Wednesday 26 October 2011
[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]
BBC Local Radio
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
Public Health (Bexley)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important issue of public health and the situation in my borough of Bexley, which is of great concern to many of my constituents and, of course, to me.
Regrettably, there are vast health inequalities in Bexley and south-east London. The difference in life expectancy for two men living in different parts of Bexley could be as much as or more than seven years. The reasons for that situation, both locally and nationally, are complex and are affected not only by access to the NHS or social care services, but by diet, activity, education and employment. Public health is therefore a matter of fairness and social justice.
As well as causing serious long-term health issues, health inequalities have a wider impact. We all know that obesity can lead to problems with diabetes and heart failure, that smoking kills tens of thousands of people every year and that alcoholism can cause liver failure and increase a person’s susceptibility to other diseases. Those associated illnesses can cause productivity losses for business, reduce school attendance for children and lead to high treatment costs for the NHS. If those problems are not addressed, we could face greater problems in the future, as my hon. Friend the Minister will appreciate.
I am very worried about the increasing number of people who are being classed as obese. The long-term consequences for those individuals and their families can be catastrophic if they do not take action, because they may subsequently experience problems such as heart disease and diabetes. I am particularly concerned about the number of children who are alleged to be experiencing weight problems. According to the national child measurement programme, one in four reception age children in my borough of Bexley is considered to be obese or overweight. That is an incredible figure and, by the age of 11, it rises to one in three. I am sure that the Minister shares my concern about that problem.
There is also an issue among adults. Nationally, the number of obese people in England has doubled since 1993, and the number of obese women has risen by half. Locally, in Bexley, one in four adults is to be considered obese. With trends suggesting that most children who are considered to be obese will remain so well into their adult lives—particularly if their parents are obese, too—the consequences are of real concern to individuals, as well as to society.
I am pleased that my colleague the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and my neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) are here today. The issue does not stay within borough boundaries, because it goes across our area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He cares passionately about health care in the borough of Bexley. He has mentioned that some of my constituents rely on services provided in Bexley and that, vice versa, some of his constituents rely on services in the Kent area. Does he therefore agree that it is essential to ensure that the relevant local authorities are aware of their obligations to each other, so that there can be some certainty about funding and budget setting for the councillors in the respective areas that we represent?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. There is much cross-border health care traffic both from Bexley into Kent and from Kent into Bexley. That is the choice that people have and should have. Such a situation also reflects people’s needs, which should be met, so I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend has said.
Obesity is responsible for nearly half of all cases of diabetes, a quarter of heart problems and, in some circumstances, more than a third of cases of some cancers. The National Heart Forum estimates that those problems could get much worse and suggests that the number of people getting diabetes as a result of their weight could double by 2050. Financial considerations and costs must also be taken into account. It has been estimated that obesity directly costs the NHS around £4 billion a year. Of course, that does not take into account the cost of treatments and the care required for associated problems, which could and will be even more. In Bexley alone, diabetes costs the NHS £353 per person per year.
Last week, I attended a reception in the House of Commons for Silver Star, a charity campaigning for greater awareness of diabetes. I was pleased to meet Silver Star and learn about its work. I took one of its simple diabetes tests, and I am pleased to report that my glucose level result was 4.9, so I was deemed to be okay.
All the statistics highlight the challenge that we face and the number of people whom we need to assist. First, we must assess the problem’s cause, of which there are many—for example, poor choices, portion sizes, insufficient exercise, inappropriate advertising or a lack of culinary skills can all contribute to an individual’s problems. According to the Association of Public Health Observatories, just 30% of Bexley adults eat healthily, and the statistics on physically active adults in Bexley are significantly worse than the national average. Of course, every individual’s circumstances are different.
In some respects, we are fortunate in Bexley, as we were one of the first boroughs to achieve national healthy schools status for all our schools. However, I am concerned that a minority of adults who eat badly may be setting a bad example for their children. The figures on physically active children in Bexley are also significantly worse than the national average. That is not helped by the fact that the number of children being driven to school has doubled over the past 20 years, which is a national issue that is not confined to Bexley.
Of course, physical activity alone is not enough to address the problem. We need to think more carefully about what we eat and what we feed our children. England’s chief medical officer, Professor Sally Davies, recently said:
“Most of us are eating or drinking more than we need to and are not active enough. Being overweight or obese is a direct consequence of eating more calories than we need. Increasing physical activity is a part of the equation, but reducing the amount of calories we consume is key.”
This is why the Change4Life campaign is important. It provides helpful tips on all the changes that we could make to improve our lifestyles, and it is already directing help to nearly 500,000 people. The campaign’s core ideas—encouraging physical activity, cutting portion sizes, swapping particular foods, discouraging snacking, drinking less alcohol and reducing fat intake—are all sensible and manageable. I hope that more people will take advantage of those resources and take action themselves. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government to prioritise that approach.
Another issue of health concern is the problems caused by smoking. Smoking rates have remained broadly the same during the past few years. Tobacco consumption remains the greatest single cause of preventable illness and early death, and it is also a big contributor to health inequalities. I am encouraged that, nationally, more people are using NHS stop smoking services. The number of people who registered a quit date has increased in the past year, with an increase in success rates, too. That shows that people are willing to take action to help themselves, which should be encouraged.
I put on the record my support for the award-winning Bexley stop smoking service, which has been doing some excellent work to help my constituents quit smoking and lead healthier lives. The Bexley stop smoking service is led by Jo Woodvine and helps hundreds of people quit smoking every year by using a variety of different methods. I commend the work that it is doing, because its efforts are having an impact. One in five Bexley residents smoke, which is slightly below the national average. However, I am concerned that 17% of women in Bexley smoke through pregnancy, which, worryingly, is above the average. Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of complications such as stillbirth, miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight.
There are also age-related problems with smoking. Tobacco consumption is still most prevalent among the under-50s. Every year, more than 300,000 under-16s try smoking for the first time. By the age of 15, some 15% of children in England are reported as being regular smokers, which is incredibly worrying. I accept that action has been taken on this issue. The minimum age at which one can purchase cigarettes has been increased to 18 and the sale of cigarettes from vending machines has been banned. The Government have introduced a tobacco control plan to help reduce smoking, which takes account of the problems that I have highlighted relating to the prevalence of smoking among adults, children and pregnant women. I agree that steps must be taken to reduce the promotion of tobacco and to improve regulation to ensure that children are not drawn into starting smoking. If more is done to highlight the diseases that can result from smoking, then adults may be persuaded to quit.
The substantial cost to society from smoking is estimated to be more than £13 billion a year, which includes NHS treatment, productivity losses and clear-up costs. However, only £11 billion is raised in taxes from tobacco. The Government are therefore right to consider ways of making smoking less affordable, as a disincentive. Most importantly, the Government need to ensure that NHS stop smoking services continue to be properly supported. The all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health has highlighted how cost-effective those services are, estimating that the Government benefit by as much as £1.7 billion a year through the prevention of serious and costly diseases.
Alcohol dependence is another area of great concern, and it is a major public health issue. Dependent drinkers are the drinkers at greatest risk of admission to hospital for a range of illnesses. There are an estimated 4,000 dependent drinkers in my borough of Bexley, and as many as one in seven people are putting their health at risk by binge drinking. While those figures are not as high as in some other areas of the country, they are symptomatic of the wider problems facing our nation. The latest alcohol statistics for England show that one in four men and one in five women are drinking more than the recommended number of units in an average week. On average, children—yes, children—consume 11.6 units a week.
Excessive drinking also has a significant impact on our health service. For example, since the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003, which allowed 24-hour drinking, the number of hospital admissions due to acute alcohol intoxication has doubled and the number of admissions wholly attributable to alcohol has increased by 70% locally, which is broadly in line with national trends. Between midnight and 5 am, the majority of hospital admissions are alcohol related. I was, and remain, opposed to the liberalisation of the drinking hours in the 2003 Act, which was a grave mistake.
Many long-term problems—alcoholic liver disease, hepatitis and cirrhosis—can be caused by excessive consumption over a long period of time, and they can lead to organ failure. Deaths from alcohol-related liver diseases have doubled in the past 20 years, with the overall cost of alcohol-related harm now standing at £2.7 billion a year. It is therefore vital to address the situation. There are simple steps that individuals can take, such as tracking alcohol intake, ordering smaller quantities or reduced-strength drinks, or swapping their drinks for alcohol-free versions. While retailers and drinks manufacturers promote the Drinkaware campaign, the industry needs to do more.
I am concerned about tuberculosis in London and about the current guidelines on prevention. A report published by London Health Programmes in June stated that, between 1999 and 2009, the number of TB cases in London rose by 50%. London now has the highest TB rate of any capital city in western Europe and accounts for 40% of all cases in the UK. Those trends are worrying. In Bexley, there are currently less than 20 cases of TB per 100,000 of population each year. However, during the same 10-year period, the Department of Health issued new guidelines to primary care trusts that recommended the withdrawal of the universal BCG vaccine. TB is an infectious disease that can affect any part of the body. It is curable, but detection is crucial. Early detection can mean relatively simple and cheap treatment. If left undetected or untreated, as in 12% of cases, the disease can become drug resistant, meaning more complex treatment at a hugely increased cost. The approach to prevention and treatment of TB therefore needs to change.
