Previous SectionIndexHome Page

14 Dec 2004 : Column 229WH—continued

Regional Television

2 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): There are many distractions in the House today. The thoughts of some hon. Members are turning already to the festive season. In the main Chamber, matters of life and death are being debated. Outside the House it is a cold December day, and my constituents tell me that in the northern regions of England—and probably in Scotland too—a chill wind is blowing. I hope that hon. Members believe that today's debate, and the story that I have to tell, is a true winter's tale, worthy of the presence of the Minister for the Arts. It is a story about the prospect of another chill wind blowing through one of our finest traditions of broadcasting—regional programming—in the new year. It involves differences of opinion in the Cabinet and differences of opinion in the regulator, Ofcom. It is a winter's tale of intrigue—a tale that involves a former adviser to the Prime Minister, as well as a triple-jumping gold medallist hero.

I shall begin at the beginning. In the 1950s, ITV was born. For the first time we truly had competition in our public service broadcasting. That was evidenced by the fact that on ITV's opening night the BBC tried a spoiler, and had a special story line in "The Archers" involving a fire and a main character—would they live or would they die? Viewers have benefited from competition between the BBC and ITV and, latterly, other public service broadcasters. As a result, our broadcasting has been much the stronger.

ITV's regional structure is said to have originally been an accident. The civil servant who drew up the plan in the 1950s, so the story goes, was an expert in the structure of the then regional electricity boards, and drew up the plans for regional ITV companies on similar lines. Whether or not it was an accident, ITV's regionality was at its core from the beginning. At the time, it revealed itself in three ways that are still relevant and evident today. For the first time, a considerable amount of network production came from regional studios, which increased in number in the 1960s and 1970s. I went to school in Kirkstall, in Leeds, and I   remember seeing the Yorkshire Television studios grow during that period. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) famously remarked that we did not need regional government in Yorkshire because we already had an attitude and a cricket team.   In the 1970s we still had an attitude—although not much of a cricket team, beyond Geoff Boycott. However, we had Yorkshire Television, and that helped to define the cultural identity of the region.

The second aspect of regionality was that, for the first time, it was possible to make programmes in the region for consumption by viewers in the region. Many a star, such as Richard Whiteley, in our region, or Gloria Hunniford, started off in those programmes and moved on to national level—a particular aspect of regionality, on which I shall concentrate most of my remarks. Thirdly, programmes such as "Coronation Street" presented a regional perspective of life to the nation.

Now let us fast-forward from the 1950s, through the 1990s—when Mrs. Thatcher auctioned the franchises to the highest bidder—to 2002, and the debates in which some hon. Members who are here today were involved,
14 Dec 2004 : Column 230WH
such as those on the Communications Act 2003 and the creation of Ofcom. It is relevant to remind hon. Members of what some of the key players in the debate were saying two years ago.

In 2002, ITV produced the ITV charter for broadcasting in the nation and the regions. It was agreed with the then regulator, the Independent Television Commission, that the new charter

Point 2 of the charter covered

Point 6 concentrated on access to peak times and stated:

in the programme schedule.

At the time, Charles Allen of Granada said:

In September 2003—just over a year ago—he said:

Even in June 2004—only a few short months ago—he said:

In 2002–03, Government Ministers were looking to Ofcom, the new regulator, to take action on regional programming. In June 2002, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said:

In 2002, there was an agreement between the regulator and the ITV companies to reduce the number of regional programme hours, and regional spend declined by about 18 per cent. from 1998. What the regional franchisees promised in 2002 was that although they would have fewer hours of regional programming, they would spend more on the programmes that remained.

In 2002, the Minister responsible for broadcasting said that the regional charter

What has happened in the intervening years? In 2003 there were 15,000 hours of original programming, both   news and non-news, across the whole of the broadcasting networks—down from 17,000 hours in 1999. ITV still had 7,000 hours, which was more than the BBC, which had 6,000 hours, although by that stage the BBC was spending more per programme.

At the beginning of this year we had the public service broadcasting review of the regulator, Ofcom. Basically, there were three proposals in the second stage of the review—and we are waiting anxiously for the third stage and the final outcome. It was proposed that non-news regional programming be reduced by half from three
14 Dec 2004 : Column 231WH
hours per week to one and a half hours per week. It was also proposed that even that one and a half hours might not be sustainable once digital switchover started in 2007. The review said that regional news shows such as "Calendar" in Yorkshire should continue for the time being, but that after digital switchover they should continue only if they are financially sustainable.

That brings me to the differences of opinion that we have seen in the Cabinet. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said during questions just a couple of weeks ago that those proposals were unacceptable. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport took a rather different view at questions only a week or so ago: she quoted Ofcom figures suggesting that those regional programmes were appreciated by only 7 per cent. of the audience. I will return to Ofcom's figures.

I want to examine two basic arguments that Ofcom has put forward. One is that ITV can no longer afford regional programmes because there is so much more competition in the market than a decade ago, and it is threatened by digital switchover. The second argument is—to paraphrase—that no one values or watches regional programmes, so they can be cut without too much pain.

With regard to the first argument, a key question is   whether ITV is really at the end of the road or under   tremendous financial pressure. I refer to the recent half year financial results of ITV plc, published in June 2004 and headed "Delivering revenue growth and significantly higher profits". Operating profits are up 32 per cent. to £123 million. Pre-tax profits are up to £132 million, so ITV has done quite well in recent months. Some Members may have been watching "The X Factor" on Saturday nights, or they may have been fans of "Strictly Come Dancing" on the other channel—I would not like to presume. However, Saturday night television is alive and well on both the major networks.

Even BBC News Online characterised the ITV autumn schedules and performance as representing a   brighter outlook for ITV. The media section of The Guardian has referred to ITV "trouncing" the BBC in the autumn ratings battle, and in The Sunday Times, a Merrill Lynch media analyst said that the market expected the licence fees to fall by about 40 per cent. and ITV to do better in future.

I must explain what licence fees I am talking about: I mean the money that ITV pays for the privilege of holding the licences. That costs about £220 million each   year—that is the best figure that I have obtained.   The regulator proposes to reduce the commitment to regional programming; at the same time, it is negotiating with ITV to reduce the payments that the network makes to the Government. The total cost of the regional programmes is estimated at about £50 million, and there seems to be the potential basis of a deal. The Ofcom spokesman is quoted in The Sunday Times of 27 June as saying:

It does not seem to me that it is taking that holistic view. It seems to be selling the pass on much valued regional programming.
14 Dec 2004 : Column 232WH

Is regional programming really valued? That is the other question. Ofcom says—and the Secretary of State agrees—that it is not. However, the opinion research for Ofcom has produced some startling figures. On a slot-by-slot basis, more people watch the regional opt-outs than the general alternative ITV output, which suggests that regional programmes are valued. Some 65 per cent. of the people who responded to the survey attached importance to programmes that reflected the needs of the different regions, and 60 per cent. agreed that more TV programmes should be made specifically for and about each region in the UK.

