Thursday 10 May 2018
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the First Report of the Transport Committee, Community Transport and the Department for Transport’s proposed consultation, HC 480, and the Government response, HC 832.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the other members of the Transport Committee for their work on this inquiry. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and many hon. Members from across the House, are present to debate our report.
The Transport Committee often scrutinises multibillion-pound investment in roads and railways—high-profile mega-infrastructure projects. Community transport rarely comes under the spotlight, yet it encapsulates what local transport is for: connecting people with their communities. It is vital to many thousands of users, who are often the most vulnerable in society, and it provides them with reliable, high-quality and, above all, friendly and caring local transport services.
On that point, in my constituency I have a provider called Torfaen Community Transport, which is exactly as my hon. Friend says. Does she agree that, with rules and regulations, it is important to recognise the special status of community transport and the excellent services it provides?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I suspect I will hear from many more hon. Members who want to talk about their local providers.
On reading through the many comments on the Committee’s online forum from community transport groups, drivers, users young and old, their families and even a tea shop and bed and breakfast in the Yorkshire Dales, it is clear just how important those services are to people’s daily lives. It is noticeable how many people referred to them as a lifeline. I recommend that everyone looks at #WithoutCT on Twitter to see the range of socially valuable activities that would simply not be possible for some without a local community transport operator.
I thank the hon. Lady for the report and for what the Transport Committee is doing on it. Community transport is important, especially in more rural areas, and especially to enable our elderly to get to hospitals all over the place. We have to try to provide some direct help with fuel costs or insurance—something that will keep those community groups going. They often cannot afford to run commercially, but they can do such a good job with some support. They do so all across my constituency, as I am sure they do across hers.
The hon. Gentleman is right that those services are invaluable. It might be a regular trip to the shops, a lift to a social or sports club, or a visit to the doctor or hospital, as he just said. It could even be something that we would all strongly advocate: a lift to the polling station on election day.
Community transport encompasses a broad range of services, whether that is lift-giving by volunteer car drivers, dial-a-ride minibuses for people with disabilities or other mobility problems, or community bus routes that would not otherwise exist because they are not commercially viable. I have seen the importance of Nottingham community transport in my area, and I am sure that we all have wonderful examples that showcase how local community transport operators serve our constituencies. That is why we support and highly value community transport, and why we want and need more of it, not less. We must not take it for granted.
A vibrant, not-for-profit community-based system is becoming increasingly important to complement existing commercial bus and taxi services, and to plug gaps in provision that are growing in many places because of pressure on local authority budgets. Last summer, however, the community transport sector faced an existential crisis. The Department proposed an about-turn in relation to not-for-profit operator licensing arrangements that could have serious, perhaps catastrophic, implications. Grave concerns were expressed by the sector, and by hon. Members across the House, which is why the Transport Committee became involved. I am proud that it was the first issue we considered after I was elected as Chair.
We heard evidence from all sides, including from the commercial operators who claim that there is unfairness in the current system, from hundreds of community organisations that feel under threat, and from the public bodies whose job it is to oversee the licensing and regulation of both sectors: the Department for Transport, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and traffic commissioners. Our report was published in December and the Government responded in February, alongside the launch of their consultation on proposed changes.
My anxiety is that despite the work of our Committee and others to expose the dangers of the Department’s approach, the Government have not yet started to listen fully or engage properly with those legitimate concerns. A potential crisis has not yet been averted.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Following that consultation, the portfolio holder in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council said that little had changed from the Department for Transport’s proposal, which will have devastating consequences for the sector in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Community groups such as Goole GoFar and Age UK Lindsey rely on volunteer drivers. The truth is that the Government have simply not understood what the proposals will do to that sector. They should listen to councils such as the East Riding of Yorkshire that know how it works.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that during this important debate, we can begin to get the assurances we need from the Minister.
The UK has taken a unique approach to community transport by legislating for a relatively light-touch, affordable regime through the section 19 and section 22 permits of the Transport Act 1985. It is widely acknowledged, including by the Government, that the regime has provided an effective framework within which not-for-profit organisations can safely provide community-based local transport services. The Government have also very broadly accepted throughout that the long-established permit regime still achieves that. Furthermore, they accept that developments in the sector that have led to the current situation have been not only supported by official guidance, but explicitly encouraged by local and central Government for many years.
Not-for-profit community organisations have been encouraged to become more professional in outlook and, in the face of growing pressure on local authority budgets, to become more financially self-sufficient. Community organisations have responded to that call by quite properly and, I stress, in accordance with the official guidance, developing their operating models to deliver services via a mix of grant funding and local authority contracts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the changing situation in local authorities—I have seen it in Cambridgeshire—whereby mainstream services have disappeared to be replaced by not just voluntary, but professional schemes, has led to those problems?
My hon. Friend is right. Many community organisations, some very successfully, have achieved greater self-sufficiency and sustainability by cross-subsidising what can be thought of as core community transport services with income from contracts for school and social care transport, for example.
And so to the bombshell of last summer. At the end of July, in what the Department seems to have hoped would be a relatively innocuous letter from a senior official to issuers of section 19 and section 22 permits, it set out a new approach, which was contrary to the official guidance that had been applied for decades but in line with a new interpretation of EU regulation 1071/2009, which has been in force since 2011. This is the crux of the matter: there is a potential misalignment of the relevant sections of the 1985 Act and its associated guidance and practice, and EU law.
The European regulation defines three derogations from the operator and driver licensing requirements on the mainstream commercial sector: where organisations are engaged in road passenger transport services exclusively for non-commercial purposes; where they have a main occupation other than that of road passenger transport operator; and where organisations have only a minor impact on the transport market because of the short distances involved. Member states can choose whether to apply the third derogation.
The Department’s letter noted the findings of a DVSA investigation into the licensing arrangements of an individual community operator in Erewash, Derbyshire—I see the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) is present. Essentially, that investigation, which was conducted in response to a complaint from a commercial operator, found that as the operator in question held a number of competitively tendered local authority contracts, it could not be considered to be operating for non-commercial purposes.
Is the hon. Lady aware that to date this is the only case that has been brought forward in response to this letter issued by the DFT?
Yes, the hon. Lady is right—absolutely. For years, guidance and practice in the UK had considered “not-for-profit” and “non-commercial” to be interchangeable terms. The DVSA investigation and the DFT’s letter signalled a completely new interpretation. The consequence for the operator investigated by the DVSA was that it could no longer operate on the basis of community transport permits, because—according to the new interpretation—the derogations from full public service vehicle operator and passenger carrying vehicle driver licensing did not apply.
Did the Select Committee have any chance to access any legal advice on this rather startling interpretation of this regulation, which has been interpreted in totally different ways, as the hon. Lady said, for decades? Very little policy point seems to lie behind the changes that are being proposed, and I wonder whether we are somewhat pedantically accepting a rather eccentric legal opinion that is threatening very genuine voluntary services that are quite non-profit making in many parts of the country.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very important point, and I think that it is for the Minister to explain precisely why he has taken this specific legal approach to the interpretation of the regulation. I am sure that he will do so in his response to the debate.
The DVSA told Erewash Community Transport that it must
“take action to bring its operations into line with all applicable legal requirements”,
and that that applied to all its drivers and services, not just those provided under the terms of contestable contracts. The DFT’s letter confirmed that this interpretation was now to be universally applied, and not just applied to one operator, and that it was intended to make clear the broader implications for the community transport sector. The letter acknowledged that existing guidance
“may have provided an inaccurate indication”
of the rules for sections 19 and 22 permit use. Nevertheless, all operators in similar circumstances would
“now need to take action to bring their services into compliance with legal requirements.”
The letter asserted that additional licensing requirements were likely to apply mainly to large, transport-only organisations, and that many—perhaps the majority—of other smaller and community-based permit holders were likely to be unaffected. It said that the DFT intended to explain the implications more fully and to consult on its proposals in the autumn. The evidence to our inquiry, including evidence from hundreds of community transport organisations of various types and sizes, overwhelmingly suggested that that assumption was simply wrong.
Although the DFT’s letter may have been well-intentioned and designed to clarify and calm the situation, it achieved the opposite effect, by creating widespread confusion and panic. Mobility Matters, an urgently convened campaign group, told us that its survey evidence suggested that the new requirements were likely to be catastrophic for many community organisations, with 40% saying that they would be unable to carry on operating as a result of the additional costs.
There were many unanswered questions and the broad community transport sector was understandably confused about what action was required and by what date.
I thank the hon. Lady for calling this debate. On the Isle of Wight, we have the excellent FYTbus service—the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Totland service. It is very successful and needs no further help. This heavy-handed and bizarre approach to regulation puts a question mark over the future of the FYTbus service, and I think that that is very unnecessary. Does she agree that we need to be encouraging voluntary drivers and the community sector, and not hitting them in this way?
That is precisely right and my Committee called on the Government not to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
After the DFT’s letter arrived, traffic commissioners and local authorities were also unclear about its immediate implications. We heard about traffic commissioners sitting on applications for new permits, because they were unsure what to do. We heard about local authorities holding off from agreeing new contracts and that some contracts with permit-holders had already been terminated. Concern was growing that vital and socially valuable services might already be being lost. Frankly, it all seemed to be a total mess and the sector felt in limbo.
The pressure from our inquiry, from the Community Transport Association and from campaign groups such as Mobility Matters perhaps hastened the DFT’s attempt to clarify the situation. On 9 November last year, it issued a letter to local authorities, making it clear that at that stage no contracts should be cancelled. On the face of it, that letter also seemed to offer some of the clarifications that were being sought. For example, it explained that services could be considered “non-commercial” where there was demonstrably no commercial market—that is, where a community organisation had stepped in to replace a failed commercial bus route, or where it was delivering a service for which no commercial operator had tendered. Essentially, it set out a potentially broader definition of “non-commercial” and seemed to address some of the more obviously perverse consequences of the initial statement. We therefore welcomed the clarifications as a starting point from which to find a more workable solution.
However, we also concluded that the fact that it had taken more than three months to produce that letter demonstrated the Department’s lack of understanding of the sector and the potential impacts of the July proposals. What we wanted, and what we recommended in our report, was for the Government to use their consultation to consider reforms designed not only to achieve compatibility with the EU regulation but to maintain achievement of the key public policy objective— the provision of high-quality, safe and secure community transport services for people who might otherwise be left isolated.
I was not reassured by the Government’s response to our report. It took precisely the legalistic position that we had warned against, and discounted almost all of our recommendations, which were intended to lessen the impacts of the proposals. It did not consider the interplay with commissioning bodies’ responsibilities under the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, despite indisputable evidence of the immense social benefits of community transport. In addition, it did not consider establishing any kind of hybrid category, whereby there would be more proportionate licensing requirements for the sector. It could not even set out an appropriate and clearly defined transition period for affected organisations and there was no commitment to offer tangible support to those required to make changes.
It concerns me greatly that the Department has offered no properly reasoned justification for its implacable stance. Given the importance of what is at stake, it is surely incumbent on the Government to explain their thinking. The comments that I am hearing about the consultation, which closed last week, are not encouraging either. The fundamental questions of whether the Government’s interpretation of the EU regulation is correct, whether their proposals will achieve what they set out to achieve and whether those proposals are proportionate and workable have not been adequately open to challenge. It amounts to a consultation in name only; the Government’s proposals are presented largely as a done deal.
Mobility Matters’ opinion, with which I have sympathy, is that the interpretation is arguably wrong. Mobility Matters asserts that the definition of “non-commercial purposes” should be applied to organisations and not only to the services that they provide. For example, it should take account of an organisation’s charitable status and the social value that it brings to its local community. Mobility Matters also points out that the issue at hand is about fairness in competition for contracts. If that is the case, logic would suggest that the issue should be dealt with in procurement guidance.
The Minister needs to demonstrate today that the Department has properly engaged with these arguments and properly considered alternative courses of action. However, the Department seems intent on pushing ahead with more stringent, more expensive licensing requirements, without knowing how many operators will be affected and how much this will cost them, or how many operators will be able to bear the strain. There is a real danger that the Government have massively underestimated the detrimental effects on the community transport sector. That is demonstrated by the initial impact assessment, which was published alongside the Government’s consultation paper and which, frankly, is woefully inadequate. First, it is dated “October 2016”, when we know, by the Department’s own admission, that as recently as last July it did not have a reliable picture of the size or shape of the community transport sector.
Secondly, in the absence of reliable data, the Department seems to have grossly underestimated the total net costs for affected operators, putting it at £69.5 million over 10 years. The Community Transport Association, the trade body set up to support community operators, with the assistance of the Department, puts the figure at nearly £400 million. The Department’s assessment did not monetise substantial costs, including the costs of tachographs, additional insurance, company registration for those needing corporate restructure, and funding required to prove financial standing for PSV operator licences.
The Department’s estimate was that 1,567 permit-holders would be affected by the operator or driver licensing requirements, which is 25% of permit-based operators. The CTA’s analysis is that 95% of permit-based operators will be affected, which is a total of 5,956 operators. Just today, I received the latest example of the wider impact. Keep Mobile is an operator with 14 paid drivers, three volunteer drivers and 12 minibuses providing services around Berkshire, primarily to vulnerable passengers. Last year, the Prime Minister visited to celebrate its 25th year of operation. However, as a result of the confusion created by the Department’s letters, a local authority contract was not renewed and Keep Mobile was forced to make four members of staff redundant and sell two of its vehicles. Now it fears it will have no alternative but to close down. These impacts are real and devastating.
With such a level of uncertainty about the effects of the proposed changes, it is surely incumbent on the Department to take stock, to reconsider or, at the very least, to proceed with extreme caution, and I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that that is the approach he is taking. The published impact assessment is no basis on which to proceed. Frankly, the Department has this back to front: it is announcing its policy without a clear view of the impact that it will have. When will a fuller, more robust impact assessment be published? Is he ready to rethink his plans in the light of that new data?
