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House of Commons

Monday 10 November 2008

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—

Horse Racing Levy

1. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with representatives of horse racing on modernising the levy system; and if he will make a statement. [233988]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I have met representatives of the horse racing and bookmaking industries on a number of occasions and discussed the horserace betting levy. I would like to pay tribute to both industries for their flexibility in agreeing the 48th levy scheme without the need for Government determination, and for their commitment to continue the work on modernising the levy.

Mr. Robertson: I thank the Minister for that response. We welcome the fact that an agreement was reached on the levy, but it happened at the eleventh hour, in the 59th minute. Each year, wrangling over the levy holds up the modernisation process. Is there nothing that the Minister can do to push that process along, and to concentrate the minds of the industry to make progress so that the Government are no longer a part of it? Will he consider setting up a forum for those of us who want to contribute to the debate that will allow us to do so, and which will prevent others in the industry from running away from the problems or from stifling debate?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on the all-party group on racing, which helped us to deal with these complex issues. He was right to say that the deal took place at the eleventh hour, in the 59th minute, but that was better than last year when the Secretary of State had to determine it. It is important that those in the industry recognise that they have to work together, and I was pleased to see the issues raised by Sir Philip Otton’s report, which was commissioned by the levy board. The hon. Gentleman may be right, and I am due to receive a report on modernisation from the levy board on the 30 April next year, but in the mean time, all of us who have the interests of racing and
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betting at heart may want to consider the issues at stake. I will get back to him on the setting up of such a working group.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I welcome the agreement between both organisations, and look forward to a sustainable future for both of them. Will the Minister remind them that horse racing is a community sport, with many families going to race courses to enjoy a day out? I hope that they will keep that at the back of their mind—or at the front—when having discussions in the near future.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work with local race courses. He is right to say that racing is a universal sport that everyone can enjoy, but it is a commercial entity. Complex issues affect the sport, and sports betting, and we need the industries to work together. It should not be left to the Government at the eleventh or twelfth hour to resolve the issues. The industries should consider those issues in a commercial and practical way, while remembering that the sport is there to serve the people. My hon. Friend’s points will be well noted by both sectors.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Did the Minister see the article in the Racing Post last week that suggested hundreds of betting shops are likely to close in the near future if things do not change in the industry? Would he agree that there was little for bookmakers in the last-minute agreement? If the bookmaking industry is going to survive and thrive in this country, any future levy settlement will have to be much more in their favour.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the all-party group on racing. He hits the nail on the head: this is a complex, commercial issue involving two sectors that rely on each other. I do not want to comment on who won or lost. It is important that both thrive, and that they recognise the issues that they face. On the back of the successful discussions, they can deal with those complex issues, while recognising that they are inter-dependent.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Can the Minister confirm that the levy will produce about £100 million in the present year? The British Horseracing Authority is seeking a sum adjacent to £150 million, while the bookmakers’ representatives believe that they should pay only £40 million because of the costs of Turf TV, to which they contribute. Racing is socially, culturally and economically important. Will the Minister say whether betting exchanges are likely to pay their due share towards those costs?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does for his local race course. There are many issues facing betting, as I said earlier, and he tempts me down a course of saying what I think about the negotiations. I am not prepared to do that, other than to say that I am glad that they were successful. I have asked for further work to be done on the matter of betting exchanges. It is clearly an issue when people can bet from abroad and pay no contribution towards the levy.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I do not know whether you are a betting man, Mr. Speaker—[ Laughter.] You are smiling. I do not know how I should
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read that, but I suggest that you take no advice from this Government, who have not had a lot of luck with the horses recently. We have just heard that there is still a problem with the levy, and we know that the on-course bookmakers dispute rumbles on. I think that we were promised in 1999 that the Tote would be sold off, but that option has been kicked into the long grass. When will the Minister’s Department take these matters seriously, and ensure that racing stays on the back pages, not on the front pages because of unresolved problems?

Mr. Sutcliffe: We might not have been lucky on the horses, but we were certainly lucky with by-election last Thursday, given the win that we had.

It is important to do the right thing by the industry and the sectors. As I understand it—the hon. Gentleman will tell me if I am wrong—the Opposition supported our decisions on the sale of the Tote, the levy and on-course bookmakers. I do not know why he feels that he should chide us when he supports our actions.

