§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]9.34 am
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this Adjournment debate on an issue of such importance to my constituents. My good fortune in securing the debate enables the House to discuss one of the major issues addressed by the Digital Television Broadcasting Bill, which I introduced last week under the ten-minute rule.
I shall briefly remind the House of the specific nature of the problem, which concerns terrestrial television. The services of each regional television broadcaster are transmitted from specific locations. However, in some areas, the lie of the land and the physical characteristics of UHF electromagnetic waves prevent some communities from receiving signals from the transmitters assigned to their appropriate regional broadcaster. Instead, the signal from a transmitter targeted at a different region may be the only one that they are able to receive. Those viewers can watch only regional programming services intended for others. That is the problem.
For many years, solutions that used additional transmitters or relays have been constrained by the number of channels possible when using analogue broadcasting, and by the severe interference problems when adjacent transmitters are not well separated in frequency. That also explains why analogue broadcasting has had genuine difficulty in providing more than four universal channels. Not surprisingly, many of my constituents cannot receive Channel 5.
Many thousands in west Norfolk are affected: the borough council has estimated the figure to be as many as 20,000 households, which represents an audience of up to 51,000 people. My constituents are angry about this situation. More than 5,000 of them were sufficiently motivated to write to the King's Lynn Citizen to say so. All of them want something to be done so that they are able to watch their own regional television programmes.
In preparing for this debate, I have taken the time to check whether my constituents are alone in the importance that they attach to receiving the correct regional television programmes. The facts are interesting. Since 1970, the Independent Television Authority, the Independent Broadcasting Authority and, most recently, the Independent Television Commission have monitored public attitudes towards a number of broadcasting issues, in particular viewers' preferences for a range of programme types.
258 Over the past decade, news items have come right at the top of the list of programmes that viewers say they are most interested in seeing on television. Of crucial relevance to this debate is the fact that, since 1995, regional news has overtaken national news as the most popular of all programme types. Indeed, in the most recently available survey, 90 per cent. of the British public said that they wanted to see regional news: that is 30 per cent. more than those wanting to watch soap operas. It is not surprising that my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members are up in arms, because the programmes that they most want to see are the very programmes denied to them.
We should also bear in mind the growing importance of community and regional identities in our everyday life. My constituents are served by a health authority, social services, education services, library services, police and fire services, all of which are administered on a county basis within Norfolk. The Government have, through the establishment of regional development agencies, made it clear that local identity within regions is increasingly important. Ministers are currently encouraging communities to become involved in the development of community safety strategies and local transport strategies, and they see a strong role for the community in developing policies on access to the countryside. Is there not a serious democratic deficit if people do not have access to news and information about their own communities via the most popular and effective medium?
Heacham, in my Norfolk constituency, provides a clear example. Heacham is a particularly large village which, in television terms, is cut off from its own region. Residents can receive only Yorkshire Television. It is common that local events, even those filmed in the village, cannot be seen on television by residents. Although Yorkshire Television, to its credit, includes some items from Norfolk, residents are understandably dissatisfied that the bulk of its regional news programmes focuses on issues in Yorkshire.
Last week, I gave the House a specific example of a reconstruction of a serious crime that took place in Heacham. It was broadcast on Anglia Television, but could not be seen by Heacham residents, who were the most likely witnesses. People in Heacham do not shop in Bradford, they are rarely in Leeds, and they are not particularly interested in the local goings-on in Grimsby. Like the majority of viewers around the country, they want to know what is going on under their noses in their own communities.
§ Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be interested to know that people in my constituency, especially in an area called Bleadon Hill, cannot get the correct regional programmes, and can only get programmes in the Welsh language, which is difficult for them.
§ Dr. Turner
The hon. Gentleman's constituents must be even more cross than mine if they cannot even understand what they are hearing. As that intervention has shown, west Norfolk is far from alone in suffering from these problems. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport informs me that other affected communities are to be found in many parts of the country: in the Scottish borders, Fort William, all the border areas between Wales and England, parts of Yorkshire, such as Harrogate, 259 Richmond and Leeds, parts of Lincolnshire, Lancashire, the Wirral, Barnoldswick, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire, the Swindon area, north-west Bristol, Devon, North Somerset and even some locations in London. The Library estimates that some 40 or 50 Members have constituents with cause for complaint.
Shortly after becoming a Member myself, I secured a short Adjournment debate dealing with the problems in North-West Norfolk. As a former engineer, I could sympathise with the real difficulties explained to me by the technical experts. There are myriad interference problems—as well as the need for our part of the country to be good neighbours with broadcasters in Europe. I am pleased to say that, following that debate, work commissioned by the Independent Television Commission and the BBC has identified scope for the addition of one more analogue relay in Heacham. I hope that that soon becomes a reality. I was glad to note that Heacham parish council had offered land for it. Nevertheless, although the relay will help everyone in Heacham, it appears that others elsewhere can be offered little help if solutions are limited to analogue broadcasting.
British television is now in the most significant period of change in its history following the arrival of digital broadcasting techniques. The new technology allows full use of modern computing techniques; it is also far more efficient than the analogue system with which we have grown up. Many more channels can be included in the same frequency space, and good reception can be achieved with transmitters working with anything from 10 per cent. down to 1 per cent. of the power levels used by analogue. The modulation techniques used are far less susceptible to interference problems between transmitters.
Digital television offers the possibility not only of introducing a range of new public and commercial services, but of eliminating anomalies in regional television coverage. This is a golden opportunity, and we must seize it.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
Twenty-five per cent. of all relay stations in the United Kingdom are in Wales. Unless the ITC has a programme for the diversion of those stations, digital terrestrial television will not reach millions of viewers, not only in Wales, but in the rest of the United Kingdom.
§ Dr. Turner
My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that our objective can be achieved through the use of the larger number of channels available to digital terrestrial television to make simulcasting possible.
§ Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)
My hon. Friend makes a persuasive case for the potential of digital television to solve some of the problems of regional broadcasting. Does he agree that digital television is the medium through which Government will be able to deliver a range of public services? Should not Government be considering questions relating to regulation and incentives for the securing of that public service access, while the ground rules for the new medium and its technologies are being established?
