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Digital Britain

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 29 January 2009

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the publication today of the interim “Digital Britain” report. Last October, together with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, I announced that Lord Carter of Barnes would undertake a comprehensive review of Britain’s digital, communication and creative sectors and make recommendations to place the country in a position to prosper in the digital age.

Today, the Government are publishing Lord Carter’s interim findings. His report starts from the recognition that those sectors are not only important in their own right—they are worth more than £52 billion a year, with 2 million to 3 million people directly employed by them—but fundamental to the way all businesses operate and how we all live our lives.

Capable communications systems can help British businesses to become more efficient and productive, offering the potential to reduce travel. High-quality information and entertainment enhance our democracy and our quality of life and define our culture. In short, building a digital Britain is about securing a competitive, low-carbon, productive and creative economy in the next five to 10 years.

It is worth reminding the House of Britain’s traditional strength in these industries. The worldwide web was invented by British ingenuity. It was here that GSM was created and established as the global standard for first generation digital mobile communications. However, that strength is not just in distribution and systems. Our television, music, film, games, advertising and software industries are world-leading. The OECD estimates that the United Kingdom cultural and creative sector, at just under 6 per cent. of gross domestic product, is relatively more important than its equivalent in the United States, Canada, France and Australia. UNESCO considers the UK to be the world’s biggest exporter of cultural goods, surpassing even the US.

We cannot be complacent. The online age is rewriting the rules, changing the way that consumers access content and the old business models that have underpinned Britain’s creative industries. The challenge now is how to build the networks and infrastructure that help businesses and consumers to get the most from the digital age and how to fund the quality content that has always been our hallmark.

The Government’s thinking has been shaped by a series of important reviews, including the Caio review on next generation broadband access; the work of the digital radio working group; the Byron review on children and new technology, which led to the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety; the Convergence Think Tank; the digital inclusion action plan; and the Creative Britain strategy.

“Digital Britain” brings those strands of work together into a clear and comprehensive framework with five public policy ambitions at its heart: first, to upgrade and modernise our digital networks—wired, wireless and broadcast; secondly, to secure a dynamic investment climate for British digital content, applications and services; thirdly, to secure a wide range of high-quality, UK-made public service content for UK citizens and consumers, underpinning a healthy democracy; fourthly, to ensure fair access for all and the ability for everyone to take part in the communications revolution; and fifthly, to develop the infrastructure, skills and take-up to enable widespread online delivery of public services.

The interim report makes 22 recommendations to achieve those objectives and I will set out some of them for the House today. Britain must always be ready to benefit from the latest advances in technology, so we will establish a strategy group to assess measures to underpin existing market-led investment plans for next generation access networks. An umbrella body will also be set up to provide technical advice and support to local and community networks. To facilitate the move to next generation mobile services, we are specifying a wireless radio spectrum modernisation programme. In addition, the Government are committing to enabling digital audio broadcasting to be a primary distribution network for radio in the UK and will create a digital migration plan for radio. We will also consider how the digital TV switchover help scheme can contribute towards wider inclusion in digital services.

We will only maintain our creative strength if we find new ways of paying for and sustaining creative content in the online age. We will therefore explore the potential for a new rights agency to be established and, following a consultation on how to tackle unlawful file sharing, we propose to legislate to require internet service providers to notify alleged significant infringers that their conduct is unlawful.

Our third objective—high-quality, UK-made public service content—will be achieved by sustaining public service broadcasting provision from the BBC and beyond. The report identifies news—at local, regional and national level—and children’s programming as among the key priorities. The BBC as an enabling force is central to that objective. Strong and secure in its own future, it will work in partnership with others to deliver those objectives. We will also explore how we can establish a sustainable public service organisation that offers scale and reach alongside the BBC, building on the strength of Channel 4. We will consider options to ensure plurality of provision of news in the regions and the nations, and we are asking the Office of Fair Trading, together with Ofcom, to look at the local and regional media sector in the context of the media merger regime. We will consider the evolving relationship between independent producers and commissioners to ensure we have the appropriate rights holding arrangements for a multi-platform future.

Our fourth objective of fairness and access is, of course, crucial to delivering the Government’s policy of an inclusive society where new opportunities are available to all and nobody is left behind, so we are developing plans to move towards an historic universal service commitment for broadband and digital services to include options up to 2 megabits per second, building on the approach to postal services and telephones in centuries past. We will also ensure that public services online are designed for ease of use by the widest range of citizens.

Lastly, to help people navigate this vast and changing world, the report makes recommendations to improve media literacy and, in particular, to give parents the information and tools necessary to protect children from harmful or inappropriate content.

