HC Deb 21 January 2003 vol 398 cc274-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

7 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham)

I am pleased to secure this debate and to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister from his long hours in Committee. I am sure he is glad of the change of scenery. I hope not to detain him too long.

I want to talk about radio and the proposals on access radio in the Communications Bill; to set out the position in my constituency of Wrexham and in north-east Wales; and to explain why community-based access radio is important and why the money must be found to set it up as soon as possible.

Talk-based local radio is a great success story. It is a trusted medium. It encourages debate. It helps local community groups to publicise their activities. It has an especially valuable role for the disabled. It is popular with the elderly, who may live alone and use it for company. Alongside music-based stations, it can create a vibrant community radio sector. The young tend to listen to music-based commercial stations. The rest of us rely on talk-based local radio.

I was brought up in north-east England. I recall the early days of BBC Radio Newcastle, which, along with regional television, was an important part of the region's identity. It created its own personalities and is greatly valued still. The BBC has a prized reputation in local radio, which was at the forefront of establishing its reputation as impartial and strongly based in local communities.

Talk-based radio is so successful that the BBC has 40 local radio stations in England. In Scotland, the BBC sees the value of local news bulletins across the nation, with places as disparate as the borders and Shetland given dedicated time on the airwaves. Northern Ireland has two stations, with Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle serving the community together, but for reasons that I cannot understand Wales is a different story.

The commercial sector focuses on music, the youth market and advertising, but the BBC in Wales is not interested in local radio. It seems institutionally incapable of responding to constituents' demands that they are entitled to as good a service as listeners across the border in England. My constituents are very angry about it.

I wrote to my local newspaper canvassing views on the absence of a local talk-based station for Wrexham and for north-east Wales. These are just some of the responses: Why when I listen to Radio Wales do I feel a stranger in my own country? BBC Radio Wales thinks 'Wales' is just Cardiff and the Valleys. Since Radio Clwyd finished, there has been a void in people's lives. We tune in to Radio Stoke and Radio Merseyside which have a far superior service than Radio Wales. My wife and I listen to Radio Shropshire, which we think is an excellent example of what local radio should be, closely followed by Radio Merseyside. Saddest of all is this:

I am only one of many I know who do not listen to the radio any more. Before 1995, Clwyd had its own radio service. Radio Clwyd is still fondly remembered in Wrexham and throughout north-east Wales. It was taken off but the BBC justified its action in 1995:

Despite the fact that Radio Clwyd no longer exists as a separate entity there is a substantial provision of Clwyd news as an 'opt out' from the main Radio Wales service … In fact listeners in Clwyd can hear some more 40 news bulletins a week.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I would not contradict the hon. Gentleman's experience, which is that a community will tend to adopt a local radio station and feel empowered as a result. That can never happen if listeners are simply slotted into a station with which they do not feel any connection.

Ian Lucas

That is absolutely correct. Regrettably, the position is even worse now than in 1995. Last year, the BBC removed the opt-out news bulletins in north-east Wales. By contrast with the position in Scotland, Wales has no opt-out news bulletins from the BBC but it provides a single service through BBC Wales for the whole of Wales.

It seems that the BBC in particular has an inability to recognise that Wales is a nation having distinct regions. I began to wonder why my constituents were getting such an inferior service from the BBC. Could it be a lack of money? According to the corporation's annual report and accounts for 2001–02, £18 million was spent on radio in Wales. That compares favourably with Scotland, which received £19 million for a larger population and a wider geographical area. So why does Scotland have six sets of geographically based local news bullets when Wales has none?

Could it be that the regions within Wales were too small? The BBC funds a separate Radio Guernsey and Radio Jersey service, despite listening audiences of 50,000 and 74,000 respectively. Radio Shropshire, which I know well, provides an excellent service to an audience of 361,000—fewer listeners than would be covered by a service for north-east Wales, which has a population of more than 391,000.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the BBC provides Radio Cymru, the Welsh-language news programme in Wales, which better reflects the geographical diversity of Wales? Does he also accept that south Wales has a number of independent radio stations, from Radio Ceredigion to Real Radio and Valleys Radio? Perhaps he should encourage his constituents to put in a bid for the licence for the Wrexham area.

Ian Lucas

I will come to that. Radio Cymru is a national, not a local, radio service. I am making the point that there is no locally based radio service from the BBC in north-east Wales. There is a commercial station but it is music based and focused on a younger listening audience. My constituents—particularly the more elderly—are saddened that they are not served by a community-based talk station.

The BBC is in denial. The corporation tells me that there is no demand for a station in my area, but hundreds of Wrexham people signed a petition, so I beg to differ. Members of Parliament get a taste of the response to a particular issue in their communities. When I wrote to the local newspaper, my letter produced a flood of correspondence by constituency standards. I have received more letters on that subject than on the issue of war with Iraq. There is a definite demand in my constituency for the type of service that it currently lacks. The BBC also told me that there is sufficient local news on Radio Wales for the people of north-east Wales, but my constituents tell me they listen by choice to Radio Shropshire, Radio Stoke and Radio Merseyside instead, because they feel that they get more information about their local community from those stations.