I am concerned that family travel is not given enough consideration. Many Bexley children are taken on holiday to the Indian subcontinent or to sub-Saharan Africa during school breaks, particularly in summer, and might be exposed to the disease. Consequently, there is a potential risk that, when the family returns to the UK, others might come into contact with the disease. I appreciate that prolonged exposure is required in order to transmit the disease, but this might happen and I am concerned.
As London Health Programmes has identified, targeting has been inconsistent. High risk groups, such as the homeless and those with lower immune responses caused by other problems such as drug taking or alcoholism, have not been given enough attention. The recommendations made in the draft London TB plan, which aims to improve the early detection of TB and the effectiveness of treatment as well as to reduce the risk of transmission, must be carefully considered. In particular, the Government should seek to implement the proposal that all newborn children should be vaccinated within six weeks of birth to protect them from TB. This welcome suggestion could be an effective measure to prevent cases of the disease. However, it would not address the problem for children in my borough, who have still not received the BCG vaccine because the Department of Health felt that we did not have enough cases per 100,000 of population. I would like to see a limited programme in the next few years for children in London boroughs who have not received the vaccination.
Bexley is a very good place to live and work. I do not want to say that it is all negative, because it is not. There is a huge amount going on in Bexley that is to be commended, and I put that on the record. The vast majority of people in our borough are really good people—moderate, reasonable people—and educating, helping and advising them is the way forward. However, Bexley is not immune to increasing health issues. I hope that the Minister and the Department will support— I know this is not her brief, but I cannot resist the temptation to include this in my remarks—plans for a health and well-being campus to be established at Queen Mary’s hospital in Sidcup. If approved, this could begin in 2014 and provide vital services, such as primary and community care, GP services and hospital services, all on one site. As part of the plans, Bird college, a dance, music and theatre performance centre, hopes to be on the site as well, which could provide real benefits for public health. The strategic outline case has been submitted, and I hope that that important project can progress.
I also urge the Minister to consider the role that community pharmacies can play in helping to reduce health inequalities and public health problems. At the heart of the local communities that they serve, they are uniquely placed to offer advice to significant numbers of people. They can sometimes be more accessible than GP services, and they can be found in retail settings.
In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on all the tremendous work that she is doing on public health. The Government are right to prioritise public health and to ring-fence finance. I support strongly the transfer of increased responsibilities to local councils on public health issues. Fundamentally, I believe that education and awareness are vital. If public health problems are to be properly addressed, we need to ensure that everyone plays their part—schools, parents, businesses, charities, and local and national government—otherwise we could be storing up huge problems in our country, including Bexley. I am grateful for the opportunity to make these few points today, because it is very important to address public health issues for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under you this morning, Ms Osborne. I do not believe that we have met in Westminster Hall before.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) on securing the debate. He does not miss an opportunity to raise issues of public health in his constituency. As my hon. Friend and all of us do, I want to see a public health system worthy of its name, set up with the sole purpose of protecting and improving the health of everyone in this country. The public health White Paper outlines how we intend to achieve that, with ring-fenced funding, health and well-being boards and joint strategic needs assessment all playing a big role. Every element is designed with local needs in mind, so communities and local organisations in his constituency will be able to play a bigger role than ever in improving the public’s health. On the whole, the residents of Bexley are healthier than the national average, but that does not mean for one second that a great deal of work is not still to be done. People living in the most deprived areas of Bexley can expect to live up to seven years less than those living in the wealthiest areas, which is a staggering figure.
It was a pleasure to be joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce). My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the importance of cross-authority working. In particular, as we move into the new systems, I stress the need for public health leadership. People in Bexley will need a strong and visionary public health system with expert leadership. I am sure that the council and the local primary care trust are considering carefully how to provide such leadership after April 2013, when the breadth and importance of the local council’s responsibilities will increase enormously. Those are big challenges, but they also represent a fantastic opportunity, and Bexley is well placed to capitalise.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford discussed his grave concern about obesity and gave us some figures, such as that 20% of year 6 children are obese, which is 2% higher than the national average. That is a shame, and the problem is not unique to some areas of the country, because England has among the highest rates of obesity in the developed world. Recent figures show that levels of childhood obesity are stabilising and that adult obesity rates may be levelling out, but the overall rates remain extraordinarily high.
We published a document, which my hon. Friend referred to, “Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A call to action on obesity in England”, on 13 October to set out our approach. Through projects such as the healthy child programme, the national child measurement programme and the responsibility deal, we want to give clear and consistent messages on what the healthiest choices are and how people can make them. People need information and to recognise the harm that they do to their health by ignoring such choices. As I have said, local authorities will be at the forefront, and they will have that ring-fenced public health budget to use in ways that suit local people, doing far more good than a uniform approach that descends from on high in Whitehall.
The local NHS is taking steps to fight obesity and to encourage physical activity, in particular in children. The Bexley healthy schools project is working with every single one of Bexley’s schools and children’s centres, teaching children about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity. The parents’ education and children’s health project educates parents and carers about healthy and economical cooking. School food policies are also being reviewed with parents, pupils and staff, to ensure that children receive nutritionally balanced packed lunches that they will actually eat—there is no point in putting healthy food in front of children, if they then fail to eat it.
My hon. Friend mentioned Silver Star, and I am pleased that he got a tick for his own health, but he is absolutely right that type 2 diabetes is of considerable concern. I understand that the Bexley community diabetes project has had contact with nearly all diabetic patients in the borough. That project is centred on empowering patients and putting them at the heart of managing their condition while calling on health care professionals, when necessary. It is about personal responsibility, ownership and understanding that if people feel they have some control over their lives they do very much better. He also mentioned physical activity, and I thank him for specific mention of “Change for Life”—one of its successes is that it does not look like a Government-run programme—which has had a big impact. He might be interested to know that the brand will be used for action on alcohol in the new year.
We will be publishing an alcohol strategy in which communities and local government will again play a big part, because they will be able to take action based on what they think will work. Local councils are already involved with some of the social harms of alcohol—certainly anti-social behaviour and crime is of considerable concern—and with licensing. Local schemes and projects have contributed to Bexley having a lower than average rate of alcohol-related harm. For instance, the Bexley business support unit offers counselling, group work and medical help to people with alcohol problems. However, a great deal remains to be done. In April, an outreach service was commissioned to help people in the borough who had not used the services before or who find it difficult to access treatment. Data from the first six months of that service show that it has been successful.
On London as a whole, the Secretary of State for Health has backed a statutory London health improvement board, chaired by the Mayor of London. It is already drawing up plans for priority areas such as alcohol and childhood obesity and looking into promoting the use of existing licensing powers, helping accident and emergency departments share data on violence resulting from alcohol misuse and getting early interventions in place so people who misuse alcohol can get quick and effective advice, which is so important.
Smoking kills 80,000 people a year, and yet a persistent minority, which includes a significant number of people, continues to smoke. Each year, an estimated 320,000 children try smoking for the first time. The tobacco control plan to which my hon. Friend referred outlines our ambition to cut smoking rates in adults down to 18.5%, in 15-year-olds down to 12% and in pregnant women down to 11%. Many of us still feel that those figures are too high. Again, we need to give people information, but people also need support to quit. The plan demonstrates how we aim to achieve that. At the beginning of the month, tobacco sales from vending machines became illegal, which is a big start because such machines were a source of tobacco for children, and large, brightly coloured tobacco displays will soon be joining them in the ashtray of history. Displays will end on 6 April 2012 in large shops and three years later in small shops and other businesses in England.
My hon. Friend referred to Bexley’s stop smoking team, which helped 1,611 people give up last year, exceeding its target for the third year running. It has won awards, and he goes to great efforts on its behalf—this is not the first occasion on which he has mentioned it. Many people criticise local services, but it is right to acknowledge the tremendous job that they are doing. I hope that the Bexley team can spread that good practice around the areas in the vicinity. Anyone living or working in Bexley can access the service for free via a GP or participating pharmacy and, if that is not convenient, the team regularly provides services in more convenient locations such as libraries, children’s centres or a special bus outside a local supermarket.
My hon. Friend mentioned TB, and he rightly stated the specific problems for London. We always keep the evidence under review, and we are guided at all times by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. He is right that the issue is complex, but there is no doubt that London has more than its fair share of the problem. As I have said, strong public health leadership in such fields will be extremely important. I assure my hon. Friend and the other two hon. Members present in the Chamber today that the Department of Health and the London strategic health authority support the Mayor of London’s health inequalities strategy. Inequalities simply have no place in modern society, and everything that we can do to lessen them is worth pursuing. I want to see local councils arguing across the council chamber about how it is no longer fair for their residents to live less long that those of another council in the same area.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to raise yet again the need for the public to improve their health. It matters to stop illness, disability and premature death, but it also matters as we live longer, because staying well as we live longer is becoming increasingly important to us all.
