I beg to move,
That this House has considered BBC investment in the East and West Midlands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. The east and west midlands have a proud history of broadcasting. Looking back through time, the first regional TV station was established in Sutton Coldfield in 1949. We were also the first to have a regional radio station, which was established in Birmingham in 1922, and the first ever colour TV studio was established in Birmingham in 1969.
It is not only in broadcasting that Birmingham and the west midlands lead the way. The west midlands is, of course, the centre of Britain’s creative talents. William Shakespeare, Jerome K. Jerome and J. R. R. Tolkien were all from the west midlands. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a disgrace that, although the west midlands contributes 25% of the licence fee, the BBC spends just 2% of its budget fostering creative talent in the region?
I will speak briefly on behalf of the east midlands. The hon. Gentleman missed out that the BBC Asian Network was created in Leicester and, under current proposals, will be moved from Leicester down to London, which is totally unacceptable.
I am grateful for that intervention. From the mood in the room, it is clear that we are proud of both the east midlands and the west midlands, and it is a shame that the BBC management in London do not recognise the importance of the broadcasting ability in the midlands. As the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) indicated, more than a quarter of all licence fee money is collected from the midlands, but investment in the region is as low as 2.05%, which is outrageous. The figure is a sixth of the amount spent in the north, 21% of the amount spent in the south and less than the broadcaster spends in London every 12 days.
I have served as a Member of Parliament for the east midlands as well as for the west midlands, so I hope that I take a balanced approach to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does he agree that it is astonishing that the BBC should neglect investment in Britain’s second city of Birmingham? The city is a centre for the creative arts, in addition to the point raised by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin). The BBC is cutting off its nose to spite its face; it is missing out on the huge array of talent in the east midlands and particularly the west midlands.
I am grateful for that intervention. Many of us will remember the great facility at Pebble Mill, which closed in 2004. Currently, the midlands has no network TV studios at all. The north has dozens. Once again, that demonstrates that the BBC does not invest in the midlands and does not take us seriously.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Birmingham is the city not just of Chamberlain but of Pebble Mill. Does he agree that it is absolutely wrong that £9 out of every £10 raised from the Birmingham licence fee payer is not spent in the midlands? Will he also join me in congratulating The Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail on their outstanding advocacy of a fair share for Birmingham and the midlands?
I absolutely join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the Birmingham Post. Its campaign has been a long-running one. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who since his election to this House has been very active in pursuing the issue.
To come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), there is a lot of history in the west midlands, particularly in Coventry, where “The Italian Job” was made. Film producers can do it in the midlands, so why cannot the BBC, when it is disposing of its resources? The west midlands could be called the economic powerhouse of this country, but we would not know that from the BBC.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. When we consider what the east and west midlands have to offer as backdrops for TV programme makers—the beautiful city of Lincoln, Sherwood Forest in my constituency—the great creative talents of Birmingham and Coventry, the spectacular restaurants of Leicestershire and the rolling hills of Derbyshire—[Interruption.] I am not familiar with what Stoke has to offer, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will educate me.
Ms Dorries, I will not try your patience by giving a long list of the marvellous things in north Staffordshire and in Stoke-on-Trent in particular, but will make the very serious point that Birmingham and other large conurbations are hard done by, but the far-flung places in the west and east midlands, such as Stoke-on-Trent, are even more neglected.
I acknowledge that. I hope that this debate will help the BBC management to understand its poor decision-making processes.
It is worth making comparisons on a per-head basis. If spending per licence fee payer was the same in the north as in the south, £473 million would be spent in the midlands.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really important point about expenditure on broadcasting, one that was brought home to me by my constituent Jean Vincent and her children, who all work in the creative industries and are having to travel further and further from Dudley to find work. She told me that it is estimated that, for every pound the BBC spends, £2 is generated in the wider economy. That makes BBC investment even more important and means that our creative industries in the midlands are losing out on hundreds of millions of pounds. Does he agree?
I wholly agree. If we pursue the hon. Gentleman’s argument that every pound that the BBC spends creates £2 in the local economy, the economy of the east and west midlands would benefit by £786 million—a substantial amount of investment.
Let us compare the midlands with other areas. In the midlands, the BBC spends £12.40 per head. In Wales, the figure is £122.24 per head; in Northern Ireland, it is £103.14 and in Scotland, £88.73. In the north of England, it is £80.24, and in London, it is a staggering £757.24. By any stretch of the imagination, that makes the midlands the poor relation when it comes to BBC investment.
I commend my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that one fundamental problem is that the BBC’s funding mechanism—the licence fee, which is backed by criminal sanctions for non-payment—means that midlands licence fee payers have little influence over the BBC’s spending strategy? However, if the BBC’s funding were moved to a voluntary subscription mechanism, that would give subscribers in the midlands a lot more power, and the BBC would not be able to ignore them in its spending strategy.
