Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Jun 2010 : Column 163WH—continued

work to deliver the Olympic games,

the use of dormant betting accounts and

It also states:

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise each and every one of those as a Liberal Democrat policy, and if he looks in other parts of the coalition programme, he will also notice reference to, for example, minimum pricing for alcohol and other measures. I think that he can be confident that we have played our part.

Mr Bradshaw: Yes, but the hon. Gentleman has read out a rather long list of policies that were also Conservative party policies; none was a distinctive Liberal Democrat policy. However, despite what I have said about the hon. Gentleman's previous support for IFNCs, one of the Government's first acts was to scrap them, without having any clear idea of what to put in their place. When I asked the Secretary of State, during DCMS oral questions this week, whether he could point to any other European country in which his new preferred model of local TV works, he could not.

It would be very helpful to hon. Members here if the Minister did better in his summing up, or if he identified a single respected media industry commentator who believes that the figures on local TV stack up. No, this has been done for ideological reasons and has been cheered on, no doubt, by the Government's friends in the Murdoch empire, who object to any intervention in the market or any obstacle to their aim to dominate it. I am afraid that it will mean the end of high-quality news
24 Jun 2010 : Column 164WH
on ITV in the regions and nations of the UK, and that will be the first bitter legacy of the present Government's media policy.

The move has also been greeted with dismay by local media leaders-people involved in newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Sly Bailey of Trinity Mirror said:

Tony Watson, managing director of the Press Association, said that

David Faulkner, managing director of NWN Media, said:


Mr Foster: I am sure that as we have a few minutes ahead of us, the former Secretary of State will not mind my intervening again. I have already made it clear that I think we would have carried on the trials were we not in coalition. The problem that we faced, and that he now has to answer, is this. Had the trials been successful, where would the money have come from? Is he saying that the Labour party is committed now, in opposition, to providing funding for the full roll-out across the country of the costs of IFNCs? If so, where is the money coming from?

Mr Bradshaw: We were absolutely clear about that, in our manifesto, in the "Digital Britain" White Paper and in all the discussions that we had on it-that our preferred model was to use a small fraction of the licence fee, equivalent to the fraction currently being used to fund digital switchover. However, we were also open to any other arguments in favour of sustainable, long-term and transparent funding models.

I shall come to the issue of funding now, because the Government appear also to have reversed their previous position and to have accepted what we have always said, which is that fast next-generation broadband cannot be supplied to the whole United Kingdom by the market. They have acknowledged, or at least said, that they will use the underspend from the digital switchover fund to help to pay for that, instead of for the IFNC pilots.

What I am not clear about-I do not think the Minister himself is-is how he defines super-fast broadband. I was sent a definition on my BlackBerry a couple of moments ago, but I have lost it. It did not come up with a figure, although I understand that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer used the figure of 200 megabits at some stage during the election campaign. The Minister's language involved something about a speed that would deliver the best broadband in Europe.

Either way, the Government have at long last recognised that the market will not deliver that, but I am still not clear about something. Our target was to reach 2 megabits by 2012 by using the underspend from the digital switchover, but after 2014, we were going to fund it-again, this was supported by the Liberal Democrats at the time-
24 Jun 2010 : Column 165WH
through a very modest levy on fixed telephone lines. That would have provided the super-fast broadband by 2018. I am not sure what the Minister's funding mechanism will be post-2014. Although the hon. Member for Bath said that it would not mean the continuation of top-slicing of the BBC licence fee, I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that is so. If that is not to be the funding stream, what will be?

If, after 2014, the Government intend to continue using a portion of the licence fee to fund super-fast broadband, I suggest that, having criticised the Labour Government for planning to use part of the licence fee to fund regional news with important public-service broadcasting content, using part of the licence fee to fund infrastructure would show breathtaking double standards. I would appreciate some clarity on the point.

Will the Minister also give us a guarantee-we have not had one so far-that there will be no further deterioration in ITV regional news until he and his Liberal Democrat friends come up with-whatever model they intend to put in its place? Will he also assure us of something that the Prime Minister could not assure us of yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time-that there will be no relaxation in the rules governing impartiality for broadcasters?

