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Lawrie Quinn: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Enterprise Bill, which is in Committee, will go a long way towards supporting start-up businesses and tackling some of the problems of potential bankruptcy that he describes?

Mr. Cox: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. To their credit, the Government are pursuing the matter, and the measure will help the sort of case to which I referred. People face genuine difficulties in setting up businesses, but the Government are taking the matter seriously and introducing measures to help.

London has an ageing population, and the borough that I represent has approximately 40,000 retired people. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire made almost never-ending criticisms of the Government, but they have done a great deal for retired people through their policies and benefits. I am sure that pensioners in the hon. Gentleman's constituency would agree.

We all accept that the weekly pension is important, but so is quality of life. More than 13 per cent. of London's population is over 65. When one visits day centres or goes out campaigning on issues—I am not talking only about elections that may be due in the near future—and speaks to retired people, one is soon filled with their ideas and hopes. They include a decent place in which to live. Again, it is difficult in the London borough of Wandsworth to find such places for retired people.

We need a great deal more sheltered housing that provides security and allows people to keep their independence. We need more pleasant open spaces with good provision in the areas where retired people live. Again, it is difficult to get that in the borough that I represent. In a few moments, I shall comment at length on another aspect of housing in Wandsworth because I may want the help and support of my hon. Friend the Minister.

Many hon. Members may agree with my next comments on a key aspect of the quality of life that people can enjoy. Retired people often tell me that when they go out shopping or walking, they would like to know where there are benches on which they can sit and perhaps meet their friends and have a chat. It is difficult for retired people to find benches in the areas where they live or go for a walk. Such provision would be of great benefit without costing an enormous amount of money. Lack of toilet facilities is more of an issue for local authorities than for the Government, but local residents often mention it to me. Many retired people would like more such facilities. Some might claim that those are not especially big issues, but they contribute to the quality of life for many people.

My hon. Friend the Minister rightly spoke at length about crime and a range of related matters. Sadly, under all Governments, we hear about appalling crimes in our society. It is not a political issue, and it is regrettable that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire tried to make it one.

It being Eleven o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

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ITV Digital

11 am

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on ITV Digital. As the House knows, the ITV Digital administrator, Deloitte Touche, announced yesterday that it is preparing for the short-term sale of the business and its assets. This is an issue that has reverberations far beyond the boardroom of ITV Digital. It directly affects the million ITV Digital subscribers, the company's staff, its creditors, its programme suppliers and the clubs, fans and supporters of the Nationwide Football League.

The Government too, have a direct interest. We are concerned for those millions of people and hundreds of businesses who are watching closely to see whether they will be able to recover something from the sale of the company. That is why it was a great pity that ITV Digital was not able to come to a deal that was acceptable to the Football League, one of its biggest creditors. I have spent much of the last few weeks seeking to encourage all the parties to the talks on restructuring to keep the company going, to keep negotiating and to keep talking. But this week, time ran out for ITV Digital and its creditors, and now the usual commercial processes must take their course. As this is a complex and fluid situation, I want to make clear to the House my willingness to ensure that the House is updated in coming weeks.

I would like to set out for the House the next steps in what has been a confusing—and is still, in some respects, an uncertain—process. For the time being, ITV Digital subscribers are continuing to receive a service, including the free-to-view services enjoyed by all digital viewers. But the ITV Digital pay services will last only as long as the company's suppliers are willing to continue to supply their programmes and services. That will depend on negotiations currently under way between the suppliers and the administrators. It is possible that some suppliers will have no choice but to withdraw their programmes.

If and when the service for which the licences have been granted ceases to be provided, and the licensee no longer fulfils the terms of its licences, the Independent Television Commission will begin the process of revocation of the licences for the digital terrestrial multiplexes formerly used by ITV Digital. Having revoked the licences, the ITC will then re-advertise them in an accelerated process that is likely to take six weeks. In the meantime, the administrator is arranging for all existing subscribers to be kept informed of the position by on-air announcements and by personal letter. That is obviously vital. ITV Digital subscribers are innocent parties in this matter, and they deserve to be given all the advice and information possible while the administrator and others work to preserve their TV service for the future.

Looking to the end of this stage, I understand that the administrator remains confident that a sale of the business can be achieved. I have, of course, received representations from my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Martin Linton), for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger), for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), and from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth,

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Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), relating to their concerns for the more than 1,500 members of staff affected. We all recognise that this is an anxious and uncertain time for the staff, but they are being extremely well served by the representations of their Members of Parliament. I am confident that the free-to-air services will remain in place without disruption, and it is important to remember that about 60 per cent. of the ITV Digital subscriber base take only free-to-air services.

I shall now turn to the situation facing football. As the House will be aware, ITV Digital entered into a contract with the Nationwide Football League. The TV rights to broadcast Football League matches were reported to have been sold to ITV Digital for £315 million. I understand that the Football League has so far received £137 million from the contract, and that £178 million therefore remains outstanding. It was an important object of the negotiations in recent weeks between the Football League and ITV Digital—and, subsequently, its administrators—to reach a settlement on this matter. Clearly, the failure of ITV Digital to meet its contract with the football clubs will be a further blow for the many clubs that are already facing financial difficulties.