Will the Minister consider how we got to this point? The Transport Committee concluded that the Department failed to address valid concerns over many years. It acted too slowly. Perhaps now it feels it has painted itself into a legal corner, but why has that happened? As I understand it, complaints about the widely accepted permit system have emanated solely from Martin Allen and his small group of commercial operators, the Bus and Coach Association. The main trade body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, seemed intensely relaxed about permit use in its evidence to our Committee. Why did the DFT allow the complaints of a small group of commercial operators to rumble on for years? If it had addressed these relatively localised complaints years ago, could we have avoided the current situation? Why could localised problems in relation to competition for local authority contracts not be dealt with through procurement guidance? Why the need for a new, blanket approach to operator and driver licensing when we all accept that the permit system has worked effectively for decades and very broadly still does?
Martin Allen and the BCA say they want an end to unfair competition, but is there not a very real danger that they will succeed in eliminating all competition from community transport operators? Has the Department for Transport and the European Commission effectively been bullied into proposals that could do immense harm to vital community services and achieve precisely the opposite of the regulations’ intention?
The whole point about voluntary bus services, such as the FYT Bus and others that we are here to defend, is that they take up the slack where there is no commercial option because the commercial bus operators will not provide services in those areas. That is the whole purpose and logic of having voluntary services.
The hon. Gentleman is right. In many places community transport operators are filling gaps. In other places, they are providing local authorities with an affordable option to continue providing services to their communities.
As we emphasised in our report, the community transport sector has acted in good faith, in accordance with official guidance and with the acquiescence and encouragement of local and central Government over many years. The Minister must confirm today that he will take full account of the views and concerns expressed during the consultation. He must be clear about the next steps and the timetable for change. I would like to hear him talk about transitional arrangements, financial support and other mitigations. We have heard precious little about them so far. It would be unjust if even one socially valuable community transport service was lost in these circumstances. I fear the ultimate outcome, if the Government pushes ahead regardless of the concerns, could be far worse.
I ask everyone who wants to speak to stand, so I can assess how many Members we have to squeeze in. To try to get everyone in, I will have to set a time limit to start with of three minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this debate and on her Select Committee’s work in scrutinising the impact of the changes. It is right that this debate is taking place now, just after the Government have closed their consultation on the use of section 19 and section 22 permits.
I want to pass on the concerns that two community organisations in my constituency, Bungay Area Community Transport and Halesworth Area Community Transport, have raised with me. There are five issues I will draw attention to. The first is the disproportionate impact on smaller operators. BACT and HACT have advised me that should the proposals go through, they will have to close.
My second point—the hon. Lady did refer to this—is that community transport generally complements, rather than competes with, commercial operators. BACT and HACT have made that point to me. There is a view that the Government are responding to the prompting of a small number of vocal commercial operators that are not representative of the commercial sector as a whole.
My third point is that there is a risk of a domino effect. If one service is closed, it can cascade all the way down through local economies, with redundancies, staff reductions, day centres closing, market towns having even more problems and banks having yet another excuse to close their branches.
My fourth point is that local and national Government have supported the sector for decades, and there is a very good reason for that: it is the best way of plugging this particular hole and meeting this existing demand. If the changes go through, I fear that Government will just have to come up with an alternative arrangement, in effect reinventing the wheel.
My final point is about the social and community role that these organisations provide. I will give one example that BACT brought to my attention. Mr and Mrs X are both disabled with walking difficulties, and Mr X has Parkinson’s. They live in a remote rural village and have no family close by. They make use of BACT’s car service for medical appointments, its dial-a-ride service to get them to the shops and its rural bus service once a week to get to the market town. They would be totally isolated without BACT, and they would probably be forced to leave their family home. In that context, I ask the Government to pause, go back and review the system, which has operated in this country—it is a British way of doing things—and should be allowed to continue.
I strongly endorse the comments of the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), on the potentially enormous impact of these retrograde and unnecessary changes, which will affect hundreds of thousands of people with mobility difficulties.
I should start by declaring an interest. Eighteen months ago, I took on the role of chair of the HCT Group, which I think is the UK’s largest social enterprise. It runs a large number of buses, but also a large number of community transport operations. It is not affected by the changes, because its drivers are already fully compliant with the new standards, but it has deep knowledge of the industry and totally shares the assessment of the Community Transport Association that the changes will do truly enormous damage.
I mention HCT at the outset because it is a social enterprise, and I get a strong sense that the Department simply does not understand the concept of a social enterprise. It seems to believe that a commercial service has to be provided by a commercial operator, but very efficient commercial services are provided by social enterprises that operate efficiently, but make a different use of their profit. The profit is used for a social purpose, not the reward of shareholders, and that distinction appears to be completely ignored in the Department’s evaluation.
I will make two specific points. The first relates to the social impact assessment. Frankly, the Department has done a shoddy piece of work. As the Chair of the Select Committee points out, some fundamental costs are completely ignored. The transport management cost in the industry is underestimated by a factor of three. Most seriously of all, there is a well-developed methodology that people in the industry understand for calculating social impacts. Those are not fully taken into account. The figure of £400 million that the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned is well attested by the people who use the standard methodology.
My second point is on the legal issues. It appears that in every other sector of the economy—local or national—there is now an understanding that the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 can be applied on top of procurement rules, but an exception has been made in this case. What has happened here—it has happened many times in the past over procurement issues—is that officials and lawyers are over-interpreting European Union laws. I encountered that in Government as a Secretary of State, dealing with the Department for Transport over the procurement of railways. Fortunately, the then Secretary of State for Transport—now the Chancellor—listened, changed it, and we had a much more pragmatic approach. We are asking today for a much more practical, pragmatic response, which recognises the real social need in the sector.
I will make two distinct points, because of the pressure from the amount of people who want to speak. I understand why the Minister felt he had to do this, but I hope that after listening to the debate—to the words of the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), and the leader of the Liberals, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable)—he takes on board the very strong feelings, across parties, on this issue.
I first tabled a private Member’s Bill to get bus-fuel duty rebate for community transport back in 1999, because before then the sector not getting the same kind of rebate as the commercial sector, and I thought that was unfair. When I introduced that private Member’s Bill, the Government prevented it from going any further, but in due course they did bring in a BSOG—bus service operators grant—arrangement for community transport.
When I was Secretary of State for Transport I was fortunate enough to set up a scheme to help the smaller community transport agencies to get new buses. They fulfil a vital role, particularly in rural areas, but also in wider urban areas. I have three community transport agencies in my constituency. To give some idea of the work that Bakewell and Eyam Community Transport did over the past year, it has told me:
“Over the last 12 months we transported over 86,000 passengers which included 8270 wheelchair users and 3525 health related journeys”.
The agency served more than 397 groups, including Age UK, the scouts, Church groups and Women’s Institutes—the list goes on. Bakewell and Eyam Community Transport fulfils a very important role in rural areas.
I am concerned that the proposals have made a number of charitable organisations unnecessarily concerned that they will not be able to continue that work. I would like to see more flexibility. The Minister needs to reflect on the debate, as I am sure he will, and look at what he can do to assist community transport.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said, this is just a matter of law. The new regulation is either a correct implementation of European Union law, or it is not. Which is it?
I will leave that to the Minister to answer; I am sure he will want to answer that. I fear that this issue has been around for some time. It is obviously everybody’s view, including that of other speakers, that the Government have gone too far in responding to what was European Union regulation. After all, the Government believe in deregulating, not excessive regulation. Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us about all the regulations he will get rid of, because for every regulation he introduces he is supposed to get rid of two.
As we can see, the proposals would lead to a lot of extra regulations that should not be introduced. I hope that the Minister takes note of the debate, and comes forward with a solution that allows community transport to carry on doing the vital job it has done, and that removes the question mark that many community transport agencies feel hangs over them at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the Chair of the Select Committee, for summarising a powerful case, which many Members across the House support. I also thank community transport providers operating in my constituency of Easington. In particular, I thank Angela Kent, the operations manager of East Durham Community Transport, who kindly contacted me and briefed me in advance of today’s debate.
As has been pointed out, community transport is a vital lifeline for many people, especially elderly and vulnerable people at risk of social isolation and exclusion. My constituency is semi-rural, and the quality of local bus services for many people is nothing short of lamentable. If commuters in London had to put up with the quality of public transport services operating in my constituency, there would be protests on the streets. The regulated, integrated, frequent and modern public transport network that is standard for the capital city is a million miles removed from the experience of my constituents. Communities such as South Hetton, Haswell, Haswell Plough, Hesleden, High Hesleden and Hutton Henry can be left isolated, with an infrequent, sub-standard bus service that does not operate in the evenings.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the impact assessments conducted by the Department for Transport underestimate the impact of the proposals on very vulnerable people? The impact assessments led us to believe that the impact would be minimal.
That is a really important point; I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The problem is that, as a consequence of the regulations, people will be denied access to local amenities, leisure facilities and employment opportunities. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South indicated the cost—some £400 million.
People are rightly angry and frustrated about the implications of the changes. I am angry about the quality of the transport infrastructure in my constituency, and this will simply compound that. The proposed guidance from the Government implies that community transport providers need to show that they are not blocking commercial operators that may wish to deliver a local service on a particular route—the section 19 and 22 recommendations that have been mentioned. However, community transport is plugging the gaps of a failing commercial network. The ongoing withdrawal of commercial bus services means that the community transport sector as a whole has gained growing importance in filling transport gaps, particularly in largely rural areas such as mine. Many voluntary transport services are financially fragile, and rely on donations and the goodwill of volunteers to continue.
The Government must realise that community transport is about so much more than simply moving people from A to B. It brings people together, teaches people new skills, makes disabled and elderly people in rural areas less socially isolated, improves physical and mental health, and makes communities pull together to tackle many issues that they face on a daily basis.
I share the reservations of community transport providers in my constituency that the Department for Transport, sitting in splendid isolation in offices in central London, may find it difficult to comprehend the service and support provided by community transport. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South that the narrow and legalistic approach that the Government are adopting to community transport is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing the debate.
As I reflected when I led a Westminster Hall debate on this issue back in December 2015, community transport occupies a unique central ground between the passenger transport industry and the voluntary sector, providing innovative solutions to the otherwise unmet transport needs of local residents. Figures suggest that Erewash Community Transport alone generates £1.3 million of social value for the communities in which it operates. We all agree on the importance of these types of transport services run for and by our community, so the changes made to the guidance with regard to section 19 and 22 permit holding organisations are particularly concerning.
The problem appears to have arisen as an unintended consequence of what is, in my opinion, poor EU regulation, rather than any specific action taken by Her Majesty’s Government. Where operators such as Erewash Community Transport are affected, Ministers have announced that they are making £250,000 available to help to fund advice for those drivers requiring a public service vehicle licence. Ministers have also issued new guidance to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to ensure that a proportionate approach is taken to enforcement for operators who demonstrate that they are working towards that compliance. I accept that this situation is far from ideal, but from conversations that I have had with the Minister, it is evident that the Government are doing everything they can within the scope of the law to mitigate this issue.
As part of the Select Committee’s evidence-gathering process, it heard oral evidence from the chair of Erewash Community Transport, Mr Frank Phillips. Although I cannot say that Frank and I always see eye to eye on everything, as he also serves as a local Labour councillor, we have a shared passion for the community transport sector and agree with members of the Transport Committee that the social value of what these organisations do in providing essential community-based transport services to vulnerable people who would otherwise suffer isolation is paramount. I am confident that the Minister shares that view and would urge him to continue in his efforts to negate the negative impact of the revised directive and to look at what further steps his Department can take to ensure the continued success of a sector that benefits my constituents in Erewash, as well as the wider community as a whole.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I must admit that I always associate you more with a column in the Yorkshire Post than a pillar of the establishment, but it is a pleasure to be here today.
I congratulate the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), on what is a model of a good Select Committee report. It is investigative and thorough. It has called witnesses, including the Minister and Mr Phillips and Mr Allen, who have been mentioned. Above all, it has focused on the core problem—that there are two sections of the 1985 Act, which can be addressed.
Surely if the Government cannot make things better, they should at least endeavour not to make things worse. The extraordinary thing about the community transport model that we have in this country is that it is organic. It has grown and it did so—as a politician, it seems almost heretical for me to suggest such a thing—without our hand on the tiller. It grew organically from the community and has brought added value and so many different beneficial advantages.
We have not yet mentioned the volunteers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) was a volunteer driver with the magnificent Ealing Community Transport, which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South has visited—that was the high point of our career there. I should say Ealing Community Transport is the exemplar; the finest example; the industry standard; the diamond mark of community transport. It has volunteers and also takes people on as apprentices. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) has also visited it on many occasions.
There are many other factors that we simply do not have time to adumbrate today. There is the issue of cross-subsidy—we can cross-subsidise other beneficial community activities. There is also the fact that it can be an early-warning system. Very often, the drivers will identify a potential problem with somebody they are travelling with, and that is an early-warning system.
The absolute core of today’s debate is that there is no comparator between commercial bus and transport organisations and the community transport sector. They are totally different beasts. The community transport sector should be nourished, cherished, respected and admired. I have no argument whatsoever with the commercial transport sector, but it has its end of the pitch and the community transport sector has its end. Let us allow for something that works, and which, in my part of the world, provides transport for police volunteers, cadets and so on and knits all those community groups together in a way that frankly were it to cease to operate would leave a dark and terrible vacuum in the heart of Ealing. I know you would not want to see that, Mr Davies. I am sure the Minister would agree.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. In the short time available, I will make some brief points. Firstly, the implications of these changes for my community in Cheltenham are very significant. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) just referred to volunteers, and Community Connexions in my constituency has 50. It makes 100,000 passenger journeys a year, with 13,000 passenger trips to day centres and 5,000 trips to health appointments. As one example, we have a fantastic facility near Cheltenham called the Butterfly Garden, which provides education, therapy and recreation for people with disabilities, and the commercial providers simply do not want a contract to serve that fantastic facility.
