With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the publication of the “Digital Britain” report.
Britain’s digital industries are among the most successful in the world. The global technological revolution means that if we make the right decisions now, they will continue to grow and Britain will continue to prosper from them. The report, which is part of the Government’s active industrial policy, spells out how we can make the most of the opportunities today and in the years to come.
The report covers four broad themes. First, we will make the most of the digital revolution only if we have the right infrastructure. Just as bridges, roads and railways were the foundations of Britain’s 19th-century industrial strength, our digital communications infrastructure will help power our future success. Businesses, other organisations and individuals want access to high-capability, high-speed networks, both fixed and mobile. This is key to Britain’s competitiveness.
As a first step, we are reaffirming our commitment to ensuring universal access to today’s broadband services, delivered through a public fund, including money that has not been used for digital television switchover. But we also need to ensure that Britain has the best next generation fixed broadband. Other countries are already investing heavily in this. Here, we have already seen an energetic market-led roll-out of next generation fixed broadband, but the economics of building what are essentially new networks mean that if it is left to the market, true super-fast broadband will reach only two thirds of homes and businesses over the next decade. The other third would be left behind.
Telecommunications prices for the consumer have fallen significantly in recent years and are expected to fall further as technology advances, so we have concluded that the fairest and most efficient way of ensuring that people and businesses are not left out is to use some of that saving in the form of a small levy on all fixed lines to establish an independent national fund, which will be used to ensure maximum next generation broadband coverage.
To complement improvements to fixed broadband, we also need to modernise our wireless network. This report sets out plans for the structured release of sufficient high-quality spectrum Europe-wide, for the creation of the next generation of mobile networks. This will ensure that the UK is among the earliest countries to deploy these networks and that UK consumers continue to enjoy the benefits of vigorous competition. Today’s report also sets out our intention to upgrade all our national radio stations from analogue to digital by 2015, with DAB firmly placed as the primary platform.
Having the right infrastructure will not, however, be enough unless everyone can use, and benefit from, the opportunities that new technologies offer, so participation is the second big theme in today’s report. Technological progress reduces costs, so affordability is partly addressed by the market. However, we are complementing this with Government action. Our £300 million home access scheme gives children in low-income families access to computers and the internet. As well as the ability to afford the technology, people need capability and skills. We address these in a number of ways in this report. I am pleased to announce today the appointment of the digital entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox as our new digital inclusion champion. We are also publishing today the report by my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Yardley on digital life skills.
The third key theme of “Digital Britain” is content—sustaining and strengthening our creative industries and securing plural provision of key public service content in the digital age. The ease with which digitised content can be copied makes it increasingly hard to convert creativity and rights into financial reward. The Government believe that taking someone else’s property and passing it on to others without consent or payment is tantamount to theft. Developing legal download markets will best serve both consumers and the creative industries. We will also legislate to curb unlawful peer-to-peer file sharing. Ofcom will be given a new duty to reduce this practice significantly, including two specific obligations: the notification of unlawful activity and, for serial infringers, identity release to enable targeted legal action by rights holders. We also propose technical measures by internet service providers, such as bandwidth reduction for serial infringers, if the other measures prove insufficient.
We will also implement a new, more robust system of content classification for the video games industry, building on the pan-European game information system with a strong UK-based statutory layer of regulation; that will ensure the protection of children, now and in the future.
I now turn to the evolving role of the BBC and Channel 4, and the need to protect public service content, particularly in the nations and regions of our country. In the digital age, a strong, confident and independent BBC is more important than ever. The Government support multi-annual licence fee settlements for the BBC, so that it can plan ahead and act independently of day-to-day political pressures, but we also believe that it is in the BBC’s own interests to evolve into more of a public service partner with other media organisations, and to see itself as an enabler of Digital Britain. We have been encouraging discussions about a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and Channel 4, which we believe would benefit both, as well as securing the future of Channel 4. Those talks are ongoing, and we are ready to help in any way we can.
Members of this House have repeatedly said that they believe that strong local and regional news, including a plurality of provision, is essential for the health and vibrancy of our democracy—I agree. The recent public service review by the regulator, Ofcom, also highlighted the importance of news in the regions and nations. We welcomed its report and the BBC’s response supporting partnerships. Partnerships are very welcome, but they may well be insufficient to meet the scale of the challenge. We believe that that will require a secure and sustainable funding stream.
