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“Digital Britain”

Volume 493: debated on Monday 8 June 2009

2. What plans his Department has to take forward the recommendations contained in the interim “Digital Britain” report published in January 2009. (278189)

Since the publication of the interim “Digital Britain” report in January there has been extensive consultation, and we will publish the final report shortly.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position, and I am sure he will do a very good job. I am also sure that he is aware that the “Digital Britain” report raises concerns about, and makes recommendations on, the future of regional news and regional content. Does he not agree that reallocating the money currently used for implementing digital TV would be one way of ensuring that the regions continue to get regional news and programme content on independent television?

I think that every Member of the House values the role played by regional news and acknowledges the importance of some competition and plurality of provision in regional news. The hon. Gentleman is right: this is one of the important issues that will be addressed when we publish the final report, and I invite him to be patient a little longer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment; it is an excellent appointment and I wish him well in his post.

Yes, third time lucky.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that “Digital Britain” takes heed of the interests of the very successful UK video games industry? Video games make their players think, and they challenge them and make them focus, and many people in Britain believe that a medium that does that should be elevated to an art form. I hope my hon. Friend’s Department gives the video games industry a similar status to that of the UK music and film industries.

I assure my hon. Friend that we do recognise the importance of the video games industry to the British economy. Research and development tax credits are available for the industry, and we are looking at introducing further tax breaks. We will deal with the issue of classification, and other announcements that will, I think, please my hon. Friend will form part of the final report.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on taking on one of the best jobs in government. He will have already discovered, however, that he has a very full in-tray, and one of the most pressing problems he faces is the need to tackle online piracy. While I welcome the proposals in “Digital Britain”, does he agree that the best way forward is to press internet service providers to adopt a graduated response against offenders, rather than expect content providers to sue every offender in the courts?

I certainly agree that it is important that content providers work with all the other interested parties in addressing this problem. As part of our “Digital Britain” final report, we intend to ensure that that happens, and I think the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by the proposals that we expect to make. He is right that piracy is a serious issue, particularly for the creative talent of this country, given the revenue that is lost as a result of the practice.

May I also welcome my hon. and, I hope, personal Friend to his new post and say how pleasing it is to see a new Secretary of State sitting in the House of Commons? The BBC lies at the heart of the “Digital Britain” issue, of course. I do not know whether my hon. Friend heard the Public Accounts Committee Chairman trying last week gently to persuade Mr. John Humphrys to reveal how much he was paid by the public. Mr. Humphrys refused—so some people know how to keep secrets. When a Bill is introduced, will my hon. Friend add a clause obliging the BBC to be subject to the full rigour of the Freedom of Information Act so that we can know everything about pay, allowances and expenses for all areas of BBC employment, including its presenters?

As a co-former BBC employee, I am sure my right hon. Friend shares my admiration for the BBC as an organisation. The question he asks is, of course, for the BBC, but perhaps I can reassure him by saying that I believe that when the public pay for something through their taxes—or, in this case, the licence fee—they expect transparency and accountability, and I think they are right to have that expectation.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. Having already praised the BBC from the Dispatch Box, does he agree that “Digital Britain” provides a golden opportunity to sort out an anomaly in the regulation of the BBC’s charter? Is it not ludicrous that the BBC Trust remains within the BBC, so that on the one hand it is a flag waver for the BBC on issues such as the licence fee and on the other hand it is a supposedly independent regulator on issues such as “Canvas”? Would it not be better to see if we can develop an independent regulatory body for all our public service broadcasters?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern—which other Members have expressed—about the fact that the trust acts as cheerleader and regulator of the BBC. I hope he would not expect me to announce Government policy on the hoof, but I can say that I envisage that we will address this issue in the final report. I am, of course, happy to consider his views, which are, by and large, usually very sensible, and to continue to have a dialogue with him about this issue in the weeks to come.

May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on taking up his post? He is the fourth Culture Secretary in less than two years. In fairness, he has had only two days to prepare for today’s questions, so he has the support of the whole House, particularly today.

One of the crucial issues for the “Digital Britain” report is how to preserve impartiality in a digital era. Does the Secretary of State believe that Sir Alan Sugar can combine his role as host of Britain’s most popular business TV programme with his new job as the Government’s enterprise champion, whereby he will sit in the House of Lords, taking the Labour Whip?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has written to the BBC Trust to express his concerns and I should be interested to see a copy of its reply, if he sends me one. On the face of it, I do not see a conflict of interest; my memory of the BBC producer guidelines is that they were very clear about people who were involved in political programming not doing political jobs, and I recall that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) presented a jazz programme without there being any suggestion of a conflict of interest. This is a matter for the BBC. I understand that Sir Alan discussed it with the BBC before this decision was taken, that he is not being paid and that all his business interests are being put at arm’s length. We will have to wait to see how the trust responds to the hon. Gentleman.

I urge the Secretary of State to examine this arrangement closely, because someone having their own weekly TV programme at the same time as being one of the main ambassadors for Government policy in precisely the same area is unprecedented. If there is a general election in June 2010, according to the current schedules “The Apprentice” will be shown during the campaign. Would it be right for the BBC to carry on screening “The Apprentice” in that period, given that its main star is a principal advocate of Government business policy?

As I said, these are matters for the BBC. The hon. Gentleman will have a robust exchange with the BBC about them. I have just explained that I am prepared to criticise the BBC where I think it has made a mistake. If he were to examine my record on the Gilligan scandal and on the Hutton inquiry, and my comments after the BBC’s failure to publish the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, he would find that I am not backward in coming forward to criticise the BBC where I think that the criticism is justified. This is an issue for the BBC, and I shall be interested to see how it responds to his letter.

Let us hope that the Secretary of State does not hear the words, “You’re fired.” We know that the digital money underspend is crucial to regional news and current affairs programmes, so will he make sure that it is given to the ITV network, ensuring that we have regional news in the north-west and across the other regions? Without it, the BBC will not have the competition it needs to ensure that quality and impartiality in news programmes.

My hon. Friend is right to mention the importance of sustaining a plurality of provision in regional news. However, I do not think it sensible at this stage to narrow the options for ensuring that. He advocates one position, but there might be others to consider. Whatever happens, I assure him that we will address the importance of regional news provision, its continuity and its plurality when we publish the final report.