I am not the only person to pursue this issue. Constituents of mine who have been writing to the BBC about this issue for some seven years have contacted me. Mr. Glyn Roberts handed me a correspondence file dating from 1995. It pains me to say this, but it seems that the BBC is simply not interested in providing a local radio service for my constituents. There is a commercial sector in north-east Wales—Marcher Sound is the local radio station—but it allocates limited time to community news. The prevailing tendency in the commercial sector is to get organisations to pay for "what's on" features.

There is also an increasing tendency for commercial stations to franchise national broadcasting. In my own area, between 9 am and 3 pm the commercial station actually buys in a national broadcasting programme, which prevails during that period. So there is little time for discussion of local issues, but the huge demand for local radio to which I have referred remains. The current structure for local radio stations is clearly inadequate. Neither the commercial sector nor the public service sector—in the form of the BBC—is delivering the service that my constituents want, and nor are they getting the response from broadcasters that they would like. I therefore greatly welcome the new proposals in the Communications Bill for access radio, which should be used to fill this void.

A project at the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education—the local university college in Wrexham—is considering applying for a restricted service licence, with a view to providing a local community station. Of course, under current legislation such a licence is valid for only a limited period, unless it applies only to the university or only to the local hospital. So the current system is inadequate, and I greatly welcome the Government's broadening access to local radio through the access radio initiative.

However, it is clear that access radio will have to be funded, and my concern is that the Government might be intimidated by the BBC in terms of going after the substantial funds of public service broadcasters. Such broadcasters use that money to deliver services, but at the moment they are not delivering them. The BBC spends some £4 million a year on BBC 2W, a digital service in Wales that many of my constituents cannot receive, and which very few of them ever see. Indeed, the viewing figures are so low that they cannot be measured, and they are certainly not publicly available. That money could be used to fund access radio. I am rather unclear as to how access radio will be funded under the current system, and I urge the Government to consider the issue of funding from current public service pots.

I want to conclude by pressing two main points on the Government. First, I greatly welcome the provision of access radio, and I am keen that the Government should proceed as fast as possible, because I know that demand for it exists in my community, and that there are those in my community with the skills to deliver it. The current legal and institutional structures for the radio that we need in north-east Wales are not in place.

Secondly, I want the Government to review the £18 million that is being spent on radio in Wales, and at the £4 million that is being spent on BBC 2W, and see whether the public service remit of the BBC is being extended far enough to provide for local radio in the community. As a great supporter of the BBC for many years, I have been disappointed by the lack of responsiveness to my community and to the call from communities throughout north-east Wales for a local radio station. That case is long-standing and has been argued passionately for many years by many of my constituents. The present structures will not deliver what we need. I urge the Government to create the necessary structures, and to let us have the money to create a new radio station for Wrexham and north-east Wales. Please let that be done as soon as possible.

7.15 pm
The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on giving us the opportunity to discuss the subject. There is a good story to tell about access radio. I understand my hon. Friend's case. I have always had the impression—I may be wrong—that, from the perspective of Cardiff, north-east Wales is the most remote part of Wales. That is interesting. In many ways, it is a geographical phenomenon.

We have some distinguished Members in the Chamber tonight. I am lucky enough to have been in the House for 14 years, so I remember previous discussions. The issues of north-east Wales are somehow seen as different from those of the rest of Wales. I shall try to explain why. I suspect that that perception has something to do with the traditional economic links that exist with Cheshire, Chester, Manchester and Merseyside, and to a certain extent with the west midlands.

As someone who has always been a news junkie and who watches the media carefully in Wales, I have always had the impression that north-west Wales is different. In a sense, it fits the politics of Cardiff much better. It often involves issues that are dear to the heart of many people who have traditionally—not necessarily now—worked in the media in Cardiff. The issues of mid-Wales and south-west Wales also receive quite a bit of attention. In south-east Wales, we get an enormous amount of attention, and we always have done so. That is partly an effect of population concentration, geography and so on.

The issues raised by my hon. Friend tonight are important. I was not familiar with the comparisons with the number of local radio stations in England and Scotland, and the two in Northern Ireland. There is always a kind of complacency in Wales. After all, we are 2.9 million people. We have had an effective broadcasting industry in south-east Wales, but until recently—until Menna Richards took over at BBC Wales in Cardiff—we have always been a little reluctant to admit that we live in a large geographic area; it is not large compared to England or to Scotland, but it is in terms of population. We have tended to lose parts of Wales in that respect, and not to take advantage of huge technological advances that have been made. We should have done that before now.