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to debate under your stern but friendly eye, Mr Benton.
I intend to explain why the debate is important, provide my own report back on the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, look at the wider questions of how Parliament deals with internet and communications technology issues and suggest how Parliament and Government can push those issues up our national agenda. I am pleased that other officers of the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum will be taking part in the debate, as we asked jointly across parties to have this debate today.
The debate is important as a milestone in the development of parliamentary interests in the internet and in the development of proper accountability for British MPs’ engagement with the issue over a number of years. It is an attempt to bring the issue of communications technology into the parliamentary mainstream. The internet now pervades so much of our national and personal life—there is an enormous impact, even on those who do not use it—that it is essential for Parliament and Government to take a strategic interest in its development, which has been exponential in nature. The internet affects everything from national security to personal and family communications. As we saw during the summer, it has been grasped as an opportunity by those who want to nurture community action as well as by bad people and by organised criminals and terrorists.
Business challenges and opportunities range from the protection of intellectual property to savings and opportunities for the public service, and we need to ensure that our infrastructure and businesses are at the cutting edge of the fast-moving international communications market in hardware, software and services. Both the internet itself and wider issues of communications technology—ICT—are absolutely crucial to our economic success, our place in the world and our social development as a nation.
There have been valiant efforts to give a parliamentary focus to these issues, but it has mostly been done at the margins of Parliament, not at its heart and not through mainstream debate. I hope that today’s debate will establish a tradition for an annual debate on internet and ICT issues, with Ministers and Members across the parties taking stock of the developments of the past year and looking forward to future challenges.
The engagement of MPs has not been characterised by Members pursuing their own interests in isolation but through cross-party activity, co-operation between both Houses and the active engagement of Ministers. Above all, it has been done through a unique level of multi-stakeholder engagement. That is an ugly term, but no one has yet come up with a better one. The reality of partnership working and co-operation is far more beautiful than the terminology.
Today we can report formally on the annual United Nations event, the Internet Governance Forum, held this year in Nairobi. I am delighted that the Minister who will respond to the debate attended both the main forum itself and the high-level event held on the Monday before its formal opening. He was extremely effective in his interventions. I believe I speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who was also at the IGF, when I say that, with the Minister, we were able to deliver a robust “Team UK” approach in Nairobi.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Although I was not at the Nairobi event, I was at the event in Lithuania. It struck me that very few parliamentarians were present, but there were people from the Pirate party. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is crucial that MPs from other countries attend such events to stop the spread of lawlessness through the likes of the Pirate party?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He brought considerable interest, particularly in intellectual property, and creativeness to the discussions in Lithuania. There were more mainstream parliamentarians in Nairobi this year, but he is right: if we are not engaged, we leave a vacuum, which would be a great pity.
I apologise to you, Mr Benton, and to the House for having to leave for another speaking engagement on behalf of the Science and Technology Committee. I was very impressed—unusually—that the Minister took the trouble to attend the forum this year. That is a fantastic step in the right direction. If we can create the necessary collegiate approach in this difficult area, we can address the problems that have just been raised. I want to say well done to my right hon. Friend for his perseverance both in government and in opposition in driving the agenda forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right about the importance of the Minister’s attendance this year. It made a significant impact on many people from other countries and showed an excellent example.
Engagement with the IGF has been nurtured by Nominet, the dot-UK domain name registry, which has enabled IGF attendance by parliamentarians; young people from the UK, who have also made a considerable impact; and other representatives of civil society. I pay tribute to the chief executive, Lesley Cowley, and Martin Boyle, a former Department of Trade and Industry official when I was a Minister, and their team at Nominet. Their financial commitment and organisational support is a superb example of corporate social responsibility and of partnership between industry, Parliament and Government. It has enabled us to put the UK in the forefront of internet governance worldwide. I have put the appropriate declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in respect of their support and my attendance at the IGF.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will mention an internet issue that my constituents are concerned about: the use of abusive language on the one hand and child pornography on the other. One of my constituents, Mrs Jane Osmond of 7 Newcombe Road, has written to me about that. She is part of a major campaign, which relates to the subject of the debate.
My hon. Friend makes a good point; it is an important issue. Today in Westminster we are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Internet Watch Foundation. I hope to attend that event after this debate; I hope others will attend, too. The IWF is proof of the capacity of Government, with the support of parliamentarians and the engagement of industry and police, to tackle online child abuse more effectively than having additional legislation that might not work. We have achieved more in tackling online child abuse in this country than could have been done through additional legislation.
My right hon. Friend’s aims are laudable and I have no quarrel with them. However, my constituents feel that they have been given the run-around. I have written to the Minister about these issues and we have been pointed in a number of directions, but there does not seem to be a major clampdown or any real effort in the area.
In terms of child abuse images online, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has been successful in pursuing people who are involved in child abuse. In educational terms and in pursuing the bad people, CEOP has been effective. I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee and we are concerned about CEOP being merged with the national police agency. Assurances have been given, but we need to keep our eye on CEOP to ensure that it continues to be effective. We also need to keep up with the technology that the bad people are using.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. In relation to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), my concern is that when constituents write to me on the same issue, I write to the Minister but the letters are then transferred to the Home Office. Would it not be more sensible for questions such as those from my constituent from Troon, to be answered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? If the issues are not to be addressed by that Department, is it better for them to be looked at by the Home Office?
My hon. Friend illustrates one of the big problems in dealing with the internet. As I said, the internet is so pervasive that it affects every area of life, including technology and intellectual property, and sometimes leads to the abuse by bad people of the opportunities that it provides. Such issues should be dealt with by the Home Office because law-breaking is involved.
My hon. Friend also illustrates the crucial need for a joined-up approach across Departments and agencies. A couple of years ago I worked on internet-related crime, but I gave up once I had identified nine Departments that had a bit of the action—without even taking account of the different agencies, police bodies and so on that were involved. I believe, however, that co-ordination has improved; we have the central unit based with the Met, and the National Fraud Authority that looks at online fraud. People need greater clarity. Get Safe Online is an enormously important resource that I advise people to consult first when looking for advice on what to do. It requires, however, increased support across industry and by the Government, and it must explain clearly who should look where and for what. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.
I return to the Internet Governance Forum. As the Minister responsible for industry in 2005, I led the UK delegation to the world summit on the information society in Tunis. Journalists predicted that the talks would collapse because the Chinese, and others, were demanding a new international agency to, “run the internet”, and the US was saying, “Don’t change anything.” Two great public servants, Nick Thorne, then the UK permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, and David Hendon, a senior official at the Department of Trade and Industry, promoted “dynamic coalitions” and “enhanced co-operation” as a better option to bureaucracy. The IGF was born as part of that process and as an annual event for building consensus.
Today, the IGF process no longer depends on one annual event, and countries worldwide have seized the opportunity for co-operation, both between stakeholders and at regional level. This year’s IGF saw governmental proposals from India, Brazil and South Africa to bring the forum under centralised UN control, and Russia, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan called for the General Assembly to establish a UN code of conduct for information security. If such a code were to go through as proposed, it would focus primarily on affirming the sovereignty of national Governments to regulate internet traffic and content. That would exclude the voices of industry and civil society from regulation of the internet, which in turn would stifle the freedom, innovation and creativity that underpins the social, cultural and economic benefits that we all currently enjoy from the online world. There is also a Trojan horse agenda that would empower certain repressive Governments to censor and restrict any online content, discourse or behaviours that they did not like.
Will the Minister affirm his steadfast commitment to the current multi-stakeholder approach exemplified by the current IGF process, and will he join me in rejecting the idea that governance of the internet should be the sole preserve of monolithic and rigid Government negotiations? Will he ensure that the UK continues to provide leadership through the donors group? It is small change, but we must be at the table. Although this year’s IGF saw a welcome spike in levels of industry involvement, does the Minister agree that there is always room for more?
For years the IGF process was nurtured by two superb international diplomats, Nitin Desai as chairman, and Marcus Kummer as secretary. In Nairobi, however, I had to condemn the failure of the UN to appoint successors in either of those posts. That the event was such a success is a tribute to the vitality of its participants, but the UN is not doing its job properly; when I said as much during a high-level ministerial meeting, my comment received the loudest applause of the day.
British parliamentarians have been at the forefront of the IGF since its start, and our engagement is highly valued and respected across the world. Over the years we have worked with parliamentarians from other countries, notably the Kenyans and members of the European Parliament such as Catherine Trautmann and Malcolm Harbour. It is interesting to note, however, that we have not yet managed to properly link the IGF debate across Europe. We have the European dialogue on internet governance— EuroDIG—but that is serviced by the Council of Europe and has a focus on human rights and criminal law, which although an enormously important part of the international debate, is not all of it.
