I beg to move,
That this House calls on the BBC to reconsider its decision to reduce local news output from local radio journalism which will have a negative impact on communities across the UK, reduce access to local news, information and entertainment and silence local voices.
I start by asking the House to note that some of our Doorkeepers are wearing regimental medals today, after Mr Speaker granted them permission to do so, for the first time, to mark Armed Forces Day. We acknowledge the service of our veterans to this country and this House.
I say a big thank you to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and to all the colleagues who supported my bid. I was a little worried at one stage about whether we would have enough colleagues on a lovely Thursday afternoon, but the air conditioning is good in the Chamber and bad in the rest of the House. I hope my contribution will be accepted on both sides of the House.
The future, or lack of future, of BBC local radio affects everyone in this House and everyone in this country. Not everyone listens to BBC local radio, even though it has a substantial following, particularly among people who cannot access it through any other source, such as digitally. It is trusted in a way that no other medium is trusted. Local radio, local presenters, local knowledge and local topicality cannot be replicated in another part of the country. In my constituency, BBC Three Counties Radio turns into BBC eight counties at weekends.
The National Union of Journalists had an excellent lobby in Parliament, which I had the pleasure of attending, but this issue is not only about journalists. BBC staff, all the way from junior runners to local presenters, do not know whether they have a job. Some of them were issued with pre-redundancy notices at a really difficult time for renegotiating their mortgage. I was told categorically at the lobby that some people have been told they cannot remortgage when their fixed term runs out because they have no guarantee of a job.
Some freelance presenters were compulsorily moved into the pay-as-you-earn scheme by the BBC, probably because of concerns about IR35 legislation. They had work in other places, but they did not have a formal contract. Given that they were moved into PAYE a couple of years ago, we might think they will get redundancy compensation, but because they have been on PAYE for such a short time, they probably will not get it.
This debate is about the people who need local radio and the people who serve us on local radio. I think the BBC needs to wake up and smell the coffee. There are whole generations of people in our constituencies who have nothing to do with the BBC. They do not watch the BBC and they do not go online with the BBC, but they have to pay the licence fee. Constituents say to me, “The only thing I listen to is Three Counties Radio, which offers a service that no commercial station offers. Why am I paying the licence fee?” The younger generation, including some members of my family, say, “I’m paying the licence fee, but I don’t have anything to do with the BBC. I have to pay it because, obviously, it is a criminal offence not to pay the licence fee.” I think the BBC is going down a very dangerous road in alienating the core people who want to support it at the same time as trust in the national media is waning.
What will the BBC gain from these proposals? The BBC would say it has to move with the modern world and go digital, but most of its listeners cannot do that. Is the BBC saving huge amounts of money? I was told off by a colleague in this House for naming Gary Lineker as a very highly paid BBC employee. Well, I am going to do it again. He gets £1.2 million a year from the BBC, and he also works for BT Sport and other organisations. That is entirely up to him, but the people we are referring to cannot do that and are not on that sort of salary. This would be loose change out of the salaries being paid to the high-cost presenters. It is not just Gary Lineker; lots of others have high values.
My right hon. Friend is making a good point. One thing that grips me about this issue is that so many of our BBC radio reporters, such as those on BBC Radio Solent, which I want to see thrive and not get cut back, have starting salaries of £30,000. It is bizarre that BBC bigwigs think it is okay to have people on serious megabucks at a public institution, while they are making redundant and unemployed journalists who are on relatively low wages, given the importance of the job they do.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. This is about people. The way that the human resources people and the hierarchy at the BBC have handled this is appalling for a public body. It is so wrong that people are petrified, and have been for months, about whether they have a job. They are being told, “If you don’t accept the job we are going to offer you, you will be out the door.”
Ofcom has responsibility here. More than 600,000 people took part in the consultation that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport held on Channel 4, whereas Ofcom’s review of the BBC operating licence had 12 people respond to it. I cannot believe that Ofcom believes that that is representation in a consultation on the future of the BBC. I cannot believe Ofcom just sat back on that. It has a responsibility to make sure that the BBC fulfils its obligations to the people who pay the licence fee—a fee they have no choice but to pay.
As Members are fully aware, I hail from the far north of Scotland and once upon a time I was a councillor up there. The BBC was well staffed in those days and I bear the scars of its reporting on me. I did not like it at the time but, by God, that is what local democracy was about, and it was properly reported. That is part and parcel of the way we do things in this country, even as far away as where I live. This cutback will fundamentally undermine proper local democracy in remote places such as the far north of Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. Accountability is the key, but we can have accountability only when there is knowledge on the part of the person asking the question. That comes from local journalists and local radio. One reason local radio is trusted more is exactly because, as he said, we get hauled over the coals sometimes. We go on our local radio stations and we say what we think is right, and sometimes we are told categorically, “That’s not right.” Why do they say that? It is because it is their opinion and because they have the local knowledge in that part of the world.
I completely agree with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone); what he describes in the far north of Scotland applies to the south-east of England, in Kent, where Tunbridge Wells is pleased to host Radio Kent. We seek a local democracy in which people make decisions about who is to be their Member of Parliament and who is to be their councillor, but if they do not have the ability to listen to them and see them answer questions, how can they make that informed decision, on which our democracy depends?
That is the crux of this debate. As many colleagues know, before I came into this House, I was here for many years as head of news and media for the Conservative party. I interacted with the journalists and I was termed a “spin doctor”; that is what I was accused of, probably perfectly correctly.
I interact with my local presenters fairly regularly. I cannot remember the last time a senior BBC journalist did that. They walk straight past me as though I am completely invisible and go on the “Today” programme the following day and say, “This is the view of the Conservative party.” I do not know who they talk to, because they are not talking to me. Perhaps I have got a bit long in the tooth and I should be texting them or WhatsApping them. They do not actually communicate, particularly with the Back Benchers, unless of course they are going to say something completely outlandish that causes their party a load of grief, and then of course they will be on the “Today” programme the following morning. At the end of the day, that’s fine, if I have said something like that. However, I really feel that the only way that can work is if there is empathy with the people who understand what is going on in the local patches of different constituencies around the country.
I had the largest explosion and fire since the second world war in my constituency, just after I, a former fireman, was elected. My thoughts about what went on that day will live with me, and with my constituents, forever. The first people to get on to me were from my local radio station. They asked me, “What the hell is going on, Mike?” I said, “I’ve no idea, but give me 15 minutes. I am at the command centre and I will let you know”. Of course, later on Sky, the BBC and other national broadcasters got in touch, but it was the local paper—which has now met its demise, as have local papers in most of our constituencies—and the local radio station that contacted me first.
As we look at where these proposals will go, we see that it is absolutely imperative that this House sends a message to the BBC hierarchy, as well as to the workers of the BBC, including journalists, runners and junior people in offices, that we will not tolerate the undermining of local radio in our constituencies.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He mentions sending a very clear message to the BBC, but I would like to take him back to his point about Ofcom. We should also be sending a very clear message to Ofcom. This House expects Ofcom to regulate the BBC and robustly hold to account the management of the BBC for delivering local services. Ofcom has written to the BBC saying that it is not certain that its own rules for regulating local radio are robust and sufficient. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for Ofcom to stand up for this House, and for listeners and viewers?
My hon. Friend makes an important point to bring me back to Ofcom. If Ofcom is saying, “Nothing to do with me, guv. We don’t have the power to sort this out,” then this House should do that, because we gave Ofcom the powers in the first place. That is crucial.
I will touch on one last thing. It is not all about whether the schools are going to close or the brilliant work that BBC local radio—and, to be fair, some of the commercial stations—did during the covid lockdowns. It is about the little things that matter in our constituencies.
I put my hand up—I am president of Hemel Hempstead Town football club. We are in the Vanarama national league south. If we do really well, we will be in the play-offs, I hope, this year—let’s keep wishing. We used to have two hours of non-league football on Three Counties Radio on a Saturday—gone. Why would that be? Perhaps they think no one is interested, but it was the lifeblood for a lot of the clubs to tell people where they were playing and who were the new players coming in. Football clubs, like pubs and post offices, are the core of our constituencies. Cutting that programming willy-nilly saves what? The BBC cannot even tell us that.