My hon. Friend has a long-standing record of being supportive of the BBC—of being a critical friend. The licence fee and a subscription service are a separate debate for another occasion.
One could argue that the midlands has always been the poor relation, but that is not true. Since 2009, spending in the midlands has fallen by 35.25%, to well below what is spent in London. In the same period, spending in London fell by 16.5%, but investment in the north rose by 217%, and every other region has seen increased investment, apart from the midlands.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman and other east midlands MPs will join me in bidding farewell to John Hess, the BBC’s political editor in the east midlands; we wish him well. I mention that to raise a serious point. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the BBC should continue to invest in good political journalism that explains to our constituents what is going on in this place? We would not want any of that to be cut in future months.
I absolutely agree. Not only do we have John Hess, the esteemed broadcaster, on east midlands TV, but we have good journalists right across the midlands, and they hold politicians like us to account very efficiently. The amount spent in the midlands is very low, but the quality of programmes is often very high. To me, that is an argument for the BBC to invest more in that efficient model, which is delivering more bang for every buck.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to that.
Every year, the BBC spends £89 million on its Broadcasting House headquarters in London—more than on the entire midlands region. As has been identified, none of the output for Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 5, BBC 2, BBC 3 or BBC 4 was made in the midlands last year, and no peak-time BBC programmes whatever were made there.
The midlands has no network TV studios, after the closure of Pebble Mill in 2004. As I said, there are dozens of studios in the north. BBC regional spending is up by 35%. Every region has seen an increase in spending over the last five years, except the midlands. It is an outrage that the midlands is pouring in more than a quarter of the licence fee money to get only a 2% return.
Absolutely. I wholly agree. When the BBC gets programming right, my constituents certainly respect and love what it does. My argument is not with what the BBC is doing; it is that the BBC should be doing more and investing more in a model that is very good and very robust and deserves more investment and support from London.
I am conscious that many other colleagues want to speak, so I will draw my comments to a close. I recognise that the Minister’s power to influence what the BBC does with its budget is small, but he meets its representatives regularly, and I hope that he will use the influence he does have to draw their attention to investment in the midlands and to the fact that we are the poor relation compared with other regions. Other colleagues in the House will also continue to draw the attention of BBC managers to the issue. I hope that at some point the BBC will listen, so that we can make some progress and get real investment in the midlands.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) for securing the debate. He is a strong advocate for his constituency and for the midlands as a whole. I declare an interest: I worked for the BBC from 2002 until 2007. I was the BBC News personal finance and consumer affairs reporter, based—I hasten to add—in London.
The motion is about BBC investment in the east and west midlands, and the truth is that there is far too little of it. In 2014, for each £145.50 of licence fee raised in the west midlands, only £12.40 came back to the region; as has been pointed out, that compares with a staggering £757 in London. There is also what economists call a multiplier effect, whereby every pound spent multiplies through the economy and people employed. As a result, licence fee money has a massive and disproportionate impact in London and Manchester rather than in Birmingham, which is the heart of our country and the only part of it to have a trade surplus with the EU; it is a strong powerhouse that is under-represented by the BBC, a national broadcaster.
Obviously, I would never countenance mass civil disobedience over the matter, but something will certainly be shared on social media later. A lot of people are interested in the debate. I am following on my iPad the live blog by Trinity Mirror Midlands’s Birmingham Post online, which is looking into this. Perhaps that is something that will spread around.
The hon. Gentleman is the MP for Solihull, so he knows, as I do, that the central problem facing the west midlands is our inability over decades to attract new jobs in new industries to replace the ones that we lost in traditional industries. Clearly, creative industries will generate hundreds of thousands of well paid jobs in the future. Does he agree that all of us—on both sides of the House and in the wider west midlands economy—should make it a priority to establish some sort of broadcasting hub in Birmingham and the west midlands to attract such jobs? We need to get our universities and the BBC working to attract jobs to the west midlands for the future.
That is an interesting idea and I would hope that the BBC would play such a role; it would if it were doing its job properly. It is ridiculous that the Mailbox seems to be full of the HR department, rather than of people making programming for our enjoyment. If the BBC were to do its job properly and to be genuinely representative of the strength of the east and west midlands, we would be seeing greater programming and a real hub—the broadcast hub that we are talking about.
I am wondering how we got into the situation that we are in, with a bipolar organisation between London and Manchester—a carve-up, perhaps. The last time the charter came in, after the sad demise of Dr David Kelly, the Hutton report and all those things were going on, as well as the falling out between the Government and the BBC. The then director-general, Mark Thompson, decided to have what I call a “Jim Hacker” moment—as in the “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” programmes. Suddenly the idea was to move lots of people from one part of the country to another and to call it regional diversity. The initiative was sold to the Government in good faith as extending regional programming and as the creation of a new hub in Manchester.
