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House of Commons

Monday 20 July 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked-

Digital Radio Switchover

1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of progress on digital radio switchover; and if he will make a statement. [287437]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Siôn Simon): The "Digital Britain" White Paper set out the Government's vision for the delivery of the digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015. We have committed to a review of the progress towards that timetable in spring 2010, and we have also asked Ofcom to review and publish progress against the upgrade criteria at least once a year, starting next year.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Is the Minister not aware that "Digital Britain" has in fact failed to address the inadequacies of digital radio broadcasting coverage? I am sure that he will agree with that comment. Representations made to me so far suggest that the idea of a switchover is currently very unpopular. Instead of rushing ahead with the switchover, will he take positive action to allow people to see some tangible benefits?

Mr. Simon: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are rushing ahead. We have said that we will move Britain to digital by 2015. That gives consumers and the industry six years to make the upgrade, which we are doing because we are committed to radio, we believe in radio and we love radio, and radio will not have a future unless it goes digital. We are not switching off FM, and we are putting new services on the FM spectrum that is vacated by the services which move to digital audio broadcasting, because we want to see radio prosper and grow in the digital age.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend aware that switchover is affecting valued services on both radio and television? I have been lobbied by Teachers TV, which fears that it will lose an enormous part of its audience because the Department for Children, Schools and Families is stipulating that it must switch over totally to digital.

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Mr. Simon: We are ensuring with radio switchover that community organisations and small community radio stations, which might currently be able to broadcast for only two weeks a year, will inherit the FM spectrum currently taken up by big regional and national FM broadcasters. Precisely such small, commercial, local community organisations will be able to flourish in the digital future in a way that they are technologically constrained from doing now.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Minister is a Welsh speaker, so is he aware of the fears for the future of Radio Cymru, the BBC's Welsh language national service? It is not currently available on digital and will not be available in large swathes of western Wales for reasons of topography.

Mr. Simon: I have, with personal regret, to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not really a Welsh speaker. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Dwi'n dysgu, 'de? I should have been a Welsh speaker.

We are alive to the particular problems of Wales. There are serious problems with coverage, not just with respect to Radio Cymru but with digital coverage throughout Wales. We have made it clear that the nations and regions that are furthest behind in digital coverage will be the first priority for the most serious intervention, to ensure that they are not left behind when we move to digital. We have made it clear also that we will not move to digital unless 90 per cent. coverage at the very least is achieved.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I start by welcoming you to your post, Mr. Speaker-an elevation that was only marginally more likely than man walking on the moon, which happened 40 years ago today. I offer you my congratulations. I am sure that you will want to join me in offering the congratulations of the whole House to the England cricket team, which won an historic victory today-their first victory over the Australians at Lord's for 75 years. We would also like to congratulate the Minister on taking up his post in the DCMS team.

The Government's own figures state that there are 65 million analogue radios in circulation, and they hope that the cost of digital radios will fall to £20 a set. That means that the cost of upgrading the nation's analogue radio stock will surpass £1 billion. Who will pay that £1 billion? Will it be the Government, or will it be consumers?

Mr. Simon: Mr. Speaker, I should apologise for having forgotten to congratulate you; I thought that we were taking your position for granted by now, but it is my first time speaking under your chairmanship. I offer my very sincere congratulations. I never thought that your elevation was unlikely.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): What about cricket?

Mr. Simon: The hon. Gentleman shouts "cricket" from a sedentary position. I can tell him that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), was at the cricket, which almost certainly accounts for the first English victory at Lord's since, I believe, 1934.

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In response to what we might call the "Tory sums" of the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt)- [Interruption.] No, Tory sums. We do not know how many analogue radios are in circulation; it may be 65 million. The first point to make is that those sets will not become redundant. The FM spectrum will be well used for new services that are currently squeezed out. We are working with industry to come up with sets that are consistently priced at £20 or less. That will enable consumers to add to the 9 million digital sets-

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who has been extremely generous in his remarks, that I do not want to have to press the switch-off button, but I am a bit alarmed that he has a second point in mind? It might be better if he kept it for the long winter evenings.

