Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, and an honour to have been chosen to open this very well subscribed and well supported debate. I know that many other hon. Members across the House were as eager as me to secure the debate, and my name was one of more than 20 that went forward to the Backbench Business Committee to call for it. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for it, and I apologise for the fact that the ballot selected me over many other Members who are equally or more qualified to address the subject.
I am delighted that the debate will be answered by a Minister who is a self-declared fan of local radio. Given that in our last debate he managed to congratulate me and two other Members on our impending nuptials, I am intrigued to discover what surprises he has in store for us today. I declare an interest because my sister is employed by the BBC, albeit in television rather than in local radio.
This is not the first time this year that Members have gathered to debate this important subject. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who so ably opened the previous debate, and I am pleased that many of the Members who spoke then are here again today. I suspect that my speech may be interrupted now and again, because so many hon. Members are eager to speak on a subject that matters so much to our constituents. I will wrap up my comments soon after 10 o’clock to allow time for other Members to speak.
Like all Members here, I care passionately about BBC local radio in my constituency. I want to set out three main points: why we need this debate now, why I believe that local radio must be treated as a special case in the BBC and why I am particularly concerned about the situation of BBC Hereford and Worcester and the BBC in the west midlands. The reason why we need another debate on local radio is clear. Since our first debate in April, the BBC Trust has published its “Delivering Quality First” consultation and the service review of BBC local radio, which have driven speculation and concern about the extent of cuts to BBC local radio stations. I am sure that many hon. Members have, like me, received calls from constituents and workers at their local radio stations who share those concerns. I am grateful to all who have taken the time to speak to their local MP about the issue, and to all who work so hard in local radio. The BBC says:
“Local Radio is being tasked with finding savings of 12% (10% after reinvestment). As we are asking the BBC as a whole to make savings of between 16-20%—up to 25% in non-content areas—Local Radio has been relatively protected.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentions a figure of between 10% and 12%, but the figure for BBC Radio Merseyside is 20%, which is a disproportionate and massive cut compared with the overall position. It will result in a saving of £420,000 and the loss of up to 15 jobs. BBC Radio Merseyside serves a predominantly older and poorer audience, who do not listen to national radio, and those people will lose out. Is that a common experience for him?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my next point beautifully, and I know that BBC Radio Merseyside is well represented in this Chamber today. The BBC goes on to point out that
“the savings feel higher because the cost of buildings and technology needed to broadcast in 40 locations means that we cannot avoid cuts being made to the number of programme makers. That’s why in some stations we will be reducing teams by over 20%.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. The number of MPs present is an indication of the importance of the subject across the United Kingdom. I make a plea for Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster, as I am sure people would expect me to do. BBC Radio Ulster plays a crucial role for many people in my constituency. It keeps those who have only a radio to listen to in touch with the news, and many of my elderly constituents in particular see the Sunday morning programmes as an important part of their life. Although we accept the need for cuts, does he agree that consideration must be given to elderly people in our constituencies?
I thoroughly agree with that point. The same is true for BBC Hereford and Worcester, where I am told that the proposed cuts mean that eight out of 35 jobs are at risk. There is serious concern about the future of the office in Hereford, which is the BBC’s only visible presence in the county.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have been here before with the BBC? Many years ago, local radio was taken out and at its expense we had regional radio. Does he agree that there is one role for national radio and another for local?
That concern has been widely raised, and I believe that we should not move from a local model to a regional one. I will return to such concerns.
I am sure that every Member cherishes their local radio station, but while we are discussing local radio in the west midlands, may I make a plea in respect of BBC Radio Stoke, which serves Staffordshire and south Cheshire? The cuts are much greater than the BBC is suggesting, because the breakfast and drivetime programming will be severely reduced if they go ahead. I urge the hon. Gentleman, through the debate, to ensure that everyone responds to the consultation process. We must make our voices heard through local radio and have regard to what is happening to broadcasting rights.
Order. In view of the number of Members who wish to speak, may I ask for short interventions?
I take the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) made, and I agree that all our constituents should respond to the consultation and make such sensible points about their local radio. There is much to welcome in the BBC’s consultations, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that it has done a lot to protect its local offering. I welcome the fact that in the local radio service review the BBC set out to protect local peak-time programmes—although I note the hon. Lady’s point—such as breakfast, mid-morning and drivetime, as well as sport and faith on Sunday mornings. I am sure that many hon. Members will be pleased with the suggestion to reinvest savings in dedicated local political correspondents. The proposals for programming include sharing afternoon programmes on weekday afternoons, sharing evening programming on a national level on weekday evenings, and regional programming for off-peak periods. In its main consultation, however, the BBC has also set out plans substantially to reduce spending on sports rights, and I, like many other Members, would like reassurances that that will not result in substantial cuts to the coverage of local sport.
I am sure that Members have many other concerns about the consultations, but I would like to move on to my second point: why does local radio matter so much and why does it deserve special treatment? Local radio reaches a very different demographic from national stations or television. In my constituency, many of its listeners are elderly, work outdoors or cannot afford a television. Statistically, listeners to local radio are more likely to be in the demographic group known as C1 and are unlikely to benefit from other parts of the BBC’s offering. Outside the south-east, local radio listeners are more prevalent than Radio 4 listeners. In the area of the west midlands that I represent, which is covered by BBC Hereford and Worcester, more people listen to local radio than to Radio 4. According to the RAJAR survey for the second quarter of 2011, although Radio 4 has 10.9 million listeners in the UK and BBC local radio has only 7.3 million, in Hereford and Worcester, Radio 4 has 123,000 listeners and BBC Hereford and Worcester has 129,000.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not simply a case of pitting local radio against national radio such as Radio 4, but that local radio is so successful because stations such as BBC Tees deliver sub-regional content? We have to protect such content, because it tells people what is going on in the communities they identify with, rather than in larger regional or national areas.
I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend, who pre-empts some of the points that I am about to make. Of the 7 million people who listen to local radio across the UK, more than 2 million listen to no other BBC radio station. Many do not watch television on a regular basis or access the BBC’s online offering, so local radio is their only return for paying the licence fee.
Most importantly, as my hon. Friend has just said, local radio is the part of the BBC that is most genuinely local and based in the communities that it serves. More than television and more than online services, the 40 local radio stations and their offices around the country are often the only representation of the BBC’s service in our constituencies.
My hon. Friend is talking about the reach of the BBC, which is a vital point. The BBC reaches an audience that a commercial radio station would not reach out to or want to reach out to. The BBC was set up to connect with precisely such people, so it is vital that the service remains.
I thoroughly agree. As my hon. Friend knows well, the BBC’s local presence also provides a route into journalism for hundreds of people and gives hundreds of journalists the chance to work in their own communities.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps the BBC should look to its massive budget for presenters’ salaries, and its provision of fancy hotels for overnight accommodation and first-class travel?
There are many areas of the BBC other than local radio where the savings it needs to make can be found. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.
People who work in local radio are already multi-tasking, with the same person producing a breakfast show, reading the news later in the day and then doing outside broadcasts at another moment, doubling up the roles of producer and presenter. As the hon. Gentleman just pointed out, those are not the obvious people to cut in an organisation that has a large head office and many highly-paid presenters.
