20 July 2009 : Column 561
House of Commons
Monday 20 July 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Digital Radio Switchover
1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of progress on digital radio switchover; and if he will make a statement. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Siôn Simon): The “Digital Britain” White Paper set out the Government’s vision for the delivery of the digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015. We have committed to a review of the progress towards that timetable in spring 2010, and we have also asked Ofcom to review and publish progress against the upgrade criteria at least once a year, starting next year.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Is the Minister not aware that “Digital Britain” has in fact failed to address the inadequacies of digital radio broadcasting coverage? I am sure that he will agree with that comment. Representations made to me so far suggest that the idea of a switchover is currently very unpopular. Instead of rushing ahead with the switchover, will he take positive action to allow people to see some tangible benefits?
Mr. Simon: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are rushing ahead. We have said that we will move Britain to digital by 2015. That gives consumers and the industry six years to make the upgrade, which we are doing because we are committed to radio, we believe in radio and we love radio, and radio will not have a future unless it goes digital. We are not switching off FM, and we are putting new services on the FM spectrum that is vacated by the services which move to digital audio broadcasting, because we want to see radio prosper and grow in the digital age.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend aware that switchover is affecting valued services on both radio and television? I have been lobbied by Teachers TV, which fears that it will lose an enormous part of its audience because the Department for Children, Schools and Families is stipulating that it must switch over totally to digital.
Mr. Simon: We are ensuring with radio switchover that community organisations and small community radio stations, which might currently be able to broadcast for only two weeks a year, will inherit the FM spectrum currently taken up by big regional and national FM broadcasters. Precisely such small, commercial, local community organisations will be able to flourish in the digital future in a way that they are technologically constrained from doing now.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Minister is a Welsh speaker, so is he aware of the fears for the future of Radio Cymru, the BBC’s Welsh language national service? It is not currently available on digital and will not be available in large swathes of western Wales for reasons of topography.
Mr. Simon: I have, with personal regret, to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not really a Welsh speaker. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Dwi’n dysgu, ’de? I should have been a Welsh speaker. We are alive to the particular problems of Wales. There are serious problems with coverage, not just with respect to Radio Cymru but with digital coverage throughout Wales. We have made it clear that the nations and regions that are furthest behind in digital coverage will be the first priority for the most serious intervention, to ensure that they are not left behind when we move to digital. We have made it clear also that we will not move to digital unless 90 per cent. coverage at the very least is achieved.
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I start by welcoming you to your post, Mr. Speaker—an elevation that was only marginally more likely than man walking on the moon, which happened 40 years ago today. I offer you my congratulations. I am sure that you will want to join me in offering the congratulations of the whole House to the England cricket team, which won an historic victory today—their first victory over the Australians at Lord’s for 75 years. We would also like to congratulate the Minister on taking up his post in the DCMS team. The Government’s own figures state that there are 65 million analogue radios in circulation, and they hope that the cost of digital radios will fall to £20 a set. That means that the cost of upgrading the nation’s analogue radio stock will surpass £1 billion. Who will pay that £1 billion? Will it be the Government, or will it be consumers?
Mr. Simon: Mr. Speaker, I should apologise for having forgotten to congratulate you; I thought that we were taking your position for granted by now, but it is my first time speaking under your chairmanship. I offer my very sincere congratulations. I never thought that your elevation was unlikely.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): What about cricket?
Mr. Simon: The hon. Gentleman shouts “cricket” from a sedentary position. I can tell him that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), was at the cricket, which almost certainly accounts for the first English victory at Lord’s since, I believe, 1934. In response to what we might call the “Tory sums” of the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt)— [Interruption.] No, Tory sums. We do not know how many analogue radios are in circulation; it may be 65 million. The first point to make is that those sets will not become redundant. The FM spectrum will be well used for new services that are currently squeezed out. We are working with industry to come up with sets that are consistently priced at £20 or less. That will enable consumers to add to the 9 million digital sets—
Mr. Speaker: Order. May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who has been extremely generous in his remarks, that I do not want to have to press the switch-off button, but I am a bit alarmed that he has a second point in mind? It might be better if he kept it for the long winter evenings.
Mr. Hunt: The point is that if people use their analogue sets, they will be able to listen to new radio stations, but not the radio stations that they have been listening to for a very long time. Was it not the height of irresponsibility to announce the phasing out of analogue spectrum without announcing any details or any funding for a help scheme, similar to the one that was in place for TV switchover? Will that not cause widespread concern among millions of radio listeners, who will feel that they are faced with the unenviable choice of either paying up or switching off?
Mr. Simon: I shall try to squeeze in my answer at the end of that extraordinarily long question. We will do exactly the same with radio as we did with television: we will carry out a full cost-benefit analysis of exactly what kind of help scheme might or might not be required, and we will proceed accordingly. There are 9 million digital sets in use already. Consumers have six years to decide how much they want to pay, for what equipment, to receive which services.