I suspect that today may be remembered as the day that the Prime Minister resigned the leadership of the Conservative party, but there is a footnote—an Adjournment debate—and that will be an important footnote to many people who are concerned about the future of the media and the industries related to them. Indeed, it may bring about an even greater revolution than the one made possible by the resignation of a Prime Minister from the leadership of his party. Whatever the problems of the Conservative party, there is no question that, in the long term, we must deal with some serious problems in respect of television's future, and one of the major changes that will affect television in this country and throughout the world is the advent of digital technology.
I am pleased to call this debate on digital technology and digital television. It is regrettable that the Government have not taken the chance to arrange a full day's debate on that important topic in the House. In many ways, that shows the irrelevance of this place. Even today, the Prime Minister made an announcement outside this Chamber, holding a press conference before talking to the legislature. That underlines the weakness of the legislature.
A Government White Paper on digital television has been outstanding for some considerable time—indeed, it has been so throughout the entire tenure of the Secretary of State for National Heritage. I hope that he will clearly indicate a date on which the Government will finally publish that White Paper so that, not only we in the House, but people who keenly await that announcement can plan for the future. Sadly, the continuing uncertainty, which seems a characteristic of the Department of National Heritage and of the Secretary of State, must stop so that people can plan, invest, look to the future and undertake this tremendous revolutionary media project of changing our television from an analogue system to a digital system.
I hope that the Secretary of State will, in the near future, make up his mind and resolve the problems that I understand he has with the Department of Trade and Industry, long before he either moves up or perhaps even out of the Cabinet, depending on whether the Prime Minister has made another blunder or a correct decision.
There are immense implications for all of us—not only those involved in television industries, but consumers or viewers of the product. Immense potential exists in the changeover to digital transmission. I want also to discuss what an incoming Labour Government need to do to develop the right policy framework to harness the benefits of digital television for the many and not merely the few. I call again on the Secretary of State. If he does not do this job, clearly it will be done by an incoming Labour Government, but I hope that he will publish the White Paper before the summer recess and allocate time so that the important issues involved can be debated by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an extremely urgent matter because, if there is not a Government initiative, a real danger exists that, for example, the satellite broadcasters might go ahead in the absence of a Government framework, steal a march, and determine the future direction of broadcasting in this country without any steer from Her Majesty's Government? Does he agree that that would be deeply regrettable and adds to his case for the need for urgency on the Government's part?
I hope that satellite, terrestrial and cable broadcasters will all take advantage of the new technology. I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks. It is for the Government now to act as a co-ordinator of the action necessary to ensure that satellite, cable and terrestrial television programme producers can get their act together with a degree of certainty. The investment levels that are required to make this experiment a success and for it to stick are high. I suspect that even British Sky Broadcasting, with the backing that it enjoys, the British Broadcasting Corporation or the cable companies in this country would be loth to go ahead without some clarification from the Government.
At present, everyone is in the starting blocks. As my hon. Friend points out, we have a lead and an expertise in this sector which is being dissipated by the Government and particularly byn the Department of National Heritage's delay in publishing the White Paper. I hope that it publishes it without further delay for the benefit of everyone; we will then make the points made eloquently by my hon. Friend.
We all need to try—I shall try to follow my own edict—to use as few jargon words as possible. It is easy to talk about conditional access and common interfaces, and to use all the rest of the jargon—such as terrestrial and all the junk—which surrounds much of the debate. I guess that digital could be summed up at its simplest in this way: that which currently delivers one channel can be used—the same space can be used—to deliver many channels.
The beauty of the technology is that it can compress a signal, so where one currently receives one channel, one can use the same space to receive five, six, seven, eight, nine or 10 channels—who knows how many channels we will ultimately receive; it depends on how the technology progresses. Put at its simplest, that means that digital television, handled properly and with the right promotion by Government, can benefit both the consumer and producer of television in this country, Europe and throughout the world.