That work of the IGF goes wider than the European Union, which is its strength, but it also leaves a gap. In Nairobi we talked to colleagues from the European Parliament about the need for MPs and members of national Parliaments to be connected within the European Union. We do not have a European IGF that uses the same model as that developed in east Africa and other places.
The European Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, set out her approach, but without joined-up action by parliamentarians, industry and Governments in Europe, we will not get our point across. I suspect that hon. Members across the Chamber would agree on the need to avoid the domination of bureaucracy and rules in the European approach to the internet and internet-related issues. We need joined-up working by Team UK.
This year at the IGF, Monday was set aside for a high-level, ministerial event. Such occasions can become stodgy, with long speeches from Ministers, but this one was different. After Ministers—including our Minister—had spoken, formalities segued smoothly into a discussion, with authoritative figures such as Vint Cerf responding on some of the extremely important points under discussion. It was an excellent launch for the four days of the IGF, but I made a proposal that I believe should be incorporated in next year’s event. My suggestion is for Tuesday morning to be given over to statements of concern or other relevant issues, so that Members of Parliament can set out problems that have arisen in their Parliament or constituency. That would enable parliamentarians to be the voice of the people, rather than a second rank of techies, and would provide an opportunity for multi-stakeholder partners to respond to those concerns during the following few days, in parallel with other issues raised in advance. That suggestion received a positive response from industry representatives, who described it as an opportunity to complete the circle of policy development and accountability to the public.
The basic principle of the IGF is to bring together the four partners—Governments, parliamentarians, industry and civil society, including academics and others—to identify issues that need resolving, and seek solutions without requiring or mandating them, or limiting the debates in any significant way. It does not, therefore, lead to resolutions or treaties. The principle has been taken up by individual countries and on a regional level, particularly in east Africa, so it was appropriate that this year’s IGF was hosted there. As a result, the IGF is now a process rather than just an event, although the event remains important.
Great progress is being made in the Commonwealth IGF with its emphasis on child protection—the issue raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe)—and access.
My hon. Friend is right; I agree that the agenda is broader. The Commonwealth IGF started by looking at child protection, but behaviour is the big issue.
The development of a co-operative model for internet governance has developed quickly and positively. However, compared with the exponential growth and the mind-boggling levels of innovation that the internet has unleashed, that development looks, and feels, slow. That is why we in Parliament must be more ambitious, more impatient and better connected in every sense of the word.
To improve the quality of debate in Parliament, those involved informally in the work of relevant all-party groups have tried to bring everyone together to serve Parliament better. It is fair to say that for several years the cross-party architecture that focuses on internet and communications issues has been in a state of flux, with a proliferation of groups. Companies found it increasingly difficult to determine which meetings to attend and which groups to engage with. Equally, many MPs found the complexity and diversity of cross-party structures very challenging to digest. In fact, in the last two Parliaments, most MPs chose as the simple solution non-engagement, rather than struggling to get their heads round an ever-expanding ecosystem of interwoven groups and associations. I pay tribute to the 2010 intake of new Members, who have provided refreshing input from both sides of the House. That encourages me to believe that we can make a difference nationally and internationally in the future.
The online world and the associated technologies and patterns of use are constantly evolving at breathtaking speed. Without a cohesive and continuous commitment from parliamentarians to be connected with and informed about current developments in this sphere, Parliament will quickly fall hopelessly behind.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and I share his hope that Parliament will debate the internet at least once a year. On the point about the internet’s fantastic speed of innovation and the changes that it has made to our everyday lives, does my right hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate that following the unrest—the riots—during the summer, a number of parliamentarians on both sides of the House were seen to react by condemning aspects of social media that enable people to communicate with one another, while not equally recognising the tremendous support that the internet and social media give civil society? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that we need to ensure that parliamentarians are champions of the internet and the innovation that it brings, while obviously recognising the dangers?
My hon. Friend, who is one of the exciting group of 2010 new Members to which I referred, makes an excellent point. In the Internet Governance Forum, it was rather worrying to find that a large number of participants from across the world “knew” that the UK had tried to close down social networks. We had quite a battle to make it clear that the UK had not done that. Fortunately, the European Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, took the opportunity to dive in and endorse what we were saying. Given the pressure from the media to do something about something as cataclysmic as the riots this year, it was understandable that all Members of Parliament representing relevant constituencies felt under pressure to say something and, indeed, that the Prime Minister felt under pressure to say something when he arrived back in the country. Fortunately, common sense prevailed.
Immediately after the Home Secretary said that she intended to call together representatives of the social networks and give them a good talking-to—I paraphrase slightly—I wrote to her on behalf of the group, having spoken to some of the officers, and offered our help. I said, “There are Members of Parliament who take an interest in these issues. Can we help and can we engage our industry members in order to make a constructive contribution?” That was welcomed by the Home Secretary—we had a very good response—so it is another example of how the creation of a coherent, single group in Parliament has the capacity to help Government and properly inform public debate.
That is an example of exactly the point that I was making—the need for parliamentarians to be coherent and to work together on these issues. I said that without a commitment from parliamentarians to be connected with and informed about current developments in this sphere, Parliament would quickly fall hopelessly behind. That would be a great disappointment to those of us who know that knee-jerk legislation is not the answer to most or indeed any of our emerging technological challenges. As Gibbon said in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, laws rarely prevent that which they forbid. That is even more true about the internet than it was some 150 years ago, when those words were written. Legislation is a blunt, unwieldy and ultimately retrospective tool, incapable of the speed and flexibility required to regulate such a rapidly evolving system. That is why we, as parliamentarians, need to be quicker on our feet, more joined-up and more immediate in our response to events.
However, reluctance to legislate does not mean that we should not seek to regulate online activity. The point is simply that we will not achieve the results we want by enacting laws that would be out of date by the time they hit the statute book. The time scale for a new technology coming in or a development that moves people on from Facebook, or whatever the current means of communication is, means that legislation will be well out of date by the time it is enacted, so flexibility is required.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. Would he like to clarify his position? We all accept that things such as the IGF are a good talking-shop and that these issues should be discussed at length by the various countries and parties involved, but is he saying that no legislation is worth having, not even legislation to set out the principles relating to intellectual property rights and so on, which would not be out of date once it was enacted?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I want legislation that is based on values, sets out broad principles and is technology-neutral. It is the behaviour that is bad, and it is intellectual property that we need to protect, rather than getting too deeply into detail. We need to go back to the legislation that set down broad principles and to go back on the excessively prescriptive and detailed legislation that removes flexibility. Essentially, I am arguing for us to concentrate on fostering a climate in which Parliament, Government, industry and civil society share perspectives, best practice and expertise to deliver a more adaptable and responsive regulatory approach, based on partnership and co-ordination, rather than top-down legislation. In other words, we need underpinning legislation for a coherent, co-operative style of governance.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way to me a second time. May I respond to the very good point made by the hon. Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley)? Is it not also the case that there is a lot of existing legislation that applies as much to the internet as to any other form of communication and behaviour, whether it takes place in the real world or the virtual world—for example, libel laws—and that new legislation is often not necessary if the existing legislation is properly applied?
Indeed. This is about good legislation, rather than the internet. I take great pride in certain legislation with which I was associated, such as the Ragwort Control Act 2003, the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, because properly framed legislation will stand the test of time. In the examples that I have given, it was a case of using capacity that already existed and simply providing underpinning legislation that would allow the real mischief to be tackled. The real mischief is the behaviour, rather than the technology.
On the issue of parliamentary representation and how we bring people together, Mr Speaker kindly hosted an event last year for representatives of different parliamentary groups engaged with internet-related issues, along with those concerned with international issues, particularly the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and those who serve the House through PICT—Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology—and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. That gave us the impetus to link the informal work undertaken by parliamentarians in partnership with industry to the mainstream and formal work of the House, so we have merged the long-standing Parliamentary Information Technology Committee, or PITCOM, and a relative youngster, the all-party group on the digital economy, to form the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum, which is an associate parliamentary group.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk for the work that he has done to ensure that Parliament has a well-informed and vibrant all-party group that benefits from the solid and senior engagement of both MPs and representatives of business and industry. We are delighted that Mr Speaker has agreed to be the president of the new group to signal the importance of that development. We are adopting a new and innovative model, with parliamentarians in the lead. Individual officers of the new group, across parties, some of whom are present, are taking responsibility for different parts of the work, which will include ordinary meetings, as held in the past by PITCOM. Lively discussions have been brought into the new group by members of the former group. We have continued the successful primary schools competition, “Make IT Happy”, with which many parliamentarians have become increasingly engaged and which was endorsed by the Minister in the House only last week.
We have a CEO forum, at which a strong representation of chief executives—no representatives or delegations are allowed—and of parliamentarians debate big issues with experts. For instance, on Monday, we were joined by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and by Professor Ian Hargreaves, whose work will be familiar to the Minister and whose recent report deals with intellectual property, which is important to our economy. Past discussions focused on a range of important issues, from cloud computing and cyber-security to the growth agenda and the boosting of UK technology skills; I know that the Minister has taken part in one of the discussions.
