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29 Jan 2009 : Column 458

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): In better economic times, the Government set considerable store by praying in aid support by the International Monetary Fund for their economic policies. Yesterday, the same body issued a damning report on the state of the British economy. May I ask the Leader of the House for a statement by a Treasury Minister about the IMF’s findings, as many companies rely on such forecasts to enable them to organise their business affairs? As she said earlier, the provision of timely and accurate information to business is essential in these difficult times.

Ms Harman: In that case, the right hon. Gentleman can respond to my request to give timely and accurate information to his constituents.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland make a statement next week on the proposal to compensate the families of terrorists? That is causing great distress in Northern Ireland and affecting the peace process. The sooner that the Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box and knocks that crazy idea on the head, the better for all concerned.

Ms Harman: We all hope and expect Northern Ireland to have a successful future, and we also have to honour the memories of those who have suffered, including the 4,000 who lost their lives during the 40 years of the troubles. We have to learn the lesson that Northern Ireland cannot prosper in the future if it continues to live in the grip of that painful past. I thank Lord Eames and Mr. Bradley for their report. In 200 pages, they made 30 proposals, one of which is especially controversial and the Prime Minister spoke about it to the House yesterday. We have to find a way towards reconciliation without endless repeats of massive inquiries such as the Saville inquiry, useful though that may turn out to be when it finally concludes its work.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Will the Leader of the House prevail on the Home Secretary for a debate on the management of the UK Border Agency? I wrote to the Home Office recently about my constituent Mr. Gary Allen, and the reply said that the agency could confirm that his application for indefinite leave to remain was still awaiting consideration. It went on to say that it was not able to give a precise date for that consideration. Mr. Allen began his application in 2002, so he has been waiting for six years. Does that indicate that something may be going wrong in that agency?

Ms Harman: I think I have more immigration cases than any other Member, and I know that some cases—if they are complicated or involve different items of information that have to be obtained from other countries—can take a very long time to be sorted out. However, the agency is much quicker than it was and I commend its work. I suggest that, instead of raising the issue in business questions, the right hon. Gentleman seek a meeting with the Minister responsible to try to get Mr. Allen’s case sorted out.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On the matter of the demonstrations in Parliament square, I make the plea that we treat the individual demonstrators with respect and that we respect their views, which are sincerely held.

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Will the Leader of the House have a word with her Cabinet colleagues about how they answer written questions? I have been attempting to obtain data about the performance of the ambulance service in the two districts in my constituency. That information used to be given in parliamentary answers, but since the regionalisation of the ambulance service it has been denied to us. The Colchester Gazette has been told that it can obtain the information through a request under the freedom of information legislation. Given that the Secretary of State for Health is constitutionally responsible for the conduct of the health service, should he not provide the information in parliamentary answers that a local newspaper could obtain on request?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is right. We cannot have a situation in which freedom of information requests are answered but Members elected to hold Ministers to account do not get answers to their questions. That is the wrong way round. I know that every Minister wants questions to be dealt with properly, and if things are going wrong they need to be brought sharply to their attention. The Deputy Leader of the House is the clearing house for such concerns and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman meet him to talk about it.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a debate in Government time and on the Floor of the House about violence against women? The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the End Violence against Women Coalition will tomorrow publish a seminal report highlighting the fact that 3 million women suffer this terrible scourge every year in England and Wales, at an estimated cost to the country of £40,000 million, so is it not high time that this House debated its approach to some of the most vulnerable people in our society to whom we owe a particular duty of care?

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Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. The British crime survey showed a fall in the number of women reporting that they had suffered domestic violence, and that is a welcome trend, but it remains a massive problem. He mentions the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission—I have had a chance to see it already. It shows that although statutory agencies are making progress with the support they provide—such as health authorities providing sexual assault referral centres—the map of gaps last year showed that one in three local authorities were providing no support services to women under threat of domestic violence. That has now fallen to one in four, so progress has been made, but it is still too few. Local authorities need to recognise that they must play their part in the battle against domestic violence. We should not wring our hands and say that nothing can be done, because action can be taken. There will be a debate on international women’s day, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise the issue then.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I add my voice to those on both sides of the House who are calling for a debate on Sri Lanka. While events there have been overshadowed in recent weeks by events in Gaza, the death toll continues to rise every day with many thousands of civilians caught between the warring factions. I urge the Leader of the House to do all she can to encourage the Government to bring that war to an end.

Ms Harman: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments and I will bring them to the attention of the Foreign Secretary. He is already acting on this issue, but he will be grateful for the support and encouragement of hon. Members. I will also look for a chance to debate the situation.

