HC Deb 21 October 2003 vol 411 cc246-54WH 3.59 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute)

During my summer tour of my constituency, the most common complaint raised by constituents was difficulties obtaining television reception. The matter kept cropping up in all parts of Argyll and Bute. It is a problem that does not affect only the highlands and islands. Since I was granted this Adjournment debate, many Members from throughout the country have contacted me to say that their constituents experience it.

The fundamental problem is that the terrestrial analogue signal does not reach many parts of the country. Many constituents who cannot receive a decent reception from terrestrial signals sought to solve the problem by buying a Sky digibox. Until recently, they were able to receive the five terrestrial channels from a BSkyB satellite via their digibox on a free-to-view basis using a Solus viewing card. However, the BBC has decided to end its contract with BSkyB, and it has moved its digital services to a new satellite. The effect of that is that BSkyB can disable those Solus viewing cards at any time. If that happens, those viewers will no longer be able to use their Solus card to receive ITV1 and Channels 4 and 5. Unless they pay a subscription to BSkyB, their cards could be disabled at any time and then they would be able to watch only the two BBC channels.

In addition to buying a Sky digibox, many of those viewers also paid a year's subscription to BSkyB because its adverts led them to believe that their contract with BSkyB would allow them to view the five terrestrial channels indefinitely at no further cost, after the expiry of their year's subscription. Having paid a licence fee, bought a digibox and paid a year's subscription to BSkyB, they were told out of the blue that they must pay further annual subscriptions to BSkyB to receive the terrestrial channels ITV 1, and Channels 4 and 5.

That is outrageous, bearing in mind that most of the country takes these services for granted. BSkyB, ITV and Channels 4 and 5 are negotiating to try to reach an agreement that would allow viewers with a Sky digibox to continue to view ITV1 and Channels 4 and 5. It is possible that they have already reached an agreement and not announced it yet. Even if an agreement is reached, I am sure that there will still be a cost to the viewers, and there will also be uncertainty about what will happen when the contract between ITV and BSkyB ends.

A fundamental principle is at stake. People who have bought a TV licence should have the right to watch the five terrestrial channels without having to pay more fees to private broadcasters. The present system is chaotic. It is wrong that viewers who have bought expensive equipment and paid up-front costs such as a year's subscription to Sky can be led to believe that they can watch the five terrestrial channels from then on so long as they pay the annual licence fee, only to find that their TV can be blanked out as a result of a deal between major corporations. A deal between Sky and ITV and Channels 4 and 5 may resolve the situation in the short term, but the uncertainty will continue and the Government must sort this situation out in the long term.

The licence fee is a hypothecated poll tax. The money raised goes to the BBC. Everybody who pays that poll tax should receive the five terrestrial channels in return. Otherwise, taking the licence fee off those viewers is tantamount to fraud.

the situation with regard to ITV and Channels 4 and 5 were not bad enough, viewers who receive the BBC digitally via the satellite, cannot even watch all BBC programmes. As one of the Minister's responsibilities is sport, I am sure that he will appreciate the anger felt by viewers when I explain that one of the effects of the BBC's decision to broadcast its regional channels throughout the UK is that digital viewers of BBC Scotland cannot watch Scottish football.

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I will not be tempted by that.

Mr. Reid

The Minister would have a feeling for the scale of the outrage if he found that Sheffield United games were to be broadcast throughout the whole country but blanked out in Sheffield—his postbag would be full. That is what happens in Scotland at the moment. The BBC is blanking out Scottish premier league matches from its digital service because its contract with Scottish premier league says that those matches cannot he broadcast outside Scotland and the digital version of its regional channels are now broadcast throughout the UK.

I find it galling that the BBC can pay millions of pounds of licence payers' money to the Scottish and English football authorities, yet cannot find a solution to the problem. Surely, either a technical solution can be found or the BBC could simply renegotiate its contract with the Scottish premier league. Again, the fundamental principle should be—this is where the Government should step in—that if people pay the licence fee, they should have the right to watch all BBC programmes.

Other gaps in television reception mean that many parts of Argyll and Bute cannot receive the new Freeview service; many parts cannot receive Channel 5. As an example of the frustration felt by my constituents, I shall read out a letter that I received from a constituent in Kilmelford. I received it after I had sent her a copy of the standard letter that the Minister for Media and Heritage, the noble Lord McIntosh, sends out to MPs who complain about television reception in their constituencies. This is the reply to that letter: Regarding the installation of a satellite dish, I have made enquiries, but it would have to be put on a post 200 metres up the hill from my house at a cost of £220 over and above the Sky charge. I would also have to pay £12.50 per month to Sky and being a pensioner, still paying for my TV licence", she says that she cannot afford the additional monthly cost. She continues: I would have to get permission from the farmer who owns the field, and according to people I've spoken to in the village they had 'Sky' dishes fixed on posts on the hill and the livestock kept chewing through the cables". Those are some of the problems that people trying to receive decent television reception in rural areas face.

