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Future Funding for S4C

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alun Cairns.)

I thank the many colleagues who have stayed so late for this debate. I hope that it conveys to the Minister the importance of this topic, although the real reason is probably that most of us do not have homes to go to. The Minister strikes me as someone who has a sumptuous home to go to, so it is in our interests not to keep him waiting too long.

There will be people, I have no doubt, who will wonder why an English-speaking, English-sounding Conservative MP for an area of Wales that contains a patch that has been described as “little England beyond Wales” is talking about S4C at all. After all, most people’s daily intake of news and drama these days often happens online and is almost exclusively in English. People will say, “What is so special about the Welsh language these days? Shouldn’t we be equally concerned about Mandarin, French and German?”. Other cynics will say, “Hardly anybody watches this channel anyway, so what’s the big fuss about? What’s wrong with EastEnders with Welsh subtitles?”. My point is that those people miss the point.

Half of my constituency—the South Pembrokeshire part—is principally and historically English speaking, but the people are as passionately Welsh as the people in any other part of the country. The village names give a bit of a clue: Manorbier, St Florence, Lamphey. They do not sound particularly Welsh because they are of Flemish origin, but goodness me, those places are as patriotic and supportive of the Welsh nation when it comes to sport or culture as anywhere else. The other half of the constituency—the Carmarthenshire bit—has a more obvious visible and historical connection to the Welsh language. One can travel through places such as Llanboidy, Trelech and Talog. There is a much more visible air of the Welsh language about those places.

It is because of that contrast that I feel modestly qualified to comment on this matter, even if the only three words of Welsh that I know and use regularly are “gwin coch mawr”. To share the secret with you, Mr Speaker, and the Minister, those words mean “large red wine”. In my 13 years of living and working in Wales, that phrase has got me into and out of most of the situations in which I have found myself. I therefore come at this topic from a modest but enthusiastic position.

I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says about the patriotic argument for S4C. Does he agree that there is a strong economic argument too, particularly given the percentage of S4C funding that goes to independent production companies?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point that I will come to later. Every pound that is invested in the creative arts by S4C produces £2 for the wider economy, so it makes a valuable contribution.

I like to think that I understand a little about the importance of culture in our part of the United Kingdom. I know how easy and tempting it sometimes is to dismiss it as irrelevant, but I know the cost of disregarding or ignoring the cultural significance of communities and how impossible it is to get that back once it has been lost.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that despite the proposed cuts to the S4C budget being only a fraction of the total Department for Culture, Media and Sport budget, the impact on S4C will be devastating? Is that not an indication that, on this occasion, the Government have got their priorities wrong?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. I hope she will not mind if I do not answer her directly now because I will come to the points that she raises later in my speech. I hope that I will cover them adequately when I get there.

Nothing epitomises or describes culture more eloquently than the language of the country in question. It binds communities and creates a sense of identity. It means something that is difficult to describe in a few short sentences.

May I be first to say bore da, Mr Speaker? I congratulate the hon. Gentleman—indeed, he is my hon. Friend—on introducing this debate. Will he go further in speaking about culture and talk about the significance for education? We must consider the broader remit of S4C in supporting the language among young people and children and helping to grow the language. My background is not particularly different from his, but I am proud that my children all speak Welsh. They do so partly because of an excellent education system, but also because of S4C.

I was going to describe the hon. Gentleman as my former hon. Friend, but I think I can do better than that. He is absolutely right. I do not think that anybody would dispute that. One of the expressions that I will use in a few moments is that S4C is more than just a TV channel. I use that expression because it has done so much to educate people about the cultural importance and heritage of the country that we are lucky enough to represent.

There has been a huge increase in demand for Welsh medium education, and for families in my constituency and surrounding areas where Welsh is not the family language in the home, S4C’s excellent children’s programming is a vital educational resource. Should the Minister bear that in mind when considering future funding?

I am sure that the Minister will have heard the hon. Lady’s contribution, and I think I am right in saying that S4C is the second biggest investor in children’s television in the UK—not a lot of people know that, as the saying goes, but now is a good opportunity to bring it to the Minister’s attention.

When speaking about the cultural and educational importance of a language, there must be a means and a vehicle by which we can bring it to a wider audience. That is why we are talking about S4C and why I am here to champion that channel and its work. In some respects it is disappointing that when we mention S4C to colleagues, the most we get is a nod and a reference to “Pobol y Cwm” or something like that. After that people’s knowledge of the channel largely dries up. S4C is the only Welsh language channel in the world and, as I said, it is more than just a TV station.