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Digital Britain

12.28 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the publication today of the interim “Digital Britain” report. Last October, together with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, I announced that Lord Carter of Barnes would undertake a comprehensive review of Britain’s digital, communication and creative sectors and make recommendations to place the country in a position to prosper in the digital age.

Today, the Government are publishing Lord Carter’s interim findings. His report starts from the recognition that those sectors are not only important in their own right—they are worth more than £52 billion a year, with 2 million to 3 million people directly employed by them—but fundamental to the way all businesses operate and how we all live our lives.

Capable communications systems can help British businesses to become more efficient and productive, offering the potential to reduce travel. High-quality information and entertainment enhance our democracy and our quality of life and define our culture. In short, building a digital Britain is about securing a competitive, low-carbon, productive and creative economy in the next five to 10 years.

It is worth reminding the House of Britain’s traditional strength in these industries. The worldwide web was invented by British ingenuity. It was here that GSM was created and established as the global standard for first generation digital mobile communications. However, that strength is not just in distribution and systems. Our television, music, film, games, advertising and software industries are world-leading. The OECD estimates that the United Kingdom cultural and creative sector, at just under 6 per cent. of gross domestic product, is relatively more important than its equivalent in the United States, Canada, France and Australia. UNESCO considers the UK to be the world’s biggest exporter of cultural goods, surpassing even the US.

We cannot be complacent. The online age is rewriting the rules, changing the way that consumers access content and the old business models that have underpinned Britain’s creative industries. The challenge now is how to build the networks and infrastructure that help businesses and consumers to get the most from the digital age and how to fund the quality content that has always been our hallmark.

The Government’s thinking has been shaped by a series of important reviews, including the Caio review on next generation broadband access; the work of the digital radio working group; the Byron review on children and new technology, which led to the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety; the Convergence Think Tank; the digital inclusion action plan; and the Creative Britain strategy.

“Digital Britain” brings those strands of work together into a clear and comprehensive framework with five public policy ambitions at its heart: first, to upgrade and modernise our digital networks—wired, wireless and broadcast; secondly, to secure a dynamic investment climate for British digital content, applications and services; thirdly, to secure a wide range of high-quality,
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UK-made public service content for UK citizens and consumers, underpinning a healthy democracy; fourthly, to ensure fair access for all and the ability for everyone to take part in the communications revolution; and fifthly, to develop the infrastructure, skills and take-up to enable widespread online delivery of public services.

The interim report makes 22 recommendations to achieve those objectives and I will set out some of them for the House today. Britain must always be ready to benefit from the latest advances in technology, so we will establish a strategy group to assess measures to underpin existing market-led investment plans for next generation access networks. An umbrella body will also be set up to provide technical advice and support to local and community networks. To facilitate the move to next generation mobile services, we are specifying a wireless radio spectrum modernisation programme. In addition, the Government are committing to enabling digital audio broadcasting to be a primary distribution network for radio in the UK and will create a digital migration plan for radio. We will also consider how the digital TV switchover help scheme can contribute towards wider inclusion in digital services.

We will only maintain our creative strength if we find new ways of paying for and sustaining creative content in the online age. We will therefore explore the potential for a new rights agency to be established and, following a consultation on how to tackle unlawful file sharing, we propose to legislate to require internet service providers to notify alleged significant infringers that their conduct is unlawful.

Our third objective—high-quality, UK-made public service content—will be achieved by sustaining public service broadcasting provision from the BBC and beyond. The report identifies news—at local, regional and national level—and children’s programming as among the key priorities. The BBC as an enabling force is central to that objective. Strong and secure in its own future, it will work in partnership with others to deliver those objectives. We will also explore how we can establish a sustainable public service organisation that offers scale and reach alongside the BBC, building on the strength of Channel 4. We will consider options to ensure plurality of provision of news in the regions and the nations, and we are asking the Office of Fair Trading, together with Ofcom, to look at the local and regional media sector in the context of the media merger regime. We will consider the evolving relationship between independent producers and commissioners to ensure we have the appropriate rights holding arrangements for a multi-platform future.

Our fourth objective of fairness and access is, of course, crucial to delivering the Government’s policy of an inclusive society where new opportunities are available to all and nobody is left behind, so we are developing plans to move towards an historic universal service commitment for broadband and digital services to include options up to 2 megabits per second, building on the approach to postal services and telephones in centuries past. We will also ensure that public services online are designed for ease of use by the widest range of citizens.