Provided that we ensure that such channels are not controlled by a single monopoly producer, digital will extend customer choice by enabling terrestrial, cable and satellite systems to offer many more channels than they can currently offer. It will also offer multimedia services and allow telecommunications, broadcasting and information services to be delivered to all sorts of consumers and industry. I hope that, as we gear the technology, it will be available at a reduced cost so that extra costs do not fall directly on the consumer, but are reduced as a product of the technology.
The technology exists. What is missing is some leadership from the Government. That can be covered by two main points. First, they should set clear ground rules for investment in digital technology and, secondly, they should announce a clear transparent policy on competition issues, so that people feel that they will be given a fair crack of the whip when they invest in the multi-million pound operation that is modern-day programming for television. If the Government do not show commitment to that project, if the White Paper staggers out before the recess—I understand that even 13 July may be a favoured date—and if the White Paper is equivocal and unclear, that will send exactly the wrong signals to the rest of the industry. Who will invest millions of pounds if that is the climate in which investment may take place and disappear.
Given that, as my hon. Friend said, digital technology will be adopted by the cable, satellite and terrestrial broadcasters, how optimistic is he that they will all introduce the same standard in bringing that technology into use, or is there a danger that different players in the broadcasting industry might adopt different standards and cause considerable damage as a result?
The technical work on introducing similar standards has been done domestically and at European level. It has been a slow and protracted process, but the technical standards are there. What my hon. Friend may regard as a more serious issue—and here I must lapse into jargon—is the conditional access problem about which I shall talk later. I hope that I will be able to explain my jargon more clearly.
There is no doubt that the British economy will benefit immensely if national manufacturers of digital technology and digital service providers can build upon the comparative advantage that they now have and exploit that in the world marketplace.
Television and film are not exclusively the province of Hollywood. There is still a thriving, capable and respected television industry in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom. It is a phenomenal asset for this country and we need to ensure that the advantage that it enjoys currently is enhanced by the quick and efficient use of digital technology. Jobs, training, crafts and skills will all be buttressed by early and decisive Government action. More delay will mean that we will not maximise the economic and social opportunities offered by digital technology.
There are tremendous opportunities. This is not merely for boffins pressing buttons in a television control room. Real advantages could be gained by ordinary people in the community and by the average television viewer. There are opportunities for expanding the variety of television offered nationally and locally. There are opportunities for high-quality television, not necessarily more of the same. Many people complain about the plethora of channels in certain sectors now. There are opportunities for introducing local channels to serve towns and cities.
One of the darkest blots on the Government's record on broadcasting is that they have consistently failed to encourage local television channels which could deliver local services, local information, training and education on a basis that is relevant to London, Nottingham or Glasgow, or many of the towns and cities throughout the country.
There are opportunities for providing specialist multi-media services. That is jargon for things such as a specialist channel for disabled people, for shoppers or for local council tax payers dealing with local services and the value for money that they receive. There are opportunities for all of us to access with ease the treasure house of the Internet so that we do not need a PhD in physics, chemistry or computer science to operate the machinery to discover many of the wonders as well as many of the dark sides of the Internet.
There are opportunities for offering exciting new education packages, not just for schools but for homes, so that everyone could benefit from, for example, a specialist geography channel or a language channel. Hopefully, that will be done ultimately on an interactive basis. It would help those who are housebound, not necessarily the elderly or the disabled but young people trapped at home because they are involved in child care or have family commitments. It could help to provide a way out of the home through some form of PCTV which is easily accessible and fun to use.
There are tremendous opportunities to liberate people rather than to enslave them and tie them to a computer screen, which is how technology is often seen. It could allow access to other people and draw one out of the home and into the community through interaction with real human beings.
There are fantastic opportunities and one that is particularly dear to me is access to public information. In this instance, I do not mean the work that has been done by Newham council, among others, which has been instrumental in promoting street access. I am talking about feedback, possibly into public policy; helping to empower citizens so that they feel part of the democratic process. That is becoming ever more essential given the way that the House was treated today. The way in which we treat our electorate is equally contemptible. The Government are almost free to do what they wish with no redress for the House or the electorate. We are facing yet another possible change of Prime Minister without the electorate being involved, which is what happened when Baroness Thatcher was turfed out by her party.