Why does the BBC not say, “Well, we are going to invest more money—£19 million or so—elsewhere”? I am not really interested in that. What I am interested in is why it is taking one amount of money from a certain core activity to put it somewhere else, when it was doing a frankly brilliant job in the first place. By the way, it is the BBC’s duty, under its franchise, to provide that.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time. I want to pick up on his point about what is important to local people. People who live in a rural area like North Shropshire want to know what is happening in North Shropshire. As much as they bear no ill will to the people of Stoke or Wolverhampton, they are not that interested in what is going on there. The lifeblood of every fête, charitable event or local football match is that the organisers can get on local radio and tell people that those events are happening. Does he agree that the local connection is important, particularly for people who live in rural places and cannot access commercial stations, because they do not get a signal? BBC local radio is the lifeblood of those organisations and people.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct; BBC local radio is the lifeblood. Whether it is a football match, or the local schools closing because we have had half an inch of snow, those are the sorts of things that are really important to local people. I love Norfolk. I go fishing on the Norfolk broads on a regular basis, but I do not think the Norfolk broads area has any synergy with junction 8 of the M1 being blocked. The latter has massive effects in my constituency, but no effects in another area. I am not really interested in their issues; they are not interested in mine. It breaks up the empathy with the community in what people trust the BBC to do.
As well as our sending a message to Ofcom and to the BBC, the motion before the House today, which was carefully drafted with the assistance of the Table Office, is worded in such a way that, if necessary and if anybody in this House objected to it, we could divide on it, so that this House could send that message to the BBC. I hope that we are unanimous and that we do not need to do that, but if we do, we will. If this House does not divide and we unanimously accept the motion before us, that message needs to be heard by the BBC loudly and clearly. It needs to wake up and smell the coffee before the British public say they have had enough of the BBC.
I thank the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for doing a great job in setting out the details of all of our concerns here today.
I have never made any secret of my love for BBC Radio Newcastle. No matter where I am, I always tune in. My love of local radio is shared by many, not just in the north-east but right across our country, because local radio matters. Many of us struggled through covid. Unlike those making the rules and breaking them, we stuck to them and it hurt us. We missed our loved ones. We cried alone for lives lost and we tried to do our best to help our communities.
The familiar local voices on the radio every day gave comfort, brought reassurance, and connected people in a way that no other medium was able to do, especially when different parts of the country were under different covid regulations. Under the BBC’s proposals, I just cannot imagine how radio from 2 pm onwards coming from a different part of the country could have accurately conveyed, at that time, the right information for all the areas that it was expected to cover.
Local BBC stations such as our much-valued BBC Radio Berkshire are invaluable because not only do they hold local politicians to account, but they give voice to local people who would not otherwise be covered by the national media. I appreciate that the Government have cut funds to the BBC, but does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must give reassurances to the good people of Slough and others in Berkshire that they will not lose out on that BBC Radio Berkshire output?
As somebody who understands the ins and outs of local government, does my hon. Friend agree that BBC local radio, which often takes a much more detailed approach to a problem than other media, is very important to those who want to follow local government decisions? It often provides really good scrutiny—much better, in fact, than that provided nationally.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. At a time when people are losing faith in politics and politicians, it is vital that all voices are heard, not just in this place but in local government.
Disgracefully, the BBC started these cuts during the pandemic, asking more than 100 staff to take voluntary redundancy, stripping back the schedules, forcing all shows to have four-hour slots with solo presenters, and axing specialist programmes. That set the scene for homogenising practice at all local stations, making it easier for the BBC to make the cuts that it wants to make now and merging everything from 2 pm onwards. For the nation’s flagship broadcaster to introduce those changes without consulting the fee-paying public is pretty galling.
As a fee payer, I am angry that my views were not sought, but I am angrier about the loss of jobs and talent at the BBC that these changes will cause, and the loss of service to my fantastic constituents. Digital exclusion in the north-east is the highest in England. The north-east is the region with the highest proportion of disabled people, and my area of south Tyneside has the largest elderly population in the north-east, a group who have already been battered by the changes to the over-75s licence fee. Those are the very groups who not only listen to local radio but rely on it the most. When the BBC’s director general appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he said that the changes were “critical for local democracy”, but when it comes to the north-east he is simply wrong—these changes are quite the opposite.
The director general also claimed to have empathy with striking staff, yet MPs across this House have heard how disgracefully staff have been treated, how he is presiding over a toxic culture of fear and paranoia and how the reselection interviews related to the cuts in local radio have been embroiled in workplace bullying. Little wonder that in a recent survey, less than one quarter of BBC television and radio staff said they had confidence in the their senior leadership team. I pay tribute to those workers, and their union, who have bravely spoken out not just for themselves but for their 5 million-plus listeners—more than listen to Radio 1 or 5 Live.
Local radio employs some of the best journalists we have in the country. Anyone who is in doubt should just re-listen to the disastrous round of interviews that the previous and brief incumbent of No. 10 did last year. She underestimated and undervalued those journalists, just as their employer is doing now. We are now in a scenario where the BBC is blaming the Government, as its revenue is down from the licence fee freeze, and the Government are simply saying, “Well, that’s up to the BBC.” The reality is that with these changes the BBC is not adhering to its own charter, it is not delivering on contributing to social cohesion, and at the same time—
Mindful of the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make sure that my remarks show—I hope—an admirable economy.
It is 100 years since the BBC was founded. Lord Reith took on that responsibility in the late 1920s and talked about BBC’s mission to inform, to educate and to entertain. Without the local radio network that we have seen developed over the last 50 years or so, I am afraid the first of his three maxims will not be fulfilled. Without the important network of journalists, supported by the staff to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) quite rightly referred to in his excellent introductory remarks— I thank him for securing this debate—local people will not be informed.
Swindon sits right in the middle of the south of England, between the west of England and south central regions, and it is frankly not adequately covered by television; we are affected by a real dividing line where my community sits. BBC Radio Wiltshire is the only glue within the broadcasting network that links us with the historical country from which Swindon has developed. It is certainly the view of my constituents, and the constituents of my colleagues in North Swindon, Devizes and other local seats, that the loss and denigration of that service will really harm the way local people can access information.
It is all very well talking about digital coverage, and I accept that many of us use online services. However, without local journalists generating live coverage daily by ringing MPs here, ringing councillors or ringing local people and getting them on the show, there will be no material generated to put online. The co-ordination between the generation of live content—particularly for evening drivetime shows, in our case—and its transfer online seems to be being missed in all this.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for securing the debate. BBC Three Counties Radio is a local radio station, but how can it be local if it is not able to deliver local news? To go back to the point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) is making, the key thing is that the BBC is effectively getting rid of the local in local radio.
I agree. The amalgamation of Wiltshire with Gloucestershire—a vast area—will put us back into the sort of regional miasma that affects the access to local news of the residents I represent.
We have great community radio in Swindon—105.5 is a wonderful community station—and it is doing its best to provide a public service, but the BBC is the public service broadcaster, and its obligation is to get public service right. In the reforms, it has paid lip service to consultation, and the way in which staff are being treated is unacceptable. This is, I am afraid, another example of poor decision making, poor communication and poor leadership from the BBC. We expect better of it. In the delivery of these botched reforms, it is failing in its duty.
Under the banner of “digital first”, 39 local radio stations will have their content dramatically reduced, as we have all heard. Local radio will become regional and national, in many cases, after 2 pm. Now, I am not saying that we do not need digital—I have nothing against digitalisation—but it should not come at the cost of local radio. It is as simple as that.
Local radio has 5.7 million listeners every week, yet no meaningful consultation has taken place, so I have written to the director general, along with many Merseyside colleagues, to say that we are dismayed about the changes that will see weekend breakfast shows shared with Lancashire and Cumbria, which have very different audiences. The original plan also envisaged sharing with Radio Manchester, but it has been decided that Radio Manchester will be able to keep its breakfast show, despite it having fewer listeners than Radio Merseyside. Why? What is the rationale? I do not know, and I do not think they know.
At other times, broadcasting will be either regional or national. That will mean that a significant proportion of Cheshire will not be covered as appropriately and locally as it could be, which is a serious blow to our local democracy and will threaten listener numbers. Some specialist local radio shows, including a dedicated political programme on Friday afternoons, are being axed as well. Listeners are yet to be made aware of all the changes, which include the replacement of a popular local presenter who has excellent ratings by someone who is potentially less experienced.
We believe that local radio programmes provide a valuable service of information and companionship in communities, and that millions of people need to continue being served locally. Local radio is a lifeline for news and education, mitigating rural isolation—I know that—and supporting people’s mental health. It is a great incubator for new talent and one of the crown jewels of our public sector broadcaster. We have to protect it.
We are very concerned that those plans are being pursued without appropriate consultation. I have had a letter from the BBC since the announcement, but I did not receive one before—talk about putting the cart before the horse. We are asking the BBC to consider its approach and ensure that there is proper local consultation.
On a personal level, I was on BBC Radio Merseyside last Friday talking about an issue close to my heart: the air ambulance service, which helped my late daughter. We had a great 10-minute programme on what it means to our community, and we would not have had that were it not for local radio. I would not have had the chance, as a father, to make the case for it. That is what local radio does, so it has my full support. Those journalists do a fantastic job, and they need the support of every single one of us in this Chamber.
