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1.36 pm

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson): As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, this is an important issue. I remember when, in the early days after I was lucky enough to be asked to do my present job by the Prime Minister, I went on a visit to

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Border Television where I was asked to open its new digital studio. A member of the staff took my private secretary aside and said, "I hope that the Minister will not mind if we ask her some rather technical questions." As I was very new in the job, the private secretary went pale and wondered what I would say. The first question was, "Well, Minister, there is a whole technological digital revolution going on. How do you explain that to members of the public?" I said that the most important thing to understand was that it would mean more choice and a better deal for the consumer. I put that on the record today as the priority for the Government.

Many issues have been raised in the debate and I will try to deal with as many as I can. Many hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), have mentioned the current campaign by United Christian Broadcasters. It has been raised with me before by almost every Member of the House, but in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), in whose constituencies UCB is based. The Department has received thousands of letters on the issue.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had a meeting with Gareth Littler and his colleagues, and I visited UCB on Monday with my officials. We spent a pleasant morning there and we were grateful for the prayers that they had offered for us in advance of our arrival. The problem is that UCB are prevented by the legislation from applying for a national licence. We are advised that it would require primary legislation to enable them to do so, and we have said that we will consider the issue when the time comes. I hope that that answers the points raised by many hon. Members.

The Davies report has also been mentioned by many hon. Members, and I pay tribute to Gavyn Davies and his team for their excellent work and the time that they put into it. The consultation does not close until Monday and the Opposition would not expect my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or me to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation. We shall of course await with interest the deliberations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and all the other representations we receive.

The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) raised several points. He said that I had replied to a question he had tabled by saying that I did not envisage a switch-over for analogue radio. What I actually said was that digital broadcasting was at an early stage of development and that it was premature to set a timetable for the switch of analogue services to digital.

Other points were raised about children's advertising. I confirm that the Government believe that a place remains for such advertising within the properly regulated framework overseen by the ITC.

Mr. Swayne: Although I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), as a parent I thought that we were looking a gift horse in the mouth in respect of children's advertising. As we build up to the terrible Christmas marathon, a ban on such advertising would make life much less expensive and rather more agreeable.

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Janet Anderson: The hon. Gentleman is right and, as a parent too, I have some sympathy with what he says. However, the Government have no intention of imposing such a ban.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) raised the problem faced by those of his constituents who do not have access to television. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it plain in his speech that the two priorities in the switch-over from analogue to digital are availability and affordability. He made it clear that the 95 per cent. availability figure is a minimum, and that the Government would like to ensure 100 per cent. coverage. That would resolve a problem that many hon. Members have told the House affects their constituencies.

The hon. Member for Hexham also raised the question of ITV1 and ITV2 and their availability via satellite. The Office of Fair Trading is considering that matter, and we hope that it will report soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) never misses an opportunity of raising the problem of those of his constituents who have access only to Yorkshire Television. I pay tribute to his perseverance: he has raised this issue through a private Member's Bill as well as in an Adjournment debate. I shall visit his constituency shortly to study the problem, as I recently visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), where there is a similar difficulty. Both I and my right hon. Friend hope that the development of digital will help to resolve some of those problems.

Mr. Baker: Will the Minister also look at the problem experienced by people on the south coast of England, where my constituents, and many others, are unable to receive Channel 5?

Janet Anderson: That is a problem in my constituency too, although I dare say that some people would claim that to be a positive advantage. I am not one of them, but it was always made plain from the start that Channel 5 would not achieve 100 per cent. coverage. However, the priorities of affordability and availability are very important to the Government, as my right hon. Friend made clear in his Cambridge speech.

Mr. Fraser: I do not want to miss out on this opportunity to tell the Minister that my constituency cannot receive Channel 5, and parts of it get Welsh television. Clearly, the problem affects places all over the country. I do not want to represent Wales, and do not speak Welsh, although I appreciate the programmes.

Janet Anderson: The hon. Gentleman is right: although the number of areas disadvantaged in the way that has been described is not huge, some places are so affected. My right hon. Friend has written to the broadcasters to see whether anything can be done. If not, we hope that the development of digital will iron out some of the anomalies.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) asked about subtitling. My Department has had several meetings on that subject with concerned hon. Members and with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Again, my right hon. Friend has written to the broadcasters to say that the Government hope that the development of digital will

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allow them to continue to improve on the amount of subtitling available. We have been encouraged by their response thus far, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to monitor progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) referred to BBC quality and the question of concessions. I shall touch on those points shortly.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West contributed a great deal to the debate, expressing concern about content. He said that people expected the Government to do something about it, but responsibility rests with the regulators, which is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the Independent Television Commission to examine the regulatory framework.

