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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 5 April 2011

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

BBC Local Radio

9.30 am

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a pleasure to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this important debate on BBC local radio. I should declare an interest: I used to work for the BBC, although not in the field of broadcasting.

I also thank the 66 Members of Parliament who have signed early-day motion 1593 on the topic. I appreciate that not all Members of the House choose to sign early-day motions, and some have a policy of not doing so, but I assure you, Mr Turner, that the support I have had from Members of all parties has been extraordinary in the desire to keep what is special about the BBC—that, firmly, is local radio.

The BBC spends about £600 million on radio—just under a fifth of the licence fee income—of which about £137 million is spent on local radio in England. That equates to about 3.2p per user hour, half that for Radio 3 and less than for Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle. I am not complaining about the amount of money spent on Radio 3 or the nations’ radio stations, but I reflect that BBC local radio in England is rather good value, reaching the number of listeners that it does.

BBC local radio reaches about 7.4 million listeners across its various stations, including—for the particular attention of Members—2.5 million people who do not listen to any other BBC radio station. It is reaching out to that 40% of listeners who do not listen to Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, and it is important to remember that.

The remit of BBC local radio is deliberately focused on two areas. The first is to ensure that the breakfast and drive-time shows are 100% chat and news-driven, which is what they do, and rather well, especially Radio Suffolk. At other times, a minimum of 60% chat is required. That leaves space for commercial radio to have distinctive programming, in particular music-driven, which brings in attractive advertising slots that reach a younger demographic. The 55-plus generation like to listen to music, but perhaps not the type that drives all advertising on local radio. The second important point about the people reached by BBC local radio is that it captures not only the 2.5 million who do not listen to other BBC radio services but a substantial number of the C2, D and E social groups, broadening the BBC’s reach, in contrast perhaps to the national radio stations.

One of the six values of the BBC is to celebrate community moments—“national moments” as the BBC calls them. That is where local radio truly excels, such as the Proms at the Albert hall being taken to the local celebration party, or the royal wedding coming up on 29 April. I cannot tell you how many wedding parties there will be in Suffolk, but they will be covered by people

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from Radio Suffolk and there will be the opportunity to phone in to our day-time programmes, which are under threat.

At the moment, distinctive radio is broadcast outside the breakfast and drive-time shows. That can vary, such as local sports coverage. How can I put it? Leiston FC probably would not get commentary on Radio 5 Live, even though they are about to win their championship and get promoted into the Ryman league premier division, but somehow I think that only matters to the people of Suffolk who express an interest in sport. Other examples include the local phone-in programmes—we can talk about post office issues relevant to the local area. There are so many examples, which I am sure that many colleagues will offer today.

BBC local radio has done some things of which I think it could do more, such as reducing the content of the website. There is space for local media to expand, in particular in Suffolk. I might surprise colleagues when I tell them that I have three daily papers covering my constituency, which can do that because they are local and focus on local stories. There are also opportunities to expand the training to community radio stations which, again, all Members value in their constituencies, but they are not a substitute for the excellent output we all enjoy from BBC local radio.

I am sure Members are not surprised that I will now focus on BBC Radio Suffolk. One of the important things to say is that there is a 22% reach to adults throughout the county. More important, Radio Suffolk is truly fulfilling the 50-plus generation remit, because it now covers one in three adults listening to that radio station.

Running through some of the presenters, Mark Murphy in the morning is a must-listen for anyone and everyone. I am sure he will send an ugly mug to anyone who name-checks him today, but, importantly, he has a lead role in campaigning for BBC Suffolk. I have already mentioned in the House, to the Prime Minister, how BBC Suffolk was behind a great campaign in which the people of Suffolk raised more than £3 million to build a children’s hospice, very much helped by the radio station. Other, more pertinent local issues include “Bin a Blade”: in the first three weeks of the BBC’s publicising the campaign and working with the local police, more than 1,000 knives were put into safe bins. That is the reach of the BBC in motivating people and getting that conversation going about some real local issues.

James Hazell has, I believe, the second most popular radio show on BBC Suffolk, but he is in the very time slot that the BBC wishes—is considering, I should say—to move to Radio 5. That would be a big mistake, because on the local phone-in, James Hazell—our equivalent of Victoria Derbyshire—really hits the issues that matter for Suffolk.

Lesley Dolphin in the afternoon goes the extra mile. She might have been following Chris Moyles, but she also went up Kilimanjaro and raised more than £60,000 for charity. She continues to have that light touch that people enjoy listening to, perhaps while gardening or doing their crossword. Stephen Foster is a non-miss; he does the news round-up in the evening. My friend, Rob Dunger, would kill me if I did not mention him, but his business breakfasts on Saturday mornings really bring to the listener who is up and about important news of the day and that friendly chat.

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Many good examples of BBC local radio will be given today, but the reason I wanted the debate was to stand up for the licence fee payer. One of the things that worries me about the BBC’s review process is that the licence fee payers have not been asked for their opinions or thoughts. By contrast, the Arts Council, which has made difficult choices in the past week, set out open and transparent criteria and the process by which it would make choices on which organisations it would fund. I have not seen any of that from the BBC so far, and I should have.

I am not one to make cheap political points about choices, and talent on the BBC deserves to be paid well, just as it would be in the commercial market, but the BBC needs to look at some of the more sensitive issues it faces in London with some of its talent, such as flying production teams from Scotland to London to accommodate a presenter, or how it manages its staff and talent. A report in The Guardian talked about how the BBC misses out on £80 million a year because of how it manages staff.

I went on a training course for human resources. This was no secret, but was said to everyone in the BBC who attended that course: unfortunately, due to poor controls, the BBC paid out more than £6 million to fixed-term contractors who no longer worked at the corporation but who, for some reason, had never had their contract stopped on the payroll. The BBC corrected that—I commend it—and I thought I would never bring the issue up, but that is half the budget of BBC local radio.

There are opportunities for the BBC to look at its internal bureaucracy to understand where the money is going. It found one source, and was able to turn off the tap of funds, which was well done, but even on my last day at the BBC, I was arguing with another project manager about a three-week delay, because that team had not got their act together, and they were trying to block our project going ahead. I was challenging them and saying, “You cannot make this decision. We need someone senior to make this decision, because your delay will cost the BBC £12 million.” I know many programme-makers who would give their right arm for £12 million to spend on programmes at the BBC, including many radio stations throughout the country.

It is important that the BBC makes savings—I know that, I get that. I am a member of the party in government and I realise that not every decision will be popular, but one of the BBC’s core values is to reflect what its audiences want. I call on it to look hard, think hard, and speak to licence fee payers. That is why it has audience councils. I am not aware that they have been consulted on some of the ideas, or come forward with their own, but it is important that the BBC continues to listen. It is a wonderful institution and something I cherish. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working for the BBC. It sometimes frustrates me, but it is wonderful and it needs to keep what is special. What is special, especially to the people of Suffolk, is BBC local radio.

9.40 am

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate, and I echo her

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comments about the demographic profiles of those who listen to BBC local radio, its relationship with commercial radio, and the content of BBC local radio. I echo all her comments. The story is exactly the same for the people of Sheffield and south Yorkshire.

My local radio station, Radio Sheffield, started broadcasting on 15 November 1967. It was the country’s second local radio station to go live, and it now broadcasts not only to south Yorkshire, but to the north midlands. The signal can be picked up as far afield as the west of Manchester, the north of Leeds, and as far south as Leicestershire. In November 2010, it was voted station of the year at the prestigious Gillard awards. For us, the station is as south Yorkshire as a Barnsley chop or the famous Henderson’s relish that goes with it. It is the radio station that people tune into to listen to local news or to talk about local matters.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said. I fully endorse all the comments that have been made about the news, programmes and so on, but does my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) agree that BBC local radio comes to the fore when there is a crisis, a tragedy or a major event such as flooding? That is when one sees how good local radio stations are.

Angela Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall refer to the role that Radio Sheffield played during the floods that afflicted south Yorkshire in 2007.

Radio Sheffield’s morning breakfast show is hosted by the archetypal south Yorkshire man and “Phoenix Nights” comedian Toby Foster, who can raise a smile on anyone’s face. He brings together music, sports, local news and national news with a local interest, and does so in a light-hearted, informative and entertaining way that works with his audience. Other presenters, including Rony Robinson, Howard Pressman, Paulette Edwards and Dean Pepall, are much loved and provide a familiar voice in the homes of people in our area. That is important, especially for the elderly and those who live alone. The demographics of Radio Sheffield listeners tend towards the older end of the age profile, and it is important to bear that in mind; we do not all want to listen to hip hop or rap on Radio Hallam.

Regular phone-in programmes, to which the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal referred, are hosted throughout the week on Radio Sheffield, and allow local people to have their say on national and local events. At the moment, it runs at least two phone-ins a day, but it would not be able to do that if the proposals were given the go-ahead.

Radio Sheffield really comes into its own when something of local importance happens that may not be of interest to the national media or remains important long after the national media have moved on to other things. A good example was the floods of 2007, which badly affected my previous constituency of Sheffield Hillsborough. For a brief period, the national news focused almost entirely on Sheffield, but after a few days the focus, probably rightly, moved elsewhere.

However, for the people of south Yorkshire the nightmare of flooded homes and streets continued, and a year later the people of Cumbria suffered the same problem. Radio Sheffield played a massively important social

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role in ensuring that local people knew what was going on—when electricity would be restored to homes, when streets would be cleaned, when traffic lights would be working and where people could go for help when they had lost everything because their homes were full of water and they had nowhere to go. Without that service, it would have been much harder for people to come to terms with the tragedy of those floods.

Another immensely important role for our local radio station is its role in local sport. I was intrigued to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal about local football coverage, because the same can be said in south Yorkshire. Unfortunately, for the time being, not one south Yorkshire team is up there with the elite in the premiership. That will happen one day, although it will take time.

Without local coverage, many of the area’s football teams would have no coverage at all. Radio Sheffield’s commentary team will travel, for example, to Exeter to cover a league one game involving Sheffield Wednesday. As a Wednesday fan, I must admit that Radio 5 Live will not cover Exeter versus Sheffield Wednesday on a Tuesday night, which is shameful. It is also certain that the national media will not be interested in reporting a game between Barnsley football club and Doncaster Rovers, but such a game is of massive importance to the people of south Yorkshire, because it is a local derby and they want to hear about it.

During the week, Radio Sheffield provides a daily “Football Heaven” programme hosted by the commentary team, which includes Paul Walker, Seth Bennett and Andy Giddings. All three are now involved in national as well as local commentary, because the quality of their commentary is so good. They learned their trade in BBC local radio. The importance of “Football Heaven” and “Praise and Grumble” on Saturdays is that that is where ordinary fans have a chance to vent their anger, frustration and even, occasionally, their praise for their local football teams, although more often than not they are angry and frustrated. Let us also remember that for many years local radio has been the springboard for much of the country’s broadcasting talent, without which tomorrow’s Nicky Campbell and Simon Mayo will not enjoy the same opportunities to learn their trade. The country would be the poorer for that.

Radio Sheffield is running a trial for merging local radio into regional radio provision in the afternoons. I do not like that, and the people of Sheffield do not like that. I like to hear about my own area in the afternoons, not about dancing dogs in Leeds or York. I want to hear local news, and that is why I tune into the station. The move to replace all local radio stations with national Radio 5 Live for most of the day would be a retrograde step that people throughout the country will resist. Radio Sheffield was set up 44 years ago because local people wanted to hear local news and local stories. To reduce that service at a time when technology has made local reporting even easier and more immediate is wrong and should be resisted.

I hope that the Government will play their part in ensuring that the BBC Trust understands how strongly hon. Members and people throughout the country feel about the issue. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): Order. I note that many hon. Members want to speak, and that there are 50 minutes remaining.

9.49 am

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I start with a tribute to the BBC, and a thank you. Apart from two years spent floating up and down on the waves as a pirate disc jockey, I learned my broadcasting with Radio London, which gave me the greatest opportunity I have ever had. It took me on as a young, inexperienced, microphone-trained-but-nothing-else broadcaster, and turned me into a radio journalist. I was given the chance to cut my teeth, to make mistakes, to broadcast hour after hour, and to learn the hard way what broadcasting is about. That is where I want to start.

