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Television Production (Funding)

Volume 506: debated on Monday 1 March 2010

4. What steps the Government are taking to encourage funding for the development of original UK television content. (318851)

The Government are taking a number of steps to encourage more investment in original UK content, including through the Digital Economy Bill that is going through Parliament. I also welcome the fact that the BBC has said its current review will include steps to boost investment in domestic content.

As I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, investment in original content has declined by £340 million in the last five years. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State consider using the Digital Economy Bill as an opportunity to repeal the contract rights renewal regulations, which penalise, in particular, ITV’s investment in original content?

I do not think it is practicable to do that in the Bill going through the House, because that Bill contains a lot. We have carefully examined the possibility of doing what the hon. Gentleman suggests, and I am sympathetic to the point that he makes and to the complaints that have been made about this by ITV. As he will be aware, the Competition Commission has not yet made its final ruling and we should await the outcome of that. ITV would, of course, be perfectly able to appeal against that decision, and this Government would be very supportive of such an appeal.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to get more original content, we need more original talent? Is it not time that the BBC stopped looking as though it is a closed shop for the Yentobs and the Dimblebys, and enabled young people who come from ordinary backgrounds but who have talent to make programmes?

I think that there are great talents of people of all ages; I happen to think that David Dimbleby, who I believe is in his early 70s, does a remarkable job—

My hon. Friend may not like it, but David Dimbleby does a remarkable job. There is also very good young talent on the BBC. One of the BBC’s great strengths is that it nurtures and values talent of all ages and in all types of taste. Perhaps that is not to the taste of everybody in this House, but that is exactly what the BBC is there to do.

May I welcome what the Secretary of State said about contract rights renewal and ITV, but does he acknowledge that it is the BBC that is one of the key providers of original UK content and that it needs security of funding to be able to plan for the future? [Interruption.] Does he, therefore, accept that it does not help if a potential Government start talking about top-slicing and cutting the BBC down to size or even, as he has done, about bringing the licence fee to an end in just three years?

The whole House will have heard the chorus of disapproval from Conservative Members at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the BBC should have proper secure funding in the future. I agree with him; I think that the BBC is probably the best broadcasting organisation in the world. It is a very valuable part of our media landscape, and it is hugely important in terms of nurturing talent and investing in UK production. Of course there will be a debate about the future of the BBC, and the future of its funding and the form of it, as that always happens when we have a discussion about the charter and licence fee renewal. That is the time to have that debate, and we should support the BBC and all the good work it does for the country.

Digital piracy is one of the biggest concerns for people investing in British TV, so what specific measures has the Secretary of State taken to block access to websites that deliberately promote illegal downloading?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the position, because of our discussions about this both in private and in the other place about measures in the Digital Economy Bill. I suggest that the most constructive thing he could do to help prevent this serious theft, which is losing our creative economy hundreds of millions of pounds a year, is to support the Government’s attempts to get this Bill on to the statute book, and not to try to undermine them.

But the Secretary of State knows that clause 17 cannot be used to block access to illegal downloading websites—he told me so himself. It is possible to rephrase the Digital Economy Bill to do this. The person who would do that would presumably be the Minister responsible for the creative industries, so why has the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) not been replaced since he stepped down? Is it that the Secretary of State is waiting for the country to replace not just one Minister, but all of them?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well why we do not think that his solution of site blocking is a sensible way forward. He has received a briefing on it, and if he disagrees with our reasons, he should make his concerns plain to us. However, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my erstwhile colleague who, as Minister with responsibility for the digital economy, did a great job. As the hon. Gentleman knows, ministerial appointments are a matter for the Prime Minister. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I are coping fairly well, thank you very much.

5. What estimate he has made of the level of funding for television programme production in the UK in the last five years. (318854)

Until the recent fall in advertising revenue, there had been a steady and welcome increase in funding for UK production. We would expect this increase to resume as the economy recovers and as a result of the measures that I was outlining a moment ago.

I must congratulate the Secretary of State on his support for product placement—this is going to make a difference. When will the necessary legislation be in place and what benefit will it give to Granadaland, which has fine studios for the production of local television?

We intend to lay the order in the next few days—either this week or next—and, as I understand it, it will then be on the statute book within three weeks, as long as it is not prayed against.

Has the Secretary of State seen the recent report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs? It indicates that Northern Ireland has been shamefully neglected in the funding of television programmes, that Northern Ireland is not adequately portrayed in this country and that talent is not sufficiently encouraged there. When the Minister appeared before the Committee, he was totally ignorant and had not even been to Northern Ireland.

I have certainly been to Northern Ireland many times, although not in my current capacity. I shall certainly look at the recommendations made by the hon. Gentleman’s Committee and I shall respond to him, if I may, in writing. I would add, however, that we have recently committed ourselves to some considerable funding for Northern Ireland to help preserve the Irish language service when the digital switchover happens. He will also be aware, as he takes a strong interest in these things, that some of the commercial pressures that the rest of the commercial ITV network has come under across the UK have not been so severe in Northern Ireland. UTV has still performed very strongly, because of the strength of its brand.