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Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is perhaps inevitable that a document that is more of the quality of
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a Green Paper than of a White Paper raises more questions than it answers—questions, for example, about the ability of the regulator to cope with the additional work load at a time when he is also being asked to take on the regulation of mail services, and questions about the wisdom of responsibility for the issue being shared between two Departments, which I think gets in the way. The Business and Enterprise Committee, which I chair, is lucky enough to be able to summon Lord Carter—the converged Minister—and question him; the rest of the House will not have that opportunity. Will the Secretary of State today commit to using his best endeavours to secure a full day’s debate, in Government time, on the very important questions that the document raises, so that we make sure that the House can thoughtfully make the maximum contribution to the process?

Andy Burnham: Let me deal with this, if I can, once and for all: this is an interim report. If I had come to the House today with Lord Carter’s final report, I can quite imagine that the cry from the Opposition Benches would have been, “These are fundamental questions for our society, democracy and economy, yet the Government have come along and imposed solutions straight away.” I believe that the process that has been established is the right one. As I said at the end of my statement, our wish now is to engage Members from all parts of the House on these incredibly important considerations. The process follows that of the Darzi review, which I think most people would consider to have been successful in stimulating a debate about the future of the national health service. I am sure that the business managers and the Leader of the House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said about a full day’s debate, but he is absolutely right to say that the questions are crucial for the country and need to be debated by Members in this House. That is why I made the statement today.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is well aware that what I know about modern information communication technology can be written on the back of a postage stamp, but the people I worry about are those who think that they know about what is on the internet. Does he share my concerns about those parents who believe that they know what their children are watching on the internet, and how they are engaging with other people through computers? What sort of information does he anticipate giving those parents, and when does he expect to come back to us with further description of the tools that he believes are necessary to protect children from harmful and inappropriate content?

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend has raised a really important point; I think that the divide between me and my children on communications issues is bigger than it was between me and my parents. The issue is huge, and I do not believe that all parents fully understand the range of information or content that their children can easily access. To raise that question is not to raise questions about curtailing access or about censorship; it is simply being responsible, and it is right, in a decent society, to say that parents should be empowered to find their way through a complicated, fast-changing world.

Although the watershed could never be used on the internet, it was nevertheless an utterly clear statement
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to parents about the kind of content that they could expect to find if they were to use services at a particular time. Opposition Front Benchers rubbished the suggestion, but I do not believe that parents know that there are recommended age limits for user-generated websites such as YouTube, or about the age limit of 13 to which I have referred. They should know, and they should judge whether it is safe for their child to use such websites or not. It is absolutely appropriate that the House should debate such issues, given that broadband and online services will be in every home in this country. It is not good enough simply to take the line that such things should not be considered, or that we are talking about gimmicks or grandstanding.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Secretary of State presented an interesting Green Paper, but does he understand that people will think that he is trying to run before he can walk? He says that we invented GSM, yet there are large swathes of this country that do not have 3G. He says that we invented the internet, yet large swathes of the country do not have internet at all—broadband, that is. Does he further understand that when people say that 8 megabits can be supplied, quite often because of contention rates it is about 1.8 megabits? What does he intend to do to improve the infrastructure and concentrate on that before this vision thing?

Andy Burnham: I respect the hon. Gentleman’s background in the communications and media sectors, but perhaps he needs to be a little more careful in his language. He says that large swathes do not have access to broadband, but 99 per cent. of households can get some level of broadband, and six in 10 take it. He is right to say that although there is pretty wide coverage, the quality of broadband in certain areas may lead some people not to take it up. It may also be the content issues that I mentioned a moment ago that prevent people from taking it up. At 2 megabits per second, availability goes down to 93 per cent.

It is important for us to get the facts on the table, and then to consider a plan with industry to give it the right incentives to build up those networks, so that we progress towards the universal service commitment. It is not right, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, for the Government to say at this time that that must be a matter for public spending. I do not believe the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) was right to say that a Conservative Government would pay for next generation access to 50 per cent of the country. These are more complicated issues that we need to work through with industry. Crucially, incentives to invest have to be made right, and the Government can help to do that through regulation and change to spectrum availability.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s wide ranging statement and the leadership that has been provided on these issues by Lord Carter. May I encourage them to extend convergence beyond the two Departments right across Government? Does my right hon. Friend agree that given the nature of the internet, it is essential that we make the UK the safest place to do business online, and that that is equally important for companies and for individuals? Does he further agree that the speed and reach of the internet is such that legislation and bureaucracy
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are unlikely to keep pace, and that we therefore need a fast and flexible partnership approach involving industry, the Government and the House in cutting internet-related crime and other activity that undermines people’s confidence in using the internet in the way that it has such great potential to be used?

