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House of Commons

Monday 29 October 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Community Sport (Funding)

1. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): If he will make a statement on funding opportunities in sport for local communities. [160998]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Sport England is the Government’s lead agency for delivering investment into community sports. It makes lottery and Exchequer funding available for sport in local communities through its community investment fund, the National Sports Foundation and the community club development programme.

Mr. Hepburn: I congratulate the Minister on the work that he is doing for grass-roots sport throughout the UK. However, I remind him that in April this year, the then Secretary of State made a commitment that local, grass-roots sports clubs would not be affected by any diversion of funds to the Olympics in the south-east. Is the Minister willing to confirm those assurances?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Clearly, the Government are committed to grass-roots sports; through the community amateur sports club initiative and a great deal of investment in school sport, we want to make sure that we get to the grass roots. However, the 2012 Olympics will clearly be important and it is important that we fund them appropriately. We need to make sure that we meet the budget announced in March this year. I am sure that the lottery order will be debated in the House with a great deal of verve, and I look forward to that debate.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Would the Minister accept that there are very many talented and able people in the north-west as well as in the north-east of this country—not least in my constituency of Macclesfield? Is he aware that many people are deeply concerned that too much money will be allocated to London and the south-east, thus depriving other vital areas of investment in sport, which is so important if the whole country is to benefit from the Olympic games in 2012?

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Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Although we know that the games will be here in London in 2012, it is important that the whole country should benefit from the Olympics being in the UK. Some 79 per cent. of UK citizens believe that it is a good idea for us to hold the 2012 Olympics. With the help of governing bodies and local authorities, we will make sure that a sporting legacy exists from 2012. I shall work with the hon. Gentleman in the north-west and colleagues all over the UK to make sure that we benefit from the enthusiasm for the Olympic games.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State return to Whitehaven in my constituency to evaluate the digital switchover programme—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will call the hon. Gentleman during the next question.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Local communities in my constituency benefit from the support given by many adults who give up their time to train local teams. Does the Minister agree that, as an important priority, local authorities must also invest in the changing facilities that will allow local teams to compete in local derbies, so giving a clear message to parents and adults who invest their time that local authorities are also investing in young people?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I heartily agree. Local government plays an important role in the provision of sport through the playing fields infrastructure and making sure that we have sports centres. My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the role of coaches; that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced a £5 million investment to increase the number of coaches. Given that and the announcement on school sports, coaching will be key in the UK. Clearly, we will want to support those volunteers who are level 1 coaches and want to aspire.

Digital Switchover

2. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What steps he is taking to ensure that older people will receive appropriate support in the digital switchover programme. [160999]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): The BBC has helped establish and funds a £600 million help scheme, which will assist the over-75s and those with significant disabilities, including the blind or visually impaired, to convert to digital TV services. Help is free of charge to the poorest households—those on income support or pension credit. Others will pay a £40 charge.

Mr. Anderson: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, which explains how people will access digital services after the switchover. However, people are worried about not only how they will get them, but what will be on them. In my area, one of the things that people are worried about is the loss of real, local news, and regional television programmes being superseded by cross-region programmes. What does the Secretary of State intend to do to ensure that genuine local news will be saved after the switchover for older people and others?

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James Purnell: I reassure my hon. Friend that no decision has been taken on ITV’s proposals on regional news. That will be a decision for Ofcom, which has said that it will take it next year as part of its public service funding review. I think that the whole House would say that when we passed the Communications Act 2003 we put regional news right at the heart of ITV’s responsibilities, and it should continue to be so.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that the digital switchover programme could have a serious impact on older people through the workings of the digital dividend review? Does he understand that mobile phone operators and others are putting a great deal of pressure on Ofcom to release Channel 69, which is a vital channel for community groups, village halls, churches and so on? Will he take an intelligent interest in the digital dividend review to ensure that public interest is served, not just that profits are maximised?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that has been recognised by Ofcom, which has, as he knows, issued a separate review to look into exactly that issue. I hope he agrees that an overall way forward has been found. I know that he has concerns about the detail of how it will be implemented, and I encourage him to raise them with Ofcom, as I have following our discussion last week.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Thank you for calling me again, Mr. Speaker. I am very honoured and Members are delighted.

Earlier this year, the Secretary of State visited my constituency to see for himself the preparations for digital switchover. Will he visit again in the next fortnight, once the analogue signal has been switched off, in order to perform an effective evaluation of the switchover process?

James Purnell: I cannot promise to visit my hon. Friend in the next fortnight, but I will certainly study the results very closely. I pay tribute to him for the leadership that he has provided on this issue. There has been a fantastic effort in Whitehaven to ensure that the digital switchover gets off to a good start, and the efforts of Digital UK and all its partners have given us a good chance of getting there.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A number of elderly people in my constituency have had their analogue signal turned off as a result of a big factory being built next door to them. Neither the Government, nor the regulator, nor the local council will take responsibility for that, and they are left with no signal at all, never mind digital switchover.

James Purnell: Obviously I do not know the details of the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but if he writes to me I will be happy to look into it. When digital switchover comes, anyone in a vulnerable group will have access to the scheme that will provide digital equipment free for the poorest. If they are unable to access digital terrestrial television, the scheme will ensure that they can get digital TV by another means, such as satellite.

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Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): In the run-up to digital switchover, there have been concerns about older people, in particular, getting ripped off by unscrupulous aerial cowboys. How have the Government been encouraging the industry to get its act together, and what preliminary evidence has there been from Whitehaven in this regard?

James Purnell: I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be no flying cowboys in Whitehaven. He raises a very important point. Anybody who is cold-called or approached by someone claiming to want to change their aerial should treat that with some suspicion. There is a registered scheme for aerial installers, and people who want to have their aerial upgraded should use people from that scheme only.