If I may say so, from this side of the fence, is this not paradigmatic of David Cameron’s big society? It is about using corporate receipts to maximise community benefit. [Interruption.] I knew that would rile up Opposition Members, but it is true. We should be doing everything possible and straining every sinew to support these fantastic organisations.
In my constituency, Community Connexions is now having to consider winding up the organisation because of the cost of getting an operator’s licence—some £26,000. It does not know whether its application to get a licence will then be challenged by the Bus and Coach Association or whether commercial operators will pursue loss leaders to try to drive them out of business.
In its briefing for this debate, the Community Transport Association said, quite fairly:
“We understand that this action does not result from policy decision within government, and our sense is that they would rather not be doing this.”
That is fair and right. We have to recognise, as has already been indicated, that the issue derives from an EU regulation from 2009 that came into force in 2011. Therefore, the implication of the Government’s position must be that we have collectively misinterpreted the law during that time, which leads me to think that the law is moot—it is arguable.
The question about what non-commercial purposes means must be a matter for legitimate legal debate. Should it cover the organisation, as has already been intimated, or simply the specific contract? We are a nation of laws and we comply with the law—that is one of the most solemn undertakings of any British Government— but where the law is arguable, there is a duty on those community providers who do so much good in our society and in our constituencies to take up those arguments, to deploy them to the fullest extent and, if necessary, to litigate and test them. It is only where the case is unanswerable that we should be taking the necessary action.
Would my hon. Friend agree that it is not unknown for Governments to gold-plate European regulations and that, quite often, that is at the instigation of commercial organisations, which do not have terribly strong objections to costs and burdens being placed on rivals? Does he not think that the Department’s interpretation of this regulation being applied, for example, to non-profit-making organisations with unpaid voluntary drivers, providing services that no commercial operator is actually trying to get, should be seriously questioned by the Minister? Perhaps he should challenge the rather pedantic nature of the legal advice that he has received.
As always, my right hon. and learned Friend presents the point extremely powerfully. My concern is that it is not so much about gold-plating the EU regulation as being excessively cautious in its interpretation. There is a role here for the Government to take a robust line. With any litigation there is the risk of failure and I recognise that, but there is an overwhelming public interest and, just as importantly, a powerful and legitimate legal argument for taking this on, and I would urge the Government to do so.
As a member of the Transport Committee, I have already had my say in this report, so I will be brief. Community transport is a vital lifeline for people in the far south-west, both in rural areas across Devon and Cornwall and in big cities such as Plymouth and Exeter. In my own patch, Access Plymouth has been in touch. It is a superb community transport provider that is very concerned about these changes.
My concerns were echoed in the report. The Transport Committee set out some very clear concerns about section 19 and 22 permits, highlighted the fact that the decisions taken by the DFT may have been taken with best interests in mind, but have been done so in a haphazard way. The Committee set out a very clear set of recommendations that the Government should follow in order to mitigate these circumstances. I am very disappointed that that has not happened. The DFT’s management of the sector has been confused and needs proper clarification. I hoped that the Committee’s report would provide the basis for that clarification of the rationale, so I hope this debate will help give new energy to Ministers.
Local authorities are now following very different rules. They are confused and are making very different decisions, which are disadvantaging not only community transport providers but the communities that rely on them. Our recommendations were clear but have not been followed and the changes have now been enacted very differently by local authority providers across the country and by different community transport providers, which are trying to interpret a very complex legal structure in a way they have not before.
The timing of our Transport Committee report was deliberate. Concerns were raised, the Committee communicated them clearly, and the DFT had the window to correct the problem before long-term damage was caused to the community transport sector. I fear that the window of opportunity has now closed. The consequences of the DFT’s inaction is that community transport providers are shedding volunteers and vehicles, and are reducing the service they offer to some of the most vulnerable people in the country, including disabled and elderly people, who desperately need community transport provision to help them get around their communities.
There is a real risk that, unless the Government act, the confusion caused by the DFT’s action could sound the death knell for community transport as it is structured. I ask the Minister please to re-read the Transport Committee’s recommendations, listen to the experience of community transport providers, and act swiftly before any more damage is done to the sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on her Committee’s report and on her excellent speech. There is a reason why the Transport Act 1985 set out a reasonable but relatively light-touch regulatory regime for community transport services, which, as hon. Members have made clear, provide services to address a commercially unmet need in our communities. They get people to hospital, GP appointments and the shops, and they generally help people to live a normal, active life by taking them from door to door with a caring, local service.
In my semi-rural constituency of Charnwood, the Syston and District Volunteer Centre, which provides volunteer drivers in cars and minibuses, plays a huge role in supporting the community. It is well run and financially in a good place, but there is the risk that what is proposed in the consultation could unintentionally harm it.
My very real concern is that successive Governments over many decades, having not incrementally tweaked the regulations in the 1985 Act where necessary, have led us to a place where, under legal pressure, the Government have to consult on some remedial measures and risk adopting a legalistic and potentially unduly onerous interpretation of the regulations. As the hon. Lady said, it is very much a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In seeking to address the issue of legal compliance, they might unintentionally have a much wider-ranging impact on this hugely valued sector.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) highlighted, the legal point—the definition and interpretation of “non-commercial”—is important. Getting the right legal advice is important. With two lawyers in the Chamber—with all due respect to my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues—we may well get at least three, if not four, legal opinions. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) was right that this should be tested in the court.
I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin)—as a former Secretary of State, he has probably forgotten more about this issue than any of us in this Chamber will ever know about it—in urging the Minister, who is a reasonable and decent man, to reflect again on the proposal, to show flexibility and pragmatism in his approach, and to ensure that the consultation looks not just at delivering a legal fix but at addressing the broader policy context and delivering a vibrant community transport sector for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on her report, her speech and her excellent stewardship of the Transport Committee.
Community transport is not the sexiest subject on the political agenda. It was never in “The West Wing”. When people think about transport, they think of things such as Crossrail, HS2 and the third runway—all of which are in my constituency, I have to say. However, as many hon. Members have pointed out, community transport gives people a lifeline.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) described Ealing community transport at length, and he has nicked most of my speech. He and I were both at the Christmas party of Age Link, which provides a similar service: volunteer drivers in their own cars, not minibuses, take isolated and lonely elderly people to appointments. In Ealing, we also have Dial-a-Ride—Transport for London is the main provider—which is another door-to-door service, with red buses.
The distinctive green and yellow ECT buses, which my hon. Friend described, are testament to how things work in Ealing and elsewhere in the country, and they illustrate why changing these regulations is so dangerous. I spent a recent Friday with ECT, and we picked up a lady called Suzie. Hon. Members have talked about their rural seats, but even in suburban Acton we picked up someone who had had a fall and has been unable to drive since then, and we took her to Morrisons. She said that the service is a godsend. It has been going for nearly 40 years and serves 298 groups—not just the elderly and disabled, but various scout groups, youth groups and every complexion of religious group from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to various mosques. ECT provides services that are not available in the commercial transport sector, and not just to the elderly—a group we seem to have been addressing today. In my list of groups I have written the YMCA, which has “young” in it. ECT serves young groups, old groups, Dementia Concern, Age Concern—those sorts of people.
These services save our local authorities a huge amount of money in avoided health and social care costs, which is the biggest bill for all local authorities at the moment. In the long run, they save us money. In January, the Government introduced a Minister for loneliness. Community transport providers tap into the loneliness agenda. There are also quantifiable figures: Deloitte estimates that the loneliness bill is £1.3 billion to £2.9 billion for the whole country. It is £10 million for Ealing alone, but with community transport it comes down to £4 million a year.
We have heard about the strangulating definition of European regulations. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South described how the 1985 light-touch regulation turned into the scary notifications of 31 July and 9 November, so I will not go into all that—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important and extremely timely debate.
I declare an interest: I am the chairman of the all-party group on community transport, which is backed and whose secretariat is provided by the Community Transport Association. Many hon. Members here are members; those who are not are very welcome to join. This is far more important than simply a parliamentary matter. In my constituency, I have four excellent community service providers—Our Bus Bartons, West Oxfordshire Community Transport, Volunteer Link-Up and the Villager—and they are all thriving. Only last week, I opened a new bus as it was handed over to the Villager service. Those services are all terrified about the impact of the Department’s proposed actions under the consultation.
I am very grateful to the Minister, who is very interested in this area. He has visited Our Bus Bartons with me, listened in person to the concerns and spent a great deal of time listening to my volunteers in person. I know he is concerned about this issue and he is doing his best, but there is an extraordinary problem here. The reason why all those volunteer-led services exist is that commercial providers have withdrawn. Is it not an extraordinary perversity that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said, under pressure from commercial providers, which do not want to operate in these areas, it may be difficult or impossible for such volunteer-led services to run?
We have heard some excellent speeches today. I just want to mention a couple of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), but there are in fact three barristers here.
We will get six opinions!
My hon. Friend says we will get six opinions—I am sorry all the barristers are agreeing with each other.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham is absolutely right that there is clearly space for interpreting the law here, and that is exactly what we have to do. The sections 19 and 22 system, which has existed for so long, is a classically British compromise. It has created a benign environment under which community transport can operate. It is essential that we continue to go through the regulation and the law with a fine-toothed comb. Simply put, we cannot allow a situation to arise in which community transport providers are not able to operate.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in thanking all the groups across our county that do this, and especially Christopher Gowers from Wolvercote? Many of them cross our constituency boundaries, because our communities are interwoven.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I mentioned Our Bus Bartons, which from my constituency runs a service to not only the Banbury constituency but Oxford Parkway railway station. It provides vital links, not just to stations but to doctors’ surgeries, for people to go shopping or for young people to go to work. The impact and essential value of the services simply cannot be overstated. She made that point very clear.
I, too, thank all the volunteers, without whom the services would not run. They put an incredible amount of effort into ensuring that when commercial services were withdrawn, communities could step in and fill the breach. We must make sure that that can continue to happen.
Rural isolation is a real challenge for any of us who represent a rural area, and I know that the Government are combating it and worried about it. That is another essential reason for community transport to continue.
I gave a full response to the consultation, in which I made some of the more technical points that I do not have time to make now. I urge the Minister to engage with the all-party parliamentary group and all of us, because we want to help. We must find a way through to ensure that community transport can continue to thrive, as it has done so far.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. On behalf of the third party, I associate myself and my colleagues with the Transport Committee presentation and the speech of its Chair, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), in support of the general thrust of our discussion today.
We cannot overstate the gratitude that we should express to the many hundreds of organisations throughout the country that provide a community transport service and, in particular, to the many thousands of volunteers who are involved in the boards of the charities, running the services and, often, sitting at the wheel to provide the service itself. Such people are the dedicated community heroes whom we should be lauding, saluting and encouraging. I suggest that the role of Government is to nurture, enable and give support to people who want to provide that service in their community, so I regret that we seem to have got ourselves into a situation in which this Department for Transport consultation exercise leaves many of those people devalued and in many ways frightened about the future of the service in which they are engaged.
In my own city of Edinburgh, we have a very good community transport service. There are five main providers operating in a public sector partnership with the local authority. In my constituency, the South Edinburgh Amenities Group and Lothian Community Transport Services provide an excellent service, which is not just a matter of transporting people from A to B. The whole nature of the service, and the rationale behind it, is that it provides a vital social and caring service to those people in our community who need it. We cannot overstate the importance of the service in preventing and overcoming the social isolation that many people would otherwise feel. The service is vital not just in providing material and physical help to people, but in allowing them to live their lives more fully and better than would otherwise be the case.
Community transport is a service provided at an individual level, and it gets to the places that normal transport does not or cannot reach. Quite often, that involves getting people not only to the door but through the door, with physical assistance for people to get into vehicles—something that normal operators simply could not provide.
I am very disturbed about the process that is under way. There is some confused thinking going on, particularly in the attempt to redefine, after all these years, the notion of the word “commercial”. To suggest that simply by virtue of the fact that money is paid to a service—irrespective of who is paying it and who is receiving it—an operation is rendered commercial seems to me to turn on its head what most normal, right-thinking people believe to be a commercial operation. A commercial operation, for most people, is one in which an operator engages in supplying a service in order to make a profit. That is the normal meaning of “commercial”. Organisations that do that explicitly not for profit should not be regarded as commercial, and they should be exempted from the requirements of sections 19 and 22 on that basis alone.
Even more bizarre is the suggestion that it will be for a private operator to decide whether we apply the exemption—only when a private operator says that it might be interested in running the service will the community transport operator be obliged to go into the new licensing regime. I find that bizarre. We could have a situation in which, on the one hand, a community transport operator is regarded as commercial simply because it receives payment from the local authority or someone else for providing the service and, on the other hand, it could be exempted and be non-commercial on the grounds of there being no private sector interest. At one and the same time, the operator could be both commercial and non-commercial. That is a policy of which Schrodinger would be proud, but it ought to have no part in the planning of public transport.
We must also understand the effect. If the proposal goes ahead, many community transport operators will be faced with higher costs as they try to fit in with a licensing regime that they did not have previously. More importantly, a lot of the volunteers who run such organisations will simply say, “This isn’t why we got into this. We didn’t go into it to be a commercial operator or to operate on this basis”, and they will simply give up. We will see a collapse in community transport organisation providers, and that will leave a gap in the service, driving up the cost to the local authority or anyone else who needs to provide the service.
Many volunteer drivers would be extremely put off by having to undergo all the onerous training to get the additional certification. Many people will simply walk away if they are required to get all that additional certification. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I could not agree more. That is another reason for that effect of the policy—if we oblige community transport operators to jump through the new hoops and the red tape, many people will simply say, “Well, that’s not what I want to do. I want to serve my community. I don’t want to do this.” The Department ought to be responsive to that.