I welcome the debate that my hon. Friend has introduced and the apolitical way that we are all standing up for local radio. I particularly welcome the fact that there are an awful lot of people here from the north-east who are standing up for BBC Newcastle and BBC Tees, which I listen to all the time. Is not the crucial message that we are all sending out—I hope he endorses it—the question of which is more important: local radio or much more expensive television content?
I totally accept my hon. Friend’s point, albeit, as I declared earlier, my sister works in BBC television, so I have to be rather careful about what I say on that front.
Local radio has an unparalleled information-gathering network, which is why it is such a vital resource in times of trouble or crisis, when local knowledge matters.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again, but may I give a specific example of local radio acting in a time of crisis? During the terrible floods of 2007, when people lost their lives and others lost water and electricity supplies, BBC Radio Gloucestershire was invaluable in providing vital, life-saving information. We lose that service at our peril.
I agree with my hon. Friend completely. I was going to make the point that in the previous debate on this topic, I spoke at some length about the floods in Worcester in 2007. I made exactly the same point about coverage in Worcester.
What I find surprising is that Mark Thompson, the head of the BBC, said categorically in a speech that he made recently that the reputation of the BBC was created during the second world war at a time of crisis. Radio Cumbria covered the foot and mouth crisis, the terrible shootings, the floods and everything else—not just programmes, but an absolute lifeline for the people of Cumbria.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I remember times in my life when the BBC locally has provided a lifeline when we have been cut off or in crisis situations. Many constituents have told me how much they value the real local knowledge and support provided by local radio at such times.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way one more time and then try to make some progress.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Radio reflects the distinctiveness of a local area. Radio Cornwall, which faces a 22% cut in output, is one that will suffer. It is not simply a question of its being audio wallpaper; people listen to it with great intensity. He is making a strong point that it is the uniqueness of local radio that is important. In Cornwall, Radio Cornwall is seen as Cornwall’s national radio.
The hon. Gentleman makes a passionate point. For all those reasons, I believe local radio is something special. It is not just another part of the BBC and I hope that the Minister will reflect on its unique offering—reaching people the licence fee might not otherwise reach and providing a service that no other part of the BBC can provide—when he makes his response to the BBC Trust.
I want to raise some specific local concerns and then give time to other hon. Members to say their piece. In Worcestershire, people are particularly worried that any shift towards regional programming and any moves to share programming will inevitably mean a focus on the urban west midlands, specifically Birmingham, at the expense of its rural neighbours.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Cheshire, which does not have its own BBC radio station, has to rely on the good will and great friendship of BBC Radio Stoke? If these measures go through, Cheshire will be relying on output from as far away as Birmingham and possibly Herefordshire.
I am aware of those concerns and I take them seriously. We need to feed back to the consultation the fact that regions do not necessarily work for the people in our constituencies who listen to radio.
The BBC’s consultation talks about regions such as the west midlands and implies that regionalisation will take place for some programmes. Listeners in Worcester, however, would far rather see programmes shared with similar neighbours such as Warwickshire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire or Staffordshire than with large cities. I represent a city, but a city of 90,000 people, not millions. My constituents appreciate a county-based service for a county town and feel unrepresented by bodies that speak for the whole west midlands. This is not a partisan debate, but my party has campaigned against regionalisation in many other areas and we must question whether regions make sense in the context of BBC radio.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way and he is making a good case. Like him, I represent a big city. BBC Radio Leicester was the first regional radio station. Under these 20% cuts, we will have to share regional programming with Nottingham and Derby. Does he agree that it is a great shame for the people of Nottingham and Derby that they will be overshadowed by the great city of Leicester?
The hon. Gentleman speaks well on behalf of his city.
The consultation implies that decisions will be reached centrally by the BBC as to which programmes should be shared, but surely it would be better for local radio stations to lead on the process of deciding how sharing should work, so that they may set out how the communities they serve would be best represented by shared programming and where that might not be appropriate.
As a fellow west midlands MP, I fully support the comments that my hon. Friend has made. While we in the west midlands have love and affection for the great city of Birmingham, is it not extremely important that, within the changes to BBC local radio, coverage of such great sporting teams as Nuneaton Town football club and Coventry City football club is not lost to the big conurbation of Birmingham and the west midlands, but is instead kept local within BBC local radio at BBC Coventry and Warwickshire?
Once again, I find one of the points that I was about to make beautifully pre-empted by one of my hon. Friends.
Before I move on to that point, there is one more issue that I want to raise on behalf of the west midlands. West midlands constituents fear that the region is being disadvantaged beyond local radio by some of the proposals in “Delivering Quality First”. They have heard of production jobs being moved from Birmingham to Bristol and Salford, production facilities closing, skills being lost to the region and creative talent moving away. At a time when many programmes are being moved out of London into the regions to emphasise the national nature of the BBC, surely it is reasonable to question shifts that appear to be damaging the position of a region as central and as important as the west midlands.
One of the key points, which the BBC has seen for a long time, is audience fragmentation across BBC radio and television. Surely, when value for money is being looked at, the BBC should look at where its audience is. The audiences are with radio. The BBC should look for savings on BBC 3 and BBC 4 and save stations such as Radio Merseyside.
I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend’s passionate and sensible point.
There are a staggering 380 jobs going from English regions. Of those 380, 280 are from local radio. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a staggering proportion of those job losses, which will have a disproportionate impact on local radio services, such as BBC Radio Merseyside, which has high fixed costs, such as buildings? Such services have to pay those costs, leading to a further disproportionate impact in job losses.
I absolutely agree. I made the point in my speech in the previous debate on this topic that those fixed costs make this much more of a burden for local radio than it is for other areas of the BBC.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) has said, there are concerns about the unique ability of local radio to cover genuinely local sport. Fans of the Worcester Warriors rugby team, whose tie I proudly wear today, appreciate enormously the intense coverage provided by BBC Hereford and Worcester. We want assurances that the changes to local radio affect neither Saturday nor Friday evening programmes.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned local sport, but I look at the BBC and see multi-teams serving radio, television and all those other outlets for the BBC, travelling all over the world. Hundreds of people are out there. Does he agree that programmes such as those put out by BBC Tees and regional programmes such as “Inside Out” should be protected, while some of those international trips should be reviewed?
What the BBC can offer as a distinctive value is genuinely local coverage and support for local teams who otherwise might not be able to secure coverage. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the BBC should be looking at its budget for covering some international sporting events to protect more local ones.
I am concerned for fans of Worcestershire county cricket club, of which I am one. They have enjoyed ball-by-ball coverage and the dulcet tones of Dave Bradley, and they will be concerned that sharing weekday afternoon programming may put that at risk. What hope have fans of Worcester City FC and the Worcester Wolves basketball team of receiving local radio coverage in future? More regional programming must mean less local sport, and as any Member could tell us, the local loyalties of sports fans are not easily mapped or divided into regions.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once before, so I am afraid I will not give way again. I want to allow time for other hon. Members to raise their concerns, so I do not intend to speak for too much longer.
Some would argue that local news can be provided just as well by the private sector, and indeed in Worcester we have a very good private sector offering. I often enjoy listening to Wyvern FM and reading both the Worcester News and the Worcester Standard, but they do not offer the same service as the BBC. They can be excellent media organisations—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being extremely generous in giving way. I agree with everything he has said, but what part might community radio stations have in the mix?
