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Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): In making a bid for East Anglia, may I ask whether the Secretary of State accepts that in very rural areas such as south-west Norfolk, broadband is not readily available, which makes people second-class citizens in this digital
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revolution? Will he make a special case for constituents such as mine, who need a level playing field if they are to compete in this technological world, given that mobile telephony is no alternative for many of them?

Mr. Bradshaw: I entirely agree that there are particular challenges in rural areas; as somebody who was brought up in Norfolk and now lives in Devon, I very much appreciate that. That is why I am all the more surprised that the hon. Gentleman’s Front Benchers are not prepared to will the means to deliver exactly what, I think, both he and I want to achieve.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend touched on social exclusion. I raised this at the time of the interim report, and it is very important. Glasgow has the lowest uptake of broadband of any city in the country. Does he agree that deprived areas, in particular, need extra help? What does he promise to do for areas such as Glasgow?

Mr. Bradshaw: The new champion, Martha Lane Fox, will examine that issue, with the support of a considerable amount of money from the digital switchover. I suggest that my hon. Friend seeks an early meeting with her; I am sure that they will get on very well.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Given the rapid speed of technological progress, the goal of 2 megabits per second, although it would be manna from heaven today, is likely to look obsolete in three years’ time, especially if two thirds of the country is getting 20 or 25 times that speed. Should not the universal service goal be much more ambitious given not where we are now but where we are likely to be in three years’ time?

Mr. Bradshaw: We have gone for 2 megabits per second because we had to decide what was the best value for money in terms of the investment that is required for today’s technology. What we will achieve by 2012 will be at or near the level of the best in Europe, but, as is acknowledged in the report, at the same time we need to get a move on with next generation broadband to ensure that that is universal. The two developments will be running in parallel. There will always be a trade-off in the amount of resources that we commit to ensuring a better, more capable service for today’s broadband, and we think that that is about the right level. It is probably sensible to aim at the level at which one can, for example, download iPlayer.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Does the report recognise the importance of ensuring that all our schools and colleges can not only access the next generation of broadband but can afford to do so on behalf of the children they teach?

Mr. Bradshaw: I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, but I will write to her, perhaps jointly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, with clarification. She will be aware that the recent review of the primary school curriculum recommended that IT become part of the core curriculum, along with literacy and numeracy. Where the £200 million fund that I mentioned has been piloted, it has been very successful in providing access
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for children from less well-off families, at home and in school. However, schools themselves will of course have to be a priority.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): The Secretary of State rightly said that if it were left to the market, a third of the country would not receive super-fast broadband; I rather suspect that my part of the world would be part of that third. Is he aware that many remote rural economies have been built on new age connectivity, with call centres, ISDN links and so forth? Can he therefore give an assurance that the last third will not be left until last, since those fragile economies depend on competitive connectivity for their economic future?

Mr. Bradshaw: We will have to wait to see what bids we get from the consortiums who will be opening up the bidding for the work. However, there is no reason why the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world will be left until very last; that will very much depend on the quality and intention of the bids that we receive. As I have emphasised several times, without our willing the means to fund this, he would be left with a problem, and so would his constituents.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am a member of the Business and Enterprise Committee, and as we have heard, we are going to look into digital access and broadband as well. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and thank him for ensuring that low-income families will benefit from funding for new access, but will he also ensure that rural parts of Lancashire gain access to the new broadband?

On a broader scale, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to regional television and media, which is very important in Granadaland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) asked, will he ensure that the trial is in the Granada area? That is very important. Will he also ensure that local and community radio stations such as the world-famous Chorley FM also receive the funding that they need, along with our local newspapers the Lancashire Evening Post, the Chorley Guardian and the Chorley Citizen? It is important that we have a broad mix and that there is true competition for the BBC. That will come only if we have regional news and current affairs programmes.

Mr. Bradshaw: What we have announced today will, I believe, help lead to a real thriving of local and community radio stations of the type that my hon. Friend supports and advocates. It will also help the regional and local newspaper market, because we are not only taking the action that I outlined on mergers legislation, but asking the Audit Commission to examine the practice of local authorities spending quite a lot of council tax payers’ money putting out free newspapers and, in the process, swallowing up a lot of local advertising that might otherwise go to local papers.

