HC Deb 21 January 2002 vol 378 cc603-5
7. Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)

What plans the Government have to change the statutory framework for the BBC relating to the provision of digital services. [26170]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell)

The provision of new BBC services is governed by the BBC charter and agreement. Any such services require the approval of the Secretary of State. That arrangement will continue under the proposed new regulatory regime, but the Secretary of State, in considering public service applications from the BBC, will seek formal advice on the market impact from the Office of Communications.

Mr. Bacon

Given the potential impact of the BBC's new digital services on the rest of the broadcasting industry, would not it make more sense for approval for BBC applications to rest with Ofcom, as it is for others players in the industry? The Secretary of State will be aware that many commentators think that that would make more sense. Is she minded to introduce such a change when the main Bill is published?

Tessa Jowell

No, I am not minded to introduce such a change when the main Bill is published. New BBC services are important in giving licence payers value for money, and they act as an incentive to drive the take-up of digital television. In making judgments about those new services, it is important to ensure that proposals are distinctive and do not gratuitously undermine the competition and the growth in the commercial market that we want.

Towards the end of last year, the BBC submitted an application for a range of new services. I approved the new BBC4, the mixed genre arts channel, and two new children's channels because they were evidently distinctive and different from what was available in the commercial market. I rejected its application to establish a young people's channel, because I was not persuaded that it was sufficiently distinctive. It is important to maintain competition and to secure value for the licence payer. In order to oversee value for the licence payer, the Secretary of State should approve new services with advice on the competition effect.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that most people who get digital television receive it through a platform where they pay for other services. One of the strengths of the BBC's digital output is that it is free to view, and it is important that it remains so. Reception via satellite platforms or cable is good, but the main platform for people who want free-to-view digital television is the aerial, and reception via the aerial is still poor and the picture crackles quite a bit. What plans have the Government or the industry to ensure that when people want to access digital television, they do not have to sign up to a package and pay for a load of other channels, and that they can get the BBC free-to-view channels on their own?

Tessa Jowell

The issues that my hon. Friend raises are taken very seriously by the industry, the Department and the broadcasters. It is important that the attractiveness of DTV is improved by securing greater consistency of signal and better quality of picture. As part of the digital action plan, which brings together the Government, broadcasters and the industry, we are testing the limit to which the signal can be increased to improve reception. My hon. Friend makes the important point that people will decide to switch to digital if they can improve their choice of viewing and if the picture quality and services that they can receive are improved. There is still a long way to go, but we have set out a clear framework of Government policy, in partnership with industry.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Has not the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) raised an important point of principle? The BBC is making a substantial investment in digital services—up to £84 million in the first year. That money comes from each and every licence payer in the country. Is it not incumbent on both the Government and the BBC to ensure that all licence payers—irrespective of where they live, and including those in rural areas—gain the benefit of the investment for which they are paying?

Tessa Jowell

Yes, that is important. Government policy—I do not think there is any great controversy about this—is described as "platform-neutral", because we think that people should be able to choose the platforms from which they obtain their digital signals. The BBC's investment in new digital services is important in encouraging people to go digital, and giving them a reason to do so.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

I thank my right hon. Friend for mentioning the importance of ensuring that digital services from the BBC, and from other broadcasters for that matter, are available to all; but how can we ensure in the regulation that free, open, non-discriminatory access to audiences is guaranteed for broadcasters? If that is not done, a powerful gateway will be created through which it will be difficult for broadcasters and audiences to make their way.

My right hon. Friend may be interested to know that every sixth-former at Porth junior school claimed this morning to have a personal computer at home, and to enjoy using BBC online digital services.

Tessa Jowell

As I have said, it is important to promote take-up of digital services, and to maximise choice of free-to-air channels. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) could maintain his interest in the question that he asked.

It is important for free-to-air channels to have non-discriminatory access to platforms. As two of my hon. Friends have said, that will ensure that viewers are given maximum choice of free services, and need not subscribe to pay-TV services that they do not want.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Now that an affordable set-top box enabling analogue televisions to receive digital services should soon be available, will the Secretary of State stop dithering and announce that the switchover to digital will take place on a single date, 1 January 2006?

Tessa Jowell

I welcomed the announcement at the end of last week of new technology that will deal with one of the obstacles to the switchover. We have made it absolutely clear, however, that the process needs to be possible in terms of technology, desirable in terms of programme choice, and what people actually want. So Far, one in three households has access to digital services. A job of persuasion and conversion must be done, but it is not something that Government can do; people must decide that they want this for their own and their Families' viewing entertainment. That is why our policy remains that, subject to three rather than five tests, the switchover should take place between 2006 and 2010. That is still our intention.