My hon. Friend makes a good point; community radio stations can play an important part. I am not sure that they necessarily have the same reach as the BBC, and people appreciate the public service ethos of the BBC, particularly when it comes to times of crisis.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point, and I congratulate him on being so eloquent in outlining the benefits of local radio, such as BBC Radio Norfolk, in terms of community democracy and economy.
Did my hon. Friend see the recent comments of the head of news at the BBC, who was reported as saying that it is time that we all grew up? Does he agree that this proposal—which seeks to cut at the grass roots while paying huge salaries to the director-general of the BBC and to other, what I would call fat cats in the organisation—is symptomatic of the current situation? My constituents in Mid Norfolk would be bemused to hear that a public sector organisation continues to indulge in such things at a time when local grass roots are being cut so badly.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point; the fact is that we are having a grown-up debate today and discussing something that matters to our constituents.
More broadly, all such media organisations are under strain. They are all suffering cuts at the moment, so we are not operating in a space where the BBC is encroaching on the territory of private media organisations; rather, it is the opposite. It is important that we should be supporting local radio at this time.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the most recent listening figures show that the overall weekly reach for BBC local radio is 7.4 million, which is actually 700,000 more than last year. That shows that local communities value local radio and that they like local news. If we are discussing public service broadcasting, that is the type of broadcasting that people want. Does he agree that the BBC should listen to that, make cuts in the back office in White City and at the expense of highly paid presenters, and preserve front-line services?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that the BBC Trust is listening carefully to today’s debate.
I am looking forward to the Minister’s response, although I appreciate that he will have to point out that the BBC is still in the process of consultation and that many of these matters are as yet undecided.
This has been a really good debate so far. Radio Plymouth is a small, local station—Gordon Sparks does the morning show and the sports coverage—and BBC Radio Devon offers an award-winning, fantastic service locally. With the Government’s general emphasis on local decision making and localism, is it not important that local radio stations are there to enable communities to discuss such issues?
In a word, yes.
As I have said before, local radio remains a vital public service. I ask the Minister to communicate to the BBC Trust the strong feelings of the many hon. Members from all parties gathered here today about the value of local radio, the special case that it represents within the BBC, the risks of focusing on regions that mean nothing to the people who live in them, and the many local concerns that have been raised by these proposals. There are so many of us here today because this matters in our constituencies. I am proud to have been able to open the debate and to speak up on behalf of local radio.
Order. Thirteen Members want to speak, and I intend to call the Front Benchers at 10.40 am, so Members can do their own calculations.
I will be extremely brief. If nothing else, this debate has been a welcome opportunity for everyone to get a plug in for their local station, which I am sure will ensure them coverage in the future. On that basis, can I speak up for BBC Radio London, which seems to be bearing the brunt of some of the cuts?
As the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) has said, local radio is at the heart of our local communities. It holds us all to account—both MPs and local authorities. To undermine that at this stage, particularly given the Government’s emphasis on localism, seems to run counter to everything that the House stands for and the Government’s proposals.
There has to be some element of contention in this debate. The whole issue of the cuts stems from the licence fee settlement, and I feel that the Government need to look at reopening that debate. I believe that there were undue influences from the Murdoch empire on the settlement, which therefore resulted in wholesale cuts. It is not just local radio; it is the BBC as a whole, which now envisages cutting 2,000 jobs. As we have heard, some of the brunt of that will fall on local radio. Last night, the National Union of Journalists announced that it will ballot on industrial action. That comes at a time when, frankly, the BBC is needed more than ever, given the issues that are being addressed both nationally and internationally.
I urge the Government to think again about the licence fee settlement. The licence fee is frozen until 2017. Since 2004—we have criticised the previous Government for this—there have been 1,000 job cuts a year, with now another 2,000 on top. The BBC also faces the possibility of being burdened with the funding of regional television, which will mean another round of job cuts and service cuts in future years.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is appropriate that hard-working families in my constituency should have to enable the BBC to employ Kylie Minogue to front a show at a cost of more than £1 million, as we hear in the news today?
Of course not. The issue of high salaries within the BBC has already been raised and, along with some of the profligate spending at higher levels, that needs to be addressed and resolved. At the end of the day, however, that will not deliver the necessary savings to overcome the threat of cuts across the BBC and into local radio. Therefore, at some stage, the licence fee issue needs to be addressed again.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned BBC cuts. Is it fair and right that the BBC should first look to cut its cloth according to its coat, before it looks to the general public for more money from the licence fee each year?
I repeat the point that, of course, we all want the BBC to address that agenda, but the savings that we—and Select Committees—have all tried to identify will not meet the overall requirements. Therefore, the licence fee debate needs to be reopened.
I will end on this note. We can all protect our local radio stations and that is what we are here to do. As the BBC enters into further consultation, I hope that it is listening to this debate. In particular, I hope that the BBC Trust board is listening, because it has the responsibility to rein in the BBC management on this issue. We have to re-address the issue of the long-term funding of the BBC, which means that we must look at how the licence fee settlement was arrived at. I believe that there were undue influences. I do not believe that adequate cognisance was taken of the views expressed in the consultation process.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any evidence to back up that assertion?
That is one issue that we have been raising with Ministers, because it would be helpful if they published the information about the number of times that they met with the Murdoch empire to discuss the licence fee settlement. I would welcome the Minister’s response to that, because, up until now, we have not received any detailed information about the times that they met with Murdoch and the times that they discussed the licence fee settlement.
During the licence fee debate, James Murdoch made various statements, including one at a lecture in a Scotland, that particularly focused on reducing the licence fee so that the Murdoch empire could exploit and develop at the expense of the BBC. There is an issue that must be addressed, and we will have to return to it time and again not only in the context of local radio, but of BBC funding itself.
I can put on the record that I have never discussed the licence fee with Rupert Murdoch or the Murdoch empire. Funnily enough, the most influential discussion that I have had was with the Guardian Media Group, which complained about the size of the BBC website.
To be frank, those discussions around the BBC licence fee that took place with News International were above the Minister’s pay grade. However, as he will know, I have always looked forward to his promotion at some future date.
I want to end on this point, because so many hon. Members want to speak. Of course we all support our local radio; of course this devastation cannot take place; and of course we look to BBC management to look for savings in the high salaries and profligate expenditure identified by hon. Members. At the end of the day, however, we will have to return to the licence fee debate. We need more transparency and openness from the Government on how the licence fee decision was taken and on the undue influence of the Murdoch empire, which has presented the problems we face today.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on the gentlemanly and fantastic way in which he opened today’s debate and on his generosity to colleagues.
We all agree that local radio is a key component of our community. Local radio helps to bind the community together and creates distinctiveness across our nation. Local radio is a centre for people to get news and views. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) said, as we move into a localist agenda, local radio will help to hold local politicians to account, sometimes whether we like it or not.
Local radio is also fantastically good value for money. Of the £145 a year that is collected per TV licence, only some 4p in every £1 goes to BBC local radio. BBC Radio Cornwall, for example, has an annual cost of some £1.6 million, but it reaches 142,000 people a year. That is fantastic value compared with other outlets such as BBC Radio Cymru, which costs £16.1 million a year but only reaches an additional 4,000 people.
Anyone who thinks that BBC local radio is expensive should visit the studios in the backstreets of Swindon, where the furniture is made of chipboard and I swear the offices have not been decorated in more than 30 years. My local radio service is exceptionally good. I am sure the station will not mind my saying that, as well as being exceptional and cheerful, the service is certainly cheap.
