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18 Nov 2008 : Column 39WH—continued

Andrew George: All I wanted to ask the hon. Gentleman was that, if he has concerns—I share them—about the threat to pluralism in online services as a result of the BBC’s activities, why is he not equally concerned about
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the dominance of the BBC in the broadcasting sphere, particularly with regard to regional news coverage? Does he share my concern that if ITV goes ahead with its proposals, a state news broadcaster will dominate regional news broadcasting?

Mr. Vaizey: We can all play the “what if” game. What if a Conservative Government had been in power for the last two years and had grasped the nettle of the threat facing our commercial companies? They could have eased the regulatory burden on ITV, talked to commercial radio companies and removed a lot of the restrictions that they are under, particularly regarding cross-ownership. That might have allowed such companies to thrive in a more lightly regulated environment, and we might have seen ITV regional news surviving, thriving and perhaps even expanding.

Of course, I am massively concerned about the growth and power of the BBC. The BBC has £3.5 billion of licence fee payers’ money with which to compete against commercial companies—television broadcasters and radio companies—which have their hands tied behind their backs by the regulatory environment. My worry has translated into policy, and that is why we do not want the BBC to expand by creating local video content on its website. We must allow commercial companies to thrive and survive.

With those remarks, I bring my speech to a close. I urge the Minister to go back to her colleagues and ask for clarity. The commercial broadcasters can no longer wait for yet another Government review. Perhaps she will close down the convergence think-tank, call a meeting with Lord Carter and the Secretary of State, sit down over the Christmas turkey, make some decisions and return in the new year and tell us what the future of public service broadcasting is going to be.

12.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Key. First, I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on securing the debate and on making such a thoughtful and measured contribution to it. It was very valuable.

I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government remain committed to retaining public service broadcasting as an important part of their work, and to preserving free access to high-quality content that reflects the needs and interests of everyone, wherever they are in this great country of ours. As hon. Members have noted, the question for us as legislators, for Ofcom as the regulator and for broadcasters, is how we can create a sustainable model for public service content, particularly for commercial broadcasters in the future.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) alluded to the drop in the share price. It went down by a further 0.5 per cent. while the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) was speaking.

Mr. Vaizey: I was talking ITV down.

Barbara Follett: I am stressing that there has been a big drop in ITV’s share price; it is something that fluctuates all the time. Hon. Members will know that the economics of the commercial broadcasting industry
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have changed radically over the past few years. That is a significant challenge to the viability of the traditional funding models that we have lived with since 1955. At the back of that change is the switchover to digital TV, which has broadly taken place in at least one television set in 88 per cent. of households in the United Kingdom.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): On the theme of pressure on commercial television, is the Minister aware that today Ofcom has released its estimates of the possible costs of ITV’s various public service obligations? They were put at £5 million for national news, £7 million for current affairs, £5 million for out-of-London production—which the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned—and £8 million for original British production. If those figures are totalled, they come to less than the residual value of ITV’s use of spectrum and position on the electronic programme guide. Should the House expect ITV at least to keep up its out-of-London and British production and national news? According to Ofcom, that costs less than its residual value and spectrum.

Barbara Follett: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. We must keep up those services. However, we must remember that the licences currently held by Ofcom are worth £200 million today, but in a couple of years’ time they will be worth about £40 million. That is a significant drop and shows that its ability to attract money is lessening rapidly.

The switchover to digital TV, with its greater numbers of free-to-air commercial channels, is eroding and fragmenting ITV’s audience and therefore its ability to attract advertising revenue. That process has caused ITV’s share of the advertising market to drop by more than 10 percentage points between 2004 and 2007. Hon. Members have alluded to the growing popularity of new audiovisual services, from online content to video on demand and catch-up TV. I know that many of us in the Chamber are probably not young enough to understand the mechanics of catch-up TV, but the coming generations use it all the time in the way that we—or at least I—used to switch on Muffin the Mule.

