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House of Commons

Monday 19 December 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Analogue Spectrum

1. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the value of the analogue spectrum once digital switchover has been completed. [38065]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): At this stage, it is not possible to make any reliable assumption of the market value or potential auction proceeds of the spectrum released by digital switchover.

Derek Wyatt: It is difficult to estimate that value—some advisers estimate £2 billion, while others estimate £5 billion. If the value is between £2 billion and £5 billion, can we give some of that money to some of Britain's 12 million old-age pensioners, some of whom will not be able to afford the cost of switchover? Under current plans, subsidies will be provided only to over-75s on pension credit. Even if the figure is as low as £2 billion, can some of it be used to help our pensioners with the cost of switchover?

Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend knows that we have announced a package of help, which will be funded by the BBC as part of the new licence fee settlement that will be negotiated shortly—since the cost is a broadcasting cost, that is how we expect it to be met. One of the most important principles in ensuring that digital switchover takes place properly is making sure   that free-to-air access to television is available to   everyone. Without special help, which we have proposed, some people risk being left behind, but we will not allow that to happen.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): What representations has the Secretary of State made to the Chancellor about allowing some of the bandwidth that will become available following analogue switch-off to go to terrestrial channels in order to allow the country to view high-definition television? She will be aware that some countries already have high-definition TV, and when we host the Olympics in 2012, it is vital that
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everybody in the United Kingdom who is watching terrestrial channels can see the glory of London and, hopefully, of our athletes on high-definition television.

Tessa Jowell: I take the hon. Lady's point, but the policy is clear: spectrum released by switchover will be sold in the marketplace in a technology-neutral auction. Ofcom, which would oversee such an auction, will take account of the needs of broadcasters at that time for the precise reason that the hon. Lady has outlined.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): May I take this opportunity to wish the Secretary of State, her team and officials in the Department a merry Christmas? Before we suspend hostilities completely and start playing football across the Floor of the House, however, does the right hon. Lady agree with the review of the BBC's royal charter by the House of Lords, which states:

Tessa Jowell: In a similar spirit, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench and wish him and his team a happy Christmas? We will resume Dispatch Box hostilities in the new year. We agree with a number   of the recommendations in the House of Lords report and will take them into account as we finalise the   White Paper on the BBC's charter. However, the recommendation that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned is not one of those that I accept. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), wherever the costs of switchover fall, they are broadcasting costs, which should be met by the broadcasters and ultimately through the licence fee.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I, too, wish the Secretary of State and her team a happy Christmas, but she is being complacent about high-definition television. I   discussed the issue today with the industry body, Intellect, which told me that high-definition televisions are so popular this Christmas that suppliers cannot meet demand. High-definition televisions use 50 per cent. more of the spectrum than ordinary television sets. Will the Secretary of State assure people who have bought high-definition televisions this Christmas that they will have access to the additional spectrum they need to make use of their Christmas purchases?

Tessa Jowell: There is no question of anybody who buys a high-definition television this Christmas being unable to use it because of a subsequent decision on the allocation of spectrum taken by Ofcom implicitly as an   expression of Government policy. An absolutely consistent part of our approach to moving from analogue to digital has been that decisions on the allocation of the spectrum released by the switchover will be taken at the time—between 2008 and 2010. As was well captured in the debates in both Houses on the Communications Act 2003, we have taken that approach because of the pace of technological advance and the importance of ensuring that consumers have the benefit of keeping up with it. Who pays for the spectrum is a much more significant issue than what it is used for.
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Media Workers (Employment Rights)

2. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What recent discussions she has had with the Department of Trade and Industry regarding the employment rights of media workers. [38066]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): There have been no recent discussions between the Secretary of State and the Department of Trade and Industry regarding the employment rights of media workers.

Hywel Williams: Given the increased casualisation of media employment, does the Minister concede that there is a danger to employment rights, particularly in smaller-scale broadcast organisations in areas such as mine in north-west Wales? Does he therefore agree that there is a duty on the BBC to ensure that employee rights are guaranteed when it awards contracts?

