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Mr. Brady: I thank the Minister for giving way once again, but is the best that he can do to find a particular case that he claims disproves the generality of the situation? Boroughs such as Trafford, which was under Conservative control throughout the 1980s and, like many other local authorities, ran its affairs prudently, are being punished. The Minister cannot escape from that by using Kensington and Chelsea as an example.

Mr. Raynsford: I thought that the hon. Gentleman might say that, so I have some examples of prudent authorities that have been penalised as a result of the changes. Those suffering a larger reduction than Trafford include Lancashire, Sunderland, Coventry, Liverpool and Tower Hamlets. Does he regard those as prudent, well managed and being penalised unfairly? If he does not, his argument is false.

Mr. Brady: The principal mass of authorities that are being hurt by the measure are in the shire counties.

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My authority, and others that the Minister has named, may be exceptions of metropolitan areas that are suffering from the Government's attack, but the shire counties are losing £50 million.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is extremely confused if he believes that Liverpool, Tower Hamlets, Sunderland and Coventry are shire counties. Even my authority, Greenwich, is in virtually the same position as Trafford, so I hope that Opposition Members will recognise that the change has been introduced because we believe that it is right, not because of its impact on the party political nature of any authority, or on particular benefits to any local authority.

Mr. Yeo: No amount of selective quotation from the list of more than 400 authorities can alter the fact that it is primarily, but not all, Conservative authorities that have been penalised, and it is primarily spendthrift Labour authorities that have benefited. If the Minister publishes the complete list in Hansard, those facts will be apparent to even the most casual reader.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman, like his hon. Friends, is confused. That intervention was in the same vein as his speech, which was full of inaccuracies and verged at times on the hysterical. He made a number of ill judged and unfounded allegations. The reality is that we have introduced the change because we believe that it is logical and that there is justice in it.

The particular circumstances of metropolitan districts such as Trafford are recognised in SSAs in several ways, including population density, shared facilities and various indices of need.

Trafford's 1997-98 SSA has increased by £4.75 million--3 per cent.--for 1998-99. That is the figure arrived at after adjustments for changes in function have been made. Much of that rise is due to the adjusted increase in SSA for education, everyone's top priority service, which in Trafford represents an extra £4.031 million--a 5 per cent. increase. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West must recognise that the Government are putting money into education in his area, which is right both for the nation and for the people of Trafford.

The RSG distribution for the 1998-99 settlement is a closed matter, following approval of the local government finance settlement by the House on 5 February, and it will not be reopened. It is now up to authorities to set their budgets in the light of all their circumstances, including the provisional capping principles.

We shall consult widely on the best way to take forward the future financing of local government. As I have already said, we are issuing several consultation papers, and will enter detailed discussions with representatives of local government on the matter. We also intend, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has made clear--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order.

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Parliament (BBC Coverage)

11 am

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): I am grateful to have been allowed a debate on this important issue. I declare an interest--the profound debt of gratitude I owe to the BBC for having dismissed me some 20 years ago. I joined the corporation as a journalist straight after university, and had a wonderful six or seven years.

However, I became involved in politics, standing for Parliament in Solihull in 1974 and arguing, in the way that embryonic politicians do, that the BBC should change itself. I argued that it should allow women to read the news, and should employ more black and Asian journalists. At the time, those were outlandish ideas. I also said that BBC journalists should be better paid--a preposterous notion.

Alas, I committed an inexcusable professional error, so the BBC, rightly and condignly, dismissed me. That probably saved my sanity. I cannot imagine what would have happened to me if I had remained a BBC employee.

I do not want the debate to take the form of BBC bashing, which is an occupational malady for politicians. Politicians who complain about the media are rather like sailors who moan about the weather, and spin doctors who complain about the media are rather like snakes who protest about being in the snake pit.

We are discussing not so much the right of Members of Parliament to be heard on the BBC as whether the BBC is taking steps that will lead to its decoupling not so much from Parliament as from the people.

I am no unconditional worshipper of Parliament. Frankly, much of what is said here is tawdry, tedious and, as we have heard during some recent days and nights, time-wasting. The modernisation of the House is long overdue. The people's will and the people's voice have been heard, are being heard and will be heard in many different ways; expressions of the people's views will be heard other than through the House.

I would make a small wager that Parliament will survive. Ministers will come and go, Speakers and Deputy Speakers will come and go, but Parliament will go on and on. The purpose of the debate is not to substitute Parliament for the editorial control of the BBC, but gently to suggest that the BBC may not survive as a publicly funded institution if it insists on de-linking itself from Parliament.

Politicians, separately from what is heard in the House and its Committees, will of course continue to be heard on the airwaves. Ministers will queue up to be "Paxmanned", and will stumble out of bed for early morning television and radio shows. I do not suggest that the voice of politicians is likely to be unheard or even reduced.

The voice of politicians as Ministers, as the Executive, will continue to be powerfully heard, and the rent-a-quote merchants, the stunt boys and girls who force their way on to the airwaves now and then, will be heard, too. Indeed, if the BBC reduces its parliamentary coverage, we shall see more of politicians in other ways, on the streets with stunts and cheap campaigns designed to get coverage.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Although the BBC has a justifiably excellent reputation both in Britain

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and abroad--we must remember what happened during the attempted coup in the Soviet Union in 1990--what sort of BBC would there be without this place? Without parliamentary democracy, the BBC would be merely a state organ, such as exists in countries that lack parliamentary democracy. Is it not a pity that the BBC bosses do not recognise that?

Mr. MacShane: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but I am trying to keep my speech as short as possible so that as many hon. Members as possible can contribute to the debate.

We are not talking about politicians being kept off the airwaves; the loud, the powerful and those who represent Government will always get a hearing. However, beyond those people are the myriad voices and views of Members of Parliament working in the House and in its Select and Standing Committees, raising all sorts of issues and reflecting all sorts of perspectives.

It is true that many of those are "off message", as we now say--idiosyncratic or difficult. So be it. The BBC may want to make its coverage of Parliament as bland as possible, but we do not have to sit idly by while that happens. It is essential that the House, and, through the House, the nation should understand what is happening.

The BBC is proposing a fundamental and permanent downgrading of its parliamentary coverage. First, "Yesterday in Parliament"--probably the main link between Parliament and the people--is to disappear. Secondly, "The Week in Westminster" is to lose its present format and slot. Thirdly, the excellent "In Committee" programme is to go.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Liaison Committee, which consists of the Chairmen of all the Select Committees, met last week and authorised me to write to the chairman of the BBC about the importance of "In Committee"--a letter to which Sir Christopher Bland has replied.

Select Committees now have much more important tasks, seen by the public, than they used to. On many days, including today, what happens in them is front-page news. However, such items do not show how Committees come to their conclusions, which is of enormous importance. Would it not be a disaster if the BBC failed to recognise its obligation in such an important matter?

Mr. MacShane: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. One of the critical remarks often made about the House is that, as today, the green Benches are relatively empty. However, it was ever thus. When Sir Martin Gilbert, the distinguished biographer of Winston Churchill, walked around here with me once, he said, "Do you know that, when Winston Churchill made those memorable speeches warning of Nazism in the 1930s, the House was empty?" It is not the presence of Members on the Benches that makes the debates and the voice of the House important, but what is said here, free of any influence other than the duty to conscience, constituents and the national interest.


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