Lastly, to help people navigate this vast and changing world, the report makes recommendations to improve media literacy and, in particular, to give parents the information and tools necessary to protect children from harmful or inappropriate content.

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The Government have today set out an ambitious vision to ensure that Britain reaps the full economic and social benefits of the digital age. An intensive period of discussions with industry partners and others must now begin to turn the emerging conclusions into firm solutions. A final report will be presented to Parliament by the summer and I wish to thank Lord Carter for his work to date. In publishing the interim report today and making this statement to the House, we seek to invite members from both sides of the House to engage in the debate on the fundamental questions that will shape our country’s economy and society in this century. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for 15 minutes’ notice of his statement and a much more generous notice of the report, which we received in good time this morning. However, we were disappointed that yet again the contents were broadcast on the “Today” programme this morning, that they are in The Daily Telegraph and The Times, and that there was even a briefing at No. 10 at 8 o’clock this morning to which the industry, including broadcasters, was invited. I respectfully suggest to the Secretary of State that if he is serious about cross-party collaboration on these issues, he should respect the role of Parliament in this matter as in every other.

We welcome the interest that the Government have shown in our digital economy. All parties in the House are united in the desire to maximise the competitive strengths of our creative economy and the Government have obviously committed considerable resources to putting together the report. However, most people will be disappointed with it. The digital economy is vital for Britain because of our natural strengths in creating digital content, but, when it comes to the delivery of that content, we are lagging badly. We come 21st out of 30 for broadband speed, while 40 per cent. of our households do not have broadband at all and connections fell last year. On next generation broadband, the report itself concedes that we are lagging behind France, Germany, the US and Japan.

The statement and the report were a chance to put things right, but instead the Government—who have been the best customer for the management consultancy industry in the history of Britain—have promised no new action but a total of eight new reports. This week, a woman in California gave birth to eight babies. Perhaps in homage to her, the Government have announced eight new reports. Although the world was surprised and delighted with the arrival of the octuplets, we have all become wearily familiar with the Government’s continual substitution of reports for action.

The report does mention action. The most critical question of all, namely how to stimulate investment in next generation broadband access, is dealt with under action 1. What is action 1? It is to

So the most important action is not an action at all but the establishment of a strategy group. A Conservative Government will make it a major objective to ensure that more than half the population has access to next generation networks within five years. Do the Government accept that as an objective? Will they deliver it?

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The report says that the Government will

If BT, which owns the ducts, does not co-operate, will the Government force BT to open them to other suppliers, as the Conservatives have pledged?

Can the Secretary of State tell us who is in overall charge—Lord Carter, the Business Secretary or the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? Without clear leadership, the chance of delivering on such huge commitments is minuscule. So may we have a categoric assurance that there is no turf war going on between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Ofcom that prevents the Government from showing the leadership that is so desperately needed?

On universal service obligation for broadband, we welcome the long-delayed commitment to ensure that everyone has access. But who will pay for that? Expressing a sentiment is fine, but without a road map for delivery it is surely a totally empty promise. The Government say that the universal commitment should be for 2 megabits per second access. Given that the national average access speed is 3.6, is not the scale of the Government’s ambitions pitifully low, in simply saying that they want to ensure that the whole population has access to half the current average speed by 2012? Is there not a real risk that these changes will be superseded by technological changes before they are implemented?

On digital radio, the report says:

that DAB should be

So how will that be funded? How will the Government ensure that DAB becomes available in people’s cars? How will they ensure that the signal is strengthened in rural areas? Without those details, this report amounts to no more than an empty gesture.

On copyright protection—an incredibly important issue—instead of a solution there is a proposal to set up a new quango, with a new tax on internet users. Why do we need another agency when Ofcom is already equipped and able to do that job? And why should legitimate internet users have to pay for the copyright infringement of transgressors?

The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), recently enraged the music industry by comparing illegal downloading to stealing bars of soap from hotels. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that for the Government theft is theft, whether online or offline?

On peer-to-peer file sharing, the report talks about consulting on legislation. So can the Secretary of State tell the House how internet service providers are supposed to identify illegally shared files, given what happened in France, where many users simply reacted by encrypting their files when the French Government introduced similar measures?

On the review of the terms of trade, can the Secretary of State give clarity on timings, given that while a review is taking place investment in independent production will be very hard to sustain?

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Finally, on internet content, I notice that the Secretary of State’s idea for cinema-style ratings for websites is not in the report. Has it been sidelined, perhaps by voices in Government more realistic about the ability of Government to control the internet?

In October the Secretary of State said:

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