Looking at the output of the BBC these days, I question the purpose of moving thousands of staff to Salford from west London to produce the same programming in a different studio. The BBC has no regional character. When I was growing up in Chester and the west midlands—Biddulph, to be precise—we used to enjoy a lot of regionality in our programming; there were many more programmes and outside broadcasts specific to our region than there are today. Many of the studios established throughout the east and west midlands have now gone, and we are left with a skeleton staff in our region.
In that context, would the hon. Gentleman question the BBC’s figure that more than 50% of its output is produced outside London? All it has done is increase regional commuting, with people travelling from London to various hubs across the nation. It has not really changed anything.
The hon. Lady is spot on. The BBC has created a bipolar organisation that transports people from London to Manchester. There is no real regional diversity to its broadcasting. I am horrified to learn of the BBC Asian Network’s being moved from Leicester to London, a prime example of that. I commend the campaign by Trinity Mirror and The Birmingham Post, and in particular the journalist Graeme Brown, who is highlighting an important matter that has brought many parties together.
We are in a bit of a dead zone for the national broadcaster in the west and east midlands. The BBC has perhaps seen regional diversity as something to be endured rather than embraced. If the BBC is to reconnect with the public at a time of mass digital communication, when we have many different ways of viewing and listening to content, it should consider drilling right down into the regions and offering something more regionally-based.
Whenever the BBC’s income stream is considered to be under threat, the first thing it says it will have to cut is regional radio in the east and west midlands, further reducing its already small presence there. Is my hon. Friend as horrified as I am at that? Should the Minister not tell the BBC at charter review that that would be completely unacceptable?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Regional broadcasting seems to be seen as an expense to be endured, rather than something that would deliver value for viewers and listeners, be valued and reconnect the BBC with the wider public once again.
Many Members here are of a certain age and can remember the time of mass broadcasting, with the shows of Morecambe and Wise getting 20 million viewers. These days, younger people, under the age of 25, will not understand the connection that many of us have with the BBC. If the BBC is going to survive in the long term, it needs to reconnect with the public. One key way of doing that is greater regional broadcasting and developing regional talent.
I appeal to BBC management to consider the case for the midlands, to redress the balance and genuinely to embrace regional diversity at the next charter renewal—not see it as some sort of sop that will buy it another seven years, which is what happened last time. We need not a bipolar organisation but one that takes its broadcasting out to individuals.
I am not that encouraged at what I have heard so far from the BBC. Its agenda for charter renewal seems to involve a crackdown on those not paying the licence fee for content on digital devices, retention of criminal sanctions against non-payers and a potential inflation of the licence fee. The BBC needs to understand that we are in the antechamber to the end of the licence fee and that we need to see a path out of it in the long term. The BBC can reconnect and offer better value for what it delivers by focusing on its core services. I argue strongly that its core service is regional broadcasting and delivering for the people of the east and west midlands.
I must declare a narrow interest: my moment of glory was on 7 May 1997, when Pat Archer was heard to say from Pebble Mill, which was in my constituency, that when Edgbaston was won, we would know we had a Labour Government. I was disappointed when the BBC moved out of Pebble Mill and I was no longer the MP for “The Archers”.
I am going to do something that may seem slightly counter-intuitive: I will partly defend the BBC, because we have to be careful what we wish for. If we want a public service broadcaster—most of the rest of the world would give their eye-teeth for the BBC and the World Service—we should realise that our desire for it has consequences. That does not mean that I agree with everything the BBC has done, but the Government do not get off scot-free. If we wish the BBC to be a public service broadcaster that can survive in the modern age, the funding structure and stream must be protected as well. What that means for the midlands is quite significant.
First, we must acknowledge that when he saw those empty offices in the Mailbox, Tony Hall was horrified. The BBC has tried to fill them, so far only with human resources staff, and it has moved its academy there. At least the BBC is moving that way. It has appointed a regional director.
For me, the bottom line is that if we do not start commissioning programmes from the midlands, nothing will flow from the midlands. We may become a production area, but for the west midlands to reflect its own culture and output, we have to commission programmes in the midlands and have commissioners there. We come across the issue on a daily basis. Turn on “Woman’s Hour”, and it will have vox pops from Manchester’s Oxford Road. The BBC is not asking people in the Bullring. The whole culture is just the wrong way.
What that means for us as MPs in the region is that we have to stress a number of things. If the BBC wants to survive in the future, we in Birmingham are the future: 40% of Birmingham’s population is under the age of 25, and 30% is under the age of 15. The ethnic diversity of the stable population in that region is enormous. It is not just the Asian Network, which started 40 years ago in the midlands, but the whole cultural production that is happening there. Frankly, if the BBC does not reflect the culture of that significant area—the chunk in the middle of England that is so easy to overlook, and it seems to be overlooked—then the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, will not fulfil its function for the whole of the country.