First and foremost, BBC local radio is now effectively the only speech-based local radio service in the country, and it provides a superb training ground for young broadcasters. If that service is taken away, I do not know how people will learn real broadcasting and radio journalism skills without that platform. Local radio is vital to the future of broadcasting, and it should not be underestimated in the way that the craven, metrocentric, television-based management of the BBC currently tries to treat it.

I am sorry; I should have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate before I went into rant mode. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) expressed the second point that I wanted to make very well. When it comes to local issues and emergencies, to crisis time or to relatively regular and simple things such as schools closing due to snow, people turn to their local BBC radio station for information. For news about floods and other disasters, people turn to BBC local radio because that is the only real source of local information.

I recall the 1987 hurricane when everything went down but people still had battery-powered radios. The whole of Kent was incredibly badly affected by that hurricane, and people tuned into Radio Kent. After a night of violent storm that ripped our county apart, I recall broadcasting at 6 o’clock in the morning through a radio telephone—as it was at the time—to Radio Kent to offer help and blankets to elderly people in my constituency, and to ask people to contact us if they knew of any elderly people who needed heat and light. Members of Parliament from all parties could not have mounted that operation had it not been for that genuinely local outlet. Local radio is a vital service in every county.

It is easy in metro-centres—in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and particularly London—to say, “There is a plethora of stations that offer a wide menu of broadcasting alternatives, so we do not need this service.” I do not believe that is true, however, because BBC Radio London, for example, still plays a vital part in the everyday life of ordinary Londoners.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Liverpool. Although Liverpool has a plethora of commercial radio stations, BBC Radio Merseyside is the most listened to local radio station outside London, and has more than 300,000 listeners.

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Mr Gale: That is a fair point. BBC local radio is still the only truly speech-based radio service. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge made a point about local sport in her speech. BBC local radio covers local football and cricket matches, and some of the best cricket commentary in the country is provided by John Warnett from BBC Radio Kent, who comments on Kent’s county matches at the St Lawrence cricket ground. He would be an asset to “Test Match Special”—I have suggested that to him, although it would be a great loss to Radio Kent if he were to move to network radio. Those local broadcasters know their local teams, sports and adversaries, and they cover and present a word picture in a way that national broadcasting simply cannot. We will not get that service anywhere else.

I am huge admirer of Radio Five Live and think it is a great service that was an enormous and brave innovation. The management of the BBC at the time—I doubt whether today’s management would have had the balls to do it—created something very special, and I would not take one iota away from it. However, it is not the local radio service that BBC local radio provides, not only—this is where people get so dismissive—at breakfast time or “drive time”, but throughout the day. Local radio continues through the phone-ins and the local gossip. It is parish pump radio—coffee shop tittle-tattle for the county, and it matters to people.

My final point is that the BBC wastes an enormous amount of money. I have been a BBC producer and director; I have done the job and I know where the money goes. Last August, I was on holiday in France and due to return to the United Kingdom the following day, which was a Saturday. The BBC rang me and asked whether, after sending a taxi for me to Kent, they could fly me from Heathrow to Belfast to spend a night in a hotel, and five minutes on a sofa on Sunday morning to talk about a cat in a dustbin. I worked out that the cost of that exercise would have been over £1,000 for five minutes of broadcasting.

I watched the programme—I did not take part—and at the end a screen credit read “BBC Belfast.” That was the only thing in the entire programme that had any relevance to Northern Ireland whatever. The programme could have been made just as easily in Hong Kong, and probably more cheaply. The BBC has wasted £1 billion creating MediaCityUK, as it is called, in Salford Quays, and I would like to know why. What is the point of transferring the “Blue Peter” garden from White City to a rooftop in Salford?

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): There is a long answer to that. Surely the hon. Gentleman believes that the title British Broadcasting Corporation can be accurate only if it has local radio stations everywhere, and if it does not broadcast the main national stations only from London.

Mr Gale: I accept that entirely. The BBC has a long and proud tradition of regional broadcasting centres. Manchester is one, Birmingham and Newcastle are others. Bristol has probably the finest natural history service in the world bar none. I do not take anything away from any of the work done regionally by the BBC—that is not the point. There is, however, no sense in producing coverage of the Hampton Court or Chelsea

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flower shows—as far as I am aware, Hampton Court and Chelsea are still in or around London—from Birmingham.

To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, there is no point in flying a production team from Scotland so that Mr Dimbleby can have his programme directed and produced in London. There is no point in flying expensive guests from London to Manchester—if they will go at all—to sit on a sofa for the breakfast television programme. That exercise is costing £1 billion.

We could add to that the management fees charged by the BBC—the director general’s salary would pay all the salaries for one local radio station for a year. I do not suggest that the director general of the BBC is not a terribly important person because I am sure somebody will convince me that he is, but there is a huge amount of waste. When the Minister responds, I would like him to direct the BBC, perhaps through its new chairman of the trustees—Lord Patten, I hope—to areas other than this candle-end of a cut, which is miniscule in terms of the BBC’s finances. That candle-end shines a real light into the ordinary everyday lives of local people up and down the country, and I want it to continue to burn.

9.57 am

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate. I know that she is a regular contributor to Radio Merseyside which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) has said, is the most listened to local radio station outside London.

I would like to pick up the point about tragedy. Unfortunately, tragedy has been an all-too-common occurrence in Liverpool in the recent past, and there is sometimes the need for a local voice or slant on something that has been misreported. For example, in 1989 the scurrilous newspaper, The Sun, defamed and disparaged Liverpool supporters, and the city needed someone to stand up for it. Radio City and Radio Merseyside both did that, and Radio Merseyside more than most. With its phone-in and its afternoon presenter, Roger Phillips, the station is not just a local voice but a friend who goes into people’s homes, and who people know will not be judgmental. They were prepared to use the phone-in programme to express not only their anger, but their grief.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the vital point of phone-in shows during moments of grief is to provide a local voice? Although the BBC may be able to broadcast a phone-in show, I am sure that the people of Merseyside would prefer a local voice to someone based in London.

Steve Rotheram: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is the crux of the matter. Although people can phone national phone-in programmes, they are unlikely to do so from somewhere such as Merseyside, where people have that parochial feeling and sometimes think that the national slant on certain stories about our great city does not reflect the feelings of the people. That is why it is a regular occurrence when we listen to the radio in a taxi or when we walk past shops to find

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that everyone is listening to the phone-in programme hosted by Roger Phillips, which takes place in the afternoon. In the morning, people can listen to Tony Snell’s programme or to my friend Sean Styles, who does a show in the mid-morning. There is also Billy Butler in the afternoon. Those names might not be familiar to everyone in the Chamber, but if they go to Merseyside and mention any of them, they will find that everyone there knows them. People listen to Radio Merseyside more than anything because they trust it. That is why the point made by the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) is absolutely right and why Liverpudlians will not stand idly by while faceless bureaucrats wreak havoc with local radio stations, including our local radio station.

10.1 am

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate, and I praise her compelling and persuasive arguments for keeping daytime output on BBC local radio. She talked about its good value in terms of the cost and the valued output.

I would like to give a personal point of view on BBC local radio. I am lucky to have had two main careers. For 10 years, I was a Royal Air Force officer and then I completely changed tack. I decided that I wanted to be a journalist, did a postgraduate course in broadcast journalism and, like many of my fellow students, ended up working in BBC local radio. I did freelance shifts at BBC Radio Cleveland, which is now called BBC Radio Tees, and I also did some shifts at BBC Radio Leeds. I experienced at first hand the importance and the localness of BBC local radio. I was sent off early in the morning in the BBC local radio car, which was a little Fiesta with a wobbly aerial on top, and I would go to the place where something was happening and try to get people to talk about it. It felt so live, so immediate and so local.

In the BBC local radio stations where I worked, there was a fantastic mixture of the old hands, the characters whom we have heard about, who had been there for many years, and the young, talented and ambitious people—I did not count myself as one—who have gone on to national broadcasting careers. I have only to think of people on BBC Radio 5 Live, which I listen to a lot now. Richard Bacon and Victoria Derbyshire both started in BBC local radio.

I would not dictate to BBC bosses, although I am tempted to, how they should spend their money, but we have to consider the facts and figures. One of the most compelling sets of figures are the most recent listening figures, which show a weekly reach of 7.4 million people in England for BBC local radio. That is an increase of 700,000 listeners on the previous year. Those figures do not surprise me, because I know the value of BBC Radio Leeds in my Colne Valley constituency, on the edge of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire.

I must talk about the passionate football coverage. This is an exciting time in West Yorkshire. Leeds United are going for promotion, as are my team, Huddersfield Town. Bradford City are struggling to stay in the league, but that also makes for compelling listening. Only on Saturday afternoon, I was out and about with my

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children, but I had BBC Radio Leeds on, and Paul “Oggy” Ogden was commentating on Huddersfield at Tranmere. He actually lost his voice as he screamed the commentary on the second goal, scored by Novak, at Tranmere, which was another vital win for Huddersfield Town. Ogden is a local lad—he lives down the road from me—and it is that passion that we get from BBC local radio.

I must declare an interest: I am regularly on BBC local radio. Recently, I have been on it talking about Libya, Arts Council grants and maternity services in Huddersfield. There is a slot on Friday morning called “Meet Your MP”. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and I have recently been on it, as have other hon. Members, and I will be on it again in a couple of weeks’ time, so local radio is good for local democracy as well.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in our soundbite era, BBC local radio is often the only media outlet that has the patience and care to do the in-depth interviews that get to the bottom of a story?

Jason McCartney: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The “Meet Your MP” slot lasts an hour and is all speech; there is no music. It is a mixture of people going out and about and interviewing people about issues. We do not know what the questions will be, and we get the time to give proper answers rather than just soundbites, so my hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head.

We have heard about the value of BBC local radio in a crisis or at a time when people are worried. On my patch, there were very heavy snowfalls in the last two winters. Although it did not make for compelling radio, parents and guardians were glued to their radios as presenters read out the list of 380 schools that were closed. That was done on a half-hourly cycle, and I know how valuable the service was. The listenership was probably the highest ever. It was just list upon list of schools. The parents or guardians were worrying about whether they would have to take a day off work to look after the children; the children were jumping for joy when they could go sledging and throwing snowballs. That is the kind of localness that we get from BBC local radio.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) has mentioned regionalisation. I was on the lunchtime phone-in show recently, and the presenter kept thinking she was still in Sheffield, even though she was broadcasting across the Yorkshire region. The BBC is examining that already but, as has been shown, it does not necessarily work. BBC local radio needs to be local. We have heard in other recent debates in this place that we must protect the front line. There is nothing more front line than BBC local radio, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will pass that message on from all of us here today and that the BBC will listen.

10.6 am

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate and on securing such good attendance

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by MPs on the last day before the recess; that shows how strongly we feel that we must join our voices to those of our constituents and ensure that the BBC hears what we are saying.

As the hon. Lady said, we need to stand up for licence fee payers. We need to listen to what they want and ensure that they get a good deal. Local radio is a very good deal—for licence fee payers and for the industry. As the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and for North Thanet (Mr Gale) pointed out, drawing on their experiences, it is a breeding ground and a training ground for reporters who move on through the system, so it is very important. It is the lifeblood of the whole system.

Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I was brought up with local radio. My mother was a regular contributor to Radio Leicester as part of the comedy duo Florrie and Ada. They performed in Sileby dialect—[Interruption.] I cannot do the dialect myself, but my mother still can. That illustrates the way in which local radio keeps voice, dialect and idiom alive, which is also very important. Local radio is part of the lifeblood of communities.

The local radio station that I know best now is Radio Humberside. I am pleased to see in the Chamber the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who will also celebrate Radio Humberside. We both enjoy, I am sure, the coverage of local football, although recently I have not been able to enjoy it particularly.