The standard reply from the Minister advises viewers to contact a reputable local installer through the Confederation of Aerial Industries. A reputable installer will have experience of local reception characteristics and can advise on the location and orientation of a satellite dish. I generally find that when I send on that standard letter to constituents, they have already spoken to a reputable aeriel installer before contacting me, and it is simply not possible to achieve decent quality television reception in many places.

Another cause for concern in rural areas is the Government's plan to switch all the terrestrial television channels from analogue to digital no later than 2010—only seven years away. Many viewers in rural areas, outside the reach of analogue signals, rely on self-help relay schemes to receive the terrestrial channels. Those are small cable systems that carry the signal from an analogue relay station situated on a nearby hill. In years gone by, such schemes received financial support from the BBC, but no longer. Government policy is that no central Government moneys are available to assist in the funding of self-help schemes.

There also appear to be no plans to convert those small analogue relay stations so that they will be able to receive and relay digital signals around the village. Many of the villages served by the self-help schemes are in glens that cannot receive digital signals from the satellite because of the high mountains round about. The self-help scheme is the only way those villages can receive TV.

Unless the Government change their policy of no assistance for the self-help schemes, those villages will be left without TV when the analogue signals are switched off. One of the Government's criteria for the analogue switch-off is that everyone who currently receives the main public broadcast channels in analogue form must be able to receive them digitally". It is not clear from the criteria whether viewers who receive the terrestrial channels via a self-help relay system count as viewers who must be able to receive digital before the analogue switch-off. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that. I hope that he will agree that those viewers should count in the statistics. If he does, will he tell the House that the Government will pay the cost of converting the self-help relay systems to digital?

Another criteria for the analogue switch-off is affordability. The criteria here is: Switching to digital should be an affordable option for the vast majority of people. "Vast majority" is a worryingly vague term, whereas other statistics in the Government's criteria involve specific percentages. I earlier explained the vast costs that some viewers have gone to to receive digital TV. But even then the plug can be pulled from their TV set by big corporations doing some deal. Such uncertainty does not encourage viewers to invest in expensive equipment.

I am concerned that we will see two divides in TV-watching in our country. The first will be urban/rural. The urban viewer will buy a TV licence and be able to receive all programmes with no problem. The rural dweller will either have no decent reception at all or will have to pay out vast sums of money to be able to watch TV. The other divide in our rural communities will be between rich and poor. Those who can afford it will be able to buy the equipment and pay the subscriptions necessary to watch TV, but those on low incomes will be left out.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are further problems in parts of rural Wales? Some people wish to watch Channel 4 because they cannot understand Sianel Pedwar Cymru, S4C, the Welsh language fourth channel and have invested in equipment specifically to watch Channel 4 and Channel 5. With the current proposals, that is a problem for Welsh constituents.

Mr. Reid

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point and I agree. The Government should be making available the Welsh TV channel on a free-to-view basis as well as the other five terrestrial channels.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Can I suggest that this problem is yet a further compulsitor towards the depopulation of the highlands and islands? The families that we want to keep there are those with young children. The inability to receive television signals of the sort that my hon. Friend has outlined will be another factor that they will take into consideration when deciding whether to remain in those communities.

Mr. Reid

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The highlands and islands have suffered depopulation for many years. We want to encourage young families to stay and other young families to come and live there. If they cannot get decent affordable television, that will be one reason why they will move away.

The Government should adopt a simple principle. Everyone who pays the licence fee should be able to receive all programmes on all terrestrial channels on a free-to-view basis. I hope that the Minister agrees.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I believe that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) has sought the permission of the initiator of the debate, the Minister and me to take part in the debate.

4.14 pm
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I shall take a short part in the debate. Thank you for your great kindness in allowing me to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to build on the point that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) made about S4C, the Welsh language station, particularly as it relates to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) who live up and down the Welsh border. Television viewers receive their terrestrial analogue signal from relay stations on the other side of the border. The result is that they generally receive Channel 4 when they would like to receive S4C, the Welsh language station, to get news and political developments from Wales.

