Some of them have even been told that they cannot receive satellite television because of their location. Therefore, some people will have a curious dilemma; they will lose their analogue, they cannot get DTT and nor can they get satellite. That will cause a problem.
In the north Pennines there are a number of people who are among the 1.5 per cent. of the country that cannot at present receive proper analogue signals. What will happen to them? I am not a great technical expert, but I am told that even if they can get some poor quality analogue pictures, as soon as the new signal comes on, their screens will go blank, so they will have no option other than to switch to a satellite service.
That brings me on to another point about eligibility for receiving help. The Secretary of State did not make the following matter clear. If a constituent over 75 is eligible for help—presumably that will be the case—but they cannot receive digital terrestrial television and have to opt for a satellite service, will the cost of the satellite service, which is currently provided by Sky, be entirely paid for by the scheme? If someone who belongs in what we might term the second class of those eligible for help—the Secretary of State talked about a £40 contribution towards the cost of a digital decoder box—were to need a satellite service as well, would they simply get £40, which is the cost of a digibox, and have to find the rest of the costs for satellite provision themselves? I would like the Minister to provide clarification on those points because they are of considerable importance to my constituents.
Let me return to the BBC. We have been given many figures about costs. The Secretary of State has settled on a sum of £600 million, but let me raise a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) might be interested in: what would happen if the costs exceeded £600 million? That could happen. Where will the extra money come from? If the cost increases to more than £1 billion, which the director-general at one stage suggested it might, will the BBC have to find the extra £400 million out of its own resources—in which case, as the hon. Member for Selby said, that is bound to have a devastating effect on BBC programme quality? Will the Minister give an assurance that if the costs go over the estimate—or rather the guestimate—of £600 million, the BBC, and consequently the licence payers, will not suffer?
Finally, I join other Members in asking for there to be another satellite free-to-air service run by the BBC and the public sector. Although I take my hat off to Sky for what it has done in providing the freesat service, which it did voluntarily, one of the drawbacks for people who have it is that they get bombarded with requests to upgrade to a proper subscription service. Those who do not want a subscription service would be much happier if the BBC were able to go ahead—it would like to do this—with its own satellite service.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak in the debate and to raise several issues that I have asked the Minister to address on previous occasions. I am aware that the Bill has a narrow remit, but I hope that he will be able to deal with some of my concerns.
After I was elected to Parliament in May 2005, one of my first written parliamentary questions was about digital television switchover. I asked what assistance would be given to pensioners and people on low incomes to help them make the switch. I was pleased with the answer that I received from the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell). He explained that the Government were committed to ensuring that the interests of the vulnerable would be protected during the switchover. I, along with others, believe that we must at all costs avoid having a digital underclass in this country, and in Wales in particular; after all, the purpose of the change is to provide a better service and I want people to be at the heart of that service.
I was delighted when Her Majesty announced the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill as part of her Gracious Speech. It will provide the information necessary for the BBC in helping to prepare for the task of assisting the elderly, the severely disabled and people on low incomes during the switchover.
Members may be aware that Wales will switch over to digital TV in 2009. From that point, the whole country will get an increased choice of programming via digital services, which is certainly welcome. People in Wales must have reliable digital broadcasts. Many measures are in place to ensure that the switchover is as smooth as possible, but given Wales’s geography, we must invest further to improve matters.
The proportion of households across the UK with digital television has reached more than 70 per cent. It is accepted that everyone in the UK has a right to own a television and to access as many channels as possible. This is a fundamental right, not a threat, and it will enhance the principle of freedom of speech and democracy. The Bill will certainly help a number of my constituents in Swansea, East. They, along with others, should not be left behind, and I am pleased that the Government will provide specific help for the very elderly and disabled. In Swansea, East more than 4,000 households could benefit from such additional help.