I say to colleagues that we have to keep up the pressure and say to the BBC, “Step by step, you are trying to move in the right direction, but you aren’t there yet.” I also say that we must be clear that if we do away with the licence fee, that will also have consequences. Let us just think for a moment. Those of us who think that the Union—the United Kingdom—is important should remember that the British Broadcasting Corporation is one of the very few British institutions that still embraces the entire British Isles and the nation.
The hon. Lady said that the BBC “embraces” the nation. However, we noted during the referendum campaign that the Scottish National party was very angry with the BBC, and claimed bias in that respect. Given that the modern BBC does not embrace regional broadcasting, as we are discussing today, is it fulfilling that true national broadcaster remit?
That is a really important point at which we should pause. The SNP would like a national broadcaster; I would like a public sector broadcaster—and there is a very important distinction between the two, which we must not lose. The BBC must fulfil its duty to the regions—for example, in the political output in radio broadcasting, which it is neglecting.
What happens in the midlands is extremely important for northern Wales, because it looks to output from the midlands more than to that of the south of Wales. To be a proper public sector broadcaster, the BBC has to represent the regions and be more than just the national broadcaster: it also needs to commission programmes in the region.
The challenge for us is to be clear about the ask to the BBC; the challenge for the BBC is that unless it starts commissioning programmes in the whole of the midlands, they will not reflect us. That takes us back to the challenge for the Government in the charter review. A public sector broadcaster requires certain funding streams that will allow the BBC to fulfil that function.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing this important debate. His constituency and mine are at opposite ends of the midlands, but we have in common a sense of injustice about the poor return for our licence fee payers on the investment that they make.
What we need from the BBC is simple: a fairer share of the spend and a much firmer commitment that BBC production will be brought to our region. For far too many of my constituents and, I suspect, people across the midlands, the BBC means London, Cardiff, Salford, Bristol, Belfast and Glasgow—the big six—and indeed anywhere but our region. Various people have cited the figures; the simple fact remains that midlands licence fee payers contribute about £942 million to the BBC and get back about £80 million in investment, less than 9% of the total licence fee. I do not think that anyone would see that as fair.
We can all criticise failures in spending, but the central point that I am making is about inequitable spending. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
A brief that the BBC sent me for this debate reminded me that the Mailbox is the home of the academy, the workplace and outreach. That is great, but what the brief did not contain was the number of new jobs and apprenticeships associated with those initiatives. I would like to know how that compares with the £180 million new studio and the 1,000 new jobs for MediaCity in Salford. I would also like to know why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) pointed out, the bulk of production is technically still located in London.
I am told that the BBC is anxious to use Birmingham as an innovative test bed because we are the youngest city in Europe and we are truly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, but I want to know where the substance is. Where are the new formats, technologies and jobs for the midlands? It is time we saw some of the hard data. I want to know that all those promises will come true and that there is plan to work with the Ormiston academy, the Rep theatre and Birmingham City University. I have heard plenty of talk; it is time we saw some action. We need to know that there is a real programme for mentoring and apprenticeships in the midlands, and we need to know that digital innovation is more than just a form of words.
On apprenticeships, does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts about pay differentials within the BBC? According to the latest reports, 91 BBC staff members currently earn more than the Prime Minister, while many people who do the programming, such as broadcast assistants, broadcast journalists and senior broadcast journalists, might take home a quarter of that. They are the ones putting in the work, while those who move people from place to place earn bumper salaries. What does he think about that?
It is a challenge for the director-general, and it is one of the things that he must tackle. It contributes to the sense of unfairness that many of us have about the organisation. Of course, like my hon. Friend, I welcome the news that human resources and training jobs will come to Birmingham, but it was only a couple of years ago that the BBC announced a nationwide search for new talent among disabled presenters and managed to exclude Birmingham from the process entirely. Where are the new jobs in the midlands for performers, directors and creative people?
I conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Sherwood again on securing this debate. We need to hear that a more equitable share of the money will be included in any future discussions on charter renewal and the licence fee. We cannot contribute nearly £1 billion to the BBC pot and get back a paltry 9%.
When the east and west midlands are given an opportunity, we are really good—Notts TV, which works alongside Nottingham Trent University, has been a successful model—and it is such a shame that people in London do not recognise that and invest more in that talent.