The licence fee is the existing major intervention for content. There is nothing in either the BBC charter or legislation to say the BBC must have exclusive rights to it. Independent of the level at which the licence fee is set after 2013, we will consult on the option of sharing a small element of it post-2013 to help ensure high-quality plural provision, particularly in the regions and the nations. Subject to that consultation, we will use some of the current digital switchover underspend to fund pilots of this model in Scotland, Wales and one English region between now and 2013. We have, however, made it clear to the BBC and others that we are open to alternative proposals, should they wish to make them during the consultation. Alongside “Digital Britain” we are publishing a range of related documents, including the outcome of the review by the Office of Fair Trading of the media merger regime and local and regional media.
The fourth key theme in “Digital Britain” is the continued modernisation of government itself. The digital revolution has huge potential to improve the services of government and public bodies, and to reduce costs. It raises questions of data security and how government, as a major buyer in areas such as health and education, can encourage UK-based research and development, open standards and interoperability. The report sets out how public services will be delivered primarily online and electronically, thus making them quicker and more responsive to the public while saving money for the taxpayer.
This report will help accelerate Britain’s recovery from the biggest economic shock the world has seen since the second world war, and it is a central part of our industrial strategy. It will be key to our economic growth, social cohesion and well-being as a nation, and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me prior notice both of the report and of his statement, and I congratulate him on giving his first statement to the House in his new role. With Lord Carter’s surprising and rather hasty departure from the Government, it is now the Secretary of State, less than a fortnight into the job, who must pick up the baton in an immensely complex but vital area for the economy. I therefore hope that he recognises that I do not mean it personally when I say that today’s report is a colossal disappointment.
The introduction, on page 3, says that the report seeks to achieve seven things. So what are they? The first is an “analysis”, as is the second; the third is a “statement of ambition”; the fourth is a “restatement” of need; the fifth is an “analysis”; the sixth is a “framework”; and the seventh is a “review”. Where in all of that is a single action?
There is one area in which the report has excelled itself, and that is consultation. The interim report published in January announced eight consultations, and this one announces 12, plus one new quango. That is surely government of the management consultants for the management consultants by the management consultants.
Britain has huge competitive strengths in the digital industries, particularly in the production of digital content, but to embrace these opportunities we need a proper digital infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State explain why, when America, France and Japan are laying fibre optic cable to thousands of homes, Britain’s operators have barely started to think about it? Why have the French Government been able to create competition between internet service providers to lay fibre in France Telecom’s ducts while the British Government have stood by as BT makes minimal investment, protected by a monopoly over the local loop?
Today’s solution, according to the Government, is a broadband tax, but rather than taxing, should the Secretary of State not be seeking to stimulate investment through the regulatory structure? The cable revolution happened without a cable tax; the satellite revolution happened without a satellite tax. Everyone recognises that some public investment might be necessary to reach the more remote parts of the country, but simply slapping on an extra tax is an old-economy solution to a new-economy problem. Unfortunately, the numbers do not add up either. The tax will apparently raise about £150 million per annum. Will the Secretary of State confirm that at that rate it will take 20 years to cover the estimated £3 billion cost of the broadband roll-out?
There are some things that we welcome. We welcome the decision on DAB. We welcome the moves to tackle piracy. However, having heard promises to tackle that problem four times in four years, we have today been promised only a consultation. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment that any required legislation will be laid before the House before the next election, so that it can be sorted out once and for all? We also support the roll-out of a universal 2 megabits broadband connection by 2012—probably the single most important practical outcome of today’s statement. That is all supposed to be funded by the money not used for digital switchover, but given that only 5 per cent. of transmitters have switched over—none of which covers a major urban area—will the Secretary of State tell us what will happen if costs are higher when the other 95 per cent. of transmitters are switched over?
Let me turn to regional news. Does the Secretary of State accept that the traditional model for regional news—based on the old ITV transmitter regions—has failed, and that what people really want is not regional news but local news? Why does Birmingham, Alabama have eight local TV stations when Birmingham in the UK, four times its size, has none? Why is the Secretary of State using the public’s money to prop up a failed system when people in his Exeter constituency have to watch the news from Plymouth, and people in my constituency in Surrey have to watch news from Southampton? In America, much smaller cities have not just one but a whole clutch of local news channels, greatly enhancing a sense of community and vibrant local democracy. None has access to a licence fee. Instead of putting yet more of a burden on taxpayers, why are the Government not embracing a digital era version of syndicated local TV—something that could also be a lifeline to our local newspaper industry?