The Government have today set out an ambitious vision to ensure that Britain reaps the full economic and social benefits of the digital age. An intensive period of discussions with industry partners and others must now begin to turn the emerging conclusions into firm solutions. A final report will be presented to Parliament by the summer and I wish to thank Lord Carter for his work to date. In publishing the interim report today and making this statement to the House, we seek to invite members from both sides of the House to engage in the debate on the fundamental questions that will shape our country’s economy and society in this century. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for 15 minutes’ notice of his statement and a much more generous notice of the report, which we received in good time this morning. However, we were disappointed that yet again the contents were broadcast on the “Today” programme this morning, that they are in The Daily Telegraph and The Times, and that there was even a briefing at No. 10 at 8 o’clock this morning to which the industry, including broadcasters, was invited. I respectfully suggest to the Secretary of State that if he is serious about cross-party collaboration on these issues, he should respect the role of Parliament in this matter as in every other.

We welcome the interest that the Government have shown in our digital economy. All parties in the House are united in the desire to maximise the competitive strengths of our creative economy and the Government have obviously committed considerable resources to putting together the report. However, most people will be disappointed with it. The digital economy is vital for Britain because of our natural strengths in creating digital content, but, when it comes to the delivery of that content, we are lagging badly. We come 21st out of 30 for broadband speed, while 40 per cent. of our households do not have broadband at all and connections fell last year. On next generation broadband, the report itself concedes that we are lagging behind France, Germany, the US and Japan.

The statement and the report were a chance to put things right, but instead the Government—who have been the best customer for the management consultancy industry in the history of Britain—have promised no new action but a total of eight new reports. This week, a woman in California gave birth to eight babies. Perhaps in homage to her, the Government have announced eight new reports. Although the world was surprised and delighted with the arrival of the octuplets, we have all become wearily familiar with the Government’s continual substitution of reports for action.

The report does mention action. The most critical question of all, namely how to stimulate investment in next generation broadband access, is dealt with under action 1. What is action 1? It is to

“establish a Government-led strategy group”.

So the most important action is not an action at all but the establishment of a strategy group. A Conservative Government will make it a major objective to ensure that more than half the population has access to next generation networks within five years. Do the Government accept that as an objective? Will they deliver it?

The report says that the Government will

“work with…operators…to remove barriers to the development of a…wholesale market in access to ducts”.

If BT, which owns the ducts, does not co-operate, will the Government force BT to open them to other suppliers, as the Conservatives have pledged?

Can the Secretary of State tell us who is in overall charge—Lord Carter, the Business Secretary or the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? Without clear leadership, the chance of delivering on such huge commitments is minuscule. So may we have a categoric assurance that there is no turf war going on between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Ofcom that prevents the Government from showing the leadership that is so desperately needed?

On universal service obligation for broadband, we welcome the long-delayed commitment to ensure that everyone has access. But who will pay for that? Expressing a sentiment is fine, but without a road map for delivery it is surely a totally empty promise. The Government say that the universal commitment should be for 2 megabits per second access. Given that the national average access speed is 3.6, is not the scale of the Government’s ambitions pitifully low, in simply saying that they want to ensure that the whole population has access to half the current average speed by 2012? Is there not a real risk that these changes will be superseded by technological changes before they are implemented?

On digital radio, the report says:

“We are making a clear statement”

that DAB should be

“a primary distribution network”.

So how will that be funded? How will the Government ensure that DAB becomes available in people’s cars? How will they ensure that the signal is strengthened in rural areas? Without those details, this report amounts to no more than an empty gesture.

On copyright protection—an incredibly important issue—instead of a solution there is a proposal to set up a new quango, with a new tax on internet users. Why do we need another agency when Ofcom is already equipped and able to do that job? And why should legitimate internet users have to pay for the copyright infringement of transgressors?

The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), recently enraged the music industry by comparing illegal downloading to stealing bars of soap from hotels. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that for the Government theft is theft, whether online or offline?

On peer-to-peer file sharing, the report talks about consulting on legislation. So can the Secretary of State tell the House how internet service providers are supposed to identify illegally shared files, given what happened in France, where many users simply reacted by encrypting their files when the French Government introduced similar measures?

On the review of the terms of trade, can the Secretary of State give clarity on timings, given that while a review is taking place investment in independent production will be very hard to sustain?

Finally, on internet content, I notice that the Secretary of State’s idea for cinema-style ratings for websites is not in the report. Has it been sidelined, perhaps by voices in Government more realistic about the ability of Government to control the internet?

In October the Secretary of State said:

“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.

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 Departments—a 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 Carter’s 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 YouTube’s 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 know—they might be surprised—that 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”.

We heard a disappointing and churlish response to a significant piece of work, and I would have expected better from the hon. Gentleman.

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.

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 summer—so 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 able—as he should have been—to 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 Labour—high on vision and spin, but short on substance?

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.

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 divide—the 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?

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 true—my right hon. Friend pointed to this—is 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 people—parents—to make the right decisions about the content that they access.

I welcome the Government’s 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?

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.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of Swindon’s 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 Virgin’s virtual monopoly of supply via phone lines? How will he protect my constituents from high price increases once switchover happens?

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.

It is perhaps inevitable that a document that is more of the quality of 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?

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.

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?

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 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.

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?

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.

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 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?

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.

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?

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.

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 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?

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.

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?

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.

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 the industry can protect the writers of today and tomorrow and continue to be a cash earner for the UK economy?

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.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to plurality in public service 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?

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.