What figures are quoted by Ofcom and the Secretary of State? The opinion researchers presented choices to   viewers. They asked whether viewers would prefer regional programming to news. Obviously, people said, "No—if it came to that, we would prefer news." Regional programming scored less well when people were asked whether they preferred, for example, drama or entertainment to regional programming. However, such programming is not an abstract in itself. Similarly, someone could ask, "What food do you prefer? Should we eat chicken, beef, vegetables or fish tonight—or do you prefer regional food?" In most cases, we would opt for chicken or fish rather than ill-defined "regional" food, and that was the sort of choice that Ofcom offered people.

Let us look at some of the programmes. Meridian, for example, makes a programme about religion in Southampton called "Faith and the City", and a late night sports programme about local motor sport called "Hell for Leather", plus entertainment programmes and so on. There is a full range of programming; there is no such dry, dull and boring thing as a "regional" programme per se. The ITV regional review for 2004 shows that despite cuts in budgets, 11 of the 13 regions have improved their year-on-year regional programming performance.

More people are watching regional programmes than did last year. I shall choose one particular day: Thursday 18 November. Some of the regional programming, such as "The Dales Diary" in Yorkshire, was up against "EastEnders". On that night, 10.7 million people watched the BBC—not surprisingly, as it was showing its strongly performing soap. However, 5 million people watched the regional ITV opt-outs—more than watched the regional news on ITV, which had had 4.4 million viewers just an hour or so before. Such programmes are watched, even late at night.

Let us think back to the regional referendum—although I do not want to dwell on it, and shall move swiftly on. That night, Gerry Foley, the much respected presenter of Tyne Tees political coverage, was on Tyne Tees television until the result came out at about half-past 2. The channel had a 65 per cent. share that night. Even when the programme finished, 70,000 people were still up and watching. That was regional broadcasting at its very best.

Some crime programmes late at night focus on the regional fight against crime. In Granadaland, such programmes get ratings of about 40 per cent., and those on Border television get about the same. In Tyne Tees, "Crimefighters" gets about 33 per cent. Recently, Geoff Drewett, the political presenter on Yorkshire
14 Dec 2004 : Column 233WH
Television, did a late night programme following the life of a Yorkshire vicar, and the following week there were programmes about Muslim life in Bradford.

It is worth reminding the House that under section 287 of the Communications Act, Ofcom has a duty to defend the quality of regional programming on ITV. It sent a letter to many hon. Members, saying that it does not have any such duties

We pay some people in Ofcom, including the former adviser to the Prime Minister, Ed Richards, more than £250,000 a year. For a quarter of a million pounds a year, I would have thought that someone could make a good fist of finding out whether ITV regions are producing quality programmes, and Ofcom has that duty.

That brings me to the Olympic gold medallist. Who will speak up for the viewers? When some hon. Members who are here today were working on the Communications Bill, as it then was, we looked forward with interest to the creation of the Ofcom content board, which I thought was going to be something like the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Under the Act, it was charged with

Its power, and influence, is to examine issues where citizens' interests extend beyond consumers' interests, with a focus on aspects of the public interest that competition and market forces do not reach.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me; it will give him a chance to replenish his glass of water. He has come to a point that illustrates the idea that there can be a tension between the overwhelming chase for audience numbers and quality, or minority interests. Where does he think that the balance should be struck? Is it not a fact that the drive for audience share simply drives us further toward transatlantic pap, rather than quality programmes, some of which are designed to be watched by minorities?

Mr. Grogan: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He draws attention to transatlantic influences, and the fear must be that if we are not careful, in a few years' time we shall have hundreds of digital channels but nothing distinctive to watch, and little distinctive regional character.

As I was saying, we should look to the Ofcom content board, which has 15 members, including Jonathan Edwards, a triple-jumping gold medallist, who has specific responsibility for the English regions. For Back Benchers, the one good thing about this debate is that everyone leaks: the Ofcom content board members leak, and so do the ITV regional companies. Everyone below Charles Allen has a view of the issue different from that of the man himself; even some of the managing directors brief against him. I call on the Ofcom content board, and Jonathan Edwards in particular, to assert themselves. If the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee minutes can identify doves and hawks, why cannot the content board's minutes?
14 Dec 2004 : Column 234WH

The only Ofcom minutes to which I have had access are those for October, which simply say:

Even the minutes of the parliamentary Labour party allow one to glean more about what is going on than the content board's minutes. I appeal directly to Jonathan Edwards and the rest of the content board to stand up to some of the professionals. One content board member said that some of the Ofcom professionals are very clever people, and some of them used to work for the Prime Minister—but even if they are very clever people, and even if they used to work for the Prime Minister, their views still need to be challenged.

I know that there are a couple more hon. Members who want to speak, so I shall move swiftly on. I want to focus on the importance of independent production in the regions. As well as the ITV companies themselves being of value to the regions, they acted as a sort of catalyst, and were the centre of a cluster of lots of individual independent production companies, which fed off commissions from Yorkshire Television and others and gradually grew. That is what is now under threat.

I draw the Chamber's attention to the words of Malcolm Brinkworth, who is the chair of nations and regions for Pact, the organisation that brings together independent producers. He said to a recent Westminster media forum that

Mr. Brinkworth makes a very good suggestion, which I will leave with Ofcom. In fact, it might be attractive for the Chancellor too, because as well as a cultural element to the debate, there are both trade and industry and economic aspects in building up the regional television industry. Mr. Brinkworth suggests:

That would reduce licence payments to the Treasury, but maintain high-quality regional programmes. He suggests that if for every million pounds ITV genuinely spends on regional programming it got a rebate, it might suddenly find convincing arguments for continuing to provide regional programming.

On the subject of independent production, it is worth drawing hon. Members' attention to another debate during the passage of the Communications Act 2003. It was about whether small regional ITV companies such as Tyne Tees and Border should be able to bid for the 25 per cent. of BBC, Channel 4 and ITV output that
14 Dec 2004 : Column 235WH
must be produced by the independent sector. At the moment, small ITV companies cannot bid even for the BBC section of independent output, even though some of the independent companies are far bigger than they are.