On the licence fee, this afternoon’s statement shows breathtaking inconsistency on the part of the Government. Less than a month ago, the Secretary of State’s predecessor insisted at the Dispatch Box that the BBC needed an inflation-busting £68 million per annum rise in the licence fee to fulfil its core purposes. So, why is the Secretary of State saying today that it has a spare £100 million a year to give to other broadcasters? If that money really is spare, should we not first consider giving it back to licence fee payers, which is what nearly three quarters of them have said that they want?
There are some bright spots in the report, but overall it does not feel like an agenda for a new digital economy. It reads more like a top-down attempt to protect and prop up old business models using yet more public cash. The Conservative Government deregulated telecoms and launched Channels 4 and 5. They unleashed the cable and satellite revolution. Instead of digital dithering from a dated Government, we need new-economy dynamism from a new Conservative Government.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the role that Lord Carter of Barnes has played in this report, because I omitted to thank and commend Lord Barnes on his excellent piece of work.
Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, the report contains 78 action points. In the main, we are consulting only on matters that require primary legislation, and I hope that hon. Members on all sides will think that that is generally good practice. However, we are consulting on one thing that does not require primary legislation, and that is the idea of sharing some of the BBC’s licence fee. I acknowledge that we have decided to do that, because it is quite a big move of principle—but if the hon. Gentleman does not think that we need to consult on it, he can just send me a letter saying that he agrees with the proposal. That would be very helpful indeed.
The hon. Gentleman implied that there was no need for public investment in the next generation of broadband roll-out. I appreciate that he has not had time to read all 250-odd pages of the report yet, but when he looks at it more closely he will see that virtually every other country in the world is using public funds to help ensure the provision of good-quality next generation broadband. Australia is using £22 billion sterling of taxpayers’ money to that end. By no means are we saying that the amount of money that we intend to use from the digital underspend and the levy on fixed lines will be sufficient in itself, but we do believe that it will be enough to pump-prime as the market would not otherwise do—that is, to complete the final third of provision for homes and businesses. That final stage of provision will cover many people in the rural constituencies of Opposition Members.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the timing of legislation. As he will appreciate, I am not going to comment on the next Session in Parliament: suffice it to say that this Government have made it clear that the digital revolution is one of our main priorities. As I said in my statement, it is a major part of our industrial strategy. He was wrong to say that not one urban area in the country has so far enjoyed digital switchover, because Exeter has. [Interruption.] My constituents would be very offended if their city were to be described as anything other than a major urban centre. Exeter recently became the first digital city in the country, and very successful the switchover was too.
Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, we anticipate that the rest of the digital switchover will go very smoothly. We are confident about that. We think that we are likely to be able to make the savings from the underspend that we have projected, and in fact believe that that may even be a conservative estimate.
The hon. Gentleman also said that we are ignoring local news in favour of regional news. Far from it: the model that I have just outlined would enable exactly the sort of local news provision that he described, and not just by the independent television providers who will be invited to bid for this new pot of money. The introduction of digital radio will free up radio spectrum for local and community radio stations, which will be able to provide exactly the sort of very local news and content that he advocates.
The hon. Gentleman said that instead of spending the digital underspend on the vital protection of the public service content of news in the nations and the regions, he would rather give the 75p a week back to the licence fee payer. All the way through his response, however, where he agreed with us about outcomes, he was prepared to will the ends but not the means.
May I thank you personally, Mr. Speaker, for the courtesy and kindness that you have shown me over the years that you have occupied your post? I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his new appointment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the digital highway, as for the physical highway, people need a vehicle, they need training, and they need to know the rules of the road—and that above all, they need awareness of risk? The money left over from the digital switchover appears to be dwindling, but given the need to keep children safe and to protect individuals and companies from crime, fraud and the dangers of cyber attack, does he agree that we could give some of it to the new digital champion, local authorities and educational institutions? The money could be used to raise awareness of the risks and to educate the population as a whole, because the opportunities being opened up must be matched by tackling the risks that undoubtedly exist in this new digital age.
Yes, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Again, he may not have had time to look at the report yet, but when he does he will see that we have committed up to £12 million of the surplus from digital switchover to be used for a communications programme and targeted outreach as part of the national plan for digital participation.
