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James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I hope that he will not be timid in his answer. Does he support the privatisation of Channel 4 or the BBC?
Mr. Yeo: I shall certainly reflect on the position of Channel 4 and the BBC. I have a completely open mind at this stage: it is early in the Parliament, and we are considering every aspect of policy as part of our policy review. If the hon. Gentleman has views about those matters and would like to write to me setting them out, I would consider them.
It is more than a year since we read in the foreword to the White Paper "A New Future for Communications", signed by the two previous Secretaries of State, the right hon. Members for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith):
Despite those statements about what the Government intend to do, we are no nearer to the promised land than we were when either of the passages that I have quoted first saw the light of day. Time is passing, the industry is changing, and the Government are doing nothing. The Bill will have no practical effect whatever on regulation.
Until we see the substantive Bill later this yearI was concerned when the Minister said that it would be published "later in the spring", since it means we still have no clear commitment or timetable, and there is a suspicion that the timetable is already slippingno one who is making decisions about future investment, and no one who is seeking guidance about the Government's intentions on such crucial issues as cross-media ownership or digital switchover, will be any the wiser.
We are told that the substantive Bill will be published in draft form, and Ministers in another place conceded through gritted teeth that the draft Bill would be available for scrutiny by a Committee of both Housesa commitment that the Minister just about repeated today, although there seemed to be a degree of qualification. Following an Opposition intervention, it became plain that the Minister was not at all clear about the form that the scrutiny should take. In the meantime, we must make do with the thin gruel of a paving Bill that does nothing that the substantive Bill could not have done had it been introduced in a timely and efficient way.
Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend realise that the position is worse than that? While we debate the matter here, advertising revenues are fallingperhaps heralding a bust, as in "boom and bust". Is my hon. Friend aware that City analysts now say that revenues received by ITVmy figures are from Carlton Televisionare likely to be 15 per cent. lower this year than they were last year? Last year's, in turn, were down 12 per cent. on the previous year. At the end of the day, what will that make of public service broadcasting?
The Government have given no sign that they recognise the urgent need to give a clear lead on the issue of digital switchover, an issue in regard to which many in the industry are currently hanging fire. Of the millions of new television sets sold last year, more than 19 out of 20 were analogue. We have no indication of the criteria that the Government expect Ofcom to employ to determine the success of applications to provide radio and television broadcast services. Given the high level of public interest in the issues, it would have been helpful to have some clue about the Minister's thinkingif, indeed, Ministers are thinking about these subjects at all.
The Government's snail-like progress does little to serve the needs of a rapidly evolving industry. The distinctions between television, computers and telephones are quickly disappearing, and the array of information, entertainment and services available to people at home, at work and on the move is increasing at a bewildering rate. Every aspect of the industry, including newspapers and radio as well as television, is affected by the helter-skelter of new technology. The Government give the impression of lumbering breathlessly behind an express train that is disappearing into the distance. They are ditheringwhich is becoming the defining characteristic of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the switchover from analogue to digital. The Government have already set a time frame. When would the hon. Gentleman like the switchover to take place?
Mr. Yeo: I must correct the hon. Gentleman: the Government have not set a timetable. There is no firm date for the switch-off of analogue television. Not only have the Government not named the date on which analogue will be switched off; they have not even named the date on which they will name the date. The Government are in a state of complete indecision.
I will give my support if the Government give a clear lead for a realistic timetable. What the industry needs is a firm framework in which it can make its own investment decisions, and it can do that only when we have a firm timetable from the Government.
When he winds up the debate for the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) will focus on the DTI aspects of the Bill. I apologise for the fact that I shall have to leave just before the end of the debate, although I hope to hear the bulk of the exchanges before I do so.
The economic importance of the media has increased enormously, and continues to do so. Very few people have accurately forecast either the direction or the pace of change. The speed of technological innovation and the changes in public taste and consumer preferences have left even the best-informed and most sensitive experts sometimes looking very flat-footed. What is beyond doubt, however, is that in this industry Britain has many natural advantages: a proud tradition of high-quality public-service and other broadcasting, a good record of innovation, a large pool of creative and entrepreneurial talent, the English language, and a country in which people from all over the world like to live and work.
I believe that it is the Government's duty to create a legislative framework in which people and businesses can exploit those advantages for the benefit of the British people, in their roles both as consumers and as producers, to enhance their leisure hours and their work opportunities. As it happens, doing that will also benefit people abroad who can enjoy the product that originates here in Britain.
Amid all the confusion and change, another certainty stands outthat this is an industry that will go on being increasingly global in nature. We want it to include players in whose case Britain's influence is prominent. It should do so, but it will not unless the Government get their act together.
Brian White: Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should have the equivalent of what is happening in Germany, where Deutsche Telekom has become a national champion? Is that the route down which we should go?
Mr. Yeo: I am arguing that the Government should set out what they are proposing a great deal more clearly than they have, and in a more timely and efficient way. It is very difficult for businesses in this industry to make long-term investment decisions when there is still so much uncertainty about the Government's plans.
Let us consider the other global industry in which Britain has a leading role: the financial services industry. We have done well in that highly competitive market. London has remained one of the world's great financial centres, in large part because of the light regulatory touch and the way in which that has allowed intense competition within the sector. Financial services is now having to live under a super-regulatorthe Financial Services Authority is a year or two ahead of Ofcombut some of the anxieties in that industry about the bureaucracy and the costs of regulation may well apply when we have Ofcom.