During the passage of the 2003 Act, ITV suggested that an independent production might be defined as any programme commissioned by a broadcaster from which the producer is independent in ownership terms. We might prefer to include just the smaller ITV companies in that definition, rather than the big ones such as Granada, and I am sure that a scale factor could be included. I urge Ofcom to revisit that debate. I applaud the growth of independents, but all the 10 biggest companies, which produce 60 per cent. of all the independent production for the main terrestrial channels, are based in London. There are growing independent production companies elsewhere, such as Red in Manchester and Maverick in Birmingham, but they are currently not in the top 10.

It would be wrong not to make some reference to the important announcement by the BBC last week about moving a lot of its production to Manchester. There is obviously another aspect to the debate about regional production, which involves production outside London for the networks. For the BBC, that will be a growing share in the coming years. It is worth remembering that that will not happen for five years, when all BBC sport and children's programming will go to Manchester, but it will be worth £225  million of production spend and £275  million of commissioning spend.

That will give the BBC a much more regional character than it has ever had before. The BBC has never made programmes in the regions for the regions on quite the same scale as ITV, although in the nations—Scotland and Wales—it has a longer tradition of producing non-news programming. I think of "River City", the Scottish soap, as an example. However, I do not think that we can rely on the BBC to take up the slack immediately from ITV if the proposed cuts are made.

The regulator's proposals are too hasty, and the relationship between the Government, ITV and the regulator looks a little too cosy. There should be much more tension between those bodies than there has been in recent weeks. It is okay to look forward to digital television in the future, and the possibility of local television when we have complete digital switchover, although there are currently only 18 restricted licences for local television. I am not saying that things will not change in the future; I hope that by 2010 everyone will have switched over to digital television. I am not saying that we can preserve in aspic everything that we have had since the 1950s—but nor should we hastily throw it all away before alternatives can be built up.

There is a real danger that if the proposals go through unchallenged, in a few months' time only a few regional programmes will remain, some of them at the margins of the schedule, and by 2007 they will have completely disappeared. We cannot even guarantee that ITV will continue its proud tradition of regional news coverage beyond 2007. Hon. Members have been right to
14 Dec 2004 : Column 236WH
challenge Ofcom, and I hope that phase 3 of its broadcasting review will be very different from the proposals in phase 2.

2.26 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I commend the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for securing this debate and making a convincing case in defence of regional broadcasting. I have a lot of sympathy with English colleagues who wish to sustain a strong level of coverage throughout the English regions. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members from south of the border will understand that there is a particular concern in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which I shall come to.

I should start with a declaration of interest. I am a vice-chairman of the all-party group on the National Union of Journalists, which is very active on this subject. I also worked as a broadcaster for seven years before being elected.

I shall describe the nature of "regional" broadcasting in the area that I represent. My constituency is the exact centre point of the broadcasting area for Grampian Television, which covers an area in which viewers speak three languages: English, Scots and Gaelic. The area runs from Stornoway to Aberdeen and from Argyll to Dundee—it is bigger than Belgium. That is the geographical and cultural reality of the area that my local "regional" broadcaster covers, and it underscores the significance of the task that it has in adequately broadcasting local programmes of interest.

In ITV's 2002 charter for the nations and regions, Sir   Robin Biggam, the chairman of the Independent Television Commission, said:

I agree with that statement entirely. We are in a slightly difficult situation because we are unaware of the full Ofcom proposals for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, we do know that its position is that

"many of the same considerations apply".

We have heard concerns about what is likely to happen south of the border. If many of the same considerations apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, heaven help us, for reasons that I shall outline shortly.

My concerns are shared by many others. The former head of programmes at Scottish Television and chairman of STV until 2003, Alistair Moffatt, said recently that the plans were tantamount to a "timetable of cultural loss." My background in broadcasting is in   news and current affairs rather than in cultural programming, so I will leave it to others to make the case for cultural programmes and concentrate on areas that relate to governance and democracy. This is not only about news and current affairs; it is about programming that reflects issues of importance throughout our society.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that pre-devolution we had a well developed political life in Scotland regardless of the lack of governance. We had and still have a different education system. Our sporting realities are very different, if not more successful. I shall be gracious for a moment to my English colleagues and
14 Dec 2004 : Column 237WH
admit that we seem to be profoundly underachieving in football and rugby, although as of last week we are apparently the world champions in elephant polo. That is not much of a claim to fame.

The religious realities in Scotland before devolution were different, as they still are. Since 1999 we have the fundamental difference in governance and democracy; the majority of issues of public concern are decided not in this place, but in Scotland's Parliament. Health, education, justice, policing and the environment are not areas simply of interest for news and current affairs; we need general programming reflecting all those subjects. They are part of social, economic, cultural and political life. Yet, and this is where it is perhaps a little more difficult for non-Scottish colleagues who do not watch day-to-day broadcasting north of the border to understand, network coverage is—I am being generous here—predominantly English or English and Welsh.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Southern English.

Angus Robertson : I do not disagree with that interjection.

In 2001, together with colleagues, I conducted a media monitoring exercise to try to put some facts behind our assertion about the coverage which is also most people's perceived reality. We monitored the BBC, ITN, Scottish Television, Grampian and Border during February two years after devolution to determine the broadcasting mix of the "regional" broadcasters and the network. The findings were overwhelming. Both the BBC and ITN gave a much higher priority to UK politicians and Ministers, but not just those Ministers who had responsibility for the whole of the UK—they gave more coverage to Ministers who had next to no responsibility for anything north of the border.

For example, the then UK Secretary of State for Health—essentially the English Health Minister—was on television in Scotland four times more than Scotland's First Minister. The Secretary of State for    Education and Skills—essentially the English Education Secretary—was on television 14 times as much as the deputy First Minister. Scottish politicians and parties were all but excluded entirely from network coverage. I am not making special pleading here as a representative of the principal Opposition party in Scotland, but my party secured only 0.83 per cent. of broadcast seconds of interviews with the BBC and only 1.04 per cent. on ITN through a whole month.

Mentions of political parties also showed a complete lack of Scottish coverage. On the issue of specificity—being only of English or English and Welsh concern or of interest to a whole UK audience—in 63 per cent. of stories that were of relevance only to England and Wales the BBC failed to mention that fact. I used to report for the BBC from Austria and the idea that one would not mention in one's report where one was reporting from was unheard of. ITV failed in 87 per cent. of cases to mention whether the stories were of any relevance to anyone beyond England and Wales.