As a result of those and other challenges, Ofcom believes that by 2011, the cost of public service obligations will exceed the benefit that they offer to commercial public service broadcasters. That alarming assessment gives the Government, Ofcom and broadcasters difficult issues to address and I would like to outline how we intend to do that. The hon. Member for Wantage said that we had lost control, and that Lord Carter had moved to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I assure the hon. Gentleman that Lord Carter has not moved—he happens to share a suite of offices with me in Cockspur street, and communication between us remains strong.

We foresaw this problem when we introduced the Communications Act 2003. That Act imposed a duty on Ofcom to report every five years on the state of public service television broadcasting. It also ensured that Ofcom had the flexibility to make changes to a significant proportion of obligations as and when necessary. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are in discussion with it about that. Ofcom is currently in the middle of a public service broadcasting review. Such reviews are necessary because today we do not manage top-down
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but through consultation. We talk to people and try to reach an agreement that is backed by them. In other words, we seek to work by consensus, not authoritarian diktat.

Ofcom’s phase 2 document was published on 25 September and clearly showed, as hon. Members have done today, that the public value public service broadcasting, and want it to continue. The Government and Parliament have the responsibility for designing the statutory framework for the provision of public service content. That includes the purposes, the delivery mechanisms and the funding framework.

As hon. Members said, in its report, Ofcom identified three models that it felt merited further discussion: the enhanced evolution model, a refined BBC and Channel 4 model, and a refined competitive funding model. It is clear from today’s discussions that those three models attract criticism and approval from various groups—the review will weigh up those positions and consider what each model offers. I urge hon. Members, and anyone else who is interested, to contribute quickly to the consultation, which closes on 4 December, because we want everybody to get involved.

It is also clear from Ofcom’s report that certain programme genres are much more at risk than others, especially regional programming and national and regional news, which were the key themes of the remarks by the hon. Member for Rochdale. I assure him and other hon. Members that the Government remain committed to ensuring that programmes are made for, and in, the regions, and not just in London, or inside the M25 belt. That is why we embedded a regional dimension in the Communications Act 2003, which should facilitate the development of a critical mass of production outside London and the M25 area. It should also ensure that broadcasters continue to invest time and money in producing high-quality programming for the regions—I said “should” several times just then, because, disappointingly, ITV failed to meet its out-of-London production quotas in 2006 and 2007. The quotas are set by Ofcom and are statutory obligations, and the Government expect the relevant broadcasters to meet them. However, the possible sanctions for failure to do so are a matter for Ofcom, whose decision on ITV we await.

Currently, the BBC and ITV offer viewers programmes that are made in their region, about their region. As Minister for the East of England, I take the point that local people do not always identify closely with those regions—indeed, living in Hertfordshire, I find it difficult sometimes to identify with content beamed broadly at the East Anglian coast—but that problem probably extends beyond the remit of this debate, so I shall put it to one side for now.

In addition to the regional programming, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are required to produce a proportion of programmes outside the M25. However, it is clear from today’s debate that the main concern of the majority of people is ITV and its regional programming dimension, which has played a crucial part in ITV’s unique appeal since it was launched in 1955. I am old enough to remember the launch and can tell hon. Members what a change the first commercial broadcasting company brought. Nationwide, audiences gathered around their television sets to watch high-quality programmes, including regional programmes. However, in the 53 years
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since, things have changed. Although ITV offered a big change from the London-centric programmes that people had been used to until 1955, and although ITV produced a big change in the BBC—it had to up its regional content—things have now changed again, and ITV’s market price reflects the enormity of that change, as the hon. Member for Wantage said.

Popular programmes such as “Coronation Street” and “Doc Martin” continue to ensure that television is not only, or mainly, about London. Although ITV spends about £120 million a year on regional services, and provides around 5,000 hours of regional programming every year, its regional news represents the vast majority of its output in volume and cost. That is what we are talking about today. ITV spends more than £100 million a year on news provision alone. The key question is how sustainable this is in the light of competition from multi-channel television and the proliferation of new media in this country.