I have a couple of final observations. First, I cannot be the only person to find it bizarre that the suggested rationale for why this is happening now is a sudden desire by some officials in the Department to comply better with the regulations of the European Union. We are, after all, only 47 weeks away from being led out of the European Union by this Government, whereby they hope to free themselves from the shackles imposed on them by just such European Union regulations and many others. Why the sudden outbreak of Europhilia, at the 11th hour of our membership of the European Union? It does not add up. It is probably a smokescreen for some other agenda going on in the Department.
Secondly—I know I am the only Scottish MP present—as I researched for the debate and read around the issue, I have to confess that I realised that the situation in my city is bizarre. The roads along which the community minibus travels are regulated and paid for by the Scottish Government; the people inside the bus are being taken to health and social care facilities that are regulated and legislated for by the Scottish Government; and yet the Scottish Government have no oversight of whether the operator should have a licence to drive the bus. That seems to me to be something of an inadequacy in the devolution settlement. I hope that next time we review the competencies of the devolved Administrations we consider some more joined-up thinking in that regard, so that the settlement is at least internally consistent, and all aspects of public policy can be integrated.
I have attended many of these Westminster Hall debates and usually they are much more collegiate than exchanges in the main Chamber. However, I do not think I have yet seen one in which there is this degree of unanimity in the views expressed by Members right across the House. The Minister is an admirable fellow, and I know that his fingerprints are not on this particular consultation. He now has a golden opportunity to rein in his Department, to say “Stop!” to whoever is driving this policy, and to recognise in public policy and Government action the importance and uniqueness of community transport providers the length and breadth of this country.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and I congratulate her on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech outlining the issue. Her knowledge and expertise on all transport matters is of great benefit to the House, and I commend her work as Chair of the Transport Committee in carrying out this important and thorough inquiry. I also thank hon. Members from across the House for their contributions.
We have heard that community transport is a very broad term for the vital local transport services that provide a lifeline to people in our communities who, sadly, might otherwise be isolated. From lifts by volunteer car drivers to more organised schemes such as dial-a-ride or dial-a-bus, minibus travel for groups of people who struggle to get out on their own and community bus services where there are no existing commercial routes, such as in remote rural areas, not-for-profit services are vital to local communities.
My hon. Friend mentioned that community transport is a lifeline for the users, but does he agree that it is also a lifeline for the volunteer drivers? Patrick O’Keefe, a constituent who was very high up at Heathrow, and Paul Hurley, who is ex-BBC, love it because they have a post-retirement second lease of life.
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South and other Members are right to describe the services as a lifeline, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) just did. It is heartening to see so many Members here showing support for them. Throughout the debate, we have heard many examples of the impact that these vital services have in constituencies up and down the country. The value of these services is not disputed and is not a topic for this debate.
The debate came about due to the failure of the Department for Transport to ensure that UK legislation and guidance kept pace with community transport practice and European regulations. Sadly, the Department did not respond appropriately or quickly enough to address issues that were raised directly with them over a number of years. When officials did respond, they mismanaged the situation, causing confusion and panic in the community transport sector. We have heard that the Department’s ill-judged letter last July had an immediate and damaging knock-on effect. It led to local authorities halting commissioning and in some cases even withdrawing contracts from community transport operators. The delay of more than three months in the Department providing clarification further exacerbated the problem and highlighted the Department’s lack of understanding of the impact of its proposals on the community transport sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South informed us earlier that the Transport Committee’s subsequent inquiry was launched in response to the concerns that not-for-profit community minibus services for vulnerable or isolated people were under threat, and in response to Members being contacted by constituents and community transport providers. The inquiry received more than 300 submissions, which demonstrates the considerable strength of feeling among organisations that provide community transport and people using those vital services.
The inquiry found that the Government’s position—that the majority of community transport operators would not be affected by any clarification of the rules—was inaccurate. The Department’s view appears not to differentiate between true commercial services and those vital community services that fill gaps where the market is unable to deliver transport. By accepting a premise that any transaction in any form makes something commercial, the proposed changes will prevent many more community organisations from operating than the Department intended, affecting not just those that compete for contracts. It is important to remember that not all services where a payment is made are truly commercial.
If the proposed guidance stands, the total estimated impact on community organisations will be about £399 million. That will mean that many of the not-for-profit organisations will no longer be able to afford to run their services, as we have heard from many Members. That is a fundamental and worrying shift away from the established policy that not-for-profit organisations are able to play an important role, which has been supported by legislation and encouraged by both Labour and Conservative Governments for nearly 30 years. This long-established arrangement has been successful and has ensured that people in our communities can still get about when public transport cannot support them. That is why, in its inquiry report, the Transport Committee urged the Government to engage with the sector, and called for Ministers to address the Department’s lack of understanding of the community transport sector and to carry out a full impact assessment of the proposals.
A further key recommendation was that the Government use the consultation to consider reforms to achieve compatibility with EU regulations. That would maintain the key objective of continuing to provide high quality, safe and secure community transport services. It is disheartening to hear from my hon. Friend that the Government have not listened and, sadly, not engaged with these very legitimate concerns. With the consultation now closed, I hope the Minister will outline the steps he will take to ensure the views and concerns expressed are taken into account, and will reassure Members that the consultation was not merely an exercise to rubber-stamp the Department’s proposals.
The community transport sector has acted in good faith, in accordance with official guidance from both local and central Government over many years. By its own admission, the DFT has not kept pace with developments in community transport. Furthermore, the Department has taken action only when under immediate legal threat. Will the Minister now outline what steps he is taking to ensure that the Department has the expertise and understanding required to oversee the reforms, whilst ensuring the protection of these vital services? The role of the DFT is to support transport networks and to keep people moving.
This sorry episode suggests a wider failure to take a strategic view of local transport policy, which I hope the Minister will now address. I urge him to take a fresh look at community transport services, to improve services and make them more efficient. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and to him reassuring the Committee on this matter.
You are an adornment to the Chair, Mr Davies, and it is a delight to see you there. I am very grateful to colleagues across the House for taking the time to take part in the debate. I recognise that the reason they do that is because of the strength of feeling of individuals across political parties on this vital sector. I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the questions that have been put and the Committee report that has been produced.
I will start by saying that far from it being the case that Government have not started to listen, as the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, we have been very carefully listening all the way through this process. As Members were standing up, I found myself wondering how many of their specific organisations I had myself visited. They include Community Connexions in Cheltenham, the community transport business in the constituency of the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and Hackney Community Transport. My officials have visited other community transport organisations. That is because, as colleagues have said—it was put beautifully by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and by many other colleagues across the House—they are vital community organisations.
It was right to recognise, as several Members did, that the organisations in many ways are not entirely distinct but often highly different in their nature from purely commercial operators. That is because the services they offer are often incidental to the wider public good that they discharge and the wider social value that they add. I see this in Herefordshire: we have the city of Hereford but we also have rural lands. I acknowledge the value of community transport. That is why this Government and their predecessors have supported community transport organisations.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) was right to highlight the fact that those organisations had been supported by the bus service operators grants—BSOG—and by the minibus grant scheme that we have in operation. Hundreds of organisations up and down the country have benefited from both schemes. We recognise the importance of the sector.
This consultation is, and was always designed to be, a consultation in the full sense. The Government do not have a formulated and final policy on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is a thoroughly distinguished lawyer in this area, pointed out—as others with legal practice experience have acknowledged—that the law in this area is a complex matter on which our understanding continues to evolve. Part of the purpose of the consultation is to understand how the law plays out in community transport organisations’ practice across the country.
I am very pleased that the Minister gave the assurance that he is listening and that he has been to visit operators. Will he explain what he intends to do in response? Will he consider alternative interpretations of that EU regulation? Is he prepared to think again in response to the results of that consultation, rather than the explanation that was given in the consultation, which seemed to take a very legalistic approach with no room for manoeuvre?
I will come to the full thrust of what the hon. Lady said later, but let me respond to that point. We will pursue the consultation process, reflect on the experience that comes out of that, publish a response to the consultation and take action based on that, which is exactly what Members would expect of the Government. We do not believe that we should proceed without listening to people or taking account of what they say.
This was a consultation in the full sense of the word. It was not just about listening to local community transport organisations and their wider representative organisations throughout the country, but about gathering evidence. As I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales mentioned, when he ran the Department the Government had relatively little information about this area and there was a certain lack of legal clarity. I only wish that I had his flexibility in that regard, but the point of the consultation has been to gather information as well as to take soundings from operators.
I understand where the Minister is coming from, but does he realise that, by not clarifying the situation, he has not given any signal of hope to the community transport sector? It is suffering, and the corrosive impact of last year’s famous letter is causing it pain. We will not have a community transport sector unless he makes it clear here and now that the Government support it.
I can only respect the hon. Gentleman’s astonishing capacity to manufacture indignation.
It wasn’t manufactured!
I feel the same concern as him and, if he allows me to proceed, I will be happy to give a reassurance about that. In fact, let me bring that section of my speech forward. We have said this in the past, but let me say again on the record that our judgment is that it would be premature for local authorities to withhold contracts pending further analysis and exploration of the legal complexities involved in this area. I cannot be clearer than that, and I hope that is reassuring to the sector, as it should be.
In which case, will the Minister write to local authorities instructing them to be helpful towards the community transport sector? The responses from local transport authorities around the country have been very variable.
We continue to consult local authorities. We will pursue the current consultation, which has been very full and wide-ranging, and then publish the results on that matter—properly considered and legally advised—in due course. I will say, though, that local authorities should heed the words I have just said and take a large degree of comfort from them for existing practice.
Will the Minister give way very briefly?
I have taken a lot of interventions and I have a lot of stuff to get through, but of course—if my hon. Friend is very quick.
I am most grateful. In the final analysis, the Minister’s legal advisers are there to advise; they do not instruct him. I advise him to get alternative legal advice from outside his Department, because Government legal advice tends to be a little over-cautious, which is why we finish up gold-plating these things. It is tempting just to blame the European Union.
Well, there were moments when colleagues sounded very much like Brexiteers in their rejection of this piece of EU legislation. There has been no undue deference to legal advice on this matter. We are considering it and consulting widely on this topic. We remain very open to legal advice. The hon. Member for Nottingham South has not clarified, in response to the question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), whether her Committee took legal advice. If it did, we would welcome its sharing and publishing it. I say to all colleagues around the House and to representative organisations that we would be very grateful to receive any legal advice or opinions they have. This is a matter of some legal complexity, and we are interested in hearing those views. The point was rightly made that aspects of social value in other legislation need to be taken account of, too.
I hope that it is understood that we as a Department are taking a tone of warmth towards the sector on this issue, while respecting our obligation to uphold and clarify the law. I very much offer community transport operators and colleagues reassurance about that. It is important to realise that there are genuine questions here about what the law is, how it relates to other aspects of law and how it is properly applied. We recognise that, and it is important to place that on the record, too.
Local authorities have not been much mentioned, except by me when I clarified that they should not withhold contracts until further clarification is given, but they are a very important part of this equation. As part of our further work during the follow-up to the consultation, my officials and I will talk closely with local authorities to think about best practice for how they commission services in this area and to encourage them to a proper understanding of the legal position as we see it.
In the few minutes I have left—I want to allow the hon. Member for Nottingham South a chance to respond—let me make a couple of comments on colleagues’ remarks. I think the hon. Lady is caught in a slight dilemma. She rightly praised the light-touch, affordable regime that successive Governments have adopted for the sector, which has been allowed to evolve of its own accord in a very big society way. I was grateful for the triumphant praise for the big society from the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). He was absolutely right about that. He did not quite bring himself to say those words, but of course that is what he was doing, like the good Tory he is. I hope he lasts in his party under those circumstances.
Well, I offered my hope, but I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to contradict me if he wishes. The point is that the regime remains light-touch and affordable. That is precisely why the consultation was necessary—to gather information and understanding. It is misguided to suggest that we are adopting a narrow and legalistic approach when in fact we are proceeding with extreme care and caution in the face of a complex situation. As I said, I very much encourage the hon. Lady to place on the public record any legal advice that she has commissioned or received.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
The hon. Lady will have a chance to respond in about three minutes, so she can defend her position later if she wishes. I should say that I absolutely respect the Committee, which did extremely well to call this debate. That is a very important aspect of its work—it is an extension from when I was on the Treasury Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I also have great respect for the Committee’s report, as do my colleagues across the Department.
The question of whether there has been gold-plating here is a proper one. I am not persuaded that there has been. I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, and others who think there may have been, that the consultation and the draft statutory instrument went through a process of discussion across Government, including at the Regulatory Policy Committee and other committees, the purpose of which is to prevent gold-plating and which reflects custom, practice and decisions made by many Ministers, and they passed that process. I do not believe there has been gold-plating, but we do not yet have a final, evolved position on this matter, so it would be a rush to judgment to take that view.
Let me close by saying that no one respects the importance of the community transport sector more than my officials and me. We have been up and down the country to talk to these organisations. My officials have covered every part of these British Isles and, indeed, the United Kingdom in an effort to understand the sector and to support it, as the Government have historically. I give that sector, which I respect so much, my reassurance that we will continue to do whatever we can to protect and support it, subject to the process of law, in the coming months.
I am pleased that the Minister recognises the strength of feeling about this issue among Members on both sides of the House who represent constituencies urban and rural across the UK. There cannot be many issues that unite the Father of the House, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, a Conservative former Secretary of State for Transport, three Select Committee Chairs, the Scottish National party and Labour spokespeople, and so many other learned hon. Members. We know the immense value of community transport. It meets unmet need, generates social value and provides a lifeline to people who may otherwise be cut off from friends, family, work, education, social activities and essential appointments due to disability or geography.