We have not needed to. We have had three Ministers this year by mutual agreement, and I am pleased by that response. Ministers have been prepared to come to meet us and industry representatives. The fact that Ministers and parliamentarians are at the table brings chief executives there, and the fact that chief executives come complements the other meetings that we have, in which people with more technical or detailed knowledge are able to take part. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire prompts me to note that I had missed out a reference to the British-American Parliamentary Group, another of the distinguished band of organisations that are important in the work.
I have already referred to the fact that the arrangements are already working in relation to our communications with the Home Secretary. In response to the request for comment, we have received responses from a number of parliamentarians, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), the hon. Members for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and others who were more frequently involved in the all-party group’s work. Key points were made that the riots were not a breakdown of society as a whole, but isolated incidents of unrest followed relentlessly by the 24-hour media, and that the internet and online social networks were a channel for a widespread outpouring of positivity and reconstructive effort after the riots. That must be considered in balance with the use of the internet by some people to organise some of the activity. In the case of the police in Manchester, when people tweeted to say where the next activity was going to take place, the police tweeted back to say, “Thanks for telling us. We will be there too.” Therefore, it is not all one way.
Part of PICTFOR’s role is to raise our game at the international level, persuading more parliamentarians to engage with the IGF, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the IPU, and directly with members of overseas Parliaments, particularly the Americans, whom we are engaging through an annual internet event in Congress. The most important aspects are to use the partnership between MPs and industry representatives to inform Parliament in the mainstream rather than at the periphery, to ensure that we continue to punch above our weight in protecting the concept of an open, co-operative and multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance, and to fight off attempts to impose a centralised and bureaucratic approach to managing the internet, whether in terms of critical infrastructure, online behaviour or the exploitation—in a positive sense—of the internet’s potential.
We are bringing together opinions from industry and Parliament. I wish I had some time to enumerate the comments that have come in. We had hoped for a longer debate, but we are grateful for the opportunity today to raise these issues. We intend to summarise all the issues and provide them to both the Minister and MPs to inform future debates.
Just to pick up one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, there will be one debate a year to look at the overarching issues with the internet. The internet touches on so many issues that there are bound to be debates on Bills and on the Adjournment regarding specific issues, including those that have been raised by some hon. Members in their interventions on me.
My message to parliamentarians and to business is that, although good governance may sound boring, it is essential. Banking governance was boring, until the failure of governance in the world’s banks brought the international financial structures to collapse. Let us avoid such a debacle online by fighting for good co-operative governance of the internet now.
At a time of massive constraints on the public purse—I will not go into the discussion about whether they need to come so fast or cut so deep—it is not just tempting to use the efficiency of the net to deliver public services, but right and essential. However, that would involve a massive improvement in the quality of public procurement, of which I had some experience as a Minister. It is vital to recognise that some 40% of those who are not online at the moment were shown in recent research to be so resistant to going online that they would not do so even if they were provided with free broadband and a free computer. Some may be resistant or even perversely reluctant; others may simply be unable to cope. That latter group includes some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It follows that the exploitation of online delivery options by the Government needs to be costed in a way that ensures the availability of services to those who do not go online, which might involve paying for facilitation, perhaps at local libraries or in post offices. However, if it is not built into the Government’s model, it will bring online delivery into disrepute and widen the digital divide into a chasm, ultimately creating a problem that will involve even more expense to solve than building in the solution at the design stage.
Cloud computing is often highlighted as a challenge to public services, but in many ways, it is already with us. The challenge, in my view, is good management, including good data management, rather than major issues of principle. Security of infrastructure and our national security are enormously important, and they are given considerable emphasis by the Government. However, it is also important to deal with the low-level crime and nuisance activity that face people every day. I am pleading for a broken windows approach to the internet. Having succeeded in local crime reduction, that approach would be able to help us in the online world.
I am also a little concerned about the language that is creeping into the discussion. I challenged some police officers who talked about “cyber” as if it were a term of art to describe a discrete chunk of reality. They responded by saying that the police were merely reflecting the language of Ministers. If that is the case—I am not sure that it is—we need to change the language. Internet-related crime is not entirely about technology; indeed it is mainly about human behaviour and criminal activity. The use of the internet is relevant only in the same way that a burglar uses a motorway or footpath to reach someone’s house to break in.
Regarding the police’s attitude to cyber-crime, does my right hon. Friend agree that all serving police officers should be knowledgeable of the way in which the internet can be used for crime? Does he also agree that to criticise those serving in the back offices of the police and to imply that we can tackle crime by being only on the physical front line does the police no service and may reduce the possibility of tackling virtual crime?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is part of the discussion that we have been having in the Select Committee on Home Affairs on what constitutes the front line and the back office. Protection against the use of the internet for organised crime, as well as some of the issues that have already been raised, is extremely important.
A friend of mine has recently become a special constable. When people are recruited to become special constables, it is very much about being on the front line, patrolling the streets. However, in the cyber-age, we should perhaps also invite people to become special constables to work on issues such as cyber-crime and on using the internet as a tool for policing.
The Minister’s comments reflect something I said a while ago in the presence of some people from the Metropolitan police. They included Charlie McMurdie, who said afterwards, “Yes, it’s a good idea—we’re already doing it.” The Minister is absolutely on the ball, and some police forces are very much up to date, but others are not enabling staff on the front desk to tell people what they need to do when they wander into the police station and say, “This has happened. What should I do?” We therefore need to improve communication and to make better, more focused use of Get Safe Online, as I said.
The more we use language that emphasises the human damage, rather than the technology, the more likely we are properly to inform public policy and to reassure the public. That is why I am a bit dubious of using the word “cyber” as if it identified something different and discrete from human behaviour.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that most cyber-crime, so to speak, is conducted by sophisticated organised criminals, who, in effect, have their own cyber-crime divisions? The only way we will tackle cyber-crime is by getting the message out there that we have to tackle these massive organised gangs.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Actually, the police are getting on top of tackling criminal activity by organised gangs, and it is perhaps right that they do not talk too much about how they do that, because it is not far distant from the work they do in combating terrorist activity. What does affect public confidence are the low-level things, and we probably need more engagement with Get Safe Online and more public information in that respect.
I was about to apologise for taking rather longer than I had intended, but I have taken quite a large number of interventions. Given the need to focus on internet governance and the report from Nairobi, I have had time to touch only briefly on some enormously important issues. However, I hope this is only the first such debate, and I look forward to hearing from other Back Benchers and the Minister.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing the debate, on the great work he continues to do on this issue and on his role in helping to establish the Internet Governance Forum. I fully appreciate that he kindly took a large number of interventions, so I shall skip through my remarks at speed to let other Members participate in the debate.
The forum tries to answer the impossible question of how we regulate the internet, which is a global information resource used by more than 1 billion people. The Minister showed great leadership in attending the sixth conference in Nairobi, because he has allowed Members to become collegiate and to work almost on a cross-party basis in trying to tackle the issues before us.
The forum has done great work in establishing transparency and an acceptance that the internet is too important, and evolves too quickly, to be left to the traditional models of regulation and to international treaties. It focuses on developing an understanding of emerging challenges, pulling together a vast array of stakeholders to tackle them.
Underpinning the work of every group and every one of the 125 nations involved in the forum’s sixth meeting in Kenya was the desire to build safety into internet access, whether to protect vulnerable children from exploitation or nation states from cyber-attack. The challenges we face on the internet are so wide-ranging that they encompass everything from cyber-bullying—the UK Council for Child Internet Safety does excellent work on that—right the way up to the possibility of cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure by terrorists or rogue nation states.
Today, I want to focus on the mobile internet, which has probably been the fastest growing technology in history and has changed how we as a society interact with the internet. First, however, I want briefly to say something about the riots, because there was some talk about them earlier. Everybody has talked about social platforms and social networks, but they are not what causes the fear. As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, Manchester police were probably grateful for the tweets telling them where the next riotous behaviour would take place. What people are concerned about, however, is BlackBerry Messenger and the fact that the information on it is encrypted. That is the type of area where we need to think about regulation. How do we regulate an organisation whose information is encrypted on servers that are not based in this country? That is the issue we need to tackle, and I would be interested to hear any comments the Minister has.
To return to the mobile internet, the UK now has 1.3 mobile devices for every man, woman and child. A real explosion in data traffic is under way. Ofcom’s analysis shows that data usage increased by 3,700% between 2007 and 2010, and independent analysts estimate that network traffic over mobile networks will increase sixfold by 2014. Internet-based traffic globally will grow by more than 2 billion usages, 85% of which will involve a mobile device.
The new smart phones have led the way in enabling customers to access new digital applications and services. More than 50% of all teenagers now have smart phones and use them to surf the internet, send e-mails and use social networking sites. I am slightly older than a teenager—in fact, I am almost twice as old—but I pop my laptop on only once a week, and I use my smart phone to do my internet banking, to deal with my e-mails and to do everything else. A huge number of teenagers no longer have laptops; instead, they have smart phones, iPads, tablets and other such devices. We are therefore moving away from needing to regulate what we might think of as the wired internet and towards needing to regulate the mobile internet, and there was some discussion at the IGF about whether we needed different regulations for the wired internet and the mobile internet.