I have raised on previous occasions with Ministers the problems experienced with digital television reception in parts of my constituency. A constituent of mine, Mr. John Preece, wrote to me recently about digital television reliability in Morriston, where he lives. He is correct when he states that people should have a reliable service. It is all very well for the Department for Work and Pensions to provide the necessary information to the BBC; at the end of the day, it is the reliability of service that is important. My hon. Friend the Minister will understand that a number of elderly people have been happy for many years with the analogue service, which has a very good reliability record in my constituency. We need to give them the confidence that, when work is done on their behalf, the new service will be as effective.
Many Members have spoken about the concerns of the elderly, people who live in self-contained units and those in sheltered accommodation. I have spoken to constituents who have expressed worries about how the Bill will affect them. I understand that, as part of the help scheme, the BBC will collect information on whether elderly people live in residential care or in a nursing home. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will take particular note of the situation regarding those who live in sheltered accommodation, who may access such services through a single aerial and box. Their position needs further clarification. Furthermore, some residential nursing homes may already be digitally compatible and operate a feed from a main box to individual rooms. However, I am not clear what will happen in such circumstances, and from where any older person affected would access information. I hope that my hon. Friend will clarify that point.
Many elderly people are eligible and will receive information, but there should be clearer promotional material. I welcome the recent initiative by the BBC to promote digital television during programme breaks. However, will the Minister discuss with BBC Wales and S4C the opportunities for increased indigenous promotion in Wales? Perhaps he could also look into ITV Wales’s responsibility in this matter. That is much needed and would be welcome.
In Swansea, East, the take-up of satellite and cable television is substantial. Those without access to these services will need to take advantage of any schemes, and we will need to ensure clearer definitions of the difference between freeview, cable and satellite services. Further information is also needed for those who are replacing their televisions, as many models are analogue only. Not enough information is available on the differences between a digitally compatible television and a set-top box. By the way, I should like to remind my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) that the author of “Torchwood”, Russell T. Davies, is a Swansea lad and went to school in my constituency.
I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that filming has gone on in his constituency and in mine, which is very welcome.
Digital UK says that the majority of televisions will not become obsolete overnight. People on fixed incomes might become concerned about the confusing messages, and we need to clarify matters. I hope that BBC Wales will help people with their concerns and avoid making confusing statements during the switchover period, and when the scheme is up and running. I hope, too, that there will be clearer, transparent information about funding for the help scheme, whether it is done centrally—from London—or in Wales.
I welcome the Bill and its implications for people in Wales, and in Swansea, East in particular. Nobody should be left behind in this process, particularly those on fixed incomes or those who are disabled. It will provide them with a stepping stone to the future, to greater choice and to a much improved service.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James), who has continued the theme of the day. Many different Members in all parts of the House, representing all the various parts of the United Kingdom, have raised specific concerns about what is happening, but in general there is broad support for the Bill, and I wish to echo that approach.
This is one of the most important developments in television that we will witness for a generation or two. The efforts that have already been made—not least, as many have said, by the BBC—to promote digital, to expand its capabilities and to make it into the must-have acquisition for most households show that this is a worthwhile event that we should all embrace. The more that people have got to know about it, the more supportive they have become.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) said at the beginning of his contribution that he wanted to be a bit parochial, and if the House does not mind, I wish to be a lot parochial and to focus on what will happen in my constituency and in the Border television region more generally. A number of Members representing the region have already contributed to this debate. The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who chairs the all-party group dealing with digital switchover, made a very important point. He not only highlighted his own constituency’s prime place in this process, he said that although this was a great opportunity, he did not want his constituents to be taken for granted. That echoes the recurring theme that many people in the borders express—that we wish to be pioneers who get this right, not the guinea pigs from whom other people learn. I hope that the Government, the BBC and Digital UK fully understand that point, and I have to say that, thus far, there is a great deal of willingness to pay a fair bit of attention to what is going on in our region.
The process is very complex and technical, as today’s contributions have highlighted. There are some serious technical issues, but serious regulatory ones are also emerging. I have a number of concerns about the broader process of digital switchover, particularly the increasingly obvious fact that there will be some form of two-tier service after switchover, whereby not all the services available to those on freeview will be available to all the people. I was recently taken to task by an industry insider for describing it as a two-tier service; they said that they preferred to use the term, “freeview-lite”. I said, “Well, if you think that that is somehow a better description of what is going on, I am happy to use that term.” However, the principle is not altered that some people in Kelso, Jedburgh and Hawick, and in the parts of Galashiels in my constituency, will get a lesser service after switchover than people in other parts of Galashiels, or in Selkirk. It is very hard to make the case that that is somehow fair or appropriate.
