(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport whether she has considered the impact of the proposed reductions in BBC local radio provision; and if she will make a statement.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting this news announcement that we learned about yesterday, as it gives the House an opportunity to demonstrate the value we all place on BBC local radio services.
We are currently celebrating 100 years of BBC radio. With its unique position in the radio market, the BBC has continued to develop and deliver high-quality and engaging audio services to the country and internationally over the years. BBC local radio is one of the BBC’s crown jewels. Developed in the late 1960s and 1970s, the BBC’s 39 local radio services in England still reach 5.7 million listeners each and every week. As hon. Members know, BBC local radio is highly valued outside London, where stations in Derby, Stoke, Humberside, Cornwall, Devon and elsewhere have higher reach or share numbers than the average.
Changes in patterns of listening mean that the BBC needs to look at its services, and the details about new investment in local investigative reporting are very welcome. But overall we do have concerns about the proposals, which we were not given notice of. I want to take this opportunity to stress that the BBC is rightly operationally and editorially independent from the Government, and that decisions on service delivery are ultimately a matter for it. However, the Government are disappointed that the BBC is reportedly planning to make such extensive cuts to its local radio output. We await to hear more from the BBC about how it expects those changes to impact local communities, including in respect of the provision of local news and media plurality.
At its best, as was particularly shown during the pandemic, BBC local radio is able to bring communities together and it plays a vital role in reflecting local experiences and delivering local news. For older residents living in rural areas, it can be a particular lifeline. The BBC must make sure it continues to provide distinctive and genuinely local radio services, with content that reflects and represents people and communities from all corners of the UK.
We recognise that in the current political context the BBC, like other organisations, is facing difficult financial decisions, but we are also concerned that the BBC is making such far-reaching decisions, particularly about its local news provision, without setting out further detail on how it will impact its audiences and the communities it serves. In the context of a £3.8 billion licence fee income, we do not have any details about how much this proposal is likely to save. The BBC board must make sure that the BBC complies with its charter duties. The Government are clear that Ofcom, as the BBC regulator, must make sure that the BBC is robustly held to account in delivering its mission and public purposes.
We note that as part of this announcement the BBC is also proposing establishing 11 investigative reporting teams across England. That will see the creation of 71 new journalism roles, delivering original stories across TV, radio and online services. As the House will be aware, we are currently undertaking a mid-term charter review, which we have set out and which will evaluate how the BBC and Ofcom assess the market impact and the public value of the BBC in an evolving marketplace and how that relates to the wider UK media ecology, including with regard to commercial radio and local news sectors. Handily, I am scheduled to meet the BBC next week, when I shall see the chairman and director general, and I shall raise with them the concerns that are brought to the Chamber today. We also expect the BBC to brief parliamentarians on its announcements shortly.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker. Let me also welcome the Minister to her place and many of the comments she has made today. BBC local radio stations are vital as sources of information and for sharing communal experiences. I recently attended the Radio Humberside “Make a Difference Awards”, which highlighted the work of local people in their communities. In March last year, Chris Burns, the head of audio and digital for BBC England, celebrated these awards saying:
“The power of radio is huge when it comes to connecting local communities in their hour of need.”
I agree. Local radio, especially Radio Humberside, brings a feeling of belonging and companionship, especially to those who are isolated from everyday interactions. Local radio stations also hold democratically elected local politicians to account, and during the covid lockdowns they provided an invaluable service, enabling and publicising local support initiatives and disseminating up-to-the-minute news.
Local radio has 5.7 million listeners—more listeners than Radio 1 and Radio 5 Live—and it is the embodiment of public service broadcasting, remaining true to the principles behind the creation of the BBC 100 years ago. The plans announced yesterday for changes to the content of local radio—without any consultation at all of local communities—effectively mean that local radio will cease to exist after 2 pm. At Radio Humberside, 139 redundancies are predicted; as well as the impact on the individuals affected, those redundancies represent a collective loss of local expertise and knowledge and of campaigning community voices.