The Minister must have misunderstood our report if he thinks we recommend a legalistic approach. We ask for exactly the opposite. In our report, we called on the Government to explore whether a more practical and pragmatic interpretation of the EU regulation is possible, and that has been added to today. If he is prepared to listen, think again and amend his proposals, he has an opportunity to avert disaster. I very much hope he takes it.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Channel 4 Relocation
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the relocation of Channel 4.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham. Channel 4 is undoubtedly one of our finest, most precious broadcasting assets, as evidenced by the fact that there has been intense interest from many cities and regions across the United Kingdom in hosting its new national headquarters and new creative hubs, representing 300 new Channel 4 jobs, which will not only expand its footprint across the United Kingdom but deepen its relationship with viewers.
Rightly, Channel 4 has set a high bar for bidding cities and regions, requiring robust local infrastructure and transport and, in particular, frequent, fast and reliable connectivity. For the national headquarters, it is looking for a home with a population of at least 200,000, travel time to the city of London within three hours and a high level of physical and digital connectivity.
As a Glasgow Member of Parliament, I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will understand that I am immensely pleased to see that my home city is putting in a bold, strong and ambitious bid to be the new home of Channel 4. I am particularly pleased that the chair of that bid is the famous Glaswegian journalist and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove. Beyond Channel 4’s physical requirements, it is ultimately looking for somewhere it can feel at home. It is looking for a diverse city that has a thriving arts and production scene; a city that is not afraid to go against the grain; and a city that has a confident sense of itself but is always looking to stretch itself and take on new challenges. Setting aside the physical criteria, I wish to set out the case for Scotland’s largest city. The truth is that if Channel 4 was a city, it would be the city of Glasgow.
Glasgow is not only Scotland’s largest economy, generating more than £20 billion of economic output, but it has a growing population, standing now just shy of 600,000 citizens. Within that population, we have friends who have joined us from all four corners of the world. The well-established Chinese, Pakistani, Caribbean and African communities, along with many different European communities and other ethnic groups, proudly call Glasgow their home. It is important to note that those citizens who join us from other parts of the world are driving Glasgow’s population growth.
I mentioned that Channel 4 is looking for a city of diversity. If Members will allow me, I will adumbrate some of what has happened in Glasgow that shows we are a diverse city. Let us remember that the city of Glasgow elected Britain’s first ever Muslim Member of Parliament: Mohammad Sarwar, in 1997, as the Labour MP for Glasgow Govan. Similarly, the first ever Asian to be elected to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, the late Bashir Ahmad, came from Glasgow. Scotland’s first female First Minister—known, I suspect, to everyone in the Chamber—is a Glasgow politician. This week, we marked the life of the late Michael Martin, who was the first ever Scottish and indeed Catholic Speaker of the House of Commons, and of course he was a Glasgow MP. If that was not enough, our Lord Provost—the first citizen of Glasgow—is herself from Sweden, making her the first EU national ever to hold that post.
Today is 10 May, and on 10 May 1994 Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa. Glaswegians are particularly proud of the fact that Glasgow stood alone at the time in being the first city anywhere in the world to offer Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city. At that time, other cities were still condemning him as a terrorist. Sir Graham, you will know the fantastic tale of the South African consulate based in Glasgow. Our civic leaders, in their remarkable genius, changed the name of the street that the consulate was on to Nelson Mandela Place, so every piece of mail the consulate received had the name of that country’s most famous prisoner on it.
As Mohammad Sarwar noted when he spent some time in this House, Glasgow also lays claim to being the place where chicken tikka masala was invented. Let us move on to more serious, timely matters.
When Syrians came to the United Kingdom, fleeing war, Glasgow was the first UK city to welcome them among us. Indeed, in 1999, when the then Labour Government brought in a policy of dispersal for asylum seekers to move them out of London and the south-east across the UK, Glasgow was the first city anywhere in the UK to sign up to the programme. All of us who represent Glasgow are proud that many of them still call our city their home.
It is no wonder that the English writer and raconteur Sir Compton Mackenzie said in his rectorial address to the University of Glasgow that when he gazed down on Glasgow from the Campsie Fells, it offered something that “neither Rome nor Athens” ever could: “the glory and grandeur of the future”.
He said Glasgow was
“the beating heart of a nation.”
Glasgow is home to a thriving creative arts and cultural scene. It is home to some of the best educational institutions in Europe, such as the University of Glasgow and Strathclyde University, supported by a network of colleges that is developing these communities even further.
There is an existing availability of talent in Glasgow that I have no doubt whatsoever would contribute enormously to the future of Channel 4. Of course, Channel 4 knows that, because it has been in Glasgow in some form or another for almost 30 years, working in partnership with some of our independent producers who have a reputation for being the best of the best in the business. All of the reasons that I have set out today and that have been outlined in a bold and ambitious bid document, led by Stuart Cosgrove, have led to an extraordinary display of political, geographical and cultural unity in getting behind Glasgow’s bid to host Channel 4.
The bid has been backed by all the major political parties in Scotland. It is backed formally by the Scottish Government, by Scotland’s tech city, the city of Dundee—home to Grand Theft Auto and the soon-to-be-opening V&A—and, of course, by Scotland’s capital city and home of the Scottish festival, the city of Edinburgh. I cannot tell you, Sir Graham, what an achievement it is to unite Glasgow and Edinburgh on almost anything.
Undoubtedly, one of Glasgow’s most precious assets—if not the most precious asset—is its people. Known the world over for our good humour and welcoming spirit, we have often punched above our weight on the international stage. That was displayed perfectly four years ago at the 2014 Commonwealth games, and no doubt it will be on display again this summer as we host the 2018 European championships.
Glasgow, of course, was once known as the second city of the empire, but the days of empire are gone, no matter how much some in this House might wish they were not. They are behind us. Glasgow has not stopped cutting a new image for itself over many decades, built up by some of our most famous sons and daughters, from the footballing legend Alex Ferguson—I am sure all Members will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery—to the comedy legend Billy Connolly, the musical talents of Amy Macdonald and bands such as Texas and, let us not forget, the only Scot that many people around the world will know, Groundskeeper Willie from the cartoon, “The Simpsons”.
There is a whole generation of young, talented and yet undiscovered Glaswegians who are waiting to make their mark on the world stage. My advice is that Channel 4 should snap them up now. They can be part of Channel 4’s future, and Channel 4 would be a welcome part of Glasgow’s future. Glasgow is a city that is constantly on the up, and constantly challenging itself. It is a city that is forever changing for the better, and a better home Channel 4 simply could not find.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this Backbench debate.
When launching “4 All the UK”, the chief executive of Channel 4, Alex Mahon, said:
“As a public service broadcaster with diversity in its DNA, Channel 4 has a unique ability to reflect our society. This is a significant and exciting moment of change for Channel 4 as we evolve to ensure we are best suited to serve all of the UK. With this new strategy we will go even further to make sure that people right across the UK are represented on screen and in the make up of our own organisation–and it will also build on what we already do to support creative businesses, jobs and economies in the nations and regions.”
Today we have an opportunity to debate what that means and how Channel 4 can achieve that objective in practice with three new creative hubs and a new national headquarters outside London.
As we have already heard, the criteria that Channel 4 has set for its new national headquarters is that the new location should have a working population of at least 200,000, travel time to London of up to three hours, and a high level of physical and digital connectivity and infrastructure. In addition, Channel 4 has listed five considerations that it has identified to support the evaluation of submissions that will be undertaken by Channel 4 and its advisers. The considerations are economic, demographic, diversity and environmental factors; the existing availability of talent and a future pipeline, including educational links; local connectivity and broader infrastructure; ease and speed of travel for Channel 4 employees and partners between the different creative hubs; and effectiveness and efficiency of available office space. I want to argue today that the west midlands should be the choice for Channel 4 to meet those criteria.
Why do I say that? First, as a region we easily meet the physical criteria set by Channel 4. We have a population of 2.8 million. Birmingham alone has a population of 1.5 million people. Our travel time to London by rail is 85 minutes and will be even less after the arrival of HS2. Some 86% of properties in Birmingham achieved ultrafast broadband in 2017. On the availability of office space and other physical facilities, the west midlands has those in abundance at a fraction of the price in London.
To give just two examples from Birmingham, Digbeth has established a real reputation as a creative quarter close to the HS2 station that will be coming and is close to the BBC’s base at the Mailbox. Longbridge in my own constituency is undergoing a massive transformation. It has direct rail connections to central Birmingham and beyond. It is close to the M42 and the M5 motorways and is just down the road from the BBC’s drama village in Birmingham, Selly Oak. Birmingham has many studio and production spaces at various locations, as does Coventry, a city that has already shown its potential by winning the accolade of the UK’s city of culture 2021. It, too, has a great deal to offer Channel 4.
Those are all reasons why in many ways the west midlands would be the least disruptive option for Channel 4. But if Channel 4’s vision, as set out by Alex Mahon, is to be realised, it has to be more than about physical location. It has to be about people. That is where the west midlands is the most disruptive choice for Channel 4, and that means it is also the right choice if Channel 4 is serious about diversity being in its DNA, because diversity is in the DNA of my region, the west midlands.
Research from five years ago showed that there were people from 187 different national backgrounds living in Birmingham. We have 108 languages spoken in the city. We are the youngest city in Europe, with nearly 45% of our people under the age of 25. Already, the west midlands is showing itself to be a pioneer in the disruptive technologies that are transforming what media mean in the modern age. We are home to the gaming industry. We are pioneering new content, new platforms and new forms of production. That is why the BBC has chosen Birmingham as the home for BBC Three; it is trying to tap into a generation that knows that access to media content as and when they want it is digital, and for whom the future is online. All that is connected to the needs of a young and diverse population.
If Channel 4 wants to reflect the United Kingdom of tomorrow, it should look at the west midlands today and get closer to it. Our young and diverse population is a massive reservoir of talent on which Channel 4 can build. Indeed, one of Channel 4’s criteria for its new headquarters talks about needing not only a reservoir of existing talent, but a pipeline of talent for the future. Eight universities across our region are a part of that pipeline. Channel 4 itself can be a part of building that pipeline by the choices it makes. It has the opportunity not only to harness talent, but to help to transform lives and make social mobility a reality for people—whether it be minority ethnic communities or white working class young people growing up on the outskirts of our cities—to whom it seems as though opportunities are always there for someone else,
The heritage of the west midlands has always been about making things, and it still is. Innovation has always been at the heart of successful manufacturing, and our region is now the meeting point of the industrial makers, storytellers and artistic innovators. All those things have been brought closer together in the west midlands. By choosing the west midlands for its new headquarters, Channel 4 can get closer to it, too.
A number of Members wish to participate and I hope to avoid a time limit. If Members keep to about five minutes per contribution, I might be able to avoid that.
Tomorrow Liverpool will launch its bid to become one of the new locations for Channel 4. The bid has strong cross-party support from across the city region. The relocation of Channel 4 is long overdue. It recognises the skills and expertise right across the country. Relocation will benefit that national broadcaster at the same time as it regenerates the regions with businesses and jobs. Liverpool is the right place for Channel 4. It meets all the criteria set out, but has so much more. It is diverse: the world in one city. It has people with excellent skills and great enthusiasm. The area has great connectivity, with the excitement of the port.
Liverpool became the European capital of culture in 2008 because of its achievements, but also because of its potential. That pivotal year was indeed a launching pad. Now, in 2018, Liverpool has surpassed all expectations. It is the most filmed city outside London. It has the Liverpool Biennial. Always reinventing itself, it has great expertise in the media and digital industries, and at the Baltic Creative there are ever-expanding, innovative businesses. Liverpool has museums, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts with its unique offer, theatres and much more. It is bursting with enthusiasm and energy, which are matched by people’s expertise.
I have some questions about the process for selecting the new locations of the national headquarters and creative hubs. Will selection be carried out solely by Channel 4, and will the process be transparent? Have there been any prior meetings that might influence the outcome? Those important questions deserve to be answered, because the issue is a critical one. I hope that the Minister will give us reassurances on those important points. The relocation of Channel 4 is a great opportunity for Channel 4 itself, for the regions and nations of the UK, for broadcasting and for Liverpool. I hope that Channel 4 will make the right decision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing the debate.
The relocation of Channel 4’s headquarters and the locations of the new creative hubs is an important issue, and although the debate is perhaps turning into something of a beauty contest—no doubt we shall be seeing much more of each other in the next few weeks—it provides the House with a valuable opportunity to consider the merits of the bids.
I must declare an interest in that I speak not only as the Member proudly serving the people of Barnsley Central but as the Mayor of the Sheffield city region. As part of my recent campaign I pledged to establish a more vibrant, successful and co-operative economy in South Yorkshire. Those plans are founded on a three-part economic strategy—to build on our strengths, invest in our future and develop a well-paid and highly skilled workforce. The first step on that road would be the establishment of a digital inclusion taskforce, which would pave the way for the development of Sheffield as a regional hub for the creative and digital industries. That is a vision that I share with the leader of Sheffield City Council, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and hon. Members across South Yorkshire. I believe that that vision is attainable, not just because digital employment in Sheffield and South Yorkshire stands at more than 21,000, the top 25 tech companies in Sheffield employ more than 12,000 people and bring in more than £2 billion a year and Sheffield digital companies boast one of the highest growth rates of any cluster in the UK, but because we now have the potential to supercharge that transformation with the relocation of the national headquarters of Channel 4.
The public service remit for Channel 4 focuses on important issues including quality, innovation, experimentation, creativity, diversity, public service, character and education. If someone were to read out that list of eight words to me and ask me what I was thinking, my answer would be simple: Sheffield. I say that because Sheffield not only has a proud history of high-quality and diverse manufacturing and business: it has a proven track record of promoting public service, prioritising education, and constantly demonstrating innovation, experimentation and creativity in the face of new challenges and opportunities. It is home to ZOO Digital, which works from Hollywood to Bollywood with some of the biggest names in TV and film; Joi Polloi, a home-grown digital design agency demonstrating that kids from council estates can win BAFTAs; and two world-class universities. It should also be remembered that Sheffield is the UK’s first city of sanctuary, and thus embodies much of the diversity and inclusivity that Channel 4 strives to represent.