Mr. Lammy: Those matters must rightly be for the BBC governors. The hon. Gentleman will note that the   BBC had hoped not to make compulsory redundancies in the course of its restructuring, and we share its regret that it has to make some. It is important to note that as part of that exercise, the BBC is hoping to invest in and to increase programming across the regions. That should benefit Wales and, indeed, small production companies.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the recently announced enforced redundancies by Trinity Mirror. Employees and consumers are extremely worried about   that, particularly as regards papers such as the Daily Record, which is recognised as a national paper for Scotland. The service that it provides may be diluted so that it is no longer a national but a regional newspaper.

Mr. Lammy: I can imagine that that is a great concern in Scotland, but such matters must rightly be for the management of Trinity Mirror. One hopes that the   investment and support that is being provided for the wider economy means that people will find alternative employment.

Licensing Act 2003

3. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment she has made of the impact of the Licensing Act 2003. [38067]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): It is too early fully to measure the implications yet, but the early signs   are positive. Police and ambulance services are not reporting increases in alcohol-related crime or accidents. We will closely monitor the impact of the Act over the coming months and report back to Parliament.

Mr. Bailey: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Does he share my satisfaction that the measures taken so far seem to have been successful in empowering local communities to control licensing and drinking
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behaviour in their areas? Does he agree that the long-term future of the policy must lie in ensuring that local communities understand and use their powers so that we can get the best of both worlds—a more consumer-friendly drinking regime and commitment to law and order in stable communities?

James Purnell: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The central principle of the Act was to give local communities the right to make decisions about their local premises. It is too early to judge the Act—we have always said that we would not do so overnight—but we will look very closely at the evidence. We will want to see, for example, a reduction in the level of failed test purchases in selling to minors, more responsibility from the trade, and very serious measures taken by local authorities and the police against the minority who continue to behave in an irresponsible manner.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Having spent Friday night out on patrol with the local police in my constituency, may I tell the Minister that the evidence from Kettering is that there has been an increase in the number of people arrested since the new measures were introduced?

James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have introduced an alcohol misuse enforcement campaign that is doing exactly that. It is targeting people who have been misbehaving under the previous legislation, and it is only because of the tough new powers in the Act that that campaign is the toughest one that we have ever had.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the licensing officers and local councillors who have worked very hard to implement the Act? Will he also recognise that the Armageddon that some predicted would result from the implementation of the Act has not occurred?

James Purnell: I do want to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to everybody involved in implementing the Act. A huge amount of work has been done by licensing officials and councillors in ensuring that it was brought forward in good order. In particular, they did a huge amount of work over the summer to raise the level of applications, and we pay tribute to them, the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services and the Local Government Association.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Minister will know that the responsibility for maintaining these licences has shifted from magistrates to local councils, yet there has been no extra financial help for them. What measures does he intend to take to ensure that they have extra resources to do this—[Interruption.]—particularly in Shrewsbury?

James Purnell: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the Act. There are extra resources. We made it absolutely clear that any extra costs from the implementation of the Act would be covered by fees and we set up an independent review to look into exactly that. It was very important that we did that, because previously magistrates courts' budgets were subsidising
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the licensing of alcohol to the tune of £25 million, and that money was obviously therefore not available for other important activities undertaken by magistrates.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not think that the problem with the debate that we are having about the new law is that there is a failure to implement parts in that law and in previous laws to fine the licensees and the bar staff who feed people drink when they are clearly out of their mind with it, and that is why binge drinking is such a problem? Can we not enforce the penalties on the licensees so that they do not give drunk young people more drink just to make profits?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The police had lost confidence in the previous law. They were worried that it was broke and would not deliver what they wanted. We have given them the extra powers that they requested. That is why, for example, the Police Superintendents Association always backed the Act's implementation, and why we have worked closely with the police on it, and we will continue to do so as the Act comes in. But the key point is to change the culture of drinking in the country. The Licensing Act is one step on the way to doing so, but obviously it will need to be accompanied by action on other fronts, such as health and education, and we are working with other Departments on that as well.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Earlier in the year, the Prime Minister gave an assurance in a reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) on licensing fees, that the Government did not

Given that the latest evidence from the Central Council of Physical Recreation shows that 56 per cent. of sports clubs fall into the higher licensing bands C to E, can the Prime Minister's words be trusted?

James Purnell: Of course they can. That is why we have asked the independent review by Les Elton to look into exactly that issue, and it has committed to doing so. If it makes any recommendations, we will look at those seriously. But obviously it is also open to sports clubs to apply to benefit from community amateur sports club status, which would save them far more money than any fee that would be covered under the Act.

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