Does the Minister agree that local listeners should have been consulted? Does she agree that the loss of provision will be damaging to local communities as they lose an important voice for their experiences and concerns about local services, democracy and accountability? Finally, does she agree that local radio cannot call itself local when it stops being local after 2 pm?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for highlighting the work done by Radio Humberside, as well as the power of radio to connect us in times of need and to ensure local democratic accountability. The mission and public purposes of the BBC include provision of output and services to the UK’s nations, regions and communities. That provision is a key part of the BBC’s remit and we hold the BBC to account for it via Ofcom; it is also something we will look at very closely in the mid-term review.
The hon. Lady highlighted the loss of local expertise. BBC local radio stations have traditionally been a fantastic way to develop local talent which has gone on to be incredibly important national talent, so we have concerns about that. She talked about the need for consultation. I would have hoped to have had more chance to examine these proposals before they were released, and I shall be talking to the BBC about that next week. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising these issues.
Does the Minister recognise the very real concerns about the potential loss of local distinctiveness through the proposed cuts? Should the BBC really be once again aping the commercial sector by coalescing around theme rather than genuine distinctiveness? That is where we are going with these plans. Does the Minister recognise that the cuts make reforms to radio prominence absolutely crucial? Will she quash growing rumours that the main potential vehicle for such reforms—the media Bill—is to be shelved or delayed?
I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee. I am particularly grateful to him and the Committee for their very important work and investigations into local journalism, and for the opportunity to present to the Committee a couple of weeks ago. One of the issues the proposals raise is whether the BBC investing more online has an impact on local news providers, which compete for that online space. On the media Bill, we in DCMS are keen to introduce it as soon as possible and we hope to be able to provide further details.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for securing this important urgent question, and you for granting it, Mr Speaker.
The BBC is a great British institution and local radio is the cornerstone of it. It is what the BBC does best: whether it be local traffic updates, school closures, weather or other news events, BBC local radio keeps over 6 million people across the country connected to their communities. I know that my local BBC station, Radio Sheffield, keeps the people of Barnsley informed. During the pandemic, it served as a lifeline, providing tailored local updates on the latest case numbers and guidance. More recently, local radio has shown that it has the power to keep national politicians accountable to the people we represent. Of course the BBC needs to change with the times and adapt to a world where people consume their media online, but those adaptations need not be in competition with the services that make the BBC the excellent institution it is.
Under this Government, however, the BBC has been continually undermined. In an already challenging economic environment, the Government’s looming threat of scrapping the licence fee while providing no alternative model has done nothing but further destabilise the position of the BBC. The consequences of that instability are now showing. The journalists on the ground, doing their job, have had to find out through the media that their jobs are at risk of redundancy.
The Minister must take some responsibility and answer the following questions. She said that there was no discussion between the Government and the BBC prior to the decision. What steps will she now take? May I press her again to say when we will finally see the long-awaited media Bill? How will Ministers ensure that people are still able to get high-quality local news and media that keep them connected, especially as local radio stations are often the last local newsroom standing in many areas? Does the Minister acknowledge that threatening the future of the BBC as a whole is already causing it great harm?
It is important to ask ourselves what “local” means in this context. If several counties or regions are stitched together, the service ceases to be local and relevant to local people, which we have concerns about. We recognise that the BBC is under pressure, as are many other media organisations, which is why we have a series of reforms that we hope to put through in the media Bill to help it with some of those pressures. However, I say to the hon. Lady that the BBC has a £3.8 billion annual income from the licence fee, and it has that income guaranteed for the next five years. Any media organisation would be grateful to have such stability in its funding settlement. I do not see that as destabilising. It is absolutely right that the Government ask some fundamental questions about the licence fee model in the years ahead. This is a rapidly changing media landscape and it is important that we get these decisions right.
On the next steps, as I mentioned to the House, I am seeing the director-general next week. We also have the mid-term review, where we will be examining some of the very matters being raised in this urgent question.
Along with many of my constituents, I am a huge admirer of the news and analysis provided by Radio Kent. It is particularly important these days when local commercial radio has effectively completely disappeared. Can the Minister assure the House that, when she meets the BBC, she will impress on it the importance of striking the right balance between traditional means of disseminating such information through radio and the newer online means, because the BBC will need to carry on doing both effectively if it is to fulfil its public purpose?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. One thing the BBC does is serve every community, including those audiences who are not so capable of listening to things online and are not so digitally enabled. I am certainly happy to raise the points that he has just mentioned.