We can do better than that and our politics needs us to do better than that for our country. One of the ways of achieving that is to involve people and make them feel that democracy is theirs. We must let everybody have access to the way in which this place works—or does not work. We should let everyone understand how local authorities work and why we need taxation and public spending. We should let them know what options are available and whether good value for money can be delivered. There are many things in just that one area of democracy which could be fed back to involve citizens in the democratic process.
Those are the ideals and the tremendous opportunities. It is the responsibility of Parliament and the Government to legislate to protect and promote those ideals. All that is lacking now is some Government imagination, drive and priorities. In lieu of the long-outstanding White Paper, which has still not been delivered by the Department of National Heritage and its Secretary of State, I should like to tell the House what will be the priorities of a Labour Government, when we take office sooner rather than later.
First, is our commitment to open and fair access. No one should monopolise either the digital highway or the gateways to it. The regulation of access through those gateways is essential for safeguarding fair and free competition in the public interest. Without effective regulation, the owners of those conditional access systems—the gateways into people's homes—which have programming interests of their own, could have the power to restrict access to rival broadcasters and to dominate the digital revolution. We must avoid a situation like that which occurred at TV Asia where one satellite gatekeeper had BBC World thrown off the service because the Chinese Government did not approve of its coverage of news items.
It is imperative that the Government develop a new regulatory approach for the digital age. Any cable company will agree that it does not need favours. Many are happy to see the end of the asymmetry rule now that they have had a full seven years to establish themselves. They do not want any more favours from the Government. They want fairness; above all they want fairness in competition policy and competition rules. Many are not in a position to complain too loudly because their supplier may use their market position against the complainant.
The Government need to sort out competition policy and competition rules now. If they do not do so, the digital revolution could he strangled at birth. That is one central area in which a new regulatory approach must be made clear.
The Independent Television Commission proposes something different: licensing the gatekeepers. Its system could ensure that abuses are corrected far more quickly than through the current protracted procedures of the Office of Telecommunications, the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. We need to have a shorter and sharper response when abuses are seen to take place or when allegations of abuse are made. The ITC's proposition deserves a great deal of thought by the Secretary of State. I hope that he will consider it, even if he publishes his White Paper in the very near future.
Alternatively, Andrew Neil, the gatekeeper turned poacher, if I may use that expression, suggests that we have the brains collectively to devise a single decoder capable of unscrambling all services and, indeed, guaranteeing access to them. So the technological revolution does not end merely with digital technology and digital TV. There may well be more to come. The Labour party needs to make it clear that those who have built systems by their own efforts have a right to their system's security, to a fair return on their enormous investment and to the Government—effectively— defending their interests at national and European level.
The real issue however is one of vertical integration and the lack of any effective competition policy in the United Kingdom. Last week, the European Parliament amended the draft EC directive on the use of standards for the transmission of signals to ensure that the owners of proprietary technology cannot discriminate against other broadcasters who want to offer services. How did the Conservatives respond? Instead of working constructively with our European partners, and alone among all the European Governments, they tried—and are trying—to block that proposal. Labour members will ensure in government that there is a national and European framework providing security for investors financing the digital infrastructure. In addition, we will encourage the diversity of high-quality domestic broadcast services which will drive the transition to digital.
The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), in guiding the Broadcasting Bill through the House in 1990, made it very clear that when people are pioneering technology they deserve protection and advantage. There is no other way in which technology can move forward in the modern age, given the size of companies. We need to examine—the right hon. and learned Gentleman felt that it was appropriate in 1990—whether the stage of pioneering and innovation has passed and whether a more appropriate and normal competition framework ought to exist for broadcasters, be they satellite, terrestrial or cable. I leave with the Secretary of State the thought that—perhaps—that embryonic phase has gone and the growing and fully fledged children of the past media revolution need to be treated as adults along with every other player.