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. I like to think of BBC local radio as cheap and cheerful, often serving the community and holding it together on a shoestring.
For many BBC listeners and users who pay the licence fee, local radio is their only contact with the BBC. Some 2 million BBC radio listeners have no other contact. Reducing the service, therefore, is a disservice to those people.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The floods in my constituency in November last year showed and brought home to me how much of a lifesaver the news and advice provided by local radio is to a community at times of crisis. The absolute importance of that should not be underestimated by the House.
Like all of us, I champion my BBC local radio station, in Kent, for its excellent work. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not forget the excellent work of independent local radio, particularly community radio stations, which provide an excellent voice for local people at no cost to the taxpayer?
My hon. Friend makes an eloquent point, and I agree with him entirely.
I endorse totally my hon. Friend’s remarks on BBC Radio Cornwall. Does he agree that, as we live in a remote and peripheral part of the country with a great deal of deprivation, commercial radio would be unable to step into the gap left by cuts to BBC Radio Cornwall? We have great local independent radio stations that do a very good job, but they do not have the newsgathering capability that we need.
My hon. Friend is right: Radio Cornwall is necessary in a rural, peripheral and remote area of the United Kingdom.
I do not want to detain the House for much longer, but I want to make one final point. It is unfortunate that BBC Radio 4 is not coming under closer scrutiny. I confess that I often go to sleep with BBC Radio 4 on in the background. My mother suggests that that is why I speak as I do, rather than with a Cornish accent. BBC Radio 4 is London-centric. Some 78% of its listeners come from the ABC1 demographic, and 44% of its listeners are based in London and the home counties.
The hon. Gentleman is from Cornwall, which, like Merseyside, is an area of our country with an extremely strong identity. We are proud scousers all, and Radio Merseyside helps to define who we are, as I am sure Radio Cornwall helps to define people in Cornwall. Does he agree that this is a question not just of what funding goes where, but of identity, heritage and culture?
The hon. Lady is entirely right. We risk undermining such regional distinctiveness if we continue to privilege one radio station, BBC Radio 4, above all else. BBC Radio 4 needs closer scrutiny.
I want specifically to address the role of local radio in dealing with civil emergencies. As a Member who represents Hull, which suffered greatly in the 2007 floods, I know that the information given out by the local radio station, Radio Humberside, was important for local people. It was important for local people to know what was happening and what the police and fire service were advising, and to get information on the state of the roads in the city and on school closures. Radio Humberside actually became the fourth emergency service for its listeners.
When we had flooding in Goole this summer—the hon. Lady is a near neighbour and I am sure she was listening—within seconds of my tweeting on the heavy rain that caused the flooding of hundreds of properties, Radio Humberside was on the telephone wanting to know what was happening. Radio Humberside gave out that advice immediately.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Our part of the world has problems with flooding, and Radio Humberside is excellent at picking up on it and is on the scene straight away to get out information. Radio Humberside is excellent, and I pay tribute to its work on that particular issue, as well as all of its other work.
In December 2007, Radio Humberside was recognised by the Prime Minister of the day as one of the flood heroes. Peter Levy came to London and was awarded a certificate for Radio Humberside’s work.
It seems that many Members have experienced floods. It is coming up to a year since we had a terrible gas explosion, which was covered by BBC Radio Manchester. Some 200 families were evacuated—so it was a similar situation—and I praise BBC Radio Manchester’s unrivalled coverage of that terrible crisis for the affected families across the area.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In the days, weeks and months following the floods, Radio Humberside gave people information from the National Flood Forum on what they should do and where they could seek advice, which was important. Many hon. Members across the House know of the importance of local radio.
I will finish shortly because many other hon. Members wish to speak. I am told that, if there is a civil emergency, local radio broadcasting on, say, a pan-Yorkshire basis could switch back to very local transmission. Given the reduction in staff numbers and available resources, I do not know how feasible that would be, how quickly it could happen and whether we would get the service we need.
My final comment is on the demographics of the people in my constituency who listen to Radio Humberside. Overall, 79% of listeners come from the C, D and E demographics, and, as other Members have said, they do not access BBC services in any other way. Those groups are the hardest to reach with public service information, so it is vital that local radio output gets to those people whom we cannot reach in any other way.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on securing this timely debate. The attendance is fantastic.
I will talk about football in a moment, not least because of Huddersfield Town’s thrilling 2-2 draw at Scunthorpe United last night, which takes Huddersfield’s unbeaten league run to 40 matches. Coverage, of course, is on BBC Radio Leeds, more of which in a moment.
Let me clearly state that I accept and support the freezing of the BBC licence fee. It is right that the fee should not go up during these tough economic times. I want to comment on how the BBC chooses to spend what money it has, rather than campaign for an increase in its budget. The issue is all about choices for the BBC top brass and about protecting the front line, and nothing is more front-line than BBC local radio.
On making choices, we might consider savings on middle management across the BBC. Its careers website lists an asset acquisitions co-ordinator, a database architect and a thematic adviser, and I have no doubt that the people of Swindon would prioritise our shoestring, award-winning breakfast show over those examples.
Those are fine examples, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on them. I should have written them into my speech.
In a previous Westminster Hall debate, I spoke about the value and vital community role of speech-based BBC local radio, which is a much listened to front-line service that is not provided by any other broadcaster. I particularly love BBC local radio, not just as a listener and—as a Member of Parliament—a contributor, but as a former BBC local radio employee. I used to report for BBC Tees, or BBC Radio Cleveland as it then was, when Juninho, Emerson and Ravanelli were playing for the Boro. Those were very exciting times.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good point. BBC Radio Cornwall will lose 36% of its local output, which means cuts in our language broadcasting. The spoken word is so important, and the only opportunity for Cornish speakers to have news and content for them will be lost if the cuts go ahead.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s excellent point. Speech-based services are not usually offered by commercial radio, and the cuts come at a time when even those commercial radio stations that have news and speech-based services are cutting them back and concentrating on more music output.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about speech-based radio. In relation to music, commercial radio tends to focus on chart hits, but stations such as BBC Radio Nottingham provide opportunities for local musicians and artists to be heard, who would never have those opportunities on commercial radio. Does he agree that local radio also acts as a champion for local artists and popular culture?
The hon. Lady makes a superb point about the variety of musical choices. BBC Radio Leeds has a session for unsigned bands on Thursday evenings and has Yorkshire brass on a Sunday afternoon.
I want to concentrate on local sports. The coverage of local rugby league will be cut back at BBC Radio Leeds. Where will rugby league fans be able to keep up to date with the likes of the Dewsbury Rams, the Hunslet Hawks and Halifax? There will be the odd score flash about the Bradford Bulls and the Huddersfield Giants on Radio 5 Live, because they play super league games, but full match coverage of such games is rare on Radio 5 Live, which is very focused on football.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I give way to my hon. Friend, who is a big advocate for rugby league.
Last night, my hon. Friend and other members of the all-party group on rugby league heard about the amazing community work that is being done by rugby league. The cuts to many of the stations that have been mentioned will do real damage not only to the coverage of the sport, but to its ability to assist in the community. Does he agree that there should be a full impact assessment of the effect on rugby league before any decisions are made?
My hon. Friend is right, and we will take the matter forward with the all-party group on rugby league.