I think that I have a very positive relationship with the BBC, but it is operationally independent. In the context of some of the changes that are being made, it is important that we have an open and honest discussion about these proposals when we meet next week.
BBC local radio makes a difference to the community that it serves. It is also the service closest to communities that pay the licence fee. I am very concerned by the proposals, which will see an awful lot of programmes shared between BBC Radio Devon and BBC Radio Cornwall, and job losses too. What steps will my hon. Friend take to make sure that local news provision is protected?
My hon. Friend has particular experience as a former manager of BBC Radio Solent and a Select Committee member. As I have said previously, I am very grateful to the Select Committee for looking at some of these quite complex issues around local journalism. The question is: at what point does local journalism cease to be local if there is a merging between large geographical counties such as Devon and Cornwall. That causes me concern, and I would be happy to engage with him further on all of those issues.
Many of my constituents listen to Radio Merseyside, which is an excellent local radio station and probably one of the most popular in the country. It certainly has a good track record in dealing with local issues and in holding its politicians and others to account. I have to say to the Minister that we talk about local radio, but it is ceasing to be local because of what we have heard today. The next thing will be whether some of the local radio stations get closed—perhaps in a year or two’s time. That is where we are going. Should the BBC not be concentrating on investing more and on improving further the local content of radio stations? The Minister said that she was not happy with the way that this had been done. When was her Department told by the BBC that it was making these changes?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the importance of Merseyside radio. On the matter of holding people to account, my understanding is that the proposals include an investment in investigative journalism, which could be a positive thing, but if we had been given further details, information and notice, I would have had a better understanding of the proposals. We were not given notice beyond the news release yesterday.
The Minister is right to say that the Select Committee is very concerned about this announcement. We have taken a lot of evidence, including from her, on this subject. On BBC Radio Solent, which my constituents listen to, we think that, at weekends, there will be no purely local output at all—not even breakfast programmes—except, potentially, sports commentary. That is decimation. We hear that these regional investigative hubs will be put in place of truly local radio. Will the Minister ask the BBC, and will she give the House her opinion, as to whether that is what the licence fee payers—the BBC’s customers—actually want, because I very much doubt that that is the case?
The BBC is a public service broadcaster and it is there to deal with types of journalism that are not covered adequately by the market. That is why the BBC has support. If it is not delivering that kind of distinct local and regional content, we have to ask some very serious questions.
I thank the right hon. Lady for raising those interviews with the previous Prime Minister. That has since led to a regular section on the Radio 4 “Today” programme where local radio stations are making a specific contribution to what is a national broadcasting programme, allowing us to get a much better flavour of what is going on across the country, and of the different opinions that regional and local news providers have on those national stories. That is where the value of the BBC really comes into play, and I really hope that that does not wither on the vine.
I urge my hon. Friend to ask the BBC to think again. Will she remind it that stations such as BBC Essex are greatly valued by listeners and provide a service that is unavailable commercially? Online news is already well supplied by the local media, which is under considerable pressure even without greater competition from the BBC. Will she consider asking Ofcom to look into the impact of this decision on local publishers?
My right hon. Friend obviously has a great deal of expertise in these matters and I am grateful to him for raising the great content of BBC Essex. As I have said before, this is a great opportunity to show the strength of opinion across the House; the BBC is there precisely to serve audiences that are not covered by commercial radio. I would be happy to talk to Ofcom, because these are fundamental questions about the purpose of the BBC.
Can we just think about one example of how BBC local radio has impacted on all our everyday lives? During the pandemic the “Make a Difference: Give a Laptop” local radio campaign saw more than 116,000 laptops donated to schools and raised £1 million. I argue that that enabled children to carry on learning during one of the most disabling periods in our recent history. Is that not one incredibly convincing argument as to why we should protect and finance the BBC properly?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He is right to highlight just how important those local radio services were during the pandemic, particularly as we were seeing lots of different restrictions in different parts of the country; they provided people with up-to-date information about the restrictions in their particular area. I appreciate what he says about the funding. We have guaranteed the BBC a large amount of funding for the next five years, but he is right to highlight some of the important work that it has done over the past few years.
