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House of Commons Hansard
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Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
27 April 2020
Volume 675

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Disinformation

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What steps his Department is taking to tackle disinformation on covid-19. [901871]

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What steps his Department is taking to tackle disinformation on covid-19. [901883]

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I welcome the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) to her position as shadow Secretary of State; she will participate virtually later. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is not present because she has temporarily returned to the nursing profession to help to combat covid-19—she would normally be our Bench Whip.

Accurate, trusted information is more important than ever in this public health crisis. The cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit is providing a comprehensive picture of disinformation and misinformation on coronavirus. I have engaged personally with social media platforms, which have made technical and policy changes to stem the spread of misinformation. For example, YouTube now removes content that denies the existence of covid-19 or contradicts NHS information, and WhatsApp has reduced the number of contacts to whom a message can be forwarded.

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Sadly, public trust in the media is collapsing, as many elements are seemingly more interested in catching politicians out and creating a story than reporting the news. What further work can my right hon. Friend and his Department do with the media to provide useful and accurate information to the public about support for vulnerable people and struggling businesses as we continue to tackle this crisis?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. At this time we need trusted information more than ever. We all know that the media do not always get it right, but I pay tribute to the work of the news industry in providing much-needed information. We see that work in our national and local newspapers and in our local commercial and BBC radio stations, which bring together communities and provide reliable news. It is for that reason that we have designated people who work in the production and distribution of news as key workers. We are also addressing the keyword blocking that undermines the advertising revenue on which the sector so relies, as well as ensuring that the Government directly communicate their messages through advertising.

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Many social media platforms are being used to spread disinformation and vitriol, which is particularly dangerous to communities and individuals at this time. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the industry’s initiatives to warn people about misinformation and its willingness to remove destabilising and abusive messages?

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Most platforms have taken positive steps to curtail the spread of harmful and misleading narratives related to covid-19. However, when I spoke to the platforms earlier this month I made it clear that they need to explore how they can further limit the spread of misinformation. In my meeting, the platforms agreed to exactly the sort of initiatives that my right hon. Friend correctly mentions, and also to increase messaging to users about how to identify and respond to misinformation. Since then, Facebook has announced that it will show in its newsfeed the messages to anyone who has interacted with a post that has since been removed. That sort of work needs to continue at pace across all platforms.

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Some of the most pernicious pieces of disinformation, such as on 5G, and—let us be frank—the lie about the Government’s fake NHS accounts, have been amplified by blue-tick verified users on Twitter. Will the Secretary of State join me in calling on Twitter to be much more robust and to remove verified status from even prominent users should they be found spreading fake news and disinformation?

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My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely right. At the roundtable I was clear that those platforms need to go further and faster to drown out disinformation and to help to spread vital public health messaging to stay at home. I have encouraged Twitter, and all platforms, to explore all the ways they can further limit the misinformation on them. That clearly means enforcing their own rules, which of course Twitter can do by removing verified status. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall watch his Select Committee discussion with the platforms with great interest.

Covid-19: Civil Society and Charities

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What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the sustainability of (a) civil society organisations and (b) charities affected by the covid-19 outbreak. [901877]

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Charities provide so much compassion and care to the most vulnerable in our country, and that role has never been more important than it is right now. In order to ensure that charities can continue their vital work in our national effort to fight the coronavirus, we announced a package of grants worth £750 million, alongside all the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already announced to support charities. That recognises the unique role of the sector in helping us through this crisis and bouncing back on the other side.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his very kind welcome. He will know that, after 10 years of the hollowing out of public services through austerity, it is many charities that are providing frontline public services to the most vulnerable people at the greatest risk during the national response to covid. Although I welcome the support that he has announced, he also knows, because the charities sector has told him, that it is nowhere near enough, representing just 20% of their usual income during a 12-week period. They, and we, want to hear an explicit commitment from him that further funding will be announced before it is too late and charities go to the wall. Vulnerable people are relying on them for support and the Government must not let them down. Can he guarantee that?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We will, of course, do everything that we can to support charities. It is worth noting that we have ensured, through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in discussions with the Treasury, that charities can access all the existing schemes. For example, they can benefit from VAT deferral, they can use the remaining business rate relief—they already get 80% relief; they can now get 100%—and they can furlough staff.

