HC Deb 21 April 1999 vol 329 cc910-4 3.33 pm
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a universal service obligation for the delivery of certain digital television services and with respect to the delivery of regional television services; and for related purposes.

Access to television is much more important than might be suggested by television's entertainment content. Television is part of the fabric of today's society and a key provider of information, and access to information can be central to the quality of life. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. May we have a little order in the House so that the right hon. Gentleman—he is not yet right honourable, but he may be one day. May we have a little order, so that the hon. Gentleman may be heard?

Dr. Turner

Information provided by television can help people to find jobs, to participate in community life and to learn about life's opportunities. Access to television can play an important role in preventing social exclusion.

The Bill deals primarily with the important aspects of the provision of digital terrestrial television. In the analogue era of television broadcasting, the United Kingdom has achieved almost universal access to core BBC and ITV services. First, those services reach people—signals can be received by 99.4 per cent. of the population. Secondly, they are affordable. Television sets are relatively cheap: they cost from about £30 in second-hand markets in my constituency. Viewers can watch a rich variety of programmes. BBC programmes are paid for through a modest licence fee for the whole household, and ITV programmes, at no additional direct cost, are funded by the sale of advertisements.

Compared with digital television, analogue is inefficient in its use of the frequencies available. It runs at much higher transmission power levels, and requires many more transmitter masts and relays. A rapid move to digital terrestrial television to replace analogue is highly desirable. There are, however, real dangers to existing access if the move to digital is left to current legislation and market forces.

One threat to access will be the cost to broadcasters of transmitting to difficult locations. Without a policy for complete roll-out, market forces will not necessarily cater for groups living in sparse rural or remote areas. Another threat is the cost to the poor, particularly the pensioner poor, of upgrading their equipment. It is clear that the less well-off will be the hardest hit by analogue switch-off if their only choice is to buy new equipment.

Without change to current plans, millions of people will be unable to get the benefits of digital television. I want universal access to the programmes that people want to see. I want Parliament to protect the interests of those in rural or remote areas and those who are less well-off, so that the whole nation can benefit from what modern technology has brought us.

The Bill will impose a legal obligation on Government and broadcasters to deliver universal access to digital television. It will make analogue switch-off conditional on a guarantee that those households still dependent on analogue television for core BBC and ITV services will be provided free of charge with the means of access to digital terrestrial broadcasts.

Analogue switch-off may occur on a national or regional basis. In either case, my Bill assumes that switch-off will be considered only when enough households have decided on the digital option either because they are replacing existing, ageing television sets or because they are attracted to the new facilities available with digital. A possible scenario could be to propose analogue switch-off for a time when 90 per cent. of households in a given area are already viewing digital television. In those circumstances, the Bill would require broadcasters to assist the remaining 10 per cent. to access digital. That assistance could involve the provision of decoders or a subsidy towards a replacement television.

Many of the details of the universal service obligation can be left to regulation. It is of immediate importance, however, to put in place now legislation that will ensure that the move to digital increases, not decreases, access.

The Bill will also deal with long-standing anomalies in the availability of regional variations of television programming. That issue is of particular concern to me and to 40 or 50 other hon. Members, because many of our constituents cannot receive the appropriate regional variations of BBC and ITV.

I have been fortunate enough to succeed in the ballot for an Adjournment debate on this issue next week. Today, I shall therefore merely give an example of the frustration caused to my constituents by this anomaly. Mr. Paul Cobb in Heacham, as part of a campaign initiated locally by Councillor Marcus Liddington, brought this incident to my attention. Last year, following a serious sexual assault on a woman in Heacham, Anglia Television filmed and broadcast a reconstruction. The film was probably seen by 750,000 viewers, but sadly not by those living in and around Heacham. Like many people in west Norfolk, Heacham residents can receive only Yorkshire Television. Norfolk viewers unable to see the reconstruction were therefore the very people most likely to have been potential witnesses. The introduction of digital television presents a golden opportunity for the rectification of such anomalies, and we should seize that opportunity.

The objective could be achieved through the use of the larger number of channels available to digital terrestrial broadcasting, enabling simulcasting to take place. That means a transmitter delivering more than one regional variation. Alternatively, the objective could be achieved through the exploitation of other technical merits of digital broadcasting, such as a different deployment of transmitters and power levels. My Bill will ensure that digital terrestrial broadcasting will provide viewers with appropriate regional variations of BBC and ITV television programmes. That obligation will also be linked to the timing of analogue switch-off.

Costs will of course be involved in the implementation of the Bill's objectives, but they should not and need not impose a burden on the taxpayer; nor should the public be forced to buy new televisions or decoder boxes. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Analogue switch-off will both remove the tight constraints on digital broadcasting that were introduced to prevent interference with analogue reception and free up precious frequency space. The result will be valuable commercial and public service opportunities, and a significant source of public revenue. Those involved in digital television may wish to buy frequency space, but there will be other bidders. The cost of providing universal access can be met by those who will benefit from early switch-off. The costs will be much lower than many currently imagine. On Monday, Chris Barrie of The Guardianreported that plans for boxes costing as little as £25 were well advanced.