With my other half working in local radio as a presenter, I need to declare a personal interest in this issue. However, my support was strong long before we met, because I have always understood the importance of local radio and its value to its listeners, as I know you do, Mr Speaker, having spoken to you on many occasions about your affection for BBC Radio Lancashire. In a county such as Kent, local news delivered by local journalists who understand local need and culture is essential. It is not just about news, but about conversation and engagement. If my constituents want national news, they will go to the News Channel, but if they want local news, travel, weather, sport and what is going on around the county, they will tune into BBC Radio Kent. Merging Kent with Surrey and Sussex would be a travesty. Without being rude, why would Kent listeners want to hear about a local issue in Surrey or Sussex, and vice versa? Does my hon. Friend agree that any manager who thinks that local content should be shifted online neither knows their demographic—those who are most likely to be digitally disconnected—nor listens to it, and does not understand the definition of public service?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the incredibly important work of BBC Radio Lancashire; I am grateful to be able to give it a shout-out. She raises the prospect of a merged Surrey-Sussex-Kent service, and she is right to highlight that that does not provide the kind of local, specialised content that people are looking for when they turn on the radio, and that there is a real risk that people will just turn to national services because that content is not sufficiently directed at them.
We all appreciate the brilliance, the quality, the objectivity and the outstanding journalism, production and research of BBC radio journalists—not least, in Hull, in the coverage of rugby league, which you and I are both fans of, Mr Speaker. I urge the Minister to impress upon the director-general the crucial importance of that local knowledge in local BBC radio.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the importance of the sports content in particular. I know there is so much passion for people’s local clubs, and if that news service is not there for those local clubs, that sense of disconnection becomes more prominent. I have not had time fully to absorb the proposals, and I think there is some talk of sports content being untouched by them, but I will ask his question of the director-general when I see him.
BBC Radio Devon is a key part of the news picture in my constituency. We have already seen the decline in commercial media, with the local daily paper becoming weekly and newsrooms closing. How will my hon. Friend satisfy herself that when the BBC promises sports coverage, that is not just commentary—for example, of tonight’s game—but about fully covering the clubs, as we have seen BBC Radio Devon covering well a number of issues affecting Torquay United?
I am glad my hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to raise the wonderful club of Torquay United and the important coverage that BBC local journalists provide to grassroots sport, which is key to ensuring that support for those small clubs continues. I shall ask the director-general about the importance of services in Devon and other rural counties when I see him.
Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) about the effectiveness of BBC local radio in questioning the Prime Minister in September—kicked off, of course, by Rima Ahmed from the wonderful BBC Radio Leeds—the Minister will have heard from Members in all parts of the House just how important that local content is to us and our constituents. I urge her to take that sense of unhappiness to her meeting with the director-general and encourage him to change his mind.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion. As I hope he has gathered from my responses, this urgent question has been a useful opportunity for the House to make clear its very strong feelings on this issue and has allowed everybody to highlight particular parts of the country, the particular stories that come from those parts of the country and the talent that is nurtured in those local radio stations.
It is true that the local media ecology has changed beyond all measurable doubt over the past 20 years, but nobody provides local radio in the UK like the BBC, because it is set up and funded as a public service broadcaster. That should be at the heart of the BBC’s delivery. Can my hon. Friend assure me that Ofcom will look carefully at the provision of local services to ensure that older audiences are not disenfranchised by this decision? How can she ensure that other local media provision, particularly online provision that relies on local revenues to support its services, is not impacted by the BBC disproportionately acting online?
My hon. Friend has great expertise, particularly in the area of radio, so he will understand that there is a delicate ecology here and we must ensure that whatever the BBC does enhances local journalism rather than creating sustainability questions for other local journalists, particularly if it starts to move services online. He makes a good point about radio content being at the heart of the BBC’s public service broadcasting mission, and it is a point I shall make to the director-general.
Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Speaker—obviously accelerated by the complete lack of Scottish Nat Members, which I am sure is by accident and not by design, but I do appreciate it.