In addition, the measures have been designed to help the frontline. However, it is not just the £750 million that the Government have provided. There is huge work across philanthropic institutions—for example, £100 million from Barclays—not to mention what great charitable fundraising efforts, such as those of Captain Tom, have provided for the nation.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his previous answer. I have charities that serve my constituents, such as Garden House Hospice, Tilehouse Counselling in Hitchin, the Harpenden Trust and many others. I commend him on the work that he has done with the Treasury on the charities package that has been agreed, but in relation to these quite small charities, can he give some further information to me and the House, and indeed to them, on how they can more easily access the fund that has been agreed, because some of them are saying that the next few weeks and months are looking very difficult?

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My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. Charities such as Garden House and Tilehouse play a vital role in our country, and it is exactly those sorts of local charities on the frontline that we want to help. As part of the £360 million that is being distributed through Government Departments, up to £200 million will go to hospices. In addition, a further £310 million will be distributed by the National Lottery Community Fund. We are finalising the eligibility criteria, and I will write to him, and to all hon. Members, explaining the process and the criteria for those applications.

Of course, that sits alongside the great public national effort. In particular, I welcome the £33 million that has been raised so far by “The Big Night In”. That has been matched by Government fundraising, and sits alongside such things as the 2.6 London marathon challenge.

Covid-19: Technology Sector

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What discussions he has had with representatives of the technology sector on its response to the covid-19 outbreak. [901879]

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We are facing an immense challenge in how we live and work, and more than ever we are reaping the benefits of our world-class digital infrastructure and leading tech industry. I am grateful to all the companies that have made generous offers of support; I am consistently impressed by their generous and innovative response. Thanks to the tech sector, NHS workers have been given smart devices to connect with patients; people’s data caps have been lifted; and millions of video-calling apps have become the living essentials that we all rely on to do our jobs and to stay in close touch with loved ones.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The development of British apps such as the covid symptom tracker could hold the key to ensuring that life returns to normal. What support is he giving the British tech sector to develop similar apps that could aid our economic recovery?

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The Government are working closely with industry on the tech solutions that will enable us to beat covid-19, and I am sure that tech companies will play a key role in our economic recovery. We have already announced a new £1.25 billion package for innovative firms to ensure that our world-class tech sector remains resilient through this challenging period. That includes Government match funding for £500 million in convertible loans for businesses that require equity investment but are currently unable to access existing loan schemes. In addition, we have made available £750 million of loans and grants for exactly those small and medium-sized businesses to which my hon. Friend refers, which focus on research and development.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer: during this pandemic, access to digital devices and fast, reliable internet connection are more important than ever. We have gone online not only to shop, connect with friends and colleagues, order prescriptions and apply for support, but to access culture. The BBC’s “Culture in Quarantine” has brought joy to homes, and in a recent survey of 1,000 people in the north-east, 55.6% said that they were using tech to watch arts and culture that they had never considered prior to the pandemic. He knows that the creative industries fear for their future and that if they are to rebuild and flourish, the digital platform must grow, but, sadly, the cost of devices and poor connections mean that many cannot participate. What steps is he taking to ensure that cost does not discriminate against the digitally disadvantaged, and what plans does his Department have to widen access to the creative industries post-covid?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her questions—she raises a number of points and I will try to address them. First, I very much welcome the BBC’s “Culture in Quarantine”. I have had discussions with Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, and we are working together on that. Indeed, I have engaged with some of it myself. The National Theatre put on “One Man, Two Guvnors”, and I very much enjoyed watching that and seeing arts in a remote form. I very much pay tribute to all the arts organisations doing that kind of innovative work.

It is very important that everyone can access technology, particularly the vulnerable. So, for example, we have announced that we are supporting the DevicesDotNow campaign, led by FutureDotNow, which is seeking donations of equipment from industry to help connect vulnerable people to vital Government services. We are going further, and I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to connect disadvantaged families and young people who do not currently have devices.

