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Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): The hon. Gentleman has made much of the issue of financing for the BBC and few people would not wish to encourage efficiency and cutting bureaucracy. The issue is what the finance is for, and I hope that he will explain the Opposition's view of the BBC's role in the future. Only if we know that can we judge its financial requirements.

Mr. Ainsworth: The role of the BBC in the immediate future is to define what it means by public service broadcasting in the light of the radically changed media environment in which it now operates. It was set up in the 1920s as a monopoly provider of radio services and it had the great Reithian vision of being all things to all people. It managed to keep that vision intact through all the changes of the latter part of the 20th century and did so very well. However, the BBC needs to come to terms with the fact that we now live in an age of explosive choice. It can no longer continue to apply the principles that were right for a monopoly provider of radio services to an age in which consumer choice has moved into a completely new orbit and competition is rife and varied. The Secretary of State and the BBC will need to work out carefully the meaning of public service broadcasting in the multi-media age.

Once the BBC has done that, I have no doubt that the principal justification of the BBC is programmes. It is programmes that will underpin the licence fee. However,

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if it continues to chase ratings and to compete overtly with the commercial sector in a way that the commercial sector finds offensive, the BBC runs the risk of forfeiting the justification for the licence fee. Instead of "Walking with Dinosaurs", it will be sleeping with the plesiosaurs.

Dr. Turner: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's courtesy in giving way again. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government face the issue of funding next spring. What is the view of the Opposition on what should be funded? What role does the hon. Gentleman envisage for the BBC in the digital era? Should money come from somewhere else, or is the Secretary of State charged with ensuring--after accountants have reported--that what the BBC is trying to do now should be continued in the digital era? Does the hon. Gentleman accept the BBC's internet services and its provision of the new news services, for example?

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman cares to see me after the debate, I will give him a copy of our extensive document, "Fair Funding for the BBC", which makes detailed recommendations. I do not wish to embark on a in depth exposition of that document, because it is available and on the public record.

I welcome the Davies committee's recommendation for a half-price licence for registered blind people. It is a good idea and I hope that the Secretary of State will accept the panel's advice. I note that the Royal National Institute for the Blind has some outstanding concerns about the way in which licence fees are collected, including the sometimes threatening tone of letters, and the need to develop audio subscription services as soon as practically possible. It also raises important issues concerning the use of text on the screen and more accessible programme information. The RNIB has offered to work with the Government and broadcasters on developing solutions to those problems, and I urge them both to take up the offer.

The Davies panel also makes some welcome recommendations about subtitling, and urges more ambitious targets for the introduction of subtitles on digital television. I hope that the Secretary of State will take those recommendations to heart and go further. It is farcical, as the Royal National Institute for Deaf People has said, that, while digital terrestrial broadcasters are required to provide subtitling, cable and satellite broadcasters have no such obligation. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my noble Friend Baroness Anelay, who has done much to draw the attention of Parliament to the issues raised by people with disabilities on their access to broadcasting.

Failure to enable adequate access to new television services for blind and deaf people will act as a serious impediment to the take-up of digital television. The Secretary of State has recognised the importance of encouraging digital take-up and announced a possible time frame for the switch-off of analogue transmission. Again, the Government have been judicious rather than courageous, but, in this case, that is the right approach.

Even so, more still needs to be done if the Secretary of State's targets for digital take-up are to be met by 2006. While the take-up of digital television has so far been very encouraging, with around 2 million households now

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participating, it seems clear that the process of converting to digital services is being driven by a desire for subscription channels. A large proportion--perhaps 50 per cent.--of the population are, and are likely to remain, uninterested in subscription television and only want or can afford free-to-view television.

What do the Government propose to do to encourage those who want only free-to-view television to go digital? The free set-top boxes being offered by BSkyB and Ondigital appear to some in the equipment manufacturing industry to be part of the problem. It is said that they are suppressing demand for integrated digital television sets. The Government should be concerned that the number of analogue televisions being sold in Britain this year will be higher than it was last year, and will outnumber sales of digital sets by a factor of more than 100.