Ensuring the success of our creative economies will be critical in rebuilding our economy, as the Secretary of State says. I hope that he will accept that we have a lot of ground to make up. His statement is a step in the right direction, but too many issues remain unresolved, such as the possible merger of Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide, and the inclusion of a return path in digital boxes. Why, for example, has he not even addressed the issue of the governance of the BBC? Surely we need an independent body, not a regulator that remains within the BBC. However, it is welcome that we now know who is to classify video games, that tax breaks for that industry are now on the agenda, and that we at last have a date for switchover to digital radio.
As the Secretary of State said, protecting intellectual property, such as that in films or music, is vital. Millions of pounds are lost through illegal file sharing, and it must end. New commercial models, such as yesterday’s welcome announcement of the deal between Universal and Virgin, will help, but I believe that the proposed statutory measures are needed, too. However, can he explain whether internet service providers will have legal indemnification for taking the action that they will be required to take, and who will bear the costs? Does he at least acknowledge that, now that they have delayed action in that area, there is very little chance that the Government will meet their 2008 promise to cut illegal file sharing by 70 per cent. within two or three years?
Overall, the proposals for broadband have a far greater reach than many people expected, but I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that those in remote rural areas will be disappointed, as they will have to wait until at least 2017 before they get the benefits of super-fast broadband. Should not far more be done to drive forward initiatives such as smart metering, e-democracy and digital health care, to stimulate end user demand, and hence investment? Given the real fall in the cost of telecommunications, the proposed levy on all fixed lines to pay for near universal super-fast broadband is imaginative and broadly welcome, but even though it is a small sum, it is still a poll tax, so I hope that he will consider possible exemptions, not least for pensioners.
Finally, I strongly welcome the plans to support regional and local news. I have no problem with the BBC’s involvement in that, any more than with its role in helping with the roll-out of broadband, but I am deeply concerned about how that is to happen. The Secretary of State has avoided calling it top-slicing of the licence fee, but that is what it is. Whatever the language used, top-slicing sets a precedent that undermines the BBC’s independence. What guarantees can we have that in future the Government of the day, especially when they are unhappy with something that the BBC is doing, will not take money from the licence fee to fund their pet projects? Surely the BBC should be involved at all stages, through the establishment of a partnership fund within the BBC, and a clear remit for the BBC to engage in such partnerships. Overall, there has been some good progress, but with 11 or 12 more consultations still to come, there is clearly much still to do.
There was a lot in that question. Let me begin with the hon. Gentleman’s last point, because it was related to his first, about the governance structure of the BBC. His idea of a partnership fund is interesting, and is related to the point that he made at the beginning about the governance framework for the BBC, which is only two and a half years old; we have had an exchange in the Chamber about that previously. It is certainly a proposal that I invite and encourage him to make as part of his party’s response to the consultation.
The reason I do not like the term top-slicing is that I think that most people out there cannot picture in their head what it means. If we talk about sharing something, it is more obvious what is meant; I think that that is a better way of describing the proposal. We will, through legislation if necessary, ensure that the proposal relates to a contained percentage of any future licence fee settlement.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the measures to protect regional and local news. I note that he describes the levy as “imaginative”, and I also welcome his welcome for that. I can assure him that we are considering exemptions for vulnerable people; again, he and other hon. Members may wish to make that suggestion clear in their response to the consultation.
It is not just people who live in rural areas who are disadvantaged now and will be in future when the roll-out of next generation broadband happens. There are clusters in some urban areas and in quite a lot of market towns of people who are equally disadvantaged. They will be helped in the meantime by what we have announced today about the mobile phone spectrum, so I hope they will not have to wait until 2017 for the comprehensive improvement in the service that the hon. Gentleman describes. They will certainly be in a much better place, thanks to the announcement that we have made today about using the fund to help support the spread of broadband elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman made one other point, which I am afraid I have forgotten, but I will write to him about it.
I, too, welcome what the Secretary of State has said about support for local and regional news. I know that it will be greatly welcomed in my constituency. He mentioned that there would be three pilots, one of which would be in an English region. May I urge him seriously to consider the north-west region, given its record of commitment to and delivery of good quality local news coverage?
Although I share some of the reservations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), I welcome a number of measures proposed in the report, in particular support for regional news programming, for tackling illegal file sharing, for assisting commercial radio and for relaxing the restrictions on newspaper mergers. Does the Secretary of State agree that all these matters are already very urgent? If we move to a world with ever-increasing broadband speeds reaching more and more households, that will increase still further the economic pressure on traditional media and will make the problem of online piracy even greater, so does he acknowledge that the players in the industry—all those involved—have been discussing these issues for months, and that any consultations that are to take place need to happen very quickly indeed? If there is to be legislation, and I believe there should be, we need to get that on to the statute book as fast as possible and before the general election.
