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Now is the time to move from...think tank phase to...delivery phase.
So where is the delivery on next generation access? Another consultation. Where is the delivery on copyright protection? Another quango. Where is the delivery on peer-to-peer file sharing? Another consultation. Where is the delivery on the crisis facing local newspapers? Another review. Where is the delivery on community radio? Another consultation. Where is the delivery on terms of trade? Just another report. No concrete action, only eight woolly reviews.
A Conservative Government made telecoms deregulation happen. They made the satellite and cable revolution happen. Now it looks as though the country will have to wait for another Conservative Government to end the curse of endless reviews, reports and consultations and lay the foundations for a truly competitive digital Britain.
Andy Burnham: I listened closely to what the hon. Gentleman said, but I think he has fundamentally misunderstood the importance of the report published today, and of the action that the Government need to take, in partnership with others, to reach firm conclusions. He seems to think that the Government can simply impose a view and say, It must be like this; now everyone can get on and do it as we say. It has to be right to develop a strong public-private partnership in these complex areas, so that we get these decisions right and so that industry has confidence in them.
The hon. Gentleman made a statement in the middle of his contribution, which was something like this: A Conservative Government will take action to ensure that more than half of the country has next generation access within five years. That is a major spending commitment. I hope he has permission for such a commitment from the shadow Chancellor. That is a major, open-ended, blank-cheque commitment, and he should think very carefully before he makes commitments of that kind.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the process and why there was comment in the newspapers. No Ministers appeared on the Today programme today. It is, by definition, an inclusive process and we have drawn a wide range of voices into this debate. For that reason, it would be impossible for the Government to control all comment made about the emerging conclusions, but I can assure him that this House is hearing the detail of the report for the first time.
The hon. Gentleman says that most people will be disappointed with the report. I reject that entirely. If he were to ask the music industry or the film industry, he would discover that they see here a process that started with the Creative Britain document last year, whereby the Government are addressing directly the very serious concerns that they have raised, and are trying to come up with solutions that will work in the future, not simply saying that what is unlawful should be unlawful.
We have to recognise that young people throughout the country are exploring and using music differently from how they did in the past. It is unrealistic to think
that the clock can be turned back, which is what the hon. Gentleman seemed to be suggesting. We have to create sensible solutions that will have some chance of enduring in the online age. That will be done by ensuring that we capture the benefits of the internet and the freedoms with which people can explore new content, while finding ways of paying for it in the future. On that, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I are absolutely clear: we agree that legislating to cut people off is unlikely to win public confidence in and support for this important agenda. It is a more sophisticated approach, which the hon. Gentleman has today shown himself completely incapable of understanding.
The hon. Gentleman asked who is in charge. Lord Carter is conducting a review, as a Minister in both Departmentsa converged Minister, looking at these issues of convergence, as the hon. Gentleman puts it. He is reporting to two Secretaries of State and ultimately the Government. I think this has been a process whereby different parts of the Government are working very closely together and producing a report that for the first time brings together infrastructure and content. That is a major step forward.
The hon. Gentleman asks who will pay for broadband; that illustrates precisely why it is not as easy as sitting there and dictating. We will now enter a process with the operators of fixed and mobile networks to see how we can build out broadband services so that we work towards a universal service commitment. That will be the next phase of Lord Carters work. I said he would report before the summer; that seems to me a pretty firm timetable and it is not the woolly, open-ended process that the hon. Gentleman seemed to claim we were operating.
The hon. Gentleman asked about copyright, and why a new agency. I would simply say to him that these are complex issues and it is right to bring rights holders and ISPs together to work out solutions that will work for both.