The second priority will be to ease the change to all digital terrestrial broadcasting. At the moment everyone at home has an analogue television. At some point in the future everyone at home will have a digital TV. Of course, digital capacity needs to be set aside for existing broadcasters to ensure that their expertise continues to service the needs of nation. Their co-operation will be vital in ensuring that the digital transition takes place. We also need to ensure that new digital capacity is available for new services, to encourage creativity, innovation and the regeneration of the media industry, so that it can not only service domestic consumers but thrive in the competitive world.
The uncertainty which has characterised Conservative policy and the Department of National Heritage, will be replaced. If policy is not made clear in the White Paper and in the subsequent legislation, it will be made clear by Labour's clarity and the promotion of digitalisation. We need some dates out of the Secretary of State—not merely for those of us in the House, but for those outside too—so that planning and investment can be undertaken in an era of certainty.
The third priority that we need to underline for an incoming Labour Government is that it is essential to galvanise support in the UK media industry and to support common platforms and objectives as we move toward a digital future. The potential for the UK—I repeat—as a pioneer in the digital age must no longer be squandered by the Department of National Heritage and by the Secretary of State because of the lack of foresight and enthusiasm, or teamwork with the DTI.
The threat from global competitors cannot be dumped behind protectionism. It must be tackled by the UK media industry with innovation, new services and broadcasting initiatives. The UK's indigenous broadcasting industry has to meet that challenge. Whingeing about BSkyB all the time must be replaced by clear proposals, clear initiatives and, indeed, partnerships in the domestic TV and telephony companies. It is time that the BBC, ITV and BT got their acts together on the digital highway and got their content packages together, rather than merely being content to moan about others who are taking advantage of the developments.
We must also consider seriously the issue of spectrum allocation. The spectrum is a very valuable resource. Labour will ensure that the fiasco of bidding for Channel 3 and Channel 5 licences is not repeated. Quality in a modern media industry and environment must be put ahead of price and not vice versa. The future allocation of digital terrestrial channels—those which are not used for simulcast or incentive channels to involve existing broadcasters—should be available on the basis of bidders paying above a minimum price, which could be set by the ITC. Licences should be allocated thereafter on quality and nature of content only. That is preferable to the channels going to the highest bidder followed by a discussion about quality. Let us seek to do it the other way round.
If a floor is met, a bid may be allowed, but it should then be assessed entirely on content and quality. That will shift the emphasis on to programmes and put the onus on bidders to detail quality and diversity, including binding commitments to the development of regional and local programming. Let us take this process seriously, rather than repeat the farce of schoolboys pretending to put in bids that many people realised were ridiculously low. I refer to some of the bids for the Channel 3 licence—although some bids were clearly too high—and the fiasco of the bidding for channel 5 some weeks ago.
The opportunities are truly awesome in the digital age and the free rides are definitely over. Labour will devise a coherent regulatory framework which will respond flexibly to the challenges inherent in the transition to digital television.
History, unfortunately, will judge that this Government have consistently failed to encourage local television, especially through the cable era. Despite superb work done locally by individual companies—I think of Associated Newspapers and Channel 1, MGM with Live TV, Select TV and Videotron—they have received minimal encouragement from the Government. The big network players—the BBC and the independent television companies—should see local television as an opportunity and not as a threat to their existence. We will explore ways in which to empower the ITC to ensure a strong, local element in a modern, diverse and democratic media. We will ensure that the digital revolution can spawn many local channels. That, again, will be a suitable complement to Labour's devolution of power to the localities, regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
Sadly, this Government's broadcasting policy has meant that television has been degraded. The words "the media industry" have become synonymous with the petty, risk-free rip-off rather than with dynamic entrepreneurialism. We need the latter, both from Government and the media sector, if we are to reap the social benefits of the digital wonder. Missed opportunities on cross-media ownership and cable regulation, the delay in privacy proposals and the delay in the White Paper on digital television comprise a very poor record for the Government.
