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13 Jan 2010 : Column 287WH—continued

Mr. Slaughter: I promise to not hurt the hon. Gentleman's feelings on this occasion, but I must defend the integrity of lollipop persons across London. I really thought that the hon. Gentleman was getting it at last-I sound like the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) now. There is a difference between council publications that are clearly council publications, giving lots of tedious but useful information to people in a non-political way,
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and what we now get which are things masquerading as independent newspapers. I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that, and if he wants to address that issue I am sure that we would all like to hear him.

Mr. Vaizey: I certainly shall. As I said, the Conservatives have pledged to abolish the communications allowance. I am a huge admirer of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) and regret deeply his retirement, but it was astonishing to hear that his own website paid for by the taxpayer is now beginning to put local newspapers out of business.

Derek Wyatt: I wish that it was paid for by the taxpayer.

Mr. Vaizey: Ah, I stand corrected. Let me get on to the substance of what I wanted to say. First, there is another element of hypocrisy that concerns me. We have talked about the code of conduct for publicity in local councils. Let us not forget that it was this Government in 2001 who relaxed that code and allowed councils to cover issues that-

Mr. Pelling rose-

Mr. Vaizey: I am afraid that I cannot take any more interventions, even from one of our most eminent independent Members. [Interruption.] Or is it UKIP? I cannot remember. The Government allowed local councils to cover issues that were not their core responsibility. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), in a typically polite Liberal Democrat fashion, gave the impression that the Government are on top of the issue. In fact, they announced a review of the code in December 2008, and the consultation closed in March 2009. We were promised the Government's response in December 2009 and then on 7 January, but it still has not appeared. The Government are dithering, and we cannot go on like this; they must come out and say what they are going to do. We do not support independently-funded news consortiums, as that is the Government simply recreating the old analogue system of regional news that nobody wants anymore, particularly in this internet age, nor do we support the Government's proposals to top-slice and undermine the independence of the BBC. We will protect the BBC from the Government, and work day and night to protect its independence from people such as the Minister.

What do we intend to do? Many Tory councils are already leading the way. Lancashire Tory council has closed down its newspaper. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush will, of course, want to praise Mayor Boris Johnson for closing down The Londoner, as he wrote all the time to Ken Livingstone to tell him that he was wasting £3 million of council tax payers' money.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Vaizey: I will not give way. We intend to review the local authority code and tighten it up. We also have campaigned rigorously for the relaxation of cross-media ownership rules, to allow media companies to build up across different platforms-newspaper, web, radio and local TV. We welcomed the announcement in November that Ofcom will recommend that relaxation, and we would support that in the Digital Economy Bill.

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I am working up to our exciting proposals for a network of ultra-local television. That is what I call leadership. We have out for consultation Roger Parry's document "Creating Viable, Local Multi-media Companies in the UK", and I advise the Minister, who does not have a policy on that issue, to respond to that consultation, because he is clearly unable to publish the conclusions to his own. That proposal would put in place a network of 81 local television stations, combined with newspaper, web and radio, and provide the ultra-local news and accountability that local communities desperately need.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Siôn Simon): It is a tremendous pleasure, Mrs. Dean, to serve under your chairmanship again. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing this debate, which has been widely attended and intelligently and cogently argued.

I shall begin with a jocular remark. I will then reply to points raised during the debate. I shall also take interventions from Members who have not already intervened. If I have any time left-

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): So that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who speaks for the Tories, cannot be accused of hypocrisy, may I ask him to have a word with the local Tory-controlled council in my borough? It publishes a newspaper at public expense but refuses to give the contact details of the local MP. How political can it get?

Mr. Simon: That sounds like political abuse of the existing code, and I am sure that Members on all sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Wantage, would deprecate it.

Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Member for Castle Point is lucky that I am not doing the four Yorkshiremen skit.

My name is prohibited from appearing in the Hammersmith and Fulham News, even though, as the House will have heard, my opponent, a prospective parliamentary candidate, gets half a page to himself. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). I would like to praise Boris Johnson for cancelling The Londoner, but I do not need to because he is on the front of the Hammersmith and Fulham News, with a number of other Tory politicians appearing inside.

Mr. Simon: It is fair to say that everyone understands why my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) is unhappy.

I want quickly to get on with my jocular remark-although it may not be good enough to stand up to all this waiting. The hon. Member for Wantage talked about sucking up to local newspaper editors. Last week, in a debate on the Video Recordings Bill, he was extravagantly sucking up to Matthew Parris. This afternoon, he was sucking up to Polly Toynbee. I take the opportunity to salute Alan Watkins, the greatest living newspaper columnist, and to recommend his book "Brief Lives", which is a masterpiece on the art of column writing. [Hon. Members: "What about the jocular comment?"] That is what passes for humour when I am on my feet.