I do not want to create the impression among colleagues that I am not interested in what goes on in England or England and Wales—I am—but the overwhelming majority of television coverage of news
14 Dec 2004 : Column 238WH
and current affairs is about something that has no direct relevance to those north of the border. Today is a classic example. An issue of profound importance to people in England is being debated but it has no impact north of   the border. I am certain that it will dominate the airwaves today. Important as it is, it is not relevant to viewers north of the border to the same extent.

I shall use one final example from the study to illustrate the point that I am trying to make. During the whole month of February both ITV and the BBC, in their network news and current affairs coverage, failed to report on a single story of any devolved interest whatever. The idea that network provides any decent or   balanced coverage of the important issues that I have   outlined is a mirage. That is why the issue of "regional" broadcasting in Scotland—that means STV, Grampian and Border Television—is of such profound importance.

No doubt the Minister will say that we do not yet know the full range of the Ofcom proposals. However, I put a marker down today, because we will debate the matter at the beginning of next year. Rather than talking about less broadcasting being produced by the independent sector and the independent companies in Scotland, we should be talking about more.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The argument that the hon. Gentleman puts forward applies also to the other devolved nations—particularly to Wales. Even if Ofcom protects the amount of time that is devoted to regional programmes, unless finance is available for making decent programmes and putting them on in a decent slot, regional broadcasting will deteriorate and will not play the important part that it should in the life of the nation.

Angus Robertson : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I wanted to move on briefly to discuss issues covering Wales, because they also are important. Unfortunately, my colleagues from Plaid Cymru cannot be present at this debate because of other commitments, but they impressed on me the importance of a number of subjects that they wanted to be highlighted. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will agree with them that much of what I have said about Scotland has a similar impact on Wales. However, over recent years there have been other worrying developments in broadcasting in Wales that need to be taken into account. For example, hundreds of   jobs have been lost in broadcasting in Wales since 1987, including, most recently, those of staff employed in support of Welsh programming—subtitling, website and community outreach. Moreover, national programming for Wales on ITV1 has already felt the pressure from the network centre, so there has been a 12.5 per cent. cut in the number of hours of national programmes produced by ITV for Wales, to just 10 hours per week.

There are a number of other issues that are of concern in Wales but, in particular, there is great concern about   the downsizing of HTV. In 1989, there were 873 permanent staff employed in Cardiff; today, there are only 183. HTV has seen its level of network production—programmes produced for the whole ITV network—reduced to almost nothing. In Scotland, there is an almost exact parallel. SMG, the company that owns STV and Grampian, produces only 2 per cent. of
14 Dec 2004 : Column 239WH
ITV network programmes. Undoubtedly, therefore, there is an issue of metropolitan-centric—London-centric—commissioning.

Mr. Austin Mitchell : I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that this issue does not concern Scotland and Wales alone. It is also an issue for the regions of the UK, particularly the northern regions. Yorkshire, the Tyne Tees region and Lancashire all have different regional ways of life, different issues and different problems, all   of which need to be reflected on the screen. The original purpose of ITV was to put the life of the regions   on to the regions' screens. Unless we have regional programming that is devoted to that, we are all—the companies and the regions—the poorer.

Angus Robertson : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, with which I do not disagree. Thank goodness England's regions have such doughty campaigners as those who have spoken in the debate so far. If I lived south of the border, particularly outside the    south-east of England, no doubt I would be jumping up as much in support of regional output in England. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the particular nature of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which should in no way be seen to be conflicting with the concerns of people in the English regions.

Broadcasting is so important that it should be devolved anyway. I have raised that matter with the Minister, so she will not be surprised to hear me say it. A UK Labour Government are prepared to devolve powers over railways, although spokespeople from the Labour party previously said that it was unthinkable and one could not do such a thing. North of the border we have a Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport who is not even responsible for broadcasting. This issue is so important that it should be devolved.

I hope that the case has been made effectively today that we need more programming, not less, because the status quo already fails viewers in Scotland and, I   suspect, in Wales and Northern Ireland. I am certain that there are also many concerns in the English regions. I hope that the Minister listens to those concerns and that when we return to them in the new year we will be able to secure the appropriate level of broadcasting for viewers throughout the country.

2.41 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to raise the issue of the role of Ofcom, because it seems to be the key body in this debate, but the role that it should be playing is not being brought to the table. When Ofcom was established under the Communications Act 2003, it brought together the regulatory role of the Radio Authority and the Independent Television Commission. At that point the Government made the mistake of asking it to play a light-touch role in terms of regulation. Nevertheless, the description of Ofcom in the 2003 Act made it clear that its central role was not just about promoting competition; it was also to protect public service broadcasting. As has been demonstrated in the debate today, our main concern is that Ofcom is not
14 Dec 2004 : Column 240WH
playing that role. We are seeing a decimation of the regional services in public service broadcasting, and there is the prospect of the situation becoming dramatically worse.

We have already heard that Ofcom is to allow ITV to cut regional non-news programmes in half in the English regions, which means that regional news will virtually cease to exist in a number of years. Although the protections provided under the existing contracts and   licences are supposed to last until 2014, we were told in a recent statement that although there were protections under the Ofcom proposals, there will be no   requirement beyond 2007 for ITV companies to produce regional and local news. There might be some disparity about the dates, but the overall direction of policy is fairly clear. Regional news no longer has the priority that it should be given in public service broadcasting, and eventually we will see the loss of production on a massive scale.

One option that has been put forward is that instead of requiring ITV to maintain regional output, Ofcom should propose setting up a public service publisher—a single, monolithic, UK-wide organisation with a budget of about £300 million. That is enough for about three hours of public service broadcasting a day. The body would supposedly make public service broadcast programmes for distribution, and could be owned and run by any of the existing companies—except the BBC—or even by a new company. Many of us who have had discussions with those working in the field at the moment feel that that is an inadequate response to the cuts in public service broadcasting proposed by ITV.

Mr. Mitchell : My hon. Friend is right. It is extraordinary that the commitments that the companies gave to get the contracts in the first place, which were to last until 2014, and were a condition of getting the contracts, should just be written off, with the consequent effect on the companies and their staff. The cuts will be damaging to the companies. I am an antediluvian from the days when John Logie Baird sets were normal in the home, and I mainly appeared in black and white throughout most of my television career. In those days regional programmes were a means of training staff, plugging into local issues and taking up problems that developed into national documentaries—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton): Order. I love to listen to the hon. Gentleman, but an intervention should be brief, rather than a speech in disguise.