Mindful of all that, I put a simple question to the Minister: can he think of a place in the United Kingdom that reflects the values of Channel 4 better than Sheffield? With the greatest respect to those making other bids, I cannot.
People from Channel 4 listening to the debate will be beginning to realise that they are spoiled for choice. I urge my hon. Friend, in the spirit of Yorkshire solidarity, at least to acknowledge that with respect to the diversity, infrastructure and talent criteria the city of Leeds would be a great host for Channel 4, not least because of our strong record of television and film production in Yorkshire. Will he acknowledge that we will all fight as hard as I know he will to ensure that the city we represent will be successful when the decision is finally made?
Of course I am happy to do that. Perhaps my one regret is that the decision will not be taken in a couple of months. Who knows what we might have done, had that been the case, working collectively and collaboratively across the great county of Yorkshire; but, alas, I find I am on this occasion, almost uniquely, on a different side of the argument from my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), who is sitting next to him.
I was intrigued to hear the comment of the hon. Member for Glasgow South about which city—if it were a city—Channel 4 would be. During questions in the House I said that if Channel 4 were a city it would be Sheffield, and that belief is based on a simple truth that makes Channel 4 and Sheffield a perfect fit for each other. I hope that I have made clear the strength of the bid that we shall submit tomorrow, but I want to mention how important the bid is and how much we hope to secure the investment. It is because the Sheffield city region is already home to 68,000 businesses, which generate £30 billion a year, but the average weekly salary is £60 less than the UK average, and it is clear that too few people in South Yorkshire have a decent income or get their fair share of the nation’s wealth. The decision to locate Channel 4 in Sheffield would not only add significant weight to the Government’s northern powerhouse but would provide a much needed shot in the arm for our city region—one that has in the past few years created 37,000 jobs. It would do much to tackle existing regional inequalities—something that should be a priority for any Government.
With all that in mind, and recognising that the decision is ultimately for Channel 4, I hope and trust that the Minister will give serious consideration to the strength of Sheffield’s bid and that that will help to ensure that the brand that is “Made in Sheffield” will become as much a mark of excellence in the age of information as it was in the age of steel.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and to put Cardiff’s case for Channel 4. As we are talking about Channel 4, it is right that I should use four Cs to put my case: that we are a creative cultural capital, that we have a diverse community, that we have the cutting-edge capacity that Channel 4 needs and, crucially, that we already deliver a commitment to Channel 4 in our city.
My first speech in this place was about Cardiff and how it has changed over many years. We were at the heart of the industrial revolution and coal and steel exporting across the world; the first £1 million cheque was signed in the coal exchange. I spoke about how the smoke stacks and docks of old were giving way to the brand new creative cutting-edge industries of the future, and the opportunities that they were giving young people in our diverse capital city. That is where I see Cardiff’s future, and I know that view is shared by my colleagues and hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and indeed for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), although I know he will have to take a careful and balanced view today from the Front Bench. That view is also taken by Cardiff City Council, the city region, our leader Huw Thomas, the Welsh Government and all our arts and cultural institutions, including those in the television and film production sector in Cardiff.
Independent TV already generates £350 million in the Cardiff economy every year. We already have 15,000 people employed in creative and cultural activities— a ready-made resource of expertise for Channel 4 to tap into. We have 7,000 students studying in the creative sectors in Cardiff at a range of institutions, which I will come on to. We have 3,000 creative companies and facilities located in Cardiff, including those in television and film production. Some are very large, including the famous BBC Drama Village, Pinewood Studios and Wolf Studios Wales. A strong relationship already exists between Channel 4 and Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C—the fourth channel in Wales, and its facilities are not far down the road. We also have the new ITV facility in Assembly Square.
We have fantastic facilities such as NoFit State Circus, the Wales Millennium Centre and the Cardiff Animation Festival, and community facilities such as Indycube in my constituency, which provides facilities for small, start-up creatives that are often supplying the larger facilities, right there and being supported in our community. We also have fantastic locations such as the TramShed.
We have a diverse community; I know many cities around the UK will share that, but Cardiff truly is remarkably diverse, with 100 languages, 100 nationalities and one of the oldest Muslim communities in the UK. In my own constituency alone I have six mosques, three Hindu temples, a synagogue just on the edge, a Sikh gurdwara, a Greek Orthodox church and people who have come from far and wide because of Cardiff’s maritime heritage and our welcoming city. It is a remarkable community to draw on and represents the Wales and Britain of today—a perfect place for Channel 4.
Of course, diversity goes well beyond issues of ethnicity, religion and national origin. As a gay MP, I am proud that Cardiff hosts the Iris prize, one of the leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festivals, every year, that we are the host of Pride Cymru and part of the Big Weekend, one of the biggest LGBT celebrations across the UK, and that I am likely to bump into people such as Russell T. Davies down in Cardiff bay. He is the creator of one of Channel 4’s most famous programmes, “Queer as Folk”, and more recently things such as “Cucumber” and “Banana”, as well of course “Doctor Who”, produced in Cardiff.
We have a strong commitment to another issue that Channel 4 is also committed to—disability and Paralympic sport. We are the birthplace of Tanni Grey-Thompson, who learned to swim in the Splott pool in my own constituency and went to St Cyres School in Penarth, and of Paralympic champions such as Aled Davies and others whom Channel 4 has done so much to champion.
We have cutting-edge capacity. We were No. 1 for quality of life in the EU’s city index in 2016. We have the digital connectivity and infrastructure that is driving so many creative film and TV companies to Cardiff. We have those three universities, the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of South Wales, and we have the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama generating talent, skills, technical capacity and all the other supplies that Channel 4 will need to be successful in Cardiff. We have that crucial working population of one quarter of a million in Cardiff, and of course we have the wider capital city region. We have places such as Cardiff and Vale College in my own constituency, which I am proud to see building up young people to go into the creative sectors.
Crucially, we are already delivering a commitment for Channel 4. The broadcast award-winning Boomerang, one of the largest suppliers to Channel 4 covering primetime, daytime and sports coverage, is located locally. We have companies such as Nimble Dragon, Avanti, Sugar and Boom Cymru already working with Channel 4, and others are leading the way: One Tribe TV, Tarian, Vox Pictures, Orchard, Bad Wolf and Wolf Studios Wales. We have fantastic post-production facilities, with cutting-edge companies such as Gorilla, and visual effects companies such as Bait Studio, Milk VFX and Reel SFX. Fitting with what Channel 4 is looking for, the executive producer of “Doctor Who”, Chris Chibnall, said, “The talent base here is simply extraordinary, it is ambitious, bold and takes risks.”
That is very much the Channel 4 that I know and love, and that is what Channel 4 can gain from coming to Cardiff. I hope the Minister will listen closely; I hope Channel 4 will listen closely, and I look forward to supporting the bid with all my Cardiff colleagues and those in the wider region in the days and weeks to come.
In the interest of scrupulous geographical impartiality, I will impose a five-minute limit on speeches.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing today’s debate.
The spread of the creative industries across our country is of great importance to me. I am lucky to have worked in the creative industries for many years, and because of that experience I understand the positive impact that they can have on economic growth, skills, training, employment and regeneration. That is why I see Channel 4’s decision to move significant parts of its operation as a great step and a powerful catalyst for change. The opportunities the relocation brings have caught the attention of many regions, and the Leeds city region, which includes my constituency and the district of Kirklees, is among them. It hopes to spark a revolution in the creative and screen industries in Yorkshire.
Although I am happy to back that bid, I want to ensure that the decision makers do not overlook Leeds’s less well-known neighbours. I hope they look beyond the big cities when choosing where to relocate, and factor in what surrounds those cities. Our towns and villages, such as Batley and Spen, have just as much to offer, and arguably more to gain. This revolution needs to benefit the whole of Leeds and the city region, not just the city. In Kirklees, we have talent, creativity, technical know-how and digital infrastructure to rival what can be found anywhere in the nation.
We are well served for motorway access; we have wonderful picturesque towns and villages, boutique hotels, great restaurants, loads of ice cream parlours, a proud industrial heritage and a vibrant multicultural community, not to mention mile after mile of stunning countryside. Channel 4 need look no further for film locations, from sprawling manors steeped in history and beautiful country parks to thriving urban hubs and heavy industry. “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” and the miniseries “Gunpowder” were both filmed at the stunning Oakwell Hall and country park in Birstall. The Emmy award-winning “Hank Zipzer” filmed in Batley, and Kay Mellor’s series on births, marriages and deaths was filmed in Dewsbury town hall.
Last year, in memory of my predecessor Jo Cox, we brought an acclaimed production of “Les Mis” to the town of Batley. We had a diverse community of 100 young people from across our diverse schools, with an A-list west end professional team sharing their skills and enabling our young working-class kids to punch well above their weight. We proved it could be done, and we will do it again. While Channel 4 is at the forefront of promoting regional talent, we have talent in spades. I beg the Minister to impress on Channel 4 that talent lies not only in the cities, but in the towns that surround them, and that the opportunities in these communities must be part of its thinking when deciding where to relocate. I put my hat in the ring and say that Leeds city region is obviously where my heart lies, but I hope the regional element will also be factored in.
This is an exciting process, is it not? It is a great pleasure to follow the inspirational speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on his paean of praise for the great city of Glasgow.
I will make a couple of opening remarks before concentrating on the Leeds city region. It is worthy of note that, for the first time since I was originally elected to the House in 1997, it is uncontested across all political parties that Channel 4 is best in the public sector. To paraphrase Sir Michael Grade when he was chief of Channel 4, Channel 4 can be in the public sector with a public broadcasting remit or it can be privatised, but it cannot be both. The fact that this process is taking place at all is testament to that; long may it remain so.
Another point worthy of note is that the new management of Channel 4 have embraced the process. A year ago, when I was re-elected to the House of Commons and had my first contacts with Channel 4, there were doubts about whether it could possibly come out of London and whether the talent would be available, and we heard about moving schools and all the same sorts of excuses that were made in the debate about the BBC 10 or 15 years ago. I am very pleased. I congratulate Ministers and shadow Ministers on keeping up the pressure; I think Channel 4 management are now behind the process.
Channel 4 is a great British institution. There are few that are similar in other nations in Europe, except perhaps ZDF and ARD in Germany. To have two great public service broadcasters, and Channel 4 with its particular remit, is something that makes me proud to be British.
Moving on to the Leeds city region’s bid, my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen made the very good point that, although people say that their cities are like Channel 4, we have learned politically over the last few years that the United Kingdom is not just about cities. That is one of the strengths of the Leeds city region’s bid. Public investment in television in England and Wales over the last 30 or 40 years has all been in the west of the nation. There is a big gap in the east of the country where there has been no big investment in television and film.
There are obviously two bids here from Leeds and Sheffield, and both have strengths. As the new Mayor of the Sheffield city region, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), progresses in that role over the coming years, Sheffield will develop magnificently. At the moment, as an impartial judge from Keighley, I say that Leeds probably has the edge in terms of its creativity and of its being in the fastest growing area for television production throughout the country, and probably in terms of transport—until the new Mayor has had his full impact on improving Sheffield’s transport links. I would probably just about give it to Leeds.
However, I think we agree that it would be outrageous—I use that word advisedly, Sir Graham—if there was no representative from God’s own county on the shortlist that Channel 4 draw up. That is inconceivable, particularly given the investment record in the east of the country. I hope that, whether it is Leeds or Sheffield—unless both progress to the next stage—if only one Yorkshire city or region is on that shortlist, we will all unite behind it. This is a marvellous opportunity.
To further make the case for the Leeds city region, we have the infrastructure, we have Sky, we have Perform and we have Yorkshire TV. We have Rockstar Leeds, the makers of Grand Theft Auto, which has sold more than 250 million copies around the world. We have Pace and ARRIS in Saltaire, which power internet and TV for hundreds of millions of people globally. We have the people and we have the infrastructure, does my hon. Friend not agree?
I do agree. One thing I admire about my hon. Friend is that he is much trendier than I am and is so much more in touch with the creative hub that is Leeds. He is right to say that Leeds has not only the history—Yorkshire Television and so on, which led to the spinning out of many production companies—but also this whole new phase and new generation of talent. I very much hope that Channel 4 recognises that.
Thank you for your robust chairmanship and discipline so far in ensuring a geographical spread of speakers, Sir Graham. I congratulate my Glaswegian colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), on bringing the debate. He made a marvellous, erudite case for Glasgow, which I hope to embellish on somewhat.
When considering Channel 4’s new “Location, Location, Location”, where better than where that magnificent programme, which is a great standard bearer for Channel 4’s publishing capability, is produced—in Glasgow? It is an independent production by IWC Media and is one example of the great pedigree that Glasgow already has in broadcast media. Where better for Channel 4 to relocate than Glasgow?
Glasgow’s relationship with public service broadcasting goes back to the very father of public service broadcasting, John Reith, who was educated in Glasgow and cut his teeth as an apprentice at the North British Locomotive Company in my constituency before traveling to London to set up the BBC in 1922. Glasgow’s relationship with the spirit of public service broadcasting is as old as public service broadcasting itself, and is embellished both by the grit of the city’s industries and the glamour of its creative capacity.
Bound up in the spirit of Channel 4 is its ability to take risks and to be radical. Who was more radical than John Logie Baird himself, one of the pioneers of television, who pioneered his craft at what became the University of Strathclyde and transmitted the world’s first long-distance television pictures to Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel in 1927?