BBC local radio is unique. In the multifarious and busy media landscape we have today, it is very rare to be able to say that. Nobody else in the market provides what BBC local radio does. We have BBC local TV, but it is regional. It provides a very good service, but the difference between TV and radio is that in radio—again, this is unique in the media landscape these days—we can have long-form, detailed conversations. We do not have to think about the number of characters we use. We are not asked to answer a question in 15 seconds. We can actually have proper, grown-up conversations, and we can be challenged as public servants, whether that is us in this place or councillors. It is the lifeblood of impartial local broadcasting, and we do not get that anywhere else.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) said with reference to Three Counties Radio, which serves my constituency too, doing that requires the people on the ground with the time to be on top of very local issues—for example, those at Wycombe Hospital, which I discussed on Three Counties the other day. Without those people, it will never be local.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In these days of flexible working and working from home, and with the technology we can now use with radio, local radio can be unique in how it works.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) organised a meeting with the director general of the BBC the other week, and I gave him a really hard time. My background is in television, video and radio, and I have to say that with the changes being made, I do not believe the BBC is particularly committed to local radio at all. Yes, it is still committing to local radio from 6 am to 2 pm, but I looked at the BBC site through the link that was sent to us with our briefing, and it says that BBC local radio has a 15.5% reach. Other media organisations would kill for a 15.5% reach. My local station, Radio Humberside, has a higher reach than that, at 16%.
It worries me that 58% of local radio listeners are over the age of 55, and 48% are in C2, D and E socioeconomic groups. That means they are unique to the places that feel they have been left behind. We talk about levelling up, but if we want to do that, we should make sure the BBC has to level up and keep our local BBC radio services. Once we have lost it, we will no longer see proper democratic reporting.
The BBC says that it is taking on 130 new local journalists, but it is all for digital. My concern is that digital and print media, in the old sense, do not have to be impartial, and people may not understand that. Public sector broadcasters have to be impartial, and we need to make sure that the BBC does not become any more partial than it is starting to become.
My worry is that the majority of my constituents who listen to local radio and feel that it talks to them are going to lose out on hearing their own news. For people who are visually impaired, elderly or cannot get out very often, radio is a lifeline. I am pleased that so many Members are here to talk about this, because I feel passionately about it, and the BBC needs to be made to stop.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On the topic of elderly people, 8% of my residents in Southend West are over 80, and for them, our local BBC Essex radio is a lifeline. We know that younger people consume media online, but 35% of the over-75s do not consume their news online, so does she agree that this policy is directly discriminating against the very people who actually support the BBC?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Unless we are really good at working with digital, it is quite difficult to find our local radio station. Podcasts, BBC Sounds and all these things are really difficult for the exact people in BBC local radio’s target reach.
I would like to say a big thank you to my local presenters, in particular David Burns and Andy Comfort, who have been fantastic. We do not talk about this, but for people who do not get out much and want to listen to their local radio, hearing local voices is so important; there is a sense of familiarity and a feeling that they know that person. The BBC seems to be losing those presenters who are exactly the right demographic to talk to the people who are listening. Yes, we want to bring on young broadcasters, but they are not the right demographic for their target audience, so I would say to the BBC, “Please listen. This is vitally important. If we lose any more of local radio, it is going to be a desperate situation for our constituents.”
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this debate, and on his excellent opening remarks. I absolutely agree with what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) has just said. I share Radio Humberside with her, and we are committed across the Humber: all 10 Members of Parliament representing the area covered by BBC Radio Humberside support that radio station and value it. We know that it is rooted in our community, it works all year round and it is indispensable in emergencies. As a number of Members have said, the local BBC is more trusted than the national BBC.
I will concentrate on the proposal to end local radio at 2 pm on weekdays and at weekends. I see that as part of a process: it seems like the next lot of cuts are already in train. Why is that? We know that the linear radio medium is not dying due to inevitable technology-driven trends; it is a deliberate cull, a decision on behalf of the BBC. There are still 5.7 million BBC local radio listeners, spread fairly evenly throughout the day, and Radio Joint Audience Research listening figures show that 59.4% of BBC Radio Humberside’s audience listen on FM. Only about 0.4% listen via BBC Sounds, and 8% listen on smart speakers.
BBC management are using the damaging effect of the previous lot of cuts on ratings to justify this next set of cuts. With 95% of the local radio audience listening from outside London, these cuts would mean a more London-centric and metropolitan BBC. We know that commercial radio will not replace BBC local public service radio, and that downgrading local news adds to the growing news desert problem. In addition, as a number of Members have said, there has been no impact assessment of the effect of those cuts on the 34% who are digitally excluded—the poorer, the lonely, the over-50s, those with disabilities, and those in rural and coastal areas. Digital services cannot replace live local radio, and linear radio provides most of the content for digital.
I also want to say something about BBC staff and to pay tribute, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby did, to some of the employees in Radio Humberside who have already left. That includes David Burns—Burnsy—a popular morning presenter who has gone already. BBC staff have felt humiliated, patronised and bullied by this process. Well-known local presenters are going, but we are apparently bringing in presenters from other regions, which just seems ridiculous. The BBC points to a 30% fall in income since 2010, but the BBC is a very large organisation. It can save on management costs, for example, including management costs within the £117 million BBC local radio budget.
So what do we want from the BBC? I fully support the motion before us. We want the BBC to halt this calamity now—to open up its finances to independent scrutiny, see what efficiencies can be found to protect services and develop digital, consult local radio staff on their ideas, hold a proper public consultation alongside an impact assessment, and invite axed local radio staff such as Burnsy to return.
I wonder whether the right hon. Lady, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, shares the surprise that I feel when looking at the BBC’s briefing for this debate. It says that it is creating 130 additional local journalist posts, and that as part of those posts it will create a new network of 70 investigative journalists across England. I can see the value of investigative reporting, but when people such as the excellent staff of BBC Radio Solent have to go on strike over the threat to their jobs, is that the right priority that the BBC should be following?
I very much hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. What I value about local radio is that it holds me to account. It is already investigating what local councils are doing and what local MPs are up to, and I think that is the value that many have talked about today.
Just to conclude, if the BBC thinks again and halts these cuts, we will work together as parliamentarians to protect local radio and to support the BBC. I hope that W1A is listening to this, and that it is not just SW1A listening to this debate. I know that constituents in Hull who live in HU5, HU6 and HU7, and in other postcodes across Humberside, feel at the moment that that they are losing a friend with these cuts to the BBC.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), and I think I agree with every word she said. This is a classic debate in which we find Members of all parties coming together to make the same cause, because it matters so much to our constituents and is so important.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on bringing forward this debate. More specifically, I congratulate him on the very well-worded motion we are debating. I reiterate his point that, even if we do not divide on the motion, it needs to be read and taken seriously by BBC management. This set of proposals would silence local voices.
The proposals would also be detrimental to the BBC’s work as a public sector broadcaster on equality grounds. I question whether the BBC has ran proper equality tests on the impact of what it is doing. I recently joined blind campaigners outside No. 10 Downing Street to present a petition on this issue, which was also presented at BBC headquarters in W1A, and I do not think that has been responded to in detail by the BBC. Local radio stations are trusted voices, which are trusted by our constituents because they are local voices, and they are also trusted by people who miss out on digital and people who are isolated, lonely and living on their own, whether for reasons of disability, age or digital exclusion. These are audiences that the BBC should absolutely be going out of its way to serve.
We have heard about proposals for timing changes. The BBC will say that it is keeping local radio for the most important part of its listenership and the most popular part of its readership, but that misses the point. If we take away the journalists who are covering news for key periods of the day, we will lose key local content that does not then find its way to digital. We all know that events in our constituency—whether political or educational, or about volunteers doing great work—do not just take place between 7 o’clock in the morning and 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In fact, most educational stories are likely to take place during the afternoon when people have more time to talk about them. A lot of politics takes place later on in the day and feeds into the evening shows. These are the things the BBC should be paying attention to.
The BBC should also be paying attention to its staff. I have rarely been one to speak out in favour of strikes, but I have to say that I have every sympathy with members of the NUJ who have been striking and protesting, because they have not been consulted and have not been listened to. In fact, local journalists who work incredibly hard, and who are a key pipeline for future talent into the BBC nationally, are not being listened to in this space. I think that absolutely needs to change.
Talking of listening, the BBC says it has listened on some of its regional proposals and changes, but from a Worcestershire MP’s perspective, it has actually made things worse. It was originally proposing to put together programming from Hereford and Worcester with programming from Coventry and Warwickshire. That, from a Worcestershire perspective, is difficult—it would not necessarily be as local as it was—but vaguely understandable. The BBC has changed that now, and has taken away the idea of combining us with Coventry and Warwickshire. It is now suggesting combining Hereford and Worcester with Shropshire, Staffordshire and Stoke. My constituents do not feel that the news in Stoke is terribly relevant to them, and I am sure my Stoke colleagues would feel likewise. I agree with what the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) said about the genuinely local content of what local radio can deliver and the huge importance of that. With the best will in the world, her constituents are better served by BBC Radio Shropshire and my constituents are better served by BBC Radio Hereford and Worcester.