Mr. Mitchell : I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know that on the west of the Pennines, you did not have the advantage of seeing me on television. I was seeking to make the point that if the regional roots are cut as has been described, those companies will wither into out-of-London production centres for other people's programmes.

John McDonnell : My hon. Friend demonstrates the expertise that he has developed over years—I think that my grandmother used to listen to him on a cat's whisker radio in the 1920s. His point is clear: Ofcom is presiding over a gradual withdrawal of any form of regulation, and companies that bid for licences under false
14 Dec 2004 : Column 241WH
pretences are, as far as we can see, allowed to refuse to adhere in any way to the conditions attached to those licences. This is not only about the time scale for the withdrawal of services, but about the scale of the withdrawal. The alternative idea of a public service publisher will hardly provide us with appropriate regional news or programming in future—I think that it is simply a sop to some of the debate that has gone on in recent years.

There are real concerns about Ofcom's consultation. Although it is not due to be completed until early next year, ITV companies seem to have taken it into account already and seen it as a green light to make cuts now. Let me run through some details of the massacre that is going on in regional broadcasting. We have heard about what has happened in Scotland and Wales, but news from the front about Northern Ireland tells us that the    ITN proposal is not to have any of its own correspondents or reporters in the Province. There will be no producer either, so the coverage will now consist of one cameraperson. That shows a complete disregard for everything that we have said about maintaining regional news, particularly in that area.

Let me run through what has been going on elsewhere. At Meridian, 175 jobs have already gone and the studios at New Hythe are being closed. Sub-regional news will be produced from outside the region by non-resident reporters, which will obviously affect the quality of the local response. Regional programme slots have been altered. The 5.30 pm Sunday slot—the one for which Meridian had the strongest audience base—has been removed, and there was no public consultation whatever about the proposal. Programme budgets have been cut by as much as 75 per cent. in the region; an estimated £4 million to £7 million has been lost from regional production. Scheduling has become erratic, with regional programmes taken off air to make room for network programmes frequently and almost on a whim, again without consultation. Meridian used to produce more regional programming than its licence required it to; now it makes the bare minimum.

Events at Granada demonstrate how it has interpreted the Ofcom review. Granada's managing director sent a memo to staff on 1 October saying:

Mr. Mitchell : "PS—you're fired."

John McDonnell : "P45s in the post," was probably the next sentence. The consultation report is not even due until February, yet a managing director has immediately reduced services. What does that mean? It does not matter to the bosses themselves. Twenty job losses have been announced this week. In addition, Granada has already made it clear to non-news regional programme makers that their run will not be extended through next year, and they must halve their output.

Wales has already been mentioned, but some of the developments there are staggering. We are talking about substantial job losses and a 12.5 per cent. cut in the number of hours of national programming produced by ITV for Wales, to just 10 hours a week. In addition, prime-time slots have been lost. There is now only one
14 Dec 2004 : Column 242WH
regular weekday peak-time slot for English-language broadcasting from and for Wales—7.30 pm on Thursdays. The list goes on and on and on. If the same approach is taken in Wales as elsewhere, there will be further job losses. It is estimated that the proposal would mean 200 job losses in Wales alone, the loss of a £10 million programme spend in Wales, plus the loss of skills, and damage to the overall economy.

This is a good one: Yorkshire Television's staff were called together in October and told of Ofcom's decision to allow a reduction from three to one and a half hours. Again, despite the fact that the consultation was continuing, the company jumped on the bandwagon, and this week 38 job losses have been announced. There have been cuts in the news department, and seven editorial jobs are going. As in all other areas, regional programmes have been moved out of core peak-time slots. A tariff system for programme-making budgets is being introduced, meaning that regional programmes have been pushed to the margins of peak times and will face lower budgets. In Central, 400 jobs have been axed, and studios have been closed. In Anglia, it has been announced that 25 jobs will go.

Broadcast magazine estimates that a further 200 jobs will be lost as a result of Ofcom's proposals. It states:

The Act that created Ofcom made a specific requirement for it to "maintain and strengthen" public service broadcasting, but Ofcom has presided over not just the undermining but almost the eradication of public service broadcasting in the regions.

I support Ofcom as a regulator; I believe that we need a regulatory body whose role it is to be independent of    the broadcasters—and, yes, independent of Government too. It should tell us honestly what is happening in the industry and fulfil its role in protecting public service broadcasting, but it should have teeth, sharpen them and bite. To repeat what has been said, if we cannot get Ofcom to shift, we will soon lose something essential to our culture and our economy, both in our regions and nationally. We are at the edge of losing something that we have all taken for granted for so long, throughout the decades of its existence. If we cannot get Ofcom to shift as a result of this debate, I urge the Government to intervene to make sure that it plays its role.

2.52 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): At the start of debates in Westminster Hall there is something of a ritual of congratulating the Member who secured the debate, but on this occasion I really do warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on bringing forward this important debate in such formidable style. He gave us a tour de force; he went comprehensively through the history of public service broadcasting in the regions and gave a strong analysis of where we are now.

We are here because of the Ofcom review. Ofcom seems to have started from the basis that there is an unsustainable balance between the benefits that ITV gets from being a public service broadcaster and the requirements and standards that it must follow. Ofcom
14 Dec 2004 : Column 243WH
believes that that cannot be maintained after digital switchover. However, as hon. Members have said, if we go down that line, the BBC will emerge as the monopoly supplier in the regional TV market. That would be in stark contrast to the situation in the national TV market, where it has plentiful competition from both terrestrial broadcasters and multi-channel operators. For the historical reasons that we heard, it would be a most unhealthy development if the BBC were allowed to enjoy such a monopoly.

I have a strong feeling that there is bad faith here. When ITV petitioned for permission to form one large   company, I was among those who, albeit with considerable reservations, thought that if its market position was that dire, it should be allowed to do so, but only if its commitment to regional programming remained as strong as ever.

Later, during the passage of the Communications Act, the question of allowing ITV to be owned by non-European owners came up. ITV petitioned hard for that to be allowed. Many of us raised concerns about whether a new foreign owner would understand what ITV was, what regional franchises were and what its public sector broadcasting commitments were, but we were reassured, not least by Ministers, that the doom-laden scenarios some of us foresaw could not happen, because the licences would still be regional licences and the obligations would still be in place.

Apparently, any new owner would have to understand from the outset that they were buying not a national licence but a series of regional ones. The guardian of all of that would be Ofcom, which would ensure that none of the scenarios that we feared would happen. As far as I know, that is still the current position. Yet to my horror, before we get to digital switchover, and before any foreign owner has come in, Ofcom seems to be giving that all away—before we even start.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) bemoaned light-touch regulation. This is not so much a question of light or heavy touch, but of throwing away, from the word go, all the ground rules through which Ofcom was to be able to regulate. That is a reckless thing to do.

