More than seven UK households in ten has made the switch to digital television, according to culture secretary Tessa Jowell. The embattled minister made the announcement as she faced MPs for the first time since being cleared of allegations that she broke the ministers' code of conduct over a £350,000 gift received by her husband.
"Ofcom will shortly publish data showing that the proportion of households with a digital television has now reached 70%," Jowell told MPs. "That is an important landmark. We must now ensure that the principle of universal free-to-view television continues, and, to ensure that no one is left behind, we will provide specific help to the very elderly and disabled who are at most risk."
Jowell said the Government's trial in Bolton would determine the nature of that assistance, and stressed that "the most vulnerable will not be excluded from the benefits of a digital society".
John Whittingdale, whose culture select committee is currently deliberating its report into the Government's 2008-2012 switchover timetable, said it was important that help be given to the socially isolated as well as the financially disadvantaged.
"Will you confirm that, as part of the assistance programme, you will provide financial help to voluntary groups so that they can be trained to give the help that will be extremely important to all those who would otherwise struggle to benefit from the switchover?"
Jowell replied: "I can confirm that. It is an important point and one that no doubt will be reflected in your select committee's report, when it is published, on the impact of digital switchover, but voluntary organisations have an important part to play, street by street, in identifying those people who are at risk of being left out through not understanding or not having access to the relevant equipment. We intend to address that in the way you suggest."
Jowell reiterated that the Government's assistance for the elderly and disabled would be met via the licence fee. Last week the House of Lords select committee on the future funding of the BBC said that policy risked undermining support for the licence fee by loading it with the cost of managing digital switchover rather than meeting it via general taxation.