§ Dr. Turner
That is an excellent point, to which I shall refer later.
260 Simulcasting involves a transmitter delivering more than one regional variation. If the transmitter broadcasting Yorkshire Television to my constituents also broadcast Anglia Television, viewers could choose which to watch. Alternatively, solutions in some areas might involve a different deployment of transmitters and power levels. Engineers in the industry have confirmed that those possible solutions are entirely feasible. The options will be made immensely easier as and when analogue switch-off frees the spectrum.
Last month, the ITC reported the results of research showing that, even ahead of analogue switch-off, additional relay sites in the midlands and East Anglia alone would allow up to 1.3 million more people to receive digital services. It also reported that, through the use of a network of relays all operating at the same frequency, up to 400,000 people could receive digital broadcasts in the south Wales valleys. The ability to use single-frequency relay networks is a major advantage of digital broadcasting, and will offer even greater efficiency in the use of available frequencies.
In the past, genuine technical problems were the cause of our frustration. It is clear that, in the digital era, the fundamental issues are political and commercial rather than technical. If there is the will, there will be a way.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the problems, but may I caution him? He should not believe that there is an unlimited spectrum, especially in relation to digital terrestrial broadcasting.
§ Dr. Turner
The fact is that, through the use of modern compression techniques, we already have access to some five digital channels for every analogue channel. At present—without the release of the frequencies currently allocated to analogue television—we are looking at up to 30 channels. It will be for the people to decide, through Parliament, what use they want to make of those frequencies when they are freed up. I do not envisage all of them being used for our purpose, but I trust that some will be, for our problems are serious.
Parliament must be determined to insist on the highest possible levels of access, and on the right of people to receive their own regional broadcasts. We must also look after the interests of important minority groups. As a result of press coverage of this debate, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People approached me. It is campaigning for the Government to look again at the targets relating to the availability of subtitles for those with impaired hearing. I support its campaign; I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) that we shall need to consider other public service issues. We need to clarify public policy and, if necessary, legislate. Under the current arrangements, we face the horrifying prospect that, even with up to 30 digital channels fully rolled out, many people in rural areas such as mine will still not be able to watch the very programmes that they most want to see.
During my campaign, I have spoken to a number of key players in the industry. Many would welcome early clarification of the way forward for digital television: clarification of the public interest constraints to be imposed and, in particular, clarification of the conditions for analogue switch-off—or, as some in the industry 261 prefer to call it, the switch from analogue to digital. Substantial investment is involved, and I think that the Government should face up to the issues as soon as possible to maximise the benefit that we can all obtain from the new technology. The industry, too, while defending its legitimate commercial interests, must become constructively involved.
The ITC tells me that it now aims to identify the criteria for the next phase of digital television expansion. It has also awarded a contract for a preliminary study of a digital-only terrestrial television frequency plan. In recent correspondence, it tells me:We are taking very seriously the needs of different communities to be able to receive the appropriate regional service".More ominously, however, it adds:But we also have to understand and take into account the wide range of competing claims on limited spectrum.What, then, are the priorities to be? How should they balance the need of our constituents to gain access to the programmes that they want to watch with the interest of commercial broadcasters to sell their programmes to as many of us as possible? I want Parliament to be fully involved in the early stages of the debate, helping to shape the ground rules rather than leaving Back Benchers to moan and whinge on behalf of their constituents when proposals have been finalised. My predecessor was fobbed off by statements that digital television did not provide a solution—not, I suggest, because of technical difficulties, but because the carve-up of the frequency spectrum had taken place without due regard for the needs of his constituents. I believe that my Digital Television Broadcasting Bill offers one way forward. In a recent survey in my constituency newsletter, 80 per cent. of respondents supported it, although it is clear that they are interested in the ends rather than the means.
The Minister has already shown considerable sympathy for the problems of my constituents, and has been generous with her time in discussing them with me; but can she promise that proper priority will be given to finding solutions rather than excuses, and will she now publicly confirm that the Government recognise the importance of addressing the issues early rather than later? Does she acknowledge that we have already waited too long?
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on his debate, which is on an important and interesting subject. I was glad to hear him say that he had an engineering background, so that he could probably understand some of the complicated science surrounding the issue.
I speak in the debate because I have some constituents who cannot receive any television. As we move into the next millennium, some people do not have a television set. Although some of them have a video machine, they have to pay a BBC licence fee for it. Therefore, the first thing that I should like to achieve is a proper, complete build-out of relay stations, so that those who cannot receive even analogue stations may receive them.
262 I should like, secondly, to deal with the very real problem of digital television services. A large chunk of my constituency—like that of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk—will not be able to receive any digital broadcasts until the analogue switch-off date.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee pressed the Secretary of State for a date for analogue switch-off, but that he was unwilling to give one? It was thought that, by setting a date, there would be more rapid expansion of digital technology, to achieve the aims that my hon. Friend has set himself.
§ Mr. Atkinson
My hon. Friend has a point. However, an analogue switch-off will not occur for 10 or, probably, 15 years. Therefore, many of my constituents will not be able to receive digital television until then; and that would be quite wrong.
I was very pleased to note that the transmitting authorities have now agreed to increase the digital relay build-out to 81 transmitters. Nevertheless, considering the many hundreds of transmitters in the United Kingdom, that is very slow progress. If we are to reach 95 per cent. digital television coverage, a further 120 transmitters will require conversion or re-engineering. Therefore, it will cost vastly more to cover that 5 per cent. of the population than it did to cover the initial 90 per cent. Moreover, 5 per cent. of people—mostly in Scotland; some in my constituency and in other areas of the north Pennines; many in Wales and in Northern Ireland; bizarrely, some in Norfolk and Suffolk; and even some in Hove, in Sussex—will not be able to receive digital broadcasts until the Government do something about it.
The solution lies in making all services available on satellite. Clearly, it would be totally uneconomic to cover 100 per cent. of the country with relay transmitters to reach that final 5 per cent. of those who do not receive the transmissions. Satellite television is the only way of reaching them.
§ Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)
Will the hon. Gentleman expand on his point on satellite, and does he agree that satellite broadcasters currently have absolutely no intention of broadcasting any regional programmes? Have they not, because of cost, totally ruled out broadcasting ITV regional programmes? Will he comment on that?
§ Mr. Atkinson
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated entirely what I shall say, but I entirely agree with him on the point. We shall get to a rump of people—5 per cent. of the population, but they number several million people—who will not be able to receive terrestrial digital television, which they will be able to receive only by satellite.
A well-known misunderstanding of the situation is that one must subscribe to Sky Digital to receive satellite television. One does not have to do that. I was rather grateful to the BBC for issuing recently a handy little leaflet that makes it absolutely clear that one can receive digital satellite broadcasts without subscribing to Sky. One may receive from satellite, free of charge, BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC Choice, BBC News 24, Channel 4, S4C, Channel 5, and even the Parliamentary Channel. 263 As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said, one cannot receive ITV and ITV 2, because the ITV companies refuse to make their programmes available on the digital satellite platform. However, the BBC and others have set them an example, and I believe that, ultimately, they should follow it.
The difficulty is the competitive nature of commercial television, and the fact that ONdigital—the new digital terrestrial channel—is owned jointly by Carlton and Granada, which together own a vast chunk of the ITV network. They think that giving their programmes to satellite will give Sky a commercial advantage over them. I believe that the Government should intervene in that competitive battle, and I know that the Director General of Fair Trading is examining the matter. However, if that finding is not satisfactory, the ITV companies, in new regulations, should be made to make their programmes available to everyone, as Sky has to make its programmes available on terrestrial channels.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I understand, appreciate and support the burden of the hon. Gentleman's case. However, I think that most people still hope that relay stations will be converted to deliver digital terrestrial services to our constituents. I hope that he will support that, too.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I support it and, indeed, should like more relay stations to be built. However, economic reality dictates that that will not happen. It would cost enormous sums to get the next 120 transmitters operating, and entails the need to re-engineer hundreds more small relay stations serving a few people—which, because of spectrum problems, may not even be physically possible. I do not understand the nature of those problems, but have been told that they exist. I agree that there should be more conversions, but, for 5 per cent., they will not happen.
The problem has become more acute since the launch of ITV 2, and since ITV has done a deal for exclusive pay-per-view coverage of the Champions league football matches. For the first time ever, in some cases, those games will be shown on ITV 2. Therefore, even if viewers are prepared to pay to watch the matches, they will not be able to do so unless they are able to receive ITV 2 terrestrial transmissions. I think that that is wrong, and that, in denying people the opportunity of watching what they want, we are crossing a rubicon.
I await with interest the Minister's comments on the matter. It is very strange when one's children still do not know about "Neighbours" or "Home and Away": they live almost in a different—some might say better—world from the rest of us. Nevertheless, as we approach the 21st century, those of my constituents in Hexham who still cannot see any television should have the opportunity of seeing some of it. The majority of my constituents should have the opportunity of seeing digital television before the analogue switch-off.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on initiating the debate, and on pursuing the interests of his constituents with such vigour. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), too, has been working extremely hard in addressing the issue in the Wirral area.
264 The Wirral peninsula has a steep escarpment dipping down to the Dee valley. Consequently, many households are able to receive only television signals from Wales and from Wolverhampton. The accents in both those areas are somewhat foreign to the good folk of the Wirral peninsula. I therefore found myself agreeing with the intervention made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Although I perfectly respect and welcome the right to Welsh language broadcasting, it is a problem when it is being broadcast—under broadcasters' supposed public service obligations—to those who speak only English.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. However, as an ex-head boy of Wirral grammar school, I think that the two cultures should be able to get together.
§ Mr. Miller
I very much take that point. I certainly do not criticise spreading the Welsh culture—I welcome it; and there is a great deal of cross-fertilisation—but there is a huge language barrier. Broadcasting in another language is not an adequate response to broadcasters' public service obligations.
Moreover, it is inadequate to say that my constituents' regional needs are being met because they are able to receive regional television from Wolverhampton. There are plenty of examples—including the very good one of the village in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk—demonstrating that regional broadcasting is an important public service that cannot be provided either in another language or from a great distance.
The digital revolution gives us the opportunity to address those issues. However, if it is to do so, great flexibility, which broadcasters have not demonstrated in the analogue phase, will be required. They have always argued that there are problems with spectrum and difficulties with costs, but, technically, it is not an insoluble problem.
I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to get together with her ministerial colleagues in other Departments to try to find a solution. It is absurd that spectrum allocation is not the responsibility of one authority, and that it reflects historical rather than future requirements. For example, the Ministry of Defence could give up some of the allocation that was relevant to its needs 20 or 30 years ago, but is no longer necessary.
There should be a structured debate involving the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry in the reallocation of spectrum. It would then be possible to say to companies that broadcast by satellite, digital terrestrial, cable or whatever, that if they wanted to bid for a slice of the action in a particular geographical area, they would have to provide a technical solution—possibly by buying in link services such as simulcasting—to make sure that everyone in the area could receive the service.
It is not asking a great deal and it will force broadcasters to work more closely with their counterparts, helping to overcome some of the issues concerning spectrum allocation. There are practical ways forward, but they require careful collaboration between the public and private sectors. If that happens, the digital revolution will present the opportunity that many of our constituents desire.
§ 10.2 am
§ Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)
I also congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing this morning's debate. I have nearly forgiven him for the nursery voucher issue. He has certainly done some sterling work on the issue that he raises today and he is to be congratulated on bringing it to the attention of the House so forcefully. My constituents are grateful to him and to the Government for the way in which they are responding. I am sure that in her reply to the debate, the Minister will support my glowing comments about the Government and say that they have addressed many of the issues, giving my constituents cause for hope in future.
The problems in Harrogate and Knaresborough are similar to those that have been mentioned by other hon. Members. They are not quite as bad as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), where programmes are beamed in in Welsh. However, we do get them in Geordie, which has the same effect on many of my constituents—with apologies to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who I am sure is quite fluent in that language.