A related matter is what we might call the digital “one and a half”. The commitment is that a proportion similar to the 98.5 per cent. of the population who currently receive an analogue signal will receive the digital signal from a terrestrial source in due course. Of course, we do not yet know whether the same 1.5 per cent. of the population will be excluded. In addition, there is a strong chance that in rural areas such as the ones that I represent, the 1.5 per cent. figure will in fact be larger. A larger proportion of our constituents will not be able to get digital terrestrial television. I hope that we will be able to identify who they are as soon as possible and work out, as other hon. Members have said, what alternatives can be offered to ensure that they are properly included in the digital switchover.
Much of the issue involves basic details, as other hon. Members have pointed out. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) raised the issue of how many remote controls will be available and others have spoken of the internal or external aerial question. I applaud the fact that the Government have tried to set up a proper, organised aerial installation scheme, but months after it was first mentioned, there are no registered members of the scheme in the Border television area that I represent. People are being exhorted by Digital UK to use one of the authorised installers, but they are unable to do so. Many small family businesses and others in the borders have the skills, reputation and the trust of local communities and could do the work technically, but they have been put off by the complexities and costs of the schemes introduced so far. I hope that before it is too late the Government will look again at the issue and consider other ways to roll out a programme that will allow recognised community experts to play a role in that important scheme.
I inadvertently tripped over another issue about 10 months ago when a constituent asked me whether someone who has a black and white television licence and acquired a freeview box would then need a colour television licence. When he asked that question I do not think that he could have understood just what he would unleash. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 20 January. It is a poor reflection on my internal office practices, but it was 5 May before we chased up that letter. A further follow-up was required on 30 August. In frustration, I tabled a parliamentary question on 9 October, immediately after the House returned from recess. I received a holding answer on 17 October and a response, of sorts, on 15 November, when the Minister said that regrettably it had not been possible to answer my question before the end of the Session. As a sporting gesture I retabled the question as soon as the new Session began and as of 14 December, I received the latest holding answer, which stated:
“I shall let the hon. Member have a reply as soon as possible.”
I am grateful for that pledge, but I am slightly worried that it is symbolic of wider issues that will emerge from the digital switchover. I hope that they will receive a swifter response.
The main focus of the debate is the narrower issue of the financial assistance scheme. Like others, I support the Bill, subject to the safeguards that many others have said that they wish to see, including the spokesman for my party, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes). Ministers are giving us a little more detail, and I welcome that, but it was disappointing that the Secretary of State—I am glad that she is in her place—said that there will be no retrospection for those who have already purchased their equipment. Digital UK is doing its job in local communities, encouraging people to sign up. Indeed, it would be a fiasco if it were not doing that. Therefore, I do not understand why people who are over 75 or have severe disabilities should be penalised if they have gone ahead of a scheme over which they have no control and put their equipment in place. For relatively modest cost, perhaps through an agreed set payment, that small group, which the Government have already assessed as being eligible, could be compensated retrospectively. Otherwise those people will lose out. At the very least, there will be no incentive for people in that group to switch over ahead of the formal process.
Another concern that has been raised with me is what the scheme will cover, especially in terms of the organisations that may win the bidding war for the contracts. I accept that the public purse has to be carefully controlled and it is right to have a competitive process, but the chances are that small local businesses, which have the skills and the place in the community, will be excluded because they do not have the scale or ability to compete for those contracts. We have heard no good reason for that and I hope that as the details emerge local small businesses will have a genuine opportunity to have an input into the system.
I echo the concerns about those who will be excluded, such as the 250,000 who have not applied for pension credit and whom Help the Aged have identified. That is a harsh decision and unnecessary in the circumstances.