Regional programming is vital for three reasons. The    first is forging regional identity. The second is strengthening local economies. In oral questions about that a few weeks ago, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) spoke strongly about the importance of creative industries within regional economies, not least in my region, the south-west. He pointed to the close work with higher educational establishments in places such as Plymouth, Bristol and Bournemouth, and the relationship that they have with regional programme making. The third reason why regional programme making is important is for encouraging mutual understanding between the regions. I look with horror at the proposition that the regional programme-making obligations should be in any way weakened.

We have received reassurances from the Secretary of State, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), and on another occasion by the Minister who is present this afternoon, when I asked a question
14 Dec 2004 : Column 244WH
in the House. Both made the point that regional news was safe, and that there was no suggestion of any change in that position. Strictly speaking that is true, and nobody has actively, as yet, suggested a reduction in   regional news programming. However, paragraph 2.36 of Ofcom's report shows that it wants to sustain

Ofcom is giving the game away before the start. It is already beginning the softening-up exercise that some years down the line could be used as the reason for beginning to undermine regional news programming as well.

From the way in which Ofcom carries on, anyone would think that we were discussing a weak part of the broadcasting mix. However, the hon. Member for Selby told us about one particular evening in November—18 November, I think he said. He pointed out that even up against the BBC's "EastEnders", the regional ITV non-news programmes got an audience of 5 million, compared with the BBC's 10 million. That figure is high, and it put those programmes way ahead of BBC 2, Channel 4 or Channel 5 on that occasion. The suggestion that we are talking about some sort of weak fag-end service should be challenged, and I commend hon. Members who have done that during the debate.

Ofcom seems to have ascribed a very low value to regional programming, but for all the reasons that hon. Members have mentioned, I do not believe that that is right at all. We should continue the obligations and ITV should have, in perpetuity, an obligation to make such programmes. Ofcom is simply mistaken, and it has completely failed to appreciate the value of that programme making.

When we talk about regional programming and regional programme making, we need to be fairly clear about the definitions. Three different definitions can sometimes be confused. First, programmes may happen to be made in a region, but do not necessarily reflect anything to do with that region; it could be a matter of   administrative convenience for the network that they   happen to be made there. Secondly, programmes are made in a region to reflect that region back to the nation. Programmes such as "Coronation Street" or "Emmerdale" are examples. They are produced from the outset with a network audience in mind. The third and most important type of programmes are those made in a region for the audience within the region. Some of    the debate both during the passage of the Communications Bill and since it became an Act has tended to blur the different forms of programme making.

In particular, a requirement to make programmes outside London can be slightly meaningless if they are all made in one big house that happens to be outside London. I am not as optimistic as the hon. Member for Selby about the impact of the BBC making its network sports programmes in Manchester. I have no objection to that; I can see no downside to such an approach—but the idea that that in itself will necessarily bring about a benign impact is not one that I share.

ITV's history has been that of a regional programme maker, and it should remain—and have to remain—one in the future. The underlying concern of ITV, and one that Ofcom has recognised, is about the value of its
14 Dec 2004 : Column 245WH
licence in the digital world, in the sense that it no longer brings with it access to limited spectrum, because in the digital age there will not be any scarcity—or not so much. We too must recognise that concern. We must bear in mind that the licence in itself is no longer the great advantage that it once was. If we put a value on regional programming, we will have to find a mixture of sticks and carrots instead, with which the Government and Ofcom can ensure that it continues into the future. What that might be does not require a great leap of the imagination.

Even in the multi-channel digital age, a system of licence granting could be so manipulated that certain advantages came with it. At the more drastic end, public money, or money raised through the licence, could be available for public service broadcasting to operations other than the BBC. In any case, if a budget of £300 million a year is to be made available to the new public service publisher, it is entirely right that we should have a debate about whether that is necessarily the best and most effective way in which to spend the money. It is bizarre to be throwing out, or allowing to fade away, a model that has proved itself so strongly over decades, and to favour instead a complete step into the unknown. I am not knocking new ideas. I am simply saying that it is a strange set of priorities to allow something that we know works well to go, and instead to put money that is always in short supply into something else.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby on introducing the debate. People throughout the country have a real appreciation of regional non-news programmes. In my region of the south-west, popular programmes are made to show various traditions—legends, almost—of the region, and usually receive a decent audience. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom there are other issues, too. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who spoke from a Scottish perspective, made some extremely good points. A great deal more needs to be done to reflect the changed realities in Scotland in its broadcasting mix. Each of the many other regions in England has a strong local identity that needs to be reflected in broadcasting. I do not believe that the BBC will do that, or that straight commercial television will do much of it.

I know from conversations with some people at ITV that they take the view that if they are not released from   some of those burdens, they will simply shake them all off and become a straightforward commercial broadcaster. If that is what they want to do, we should let them do it, and make the advantages that I have referred to available to someone else, through a system of sticks and carrots. I do not believe that ITV's best interests would be served by going down that route, but if it wants to play tough we should be willing to call its bluff.

I welcome the debate. Parliament is right to have taken a shot across Ofcom's bows. It has teeth that it is not using: as the hon. Member for Selby said, the content board could flex its muscles a great deal more. If it is going to listen to every bit of special pleading from ITV or any other broadcaster, and start rolling over before the event and throwing away all the sticks with which it could beat and regulate them, the future for regional broadcasting is very gloomy.
14 Dec 2004 : Column 246WH

The future looks gloomy enough as it is. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, ITV seems to be proceeding on the basis that all this will happen anyway, and is making cuts willy-nilly. The future will be bleak if the situation is not grasped now, and I urge the Government, in discussion with Ofcom, to intervene and sort this out before a considerable asset is gone and there is nothing that any of us can do about it.

3.7 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing the debate. He and I do not always agree on broadcasting matters, and I do not think that we will agree entirely this afternoon, but he has raised an important issue, and Ofcom should hear the views of the House. I have to say that I am slightly surprised to find myself, in my first contribution on broadcasting matters since the passage of the Communications Act 2003, about to defend Ofcom—but Ofcom has raised some important points.

As a believer in free markets, I am always reluctant to impose obligations on commercial companies. The justification in this case was that ITV has a privilege in having access to spectrum, which until now has been very scarce, and in those circumstances the market cannot operate properly, so the Government are entitled to place requirements and levy a charge on the company that is given that opportunity. The hon. Gentleman gave us a brief history of ITV. That is relevant. Since 1955, it    has been subject to a number of public service obligations and has been required to pay a licence fee. Last year that fee amounted to about £240 million, and Ofcom calculated that the cost of the public service broadcasting obligation was about £210 million.

