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Digital Switchover

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2007

I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I think that this is the first occasion on which I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is, of course, of general application, but which is of particular concern to people in the northern isles and remote and peripheral communities throughout the country. In the course of today’s debate, I hope to raise a number of issues concerning digital switchover that are of particular concern to the northern isles, including the assistance available to vulnerable groups, the degree of coverage that we can expect on the islands after switchover, the type of service that local people will be able to access, and, briefly, digital radio.

From what has been revealed to date, we know that the digital switchover help scheme will provide one set-top box and assistance with installation and operation to individuals aged 75 or over, to those receiving disability living or attendance allowance, and to those registered blind or partially sighted. The help will be free for those who are eligible for pension credit, income support or jobseeker’s allowance. Others will have to pay a modest charge.

It is my understanding that the assistance scheme will not be retrospective, which means that people who have planned ahead and who would have been eligible for assistance will be penalised, which seems to provide an incentive for inaction until the period in which assistance becomes available. Surely the Government should be encouraging people to prepare for digital switchover as soon as possible.

As I shall explore in a moment, surely there is an issue about end-loading the way in which people convert to digital television. I am concerned that the period during which people will be able to apply for assistance might be too short. Help will be provided only for the eight months prior to the date of switchover and for one month afterwards, which seems to be a very tight time frame. In a written parliamentary answer to me, the Minister stated that 649,000 Scottish households would be entitled to assistance. If all those households applied for help, a small army would be needed to ensure that assistance is provided in the nine months in which it is available.

As things stand, I do not see such an army in place. Indeed, in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), the Government indicated that as of 30 September last year, just 42 people had completed the training necessary to become a registered digital installer. An additional 15 people were enrolled in training in the Border region, four in Grampian and none in the Scottish TV region. Such a small number of people simply will not cope, if they are required to help more than 500,000 Scottish households.

In a spirit of Celtic solidarity, I invite my hon. Friend to reflect on the position in Wales, where 440,000 households are entitled to the assistance scheme, but where, as of the same date, we had only 32 trainees on the registered digital installer scheme. We have the same concerns: we are working to a very tight time scale, and the end result will be, sadly, that many people will miss out on the assistance available to them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. His analysis of the situation is much the same as my own—it is acute. The only issue that I would take, of course, is that my constituents are not Celtic, but Nordic. The Celts start somewhere south of the Pentland firth. However, with that small proviso, I take issue with very little in that intervention.

I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate how many people across Scotland have completed the training and how many installers are currently being trained. Is he confident that enough people will be in place to help those who apply for assistance with digital switchover?

As well as assistance for vulnerable groups it is important that all local people understand the digital switchover process. Figures provided to me by Digital UK suggest that in the STV north region, just 56 per cent. of people are aware of what they need to do to switch compared with a national figure of 64 per cent. How does the Minister intend to ensure that those figures rise dramatically in the months ahead? Has he considered the particular challenges of raising awareness of digital switchover in remote and rural communities?

On the question of coverage, in 1999 the Government set a target of 99.5 per cent. of homes being able to receive digital terrestrial reception. In June 2005, however, Ofcom announced that 98.5 per cent. of households should be covered by the digital network. For most people, those figures would be comforting, but if people live in a community such as Orkney or Shetland, their hearts sink when they hear them, because they know that they will be in the 0.5 or 1.5 per cent. of the country that does not receive the full service. In the previous debate that I initiated on the issue, we questioned the Minister on the applicability of regional targets. I would be interested if, when responding today, he could say whether he still insists on national targets or whether he will seek to achieve the 98.5 per cent. target within each region.

The figure of 98.5 per cent. is equivalent to the proportion of people who currently receive analogue reception. However, once switchover occurs, not all those who currently receive analogue reception will be able to receive digital terrestrial television. Viewers in rural areas who receive weak television signals are the most likely to be affected, because weak analogue television signals can often be picked up by aerials and converted to reduced-quality television pictures, but digital signals are either received or they are not. The flipside is that many people who currently need to use a satellite to access television stations might find that they can access digital using a normal aerial once switchover happens.

I was interested to read in the briefing material provided to me for the debate by Digital UK that 98.5 per cent. of people will be able to get a digital signal, but that a further 1.2 per cent. of households will get what it terms a “mostly reliable service”. That was news to me—I had not come across the term before—and it causes me concern. I wonder on whose judgment the service will be deemed “mostly reliable”. I would be grateful if the Minister in his reply could expand on exactly how reliable a service has to be to be “mostly reliable”.