Before we get carried away on a wave of claptrap, may I ask the obvious question? Does the Minister agree that there are many savings to be made in how the BBC distributes its regional services, and that those savings should be made? There is much duplication within the BBC. Many of us have given the same interview time and again on the same day for a number of regional radio stations and there has been no sharing of that across the BBC regional network, as should be the case. Of course, we have split services in Northern Ireland: we effectively have Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle, and there has been a removal of exciting local issues to do with, for example, 12 July coverage. All that has been removed from BBC radio locally. The Minister needs to make sure that, when she talks to the director-general, she makes those points also.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I know he has very strong feelings about the BBC, which we discussed only yesterday in the Lobby. The BBC has a licence fee income of £3.8 billion a year, and there are big questions to be asked about what kind of content it should be delivering with that amount of money. I think the strength of feeling in this House is that this very local content is precisely what the BBC is there to deliver, because the commercial sector does not deliver it. People are content to pay for the licence fee when they think it is providing that kind of service.
I declare an interest as a former employee of BBC Radio Tees and freelancer at BBC Radio Leeds. We all welcome investment in digital services and it is good that local sport will continue—speaking particularly as a rugby league fan of the Huddersfield Giants—but the message is coming through loud and clear: the Minister needs to ask the director-general and the chairman to look again at continuation of local coverage after 2 pm. It is vital in my neck of west Yorkshire, not just through the pandemic, but when we have bad weather, for school and college closures and updated road information. It is really important. Will she please press that with the DG and the chairman next week? We need proper local coverage throughout the day, not stopping at 2 pm.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, not least because of his own background and expertise in BBC local radio. I have a great deal of sympathy with the BBC’s trying to future-proof the organisation, to ensure it is more available online and to deal with some of the challenges around digital, but it must look at its fundamental purpose. He is right to highlight the importance of local news in relation to specific local updates, whether that is weather, travel or particularly important democratic stories, and I shall be raising those issues with the director-general.
I am sure you would agree with me, Mr Speaker, that while all local radio stations are good, BBC Radio Lancashire is the greatest of them all. All the more reason, then, to raise my concern that in Lancashire it is proposed that from 2 pm onwards we have shared services with Cumbria, from 6 pm onwards on weekdays it is shared with Greater Manchester and Merseyside, and on weekends just with Merseyside. Does the Minister agree that that fracturing of BBC local radio is a threat to democracy? For strong democracy we need strong, accountable local media to hold politicians right across our counties—including the greatest county, Lancashire—to account.
Let us give another shout-out to BBC Radio Lancashire, just so that Mr Speaker is content with me. The hon. Lady highlights the potential for geographically large and very diverse areas to be stitched together. As I say, after a point that ceases to be local content, and there is a serious question about democratic accountability, given that that is one of the primary purposes of public service broadcasting. Those are very real issues that need to be raised.
I was surprised to hear that the Minister only heard about this in the last couple of days, because I heard about it last week through a whistleblower from my local area. That is very worrying. The second worrying thing is that the public trust local radio as they do not trust “Newsnight” or “Today”—frankly, because they do not listen to them. They trust local radio. If this is about money, then take half a million pounds out of Gary Lineker’s salary, or one of the others who earn extortionate salaries. That would pay for a lot of people at Three Counties Radio to keep their jobs.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising his concerns. There is a social compact between the public and the BBC that we pay the licence fee on the basis that it provides us with this kind of content, and if it ceases to do that, that raises more fundamental questions. He raises a number of helpful points, and I shall make sure that they are addressed. I know that many Members across the Chamber feel strongly about some of the very large salaries in the BBC, and that goes to the heart of public trust in the BBC. If we had further details and a greater understanding of the cost savings in these proposals, we could have a more serious debate about it.
I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, and the Minister can imagine the crushing disappointment among NUJ members, because this comes on top of 450 job losses in BBC England and 400 job losses in the World Service. Our concern is that the digital first proposals are undermining the provision of news at the local, national and global level. I am pleased that she is meeting the BBC next week. I ask her to meet the NUJ group as well, so that we can brief her on what we know is happening on the ground as a result of cut after cut after cut from the BBC.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the NUJ’s concerns. It is important that many people get their training in local media organisations, which gives them a great grounding for going national. It is regrettable that these proposals come in Journalism Matters Week, at a time when there are a whole host of challenges facing local journalists.