Luciana Berger: We have heard lots of contributions from hon. Members about the coverage of football on local radio, but does my hon. Friend agree that local radio stations such as BBC Radio Merseyside also provide opportunities for other sports, such as basketball, to get attention? This week in basketball the chase is going to the wire, and it is stations such as BBC Radio Merseyside that are promoting teams such as the Mersey Tigers.

Nic Dakin: I congratulate Merseyside on being top of the league. In Scunthorpe, the local speedway group and the local rugby union club are also covered and celebrated. Indeed, as a college principal, I often saw the college netball team and the college hockey team covered as well. Also in my role as college principal, I saw how important it was to have local radio to communicate to people, during the snows of the early part of 2010, which buses were and were not running. Without that information source, we could not have kept everyone informed.

Local radio is part of the infrastructure of community, which keeps the community involved; it can celebrate what goes on in the community and it can motivate communities. People in all parts of my constituency—whether it is Hibaldstow, Redbourne, Cadney, Howsham, Kirton, Bottesford or Scunthorpe—can see events celebrated on local radio that they rarely see celebrated on local, or indeed national, television. That is important because it reflects the community’s passions and interests back to it.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he acknowledge that his constituents, like most of mine, would actually prefer to be served by Radio Lincolnshire?

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Nic Dakin: Of course our constituents can tune into Radio Lincolnshire—they have the freedom to tune their radios—but my constituents tune into Radio Humberside because of its performance and the support it provides. They like to listen to Andy Comfort and to be teased by Peter Levy. That is why they enjoy Radio Humberside, and long may it remain so.

The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal must be absolutely congratulated for bringing this issue before us. Let us hope that the BBC is listening.

10.11 am

Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) for securing the debate. We may be holding it on the last day of term, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, but the turnout is excellent, which tells a tale in itself.

Like many other Members, I should declare an interest at the start of my remarks. I began my career in BBC local radio; I worked in news and programming at Southern Counties Radio in Guildford, which became BBC Radio Surrey, and I also produced and read news in the United States—the types of radio involved could not have been more different, and therein lies a tale for another day. I would consider myself a friend of the BBC, but like all friends worth having, one can sometimes be critical and not always say what friends want to hear.

As we have heard, the BBC faces a tough licence settlement and is looking for savings. BBC staff are rightly being asked to contribute ideas about how to achieve those savings as part of what the corporation calls “Delivering Quality First” workstreams—“workstreams” is a great BBC term—and recommendations will be made to the trust this summer. I suppose “Delivering Quality First” is an exercise in flying a few balloons, and I genuinely pay tribute to the BBC for flying them, but I doubt whether it wanted the particular balloon we are talking about to fly quite as high and as publicly as it has.

That is not really important now, however, because this workstream has been picked up and will be discussed by members of the public and in this debate, which is a good thing. I have spoken to some members of BBC management, and I understand their frustration at the fact that “Delivering Quality First” is seemingly such a leaky progress. My advice would be that that is not all bad; there are many benefits to the fact that these issues are being discussed publicly. We should have more of that at the BBC.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, I fully accept that the BBC faces a financial challenge. I may be critical of the nearly £100 million overspend on the redevelopment of Broadcasting house and I may wonder whether that money could have been used better—we have already heard examples of where savings could have been found—but when I say that I accept that there is a challenge, I also accept that there must be some changes. I accept that there must be changes to BBC local radio as somebody who has worked in it and seen it from the inside. Those changes might be not only necessary, but desirable. If it is done correctly, “Delivering Quality First” could be a big opportunity for BBC local radio.

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It is right to look at some shared documentary programming, which could be broadcast across regions, if the story will work on a much wider geographical area. One example from my part of the world is the future of Southampton airport, which is expanding rapidly. That is a regional story, which would be owned by BBC Radio Solent, but it would clearly be of interest more widely to listeners in Sussex, Surrey, Wiltshire and possibly elsewhere. It is right to look at some shared programming nationally and across regions. A story may demand a wider audience, and the BBC can use its network of local radio stations to further its public service role.

Another example might be a documentary looking at the referendum that we will have on 5 May on a possible change to the voting system. It would be no bad thing if we used the BBC local radio network to explain in much more detail to its loyal listenership what the alternative vote means, for instance. I would very much welcome that.

Members who are listening carefully, or at all, will have noticed that I said “shared documentary programming”, and that was deliberate. There is no reason for saying that certain time slots in BBC local radio’s daytime schedule—not the whole thing—cannot be earmarked for regional and/or national documentary content. It would be best if that was pre-produced documentary content. In my experience, there is not enough good radio documentary content these days, and it falls to the BBC, through the amazingly unique way in which it is funded, to correct that. If the corporation is really smart, it will use the huge talent pool in BBC local radio, which other Members have mentioned, to bring such things to air and give them a chance. I see no reason why the BBC should not use its substantial knowledge of specific BBC local TV and radio audiences to do that in the way that has the least impact.

Mr Gale: My hon. Friend is making much more eloquently than I did the case that I was trying to make. Does he agree that the BBC network leans very heavily on its local radio stations as stringers, particularly in times of national emergency, crisis and incident? Without the bedrock of those local journalists, all that will be stripped away and that huge national resource will be lost. We cannot cover some issues only in a breakfast programme and a drive-time programme.

Mr Brine: I absolutely agree, and I will explain why in more detail later. What I am saying, however, is that there is no reason, if it is used intelligently, why good documentary content in predetermined slots—just an hour here or there—should not be fed through the BBC local radio network. Many of the national stories that we hear on network radio will go to a reporter in Scunthorpe or in Winchester, which I represent. Those reporters will be from BBC local radio, and the BBC will use their experience. It will use its local reach to bring issues to network radio, and it does that very well, but if we take that arrangement away, the network will go.

If savings have to be found, and many of us accept that they do, we have to think about these issues. What we do not have to think about, however, is flatlining all daytime BBC radio content and merely accepting the Radio 5 live feed other than during breakfast and drive time.

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When I worked in BBC local radio, I was fortunate enough to be part of the production team that ran our afternoon sequence. That was not news, but a daytime magazine radio. We produced three and a half hours of live, all-talk radio five days a week, and I can tell Members that that was a learning ground—we produced some great live radio and some great stuff for the Christmas blooper tape. Seriously, however, it was live radio in the community and for the community. We brought issues alive for listeners, especially when we took the outside broadcasting car with the wonky aerial out on the road.

Shortly after joining the station, I moved from news to programming, because it had much more of a magazine, daytime feel and allowed us to develop stories and features from the community we served. To give one example, we used to open the programme every day with a feature called “Just the Job”, which brought somebody on the air for 10 minutes to tell listeners about their interesting or unusual occupation. The man who tasted dog food to see whether it was ready for the market lingers in my memory and in other ways—he genuinely still exists. [ Interruption. ] It was very nice. However, my point is that BBC local radio daytime output was fun and local, and the response to our show was enormous. That loyal following genuinely drove content for us from one day to the next.

I want now to touch on localism. As we have heard over the past year or so, the Government’s whole drive is towards decentralisation and localism. We are putting more power than ever before into the hands of councils, councillors, schools and, dare I say it, even GPs. All those people will be responsible for huge sums of taxpayers’ money—our constituents’ money—and BBC local radio will be needed to play an even greater role than ever in holding local decision makers to account and in shining the light of transparency on behalf of our constituents.

BBC local radio stations are increasingly involved in holding people to account, which is the essential accompaniment to localism, and it would be not just a shame, but dangerous to see that work go backwards. In my area, BBC Radio Solent, which began broadcasting from its antenna on the Isle of Wight many years ago with the voice of Lord Mountbatten, has recently appointed two local political specialists who have begun a series that gives listeners a direct line to decision makers and service providers. I have been called to account myself many times, including at some ungodly hour this morning to talk about this debate. The facts speak for themselves, as many Members have said. People are listening in increasing numbers to BBC local radio. We have touched on crisis coverage and the BBC stamp of authenticity, so, most importantly, we can all know when not only kids but big kids—Members of Parliament—can go sledging.

I know that young audiences are also drawn to BBC local radio. Sometimes this debate can be polarised and the service be seen as rather old-fashioned, but young people in my part of the world listen to BBC Radio Solent through the partnership it has with Radio 1 and its “BBC Introducing” programmes, which give new music and unsigned bands a chance via the BBC network and web pages. We should do much more of that. The BBC has a big responsibility to help young people and give them a chance.

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Local radio should be a vibrant and often risky broadcasting environment, where young talent can grow and learn and where the local stories, which we often hear on network coverage, can be unearthed. In my limited experience of broadcasting, and especially radio broadcasting, it is as much in the heart as in the head. To create content that is interesting and engaging, it is necessary to create a sense of community that means the listeners will tune in to be a part of the team as much as to hear what is said. Terry Wogan on Radio 2 with his TOGs—Terry’s old geezers or gals—is a brilliant example of that, but there are hundreds of examples in BBC local radio across the country, including on BBC Radio Solent.

Hard news is only part of the story in breakfast and drive time on local radio. So many listeners value their station for the companionship and sense of community it offers, and that, in my humble opinion, is something we are unwilling to lose without one hell of a fight. Without BBC local radio, the whole world would never have known the sheer pleasure of “Up With The Partridge” on Radio Norwich. As a great fan of Alan Partridge, I think that that would be a very bad thing indeed—ah ha!

10.22 am

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I have enjoyed coming to her weekly—or so it seems because of her success in securing debates—90-minute debates in Westminster Hall. I also congratulate her on speaking so strongly, passionately and ably on behalf, as she put it, of the licence payers. Their voice is not heard sufficiently in the corridors of power in the BBC, and I hope that the voices raised this morning will resonate throughout the BBC. I have not heard a word against local radio, which is no surprise, and I am certain that the message will be heard loud and clear. I hope that the Minister will convey the messages from this morning.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr Brine) and his stories about dog food tasting, which made us all sit up. I wish to make two straightforward points. We, as parliamentarians, are rightly and inevitably obsessed with how we achieve a functioning democracy. Therefore, one of the obsessions with which we will inevitably engage to ensure that we get one is ensuring that we have a functioning media—a means by which people have communication that informs them in terms of their engagement with the political decision-making process. If all that the broadcast media can do is provide generalised national reporting or press releases read out on the hour quickly, interspersed with the extensive playing of records, it will not significantly contribute to the kind of functioning democracy that we, across all parties, desire. For that reason, we rightly want to support and protect what we have now—in fact, if anything, we need to enhance what BBC local radio is achieving.

The BBC has become involved in a race. I do not know whether it is the same in other areas, but six or seven years ago in my part of the world, BBC Radio Cornwall adopted “Radio Anywhere” jingles and a broadcast style and manner that is replicated in the grid pattern of BBC local radio across the country. I am not

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sure that that is necessarily a move in the right direction. It is the idiosyncrasies, which have come out today in hon. Members’ descriptions of how BBC local radio reflects their areas, that are precisely what our local radio stations should value.

Duncan Hames: In Corsham, Winsley, Chippenham and Holt, the signature of BBC Wiltshire is its reach into rural communities when other media seem to be stuck in the cities. My hon. Friend must feel that as acutely in west Cornwall.

Andrew George: My hon. Friend is right. We are blessed in Cornwall. I might challenge the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on whether his local radio station is statistically more popular and has greater reach, penetration, listenership and loyalty than Cornwall’s. BBC Radio Cornwall is an incredibly popular local radio station, in spite of operating in a very competitive environment with the independent stations, Pirate FM and Atlantic FM—both well listened to local, independent radio stations. On the Isles of Scilly, we have Radio Scilly as well, which provides a remarkable and engaging community service although it broadcasts to a population of only 2,000. The only reason those independent radio stations are able to succeed is that the BBC sets the standard that they have to attempt to reach.

I go back to my fundamental point about a functioning democracy. I fear that the BBC at national level is moving towards fly-on-the-wall, get-me-out-of-here types of reporting, rather than the in-depth inquiring documentaries in which it engaged in the past. Similarly, on local radio, I have noticed a trend towards just reading out press releases rather than cross-questioning the information put out by the establishment. BBC local radio has done that effectively, it has the resources to be able to do it and it is fundamentally important that it should carry on doing it.