The problem for many people in Orkney and Shetland is that they simply do not know what reception they will be able to receive after switchover. That means that people do not know whether it makes sense to purchase set-top boxes. I understand that Ofcom has looked into the matter, but its research has not been made public. Will the Minister ensure that as much information as possible is made available, so that people can make informed decisions?

Of course, it is important to ensure that the people who will not be able to receive a digital terrestrial signal have affordable alternatives. I welcome the fact that the BBC Trust has brought forward Freesat, but can the Minister tell us what assistance will be available to households that have to purchase Freesat in order to receive a television signal once switchover happens? Will the digital switchover help scheme, for example, include the cost of installing satellite equipment where there is a poor digital terrestrial signal? Can he also guarantee that the households that have to rely on satellites to access television stations will receive the same level of service as other viewers?

It is essential that people who live in rural and remote areas can access the same level of service as people who live in other parts of the country. I am particularly concerned, therefore, about the situation with regard to relay stations. In rural areas, many people rely on relay stations to receive a television signal. However, only the public service broadcasters—the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Five—are obliged to broadcast on relay stations. Surely other commercial operators should also broadcast on relay stations. If that is not sorted out, it will mean that, after digital switchover, many people who live in rural areas will receive a worse service than those who live in towns and cities.

I am eager to allow sufficient time for the Minister to give as full a reply as possible and to take any interventions that he can from hon. Members who are present, but before I conclude, I would like to ask a few questions about the future of digital radio. The Minister will be aware that more than 85 per cent. of the population can currently use DAB—digital audio broadcasting—radios and the BBC is committed to increasing that to 90 per cent. However, although the BBC has what it terms “outline plans” for transmitting stations to serve Orkney and Shetland, it has not shared with people in the isles what those plans involve. In March this year, I was informed that, as the BBC put it:

“many issues need to be considered including funding”

before the plans are realised. It is the lack of openness and perhaps the reliance on the funding issue that cause us some concern.

I receive a steady stream of complaints from constituents who cannot use DAB radios, and it is frustrating to have to tell them that we have no idea when that situation will change. It is made worse by the fact that many retailers now stock only digital radios. One notices that the larger, nationwide retail operations in Orkney—we are fortunate that we do not have too many, yet—often introduce DAB radios, which they offer tremendous deals on and which I am sure must generate more work for their customer complaints departments and more returns than anything else.

One e-mail on the issue was sent to me by a constituent on Christmas day. I never particularly like the business of hon. Members naming constituents in parliamentary debates, so I will not name the constituent, but he is known to a number of people in this place—he was, until not long ago, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, and he ought to know better than to send his Member of Parliament an e-mail on Christmas day. He had received a digital radio from his wife for Christmas. It would be a belated Christmas present for him if the Minister could commit to ensuring that everyone can use digital radios in the future. Until that is the case, many of my constituents will continue to complain, with some justification, that it is unfair that they have to pay the licence fee in full, but can receive only in part the services provided by the BBC.

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate on digital switchover.

It might be helpful to remind hon. Members that according to Ofcom, by the turn of the year three in four UK households received digital television services on their primary television. The Digital UK and Ofcom quarterly tracker shows that awareness of switchover nationally is 82 per cent. and it is even higher in the areas that will switch at the beginning. The figure for Border, the first region to switch, is 96 per cent. The figure for the Grampian/Scottish TV region, which switches in 2010, is 82 per cent.

Far be it from me to come between the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) in their Nordic-Celtic alliance, but I will offer a word of advice, particularly to the Celtic dimension of that alliance. I would be presumptuous to assume that what we have seen is in line with Liberal Democrat campaigning, but it is important to have up-to-date figures. The hon. Member for Ceredigion issued a press release today, a move that I absolutely understand, entitled “Digital Help Scheme must reach all in need”. The answer is that it is doing so.

It is terribly important that the hon. Gentleman checks his facts. In his press release, he says:

“Despite the awareness campaign, Ofcom revealed that only 54 per cent. of people in Wales knew when digital switchover will happen, and what to do when it does.”

I refer him to the published figures from Ofcom for the first quarter of this year, which show awareness in Wales at 86 per cent. He may be out of touch with a significant proportion of the public, but I want to reassure him on that front that awareness in Wales is now tracked at 86 per cent. and in the STV/Grampian region it runs at 82 per cent. That provides an opportunity for him to revise his press release. He will probably want to leave this Adjournment debate to go and do so at the earliest opportunity.