I share the alarm expressed across the House and by the Minister at this move. I represent a part of Hampshire that often finds it hard to identify itself in the BBC schedules, squeezed as it is between BBC Radio Solent, which concentrates on the urban areas to the south of the county that are an hour away, and BBC Radio Berkshire, in a different county altogether, yet the BBC does just enough in my part of the world to make sure that the commercial sector cannot function or thrive in North West Hampshire. I urge the Minister not to mess about with this debate, which we have had many, many times over the years about the BBC. May I suggest that she talks to the Competition and Markets Authority about it doing a full review of the impact of the BBC on the commercial sector, both locally and nationally?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the issues in Hampshire. The mid-term review, which is a relatively new innovation, is looking at some of these questions on competition and market impact. If he has further details that he would like to feed into that about his local challenges in that regard, I would be happy to receive them, because the Department is looking at all these issues, and we expect to report next year.
The National Union of Journalists has warned that these cuts will not only cost jobs but risk diluting the breadth and quality of relevant local news, particularly for listeners in my Riverside constituency, who are served by the great BBC Radio Merseyside, which has fantastic journalists. Does the Minister agree that this represents a core part of the BBC’s function, and can she inform the House of what action she will take to protect the future of local news on BBC radio and television?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for again raising the NUJ’s point of view. As I have said in previous answers, BBC local radio is a great training ground for a number of journalists, and it would be regrettable if it started to be reduced in size. There are opportunities for journalists in some of the proposals that the BBC appears to be putting forward for investigative journalism, and those are to be welcomed. The BBC invests in a number of other initiatives, particularly the Local Democracy Reporting Service, but these are precisely the kinds of initiative that the BBC should be involved in, and we should all be concerned if it seems to be moving away from that.
This is yet another own goal by the BBC, with no consultation and no dialogue with Ministers. The email that Members received referred to “changing audience expectations”. Actually, what thousands of my constituents expect is to be able to press a button and listen to Radio Humberside, which their radios are permanently tuned to. In the short term, may I urge her to get the BBC to drop these proposals? She referred to the charter review. As negotiations about the charter continue, may I urge her to emphasise that local radio is key to BBC provision?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right to highlight that this is precisely what people expect of and value from the BBC. I have a great deal of sympathy with the BBC needing to change and adapt to the changing media landscape, but it must not at the same time move away from its core purpose.
The BBC is uniquely funded, and it needs to provide unique services. In Chesterfield we are well served by both Radio Sheffield and Radio Derby, and the quality of journalism on those stations is outstanding. It is not a public problem if the BBC is losing market share to Amazon or Netflix. Those organisations do what they do well, and the BBC should not be looking to replicate them; it should be looking to preserve those things that are precious and unique, and BBC radio is absolutely one of those things.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully. It is a core mission of the BBC to provide this kind of distinctive local content that relates to British people in the communities in which they live. If it is not concentrating on precisely this kind of content, there are wider questions to ask about whether it is delivering its remit in the right way.
We have heard Members across the Chamber comment on the accountability of local democracy, but the truth of the matter is that the BBC has been undermining that for quite a while in Radio Leeds. We used to have something called “the hotspot”, which my West Yorkshire colleagues would have been on, and the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and I have done debates together on Radio Leeds. Outside of the breakfast show, none of that happens any more. Some very dedicated people said a long time ago that the BBC was undermining local political content. It said that that content did not get the audience attraction, but it is supposed to be a public service broadcaster. It might be a relief for us not to have the public phone in and question us for an hour, which made us squirm, but it shows that the BBC itself has been undermining these services for a long time, certainly in Leeds, and a lot of very hard-working, dedicated people have been hung out to dry. Will my hon. Friend take a hard look at what the BBC has been doing and make sure that this does not amount to constructive dismissal?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the important work that is done by BBC Radio Leeds and for giving a longer-term picture of what has been going on within these radio services. I shall speak to the director-general about those issues next week.