Yes, I certainly agree with that. The time between now and the next parliamentary Session gives us a chance for proper consultation, as hon. Members in all parts of the House would expect when considering legislating on some of these aspects. As I say, the only aspects on which we are proposing consultation, with the exception of the sharing of the licence fee for regional and local news, are those for which we require primary legislation. We want to get on with that as quickly as possible. We hope to publish a consultation document within the next two weeks, and hope that the consultation will be over in the middle of the summer recess, which will give us plenty of time, assuming we get a Bill in the next Session, to make sure that it is on the statute book before the election.
I welcome our support for regional and local news, but my question is about mathematics. As I understand it, 95 per cent. of the nation has switched over to digital. Given the £600 million in the initial digital switchover fund, £560 million could be unspent. How much of that does my right hon. Friend intend to use for the measures that he announced today?
I am not a mathematician—I got only as far as GCSE—but I do not think my hon. Friend’s figures are right. Whereas the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) underestimated what was likely to be left over from the digital underspend, my hon. Friend’s estimate sounds rather high to me. The figures that we intend to spend on both the roll-out of current generation broadband and on the pilots for regional and local news, assuming that they go ahead, are in the report. From memory, they are about £200,000 for the first and the rest for the second.
Is the Minister aware that Michael Grade has said in the past four years that
“the idea of contestability, of top-slicing the licence fee . . . would break the clear and well-understood line of accountability between the BBC and the licence-fee payer. . . It would pose a threat to the political independence of the BBC, handing a punitive fiscal sword of Damocles to any unscrupulous government”.
If the former head of the BBC and current head of ITV has publicly and passionately opposed top-slicing in the past four years, why on earth do the Government take a different view?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC is a truly great British institution and achievement, funded by the licence fee? There is bound to be real apprehension, therefore, at putting in place an arrangement post-2013 whereby an element of the licence fee—albeit small, as he said—goes to other organisations. It could be an arrangement that ultimately weakens the BBC itself.
As a former BBC employee, I agree with my right hon. Friend. The BBC is the best broadcasting organisation in the world, and it is one of this country’s institutions, along with the national health service, of which the British people are most proud—in all surveys, whenever they are asked. However, I sincerely suggest to my right hon. Friend that the BBC has a far stronger argument for retaining the licence fee in the long run if it is prepared to share it with organisations and to help us address the problem, which many Members from all parts of the House have raised, about the non-viability of any plurality in local and regional news coverage without that level of support.
If my right hon. Friend is worried about a principle being broken, he could have made that argument three years ago, when we decided to use a portion of the licence fee to help fund digital switchover. The BBC did not fight a battle over that; it was a very sensible thing for us to do, and Members from all parties signed up to it. I do not accept his argument, but I am a great defender of the BBC. It is in the BBC’s interests to share some of the licence fee and to see itself as an enabler, rather than to feel that it and only it should have exclusive recourse to the licence fee.
I say a provisional thank you to the Secretary of State for what appears to be a commitment—buried deep in the document—to fund the cost of the programme-making and special events sectors during the spectrum reallocation process. I am grateful for that. However, I am sceptical about imposing a tax on an old technology to fund a new technology, and there are some important questions to be asked about the process that is used to achieve the objective, which we share, on increasing speed and access to broadband. I am sure that he will welcome the decision, taken provisionally this morning and to be confirmed shortly, of the Select Committee that I chair to launch an inquiry into that aspect of “Digital Britain”.
I warmly welcome that, and I warmly invite anyone in the House to come up with a better idea of how we can fund the roll-out. The issue has been given considerable thought over the past few months by some of the best brains in the sector, and this is the solution that we have come up with. If the hon. Gentleman and his Committee or, indeed, any other Member would like to come up with a better solution, we would be very interested to hear it.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s reference to the safety and well-being of children through the proposals on the classification of video games, but will he take the time to meet the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, which on Monday launched its digital manifesto, to see how that might tie in with our proposals on a digital Britain, particularly to create a safe and exciting environment on the internet for children and young people? The coalition looks at issues such as child abuse images, dangers to children online, online access to age-restricted goods, advertising and the use of social networking sites. If there is to be an exciting future, we need to take on board all those issues, so I hope that my right hon. Friend will take the opportunity to talk to CHIS about its manifesto and how we can implement that, too.