The issues have regularly been discussed in communities all over the country and I have been glad of the support of Digital UK, community council representatives and many others for the Borders digital forum, which has met two or three times. We plan to have some other meetings in the new year so that we have an opportunity to discuss the plans as they are rolled out. I hope that those meetings will continue to have the support of Digital UK and I look forward to the Minister making good on the pledge he gave in the debate in Westminster Hall in July that he would come and speak to representatives in the borders in due course. I am sure that he is looking forward to his visit to south-east Scotland. He has made one offer of a date and I hope that we will be able to sort something out before too long.
This is a hugely important matter and the breadth of contributions has more than illustrated that. As I said at the beginning, it is important that we get this right and that all the details are sorted out so that we can enjoy all the benefits without any of the downsides.
It has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate. We have had 11 speeches from Back Benchers, covering a huge range of issues, and I hope to get to grips with them as I wind up. I seem to have an hour and 10 minutes in which to do so. May I say what a pleasure it is to have the Minister for Pensions Reform, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) on the Front Bench to hear my remarks? As we all prepare for a Christmas of repeats, it is nice to see him, a former Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in his place just as it would have been nice to see the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), a former Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, who has not, I am afraid, had the courtesy to hear my debut on the Front Bench. It would have been nice to have had them both here to debate this important issue, as they were both in their ministerial posts at the start of it.
A huge range of issues has been covered in the debate, which has been remarkable for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee and an extremely distinguished Member and contributor to the debate—he is with us in spirit—said that this is the first time that the House has had a chance properly to debate digital switchover. As far as I am aware, it is the first time that the Government have let us have even an inkling of what digital switchover is likely to cost. The Secretary of State produced the figure of £600 million and pleased as punch though she was to give it to us, that means, if my maths is correct, roughly £25 a TV licence.
I suspect that the Government thought that the debate would end there, but my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford, for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson)—it is no coincidence that they are all Conservative Members—chose to hold the Government to account on that figure. I have to say that they were also joined by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in holding the Government to account, but I suspect that he wanted the Government to spend even more money on digital switchover.
There is a serious problem with the Government’s figure. As far as I am aware, no document has been given to any Member of Parliament to explain how the Government came to the conclusion that it would cost £600 million. The Government have not, as my old maths teacher used to say, shown their workings and they have not come up with an evidence-based document to show how the figure was arrived at. We would be right to say that it was calculated on the back of an envelope.
There is an even wider point. The Secretary of State was extremely pleased to tell us that the £600 million was going to be ring-fenced. Again, however, as my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford, for Poole and for Hexham pointed out, if it is to be ring-fenced, will it be shown on the TV licence? Is every person who gets a television licence going to know that they are paying a digital tax for digital switchover? The Government would like to have us believe that it is cost free; they would like to hide it in the licence fee. If it is to be ring-fenced, there is no logical reason why it cannot be ring-fenced directly on the face of the TV licence.
That leads to a further problem. If the money is to be ring-fenced, how will it be accounted for if, by some miracle—I know it would be a miracle—the Government estimate were wrong? If the Government somehow underspent—that really would be a miracle—or the BBC underspent its £600 million, would the money be returned to the Treasury, or would there be a remake of Laurel and Hardy, starring the former DCMS Minister, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and the former DTI Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth? What would they do with such a sudden windfall? What—shock, horror—would they do if the BBC overspent on the carefully calculated sum of £600 million that the Government have suddenly pulled out of a hat this afternoon? What if they were to overspend? Where would the extra money come from? That is the most important factor.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) was quite right to hold the Government to account on that matter. We are quite right to ask the Government questions. We have been asking them for months when the TV licence fee will be concluded and we asked them again and again for an estimate of the cost of digital switchover. Only today, as I have explained, have we heard from them.
Apart from my hon. Friends rightly holding the Government to account, we have had a very good natured and important debate. Hon. Member after hon. Member volunteered their own services in the cause of digital switchover, which may indeed reduce the costs. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth offered to help, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), but nobody could trump my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, who offered to set up an MP hotline. Even now, I can imagine his Westminster report with his home telephone number going out all over Poole so that my hon. Friend is ready to tell people as soon as they ring him that he is willing to help. I wish only that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) had been in his place to see that we are all in this together, in action, in this Chamber.