I thank the Minister for those updated figures, and I am heartened by them. I stand corrected as to their precise nature and give full praise to Digital UK for getting the message through. I think that the Minister will acknowledge, however, that there is some way to go. That is the point.

There is some way to go, but there is a significant difference between suggesting that the majority of people in Wales do not know that digital switchover is happening, and recognising that there is only 14 per cent. of the population in Wales left to go.

We do not for a moment underestimate the task. However, I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman that it is important not to scare people. We should be reassuring people, but the tone of his press release was more scaremongering than reassuring. We should pay tribute to the work of the agencies that we have put in place to carry out this huge project, which is bigger than decimalisation was. There have been huge successes, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that our figures are up to date when we communicate them to our constituents.

I repeat that I stand corrected on the precise figures, and I am sure that the Minister is going to address the point that I made in my intervention. It is not scaremongering to suggest that the time frame in which people can take advantage of the scheme is too short, and that there are serious concerns about the training of professionals to deliver the scheme that the Government have put in place. Those are legitimate concerns to raise, and they have been expressed by many people in Wales, Scotland and elsewhere.

To avoid the semantic debate over scaremongering and being reassuring, let me remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not starting from scratch. As I said in my opening remarks, three in four UK households, including in many parts of Wales and Scotland, already receive digital television services on their primary television set. He must recognise that a great deal has already been done. We do not underestimate the task that lies ahead, but I am confident that we are on track.

It is important that the hon. Gentleman should raise awareness among his constituents, but it should be based on current, rather than grossly inaccurate, information. The figures that he gave in today’s press release were not marginally inaccurate; they were wildly different from Digital UK’s official figures. It is important that he should use accurate figures.

I move to the substance of the debate and the points made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. He asked why the help scheme is not retrospective. Let me clarify this issue again for the benefit of the House. The scheme is designed to help those who are most likely to need help in making the switch to digital. We recognise that a number of people who are eligible for the scheme will nevertheless choose, and be able, to go digital without assistance. By definition, the many people who have already gone digital do not need that help.

Evidence shows that people who can go digital are already doing so. Some 56 per cent. of people aged 75 and over have already converted their primary television set, and 78 per cent. of people under 75 who receive a disability living allowance or an attendance allowance have made that conversion. We certainly encourage people to make the switch earlier rather than later so that they can enjoy all the benefits of digital television. There is no evidence that the scheme is acting as a break on take-up or introducing a level of retrospection that will make it more expensive and complicated to run for no obvious benefit.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the window for applications to the help scheme is too short. It is not. Rather than wait for applicants to ask the scheme for help, it will contact those who are eligible. The first contact will be made eight months before switchover in the region. If the applicant does not respond, he or she will receive a reminder later in the process—on top of TV and other advertising. That should be a more than adequate period for a person to participate in the scheme. I remind hon. Members that awareness of switchover amongst people aged 75 and over is running very high, at about 81 per cent. There is more work to do, but we are starting from a good place.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether if everyone who is eligible in Scotland were to apply, there would be a shortage of people to provide the help. There might be some misunderstanding on this point. First, not all of those who are eligible will apply, because many of them already have digital television. None the less, we will assume that there will be quite high levels of take-up—two-thirds of those who are eligible in the UK.

Secondly, not all of those who are eligible will need to be helped by a registered digital installer. RDIs are trained aerial installers, but hon. Members must realise that only 10 per cent. of those who are eligible will need a fitter to come and do the job. Again, it is important to get the figures into context, because there is a genuine problem of alarming people with concerns that there are not enough registered fitters around. In fact, even if everyone applied, only 10 per cent. of those who would need help would need a registered installer.

We are making progress on having qualified RDIs in Scotland. A scheme to provide distance learning and mobile assessment facilities is in preparation, which will help areas with low population densities. There are already 39 installers registered to undertake RDI training in the Scottish/Grampian and Border Television regions. Although RDIs will be trained and come on stream in one part of the country, they will go to other parts of the country to work, because people will want to use their expertise. The Scottish figures should not be viewed in isolation from the figures for bordering areas.

The Minister is giving an exceptionally helpful exposition of the current position. In my constituency, there are particular geographical issues. It is quite foreseeable that installation will be a fairly smooth process on mainland Orkney, but there are 32 more islands in my constituency, some of which are very small and some of which get only one ferry service a week, although they will have a daily air service. Those circumstances present particular challenges. Will the Minister ensure that when the nuts and bolts of the scheme are being devised, it will have sufficient flexibility built in to ensure that those communities can be catered for?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I wish that he had extended to me an invitation to come and tour his constituency, as some of his hon. Friends did for their constituencies. I suspect that any such tour would be almost Victorian in length, but extremely enjoyable none the less. However, to address his serious point, which is well taken, of course we are taking into account constituencies’ particular conditions as we prepare for digital switchover region by region. I will also take into account his comments today.