To a large extent, the debate has been more about the rights and wrongs and abuses of council free sheets.

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Mr. Redwood: I wonder whether the Minister is practising for jobs other than that of comedian, as he might need some other skills.

Mr. Simon: I shall take the right hon. Gentleman's remark on the chin, with thanks.

The debate has tended to be about council free sheets rather than local newspapers and the tremendous pressures that they are under. The tendency has been to assume that free sheets constitute a serious pressure on commercial local newspapers. We clearly do not know to what extent that is the case. We do not know exactly how many, but 60-something council free sheets are taking paid advertising out of a total of 420 local authority newspaper areas. However, we do not have good evidence to show the prevalence of the practice.

Mr. Burstow: That is the key point that I wanted to make today-we do not yet have a robust evidence base to allow us to be clear about the matter. There is plenty of anecdotal and other evidence of the sort that I mentioned earlier, and it makes a compelling case, but surely the Office of Fair Trading should consider the competition matters, as the Audit Commission will clearly not do so.

Mr. Simon: It has taken a while, but we are told that the Audit Commission is about to reach a conclusion on what has turned out to be a relatively constrained set of issues. Once we have those conclusions, the next step will be to present that information to the Office of Fair Trading and ask it, perhaps with Ofcom, to consider the question of competition and the potential impact on the paid-for newspaper market.

Mr. Vaizey: Will the Minister let us know when his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are to publish their proposals to revise the local authority code on publicity?

Mr. Simon: We now change subject to the local authority code. I am told that the Department's conclusions on the code are to be published imminently.

Mr. Andrew Turner: One point has not been raised. It is argued that we should keep profits locally, rather than nationally-across the width of the country-but it troubles me that more and more newspapers are being bought up nationally rather than by local people, yet it is the local people who should benefit most.

Mr. Simon: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. One hopes that over time there will continue to be a blend between locally and nationally owned local newspapers. As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) told us, Claire Enders says that the market will shrink by half. Any papers that exist in that market, whatever their ownership structure, can be considered a democratic good in the local community. For the moment, we will have to settle for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush was right to raise the question of free papers potentially having their context changed as commercially owned papers go free. It will change the landscape. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central
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(Mr. Pelling) referred to a local authority newspaper that was costing some £700,000 a year. Given such sums, I shall be astonished if Trinity Mirror or any other commercial operator in this hard-pressed sector will invest for long at those prices.

Mr. Pelling: I said that it was costing £20,000 a month, which is about £250,000 a year. However, the total communications spend is £2 million.

Mr. Simon: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush.

Mr. Slaughter: I said that the disclosed cost was £750,000. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that Trinity Mirror is taking a bold step. We will see how deep its pockets are when it comes up against state-subsidised competition that is completely bankrolled by the taxpayer. Does my hon. Friend not see that there is a role for the Government here? As I said earlier, we cannot rely on commercial companies to compete with people who are bankrolled by the taxpayer. What will the Government do about it?

Mr. Simon: As I said, the DCLG will imminently report its views on the matter.

There is another side of the coin, which is not represented by my Department and may not find great favour in the Chamber. However, it is important that councils communicate with their citizens-good information is vital-and that they do so in a way that represents good value for the taxpayer. The arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's
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Bush makes against propaganda are unanswerable. It is for the DCLG, in its revision of the code, to come up with convincing answers. However, it might be that the code needs not to be revised but adhered to.

Mr. Burstow: On the point about value for money, does the Minister not agree that it would make sense for local authorities to be required to publish in a clear form all information about the costs incurred in the production of local authority publications and newspapers, so that people can see much more clearly whether the expenditure gives value for money.

Mr. Simon: That is something for DCLG Ministers to answer. They received 300 responses to the consultation, and they will reply imminently.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) spoke about a timetable for independently funded news consortiums. This morning, we announced eight successful bids for the three pilots. We intend to stick to our timetable. We will have reached a preferred bidder status in each of the pilot areas by March. It will be clear before the election who is to run the independently funded news consortiums in the English, Scottish and Welsh areas.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. The debate is concluded, but there is a Division in the main Chamber. The sitting will be suspended for about 15 minutes if there is one Division, and 25 minutes if there are two.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Back to Work Initiative (Wales)

4.18 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): In the past 13 years, the number of people employed in the Vale of Clwyd, my constituency, has gone from 23,000 in 1997 to 29,000 today. That is the fifth biggest increase in the number of people employed in a constituency among the 40 parliamentary seats in Wales. Five of the top six biggest increases are in north Wales constituencies, which is something that I am very proud about.