Glasgow today hosts two of the main broadcasters in the United Kingdom, including the ITV franchise Scottish Television, which started in 1957 and was born out of Glasgow’s music hall and theatre tradition, based at the Theatre Royal in the city. That tradition continues today. Think of “Mrs Brown’s Boys”, one of the greatest productions on the BBC and one of its greatest comedy shows. It was born out of the risk taken by Iain Gordon, the proprietor of the Pavilion Theatre—the only independent theatre in Scotland—in bringing the stage show to Glasgow. As a result, it spun off and had such roaring success that it became an amazing BBC production. That shows the risks taken by our city’s cultural champions at every level, from theatre through to broadcast media itself.
BBC Scotland, the mainstay of Glasgow’s broadcast media capability—launched formally in 1968 but based in the city since 1957—broadcasts 15,000 hours of radio and television productions per year. That is one of the striking things about Glasgow’s capacity: its broadcast media production capability. When I went down to Channel 4 last month, when it launched its call for places in the UK to bid for the relocation of its headquarters, one thing that struck me about its building in Victoria was that it has no studios: Channel 4 does not produce, it is a publisher. Critical to Channel 4’s criteria for its location is its desire to be at the centre of a major hub and a major ecosystem of production capability.
That is where Glasgow has great strengths. It is already at the centre of an unrivalled capacity for delivering broadcast media production, ranging from massive global hits such as “Outlander”, which is filmed and produced at studios in Cumbernauld in the greater Glasgow city region, through to “Question Time”, which I am sure many Members are familiar with and which is produced by Mentorn Media, based in Glasgow. An old university colleague is an assistant producer on “Question Time”; I know many people who are highly involved in broadcast media production in Glasgow. There is a great talent base in the city to draw on.
Does the hon. Gentleman know that a Glasgow MP—one of my predecessors, the late Sir Teddy Taylor—appeared on the first ever edition of “Question Time”?
There we go. We have a fine tradition, from creative comedy to drama, including political drama. Glasgow has a fantastic pedigree across the full spectrum of broadcast media production.
My experience of working in industry showed me that Glasgow always has that creative potential, with the interface of engineering, creativity and innovation working with Glasgow’s creative sector.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: would it not be wonderful for STV and BBC Scotland to be joined on the Clyde by Channel 4, just next to the shipyards for which he and I have a great passion?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. That great creative media hub at the heart of Glasgow, at Pacific Quay, would be a magnificent centre for Glasgow to host Channel 4. There is so much opportunity there. It is a former industrial site that can be easily developed to meet the needs of Channel 4. There are also lots of other options, from CityPark in Dennistoun in my constituency, for which Stuart Cosgrove—a constituent of mine—is leading a bid, down to Film City in Govan, which is the old Govan town hall and has been converted into the most fantastic media hub for Glasgow and for Scotland.
My experience of working with Glasgow’s creative sector was as a shipbuilder. We were looking at creating a museum of Glasgow’s shipbuilding heritage. Sir Alex Ferguson, as a son of Glasgow, proudly sponsored the creation of a digital, virtual-reality reconstruction of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industries. I share the sentiments wishing him all the best in his recovery from his recent illness.
I was involved in helping to create that reconstruction with the Digital Design Studio—now the School of Simulation and Visualisation—which is part of the Glasgow School of Art. After we created it, it was so impressive that BAE Systems decided that it wanted to utilise it for modern shipbuilding. That is an example of how Glasgow’s creativity and media production could actually help to generate innovation, even in the old industries, as we have seen; we created new innovations in engineering. That is exactly the sort of dynamism and creativity that Glasgow is all about.
That is just one example of how I have interfaced with that, and it shows why Glasgow offers such a good opportunity to be the heart of Channel 4’s production capability—by plugging into that great ecosystem at the heart of the city. I have every confidence that Glasgow will present a robust bid that will be looked upon very favourably by Channel 4, and which will plug into the best traditions of Glasgow—innovation, creativity and dynamism.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting today’s debate. It is no coincidence that five hon. Members from the Leeds city region—I say “York and Leeds city region”—are here for the debate. Because of the sheer scale of the creativity, talent and diversity across our region, it is crucial that we speak up for the future of the region, but also for the future of this sector. We must see this as a global opportunity for Channel 4. There are major export opportunities for our economy, but also opportunities for serving the public and enriching our culture at the same time. Media is so powerful in its execution, and this proposal provides a real opportunity to rebalance our economy and to celebrate the diversity of our communities as we move forward.
I will say York’s piece, because colleagues have spoken for their own part of the region. York is a city that is transitioning from the Vikings, steam trains and chocolate that we all think about to one that now stands as the UK’s only UNESCO city of media arts. It is unrivalled in its digital and media offer and is one of 114 global cities within that footprint of UNESCO. It is where the past meets the present and it provides the platform to shape the future. Today, I want to extol the virtues of York as the place for Channel 4 to find its home.
Educationally, we see the city advancing in the creative sector. I am thinking of Manor school and its state-of-the-art studios to develop pupils’ interest in the sector; the investment that the independent-state schools partnership puts into the media industry to draw on the talent of the children of our city and give them the opportunity to experience the sector; and the outstanding York College, which provides a platform for academic and vocational excellence. We have two fantastic universities: York St John University and the University of York, which is now third in the nation for film and television production. Impressive as it is, its reputation is growing; I visited only recently.
York is a desirable place to live. In fact, it comes out consistently as the UK’s No. 1 place to live and to visit, with 7 million visitors each year. With its connectivity, the city is like no other. We have the TransPennine Express—it will be express, particularly under a Labour Government when we get electricity on the line. We have the east coast main line, which means that we are within two hours of London, and again, journey times will be shortened, because High Speed 2 will be arriving at the heart of our city. Seven million people can reach the region within an hour.
We have an opportunity to create and shape the future of that part of the country as we see the creative sector growing. I am thinking of the Mediale festival, a digital media festival at the heart of York. The Castle Gateway project is moving forward; that area will be York’s new cultural hub.
I will focus my final comments on the economic opportunity and cultural opportunity that York offers. Next to the station is a 72-hectare site, the biggest brownfield site in Europe, where Channel 4 can come and shape its future and the future of our city. In its digital connectivity, the city of York is like no other in the UK. It is the first gigabit city in the UK, with its extensive dark fibre network.
As a city, we have grown in the new technologies of the future, and the digital creative sector is at the heart of stretching our economy into new fields. It is certainly the way forward for Channel 4; it will see a skills base on which it can draw. The digital creative labs in York are unparalleled in the research that they are doing. That is driving the sector forward. The studios at Church Fenton have such a reputation; we have heard about the films being made. There is also the gaming industry; we can look at the creative industry on that front. Again, we are at the forefront. York provides a massive opportunity for Channel 4 to find its new home, and it will reach into the whole business community of the city. It will give the perfect offer to Channel 4.
I am delighted to be able to speak in support of the proposal that Channel 4 come to Glasgow, the city that I represent. I express my solidarity with Team Glasgow, who are heading down on the train from Glasgow just now. To my council colleagues, Stuart Cosgrove and the rest of the team who are on the train on their way down here with the bid document, I say that I look forward to their safe arrival in the city. I like to think that we are playing for the away team and they are the home team, coming down to do their very best for us.
Glasgow is very much the right city for Channel 4, because like Glasgow, Channel 4 is pure gallus, and it has been from the start. It offers something that challenges, that is different and that is unusual, and it seeks to find the stories that we do not get in other places; that is certainly the story of Glasgow.
Already, as other hon. Members have said, there are production companies that are based in Glasgow and going about the business of telling the stories of the people. Firecrest Films specialises in documentaries, such as “Breadline Kids”, which brought the story of people who were in severe poverty to our screens. Nicole Kleeman says that basing Channel 4 in Glasgow would be an “enormous opportunity in Scotland”. It is currently telling the story of the cancer hospital, the Beatson, which many of my constituents have found very moving. They can see their own stories reflected in those documentaries.
Matchlight, which is also based in Glasgow, says:
“Glasgow is inherently diverse in all measures. It would be a great home for the channel. TV must represent all of the UK if it is to be relevant to the audience.”
Matchlight also works in Gaelic. It does production for BBC Alba as well as for Channel 4, where it works for “Dispatches”, which, as we all know, tells really deep and important stories and brings them to light.
Raise the Roof is the UK’s sixth fastest growing indie producer and is also based in Scotland. It is the biggest Channel 4 supplier from Scotland, and very proudly so. Not only does it do work here, but its very successful production company, which was built through Channel 4’s programmes, exports to 37 countries around the world, so this activity is not just of benefit to Glasgow, Scotland or the UK; we are growing the ability of our native producers to export to the world. Chris Young of Young Films, who is best known for “The Inbetweeners” and is based in Skye in Scotland, also says that basing the channel in Glasgow would be a game changer for Scotland.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady’s advocacy of the strength of the Glasgow bid. Two “Star Wars” actors, including Ewan McGregor, came from my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire. Does she agree that locating Channel 4 in Glasgow will provide opportunities and inspiration not only to the city, but to the counties and regions that surround it?
I very much agree. One frustration that I picked up in meeting some of the production companies and Channel 4 at a meeting that it hosted with me in Glasgow, at its West George Street base, was that of always having to look at things through a London lens. The creative decision makers at Channel 4 are often based down here, so basing Channel 4 in Glasgow would be a radical decision that would re-tilt the axis of the media in the UK. I feel that it would also bring benefits to Northern Ireland, which is within close travelling distance of Glasgow, and to the north of England. It would fundamentally change the way in which the media work in the UK.
Glasgow is many things, but it is also very closely bound together. It is a very cohesive city; we cannot ignore one another in the street. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) mentioned, it has diversity. It has people who have lived in Glasgow all their lives; interlopers like me, from Lanarkshire; and people from Somalia, Pakistan, Eritrea, China and Afghanistan. They have all come together and live cheek by jowl—not across boundaries, but cheek by jowl with one another in one of the friendliest cities in the world.
I would like to tell a wee anecdote to exemplify just how friendly Glasgow is. At an event that Radiant and Brighter—an organisation that helps to support people who come to the city from other countries—held at the city chambers in Glasgow, a doctor who was speaking at the meeting said, “My experience of coming to Glasgow was that I came out of Central station and was a bit lost. I didn’t know where I was going, so I asked somebody. That person not only told me where to go; he took me to where I was going. He took time out of his day to take me along the street and around the corner to the place that I needed to get to.” That typifies Glasgow for me: people are so friendly that they will go out of their way to help others and make them feel at home.
Channel 4 would be very welcome in the city as a large employer, but also as part of the creative culture of the city. We have in the city the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, bringing through great, wonderful arts graduates. There is also the Glasgow School of Art, which is a beacon of art and design. There are also other universities and colleges within the city, all of which produce great talent that would be very well employed at Channel 4.
I would like close with an anecdote from a member of my office staff, Alexander Belic, who had cause to leave the city for a brief period earlier on today. He told me what he saw when he came back in:
“There is a busker performing ‘No Diggity’ on a guitar and a leprechaun releasing torrents of bubbles down Buchanan street—what a town.”
I think Channel 4 would fit well within Glasgow. I welcome it to choose Glasgow and back our bid.
We now have three Front-Bench wind-ups and a moment or two at the end for Mr McDonald to wind up, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. This is an important debate about one of the most exciting media developments that has happened in the UK in many years. As many others have done, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions in this well-informed and highly entertaining debate.
I wonder if hitherto Channel 4 had any idea just how popular it was. There is hardly a nation or region that has not extolled its virtue this afternoon. In many ways, however, this debate is an after-party. As us luvvies would say, we have retired to the green room. Those who were here bright and early this morning will know that the bidding war started at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions. No one should be surprised that the first shots in that war were fired by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who was of course backing Glasgow’s bid to be the home of Channel 4’s national headquarters. By the end of DCMS questions, supporters from Sheffield, Birmingham and Lichfield had made their pitches too. I believe there were others, but I suspect that many of those were hon. Members who had not a clue what was happening. They had walked into a bidding war and wanted to ensure that their constituency did not miss out on what was on offer.
As anyone will testify, I came to this debate as a fair and honourable man, and with a completely open mind. But having heard so many excellent speeches from hon. Members from different areas across the UK, I have decided to throw my not inconsiderable weight behind the Glasgow bid. Yes, I can see the shock on the faces in front of me, but I have been persuaded by the excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow South and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney). I endorse everything they said. If Channel 4 is seeking a new location, location, location, there is nowhere better suited than Glasgow.
As Stuart Cosgrove, the broadcaster and journalist chairing Glasgow’s bid, said:
“Glasgow is in tune with the values that are at the heart of Channel 4—diversity, equality, innovation with a bit of irreverence thrown in.”
He could have added to that if Channel 4 wants to relocate to a city that already boasts a thriving independent production and freelance sector; a city where both the national Government at Holyrood and local government in George Square are totally committed to supporting the film and television sector; and a city where there is a vast array of creative and cultural talent that is ready, willing and able to get to work, that city is Glasgow.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is the people of Glasgow who create that environment, which allows that degree of creativity?
I could not agree more. It does not happen often—let us call it a red-letter day—but I believe I am in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. As the leader of Glasgow City Council, Susan Aitken said, our city has
“a high concentration of skills, academic excellence and a highly qualified workforce.”
Although I am the proud representative of Argyll and Bute, I am a proud Glaswegian to my bootstraps. I absolutely agree with both Susan and Stuart. As someone who has spent the majority of their working life making television programmes for the Scottish, UK and international markets from Glasgow, I cannot think of a better place for a vibrant, exciting, innovative and daring broadcaster to set up its headquarters than Glasgow.
Although this is a bid for and on behalf of the city of Glasgow, it is in many ways Scotland’s bid. Scotland’s First Minister gave it her unequivocal backing, when she said:
“the unique character of Glasgow, multicultural, welcoming, hugely creative, and irreverent, is a great fit for Channel 4.”
