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House of Commons

Monday 6 November 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Greenham and Crookham Commons Bill


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Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Theatres (Market Towns)

1. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What proposals he has to support theatre venues in market towns. [135336]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): This is a matter for the Arts Council of England--as the main funding body for the arts in England--in collaboration with the regional arts boards, to decide within the context of its current review of regional theatre. The Arts Council has already announced additional theatre funding from 2002-03 and decisions on how this will be distributed will be made in the near future.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. I am thinking of the Merlin theatre in Frome, which is excellent but which failed, unfortunately, in a recent lottery bid. Does he agree that the lottery process is not necessarily the right way of providing for capital improvements to smaller theatre venues, precisely because it is a lottery? We need a mechanism to ensure

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that funds are made available not only to the big--the regionally important--venues, but to those that provide an essential service to local people.

Mr. Howarth: I would counsel the hon. Gentleman and his constituents who are involved with the Merlin theatre and arts centre not to despair of the lottery. I appreciate the disappointment felt by Merlin when it was unsuccessful in the previous lottery application to the Arts Council. I know that the South-West Arts Board tried to give helpful advice, and I understand that Merlin is putting together a new bid to South-West Arts--that organisation now has more resources to distribute under the regional arts lottery project. I wish Merlin well in that application. Of course, from 2002, the Arts Council and the regional arts boards will be able to start to use the extra £25 million revenue funding--the huge increase that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has provided for theatre.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Will my hon. Friend consider visiting the new theatre at Milton Keynes? Within a year of opening, it is achieving 85 per cent. occupancy and is a splendid example of the use of public money in extending regional theatre. Will he spread the lessons to be learned from the Milton Keynes theatre to other less successful regional theatre venues?

Mr. Howarth: It would give me nothing but pleasure to accept my hon. Friend's invitation. I greatly look forward to having the opportunity to visit Milton Keynes. I am sure that the lessons that can be learned from the success of that project will be eagerly followed by others elsewhere, as she suggests.

Digital Television

2. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): What action he is taking to promote the take-up of digital television. [135337]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 31 October that we have been working closely with broadcasters, manufacturers, retailers and consumer groups to ensure that viewers get accurate and sensible information. A set of clear and simple messages has been agreed and will be used to promote and encourage take-up.

Miss Begg: Does my hon. Friend agree that internet access is an important part of digital television? Hopefully, it offers a mechanism to ensure that there will be a narrowing between the information haves and have-nots. Will she ensure that internet access forms part of the standard digital package on offer to consumers?

Janet Anderson: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. She will be aware that the Government are most anxious to ensure universal access to the internet and also to ensure that we do not end up with an information- rich/information-poor society. Currently, we know that one in five homes already have digital television, which,

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of course, gives them access to the internet. Perhaps most interestingly, 50 per cent. of homes where there are children have digital television.

However, the Government continue to monitor the situation closely. We have set up a viewers panel, which will meet for the first time at the end of November. We shall certainly take into consideration the point raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The hon. Lady will be aware that the United States has set an analogue switch-off date of 2006, while Italy and Germany have set a clear date of 2010. Does she agree that her conditional date for analogue switch-off will not encourage the growth of digital technology in this country? Furthermore, is she aware that the provision of internet television cannot be a reality until we have broad band throughout the United Kingdom? We certainly do not have that at present.

Janet Anderson: I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you and the House will bear with me if I set out our proposals for analogue switch-over. The matter is very important to us all.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have set out two crucial tests that must be met before the analogue signal is fully switched to digital: availability and affordability. Under the availability test, almost all viewers who can currently receive analogue television must be able to receive the main free-to-air channels digitally. Under the affordability test, consumers must not face unacceptable switching costs when converting to digital services for either their televisions or their video recorders.

As I said in response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), we have set up a viewers panel constantly to review the position. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set a target date between 2006 and 2010, and we will constantly keep it under review. However, the countries to which the hon. Gentleman referred are having second thoughts about the dates that they have set.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Rapson,

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): My question has already been answered, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): That was a very rare piece of honesty.

Conservative Members will support any sensible measure to enhance the take-off of digital television, but is not the demand for news an important spur to the take-up of digital services? Has the Minister seen the article by John Kampfner, the former BBC political correspondent, in The Guardian today, in which he blows the whistle on the bullying tactics of Government spin doctors? I hope that the Minister will join me in condemning such tactics.

Does the Minister think that it is part of the Government's remit in the digital age to tell broadcasters how to organise their news schedules? Does giving the green light to a major hike in the BBC licence fee to pay for digital services give Ministers the right to ordain

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when programmes are transmitted? We know that the Government want to dictate the content of news bulletins. Do they also want to dictate when they are scheduled?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I think that the hon. Gentleman has been on uppers again.

Janet Anderson: My hon. Friend is quite right.

I never cease to be amazed by the way the hon. Gentleman tries to manoeuvre his current pet subject on to the back of a question that is not really about it. I shall however try to answer his points. The Government do not think that it is part of their remit to dictate what broadcasters should put in their news bulletins. However, it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable for individuals to express their views. As to the future of public service broadcasting, he will have to wait for the White Paper that will be published at the end of the year.

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