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Digital Switchover

Volume 456: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

1. How the estimate for the cost of targeted help for digital switchover was arrived at; and what provision she has made for cost overruns. (111449)

Given the confusion caused by the spiralling costs of the scheme to help older and disabled people with the digital switchover, what specific reassurance can the Minister give to profoundly deaf people and severely disabled people on the higher rates of disability living allowance that any cost overrun will not threaten their access to television, which for them, far from being a luxury, is a vital part of their quality of life?

There is a temptation for me to tell the hon. Gentleman that this is a very good example of gratuitous scaremongering. He will know that there has been extensive consultation with a number of charities. We have done extensive work with the advisory groups to ensure that we deal fairly and that there is maximum take-up across the country. We are concerned to ensure that no particularly disadvantaged groups are left behind and that is why we work so closely with the charities involved.

Last Monday, I was at my local Age Concern in Sittingbourne at a discussion about digital switchover. I commend it to all hon. Members, and they should go to their local sheltered accommodation and Age Concerns to explain it. The question that was asked continually was, “The date for London and the south-east is 2012. When will we be able to say who can get free digital switchover sets?”.

We hope to make that announcement as soon as possible, but may I tell my hon. Friend how grateful we are to him for his work? I hope that other hon. Members will learn from his example to ensure truly that no people are left behind, rather than frightening people into thinking that they might be.

Does the Minister accept the independent estimate that roughly 5 per cent. of viewers are likely to lose reception because of the difficulties and costs of switchover? If not, what is his working assumption?

No, I do not accept that. The assessment that we are working on is that, at the end of digital switchover, 98.5 per cent. or better will have access to all the services.

Does my hon. Friend accept that we need to ensure that all older people and disabled people know exactly what is going on? Will he assure me that sufficient money will be set aside for a full-scale communication programme at a very local level?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. A large amount of the money for digital switchover and targeted help has been set aside precisely for a communications campaign to be led by Digital UK. It is essential that that campaign reaches everyone, particularly the most disadvantaged, who, he and other hon. Members know, are not necessarily the most economically disadvantaged but the oldest and most disabled.

The Minister will know that not long from now—in fact, this October, I believe—Whitehaven will have its analogue signal switched off, so digital switchover starts this year. Yet the legislation that will enable the Department for Work and Pensions to provide information about at whom such assistance should be targeted is only going through the House now. Can the Minister assure us that by October of this year, the people who need to be assisted with digital switchover will be assisted?

I put on the record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, who has done a great deal to ensure that digital switchover is a successful policy for the whole country. He rightly raises the issue of Whitehaven. We are, of course, concerned that no one in Whitehaven is left behind. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who has done much work to ensure that that is the case. The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are valid and I reassure him that we have assessed all those issues and that the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, which I am sure that he will support in the House this afternoon, will continue to ensure that no one is left behind.

Channel 4 has asked for a public subsidy of £100 million for digital switchover. In view of its performance over the past few weeks, will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that no public money will be given unless Channel 4 restores the proper sense of broadcasting that it has had in the past? Will he join me in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on winning “Big Brother” and the British people on their good sense?

I join my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that I can speak for all hon. Members, in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on an outstanding performance and on enduring, regardless of the circumstances in the “Big Brother” house, a pretty ghastly few weeks. She truly deserved to win, and I am sure that the whole House congratulates her on winning.

On my right hon. Friend’s question, I simply say that Ofcom is reviewing Channel 4’s finances, and we will pay careful and close attention to its recommendations.