HC Deb 10 March 2003 vol 401 cc1-3
1. Norman Baker (Lewes)

If she will make a statement on access to digital television. [101454]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells)

I understand that you, Mr. Speaker, and the hon. Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for North Devon (Nick Harvey) have been informed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not able to be in the Chamber today.

Figures provided by the broadcasters and the Independent Television Commission indicate that there are now between 9.6 million and 9.9 million UK households with access to digital television. We continue to work with stakeholders towards meeting the two primary objectives set out in the digital television action plan: to make the UK the leader in digital television in the G7 and to achieve the criteria that will allow us to complete digital switchover.

Norman Baker

I am grateful to the Minister, but what does he say to my constituents who can receive neither digital terrestrial television, and hence the BBC's new services, nor access cable? They want to know why they have to pay twice, first through the licence fee for services that they cannot get, and secondly through Sky to access services that the rest of us get for nothing. What will the Minister do to ensure that the BBC rolls out services to those who do not have them before embarking on new provision?

Dr. Howells

There are two parts to that question. The hon. Gentleman asks me what I would say to his constituents. I would say exactly the same thing as I say to my constituents who also cannot get digital terrestrial signals: it will come. We are working with all broadcasters, including the BBC, to ensure that we achieve more than 80 per cent. coverage. Coverage for all six multiplexes is about 73 per cent., but by concentrating on the 80 main transmitters, we hope to increase coverage to 80 per cent. across the country; then, we will work on those areas whose topography makes them more difficult. I am confident that we will get there, and sooner than people have predicted.

Mr. Chris Bryant Rhondda)

Much as I hate to agree with a Liberal Democrat, there is a sense in many constituencies that the slowness of the BBC and Crown Castle's roll-out of digital terrestrial television is a problem. The Minister's constituency might fall within the 80 per cent. coverage, but I suspect that Rhondda does not, and my constituents would like to know when the Government hope they will get digital terrestrial television.

Another problem is that BBC 3 and BBC 4 are available only in digital form and cable television is still analogue in many parts of the country. Will the Minister permit the BBC to provide analogue BBC 3 and BBC 4?

Dr. Howells

I cannot envisage that happening, as my hon. Friend well knows. However, at least four wards in my constituency—which I suppose are classified as Rhondda wards, despite the fact that my hon. Friend's constituency covers only the northern part of the area—are similarly affected, and we, too, have a lot of steep hillsides. I am absolutely confident that at the point of switchover our constituents will not receive a service that is in any way worse than in any other part of the country. We shall certainly discuss the services he mentioned with the BBC.

Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Does the Minister agree that until all homes have ready access to digital TV, many people's best chance to see digital TV sports coverage is in their local pub? Can he explain why a pub can entertain people with a large digital television set showing a pop concert, whereas, under his Licensing Bill, if it wants to offer small-scale live music, a licence will be required? Does he understand the anxiety felt by many people, including the readers of the Western Morning News, which is running a campaign on the issue, that the measure will imperil live music in pubs?

Dr. Howells

That is the most ingenious question that I have heard in three weeks.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Does my hon. Friend agree with me and our hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, that access to digital television is central to the Government's stated aim of e-delivery of Government services, and that my constituents, most of whom do not have a computer but almost all of whom have a television, are in grave danger of being left behind in the e-revolution? What message can I take to my constituents in Wemyss Bay and Inverkip, some of whom cannot even get Channel Five—although I have told them that they are not missing much—to persuade them that the Government take the matter seriously? Do the Govt acknowledge that the issue is not merely better television services, but the future of e-delivery of Government services?

Dr. Howells

The Government take e-delivery of Government services very seriously. Our work to get libraries and schools on stream is acknowledged everywhere as groundbreaking and revolutionary, and I am confident that there will be no deficit in terms of communities' access to the internet. My hon. Friend is right to speak of television as a means of accessing the internet. I am sure that he knows about the large amount of work being done by many companies at technical level to make the interactive element of television much more sophisticated and faster than it is now. I am confident that soon we will take great strides in that respect.