Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her statement and for making it available to me before she delivered it to the House. I also welcome her assurance that she will continue to update Parliament in the coming weeks as this crisis evolves.

I entirely share the right hon. Lady's concern for ITV Digital subscribers—I happen to be one—the company's employees, the creditors and suppliers and, of course, the football clubs and millions of football fans.

The truth is that nobody emerges from this ghastly mess with credit. Carlton and Granada are walking away from a problem that they are partly responsible for creating, and the unrealistic expectations of the Football League leave many football clubs facing a bleak future. Above all, the Government, who must decide when their stated goal of digital switchover will occur, cannot continue shrugging off all responsibility for the crisis. Complacent self-congratulation of the sort that we have just heard about the Government's role in promoting digital television is no substitute for the actions that are urgently needed. Everybody in the industry has known for months that this crisis has been brewing, yet the Government have so far done nothing to address the problem or lay the foundations for a solution. The result of that failure is that Britain's leadership of the digital television revolution is at risk. Our chance of dominating one of the 21st century's most promising industries is in danger of being thrown away.

If digital switchover is to be achieved by 2010, or indeed by a later date, it is essential that a viable digital terrestrial television platform operates alongside the satellite and cable platforms. Only in that way can the public interest be properly served and protected. Unless a replacement for ITV Digital is found quickly, public confidence in digital terrestrial television will drain away. Indeed, the Government's slowness in tackling the problem of poor-quality digital terrestrial television reception by increasing the strength of the signal has already seriously damaged public confidence.

26 Apr 2002 : Column 598

Furthermore, many consumers are confused about digital television. Nearly all new television sets sold this year are analogue, yet the Government have done nothing to educate the public about what is happening. Instead, they allow consumers to go on buying equipment that the Government's stated policies will render obsolete within eight years, without any warning given to the consumer at the point of sale.

The Secretary of State has been in post for more than 10 months, long enough to have thought carefully about the important issues involved. I should like her to answer some simple questions that were not addressed in her statement. First—and this is regardless of the outcome of the present negotiations—will she publish a clear timetable setting out, step by step, when and how the existing digital terrestrial television signal will be strengthened and its geographical reach increased? Secondly—again, regardless of the outcome of the present crisis—will she mount a public information campaign to ensure that all consumers understand the difference between analogue and digital television and between satellite, cable and terrestrial television and that they are aware of the implications of Government policy when it comes to the television sets that they own and those they are thinking of buying?

Thirdly, to assist the present talks to a successful outcome as quickly as possible, will the right hon. Lady make it clear whether she believes that digital terrestrial television should consist exclusively of free-to-air channels or a mixture of free-to-air and pay television? In that context, does she recognise that many people cannot and probably never will be able to access satellite or cable television for various reasons and will therefore depend on digital terrestrial television to enjoy the wider choice of channels that are available to people willing to subscribe?

Since the end of the consultation period following publication of the Government's document just before Christmas, they have been notably silent on how they will apply the rules on media and cross-media ownership. Will the right hon. Lady explain how she intends to apply those rules in finding a replacement for ITV Digital as soon as possible? Will she say whether she believes that the ITC should re-allocate the multiplexes that ITV Digital surrenders as a single package or individually? Will she say how she thinks that the process of re-allocating the multiplexes relates to the sale of ITV Digital's assets?

Will the right hon. Lady review the Government's timetable to achieve the goal of digital switchover by 2010? Does she agree that some of the potential benefits of digital television will be lost if the set-top boxes that convert sets from analogue to digital cannot accommodate a pay-television upgrade option? Does she share the concerns of some people that, if the BBC or Sky were to emerge as the dominant player in the new digital terrestrial television platform, excessive power would be concentrated in the hands of organisations whose market dominance is already considerable? Will she explain how the BBC charter and her agreement as Secretary of State with the BBC may affect the BBC's role in helping to find a solution to the present crisis?

On the future of football, fans will study the right hon. Lady's statement with interest, but in vain for anything other than warm words and expressions of sympathy. Will she confirm therefore that the Government do not intend to take any practical steps to assist football clubs, even those that may now face bankruptcy?

26 Apr 2002 : Column 599

The broadcasting industry and all those who believe that the future lies with digital television will have been disappointed by today's statement—the uncertainty continues and the Government's lack of leadership and commitment remain as stark as ever.

Tessa Jowell: Let me work my way through the Opposition spokesman's questions, and provide answers. The hon. Gentleman's questions reveal an extraordinary degree of ignorance of the crisis about which he claims to be so concerned. First, most of the information that he seeks is set out in the digital action plan—the route map that identifies the roles of the Government, broadcasters, consumers and the industry between now and the point at which switchover is achieved, subject to meeting the tests that have been clearly set out. Secondly, as part of the digital action plan, the market preparation group is promoting information material for consumers, working with consumer organisations. We will be led by their judgment on when is the right to moment to launch a public information campaign.

In relation to the digital terrestrial platform, yes, the Government's position is to promote competition between platforms to develop consumer choice and therefore to enable the possibility that each platform has a combination of free-to-air and pay services. The general expectation is that, as digital television develops, each platform will develop a different identity, depending on consumer preference and consumer choice, but the intention is that DTT should be a free-to-air and a pay platform.

If the hon. Gentleman had bothered to check, he would have been able to clarify the points about the extent of light-touch regulation in relation to multiplex ownership, the regulation of which was considerably lightened by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). Multiplex ownership does not involve any restrictions in relation to cross-media or non-European ownership, so multiplex ownership is not constrained in the way that other aspects of the media are subject to media ownership rules.

The hon. Gentleman often makes the point about the transmission signal. Again, that is a pity; he betrays his ignorance. The responsibility for turning up the signal and determining the level sits with the ITC, which approves the increases, and the broadcasters, which are responsible for the transmission network. The broadcasters, rather than the Government, are responsible for the transmission network because the Government whom he supported were responsible for privatising the network under their 1996 legislation.

Having said that, the first stage of power increase has already been established, benefiting 25 per cent. of the population. Approval has now been given for broadcasters to proceed with a further increase in power to cover 50 per cent. of the population, but that involves a highly technical set of judgments given the fact that, as a Government, we decided very early on in announcing the digital switchover policy that the interests of analogue viewers had to be protected as the digital technology rolls out. So the position is clear: the signal strength has been increased. There is absolutely no regulatory obstacle to the success and survival of the digital terrestrial platform.

26 Apr 2002 : Column 600

The hon. Gentleman's final point related to football clubs. Again, in addition to ITV Digital subscribers, there are very large numbers of innocent victims. The Government will work alongside football to provide practical help, largely through grassroots organisations and Supporters Direct, which has been very successful in establishing fans' trusts as a better way to manage clubs and in helping clubs that recently and before this crisis suffered difficulty. So I am proud of the Government's record, which is one of innovation, progressive action and, most importantly, practical action to protect the interests of consumers and football fans throughout the country, rather than that of the Opposition's uninformed carping on the sidelines.

Next Section

IndexHome Page