BBC Radio Merseyside has provided a vital lifeline during the covid pandemic and the current cost of living crisis, as Members across the Chamber have said. It also serves the Cheshire part of my constituency, which is quite isolated and rural. It is a great incubator for new talent. How will the Minister update us on the outcome of the meetings with the director-general and the chairman of the BBC?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point about how the BBC is an important developer of local talent and local journalism. I shall meet the director-general next week and will probably write to Members who have asked questions so that they can have their points addressed from the outcome of that discussion.
I think that BBC Radio Suffolk is, per head of population, the most listened to in the country. I am glad that we will be spared the indignity of Ipswich Town fans hearing detailed team news from Norwich City; that, at the very least, has been eliminated. Will the Minister confirm that in the move towards digitalisation, older listeners will be taken into account, as they disproportionately rely on and listen to BBC Radio Suffolk and are among its greatest fans? In her discussions with the BBC, will she have a conversation about the huge salaries that some BBC employees who are of questionable talent are currently on?
It is not for me to question the talent of those on very high salaries in the BBC. My hon. Friend rightly highlights the very healthy listening figures for local BBC radio stations, particularly among older listeners. These are the people who public service broadcasters are there to serve. It is important that the BBC future-proofs itself and makes sure it is ready for the digital age, but it must not forget its core purpose and mission in the process of doing that.
In my capacity as co-chair of the NUJ parliamentary group, I and other Members of Parliament from both sides of the House had opportunities to meet journalists from BBC News, the World Service and local radio, including some of the journalists from Radio Humberside. I was quite encouraged the Minister has referred to one of the issues they raised—that the BBC has an obligation under its royal charter to ensure that it provides output and services that meet the needs of the UK’s nations, regions and communities. Much of that is provided by BBC local radio. Will the Minister urge Ofcom to undertake an urgent and thorough review of all of the BBC’s digital first proposals, including the impact on BBC local radio, to ensure that the BBC continues to fulfil its public service obligation? Will she also meet the NUJ group?
The NUJ is well represented here today, and I am sure it is grateful for that. Ofcom regulates the BBC, but we are undertaking a mid-term review and we shall seek Ofcom’s input into that. The hon. Gentleman raises the digital first strategy, which raises questions about whether the BBC is increasing its presence in online content and whether that has a knock-on effect on local journalism and other local outlets. Those are all issues that we are considering as part of the mid-term review, and I am grateful for his input.
Despite raising about 20% of its total revenue from the midlands, the BBC currently spends only about 2% of its total budget there. The BBC is often accused of being London-focused, London-centric and out of touch with the sentiment of the public outside the capital. Does the Minister agree that any further reductions in regional services will only exacerbate that perception?
That issue was a real passion of the former Secretary of State, who secured several commitments from the BBC about moving services out of London and trying to get better representative content, be that socioeconomic or regional and local. My hon. Friend raises an important question about whether the BBC adequately represents every corner of our country, and such questions are ripe for raising.
The beauty of BBC local radio is that it does what it says on the tin—it is local—and that is true of all the radio stations, including those that cover big cities, such as BBC Radio Manchester. They do not just cover stories in the city centre: they cover stories in the suburbs, in places such as Denton and Reddish. It is important that we keep that local link to news stories and sport. The Minister knows that local radio stations are also an important pipeline for developing the creative media and the workforce for other media outlets. Can she get some guarantees from the BBC that nothing it proposes will harm that creative pipeline?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the BBC, which is important not just for the BBC itself but the wider creative economy. Some of the investment that the BBC makes in local journalism has a knock-on benefit for other media organisations, and that creates a flourishing local media ecology. He is right to highlight that, and I am also grateful to him for highlighting the great work of BBC Radio Manchester.
The city of Southend has one of the oldest demographics in the country, so will my hon. Friend assure me that she will stress to the BBC how valued BBC Essex is by our elderly population? It does a wonderful job, especially of celebrating our local heroes, such as disability hero Jill Allen-King, and raising thousands of pounds every year for charities as varied as the Music Man Project, the Endometriosis Foundation and prostate charities. Will she stress to the BBC the detriment to our local charities in Southend if that service is restricted?