High-performance mobile capability has the potential to allow services and speeds significantly to increase, compared with what we know today. For example, there has been huge debate about providing access to broadband coverage in rural areas, and mobile internet gives us the opportunity to do that.
Other benefits of the increasing use of mobile broadband applications include increasing access to, and lowering the cost of, health care by using solutions that remotely monitor patients and provide real-time data to clinicians. Online health e-systems, which all the mobile phone operators are developing, touch on an issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman: which Department is responsible for regulating such things? Is it the Department of Health or the Home Office? Furthermore, how do we regulate something that pervades and touches every aspect of our lives?
Mobile-enabled machine-to-machine technologies are supporting the roll-out of smart energy grids via smart meters in premises. Analysts suggest that this segment of the UK economy will grow by 30% per annum over the next five years. Is it the responsibility of the Department of Energy and Climate Change or another Department to regulate such things?
Another benefit of the increasing use of mobile broadband is the ability to mobilise and empower citizens through e-government, e-learning and e-volunteering. Getting involved in that way encapsulates what is meant by the big society.
Mobile broadband is crucial in supporting universal access to broadband across the UK and to delivering digital inclusion. It will be the technology of choice for many because of its convenience and the wide geographical access it allows. It will deliver broadband access to many rural areas that have never had mobile or fixed broadband.
However, Ofcom must structure next year’s auction of 4G mobile broadband spectrum so that it rebalances competition in holdings of spectrum ownership and supports competition in coverage. Spectrum policy is vital to maintaining competition in the delivery of mobile broadband coverage. At issue is the allocation of wireless spectrum, the lifeblood of mobile and wireless networks.
The potential for a severe spectrum crunch looms over the next decade, and even international regulators have started to point out that substantial amounts of new spectrum will be needed to drive the continued growth of the mobile wireless industry. Will the Minister consider reviewing the process for allocating spectrum so that we can give it to those who can use it to generate economic growth?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on obtaining the debate, and on his leadership of the new group, the Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology Forum, of which the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) is also a member. PICTFOR is making good strides towards getting people from different places around the table for a series of debates, to which the internet is central.
I shall be as swift as I can, Mr Benton, so that another hon. Member can speak. I want to reflect quickly on the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, which the Minister attended. Several other colleagues were there too, and I should make the same declaration as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth with respect to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and Nominet sponsorship. It seemed to me that there were interesting thematic divides at the forum that reflected discussions and debates that we have—or often do not have—here. It is clear, as has already been alluded to, that some Governments see the internet primarily as a threat, whereas others see it as a benefit, but with substantial caveats. The rest of us—although we are not perfect in any respect—tend to see the internet as best advanced through collaboration, common sense and a multi-stakeholder approach. Although the divide is not unbridgeable, in some respects it creates very different perspectives. A society that is not open at the best of times will have some difficulty with the way it manages the internet. That is not to be critical of emerging countries, which have their own challenges, but we hope we can help them to come to a benign or constructive impression of how the power of the internet can be harnessed to everyone’s benefit.
In this place we tend to discuss technicalities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned the Digital Economy Act 2010 and relatively few hon. Members engaged with that, although more would do so now, since last year’s intake. The reason relatively few engaged with the issue was largely that not a great deal of party politics was involved. It is a bit annoying that the Government insist on being commonsensical on most of the issues; we would rather it were different, as it would make our job as party politicians a lot easier, but it behoves us all to look at the intelligent arguments for pursuing one or another course of action. Of course, there are conflicting ideas about how to approach matters such as copyright, which was mentioned earlier, and freedom of use. I shall not bang on at length, but the Hargreaves report on intellectual property rights seems to me to be an intelligent step forward. It is super that the Government have accepted all 10 of Professor Ian Hargreaves’s recommendations. We must be aware that in the coming years it will be a constant—battle is probably too strong a term—contest, perhaps, to ensure that the multi-stakeholder approach that we are calling for endures, and we do not end up with an over-regulated internet. As with anything else, over-regulation would damage it and it would fall apart. That was one of the significant themes I identified.
A couple of my colleagues made interventions earlier in the debate, which were perfectly understandable and intelligent, and the kind of things that our constituents raise with us all the time, about bad things that might happen on the internet. An academic called Dr Vicki Nash, who was also at the IGF, said on the UK IGF Network:
“We spend a great deal of time balancing risks, identifying potential harms or assessing trade-offs in key values which does little to convince those who are ambivalent about getting online. Isn’t it time we redressed the balance?”
Through no fault of ours—well, who knows; perhaps it is our fault to some degree—there is an awareness in society about potential risks, but less of an awareness of the enormous benefits of the internet. We often think about internet issues through the prism of fear. It seems to me that it would be good if, over time, partly through the leadership of this place and the kind of language we use, we were to try to move beyond that. I suspect that to some degree it boils down to theories of human nature, if that is not too grand. On the whole people will use new things to do good things. We must do what we can to prevent the bad stuff, but inevitably bad stuff will happen, and we must minimise that. However, if we continue to think about the internet and its governance through the prism of fear, we will end up over-regulating it.
It is worth referring to a couple of other observations that were made by some of us at the IGF, which were helpfully referred to on the ukigf.org.uk website. One was that some emerging economies or developing countries are concerned about EU blocking practices. I do not mean to say that the practices they have in mind are wrong, with respect to the examples I heard in Kenya, but they see it as a restrictive practice. Lots of stuff coming out of Nigeria gets blocked automatically, because of the country’s reputation—deserved or otherwise—for economic crime on the internet. I have never replied to an email by giving my bank account details in the hope of getting the $10 million lodged in my account, so I am not sure how much of what is said is fear-mongering and how much is real, but nevertheless it has led to some emerging countries having their country domain names blocked. That is a pity and I hope that over time the Government, in conjunction with other Governments around the world, can do something about the relevant perceptions and practices.
I had not come across the Internet Society before I went to Nairobi. It is a very good organisation, with a good website, showing a series of models of how the internet could evolve. One model is called the common pool: that is, generally, a bit of tussle and roughness along the way, with, in the end, people stressing the collaboration, competition and sound evolution of the internet. There are other models, showing the risks of over-regulation. Governments might over-regulate because they fear the consequences in their own countries—if they fear freedom of speech, for example. Over-regulation might come about because large commercial interests demand that walls are put up for their commercial reasons. We must guard carefully against that and I recommend looking at those models on the isoc.org website.
I have been reading a book called “The Revolution Will Be Digitised” by Heather Brooke. Many hon. Members will know who she is. I do not see her around here much; perhaps that is for her own protection. She has written a pretty good book, actually. It is a romp through things that have happened—particularly, from the past year or two, WikiLeaks. She mentions the Icelandic modern media initiative, and that pooling of different legislation together for good use is quite interesting. I do not say that it is necessarily the exact model for the future, but it will be interesting to watch it as it evolves in the Icelandic Parliament.
Ms Brooke raises an issue that is a core aspect of another of the divides in our discussions of the internet, and the WikiLeaks phenomenon is central to it. There is a trend among some people to laud the release of information for its own sake, and to see that as reflecting a sound, open internet. I am currently a member of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, and it is my opinion that a balance must be struck between such openness and privacy. I am not as negative as some hon. Members about the Pirate parties, because I see them as putting a polemical argument that can be deconstructed and can be seen to have some valid points. The clash of ideas is important. It is necessary to listen to those parties’ lines of argument, make sense of them and break down some of their assumptions. I have found that they will often accept an argument, and they are a useful addition to the mix—not that I am encouraging any kind of piracy, obviously. The important thing is that we will have to find a balance between privacy—and everyone, including the pirates, stresses the importance of that—and the free flow of information. I do not propose to present the full solution in the next 30 seconds, but it is an important theme, which came out at the IGF.
When the IGF was held in Nairobi the Kenyan Government did a super job and flew the flag very well for emerging economies. I took the opportunity, while I was there, to have a long meeting with the Rwandan Foreign Minister. As the Minister knows, this Government have followed the path laid by the previous Administration and formed close contacts with the Rwandan Government. They have also provided strong budgetary support. Rwanda is not a perfect regime, but it is a progressive and positive force. One of things that it has done of which it is proud is to install fibre optic cables across Rwanda. Clearly, it wants to be at the forefront of the internet age, which is a big challenge for such a poor country. I have a particular interest in Rwanda and have found that people refer to Rwanda in all sorts of ways; sometimes they say good things and other times not such good things. When it comes to the internet though, Rwanda is making a genuine effort to bring the benefits of the internet to an impoverished, developing country—albeit one that will hopefully reach middle-income status in the next nine years, which would be a remarkable feat.
