10 Mar 2003 : Column 1











House of Commons

Monday 10 March 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Digital Television

1. Norman Baker (Lewes): If she will make a statement on access to digital television. [101454]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): I understand that you, Mr. Speaker, and the hon. Members for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for North Devon (Nick Harvey) have been informed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not able to be in the Chamber today.

Figures provided by the broadcasters and the Independent Television Commission indicate that there are now between 9.6 million and 9.9 million UK households with access to digital television. We continue to work with stakeholders towards meeting the two primary objectives set out in the digital television

10 Mar 2003 : Column 2

action plan: to make the UK the leader in digital television in the G7 and to achieve the criteria that will allow us to complete digital switchover.

Norman Baker : I am grateful to the Minister, but what does he say to my constituents who can receive neither digital terrestrial television, and hence the BBC's new services, nor access cable? They want to know why they have to pay twice, first through the licence fee for services that they cannot get, and secondly through Sky to access services that the rest of us get for nothing. What will the Minister do to ensure that the BBC rolls out services to those who do not have them before embarking on new provision?

Dr. Howells: There are two parts to that question. The hon. Gentleman asks me what I would say to his constituents. I would say exactly the same thing as I say to my constituents who also cannot get digital terrestrial signals: it will come. We are working with all broadcasters, including the BBC, to ensure that we achieve more than 80 per cent. coverage. Coverage for all six multiplexes is about 73 per cent., but by concentrating on the 80 main transmitters, we hope to increase coverage to 80 per cent. across the country; then, we will work on those areas whose topography makes them more difficult. I am confident that we will get there, and sooner than people have predicted.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Much as I hate to agree with a Liberal Democrat, there is a sense in many constituencies that the slowness of the BBC and Crown Castle's roll-out of digital terrestrial television is a problem. The Minister's constituency might fall within the 80 per cent. coverage, but I suspect that Rhondda does not, and my constituents would like to know when the Government hope they will get digital terrestrial television.

Another problem is that BBC 3 and BBC 4 are available only in digital form and cable television is still analogue in many parts of the country. Will the Minister permit the BBC to provide analogue BBC 3 and BBC 4?

10 Mar 2003 : Column 3

Dr. Howells: I cannot envisage that happening, as my hon. Friend well knows. However, at least four wards in my constituency—which I suppose are classified as Rhondda wards, despite the fact that my hon. Friend's constituency covers only the northern part of the area—are similarly affected, and we, too, have a lot of steep hillsides. I am absolutely confident that at the point of switchover our constituents will not receive a service that is in any way worse than in any other part of the country. We shall certainly discuss the services he mentioned with the BBC.

Nick Harvey (North Devon): Does the Minister agree that until all homes have ready access to digital TV, many people's best chance to see digital TV sports coverage is in their local pub? Can he explain why a pub can entertain people with a large digital television set showing a pop concert, whereas, under his Licensing Bill, if it wants to offer small-scale live music, a licence will be required? Does he understand the anxiety felt by many people, including the readers of the Western Morning News, which is running a campaign on the issue, that the measure will imperil live music in pubs?

Dr. Howells: That is the most ingenious question that I have heard in three weeks.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Does my hon. Friend agree with me and our hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, that access to digital television is central to the Government's stated aim ofe-delivery of Government services, and that my constituents, most of whom do not have a computer but almost all of whom have a television, are in grave danger of being left behind in the e-revolution? What message can I take to my constituents in Wemyss Bay and Inverkip, some of whom cannot even get Channel Five—although I have told them that they are not missing much—to persuade them that the Government take the matter seriously? Do the Govt acknowledge that the issue is not merely better television services, but the future of e-delivery of Government services?

Dr. Howells: The Government take e-delivery of Government services very seriously. Our work to get libraries and schools on stream is acknowledged everywhere as groundbreaking and revolutionary, and I am confident that there will be no deficit in terms of communities' access to the internet. My hon. Friend is right to speak of television as a means of accessing the internet. I am sure that he knows about the large amount of work being done by many companies at technical level to make the interactive element of television much more sophisticated and faster than it is now. I am confident that soon we will take great strides in that respect.

Digital Television

2. Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): When she will announce the date for analogue switch-off. [101455]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): The criteria set for switchover are as follows: everyone who can currently get the main public

10 Mar 2003 : Column 4

service broadcasting channels in analogue form must be able to receive them on digital systems; switching to digital is an affordable option for the vast majority of people; and as a target indicator of affordability,95 per cent. of consumers must have access to digital equipment. The objective of the digital television action plan is to ensure these criteria are met so that we can, if we choose, take the decision to proceed to full switchover by ordering the switching off by 2010 of analogue terrestrial transmissions.

Mr. Wyatt : I thank my hon. Friend for that rather difficult reply, given that he said earlier that 80 per cent. of consumers would receive digital terrestrial, but 95 per cent. must get digital television. Surely there is some mistake there. We said five years ago that switch-off would be between 2006 and 2010. People buy a new television set every eight years, on average. If we are to plan switch-off now, that means 2011 at the earliest. It is important that we keep a digital smart economy ahead of the rest of Europe and of America. Can my hon. Friend be more explicit about when he expects the switch-off to take place?

Dr. Howells: I am sure that my hon. Friend, who I know is very interested in these matters, knows the difference between digital terrestrial signals and signals that can come via satellite or cable. There is a difference. That is where the 15 per cent. of which he spoke is made up.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that even though people are buying sets that are designed to receive analogue transmission, most of them can also be used with set-top box receivers, which enable digital signals to be used by analogue sets. I am sure that even my hon. Friend would admit that the 500,000 free-view systems that have been sold in the past four and a half months are a sign that there is a real appetite on the part of the public and that we shall meet the targets sooner than has been predicted.

Regional Theatres

3. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): What action she is taking to support regional theatres. [101456]

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): As a result of the theatre review, Arts Council England invested an additional £12 million in theatre throughout England, in 2002–03. From April this year, it will increase to £25 million. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that an example is the Nuffield in Southampton, which has been allocated an increase in funding of about 38 per cent., or in monetary terms, £144,000.

Dr. Whitehead : I thank my right hon. Friend for that welcome news, especially about the funding for the Nuffield theatre, which is 350 yd from my house. Does he acknowledge the strong support that many progressive local authorities provide for the development and retention of regional theatres, and particularly Southampton city council's support for a new home for the Gantry theatre in the centre of the city, in a development that it is pursuing? Does my right hon.

10 Mar 2003 : Column 5

Friend agree that his Department should liaise closely with local authorities where future funding is considered for regional theatre?

Mr. Caborn: Very much so. The increase that I have referred to following the review from 2000 to 2004 is a 72 per cent. increase in the budgets. That is the most significant single increase ever for an art form. The Gantry theatre is an example of a theatre becoming part of the synergy between the creative industries. The approach of local authorities and other partners is extremely good.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that as well as regional theatre we need to go down to local theatre to ensure that amateur and professional theatres, such as the Mechanics theatre in Burnley, survive? There is a link between local theatre and regional—and ultimately, national—theatre production.

Mr. Caborn: I cannot answer my hon. Friend's specific question. I know that he will write to me. The 72 per cent. increase in investment is not just about bricks and mortar, it is about children and young people, diversity and, probably more important than anything, new writers. Fifty organisations have been set up to encourage young people to become involved in writing for the theatre and, it is to be hoped, for film as well. This is a comprehensive approach to the theatre to see how it can drive into the modern arts and into the modern economy as well.

Next Section

IndexHome Page