The St. Asaph business park in my constituency, which was built by the previous Conservative Government at a cost of £11 million, was empty for 10 years. There are now 3,500 jobs on that business park. The Labour Government have applied for objective 1 funding, which was granted in 2000. The previous Conservative Government did not even apply.

The issue is not the total number of jobs in my constituency but their distribution, especially in poorer areas. In 2002, I asked for the unemployment statistics for my county of Denbighshire. There are 32 wards in Denbighshire. Most unemployment was concentrated in two wards: the south-west ward of Rhyl, the council estate ward in which I was born and brought up, and the west ward of Rhyl.

I thought that was unfair, so I asked the professionals what joint action was being taken to counteract unemployment. Organisations were working in silos, and few were working together, so I formed an unemployment group in 2002. Initially, I asked about 20 agencies to join, including representatives from the Department for Work and Pensions, the careers service, the local college, the economic regeneration team, the local education authority, the health service, the police and the probation service, as well as one individual I would particularly like to mention: Gareth Matthews, who then worked for Working Links. I believe that he is one of the finest practitioners of the back to work agenda in the whole country.

Meetings were convened about four times a year. We set our minds to improving work opportunities in those two wards. We met and made progress for three years, but the catalyst for the group was the DWP's announcement that it would form city strategy pilots across 15 UK cities, including bigger cities such as Birmingham and Glasgow. I approached the then Minister-now the Secretary of State for Scotland-and asked him whether Rhyl could become a pilot city, even though it is a Welsh town of only 27,000 people. I asked that we be considered for the seaside pilot for the back to work agenda in 50 traditional UK seaside towns.

The Minister listened, and we did some further lobbying with the then Minister of State-now Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport-my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge). She summed up the problem with the back to work agenda by discussing her visit to Glasgow, where she learned that 200 different organisations were working, some in isolation and others in competition, to get people back to work.

That crystallised for me what we needed to do in my constituency and my home town of Rhyl, which suffered from so much unemployment. We needed to ensure that everyone involved in the back to work agenda was fully
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apprised of what others were doing. Where there was scope for joint working and co-operation, it should be flagged up at an early stage. Competition should be minimised, co-operation maximised and ignorance eliminated. The Minister of State listened carefully to our request, and we were made a city strategy pilot.

One of the first tasks that the Rhyl city strategy faced involved governance arrangements. We did not want to become an arm of the county council; we wanted flexibility and the ability to respond rapidly to the issues facing us. We decided to set up a community interest company. I believe that of the 15 pilot areas in the UK, we are the only one with a CIC. It was proposed by Ian Eldred, the head at the time of Clwyd Leisure, another CIC.

With city strategy status came additional funding allowing the employment of key personnel who professionalised our approach to unemployment in Rhyl. They include Ali Thomas, the inspirational local manager of Rhyl city strategy, and Julia Cain, whose lateral thinking on employment has led to engagements for ex-offenders caring for bees in an apiary. I will come to that later. Other initiatives developed local butchers and fishmongers in Rhyl. Those two officers were ably helped by Jennie Walker and Suzanne Jeffrey.

Two projects illustrate our success. The funding administered by the RCS comes from a variety of sources. The biggest source is the DWP through deprived area funding and specific grants made to the Rhyl city strategy. The Welsh Assembly Government have also stepped up to the mark. Their Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills provides big chunks of funding for basic skills.

The funding is critical to raising the skill profiles of local workers, many of whom face multiple barriers, including low literacy and numeracy, drug and alcohol problems and low self-esteem and confidence. I pay tribute to DCELLS officer Ian Williams, a key member of the city strategy team who has secured much-needed funding for our projects. The core funding is often supplemented by other agencies and bodies, sometimes in the form of gifts in kind and staffing contributions.

One project is the Dewi Sant centre, which I have mentioned. It is run by a chap called Geoff Bainbridge, who works with ex-offenders, many of whom have multiple problems. One initiative that he has come up with to engage them is an apiary on the outskirts of Rhyl where ex-offenders look after bees and develop allotments.

Another is Football in the Community, run by Jamie Digwood and Tracey Jones at Rhyl football club. They use sport as a means of engaging unemployed people by training and employing young people in the Rhyl area as football coaches. The workers then go out into the community and on to council estates to engage young people and keep them fit, healthy and on the straight and narrow. It is an excellent project. Ministers and TV crews have come from as far away as Ireland, Scotland and England to see what we are doing at Rhyl football club. The work is inspirational.

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