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“Digital Britain”

Volume 491: debated on Monday 20 April 2009

Good progress has made been since publication of the “Digital Britain” interim report on 29 January. On 13 March, we published, jointly with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, a discussion paper, “Copyright in a digital world—What role for a Digital Rights Agency?”, and on 17 April we held a successful “Digital Britain” summit at the British Library. We remain on course to publish the final report by the summer.

As the Secretary of State knows, the interim report proposes a universal service commitment to broadband speeds of a minimum of 2 megabits per second from 2012. However, given that speeds of up to 15 Mbps are regularly available in urban areas, does he acknowledge that that is a very unambitious target that is likely to push rural areas even further behind urban areas by 2012?

These are primarily matters for the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but Lord Carter is looking at them closely in the context of the final “Digital Britain” report, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s comments are brought to his attention. In any universal service obligation it is important that all parts of the country are able to benefit; indeed, that is the purpose of such a commitment. It has an historic potential to ensure that, as with postage and telephony, all citizens of this country have access to the highest quality communications infrastructure —and that applies to all parts of the United Kingdom.

Does my right hon. Friend agree—this was touched on in the Lords Communications Committee report—that contestable funding is needed if we are to fill the gap in relation to public broadcasting and ensure that regional news survives? Has he looked into that, and what will he do to support it and to ensure that it is in the “Digital Britain” report when it is produced in full?

I share my hon. Friend’s passion for regional news and welcome the determined role that he has played down the years in making the argument for the importance of high-quality, impartial news at a regional level. At this stage, I have had a chance to read only the headline conclusions of the report from the Lords Communications Committee. It makes some interesting observations, and it will be important in the context of our final considerations on the “Digital Britain” report. In general terms, I agree with him about the crucial importance of regional news. It is vital that the final report comes up with specific proposals to encourage the continuation of high-quality news at not only a regional but a local level.

In following up the excellent question from the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), will the Secretary of State take account in the “Digital Britain” review of the fact that this year licence fee income to the BBC is likely to exceed total advertising revenue for commercial television? Does that not strengthen the case for making part of the licence fee available for other public service broadcasting objectives such as regional news, children’s television, and supporting Channel 4, as was recommended by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee more than 18 months ago?

I always listen very carefully to the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Last week the hon. Gentleman’s Committee made some broader points—although on the more narrow subject of BBC Worldwide—about preserving high-quality public service broadcasting. I would say to him, if I may, that it is a little premature to make assumptions about any supposed surplus in this licence fee period. We are only at the very beginnings of digital switchover. We will not have a clear picture of how the costs of the digital switchover help scheme are panning out until the Winter Hill transmitter for the north-west region is switched over later this year. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s objectives. Of course, Labour Members want to see a strong BBC as well as high-quality provision beyond the BBC. We are working through our final consideration of these issues and we will come forward with clear proposals in the final “Digital Britain” report.

Next week we mark the 30th anniversary of black Thursday, when Mrs. Thatcher came to power. In the period—[Interruption.] In the period for which she was in power and indeed since, it has been impossible to propose public spending to underpin industrial policy. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the remarks last Friday of that dangerous radical Lord Mandelson, who suggested substantial public investment to provide 50 Mbps broadband so that people, families and businesses in city, urban and rural settings will at long last have something adequate to support their lives and businesses? If Australia can do it on a grander scale, with 100 Mbps broadband and a rather left-of-centre Prime Minister, perhaps we can aspire to something similar.

I do not know what event my hon. Friend has planned for next Thursday, but I look forward to receiving an invitation.

This issue is critical not just to the creative industries or TV and broadcasting but to the entire economy. The way in which all businesses operate will be determined by the capability and quality of this country’s communications infrastructure. It will determine their productivity and efficiency, as well as how their staff can work in future—whether they can do more home working and whether there can be more opportunity to work flexibly using the highest-quality new technology. This is a matter of the highest order for the country.

Stephen Carter has made his proposal for a universal service obligation for broadband, which, as I said to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) a moment ago, is a significant and historic commitment. Of course, working with private sector partners and other Departments, we want to ensure that we put in place an infrastructure that will set up the whole economy for the future and, crucially, enable all citizens of this country to play their part in the communications revolution.

On Friday the Secretary of State admitted that his Government were playing catch-up on their digital responsibilities. Today we have heard from Members on both sides of the House real concern about the measly proposal for 2 Mbps broadband in this country. As we have heard, many other countries are willing to go to much higher speeds. Given that the Secretary of State has said that the matter is mainly the responsibility of his noble Friend Lord Carter, will he at least tell the House whether he accepts that 2 Mbps broadband for this country is woefully inadequate?

These are matters that will be concluded in the final “Digital Britain” report, and I repeat that they are not primarily for me. However, I accept that they are crucial to my Department and the industries that it sponsors. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he would have to acknowledge that a bigger commitment to higher capability for all parts of the country would have significant public spending implications. It is not possible to make the claim for ever greater capacity and capability without recognising that there will be a difficult judgment to be made about the level of public sector investment that we can put in. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) a moment ago, this matter is fundamental to how the whole economy and all businesses will operate in future, so the case for investment is overwhelming.

The future of public service broadcasting is at the heart of the “Digital Britain” review. The executive chairman of ITV has described the Government’s decision not to reduce the regulatory burden on ITV as “perverse” and as leaving the channel

“in a curious twilight zone”.

Given the Secretary of State’s refusal to deregulate, what is his alternative solution to the pressures that ITV is under?

The hon. Gentleman is somewhat pre-empting the final discussion on “Digital Britain”. We have had discussions with ITV, and I have said on the record that I will take a pragmatic approach to ensuring that it can make the transition from the old media world to the new, as all media businesses are struggling to do.

The hon. Gentleman’s comment related to product placement. I know that he favours a relaxation of regulations in that area, but I have said strongly that I believe that British broadcasting has a reputation around the world for integrity, quality and high standards in programme making. Those things should not simply be thrown away because we feel pressure as we move to the future. It is right to say that we should keep what we are known for and good at, which is high-quality programming. Let us keep the line between editorial and advertising where it should be, so that people know which is which, but at the same time let us face the future pragmatically and help good British businesses keep quality programming at the core of everything that they do.