BBC Radio Cornwall is the national voice of Cornwall. We have “An Nowodhow”—the news in Cornish—which is fantastic to be able to hear regularly, even with my rather rough and informal knowledge of the language. Other Members have mentioned dialect stories from other parts of the country. We can only get that with a framework in which such reporting can be based. I fear, though, as Matthew Arnold put it, that this is about the desire of a centralised state to render its dominion homogenous. The BBC may be engaged in that same drift of simply treating the UK as if it reflects the metropolitan elite, and it is not necessarily reflecting idiosyncrasies around the country as a whole. I hope the BBC is listening today.

10.29 am

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Like her, I speak in support of highly valued local radio services. To my pleasant surprise, I find I must declare a family interest, though I would not have had to do so a week ago. My sister found out last Friday that she has been accepted into the BBC’s talent pool and is therefore one more person with a profound interest in its future.

It is not on my sister’s behalf that I am speaking, but on that of my constituents, who value their local radio

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station, BBC Hereford and Worcester. Among its 110,000 listeners, it has 33,000 who listen to no other BBC station and 18,000 who listen to no other station at all. I speak on behalf of the tens of thousands of listeners who value, through the day, BBC Hereford and Worcester’s updates on real local news, its local sports coverage and the invaluable public service that it provides in times of crisis. I hope that we speak in this debate on behalf of common sense when it comes to the BBC’s handling of its financial challenges.

Cutting local radio, which represents a fraction of the total radio budget and a still smaller fraction of the overall budget of the BBC, is not the obvious place to start. There is no doubt that the BBC, like other public bodies, must cut its cloth to fit the times, but it has a great deal of cloth from which to cut, including large headquarters buildings and several smart television studios around the country, and budgets for entertainment, publicity and promotion, the salaries that it pays to big name broadcasters and the budgets of expensive television productions. Perhaps some of the many hundreds of people who covered Glastonbury last year should be spared before the 30 who work hard in my local radio station.

The “delivering quality first” proposals that prompted this debate have not yet been properly costed. They are only ideas at present. However, the director-general has suggested that £150 million could be saved by scrapping overnight television programming between 10.30 pm and 6 am, showing repeats instead. That is more than the total cost of BBC local radio throughout the UK, which costs £137 million.

Apart from the fact that local radio is enjoyed by thousands every day, as other hon. Members have suggested, it comes into its own in times of crisis. In Worcestershire in the summer of 2007, we faced cataclysmic flooding, a one-in-100-years flood that caused weeks of disruption, and images of our county were shown on the national news for all the wrong reasons. In such circumstances, local radio comes into its own. People who were stranded were able to get help, drivers were able to avoid the closed roads, and SOS messages from farmers needing their cows to be milked and from the elderly in need of food were responded to, thanks to local radio.

Many years ago, freak snowstorms in October cut off my family in our home in rural Worcestershire. For more than a week, the power was out and the heating was off, and the local radio on battery-powered radios was our lifeline to the outside world, bringing news and comfort. Much more recently, in last year’s hard winter, when snow drifts struck and thousands were stranded, it was to local radio that many people turned. I remember sliding along in my car listening to an SOS from a local wedding because the DJ had failed to arrive. It was not a matter of life or death, but as I plan to get married this Saturday, I can say that it must have felt so. Only local radio could have delivered on such a mission—and it did.

If the cuts were to go ahead, the BBC would suffer from the loss of local knowledge and contacts provided by the local radio network. Many journalists—and, it seems, many MPs—began their careers in local radio, but many of the most popular and well-loved characters on the airwaves have remained there for many years. The local knowledge of figures such as BBC Hereford

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and Worcester’s Paul Damari, our weatherman, is legendary; it would be harder to retain that knowledge with a broadcasting schedule of only a few hours a day.

My case is that local radio remains a vital public service. If there is any justification for public service broadcasting, then surely local broadcasting should be at the forefront. The BBC must do what it can to manage its way through these financial challenges, but the suggestion of abandoning local radio is fraught with risk. It is the wrong cut to the wrong target.

As we prepare for the Easter recess, I am reminded of the parable of the speck and the beam in Luke’s gospel, in which one man focuses on the speck in his brother’s eye rather than removing the beam from his own. The BBC gives wall-to-wall coverage of Government cuts and their impact on local communities, but it must also consider its own decisions and do the right thing to protect genuine community services such as local radio.

10.33 am

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this important debate.

I wonder whether the BBC has lost the plot and completely forgotten that it is a public sector broadcaster. Several hon. Members have discussed the vital nature of the BBC to local communities. I draw on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) about Radio Kent; I was brought up in Kent, and I remember sitting around the radio waiting to hear whether my school had been closed—those were exciting times.

Tony Cunningham: We have talked about flooding and other crises, but we tend to forget the huge crisis that hit the farming industry—the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. BBC Radio Cumbria—and, I am sure, local radio stations around the country—was vital, as farmers who were completely isolated were able to tune into their local radio stations.

Alec Shelbrooke: Absolutely. That example shows how important local radio is.

I raise those subjects because I want to discuss the technology. Local radio is broadcast on FM because its reach is relatively small compared with other forms of broadcasting. The FM signal goes roughly the distance that the eye can see—about 20 or 21 miles. It has the unique ability to allow several local radio stations to broadcast to their communities on specific local issues. I can understand the BBC thinking that Radio 5 Live has become a popular radio station and that it might say, “Let’s move it on to those FM frequencies, which we can free up by getting rid of local radio.” However, that does a disservice to Radio 5 Live listeners.

Many Members have said that sports coverage on the BBC is fantastic, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet was right to say that it was a brave decision to create Radio 5 Live. I remember tuning to Radio 2 on Saturday afternoons to get football and sports reports. When 5 Live came along, broadcasts were much more focused. However, medium wave broadcasts have the advantage that they can be heard in many areas that cannot receive FM. Indeed, given the

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correct atmospheric conditions, I have been able to pick up Radio 5 Live in the Italian Alps. If we move the programme to FM, we shall disfranchise many listeners. I remember talk of making Radio 4 long wave into a news-only channel, and the resulting outcry from people who would not be able to hear “The Archers”, because they would not be able to pick up Radio 4 FM in the more remote locations.

Some argue that we could move to digital channels. We have heard much about sports coverage today, but about two years ago coverage of Leeds United was moved from BBC Leeds to Yorkshire Radio, a station owned by Ken Bates. I am sure that everyone will understand why he did that. The argument that we could hear the commentary on digital radio disfranchised a great number of people in the Leeds area, who cannot now pick up the Leeds United commentary. The BBC says that it could use digital stations, but many people do not have access to a digital set. More importantly, in some of the more remote areas it is difficult to pick up a digital signal.

The BBC needs to consider why it exists. Its primary function is public service broadcasting. If the BBC is looking to save money, why do we need BBC 3 television? BBC 3 does exactly what BBC 1 and BBC 2 used to do—and what Radio 4 used to do, as many of the comedies that are now trialled on BBC 3 used to be trialled on Radio 4.

Jason McCartney: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. It is all about financial choice. The BBC Democracy Live website is apparently not showing this debate; instead, it is showing coverage of the EU Parliament. Will my hon. Friend join me in saying that it should ditch that EU coverage and spend the money on BBC local radio?

Alec Shelbrooke: I am sure that our written media give more than enough coverage to European matters, and the BBC does not need to follow them. The BBC should prioritise.

“Little Britain” and “The League of Gentlemen” are very successful comedies on BBC 1, but they started on Radio 4. I am sure that many will have read that BBC Radio 7 was rebranded to form Radio 4 Extra, with new editions of “The Archers” and so on. It is a better listening feast. New comedies should be trialled on Radio 4 Extra, which is a digital channel. BBC 3 is a digital channel, and getting rid of it would free lots of money. BBC 4 is a great channel, with some highbrow broadcasting, but its content used to be shown on BBC 2. Why are we spreading the money around? BBC 3 and BBC 4 could be scrapped, and that money could be used for local radio. In my opinion, that would cause no loss of content or quality for BBC viewers and listeners.

Some of the more commercial stations, such as Radio 1 and Radio 2, could easily survive in the commercial world, but the BBC is a public service broadcaster. Radio 3 has been mentioned. It has a small audience, and it offers a unique service of limited appeal and may not be commercial viable, but it plays complete pieces of music, unlike Classic FM. Despite being commercially successful, Classic FM does not play the intellectual pieces that can be heard on Radio 3.

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There is a role for public service broadcasting. I urge the BBC to take a close look at how it spends its money. It should remember its remit as a public service broadcaster. If that means getting rid of BBC 3 and BBC 4, and using the BBC 1, BBC 2 and Radio 4 Extra channels instead to save money for BBC local radio, then that is what it should do. It should remember that technology allows it to use FM. It should also remember that having medium wave for Radio 5 Live will let everybody hear those commentaries that we all appreciate and love.

10.39 am

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate and on her speech. Like a number of hon. Members this morning, she used her service with the BBC to inform the debate.

I associate myself with the remarks that have been made about the important role that the BBC plays in the lives both of the nation and of the regions and communities that we represent. The structure of the BBC, like that of the NHS, says a huge amount about how we see ourselves as a nation—it is something to which we all contribute and from which we all benefit. It occupies a crucial role in our national life. More than any other broadcaster or media outlet in Britain or elsewhere, the BBC is trusted for its impartiality.

The BBC’s 40 local stations, not least Radio Suffolk, play a hugely important role across Britain. They have 7.5 million listeners a week—an increase of 500,000 on last year and more than 700,000 on the year before. A third of listeners, some 2.5 million, listen to no other BBC station and almost a fifth listen to no other station at all. Some 1.5 million British people get pretty much all of their news from their local BBC radio station.

BBC local radio reaches 31% of less affluent over 55-year-olds, which is well ahead of Radio 2 at 24% and Radio 4 at 16%. At 35%, local radio’s reach for less affluent pensioners is even higher. In fact, the figure is higher than for any other station. Given the proportion of people listening in the morning, BBC local radio is one of the main sources from which those people get pretty much all their news and current affairs. Such figures are really important, because they show how local radio helps the BBC deliver effectively to all licence fee payers. They show how significant numbers of licence fee payers, particularly older and less affluent ones, would not be served properly if substantial parts of the local radio service were removed.

Tony Cunningham: May I go a stage further? For many people who are elderly, disabled or housebound, local radio is not just something to which they listen, but a lifeline.

Ian Austin: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That is a really important point about the BBC’s local services, which are listened to and which give a voice to all those who are otherwise not catered for by other broadcasters, whether those broadcasters are run by the BBC or anybody else.

The BBC runs five local radio stations in my region of the west midlands, including the brilliant BBC WM with its broadcasting legends Ed Doolan, Paul Franks

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and Phil Upton, on whose show the hon. Lady and I were interviewed this morning.

Local radio in the midlands attracts more than 800,000 listeners each week, and its content is of huge importance. It organises detailed debates and discussions on issues of local and regional importance. As my hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Tony Cunningham) and for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) have said, it covers major issues such as crises and floods. At the moment, there are debates involving the candidates to be elected mayor in Leicester and Mansfield, discussions about the impact of spending cuts on the voluntary sector in the black country, coverage of local government elections, Ed Doolan’s legendary consumer advice service and brilliant sports reports, all of which would not be covered or debated were it not for the BBC’s local and regional output.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. Without local reporting, including BBC local radio, where would people go? These days, they may go to the internet and the social networking blogosphere, where there is a lot of uncorroborated rumour plied by rather sad and mendacious people, who often want to defame those engaged in trying to inform people. Is it not the case that the alternatives are rather worrying?

Ian Austin: The hon. Gentleman is correct in his comments about the rigour, impartiality and accuracy that underpin the BBC’s work.

The BBC’s local and regional output is a core part of its work. Without it, I wonder whether it is possible for the BBC to fulfil both its mission to inform, educate and entertain and its public purpose, which is set out in its charter. For example, it has a duty to represent the different nations, regions and communities and portray and celebrate their range of cultures and communities at a national, regional and local levels.

