HC Deb 13 May 2002 vol 385 cc485-7
1. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

What steps she will take to enhance consumer choice for premium channels on digital television. [53962]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells)

The draft Communications Bill and associated documents set out a proposed framework for the regulation of communications, which is intended to broaden choice of and access to modern communication technologies, and to make markets work better. Where there is consumer demand—for example, for premium channels—that should improve choice.

Kevin Brennan

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that, given the demise of ITV Digital, it is important to ensure that the Government are committed to retaining premium subscription programming on digital terrestrial television? In addition, did he note that the demise of ITV Digital had at least one minor benefit in that it allowed viewers to watch for free the first division play-offs yesterday at Cardiff's magnificent millennium stadium, proving once again that a new Wembley stadium is not needed?

Dr. Howells

It was a great game in a magnificent stadium—even though I am from Pontypridd and cannot stand the place.

It is not for the Government to give those assurances. Indeed, I understand that the administrator will soon be informing customers of their rights. Currently, there are rules to protect the payments made by subscribers since the beginning of administration and the subscriptions have been placed in a specific account. If the customers lose their pay services, relevant pro rata payments, per day, will be given back to them. For the time being, consumers will keep at least all the public services, which constitute 14 channels.

Nick Harvey (North Devon)

What is the Government's attitude to the suggestion that there should be a free-to-air digital terrestrial platform? If that comes about, will they ensure that those who have been able to take subscription channels through ITV Digital in the past are still able to do so as an add-on to that free-to-air service? If another company takes up ITV Digital's multiplex, what confidence can it have that the Government will protect it from the sort of abuse that the Competition Commissioner appeared to consider that Sky had shown towards ITV Digital?

Dr. Howells

The Independent Television Commission is responsible for the award of the licences under the Broadcasting Act 1996. In this case, the commission has adopted an accelerated procedure. I understand that potential applicants have to submit to the ITC a confidential expression of interest by 16 May 2002 and full applications by 30 May. It is up to the ITC to give guarantees and assurances or, indeed, to decide under what terms the process will be conducted. The ITC will publish the programme proposals of the applications and will invite representations, which should be received by 6 June. The commission expects to announce the award of licences on 13 June 2002. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts it is not useful to speculate at this stage. Speculation will be largely groundless until the ITC has made its decisions.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Does the Minister agree that in analogue we have a public sector broadcaster called the BBC, but in digital there is no public sector broadcaster—especially not the BBC? Given the demise of the digital terrestrial platform, does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC should take the senior role in delivering a public service television network on digital terrestrial?

Dr. Howells

I know that the BBC is concerned that its new digital services should have a proper platform and good coverage throughout the country, so I am sure it will be interested in determining the outcome. However, I do not intend to speculate from this Dispatch Box on what part the BBC will play.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Following the collapse of ITV Digital, does the Minister understand that there is not the remotest chance of achieving digital switchover by the Government's target date of 2010 unless Ministers start to give a stronger lead? Will he therefore publish a timetable setting out how and when the digital terrestrial television signal will be increased, and mount a public information campaign so that consumers are no longer misled into buying equipment that the Government's own plans will make obsolete in a short space of time?

Dr. Howells

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that it was his Government who privatised the transmission services. He will also understand that the decision was taken before the Labour Government came into power that the signal for digital services would be interleaved among the existing analogue services. To believe that we can turn up the power shows his ignorance of the technology. He should do as I have done and go to Croydon—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour Croydon!"]—and talk to the transmitters—[HON. MEMBERS: "Transmitters?"] The hon. Gentleman should go to Labour Croydon and talk to the transmission companies; he would then realise that it is not easy to increase the signal in that way. The signal has already been turned up by 3 decibels, which is a considerable amount. To turn it up further would interfere with analogue signals. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell his constituents how wonderful it would be if the great majority of them could not watch analogue on their television sets at home.