It is time to have done with this tired and uninterested Government and their tired and uninterested Secretary of State for National Heritage. I caught him in the middle of a yawn. Perhaps he should give way now. If he is not interested—he clearly is not—perhaps he should give way now to a Government—and a party—who certainly are.
I was interested in the timing of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in proposing this debate. I had assumed that, when raising the subject of digital television a matter of weeks before the Government, as is known, are to produce their own proposals on digital television, the hon. Gentleman would come to the House with a clear set of detailed proposals. He is, after all, an Opposition spokesman on the subject. I thought that he would set out clearly to the House what the Opposition think the Government should be doing about the various issues that we face when dealing with the introduction of digital television.
I had intended to apologise to the House in my introduction by saying that although the hon. Gentleman had set out a detailed blueprint which clearly explained how he felt that the questions about digital television should he answered, I would have to crave the indulgence and understanding of the House for my inability to respond in detail given that the Government were known to be in the final stages of considering their policy on the matter. I thought that I should have to ask the House to wait a few weeks before I could respond in the detail that the hon. Gentleman used when presenting his proposals, but it has to be said that that element of my speech is redundant because the hon. Gentleman did not present any details about what the Opposition propose to do about digital television. Indeed, he offered the House only the inanities and clichés that I can offer the House, given that I cannot yet talk about a completed policy.
The hon. Gentleman's timing is interesting. He initiated the debate to call the Government to account for not having produced a policy—which the Government have said they are about to produce—and threw away an opportunity, which was wide open and was of his creation, to say what his policy is for dealing with the subject.
My inanities come from a Minister who is known to the whole world to be in the final stages of considering policy on the matter. I do not think that anyone else in the world—perhaps the hon. Gentleman expects this—including all hon. Members, would expect a Minister called to a debate on the initiative of a single hon. Member, on the Adjournment, to use the occasion to announce the Government's policy. Indeed, if I were to do that, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), the shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage, not to mention the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), the Chairman of the Select Committee on National Heritage, and all hon. Members who are interested in the subject would properly take me to task for having announced the Government's policy in an underhand way to a deserted House late on a Thursday night. That does not seem to be a sensible way in which to proceed. I propose to confine myself to the level of detail that the hon. Gentleman offered the House.
I might not be able to respond in detail on our policy on digital television but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, I have two hours. I do not propose, any more than the hon. Gentleman did, to take up all that time. I propose to confine myself to the level of detail that he gave.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the opportunities of digital. The introduction of digital technology allows us the opportunity to broaden the choice available to viewers and to give a broader range of television services, both broadcasting and information services, to viewers. It allows us to exploit the opportunities of new technology. That is indisputable and it is a simple proposition which will, I am sure, underlie the detailed policy proposals with which the Opposition will come forward in the fullness of time and which will underlie the Government's detailed proposals.
Digital technology allows us to offer not only a broader range of choice to viewers but, in some important respects, quality enhancement. Wide-screen television, for example, will be made possible by the technology of digital. That is one of the opportunities that we see when we look forward to a digital broadcasting world. There will be more choice for viewers and a wider range of enhanced, technical quality services. That is all made possible by this new technology. The hon. Gentleman is right to stress those opportunities to the House.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to stress the opportunity that digital technology offers in terms of business opportunities. There are business opportunities for hardware producers and for the producers of receiving sets and transmission equipment. There are opportunities for the hardware exploitation of digital technology and there are business opportunities for programme makers. The business opportunities for hardware makers build on a considerable British success story in recent years. In 1994, we manufactured 5 million receivers—more than the total of France and Germany combined.
I just cast my mind back to the dying days of the previous Labour Government. No Conservative spokesman would have dared to claim that, under a Conservative Government, the television industry would be transformed into one that produced twice as many sets as were produced in France and Germany and that a Conservative Government would, at the same time, turn a balance of payments deficit in such trade into a balance of payments surplus of £400 million, because that claim would have been so far removed from the world that we inherited. During the past 16 years, we have transformed this industrial sector. The transformation is a success story on which we plan to build in the digital world which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, presents important business opportunities to us.
