All 2 Douglas Ross contributions to the Media Bill 2023-24

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Tue 21st Nov 2023
Tue 30th Jan 2024

Media Bill

Douglas Ross Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
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I was pleased to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss these important points, and I am very proud that this Bill will ensure greater access so that those with impairments can enjoy the things that those of us without impairments already enjoy.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con)
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The Secretary of State mentioned the Scottish Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. She will know that, in our report on public broadcasting, we recommended that the Government provide urgent assurances on maintaining Freeview beyond 2034. That chimes very much with her speech to the Royal Television Society, in which she said:

“We want terrestrial television to remain accessible for the foreseeable future.”

Does she anticipate an opportunity in this Bill to ensure we have that guarantee beyond 2034?

Media Bill

Douglas Ross Excerpts
Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak in the debate about this important legislation, and to hear cross-party support for the Bill and the work done in Committee, on Second Reading, in which I took part, and now on Report. I warmly welcome the Bill and the work done by the Minister for Media, Tourism and Creative Industries and her team, as well as by the interim Minister, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale), in the early stages.

I will focus on new clause 8, which I tabled. The new clause looks at what is not in the Bill and what has been omitted, which I hope the Minister will consider during her summing up and in the Bill’s remaining stages. Protection for digital terrestrial television and radio broadcast services that people receive via an aerial needs to be written into the Bill. New clause 8 would put in law for the first time a legal protection for these crucial life-line services. It would put a duty on the Government to keep issuing multiplex licences and on Ofcom to make available sufficient radio spectrum.

Currently, these services are guaranteed only until 2034, with the risk that they could be switched in 2030 —in just six years. Ministers hinted at Second Reading that these services will have a longer shelf life than 2034, which is welcome. However, I will focus my remarks on the Scottish Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, and our report, which I will come to, because at the Committee, the Minister said:

“What happens after 2034 is a live question.”

I agree that it a “live question”, which is why we need a live answer to the issue.

I welcome the Minister’s positive comments in Committee and those of the Secretary of State on Second Reading—indeed, I quoted a speech by the Secretary of State. There is a lot of positivity about what I am hearing from the Government and I hope they will go a step further by taking on the conclusions I have come to in new clause 8.

No one is pushing against the tide on the growth in streaming, but terrestrial television, often referred to as Freeview, and broadcast radio still account for the bulk of viewing and listening across the United Kingdom. I come to the issue from a Scottish angle, as I represent a Scottish constituency and am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, where we discussed this at length, but the issue affects people across the United Kingdom. Research from Ipsos in 2022 showed that most adults had watched digital terrestrial television in the last year and 43% of adults watched digital terrestrial television every week. Some 76% listened to broadcast radio weekly.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) was right to highlight the very good Scottish Affairs Committee report on the subject and she mentioned the issues. As the report says on page 13:

“Almost a third (31%) of households in Scotland only used Digital Terrestrial Television services…to watch television in the first quarter of 2022.”

Paragraph 33 highlights correspondence to the Committee from Laurie Patten, director of strategy and regulation at Arqiva, who argued that

“Scotland’s greater rurality than the UK average, its island communities, and its comparatively older population”

make terrestrial TV services especially important in Scotland. That is why we made that issue so prominent in the report. I have continued to raise the matter with Ministers, and proposed new clause 8.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North was right to say the issue is important not only to people in rural communities and older populations, and that it has an impact on some of the most vulnerable in society. The campaign group Broadcast 2040+ has assembled a coalition of groups representing those who rely on broadcast services the most. They include older people, who rely disproportionately on terrestrial television. Some 80% of those aged 75 and above only watch their media, news and programmes through that means, and they often struggle to access IP content.

Age UK is a member of the coalition. Their charity director, Caroline Abrahams, said:

“While broadcast TV and radio is enjoyed by many across the UK, it is especially important for older audiences particularly those on low incomes living alone. Many older people value the current universal services and would struggle to afford alternatives such as subscriptions services.”

Because they are free to air, they are also a lifeline to people on lower incomes or living in digital poverty, who often struggle to afford the additional cost of subscription streaming services and the cost of superfast broadband connections that are required to access them. Elizabeth Anderson, chief executive office of the Digital Poverty Alliance said:

“For the millions living in digital poverty in the UK, TV and radio broadcast services are vital sources of news, public education and entertainment. The universality of access to broadcast services must be paramount. Whilst many services have seen a rush to digital only delivery, applying this to TV and radio when so many lack the devices, skills and connectivity packages to access internet based media would simply push millions of people deeper into financial and social exclusion.”