I praise the hon. Gentleman for his speech, because he is making an important point about sport. I was brought up in a family that listened to BBC Radio Merseyside all the time. It is an excellent radio station, which has not only local but regional coverage. One reason why we listened to it was for the sports coverage.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, rugby league is a very important sport in my area. There is not only the issue about dealing with community views and getting messages across, but about ensuring that the coverage remains at the same level. The worry is that other sports will be covered and that rugby league will be left behind. Does he agree that we should talk to the BBC and strongly make the point that rugby league must retain the same focus?
I absolutely agree, particularly as we head towards the Olympics. Olympic sports will receive a lot of coverage, but we must not forget the heritage sports. Coming from Huddersfield, the birthplace of rugby league, I will work very hard on that with the all-party group on rugby league.
After my next paragraph, I will take a couple more interventions and then sit down.
As for football, BBC Radio Leeds provides super coverage of Leeds United, Bradford City and—my team—Huddersfield Town. I was among 16,000 fans who saw Town beat Preston 3-1 at home on Saturday. This weekend, Town are way down at Yeovil and most of those fans, including me, will be tuning in to BBC Radio Leeds’ top team of Paul “Oggy” Ogden and former Town midfielder Kieran O’Regan for their biased, passionate and knowledgeable match coverage. Their superb commentary includes the use of tweets, Facebook and lots of fan interaction, but BBC Radio Leeds now says that it is to ditch coverage of away matches and, instead of Oggy and Kieran, the home side’s local radio team will provide the commentary. It just will not be the same—gone will be the passion and the in-depth knowledge that are synonymous with footy fans.
That will happen not only to sports coverage. BBC Radio Lancashire is concerned that all outside broadcasting will be affected, and we should put pressure on the BBC to sort that out.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Outside broadcasts are important, as we have heard, at times of emergency—floods, major job losses and, in my part of Yorkshire, heavy snow. The reading out by BBC Radio Leeds in the morning of the list of school closures was very valuable and useful to parents.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate case for the continuance of rugby league coverage on BBC Radio Leeds. I am sure he agrees that, in my part of the world, in Gloucester, it is important to continue to have coverage of rugby union, especially so that the roar from the Shed when we score tries against the team in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker)—the Worcester Warriors—can be heard across the county.
I hope the players are not out nightclubbing the night before.
Whether the local coverage is of football, rugby league or basketball, the BBC must revisit its decision. It should think again about priorities—instead of big exec salaries, having hundreds at Glastonbury and copy-cat programming that is produced by other broadcasters—and focus on local output and on local sport.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on securing this important debate. I ask every Member who is attending today to go back to their office at 11 am and to put in a request to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for a debate in the main Chamber as soon as possible, because the subject is sufficiently important to be worthy of such a debate. There is consensus, and we need to make the trust totally aware of the importance of local radio.
I encourage the hon. Lady to ask hon. Members to write to their noble Friends in the other place, so that Lord Patten can listen directly to their parliamentary views.
I completely agree.
My local station is BBC Radio Sheffield. It was the country’s second local radio station, and it started broadcasting almost 44 years ago in 1967. Last November, it was voted the station of the year at the prestigious Gillard awards. We feel that our local radio station is the best in the country, although not all Members in the Chamber would agree with me.
One thing is for sure—BBC Radio Sheffield plays an important part in ensuring that local people keep in touch with the world around them. As one local journalist said to me last week, “BBC radio serves a lot of people, many of whom may be poor, old and working class, and not very well served elsewhere on the radio network.”
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, because the hon. Lady has intervened three times already.
In the previous Adjournment debate on this topic, I talked about the popularity of some of our presenters. However, I want to focus today on how the proposals published by the trust will impact on my radio station. That impact threatens to be drastic. During the week, output will go regional at 1 pm and drive-time broadcasting will be local, but the output will then go national after 6 pm. On Sundays, local broadcasting will end at 1 pm. The total reduction in local broadcasting is way beyond the 20% cited by the trust—it is nearly 50%.
The station’s popular afternoon show, hosted by Paulette Edwards, faces the chop. As Yorkshire Members will know, there was a pilot recently in Yorkshire where that afternoon slot was shared regionally. It is fair to say that the pilot was not successful, with the vast majority of respondents to the consultation commenting that they wanted to see the return of the dedicated south Yorkshire show hosted by Paulette Edwards. I agree with them. I do not want to hear about a lost dog in York or a cat stuck up a tree in Leeds, and I am sure that the people of Leeds and York do not want to hear about the ups and downs of south Yorkshire sport, particularly its football clubs.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the shift towards more regional programming is about not only the hours broadcast, but the threat to the local knowledge of that station? Such knowledge really matters when it comes to events such as the Gloucestershire floods or even to reporting the current fantastic run of victories by Cheltenham Town football club, which is currently near the top of league two.
I agree. As the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) has pointed out, under the proposal, coverage of local football teams playing away from home would be abolished. At present, BBC Radio Sheffield listeners enjoy commentary from Seth Bennett, Paul Walker and Andy Giddings. When Sheffield Wednesday play Huddersfield Town soon, I do not want other people’s commentators telling me about my team’s performance at that match. Similarly, the hon. Gentleman will not want to hear Seth Bennett commenting on Huddersfield when his team comes to Hillsborough to be beaten very soon. If implemented, the proposals will mean that almost 20% of locally employed BBC Radio Sheffield staff might face redundancy, with a full-time equivalent reduction of nine posts out of 40, which would seriously impinge on the station’s ability to provide a rounded and informed local service.
Turning to the comments made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley, we are where we are with the freezing of the licence fee. Unfortunately, the BBC must find savings, whether we agree with them or not. It is right to defend local radio and to point out that the BBC has decided to protect Radio 4, BBC 1, much of children’s TV and the BBC Proms series, which will receive investment at the expense of local radio. Although local radio is the most expensive BBC radio service, with running costs of £118 million, it delivers 40 stations and has an audience of more than 7 million listeners. In comparison, Radio 4 costs approximately £96 million and Radio 5 Live costs approximately £60 million, with both delivering a significantly smaller audience than local radio. Almost 250,000 people listen to BBC Radio Sheffield every week, which equates to 19% of the market. Unsurprisingly, sports coverage is very popular. On Saturday afternoons, 25% of the local audience turns the dial to BBC Radio Sheffield, which says much about the quality of our sports coverage.
On sports coverage, does my hon. Friend agree that many people who listen on a Saturday afternoon are very vulnerable? They do not have sufficient finances, they are less well off and many of them are disabled people who cannot get to sports events. To stop feeling totally isolated from society, they rely heavily on local radio to give a quality service at least once a week.
I agree, and I shall make that point more fully shortly.
The average age of a BBC Radio Sheffield listener is 54, and although sports coverage and the breakfast show enjoy a lower age profile, from 10 am onwards the audience is made up of older people, many of whom regard the station as their key and sometimes only contact with the world around them. Two thirds of the station’s audience are classed socially as C2, D and E, and many people listen to no station other than BBC Radio Sheffield. It is true that Radio 2 and our commercial radio, Radio Hallam, have a bigger audience than BBC Radio Sheffield, but BBC Radio Sheffield’s share is significantly higher than that of Radio 4, which gets 12% a week, or 157,000 listeners, and Radio 5 Live, which gets 9.9%, or 126,000 listeners a week.
