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House of Commons

Monday 25 March 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): If she will make a statement on her policies to promote tourism to England. [43142]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): I am sure that the House will join me in recognising that the achievement of the British film industry at last night's oscar award ceremony is a great shot in the arm for tourism. Our congratulations therefore go to Julian Fellowes, for best original screenplay for "Gosford Park"; to Jim Broadbent for his supporting role in "Iris"; and to Peter Owen for the best make-up award for "The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring".

On the substance of the hon. Gentleman's question, we recognise the importance of tourism to the economy and the problems that it faced in 2001, so we are working closely with the industry on a programme to accelerate its recovery, which focuses in particular on raising quality, improving training and skills, strengthening data and marketing England's many wonderful tourism attractions.

Mr. Luff: Notwithstanding Jim Broadbent's splendid performance in "Iris", I suspect that the oscars will be a rather bigger shot in the arm for the New Zealand tourism industry, bearing in mind the location of "The Lord of the Rings".

The Heart of England tourist board represents my constituency. From a rather arbitrary glance at a group of other counties, it seems that it does not do a bad job representing that really difficult brand against the very stiff competition of Scotland and Wales, which are much more powerful brands. When will the Government give England equal footing in tourism promotion with Scotland and Wales?

Tessa Jowell: There are two points to make. First, although England spends less than Wales or Scotland on marketing, the fact is that we do better in terms of the amount of money that visitors spend than they do, so what we spend represents good value for money. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point that we need to do more

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beyond the short-term focus on marketing, and my Department is currently in discussion with the English Tourism Council to establish how that will be achieved.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will my right hon. Friend take on the plight of inland tourism for those constituencies, such as mine, that have had to deal with the problems of foot and mouth disease? The local authority is dependent on the millions of people who visit Chorley, so I wonder whether extra resources are available so that we can ensure that there is not a decrease in tourism this year, but a peak.

Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend. Obviously, the million visitor campaign that I announced to the House last month, which is worth £40 million, will provide an enormous boost to help the United Kingdom tourism industry to get back the high numbers of visitors from abroad—particularly, from America—that have fallen sharply in the wake of the events of 11 September. However, the industry is optimistic, and we are working with it to deliver on that optimism.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I am sure that the right hon. Lady would want to join me in expressing the hope that our tourism industry has a very successful Easter season over the weekend and the few days ahead, but is she aware of the widespread concern, in rural and urban areas alike, about the impact of any recurrence of foot and mouth disease? Can she tell us what strategy the Government have to deal with any new outbreak? Is she aware that it is strongly rumoured that the Government plan to merge the regional tourist boards into the regional development agencies? Will she take this opportunity to confirm that that is not the case and say when, at long last, she will announce a market function for the English Tourism Council?

Tessa Jowell: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is yes. The answer to his second question is that we are liaising very closely on the issue with our colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The answer to the third question is no.

Digital Television

2. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): What action she is taking to ensure equality of access to digital television. [43143]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): The digital action plan, which was drawn up with the involvement and agreement of major players, sets out the Government's proposals to encourage the take-up of digital television by making it more accessible and the equipment and technology more available and, of course, affordable. The plan was published last December, and so far more than 8 million households in the United Kingdom are connected to digital services on a fee-paying basis.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that it is vital that we have three solid platforms for digital television in the United Kingdom, if only to supply a service and provide value for money for the consumer? In the light of ITV Digital's

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problems, will he ensure that the communications Bill, when introduced, promotes healthy competition, thus ensuring consumer choice and value for money?

Dr. Howells: Yes, I can confirm that the communications Bill will be designed to promote healthy competition. Hopefully, it will maintain a number of platforms for digital broadcasting because we believe that that is important.

Nick Harvey (North Devon): Will not the difficulties of ITV Digital and the impracticality of putting cable into rural areas leave BSkyB in a strong market position, which the competition authorities have already suggested it is abusing? Will the Minister use the forthcoming communications Bill to ensure that the platform provider and the service provider are regulated separately? Will he also ensure that everyone gets access to all forms of digital television for a one-off payment without subscribing to services that they often do not want?

Dr. Howells: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I say that the Bill is to be published in just a few weeks. If he can wait that long, he will, I hope, be pleased with its comprehensive nature. The Bill will be put out to full consultation, so he will have plenty of time to raise any specific points.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): My hon. Friend will know that although it would be a delight to have universal access to all forms of digital television immediately, it will be difficult to achieve that without exalting every valley and laying low every mountain. Bearing in mind many people's worries about the future of ITV Digital, what plans do the Government have to ensure that some form of digital terrestrial television survives so that everyone has not only universal access to digital television, but universal choice?

Dr. Howells: The Government have correctly maintained a platform-neutral position on digital broadcasting and services, and we aim to stick to that. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that during the Ofcom debate the House became well acquainted with the problem posed by a large number of people living in hilly topography, and we are looking closely at that.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): If the Minister is not aware of the fact that the survival of ITV Digital can be only a matter of days, he should be. Talk about what the communications Bill, which will not become law until next year, may do is pie in the sky. The success of digital terrestrial television depends on a proper element of competition between at least three providers. Does the Minister have any immediate plans to achieve that in the next few weeks?

Dr. Howells: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mean to speculate on this subject. He knows how sensitive the issue can be for the value of shares in the relevant companies, for example. I have no more intention of speculating on the likely outcome of discussions involving ITV Digital than I have on the likely date of the next revival in Welsh rugby.

Mr. Yeo: That certainly is a long way off, and the problem of ITV Digital is more serious and urgent. It is

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not a matter of speculating about what will happen to ITV Digital. Everyone is aware of the acute problems that it faces, and the Minister has just told the House that the Government have no strategy to address them. Does he understand that the survival of ITV Digital has been made much more difficult by the Government's failure to set a clear timetable for digital switchover, to turn up the digital signal and to modernise the media ownership rules, as my ten-minute Bill would have done a couple of weeks ago? Does he agree that dithering by Ministers on all the issues is leading rapidly to a disaster for ITV Digital subscribers and for football, and is a huge setback for Britain, which had the chance to lead the world in digital television until Ministers set about squandering it?

Dr. Howells: That rant serves only to undermine further the position of some important companies in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take such stupid speculation outside the Chamber.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): It is serious if the digital platform goes. Sky was originally going to be an investor in digital terrestrial television. Is that a possibility if the box itself is controlled by the new Ofcom status?

Dr. Howells: We will present our plans for regulation when we publish our communications Bill, which, as I said, will be soon.

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