I entirely agree with the Secretary of State's remarks about the seriousness of the problem to do with public confusion over what is on offer, what options are available and what the benefits of digital television may be. That is not helped by spats between BSkyB and Ondigital over the screening or otherwise of various sporting events. I am sure that the Secretary of State would wish to join me in urging those companies to sort out those problems soon.

I suspect that most people are not even aware that they have been watching analogue television signals all their lives. Why should they be? It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the news that the analogue signal will be switched off rouses alarm and indifference in almost equal measure--although I reckon that indifference just about has the edge at the moment.

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement that the Government will get together with manufacturers, retailers and broadcasters to begin a major public information exercise so that consumers can be told, reliably, clearly and in language stripped of jargon, about what is available, what the benefits are, and how to make informed decisions. Unless that happens, there is a real risk that the switch to digital will falter, and that the 95 per cent. household penetration threshold will not be met.

It would be wrong and absurd to have a debate on the future of broadcasting without mentioning radio. The radio industry has been one of the great commercial success stories of recent years. Following the successive liberalisations under the previous Government, commercial radio stations have sprung up all over the UK. They have become established and profitable, and now form a vital part of the national broadcasting scene.

There has always been a tendency among radio people to consider themselves the poor relations of television, although I exclude from that observation the presenters of the "Today" programme. Under this Government, the radio industry knows that it is the poor relation. Scarcely any consideration at all was given to the BBC's radio service by the Davies panel. Even the panel's attitude survey failed to seek views on the future of the BBC's radio services.

The Secretary of State's important speech last month, in which he set out the timetable for the digital revolution, failed to make even a passing reference to the radio industry. This week, in reply to my written question about the Government's thinking on the future of the analogue radio signal, the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting admitted that she was not even contemplating universal digital radio services.

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I suspect that the Government, along with many people in the radio industry, have simply forgotten about radio altogether. I take this opportunity to remind the Secretary of State of radio's importance to millions of listeners. If it is not too much trouble, will he examine seriously the issues facing what is an important industry?

What are the Government doing to help encourage the take-up of digital radio? What are they doing to modernise the commercial radio ownership rules, and to take into account the role of the BBC in local radio when considering issues of plurality and competition?

Successful radio companies are constrained by the points system, which limits, on the basis of population areas, the number of stations that a company can own. A good case can be made for a system based on a share of voice, which would be a more realistic and relevant measurement. What do the Government think about that?

What do the Government intend to do about the scarcity of spectrum and digital radio development? I hope that the Minister, when she winds up the debate, will answer some of those questions. Scarcity of spectrum was the main reason why the previous Government excluded religious broadcasters from bidding for national radio licences. At that time, spectrum scarcity was a real problem, but technology is moving on. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to announce his intentions for religious broadcasting?

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman's answer earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) was somewhat evasive. Conservative Members believe that the time has come to say that it is not appropriate for Parliament to disqualify Christian groups or other religious groups from applying for national or local radio stations. They should be able to compete on the same basis as all the other bidders for the right to broadcast. We look forward, with bated breath, to the Minister's concluding remarks.

Finally, just as no consideration of the future of broadcasting would be complete without mention of radio, so it is important to recognise the significance of advertising. It is often forgotten that there would be no commercial television or radio to speak of without advertising. Advertising is the driving force behind the new technologies that are changing the landscape of broadcasting.

It follows, therefore, that any attack on advertising and the advertising industry that threatens future revenues is an attack on broadcasting. We understand that there are moves afoot among some European countries, led by Sweden, to ban or restrict advertising aimed at children. That proposal is patronising, bossy and dictated by political correctness. It would also be entirely counterproductive, resulting in less investment in children's programming and leading simply to more imports of cheap cartoons, of which there are probably too many already.

I appreciate that the advertising sector comes under the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry, but will the Secretary of State or the Minister take this opportunity to place on record the Government's recognition of the link between investment in advertising and investment in programming? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the broadcasting industry that, in the event of any attempt to curtail children's advertising, the Government will put up stiff resistance?

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I have tried to identify several areas in which a bit more effort by the Government would help in the development of this important industry and enable it to go from strength to strength. For the most part, however, the most constructive thing that the Government can do is to get out of the way. That is what I hope that they will do.

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