Those figures suggest that audiences value a local offer, yet in the proposals, Radio 4 would be protected and local radio would be cut. Again, in an organisation with a historical culture of top-down management, we are seeing centralised decision making at the expense of the localism that I thought we were all in favour of nowadays. BBC local radio is unique, because no one else in the BBC or in the commercial sector offers a similar service. As a BBC journalist who used to work in local radio said to me only last week, the amount of time given to producers and researchers at Radio 4 for making features is so much longer than in local radio. I know they have had some of the fat cut over the past few years, but they still have an amazing luxury of time over their colleagues in local radio. I would not want to see Radio 4 cut drastically, but it could take its fair share of cuts.
BBC local radio represents public service broadcasting at its best. Its audience will suffer a significantly reduced service if the cuts go ahead on the scale proposed. However, because, by its nature, its audience is disparate, the chances are that their views will not be expressed in the consultation. That is why this debate is important and why it should be heard in the main Chamber. I urge colleagues to request that today, so that our constituents’ views can be aired properly.
The BBC has had to recognise that savings must be made, as has every family in the land. The problem is that, instead of doing what needed to be done, the BBC management chose to salami-slice its operation. Instead of seeing vanity projects going, cuts in waste on real estate and cuts in stars’ and management salaries, we are seeing a series of identical slices across the board. For a television programme or channel, those slices are relatively modest and do not make a huge impact. When applied to local radio, however, those same slices make a significant difference.
As an aside, which may be a cheap shot, I could not help noticing from the figures that an Opposition Member gave that the director-general of the BBC earns, as an annual salary, almost twice the cuts that are being demanded of BBC Radio Merseyside.
My hon. Friend’s reference to salami slices and cuts that are not thought through reflects the situation of BBC Radio Merseyside, which will lose one third of its staff. The BBC has not thought it through.
The point is made. The BBC has created a plethora of channels and the management should be considering the arguments. I hope that the trustees will take the debate on board, because you can bet your sweet life that the BBC management will not listen. We therefore must go to the trustees and say, “Please listen. This matters.” It matters to the people whom everyone in this Chamber and all our other colleagues represent.
Local radio is important for all the reasons that have been stated. It is important for health and security, and it is a lifeline at times of crisis. We must reinforce the point that it is also a vital training ground for young journalists. Many people have cut their teeth in BBC local radio: Kate Adie used to work for BBC Plymouth; Libby Purves used to work for BBC Oxford; and someone called Roger Gale trained at BBC Radio London—[Hon. Members: “Where is he now?”]—and then disappeared without trace. If we allow the cuts to go ahead, broadcasting in general—not only in BBC local radio, but in national radio, in local and national television, and in all the other stations that have fed off that training process for years—will be all the poorer. Once that infrastructure has gone, it will be impossible to get it back again.
One point has not been made well enough. People listening to the debate will say, “They’ve all missed the point. We are promising them another political reporter and we will maintain the breakfast and drive programmes. We will preserve all the things that matter.” No, what really matters is the whole structure of BBC local radio. The BBC has always argued that it does not want ghetto broadcasting, saying that it will not cream off the important bits and that it has to provide a rounded programme. The people who listen to BBC local radio listen to it all, not just a bit of it. That means that the music in the afternoon, the community programmes, and people such as Jo Burn on BBC Radio Kent, who does wonderful work in the community, matter a great deal.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point in what is an excellent speech. The reason why BBC local radio is so successful and has that holistic view is that it is based in the core of local communities. As he has said, it is not simply about ensuring that the drive-time show is on; it is about reporters who go out to communities and pick up local stories. It is about the community projects that BBC local radio supports, such as the Treehouse appeal for a local children’s hospital that BBC Radio Suffolk supports. That is why local radio is so valuable, and the trustees of the BBC must listen to this debate.
That is a precise summary of the entire argument. This issue matters to real people living real lives, who are not the people in the higher reaches of Broadcasting house, television centre or Salford quays—wherever that is—but the people we represent. We must all impress upon the trustees that they have to take this proposal back, listen and make cuts not in local radio but where they can and should be made.
I am heartened by what is the best turnout I can remember for a Westminster Hall debate. I declare an interest: I began my broadcasting career with BBC Radio Devon.
The focus of this debate has rightly been on local radio, but at least one Member has mentioned that regional TV current affairs programmes face even bigger cuts, particularly the “Inside Out” programme, which has more viewers than “Panorama,” and some of the biggest national documentaries. As MPs, we are acutely aware of the importance of local radio and regional TV to the health of our democracy, and at a time when ITV, independent local radio and local newspapers are doing less local news and current affairs it is vital that the BBC maintain its commitment to quality, and to local and regional output.
I understand that the BBC has to make savings because of the severe and, in my view, unjustified cuts imposed on it by the Government, but the corporation should take a much more long-term strategic approach to its reduced circumstances. Instead of trying to continue to do everything it currently does but with less money, salami-slicing—as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) said—programmes that are already cut to the bone, it should be bold and stop doing things that few people watch or listen to, or that the commercial sector already does perfectly adequately. The BBC management seems to have been so traumatised by the backlash to its earlier proposals to close 6 Music and the Asian Network that it will not now contemplate closing down anything. That is not leadership and, as a number of Members have said, the current proposals reflect a strong London and south-east bias.
BBC local radio costs only a few pence per user, but the coverage of sports such as rugby league, which are important in the north of England and for which BBC Manchester has won a prestigious award, would be lost. A crucial factor is that the coverage costs only a few pence an hour.
I absolutely agree.
I will finish on this point because other Members want to speak. At the end of the current consultation, the BBC Trust will make the final decision on the proposals; I hope that it does the job that Parliament gave it and tells the BBC that when it comes to local radio and regional television current affairs, it must think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. This is one of the best attended Westminster Hall debates that I have been in as an MP.
I am conscious of the time and will not take many minutes. After speaking in a previous debate on this subject, I last week presented a petition with more than 2,000 signatures, from my constituents and people across the whole of Liverpool who are absolutely aghast at the cuts that the BBC proposes for BBC Radio Merseyside. BBC Radio Merseyside is the most listened to of the BBC’s 39 local radio stations outside London, with more than 300,000 listeners. One of the most pertinent facts is that the station has average listening hours of 16.2, compared with 11.7 for Radio 4. My constituents and the people of Merseyside depend on the service.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the very strong case she has made on behalf of BBC Radio Merseyside over a number of months. A statistic that has really struck me is that the station gets 16.7% of all radio listening in the area, compared with just 8% for Radio 4. That makes a strong case for the importance of local radio over national radio in Merseyside.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Another statistic is that a disproportionate number of constituents over the age of 65 listen to BBC Radio Merseyside. Some 42% of the audience is in that age group, and 27% is in demographic groups D and E. I add my voice to the representations made by a number of Members this morning, about this being yet another assault by the BBC on people who are consistently left out and do not have services—they depend on their BBC local radio.
We received a representation from the BBC in advance of this debate, from Julia Ockenden in its public affairs unit. She makes the point that with local radio the savings are only 12%, but she goes on to state:
“However the savings feel higher because the cost of buildings and technology needed to broadcast in 40 locations means that we cannot avoid cuts being made to the number of programme makers. That’s why in some stations we will be reducing teams by over 20%.”
That is happening at BBC Radio Merseyside. We have the fixed costs of the building, so the cuts will have to fall disproportionately on staff numbers, which will impact on our news service and sports programming, and on some very specialist music programmes that my constituents enjoy.