On the terms of trade, we need to be absolutely clear that the independent sector in this country has flourished in recent times. He said it was all down to a Conservative Government. Well actually, no. It was the Communications Act 2003 which put in place the conditions for a flourishing independent production sector in recent times. As with everything, all options need to be considered as part of this review, but we will not do anything that damages the strength of that sector, which now has some companies that really are global operators, delivering huge economic benefits for this country.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of internet content. I said over the Christmas period that we needed to help parents to get better information about the content to which their children will be exposed when they use websites. The Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported on this matter last summer, and I say openly to the House that I am not sure how many parents know, for example, that YouTubes recommended minimum age is 13, meaning that people under 13 should not use it unsupervised. I do not believe that it is irresponsible to raise such issues. Parents clearly do not knowthey might be surprisedthat there is a recommended minimum age for using such sites with lots of user-generated content, and the fact that the hon. Gentleman simply brushes the notion
aside demonstrates his complete misunderstanding of the fundamental importance of some of the issues raised in Digital Britain.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I, too, wish to be as inclusive as possible, so I hope that hon. Members contributions will be one supplementary question, and that there will be a succinct reply.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance copies of his statement and the interim Digital Britain report from his apparently converged Minister. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) said, the report makes interesting but disappointing reading.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the UK has slipped in the global league table of digital adoption, skills and use. Other countries make the development of a digital knowledge economy the centrepiece of their economic development, and we should be doing that, but we are not. This morning, the Prime Minister said that the report set out the scale of his ambition, but he should have added that it offers few, if any, decisions. Where are those decisions?
Our public service broadcasters, from the peerless BBC to the multi-award winning Channel 4, are the envy of the world, but they face significant problems. They need help and advice, and they need decisions to be made now. Last September, the Secretary of State said that we would have those decisions today. He stated that:
early in the New Year, Ofcom can conclude its review and Government can announce decisions and the process to implement those decisions.
What decisions has he made? He welcomes talks between the BBC and ITV, and between the BBC and Channel 4, and talks about the possible involvement of Channel 4 in BBC Worldwide, but he offers no decisions. Apparently, we must wait until the summerso much for urgency.
Does the Secretary of State agree, at least, that there is now a window of opportunity for exciting thinking about using Worldwide? Does he agree that any links between Worldwide and other broadcasters, including Channel 4, must lead to added value for the BBC, as opposed to using Worldwide as a cash cow for others? Why has he not been ableas he should have beento rule out the top-slicing of money from the BBC? Why can we now not get on with making a return path part of the core requirement for digiboxes?
As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey said, perhaps the biggest disappointment relates to the plans for rolling out universal high-speed broadband. The Government promised that they would bring forward capital investment to help us out of the recession. This is one of the key areas in which that could be done. If done properly, 600,000 new jobs could be created in this country, but what have we got? We have some vague commitment to a universal 2 megabits per second provision.
As the hon. Gentleman said, average speeds are already 3.6 megabits per second, so why is there such little ambition and such a low target?
Over the past few years, we have spent millions of pounds on the work of Ofcom, the Convergence Group, the Byron report, the Broadband Stakeholder Group, the Creative Britain group, the Caio review and much more. In return for all that work, we have today the announcement of a strategy group, an umbrella body, a delivery group, a rights agency, an exploratory review, a digital champion and an expert taskforce. Is this not further evidence of classic new Labourhigh on vision and spin, but short on substance?
Andy Burnham: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman takes that approach. Let me deal with his central charge that this is disappointing, which echoes what the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) said. What is disappointing about making a fairly historic commitment on universal broadband services? The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) might have just banked it, but that is a fairly major statement on the path towards a fully digital society. I wish he would not brush that away as though it were insignificant. It is significant that we say we want to move towards broadband for everyone, and it is a moment such as the development of telephone and postal services.
Both hon. Gentlemen made international comparisons and suggested that we were being unduly cautious. Let me put on record something that contradicts what they said: France wants 512 kilobits per second and Finland wants 1 megabit per second. We are looking at options up to 2 megabits per second, so I hope they recognise that that represents greater ambition.
The hon. Member for Bath said that decisions were promised on public service broadcasting. Let me tell him the decisions that the report makes clear. There will be public service broadcasting beyond the BBC. Have the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives made such a commitment? [Hon. Members: Yes!] Well, I would be happy to hear it again today.
We also make clear the specific elements of public service provision beyond the BBC that are important, which is an important decision. We say that local, regional and national news are important. We say that we need quality programming for children, especially the over-10s. We say that we need production in all parts of the country. We are setting this down, and the hon. Gentleman is leaping towards institutional solutions, but that is the next phase, which will be dealt with in the final report. He seems to misread the process. We are publishing the interim report precisely so that there can be a debate about the solutions before they are finalised.
The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there was rich potential in using BBC Worldwide both to enhance our position in the global market and to generate resources that can go back into British programming that can then be sold throughout the world. Of course, this is about solutions that work for everyone, which is why there is complexity and we are taking our time to get things right.