We are debating the future of broadcasting, a subject that the Government take seriously. Things are happening so fast that we believe that an evolutionary approach is the wisest one for the Government to take ahead of probable major legislation early in the next Parliament. That is not to say that we are not examining various issues that that legislation would have to cover. Regulation is one such issue.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, I, together with a ministerial colleague from the Department for Education and Employment, held a seminar this week with broadcasters on media education. I am the mother of three children who have spent their entire lives glued to one square screen or another. Through the school curriculum, children are given guidance that enables them to be critical of literature. When they read Shakespeare or Dickens, they learn how to appreciate it, and how to be critical. There is no such help or guidance with the moving image, however, and we and the Department for Education and Employment are discussing that point with broadcasters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) told us of his support for the BBC; it is well known, and we share it. I pay tribute to his work on the all-party BBC group. Some of his demands are not in the gift of the Government, but we have listened carefully to what he said.

I also listened carefully to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. He said that the views he expressed today were personal, and we shall consider them carefully. The Secretary of State and I cannot speculate on decisions that we may take after public consultation on the Davies report. The report is a serious one and members of the panel which drafted it took the issue seriously. We shall do likewise. We await the outcome of consultation, as well as the forthcoming report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) talked about "Walking with Dinosaurs". I knew that he would, because he and I had a conversation about that programme in the lounge at Heathrow last week as we waited for our delayed flights. I know the enjoyment that he and his son have derived from that programme, as have other hon. Members. The programme took six years to develop and has had huge and proper acclaim. It is the sort of thing that the BBC does very well, and long may it continue to do so.

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The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) talked about access to the internet. I can reassure him that the Government are anxious to ensure that people are not excluded from the benefits of new technology. We are in discussion with the Office of Telecommunications and others to see what can be done. I emphasise that that is precisely the type of reason why the Government have set up a social exclusion unit, for which a Minister in every Department has responsibility. We want to ensure that as many people as possible have access to the internet. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State emphasised that one of our priorities is availability.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) asked several questions, many of which illustrated how quickly events occur. Someone has described this as the fourth broadcasting revolution, which it is. There are no easy answers to many of the questions that he posed. That is why we are adopting an evolutionary approach; we are consulting widely and taking advice on those matters that we shall need to consider when introducing legislation.

In returning to the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole on social exclusion, I must emphasise that we are setting up a viewers panel, so that we can obtain and monitor, at every stage, the views of the consumer on access and take-up of digital.

Many hon. Members referred to concessionary television licences. My right hon. Friend and I have frequently pointed out that the Government appreciate the importance of television to many people--especially those who are socially isolated because of old age, illness or disability, or who are unable to afford other types of leisure activity. We also accept that the existing concessionary licence scheme--under which entitlement depends on the accommodation occupied and the way in which it is provided or managed--is poorly targeted and unsatisfactory. We also accept that the £1.25 reduction for registered blind people is of little help. However, I repeat that no conclusions on the panel's recommendation have been reached; the public consultation exercise, which will end on Monday, will help to inform our decisions--as will the report of the Select Committee and the views of many Members of the House.

The debate has been interesting and rewarding. We have covered a wide range of broadcasting issues. Broadcasting is complex; it is important that we get it right. Our aim is to balance the needs and interests of viewers and the need to build on the continued success of the UK broadcasting industry. There may be a perception that what the broadcasters and the Government want prevails over the concerns and needs of consumers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do not want to see the digital programme being driven by broadcasters in the pay-TV market. The Government do not want to move to an early switch-over to digital transmissions merely so that we can sell off the analogue broadcasting spectrum for other use. That is not true.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, our main aim is to protect the interests of consumers. Our desire to encourage the early take-up of digital services and the announcement of a date for digital switch-over are to enable consumers to enjoy early access to the

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benefits of the new technology. We want them to be informed enough to be confident about buying into the new services if they want to do so, and to have a clear idea about the Government's agenda for broadcasting. We have challenged broadcasters to make digital happen, but we shall be keeping progress under review. There will be plenty of opportunities for Parliament and the consumer to feed concerns and views into that process.

However, as many hon. Members have mentioned, a wider revolution is taking place. The convergence of broadcasting with telecommunications and computing has been discussed for some time; now, it is finally happening--and it is happening fast--with new interactive services and the internet through our televisions. We are taking steps to ensure that the right legislative framework is in place to deal with that revolution, and that as many people as possible have access to it and are not excluded from it.

We have emphasised the important role of public service broadcasting; we shall give careful thought as to how the BBC might fit into the new framework. The Davies review is a first stage; we are now conducting--with the ITC--an audit of the regulatory requirements. We intend that the new legislation will cover all main broadcasting issues, and that wide consultation will continue.

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