I totally agree. There is a wealth of creative talent across the midlands. As someone said earlier, we keep hearing about the desire to help the regions to grow and rebalance their economies. One of the things we need to do is to recognise the creative potential in our region. I do not know how helpful it will be, but I have come to the conclusion that midlands licence fee payers will not tolerate the situation any longer. The game is up—they have had enough.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing this debate. The Minister will understand that feeling on this issue runs deep across both the east and west midlands. The feeling is cross-party, and it will not go away. It is vital that something happens on regional broadcasting in the Government’s negotiations on charter renewal; it must not be something that is simply written in the right words in the right documents. The Government have a role to play in pushing the BBC quite hard on that in the coming period.
Members have talked about the figures, which are stark. They have talked about the contribution that licence fee payers in the east and west midlands make to the BBC and what comes back to the region. Many of us feel that we have been around this track so many times before, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and me. I have lost count of the meetings we have attended. I can just about count the directors-general and acting directors-general to whom we have put these points, and each of them has said that they agree. It might have been easier if one of them had said, “No, you are wrong. We think that the east and west midlands are a bit of a backwater and are not where the action is. We need to do what we are doing.” But every time they told us that they agreed with us and that things were going to change.
The situation was not entirely the BBC’s fault in the early phases. When Mark Thompson was director-general, a memorandum of understanding was agreed between the BBC and Birmingham City Council. At the time, the lack of ambition to put the memorandum of understanding into practice was equal on both sides. The words were all there but, when we asked afterwards what was being done to follow it up, not much was going on at all.
As somebody is meant to have said in this place, my hon. Friend may say that; I couldn’t possibly comment. [Laughter.] I will comment: she is right.
Mark Thompson was followed by a couple of other directors-general, and they both said that things were going to change. My hon. Friend is right about Tony Hall. In October 2013, a cross-party group of midlands MPs presented a petition that had been put together by the Campaign for Regional Broadcasting—I pay tribute to that group for keeping this issue in the public eye and putting up in lights the inequity in funding. In November 2013—this was significant—the BBC committed itself to a new vision for Birmingham and the midlands as a whole, with a pledge to invest £23.5 million; Birmingham is to become a new centre for digital excellence for skills, recruitment and talent, creating hundreds of jobs. That was a change—some action was taken and I like to believe that Tony Hall is serious about that.
However, I am worried that, since the announcement, everything has ground to a halt again. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned the briefing we received from the BBC. It basically says, “It’s okay, we’re doing it,” and runs through the kinds of things we have been told before—the kinds of programmes that were announced some time ago. At the end, the briefing simply says, “The BBC is committed to providing audiences with programmes and services to reflect the many communities across—”
The hon. Gentleman is right. At the risk of mixing jam metaphors with glue, the ambition that Tony Hall says he has for the BBC in Birmingham—the kind of thing we are all talking about—needs some glue to stick it all together. It needs something behind it to make it happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston hit the nail on the head, and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak also made this point: that glue is commissioning—it is crucial. We all talk about the BBC network. Everyone I have spoken to—both in the BBC and beyond, in related creative industries—has said that networking is vital. People have to know one another. When people commission a programme, they think of who they will approach, the production companies they will use and where they will get the new talent. If the focus remains on London, we will not get change in Birmingham and the east and west midlands. The kind of change there has been in the north—the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) had this right—is not real change, as there is still that commuting south.
We therefore need a commitment by the BBC to match its ambitions for the network with real networking. It should be looking out for the new and existing talent in our regions and particularly in the east and west midlands. If that can be done, it can pull behind it the apprenticeships and the training that can make such things fly.
Under the current director-general I, too, have noticed a change from what has gone before. I hope that when he reads the transcript of the debate he will understand that we are trying to be friends. To remain friends, however, action has to follow words. If we are to be the centre for broadcasting and for digital broadcasting in the future—in many ways digital broadcasting is the future—he has to do more than he is currently doing. That means a vision beyond the HR-related and training jobs that are being brought to the midlands at the moment. Crucially, we need a focus on commissioning, production and getting in place the networks that can make the east and west midlands vital parts of the BBC’s ambition for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing this important debate and on drawing attention to the appallingly inequitable funding allocated by the BBC to our region. I will endeavour to be brief, not least because my hon. Friend set out the issue so well with his usual clarity. I must say that, on being elected to the House—I am making my first contribution in this Chamber today—I never expected to find myself as fully in agreement with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) as I am.
The proud tradition of broadcasting in the east midlands highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) extends to Leicestershire, too. For example, BBC Radio Leicester does a first-class job of serving the people of Leicester and Leicestershire. That organisations such as BBC Radio Leicester continue to be trusted and listened to in such numbers by my constituents is in large part down to the talent and hard work of the journalists and broadcasters, and not down to their receiving fair levels of BBC investment, which, as we have heard, certainly does not reflect the licence fee paid by our region.