I encourage the Minister not to see the internet through a prism of fear, cyborgs and men in shiny suits. We are not talking about the silent footfall of the mad cyborg axeman. He should look at the whole area in a constructive way and accept that the divides that exist can often be overcome by intelligent discussion and debate, as I have found in recent discussions with corporate stakeholders and ISPs. The Minister should perhaps reflect on that fact. It behoves all of us to remember the enormous potential benefits that mobile networks and mobile access will bring to Africa.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing the debate. As members of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee, now the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum, we have attended some fascinating discussions over the past year on many of the areas under discussion today. The IGF in Nairobi covered a wide area and was entitled, “The Internet as a Catalyst for Change: Access, Development, Freedoms and Innovation.” In my short speech today, I should like to focus on just one area—access, which has already been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). This one topic includes many elements, covering traditional wired access, the mobile internet, accessibility to the internet and the right of access of many people to the internet.
The most readily understood element of access is the wired access provided by phone lines and fibre-optic cabling. This country has a relatively strong position in that area. My home city of Edinburgh is among the best. According to a recent Ofcom study, it has an average maximum broadband speed of 10.1 megabits per second. Only 4.5% of people receive less than 2 megabits a second. I think that we can guess who represents all of them. Many rural and urban areas still lag behind. Kirkliston, a village barely 10 miles from the centre of Edinburgh, has speeds on its copper infrastructure of generally less than 1 megabit a second. Such speeds make real functional access for both individuals and businesses nigh on impossible.
I welcome the £68.8 million pledged by the Government as a contribution towards upgrading Scotland’s infrastructure. However, that money now sits in a bank account waiting for a strategy from the Scottish Government to emerge some time next year, which is not a great help to my constituents.
To be honest, the problem, or indeed the opportunity, is not really wired access but the mobile internet, a technology whose growth has outstripped all others and which, worldwide, will transform how the internet is accessed and, therefore, governed. Today, about half of all internet users, and a seventh of the world’s population, have already moved to mobile internet. A recent industry survey estimated that mobile broadband subscriptions would reach 3.8 billion or about half the world’s population by 2015. Another report predicted that by 2015, traffic from wireless devices would exceed traffic from wired devices. To date, the mobile internet has possibly been the fastest growing technology in history, but even that takes us only partially towards the access envisaged by the title of the IGF debate this year.
Everything I have talked about so far deals merely with the pipes and not with what comes out at the end. By that I mean the obvious difference between access and accessibility, which in itself covers many areas. There is an urgent need to consider how information is presented on the internet. There was much talk at the IGF of a move to a more multilingual internet and one that looks to put all users of the internet on an equal footing. Taking that down to local level, I am having a new parliamentary website designed with the help of the plain English campaign. In doing that, I have to take into account accessibility for users with varied needs. That is something that many companies and Departments need to spend a great deal more time on.
Equality of access across the world raises even more basic questions. The UN rapporteur on human rights has called for access to the internet to be a human right, giving individuals, as it sometimes does, their only access to an unfettered flow of information and a right to freedom of expression. That poses an interesting question for me, sitting as I do on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and on PITCOM; I am straddling both those strands.
In the past, many countries, Kenya included, have faced challenges to shut down or limit access to the internet. The internet in general and the social networks in particular have heightened our awareness of many such issues. For example, they were used to co-ordinate many of the uprisings in the Arab spring and the riots in this country.
We must stand by free, unlimited internet access in this country and abroad. The internet is fast becoming one of the key engines of economic and social transformation and growth across the globe. The internet governance framework will be an important way of ensuring that we focus not only on physical access but on access to freedoms of expression and association. I hope the Minister will rapidly do all he can to push forward both sides of that access agenda.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Benton. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing this extremely important debate. Ironically, when the Minister and I were debating one of the world’s oldest technologies this morning, this place was packed out. Now, we are at the cutting edge of technology and there are far fewer people, which is perhaps not the best reflection on parliamentarians.
What has emerged this afternoon is the complexity of the issues and how difficult it is to get the balance right. I was struck yesterday by the impact that the net is having on business development in this country. Despite the recession, net-based firms are expanding at a phenomenal rate and are completely bucking all trends. We are also aware of the positive role that the net and mobile devices have in developing countries. They enable people to know which markets to take their produce to and to save time on travel when travel links are not very good. It is clear that there are many positive benefits to be had.
Children and young people’s capability on the net and their capacity to use it for positive purposes are way ahead of the rest of us. Politically speaking, we have seen in north Africa and the middle east the huge impact of the net on enabling people to communicate. That had two benefits: access to ideas, which was not previously available to people there, and the facility for communicating swiftly, which was undoubtedly significant.
At the same time, however, there are risks and we need to consider the public policy aspects of the internet. One public policy aspect that I shall be interested to hear about from the Minister is whether the internet service providers or the owners of the technology are themselves competing in a proper market. Because the technology has emerged very quickly and because some firms have grown very speedily, I wonder whether there is both monopolistic and monopsonistic control of some parts of the market. We need to think about that issue, because obviously a firm such as Google, which has grown very quickly, is technology-based. In a way, one could almost say that it is a happy accident that Google has been so successful. One can imagine that similar market power held by other companies might not be quite so beneficial. We need to address that issue.
Labour endorses the report by Ian Hargreaves on intellectual property. We look forward to the implementation of many of his recommendations.
My hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) spoke about crime on the internet. There are many dimensions, but I want to say something about child safety online and online harassment. A major piece of work is being done at the moment by some colleagues about online stalking, which is emerging as a significant problem. I wonder whether people take online stalking seriously enough and realise how terrifying and harassing it can be. We hope for some developments on that issue.
One of the things that I have noticed in the short time that I have been in the job of shadow justice Minister is that for many of the proposed protections people are supposed to engage in self-protection. For example, I went to a meeting last week where I was told by BT that it was quite simple for people to organise online protection for their children on their home computer; it was supposed to be perfectly straightforward. I went home, tried to do it and could not make the computer work for the next 24 hours.
I reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth: it is important that we discuss different aspects of the issue in different parts of the House and think about the different elements of behaviour that impact on people. It is also important that we take understanding of the internet, its implications and its governance beyond people interested in the technology involved, because as my right hon. Friend said we cannot simply have technological solutions.
It is clear that there is a group of people who think that the internet should be like the forest in the 14th century—a place where outlaws can run free and unrestrained. That is not realistic and it is not what any of us who are here for this debate want. I respect my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), but we have learned that piracy is not a very good idea. From the 16th century to today, we have had increasing developments in the international law of the sea.
I was not suggesting that piracy is a good idea and I was not referring to Somalia. I was simply saying that it is good to listen to polemical arguments sometimes, because sometimes they are made with considerable force. I would also caution against situations where some interests—I am not being negative about corporate interests—will sometimes use the internet to extend their control, such as was the case when someone wanted a book loan in the past but were not able to pay to file-share.
My hon. Friend makes a good point—I was only teasing him. However, the fact is that we have been told on a number of occasions that we cannot control things that are problematic on the internet because it is international; that was the first set of responses when people were raising concerns about the internet. Well, what that tells us is that we must have international governance arrangements. I am very pleased that so many of my colleagues, from all parties in the House, were in Nairobi to look at the international governance arrangements.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point indeed, but there is more connection between what she is saying and what my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) said than might immediately appear. One of the problems is getting two groups of people who take a diametrically different view from each other into the same room to have a debate. We have seen that in relation to intellectual property and exploitation of the internet. In that sense, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk is right to say that we must not close anyone out of the argument, even if we ultimately reject the case that they are making. We must have a joined-up approach so that as far as possible everybody is in the room having the debates and understanding each other’s point of view.
Of course. My right hon. Friend speaks with experience and good sense about the need to take account of different perspectives. I also thought what he said about the nature of rules is important. He said that they need to be values-based, outcomes-based and technologically neutral. That is absolutely the right approach. Privacy offers an important example. It is no more acceptable to invade a person’s privacy using one technology than it is using another. Everybody must understand that, but sometimes we behave as if it is not the case.
That point raises another issue, which is whether different technologies tend to encourage different sorts of behaviour. If I were to tell you something quietly in the corridor, Mr Benton, and said, “Please don’t repeat this to anybody”, I am absolutely certain that you would not repeat it. Equally, if I was to go to my doctor and tell him something, and he wrote some notes down in handwriting and put them in a safe place, I would not be worried about them being leaked. However, in my mental health trust recently somebody took a memory stick out of the office, dropped it in the local car park and all the mental health records of everybody in County Durham became widely available. That kind of casualness or casual behaviour is more prevalent in the zone of computers. Although the values we use should be neutral in relation to the technology, I do not think that people’s behaviour is quite so neutral.
In conclusion, I hope that we can have further debates about this important issue in this Chamber.
It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I welcome the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) to her position as Labour spokesman on communications and creative industries.