The debate started with an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who on this occasion spoke in support of the vulnerable. About two weeks ago, he was attacking the vulnerable—namely, smokers—and coming out in favour of a ban. He admitted that he was a subscriber to Sky television, no doubt because of his passion for football. Because he represents a constituency that is covered by Border television, which is one of the first areas likely to see switchover, it is right that he should wish to comment on the issue in the debate.
The hon. Gentleman also rightly raised the extremely important issue of cowboy operators. As hon. Members have said, there is no doubt that cowboy operators are already out there trying to sell wholly inappropriate digital services to customers who may not benefit from them at all. No doubt, the carefully worked-out estimates provided by the Secretary of State, which will be placed imminently in the Library, will show just how much has been set aside to train the digital installers who will help the vulnerable. In addition and most important, we need to know what regulations the Government may consider introducing to try to restrict the activities of cowboy operators.
The cowboy operators who turn up at someone’s door offering a wholly inappropriate digital service are not the only ones to be worried about. The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West in his most excellent speech expressed his concern about the companies that sell digital television equipment and effectively offload redundant equipment or equipment that is soon to become redundant. He talked about the need for the trading standards office and trading standards officers to get involved, and I genuinely ask the Minister what discussions he has had with his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry about the work that they can do to discourage rogue traders—if one can put it that way—from flogging goods that are about to become useless.
There was a great deal of discussion about the digital divide in the fine speech from the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) and in the lengthy contribution of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out in his 25-minute speech that, when he was a Minister, he had asked a lot of detailed questions of his officials about digital television. I was tempted to think that that might be the cause of the delay in digital switchover.
The right hon. Gentleman also made the excellent point about the need to future-proof the digital switchover and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk echoed that point. It has been echoed time and again by many of the charities that take a close interest in the subject.
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow, but my point was not about asking questions of officials as though it was for them to answer; it was about engaging in asking the questions with people in the industry and voluntary organisations. They are extremely difficult questions to answer; they are not click-of-the-finger policy solutions.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for clarifying that and, if these questions were asked when he was a Minister a year ago, I will refrain from asking why we are still waiting for answers.
Be that as it may, I had moved on to talk about the need, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to future-proof the technology, a point echoed by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. This point is extremely important, because, as the Government have made clear in the estimates that will no doubt be winging their way to the Library so that we can examine them in detail, they are opting for the low-cost option. However, as people in the industry and many charities have pointed out time and again, the lowest cost option is de facto digital terrestrial television. It is the least interactive option available and risks locking many of the vulnerable groups that are the subject of the Bill into technology that will rapidly become obsolete.
It is extremely important that the Minister tells us when he is winding up what measures the Government will take to ensure that the Bill does not lock in low technology and that it does as much as it can to ensure that vulnerable people have access to a choice of technology. That is the key. Perhaps that is what the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth was talking about in his Rumsfeldian moment, when he said, “We know what we don’t know,” although I read today that the new US Defence Secretary has been appointed, so the right hon. Gentleman cannot apply for that job.
There was rightly a great deal of focus on the timetable. We heard some excellent speeches from hon. Members who are at the chalk face of digital switchover—none more so than the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed). He reintroduced us to his constituency, pointing out that it had the deepest lake and the highest mountain in Britain, reminding me of the Ike and Tina Turner song “River Deep, Mountain High”, which was no doubt written about Whitehaven, where the hon. Gentleman went to school. [Hon. Members: “Sing it!”] I remind the Secretary of State, who is taking her responsibility as the Minister of fun slightly too far, that this is a Dispatch Box and we are not in a karaoke club. The hon. Gentleman rightly used the opportunity to ask for a visit from the Minister, which is an opportunity that most of us would take if we could find a good enough excuse. He also asked for financial help for his constituency—another opportunity that most of us would take.