Dr Coffey: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a contradiction that the BBC is spending money moving TV production away from the centres to the regions and nations, but, at the same time, almost taking away that regionalisation from radio?

Ian Austin: The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I will expand on it in a minute.

The BBC also has a duty to provide a range of outputs, including original content, to meet the needs of the different nations, regions and communities of the UK.

As the hon. Lady has said, the BBC’s English local radio network also represents value for money. The BBC’s total spend in 2012 was £3.5 billion, of which BBC local radio in England spent £137 million. The service costs just 3.2p per user per hour, which is less than half the cost of BBC Radio Scotland and a fraction of the cost of the Welsh language service.

As the hon. Lady has said, the BBC makes an important contribution to the economies and cultural lives of the English regions with networked programming outside London supporting 7,000 jobs in Glasgow, Cardiff and Bristol, which is worth around £200 million to the economy of those areas each year.

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The BBC’s economic impact study shows that every pound of licence fee generates £2 of value to the licence fee payer. I am worried that the money that is spent on production would be jeopardised if the local and regional radio network was undermined as part of the current discussions. The point about cost and benefits is really important. The benefit of the licence fee should be felt by all licence fee payers and all citizens in all parts of the UK.

This morning, Government and Opposition Members have celebrated the BBC’s work and the important role that it plays at a local and regional level. None the less, many of us are concerned about what impact the savings will have on its work. Of course, savings and efficiencies should be made where it is possible—no one disagrees with that. Like all broadcasters and other media organisations, the BBC constantly has to adapt and modernise its service to reflect the introduction of digital services and other technological advances.

Many hon. Members are worried that the scale of the savings that the BBC has been asked to find will be difficult to achieve without compromising the important functions that have been discussed this morning. I have a number of questions for the Minister about the impact that the cuts will have on the BBC over the next four years. How confident is the Minister that the duties set out in the royal charter will not be jeopardised by the savings that have to be made? How does he think that the savings should be shared between national, regional and local services? What criteria should be applied to where the cuts will fall? How does he think that those criteria might affect programme quality? What guarantees has he sought about the impact on the diversity and quality of regional and local services? Based on his discussions with BBC management, can he tell us how many jobs might be jeopardised by the process? To what extent does he believe that the users of the BBC’s local and regional services should be consulted about any changes? I will finish there in the hope that the Minister will address some of those questions in his response.

10.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for those questions and to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) for securing this debate. Many Members have used this as an opportunity to highlight the quality of their local BBC radio service. However, I will, if I may, make a brief correction. Each Member gave the impression that they had the best service in the country, but let me say that BBC Radio Oxford is, in fact, the best local BBC station in the country.

Like many of the other stations that hon. Members have mentioned, BBC Radio Oxford was particularly prominent at a difficult time for its local area. In BBC Radio Oxford’s case, that was when my own constituency suffered from flooding in 2007, and the station continues to provide a first-class service to my constituents and to other people living in Oxfordshire. In particular, there is Malcolm Boyden’s excellent breakfast show and there is Bill Heine’s show. Bill Heine is famous not only for being an excellent presenter, but for having a shark that comes out of his roof in Oxford.

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Obviously, I want to address the concerns that have been raised, particularly those raised by the hon. Member for Dudley North, as best I can in the short time remaining to me. First, however, having criticised hon. Members for trying to give the impression that their local BBC radio station was better than BBC Radio Oxford, let me say that I agree with them when they say that their voices should be heard by the BBC.

It is a testament to the commitment to the BBC of hon. Members, and therefore a testament to the commitment to the BBC of their constituents, that so many of them have turned out for this morning’s debate to make their contributions. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) spoke about the importance of Radio Sheffield and she made the particularly good point that local radio offers an opportunity for emerging talent to hone its skills. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) talked about his vast experience in the media. Contributions were also made by the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for St Ives (Andrew George) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr Brine), who acknowledged that some change is not always to be opposed. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who is to be congratulated on his impending nuptials, also made a contribution.

In fact, there is something about the BBC and marriage. I say that because when I participated in a debate on the BBC on Friday, such was the interest that I began reading Dods from cover to cover and discovered that the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) is also due to be married; I also extend my congratulations to him. Of course, I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on his contribution to the debate.

As I say, all those hon. Members made their feelings known and I stress that what the BBC is apparently undertaking—I have not been briefed on this matter formally—is some kind of a consultation. However, hon. Members may recall the time that the BBC proposed to close BBC 6 Music. There was an outcry, many hon. Members became involved in the debate about that station, and the decision to close it was reversed by the BBC Trust. Therefore, if these apparent proposals by the BBC are firmed up, hon. Members will have a chance to lobby the BBC Trust and perhaps persuade its members that there are better ways to go forward.

Alec Shelbrooke: I just want to respond to the Minister’s comments about how BBC 6 Music was due to be closed down and people lobbied against its closure. BBC 6 Music offered a unique service. I urge my hon. Friend to say to the BBC, “Get rid of the duplicity first and then let us see where we are”.

Mr Vaizey: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend meant “duplicity” or “duplication”. “Duplicity” may have been a Freudian slip there. [ Laughter. ] Let me also say that I am confident that the BBC is watching this debate. When I participated in the debate on Friday about the BBC, I received regular text messages from a

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member of its corporate affairs department. To give the BBC due credit, it takes debates in this House very seriously.

Radio remains a very important medium in this country. Every week, more than 90% of the population consume more than a billion hours of radio in total. The radio landscape in the UK is more diverse than ever, with listeners having access to more than 20 national radio stations, 400 local radio stations and 200 community radio stations. The creation of a community radio landscape is something that the last Government can genuinely take credit for. In addition, internet radio makes it possible to listen to a diverse range of radio stations from across the globe.

We have debated the importance of localness in radio a number of times in this House and it was certainly a feature of the recent debate on changes in media ownership rules. Ensuring localness in radio is a key part of the regulatory regime for commercial radio and Ofcom is required to ensure that commercial radio produces an appropriate amount of local material. For many commercial stations, their local nature is their key differentiator. The location of their studios in the local high street, and the fact that their presenters travel the same roads to work as their listeners, allow those stations to speak more directly to their listeners than some other stations. That is true of both commercial and BBC services.

However, those local media businesses are competing in an increasingly global media market, and commercial radio in the UK has seen its total revenues fall in the past 10 years. So the needs of commercial businesses and the public policies of localness do not always sit easily together. Having said that, I am a supporter, for example, of some of the technology that some commercial radio companies are introducing to help them to reduce the fixed costs of local studios and avoid the duplication of resources. But I know that that is not always popular, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made very clear in a debate that we had on the localness rules.

I also want to mention briefly the success of community radio, which was introduced by the last Government in 2004. Community radio has quickly grown into an important and thriving third tier of radio. Community services are the embodiment of local radio, with stations staffed and programmes presented by local volunteers. I am pleased that, last week, Ofcom announced a further round of licensing for community radio, so that even more communities can benefit from such stations. If hon. Members do not have a community radio station in or near their constituency, I urge them to look into community radio.

I promised to turn to the specific issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal raised, which is the speculation around the networking of the BBC’s local and regional services. As I said, the suggestion that the BBC will scale down its nations and regions services and its network programming with BBC Radio Five Live is, at the moment, just speculation. The BBC is considering a number of proposals and absolutely no decision has been made at this time.

The hon. Member for Dudley North rightly pointed out that the reduction in resources for the BBC could present the corporation with some problems. However, it is worth looking at this issue of resources in the round. It was only a couple of years ago that the BBC was considering going into local video, in addition to

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local radio. That proposal was fiercely opposed by many in this House because they wanted to preserve space for the commercial radio sector. The BBC had the resources then to make a significant expansion and therefore it does not need to consider making a significant contraction now. I will not pick up on the specific points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet made, but he said that there are numerous ways in which the BBC could save money. Finally, I suspect that changes to local radio programming are driven more by editorial decisions than by the need to save money.

The hon. Member for Dudley North asked me a number of questions and I suggest that I should write to him in some detail about them. For example, to ask me as a Minister to opine on how BBC savings should be divided between national, regional and local services is to invite me to go beyond my brief in trying to decide how the BBC should use its money. But I am certainly happy to approach the director-general of the BBC to ask him what criteria he intends to apply and to ask for guarantees about programme quality and diversity. There is no doubt that some jobs may be lost in the BBC, but again that will be a matter for the BBC itself to consider.

The BBC now has a seven-year licence fee settlement. It has certainty of funding for the next seven years, which is something that no other media company in this country enjoys. It is quite right that the BBC should be examining the scope for efficiency savings while looking to deliver the best quality service possible with the funds available to it.

The BBC has launched its internal consultation, “Delivering Quality First”, and the proposed changes to BBC local radio is just one topic of discussion. As I said, however, there is a bright future for local news and local content, not only with commercial radio, community radio and the move towards digital radio, but with a subject that I am surprised not a single hon. Member has mentioned in the debate—the advent of local television. Local television will bring a huge rebirth of local content across communities in this country, and we should see the first fruits of that initiative early next year.

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Advice Centres (Barnsley and Sheffield)

11 am

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): It is a pleasure to deliver my speech in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

Most people never need to seek advice, and I hope that that remains the case, but some people, often through no fault of their own, find themselves in difficulty, with creditors knocking on the door or, in the most extreme circumstances, their homes being taken away. Such people are often going through a terrible time. They might have lost a partner or a job, or they might find that they cannot work anymore, and it is at such times that the advice centre comes into its own. It can offer practical help by guiding people to a safe haven and helping them to rebuild their lives.

My constituency is typical of many in this country, with parts in which deprivation levels are high and increasing worklessness and unemployment, which is not helped, it has to be said, by the cutting of public sector jobs. The constituency covers the north of Sheffield and the west of Barnsley, and it has three advice centres for an electorate of about 70,000. On the Sheffield side, the two advice centres, Chapel Green and Stocksbridge, are independent of Citizens Advice, and on the Barnsley side a citizens advice bureau covers most of the area. The centres’ services are provided on very tight budgets, and the centres draw heavily on the contribution made by an army of well-trained and well-motivated volunteers—the original big society, even before it became a PR slogan.

Even when the economy was in good health and employment levels were at record highs, advice centres played an important role in supporting individuals who found themselves struggling with the business of everyday survival, and demand for such support is now rising because of the present economic climate. Unemployment is rising, and inflation is running at 5.5% on the RPI measure, with the cost of everyday items, particularly food and petrol, increasing significantly. People are feeling the pinch, and those who have lost their jobs are likely to need significant levels of support if they are to succeed in protecting their families and getting back on their feet. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that as the Government spending cuts bite, personal indebtedness will increase by a massive £303 billion by 2015, meaning that average household debt will rise to £77,309—the previous projection was £66,291. To put it another way, household debt will rise to 170% of household income according to independent forecasts by a body set up by the Government themselves.

One of the advice centres in my constituency has informed me that it has recently seen a 13% increase in the number of people seeking advice. In Barnsley, the citizens advice bureau has seen a massive 25% increase in the level of debt that it is being asked to advise on—the debt totalled almost £18 million last year. The Barnsley centre now receives 50 new debt-related inquiries a day, and debt accounts for 60% of its work. That is a frightening figure by anyone’s standards, and even more so in Barnsley, which will suffer particularly badly because of the cuts. All three advice centres agree that the situation will get worse as the Government’s austerity drive gathers pace in the coming months and years.

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This is not a time, therefore, to cut funding to advice centres, but that is exactly what is happening, never mind that the financial inclusion fund has been reprieved. I acknowledge the fact that the Government have done that for the time being, but anyone familiar with the funding regimes that apply to advice centres knows that the centres typically sustain themselves from a number of sources.