In a strategy document on content-led recovery published last year, ITV expressed, and attempted to address, concerns about the validity of its business model. One of the key components of that strategy was a new approach to regional news, which the hon. Member for Bath outlined. However, I shall repeat it quickly. The strategy would provide nine flagship regional news programmes in place of the 17 currently provided and would involve merging some of the smaller regions, such as ITV Westcountry, ITV West, ITV Border and ITV Tyne Tees.

ITV has confirmed, however, that it is committed to ensuring that each region will be fully equipped with journalists, camera crews and news-gathering equipment in order to cover breaking and emergency stories. It will also provide segments within news programmes to provide an even more localised service in areas such as Border and Tyne Tees. However, the Government accept that
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there is a fear that the quality of coverage provided is under threat and that those stories best covered in the regions will be buried or reported inaccurately. In difficult times—for example, during a flood or a hospital crisis—it is crucial that people get the information for their area. As a regional Minister, I had to deal with the outbreak of avian flu, when we really needed regional information, so I understand fully the high value that people place on regional news services. I am glad, therefore, that Ofcom is consulting on its proposals.

In these difficult times, the fact that people are facing job cuts in all ITV regions must be causing great concern, and I sympathise with journalists whose jobs are under threat. The Government and Ofcom have taken a twin-track approach to the current difficulties that public service and commercial broadcasting is facing. We are looking at policies and the practicalities of the situation, and despite the ominous warnings from the hon. Member for Wantage, Lord Carter is very engaged in this policy area—and in Cockspur street, not Victoria street.

Paul Rowen: Will the Minister indicate when the Government are likely to make a decision on this matter?

Barbara Follett: Yes, in fact I shall conclude with that.

Early next year—hopefully in January—the Government plan to publish an interim digital Britain report, and in the spring a final report, which will consider what future legislative and non-legislative measures are required to support the development of the UK’s creative and economic sectors. Unlike the hon. Member for Wantage, I do not favour product placement as a solution. We have enough of that in films today, and I fear my children and grandchildren are becoming too commercially inclined.

I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale again and assure him of the Government’s continuing concern about this matter.

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Consular Support

12.29 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I want to raise the issue of the consular assistance that was provided to one of my constituents in relation to her brother, who tragically died in the Pertamina hospital in Jakarta while he was on holiday in Indonesia. The case revolves around the refusal of the hospital to treat Mr. Nord until he provided a cash payment to the doctors who were on duty that evening. This was not about paying for treatment through a credit card or cheque. It was a demand for money—American dollars—to be paid up front before the hospital would consider any treatment. In the event, Mr. Nord died. His death was entirely preventable. My constituent, his sister, believes that the consular assistance that was provided was inadequate to say the least.

Mr. Dale Nord was taken ill on Friday 4 January. He spent the whole day in bed in his hotel room. He was persuaded to go to hospital that evening. His condition had deteriorated to such an extent that by the time he arrived at hospital, he was unconscious. From that point on, he never recovered consciousness. When presented with Mr. Nord, the hospital refused to treat him until his companion had provided $1,700 in cash.

Mr. Nord received no treatment for several hours until his companion was able to contact friends to raise part of the money. As it turned out, his friends raised $700. After that, the hospital began to consider treating Mr. Nord. I want to point out that, contrary to what the Foreign Office has been told and to the information that it provided in our exchange of correspondence, up until that point no treatment, be it good, bad or indifferent, had been given to Mr. Nord. In a letter—admittedly not written by my hon. Friend the Minister—the Foreign Office said:

That is not the case; medical treatment was withheld until Mr. Nord’s companion could produce a cash payment in US dollars to the doctors on duty in the hospital.