There is much more I would like to say. I have discussed in previous debates the importance of BBC local radio at times of crisis, such as times of floods; my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead referred to the fire in his constituency. We need that coverage through the day; we need those local voices through the day. I urge the BBC to sit up and listen and make sure that this motion is taken seriously and we keep that very valuable part of the crown jewels of public service broadcasting, BBC local radio.
May I break it very gently to the House and those following the debate that not everybody listens to Radio 4 or the World Service? As mentioned by many previous speakers in the debate, lots of people depend in many ways on listening to local radio. Local radio is extremely popular in this country, a reminder of our pride in our robust local characters and in local heritage, history and traditions.
I was born in the north-east; I believe it is like nowhere else in the country and it should be celebrated rather than ignored and piled in with the rest of the country as if we are just one big blob. Most speakers have said that people in their regions want to hear the local news of relevance to them told to them by people with the same accents as them. They want to hear about what is happening on their high streets and the local weather—what it will be like tomorrow? People do not want to know what the weather will be in Southend when they live in Newcastle upon Tyne or Northumberland, where I live, where it is misty all the time. Basically, we are being misled. We need to make sure we get this right. The BBC must listen, for heaven’s sake, and understand the value of the crown jewels of local radio, as it has been described.
The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) mentioned that non-league football plays a huge part in people’s lives. People cannot put on Radio 4 and find out how Ashington or Bedlington have got on. It is fantastic for people when the local radio station has reporters with the same accent as them telling them how the different clubs and teams are doing in the different parts of the region. That is invaluable.
It is good to listen to fantastic journalists with skills and knowledge of their own area telling us what is happening in politics. It is great to be interviewed by people who understand us and who press us on the local issues. It is great in the morning to get a phone call from Alfie Joey from Radio Newcastle asking if I will come on and talk about this, that and the other. It is essential; it is what people want.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) mentioned that we in the north-east have a huge issue with digitalisation. Of course we do; people in the north-east still call the radio “the wireless.” Not everybody uses wi-fi. We have to remember that.
A lot more can be said, but I have fond memories of Radio Newcastle. I remember when my mother used to make the Sunday dinner in the morning to feed seven of us. There was a programme called “Sing something simple”, and we once rang up and said, “Can you give a message to our mother on Mother’s Day?” and Radio Newcastle gave a message to her. She was absolutely past herself; she said, “If I had known my name was going to be on the radio, I would have got my hair done.” That is how much it meant to my mother.
In conclusion, we have some fantastic reporters and fantastic journalists, and the way they are being tret, bullied and intimidated by the BBC is not acceptable. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) suggests that he supports the strikes; I am going to invite him on to the picket line. He cannot deny it; he will have to come. We hope that the BBC will reflect on the fact that local radio is the people’s radio.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
Times are changing—often at a rapid pace—so I can understand the rationale behind the BBC’s plans. However, I am worried that its proposals have not been properly thought through, have not been fully researched, consulted upon or scrutinised, and risk isolating particular groups and communities that the BBC is obliged to serve. It is in that context that I make the following observations.
My first point is that if these proposals go through, at certain times Radio Suffolk will share content not only with Radio Norfolk, but with Radio Cambridgeshire, Three Counties Radio, which covers Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and Radio Northampton and Radio Essex. The total population of all those counties is higher than that of Denmark and they cover an area three quarters the size of Belgium.
Secondly, it is necessary to bear in mind that older people are often living on their own without advanced digital skills. For them, local radio is a vital link to the outside world. In many respects, the need for such a service has been reinforced and restated by the covid lockdowns. The need to meet the needs of older people is very much relevant in East Anglia, where we have a particularly high proportion of older people living in the region.
Thirdly, it is vital that policy changes of this nature are subject to a rurality test to ensure that they do not unfairly impact on those living in rural areas, such as Suffolk. It is also important to highlight the role that BBC local radio has played at times of emergency and crisis. On the night of 5 December 2013, a storm surge hit the east coast of the UK. Radio Suffolk, led by presenter Mark Murphy, played a key role in keeping local communities and those responsible for co-ordinating support and rescue services informed about the progress of the storm surge down the Suffolk coast. The information provided may well have saved lives and prevented injury. It was a spontaneous and local decision by Radio Suffolk to alter its programming to provide that service. It has been suggested that local newspapers can take on this role, but it should be pointed out that many of them have embarked on the same journey that the BBC is now pursuing of moving their services on to digital platforms.
My final point is that it is important to emphasise that the BBC is not the only provider of local radio. East Suffolk One is emerging as an exciting new local radio station based in Lowestoft and covering the Suffolk coast. However, it is currently constrained from growing and developing by not being able to broadcast on a DAB frequency, by poor local DAB infrastructure, and by a time-consuming, bureaucratic and expensive commercial radio licensing structure. On 29 March, the Government published the draft Media Bill, which has the objective of reducing the regulatory burdens and costs on commercial radio stations. There is now an urgent need for this Bill to start its progress through Parliament, and I would welcome an update on the Government’s plans when my right hon. Friend the Minister replies.
In conclusion, I urge the BBC to pause and review its plans, and I ask the Government to liaise closely with the BBC to ensure that its proposals fit in with and complement a properly co-ordinated local media strategy.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for his excellent work in securing the debate. I thank right hon. and hon. Members from across the House, and I agree with many of the points they expressed. I declare an interest as somebody who was once a local newspaper journalist and is still a member of the NUJ. I commend its excellent campaigning work on behalf of BBC staff over this matter.
I will briefly cover three things: the nature of the modernisation, the importance of radio as a medium, and a call for a rethink by the BBC. On modernisation, it is important that we all acknowledge that change is sweeping through the media. Sadly—I experienced this myself many years ago—there has been huge change already in print, not all of it positive. We have to accept that there will be an element of change; the question for the BBC is whether it can manage that change effectively, and how it protects and preserves the unique value of local radio as it changes and modernises its services. I am in favour of better online coverage, but I do not want that to be at the expense of local radio, which is a hugely important local medium.
I will make a quick plug, as did the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland). Large areas of the country are already poorly served by other BBC media, such as local television. In our part of central southern England, we have suffered for many years from a lack of Thames valley-based TV coverage in the same way that Swindon does—yet Reading is the second-largest urban area in the south-east of England. We want the BBC to look more broadly at its coverage across the country in different media.
My residents would be very badly affected by the proposed cuts. We are used to having BBC Radio Berkshire, which as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said is a much-loved county-based station. Almost all the content is local, but sadly it looks like it is being cut to only 48% local content from across the county. Exactly the issues that other Members have mentioned apply to us. We potentially face the ridiculous situation where commuters on the M4 near Windsor will be listening to a drivetime programme shared with people near Banbury, which is practically in the midlands. [Laughter.] Sorry—that is the local view from our part of the world. Local radio needs to be local, and drivetime and other programmes need to be truly local, as people said earlier.
I will briefly mention the importance of radio as a medium. As people said earlier, it is a much-loved companion and a comfort to people in need, people who are isolated in rural communities, and other people who are perhaps disabled, elderly or at home on their own. It is a wonderful medium, particularly for older residents. It is hugely valued and should not be forgotten.
I will briefly pay tribute to all those who work on our local radio. As was said earlier, it is very far from the glamorous world of Radio 4. It is utterly unglamorous. It is doing shifts early in the morning and late at night, and going to local fêtes and local events, but it is essential for local communities across the country, wherever they may be, in the many diverse parts of this wonderful country. Let us hope that this wonderful service can continue far into the future. I urge the BBC to rethink, to get out of its ivory tower, and to listen to local needs.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for securing this timely and necessary debate. As others have said, I hope that the BBC is listening. A few constituents in my time have told me that I have a face for radio, so I have been particularly grateful for BBC Radio Devon. It has given me an opportunity to talk about local issues and—perhaps more importantly than projecting what I think—to hear from local people and local businesses about the local issues in and around Devon. I stand here on behalf of all Devon MPs, because we all share the view that the cuts, and the decision to make these changes, are outrageous, and we need to ask the BBC to pause.
I pay tribute to some of the extraordinary radio presenters in Devon, from John Acres to Michael Chequer, David FitzGerald, Pippa Quelch, David Sheppard and Toby Buckland. Last year, we lost one of our great radio DJs in Gordon Sparks, who was a lifelong Argyle supporter. He ended up using the radio to talk about that local football team to such a level that he had a lifetime of followers, and when he died there were extraordinary tributes to him across all of Devon.