Either I or the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and a delegation if she would like to bring one. She will find that its members will welcome the measures that we have announced today. They implement the recommendations of Professor Tanya Byron’s report last year, and they have been widely supported by the sort of interest groups that my hon. Friend has mentioned. I should be happy to meet the coalition to discuss the issues further.
On the copyright tribunal, there are some very interesting recommendations—hidden away in the report—on orphaned works and collecting organisations’ ability to re-license them. Will the Secretary of State tell the House, first, where that re-licensing money will go and, secondly, why he has gone for a self-regulating ombudsman rather than a statutory body?
In congratulating my right hon. Friend on his appointment, may I point out to him that in an era when all commercial broadcasting is fragmenting into niche broadcasting and will continue to do so, top-slicing the BBC licence fee will neither ensure the long-term viability of commercial services nor solve the important problem of regional news provision on ITV? Indeed, it will impair and undermine the stability of the BBC, which in that area is even more important than ever. That being so, many Government Members will oppose top-slicing.
Does the Secretary of State agree that his statement leaves a question mark over the funding of Channel 4 in view of its contribution to the diversity of television and public service broadcasting in particular? Does he also agree that ensuring that Channel 4 has a reliable, independent income is an important aim? If the talks between Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide break down, or do not come to a satisfactory and early conclusion, will he intervene to make sure that Channel 4 is protected?
As we make clear in the report, we are keen to see a solution. We think it important that Channel 4 should survive as an alternative public service broadcaster. We also believe that the joint venture with BBC Worldwide represents the best model of a partnership that could help preserve Channel 4, but not the only one. We think that Channel 4’s remit will have to change; we have made that clear, and it has accepted that. However, if the joint venture with BBC Worldwide does not come off, we will be supportive and active in trying to secure an alternative solution for Channel 4. That will guarantee what the hon. Gentleman is looking for.
I would like to put on record my personal thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for the generosity of spirit that you have shown while you have occupied that Chair.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of the internet’s importance to everything that we will do in the future, and given its international ramifications, traditional legislation and bureaucratic institutions cannot meet the challenge of its governance? Does he agree that an agile partnership that involves Parliament as well as the Government and the industry is necessary if we are to succeed in making the UK the safest place in which to do business online?
We can all support the intention to improve the UK’s digital infrastructure, but surely we should be doing more to protect and support creators, artists and the creative industries—particularly those on the front line of digital innovation. On piracy, does the Secretary of State really think it sufficient to ask reluctant ISPs to write to serial offenders and then perhaps threaten them with slower internet rates? Surely we should be looking for bolder, innovative solutions. When will we do something to challenge the culture in this “something for nothing” digital Britain?
That is not a fair reflection of what is in the report, and when the hon. Gentleman has time to read the piracy section in detail, he will accept that it is not. One always has to strike a balance between over-regulation—using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—and introducing effective measures. We believe that the measures in the report are proportionate and will be effective. The evidence from other countries is that notification and identification have a dramatic impact on the amount of illegal file sharing.
However, as I said in my statement, we are not ending things there. We are introducing legislation; we intend to introduce legislation that will enable internet service providers to suspend or narrow bandwidth for serial offenders. We are not going down the route that France has taken. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, that has not worked; it is being challenged in the courts and the French are having to look at the issue again. Furthermore, we address such issues through the civil law, not the criminal law. The hon. Gentleman would not want us unnecessarily to criminalise a large number of young people.
Ofcom, the regulator, has estimated that the residual value of the ITV licence will be £45 million after the digital switchover, because of the use of the spectrum and ITV’s position at No. 3 on the electronic programme guide. Furthermore, the value of advertising in the regional news slot is estimated at about £25 million. Why cannot that £70 million be used to fund regional and local news, and partnerships with local newspapers, after the digital switchover? If the money is not to be used for that purpose, for what purpose will it be used?
We are certainly looking at the role that advertising could play to help supplement the support that the model will give to alternative local and regional news provision, as part of a plurality including the BBC provision. However, if my hon. Friend is suggesting that in the current—or even future—climate of digital Britain, ITV will be able to afford to sustain the level and quality of news provision that it has hitherto, I should tell him that not many people share that view. Nevertheless, if he can show, through evidence, a viable alternative or an addition to the measures that I have outlined today, we will of course be happy to consider it as part of the consultation.
