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15 July 2009 : Column 123WH—continued

Crucially, the classified ads that used to be so important in selling local newspapers are now going to the internet. In 2000, 45 per cent. of all classified advertisements were to be found in local newspapers, and only 2 per cent. on the internet. Now, 45 per cent. of all classified ads are on the internet, and only a quarter are to be found in our local newspapers. Circulation is down, advertising is down and, as a result, revenue is down. The lifeblood of local newspapers is dwindling. They are in great difficulty. Sadly, many have had to close. Last year alone, 60 titles closed, all of them a loss to their local communities. As we heard from the hon.
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Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), many hundreds of editorial jobs have been lost; alongside that, however, many hundreds of support staff jobs have gone.

We must remember that 1,300 local and regional newspapers remain. They employ some 12,000 journalists and 30,000 support staff. They are beginning to fight back. Because of a shortage of capital, they did not invest early enough in websites, but they are now doing so; for instance, at, my local newspaper is now a thriving provider of daily local news, with 80,000 unique hits every month, up 40 per cent. from last year. Many other local newspapers are doing the same.

Much more needs to be done to help those newspapers. We heard a number of suggestions. The "Digital Britain" report and Ofcom suggest that the BBC should become involved in partnership proposals. We heard about that from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and others. There is an opportunity to use the BBC's resources to provide support and help to other news outlets through the independently funded news consortiums and partnership proposals. Like him, I am deeply worried about the Government's proposal to top-slice the BBC, which will take money away from it without its involvement. By all means, let the BBC become more involved in partnership work, which is what it wants, and has started, to do. However, that should be within the remit of the BBC, using money from the BBC and with its involvement. I am delighted that 15 Labour Members have signed his early-day motion opposing that policy.

People referred to the importance of the relaxation of cross-media ownership rules. I am delighted that the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom are now considering such a move. The Government have said that it is important. I was also delighted that we had a lengthy debate about the important role that local councils can play by not overly developing their own media outlets, particularly taking advertising away from local newspapers. That is critical. However, we should look very carefully at the LGA's figures, of which some were overly scornful. The vast majority of local councils are not taking action that is-currently, at least-causing problems for local newspapers. I welcome what the hon. Member for Stockport said about the important role of central Government in helping local newspapers.

Finally, all sorts of other exciting developments are taking place, such as ways of bringing different journalists together. The Press Association's initiative in Merseyside to provide an independent source of journalistic information for local newspapers could be developed. No doubt we will hear more from the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) about his party's proposals for local television, which I hope will not further damage local newspapers. I hope to hear that it will work in consultation with them. Local newspapers are critical, and we must take action now to provide support for them, or far more will close.

3.42 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate under your excellent chairmanship for the first time, Lady Winterton. I do not wish to give too much fodder for local or national journalists to write articles about the disgustingly incestuous
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nature of the Westminster village, but I welcome the Minister to his post as the Minister for the digital industries or creative Britain-or whatever title he might choose to use. I have known him for many years and have the utmost respect for his ability and judgment. His only misjudgment ever was to join the wrong political party. However, I am sure that he will make an excellent Minister and I look forward to debating with him in the months to come.

We have heard a great deal from hon. Members this afternoon-nine speeches, in addition to that of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). They set out the woes of the local newspaper industry, of which this House is only too well aware. I think that this is the third time in six or seven months that we have debated this matter. However, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on giving us another opportunity to emphasise the point that this House takes what is happening in the local newspaper industry very seriously. As so many hon. Members have pointed out, it is fundamental to the health not only of our local democracy. Newspapers do not exist simply to uncover the wrongdoings of hon. Members or local councillors, but to play a vital role in bringing a community together. Picking up the local paper, either daily or weekly, reminds us of what is going on in our communities and prevents us from becoming solitary people living in rabbit hutches, going to work then coming home and simply switching on the television.

The hon. Member for Bath was right to point out that we still have a sizeable local newspaper industry. We are a newspaper nation. We have far more national newspaper titles per head than almost any other country in the world, and we still enjoy reading our newspapers, but change is afoot and technology is knocking at the door. As people have pointed out, a perfect storm of technology coupled with a recession is proving to be extraordinarily testing for local newspapers. It is dangerous to get into a mindset in which one simply tries to prop up existing institutions without recognising that change is afoot. Blogs, such as ConservativeHome, Iain Dale's Diary or Guido Fawkes' blog, are effectively taking over some of the role of national newspapers and are capable of breaking important stories with very few resources. That shows that technology will help to fill the vacuum. Nevertheless, we should, as Members of this House, be looking to provide potential solutions for local newspapers. The main job of finding a solution rests with local newspapers, which are, after all, private organisations, but the Government must be there to make that possibility effective.

The Government have published "Digital Britain" and set out a range of options. On the same day it published the OFT's-disappointing-analysis of the local newspaper market. The document effectively said that the OFT would do nothing unless, or until, a referral was made and recommended no changes to the current regime. Ofcom is also considering media ownership rules. I know that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and other hon. Members have called for local cross-media ownership rules to be relaxed. We, on this side of the House, share that point of view and have called for that relaxation. We have urged Ofcom to bring its review to a speedy conclusion.

