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1.20 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on making an interesting and informative maiden speech. I had no idea that there was any connection between Billericay and the Pilgrim Fathers. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) on his maiden speech, which was witty and enjoyable. I am pleased that he is continuing to write for The Daily Telegraph. It is good that a Labour MP is writing for that paper, because that might encourage other members of his party to read that excellent publication. Perhaps some of the common sense shown in other parts of it will wash off on them.

With only 70 minutes left before the Adjournment debate and the summer recess, at this eleventh hour I want to use a few minutes of the House's time to highlight

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the anger in my constituency over Northumberland county council's plan to charge sixth formers £2 a day to use school transport. As Members can imagine, it has caused considerable anger, especially as it is accompanied by a discount scheme that reduces the amount to £300 a year if it is paid in a lump sum. There is also a discount for paying quarterly, which of course militates against poorer parents.

Northumberland is one of most sparsely populated counties and my constituency, the second largest in England, has one of the lowest populations. Therefore, school transport is vital for many families. To those unable to afford the charge, the county council suggests that the education maintenance allowance, which is being paid in trial areas such as Northumberland, be used instead. That would involve parents going through the means test, but many Northumberland families that are not well off will not go through it because it is an affront to their pride that they should have to do so to get extra funding for their children.

I want to comment on the letter protesting at the charge written by Mr. Webster, head teacher of Queen Elizabeth high school in Hexham, to the director of education at county hall. It sums up the argument very well:

That sums up my views and those of many parents.

I tabled a question to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and received a reply from the Minister for School Standards, which, far from explaining the situation, has to my mind confused it even more. The Minister says:

In other words, he is saying that Northumberland county council is getting the money to fund post-16 sixth form school transport. He continues:

That includes Northumberland. Furthermore,

Is the Minister saying that Northumberland county council has been given the money, but is not spending it on transport and is using it for other purposes, or is he saying that Northumberland county council should not use the money for school transport, but should rely on the means-tested EMA available to pupils whose parents are on lower incomes?

The situation is completely confused and I have raised the matter briefly in the hope that the Minister might hear what I have to say and persuade Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills to sort it out. Most

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Members think that charging sixth formers to go to school is exactly the way to prevent them from staying on and going into higher education.

1.24 pm

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) that, as I rise slowly and creakily, looking around for a Zimmer frame, it is more a reflection on the fact that I have spent four hours sitting on these Benches than on any aspect of my advanced age. As one born in July 1948—an occasion sadly overshadowed by the launch of the national health service—I am delighted to learn today that I am Mr. Average in terms of parliamentary age. Equally reassuring is the fact that I am 17 years younger than the average Conservative member. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and the hon. member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for their maiden speeches.

I wish to associate myself for the first, and possibly the last, time with the comments made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) about the absence of the second Opposition party. In a spirit of inclusion I was minded to make a typical Liberal Democrat speech to redress the balance, but found myself in two minds about it: there was much to be said for the proposition, but much to be said against it too. Ultimately, I decided that perhaps this was not the occasion for a Liberal Democrat speech.

What I would like to bring to this end-of-term car boot sale is the experience and problems of a constituent in facing up to an organisation—an institution—which, I have been advised, one should seldom attack. That institution is regarded as almost above criticism. It portrays itself as being so much a part of the warp and weft of the national tapestry that it can never be criticised. I speak not of Parliament or the Labour party, but of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

It may seem to hon. Members that someone who represents an Ealing seat should never criticise the BBC, because an enormous number of its staff live in Ealing. Indeed, if one threw a brick from the window of the average house in Ealing, it would inevitably hit someone from the BBC. Obviously, I do not recommend that course of action.

One constituent who used to work for the BBC now works for a national digital channel, a company called Oneword. He came to my surgery with a tale of such terrifying monopolistic brutality on the part of the megalithic, licence-bloated BBC that I felt I should bring the matter to the House's attention in the sure and certain knowledge that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who is considerably younger than me and certainly far more intelligent, will bear the matter in mind.

Oneword is a national digital radio channel that broadcasts on the Digital One multiplex. It has been on the air for 15 or 16 months and is the only national commercial digital radio station to be dedicated to the spoken word, to satisfy the needs of people who like to read. Many hon. Members will know that it delivers plays, books, comedy and discussions. It is a private company that, sadly, is associated with the Guardian media group. Listeners have available about 23 hours of programming a week. On Christmas day, there were 12 hours of children's stories. The channel is within reach of 79 per cent. of the population on digital receivers, Sky channel 877, or the internet, whatever that may be. It was proclaimed as radio station of the year 2001.

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Now comes the sad bit. Last September, the BBC announced plans for five new national radio stations. One of them, snappily entitled Network Z, was bruited as offering a completely new digital service. It was to be a speech-based service, built on BBC radio's tradition of offering stimulating drama, comedy and readings for all the family, including children's programmes. We were told that it would mix original programming with classics from the BBC's archive.

A remarkable similarity emerges between the existing, entrepreneurial, national digital radio channel, Oneword, and the BBC's proposed new station. The synchronicity is presumably coincidental, but still remarkably noteworthy. Oneword's original application referred to a service based on plays, books and comedy: Network Z is to be centred on plays, readings and comedy—clearly completely different.

The former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is held in the highest affection and respect in the House and throughout the country. On 21 February 2000, he made it clear that

The BBC governors claim to assess each proposed service against the requirements of the charter and agreement, and against their criteria for new public services. Those criteria require that, to justify licence fee funding—the BBC should have to justify its funding—its public services must, inter alia, offer a distinctive mix of programming and content. That should be their aim, but I draw the line at the word "distinctive", given that they seem to be copying a format that has been created in the bracing chill winds of entrepreneurial effort by Oneword and by my constituent.

The BBC boasts that Network Z will include innovative scheduling. I contend that the scheduling of Network Z is a clone of Oneword's scheduling. It claims that Network Z—some people probably call it Network Zee—is distinctive, but that cannot be substantiated, because it is a deliberate copy of a pre-existing station. I suggest that this new service was designed with hostile intent.

Some people see the BBC as a Grandma Giles figure, resplendent in rusty bombazine, still the subject of many people's great residual affection and respect, part of our past, and part of the great sweep of Britain's history. I tend to see it as a malevolent, bloated dinosaur, stomping across the broad-band savanna and, with a vicious flick of its forked tail, assaulting this young entrepreneurial company, of which my constituent is a proud part.

This great Jurassic Park creature that stomps across the savanna creating such mayhem in its wake may have a place in our affections, and there may be something to be said for it. A good public broadcasting system is certainly an excellent idea, and one that this country has rightly pioneered and can be proud of in the future. Public service broadcasting and the inestimable bounty of a licence fee paid by all our citizens cannot be taken lightly. With that bounty comes responsibility. I suggest that one of the responsibilities of the British Broadcasting Corporation is not to stifle, ape and emulate young entrepreneurial companies springing up in the new broad-band Britain that we have been told to expect. It can certainly work with them, and they can be the benchmark, as my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State rightly said, but it cannot and must not be allowed to stifle them.

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I desperately hope that the Government will recognise that, although there is much to cherish in the BBC, equally there is a great deal to cherish in young, innovative, bright, sparky companies such as Oneword. I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for having the courtesy to listen to me without yawning too obviously.

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