This debate is not just about the presenters but about the extraordinary production teams, who work tirelessly to ensure that we are up to date with local information. I cannot express how important that is in enabling us to do our jobs well and accurately, and to be challenged and scrutinised. Representing the issues that people care about in our respective constituencies in this place is made all the easier by the existence of fantastic local radio services.
Just a few weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), who cannot be here today, took the director general Tim Davie to task. He asked about the consultation, and the director general’s response was, “We are always talking to people.” That is not a good enough answer when making such extraordinary cuts. I have only one request of the Minister. If the BBC will not do a fully formed consultation, we must ask it to do one, so that we can see the impact and motivate our constituents to recognise that what they hold dear may well be taken away from them.
We have heard from hon. Members across the House about the purity and the necessity of the local. Localism is important to us all—we talk about it nearly every day, in every speech and on every topic. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) spoke about the merging together of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire—exactly the same is happening between Devon and Cornwall. I do not need to tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the rivalries between Devon and Cornwall will only be exacerbated if the merger goes ahead. Joking aside, how does a Devon and Cornwall service ensure that we can report on local events, local news, local problems and local businesses that are suffering in myriad ways? It does not provide what we are asking for, and it certainly does not provide the service that people are asking for.
If an element that people contribute to through the licence fee is to be taken away, why are those people not being engaged? It is perfectly legitimate to ask people, “Are you happy with this service being removed?”, and to engage and consult them on that. The idea of having all-England reporting in Devon and Cornwall over the weekends does not fill me with joy.
A couple of colleagues from different parts of the House made the point that those in the BBC who are extremely concerned about the moves were faced with gagging orders—an inability to speak out when faced with losing their jobs. I cannot understand how a public body has been allowed to behave in that manner and to remove a service, all the while restricting its own employees from speaking out about it. They have called me and colleagues across Devon about these issues. We have all spoken about it together and we are utterly appalled by the BBC’s behaviour. The BBC must modernise, of course. No one says that it should not change, and there are ways in which it should, but it must retain its heart and soul. To me, its heart and soul is local radio.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this debate.
Having engaged with constituents and those impacted by the change who have been supported by their trade union, the NUJ, and having met regional and national management, my clear conclusion is that BBC local management has failed in the process and in the decision. It has failed to consult and it has been insensitive to listeners and staff—this shameful episode has left them ignored and hurt. The BBC must apologise. All this for the sake of less than £200,000 across the whole of North Yorkshire—25p per person, or tuppence a month. The BBC could more than fund that from its licence fee. If the BBC saw itself as social prescribing—which it is—that would be value for money. However, licence fee payers have never been asked. I say to the BBC, “Never forget who you are there for.” I say to Ofcom, “Do your job.”
In writing to the BBC, Ofcom highlighted that over-65s would be impacted the most. Why is that okay? It is not. The House clearly believes that older members of our communities—the frailest and the most isolated—matter, although I have to say that the Government have not helped by taking away free licences for older people. Ofcom went on to say,
“We question how shared programming which will cover such large areas will still be relevant to audiences.”
Ofcom has to act. It is not a bystander but a regulator. With more people becoming isolated and 9 million people experiencing loneliness, having a friend—that reliable voice just down the road—matters. My goodness, it matters. Through covid, we learned what many people live through every day of their lives. That local connection is the thing that makes us belong. It gives us value, identity and hope. That has now been stolen.
This debate it is not just about community interest. Power, politics and decision making are shifting away from the Westminster bubble to local areas: not to Yorkshire, but to North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire—each one distinct. The new area will cover a distance of 150 miles. That is the length of a quarter of the country, so do not tell me that that is local. Digitalisation is all about diversification, not centralisation. The BBC local teams around the country understand that, because they are not in the London BBC bubble but integrated and immersed in our communities with their listeners. Well BBC, today we are here to speak up for our communities, so stop laughing at us and start listening.
In writing to the BBC, Ofcom expected the
“BBC to review the impact of its changes to local radio in England as they are implemented to ensure they are meeting audience needs”.
How can it do that if it is not talking to its audiences—audiences who are never consulted and never included? There is no baseline. In 2011, BBC local failed to consult its audiences on its “Delivering Quality First” proposals. However, it was ordered to and it must be ordered to again.
As for the presenters, many are very experienced, at the top of their profession and choose to remain in local radio because they care more about journalism, their communities and telling real stories than following the circus in Westminster or climbing the tree in London. They have been put to the test. The process determined that those journalists had to make demo tapes and talk about themselves. How utterly humiliating. Some just walked and we lost brilliant people from BBC Radio York’s family, notably Jonathan Cowap and Adam Tomlinson. I pay tribute to them today and trust that they will be back once this charade is behind us. Whoever thought up such a crass, insensitive process has no idea how to run a people-centred service. It is not a gameshow; this is about livelihoods and careers. It is not good enough for the BBC to just press on. It has got to stop.
The BBC breaches its responsibilities, ignores its listeners and insults its employees. With a 93% loss of confidence in the director general, it is seriously time for those responsible for this fiasco to consider their future. I say to Ofcom, “Do your job”; to the BBC, “Sort this out”; to the Government, “Act”; and to all who work in BBC local in York and beyond, “Solidarity”.
I fully support the motion and I call on the BBC to reconsider this incredibly poor decision to cut news output locally. I wrote a letter to BBC bigwigs about the plight of BBC Radio Solent and I am glad that seven other colleagues from across the House signed it. Instead of cutting back local BBC coverage, we should be investing in it and expanding it. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for this incredibly timely debate. It is a privilege to be a part of it and to listen to some great speeches. I want to make three points and I will do so relatively briefly to make sure that all Members can get in.
Despite representing just 3% of the BBC’s total spend, local radio reaches 5.7 million people every week, which is an extraordinarily high figure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) pointed out, it shows significant reach. It also shows very significant value for money. BBC Radio Solent, for example, covers 1.9 million people across the Isle of Wight, Hampshire and Dorset. Like many other BBC local radio stations, it broadcasts to a relatively large audience at, as I said, relatively low cost. I would also make the point that it is already an amalgam. In a perfect world, we would have our own BBC Isle of Wight, as we do not share that much in common with Dorset. What on earth we will share with Oxfordshire news-wise I do not know, because it is 100 miles away and on the mainland. We cannot have a further regionalisation of so-called local services.
The cuts will affect £19 million of spending, against a licence fee of some £3.8 billion. For me, local radio is entirely the wrong thing to cut and the wrong place to start a reorganisation of services, especially when we consider two of the BBC’s major costs. First, people always complain about its bloated management structures. There seem to be people on six-figure salaries whose purpose at the BBC is unclear, at a time when we pay junior BBC reporters just over £30,000 a year. The BBC has not got its priorities right in any way, shape or form.
Secondly, as is already well-known, rich people earn between £400,000 and £1 million a year from our national broadcaster. If they want to earn more money working for Sky or ITV, that is fine—they are commercial stations and can choose the market rate they want. I do not think that BBC audiences understand why some of those people are paid so much money when those who work for the BBC’s heart and soul—its local radio—struggle to get by on modest salaries.
I know my local BBC reporters, such as Peter Henley and Emily Hudson. I do not always agree with them, but I respect their integrity and the fact that they really care about the places they represent. They live there, and what happens in their communities in the Isle of Wight, Hampshire and Dorset matters to them. One of the BBC’s strong points is that it still cares and that local BBC reporters who serve their communities have a passion and a drive to report what they see as the truth about the workings of the council, the NHS and their MPs. They even report what happens in dull planning committees because they take the bread and butter of democracy seriously. Long may that continue.
We need to invest much more in local BBC. It seems me that one purpose of paying the licence fee is not to fund Gary Lineker’s lifestyle, but to pay for a few more £30,000 or £40,000 journalists from Southampton or the Isle of Wight to do a good job covering what happens in our area. Like others, I have written to the BBC—I thank my seven fellow Solent Members of Parliament. I hope we get an answer from the bigwigs and that they will reconsider. I hope that the Minister can impress on Ofcom the need to get a grip of the situation, because what is happening is wrong.
I am secretary of the NUJ parliamentary group, and I thank all Members who came to the lobby and briefing with the NUJ a few weeks ago. It was a very successful event. I also thank all those who have offered support and joined us on the picket lines. I welcome the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) to revolutionary syndicalism. It has been interesting to see that conversion.
It is depressing for most of us who are advocates of public sector broadcasting to have to come back to this debate so often. There is genuine anxiety among many staff that we are seeing a whittling away of local radio services so that eventually BBC management will prove the point that it wants to prove: that the services are no longer supported and therefore unnecessary. It will then close them down altogether. That seems to be the strategy: to make the service unsustainable, cut by cut.