That observation does not correspond with any of the facts that anyone who works in the industry would recognise. The industry has been transformed, as have many other industries, by the fact that Britain is now what Mr. Delors used to call a paradise for Japanese investment. We have turned the country into one that welcomes foreign investment and sees the opportunities presented by foreign technology and foreign companies that will employ British people and create wealth and jobs here. That is how the television and other industries have been transformed, and it is a success story on which we have every intention of building.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the introduction of digital technology creates more opportunities for programme makers to make the programmes that will provide consumer choice. He is right to draw attention to that as a consequence of the introduction of digital technology.
We must ensure that, as the range of choice for viewers broadens, we also have in Britain the best environment that we can create and that the more channels there are, the more there is an environment here in which programme makers can make programmes to fill up the greater number of channels available in the digital world. That is the shared analysis of what the technology makes possible. The hon. Gentleman put forward that view, and he was right; the Government share it. In our own time, a few weeks from now, we shall make detailed proposals about how we intend to ensure that the opportunities are taken.
It is not true to say that the White Paper has been delayed. Ever since I became Secretary of State I have said that the first priority in dealing with the broadcasting sector and the more general media sector was ownership in the existing media world. If I had published a White Paper on digital technology without having dealt with media ownership first, people would have found it difficult to follow.
Indeed, it would have been difficult to write a White Paper without setting it in the context of a broader media ownership policy. There has never been any secret about that. We made our proposals on media ownership just before the spring recess, and I made it clear then that that was volume one, as it were, and that volume two, on the exploitation of digital technology, would follow in a few weeks' time. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that remains the position.
Will the Secretary of State talk specifically about the problems connected with competition policy? I understand that he has been talking to the Department of Trade and Industry. The competition framework is causing concern, especially to the cable companies, in relation to the programmes that they are allowed to broadcast over their systems. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that, when the White Paper is published, it will appear with the full consent of the DTI and refer to the way in which competition policy will be used in the media industries and in the digital future?
The hon. Gentleman asked me two straight questions, and the answer to both is yes. The White Paper will be agreed with the DTI because it will be a Government paper. Of course it will deal with the competition issues related to conditional access and to the rest of the digital sector, because to do so is part of the delivery of a policy for that sector.
As I have made clear to the House, I shall not offer a detailed answer to the hon. Gentleman's questions about conditional access, any more than I shall to the other questions that he posed, partly because he himself did not offer a detailed blueprint. He simply said that those were important issues. Of course he is right, and when the Government make our proposals we shall reveal the importance that we attach to clear answers to those questions.
Our White Paper will set out clear proposals to ensure that we have in Britain an environment conducive to the continued expansion of the hardware sector. We shall set out clearly the terms for licence allocation in the digital television sector and the terms for ownership regulation in that sector. It will cover those issues because that will be necessary if we are to realise the opportunities that digital television offers.
I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to comment in advance of the White Paper on one related, but more specific, point. Can he tell the House what the Government's view is on the initiatives to produce a common European standard for the digital interface for broadcasting? Do they support that initiative? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in some parts of the United Kingdom broadcasting industry, there is concern that proprietary standards might be introduced. That would be damaging in terms of the competition policy that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) mentioned. What is the Government's attitude towards the introduction of a common European standard?
That is indeed an issue that is under discussion in the institutions in Brussels. Our position at the various stages of those discussions has been made clear. In so far as the matter relates to the exploitation of digital television technology from the point of view of producers and consumers, especially consumers, we shall cover it when we publish the White Paper.
However, I shall not be drawn now into detailed answers to the questions that we shall deal with then. If I answered half a question now, another half question would be raised, and we would soon find ourselves in a country in which some of the questions, but not all of them, had already been asked and answered. All the questions cannot be answered now—if they had been, we would already have published our White Paper.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eight o'clock.