Mr. Nord’s companion, his girlfriend Anna, was an Indonesian national. Obviously, she could speak the language. She was well aware of what was happening at the hospital, of what was being demanded and of the fact that Mr. Nord was not being treated. She did not have the money available to her, and so she contacted April Nord, Mr. Nord’s sister and my constituent, to ask for her help. April Nord then contacted the embassy, through the embassy’s emergency telephone line, and spoke to Mr. Golding, the officer on duty that evening. Unfortunately, Mr. Golding responded by saying that it was not his day job, and that he was not used to doing that type of work. He said that he did not want to go to the hospital that evening because he did not have an interpreter and he did not have the required language skills. He said that he would not go to the hospital until 7.30 the following day.

Why was an emergency duty officer on duty that weekend in Indonesia when he did not have the requisite language skills or the skills to deal with the situation? Mr. Golding said that such work was not his day job, which one takes to mean that he had been seconded into the job of duty officer without any experience.

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Throughout the time, the hospital was pressurising Mr. Nord’s companions for cash payments. It said that it could not put Mr. Nord in intensive care, which is what it said that he required, until the money had been paid. It was made crystal clear to Mr. Nord’s companion that he would not be moved until money had changed hands.

My constituent, April Nord, had a number of conversations with Mr. Golding throughout the course of the evening. She was anxious to get money to the hospital to pay for any treatment that her brother required. During her conversation with Mr. Golding, she was told that everything in Jakarta works on bribery and that the request for $1,700 was probably a request for a bribe. By this time, things were becoming a little frantic to say the least. The companion of Mr. Nord and Mr. Nord’s sister were told that Mr. Nord was in a diabetic coma and that he had suffered multiple organ failure, neither of which turned out to be true. It was suggested that a credit card payment might be acceptable. That suggestion came from Mr. Golding himself and not from my constituent, as has been suggested in the correspondence with the Foreign Office.

Unfortunately, the hospital refused to take a credit card payment on the basis that it did not have sight of the credit card—it was Mr. Nord’s sister’s credit card and she was in the UK. By the same token, the Foreign Office refused to guarantee or loan any money in accordance with the Foreign Office consular advice. Therefore, there appeared to be no way in which money could be paid to the hospital to obtain treatment for Mr. Nord. Yet all the time the doctors kept saying that he was in a diabetic coma, that he was suffering multiple organ failure and that he required intensive care.

After Mr. Nord had been in hospital without treatment for several hours, a friend provided $700, which had been collected from friends. At that point, the hospital agreed to begin some assessment of Mr. Nord’s condition. However, at 5 am, Mr. Nord allegedly suffered a cardiac arrest, and later that day, he died. All of that happened between 1 o’clock in the morning and 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Indonesian time.

Throughout the whole of the period that he was in hospital, Mr. Nord had been unconscious. Even if the man had had insurance, a credit card or cash with him, he could not have communicated that information to anybody; he was unconscious. He could not say whether he had funding available. The Foreign Office provides clear consular advice. A person in those circumstances could be any one of us; incapacitated and unconscious and unable to communicate with the hospital. The hospital would not provide treatment until a payment was made, but the situation was such that it was impossible to provide that payment. I find it strange that the embassy staff, faced with a situation involving a clear demand for money, which the individual concerned had difficulty in meeting, could not have done more to provide assistance to him. I appreciate that the guidelines state that no financial assistance is available, but by the same token it is strange that the Foreign Office was willing simply to stand by and allow the man to die for the want of $1,700.

To make matters worse, when Mr. Nord’s body was returned to the UK, the West Yorkshire coroner undertook a post mortem examination of the body and the medical notes from the hospital were referred to specialists in
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West Yorkshire, for an analysis of what had happened to Mr. Nord while he was in hospital. Mr. Nord had no history of diabetes and there was no diabetes in his body. There was no question that he had been in a diabetic coma. He had not suffered any cardiac arrest. Nor had he suffered multiple organ failure. The consultant’s conclusion was that the

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