The hon. Gentleman asked why we did not rule out top-slicing, but because we are committed to plural provision beyond the BBC, until solutions are found that would certainly deliver such provision, top-slicing
must remain in the mix as a possible option. Although the option remains on the table, it is not, as I have said many times, the solution for which I would instinctively reach first. I have said today that a strong and secure BBC is one that can form a partnership and play an enabling role, and that is my preferred route.
Lord Carter signals a significant change of policy on the return path for digital boxes by saying that that should be an option under the help scheme. We will explore that in more detail over the coming weeks.
The hon. Gentleman asked about capital investment in broadband, but that is a matter of public-private partnership, not simply the Government funding it all, which is what he seemed to be suggesting. We need to work intelligently with the communications sector and encourage the industry to work together to increase access to mobile and fixed networks. The Government will play a part in the debate in maximising the use of spectrum and ensuring that we have the right incentives for investment in this country. That is the intelligent approach, and I am sorry that the hon. Members for South-West Surrey and for Bath seem to misunderstand it.
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement and the interim report. He and I share a long-standing concern about the digital divide, in terms of availability, connectivity and internet literacy, which he has mentioned. Will he comment on how we might, through the report, strengthen our hand when it comes to the other dividethe divide that means that there are people who are not aware that there are dangers, as well as opportunities, and not aware of the protection that is needed, to which they can contribute? Will he today suggest that it is possible to strengthen the moderation role of providers and organisers of sites, because content appears on sites that would be totally unacceptable in print or traditional broadcast media?
Andy Burnham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his considered intervention. I point him towards research that says that one of the things that stops people from becoming bigger users of online services is a fear of what is online. We need to think about that. That is precisely why the issue of improving literacy and labelling of content is very important. Sometimes, when such issues are raised, there are immediate claims of an attack on free speech, or of censorship. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is truemy right hon. Friend pointed to thisis that the old media world had standards that guided people, so that they knew how best to use services. He is right to point to the need for similar standards in the online age, so that we do not take away the benefits or the huge, rich sources of information available to people, but empower peopleparentsto make the right decisions about the content that they access.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con):
I welcome the Governments intention to move ahead with promoting investment in next-generation access broadband, but does the Secretary of State recognise that faster download speeds will make it even easier for online piracy and illegal file-sharing to take place, and will pose an even greater threat to our music, games, television and film industries? He will be aware that so
far, talks between the internet service providers and the creative industries have been remarkably unsuccessful. Will he confirm that one of the few commitments that he has announced today is that the Government will legislate on the issue, and will he say when that legislation will be introduced?
Andy Burnham: I thank the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He has raised an incredibly important point, of which I am very much aware. When I came to this role just over a year ago, I said that it was a priority for me to ensure that we no longer simply stood by when the music industry faced serious damage. We have changed our tone in the past 12 months, as I hope that he recognises. We have given considerable urgency to the consideration of those questions, not least as a result of the promptings of his Committee and others. It is because of the connection between the ability to download and the content that is being downloaded that the report brings those two questions together into the same consideration. Music has faced the challenge sooner because, obviously, it is easier to download music over less capable networks, but as capability increases, the threat to the film and TV industries grows greater. That is why we are urgently considering the matter.
Today, we have proposed a commitment to legislate to ensure co-operation between the ISPs and the music industry. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the parliamentary timetable, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that once Lord Carter has finished his work, if the considered view of those whom he consults is that there should be legislation, we will move to legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of Swindons historical railway village, and the fact that as it is a conservation area, people there cannot have satellite dishes or cable. How will he ensure fair access for my constituents, many of whom are on low incomes or are pensioners, given Virgins virtual monopoly of supply via phone lines? How will he protect my constituents from high price increases once switchover happens?
Andy Burnham: I am very aware of the problem that my hon. Friend has raised, particularly in relation to Swindon railway village. Some of the measures that I have announced today will provide a long-term solution, because obviously, in the fullness of time, people may be able to access TV services through broadband, but in the short term that will not be possible. One of the issues emerging during the digital switchover programme is how we give people access to TV services where there are local restrictions to do with listing and the use of aerials and dishes. Her constituency has a thorny example of that kind of problem. I understand that the council is considering alternatives to cable for those residents, recognising the inflated prices that some may have to pay as a result of the options that they are given. Obviously, we hope that the council is able to offer those alternatives, and we will help, if we can, to ensure that the residents of Swindon railway village have a fair and affordable choice.
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