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It would be useful to hear from the Minister when he expects Ofcom to report and, when it does report, when he expects the Government to look at it and reach a conclusion on what parts of the review they will implement. More than anything, local newspapers need a certain, clear, regulatory landscape and a clear way forward. It would be an extremely useful contribution to hear the timetable for what I hope will be a clear-sighted report from Ofcom calling for the relaxation of local media rules, recognising that the landscape has changed and that the internet now provides a much wider horizon, which has to be taken into account when considering competition measures.

Dr. Pugh: The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Local newspapers face competition for breaking major news stories, but an awful lot of what we illustrated as being in local papers is not of that nature; it is about local football teams and events. Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale do not pepper their blogs with such information, and never will. In a sense, they are not in competition in the way that he stresses.

Mr. Vaizey: Perhaps I did not express myself clearly enough. For example, a website such as ConservativeHome provides a community base for those of us interested in Conservative politics. Although it might break news, it also keeps us in touch with what that wider community is doing. [Interruption.] Luckily, I did not hear the hon. Member for Southport's intervention. It might have broken my smooth stride as I move closer to setting out the Conservative policy.

Finally, the Government have proposed independently financed news consortiums. I was pleased to hear the scepticism from hon. Members about the Government's proposals. Conservative Members oppose top-slicing of the BBC. I was astonished by the attack launched by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the BBC leadership. The Government have a tradition of attacking the BBC leadership when it dares to disagree with them. We saw that with the David Kelly affair and the Hutton report. But attacking the BBC for a lack of leadership simply because the director-general disagrees with Government policy-which, I remind the Minister, is not actually Government policy, but technically under consultation-crosses a line. I am sure that the Secretary of State, once he gets into his stride, gets his feet under the desk and understands his job, will want to apologise to the director-general for the attack.

Mr. Don Foster: I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to rush to his conclusion, but are we hearing today a complete reversal of the Conservative party position as expressed on 20 May. Then his party proposed to freeze the licence fee, which would effectively top-slice the amount of money that the BBC gets, but now it is saying that it would not. Back then, the Government said that they opposed top-slicing, but today they are proposing it. We, on the Liberal Democrat Benches, are getting very confused.

Mr. Vaizey: The hon. Gentleman has fulfilled a role, for many years, as my mentor, but at this point I would say to him-perhaps the pupil is getting above himself-do not be too clever by half. We have said that the licence fee should be frozen for a year because we are going through a recession and we want to help hard-working
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families. We find it hypocritical that the Government are saying, "Don't touch the licence fee. By the way, we're taking 3.5 per cent. off the licence fee and will do with it as we want", which is exactly what they did-by the way-with the lottery.

We are also concerned about independently financed news consortiums. In effect the Government are saying, "This is how things have been, and this is how they should always have been." We all know that regional news was based around the old transmitter system, and it was not regional news in the true sense of the word.

I hope that everyone can hear the clatter of the hooves as the knight on his white charger arrives in the form of Conservative party policy, which was presented to the media this afternoon. The Speaker's rules about announcing party policy in the House before talking to the media do not yet apply; they will take effect in a year's time.

What we have put forward is a consultation document, which is written by the well respected, legendary journalist Roger Parry, on the creation of viable local multi-media companies in the UK. In the one minute I have left, let me simply say that this is a bottom-up solution for local television and multi-media consortiums using local spectrum. Ofcom has identified 81 areas in which local multi-media consortiums could be put in place. They will include video, audio, print and web. Production costs will be much lower. There will be economies of scale and the consortiums will rely on the use of volunteers. They will be truly local multi-media organisations, and we expect local newspaper groups to play a very important role in bidding for the spectrum licences so that we can create truly local television and a vital multi-media organisation that will be the saving solution for local newspapers.

3.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Siôn Simon): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I do not have a lot of time, but I will do my best to refer to everyone who has spoken.

Naturally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing the debate and on his opening speech in which he set the ground for the entire debate. He covered most of the bases and managed to include not just his own local newspapers but those for Porthmadog, Pwllheli, Criccieth, Llannor, Llysfaen and Garndolbenmaen. Drawing all those in is a triumph for which he should be congratulated. He also touched on mergers, so perhaps I will set out the position. The OFT looked into the market and concluded-I cannot find the exact phrase-that it works and that it is sufficiently flexible and rigorous to allow a functioning local newspaper sector to exist.

The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said at the end that the OFT would do nothing unless a merger was notified. Just to be clear on that point, the OFT concluded that the market was operational, but in cases in which mergers had been notified, it would have to look in more detail at the operation of the system. So the case is not closed. Work is going on to assess whether anything can be done to make the system more liberal and helpful to local newspapers.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) spoke with his customary vigour about the lack of accountability of local newspapers. He said that they can be biased and unfair on some occasions. Like many hon. Members, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred to his local newspaper as a particularly trusted source of news and information for the community. He described the County Times as a role model. He also asked whether he could bring a delegation of editors to see me. Of course he can, but it must be an appropriately sized delegation of nice and good editors.

