Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Michael Fabricant rose—

Amendment agreed to.

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I am curious as to why I was not called.

The Chairman: Quite simply, because the debate is becoming circular, although it is narrow. The hon. Member for Vale of York has wound up from the Opposition Front Bench and the Chairman has taken a view.

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Question proposed, That clause 7, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Michael Fabricant: I agree that clause 7 should stand part of the Bill, but it does not cover what happens now that amendment No. 33 has been passed. The clause does not deal with the question of what happens to the public purse if the assets—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order. The clause debates the short title, the commencement and the extent of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman is not speaking to the content of the clause, and is now trying to speak to the content of a subsection that has just been deleted. He either remains in order or returns to his seat.

Michael Fabricant: I return to my seat.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 12, Noes 4.

Division No. 8]

Allan, Mr. Richard Grogan, Mr. John Howells, Dr. Kim Jackson, Glenda Kemp, Mr. Fraser Linton, Martin
Miller, Mr. Andrew Pearson, Mr. Ian Rammell, Mr. Bill Thomas, Mr. Simon White, Brian Wyatt, Derek

Fabricant, Michael McIntosh, Miss Anne
Robertson, Mr. Laurence Watkinson, Angela

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

Digital television

    'It shall be a duty of OFCOM to make proposals to the Secretary of State on the regulatory requirements relating to analogue switch off and full conversion to digital television within one year of OFCOM's establishment.'.—[Miss McIntosh.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Miss McIntosh: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am grateful for this opportunity to move new clause 1, Mr. Gale. Several new clauses were tabled that have not been called for debate, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss them on a future occasion.

New clause 1 speaks for itself. Paragraph 72 of the report on the White Paper ''A New Future for Communications'' by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport urges the Government to consider that

    Access to the Internet can be an important driver of the take-up of digital television, and the expansion of digital television services can be fundamental to achievement of the Government's objective of universal Internet access by 2005.

This debate gives us an opportunity to ask the Minister to confirm whether that is still the Government's objective. The Select Committee went on to say that it is also

    concerned that these links are not readily apparent in the two separate Government policies at present.

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It recommends that

    the promotion of Internet access through digital television become a more prominent element in Government policy for the Internet and that the promotion of digital television by the Government and the industry lay greater stress than is currently evident on digital television as an easy and affordable gateway to the Internet.

The Government's reply to that was very positive, saying that

    the digital television action plan should ensure that the synergies between Internet access, digital television and the delivery of Government services electronically are developed. Linked with a telephone line, the television (analogue or digital) can provide an easy means of gaining access to the Internet for those without a personal computer (PC). Much of the material available on the Internet, however, is designed for access through a PC, and we must be careful to see that consumers are not deterred from using the Internet by a poor early experience through the television.

The BBC told us that the take-up of digital television has been rapid. In three years, more than 9 million homes—more than a third of the country—have gone digital. The BBC reckons that nearly half of the nation's children, 46 per cent., live in a house with digital television. The vast majority of homes with digital television have chosen one of the three pay-television options, and the BBC goes on to elaborate those. The downside is that two thirds of the population remain on analogue, and most have only five channels. Among that group the story is one of overriding confusion about digital, and I would probably count myself as such a person.

Many people are unsure what digital offers or how they could go about getting it if they wanted it. The range of providers, packages and platforms is daunting. Broadly, the older people are, the less they know about digital and the less they think they want it. Just more than one third of people think that they are likely to go digital in the next five years; just under a half think that they may go digital; 21 per cent. think that they will stay analogue. A point that was made forcibly during the Christmas shopping period and the January sales was that nine out of 10 sets sold in 2001 were analogue. The Government seem to want to switch to digital, but we do not see the action to make that a reality.

Mr. Allan: Does the hon. Lady accept that, from a technical point of view, the best option is to buy traditional television sets and then to obtain digital television access by having a separate set-top box or other device? The sale of analogue televisions is not a measure of the failure to roll out DTV.

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman will be aware from local BBC that Pace in west Yorkshire has launched a box that will be on sale for £99. [Hon. Members: ''It is already on sale.''] I accept that. The problem is that a separate box is required for each analogue set in a home. Hon. Members who have, as I do, a London flat and a constituency home would need two boxes.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): In fact, you need only one box to link your other televisions sets at home. You can watch different programmes throughout the house.

