Clause 5

Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:45 pm ar 16 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn


Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in clause 5, page 4, line 9, after ‘switchover’, insert

‘, which must treat digital retail television services and digital television broadcasting platforms equally in respect of all aspects mentioned, including pricing, brand names, availability and packages and’.

I very much hope that the amendment is appropriately drafted for the remarks that I intend to make in the remaining 10 minutes of the sitting. The amendment is designed to make it absolutely clear that  the BBC, or the scheme operator involved in targeted help for switchover, ensures that the advice that it gives to those in receipt of help is platform neutral, as the jargon of digital television has it. As hon. Members will know, one is able to access digital television through a variety of mediums. There is the set-top box, with the brand name freeview; a satellite receiver, mainly through Sky, which I have mentioned before, which also operates a subsidised scheme called freesat; and cable, the dominant operator effectively being NTL-Telewest.

There are at present a number of difficulties with that wealth of choice because freeview, which is the scheme that the BBC promotes, is, as one might expect, the most widely used scheme. It involves no subscription, merely the purchase of a set-top box. Also, pertinently, it has behind it the massive marketing power of the BBC which regularly promotes digital terrestrial television by the brand name freeview, whereas it obviously does not refer to the opportunities to receive a programme through Sky or NTL-Telewest. That obviously gives freeview a massive marketing opportunity.

As the Government have made clear—from the point of view of the taxpayer, this is a sensible point—they intend to make available in the targeted switchover scheme the cheapest possible form of digital television. That will be through a digital set-top box.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I do not know whether it would assist the hon. Gentleman, but has he had a chance to look at the help scheme document which we deposited in the Library before Christmas? It makes it crystal clear that the help scheme will be operated on a platform-neutral basis.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

That is made clear, but I fail to see how that can be compatible with the fact that the help scheme will also be operated on the basis of the cheapest option available, which has to be a set-top box rather than a satellite receiver. Anyone who wants to upgrade will have to pay an additional sum. Given that the Minister has made that admission, no doubt he will have no problem with writing into the Bill the need for platform neutrality.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed PPS (Mr Tony McNulty, Minister of State), Home Office

One of the issues that has emerged from the Whitehaven area in recent weeks and months is that take-up of Sky has gone through the roof. That is an important point when considering platform neutrality.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

It certainly is. As there is an increasing consensus that there is a need for platform neutrality I assume that hon. Members will be keen to ensure that that is written into the Bill.

I have been in correspondence with some of the operators other than the BBC, who say that although they fully expect the Minister to say that an amendment is unnecessary, that is not their view. They point to their experience with the BBC, which is happy  to refer to digital terrestrial television by its well-known brand name, freeview. The commercial operators who must compete against the BBC are keen to see platform neutrality written into the Bill.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Creative Industries & Tourism)

I hope that I can deal with amendment No. 7 relatively quickly. Its purpose seems to be to insert a legal assurance into the Bill. The questions are whether that is necessary and whether the clause is the right place in which to make that insertion. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve, but I am not sure that his amendment would succeed.

The definition of digital switchover help scheme in the Bill is just that—a definition. It is neither workable nor practicable to amend the definition by placing substantive conditions on the way in which the scheme operates. Those conditions will, rightly, be included in the scheme agreement with the BBC and in the various contractual arrangements that will underpin the scheme.

I am more than happy to offer the hon. Gentleman assurances that digital switchover will be conducted on a platform-neutral basis. The White Paper says that the Government will continue to be platform-neutral in its public policy, and we have reiterated that principle in relation to the help scheme. I have drawn the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the digital help scheme document, which was deposited in the Library before Christmas and which sets that out clearly.

Our policy is to support a wider range of digital platforms because that means more choice for consumers. Digital switchover has always been about choice for consumers—not just choice of programmes and channels, but choice of platforms. Our policies on the help scheme and on digital switchover generally are built on the principle of platform neutrality. The amendment would do nothing to add to that well established policy. As the clause is about definition and because it is neither workable nor practicable to amend the definition in a way that places substantive conditions on the way in which the scheme operates, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I hear what the Minister says, and I understand that he will resist the amendment. I do not intend to press it to a vote, but I want to reiterate a number of points.

The Minister said that the document published by his Department makes it clear that the scheme will be platform neutral. He may be referring to paragraph 5.25 of that document, but it is merely words and makes it absolutely clear that if someone does not take a digital set-top box, but takes an integrated system, a satellite system or a cable system, they will be required to pay the difference between the cost of a set-top box and the cost of those slightly more sophisticated systems. On any analysis, that is not an equal choice and I cannot see how it can be reconciled with what any hon. Member would assume is platform neutrality or, layman’s terms, a level playing field.

When we debated an earlier amendment, the Minister referred to the obvious point that the Bill must comply with disability legislation. Many of the organisations involved in advocating the rights of  disabled groups say that the basic set-top box will not have the interactivity and technical complexity to access the sort of services that many people with severe disabilities, particularly visual impairment, require. I urge the Minister to accept the spirit of the amendment and to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society have a genuine free choice.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

Adjourned accordingly at One o’clock, till this day at Four o’clock.