We have two transmitters beaming into Harrogate and Knaresborough. One is in Bilsdale near Darlington, which is used by Tyne Tees Television and BBC Newcastle. The other is at Emley Moor near Huddersfield, which is used by Yorkshire Television and BBC Leeds. The quality of both those transmitters, which will be upgraded to digital early in the process, is absolutely excellent. Both signals can be picked up in my constituency, but there is a rub: unfortunately, people who want to watch Yorkshire Television and BBC Leeds cannot get the signal that they want; nor can those who want to watch Tyne Tees Television and BBC Newcastle. People living in the same street find it difficult to watch the station that they want.
In one block of flats in the centre of Harrogate, the bottom two floors can get BBC Newcastle and Tyne Tees Television, and the top two floors can get Yorkshire Television and BBC Leeds. The residents argue constantly and, of course, feel that their local Member of Parliament should resolve the problem by building them a transmitter. Half my constituency cannot receive signals from Emley Moor in Yorkshire and that causes a bigger problem.
Another issue that has not been raised this morning has become more prevalent lately. When people upgrade their televisions and videos they now have automatic tuning. I do not know whether other hon. Members have the same problem as I do, but since my son went to university, we are unable to change the tuning. Automatic television and video tuning picks up the best signal, but overriding it sometimes requires an engineer. Our new television apparently needs a new piece of circuitry to do that.
The question is whether all this actually matters. Harrogate and Knaresborough are synonymous with Yorkshire, as are the flowerbeds of Harrogate at Harlow Carr. It is a pity that Madam Speaker is not in the chair as only last year, she had a rose named after her in Harrogate. I commend it to hon. Members who do not have one in their gardens. Betty's Tea Rooms is also synonymous with Harrogate, as are the conference centre, the spa baths and the pump room. Knaresborough castle, 266 Mother Shipton's well, where hon. Members may wish to go and be petrified, and Nid gorge are all well-known Yorkshire landmarks.
Local people regard themselves as Yorkshire first and British second, and they aspire to being born and living in Yorkshire. Indeed, when my wife and I lived in Middlesbrough, we were expecting our second child and my wife rang up Yorkshire cricket club to find out whether the old boundaries of Yorkshire still applied and whether, if the baby was a boy, he would be able to play for Yorkshire. That is how strongly people feel about being from Yorkshire, about the Yorkshire region and, of course, about Yorkshire Television.
§ Mr. Willis
The hon. Gentleman refers to the finest cricket club in Great Britain, which is unbeaten this season. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to praise our excellent side—I should add that I do so as a Lancastrian.
Many of my constituents agree that there is some excellent regional broadcasting and they want more of it. I found the statistics mentioned by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk extremely interesting. I doubt whether people want more news, but they certainly want more regional programmes. They want to identify with their region and to know what is happening there. My constituents want to know what is happening in Yorkshire, not in Newcastle and Northumberland. They want to hear Yorkshire voices, not north-eastern ones. They want to see Yorkshire settings. They want Ceefax to provide Yorkshire regional information, not north-east regional information—another problem when they receive the wrong signal. They want to see advertisements for local Yorkshire products and companies with which they can identify.
Reference has been made to the regional development agency and the greater regional identity that is now developing. I totally agree. We want to see what the local RDA is doing, not the one in the north-east, which, of course, I am not decrying. That is not to say that Tyne Tees Television and BBC Newcastle do not make excellent programmes. In fact, the BBC in Leeds and Newcastle and the two ITV companies try to cover news in my constituency. They bend over backwards to do that. They co-operate and send each other's programmes down the line. Indeed, I am sure that the complaint from the constituents of the hon. Member for Hexham is that there is far too much regional news involving Harrogate, Knaresborough and North Yorkshire in the Newcastle broadcasts. The reverse is also true.
Some of the finest regional broadcasting in Britain is in my region. In fact, the Tyne Tees regional news programme "North East Tonight" has been shortlisted for the prestigious Royal Television Society national award for the third year running. That is quite an achievement for a regional news programme. "Calendar" is another programme with exceptional viewing figures, and the BBC's regional news programmes under the "Look North" title have larger viewing figures than the national news, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk noted.
What can we look forward to? Frankly, very little. Analogue broadcasting has 44 broadcast frequencies in use, and all are at their limits. There is simply insufficient 267 room for programme duplication without causing problems for viewers in other areas. There are 11,000 relay stations assisting with signals to overcome difficult topography. Harrogate in particular suffers from the fact that large hills obscure the signals from Bilsdale to the north and from Emley Moor to the south.
New transmitters could be installed, but the cost makes that unlikely, and the ITC refuses permission for new transmitters to be built, even when companies want to do so. Yorkshire Television offered to build a repeater transmitter in the Harrogate district to receive the signal from Emley Moor and pass it on. However, the ITC rejected the idea because the problem of overload would affect reception from the Bilsdale transmitter further north.
Despite the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, it is unlikely that digital, provided through satellite and cable, will resolve all the problems. Far too many people—including, with respect, the hon. Gentleman—believe that digital will solve all the problems of regional broadcasting.
As I mentioned in my intervention in the contribution from the hon. Member for Hexham earlier, Sky Digital has no plans to broadcast any regional programme variations, yet the pictures available to many people in the country will come from satellite broadcasting. That is a really big issue. Sky Digital has no plans to duplicate ITV programmes because of the cost factor. At present, there are 27 regional and sub-regional services—Yorkshire alone has three sub-regional services—which would require 27 responders on the satellite. Neither Rupert Murdoch nor ITV sees much hope of recovering the costs involved through advertising. Indeed, I hope that the Minister will say what the Government plan with regard to satellite broadcasting, which is crucial for all our constituents.
Digital broadcasts from the existing masts at Emley Moor and Bilsdale will certainly improve the technical quality, but there is no guarantee that all problems caused by topography will be eliminated, and it is a misapprehension to believe otherwise. Some people will still not be able to receive the programmes that they want.