Stocksbridge advice centre is isolated in a steel-producing community seven miles from the next nearest advice centre, and it has seen its £84,000 budget reduced to £29,000 for the financial year that is just starting, thanks to a number of decisions made by the Government. That is a massive cut by anyone’s standards. The centre’s biggest loss is the £42,000 it used to get from Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency for Yorkshire and the Humber that the coalition Government have abolished. The centre has also been told by the Lib-Dem Sheffield city council that it will receive funding for only six months of the coming year, because the council is required to save £80 million in one year thanks to reductions in its Government grant, with further amounts to be cut from its budget in future years, of course. There is, therefore, only six months’ guaranteed income from the council, after which the centre will have to bid for further funding for the rest of the year and beyond. The centre serves not only the steel town from which it takes its name, but a large rural area that extends well into the Peak District and to the wonderful market town of Penistone in Barnsley. The consequences of the reductions are that the number of paid staff will reduce from 2.6 to 0.9 full-time equivalents and the service provided will be put at risk, despite the eight doughty volunteers who give their time for free, week in and week out.

The centre’s statistics clearly demonstrate its worth. Client gains in welfare benefits were in excess of £586,000 for the past year, which roughly equates to a £6 gain for every £1 spent by the centre. That does not include the amount of debt dealt with, which by October 2010 was well in excess of £500,000. In the past year, the centre also undertook 134 home visits; every MP knows that home visits are an essential part of any advice service, and we occasionally have to do them ourselves, visiting disabled people, for example, or the parents of children with special needs. The advice centre also represented 34 clients at social security tribunals. It is worth pointing out that the centre covers a huge geographical area to the north of Sheffield, including parts of western Barnsley and, as I have said, the next nearest advice centre is more than seven miles away, in Hillsborough, in the urban part of Sheffield. The Hillsborough centre is already working at full capacity, and could not take on the extra workload if Stocksbridge ceased to exist—it would be physically and financially impossible. A huge area would, therefore, be left without advice cover and, given that a large part of it is rural and rather isolated—we are talking about the Peak District national park in its north-eastern reaches—such a possibility is rather worrying, to say the least. The very idea that such a large area could be left without the provision is of huge concern to my constituents.

In the eastern part of my constituency, the local independent advice centre, Chapel Green, relies entirely on a grant from Sheffield city council for its survival.

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Not only has that grant been cut by 11%, but the funding received is for only six months, which is the Lib-Dem council’s policy, and the centre has been told that it will then have to compete for a share of any possible further funding. The centre covers not only the north-east of the city, but also part of the massive Parson Cross estate, the levels of deprivation of which are well known. The centre already runs on the work of volunteers and can only pay for a part-time manager, who is a very effective and dedicated individual. I run my surgeries from the Chapel Green advice centre on the fourth Saturday of every month, and the manager turns out every single time to welcome my constituents and to ensure that they are looked after while they wait to see me. That is the level of dedication that he shows in his work. He has been running the centre on a shoestring for years, but the financial situation is now deteriorating very rapidly, and if the centre is unsuccessful in gaining further funding, it will no doubt face closure.

Adequate debt advice will become unavailable to much of the population in north Sheffield, which involves about 40,000 people. The bit of Parson Cross covered by the advice centre has serious levels of deprivation. It was once part of Sheffield, Brightside, one of the most deprived constituencies in the north of England. The centre there secured £691,373.29 in unclaimed benefits for its clients during the financial year just closed. That is nearly £750,000 pumped into the local economy, with all the benefits accruing from that. This point must be read into this debate: advice centres secure moneys due to local people, which has a knock-on effect on the local economy and its shops and businesses at a time when those businesses need to be stimulated for their long-term survival.

The same centre reports that queries relating to debt increased by 21% over the past year, with telephone queries up by 6%. In Barnsley, the local Labour council has been able to maintain the CAB’s funding of £195,000 for another year. I applaud Councillor Stephen Houghton for making the brave decision not to cut that funding in the face of a £26 million reduction in the moneys available to spend on services. He has recognised that the financial plight of many people living in his borough must be a top priority in terms of local services delivered. However, although the retention of the financial inclusion fund is also helpful, the future of Barnsley CAB is still uncertain, and although the grant level is being maintained, it is still being cut in real terms when inflation is taken into consideration.

The centre covers not only a large part of the west of my constituency but the rest of the borough of Barnsley, which features in any index of deprivation. If there is any borough in England that needs support even now, it is Barnsley. It has some of the highest levels of people on incapacity benefit in England, a lot of whom have long-term illness resulting from their work in the mining industry. People in Barnsley need support. In these difficult times, the Government must thoroughly reconsider the cumulative impact of their policies on advice centres. The future of those centres is at risk not only from the cuts that almost all of them face from local authorities but from their loss of funding from various other sources.

Although the big society is a great slogan, it still needs funding. Volunteers are great and do a valuable job, but they need support and training, which takes

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money, and advice centres ultimately need paid professional input to work. The Government must understand that if we are really all in this together, advice centres need to be sustained. They provide critical individual support to tackle difficult and entrenched problems relating to issues such as debt, disability and housing.

The Government must also understand that it would be damaging to force through a centralised rationalisation of advice centre services by contracting out the work to call centres. When people are in trouble, they need the personalised and sensitive approach that they get from face-to-face service. As MPs, we know that most of our constituents are happy for us to deal with their problems after a quick e-mail or phone call, but some constituents have problems that are so complex and entrenched that they must meet us face to face at our surgeries in order to explain them so that we can work out what needs to be done. The same applies to advice centres, which need to be able to offer a face-to-face service.

The challenge is clear. Are we all in this together? If so, and if we believe in the big society, I ask the Government not to endanger an increasingly vital service that is valued by our communities.

11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate. I regard the citizens advice bureaux in my constituency as incredibly important, as I know she does. If other Members were here to listen to this debate, they would be praising the valuable work done by CABs.

Like the hon. Lady, I hold advice surgeries in some of my local CABs and work with them closely. I do not think that I could do my job as a constituency MP properly without that partnership with my local citizens advice bureaux. They refer people to me sometimes, but I generally refer people to them. I agree completely with her and pay tribute to the many volunteers and staff who work in CABs. They do an amazing job.

I hold two advice surgeries a week, spending six to eight hours face to face with constituents, and I think that I see only the tip of the iceberg of the social issues out there. The hon. Lady spoke particularly about debt. She is absolutely right that citizens advice bureaux play a critical role in debt management. We are currently consulting on consumer credit and personal insolvency, and after the recess, we will be responding to the evidence that we have received on the issue. The overall way in which we treat debt management and advice must be thought through more carefully than it has been. We can do a lot more for a lot more people with the money that we have.

The hon. Lady made a powerful case for her constituency and the advice centres there. However, what she did not say—I am sorry to pull her up on this point, as I have a lot of sympathy for what she said—is that the Government are dealing with a huge Budget deficit, the largest in our peacetime. We have had to take tough decisions. I had to see the previous chief executive of Citizens Advice to tell that organisation in-year that it had to make serious budget cuts. That was probably my most difficult meeting and the most difficult decision to take.

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However, I am delighted that in this coming year, we have been able through the spending review to protect the budget that the Department provides for Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland. That will make an important contribution to all citizens advice bureaux across the country for provision of IT and other services.

Angela Smith: The key point that I made was that not all advice centres are run by Citizens Advice. The cumulative impact of the loss of funding from various sources is creating the problem. I could contest the point about the deficit and the Government’s way of dealing with it, but my key point and priority is that the funding for one of my advice centres has been cut from £84,000 to £29,000 in this financial year, and its viability is at risk.

Mr Davey: The hon. Lady is right to make the point that it is not just about Citizens Advice. I take that on board. In considering debt advice, we want to ensure that we look across the whole piece both locally and nationally, as numerous organisations have a national locus in that area. She is also right to say that citizens advice bureaux rely on many sources of money. That is why I recently met the Minister with responsibility for civil society, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), and Ministers from other Departments with an interest in the area, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice, to ensure that we take a cross-Government view of funding for the advice sector. It is critical.

The hon. Lady is right to mention the cumulative impact. From the perspective of my Department, in funding Citizens Advice—and, as she was kind enough to say, in securing the financial inclusion fund for face-to-face debt advice—we believe that we are playing our part. Working with colleagues across Government, we want to consider not just the current year but the next few years to ensure that there are no unintended consequences resulting from a failure to join up the different parts of Government.

Focusing on the issues raised by the hon. Lady, she spent a little time, as I have mentioned, on debt advice. She said that the Office for Budget Responsibility would see an increase in indebtedness, which is absolutely true. It is already incredibly high. We have already seen, over the past few years, a massive increase in indebtedness, which is why more money has been spent by both the previous Government and this Government in this area. That is also why we have to think carefully about how we manage the issue. Whether it is through the phone, the internet, or face to face, we need to make sure that we provide the services that people actually need. We need to go deeply into this, because there are other issues in relation to debt advice about which we need to think carefully.

We need to think about mental health. People with debt problems often suffer mental health problems as well—it is a huge relationship—so we need to think about how we manage that. We need to think carefully about how we encourage people to come forward early enough to get support and advice. We need to make sure that the voluntary and charitable sectors are well known enough among people who suffer from debt, so that people who have problems do not just go to people in the private sector who provide very expensive debt

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advice and sometimes make the problem even worse. We need to make sure that they know that advice centres are available.

I think that the hon. Lady and I have the same objective in mind. I shall not suggest that her constituency is the same as mine, because there are different levels of deprivation, but I assure her that mine, as well as those of all Members, has pockets of deprivation and people who need the services under discussion.

The hon. Lady mentioned the situation in Barnsley and Sheffield. She will know, of course, that local authorities make decisions on funding local bureaux. Such decisions are not made by national Government. The previous Government took that view. There is not some sort of centralised support for individual bureaux, and I hope that she was not suggesting that we should do that.

Angela Smith: What I am saying is that the Liberal Democrat council in Sheffield has cut funding and has given it for only six months. The key point, however, in relation to Stocksbridge advice centre is that it has lost £42,000 as a result of the abolition of the regional development agency. That is Government policy—it has nothing to do with the local council.

Mr Davey: I think that we agreed earlier that there are different sources of funding for advice services. That is why I am meeting other Ministers from across the Government to make sure that, as we think through the next few years, we recognise those sorts of issues.

The hon. Lady talked about Sheffield city council, which, like many other local authorities, has had a tough settlement. It has to make some tough decisions and no one pretends otherwise. We cannot get out of the massive deficit that we are in, in any sensible way, without taking some difficult decisions. I will not second-guess the decisions that Sheffield city council are taking. The hon. Lady has pointed out a number of times that Chapel Green and Stocksbridge advice centres have been given funding for only the first six months of this financial year, but my understanding is that Sheffield city council—the same is true of a number of local authorities throughout the country—is doing a review of the provision of advice within the city and looking to move to a new commissioning process later this year. Of course, that entails a degree of uncertainty in the short term, but the objective, as I understand it, is to make sure that advice services can get support over the forthcoming years, and get it in the most effective way possible. Nationally, we are reviewing the way in which advice is provided, and I do not think it unreasonable that local authorities are reviewing that, too. I certainly hope that, when they have made those reviews, they will be in a position whereby they can stably fund their local advice centres.

One of the issues that always comes up in my area—our council has responded to this—is the need to help the voluntary sector in general and the CAB in particular know their budgets for, ideally, about three years. Sometimes, however, an initial strategic review is needed to arrive at that certainty. It is up to Sheffield city council how it does its review and which new commissioning process to undertake. My understanding is that the review looks

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at the whole of the advice sector in Sheffield city council and that all independent advice providers, as well as the CAB, will be eligible to apply in the new process.

There is a local, independent consortium of advice agencies in the south Yorkshire area. Advice Sheffield includes the CAB and independent providers and it is looking at how it can reshape advice provision in Sheffield to ensure that the services are available to those who need them. It is interesting that that consortium of advice agencies also wants to see how it can improve the provision of its advice. Although it recognises that we are in difficult financial times as we try to tackle the deficit, it is doing its best for local people. It is right that advice providers, as well as local authorities, think strategically.