I would like to make sure that the Chamber is fully aware of the size of the BBC. If we include BBC Worldwide in the BBC revenue stream, it gets about £5 billion a year. That is comparable with the United Nations and twice the annual budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point with force and clarity, as always. My constituents have no choice about paying their licence fee. On this occasion, I will not labour my view that non-payment should be decriminalised, but the least they should be able to expect is a fair deal and a fair share from what they pay. I hope that as we look towards charter renewal, issues such as the BBC spending bias against the midlands will feature in that debate. I fully endorse the points that the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) made about local political journalism in the east midlands and its importance to our democracy and to all of us being held to account by local journalists producing local content.
Some 25% contributed and 2% received is disgracefully unfair as an equation, however we look at it. That cannot be allowed to go on. It is time for the BBC to escape its apparent London-centric investment bias and once again fully seize on the talent and energy of the midlands by investing and producing more in our region. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the BBC receives the strength of hon. Members’ views clearly, particularly in respect of how much we and our constituents value truly local content. The point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) that the BBC needs to approach charter renewal recognising that it must continue to change and to listen to those who listen to it and who have no choice but to pay the licence fee, and not simply ask us for more money.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) for securing what has been a passionate and committed debate. I was fascinated as he went through the history and heritage of TV and radio broadcasting in the east and west midlands. I thank all hon. Members who have made speeches and interventions. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). I thank the hon. Members for Solihull (Julian Knight) and for Charnwood (Edward Argar). I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for his perceptive and incisive interventions in this important debate.
I pay tribute to the long-time campaigners. The campaign has been truly cross-party and has the support of the new Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I also pay tribute to the campaigning of The Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail, which has been so important in placing the issue on the national agenda.
We are here to discuss BBC investment in the midlands. The main investment the BBC makes is in BBC Birmingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston is right: those of us who live in the borders of north-east Wales have seen a lot of it—sometimes by choice, sometimes through transmitter problems; we do not always get BBC Wales, which is a subject for another day. There is no question but that BBC Birmingham has a proud history, having produced “Pebble Mill at One” and “Boys from the Black Stuff”. Across the midlands, the BBC produces “Midlands Today”, “East Midlands Today”, “Look East” and online content, and there are 14 local radio stations. BBC Birmingham makes great shows, such as “Doctors”, and it is the home of the BBC Asian Network, which was mentioned earlier.
BBC Birmingham also produces the great, popular radio drama, “The Archers”—I confess that I always thought it was based somewhere in the west country, not in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. “The Archers” is more than 65 years old, but its listeners are of all ages and live around the world. Since FM radio waves travel through space, we can confidently say it reaches as far as Pluto. It has even been suggested that the theme tune of “The Archers” should be the English national anthem. It does not quite compare to “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, but it is pretty good, and the programme is an extraordinary international production.
There are clearly very serious concerns about this issue. For instance, a quarter of licence fee payers live in the west and east midlands, but the area receives 2% of BBC spending. Last year, that meant the BBC received £942 million, and the midlands got £80 million back. The BBC is investing only £12.40 per capita in the midlands. Such figures have real consequences for infrastructure, and therefore for programming.
The BBC has little to no commissioning or production facilities in the midlands, and no primetime BBC 1 programmes are made there. In fact, the BBC does not make anything on BBC 2, BBC 3 or BBC 4 in the midlands, nor on Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 or Radio 5. A small chunk of investment means a small chunk of infrastructure, which means a small chunk of programming.
At least three main problems have been raised in this debate. The first is the simple matter of fairness, which has been mentioned by many hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston previously referred to it as a mismatch, and she is absolutely right. One estimate is that the midlands pays out 12 times what it gets back.
The second problem relates to the infrastructure of creativity. The BBC is the central part of the United Kingdom’s creative and cultural ecosystem, and at a national level it plays a key role in training and fostering talent, encouraging investment and exports, and raising standards across the market. The £3.5 billion we pay for it is our single biggest investment in the arts. At a regional level, it helps to ground creative clusters, which can be seen most clearly in its move to Salford. The MediaCityUK cluster of creative firms and workers is grounded by the BBC. The investment it makes in the midlands—particularly in training and digital—helps to ground the area’s growing creative scene. More investment would mean a better and more flourishing creative ecosystem.
The third problem relates to what we see on our screens and hear on our radios. The hon. Member for Solihull spoke about diversity and regional content. This issue is about not only wanting more spending, but reflecting our country back to itself. It is important that we have stories from every part of the country. In every nook and cranny of the United Kingdom there is a unique viewpoint and a voice that we need to hear in our national conversation.
The Labour party is clear that we believe in a BBC for everyone, which is why we support the existence of the licence fee. The fundamental principle is that everyone pays in and everyone gets something out. People need to feel they are getting something out and that the BBC is worth it. I accept that not everyone agrees with that, but that is where the Labour party stands.
There are major issues to be looked at, and we believe that that needs to happen in this debate on the BBC charter. It is not a little opt-out alone; the debate is much too important for that.