As a London MP, I will talk about services in London. Radio London produces 133 hours a week. That is being cut to 85 hours. That represents a cut from 79% to 51% in our local output. Industrial action has meant that we have won some gains in London. We are keeping the London afternoon show from 2 pm to 6 pm, but the rest will be combined with Kent, Surrey and Sussex. To be honest, that is not good enough. As everyone is saying, local radio should be truly local, which means it should be locally produced.
London needs a specific service due to its range of ethnic diversity, its differing levels of affluence and poverty, and the scale of its vulnerable audiences. In all our discussions with the broadcasters, we have made the point that local radio is not just about news; it is about companionship as much as anything. There has been no acknowledgement in our discussions with the BBC of the digital divide, which has been brought out by the data. People are angry that this has been driven through without consultation, as the director general admitted in front of a Select Committee.
We have talked a lot about presenters today, and we all have relationships with our local presenters—good, bad or indifferent—because they rightly hold us to account, but there are many more people behind them. There are producers, production assistants and others, many of whom are on even lower wages that the union has been arguing for some time are unacceptable. Since the announcements, management has told some of these people that they will not know their future until October. A sword of Damocles has been hanging over their head for nearly a year, which has had an impact on people’s wellbeing and mental health, as evidenced when we met staff.
If Members remember the briefing session, they will know that what staff find really insulting is the argument that this is all about a shift to digital. These staff do digital, with no help from the BBC. A lot of the time, these people trained themselves on digital so they could enhance their programmes and provide the BBC with a range of services. Many of the staff found it completely disingenuous and, actually, insulting when Tim Davie, Jason Horton and Rhodri Davies argued as if they were archaeological exhibits who do not provide the digital services of the future.
The right hon. Gentleman is making such a strong case that the House deserves to hear an extra minute. Does he agree that, in our 26 years in the House, it is hard to think of an occasion when the House has been more united than on this cause? Does he agree that, although the Minister will inevitably point to the independence of the BBC in policy terms, the Minister can nevertheless perform a useful role in taking a message to the BBC that the House feels immensely strongly on this matter?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point, although I do not think I need the extra minute. We all respect the BBC’s independence, but the BBC should reflect the community it serves. What has come out of all these debates is that, on this particular issue, the BBC has belligerently ignored the views of local communities. Members of Parliament are meant to be the voice of our constituents, and we are saying with a strong voice today, and the motion says it all, that the BBC needs to think again, on behalf of our communities, on behalf of our constituents and—I say this as secretary of the NUJ parliamentary group—on behalf of the staff who have served the BBC well over the years.
When we met the staff who came to the lobby, I was moved by how many of them have long service and how many of them have dedicated their life to the BBC. They love the service they provide. I caution the BBC that the strikes will be back if it does not listen, because the staff are not going to sit back and take this. At the same time, it is interesting that there has been overwhelming support within our communities for industrial action. Our communities agree with the staff. Where else can they go? What else can they do to save this service when the BBC is not listening? Let us hope the BBC will listen to this debate.
I am deeply disappointed that the BBC is continuing with its plans to cut local radio services for my constituents, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this important debate.
BBC Radio Essex is a hugely trusted and valuable resource for my constituents, not only because it reports the news and travel news, and deals with so many local issues, but because of the source of comfort that our local radio provides, as has been said by so many Members. I would go as far as to say that the voices of Sadie Nine, Sonia Watson, Ben Fryer, Simon Dedman and Andrew Sinclair, and those of our sporting commentators, Glenn Speller, Dick Davies and Dave Monk, are some of the most trusted voices in our county. Those people also do a fantastic job of holding me to account.
We have talked a lot about local radio being a lifeline and a comfort, which it undoubtedly is, but our local radio, BBC Radio Essex, also does so much work for charity and so much community building. It is about not just the fantastic local radio shows, the interviews and getting people on, but the extra things it does. One highlight of my past 16 months in this place has been the Christmas lights being switched on in Southend, and that was hosted by BBC Radio Essex. Thousands of people were out enjoying themselves and having a fantastic evening as a result of its hard work. Our local radio hosts the “Make a Difference” awards, where it celebrates community heroes all around the country. It also does its everyday work in raising money for incredible charities, such as those we have in Southend, including the Endometriosis Foundation, Prost8 UK and the unbelievably amazing, award-winning Music Man project, among so many more.
The thing I wish to stress is how important our local radio stations are in enabling people to enjoy our local football teams. With these services stopping at 2 pm, many people will not be able to follow the fortunes of Southend United, which are on the way up—
They will be, I assure Members of that; we just need more people listening and more people supporting. It was such a pleasure for me to hold a centenarian tea party and have 100-year-old Annie Maxted telling me what a fan she is of Southend United. At that great age, she is glued to the radio—apart from when we took her to watch in person. That was an incredible afternoon; she was glued to what she was seeing through the window and understood a great deal more than I did. The point is that these people cannot go online and watch it live, so radio is key for them.
I have talked about the importance of our local radio to the elderly and how ludicrous it is for the BBC to be excluding its best audience, the one that is the most loyal and loves it the most. I also want to mention how important our local radio is to our disabled and partially sighted community, of whom I wish to mention one brilliant example—our blind campaigner Jill Allen-King OBE. I have talked about Jill many times in this place. She is now in her 80s, but she has been a BBC Radio Essex fiend ever since she went blind on her wedding day more than 50 years ago. On a Saturday night, she is a regular listener and she regularly calls in, and she is now a regular guest, as she campaigns for more guide dogs, so that the 1,000 people in the country who are still waiting, as she is, for a new guide dog can have one. For the Jills of this world the radio is an essential resource and it should not be removed.
I conclude by going back to the fact that the BBC was founded on the principles of informing, educating and entertaining people, as we all know. BBC Radio Essex is the very epitome of all those principles. My constituents need a local radio station that is relevant to their lives, and I urge the BBC to reconsider its proposals, recommit itself to providing a service for the very people who deserve it the most—
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this popular debate. Local radio matters. It matters for community, for inclusion and for democracy. We all know that it is a foolish politician who underestimates local radio journalists and their ability to hold power to account.
As we have heard from other hon. Members, local radio matters particularly in the north-east, where we have the highest figures for digital exclusion in England and where there is a strong sense of local identity, with local culture embedded in the lives of all my constituents. A 2021 Institute for Public Policy Research report estimated that 40% of the north-east population has no or a very low level of digital engagement. Local radio is a vital way for many people to get involved and be informed about many aspects of public life.
For many, local radio is also a source of connection, crucial to combating loneliness and instilling a sense of local community. We must not forget that point about loneliness. It is really important that we work together to address that issue, and not to make it worse. We have heard from others how important it is to local people that they have that local radio connection.
Some 92% of over 55s listen to some form of radio every week, with around 5.4 million people listening to BBC local radio weekly. Those figures tell a tale about those who rely on local radio for news and companionship. If that is to be stripped back, it will have a dire effect for all those listeners. It is the BBC’s intention to cut up to 50% of its local radio output across 39 stations in England. Clearly that fails in representing the values that those 5.4 million listeners look for in their local radio content.
Briefly, I want to talk about the issue of “local”. In the north-east, there may be a debate between Tyne and Tees for people’s local radio preference, but having that very local knowledge is important to many people in our communities. I know that from my own experience.
The question of accessibility has also been raised. Local radio is a great way of communicating. People who are blind or have other disabilities may find it very difficult to use new digital services. I worry that that has not been taken into account and needs to be looked at.
As we have heard, the changes bring about casualties among our fantastic local presenters, who are being pitted against each other and, frankly, being treated badly by their employer as they look for alternative jobs. They are being given the impossible task of competing against each other and facing uncertain circumstances. The story that local journalists and staff have told us is that there has been a managed decline by the BBC. I commend all those local journalists who are taking action to support their local station.
Others have mentioned the role of Ofcom, which has been calling for the BBC to better resonate with viewers and listeners. It is important that the BBC looks again at those provisions. I urge the Minister to work with us to get the BBC to pause this plan, and engage with the public on the restructure through the consultation, which has been sadly lacking.
It will come as little surprise that I find fault with the handling of this situation by the BBC. I always seek to look to the good, with the glass half full, and to find a solution. However, the decision by the BBC hierarchy to remove local services in a cost-cutting exercise, while continuing to pay BBC stars exorbitant amounts of money, is not something that I can agree with. I speak not just for myself as a licence fee payer, but for the vast majority of my constituents when I urge the BBC to rethink this decision. I will give a Northern Ireland perspective and add to the chorus of others who have said the same.
I am on the record as having major issues with the enshrined BBC bias—from Brexit to Northern Ireland, the BBC had it all. I could literally stand here all day— I will not do so, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I know that I have only four minutes—raising my concerns about the BBC’s lobbying on single-minded narratives, and its pushing of an agenda that hurts victims and justifies the unjustifiable, but that is not what this debate is about.