There has to be serious concern about whether the Government can meet their self-imposed timetable. The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, who gave an extremely relaxed speech—[Interruption.] He was not relaxed about my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, but he was relaxed about the timetable. He was also relaxed about something else, which I am going to come to at the end of my speech. We are due to see digital switchover in Whitehaven in October—just 10 months away—and, I have to tell the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, in Scotland by 2010, not 2012. Scotland is going to be the guinea pig for this great experiment, as perhaps it has been for other great experiments, which may not have worked as effectively as Ministers expect digital switchover to work.
How can the Minister seriously claim that we will be in digital switchover mode by the end of 2007 when we are taking part in the Second Reading debate for a Bill that is unlikely to receive Royal Assent until the summer, we have a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the cost of digital switchover of £600 million, and we still do not have a television licence fee agreed with the BBC and will not have one agreed until February? I was intrigued to hear from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, who talked about the people on the ground—Digital UK and charities—helping with the process of digital switchover. The role of charities was also brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) in his speech, which was in no way petulant or critical of the Government. They all rightly made the point that charities will play an incredibly important role, not least because they are likely to include the people who know the area and its residents best, and who know where help is most needed.
Very little has been revealed to us about the role of charities. We know that there is a consumer group that involves the charities, which the Government are talking to, but we do not know the role of the digital volunteers, who they are, whether they will be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, or whether they will have access to the data to which the Government will give the BBC access. Given that, as the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, charity workers are on the ground, we would love to know more about the role of the charities.
We heard many Members talk about one particularly complex and what might seem rather small issue: that of installing digital television in multiple dwellings. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James)—the lady in red—gave a comprehensive speech, indicating that she has been involved in the issue of digital television and help for the vulnerable since she entered Parliament last year. It was not just the hon. Lady who pointed out these difficulties, but the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford.
The issue features quite heavily in the excellent report by the Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. He made the interesting point that Camden council has a scheme up and running that will cost several million pounds and involve a levy on tenants. When we see the Government’s estimate in detail—no doubt it, along with its careful workings, are winging their way towards the Library—it will be interesting to find out how the Government have accounted for the problem. I discovered in the excellent Select Committee report the little-known fact that one in five of us live in a multiple dwelling or share an aerial with a next-door neighbour. The situation could be incredibly complicated. What have the Government decided to do about this? What discussions has the Minister had with his ministerial colleagues in other Departments about changing the building regulations so that new buildings may have the scope to include the infrastructure for digital?
Many hon. Members’ speeches touched only briefly on the matter at the heart of the Bill: data sharing. I did the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth a disservice because his Rumsfeld moment came when he was talking not about technology, but about data sharing. When he said that there was much that we did not know, he gave the impression that he would prefer to see a rolling Bill to which additional bits of data that might be useful could be attached.
Although no hon. Member mentioned this point, I am intrigued by the fact that the Bill makes it clear that the BBC may enter into a joint venture. Will the Minister enlighten us about who the BBC is talking about entering such a joint venture? What accountability will there be to the House over the body that goes into a joint venture with the BBC and thus, by definition, has access to the data?
No hon. Member picked up on the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon—it was also made by our shadow Defence spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)—about the extreme risk to people in Northern Ireland who have served in the armed forces, given that unlike the Television Licences (Disclosure of Information) Act 2000, the Bill will allow access to information about war pensions. Naturally, that is a matter of significant concern.
One measure that is almost bound to find its way into our debates in Committee is a sunset clause. It will delight the Minister to hear that I always talk about sunset clauses when I get nearer to my peroration—my sunset and finale. Such a measure was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and, in an equally relaxed fashion, by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West. It is odd that the Secretary of State can effectively admit that the Bill should probably have a sunset clause by saying, “Because, you know, it’s going to kind of collapse at the end when we’ve got digital switchover.” We need only a one-line provision saying that the Bill will cease to have effect when the Secretary of State decrees that digital switchover has been achieved, or perhaps to put it more accurately, that analogue switch-off has taken place.