I want to make sure that I answer some of the hon. Lady’s core questions. She made an important point about the support that advice surgeries give to people who need to claim benefits, often making them realise that they are entitled to benefits in the first place. It is certainly important that they secure many benefit deals. I do not think, certainly from the evidence that our Department is receiving, that those sorts of services will be taken away from people. I assure the hon. Lady that we are looking at the issue closely. The evidence that we are getting is that budgets are tight and there is absolutely no dispute about that, but what we are not seeing—I pay tribute to the local authorities that are playing a key role in this—is a whole set of bureaux closing. We want to make sure that they can continue.

We are taking a lot of other long-term decisions. I have mentioned debt advice, but we are also undertaking a consumer landscape review—we published a consultation in either May or June—which will address the consumer space, which has a whole range of different national and regional organisations. We want to see whether we can get better value for money for consumers and citizens from the confusing plethora of fragmented aspects of the sector. The organisation that we have asked to lead that is the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. That involves not just the national organisation, where a lot of the national work will be done, but its relationship with local bureaux, which are, in many ways, the front line for consumers and citizens to make sure that they have the information they need and that they can register their concerns and complaints and get advice or redress in relation to their benefit claims.

Angela Smith: It has to be pointed out that I have still not received an answer to my key point, which is that Stocksbridge advice centre is living on borrowed time. The £42,000 to which I referred was European funding that was directed through the regional development agency, and that has now disappeared altogether. What will the Government do to ensure that moneys due to areas such as Sheffield will stay in Sheffield?

Mr Davey: If the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) was present, he would no doubt explain to the hon. Lady that, although major changes are taking place due to the RDAs going and local enterprise partnerships being set up, the European money to which she referred, which was channelled through Yorkshire Forward to

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her CAB, can still, we believe, be obtained. I cannot tell her how it will be allocated, because Yorkshire Forward will no longer exist, but it is not true to say that that money will all be lost to the system.

I share the hon. Lady’s concern that these are challenging times for the CAB, but our Department is making sure that the national organisation has its funding protected. We believe that, working across Departments and with local authorities, we can ensure that the advice that is sorely needed will be available.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Groceries Code Adjudicator

[ Mr Roger Gale in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under such esteemed chairmanship, Mr Gale? You will bring an enlightened and seasoned touch to the proceedings. In many ways, I would have loved to entitle the debate “supermarket ombudsman” because so many people understand what that means. When I told my local paper that I had a very important debate on the groceries code adjudicator, there was a blank silence on the other end of the phone. I tried to ensure that the person concerned understood what an important debate it was, but I am afraid that a blank silence still greeted me on the other end of the phone.

This important debate is about so much more than just farming or processes; it is about our supermarkets and everything we do and rely on. I do not come to this debate as a farmer or with any great farming heritage. I confess that I spent a week helping out a friend on a dairy farm, which involved cows standing on me, sitting on me and doing something else on me. However, I will not go into those details because I do not hold that against either the dairy industry or cows. This is an important debate because we need to get to the bottom of making sure that the grocery market works fairly, impartially and in the best possible way.

I will not be making some rabid rant against the supermarkets or decrying what they do in wider society. In my constituency, supermarkets are a major employer, as I am sure they are in the constituencies of every hon. Member here. They are an important part of our social fabric and they contribute much—whether we are talking about Tesco, Waitrose, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons or the Co-op. I think I have covered them all.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): Marks and Spencer.

Gavin Williamson: Marks and Spencer, indeed. Thank you, Minister, for that contribution. They all make a valued contribution but, as I said, it is about balance and fairness.

I called the debate because of a letter I received about a month ago. If you will indulge me, Mr Gale, I shall read it. The letter states:

“I am writing to you in sheer desperation, it’s 2 am, and I can’t sleep. The fact is we are dairy farmers and we cannot pay our bills. We need to buy more feed and don’t know how to finance it…The simple fact is we have been producing milk and selling it at the cost of production for about 3 years, and now we are below the cost of production, with large increases in the world’s wheat prices putting feed up and fuel prices having a knock-on effect on everything else.

We have had the worst winter for the weather, putting stress on the animals and equipment and severe stress on our own health.

About 3 years ago milk to the consumer went up about 3p per litre and ours to the producer went down about 3p. Cream has had a lot of very high prices, it’s never passed on. We are only getting 24p per litre and we are now talking of an increase for April of 1¼ p per litre”.

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That does not even take them to break-even level. The letter goes on:

“When we have challenged the dairy they say the supermarkets are to blame and the cheap price war to sell milk as a loss leader…Supermarkets are making billions and are more powerful than the Government…The decision for us is so bleak. We may have to sell up. When an increase comes it will be too late.

This last year 400 dairy producers have gone out of milk. We will just be another statistic.

Yours, waiting for a miracle.”

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I, too, have received letters very much along those lines—as I am sure a lot of other hon. Members who represent rural areas have. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial for the ombudsman to have real teeth and power? As he said, supermarkets are very powerful, impressive businesses. However, the ombudsman must have genuine teeth and power if it is going to have any real impact and effect.

Gavin Williamson: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. That is certainly an issue I will move on to as I go through my speech. It is absolutely crucial that an adjudicator has teeth.

That letter states:

“yours, waiting for a miracle.”

We all understand that, as Members of Parliament, we cannot dispense miracles. We do not have that ability. If we did, I am sure we would all be re-elected. What we can do is effect change and make a difference to many people’s lives. I am not saying that, as politicians, we should be setting prices. However, we should be ensuring fairness in the marketplace.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend envisage that an ombudsman or adjudicator would apply only to suppliers such as small farmers, or does he think it should apply to the vast bulk of supermarket suppliers—companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Mars, Heinz and Coca-Cola? Those companies make huge profits and most people think that they are more than capable of looking after themselves in any negotiation. Does he envisage that the adjudicator will cover all companies or just small suppliers?

Gavin Williamson: My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. However, the adjudicator has to look across the whole market. We cannot look at farmers in isolation because they are part of a process and a route to market. Farmers are at the very start of the process. The product does not go straight from the farm gate to the supermarket; in many cases it goes through a distribution chain. For an adjudicator to be effective, it has to look at the whole process. My hon. Friend makes the valid point that many of these businesses are substantial, major businesses that are present in our constituencies up and down the country. Whether someone is selling pigs or pizzas, the competitive market and the supermarkets have a major impact on that business.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. In response to the comments of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I wish to say that there should

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be fairness in marketing practices across the board—whether we are talking about small or large companies. It just so happens that the smaller a company is, the less likely it is that it will be able to employ the legal means to ensure fair competition.

Gavin Williamson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I agree with him and I will try to touch on those points later in the debate.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about fairness. I know that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has made those points before and has been consistent on the matter. However, in the spirit of fairness, is it not also right that the large supermarkets should have access to an adjudicator—an ombudsman—so that we have true fairness throughout the grocery market industry?

Gavin Williamson: The hon. Gentleman, who is probably one of the most knowledgeable people on the matter in this Chamber, touched on a valid point. When an adjudicator is up and running, which I hope will be in the near future, it will be of benefit to all sectors within the whole supply chain—as I say, from the farm all the way to the supermarket.

I remember almost a year ago, during the general election, speaking to many people in my constituency along the highways and byways of South Staffordshire. The subject was raised with me again and again by not just farmers but many people who are concerned about our countryside, our rural way of life and whether there is always balance and fairness within the system. When I was travelling along the highways and byways of South Staffordshire, I remember saying to many of those people that, in our manifesto, we were going to do something about the issue and that we would have a supermarket ombudsman—a groceries code adjudicator. That was a promise that I made in my manifesto. I accept that the Minister had a slightly different manifesto in his election campaign. I also accept that he might not have met many dairy farmers in Kingston and Surbiton, though he will be able to correct me if that is not the case.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Just to inform him, the Liberal Democrat manifesto was also committed to what we called not a groceries code adjudicator but a supermarket regulator. Whatever the title, the critical point is not just about the powers, but whether it is a proactive body. The difficulty with the supermarket ombudsman, the ombudsman that we know and love, is that it is a reactive body. We do not want to be in a situation where dairy farmers—I meet many—are in a position where they fear, right or wrongly, that if they refer their case to the ombudsman they may then be a target for the supermarket. Surely the new body, whatever we call it, has to have proactive powers of its own to go out looking for trouble, to ensure that we have fair trade at home as well as abroad.

Gavin Williamson: My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is also keen to make a contribution.

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Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): In relation to the history of how we got to where we are—I do not have time in an intervention to give a full history—it has been Liberal Democrat policy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) expressed, for a number of years. I was pleased that the Conservatives adopted the policy in early 2010. Indeed, the previous Government also had a similar policy. All three main parties are pushing in precisely the same direction and it is time for us to push it to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

Gavin Williamson: I think that, in a single debate, I have created a grand coalition of bonhomie right across the political spectrum. That is to be welcomed. The points that my hon. Friends make are highly valid, because this is about getting it right. There is a coalition of interests, if I may use that phrase, right across the spectrum that includes politicians, producers, farmers and even some supermarkets, such as Waitrose, who are in favour of achieving this. My hon. Friends have made the important point that we have all put this policy in our manifestos and in the coalition agreement.

I want to see three key things in a groceries code adjudicator as a result of this debate. The first is timing. We have been waiting. It is almost a year since the general election. It was a clear commitment in the coalition agreement. I accept that there are many demands —very many demands—on the time of the Minister and his Department, but we need to deliver on this because we have made a clear commitment that we will do so, and we need to make sure that we do so swiftly.

When we talk about dispute, we all tend to think about price. It is not just about price. It is often about terms and conditions and how people operate. Before I entered this House I was a potter. I appreciate that being a potter is somewhat different to being a pig farmer, and I did not sell to the grocery multiples, but I did sell to many high street multiples. I always remember going into the factory one day and opening up a letter from a major high street store group. I will spare its blushes; I will not mention its name. We had reached an agreement that I would be paid within 30 days, at an agreed price that seemed to be fair, and it had given me a commitment to purchase from me at that price. The letter said quite clearly that, instead of paying me within 30 days, it would pay me within 120 days. If I wanted to be paid within 60 days, it would pay me within 60 days, but would take a 6% discount—take it or leave it. That is a difficult situation.

Whether it is pots or pizzas, it is still the same situation. I had the factory, and people’s wages had to be paid. A commercial agreement had been reached, which often involved making sure that we had the right packaging and designing certain specific products for that retailer. Then, with one fell swoop, suddenly everything changed. That 6% is often all the profit there is to be made on a product.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned the coalition of interests, but did not mention where the public might come into this. Does he agree that, if the general public knew that supermarkets were making a 22p a litre profit on milk yet farmers were producing at a 4p a litre loss, public attitudes would change? If the

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general public knew his business experiences and what I have just described, would the ombudsman have a greater chance of success?

Gavin Williamson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the greatest attributes of the British people is their fair-mindedness. People would like to see fair trade, not just abroad but in this country too. Many hon. Members will say that the Government are not there to fix prices. I could not agree more, but sometimes there are distortions in a market. When producers are so small and insignificant that they cannot argue on the issue of price, sometimes they are simple victims of that market, just like the farmer I mentioned earlier who wrote to me on this issue.

I urge the Minister to act swiftly to introduce a groceries code adjudicator Bill. A number of months ago, the aim was to bring a draft Bill before the House before the Easter recess. We are pretty close to that Easter recess. I understand, or I hope, that something will be brought to the House after the Easter recess. I appreciate that everything in government has the potential to slip, but I seek reassurance from the Minister that he will put all his effort into ensuring that there is no further slippage and that a Bill is brought before the House. We must ensure that the Bill will bring help and support right across the process, and bring the balance and fairness that not only we, as politicians, want to see, but the British people want to see.

The second vital issue is what the adjudicator is able to do. There has been much talk about the adjudicator being able to name and shame, and being able to issue a press release in order to embarrass those who act wrongly. I am afraid to say that I do not believe that a press release will be quite enough to make sure that we have an adjudicator that works well and works properly. As I say, this debate is not just about farmers, but about producers and supermarkets—all the way through the process. I would expect any adjudicator to have firm powers to fine. I would also expect, however, any adjudicator to use fines with prudence, rarely and only when it is required, because an adjudicator will, in many ways, have failed if it cannot sort out a situation through negotiation, discussion and bringing people together. We only have to look at other ombudsmen or regulators that have been set up in the past. Those organisations have been successful if they have some ability to enforce what they have found to be right and just. If we do not give an adjudicator that right, my fear is that they will be a mere fig leaf and an excuse of an organisation in which no one will have any confidence.