Covid-19: Football

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What recent assessment he has made of the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on professional football; and what steps the Government are taking to support football clubs during that outbreak. [901882]

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Football clubs form an integral part of this country, and it is important that they are given as much support as possible during these difficult times. Ministers and officials in my Department are engaging with football governing authorities about how they can access Government schemes—many have done so. I welcome the Premier League’s announcement that it will advance funds of £125 million to the English football league and national league, to help clubs throughout the football pyramid. In addition, I have personally been in talks with the Premier League with a view to getting football up and running as soon as possible, in order to support the whole football community. Of course, any such moves will have to be consistent with public health guidance.

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I am sure that many people will be delighted to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about football getting going again, particularly with Sheffield United’s ambitious European campaign in full flow. He is absolutely right about the impact on the professional game. Many lower league clubs and clubs across the football community have done incredibly important work in their communities over this time, stressing the extent to which they are community assets rather than simply businesses. Can the Secretary of State say anything about what can be done to protect those lower league and national league clubs, which face unprecedented problems at this moment in time?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; he raises an important point. The first thing we can do is help get the premier league up and running again, because that will then help release resources through the rest of the system. We have already seen the £125 million support that has been made available, and in addition to that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working with Sport England. They have £195 million for sport and physical activity, including a £20 million emergency grant for clubs and community assets that are in trouble.

Covid-19: Vulnerable Online Gamblers

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What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the gambling industry on protection of vulnerable online gamblers during the covid-19 outbreak. [901870]

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What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the gambling industry on protection of vulnerable online gamblers during the covid-19 outbreak. [901880]

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I have had calls with the Betting and Gaming Council and gambling businesses, including five of the largest online operators. On 20 April, I wrote to the gambling companies urging faster progress on new player protection measures, data protection provisions and safer gambling messaging, and I understand that the industry made an announcement on advertising today.

I will be having further calls this week and next and will continue to make it clear to the sector that it must obey player protection rules and be particularly responsible at this challenging time. I am monitoring the situation closely, as is the Gambling Commission. Any operator exploiting the current situation or vulnerable consumers will be held to account.

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It is welcome news about the advertising, but a high number of people have withdrawn from the self-exclusion scheme—[Inaudible.] What actions are being taken to monitor this and how will people be protected who have previously identified that they have a gambling problem but who have recommenced gambling during this period?

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I assure the hon. Lady that I, the Department, the Gambling Commission and the gambling industry take these concerns very seriously. She will be aware that we have extended the comprehensive online self-exclusion scheme, GAMSTOP, and taken additional measures, including that made on credit cards just this month. We are moving forward with both non-legislative and legislative programmes.

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Last year, the Government announced that they had launched a consultation on the national lottery age limit, which allows 16-year-olds to buy scratch cards and gamble online. Did the Government consult on this and will they introduce national lottery regulations in line with those on all other UK gambling businesses, to protect young people from gambling-related harm?

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We did look at this issue and we will be making an announcement in due course.

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Estimates indicate that as many as 200,000 people in Scotland are problem gamblers. Last week, a Survation poll showed an apparent fall in part-time gambling as a result of the coronavirus lock-in, perhaps masking more intense betting among problem gamblers. In the absence of sporting fixtures, many are turning to riskier products, such as online casino games—advertising for these has been ramped up by betting companies during lockdown, which of course is shameful. Will the Minister call on gambling companies to provide clear and prominent covid-19 addiction warnings on betting site pages and will he impose an ongoing suspension on gambling advertising beyond the end of the current lockdown period?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. Of course, we are all aware that problem gambling can have a devastating impact on those affected and their families. We take the issue very seriously indeed. Although I welcome the current movements from the industry—it has come up with plans—we have also asked it to offer shared data in a more meaningful manner, so that we can make educated choices. We have also announced a review of the Gambling Act 2005 and will in due course make more announcements about the scope of that review for potentially more comprehensive measures.