And so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I reach the final curtain. We have had a wide-ranging debate on not only a mere six-clause Bill, but an issue that is likely to affect far more of our constituents than almost anything that we will debate in the House this year, next year or the year after, apart from the tax rises that are coming with the big clunking fist’s Budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham who kindly apologised to me for the fact that he had to leave to go to a dinner, was thus quite right to say that the Government have a whole range of questions to follow. They have to answer questions about their back-of-the-envelope costings for digital switchover, the complex procedure of putting together an army of people to carry out switchover and an army of volunteers from charities to help with switchover, the sensitivity of data sharing and whether there will be a rolling programme to destroy data as it is shared, the complexities of multiple dwellings, and many more issues. That is why we intend to detain the Government in Committee for at least two days next month.
I welcome the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) to his new portfolio. I am sure that he will add great skill not only to his hon. Friends, but to the Chamber as he knows a great deal about the arts. It will be entertaining to see him at the Dispatch Box rather than presenting Sky News at a quarter to midnight most evenings.
Unfortunately, after the excellent opening by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the debate took a downward turn when the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) got to his feet. He rightly addressed the House by asking, “What is going on?” Perhaps I can provide him with a little targeted help in this final speech in the debate. As the hon. Gentleman had a little hearing difficulty throughout my right hon. Friend’s remarks, I remind him of the most important point, which is that my right hon. Friend did indeed give him the figure that he thought he would not be given, which is how much the scheme will cost. The Secretary of State was perfectly clear, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman one more time—
The hon. Gentleman seems to have remembered the figure—it is £600 million. He thought that he would not be given that figure. To answer his secondary question, that estimate does indeed take full account of VAT. In a subsequent question he asked what would happen if the scheme cost less than £600 million. Of course, that would be factored in for the next licence fee settlement. We will ensure that the costs of the scheme will not impact on the BBC’s programme budgets.
One of the most serious issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, which obviously requires proper reflection, is the security implications of data release, particularly, as one or two other Members mentioned, in relation to the Army and Northern Ireland. There are strong protections in the Bill, including criminal sanctions for misuse, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) pointed out from his experience of data protection issues, we need to pay particular attention to those areas. I say to the hon. Member for East Devon that we will work with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence to make sure that sensitive information is not disclosed, and we will consider with the Veterans Agency the points made in order to protect service personnel, particularly in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether people would be able to opt out of data sharing. Claimants will be notified by the help scheme administrator that their details are being used for the purposes of the scheme. Of course, under the Data Protection Act 1998, an individual can request that processing of his details ceases.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a second switchover being necessary to achieve high definition, and I simply make the rather obvious but none the less important remark that equipment provided by the scheme will of course improve over time. Similarly, as we all know from DVD players, equipment becomes obsolete. The main point now is that the scheme will provide those who are eligible with equipment that takes account of their special needs.
My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) not only gave us their support, but made the important observation that the Bill will help some of the most vulnerable communities in our society. They raised the issue of multiple dwellings and communal aerials. We are working with Digital UK, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that, through partnership, we can address this serious issue. We have discussed it with the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is a problem and we need to work very hard on it, but I am confident that we can do it.