Andy Burnham: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend’s remarks. At all times, our approach needs to be characterised by a desire to capture and preserve the huge benefits of the online world—the ability to explore information and access content—and by working towards agreed rules that are in the public interest. That is not about curtailing freedom or introducing heavy regulation. We need to find our way though to develop agreed systems, with industry and Government working together, as my right hon. Friend has suggested. If those are to stick, a degree of international consensus is needed—such is the nature of the online space. Over the course of this year, the Government intend to build a better dialogue with international partners to see whether we can use some of the emerging approaches to make Britain a safe place to do business, as he says, and see whether those can be applied more generally to set new standards for the new age.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Are the Government at all worried about the way in which extreme compression is leading to bad quality of both analogue and digital broadcasts on many radio stations? When, for example, will cricket lovers be able to hear uninterrupted BBC cricket commentary on digital in good quality?

Andy Burnham: They can. [ Interruption. ] BBC 5 Live Sports Extra is broadcasting most international cricket on a fairly uninterrupted basis, although I take the comments of the shadow Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson). If there are particular problems receiving the digital signal in his area, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) may wish to write to me. We are in a period when we are broadcasting on both the analogue signal and digital. When we reach the point of switchover, we will be able to increase the strength of the digital signal, which should lead to better quality signals in all parts of the country. I acknowledge that I am not an expert on extreme compression, but if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me, I will provide a fuller reply.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement, with the economic benefits that those developments will bring to my constituents in the north-west region, considering our strengths in the creative industries, and the opportunities that will come to us with Media City at Salford. I draw his attention to the universal service commitment. He is aware of Alderman Bolton school in my constituency, a primary school which is running an innovative project with the children that involves giving them laptop computers and teaching them how to access the internet, how to learn using the internet and how to be safe using the internet. The school serves a disadvantaged community, and many of the children do not have access to the internet at home. Because very few of them have access to broadband at home, they cannot share what they are
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learning with their parents and the rest of their family, and they cannot do their homework using the knowledge that they have gained at school. How will my right hon. Friend make sure that the digital divide does not affect such children, that the statement will help them and that they will have access to broadband?

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend knows that I know her constituency well, as it neighbours my own. The points that she has raised are incredibly important. I am proud of many things that the Government have done, but perhaps proudest of the way in which our primary schools have undergone a huge change in the past 10 years in their use of technology and all the rich potential that that offers to change the learning experience for young people. If I understand her correctly, she is saying that we need to enhance further what primary schools are able to do, but ensure that children can go home and continue their learning, working with their parents. The vision that we have put forward today is precisely about extending the availability of the highest quality broadband services and driving the take-up of those services, particularly among the most vulnerable people in our society. That is exactly the vision, and we look forward to working with her to make sure that we realise it.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): May I raise the impact that the Secretary of State’s report will have on ITV? He will be aware of Ofcom’s analysis showing that as a result of the digital age, regional news on ITV will be unsustainable by 2011, so does he agree that even with the sharing of facilities with the BBC, alternative arrangements will have to be made from 2011 onwards, if there is to be plurality in regional news?

Andy Burnham: I recognise that these are delicate questions. I also recognise the importance of regional news beyond the BBC. I have spoken many times about that since taking on my present job. I proposed last year that we should look at co-operation in the regions, using BBC facilities, to see whether that could help to sustain a regional news service beyond the BBC. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that such a service at that level is very important for democracy at a local level. We have made good progress, and ITV and BBC have made considerable strides in seeing how the relationship can work and beginning to work out the practical issues that will come from sharing studio space and outside broadcast technology. Those discussions have reached an advanced stage, as the report indicates, and I hope that they will be concluded soon. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see in that the germ of an idea that can be taken further, so that the BBC can become an enabling force to sustain a healthy media industry beyond the BBC.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): From both the questions and the answers, I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that although the digital age provides enormous opportunities, it poses a range of problems. Can he reassure me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on publishing, that the publishing industry, which earns billions of pounds a year for the UK economy, is adequately protected in terms of international property rights in the digital age, so that
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the industry can protect the writers of today and tomorrow and continue to be a cash earner for the UK economy?

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the challenge is to ensure that the benefits of content do not accrue only to those who distribute it. The issue is about ensuring that at every stage of the process—distribution and, crucially, creation—there are fair rewards for those who produce the things that people want to read, watch and enjoy around the world. Clearly, we are not in that position today, but we need to work towards it.

I did not mention publishing in my statement, but perhaps I should have done so. Publishing is one of the oldest creative industries in this country, and I would go so far as to say that our strength in literature is unparalleled. We have to work out new funding models to sustain the highest-quality content in the new age, and I am confident that we can do so. There is a willingness to engage in this discussion, both on the internet service providers’ side and the rights holders’ side, and the rights agency is the body that will bring those sides together to make solutions that work and that can stick. However, we have some way to go.

Lastly, I say to my hon. Friend that the issue is about finding solutions that go with the grain of how people use the internet today. The world has changed since people paid for every single, LP or book that they bought, and we need to find new ways of paying for content that are in keeping with the new ways in which people are accessing it.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to plurality in public service
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broadcasting. Does he accept that the issue is that the BBC has a never-ending, guaranteed increase in funding year on year, while commercial broadcasters are seeing their income go down year on year? Does he agree that the only sustainable solution to the problem—particularly given that the BBC still seems to think it worth paying Jonathan Ross £6 million a year—is to top-slice the licence fee, take it from the BBC and give it to commercial broadcasters in return for a commitment to public service broadcasting content?