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone
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The hon. Gentleman’s words strike a chord with me because he highlights exactly the issues in my vast, far-flung constituency. In the straths and glens of Sutherland, Caithness, Ross and Cromarty, there are many folk who cannot afford such services, precisely as he is saying. I am glad he is saying what he is saying, and I am listening with very great interest. It is important that this issue is aired.

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Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross
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The hon. Gentleman represents an extremely rural part of northern Scotland. My constituency is not quite so rural, but many people in Moray experience similar challenges to those of his constituents in the far north.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making some excellent points and I am hesitant to interrupt him. Although I would not sell his constituency short, my constituency is also very rural. Our constituencies, in common with many of the rural constituencies in Scotland, are very low down the league table of superfast broadband coverage. As much as people might be able to afford or want streaming services, they do not physically have access to them—at least, not yet. Does he agree that makes his new clause even more important?

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point and for supporting my new clause 8. I will come on to not just the affordability but the availability of superfast broadband to get streaming services.

I highlight the importance of broadcast services for rural constituents, including mine in Moray, as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, has amplified that point, saying that the

“issue of safeguarding DTT and radio is of fundamental importance to rural areas where the population is much older than the national average and the least well served by broadband connectivity. We strongly support the Broadcast 2040+ campaign.”

I have been extremely encouraged by the work of that campaign to get some movement from the Government on the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan highlighted, the issue of broadband connectivity is of huge concern to constituents in his area, as well as in my Moray constituency. Large parts of Scotland and rural areas around the UK do not have reliable, high-speed broadband, so streaming TV is not an option. I have little confidence that the problem will be solved by 2040, particularly given some of the problems we have seen with the roll-out of the R100 programme in Scotland.

Even if that roll-out succeeds, all the targets are met and high-speed broadband is delivered across the country, the other measure that we must look at is broadband take-up. EY has recently undertaken a study on that, predicting that regardless of whether high-speed broadband is rolled out, more than 5.5 million properties in the UK will still not have a high-speed broadband subscription in 2040—well beyond 2034 as specified by my new clause. The report makes a number of other worrying findings and paints a compelling picture of the genuine dependence that millions of the most vulnerable members of our society have on broadcast services to stay connected and in touch. Any move towards an online-only system of TV distribution, without the option of digital terrestrial television, would put a significant group of people at risk of being left behind.

As for why I have tabled new clause 8 and why am I looking for certainty from the Government, both they and Ofcom are conducting reviews of the TV market. Ministers have urged us to await those findings, but 2034 is not far away and if these services are to remain, it is crucial that we attract investment and ensure that they remain commercially viable. To do that, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North correctly said, they need certainty from the Government. The danger is that without that longer-term certainty, beyond 2034, where the Minister has accepted there is a live question, broadcasters might run down their services and the technology might not be updated. If they get certainty from the Government, they can put in investment to ensure people are not without these crucial services and are not left isolated. If the commercial viability of the service is lost while millions of people are still relying on it, there is a real risk that, perversely, the Government would have to step in and use taxpayers’ money to keep the service going. My constructive proposal would not only help keep people connected but, in the long run, perhaps save taxpayers’ money. Surely it is better to provide the longer-term guarantee now that would enable that investment and deliver a good-quality, universal service for years to come.

I thank the Minister, the interim Minister and the Secretary of State and others who have listened to my concerns on this issue. I met the Minister just last week and I will continue the dialogue on this, because it is a crucial element that we should be debating in this House. I hope we will get some movement from the Government. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) said, Media Bills do not come along often, so this is an opportunity for this Minister, this Government and her Department to put my new clause 8 into the Bill and give that guarantee going forward. That would allow the investment to be made and secure the commercial future for DTT, ensuring that people in Moray, across Scotland and around the UK can continue to rely on those services for many years to come.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams
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First, may I apologise for my late arrival to the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker? I seriously underestimated hon. Members’ capacity for brevity on the previous business. This afternoon, I would like to speak to my new clause 15 and to refer briefly to new clause 1 and clause 28. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for her work with me in Committee—