Digital through cable offers perhaps the best solution. It should be possible for viewers in Harrogate and Knaresborough to have a choice of at least two regional programmes, and for quality to be guaranteed. The challenge to the Minister and to the independent broadcasting commissions is to achieve that, so that people, especially those with cable, can select their preferred regional programme. Technically, through cable, it is possible for people in my area to pick up the south-west regional programme, but it is doubtful that companies will be obliged to offer such a range of programming.
The cable network will not reach every home within a reasonable time scale—if at all. I cannot get cable where I live. I am pretty sure that many hon. Members, especially those representing large rural areas, will discover that they were never going to get cable, as it was never going to be economically feasible for the companies to roll it out to those areas, and the companies are not required to do so. When the Government respond to the problem, it is, therefore, important that the needs of 268 everyone throughout the United Kingdom are taken into account. People should be offered a choice of service that guarantees them good-quality regional broadcasting.
It will be some years before every viewer has access to digital. There is a real concern that the analogue service will be downgraded in the period while digital takes over. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will assure the House that until analogue is switched off, the quality available on that service is maintained at the highest possible standard.
§ Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing this important debate, and on his comprehensive and distinguished presentation of his case. His speech enables other hon. Members to speak more briefly than we might otherwise have done, as he covered so many of the relevant angles. Therefore, I shall not touch on the technical issues—they are not my strong point anyway—as my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) have dealt with them skilfully and eloquently. I shall concentrate on the way in which the problem affects the day-to-day lives of my constituents.
I came to the Wirral in 1990. I began campaigning on this matter as a private citizen before I entered Parliament, and have continued to campaign ever since. When I wrote to the television companies at the beginning of the decade about the problem, broadly speaking I was told that the companies' charter required them to cover about 95 per cent. of the population, and that my area belonged to the remaining 5 per cent. That was the end of that, as far as the companies were concerned.
That will not do. As has been explained, in the Wirral, we get our television from Wales and from the midlands. No matter how fond we are of those areas—and notwithstanding the distinguished connections with Wirral grammar school mentioned earlier—such programming is not relevant to people living in the peninsula. The problem is not new, and it gives rise to a heavy postbag. People in pubs and clubs constantly ask me about it. It may seem a frivolous matter, but it is far from that: it is important both to the community, and in terms of professional life.
Other hon. Members have described their areas' regional identities. The Wirral perceives itself, traditionally, as part of Cheshire, although formally it belongs to Merseyside. What it is not is part of the midlands or Wales.
It is not a question merely of wanting appropriate regional television coverage, but of needing it. There is the question of safety, for example. My constituency has many chemical plants—GATX and Lubrizol, for example, which handle chlorine and dioxins, and another chlorine plant at ICI Runcorn. There is also a nuclear facility at Capenhurst, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston.
As an example, the Health and Safety Executive's guidance on the radiation emergency regulations requires news of emergencies to be relayed by television. People in my constituency—more than 2,000 could be affected—would not receive such warnings if they went out on 269 television covering the north-west. For example, many learned about the danger of polluted water only after the problem had been solved. That is not good enough.
The inability to receive appropriate television has other consequences, and regional news is an obvious case in point. People in my area want to hear the news as it affects their families and localities. We are interested in Cardiff and Wolverhampton, but not keenly. We want to know about the weather in our areas, not in someone else's: with great respect, it is not important to us that it is raining in Swansea or West Bromwich. When we watch football, we want to see Tranmere Rovers, Liverpool or Everton. Good though they are, Cardiff City and Birmingham City are not so important to us.
When my constituents travel to work through the Mersey tunnel, they want to know what weather will affect their journeys, and they are not particularly concerned about Machynlleth or Dudley. People want local traffic information, and local television programmes are a lifeline—a vital source of local information.
It is disorienting not to have regional services, and it may affect people professionally. Obviously, for example, it affects journalists if they cannot know what is going on around them. It affects politicians, too. I cannot see local political coverage—that is particularly distressing when I am on it! I could not see my own by-election on television, and that is ludicrous.
The lack of services may also affect builders. Watching television in the morning, they may not know whether they need to go to an indoor or outdoor working site because they are not seeing the right news and weather. One builder had a warehouse that burned down during the night, but he still turned up the morning because it had not been on the news.
The point is that this situation is ludicrous. To put it simplistically, people cannot understand how we can remotely repair a space probe on Mars, but not have appropriate regional television. I have raised the situation with the BBC, ITV and the Independent Television Commission at levels high and low, technical and policy. But I have made little progress, and less than my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), for Ellesmere Port and Neston and for North-West Norfolk.
Many issues surround any long-term solution. We may be able to consider coverage in the digital age when next we consider broadcasting legislation. However, there is a short-term problem, too. I receive many letters and complaints from people who feel that these problems have gone on far too long. Some constituents are considering withholding part of their licence fees. The idea of direct action does not sit comfortably with the burghers of Heswall and Gayton, and that is a measure of their frustration about a democratic deficit that disfranchises them. A television transmitter is clearly visible across the Dee, and people cannot understand why it cannot bring television coverage to them.
We must reconsider the priorities for the roll-out of television, whether for digital or for any future system. My constituents have tried all sorts of things—aerials 100 yd high, boosters and technical advice of all descriptions. None of it works. I make a simple cri de coeur on behalf of the people of the Wirral who think it is not too much to ask that they should receive appropriate regional television.
§ Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
I do not understand too much of the technical side of these issues, but I am a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which has deliberated at length on broadcasting issues. Last year, we published a wide-ranging report on the multi-media revolution, many aspects of which the Government should carefully consider.
Many parts of my constituency cannot receive Channel 5, which is a great pity. Many parts of London also receive a poor range of services, and there is a major problem in terms of coverage across the country. The current digital revolution will have a profound effect on our society in many ways. The Government's intention, stated many times, is that, we should have an information-rich and socially inclusive society. However, I have enormous concern that, if the coverage of channels across the country remains as patchy as at present, the delivery of a full range of public services will not be received by all. That is a great pity.
As has been adequately articulated across the Chamber, regional broadcasting is vitally important to many communities, both urban and rural. Many people gain the information that they need every day of their lives to go about their business and undertake their social interests and tasks.