In an almost unprecedented move, the leaders of all of Scotland’s political parties are united in support of this bid. If that were not enough to persuade Channel 4 to move to Glasgow, the fact that the city of Edinburgh is prepared to set aside ancient rivalries to support Glasgow’s bid should tell Channel 4 that there are now no limits to what it can achieve by setting up its national headquarters on the banks of the Clyde.
Glasgow fits all the criteria like a glove. It ticks all the boxes: population size, proximity to centres, and the level of physical and digital connectivity. Glasgow is already home to BBC Scotland and STV. It boasts of having the National Film and Television School hub, based at Pacific Quay. Channel 4 itself has had a presence in the city for many years.
When it comes to journey times, there is a three-hour target. I can get from my flat in Glasgow to the door of my office in Westminster in three hours. Not only that, but we have a commitment from the Department for Transport that HS2 will deliver three-hour journey times by rail as well. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Anything that can speed up journey times to Glasgow has a beneficial effect for the whole of the United Kingdom. I am certain that Glasgow City Council would make the transition for Channel 4 as painless as it could possibly be for the company, its employees and their families—more painless than Phil and Kirstie could ever do. We have heard welcome contributions from the hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), for Keighley (John Grogan)—the Mayor of Sheffield just learned the old adage that the opposition may be in front of you, but you your enemies are most certainly behind you—for Glasgow North East and for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I imagine that if some enterprising producer is watching this debate, there is a fantastic new Phil and Kirstie series to be made, based on that list of people trying to get relocation, relocation, relocation to their town or city.
For me, the most important contributions have come from my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central and for Glasgow South. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central was absolutely right when she said that Glasgow is indeed “pure gallus”. I believe it is that gallusness that sets it apart from any other bid. She was right to highlight the welcoming nature and cultural diversity of Glasgow. As the mover of the motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South, said, we have Chinese, Pakistani, Indian and Caribbean communities, as well as an array of African communities and a multitude of our highly valued EU citizens, including—I just found this out today—our Lord Provost, who is Swedish-born. Glasgow has always had worldwide appeal, and that is reflected in the cultural diversity of our city. It is a major attraction to a broadcaster such as Channel 4.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and I thank all who took part. It has been well informed and hugely entertaining, a bit like “Channel 4 News”. As my SNP colleagues have said, we very much welcome Channel 4’s decision to move its national headquarters out of London. It is something that I have wanted to happen for a long time, both in my career as a television producer and latterly as a politician. Indeed, I raised the matter with David Abraham, the Channel 4 CEO, at his final appearance before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last year. I spoke of the frustration that producers felt about having to come to London from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the north-west of England or wherever to pitch an idea to a London-based commissioner, who they just knew did not quite get it because he or she did not live in the same world. To move out of London can only be a good thing for Channel 4, for creative sectors across the UK and for those communities whose voices and stories are rarely heard.
Whichever city Channel 4 decides to move to, I guarantee that it will find no warmer welcome and no greater support from local and national Governments than it will receive in Glasgow, and it will not meet a more creative and multicultural community ready to make an outstanding success of the move than that of Glasgow.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this interesting debate. The message that we should all take away is that we have great cities and towns around the United Kingdom that are all ready to bid for the wonderful opportunity of the relocation of Channel 4’s headquarters and the creative hubs.
The hon. Gentleman reminded us of the connection between the city of Glasgow and Nelson Mandela and, by coincidence, I was in Cardiff on 16 June 1998 when Nelson Mandela received the freedom of the city. The hon. Gentleman also made a strong case for the city of Glasgow, and it was heartening to hear such a full endorsement from the SNP of a pitch process entitled “4 All the UK”. That can only be a welcome development. On a serious note, he rightly highlighted the merits of his city and its wonderful creative sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) described Birmingham as both the least and the most disruptive choice for Channel 4 in an imaginative and creative use of language, and made an extremely strong case for his city.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) made her pitch for the wonderful city of Liverpool. She described it as the most filmed city outside London, which is a statistic I was not aware of. She did not mention the marvellous Liverpool Everyman Theatre, where my brother, Patrick Brennan, is starring as Iago in “Othello” and as Ben Rumson in “Paint Your Wagon” as part of the Liverpool Everyman rep revival, which has gone so well and had marvellous reviews. Tickets are available from all the usual locations. It is a wonderful city with a marvellous cultural heritage. In promoting it, she did not even emphasise the Beatles that much, which shows that there is an extremely broad and wonderful cultural offer in the city of Liverpool, which is another worthy candidate for Channel 4’s relocation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) is the newly elected Mayor of the Sheffield city region, so may I take the first opportunity to congratulate him publicly on that achievement? He described our debate as a beauty contest. We are all relieved that he did not describe it as an episode of “Naked Attraction”, which I understand is one of the late-night offers on Channel 4—not that I have ever seen it myself. The clarity of his pitch explains why he was so successful in his recent campaign. For a man famous for his gallantry, he was surprisingly easily ambushed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), but he made an excellent pitch on Sheffield’s behalf.
My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), rightly pointed out that as someone speaking from the Front Bench, I have to maintain a degree of neutrality in relation to the proposed bids. I have to say, however, that he made an extraordinarily powerful, persuasive, compelling, erudite and eloquent case for the capital of Wales as the ideal home for Channel 4’s headquarters. I will say no more than that, in case I get into a lot of trouble with my hon. Friends.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. There is another benefit for Channel 4 in that it could have two diversely performing MPs. He performs with MP4 and has a TV career, and I performed with my a capella group, House of Chords, at Pride Cymru last year. Channel 4 would have performers in its MPs as well.
I am not one to blow my own trumpet, so I will not comment further on that, and I do not want to endanger my relationship with my hon. Friends by saying anything further about Cardiff’s bid.
May I take this opportunity to wish my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) a happy birthday? She was seen celebrating last night, and she is looking remarkably fresh today. I will say no more. She eloquently made an important point about the need to ensure that our creative industries serve our towns as well as our cities. She also pointed out that our creative industries often rely on locations out of cities in the countryside—our heritage locations—which hon. Members have celebrated here and in other debates on tourism and the creative industries. We should remember how important that is to channels such as Channel 4. In particular, I praise her efforts last year, and the efforts of the commission she worked on, to open up opportunities for working-class children in the creative industries. I strongly commend her for that, and she made a very good speech today.
I am sorry to admit that I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) for more than 35 years, which is a long time. He made a strong case for the Leeds city region. He rightly pointed out that we have reached a consensus about Channel 4 being in the public sector that is to be welcomed above all. For many years, the uncertainty about its status and the threat of privatisation undermined the sort of process that we are talking about, which gives clarity to Channel 4’s future in its role as a public service broadcaster. He said that we have two great public service broadcasters, but we actually have more than that. As well as the BBC, we have ITV, Channel 5, S4C—the Welsh fourth channel—and STV, which remains an independent channel in the ITV family, as was mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) rightly pointed out Glasgow’s history, the origin of television and the great John Logie Baird’s contribution. He described the commission of “Mrs Brown’s Boys” as a cultural risk. I had not thought that it was that much of a risk, but it is a fine programme. He pointed out that the lack of studios at Horseferry Road should be about spreading capacity across the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned a third Yorkshire city—York itself. She described a brownfield site near York station and its excellent connectivity, and made a powerful case.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) listed all the production companies—
Not all of them!
Well, not all of them, some of them—a small smidgen of the production companies based in the city of Glasgow. Again, she made a powerful case on Glasgow’s behalf.
I will say a word or two about Channel 4. We welcome the fact that Channel 4’s status in the public sector has been confirmed and that the Government have decided that they will not pursue its privatisation, which was under consideration. We welcome the process that Channel 4 has begun, because it is important that our creative industries are spread around the country and not just based in the city of London. Talent is everywhere in the UK, as we have heard, but the opportunity to exploit that talent or to work in the creative industries is not always equally spread.
This is an important moment. Hon. Members may guess my private thoughts on the matter, but whoever wins the bid, it will be a major step forward in ensuring that that opportunity is spread around the country so that talent from all sorts of backgrounds and all parts of the United Kingdom has a chance to prosper in our wonderful creative industries.
It is a great honour and pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. You may be forgiven for thinking that you have been presiding over a constituency candidate selection process, with everybody speaking so eloquently and passionately about their own area, but at least it was not a beauty contest, because that would have been very difficult for you indeed.
The first thing I want to do, of course, is to thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for introducing this debate on Channel 4’s relocation proposals. He spoke eloquently, as he usually does, and passionately about his constituency and his home town, where he was born and brought up, as did all the other Members who spoke about their own local areas this afternoon.
That includes the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who powerfully extolled the virtues of Birmingham and the west midlands, including the impressive transport links, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), who is always very persuasive. She asked questions that I will come to in more detail in a moment. However, this is of course a matter for Channel 4; it is Channel 4’s process. It is not a matter for Ministers. It is an ongoing process, it is well-publicised and we will work to ensure that Channel 4 delivers on it.
The Government were very happy to reach an agreement with Channel 4 earlier this year for it to increase its regional impact. As Members from across the House have said, that is very important. We also want to protect and enhance this important public asset, to make sure that it has a bright and sustainable future in a fast-changing broadcasting landscape. We are conscious of that and it is what we want to do—to support Channel 4 in that endeavour.
The Government have long been clear that Channel 4 should have a major presence outside London and should increase out-of-London commissioning. There is an awful lot of talent out there, outside London as well as in it, and as a publicly owned public service broadcaster Channel 4 should do more for the entire nation, and should represent and reflect the voices of those who live outside the capital city. The Government are committed to that aim and to spreading opportunity throughout the United Kingdom, and we want Channel 4 to be a part of achieving it by stimulating creative and economic activity right across the country.
Last year, we ran a public consultation on the future of Channel 4. An overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that Channel 4’s regional impact would be much enhanced if more of its activities took place outside London and more of its staff were based outside London. I think we can all agree that it is not right that at the moment only 3% of Channel 4’s staff are based outside London. Public service broadcasting should mean serving the whole of the United Kingdom, not just those in the capital or indeed those in the bubble of Westminster.
Channel 4 spends around twice as much on programming made in London as it does on programming made in the rest of the United Kingdom combined. Its physical concentration in London is reflective of a wider trend in the broadcasting and production sector, where we have not hitherto seen an even distribution of growth. Although only 20% of the population of this country live in London and the south-east of England, over two thirds of UK producers are based there. It goes without saying that that limits the spread of jobs, prosperity and opportunity outside the capital in all our wonderful geographical locations, and also limits the representation of local views and local interests on television. People seeking to work in the media should not feel that they have to move to London to do so.
Channel 4’s series of proposals, announced in March, will help to reverse that trend. Channel 4 agreed to establish a new national headquarters in the nations and regions, with 300 staff outside London, including key creative decision makers. That number will also rise over time. Moreover, Channel 4 will establish two other smaller creative hubs across the UK. As a consequence, its London footprint will reduce and its headquarters in Horseferry Road will become its London HQ.
Channel 4 will also increase its out-of-London commissioning—this is very important—to more than 50%, stimulating the creative economy across the country. Channel 4 estimates that this will lead to £285 million more in spending out of London than is required by Ofcom. Channel 4 will strengthen its regional impact on screen by becoming the first channel to co-anchor its evening news bulletin from a new regional studio, which is also symbolic and important. It will help to provide a gateway for journalistic talent in the nations and regions to reach “Channel 4 News”. Channel 4’s proposals will mean visibly reflecting the regional diversity of our country, both on and off screen, and according to economic analysis that my Department has commissioned these measures could support an overall redistributive regional impact of close to 2,700 regional jobs.
Channel 4 launched its pitch process, as it is called, in April, inviting bids from cities across the United Kingdom to find the locations for its national HQ and creative hubs. This process is currently ongoing and will allow Channel 4 to carefully consider a range of different cities across the nations and regions. Following the completion of that bidding process, Channel 4 will look to announce its decisions by the autumn of this year and will be moving staff by the end of 2019.
I am sure that Channel 4 is paying close attention to the debate—during it, people have been doing some showreels to get on “Channel 4 News” tonight—and to all the pitches that it receives from across the spectrum, including, of course, from outside this Chamber. I am confident that it will receive impressive bids from across all of the United Kingdom.
This historic deal marks the start of a bright future for Channel 4. Since its establishment over 35 years ago, and I am old enough—just—to remember its opening day, Channel 4 has had an enduring impact on UK culture and UK society. I am sure that we will see it go from strength to strength under the imaginative new leadership of Alex Mahon. Channel 4’s remit includes requirements to be distinctive, to innovate, to promote alternative views and new perspectives, and to appeal to a culturally diverse society. As a result, it has often led the way in areas of diversity and in representing different communities, with groundbreaking shows, including some that have been mentioned today, such as “Queer as Folk”, “The Last Leg” and many others.
Channel 4’s regional proposals show that it is now leading the way in regional representation and that Channel Four Television Corporation is indeed a public service broadcaster that truly provides for the entire country that owns it, which is crucial. This deal will have far-reaching implications for the entire broadcasting sector—it is groundbreaking in that sense—and I hope that others will look to follow Channel 4’s bold lead.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate this afternoon. When my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), who is the Front-Bench spokesperson for my party, said to me at the start of this debate that he had arrived with an open mind, I was ready to shred his Celtic Park season ticket myself, but I am glad that he came down on the side of the angels in the end.
This has been an unusual debate, in that we have been asking things of people outwith this Chamber today; oh to be the Minister in a debate such as this, where there have been pretty much no asks of him whatsoever. Nevertheless, I genuinely thank colleagues for their many fine contributions, as they put forward their bids for their own home turf.
I will just end with one thing that Billy Connolly said about Glasgow, a place that he left to go and explore the world as a fantastic comedian but always loved to come home to. He said that when you arrive in Glasgow and step off the train at Glasgow Central station, it is the only city on Earth that you can feel rise up through the soles of your feet, and we invite Channel 4 to come and experience that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the relocation of Channel 4.