In making a bid for East Anglia, may I ask whether the Secretary of State accepts that in very rural areas such as south-west Norfolk, broadband is not readily available, which makes people second-class citizens in this digital revolution? Will he make a special case for constituents such as mine, who need a level playing field if they are to compete in this technological world, given that mobile telephony is no alternative for many of them?
I entirely agree that there are particular challenges in rural areas; as somebody who was brought up in Norfolk and now lives in Devon, I very much appreciate that. That is why I am all the more surprised that the hon. Gentleman’s Front Benchers are not prepared to will the means to deliver exactly what, I think, both he and I want to achieve.
My right hon. Friend touched on social exclusion. I raised this at the time of the interim report, and it is very important. Glasgow has the lowest uptake of broadband of any city in the country. Does he agree that deprived areas, in particular, need extra help? What does he promise to do for areas such as Glasgow?
Given the rapid speed of technological progress, the goal of 2 megabits per second, although it would be manna from heaven today, is likely to look obsolete in three years’ time, especially if two thirds of the country is getting 20 or 25 times that speed. Should not the universal service goal be much more ambitious given not where we are now but where we are likely to be in three years’ time?
We have gone for 2 megabits per second because we had to decide what was the best value for money in terms of the investment that is required for today’s technology. What we will achieve by 2012 will be at or near the level of the best in Europe, but, as is acknowledged in the report, at the same time we need to get a move on with next generation broadband to ensure that that is universal. The two developments will be running in parallel. There will always be a trade-off in the amount of resources that we commit to ensuring a better, more capable service for today’s broadband, and we think that that is about the right level. It is probably sensible to aim at the level at which one can, for example, download iPlayer.
Does the report recognise the importance of ensuring that all our schools and colleges can not only access the next generation of broadband but can afford to do so on behalf of the children they teach?
I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, but I will write to her, perhaps jointly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, with clarification. She will be aware that the recent review of the primary school curriculum recommended that IT become part of the core curriculum, along with literacy and numeracy. Where the £200 million fund that I mentioned has been piloted, it has been very successful in providing access for children from less well-off families, at home and in school. However, schools themselves will of course have to be a priority.
The Secretary of State rightly said that if it were left to the market, a third of the country would not receive super-fast broadband; I rather suspect that my part of the world would be part of that third. Is he aware that many remote rural economies have been built on new age connectivity, with call centres, ISDN links and so forth? Can he therefore give an assurance that the last third will not be left until last, since those fragile economies depend on competitive connectivity for their economic future?
We will have to wait to see what bids we get from the consortiums who will be opening up the bidding for the work. However, there is no reason why the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world will be left until very last; that will very much depend on the quality and intention of the bids that we receive. As I have emphasised several times, without our willing the means to fund this, he would be left with a problem, and so would his constituents.
I am a member of the Business and Enterprise Committee, and as we have heard, we are going to look into digital access and broadband as well. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and thank him for ensuring that low-income families will benefit from funding for new access, but will he also ensure that rural parts of Lancashire gain access to the new broadband?
On a broader scale, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to regional television and media, which is very important in Granadaland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) asked, will he ensure that the trial is in the Granada area? That is very important. Will he also ensure that local and community radio stations such as the world-famous Chorley FM also receive the funding that they need, along with our local newspapers the Lancashire Evening Post, the Chorley Guardian and the Chorley Citizen? It is important that we have a broad mix and that there is true competition for the BBC. That will come only if we have regional news and current affairs programmes.
What we have announced today will, I believe, help lead to a real thriving of local and community radio stations of the type that my hon. Friend supports and advocates. It will also help the regional and local newspaper market, because we are not only taking the action that I outlined on mergers legislation, but asking the Audit Commission to examine the practice of local authorities spending quite a lot of council tax payers’ money putting out free newspapers and, in the process, swallowing up a lot of local advertising that might otherwise go to local papers.
We in this place may be accused of being self-serving in our support for regional and local news organisations, because they tend to talk to us and we pontificate and give interviews to them, but the viewing figures for evening regional news programmes on both the BBC and ITV are among the highest for any news programming on television. The recognition of regional and local radio and TV presenters is another sign of how popular they are with our constituents. We are on the right side of this argument—the side of our constituents, standing up for what they value in local and regional news provision.
We are not doing nothing before then to help regional and local news provision. We have said that we will look at piloting the model that I outlined between now and 2013, but that depends on a viable continuation of that model after 2013. I think that the piloting will help. We have the digital underspend to use on that and on the broadband roll-out, but we need a mechanism after 2013 to continue that funding through sharing some of the BBC licence fee, and for that we need primary legislation.