Mr. Hunt: The point is that if people use their analogue sets, they will be able to listen to new radio stations, but not the radio stations that they have been listening to for a very long time. Was it not the height of irresponsibility to announce the phasing out of analogue spectrum without announcing any details or any funding for a help scheme, similar to the one that was in place for TV switchover? Will that not cause widespread concern among millions of radio listeners, who will feel that they are faced with the unenviable choice of either paying up or switching off?

Mr. Simon: I shall try to squeeze in my answer at the end of that extraordinarily long question. We will do exactly the same with radio as we did with television: we will carry out a full cost-benefit analysis of exactly what kind of help scheme might or might not be required, and we will proceed accordingly. There are 9 million digital sets in use already. Consumers have six years to decide how much they want to pay, for what equipment, to receive which services.

Free Theatre Initiative

2. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): How many tickets have been distributed through the free theatre initiative. [287438]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Nearly 50,000 free tickets have been issued during the scheme's first quarter, enabling thousands of young people to experience fantastic theatre who otherwise would not have done so.

Dr. Iddon: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new appointment, and I look forward to working with him. The Bolton Octagon theatre hopes to give away 4,000 tickets during the lifetime of the scheme. Will he congratulate it on the fact that by the end of the summer break it will have allocated a total of 718 tickets of its 790 ticket allocation, which I think is pretty good?

Mr. Bradshaw: I regret that I will not be working with my hon. Friend for as long as I would like, as I think that he is standing down at the next election, which is very sad. I should certainly like to join him in congratulating the Bolton Octagon. Not only has it had remarkable success with the free ticket scheme, but it has had its most successful year ever in ticket sales. Of course,
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Sir Ian McKellen began his acting career in Bolton. If the free ticket scheme inspires another actor of his calibre, it will have been money very well spent.

Digital Radio Switchover

3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will continue to provide for analogue radio broadcasting beyond 2015. [287439]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Siôn Simon): The "Digital Britain" White Paper was clear that analogue radio, via FM, will continue beyond 2015. After the digital radio upgrade is completed, the vacated FM spectrum will be allocated to community radio stations and a new tier of ultra-local commercial radio.

Ann Winterton: I congratulate the Minister on his new position, not least because I am a former pupil of Erdington grammar school in his constituency. As he knows, 52 per cent. of listeners have not converted to digital audio broadcasting. Many groups of listeners, including the blind, are concerned that their analogue radios may be turned off in due course. That includes, of course, all those analogue radios in cars. What hope for the future can the Minister give those groups?

Mr. Simon: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's congratulations, and thank her for her adornment of my constituency. To answer her two questions quickly, on help for the blind, there is an important issue to do with audio description for radio stations along the spectrum. We have been working for 18 months-and continue to work-with manufacturers to make sure that sets that provide that description for the blind are made available at an affordable price in the digital future. On cars, we are working with the car industry to ensure that all new cars after 2013 contain digital radios. Technology already exists to convert FM receivers to digital in cars.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Is it not a fact that the BBC would have more money to improve coverage and content if it spent less public money on excessive salaries and excessive expenses?

Mr. Simon: My right hon. Friend must take that up with Sir Michael Lyons and the BBC Trust. Sir Michael will perhaps be glad of the opportunity to take up those matters, because I am sure that he is conscious that he and the trust need to account to the public for them.

Tourism Industry

4. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): What steps his Department is taking to support the tourism industry in the south-west. [287440]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations on your elevation? Having served with you on the marathon Minimum Wage Bill, I welcome your conversion to short contributions.

Since April 2008, my Department aside from the marketing and economic development that it regularly contributes to Visit Britain and Visit England, has
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made eight separate grants worth over £4.2 million to the south-west region from its Sea Change programme, which supports cultural regeneration and the visitor economy. I am glad to say that the largest beneficiary of those grants was Torbay, which I can confirm was awarded £2.25 million in August 2008 for projects at Cockington Court and Berry Head.

Mr. Sanders: According to a recent parliamentary answer, the number of tourists in the south-west region fell by more than a quarter in the first quarter of this year, so why is that policy not working?