There have been occasions when the BBC has made mistakes, such as when its staff have refused to name Northern Ireland appropriately in events, or even to display our flag. Sometimes they even say that our flag is the tricolour—it is not; in Northern Ireland our flags are the Union flag and the Ulster flag, and sometimes they seem not to understand that. Its coverage of the 12 July is disgraceful. That is one of the biggest occasions in the year—it is coming up now—but the BBC cannot give it the coverage it should get; it gives it just a snippet.
The reason for this debate is simple. Gary Lineker gets £1.35 million a year, Zoe Ball gets £980,000, Alan Shearer gets £450,000, and Stephen Nolan gets £415,000. At the same time, 36 staff at the local Foyle Radio will lose their jobs as a result of these cuts, which will save £2.3 million, with further redundancies expected next year. The combined audience for BBC Radio Foyle and BBC Radio Ulster is almost 470,000 people a week—equivalent to 30% of Northern Ireland’s population. That is significant and should not be ignored, yet we find it is.
Clearly the likes of “The Nolan Show” will draw bigger audiences than Radio Foyle, but I believe there is a duty of care to the smaller programmes, to ensure that local people have a local voice and not simply a Belfast voice. It seems that the light of the BBC has dimmed to such an extent that we will hear only the narrative of the big hitters, such as Stephen Nolan or William Crawley in Northern Ireland, or Gary Lineker. I agree with local BBC staff that cuts should first be made to the pay brackets of senior management—those stars that I have been referring to—before entire programming is cut.
We talk about marginalisation and diversity, yet the first response to diminishing fees is to scapegoat local broadcasting, rather than rightfully looking at why people are turning BBC radio shows off and choosing instead to listen to GB News or other shows. It is not solely because young people are listening to podcasts; it is also because those who were listening to the BBC have determined that the only time they hear their views on the BBC is when they are being ripped apart by commentators. I say that from a Northern Ireland perspective. Clearly there is an issue to be addressed.
In conclusion, people now have a wide range of choices and it is clear that the voice of the BBC is no longer drawing the crowds. This will not be rectified by closing the smaller local stations that appeal to local populations. Serving the people may be the only way of rebuilding trust in the BBC, and this decision will certainly not build that trust.
Today’s debate has illustrated the power, benefit and importance of local radio across the UK. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on opening the debate so powerfully. He was absolutely right when he said that local radio is trusted like no other.
To see that in action, we need look no further than Radio Sheffield. There are so many examples of how this is done. There was an interview this week with Tomekah George from Sheffield, who designed one of the special stamps issued by Royal Mail to mark the 70th anniversary of Windrush. Then there is Toby Foster, who held Sheffield City Council to account on the tree-felling inquiry. This week, Sheffield City Council issued a full and unreserved apology, which was covered on “News at Ten” on Tuesday evening. But for years it was Radio Sheffield that was holding the council to account and providing a voice for concerned residents. That is the powerful role that it plays in local democracy—from helping to force an important policy change to interviewing Barnsley’s youngest councillor, Abi Moore, who was elected to serve the Dearne South ward at the age of 20. Then there are the super local traffic updates, such as on the recent roadworks on Summer Lane in Wombwell. This is the local granular information and content that my constituents in Barnsley find invaluable.
The changes that the BBC have proposed put such content at risk, potentially marking the beginning of the end for local radio altogether, as the NUJ has warned. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) rightly paid tribute to the hard work of the NUJ in representing workers. He also rightly pointed out that there has been little attention paid to the digital divide, a point echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist).
It has now been eight months since the BBC announced its intention to reshape those crucial services so that content on local radio stations is regionalised after 2 pm and on weekends. In that time, despite appeals, strikes and multiple debates on the Floor of this House, the BBC has shown no sign of pausing to assess that approach. Instead, it has repeatedly insisted that those reductions, alongside a boost to online services, are the right thing to do.
It is in that context that I join my colleagues from across the House, on behalf of our constituents, in urging the BBC to finally look at the true cost of the plans and to reconsider its decision. Of course the BBC is rightly both impartial and independent, but we are elected to this place to give voice to the concerns of our constituents, and that is what everyone in this debate has done, right across the UK, from Great Grimsby to Kingston upon Hull, Worcester, the Isle of Wight, Southend West and Strangford.
The BBC’s independence should also not keep it from making decisions that are informed, transparent and in the interest of our communities. It is one of the BBC’s public purposes to reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, yet when proposing the changes to local programming that would directly threaten the delivery of that purpose, the BBC has failed to consult any of the communities that would be impacted, as the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) rightly pointed out. I echo the calls he made in his speech.
Likewise, the BBC remains unable to present any assessment of the impact of the changes. The National Federation of the Blind of the UK has directly requested the BBC’s equality impact assessment and the public value test regarding the plans, but the BBC said it was exempt from sharing them. As a public service broadcaster, funded through the licence fee, the BBC owes more to the public on how and why such decisions are made about its programming, particularly when they disproportionately impact marginalised groups and those with protected characteristics. It is largely older people, those with disabilities, the lonely and those who are digitally excluded who will be heavily impacted by these changes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) said.
It is important that the BBC listens directly to those people, and I would therefore like to share some of their stories today, starting with Sarah from Leicestershire. Sarah is visually impaired and says that the changes to local radio would isolate and exclude many visually impaired, blind and disabled people such as her. Sarah is fortunate to be able to access the internet and is comfortable using technology, but if the text on any given website is not spaced properly—as she claims it often is not on the BBC website, despite the BBC’s insisting otherwise—her text-to-speech function does not work, leaving her to describe the pages as not accessible in any shape or form. BBC local radio is therefore an essential information service for Sarah and it was vital in protecting her during the pandemic—as many others said, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck).
Like Sarah, Annette, who is a volunteer for the charity Gig Buddies, said that many disabled people cannot or do not want to access information online or using digital devices. They just want to be able to tune in through their FM radio, which often has accessible buttons and switches rather than touchscreens, at any time of day and hear local community information. Neil from Dronfield is blind, housebound and suffers with a head injury. He says that his local radio station, BBC Sheffield, is extremely important to him for accessing information and hearing local accents each day. As it stands, the BBC is looking to take that away, with nothing to offer as a replacement. For people such as Neil, Sarah and Annette, there is no alternative.
For others, such as Angela in London, local radio has long provided companionship that simply cannot be replaced. For a few years, she says, BBC Radio London was her only entertainment and, for several months, her only communication. She speaks so powerfully about the experience that I would like to share it with the House, saying, “I heard no other human say my name other than when Jo Good or Robert Elms read out an email I’d sent in. Local radio has the power to make another less alone, to have your voice heard and to feel part of something when the world has forgotten you.” Angela also says that the presenters felt like her friends and that there is an innate intimacy about hearing discussions about her local area and the streets that she and those before her grew up in. Clearly, truly local programming means something to people such as Angela—something that the BBC fundamentally failed to grasp when announcing the changes.
The changes to local radio are also having a profound impact on the BBC’s workforce, with roles in audio teams reducing by more 100. As well as the loss of experienced talent and local knowledge from forcing out radio presenters and producers, the changes will also see a key pipeline for broadcasting and journalistic talent cut off.
Members across the House—the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), and my hon. Friends the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—have expressed concern about the treatment of workers by the BBC, and I add my voice to theirs.
Local journalism is a fragile ecosystem. The BBC plans to increase digital output in place of local radio, but that will put undue pressure on the system, as I have said in this House before, by providing unwanted competition to local papers and other media outlets that are, as the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) said, already struggling to stay afloat. That is not to mention the significant impact on local democracy: local radio currently holds councillors, MPs and national politicians to account in a way that no other outlet can.
While Tim Davie, the director general of the BBC, describes loyal local listeners as only “13% of the population”, we recognise that 5.4 million people are not a fringe group but an important audience made up of people who do not have an alternative way of accessing their community or local news. That is what the BBC has failed to understand: people truly value and need their local radio. These changes are the thin end of the wedge in taking it away. Once local radio is gone, it will be gone.
This debate has shown that there is strong feeling across the country that the BBC should think again about its decision, or, at the very least, pause and review it. It seems that the only person who thinks it a good idea is the director general himself. My local paper, the Barnsley Chronicle, quoted staff who described the BBC as either ignorant or arrogant. The fact that it has come to that stage is a reflection of how poorly this whole situation has been handled, and it is an incredibly sad state of affairs.
I hope that Tim Davie has listened to the calls and contributions made today. If he will not listen to our constituents up and down the country, I hope that he will listen to Sarah, Annette, Neil and Angela, all of whom rely on their local radio. I hope that he will listen to the representatives of his hardworking staff who are facing cuts and redundancy. I hope that he will listen to the charities that are concerned about the lack of local consultation and disability impact assessment. The director general can convince himself all he likes that his decision is the right one, but I am afraid that everyone else thinks he is wrong.