I hope that the BBC listens carefully to all the points that hon. Members are raising today. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC is there to serve all demographics, but particularly those who are poorly served by other means. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the charity work that her local radio station, BBC Radio Essex, has been so excellent in pursuing.
I echo the comments made by my hon. Friends already about the excellent services provided by Radio Sheffield—local news, local motoring and local football. The key is the word “local”. People in Sheffield and south Yorkshire want to know what is happening in their immediate communities: frankly, they are not desperately interested in what is happening in Leeds and west Yorkshire. I suspect the reverse is also true. While we seem to be promised that the local morning news will be protected, it appears that excellent programmes such as those on Radio Sheffield in the afternoon will be scrapped and merged into some amorphous regional offering. Will the Minister tell the director-general that that simply should not be allowed to happen and is not what local people want?
My hon. Friend was spot on to describe BBC local radio as one of the crown jewels of our public sector broadcaster. BBC Hereford and Worcester was a vital lifeline during the pandemic and many times during the all-too frequent floods in Worcester. In a debate in which we have heard much about rugby league, I am keen to make the case for rugby union. Will she join me in urging the BBC to make sure that BBC Hereford and Worcester is able to cover the fightback and return to the premiership of the Worcester Warriors?
I commend my hon. Friend on his plug for the Worcester Warriors. He is right about the very specific stories that are covered by BBC local radio and their importance, particularly in times of need and difficulty during the pandemic or local floods. It is that content that is so valued by communities of the kind that he represents.
It is simple—no local BBC, no BBC. It is where the news breaks and where communities are served, and in York BBC Radio York served us incredibly well during the floods and continues to be part of our community all day and through the night. The most worrying part of the proposals is that we will lose public service broadcasting time in our communities, something that needs to be protected in the light of the commercial sector and its interests. When the Minister meets the director-general, will she ensure that she stresses the importance of public service broadcasting and the need for it to be reinforced in the role of the BBC and its responsibilities to licence payers?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight that—it is what public service broadcasting is about. My worry is that such proposals stand to undermine the social compact between licence fee payer and the BBC. We have a special arrangement for the BBC because we expect it to provide the kind of content that is not otherwise provided by the market.
Members have shared their concerns that their local radio station will be merged or shared after 2 pm. What should be BBC Radio Dorset stops at 9 am. We should all be clear about the direction of travel of this proposal. My constituents are clear that their priorities when they pay their licence fee are local programmes and local news. It is not acceptable to them that we have multi-million pound salaries paid by the BBC but local news is not available to them. Will the Minister please petition very strongly the director-general and the chairman of the BBC to change these initiatives and re-prioritise Dorset?
I had the pleasure of staying in my hon. Friend’s constituency for a few days recently, when I enjoyed the BBC local services on offer which provided a distinct flavour of the region and the local community he represents. It is a point made by many hon. Members that that is the kind of content that people pay the licence fee for, and the BBC should be in no doubt about that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her response to questions today. Impartiality is critical. BBC services in Northern Ireland are somewhat limited, but some programming—outside the oft-biased news pieces—is used to promote cultural events such as a Burns night supper or an Irish evening. Can the Minister confirm that the proposed reduction will include a focus on cutting the cost of some of the overpaid staff and rekindling local cultural programmes that are enjoyable and very informative?
I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about issues of impartiality in the BBC, and the former Secretary of State extracted several commitments from it, with a 10-point plan to take that forward. As other Members have, he highlights the issue of salary disparity and whether the BBC is putting money in the right places. Those are all questions that need to be answered.
I share the concerns raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by the Minister about these retrograde proposals. In rural areas such as Cumbria, people rely on local radio stations such as BBC Radio Cumbria and on terrestrial TV. They provide a lifeline for news and education, mitigate against rural isolation and support people’s rural mental health. Does she agree that we should resist such reductions and that, in fact, we should bolster and support such vital services?
I have said several times, and I will say again, that this is the kind of public service broadcasting content that people pay their licence fee for. Hon. Members have got their views on the issue across loud and clear. I am grateful to everyone who has participated in the urgent question and I will take all the comments and issues that have been raised to the director-general when I meet him next week.