Levelling the playing field through targeted rates relief would be a good thing. Continuing on that theme, the Government have two other achievements. First, on the town hall Pravdas—the free newspapers effectively paid for by council tax payers that are often made to look very like a local newspaper both visually and

19 Mar 2015 : Column 374WH

tonally— we have published a statutory code of conduct to ensure that councils do not produce publications that compete unfairly with local newspapers. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned, the Government have acted, where appropriate, when councils have breached that code.

Secondly, as far as I can recall, statutory notices have been a live issue for this entire Parliament. There was a threat that statutory notices would be withdrawn from local newspapers, for which statutory notices are obviously an important source of income. That has not happened but, nevertheless, there is still a debate to be had on statutory notices. The debate is not binary in that we would either take away statutory notices from all local newspapers or simply keep the system as it is. The debate has become more nuanced, and the Government have provided £1 million to pilot new ways of publishing statutory notices, which could include using local newspaper websites more effectively to bring statutory notices to the attention of a wider public. We could even potentially issue e-mail alerts about statutory notices via local newspapers. We want to continue with statutory notices, but we need to modernise them. That should not be seen as simply cutting off funding for local newspapers.

At the moment, the Government do not believe that conferring community asset status would be easy, and it is obviously important to remember that local newspapers are still private organisations. We remain open to persuasive arguments about whether community asset status could be a route to save local newspapers. I note the shadow Minister’s comments on the hoarding of newspaper titles. When a newspaper closes, its title and the value of its brand are not made available for local communities. The door remains open on that, and the Government do not have a fixed view. We remain open to persuasion, but we can see no clear way forward at the moment.

Finally, the BBC charter review will sit firmly in the next Government’s in-tray, and it is important that work on that gets under way as soon as possible. The BBC is clearly making overtures to local newspapers. For example, the BBC has a local working group—the local live partnership—with newspapers in Leeds, west Yorkshire and the north-east. The BBC is considering the potential opportunities for sharing training resources, for example, with local newspapers, which is another way to alleviate costs. In another part of the country, I gather that the BBC is auditing how often it uses local newspaper sources to generate its own news output, which should give the BBC a clear idea of how much it depends on local newspapers, thereby providing a potential route for accreditation or click-throughs to local newspaper sites.

At the other end of the spectrum, many local newspaper groups would welcome the opportunity to use BBC content, particularly video content, on their websites. The relationship between the BBC, local newspapers and local newspaper groups should be explored in the next charter review, although I am aware of the caveats in effectively extending licence fee funding to local newspapers. That important and subtle debate will form part of the charter review discussion.

I am grateful for the extensive and learned contributions on local newspapers by so many hon. Members and hon. Friends. I am glad that we have made progress, albeit at the end of this Parliament, on making a potentially meaningful change for local newspapers. We

19 Mar 2015 : Column 375WH

need to consider a range of different issues, and I hope that local newspapers will be high on the next Government’s agenda.

4.17 pm

John McDonnell: I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing the opportunity for this debate. If nothing else, the debate has given hon. Members the opportunity to name check local journalists in a shameless attempt to ingratiate themselves with their local press, so this debate has made one valuable contribution to the next few weeks.

We have reached consensus on a number of points. First, there is consensus in this House on the value of the local press to our society. Secondly, there is cross-party commitment to support and assist the securing of the local press’s future. Thirdly, there is consensus that the next Government must act on this issue. Following the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, I welcome the Government’s first step in the direction of recognising the need to intervene and support local media.

A range of ideas have been discussed today, some of which the NUJ supports. Members of Parliament should recall that the NUJ represents members within the BBC and on local council publications, so we do not want to see anything that in any way undermines their position or their professional capacity to operate. With regard to the BBC, we do not want to see resources diverted; we

19 Mar 2015 : Column 376WH

want to see additional resources, which must take into account any future discussions on the licence fee and the charter. We want a discussion that enables us to discern a way forward.

A general consensus has emerged in support of some form of review.

The consultation that will be introduced, whoever is in government, on proposals for financial support, whether in the form of business rates or otherwise, could be expanded into a Government inquiry. I would welcome another Select Committee inquiry, but it is important that whatever review takes place does so alongside a Select Committee inquiry. There is a difference: a Select Committee brings forward ideas and views, while a Government-inspired consultational review leads to action with the Government imprimatur. That is absolutely critical.

Finally, whatever way forward is taken and however the Government intervene to secure the future of local newspapers, I think that we have all agreed that the future of the local press can be successfully secured only if it is based on an investment in quality journalism. I hope that we have framed the nature of the debate for the new Government when they come to power.

Question put and agreed to.

4.20 pm

Sitting adjourned.