My right hon. Friend’s statement was strong on improving the infrastructure, but he was less explicit about how we are going to drive forward the services that sit on top of that infrastructure. May I highlight to him telecare and assisted technology? There is no reason why people who have a social care need—older people and those with chronic illnesses—cannot be made more comfortable and safer by using those services. Will he ensure that the forthcoming social care Green Paper takes advantage of the infrastructure that he has laid out to the House today?
Yes. If my hon. Friend looks at the section at the end of my statement about the implications for Government and for public organisations, he will see that there is a great deal of detail, including obligations on all Government Departments to show how they will digitalise their own services.
My hon. Friend mentions social and health care. It is often assumed that elderly people are not very keen on using digital technology, but in any library in the country there are pensioners navigating their way through NHS Choices, choosing which hospital to go to, examining details about complaints that they might have and trying to find out what treatments are available to them. There is huge potential not just to make public services much more responsive and quicker for the consumer but to save the taxpayer a lot of money.
Will the budget for the new Welsh pilot on public content be close to the £25 million annually that the Welsh Assembly said last week was the bare minimum necessary? Will it be channelled through an independent commissioning body, based and made in Wales?
I congratulate the new Secretary of State on his willingness to take on the vested interests of the BBC. Given his announcement on top-slicing for local news, could that be extended to other public sector broadcasting, which could bid to be shown on channels other than the BBC?
We have specifically been careful with the wording in the document. I think that we say “primarily” for news because we did not want to shut the door to other provision—for example, children’s programming, about which people feel strongly and which is also currently the victim of market failure. We also did not want to close the door in case of an underspend in future, which we might want to share with others to do the things that the public want us to do. We should not shy away from that principle.
I welcome two aspects of today’s report: the principle of a universal service obligation for broadband, albeit limited to 2 megabits, and the recognition of the link between economic prosperity and broadband provision. If the Government are serious about that link, why is the Secretary of State prepared to leave some of the most economically fragile communities until 2017 before they are allowed to get a piece of the action?
We are not doing that. As I made clear, we will ensure that the guarantee for today’s technology is rolled out to everybody by 2012, and the next generation will start concurrently. Our proposals for mobile spectrum should also help many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Bearing in mind the remote nature of the constituencies that he and some other hon. Members represent, he will find that our ambition and time scale is at the top rather than the bottom end of international expectation.
I am in favour of the gouging of the licence fee—it is not sharing, but top-slicing. It concedes that the recent inflation-busting increase in the licence fee was totally unnecessary and has led to huge pay for the director-general, Mark Thompson, of more than £800,000 a year and bloated pay deals for the BBC’s so-called top talent, such as Jonathan Ross, of more than £6 million a year. Doubtless, other so-called stars earn mega sums of money. If the BBC starts bleating, the Minister should ask it to examine some of the pay deals that it has done in the past two to three years—that is where the fat can be cut from the land. On the pilots, I ask the Minister to look at the north-west. Granada is a superb news-delivery organisation, but it needs support now, not in two or three years. The support needs to be brought forward if it is to be effective.
The Secretary of State said that digital radio would be the primary platform by 2015. What reassurance can he give the many constituents who rely on the analogue signal about how long it will remain for their use?
It will remain on FM for some of the new local and community radio provision that I outlined. We will consider providing help in the same way in which we did for the digital television switchover. However, when we take into account the way the prices for digital radios are decreasing, and people’s behaviour in the past with digital switchover for television and the change from black and white to colour television, I suspect that we will find that many people are already listening to digital radio. May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, rather than a lot of useless jumpers for his family at Christmas, he buy them a digital radio each? That will help along the way.
A number of hon. Members believe that rural communities will be at the end of the queue when it comes to sharing the benefits of IT. However, in Scotland, a new technology is being tested called broadband extension technology, which would mean that people living 17 km from an exchange could achieve the minimum guarantee. Will the Minister ensure that that technology is developed as fully as possible and rolled out as soon as possible?
After 12 years of this Government’s broadcasting policy, my constituents are still left with a second-class mobile phone network and, having switched over to digital television, half of them are now getting the second-class “Freeview Lite” service. Although I, too, welcome the new commitment to super-fast broadband across the whole country, will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that he will not lose sight of the existing problems in rural areas?