The BBC has recognised that there is a disparity. When Tony Hall become director-general in 2013, he visited the Mailbox and announced additional investment. In particular, the focus on training and digital was a sign of investment in the future of the BBC, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield said earlier. However, the issue has not gone away; the question is what we do now.
On 19 March, the Prime Minister was asked about BBC investment in Birmingham and the midlands. He said that
“the charter renewal is a good time to have that conversation”
“these are the questions we will be able to ask in the charter renewal process which starts after the election.”
We agree with the Prime Minister on that. We are past the election and should be getting on with charter renewal, which is the right time to have that conversation. Charter renewal is our opportunity, every decade, to ask ourselves, “What do we want the BBC to do?” We re-examine the BBC’s purposes, governance, funding and investment in the round.
The Culture Secretary’s Select Committee report, “Future of the BBC”, laid out a road map for how the process would work. It basically means copying the successful model that Tessa Jowell, Labour’s Culture Secretary, took us through 10 years ago. That was a vibrant, open, consultative, national conversation about the BBC’s future. It is time to do that again. Labour wants an open and transparent national debate to start as soon as possible. We want all the excellent campaigners to be able to make their case in an open, transparent process, so the Government need to get on with it. The last charter renewal process was three years long. In a week’s time, it will be half that—a year and a half—until the charter runs out. Today, there are only 557 days to go. It is worrying that the Government seem inactive, saying, “We’ll make an announcement in due course.”
I do not think that there is time, unfortunately. I would love to, though.
A year and a half is not long for an important debate. In recognition of that, the Culture Secretary’s report even floated the option of extending the existing charter for a year. We think that this time the Government should hand their homework in on time. They should not leave it all to the last minute and then bash something out late at night behind closed doors—exactly what they did in 2010. They certainly should not ask for an extension because the dog ate their draft charter. They need to start the charter renewal process as soon as possible to ensure an open debate. Then we can get on with debating the real issues, such as how to ensure a diversity of viewpoints and voices. Labour will be arguing for a BBC that does something for everyone. Everyone pays into it and everyone should get something out of it. The Conservatives have flirted with a different view, some of which we have heard today—if not wholesale privatisation, then drastically reducing the range and breadth of the BBC’s output. If that is the debate, very well. Let us get on with it.
It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I often say that when I appear before a new Chairman, but in this case I mean it. I have obviously been an enormous fan of yours since we came into the House together, and I want to celebrate you as one of Britain’s foremost authors. I am referring to the famous Four Streets trilogy: “The Four Streets”, “Hide Her Name” and “The Ballymara Road”, which was published this month. What we see before us is a multi-thousand-selling British author. It perhaps says something about the tone of arts coverage in this country that the Chairman we see before us is not as celebrated as some other authors who sell far fewer books. Thank you, Ms Dorries, for allowing me to indulge myself in this way. When I tried to praise Louise Bagshawe, when she was an MP, Mr Speaker slapped me down, but thankfully we have a more enlightened Chairman for this debate.
I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) for calling this important debate. It has been much more lively than I expected. Before talking about his remarks and those of other hon. Members, I pay special tribute to the brilliant journalist Graeme Brown, of The Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail, who has brought this campaign to great prominence. He has worked with many hon. Members who are in the House this afternoon to get the campaign to critical mass.
I cannot improve on the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood in terms of the statistics that he talked about—the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on the licence fee by people living in the midlands and the return on investment that they get from the BBC. A more important point, because one can always play around with statistics, is that it is clear, from what he said, that investment has increased in all regions except the midlands. It has fallen in the midlands and in London, but that is not really relevant because London has huge funding already.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight). He was that rare species—a Conservative in the BBC. For that, he is to be treasured. Part of me wishes that he was still in the BBC, flying the flag for the Conservative party. One would have thought that he had been working not for the BBC but in the House for the past 25 years, such was the assured point that he made—that there is a north-south link, as it were, at the BBC, missing out the midlands.
Of course, this was not a one-sided debate. We had valuable contributions from the Opposition and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) in particular. I join with her in defending the BBC; we are its critical friends, but we want to see it thrive because it is both a fantastic asset to viewers and listeners in this country and one of our most important—if not the most important—global calling cards.
The hon. Lady made points about why the BBC should have a greater presence in the midlands as well as represent youth and diversity to a greater extent. Diversity in particular is a passion of mine and we urgently need far more diversity in our media. The BBC could lead the way and, as she pointed out, with such diverse and young communities in the constituencies represented by Members in the Chamber, the BBC should be working at that.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) made forceful points about the need for the BBC to invest in the midlands, as did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It was not his debut, but it was good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar)—he is also my old personal friend—make such an impassioned speech. He has only just arrived in the House, but to say that he has found his feet would be the understatement of the century.