Another issue is that my constituents often receive midlands ITV signals. The regional programmes, and particularly local political issues, are from the midlands rather than from Wales. We saw the digital solution as enabling the people to have a choice between S4C and Channel 4, and between midland ITV and the Welsh independent television service. We would be pleased if the Minister could come to us with a solution. Without such a solution, those facilities will not be available to our constituents.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Minister is full of solutions.

4.15 pm
The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I was reflecting on the comments made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). I congratulate him on securing the Adjournment debate. As he explained, the issue is important. However, I have just left a meeting about obesity in young children who watch too much television. It shows that one can become schizophrenic in this job if one is not careful. I am grateful to him for raising the issue of rural television.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

We want rural children to have the right to watch too much television in the same way as their urban counterparts, which they sadly cannot do in Montgomeryshire at the moment.

Mr. Caborn

It is all a matter of choice.

I have a great deal of sympathy for viewers who installed satellite equipment in good faith, who chose to go free to view and who have been told that their Solus cards will not work after a certain date. We have received more than 800 letters about the matter, and we have also received more than 150 letters from MPs, some of which have been cited in this afternoon's debate.

I will give the Chamber an update on how the broadcasters are trying to resolve the issue, but first I want to explain the background to the Government's policy on digital television and the digital switchover, which the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute also raised.

The growth in take-up of digital television is a significant development in broadcasting in this country. We are close to the point at which 50 per cent. of all households have digital television. The current take-up level is 48 per cent., and we believe that it will have gone over 50 per cent. by Christmas.

The successful launch of Freeview and the continued growth of Sky have been central to the increase in digital television. The launch of Freeview has been helped by technical changes to improve the signal since its launch last year. All six digital terrestrial television multiplexes are available to around 73 per cent. of households.

The enthusiastic take-up of digital makes the Government believe that switching off the analogue signals at some time is the right decision for the economy and viewers alike. Indeed, on 18 September my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry published a cost-benefit analysis showing that switchover will bring a quantifiable benefit of between £1.5 billion and £2 billion in net present value terms.

There is still some way to go to convince people that switchover is the right thing, and this debate provides a timely opportunity to set out the arguments. First, we need to switch off because we can extend DTT coverage more widely because of the limitations of terrestrial broadcasting. Analogue is the incumbent mode of terrestrial broadcast, which means that analogue transmissions have exclusive use of channels that have been cleared internationally for full power transmission.

Digital television uses the same spectrum as that used for analogue television, with digital transmission interleaved between the analogue services. That means that the number of clear frequency channels that can be used for DTT without causing interference with other services, nationally and internationally, is severely restricted.

Those limitations mean that digital terrestrial cannot be extended until the completion of switchover. In planning the current DTT transmitter network, the broadcasters decided to concentrate on developing the 50 main transmitter sites and 30 of the larger relay sites, which would deliver the maximum coverage, given spectrum constraints. Inevitably, that means that at present rural and remote areas fall outside the scope of digital terrestrial coverage.

Secondly, there is the cost of duplication. Broadcasters are spending significant sums on transmitting programmes in analogue and digital form. The terrestrial broadcast network will need major capital investment in the next decade or so. As the majority of households switch to digital, it makes less and less sense to continue with that uneconomic arrangement.

The third factor is the sheer inefficiency of analogue broadcasts in spectrum terms. Digital transmission uses a fraction of the capacity of analogue broadcasts while increasing choice, giving access to interactivity and driving electronic programme guides to help viewers in a multi-channel environment. Switching off will allow us to work the spectrum much harder.

We are clear, then, that the question is not whether we switch off analogue broadcasts—that case has been made—but when. We must ensure that digital is right for all viewers. That is why we have established a consumer experts' group to ensure that there is an effective conduit for working through issues affecting consumers. Ofcom also has a consumer panel, and it will be involved in the exercise, too.

There are many other issues to be resolved before we can set a date. We are still on track for 2010, but progress depends on the response of consumers, broadcasters and other stakeholders. One of the tasks of switchover will be for broadcasters to produce proposals on the level of digital terrestrial coverage at switchover. Their decision will be based on a judgment about the cost effectiveness of a complete conversion to the 1,100 transmitters and the relays in the UK.

The Government and Ofcom will need to review the broadcasters' proposals, and to consider whether sufficient provision is made for those who have no access to digital terrestrial. We will consult on those proposals next year. The points that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute raised about switchover will be factored into that consultation. The decision on when we move to switchover will be based on the outcome of that consultation.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Not much that the Minister has said will be of comfort to my constituents who cannot receive services. Would he be prepared to ensure that Ofcom provided satellite services if we do not make any progress on that issue in the foreseeable future?