I welcome the fact that the chief executive of the Football Association—the governing body for the game—will bring together the various organisations with the power to help to navigate football and the clubs through this difficult time. I have obviously been in contact with the chief executives of the FA, the Premier League and the Nationwide League. The Government will offer all support to the efforts of that FA-led group. Supporters Direct, established by the Government in 1998, has already helped 31 of the 72 Football League clubs by enabling supporters to invest through supporters' trusts. We expect that Supporters Direct will take a prominent role in helping to secure the future of clubs over the coming months.

In many communities, football clubs are a powerful force for good. They are a source of local identity and of local pride. Many of them run successful programmes to get people involved in the sport and to help them to develop their talent. Many also use the sport to attract young people into education and positive involvement in the community. The anti-racist and social cohesion work through the football in the community and the playing for success schemes, run in conjunction with the Department for Education and Skills, are two powerful examples of the way in which this works in practice.

It is important to be clear that football has not asked the Government to bail it out financially, but we want to do all that we can to offer clubs support at this difficult time. As I have mentioned, I have been in regular contact with representatives of the various relevant football organisations, and we will continue to offer help to clubs in terms of support to players and staff who find themselves out of a job. Just this week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport had a very positive discussion with the football authorities and Sport England to ensure that the resources are provided to secure the future of the football youth development programme.

I shall now outline the circumstances facing digital television in the wake of the collapse of ITV Digital. Yesterday's announcement represents the collapse of a brave commercial enterprise to launch an entirely new

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digital platform. The business made commercial judgments that have turned out to be unsuccessful. Of course, there is always a risk in such ventures, especially in relation to markets built on new technology. This is, however, essentially a private matter between the company and its creditors. The Government's role is to protect the wider public interest. Apart from regular contact with the companies concerned, I have been in day-by-day contact with the Independent Television Commission, whose responsibility it is to regulate the commercial broadcasters. My aim in all this has been to keep a discussion going, and to keep the parties talking about how to maintain a service for digital terrestrial viewers.

More broadly, the Government have helped to create a very good climate for digital TV in the UK. Twice the number of UK homes have access to digital television as the European average. We should be proud of that. Thanks to Government action, digital TV has grown faster in this country than the take-up of mobile phones, the internet and even colour television.

We have created an excellent regulatory framework for digital television, and ITV Digital in particular. Our digital action plan provides the route map to digital switchover by 2010, bringing together industry, broadcasters and consumers—the key players, who will make switchover happen.

All material obstacles to improving the power of transmission, and thereby the quality, have been removed, subject to the need to prevent interference with existing analogue signals.

Carlton and Granada, the owners of ITV Digital, were assisted by a rebate on the tax levy on their analogue Channel 3 licences for every household to which they provided digital services. This rebate—the digital dividend—is worth tens of millions of pounds. In addition, our settlement for the BBC licence fee has enabled the BBC to expand its output of digital television services.

As a result, digital television in the United Kingdom has grown faster than in any comparable country and is received by 40 per cent. of UK households. No country in the world has done more to nurture the digital revolution, and no country has seen such success as a result. Britain is a world leader in digital technology and digital reach.

We have very good reasons, even at this difficult time, to be positive about the future as new cheap set-top boxes come on to the market and scope increases for improved picture and reception quality. We expect to see these roll out as soon as the current uncertainty is resolved. As I have made clear, I expect that uncertainty to be resolved within a few weeks.

The hard truth is that this is a failure of a company, not a technology. New entrants will deal with a better understood technology and an established infrastructure. My contact with the industry suggests that established and new industry players want to have a go at making this proposition work. They will either go forward to the administrator or firm up their expressions of interest as part of any ITC re-tendering of the licences.

I also commend the work of the administrator, who has acted throughout with forbearance and professionalism.

In conclusion, the Government have always made it clear that the switchover process must be driven by consumer demand. In any new technology, there are

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bumps on route, and this has been one. However, I agree with the Consumers Association that the most important thing is to restore certainty and predictability for customers so that they can make their own, informed choices.

It is clear that digital terrestrial television has an important role to play in the digital future. It is a natural migration path for analogue viewers who are accustomed to receiving their television services through their aerials and it is potentially universal in its availability. This platform must continue, to ensure that all viewers have a full range of options in a competitive and dynamic environment.

Digital television has the potential to bring enormous opportunities and benefits to families all over the country. Digital households enjoy a wide range of channels and a wide range of additional benefits including interactive programming, information services that provide education and entertainment and even access to the internet.

The success of DTT should not be equated with the position of one commercial operator. The fact that ITV Digital has not succeeded will not deflect the Government, consumers and the broadcasting industry from making a reality of the digital future. Digital television, and the promise it holds, is more than ITV Digital.

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