Andy Burnham: The hon. Gentleman has put forward his view. I think that at times people in other countries would be surprised to hear some of the comments made about the BBC. At the end of the day, it is an outstanding and fine institution that provides brilliant broadcasting for this country. One of the best recent illustrations of that was the coverage of the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, which showed the BBC at its best.

Of course, we have to consider how the BBC should relate to the fast-changing media world; the hon. Gentleman is not wrong to raise that question, because it is important. I start from the premise that we should not only maintain a strong and secure BBC, doing the great things that it does, but look at how it can help to sustain a wider and healthy media infrastructure. It could work to support local media, including local newspapers—we increasingly need to debate that issue, and the important changes that it involves, in the House. The BBC could help to sustain content from the regions and beyond the BBC and high-quality content on the international stage. We need to have that debate, but I urge the hon. Gentleman not to reach straight for punitive solutions that are seen to undermine or attack the BBC. The BBC is a fundamental strength of this country.


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Holocaust Memorial Day

Topical debate

1.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I beg to move,

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for selecting this subject for debate. I note that the Deputy Leader of the House is on the Front Bench for the opening of this debate.

Holocaust memorial day is a theme that unites right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I welcome that. Last year’s topical debate on this issue was probably the most well attended that we have had. In debates such as today’s our clear message is one of shared resolve around the most important issues. I am keen to allow as many contributions as possible, so I will keep my remarks as brief as I can—and briefer than I would have liked. That shared resolve must be about not just learning more about the holocaust, genocides and other atrocities, but learning from them. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in committing afresh to ensure that the lessons at the heart of Holocaust memorial day are remembered and applied.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he has made an important point, particularly in the wake of the recent troubles in Gaza and southern Israel. There has been a real upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks in my constituency and borough, and more widely. The Community Security Trust recorded more than 150 attacks, the highest number since it started keeping details. That is a very serious matter. Does my hon. Friend think that those responsible for those attacks could learn a lot if they studied what had happened during the holocaust?

Mr. Khan: I am grateful for that intervention; my hon. Friend deserves a huge tribute for the progress made in the past few years in commemorating Holocaust memorial day and learning the lessons of the past. When we speak to holocaust survivors, or the families of those who died in the holocaust, about the criminal damage of synagogues and the desecration of graves in cemeteries, we find that they have a sense of déj vu. It renders them speechless. Those who research the history of the holocaust see the dehumanisation and hatred that begins at one end of the spectrum and leads ultimately to the killing of 6 million people.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I totally agree with the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Holocaust memorial day is for remembering all the victims of mass murder and killings, and we remember those killed in Gaza, including the young children. Does the Minister not deplore the fact that the Vatican has brought back into the fold a British-born bishop who is a holocaust denier and obviously pro-Nazi? Although I accept that the Vatican has totally dissociated itself from his remarks, is it not unfortunate that that bishop is allowed to be so senior in the Catholic clergy, given that he simply denies that the gas chambers existed?


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Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend, who has a rich history of fighting anti-Semitism and racism. Let us be clear: those who deny the holocaust are not historians revising history—their views demonstrate anti-Semitism. We must make sure that our children understand, through education, that the holocaust did occur. We cannot pretend that it did not or allow those who say that it did not to have the oxygen of publicity.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has already given way generously in the early stages of his speech.

There are misguided souls who labour under the misapprehension that virulent and violent anti-Semitism is but a shameful historical fact, but not something with which we currently need to trouble ourselves. Will the hon. Gentleman use the authority of his office and the content of his speech to set out, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) did, the facts to the contrary?

In the process, will the Minister—a generous fellow—be kind enough to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who, sadly, is not in his place today? He is the author of a truly outstanding book entitled “Globalising Hatred: The New Anti-Semitism”. I had the good fortune to receive it as a Christmas present from my wife, who paid £12.99. The right hon. Gentleman would not like me to say this, but it is available new on Amazon for £9.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. That is a step too far.

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is passionate about these issues and chaired a report on anti-Semitism. Today he is in his constituency, where there have been announcements and cuts are being made, trying to save jobs and to help those who might lose their jobs to retrain.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who chairs the all-party group on genocide prevention; we must not forget that contemporary genocide also exists. He and others from both sides of the Chamber are right to ask the Government to make it clear that anti-Semitism is unacceptable in 2009 and that those forms of hate crime that still occur in the UK and around the world need to be stopped as soon as possible.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Has Her Majesty’s Government made any representations through its diplomatic envoys at the Holy See—the Vatican—about our disgust at the fact that the bishop who denied the holocaust has been taken back into the fold? If that has not happened, will the Minister give assurances that it could happen? Many people feel that the issue should not go unremarked by the wider world.

Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Keen as I am to empire-build and to take over Departments and the responsibilities of other Ministers— [ Interruption. ] I take the point. I will find out what efforts have been made via open channels and behind the scenes to express our view to the Vatican about the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I will get back to him via correspondence.


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