We live in a technological age—a digital age. We must first address the social implications of the issues of inclusion and exclusion that the debate begins to unfold. Chris Smith recently announced that he is to set up a regulators forum—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. Perhaps I might remind the hon. Gentleman of the convention that we refer to, right hon. and hon. Members by their constituency titles, not by name.
§ Mr. Fraser
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has recently announced that he will set up a regulators forum to improve co-operation between the regulatory bodies involved in broadcasting. It will include the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority, the Office of Telecommunications and the Broadcasting Standards Commission. Will that body be responsible for addressing the need for further transmitters to ensure that digital coverage is universally received, as against the current situation?
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) has pointed out that we await the Government's announcement of a date for analogue switch-off so that the industry can better plan coverage. I mean not only industry organisations that deliver services, but those that produce sets and equipment. An awful lot of television sets are not compatible. My own is many years old, and I will take a lot of persuasion before changing it so that I know that I will receive a proper delivery of service.
Analogue switch-off has the potential for greater geographical coverage, but that potential can be fulfilled only with analogue switch-off, as the available power of the multiplexes is in danger of interfering with analogue television. The Select Committee report stated:We consider that the issue of analogue switch-off should be taken forward not in isolation but in the wider context of the future of universal access.271 I would be grateful for the Minister's comments on that point.
The Government must allow the digital industry to improve coverage so that in future, the 0.6 per cent. of homes that have never received any television can receive some at the quality and standard that should be received by all.
Finally, I want to make a plea for minority viewers, a subject referred to briefly by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner). Their situation illustrates the issues relating to delivery of public services. Specifically, 1 plead for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, with which I have communicated, and which has put its case extremely well.
The RNID is frustrated about Government action over subtitling and services from which those whom it represents may benefit. It suggests the implementation of a voluntary charter in consultation with broadcasters. The new digital programmers must subtitle only 5 per cent. of programmes in year one, rising to approximately 50 per cent. in year 10. Only 11 per cent. of programmes will be subtitled in 1999 on digital terrestrial television.
If our society is to be socially inclusive, allowing everyone equal access to the information that they need to go about their daily lives, in whatever circumstances, the current situation is inconsistent with that objective. Groups such as the deaf become more socially excluded rather than included.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
I shall be brief as many of the points that I intended to make have been adequately covered by hon. Members on both sides. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on the way in which he presented this matter, with which many of us have wrestled for years. Ever since I came to the House, I have battled with broadcasters to have regional anomalies between Lancashire and Yorkshire addressed. My pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Left to themselves, the broadcasters will not act. It is, therefore, proper for us to address the matter in Parliament and to design rules and procedures that will force broadcasters to address the issues.
Why do anomalies in regional broadcasting matter? Ninety-nine per cent. of people watch television. Even in 1999, 300,000 people cannot receive terrestrial transmissions, but the overwhelming majority of the population watch television. Eighty-seven per cent. of people watch television at least once a day, and the most astonishing statistic of the lot is that the average person watches 25 hours of television a week. I do not believe that. The television may be on in the corner of the room, but the idea that most people are plonked there like gigantic couch potatoes watching television for the equivalent of more than one day a week beggars belief. I challenge that statistic.
What cannot be gainsaid is the fact that most people get their news and information from the broadcast media. That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman).
272 We are still dependent on analogue; the audience is not yet fragmented, as it will be in 10, 15 or 20 years' time. However, not everyone will have access to the digital age. The Government must address that problem, and they are doing so.
The West Craven part of my constituency used to be in Yorkshire, until the Conservatives wrenched it out in the local government reorganisation of 1974. Many people there still feel an affinity with Yorkshire, which is reinforced when they pay their water bills to Yorkshire Water or their electricity bills to Yorkshire Electricity. Thanks to what the Conservatives did, Yorkshire Electricity may now be owned by Americans, but that identity and that sense of place is still important.
When my West Craven constituents switch on their televisions, they see Yorkshire Television. About 25 per cent. of my constituents never see me on regional television—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] I am sure that that is a blessing in disguise. None the less, it implies a democratic deficit. Never mind about me; what about Liberal Democrat-controlled Pendle borough council, which is constantly vying with Labour-controlled Lancashire county council, and which smothers the area in "Focus" leaflets denouncing the county council for cutting back on winter gritting, for its education policies or for supposed cuts in the fire service? When people turn on their televisions, those concerns are not reflected. There is no comment about them and no analysis of the issues. That means a serious democratic deficit.
On 6 May, when I slump down in my armchair in the middle of the night after the local elections and switch on my television, 1 shall see the results from Scunthorpe and the rest of Lincolnshire, and from Leeds and North Yorkshire. I will not be able to see the results for the council that is coterminous with my parliamentary constituency.
The problem is about more than politics. There are, or could be, other serious consequences. In December 1996, there was an E. coli outbreak in West Craven, which struck down eight people. Fortunately, none of them died, but some were seriously ill. Granada and the BBC north-west region covered the story, but those programmes cannot be picked up in West Craven, the very area that the outbreak struck. Yorkshire Television did not cover the story because it considered that the outbreak was out of area. That is an extreme example of how regional anomalies can have a serious impact on a place.
What about the future for West Craven? We are not cabled. The way in which the previous Government drew up the licences, and the way in which companies were allowed to bid for the franchises, meant that they did not have to take into account rural or semi-rural areas. They did not have to take account of towns such as Barnoldswick, where I, along with 10,000 other people, live, or Skipton, over the border in Yorkshire—so cable is no solution.
We cannot get Channel 5 either. That is supposed to reach 70 per cent. of the population, but in Pendle, we shall be in the other 30 per cent. The digital revolution is now unfolding—the first digital transmission was in November last year—but we are not in that digital age. We are told that the 81 transmitters will reach 90 per cent. of the population. Last night, the Library staff helpfully dug out for me the Independent Television Commission's CD-ROM that prints out maps of the areas that will be 273 reached by digital broadcasts from the transmitters. There is Winter hill, the main transmitter in the north-west, and Pendle forest, a relay transmitter. The map makes it clear that on 17 May, when the switch is turned on, large areas of my constituency will not be able to pick up digital transmissions.