Some time ago, in response to a complaint, a BBC spokesman remarked that a television licence is like a fishing licence: it allows people to receive television, but does not guarantee that they can do so". A universal service obligation for television broadcasting would recognise that access to television services is a basic entitlement, and would make the delivery of core television services, national and regional, a legal requirement.

I believe that the industry will benefit from early clarification of its obligations—and, indeed, many members of it want that. I urge the House to support the Bill.

3.43 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing time to present his Bill, but I oppose it, because I consider it to be a typical new Labour Bill. It is full of good intentions; indeed, it is positively cuddly and user-friendly. The trouble is that it will not work. As with so much Labour legislation, if this Bill is passed it will represent yet another Labour initiative that is under-resourced and not delivered.

Let me set the scene by describing the state of digital broadcasting in Britain, although the hon. Gentleman has already done so to an extent. The United Kingdom can be proud of the fact that Britain leads the world in both the delivery of digital programmes and the technology that is required for the process. That, moreover, has been achieved without the need for the Government to poke their meddling nose in.

Digital television can be delivered in three ways: by means of ordinary terrestrial broadcasting through a standard aerial, by means of satellite and by means of cable. There is a war going on at the moment: ITV will not let Sky broadcast ITV2 by satellite, so Sky will not allow its premium movie channels to be broadcast on terrestrial television. But that will shake itself out soon: it is in the industry's best financial interests for it to do so.

Satellite television covers most of the United Kingdom, provided that viewers can see the southern sky—otherwise, they will not be able to see Sky television! Therefore, if one lives in a flat, it may not be possible to receive satellite broadcasts. It is also difficult, without using up valuable spectrum, for satellites to be used in the transmission of regional programmes.

As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, digital terrestrial television may broadcast regional programmes. However, most people do not have the necessary set-top box to receive those broadcasts, and there is not—yet—universal digital terrestrial coverage. However, the situation ain't all that bad. Right now, digital terrestrial television is being transmitted on 48 transmitters, providing coverage for 72 per cent. of the population. By the end of this year, that 72 per cent. will have increased to 90 per cent. coverage. By February 2000, coverage of the United Kingdom population overall will be 93 per cent., compared with the current—as the hon. Gentleman said—99.4 per cent. analogue television coverage.

What does digital terrestrial television provide that is extra to normal services? As I said, ITV2 is available free to air. The BBC provides BBC Choice—which is a type of BBC3—BBC News 24 and BBC Text, which is far superior to the usual teletext. But there is more to come. On 1 June, BBC Knowledge will be launched. It will be Britain's first educational channel.

BBC Parliament currently provides non-stop coverage of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but does so only in sound. That is not good news. Moreover, only the BBC could have a sound channel on a digital television system.

Madam Speaker, as you and the House will know, the BBC has been shocked that "Yesterday in Parliament" and "The Week in Westminster" have had a massive loss of listeners since they went on to long wave. Well—surprise, surprise—everyone in the industry, other than the BBC's administrators, knew that that would happen. Even the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said that the programmes would lose listeners, although, at the time, the BBC denied that it would happen. Moreover, moving "Yesterday in Parliament" has gained no new listeners for the "Today" programme. That result, too, was predicted.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

This is irrelevant to the Bill.

Mr. Fabricant

Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of the BBC, recognised that there was a problem. In a letter dated 16 April, he wrote about the loss of audience for "Yesterday in Parliament" and "The Week in Westminster". He said—it is relevant to digital terrestrial television, precisely the subject on which I am about to speak—that Whatever the causes of that loss, there is an unacceptable 'democratic deficit'"— as he put it— which the BBC, with its special public service responsibilities, needs to address. The BBC must give appropriate prominence to coverage of parliamentary proceedings".

I should like to make two suggestions: first, restore "Yesterday in Parliament" and "The Week in Westminster" to FM; and, secondly—this is the point—get the BBC Parliament channel on digital terrestrial television up and running, now, in vision. Digital video compression techniques—which are ideal for coverage of Parliament, as there is not much movement in this place—would enable the channel to go live without any delay. So, Sir Christopher, the decision lies with you.

While I am addressing Sir Christopher through you, Madam Speaker, I should remind the BBC, which is bending over backwards to anticipate the Government's slightest whim, that it is the British Broadcasting Corporation, and not the English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland broadcasting corporation. We are still the United Kingdom, and the BBC should remember that when it issues ridiculous guidance notes to producers, saying that the words "British" or "national" are now not politically correct.

The Bill is a hotch-potch of good intentions, but is confounded by ignorance of the practicalities and costs of achieving its goals. In fact, it is a typical Labour Bill. Impractical laws are bad laws, and, like so much Labour legislation, the Bill proposes making bad and expensive law.

If the Bill is passed, it will be yet another bold initiative that will die a quiet death—just like Labour's promises on class sizes, on hospital waiting lists, on the new deal and on transport policy generally and the road haulage industry specifically.

For those reasons, I oppose the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. George Turner, Mr. Peter Atkinson, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Mr. Ben Chapman, Ms Julia Drown, Mr. Huw Edwards, Mr. Andrew Miller, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Mrs. Gillian Shephard, Mr. David Stewart, Mr. Gareth Thomas and Mr. Phil Willis.