HC Deb 15 September 2003 vol 410 cc583-4
11. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

What discussions she has had with (a) ITV, (b) Channel 4, (c) Channel 5 and (d) BSkyB regarding their policy on free-to view access to their services on digital satellite television. [129562]

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

I accept that this question deals with a serious matter that many constituents have raised with their MPs of all political parties. The position is that, until May, the BBC provided Solus viewing cards to satellite viewers who did not have a subscription to a pay-TV service. That allowed them to receive BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 free-to-view. In May the BBC moved its services to a new satellite, which meant that viewers could receive them without any viewing card. The BBC ended payment to BskyB for the provision of the cards, and it is now for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 to find an arrangement to ensure that customers continue to receive their public service channels without the need to subscribe to Sky. I have written to the chief executives to ask about their intentions and their responses indicate that the broadcasters are considering various options. I am closely monitoring the discussions, which I understand are making progress.

Mr. Brown

I thank my hon. Friend for her efforts thus far. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), I know that this is a serious issue. The problem is not just the lack of an analogue signal in some localities, but the lack of cable and free-view in rural parts of Dumfries and Galloway. The recent decision to broadcast unencrypted on satellite and to withdraw support from free-to-view viewing cards means, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, no signal for ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5 unless people subscribe to Sky. Will she therefore highlight to broadcasters the complete lack of access to free-to-view channels for those viewers and, if broadcasters are not prepared to find an answer, will she use the provisions of the Communications Act 2003 to empower Ofcom to insist on finding an answer?

Tessa Jowell

I thank my hon. Friend for posing that question on behalf of his constituents. It is important to be clear that we are not at that stage. Negotiations are proceeding and we are optimistic that the broadcasters will develop a solution. As I have made clear, we will keep the situation under review and we recognise the concern and anxiety that it causes to the thousands of people who are directly affected.