Philip Davies: My only concern with my hon. Friend’s comments is that this appears to be a solution looking for a problem. We already have a supermarket code of practice that stops such things as retrospective changes to deals between supermarkets and suppliers. That is already overseen by the Office of Fair Trading. If anybody wishes to make a complaint, they can already do so to the OFT. The OFT did research, and it could not find any material breaches of the supermarket code. I am, therefore, not entirely sure what the problem is to which my hon. Friend is advocating a solution.

Gavin Williamson: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. If one were to speak to many people, one would find that there seem to be continued abuses,

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sometimes at a small level and sometimes at a major level. I still believe that the confidence to report where abuses occur is not out there. As a producer myself, I would have been highly reluctant to make an official complaint against, potentially, one of my largest customers. I am not saying that the best in the industry would have a small-minded attitude but equally, unfortunately, there are some poor operators.

Andrew George: May I refer my hon. Friend to the Competition Commission report in 2008, which identified the unexpected costs and excessive risks as a problem in the supply chain? The commission used its power to establish a statutory code, rather than the voluntary code previously in place, but the situation is rather like a game of rugby which has the rules of rugby but no referee. That is why we need an adjudicator, because no one is keeping an eye on that code at the moment.

Gavin Williamson: The clear feeling among the whole industry, with the possible exception of the British Retail Consortium, is that an adjudicator is required. The code, which I am sure most Members, if not all, welcomed, did not go that one step further to ensure fairness.

Tim Farron: The great difficulty is that an adjudicator or a supermarket ombudsman who is too weak and a code that is not enforced act as a badge of respectability for supermarkets, which can pretend that they are being regulated and that producers are being protected when they are not. A weak ombudsman could be worse than none.

Gavin Williamson: It comes down to a matter of pride and respect. I have always been of the belief that we should legislate as little as possible, because it does not always bring goodness and greatness to everything, but when we do legislate, we must ensure that it is right and will lead to positive change and a positive influence for the good. Therefore, if we are to have an adjudicator, that adjudicator must have the ability to fine. I hope that the Minister can take that on board. I appreciate that there will be many siren voices whispering into his ear about how such a step would be retrograde, but I point to how rarely most ombudsman organisations use the ability to fine or to level penalties. It is incredibly rare because people never want to go down that route except as a last resort.

My final point is about anonymity, which is vital. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley pointed out that there is a grocery code and asked why more and more people were not coming forward. However, there is a real fear about doing so. Often, if people do come forward, it is so easy to identify who they are. As I mentioned earlier, I am sure that 99% of our best and greatest supermarkets would never dream of taking recompense from a supplier, but there is a fear that that might well happen. Therefore it is vital that, as part of the Bill, if and hopefully when it is published, trade bodies, organisations and associations will have the ability to put forward concerns, and the adjudicator will be able to initiate an investigation.

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Such a process would have to be done on the basis of evidence. No one in the farming or processing industries or the supermarkets wants to see an excess of investigations, which cost time and money and are distracting to business. I do not want to see that, and nor would many other Members. However, that ability to have an investigation has to be available. We will not always have a producer who is brave enough to go to the adjudicator and say, “This is the problem.” Sometimes, quite rightly, producers might want to hide behind—that is probably the wrong phraseology—or be protected by the trade association or organisation, which would be making representations to the adjudicator, with the adjudicator instigating an investigation.

Many problems are associated with our supermarkets, but so much more about them is absolutely fantastic and works incredibly well. I hope that the Minister can take on board the three principal issues: to ensure the introduction and progress of the Bill, so that it becomes a reality and we have a supermarket adjudicator; the importance of anonymity and that we must protect suppliers from the worst excesses; and, most important, to ensure that the adjudicator can enforce its actions and levy fines.

None of us wants a weak, ineffectual, pointless adjudicator which will cost everyone something but achieve nothing. Neither I nor the Minister, I am sure, want that. Many people throughout the processing, farming and agricultural industries firmly believe that those three principal things are required. I have no doubt that the Minister will deliver on what so many are expecting.

2.56 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gale, and to follow the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), who made a very good contribution to the debate. I will not go into the details, because the hon. Gentleman has summarised where we are today and the history of the call from across the House and the parties for an ombudsman—I will use that term, because it is appropriate.

I am the hon. Member who promoted a private Member’s Bill on a grocery market ombudsman, which had all-party support in the previous Parliament. Importantly, the Bill received not only cross-party support but support from across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. The promoters of the Bill brought to the debate deep knowledge of different parts of the industry and of the United Kingdom. From the outset, it is important to say, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has done, that I support supermarkets. However, I also support suppliers and consumers, and it was in the spirit of fairness that I sponsored the Bill in the previous Parliament.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) for his work on the issue over a long period. As the able chair of the grocery market action group, he brought together a big coalition including not only the farming unions, which were prominent with their calls for fairness on dairy and other produce, but non-governmental organisations, which are important in fair trade issues in this country and throughout the world, community groups and consumer groups, including

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the Women’s Institute. No politician, including the Minister, can ignore the WI, which was a member of that broad coalition of supporters of an ombudsman. Another member was the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents the small shops that bear the brunt of the situation.

The power of the supermarkets was deemed too much, not by politicians but by a proper inquiry by the Competition Commission. Its recommendations in the 2008 report called for a new code, because the existing voluntary code was not working. The new code came into effect in 2010, but it needs a referee—an adjudicator or ombudsman—to ensure that it stands credibly for the fairness that we all want.

I pay tribute to all the other parties as well. When I set off on the track of the private Member’s Bill, what the parties stood for on an ombudsman was a grey area. When my party was in government, I remember approaching Conservative Front Benchers, who said, “Well, we are not really sure how this will work in practice,” but all of a sudden there was great movement and strong lobbying with an election in view. It was exactly the same in my party—I am not making a partisan point; I am giving the details.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was 100% supportive of the Bill, but the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was less supportive. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they used different words, but they said exactly the same thing. They wanted an ombudsman, and at one time there was a proposal to introduce a food standards ombudsman. They wanted the fairness that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has discussed. We have moved a long way.

My Bill received a Second Reading. There were some strong arguments against it, and I pay credit to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for his consistency. I respect his standpoint, and it was good to have the debate. The Bill went into Committee, but it did not make the wash-up, although the issue made it into all the manifestos, which is important. All the major parties went into the general election calling for an ombudsman with real teeth to enforce the code of practice for the grocery market. The previous Government conducted a consultation from February 2010 to April 2010. When the coalition Government were formed, they made their commitment clear at the start, and they followed through on the consultation. When the executive summary was published, the Minister was gracious enough to give me a copy of it and a copy of the Government response, which was thorough in its conclusions as well as in its overview.

There was, rightly, a commitment in the coalition agreement to introduce an ombudsman adjudicator at the first possible opportunity, and I remind hon. Members that during the general election the introduction of an adjudicator was a priority for the major parties. A priority should go into the first Queen’s Speech after an election, and that is what should have happened, but the issue drifted. I want the Minister to explain why the issue is so difficult. It has cross-party support and consensus, and a broad coalition of groups outside the House supports it. A priority issue should go ahead quickly.

The Government’s response was positive in many ways. I have referred to “the ombudsman”, but I was lobbied by the British and Irish Ombudsman Association,

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which said that it did not want the word to be used. Fair enough, we can live with a different title, and adjudicator or enforcer would be adequate. I am comfortable that that post will be housed with the Office for Fair Trading, because that is sensible and will keep costs down as long as it does not interfere with the OFT’s consumer work. However, it must be independent of the Government and the OFT, if it is to do its job properly, which we all want.

Time is moving on, and there is talk of a draft Bill. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has said, the draft Bill was to be published before Easter, but now it will be published after Easter. Will the Minister clarify whether there will be another Queen’s Speech before it can make progress through the House? I think that it will make progress, but time is moving on. The group to which I have referred still wants an ombudsman. The farming unions, consumers and fair traders want an ombudsman to ensure that the code of practice is adhered to.

We are fast approaching the second anniversary of the code coming into being following the Competition Commission’s report. Cynics will say that if a gap is left, the supermarkets will behave for a period. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has said, they will use the code as a badge of honour, and people will question whether an ombudsman or adjudicator is needed. It is not only cynics who think that, because concerned farmers, businesses and suppliers have written to me to express their worry that the coalition Government have lost interest in the matter. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that.

Let us remind ourselves why an ombudsman is needed. The Competition Commission’s inquiry and report in 2008 contained clear recommendations. There was a long period of consultation under the previous and current Governments, but we are now seeing long-grass politics. It is no longer a priority, and it has been kicked into the long grass. I know that the Government are faced with big issues, but every new Government face issues that are not of their making, and they must deal with them. When a political party forms a Government saying that it has a priority to introduce something, it should do so as soon as possible.

I want a proactive and independent adjudicator to look at the entire grocery market and to provide safeguards and protection for small companies. If those companies do not want to be named, they should be allowed anonymity, so that they can take their complaint forward positively. I want the ombudsman to be able to levy penalties for abuse of the code. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has said—he is no longer in his place—the ombudsman or adjudicator must have teeth.

We are already 12 months into the new Parliament, and I am worried about the Bill’s slippage. I would like to see a draft Bill as soon as possible. I will not detain the Chamber by going over the arguments that I have summarised, but I hope that the Minister will tell us today a specific date for the draft Bill, although I do not understand why it needs to be in draft form. During previous Parliaments while I have been a Member of the House, I have wanted draft legislation on difficult issues, but the matter before us has been debated to death and there is near consensus. I do not understand the need for draft legislation. The Bill could have been

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introduced with the good will of the political parties, all of which included the issue in their manifestos. There has been proper consultation, and everyone has had the opportunity to be consulted and to put their views. I hope that the adjudicator that the Minister has talked about will come into being very soon, that we achieve the fairness that everyone wants, that we obtain a grocery market that we can all be proud of, that each and every part of the grocery market is included in the code and that the adjudicator has the licence and the teeth to ensure that there are no abuses. I hope that we can move forward on that.

This has been a good debate. There is consensus, so let us retain that consensus. As the hon. Member for St Ives has said, we are all pushing in the same direction, but we must push the Minister a little harder so that his Department delivers the adjudicator.

3.7 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I welcome this debate, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), because it is so necessary that the question of an adjudicator should be discussed. Many hon. Members have made the point that the issue has cross-party support, and with other hon. Members I urge the Minister to give a clear timetable of exactly when the grocery adjudicator will come into being. It is essential that we send the right message to the industry, supermarkets and consumers.

Many hon. Members have said that we are all champions of the consumer, because our constituents and voters are all consumers, and they are keen to get a good deal. They are keen to ensure that when they buy from supermarkets, a fair amount of the money goes back to those who produce the goods—the meat, milk, vegetables and so on. They want a fair share to go into the pockets of those who produce the goods.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend will know that the supermarket industry is worth about £130 billion a year. If the outcome of having an ombudsman is that a bigger slice of the cake goes to producers, and they receive perhaps only 1% more income, that will add £1.3 billion to food bills. Given that people are already struggling to pay their bills at this difficult time, why does my hon. Friend want to add another £1.3 billion to people’s food bills, including those of his constituents?

Neil Parish: Quite the opposite. I do not want to add another £1.3 billion to consumers’ bills, but to make sure that the supermarkets are not taking £1.3 billion extra in profit from the overall trade when they are not entitled to it. They have used their muscle in the marketplace to drive down the price that they pay producers. To be perfectly honest, I have no sympathy with my hon. Friend’s position. Tesco has 32% of the retail trade, and if that is not a huge monopoly position, I will eat my hat.

Andrew George: Is it not telling that, in the teeth of the most recent recession, the largest supermarkets were posting record profits?