GOVERNMENT PREPARATIONS FOR DIGITAL SWITCHOVER
Publication of the Committee's 28th Report, Session 2007-08
Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"The UK's analogue television signal is being switched off region by region over the next four years. The take up of digital TV is going better than the two government departments responsible for switchover policy expected. Just 15 per cent of households remain to make the switch to digital TV for their main set. But of course many households have more than one set and, according to the evidence presented to us, around 26 million analogue sets have still to be converted or replaced.
"Many viewers do not seem fully to understand the implications of the analogue switch off and are still buying analogue televisions - unaware that they have built-in obsolescence. The evidence is that the 'Digital Tick' label with which digital televisions are flagged in shops is a mystery to many retail staff, let alone the people to whom they sell TVs.
"The Government has decided to pay over £800 million of ring-fenced licence fee money to the BBC to fund digital switchover, without either ensuring adequate accountability to Parliament or spelling out exactly what it wants for the money. This has put value for money at risk."
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 28th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory reform and the BBC, examined preparations for digital switchover and the protection of viewers and consumers.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (the Departments) are jointly responsible for digital switchover, the programme to convert over 1,100 television transmitters to digital and switch off analogue signals by 2012. The Departments have asked the BBC to fund a public information campaign to inform viewers about the process and to administer a scheme to help vulnerable groups.
The arrangements for delivering the switchover are complex. The Departments asked the BBC to take a key role in delivery as it had relationships with viewers and delivery experience which they did not possess. The Departments also passed to the BBC responsibility for funding the public information campaign and delivering the help scheme, and set aside £803 million of licence fee money to pay for these activities. They did not, however, specify the outcomes they expected the BBC to secure in spending this money. The BBC is accountable to the BBC Trust for the value for money with which it uses the licence fee, not the Departments. Therefore, the Departments have no means of holding the BBC to account for this use of licence fee money.
The Departments' help scheme and information campaign have been largely overtaken by the independent actions of consumers. Take-up of digital television nationally and among groups eligible for the help scheme has exceeded the Departments' expectations. 55% of those aged 75 and over already have digital television, against the Departments' forecast of 42%. To date, take-up of the help scheme has been significantly lower than the Departments expected. If help scheme take-up rates experienced in Copeland, the first area to switch, were replicated across the country, there would be a £250 million surplus in the licence fee settlement. The Departments have still not decided how any surplus would be handled.
The Departments have not taken effective action to protect consumer interests. Almost half of the televisions sold in the first seven months of 2007 were analogue sets, even though such sets will not be able to receive television signals after switchover without additional costs for consumers. The Departments have chosen to rely on voluntary labelling by the industry, using a 'Digital Tick' logo to inform consumer purchases. However, take-up of the scheme among retailers has been patchy and many sales staff are still not able to explain properly what the logo means. Consumers have not been well-served by this strategy.