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Digital Television

4. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): When he proposes to make an announcement regarding the charging of a supplemental licence fee for digital television viewers. [105940]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): I intend to announce the Government's decisions on the recommendations by the independent review panel on the future funding of the BBC shortly.

Mr. Loughton: Before he does that, can the Secretary of State explain to my constituents why they should pay a television technology stealth tax to a state-owned broadcasting company, even if they choose to watch independent channels, as well as, we are led to believe, an above-inflation increase in the analogue television licence? Was the new BBC director general in favour of

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a higher, or lower surcharge than the £24 that has been recommended, or was he too busy with his property company directorships to proffer a view?

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman is premature in making assumptions about any of the decisions that we may, or may not take on the matter. It was, of course, the Davies panel that recommended that there should be a digital supplement of £24 per year for those who use digital television. It is by no means guaranteed that we will accept that recommendation. We are considering it carefully. I remind him that at least 94 per cent. of UK households still view, or listen to at least two hours of BBC programming per week. The BBC is a major cultural institution. It produces programmes of unrivalled quality around the world. We should be proud of it.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Could my right hon. Friend explain how such a tax could be collected were it to be imposed? Are the lists of subscribers to OnDigital and Sky digital available under current legislation, or are they protected by the Data Protection Acts? If the latter, would primary or secondary legislation have to be introduced to make the lists available to the TV Licensing authority, and would such a process be subject to potential legal challenge by Sky digital or OnDigital?

Mr. Smith: The answer to my right hon. Friend's specific question, on the lists of subscribers to both OnDigital and Sky Television, is that, currently, no legislative power exists for any requirement to be made for the making available of those lists. Points on the relative administrative ease of collection are among the considerations that we are taking into account in examining those complicated issues.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): Can the Secretary of State explain the delay that has occurred in giving the Government's official response to the Davies report? Is it true, as newspapers suggest, that there are disagreements among Ministers on whether to accept the digital licence fee? [Hon. Members: "Surely not."] Such things are suggested.

I tell the Secretary of State that there is no public support for a separate digital licence fee, and that there is concern that it would be a type of second-rate tax. Would it not be more appropriate to examine whether the BBC could, from within its own resources, fund digital development, and perhaps to provide a role for the National Audit Office in that examination? If not, would it not be preferable to have a small increase in the normal licence fee, rather than a separate licence fee, to fund that development?

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the newspapers. The issues that will dictate our approach on the matter are the need to ensure continuation of high-quality broadcasting in the United Kingdom into the digital age; the need to ensure the best possible choice for consumers; and also the need to ensure best value for money for consumers. Those are

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the key criteria that we shall wish to bear in mind, and the hon. Gentleman should not jump to conclusions before we have reached them.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is of supreme importance that the BBC's position in the cultural life of the country be maintained and enhanced by any action that he may take?

Mr. Smith: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the very great importance of the BBC in the United Kingdom's cultural life. I argue, and have often argued, that, in a multi-channel digital age, the BBC's role as our premier public service broadcaster and as provider of the benchmark of quality around which the rest of broadcasting should cluster becomes more important, rather than less important in the multi-channel age.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The Secretary of State is obviously having difficulty in making up his mind, but I have no doubt that No. 10 Downing street will be close at hand providing helpful advice on the matter. Does he think that a digital licence supplement would amount to a tax on innovation, which would be unpopular with broadcasters and viewers alike and that it would run completely contrary to this Government's and to the previous Government's commitment to encouraging digital take-up? Does he think that viewers will thank him if he rolls over in the face of the BBC's demands for extra money without even having bothered to sit down and work out the limits of what the BBC should be doing in a multi-channel age?

Mr. Smith: It is precisely because we want to get the decision right that we are ensuring that it is taken in the right way. That is why we allowed a sensible period for consultation, took no decisions until the Select Committee had reported and put in Pannell Kerr Forster to examine in detail and very rigorously the BBC's finances and to advise us. It is in the light of all those representations, and particularly the views of the general public, that we are now considering most carefully how to proceed on the matter.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does not Greg Dyke have enough on his plate sorting out digital television and all the rest of it without being involved in share dealing in independent television companies and fiddling about with property companies and people who have been declared bankrupt? Is not the BBC a powerful organisation to which he should be dedicating all of his time, rather than moonlighting all over the place?

Mr. Smith: First, may I say how wonderful it is to see my hon. Friend back in such robust form? I am certain that Mr. Dyke will wish to devote 100 per cent. of his time and energy to the task of running the BBC.

Competitive Sport

5. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): What steps his Department has taken since 1997 to encourage competitive sport for children of school age. [105941]

The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey): Competitive sport in school and between schools is one of the criteria

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schools have to meet to be awarded a sportsmark, and encouraging inter-school competitive fixtures will be key part of the role of the school sports co-ordinators.

We have also supported the Royal and Sun Alliance panathlon challenge, which supports inter-school competition between inner-city schools in London, Liverpool and Bristol.

Mr. Syms: Why have the Government seen fit to scrap compulsory sport for children aged over fourteen? Given the problems of obesity and general fitness levels among teenagers, is not this an area where the Government should reverse their policy?

Kate Hoey: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this controversial issue. I am certain that we took the right decision as, at 14, many youngsters want to get involved in sporting activities that may not necessarily involve team competitions. We must make sure that team sport is still available in all schools for those who want it after the age of 14, and we must concentrate on getting the quality right at an earlier age.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough): Is not it crucial to try to get children to participate in competitive sport or physical education as early as possible? Is not the work of the Youth Sport Trust a good example of the kind of work that needs to be done? More specifically, will the Department for Culture, Media and Sport work much more closely with the Department for Education and Employment, as that is the key to ensuring that there is a link between schools and competitive sport in the community?

Kate Hoey: My hon. Friend is right that the links between this Department and the DFEE are being strengthened. I am delighted that, just before Christmas, we were able to appoint Sue Campbell of the Youth Sport Trust to act as a cross-departmental adviser to this Department and the DFEE as we work to identify and build the links between the Departments, particularly in terms of the role of physical education and school sports, as that is the core of getting sport right in this country.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Before the election, Labour's sport manifesto promised:

How does the Minister reconcile that with the fact that, since 1 October 1998, no fewer than 101 out of 103 applications have been agreed? As one surveys the attack on competitive sport, the decline in sports participation in schools, playing field sales, Wembley and the delayed sports strategy, one must ask--has there ever been such a mixture of broken promises and utter shambles?

Kate Hoey: The hon. Gentleman should concern himself with the real issues facing sport in this country, and he could then have a proper and sensible discussion. We have delivered on our manifesto pledge on playing fields. Clearly, a number were sold, but if he takes the time to look carefully at the cases, he will see that huge changes were made as a result of the involvement of Sport England and consultation with the local community. Concern will always be raised when some playing fields are sold off, but we are making sure that the money raised

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from the sale of playing fields will be used for the proper development of sport. In most, if not all, cases, there has been a net benefit to sport or no loss of sporting amenity when playing fields have been sold.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will my hon. Friend encourage the playing of rugby league on the playing fields that the Government will preserve, and ensure that the greatest sport in the world is promoted?

Kate Hoey: Rugby league certainly has some ardent supporters in the House. Of course it will be one of the sports that will benefit from all our policies on more sport, more competition and more team sports in schools. It will be a beneficiary, just like every other sport.

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