Originally, when television was in its infancy and people could receive only two channels, that access to spectrum was immensely valuable. However, we went from two to three to four to five channels, and we are now in a multi-channel age with well over 55 per cent. of the population having access to a large number of channels. In those circumstances the market can begin to operate better, so the justification for imposing requirements and a charge diminishes. However, more importantly, as Ofcom points out, that also means that the value of that spectrum to ITV is diminished. At present, the value of that scarce spectrum on the analogue frequency outweighs the cost to ITV of the licence charge and the public service broadcasting obligation, but it is undeniable that as more and more households become multi-channel there will become a point where the costs to ITV exceed the benefit.

The biggest cost to ITV is regional programming; no one in the debate has sought to challenge that fact yet.   Two thirds of the £210 million cost of the public service broadcasting obligation comes from regional programming. That is unsurprising. If a programme goes out only to a small part of the country, the advertising revenue from it is much less, so it will inevitably be far more expensive for the company to make. It has been estimated that it costs ITV something like three times as much to make regional programmes as it does to make network programming. That issue has to be addressed.
14 Dec 2004 : Column 247WH

Ofcom has rightly distinguished between news and current affairs programming, and non-news and current affairs programming. I have always believed that news and current affairs—local news in particular—is of enormous importance, and at the heart of public service broadcasting. However, this debate is primarily about non-news and current affairs programming.

The Ofcom analysis said that only 7 per cent. of the population rated non-news and current affairs in their top five priorities. I share the view of the hon. Member for Selby that that does not tell the whole story. The figure is probably too low, and if we look more deeply, we can see that regional output has often outperformed network output on ITV. The fact that non-news and current affairs programming goes out either very late at night or against "EastEnders" means that it is not surprising that it does not fare as well.

Some of the non-news and current affairs programming does not have an obviously regional dimension. In my area, the programming identified included, from 11  to 11.30  pm, something called "Pilau Talk", which was described by Anglia as


I am not saying that it is a bad programme—actually, it is quite entertaining—but it is not obviously specific to the Anglia region. Indeed, some of the regional programming that has evolved throughout the country does not necessarily display the best qualities of its region.

Whether we believe that such programming is popular or not, or is a priority or not, the economics are inescapable. Ofcom has identified a problem, and it is not one that will go away, however much we say that we care about regional programming. For that reason, I accept that there has to be some change. I support the increase in regional production to 50 per cent. within ITV. It is striking that ITV already exceeds 50 per cent. of hours produced outside London—it produces 51 per cent.—when it has to meet a quota of only 33 per cent. It is also remarkable that the BBC exceeds its much lower quota by a significantly smaller margin than ITV does.

The proposed reduction of the non-news and current affairs content from three hours to one and a half hours by 2005 may be too quick. As the hon. Member for Selby pointed out, ITV is not doing too badly now. However, the problem will grow, and there will come a time when it is a serious imposition on ITV. I was therefore pleased to receive a submission on behalf of the ITV regional production teams—the people who actually make the programmes—who recognise the problem and accept that there will have to be some change to deal with it. They propose that there should be a longer phase-in period, and that ITV's regional non-news programme obligation should be reduced to one and a half hours in 2006–07, and one hour in 2008. That seems a much more sensible and constructive approach, because it takes account of the reality, rather than saying just that we cannot go down that road at all.
14 Dec 2004 : Column 248WH
I agree that the problem must be addressed, but I ask Ofcom to listen to the concerns and perhaps implement the changes over a longer period.

The second component is the BBC. It is extraordinary that the public service broadcaster wholly financed by the taxpayer, with £2.8  billion a year from the licence fee, produces fewer regional programmes than ITV. In   2003, the figures were about 1,200 hours on BBC compared with 2,100 hours on ITV. I recognise, obviously, that there are important considerations outside England, but if we look further at the figures that Ofcom has identified for non-news and current affairs regional programming in England, we see that the BBC spent £0.5 million on 29 hours. That compares with ITV's spending of £47 million on 1,382 hours, so the BBC is hardly producing any regional programming at all. If regional programming is an essential component of public service broadcasting—and I think that it is—it is up to the BBC to do a lot more of it if ITV is not going to be able to do as much. I hope that that will be considered as we approach charter renewal.

If we want ITV to continue to produce public service programming in the form of regional non-news and current affairs, even though it is not economic to do so, then perhaps we should consider the alternative. Rather than imposing the cost upon ITV, perhaps we should considering financing it to do what we want. The hon. Member for Selby will remember that when the Communications Bill was going through the House, I proposed a fund financed out of the licence fee that would be available to other broadcasters for public service broadcasting. Regional programming could be a good example of that, so we should consider saying to ITV that we believe it important that there should continue to be more than one provider of public service broadcasting in the form of regional non-news and current affairs, so it will be eligible to apply to such a fund to continue to perform that role.

Finally, my other criticism is that many people feel that the regions bear very little relation to the place where they live. I am in the Anglia region, which is the most extraordinary region. It covers an expanse of the country that has no common identity whatever. The hon. Member for Selby referred to the north-east referendum, and that demonstrated clearly what people think of the idea of regional government. I do not think that there is a great loyalty to regional television areas, either. They came about as a result of the way in which the transmitters were positioned.

However, people do value local television, local news, local current affairs and local programming. Not as much attention has been paid to that aspect in the debate as should have been. It is important that we move ahead swiftly with the development of local television, which is only now beginning to become possible, both as a result of digital take-up and the growth of online services. Real local television could develop, which will be valued far more highly than the existing regional non-news and current affairs programming produced by ITV.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call the Minister, may I remind hon. Members that a vote is due in the House at 3.30? I hope that it does not happen before then, because if it comes at the right time we can, usefully and tidily, conclude this debate first.
14 Dec 2004 : Column 249WH

3.18 pm

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris) : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I cannot control the time of the vote, but I shall try to speak quickly and control my comments so that they do not go beyond the time when we wish to finish.

I join everyone else in saying what an excellent debate this has been. Without wishing to sound patronising, I must say that it has been one of the most interesting Adjournment debates to which I have ever listened. Part of the way through, I wished that I would not be responding to it, because first I should like to reflect on some of what has been said. There is a reason for that: this is an important issue, which is as much about democracy as anything else. That is why people get so heated about it in the House of Commons, and why it is one of those subjects on which we tend to have good debates that transcend party political boundaries.