We have talked about further deregulation in the local ownership market. The Minister has already acknowledged that Ofcom has recommended a relaxation of local media rules, with the exception of the same organisation owning all three media-newspapers, radio and television-in one area. Does the Secretary of State's statement at the Hospital club that he wants to go even further than previously proposed mean that the Government would be happy to see a monopoly of media ownership across those three platforms in one area or region? I would be grateful for an assurance-and so, I suspect, would the hon. Member for Bath.

I turn to local newspapers. The downturn in advertising, structural changes in the advertising market and the significant generational shift in reading habits has, as we all acknowledge, hit local newspapers hard. A number of newspaper and other media organisations were part of the successful consortiums that bid for our IFNC pilots, and as I said earlier, they are dismayed by the Government's decision to scrap them. However, the local newspaper industry is looking to the Government to act on the proliferation of local authority freesheets.

None of us thinks that there is anything wrong with local councils keeping in touch with their residents on an occasional basis, to ensure that the public are aware of local services and how to access them, and how to contact their councillors. However, as we have heard, in a small number of cases things have been getting out of hand. The hon. Member for Bath referred to the Local Government Association survey, which showed that about 15% of local authorities produce a newspaper or magazine at least once a month, and that 13% of newspapers give over more than a third of their pages to adverts, with one local authority reporting that half its freesheet comprises adverts. That deprives the local paid-for newspaper market of extremely valuable advertising revenue.

Before the election, the Labour Government were about to issue new guidance that would have put a stop to that. When can we expect action from the Government on that front? The Minister spoke of consultation, but
24 Jun 2010 : Column 166WH
we have already had consultation. We had a long and full consultation last year; we do not need more. The rules mean that he cannot look at documents or correspondence from the time before his arrival at the Department, but I understand that they allow me to get hold of that information; I would be happy to give him a copy of a letter that I wrote to my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, giving a simple solution. I urge the Minister to implement it forthwith, without having to go through another lengthy consultation. I know that local newspapers and the local newspaper industry are desperate for something to be done. They do not want more consultation; they want action.

I should be grateful if the Minister told us what the Government intend to do about news aggregating services. They have the enormous potential to suck up news for little cost. Indeed, Google is already doing so, but Google will never pay local journalists to cover court cases or to scrutinise the workings of a local authority.

The hon. Member for Bath touched on the importance of local radio and the digital switchover. When we were in government, we recognised the pressures facing the commercial radio industry. The Digital Economy Act 2010 relaxed the rules governing the local radio market. We also provided the industry with much needed certainty on digital switchover, setting a date and the conditions that needed to be met. As the hon. Gentleman said, the freeing up of the FM spectrum for local and community radio could be valuable for local and community radio. However, the industry needs certainty.

The Minister said on Monday that the Government were proceeding with digital switchover, but were

Will he explain exactly what that means? Are the Government still committed to switchover in 2015? Will they be setting out the criteria that have to be met before a final decision is taken? Will the Government also be deciding on a help scheme similar to that for digital switchover on television, to support people through that time?

Last but not least, will the Minister say when the DCMS website will be updated? I wanted to check what the Government's policy was on media and broadcasting, but it was blank.

3.56 pm

Mr Vaizey: This has been an enjoyable and illuminating debate. Before turning to the myriad questions put by the excellent Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), I wish to dwell briefly on some of the speeches that preceded his.

First, I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) for his kind comments about me. It is sometimes disconcerting to members of the public when Members of Parliament from opposite sides of the House pour praise on each other. It might come across as some sort of establishment conspiracy. However, the public occasionally say that they dislike yah-boo politics and would like politicians to work more closely together. That is obviously why we decided on a coalition.

I do not stint in my admiration for the hon. Gentleman. I have known him for many years. He has turned himself into a digital champion, and a champion of the
24 Jun 2010 : Column 167WH
creative industries. He thinks deeply about the subject and about the impact that the internet is having on all aspects of our lives. It is always dangerous for a junior Member to patronise a more senior MP, but I think that over the past few years the hon. Gentleman has earned the right for his comments to be heard by all sides. He always makes a powerful case. His speeches are not party-free, but they are generally independent and thoughtful. I look forward to engaging in debate with him on this subject for months, if not years, to come. I say, as a matter of praise, that I am always slightly nervous when he intervenes on me; I know that whatever questions he puts to me will probably be difficult, as was demonstrated today.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to speak, perhaps in a Rumsfeldian way, about unknown unknowns in connection with the internet. It is important for hon. Members to understand that the internet is changing things so quickly, and technology is moving so rapidly, that any attempt at prescriptive regulation would be dangerous. The general consensus about the Communications Act 2003 is that it may already be significantly out of date. We certainly had interesting debates about the Digital Economy Act 2010, and there are views across the spectrum on how effective it might be.