ONdigital is plastering the country with purple advertisements, but in large parts of my constituency, we cannot receive it, and there is nothing that ONdigital can do about that. I refer the Minister to her Department's document "Television: The Digital Future—A consultation document", which was published in February 1998. I do not think that the Government have yet made their proposals based on the consultation, but page 4 says about the reach of digital terrestrial:The Government will be discussing with the Independent Television Commission and the BBC the spectrum planning of digital terrestrial television transmissions beyond the initial 81 sites to extend coverage into those areas unserved by the first stages of the terrestrial transmission network.
That is the key. I do not want my constituents, any more than people elsewhere in the country, to have to wait for the benefits of the new information age until analogue is switched off in another 10 or 15 years. There must be an early programme to ensure that areas such as mine, outside the big urban areas and forgotten by the broadcasters, get the benefits of the new technology just as people living in the big conurbations do.
§ Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing the debate and on so comprehensively and directly addressing the important issues. I hope that the broadcasters will have listened carefully to the debate and will respond to the existing anomalies that the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members mentioned.
Given the power and influence of television, broadcasting is an important subject. In addition to its entertainment value, it is a source of information, bringing into the home vital up-to-the-minute news, current affairs, politics and weather forecasts—even if, as we have heard, some people get weather forecasts from other parts of the country.
Teletext services are also valuable, providing up-to-date information on an impressive array of subjects such as jobs, travel, accommodation, business news and share prices. They even provide lonely hearts columns.
Television has a role to play in increasing awareness of the arts, such as ballet and opera. It provides visual access to many sports, and performs an educative role in the form of the Open university and the BBC's "Learning Zone" broadcasts. It is especially important to the elderly, the infirm and the housebound. It now dominates all other media.
That said, we are undergoing a broadcasting revolution that may soon make existing technology appear crude and old-fashioned. That revolution means that broadcasting is one of the biggest growth sectors of the age, creating many opportunities and jobs. The most exciting thing about the revolution, which was started by the previous Government, is that the United Kingdom is leading the world. We are the first country to have digital terrestrial television. Industry sources have noted the number of 274 visitors coming from abroad to seek advice. Sky and ONdigital have impressive initial subscriber numbers, and it is fitting that the nation that gave the world television should be in the driving seat, leading the way in television's digital revolution. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) for bringing in the Broadcasting Act 1996, which created the environment in which the digital revolution has expanded and become such an enormous success story. As a consequence of the Act, which reflected so much foresight, Britain leads the way.
Digital television is available in two formats, terrestrial and satellite, with a third—cable—to be launched early in the next millennium. That diversity will not only bring genuine choice to consumers but create healthy competition, which can force prices down. It is certainly in the interests of all to ensure that competition continues to extend throughout the industry. The fact that we are only at the beginning of this new technological era leads one to consider whether we are better advised to intervene now and risk unintended consequences or to allow things to sort themselves out naturally, perhaps taking action on analogue switch-off once things have become clearer. To echo my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), will the Minister announce a firm date for switch-off, or will it be subject to the take-up of the new technology? Independent analysts predict about 24 million subscribers by 2008, a number many think too low to warrant the shut-down of analogue services.
The regional anomalies in television broadcasting were ably highlighted by many hon. Members. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) shares many of the concerns of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk about coverage in her constituency. The present analogue system boasts 99.4 per cent. coverage of United Kingdom households. That means that fewer than 1 per cent. of households cannot receive a television signal. Some communities in remote areas are deprived of the benefits of television, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) noted. It is desirable that digital television should provide at least that level of coverage, or, at best, universal coverage. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's view on that.
I welcome the Minister's recent comments outside the House that digital needs to be inclusive of all members of society and that we should ensure that we maximise the potential for digital to increase its accessibility. If we are serious about embracing digital technology, it must be accessible to all. Digital broadcasting is in its infancy. We have heard about the considerable difficulties in extending the desired coverage in mid-Wales, northern England, Scotland and elsewhere. For various reasons, fully 30 per cent. of households cannot have a satellite dish. Cable television is available to only 43 per cent. of households, and digital will not be available on that platform until after 2000. More encouragingly, it is estimated that digital terrestrial television will be available to 93 per cent. of households by February 2000. That growth was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) last week in the House. Those matters must be considered to ensure that no long-term problems arise on the coverage front. 275 The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk noted an anomaly in his constituency and referred to a serious assault in Heacham. It was extraordinary that the television reconstruction was seen by 750,000 people but not by those who live in and around the area of the crime.
The switch from analogue to digital has potential problems of its own. If it is decided that the switch should be phased in region by region, it may lead to disputes about boundaries, possibly creating a disincentive for take-up in areas known to be down the line. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, the introduction of digital television presents a theoretically golden opportunity to iron out regional anomalies. However, given the huge technological changes envisaged in the next few years, people are concerned about several aspects, such as transmission to difficult locations.
What will be done to ensure that coverage reaches at least the 99.4 per cent. achieved by analogue transmission? Will the market be enough for that, or is Government intervention necessary? If so, when should such action be taken? Should digital be phased in regionally, or is the big-bang approach best? Are regulations to bring about standardised, inter-operable equipment advisable or necessary? Those are only some of the many questions that need to be addressed.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned the anomaly that affects the deaf. As the Royal National Institute for Deaf People has told us, the low subtitling targets required of digital terrestrial broadcasters mean that people who are deaf or hard of hearing are effectively excluded from the digital revolution and all its benefits. New digital programme providers must subtitle only 5 per cent. of their programmes in year 1, rising to 50 per cent. in year 10. When averaged with the analogue simulcast targets, that brings the overall accessible output for hearing-impaired people to only 11 per cent. this year. With many more digital channels expected, that number is unlikely to improve. I shall write to the Minister to express my concerns in more detail. I feel sure that she will want to reflect on the problems of people with hearing difficulties.
The potential benefits of digitisation are immense. We should do all in our power to ensure that we have the most competitive possible marketplace to drive standards up and prices down and, we hope, to alleviate the regional anomalies described in this debate. However, I believe that it would not be correct to intervene in the digital marketplace now. Irrespective of how well meaning and admirable the desired outcomes of an intervention might be, there is a distinct possibility that the actual outcomes would be different. The Opposition believe that it would be better to allow expansion to take place as naturally as possible. It would be a great shame to act now and risk unduly hindering this complex technological revolution and the huge benefits that it can undoubtedly deliver.