Hon. Members here represent some fantastic cultural institutions in the midlands. I want to tell the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) how much I have enjoyed my visits to Dudley zoo, which has two of the finest tigers that I, or indeed my children, have met. The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has the Curve. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) has been instrumental in trying to save the collection at the Wedgwood museum, and hopefully the potteries are now thriving even more. Of course, in Birmingham we have the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the symphony hall, the largest library in Europe and the Birmingham museum and art gallery. All hon. Members made valuable contributions that emphasized the thriving nature of culture in the midlands, but there was also an element of nostalgia for Pebble Mill studios that points us in our future direction.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, made a specific point about the BBC Asian Network. The minute he brought that up, I looked into it, and my understanding is that one programme from the BBC Asian Network is moving to London, but the network will remain split between Leicester and London.
I thank the Minister for his kind words about Wedgwood and the other magnificent potteries in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire. He mentioned Pebble Mill and much has been said about the Mailbox, but Members who have been called down to the Mailbox in recent years to take part in the “Sunday Politics” show will have seen a dramatic reduction in its facilities. Indeed, the programme is now pre-recorded on a Friday to make savings, though there is no saving in terms of battling Birmingham’s traffic on a Friday compared with a Sunday. The dumbing down, if I can use that phrase, that we have seen at the Mailbox is quite shocking.
The hon. Gentleman is not mincing his words.
I must mention contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), and my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Karen Lumley) and for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), who has been so helpful to the BBC in the past 12 months. They, and all the other Members I have mentioned, have all made incredibly valuable points and pointed to their constituents’ concerns.
We can play fast and loose in politics, but I would not dream, for example, of taking the comments from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South out of context by saying that the Labour party was advocating a licence fee of £12.50, because that is not what he meant. He was simply trying to compare the contribution of people living in the midlands with what they receive back.
I will not take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention yet; I will make a bit of progress and then see if I have time for more interventions.
However, I will make a point that I think plays to the concerns that have been set out in Westminster Hall this afternoon. First, the BBC has a strong regional presence in many other parts of the country. If people go to Glasgow, they will see a fantastic BBC presence; in Belfast, of course; in Cardiff, where the BBC now films “Dr Who”; we know about the move to Salford and we can say whether or not that is a good or bad thing, but it has happened, although I hear the point about the BBC making a real move rather than simply a commuting move; in London; and of course in Bristol, which is the centre of the BBC’s wildlife programming.
Has Birmingham missed out? The BBC would say that it is doing what it can. For example, it points to the fact that it is making the Mailbox, which was referred to earlier by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston as the base for the BBC academy, the diversity unit and internal communications. The BBC is also increasing jobs there; I understand that investment will go up from £80 million this year to £89 million next year, and up to £125 million the year after. There is also a training remit, with the establishment of the drama village in Selly Oak and the digital innovation unit, too. Of course, there is drama itself, such as the highly successful “Peaky Blinders”, and the BBC has just finished filming Lenny Henry’s semi-autobiographical drama, “Danny and the Human Zoo”, which may indeed take place in my much-loved Dudley zoo.
However, the point that I think is being made here today is about much more than those things. Obviously, we should welcome what the BBC is doing to invest in Birmingham and the east and west midlands, but what I think hon. Members are calling for is much greater cultural representation, if I can put it in those terms.
I have just one example. There is a brilliant radio broadcasting series that follows world war one, day by day, in 15-minute slots. It is great, and recorded in Birmingham, but not a single storyline involves the midlands. That is the point—production on its own is not sufficient. We need commissioning that recognises the input of the midlands.
That is exactly the point. To a certain extent, where the BBC makes its programmes matters, because it effectively acts as an anchor for a creative cluster. Nobody would argue that “Dr Who” reflects Welsh culture, but people could certainly argue that it supports the Welsh creative industries, just as the BBC’s investment in S4C does. However, one would perhaps argue that the transmission of some programmes from different cities helps to reflect the wider cultural aspects of the United Kingdom.
Basically, I am but a junior Minister and I think that hon. Members in Westminster Hall today can reflect on the fact that they have the support of the Prime Minister. He has already been quoted, but I will quote him again; quoting the Prime Minister never does one any harm. He said that
“the charter renewal is a good time to have that conversation and make sure the West Midlands gets a fair bang for its buck.”
And the east midlands, but the quote is about the west midlands; the Prime Minister meant to say the west and the east midlands. And the Mayor of London, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), has spoken, and of course the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), describes himself as a midlands MP representing Hereford. So there is strong support for this idea.
Before the recess, we will set out what we will do in terms of the charter review, so I hear what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston says about getting on with it, and I can guarantee to hon. Members in Westminster Hall today that they have made such a strong case that it will be reflected in what we set out.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).