The hon. Gentleman raised a specific point about technology advice from the Government. I can tell him-the answer was obviously in my head as he was asking the question-that there exists a creative industries knowledge transfer network. Apparently, that is part of the Technology Strategy Board. It has made an open call for proposals as part of its digital test bed. I do not need to explain this, but for the record the board is an arm's length group under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills-or, as I learned this morning, part of the BIS family. I am sure that the board will continue to thrive in the age of austerity.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster)-perhaps I should call him my hon. Friend-and I have participated in a number of debates over the past few years, and as the select group of people who have followed them, and even obsessed about them, will know I have frequently referred to him as my mentor, and that is no less true today than it has been in the past. He is a man from whom I have learned a great deal, and he is a very important part of the DCMS family under the current coalition Government. We continue to listen closely to him and to engage in regular discussions with him. As he demonstrated in his speech, his knowledge of this sector and areas around it is second to none. I obviously concur with his view that top-slicing would be a dangerous road to go down. I heard what he said about contract rights renewal, and I can assure him that the Government are looking at that, because it has become clear that a simple regulatory reform may not be enough. He was very honest in his appraisal of IFNCs and how they came to an end. I heard his remarks on radio switchover as well, and I will return to them when I address the questions put to me by the Opposition spokesman.

I thought that it was a little unfair of the Opposition spokesman to claim that there were no distinctive Liberal Democrat policies in the coalition agreement. There was already strong agreement between the Liberal
24 Jun 2010 : Column 168WH
Democrats and the Conservatives on a range of issues across culture and the creative industries, so in effect, coalition policies already existed, and they made it into the coalition agreement. Indeed, that includes policies that have crashed resoundingly in the past week. I refer to the video games tax credit, of which I was an enthusiastic supporter, as was the hon. Member for Bath. When faced with the brick wall of the Treasury, even policies that have the strong support of leading members of both parties can break like an egg and slide slowly into oblivion.

Mr Bradshaw: In that case, will the Minister give us an example of a single policy from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that was ditched after pressure from the Liberal Democrats?

Mr Vaizey: I did not come to this debate as well prepared as the hon. Member for Bath, who clearly anticipated the Opposition's question regarding which policies made it in and which were out. The only issue that we disagreed over was IFNCs, and we had a specific alternative policy to put in place. On most other things-I am sure that at any point now the hon. Member for Bath will intervene and help me out-we were in agreement.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) on his maiden Westminster Hall speech. He and I share a similar ambition; I have renamed my constituency "Wantage and Didcot", although technically it remains Wantage in the Official Report. Even the BBC, when I occasionally appear on it, refers to me as "the Member for Didcot". My advice to my hon. Friend is to call himself "the Member for Hove and Portslade", and in every arena other than this, he will be known as that. As I discovered at the last election, he will rack up the votes in Portslade as a result. He has had a very successful career in the media and will bring important expertise to bear on the subject. No doubt he will continue to press me for a definition of super-fast broadband to demonstrate his strong independence while he remains temporarily on the Back Benches.

I welcome the shadow spokesman, the right hon. Member for Exeter, to his place. I occasionally faced him across the Dispatch Box, and he brought a great deal of passion and expertise to his role as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Again, without wishing to confirm the prejudices of the public, I have long been an admirer of him and his work. I now have to address some of the specific questions that he was able to put to me as a result of the expertise that he gained as Secretary of State. He challenged me to cite examples of successful local television in Europe. Obviously, there are strong examples in America, but there are also very important successful commercial examples in Spain, and possibly even Sweden. He also challenged me to name any serious commentators who supported our proposals. Roy Greenslade, the éminence grise, who is probably at the pinnacle of media commentators, was full of praise for the Secretary of State's proposals on local television. No one is pretending that a solution is ready to be taken off the shelf; we are working hard on the matter. What Roy Greenslade praised, and what the right hon. Member for Exeter might bring himself to praise in a quiet and private moment, is the ambitious nature of our plans for local television.

Next Section Index Home Page