Already there is progress. We see that in the figures and we see it in the response of the Audit Commission, which, inspecting social housing providers in November, amended its guidance to highlight good practice in estate management, saying that it expects to see clear policies and advice regarding the siting and installation of satellite dishes and aerials. I hope that we will achieve that through a programme of voluntary self-regulation, and I believe that the public sector will set the standards that the private sector will follow. We will pay close attention to the matter and we are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to achieve those aims.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) asked whether we could implement the scheme by 2008, and the answer is yes. He also asked whether a draft of the order, setting out the sort of data that will be disclosed, would be available to the House, in relation to the memorandum of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. We intend to prepare a draft of that order and we will make it available during Committee.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not indulge him in giving him an answer to that. [Interruption.] However, if the hon. Member for Wantage can contain himself, I will address part of that issue later, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it perfectly clear when she set out that figure this afternoon that she would give more detailed information at the beginning of next year. [Interruption.] It is important for the hon. Member for Wantage, on the Conservative Front Bench, to contain himself, because what matters is getting it right. I know that he likes to play politics, but at the end of the day the issue is more important than that. We must get the settlement right for the BBC and for digital switchover, and we must get the targeted help right—that is what matters, and that is what the public think we should be doing, rather than playing public school games.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield asked about information held by local authorities on registered blind and partially sighted people, and that was a very useful contribution. The issue has been raised by the Royal National Institute of the Blind, and we are discussing whether we can extend it into the Bill with the Department of Health and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We shall certainly consider doing so if the issue is raised in Committee. Sadly, the sensible Conservative contribution came not from the Front Bench, but from the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). As always, his speech was helpful and elucidating. His Committee has been tirelessly helpful in achieving a constructive approach to ensuring that digital switchover not only happens, but happens on time. It also recognises problems in an appropriate way and, more often than not, it usefully puts forward proper solutions. His Front-Bench colleagues might take his advice.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised the issue of private landlords time and again, and I want to continue to work with him on the issue, which is serious, as I said earlier. He invited me to be robust on the matter of targeted help provision by the BBC, and I assure him that it is our intention to be robust about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) did a good job of bringing hon. Members back to the point of the Bill. I say that because we have had a wide-ranging discussion, but the fact is that we are considering a modest, albeit important, Bill that deals with information provision. Although you have been generous enough to allow the debate to range far and wide, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at times it has ranged exceedingly far and wide, given that the Bill does not set the licence fee for the BBC.
I give my hon. Friend a categorical yes to his question whether we will work to reach everyone who is entitled to targeted assistance. He is absolutely right to say that what matters is getting it right, and it is particularly important that we reach groups such as the elderly and the 23,000 people helped by Sense—a group that I used to work with 20 years ago. We want to help them and it is the intention of the Bill to do that. As my hon. Friend recognises, analogue sets can be converted for as little as £20 and the digital tick logo supported by Government and Digital UK will ensure that people can identify the equipment that will work after switchover. None the less, his points about trading standards officers and enforcement are important.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made a very useful contribution. He proposed the idea of an MPs hotline. I remember with sadness the famous cones hotline. Although we would not want it to go the same way, if it became apparent that we needed something like an MPs hotline in relation to digital switchover, we would consider it. I am happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman and with Digital UK.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) is right to say that Whitehaven is leading the nation. We thank him, his local authority and his constituents for their help and co-operation in a project that is not a pilot, because there is no going back; it is the first stage of the roll-out of digital switchover. My hon. Friend has done a great job for his constituents, which will help to ensure that it is a success, not least because of the work that he is doing with the voluntary groups in his constituency. I look forward to visiting the constituency early in the new year and to capitalising on the use of local technological expertise, as he suggested.
We are grateful for the work that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has been doing with pensioners. What we learned from the trial in Bolton is that, whatever state provision we make, it is the work that families and friends do for their elderly relatives that will make the difference. Most of us have elderly relatives and friends. The digital switchover will be challenging for many people. We know that that is the group who will require most help out there, and the example that the hon. Gentleman has set by working with pensioners is one that all of us in the House would do well to follow.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) that switchover is a great opportunity, but it is essential that we get the settlement issues right in relation to that and to the BBC. If that means waiting, hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench should listen to my hon. Friend’s advice and wait so that we get it right.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) offered his support, I think, through most of his speech, although there were times when he seemed to join the hon. Member for East Devon in posing more questions than were relevant to the Bill. None the less, it is an important topic for discussion and I will write to the hon. Member for Hexham on one or two matters that he raised. I will not answer the questions now as he is no longer in the Chamber. I am grateful for his letter of apology explaining why he is not here.
Finally, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) raised a number of points, the most important of which concerned rural areas. It is important to recognise the severe challenges posed by rural areas, not least the physical challenges of hills and transmissions. We are working hard with our partners to achieve digital switchover. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said explicitly throughout her opening speech this afternoon—for the Government, the principle is universal access. People who live in rural areas are as entitled as anybody else to access, and we will work to that end.
The Bill is a modest but important piece of legislation. It will involve disclosure of personal data for a sensible and worthwhile purpose—assisting potentially vulnerable groups throughout the switchover process. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.