Mr. Caborn

Let me complete what I have to say, and then the hon. Gentleman may want to come back to that subject if there is time. What I have to say will probably cover his question.

One of the main considerations will be the option of free-to-view cards when public service broadcasts are encrypted. That is a particular concern for people in remote areas who may only have access to satellite when switchover takes place.

As has been said, in May the BBC decided to move its broadcast services from the Astra 2A to the Astra 2D satellite, and to enable consumers to receive BBC services in the clear without a viewing card. However, that new arrangement ended payments by the BBC to Sky for provision of Solus viewing cards to digital satellite viewers who do not have a subscription to a pay-TV service. A consequence of that decision was the problem of how access to the free-to-view commercial channels—ITV, Channels 4 and 5—could be maintained on the satellite platform. Sky made it clear that it was not prepared to fund supplying new viewing cards to Solus card viewers, but said it would facilitate a new scheme.

ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 have been working hard to develop a solution, following the representations made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Good progress is being made and we believe that the broadcasters are close to a solution. Indeed, today I am able to announce good news: they have made a deal. The details are not finalised yet, but we already know that those people who have no subscription satellite viewing card, and who wish to continue receiving the commercially funded public service channels without paying subscription to Sky or other broadcasters will be able to get a new card. They will be offered the opportunity to buy a viewing card for £20 plus VAT. Those cards will last until Sky does another card swap-out, and for at least two years if the next swap-out is sooner than that.

Channel 4, ITV and Channel 5 are contributing hundreds of thousands of pounds to cover the overheads of the scheme. Sky is not expected to disable existing cards until the new scheme is up and running. All the affected viewers—those who have not received new viewing cards from BSkyB because they are not current subscribers—will be alerted to the new scheme through an on-screen message, which will direct them to the call centre where they will be told what to do. Those on-screen messages should appear on Monday 27 October or the following week on 3 November. We believe that is a good outcome. It has not been easy to achieve and I want to take the opportunity to thank the broadcasters for their hard work in coming to that solution. We are aware of other issues affecting rural television coverage and those are concerns.

Mr. Reid

The announcement that the Minister has just made about the £20 plus VAT charge, although a step in the right direction, is still not the ideal solution. The Government provide free television licences for the over-75s. Will they be consistent and offer viewing cards for free to the over-75s?

Mr. Caborn

The difference between being 75 and over and living in a particular area is that of choice. People do not have a choice about being over 75. There is a rationale to the idea and if representations were made, it would be a decision for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is not a decision for the DCMS.

I was pointing out that the planning rules on the installation of dishes are too restrictive, especially for people living in national parks and other rural designated areas. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published a consultation paper in April outlining options for reform. I understand that the Scottish Executive are to publish a consultation paper shortly and we are also looking at other constraints affecting tenants, particularly those in public sector housing. Those points were raised, and the ODPM will produce a consultation paper.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute touched on television coverage being part of the wider digital divide. The Government are looking at several possible solutions, such as broadband aggregation and satellite broadband. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to doing everything we can to stimulate the market. The Government have looked at the satellite platform's ability to offer an attractive consumer broadband solution either independently or as part of a combined digital television and rural digital package and that work is continuing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will make representations to ensure that we get that right.

Hywel Williams

I am still trying to take in the announcement the Minister made about those over 75. Will he answer a simple question? Does he mean that those over 75 will pay twice for the same thing?

Mr. Caborn

There are two clear rules. One applies to those over 75, which was put in place by the Government to ensure that they have access to television—because of their age, income and circumstances a political decision has been made that they should have such access. That was made in its own right and on its own merits. We are discussing a totally different issue in this case—[Interruption.] We are still dealing with those over 75, but if they live in certain areas, conditions apply there. That is no different whether someone is under or over 75. Anyone who is over 75 will deal with those conditions that apply for anyone who is that age in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Carmichael

Why is someone who is over 75 and living in the west side of Shetland to be treated differently from someone over 75 who is living in Glasgow?

Mr. Caborn

The rules that apply for someone over the age of 75 do not change. If they live in certain areas where the same conditions apply to everyone, 75 and under, or those over 85, they will still get what any other over-75-year-old will get via that Act. That concession has been made.

The problems of rural coverage cannot be resolved separately from digital switchover. It is not sensible to improve analogue services when an increased number of householders are voting to go digital. Our framework for switchover will ensure that people in rural areas who receive public service broadcasting channels on analogue—BBC1 to Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5— have access to those public service channels when analogue is switched off.

It being half-past Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.