The hon. Gentleman asked what percentage of people in the north of Scotland are sufficiently aware of what they need to do to make the switchover. Context is, again, important, not least because the figures show that more than half of the households in the region have already converted their sets. Nevertheless, I reassure him that communications in the region will be stepped up in the run-up to switchover.

The effect of such an approach on awareness in the Border Television area illustrates the success there. Some 52 per cent. of households in the STV/Grampian area have converted all their television sets, and 75 per cent. of people in the Border area understand what to do for switchover. The purpose of the survey is to continue to monitor trends. What matters is that the trends improve. In comparison with other countries that have been handling digital switchover, the UK is at an advanced stage. I am not complacent, but I remain confident of our preparations.

The hon. Gentleman asked about awareness being increased in remote and rural communities such as his own. The survey shows that at the beginning of this year, 88 per cent. of people in rural areas were aware of switchover—interestingly, that is several points higher than the figure of 81 per cent. for those in urban communities. I am not sure what one should extract from that, except that it probably demonstrates that his constituents are wise, regardless of how they vote in elections, and that he is fortunate to represent such highly aware people.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman indicated that once switchover occurs, not all those who receive analogue reception will receive digital terrestrial television. Unfortunately, his figures date from June 2005. It might be helpful for him to know that in December 2006, Ofcom updated its assessment of the expected level of digital coverage following digital switchover. Its current view is that

“all of the communities currently capable of receiving analogue terrestrial will be able to receive digital terrestrial after switchover”

and that

“the coverage of digital terrestrial will be at least as good as analogue terrestrial”.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether viewers in rural areas who receive weak television signals are likely to be those most affected. As I have said, Ofcom’s view is that the coverage of digital terrestrial will be at least as good as analogue terrestrial. This is based on a computer simulation, so there may be a margin of error and there may be marginal changes in reliability, for example, under certain weather conditions. In so far as we can prepare, we believe that we have that matter adequately covered, but again we have no complacency.

The hon. Gentleman asked how people will know whether it makes sense to purchase set-top boxes. People can use the Digital UK postcode check to see whether they have to wait for switchover to receive the signal.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Could the Minister illustrate some of the lessons that can be learned from the flagship pilot project in Whitehaven in Copeland, particularly how local authorities and the voluntary sector can help with the implementation of the switchover process?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about lessons to be learned. I congratulate Digital UK on its work in his constituency. That work would not have been done without the partnerships that we envisaged would have to take place, not only in his constituency, which is leading with switchover, but in all constituencies.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend whose role in bringing together the voluntary sector, particularly that of Age Concern, has been exemplary for all of us. He has worked extremely hard with the local authority and with local charities, but particularly Age Concern because it represents and has knowledge of a particular sector that will be affected. If hon. Members work with their local organisations, such as Age Concern, they can have a huge impact on ensuring that the switchover happens smoothly and effectively. The lesson that we shall draw, particularly from Whitehaven, is to look at the way in which my hon. Friend has worked there to lead his constituents and ensure that they will all benefit from being the first to roll out switchover later his year.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the assistance that will be made available to those who must purchase Freesat to receive digital. The help scheme will provide vulnerable households that qualify and are outside the DTT coverage area with the option of satellite at no additional charge. He asked whether I could guarantee that those households relying on satellite will receive the same level of service as other households. Digital UK will ensure that all households can enjoy the same level of service.

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about relays carrying fewer channels than the main transmitters. The short answer is no. Switchover will bring around 18 channels, including Five, to those areas that have only four analogue services at present, so they will not carry fewer channels than the main transmitters.

When switchover takes place in Orkney and Shetland in the first half of 2010, the power of the digital terrestrial signals will be significantly increased, and all the relays will broadcast digital signals so that all households that can receive analogue at present should receive reliable digital terrestrial reception.

The final issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was about extending digital radio to Orkney and Shetland. That is a matter for the BBC, but I understand his point in a personal capacity, and I am sure that eventually we will, as it says on the Mars bar, be able to entirely satisfy him.

I hope that I have dealt with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, but if other hon. Members have issues to raise, I shall be more than happy to correspond with them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Six o’clock.