Digital Television

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What assessment he has made of levels of access to digital television services in the north of England; and if he will make a statement. [233989]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): At present, 83 per cent. of households can receive digital terrestrial television in the Yorkshire ITV region; 94 per cent. in the Granada region; 91 per cent. in the Tyne Tees region, and 51 per cent. in the Border region. After switchover, it is expected that the figure will rise to 99 per cent. for the Yorkshire, Granada and Tyne Tees regions, and 98 per cent. for the Border region. We do not have regional figures for digital satellite or cable coverage, but 98 per cent. of UK households can receive satellite services, and approximately 49 per cent. have access to cable.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for that answer, but is it right that those who live in the Yorkshire and Humber region pay their full television licence fee but do not receive the same status as many other regions? What advice is the Minister giving those who live in the Vale of York and may be about to change their television sets about what equipment to purchase?

Barbara Follett: I do not know the answer to the hon. Lady’s first question, but I will write to her. People in the Vale of York should buy the latest 8k television sets because they are the up-to-date models.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Visually impaired people, including those in the north of England and in my constituency, will benefit from the digital switchover help scheme, which enables them to receive audio described programming. Does my hon. Friend agree that 20 per cent. of programmes broadcast should provide that service, rather than the current 10 per cent. target?

Barbara Follett: I agree with my right hon. Friend that there is a case for what he suggests, and we will examine it.

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Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): The north of my constituency is rural and semi-rural, and many of my constituents can get only four terrestrial channels and cannot receive Freeview, yet are expected to pay the full licence fee. They are even more upset because they feel that they are not being sufficiently prioritised in the digital switchover, when their needs are clearly greater than those in other areas. What does the Minister plan to do about that?

Barbara Follett: The digital signal will improve for everyone, wherever they are, when analogue is switched off. People do not realise the advantages of that. I stress that most households in the country currently have at least one digital television.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): In February, the Department for Communities and Local Government recommended robust exploration of options to include a return path in digital TV set-top boxes. Why are people in the north of England and elsewhere losing out on options such as smart metering, support with independent living and electronic access to local government services simply because the Minister has failed to follow the advice of her colleagues in that Department? If, as she told me in a letter, more research is needed, has she commissioned it?

Barbara Follett: The research is being done. I hoped that I had made that clear to the hon. Gentleman in my letter and I am sorry that I did not. I agree that the more versatility we can supply, the better, but it does not seem currently to be a cost-effective option.

BBC (Public Service Broadcasting)

3. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had about the BBC’s performance of its public service broadcasting responsibilities. [233990]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): I have regular discussions with the BBC Trust, the BBC and Ofcom, which cover a range of issues.

Hugh Bayley: Commercial pressures are forcing ITV to reduce its commitment to regional programming. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC should not slavishly play the ratings game and ape ITV, with fat-cat salaries for top presenters and executives, but put public money, which comes from licence fee payers, into regional television and high-quality local radio programmes?

Andy Burnham: On ITV, as we move towards a full digital television world, the basis on which we have regulated ITV hitherto changes. It is important to understand that the financial case changes for the regional programming that we have received for many years. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that we want public service broadcasting to build on the best of what we have got—strong programming, with a regional identity and regional news, which people value greatly, provided by not only the BBC.

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Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Quite apart from the behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, does the Secretary of State share the concern expressed by viewers of the BBC and other public service channels about the torrent of gratuitous bad language that is now found on programmes ranging from comedy to cookery after 9 pm? Does he think that the time has come when broadcasters may need to reconsider what is publicly acceptable in mainstream entertainment shows?

Andy Burnham: May I welcome what the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has just said? I do not expect him to read all my speeches, but if he reads some of them, he will see that since I took on this job, I have spoken many times about the importance of maintaining standards, particularly in a changing world. People can look online for all kinds of information, gossip and so on, but TV needs to uphold standards in this changing world. That is incredibly important. I welcomed very much what the chairman of ITV said last week about the importance of the watershed. I note that one newspaper— The Sunday Telegraph, I think—did a survey that found a spike in programmes containing heavy use of swearing immediately after the watershed. I do not think that that is acceptable. The watershed is there as a guide to broadcasters. The public clearly understand that programmes can reflect the language that is used, but that there should not be gratuitous use of bad language on television.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Certainly I recognise that the BBC is still a great national institution and I am usually a great supporter of it. However, if we have a public sector broadcaster that is funded by the licence fee, should it not be more independent in its news gathering? Personally, I am sickened by the number of times we have to hear what the papers say and by how the lead from all that Conservative press outside is slavishly followed on the BBC. Why can it not get its own news?