Barbara Follett: The number of tourists in the south-west region did fall in the first quarter of this year for a number of reasons including the credit crunch and the recession. I am glad to say, however, that initial figures show that it is now rising. We can see from benefit returns that the 10 towns with the most benefit claimants returning to work have been in seaside areas, and I am glad to say that six of them are in the south-west, where people are getting more work. The "staycation" and short breaks are providing a good result in the south-west.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): One issue affecting the whole country, including the south-west, is the growth of the swine flu pandemic. Hon. Members might recall that, at the time of the foot and mouth outbreak and after the 9/11 attacks, the Treasury granted an additional £20 million, which was match-funded by the industry, to assist UK tourism through those difficult times. I notice that there is nothing on the DCMS or Visit Britain websites about swine flu. May I ask the Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State what discussions they have had with the Treasury and the Department of Health to ensure that we avoid sensationalist headlines such as that in The Daily Telegraph today-"Crowds may be banned from major sporting events"? What plans are there to help the British tourism industry to keep people informed and to tell them that Britain remains a safe place to visit?

Barbara Follett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but I would caution him against such alarmist talk. I would also caution him against quoting the media, which are sometimes more interested in selling copies of their newspapers than in informing-

Mr. Ellwood: That is exactly the point that I was making.

Barbara Follett: The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), sits on Cobra, the civil contingencies secretariat, and we are in daily contact. We are constantly updated on the situation. At present, the advice is to stay calm-I urge the hon. Gentleman to do that-not to panic and to take precautions.

Sport (Young People)

5. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to encourage participation in sporting activity by young people who have left school. [287441]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to you on your new role?

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Part of the legacy programme for 2012 will be to ensure that we leave behind a system that encourages those of all ages, particularly children and young people, to play sport. The five-hour offer for children aged five to 16 has been expanded to include three hours a week for those aged 16 to 19. To combat the drop-off on leaving school, and as part of more than £780 million of Government funding between 2008 and 2011, we are investing more than £15 million to create a new network of sports co-ordinators for those who have left school in order to move on to further education. Through our unprecedented investment in national governing bodies, nine sports will now also work specifically to reduce post-16 drop-off by 25 per cent. for 2013.

Tony Lloyd: Among other things, I would like to ask my hon. Friend whether in the context of the question it is better for people to sit on Cobra rather than drink Cobra.

My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that there is an enormous drop-off in sports activity by young people post-school, particularly among young women. Will he work with local authorities and perhaps with private sporting clubs to ensure that his Department's marketing to encourage people into sport is taken up by those groups so that we can see our young people get back into meaningful activity?

Mr. Sutcliffe: It is a pleasure to sit on the Cobra committee, and I also enjoy a pint of Cobra now and again.

My hon. Friend is quite right about the drop-off rate. In trying to get 2 million more people active in sport and physical activities by 2012-a key legacy aim-we are looking at the drop-off rate post-16. I know that in my hon. Friend's area of Manchester and in Salford the local authorities are doing a great deal of work with the local community, in initiatives such as StreetGames and the KICKz project, to encourage people to get involved in sport. I am particularly pleased with Sport Unlimited, which is aimed at 11 to 19-year-olds; that involves 900 young people and £36 million of investment. I hope that that will help to get them into more organised sport.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Minister will know that obesity is a huge and serious problem. If the Minister wants joined-up thinking and joined-up government with the Department of Health, why is his Department allowing the selling-off of four more sports fields and more school land than ever before, which of course prevents young people from having access to sports and addressing that important issue of obesity?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman usually gets his facts right, but he is completely wrong on this occasion. It is a complete myth that sports fields are being sold off. This Government have put processes in place to make sure that sports fields are not sold off. In fact, we have had a net increase in the number of sports fields. It is not just about sports fields; it is about indoor sports arenas and ensuring that we have world-class facilities for our youngsters and sports people. The hon. Gentleman is right about obesity, which is why the Government introduced free swimming, which more than 80 per cent. of local authorities took up. I am sorry that some Tory local authorities did not do so.

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