Digital Television

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What the take-up of digital television in (a) Yorkshire and Humberside, (b) the north-east and (c) the north-west was in the most recent period for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement. [161000]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): We do not collect statistics based on Government regions. According to Digital UK-Ofcom figures, take-up by ITV regions is as follows: Granada, 81 per cent.; Yorkshire, 78 per cent.; and Tyne Tees, 90 per cent.

Miss McIntosh: There is a great deal of confusion as to whether, when a television set needs to be replaced, people, particularly those on low incomes and older people—not only those over 75 but those between 60 and 75—should replace them with digital televisions, given that they cannot receive the signal at the moment. Can the Secretary of State give some advice as to what they should do for the next three or four years?

James Purnell: I think that the hon. Lady’s question is about people who are in an area where they cannot currently receive terrestrial digital television. Of course, if they buy a set-top box, it will not be able to be used until the digital signal is switched on. Clearly, those people would be well advised to prepare as early as possible by buying the necessary equipment, which will then be available to be used when the switchover happens. That will stop them from having to have a last-minute rush to ensure that they can continue to receive television.

Public Service Broadcasting

4. Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the future of public service broadcasting. [161001]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): The Government believe that public service broadcasting will remain an important part of our public realm. In my speech to the Royal Television Society on 13 September, I identified our goals for broadcasting as open markets, universal access to high-quality output, and empowering consumers. We are setting up a convergence think-tank made up of experts from inside and outside Government to help us to secure those goals.

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Mr. Mitchell: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cuts envisaged by ITV run directly contrary to the commitments made by the ITV companies when they took on these contracts; and that if allowed they, coupled with the BBC’s cuts in regional provision, will be directly and substantially damaging to the provision of news and regional programmes in the regions which are so important to us? Is it not time, therefore, that the Government, instead of leaving this issue to the market or to a nervous Ofcom, reaffirmed their strong public support for and commitment to public service and regional broadcasting?

James Purnell: I am happy to make exactly that declaration. This House made it very clear through the Communications Act 2003 that it expected regional television to be right at the heart of what ITV does. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that any such change would be a change to the terms under which the companies got their licences. That is why I said in response to an earlier question that no decision had been made on the matter. Ofcom will have to consider the matter next year, and I am sure that it will take into account the strong feelings expressed about it in this House.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): After a quarter of a century of Sianel Pedwar Cymru, the Welsh language fourth channel, being overseen from Wales and Westminster, does the Secretary of State agree with Plaid Cymru and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that responsibility for it should be transferred to Wales, where the majority of Welsh speakers live?

James Purnell: If the hon. Gentleman wants to submit a proposal on that, we are happy to look at it. Traditionally, the process has been dealt with at the UK Government level because broadcasting has implications throughout the UK. In the same way, digital switchover involves spectrum planning throughout the whole of the UK, and the use of the licence fee or the use of public funding has UK-wide implications. I am happy to discuss that issue with him and the authorities in Wales if they want to submit that proposal.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) for his support for my idea.

I urge the Secretary of State to be a bit more robust with ITV. Will he point out two things to it? For decades ITV was effectively given a licence to print money, and consumers in Britain expect better than to see it running away from its obligations. If it stops doing not just local and regional news, but current affairs and other kinds of local programming, the people of Britain will think, “This channel isn’t really part of our national heritage any more. Frankly, we can get rid of it.”

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that local and regional news is at the heart of what people value about ITV, and it would clearly be the best approach for ITV to find a way of making that remit profitable. No decision has been made on the proposals put forward to Ofcom, and I am sure that Ofcom and ITV will listen to the strong views expressed on this matter.

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Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the west midlands is an entirely different region from the east midlands? If he does agree, what action will he take to ensure that Central TV news is not cut as a result of the proposals? We need to start seeing competition in news delivery in the regions, instead of the current monopoly enjoyed by the BBC.

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that competition at the local and regional level is important. Like other hon. Members who have made their views clear on that during this Question Time, I advise him to make clear to ITV and Ofcom the strength of his feelings about it. I am happy to agree that the west midlands and east midlands are different regions.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a public service broadcaster should have a recruitment process that is fair and open to all the talents? I refer him to the recent research by the Sutton Trust, which shows the predominance of independently educated, public school people in the hierarchy of the BBC.

James Purnell: Given that I went to an independent school, it would be slightly hypocritical to lecture the BBC on that— [ Interruption. ] It is important for people throughout the cultural industries to ensure that people from all backgrounds are working for them. All of our taxes pay for their products, so we are all entitled to be represented.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Recent scandals have dented trust in our public service broadcasters. Channel 4 has a looming financial crisis, as does ITV. Those may be matters for Ofcom, but the Government are responsible for the BBC. Two years ago, the BBC announced 4,000 job cuts and there are now more to come. The Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), said that the below-licence-fee settlement would lead to certainty and stability for the BBC. Does he accept that what we now have is uncertainty and instability?

James Purnell: I do not accept that. I think that the settlement was fair and reasonable for the BBC. Some people said that we should not give it a charter at all, but we did. Some people said that we should have given it a short charter, but we gave it one for 10 years. Some said we should not fund it through the licence fee, but we have, and we gave it a six-year licence fee deal. If it realises those efficiencies and if more and more households buy more and more licence fees—as predicted—the BBC will have £1.2 billion to invest in new services. That is a fair settlement between the interests of the BBC and the interests of the licence fee payer.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State understand the concerns of people in Plymouth and Cornwall, which are respectively 120 and 200 miles away from Bristol, about the plans for ITV public service broadcasting and the cuts? That not only applies to commercial public sector broadcasting requirements; it could have a knock-on effect on the BBC and the quality and quantity of its programmes if it does not have competition from the commercial sector.

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