BBC Radio 4’s £119 million budget has been protected. That is three times the budget of the largest commercial radio station, and only a couple of million less than the amount that all 39 local BBC radio stations will have as a result of the proposed cuts. The “You and Yours” programme on Radio 4, which broadcasts for just one hour a day, five days a week, has more staff than the entire complement of BBC Radio Merseyside. The impact of the proposed cuts on all the programming is a travesty.
Order. I remind Members that I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.40 am.
This is an extremely well-attended debate. Given the time available, and as there is an amazing amount of consensus in the room, I will not repeat what other Members have said.
We have heard about the 20% cuts, and Radio Tees, on whose behalf I speak, faces that sort of budget reduction, but the BBC needs to explain why other radio stations are getting much smaller cuts; for example in Berkshire it is 7% and in Somerset, 2%. As a public organisation, it is really important that the BBC explains to the public how it has made its decisions. We all pay our licence fee and deserve a level of service that does not depend on geography, so the BBC needs to explain how the proposals relate to the important parts of its charter that require it to deliver such services.
Radio Tees is a fantastic organisation, and it is amazing that we have an ex-employee in the room. Nearly every MP from the Tees area has been in the debate today. The station provides a fantastic service to a very large population in not just the Tees valley but a large part of north Yorkshire and south Durham. The service is led by the peerless Ali Brownlee, who does not only the football commentary but the morning show.
How can the BBC make other savings? We have heard about ludicrous salaries; most Members in this room could probably earn more somewhere out there but we are here because we want to provide a public service. If a BBC manager requires £500,000 to do a management job, we have the wrong person in the job. It is important that we start to put the public service element back into our public services. Why are there more pundits on “Match of the Day” than on any other football show? Why were there more BBC people than UK competitors in Beijing? That is ludicrous. The BBC needs to take a long hard look at itself before slashing radio services. Why is it slashing them? If we wanted to be cynical, we could say that the best way to get people to campaign about the licence fee is to cut the very services they depend on every day. I hope that is not true, but I am suspicious.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about presenters on his local radio station. Does he agree that the very local nature of radio stations means that there is a bond between the presenters and the listeners? They live in the same area, shop in the same shops and get stuck in the same traffic jams. That bond is a shared experience that does not exist anywhere in the national media.
I absolutely agree. Only last Friday night I was at a charity brass band concert for Help for Heroes in Marske in my constituency, and it was introduced for nothing by the BBC Tees presenter John Foster.
I want the BBC to think about the cuts, which will be self-defeating. Radio Merseyside could lose a third of its staff. What will be the results for accuracy of cutting so many staff?
I agree. The BBC has an important duty to be accurate.
Another point that has not been made is that the BBC must listen to the listeners. What do they want? I think that the BBC will find that listeners value radio far more highly than some of the other services that it offers. It should reconsider the cuts. In the words of the great Joni Mitchell song, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on initiating this first-class debate. There is clearly concern across the House; more than 50 Members have been here this morning. There is a lot more to say, and the BBC needs to hear that there is cross-party agreement on our serious concern about its proposed cuts to local radio.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) pointed out that the BBC must take a strategic approach to shaping services. At the moment, it is not clear that it has done so. Local radio accounts for only 4% of its costs, yet the cuts will have a disproportionate impact on local radio, not because the amount of money being sought—12%--is above average but because it obviously costs more to broadcast in lots of different places.
My hon. Friend is making a good point. Does she agree that in the case of Radio Humberside, which is in its 40th anniversary year, losing 10 staff from a team of 42 will have the impact that she describes on quantity and quality of output?
Yes. My hon. Friend is quite right. One interesting thing that has emerged in this debate is the regional bias in the cuts. Many more Members from the north and west of the country are here, because those areas will be harder hit. Merseyside and Tees will be cut by 20%, while Somerset will be cut by 2%. It is not clear why. That also means that people will continue to feel that the BBC has a metropolitan bias.
I agree with my hon. Friend. In my area, it is more than apparent to local people and BBC Tees that funds are being redirected to the south from the north-east, unfairly disadvantaging our local area.
My hon. Friend is right. There is a regional bias, a bias against radio rather than television and a bias in terms of which audiences will be hit. Many hon. Members have pointed out that BBC local radio is listened to more by older people and those on lower incomes. It is important that those people should have their fair share of public service broadcasting.
Hon. Members have raised four important issues involved in local radio broadcasting. The first is democratic accountability. If local councils and other regional bodies are to be democratically accountable, proper coverage of what they are doing is needed. Only local radio can give that. If people are to feel that their region is special and if local culture is to be maintained, people must be able to hear it on the radio. If people are to enjoy and maintain interest in local sport—we have heard about local sport from many hon. Members, sometimes at too great a length—local radio clearly has an important part to play. Many hon. Members also spoke about the important role of local radio at times of crisis. That is essential. The BBC management document says, “If there’s a crisis, we’ll slot ourselves in,” but if the infrastructure has been lost, that cannot happen. The BBC needs the infrastructure to provide coverage at the right times.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. May I add another objective of local radio, which is to champion an area? BBC Tees has championed new and exciting renewable technologies as well as the closure of the Corus plant in Redcar and the opening of SSI. Radio can use its local distinctiveness to do things that other broadcasting media cannot.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although I do not know why he omitted to mention the great campaign to keep the Zurbaran paintings in the north.
Local radio has key roles to play. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) made a good point about recruiting journalists. Local radio gives people across the country a route into journalism. If this country is to have more social mobility, we need more openings for people to enter important professions. Furthermore, this country needs more regional news gathering. The cuts to local radio, combined with the cuts to television in both the public and independent sectors and to BBC Radio 5 Live, will result in far less national reporting on regional and local issues. That is another instance of bias. We frequently hear human interest stories from the United States while equally important and more interesting things are going on in our own country. Local broadcasting is the way to ensure that we hear about them.
When the Minister responds, I hope that he will not entirely wash his hands of the Government’s responsibility for what is happening. Everybody agrees that some people employed by the BBC, either permanently or on short-term contracts, are paid ludicrously high salaries. Equally, everybody agrees that efficiencies can be achieved in London and in the services bought in by the BBC. None the less, does he still think that a six-year freeze in the licence fee is justified? We do not know what Mephistophelean deal was done; maybe he will enlighten us. That would be interesting, although I am sceptical that he will do so. When the six-year freeze was announced, it looked as though it would mean 20% cuts, 4% through efficiency and 16% through reductions in services. However, since then, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not kept inflation under control, meaning that the cut will be much deeper.
Does the Minister have a new assessment of what the BBC cut will be in real terms? Given that it is coming at the beginning, we can all work out that the cuts will be larger. Does he not see that as a case for re-addressing the size of the licence fee? He must take into account that when British people are asked whether 40p a day is too much to pay for the BBC, they say, “No, 40p a day is good value.” It is clear that the 7 million people who listen to local radio particularly value it. For 2 million people, local radio is their sole contact with the BBC. I cannot express too strongly how much we support local radio and want the cuts to be re-addressed.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on securing this important debate, and I welcome the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) to her position as shadow media spokesman for the Labour party. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have participated in this debate. I did a quick head count while the Chamber was full and came to about 46 Members, but it might be like the euro-rebels—a refined count might yield a higher number, given how many came in during the debate.