Andy Burnham: If my hon. Friend looks at research into how the public value news, particularly that provided by the BBC, he will see that they find it to be trustworthy, impartial, accurate and of high quality. They depend on it very much and as far as I am concerned, the BBC continues to provide an excellent news service.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The BBC should be providing programmes that the whole family can watch together. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be nice to see “The Generation Game” return to our screens on Saturday nights, albeit not presented by Mr. Ross or Mr. Brand?

Andy Burnham: All of us, or most of us, are television viewers and it always tempting to pass comment on editorial matters in the House and amplify our views to the nation about the kind of programmes that we should be seeing. We should mainly resist the temptation to comment on editorial matters, although the temptation is great in my case, having seen the wonderful and talented Laura White harshly voted off “The X Factor” on Saturday. She happens also to be my constituent, so I should probably say no more on that topic. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this is not a good place for politicians to comment on every editorial decision that the BBC or other broadcasters take.

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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The millions of people who live in the counties in the M25 ring around London are much more numerous than all the people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, yet they are badly served by BBC news gathering and provision. It really is time that the Secretary of State told the BBC to get a move on and provide proper news reporting facilities and proper news programmes for places such as my area of Essex, on both radio and television, and to recognise that there are boundaries such as the Thames Gateway that need to be embraced. We are being badly served, yet we are millions of people more than those in the other countries, which, very important though they are, each have almost their own BBC Scotland service. Discuss.

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend may not have noticed, but the BBC Trust is at present in a mode where it is receiving constructive criticism on the services that it provides. I would encourage him to make his views known to the BBC Trust, which I am sure will take the strength of feeling that he has just displayed on board.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the things that has emerged over the past few weeks from the Russell Brand-Jonathan Ross incident is that it is difficult for viewers to know exactly to whom they should complain if they are unhappy with BBC programmes that are funded by their licence fee? Should they complain to the BBC management, the BBC Trust or Ofcom? In view of that, does he agree that it is absolutely essential that viewers should be represented by an independent body that champions the needs of licence fee payers, and not by an organisation that defends the BBC as an institution?

Andy Burnham: Let me say quite clearly that the episode to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a serious lapse of broadcasting standards, and, indeed, of the editorial controls designed to uphold those standards. Furthermore, the BBC management was too slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation. However, I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement issued by the BBC Trust on 30 October, which set in train a whole range of actions to ensure that there would be no repeat of that episode. One example of those actions is the review of the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

On the hon. Gentleman’s wider point, I think that it is clear to the public that the BBC Trust can and will take the issues that are referred to it and challenge the BBC on them. It already has a record of doing that on behalf of the licence fee payer. It is also true to say that Ofcom has a role to play in taking a wider view of broadcasting and ensuring that standards across the board are upheld. Those two roles are complementary, and they are working well. Indeed, in this case, the regulators have set action in train and done their job.

Mr. Hunt: If the system works so well, will Secretary of State explain why it is so difficult for licence fee payers, even after freedom of information requests, to find out the salaries paid to BBC management or BBC stars? Should not the first lesson be that, if the BBC is to restore confidence in what it does, it needs to be totally transparent? This is our money, not the BBC’s, and we are entitled to know how it is being spent.

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Andy Burnham: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the BBC Trust has a job to do in representing the licence fee payers to the BBC management and the BBC executive. I also agree that, if it is to do that job effectively, it is important for there to be proper transparency and disclosure of information that can have a bearing on public opinion in relation to the BBC. However, I would refer him to some of the strong actions that the BBC Trust has already taken since it came into existence. An example is the King report, which looked into news reporting across the four home nations. There should always be disclosure of information, where that is in the public interest, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me to suggest further areas in which that could be improved, I shall give the matter my consideration.

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