I pay a heartfelt tribute to the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), not just for securing this debate but for his leadership on this important issue, both as a Minister and since leaving post. In the spirit of co-operation that I think has characterised the debate, let me put on record how helpful he has been to me as a new Minister, in establishing myself in the post and finding my way around it. His co-operation and knowledge sharing has helped me to get up to speed and to continue, I hope, to represent the UK effectively in these important debates. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who was with us at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, is now following these matters very closely, and will be an important contributor to debates on this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) for his contribution on broadband, and I shall briefly touch on that issue now before turning, in the main part of my response, to internet governance. On the issue of the spectrum, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), we obviously know that the internet is very important. At lunchtime, I was at a retail store with people we were encouraging to get online—there is a campaign called “Give an hour”, run by Martha Lane Fox. Pat Harran, Mohammed Mir, Errol Hall and someone called Pitchit were there to get online, and I promised I would mention them so that they could look up Hansard online. Showing them how to find a Hansard debate on the Parliament website on an iPad was instructive because it was almost impossible; there is a message there for the parliamentary authorities.
I learnt an interesting statistic today that marries my two responsibilities in culture and communications. During the Frieze art fair, which lasted just four days and had 60,000 visitors, 1 terabit—a trillion bits of information—was downloaded. Incidentally, 85% of visitors were using an iPhone or an iPad, which shows the dominance of Apple, at least in trendy circles such as contemporary art. In 1993, 100 terabits was the entire amount of information transferred across the internet—I was virtually middle-aged then—so we can see how things have changed in a short time. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and the hon. Member for Edinburgh West are entirely correct to focus on the spectrum, and it is vital that Ofcom gets the auction rules right and that we are able to auction the 4G spectrum as soon as possible, because otherwise it will become more and more difficult to use the smart phone gadgets on which we all depend.
Turning to the substance of the debate, which is the Internet Governance Forum and the multi-stakeholder approach, I shall recount a short anecdote for the benefit of the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. The Foreign Secretary does not like the term “multi-stakeholder”; indeed, he has said that it is an ugly term, and at the London conference, which begins next week, I think he plans to use “co-operative governance”, which is a bit of a mouthful for a Conservative—he might even stretch to “mutual governance”. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary’s power will shift us away from “multi-stakeholder engagement,” but that is the term that people across the world understand.
The conference in Nairobi was very useful. I went because of the persuasion of the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, and I am grateful that people said it was good to see a Minister there. It was certainly worth my while, and I will continue to go as long as I hold this job, because it is important to have a presence there and engage with not just stakeholders but Government representatives who might have a different approach. The multi-stakeholder model is not universally accepted, and different models have been put forward. The right hon. Gentleman knows that moves are afoot to transfer responsibility for internet governance to the International Telecommunication Union—the ITU. The UK Government does not support that, and so in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, we will continue, I hope, to lead on this issue and support the multi-stakeholder approach.
There is a proposal from India, Brazil and South Africa, known as the IBSA model, to set up a new global body within the UN system, but I think that that would be an unravelling of the world summit on the information society—WSIS—principles that were established, thanks to the right hon. Gentleman, in Tunis in 2005. In addition, China and Russia have submitted to the UN General Assembly a proposal for the international management of the internet.
I subscribe to the multi-stakeholder model. The internet was built from the ground up. It is an innovative medium, and not just Governments but other stakeholders, civil society groups and business all must have their say if it is to remain so. One reason for the debate in this area is the continued role of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Recently, there have been concerns about ICANN’s approach regarding the .xxx domain name, but I am glad that as a result we have had significant reforms of the corporation and a more coherent role for its Government Advisory Committee—GAC—and are now well placed for the corporation to move forward, particularly as it releases more generic top-level domain names from next year.
We also have the re-letting of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority—IANA—contract, which is currently operated by ICANN under the auspices of the US Government. It is absolutely clear that the US Government take their responsibility in that regard very seriously, as a steward for the global internet. People who suggest that they would somehow seek to turn off the internet are completely wrong —there is even an untrue anecdote that they cut off Syria four or five years ago. It is important, however, that the US recognises such concerns, and I think that it does. For example, when the IANA contract is let, it might go to ICANN or it could go to another body, and that will be seen as a global body, although it will be registered in the US. Local law will apply to the country that owns the domain name, so .uk will continue to be subject to UK law. In any dispute, the relevant domestic law of the domain name will prevail.
In consideration of new generic top-level domains, there will be a requirement for community support for IANA to amend the root and thus add a new domain—.scot for example—to protect us against controversial root domain names coming forward. The operator of IANA will also have to introduce enhanced transparency so that a request for root zone changes can be tracked through the system. I hope that people who feel that somehow a UN or an ITU route would be better—in that it would reduce the influence of the Americans— understand that the Americans do not seek to influence the governance of the internet and that they regard themselves very much as stewards.
I have very little time left, but I am glad that I have covered the main points: support for the multi-stakeholder approach; concern about the two proposals that I have mentioned; contentment that the issue between GAC and ICANN has, I think, been resolved and moved forward; and the United States Government’s recognition and addressing of the concerns about the re-letting of the IANA contract. We have the important London conference on cyberspace next week, and I hope that some of the Members present will be able to attend. If not, I ask them to please let me know. I am sure that they will be able to attend if the problem is at our end.
Let me make a couple of other points. There is the importance of internet protocol version 6. We have run out, as it were, of domain names and need to move to IPv6, and I want to use this opportunity to call on industry, particularly the internet service providers and the mobile operators, to support 6UK, which is the business body charged with raising awareness of IPv6. So far, support has not been forthcoming, and it now needs to come from the people who will reap the main benefit—the ISPs and the mobile operators. On the philosophical approach—if I may put it that way—that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland took, there is potentially common ground between us. I am interested in her monopolistic and mons—
I will not even try to say it. I will not give any views on that approach because I do not want to set any hares running.
There is also the self-regulatory approach to try to protect people from inappropriate content on the internet, and I welcome the ISPs’ code of conduct on active choice, which is designed to do precisely what the hon. Lady says, to give parents easy tools with which to protect their children. My approach with these businesses is to say, “This is the policy problem. You have the technical knowledge, so help us to solve it. Don’t simply say, ‘It can’t be done’.”
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Alan. This is the second time that I have secured a debate in Westminster Hall on fuel poverty. The first time was last January, when we had just had the coldest December on record and, as we spoke, many of us continued to feel the effects of the cold. I called for that debate because I was troubled and concerned about the number of constituents who had contacted me to tell me that they were feeling the effects of the terrible cold weather. I said then, as I say now, that fuel poverty is a black mark on society. It is up to us to do something about poverty anywhere, whenever anyone is impoverished. I say that not from the point of view of the Government or as a politician, but as a human being.
I was heartened and encouraged by last January’s debate. After listening to the response of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), I really felt that we got it. However, I find myself talking about the subject again today. Ten months later, the average annual bill for a dual fuel customer is £1,293, or 6% of median household income, compared with 3.3% in 2004. That means that an average family on an average income are edging ever closer to the disastrous figure of 10% of their income going on fuel bills.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. My constituency in Devon, which is a rural community, has low income and great rurality. There is a higher percentage of pensioners in Devon than in any other part of the country. Many members of my rural community use fuel oil, as opposed to gas, and it is twice the price, so I share his concern about this problem.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that concern. Rural communities are harder hit because, as she has said, they use oil, the market price for which is out of control. Something needs to be done. I will not mention that too much during the debate, but I hope that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), will touch on it when he responds.
If an average family is being put into fuel poverty, we have serious problems. We talked about fuel prices in the main Chamber last Wednesday and it was evident that the Government need to review their energy policy. I am not going to talk today about how bad the energy companies have been—I mentioned that enough during my contribution to last Wednesday’s debate—but there needs to be root-and-branch reform. If I started going on about that today, I do not think that it would add to the debate in any respect, because, at the end of the day, fuel poverty is a matter of life and death for so many people and so many of our constituents. It means making the heart-breaking decision between eating a meal and heating their house.
I could cite a number of examples of older people who only put on one bar of their fire, or who heat only one room, to reduce their fuel costs. As I said in the Chamber last week, constituents have said to me, “I sit in the living room with my coat on, because I can’t afford the heating,” and, “I go bed at 8 pm, because when I’m in bed I don’t use heating.” It is absolutely terrible.
It is in vogue at the moment to blame the Labour party for everything. When buses are late or trains do not turn up, I am sure that, somewhere along the line, somebody will blame the Labour party. Despite such brickbats, I am proud that the previous Labour Government did all they could to address fuel poverty and improve the energy efficiency of homes.
As I said during last week’s debate, it is all very well to tell people to shop around but, if all the energy companies are putting up their prices across the board, how can people shop around? I also said that energy is not a luxury item—people have to have it. It is not possible to have superfast energy in the same way as it is to have superfast broadband. How can people shop around? It is a failure of the market. If we are going to ask people to shop around, the Government need to encourage more entrants into the market.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the failure of the market, energy prices in Scandinavia—in Sweden and Denmark—are higher than those in the UK, possibly because the UK has a more free market. In Scandinavia, however, they make a more comprehensive effort to make sure that they are energy-efficient, which makes a real difference in terms of fuel poverty, because their prices are actually higher.