Shame it’s Lancashire, though.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for calling the debate. It is the second time that he has invited DCMS Ministers to participate in a debate on the BBC and local radio in the past year, and I thank him for his commitment to revisiting this important issue.
The fact that we have heard contributions from Hemel Hempstead, South Shields, Bootle, South Swindon, Great Grimsby, Kingston-upon-Hull North, Worcester, Wansbeck, Waveney, Reading East, Totnes, York, Hayes and Harlington, Southend West, Strangford, New Forest, Watford, Isle of Wight, Slough, North Shropshire and Blaydon shows the nationwide concern on this issue. I am taking this debate on behalf on my colleague the Minister for Media, Tourism and Creative Industries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale). I know that he is incredibly passionate about local radio, and he rightly made the point during our last debate on this topic that BBC local radio is an essential and widely trusted information service, and it is hugely valued by a large number of listeners.
We recognise the strength of feeling about the importance of BBC local services—it would be impossible not to do so after this debate—and the concerns raised about the impact that the planned changes will have on audiences, many of whom rely on local radio programming for news and entertainment. Many Members have spoken about its importance to local democracy.
I thank the Minister for giving way and apologise for not being here at the start of the debate—I was in a Bill Committee. I agree with Mr Deputy Speaker that BBC Radio Lancashire is at the heart of our communities. We have well-known and well-loved presenters in Mike Stevens, Stephen Lowe and Graham Liver. A key thing—one that the Minister has just mentioned—is audience engagement with the presenters of shows. The staff are all key. The BBC do not seem to be doing very well at ensuring that there is consultation.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It has come across strongly in the debate how much local communities value their local services and how much we, as Members of this House, rely on that service too. I am glad she made that point.
Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have consistently made clear to the House that we are disappointed that the BBC is planning to reduce its local radio output in England. We are also disappointed that the BBC has announced proposed changes to its radio output in Northern Ireland, to which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred, including cuts to BBC Radio Foyle, which is a vital part of Northern Ireland’s media landscape.
Since our last debate on this in December, the BBC has also announced cuts to BBC Scotland, including the opt-out services in Shetland, Orkney and the highlands and islands. We remain clear that, while it is up to the BBC to decide how it delivers its services, it must ensure that it continues to provide distinctive and genuinely local radio services.
I had better carry on, because of time; sorry.
Since the BBC’s announcement, Ministers have met the chair of the BBC board and the director general to express our shared concerns. The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), has made clear that the BBC must continue to provide distinctive and genuinely local radio services, with content that represents communities from all corners of the UK. She has also emphasised that we expect the BBC to consider the views of this House when it makes the decision over whether to proceed, and we are committed to raising this issue again with the BBC’s director general.
The BBC has heard loud and clear Parliament’s views on these changes. BBC executives appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in December last year to answer further questions on the impact of the planned changes, particularly for staff and audiences. The issue was explored again just last week by the Committee when it invited the director general to come along to talk about it. I welcome the important role that the Select Committee is playing in this area.
As Members have highlighted, one of the crown jewels remains the 39 local radio services around England that reach 5.8 million listeners a week. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, BBC local radio provides a service to our constituents and communities that commercial radio cannot provide. It brings communities together and plays a vital role in reflecting local experiences. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington highlighted, BBC local radio has a track record of providing a reliable source of local news on which all our communities depend. Indeed, BBC local radio is a lifeline for many older people, particularly those living in rural areas, and it is a conduit of important information in times of emergency, which is part of its public value.
There have been some changes since the BBC made its initial announcement. It says to us that BBC local radio provides vital companionship to many listeners, and that remains a central part of its plan. The BBC has reassured us that audiences will continue to find presenters and programmes that can understand the issues that shape their lives, reassure them in times of crisis and comfort them if they are lonely.
Since its initial announcement in October last year, the BBC has confirmed to us that all 39 BBC local radio services will continue to be entirely local from 6 am to 2 pm each weekday. Outside those hours, the BBC will share some programming across county boundaries. All stations will retain the ability to break out of shared programming and respond to breaking local news stories, including extreme weather conditions and public health emergencies. It says that live local sport will be protected and all existing local news bulletins will remain. However, I have heard the many examples raised by Members today and will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for media, tourism and the creative industries has those at his disposal at his next meeting.
The BBC says that it has listened to feedback from audiences and Members of this House over recent months and adapted its plans in response to what it has heard. In response to feedback that some of the areas proposed for programmes are simply too large, the BBC has added additional programmes on weekday afternoons, weekend breakfasts and weekend daytimes. It has also confirmed that it is reprioritising around 10% of existing local spend from broadcast to online. Using that redeployed funding, the BBC says that it will open up 130 additional local journalist posts across England, which it believes will strengthen its local online news services across 43 local areas, with new services launching in Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough. Again, though, I have heard many of the points that have been raised, and I will make sure that they are relayed.
On the role of Ofcom, the BBC has acknowledged that it made mistakes with regards to the handling of communications around planned service changes. We are very clear that we expect the BBC to be far more transparent with audiences and the Government about changes to its content and services. That is a requirement in the BBC’s updated operating licence, which came into effect in April. We expect Ofcom, as the regulator of the BBC, to robustly hold it to account, especially in the delivery of its mission and public purposes. Ofcom has set out what it expects the BBC to do in reviewing the impact of the changes and meeting the audience’s needs, and is commissioning new research to understand audiences’ needs and the value they get from these local services. As the Minister for Equalities and for loneliness—areas I have great passion for—I will certainly pay further attention to this issue.
The BBC’s recent decisions do appear to fundamentally impact important BBC local services, particularly BBC local radio, which is an essential part of its public service remit. It is right that this House continues to scrutinise the BBC’s continued provision of local services. We all agree that the BBC has been entertaining and informing us for 100 years. We want it to continue to succeed over the next century in a rapidly evolving media landscape, and are clear that BBC radio has a significant role to play in that success. In light of the concerns that have been raised in this debate, the BBC needs to clarify how it will manage the long-term tensions involved in modernising and becoming more sustainable while maintaining its core public service function and output. Although I recognise that the BBC faces difficult decisions in reforming its services and becoming a digital-first organisation, today’s debate has highlighted the concerns shared across the House about the BBC’s proposals to reduce its local radio output.
I stress again that the BBC is independent from Government. It is for the BBC to reflect on the concerns that have been raised about its proposals, in this debate and elsewhere. I thank all Members for their contributions today and for an enlightening debate, which has even seen my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) think about joining a picket line.
This is what Parliament is about. On a Thursday afternoon, Parliament has come together on a motion to tell the BBC that what it is doing is wrong. It has been very enlightening. I will join my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on that picket line—as a member of the Fire Brigades Union, I have been on many.
The point we have been trying to make is that this weekend, when I was in Corton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and the road was flooded, I would not have known that had I not had BBC Radio Suffolk on. Similarly, if my bins were not collected in Hemel Hempstead this weekend, my hon. Friend’s constituents would not be the slightest bit interested. It is the localism that matters. The motion before the House is not just “We have had a chat”; I hope that in a moment, we will have made a formal decision on a motion on the Floor of the House. If colleagues in the House want to disagree with the motion, we could divide, but if it goes through on the nod, that cannot be ignored by the BBC. The BBC is independent of Government, but it is not independent of this House. This House created the mandate for the BBC to exist, and it cannot ignore the motion that is before the House today. If it does, it will be at the BBC’s peril.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the BBC to reconsider its decision to reduce local news output from local radio journalism which will have a negative impact on communities across the UK, reduce access to local news, information and entertainment and silence local voices.
BUPA Dental Care York Facility
I rise to present a petition on behalf of the residents of York and North Yorkshire. At the end of next week, York’s third largest dental practice will close. That is going to impact on 6,200 patients, 4,200 of whom are NHS patients. Residents of York are already waiting seven years to get an appointment for dental care, and this will exacerbate matters considerably. I am therefore pleased to present a petition on behalf of 127 of those impacted by the changes as the BUPA Dental Care facility in York is due to close. The petition states:
“The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to call on BUPA to stop the closure of the BUPA Dental Care York facility and provide adequate dental care to residents in the area.”
Following is the full text of the petition:
[The petition of residents of York and North Yorkshire,
Declares that the closure of BUPA Dental Care York facility on 30 June 2023 at 5 Station Business Park, Holgate Park Drive, will affect the dental care of 6,200 patients including 4,200 NHS patients which receive an excellent level of dental care in a friendly and supportive environment; further notes that this closure has been met with opposition by the residents of the area; further notes that current waiting lists for NHS dentistry in York have risen to 7 years.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to call on BUPA to stop the closure of the BUPA Dental Care York facility and provide adequate dental care to residents in the area.
And the petitioners remain, etc.]