My hon. Friend picked on one of those advances—access radio. He spoke, for example, about the possibility of the university college in Wrexham being a home for it. Who knows? It could be elsewhere.

I am lucky enough to have in my constituency one of the 15 pilot projects in Britain with an access radio station—GTFM Radio, based on the Glyn Taff Farm estate, probably one of the most deprived wards in my constituency. It has become an enormous success. It has a very limited signal, and that is a difficulty in Wales, because of the topography, but I am starting to get letters from people who write "I cannot receive the signal. Why cannot I get GTFM?"

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

And in the Rhondda.

Dr. Howells

They cannot get it, because it has limited power. It is a limited experiment, but a very important one.

I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham to ensure that his constituents, perhaps led by him, put together a good bid for access radio. In my constituency it is run part of the day by the people who live on the Glyn Taff Farm estate and for the other part of the day by students of the university of Glamorgan. There is a mix of talk and music, with sufficient variety to attract people. It now has a very solid audience and is very popular. It has also pointed the way. Those involved want to know how they can make it bigger and how it can be sustained without falling back on the usual problem in Wales—reliance on a benefit culture. It bodes very well for the future. It could well be a way of encouraging entrepreneurial businesses within communities.

I was lucky enough recently to open a local television station in Southampton that has a very strictly controlled, limited signal footprint. I asked how they were obtaining the money to do it and the reply was "For the first time Indian restaurants can advertise on television. They could not do it on a regional level." There are dangers, because these are very much public interest, non-profit-making organisations. We do not want to start taking advertising from very valuable commercial stations, some of which my hon. Friend mentioned. We have to sort that out. We are dealing with it in the Communications Bill.

Clearly, to use the awful jargon that is employed, in the ecology of broadcasting there is a real part for access radio and local radio. The Radio Authority has taken matters forward and has licensed 15 pilot projects covering a wide part of the United Kingdom. I was very surprised to discover from my hon. Friend that there was not one in north-east Wales. There cannot be one in every part of the country. Fifteen pilot projects mean a pretty big pilot operation. The pilot projects will report back and we shall try to judge their effectiveness and see how we can take them forward.

I have a feeling that that is the way we must go in Wales. I understand my hon. Friend's disappointment over the way in which he has been dealt with in the past by BBC Wales. For the reasons I set out at the beginning, it is a difficult matter. A guy I climb with is from Mold. Mold might as well have been in Moscow for kids who grew up in the valleys of south Wales; it was a long way away, very difficult to get to. I began to discover north-east Wales when I had to go to Llandudno for Labour party conferences. Some people used to tell me to go right the way round and then back along the A55. They said that was the fastest way. I do not think that it is. In terms of geography, it is an isolated area. It should not be isolated, because it is one of the most dynamic areas of Wales. If we look at any index we shall see that it is an area where industry has grown fastest, where the rates of employment are now very high, where there is a real go-ahead feeling in the communities, and yet I do not think that that has been reflected in the importance it has been given in terms of the broadcasting ecology or whatever expression we want to use.

I think that the motive in respect of local radio has to come from the grass roots. A good case has to be made. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has spoken to Aled Eirug, who is in charge of news in Wales, and that he has corresponded with Menna Richards and others. I know those people and believe that they want to help. However, the arguments still have to be made. They can be made, and they should be made.

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham is in the worst possible position in the Chamber, geographically: if I turn around to speak to him, I turn my back on your good self.

I think that broadcasting in Wales will be very different in the future. The explosion of technological innovation has opened up all sorts of possibilities for how people might communicate by radio. We might even start calling it the wireless again—my mother has never stopped using that term, and neither, by the way, has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

People in Wrexham and north-east Wales must continue to make the argument that they have every right to have the matter of north-east Wales discussed through the public media. They must not depend on articles in the Liverpool Post or items carried on BBC Wales' excellent services. They must be able to enjoy the sort of dynamic interaction enjoyed by the areas that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham described in his speech. There is no reason why that should not happen, and I am confident that it will.

In the Communications Bill, the Government are trying hard to ensure that Ofcom, the new regulator, sees radio as the vital medium that it is. I am one of those hon. Members who gets most of his news from the radio. I do not have time to read the newspapers. As a result, I understand the vital importance of radio, and not just of Radio 4 or Five Live, excellent services though they are. People want variety—music that they can associate with, and the ability to speak to each other across the airwaves. That is the great strength of GTFM in my constituency, and of similar stations elsewhere.

I give my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham this undertaking from the Dispatch Box: I will do everything that I can to help him in his quest to get better radio coverage and services in north-east Wales. I know that many people, in this Chamber and outside it, and in BBC Wales in Cardiff, share his ambition. The problem is not insoluble, and I am glad that we have had the opportunity to discuss it this evening in the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Seven o'clock.