HL Deb 26 January 2005 vol 668 cc1262-4

2.53 p.m.

Lord Campbell-Savours asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the coverage of Freeview within the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, at present around 73 per cent of UK households can access digital terrestrial television services. This figure cannot be increased before switchover.

The Government are committed to ensuring that at digital switchover everyone who can currently get the main public service broadcasting channels in analogue form (that is, BBC1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4/S4C and Five) can receive them on digital systems. The BBC and Ofcom estimate that completion of switchover can be achieved by 2012.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, but that means that 27 per cent of the country and, indeed, the whole population of the county of Cumbria cannot receive digital Freeview television until switchover. Has my noble friend any information that he can give us on when we can expect to receive that full range of digital services in the county of Cumbria?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my arithmetic is the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. No, I cannot make an announcement about the roll-out of digital switchover, although we shall be consulting on that very shortly and Ofcom will be consulting on it next month. However, my noble friend may have noticed that the draft digital replacement licences which were published by Ofcom in December include not only the final date but also the first transmitter regions to be addressed. The first one happens to be Border.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury

My Lords, will the Government give assurance that when digital switchover occurs, it will not lead to domination by Sky and other such services, but that the freed-up spectrum will be used to enhance the range of free-to-air programmes?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we have always given an undertaking that when digital switchover takes place it will be affordable and accessible. You have to read those two together to draw the conclusion that we are relying fundamentally on digital terrestrial television to achieve the conditions for switchover.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that Freeview is a real success story. However, will he inform the House what the Government are doing to encourage or, indeed, put pressure upon manufacturers and retailers of television sets to ensure that we can now purchase, and are encouraged to purchase, digital televisions? If we walk into a retailer most of us will buy analogue sets. Surely it is time that people are informed and encouraged to purchase digital or analogue sets with integrated tuners.

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I entirely agree that Freeview is a huge success. The relevant figure has reached almost 4 million from nothing in something like two years, which is quite an achievement. I also agree that it is very important that everyone, including manufacturers and retailers, should be making customers aware of the availability of integrated digital television sets and, of course, of set-top boxes. That is why, with the co-operation of the major retailers and manufacturers, we have launched the digital tick logo which is available in retailers with explanatory material and a stick-on for approved materials. We are also carrying out a major public relations campaign. When we make the announcement about all the details of the roll-out towards digital switchover in the course of this year, we will, of course, intensify those efforts.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, admirable as the success of Freeview is, is it not unfortunate and not really in the public interest that Test matches and crucial Premier League football matches should be available, and likely to remain available, only on the expensive, profit-driven Sky television channel?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I can see that the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, has touched a chord in the House with his question. I think it is well known that the Government have their disagreements with the English Cricket Board and some other sporting authorities about the way in which negotiations have been conducted with broadcasters, and sympathise with the view, which we have endeavoured to protect with the listed events procedure, that major sporting events should be available free-to-view.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, when the digital switchover comes, will all those who have only analogue televisions be required to buy a new television? If so, what do the Government propose to do to dispose of all the excess analogue televisions that will be floating around the country?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, I touched on the answer to that question. It is possible to get digital without disposing of your analogue television by buying a set-top box. So it is not necessarily the case that there will be more analogue sets being thrown out.

However, the choice between integrated digital television and an analogue set with a set-top box is a matter for consumers themselves.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, can we be assured that at the time of switchover, Skysat will not be in a position to exploit the market?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is referring to Freesat, which is the offer from BSkyB to provide digital satellite services for a fee of something like £150 with no obligatory subscription. That is a useful addition to the other expansion of digital, which is being carried out both on terrestrial television and by cable.