In this process, I hope that coverage anomalies will be tackled. I urge the Independent Television Commission and the broadcasters to keep the issue firmly in their sights as a major concern, and the Government to hear what has been said this morning and to remind the broadcasters of what is at stake.
§ The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson)
I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing the debate and on introducing his ten-minute Bill the other day. The debate and the Bill address what is an important issue for many of our constituents. I thank him particularly because the subject is one that people often avoid; they feel that its technicalities are difficult. They are indeed complex, but, at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing: a better service for our constituents. We hope that a service can be extended to those who are unfortunate enough to be unable to receive it at present.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members have pointed out how much people like to watch their own regional news. It is rather ironic that, at a time when we are seeing the growth of community television channels and when we are doing everything possible, through the regional development agencies and so on, to encourage people to develop regional identity, too many people are still unable to receive their regional television news.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) pointed out that some of his constituents could not receive television signals at all. I did not realise that that was still the case, even though I know Hexham well—I was born in Newcastle, just down the road. I welcome his reference to the helpful BBC leaflet that explains that it is possible to receive satellite television without subscribing to Sky. That is a welcome development from the BBC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) said that his constituents could receive only Welsh news from Wales and Wolverhampton. That problem is not technically insoluble. As he helpfully suggests, I shall talk to some of my colleagues in other Departments to find out what can be done to release spectrum.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) complained that some of his constituents could receive only Geordie news. if he wants a translation, perhaps I could provide one. The hon. Gentleman referred to cricket in Lancashire and Yorkshire; I shall not dwell on that matter for too long, but I do not know whether he has noticed that Mr. Deputy Speaker is wearing a Yorkshire county cricket club tie—that is most appropriate for this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) told us that he had been campaigning on this issue ever since he became a Member of Parliament. We know that, and I pay tribute to him for the way in which he has never lost an opportunity to present the concerns of his constituents. I very much agree with him that the subject of this debate is not a frivolous one. I was especially interested in what he said about the safety aspects: he pointed out that there are chemical plants and a nuclear facility in his area but that, often, people could not receive news about emergencies at those plants. That is extremely worrying. He also pointed out that he could not even watch coverage of his own by-election.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) made an important point about social exclusion. Television can contribute towards including people throughout society. We are considering that matter. He also mentioned fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wanted to bring together a regulators 277 forum. We are considering that matter in the Department. The hon. Gentleman made the helpful suggestion that such a forum could investigate regional anomalies. He referred to the report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport; we always take particular notice of what is said by his and my colleagues on that Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) probably summed up the matter when he said that the broadcasters will not act if they are left to themselves. I hope that that will not be the case, but I suspect that it might be true. Any pressure that can be exerted by Parliament will certainly be most welcome. The issue is important and we should not allow it to go away.
It is most welcome that the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) so often agrees with us on these issues. I am delighted to hear that he and his colleagues agree with our evolutionary approach to what is happening in broadcasting. We believe that it is wise to allow the expansion to take place before the Government take action. It would be a huge error to do something only to find, six months later, that we had done the wrong thing.
The delivery of the correct regional services was an important issue in the planning of the analogue transmitter network. Nevertheless, we recognise that there are still a number of areas in the UK where consumers do not have access to television transmissions that carry programmes from the correct region. To date, the priority of the BBC, the Independent Television Commission and the Government has been to ensure that as many people in the UK as possible can receive a service. Sadly, it has not been a priority to improve coverage of the correct regional variations.
Many hon. Members have referred to the problems of the hard of hearing and those with sensory disabilities. I reassure the House that we have held discussions with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People about that, and I am today writing to the broadcasters to ask them what they are doing to encourage the development of digital services. In particular, we shall point out the need for more subtitling on television. We shall also refer to the problem of regional anomalies.
I understand the argument that digital technology, which increases the number of television services that can be broadcast, should enable regional anomalies to be corrected. Certainly, digital compression techniques do enable a number of services to be carried on a single multiplex, transmitted on one frequency channel. In the future, those techniques may be refined further so that the number of services transmitted at any one time can be increased.
278 The Government recognise the importance of providing the correct regional services, wherever possible. While analogue transmissions continue, it is unlikely that additional frequency channels could be found to use digital television transmission to rectify regional anomalies. However, we have asked the broadcasters to take into account the possibility of resolving such anomalies in future planning exercises and we shall continue to do so.
The Government want to encourage early and widespread access to the benefits offered by new digital technology. An announcement of a date for the switch-over from analogue to digital transmission will be an important driver in the take-up and success of digital television. The Government want to announce a switch-over date as soon as possible; that will be done as soon as is practicable. However, we are keen to ensure that the date we give is announced with sufficient certainty to give industry and consumers confidence in making their investment and purchasing decisions. That can be done only on the basis of a properly considered strategy, set against the background of actual digital services that are winning public acceptance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred to a consultation paper, which we published in February 1998, entitled "Television: The Digital Future". That document dealt with the ways in which digital television and its benefits could best be introduced throughout the UK and how the switch from analogue to digital services could take place. We are now considering the responses to that consultation paper. A significant number were in favour of a Government announcement, within two years, of either a firm date or a target date. A significant body of opinion also favoured the timing of the announcement being based on criteria being met—for example, that of 50 per cent. penetration of digital services, or of near-universal penetration of digital services. Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk for introducing his ten-minute Bill, which made such a valuable contribution in encouraging the debate.
A co-ordinated planning exercise will be needed to assess the various issues that the switch-over to digital transmission will raise. One of those issues will be the priority to be given to resolving regional reception anomalies. Work on that is already in hand, and I can tell the House that we expect to say more on that matter before the summer recess.
I conclude by thanking everyone who has contributed to this important debate. For far too long, people have been reluctant to address this issue. The debate is a most welcome contribution and, like the hon. Member for West Suffolk, I hope that the broadcasters are listening.