We have heard interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), my hon. Friends the Members for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), the hon. Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) and for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and for Halton (Derek Twigg), my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and the hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). I am sure that I have missed some.
We have also heard extended and learned speeches from the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) and for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) and the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), as well as from the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Redcar (Ian Swales), before the contribution of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland.
The Minister has not mentioned the constituency of Worsley and Eccles South, which champions BBC Radio Manchester.
As I have said, I stand to be corrected.
In the Minister’s own interests, as well as mine, will he also mention Radio Oxford, where there is also a lot of concern?
The right hon. Gentleman invites me to kick at an open goal.
I praise the BBC. It has put a lot of thought and hard work into delivering quality first. I will come to the licence fee payment in a moment, but no channels are closing. It has made some important strategic decisions and is looking to save about 11% of its budget in productivity and about 6% in terms of scope. It has also decided to go further on reductions in spending in order to have room to reinvest in programming and front-line services. I also welcome the extra investment in children’s channels. I personally welcome the support for the Proms, and we can all have a view about Radio 4.
May I recommend that the Minister gets one of his staff to plot the constituency names that he has listed? I think that he will find that very few of them are in the south-east and the London area. The intensity of the number of constituencies increases the further we get from London. That is a serious message.
I think that my favourite pirate disc jockey, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet, would have something to say about that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester anticipated, the consultation has started and it closes on 21 December, so Members have a chance to respond. Even better, the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, and its chairman, Lord Patten, will come to Portcullis House on 2 November at 4.15 pm. I think there are still tickets available, although the meeting may have to be moved to Methodist Central Hall at this rate. For the benefit of my hon. Friend, it is a double whammy, because Lord Patten used to be a European Commissioner, so we can raise issues with him about the pernicious influence of the European Union, as well as talk about the BBC.
BBC local radio has 7 million listeners. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) has invited me to talk about BBC Radio Oxford, and this debate gives us the chance to praise our local radio stations. The last time I praised BBC Radio Oxford, it turned it into a jingle, so let me say: “BBC Radio Oxford—your listening pleasure is assured, with Malcolm Boyden, Joel Hammer, Bill Heine, Lou Hannan and Paul Miller.”
I would also like to mention Jack FM and Heart FM in Oxford. It is important to remember the role of commercial radio. The BBC has two thirds of radio listeners, so it starts from a high base, but commercial radio stations are also popular in our local areas. Let us not forget, either, community radio. I give credit where it is due—that is a great achievement, one of the few of the previous Labour Government. There are now 220 community radio stations around the country.
The Minister spoke a moment ago about the document having a strategic approach, but what is strategic about salami-slicing? Why has the BBC not been bolder and decided to close down certain services? Is it because the BBC wants to spare the Minister’s blushes in terms of the public impact and outrage that might cause?
If I may be so bold, I think that sparing my blushes is the last thing on the BBC’s mind. I also think that the fact that almost 50 Members have turned up to this debate shows that it has hardly spared my blushes. There are controversial cuts elsewhere, but, as I have said, I think that some deep thought has gone into this. We will all have individual views about services that could be reduced or, indeed, cut completely.
Taking into account the reinvestment in programming, the cuts to local radio will be about 10%. [Interruption.] I said after reinvestment had been taken into account. The strategic decision is to invest in breakfast, mid-morning and drive, which is when 86% of listening to BBC local radio takes place. There are plans to recruit specialist and chief reporters for every channel.
I commend the blog of Helen Boaden, the head of BBC news, on today’s debate. She says that the BBC has no intention of letting its audiences down. That is an important assurance from the head of news for BBC radio. Members may treat that comment with scepticism, but she has put it on the record.
The BBC has assured us that it remains committed to local sports coverage. Interestingly, local sports clubs charge the BBC to supply commentary. There may be some leeway on the fees charged by local sports clubs, but I would not want to see the amount of money going into them significantly reduced.
I am one of the three Kent MPs who have spoken in this debate. We feel the cuts in Kent and are concerned about Radio Kent. This debate has been about cuts, but should the BBC not also be looking to maximise its commercial revenues through BBC Worldwide and the potential commercial exploitation of older programmes through iPlayer?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I asked him earlier whether he was sitting behind me because he was acting as my de facto Parliamentary Private Secretary, but he replied that it was because it was the only seat left in the Chamber. He is right that the BBC’s commercial income needs to be reinvested in programming. BBC Worldwide is a great success. It ran into trouble in this place because of some of its decisions, but it is run by a supremely effective executive, John Smith. I gather that an additional £40 million from BBC Worldwide will be going into programming.
I want to make a clear and specific point: let us save the local radio stations and make savings on BBC 3 and BBC 4.
We will all have views on where we can make savings. I was intrigued to see that “Newsnight” alone, which has about 250,000 viewers, has a budget of £8 million.
That is Jeremy Paxman’s salary.
The hon. Gentleman has just ensured that he will get a smooth ride the next time he appears on “Newsnight”. There is a consultation and all Members have the chance to put their views to the BBC. As I have said, the director general and chairman will come to Portcullis House.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has asked what I think, which is that we got a good deal for the BBC. It is important to remember—I made this point to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington—that the most effective lobby in relation to concern about BBC scope when I was in opposition was made by the Guardian Media Group, which was concerned that it could not monetise its website because of the scope and breadth of the BBC website. Interestingly, The Guardian employs roughly the same amount of people as BBC local radio. It is having to make significant job cuts, which it announced in June. Even The Guardian, apart from Polly Toynbee, has to live in the real world and make savings. Not a single other media group in the country has certainty of funding until 2017—that certainty is an enormous luxury—apart from S4C. I commend the deal struck only yesterday between the BBC Trust and S4C, under which an enormous amount of money will go into Welsh programming.
The Minister has, on occasion, taken a light-hearted approach during his response. A number of Members, including me, have pointed out that a significant number of jobs are at risk. I do not think that people who face losing their jobs regard the issue as light-hearted. Moreover, a number of vulnerable elderly and disabled people rely on BBC local radio. The Minister has not touched on those points yet, so will he address them in the time remaining?
I have made the point that the reductions in BBC local radio are less than in other BBC services. The hon. Gentleman’s tone is priggish, which is inappropriate to this debate, but other Opposition Members have suggested closing down services. They have suggested cuts to Radio 4 and to BBC 3, which would result in job losses. There will be job losses in the BBC, as is the case in other media companies.
We have given the BBC certainty of funding until 2017. The Labour party’s policy is unclear. Is it to reopen the licence fee settlement? If so, it should state the level to which it wants the licence fee to be raised. If that is its policy, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland is welcome to state it.
With due respect to the Minister, his speech could have been written by the management of the BBC. It is not his job to be a cheerleader for the BBC, and that is not the trust’s job either. His job is to represent the views of Members in this Westminster Hall debate. We are deeply concerned that the BBC has got it wrong on local radio. If he will not say that publicly today, I hope that he will take that message back and make it very clear, in private, to the BBC management.
I think that my job is to be a candid friend of the BBC. I do not apologise for supporting the BBC and for praising its work. I do not apologise for an organisation that is extremely popular with listeners and viewers. Neither do I apologise for defending the BBC in taking a strategic approach to the licence fee freeze. All Members have views on what the BBC should and should not be doing, and there is extensive consultation. It is certainly not my job to tell the BBC what to do. It would be wrong for a Minister to order the BBC to close down a particular service or to save another one. That is a job for BBC management.