The Chairman: Order. I cannot, because I do not have digital television in east Kent. The hon. Gentleman was addressing the Chair.

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Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman's information is most welcome because the briefing that I received from the company that makes the set-top box suggested that one box would be needed for each television.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): NEC helped to develop the box with Pace and carried out the research in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) is correct. Internet access is an active occupation and watching television is a passive occupation. How does the hon. Lady reconcile those?

Miss McIntosh: I always feel that I should be involved when watching television, but perhaps that is at the end of a working day. The hon. Gentleman's intervention was helpful. The Government have made several policy statements to the effect that universal access to the internet will enable more and more people to have access to the technology that they hope will be available throughout the country. On page 32 of the White Paper, the Government envisaged people such as me, who are not as computer-literate as we would like to be. Paragraph 3.10, which is headed ''Supporting individuals in using the new communications technologies'', states that the Government

    will ensure that relevant education and training programmes allow everyone to maximise the opportunities afforded by these new communications technologies—both to improve the quality of their lives and to enhance their work prospects.

Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend want to include in the proposals support, help and protection for the many elderly people who may not want to buy a modern television? My mother-in-law was reluctant even to change channels with the remote control and had no interest in developing technology. We do not want to cut off viewers who want to retain their analogue sets. I am sure that my hon. Friend would want to incorporate that in the proposals.

Miss McIntosh: Not only would I wish to incorporate that generation, I would like someone to tell me after the Committee how to set my video recorder when I am not in the room. Many of us will wait until our analogue sets break and we have no alternative but to change to digital television. As a Scot by birth, I can say that the price will have to fall substantially before I am moved to accept it.

The new clause is a challenge to the Government and would make it

    a duty of OFCOM to make proposals to the Secretary of State on the regulatory requirements relating to analogue switch off and full conversion to digital television within one year of OFCOM's establishment.

The Opposition would like a target date of 2006. There is a discrepancy between that and this proposal. However, I hope that the Minister is minded to support the new clause.

5.30 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The new clause is important and reasonable. I am sure that the Minister will be tempted to accept it, regardless of what he may have been advised.

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The frustration caused by the digital versus analogue debate is considerable. At my instigation, the Broadcasting Act 1996 set up a timetable for guidance. Officials do not sit in Committee, but if they did, they might nod their heads, and I would have noticed them doing so at that point. I was concerned that if the timetable were not included, the concept of analogue switch-off would not be grasped. We set a five-year target of 50 per cent. That was not terribly realistic, but I wanted people to understand that the process would take place. I chide the Government for not having grasped the issue early enough, but I credit them for doing so in the last month or two.

The appointment of Barry Cox from Channel 4 to galvanise interest is a great step forward. ONdigital, now ITV Digital, raised the question of whether new sets were marked as digital. Many people purchased widescreen television sets assuming that they were digital. They then had to either adapt their existing set-top boxes or obtain separate boxes, which meant competitive giveaways for a while.

All of those factors complicate a worthwhile Government objective; the transfer from analogue to digital. That ranges more widely than television. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) said, the objective effectively brings the internet into every house in the country. I think that there are about 45 million televisions in the country and the penetration rate is significantly higher than 90 per cent. I will defer to the Minister if he has up-to-date figures. There are 21 million households in this country, so the average would be two sets per house. Digital television would contribute far better than any computer in terms of the Government's target of ensuring that everyone is online. Television, cable and satellite companies are aware of that tremendous opportunity. The Government have a real interest in clarifying a date for analogue switch-off.

The spectrum that surrounds the transmitters is valuable. The analogue signal has to be kicked on each time it hits a transmitter, which causes distortion of the spectrum. Valuable radio spectrum can now be auctioned off. I hate to use the word ''auctioned'' because Ministers' eyes click up pound signs. That spectrum can be used for alternative purposes, which I do not have time to describe. Depending on the latest estimates of the worth of that spectrum, there could be a way of facilitating the buy-out of the residual owners of analogue sets, or some form of cross-subsidy, to enable the Minister to get at the people who might not wish to switch. Unless we make them switch, we will be unable to shut off the analogue transmitters across the country.

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