Racing Industry

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What steps he is taking to support the racing industry. [901872]

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We are committed to supporting our world-leading horse-racing industry. The Government have put in place an unprecedented support package of business rates relief and support with employment costs, which is helping racing, like other businesses. The Horserace Betting Levy Board is making £20 million of cash flow available to race courses, alongside the £8 million that the Racing Foundation is providing to support participants. The Government are working closely with the industry and the levy board to understand and address the ongoing challenges.

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I represent some of the UK’s leading racehorse trainers, in Lambourn. The British Horseracing Authority has been working hard on plans for behind-closed-doors race meetings, limited to 12 jockeys in a single race and no crowds. What commitments can my hon. Friend make to supporting such creative solutions, for an industry under intense pressure, once the lockdown restrictions are relaxed?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her support of the horse-racing industry. All major sports need to look after their staff, competitors, stakeholders and fans, and that includes having an eye to when competition might resume.

At this stage, it is not possible to give a timescale for when current restrictions will be relaxed. Potential conditions in which sport might return include behind closed doors, with neutral venues and with limited staff and broadcast crew. Other considerations would include first responder capacity and the availability of regular testing. We are in regular contact with the sector on what might be possible in future, but this will be entirely dependent on public health guidelines.

Covid-19: Rugby League

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What assessment his Department has made of the potential long-term financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on rugby league. [901873]

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I have spoken with the chief executive of Rugby Football League, Ralph Rimmer, and have been fully briefed on the extreme challenges presented by the suspension of the rugby league season. We recognise that many RFL clubs are on very tight financial margins. The value of rugby league and other sport clubs extends well beyond their immediate balance sheets. They play a pivotal role in their local economies and communities—as you well know, Mr Speaker. Economic interventions such as the job retention scheme will ease some immediate pressures, but we will continue to do what we can to further support them and the wider sport sector at this extremely difficult time.

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I thank the Minister for his positive response to my question, because as I am sure he is aware, if any city can claim to be the city of rugby league, it is the city of Hull. As he mentioned, our rugby league clubs do so much more than just offer sport. They offer support for troubled youngsters and help in the community; they are indeed a part of our city.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has been leading on a campaign to save rugby league. I welcome the Minister’s comments on the furloughing scheme, but I also welcome the fact that he acknowledges that this is not enough. What guarantees can he give our brilliant rugby league clubs that the Government are listening and will take action soon to secure their financial future?

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I can give the hon. Lady an assurance that I have a great deal of sympathy for what she has said. I have heard representations from both sides of the House, including from her neighbour, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). Many of the measures that the Government have implemented are useful and are helping, but I am aware that there are particularly acute pressures for rugby league. I and my Department will continue to work across Government, as well as with the RFL. I am also very aware of the time sensitivity of the issue that the hon. Lady has raised.

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We now go across to Marie Rimmer, on her birthday.

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For many northern towns, rugby league is more than just a sport. It is part of our identity—our culture. Most of the clubs are old enough to have survived the two world wars, but they desperately need our help and support. The sport must survive this crisis. What will the Minister do to make sure that rugby league is still around for our communities to go back to after coronavirus?

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Many happy returns to the hon. Member! I assure her that we are taking the issues very seriously. We will continue the dialogue and I am hopeful that we can come to a positive conclusion.

Covid-19: Heritage and Tourism Sector

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What steps he is taking to support the heritage and tourism sector during the covid-19 outbreak. [901878]

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The Government are committed to our world-class heritage and tourism sectors. I and my officials are engaging across Government and are in regular weekly discussions with industry stakeholders. The Chancellor has set out an unprecedented support package for businesses and workers, including those in the heritage and tourism sectors, to help protect them in the current emergency. We have also announced a £1.3 million scheme to support destination management organisations, and both the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England have announced sectoral support packages.

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Liverpool’s visitor economy brought in £3.3 billion last year, supporting 6,300 businesses and 57,000 jobs, but by June almost £1 billion will have been lost in Liverpool alone because of the lockdown. Will he undertake to push the Chancellor to extend further the business support he announced to those with a rateable value over £51,000 and to extend help to the self-employed and micro-businesses in the sector, who are falling between the cracks of the available support schemes?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the enormous economic value of the tourism industry —not only in her area, but right across the country.

