HC Deb 28 June 1999 vol 334 cc9-10
7. Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

What steps he plans to take to ensure that broadcasters improve reception of television and radio in Wales. [87203]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

The BBC and the broadcasting regulators are responsible for the transmission of television and radio services. The topography of Wales has long presented problems to broadcasters. With the aid of an extensive network of local relay stations, analogue television and radio broadcasters have now achieved near universal coverage in Wales. Digital broadcasters face similar problems in providing television and radio services to Welsh viewers. The BBC, the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority are now working with my Department to improve digital television and radio coverage.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. He is correct to say that the Welsh topography presents broadcasters with particular difficulties. What assurances can he give in that regard? Although digital television might provide an answer, current coverage remains patchy. Is it not essential to ensure that broadcasters improve coverage, which currently reaches no more than 70 per cent. of the Welsh population?

Mr. Smith

We are considering that issue seriously with the broadcasters and the broadcast regulators. There are 230 local relay stations in Wales, and some 98.3 per cent. of Welsh people can receive analogue television transmissions. However, the situation could still be improved and we are looking at all the possibilities in that area.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the Secretary of State not accept that, although the people to whom he referred may receive a television picture, the quality of the signal may be infinitely inferior to those emanating from other stations, mainly situated in England? Given that everyone living in Wales will be affected by decisions taken by the National Assembly on education, health and housing, do they not have a right to top-quality television and radio reception for news items about those subjects?

Mr. Smith

It is indeed our wish that as many people as possible, both in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, get the best possible quality picture and coverage. The quality and the provenance of the programmes that people can see really matters to them. We are considering that issue and we will consult closely with our colleagues in the new Welsh Assembly about any matters concerning Wales.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The Secretary of State is correct to say that the topography of Wales affects broadcasting signals, as it does in Scotland and in other parts of the United Kingdom. Does he accept that universal coverage will cost a huge amount of money—a sum that is disproportionate to the numbers of people who deserve to see those programmes? When will the Government get off the fence and accept that there is no middle way regarding the funding of the BBC? When the current licence period ends, will the Government not have to consider in advance allowing advertising, sponsorship or both on some or all BBC channels in order to assist with the expansion of British broadcasting?

Mr. Smith

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the first part of his question is right. A difficult balance must be struck between cost and quality of picture, and we are working on that. However, I cannot agree with the latter part of his question. As he knows, we have asked Gavyn Davies and the panel that we appointed to report on the immediate future funding of the BBC. I suspect that I will take more cognisance of what Mr. Davies has to say than I will of the hon. Gentleman.