We in this place may be accused of being self-serving in our support for regional and local news organisations, because they tend to talk to us and we pontificate and give interviews to them, but the viewing figures for evening regional news programmes on both the BBC and ITV are among the highest for any news programming
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on television. The recognition of regional and local radio and TV presenters is another sign of how popular they are with our constituents. We are on the right side of this argument—the side of our constituents, standing up for what they value in local and regional news provision.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are a few hon. Members still to ask questions, and if questions are brief—brief questions usually lead to brief replies—I can get everyone in.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): In view of the concerns expressed by ITV about its financial viability, why is the Secretary of State delaying until 2013 the sharing of the licence fee to ensure plurality of news?

Mr. Bradshaw: We are not doing nothing before then to help regional and local news provision. We have said that we will look at piloting the model that I outlined between now and 2013, but that depends on a viable continuation of that model after 2013. I think that the piloting will help. We have the digital underspend to use on that and on the broadband roll-out, but we need a mechanism after 2013 to continue that funding through sharing some of the BBC licence fee, and for that we need primary legislation.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s statement was strong on improving the infrastructure, but he was less explicit about how we are going to drive forward the services that sit on top of that infrastructure. May I highlight to him telecare and assisted technology? There is no reason why people who have a social care need—older people and those with chronic illnesses—cannot be made more comfortable and safer by using those services. Will he ensure that the forthcoming social care Green Paper takes advantage of the infrastructure that he has laid out to the House today?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes. If my hon. Friend looks at the section at the end of my statement about the implications for Government and for public organisations, he will see that there is a great deal of detail, including obligations on all Government Departments to show how they will digitalise their own services.

My hon. Friend mentions social and health care. It is often assumed that elderly people are not very keen on using digital technology, but in any library in the country there are pensioners navigating their way through NHS Choices, choosing which hospital to go to, examining details about complaints that they might have and trying to find out what treatments are available to them. There is huge potential not just to make public services much more responsive and quicker for the consumer but to save the taxpayer a lot of money.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Will the budget for the new Welsh pilot on public content be close to the £25 million annually that the Welsh Assembly said last week was the bare minimum necessary? Will it be channelled through an independent commissioning body, based and made in Wales?

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Mr. Bradshaw: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will have to write to him with the details of funding for the pilots—I assume that he was asking me about the pilots.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I congratulate the new Secretary of State on his willingness to take on the vested interests of the BBC. Given his announcement on top-slicing for local news, could that be extended to other public sector broadcasting, which could bid to be shown on channels other than the BBC?

Mr. Bradshaw: We have specifically been careful with the wording in the document. I think that we say “primarily” for news because we did not want to shut the door to other provision—for example, children’s programming, about which people feel strongly and which is also currently the victim of market failure. We also did not want to close the door in case of an underspend in future, which we might want to share with others to do the things that the public want us to do. We should not shy away from that principle.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I welcome two aspects of today’s report: the principle of a universal service obligation for broadband, albeit limited to 2 megabits, and the recognition of the link between economic prosperity and broadband provision. If the Government are serious about that link, why is the Secretary of State prepared to leave some of the most economically fragile communities until 2017 before they are allowed to get a piece of the action?

Mr. Bradshaw: We are not doing that. As I made clear, we will ensure that the guarantee for today’s technology is rolled out to everybody by 2012, and the next generation will start concurrently. Our proposals for mobile spectrum should also help many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Bearing in mind the remote nature of the constituencies that he and some other hon. Members represent, he will find that our ambition and time scale is at the top rather than the bottom end of international expectation.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am in favour of the gouging of the licence fee—it is not sharing, but top-slicing. It concedes that the recent inflation-busting increase in the licence fee was totally unnecessary and has led to huge pay for the director-general, Mark Thompson, of more than £800,000 a year and bloated pay deals for the BBC’s so-called top talent, such as Jonathan Ross, of more than £6 million a year. Doubtless, other so-called stars earn mega sums of money. If the BBC starts bleating, the Minister should ask it to examine some of the pay deals that it has done in the past two to three years—that is where the fat can be cut from the land. On the pilots, I ask the Minister to look at the north-west. Granada is a superb news-delivery organisation, but it needs support now, not in two or three years. The support needs to be brought forward if it is to be effective.

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman was always fonder of brutalist language than me. He says top-slicing, I say sharing—I think that reflects our different characters.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Secretary of State said that digital radio would be the primary platform by 2015. What reassurance
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can he give the many constituents who rely on the analogue signal about how long it will remain for their use?