I assure her that we are in regular conversations and dialogue with not only the industry but the Treasury, and those discussions will continue.

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The Keighley and Worth Valley railway—Yorkshire’s No. 1 tourist attraction—has welcomed over 7 million visitors to Keighley in the last 50 years, all supporting our much-loved heritage railway and the local economy in Keighley. Like all heritage railways, it is run predominantly by passionate volunteers, with an economic model based on ensuring that ticket sales are plentiful. With social distancing restrictions unlikely to be relaxed for a significant time, will the Minister outline what additional support he will consider providing to the heritage railway sector?

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The importance of the heritage rail sector was recognised last year, when the National Lottery Heritage Fund gave a grant of nearly £800,000 to bring the Keighley and Worth Valley railway back into service for the first time in 25 years. My hon. Friend may wish to apply to the £50 million emergency programme launched by the heritage fund to support the heritage sector through the covid-19 pandemic. He may also want to approach Historic England, which has announced an additional £2 million programme of grants for smaller specialist organisations and projects.

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It is a pleasure to make my Dispatch Box debut, albeit virtually; I believe I am the first Member to make an inaugural appearance from the Front Bench online.

On Friday, G20 Tourism Ministers met. The UK tourism sector is greatly exposed to the lockdown and, with the summer season coming, the uncertainty is causing distress. The sector learnt that it would be among the last to exit lockdown merely as an aside from the Minister for the Cabinet Office on “The Andrew Marr Show”. In contrast, President Macron outlined a strategy for the French tourism trade including flexible furlough, a 100% state-backed loan—not 80%—and state backing for postponed rather than cancelled holidays. Our system of refund credit notes can be expanded and extended to protect our domestic tourism industry. Did the Minister discuss those measures at the G20 meeting? What consideration has he made on introducing them?

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I congratulate the hon. Member on his first virtual appearance from the Opposition Front Bench. He raises many important issues. We had a constructive conversation with the G20 tourism Ministers, primarily around the recovery programme. We are continuing the dialogue, both domestically and internationally, on all those issues. Of course, the tourism, hospitality and leisure sector has benefited from additional measures including business rate relief, and we will continue the dialogue with all stakeholders to ensure that the sector is looked after.

Covid-19: Local and Regional News Organisations

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What support the Government are providing to local and regional news organisations during the covid-19 outbreak. [901874]

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The Government recognise the vital role that local and regional newspapers play in the provision of reliable, high-quality information during this time. We have already put in place an unprecedented financial package to provide support to all businesses and have taken a number of steps to provide specific support to news publishers. We are continuing to work closely with publishers to fully understand the specific challenges that they are facing with the supply chain and the fall in advertising revenues and options for addressing these.

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The Government have agreed an advertising deal with the News Media Association, which has been presented to the wealthiest publishers, but have so far overlooked independents. Does the Secretary of State agree that independent publishers such as the Bedford Independent are providing a vital service to communities across the UK, and will he meet with the independent sector representative body, the ICNN, to agree an advertising deal for the local independent press?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the independent community news sector is very important and plays an essential role in continuing to provide public information alongside the NMA members in the regional and local press. The agreement that we have reached for advertising will cover 600 national, regional and local titles, which reach something like 49 million people, but I am in touch with the ICNN and we are looking to see what other measures could be put in place to support it and to see whether it could benefit from the Government’s own advertising package.

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In Somerset, we are fortunate to have some excellent community radio stations, but, across the country, such stations are in need of financial support at this time. What more can the Government do to make sure that community radio stations are not forced to close because of coronavirus?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I very much agree with him that community radio play an essential part in the media landscape, and I am very conscious of the pressures that many community radio stations are currently under. We are looking at ways in which we can support them, perhaps through the use of a community radio fund. That is something that I hope we can say more about very shortly. I am determined to give whatever help is possible to support community radio as well as commercial radio.

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We now come to the statement on the economy. I will call the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement for up to 10 minutes. We will run this for one hour.