I have often thought that MPs, more than any other group, are in a particularly good position to comment on regional television, especially regional news production. We live in the regions or the nations, wherever our constituencies are, and we work in London, and we can see regional broadcasting as a bridge between the two. There might be different views here as to how effective a bridge it is, but it is a bridge between the two, and I feel strongly about it in terms of the health of the nation's democracy. It is absolutely imperative that regional broadcasting must be strong to enable us as MPs, and as Ministers, to do our jobs.

There are other arguments about regional culture, and I accept everything that has been said. In particular, I accept the particular strength of regional culture in the nations. I remember one occasion when I thought that London seemed a very long way away, and that was when I was watching the national news in the Shetland Islands. It was the same news programme that I watch every day in either Birmingham or London, but just because I was in the Shetland Islands, that programme seemed a long, long way away from the environment where I was. I accept the arguments of the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) about the particular importance of this subject for the regions.

I agree that Ofcom should be a body with teeth. That is why debates such as this are essential. The Government find themselves in a strange position. As my hon. Friend   the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, it is right to have a regulator that is independent from Government. That makes responding to this debate as a Minister different from responding to debates on other areas of Government policy. I join everybody in saying that Ofcom should have teeth, and should not roll over when the BBC, ITN or other organisations put pressure on it.

The Communications Act 2003 obliges Ofcom to protect the nature of regional broadcasting. I support that. If the debate does nothing other than reaffirm that that is why Parliament set up Ofcom and that is what Parliament expects it to do, it has served us well. Although I have not seen it myself, I have no reason to disbelieve my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington: if people are acting as though the consultation has already taken place and the decision has already been reached, I abhor that. It should not happen. It is ridiculous, when Members are discussing
14 Dec 2004 : Column 250WH
regional television, for people to assume that the decision has already been taken. If people have been acting precipitately I will join my hon. Friend in sending a clear message to them that that is not on, and it is not what we expect.

I agree with the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) that these are peculiar times. In some ways my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) put his finger on it when he described the ITV of the 1950s. I grew up with that. I remember the potter's wheel, and the rest of it. Some people here are old enough to have heard about that from their parents, if not to have seen it themselves. But this is a different era. The pace of change is even greater. One of the challenges that faces us now—this is why I said that I agreed with the Opposition spokesperson—is that the speed of digital change will be so rapid between now and 2012 that if we do not do something to take it on board, it will roll us over, and we will find ourselves out of control.

Any notion of preserving regional broadcasting, or thinking of an alternative way for it to have its important say, will go. That is why I agree that Ofcom should undertake its review now. The next five-year review would take us within one year of the expected switchover to digital, and that would be too late. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington pointed out, fears begin to grow. He talked about moving licences to 2007. There has been talk around the   Chamber today about news production being threatened too.

I took the point about the phrase that the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) read out. Phase 2 of the Ofcom review of regional broadcasting is about the change to non-news regional programming outside peak time. Some of the programmes that have been mentioned as having good viewing figures and being popular in the regions are part of peak-time regional programming, which is not under threat at present.

Whether we like it or not, there has to be an incentive to keep ITV in public service broadcasting and on the spectrum. One could call its bluff and say, "Go away and let somebody else do it", but I am not sure that I want to do that. I believe in competition. I do not want the BBC to be the only provider of regional television. It would be short-sighted not to face up to that and ensure that ITV has an incentive to stay. Whatever people's views on the statistical methods or the questions that were asked about the consultation, I can live with a reduction in the amount of regional non-news production outside peak time. That does not mean the end of regional production. It is not the end of life as we know it, and it does not threaten democracy, regional culture or creative industries.

If, as many hon. Members have said, this were the beginning of a demise and decimation of regional programming, I would be more concerned. The Government would not have supported the Communications Act and built in an obligation to protect regional television if they were not concerned about the protection of regional news, network
14 Dec 2004 : Column 251WH
programming being made in the region for economic growth, and some sort of regional non-news programming that describes the local culture.

John McDonnell : Our concern is that we are seeing the denigration and erosion of regional television on a daily basis. I shall give one more example—I feel like someone bringing news from the front. ITV Wales has just announced 14 redundancies. One of the things that it will axe is the community service announcements, which are the free adverts for local community organisations and charities. It is that sort of erosion and ebbing away of local services that concerns us.

Estelle Morris : I can see that. That is why this debate, which I hope Ofcom will take heed of, is important. In terms of phase 2 of the review, I am not going to say that there is no reason why that erosion should happen, but I think that the results of the consultation may be about the more important aspects of news and peak-time regional viewing. However, that shot across the bows is well made.

My hon. Friend also raised a point about the difficult issue of technology. I do not have time to go into detail now, but some job losses are inevitable, as has been the case in every industry—none more so than this one—because of the effect of the march of technology on how people do their jobs.

I thank and applaud Ofcom for being generous in meeting regional groups of MPs and approaching MPs to take part in the consultation. I hope that every region's group of MPs—from whatever party, because this is a good subject for cross-party co-operation—responds to that, and ensures that their views form part of the consultation.

The hon. Member for Moray was right to say that Ofcom has noted similarities between the nations and regions in off-peak regional programming. However, he
14 Dec 2004 : Column 252WH
will know that that issue will come under phase 3, because Ofcom has also noted the differences. I   hope that it will reflect those differences, and the strength of regional broadcasting in the nations, in its response.

We must face up to this debate. If Ofcom's proposals are not the solution, something else must be, because we cannot stand still. I would much rather consider these matters before 2012 and the possible digital switchover than have them thrust upon us at that time. Whatever happens, it must take place against the background that we have not, will not and should not become a nation that does not want to preserve regional broadcasting, news and non-news, and national production within regions. We can do that in the digital age, but we must make some key decisions. This debate is an important part of contributing to the consultation that will lead us in that direction.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The Chamber thanks the Minister for that reply. We cannot start the next debate, because although the hon. Member who initiated it is here, the Minister is not, and I anticipate a Division in the House in a few seconds.

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) will not lose his debate, if that is what he is worried about, but we are expecting a Division in the House.

Mr. Wills : I know that the Minister is outside the door on his mobile phone, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I would be happy to get him in if he wished to commence the debate. I say that because there is quite a kerfuffle going on in the Chamber at the moment, and I am not sure what implication that may have for the timing, so we may wish to commence this debate.


Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
14 Dec 2004 : Column 251WH

14 Dec 2004 : Column 253WH

Next Section IndexHome Page