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to associate myself with his excellent speech, and through my past interventions and questions the Minister will know how much I agree with every point being made. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Welsh language, and S4C’s link to it, is what makes Wales distinctive? It should not be just seen as a Welsh cultural icon; it should be seen as a British cultural icon, and that is massively important.

As ever, my hon. Friend puts his finger right on it.

Between 1901 and 1981 the number of Welsh speakers reduced from 900,000 to 500,000, but the fact that that number has stabilised and is going back up in certain areas is largely thanks to the work of S4C, and others, in stabilising and broadcasting to around 700,000 people. The channel was the birth child of the Thatcher Government—not a lot of people know that either, and I hope I will not offend my nationalist friends by saying, before they claim ownership of the channel, that that Government were proud to be associated with it. It is the fifth oldest TV channel and was first broadcast back in November 1982. It launched the careers of Bryn Terfel, Rhys Ifans and Matthew Rees, and exported the hit show, “Hinterland” to more than 30 countries. It is the second biggest investor in children’s programmes in the UK—a point raised a few minutes ago—and all on a budget of around £85 million and 150 full-time staff. That is a small proportion of the 18,974 people employed by the BBC. Every pound invested by S4C in the creative industries is worth more than £2 to the wider economy—that reinforces a point made earlier.

Around 81% of S4C funding goes directly into the independent production sector, and many jobs in my constituency flow from that. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about any cut in funding impacting on the sustainability of those jobs?

The hon. Lady took the words out of my mouth, because I am delighted that S4C is moving its headquarters from Cardiff to Carmarthen in my constituency. That will be a massive boost for the local economy, and interestingly, 30 satellite companies are expressing an interest in co-locating with S4C in the town itself.

As a fellow Carmarthenshire MP, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the excellent news about S4C’s relocation to Carmarthenshire will not achieve its full benefit if funding continues to fall as has happened over successive comprehensive spending review periods?

The hon. Gentleman, and my neighbour, is right to raise that point. S4C has been emphatic that whatever the funding settlement, it will not have an impact on their relocation plans. Inevitably, however, there is bound to be a consequence of some sort, but the move from Cardiff to Carmarthen is not in jeopardy and is going ahead on time and as planned.

Moving on to the budget element, we are all guilty in this House of approving of other people’s budgets being cut and other people’s Departments being slimmed down while putting up a robust case for why our particular areas of interest should somehow be exempt or shown special treatment. This is not the case with S4C. It has made significant inroads already as far as its overheads are concerned, with a reduction of 36% since 2010 compared with 20% at the BBC. Let us not forget that 90% of its money comes from the licence fee, while the rest comes direct from a contribution by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I conclude, as we always do in these kinds of debates, with a list of simple observations and questions for the Minister. First, I can find no argument not to defer cuts pending an independent review of the specific and unique role of the channel. The review should include the impact of the channel on the society, culture and economy of Wales.

I do not share wholeheartedly in the congratulations on the channel moving from my constituency to my hon. Friend’s constituency, but before he embarks on his argument about budgets and cash let me say that the issue is not just about cash. The cultural importance of the channel to Wales cannot be overstated. I just wanted to say that, as the channel moves from Cardiff to Carmarthen.

That seems to be the view of the House. I hope the Minister takes on board that we have Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Labour, Conservatives and even Scottish National party Members here—a pretty wide representation—making that very important cultural point.

I, too, thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important Adjournment debate. S4C is the only Welsh language TV station in the world. We are very proud of that in Wales and we will struggle if the funding is cut.

My hon. Friend makes a useful contribution, which helps me to sum up my list of modest and deliverable requests to the Government. I start simply by reminding the Minister that the manifesto commitment is critical:

“We would safeguard the funding and editorial independence of S4C.”

Everything I have discussed hinges on that commitment: a promise is a promise.

Just to reiterate my hon. Friend’s point on funding, does he consider it fair that in the recent comprehensive spending review DCMS bodies across the board saw reductions of some 5%, whereas S4C saw a reduction of some 24%?

To me, that is slightly mystifying. The DCMS announcement, as contained in the autumn statement, seems to default on the manifesto commitment. We have talked about a reduction from £6.7 million to £5 million. Those figures might not sound enormous in the general scheme of things, but the reduction does send a rather negative message to the BBC, which is yet to determine its own contribution to the channel.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on that specific point. In view of the fact that there was a clear manifesto commitment from the Welsh Conservative party, the message we are sending to the other main funder of the channel is very negative. The negotiations between S4C and the BBC are crucial to the future of the channel. If the cut by DCMS, which is well above the cuts by the Department to other arts institutions in England, is permitted, the message to the BBC is extremely negative and very regrettable in view of the promises made to the people of Wales.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One reason for securing the debate is that I want the BBC to be in no doubt at all about our strength of feeling and commitment to the channel. We are all joining forces to try to ensure that we preserve it and its funding for all the right reasons.