Mr. Bradshaw: It will remain on FM for some of the new local and community radio provision that I outlined. We will consider providing help in the same way in which we did for the digital television switchover. However, when we take into account the way the prices for digital radios are decreasing, and people’s behaviour in the past with digital switchover for television and the change from black and white to colour television, I suspect that we will find that many people are already listening to digital radio. May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, rather than a lot of useless jumpers for his family at Christmas, he buy them a digital radio each? That will help along the way.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): A number of hon. Members believe that rural communities will be at the end of the queue when it comes to sharing the benefits of IT. However, in Scotland, a new technology is being tested called broadband extension technology, which would mean that people living 17 km from an exchange could achieve the minimum guarantee. Will the Minister ensure that that technology is developed as fully as possible and rolled out as soon as possible?

Mr. Bradshaw: I will happily look at the technology that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned and reflect that as part of the consultation.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): After 12 years of this Government’s broadcasting policy, my constituents are still left with a second-class mobile phone network and, having switched over to digital television, half of them are now getting the second-class “Freeview Lite” service. Although I, too, welcome the new commitment to super-fast broadband across the whole country, will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that he will not lose sight of the existing problems in rural areas?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, certainly. I will undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman about the specific problems that he has just raised.

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Point of Order

4.30 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should advise the House that I have notified the hon. Member to whom my point of order refers. I know that you take a dim view of the practice of one MP visiting another MP’s constituency without the courtesy of giving advance notification, Mr. Speaker, so you can imagine my surprise on opening the Stockport Express recently to discover that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) had made a campaign visit to my constituency. Can you reaffirm that clear protocols for such visits exist, that they cover Front-Bench Members and that we are all expected to abide by them?

Mr. Speaker: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is a convention? Courtesy should always be foremost in every hon. Member’s mind when they go to another constituency, but I have to be careful, because there are official visits and there are private Conservative or Labour party meetings, which are a wee bit different. However, if there was an official visit to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I would urge all those on the Front Bench in all parts of the House to observe the convention. That is the best that I can do in this matter.

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European Affairs

4.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I beg to move,

I am pleased to open this traditional pre-European Council debate. The heavy European Council agenda shows why the UK needs a pro-European Government fully engaged with the European mainstream. On the range of issues that the Heads of Government will discuss in Brussels on Thursday and Friday—from economic supervision to climate change financing or strategic engagement with Pakistan—the decisions the EU takes will directly affect the security and prosperity of British citizens. If we want influence, we cannot be on the margins.

The first item on the Council’s agenda later this week is the economic recovery. Over the past year, the EU has been at the forefront of the global response to the economic crisis. Last October, all 27 member states acted together to restore confidence in the financial system, agreeing to raise deposit protection thresholds to a minimum of €50,000. In December, we agreed an economic recovery plan, committing to provide a fiscal stimulus worth €200 billion, a figure that we have since met many times over. Indeed, according to President Barroso, the total fiscal boost now stands at 1.8 per cent. of the EU’s GDP. If we include the automatic stabilisers, the net boost was somewhere around 5 per cent. At the spring Council in March, member states unanimously endorsed the goals of the London summit, providing a €75 billion injection to the International Monetary Fund, to enable it better to support the world’s most fragile economies.

This week’s European Council will do two things on the economic front. The first is to take stock of the European economic situation since the London summit and consider measures to support the economy. With the Commission predicting a 4 per cent. decline in output across the EU, and with 60 per cent. of all our exports, 700,000 of our companies and 3 million British jobs dependent on trade with the EU, the Prime Minister is right that a strengthened European growth strategy is a vital component in the move out of global recession.

We have already increased the resources available to the European institutions. Through its balance of payments facility, which was doubled to €50 billion, the EU has provided sizeable loans to Romania, Hungary and Latvia. However, further increasing the remit of the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will be important if we are to reignite the engine of growth. The Prime Minister has recently set out concrete proposals for the EIB to provide greater support to those in difficulty, through lending more, lending it faster and taking on more risk, to help stimulate a European recovery while commercial bank lending remains low. He will discuss those ideas with his counterparts in Brussels later this week.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Angela Merkel has been critical of the way in which Britain has addressed the crisis, yet the economies in the eurozone, and Germany in particular, have contracted more quickly that that of Britain. What is my right hon. Friend’s response to Angela Merkel?

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