Mr. Don Foster: Well turned out as well?

Mr. Simon: Yes, that is always important. We take note of such things in the Department, as I am learning. The hon. Member for Stockport displayed his customary pithy precision. [Hon. Members: "Southport!"] Sorry, I mean Southport. Is it different?

Dr. Pugh: A bit.

Mr. Simon: I am running out of time, as well as digging myself into a deep hole. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) talked-[Interruption.] Oh, it was my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). Sorry. When I wrote Stockport, I was looking at the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend talked at great length and with some erudition about Government advertising. Ideally, I should like to talk to her in greater detail about that. She made some interesting points. They did not come from the mainstream, which is all that I have read on the matter so far. If she would like to explore those ideas a bit more, I would be very glad to talk to her about them.

Mr. Vaizey: I hate to give the impression that I might be jumping the queue, but given that there are only four minutes left, will the Minister say when he expects Ofcom to report on cross-media ownership?

Mr. Simon: That is jumping the queue, but let me say that the Communications Act 2003 lays down that Ofcom undertakes such reviews every three years. Off the top of my head-I am new at this-the last review concluded in October 2006. The official line is that it will report back later this year. That should give the hon. Gentleman an indication of the kind of time scale that we are talking about.

As the clock ticks, let me say that I agree with the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) that the situation in Wales with respect to television is difficult and needs particular attention, which is one of the key reasons why Wales was chosen as one of the pilot areas. He talks about my family connection with his constituency. It is true that, even though I was born in south Yorkshire and grew up in Birmingham, the major milestones of my life have been recorded in the Dwyfor Leader-I am not sure whether it still exists-and that shows what a community newspaper means. One does not even have to live in the community to be part of the community.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and congratulate him on taking the fight to the Tory Front Bench so admirably. The hon. Member for Southport-
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although I wrote Stockport again-talked about how local journalism can be at the heart of communities. Later on, he said that it would morph webwise and become interactive. That is true. The future of local journalism and local news gathering will be in the hands of not just journalists but communities. Local people will be delivering news to, from, by and of themselves. That does not mean that journalism does not need supporting, but we must look to new models.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) reminded us that, when we talk about journalists and the service that they render to communities, we are talking about not just abstracts and things that are important to democracy but people-large numbers of human beings who are losing their jobs, which is a tragedy for them and their families.

John McDonnell: Earlier, I said that the seminar or working party on industry that the Secretary of State convened some months ago was very successful. Will the Minister liaise with the new Secretary of State to find out whether or not it is appropriate to reconvene it in September or October?

Mr. Simon: I wrote that down, and I will do just that. By all accounts, the seminar was a great event, and I will ask the Secretary of State to do it again. If he agrees, I will gladly attend.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) spoke with her usual elegance about collaboration. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) gave me a soupcon of wisdom about the things to come over the coming months. The hon. Member for Wantage shared with us the new Conservative proposal for 80 local television stations.

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Combat Stress

4 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Thank you for the guidance that you will provide us with, Lady Winterton, through the next half hour-if the debate lasts that long-and for the chance to raise the issue of combat stress. Hopefully, the debate will be very short. My greater hope is for a positive response from the Minister, who should be sympathetic.

I intend to focus predominantly on the UK-wide organisation Combat Stress, which is one of the main treatment establishments and which has a main base in my constituency. As the organisation's name indicates, it treats ex-UK service personnel suffering post-traumatic stress disorder derived from combat. PTSD is recognised in civil life, including among police, ambulance and fire brigade personnel, among whom it has the nickname, "the silent disease". The effects on sufferers can be total destruction, for them as individuals and for their families. Sufferers get nightmares and flashbacks, become hyper-vigilant, suffer panic and fear of attack, and frequently descend into alcoholism.

The effects can lead to suicide. It is estimated that 262 British Falkland veterans have taken their own lives, compared with 255 lives lost in Falkland combat. Statistics released by the Ministry of Defence in March last year reveal that between 1 April 1991 and 31 December 2007, 162 British Gulf veterans died

that is a "Yes, Minister" type quote-which compares with 24 killed in action.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this debate. Is he aware of the American experience, which involves far greater numbers? The suggestion is that young men who have served are twice as likely to take their own life than those who have not served. We need to be particularly mindful of the American experience, given that it is greater than ours, when making our projection of the long tail that current operations are likely to have.

Sir Paul Beresford: My hon. Friend pips me at the post, because I was about to say that those who serve are 2.13 times more likely to take their own life. Saying that it is twice as likely will do, because it shows why it is important to deal with the problem.

Increasing recognition of combat stress has, I hope, inspired the Government to ensure that general practitioners are aware of the causes and that they seek help for ex-personnel who show symptoms. Recognition is the key, but there is a need for treatment, which brings me back to Combat Stress, which specialises in the care and treatment of ex-service personnel suffering from combat-induced PTSD. It is recognised as the leading organisation in such treatment. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that it was formed in 1919 and that it has helped, treated, or both, 100,000 veterans.

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