I am here to express solidarity and support for S4C and the excellent work it is clearly doing in Wales to promote Welsh culture and the Welsh language. BBC Alba lost 100% of its funding from DCMS, so we have absolute solidarity with what Members are doing.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We have not gone into media plurality—we probably do not have time—but the fact that the SNP is here showing its support for the debate sends an important message.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) mentioned that the departmental cut was a mere 5%, compared with which the cut to S4C seems disproportionate. Bizarrely, the provision for Persian, Russian, Arabic and Korean is now enhanced, yet the money spent on our native language in Wales seems to be under threat. I hope the Minister will explain the logic behind that conclusion. A manifesto promise is exactly that—a promise—and we would need to come up with a pretty good reason why it was no longer a promise. To retain the Government’s credibility in Wales, we have to do more than just say nice things about culture and language; we have to do good things, mean what we say, deliver on our promises and make sure that people know we will deliver on our manifesto commitments, not default on them a few weeks later.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is the time for an independent review of broadcasting in Welsh and of S4C, including the departmental cuts and the cuts to the BBC and the challenges of the new digital platforms? With so many issues now on the cards, we need an independent review to take them in hand.

The hon. Lady makes a good point, although I think that Ministers, at a fairly senior level, have not been particularly averse to the proposal. In other words, I think she is pushing at a semi-open door. Certainly, Conservative colleagues would welcome such a review, so long as it was independent and as wide-ranging as possible.

Not that many weeks ago, the Chancellor managed to magic up about 4 billion quid in remarkable circumstances in the weeks and days before the autumn statement. We are talking about a tiny fraction of that. All we seek from the Minister is the funding protection promised in our manifesto and a commitment to keeping the promise we made. I do not think that is too much to ask of the Government on a subject that is clearly of such importance, not only to Members representing Welsh constituencies but to Welsh education, Welsh culture, Welsh heritage and the Welsh economy.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this important debate. Nobody could overestimate its importance, considering that at least 20 hon. Members are in the Chamber at this early hour of the morning—and quite right too, because we are debating an important issue: the future of S4C. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) reminded the House, S4C was a creation of a Conservative Government and has continued to thrive over the past 30-odd years. It is abundantly clear that the House cares deeply about S4C, that hon. Members tonight consider it an integral part of the national fabric of Wales, that its independence is one of its biggest strengths and that the House wishes to safeguard its future. I firmly share that conviction, having looked after it for the last five years, and so do the Government.

S4C had already had a 36% cut since 2010, even before the most recent cuts were announced. Will the Minister assure us that it will not face further cuts as part of the charter review process, and will he confirm that if the Government fail to keep their promise, they will be clearly breaking a Conservative party manifesto pledge?

It is worth considering the funding issue facing S4C. When we made the change after entering government, the overall funding for S4C did not fall significantly, but a lot of the funding was transferred to the BBC. I remember having extensive discussions then with Welsh Members, obviously with the S4C management and with Members of the other House who had held senior positions in previous Governments.

Unless my maths is askew—it might well be; I claim no great credit for it—the overall funding was at around £100 million for S4C then, and it is in the region of £80 million now. It is worth reminding the House of how that funding works. S4C gets roughly £6.8 million directly from DCMS, but gets something like £74 million from the BBC. It is important to stress that that funding is still independent: the BBC has no say in how the money is spent by S4C. It is also worth remembering that the BBC has an obligation to provide S4C with some 10 hours of free programming every week, which in equivalent cash terms amounts to something like £20 million. We are talking about an organisation that receives about £100 million in total in annual funding.

The cuts that we are talking about, although headlined as being 25%, amount to just £1.5 million within that overall budget. It is an overall cut of less than 2%. Although I understand the strong feelings about S4C—I share them, as I have worked to preserve its future for the last five years, continuing the good work carried out by previous Conservative Governments—to characterise this as somehow a devastating cut is quite wrong. Having said that, it is certainly the case that we will continue to listen to all hon. Members on this important issue.

I do not know whether the Minister is a statistician, but I do know he is a cultured man. Does he understand the cultural importance of S4C to the Welsh nation? If he does, will he consider having an independent review so that we can have out in the open all the arguments called for on both sides of the House, so that rather than having a mishmash of figures we could have an independent review with a recommendation?

I always enjoy the contributions of the hon. Gentleman, who is a great advocate for his constituency, particularly on the issue of broadband, about which we have had many discussions. It does not surprise me that he makes pertinent points about S4C. On those points, we will continue to listen to hon. Members about the funding, as I said. It is incredibly important to hear the arguments put both by my hon. Friends and Opposition Members. Secondly, we are sympathetic to the point about having an independent review of S4C and Welsh language broadcasting. That is certainly something that we will look at with the utmost seriousness. Thirdly, we have heard about the contribution of S4C to Welsh culture and Wales in general—again, a view that we strongly share.

In calling this important debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire argued effectively about S4C’s contributions to Wales. Let us start with the Welsh economy, for example, and its support for independent production. We should also note the international recognition that S4C has brought to Welsh broadcasting. I hope hon. Members will not regard me as facetious if I praise the fact that a Welsh hill farmer is now presenting a French television programme. Members might be interested to know that Gareth Wyn Jones, a farmer from Conwy, stars in “The Hill Farm”, which incidentally won a BAFTA award, as a result of which he was asked to front a travel show on Wales for a major French television channel.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) hit this issue on the head in his comments to the press today when he said that this was a clear election promise broken. The Conservative party promised to protect the funding of S4C. With broken promises on rail electrification in Swansea to be taken into account and with an election coming up in May for the National Assembly, why should anyone take seriously anything that the Conservative party says?

It is important to remind Members of an earlier intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) about comparing the reduction in funding for S4C from the DCMS grant with the reduction in funding in other parts of the DCMS portfolio. It is worth remembering that the funding for S4C was safeguarded two years ago. We worked very hard to safeguard and protect that funding at a time when we were having to make quite deep cuts to other national organisations. It has always been our intention—we said it in the manifesto—to safeguard S4C’s funding. I would argue that that is what we have done. Nevertheless, as I have said time and again, we will listen to hon. Members on both sides of the House when they make their representations in this important debate and in other forums. We will listen to them on the issue of funding and the impact that may have. We will listen to them as well on the point about whether there should be an independent review. However, I want to continue to emphasise how much I am enjoying the contributions by Members in all these debates, which is why I want to take another intervention.

Does the Minister agree, then, that the independent review should be carried out separately from any other review process?

As I have said, despite my hon. Friend’s being, I think, the first Conservative representative for Gower ever, on which I congratulate him, I am not going to be tempted to make Government policy this early in the morning. We have always said that we will look at S4C as part of the charter review, but I have also made it clear that we are very sympathetic to calls for a more wide-ranging independent review as well because we want to continue to safeguard S4C and to see its success. We want to see, for example, programmes such as “Fferm Ffactor”, which is licensed and produced in Denmark, Sweden and the China hinterland.

My hon. Friend who secured this important debate does not need to remind me that S4C is the second biggest investor in the UK in children’s programming, because my two children grew up with Fireman Sam and I am well aware of S4C’s great expertise in this area. It sells successful formats overseas and we have all enjoyed “Hinterland”. Some of us enjoyed the English-language version; others have enjoyed the Welsh-language version. It cannot be a coincidence that, thanks to S4C’s success, we now see in Wales 50 television and animation companies generating around £1 billion for the Welsh economy. S4C alone contributed £117 million to the Welsh economy. In Wales, 50,000 people are employed in the creative industries, a 10% increase since 2011, and 80,000 in the wider creative economy.

We really have not come here for a bedtime story with examples of what S4C does. Will the Minister please tell us why he is not listening to his colleagues and other Members? Why will he not sort out the real issue, which is the funding?

I have missed the hon. lady’s contributions and it is good to hear her again. I prefer to think that this is not a bedtime story but an early morning wake-up call to all of us who care about S4C and want to preserve its future. It serves a base of Welsh-language speakers, which, according to the last census, is forecast to grow, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire said, by more than half a million people. It is also important to note that, although S4C’s viewing figures have gone down in Wales, its overall viewing figures have increased if we take into account the whole of the UK.

Does the Minister agree that the means by which we measure the viewing figures for S4C are not appropriate? It involves 300 television sets across Wales, 173 in Welsh-speaking homes. Children under four are not included in the figures, nor are people who watch on digital platforms. It really is not fit and that is writ large in the case of the small viewing figures for S4C.

I was pointing out that the viewing figures as a whole had gone up, but that is exactly the point that may have to be considered in any forthcoming review, whether it is an independent review or part of the charter review. We will continue to engage on that important issue. I hope that I have impressed upon you, Mr Speaker, the importance of S4C.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).