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Welsh Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:58 pm on 27th February 2020.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage) 2:58 pm, 27th February 2020

I extend my congratulations and condolences to Simon Baynes: I congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech but offer my condolences, and I am sure those of every Opposition Member, on the loss of his mother. I am sure that his mother would have been immensely proud of him not only for being elected to the House, but for the speech he has just made. He is just starting out on his parliamentary career—he is almost exactly the same age as I am; in other words, just about reaching his prime in life. I take this opportunity to declare that I think I am now officially the longest-serving Welsh MP from any party in this House. I think I signed in before my hon. Friend Wayne David in 2001, and I am therefore claiming the title Tad y Tŷ— “Father of the House” in Welsh—at least for this gathering today.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the charity that he set up, Concertina, and I very much agree with what he said about the power of music and its impact on older people. Having volunteered for a charity in a care home to play music to older people, I look forward to talking to him more about the work that he has been undertaking. I also thank him for paying tribute, quite properly, to his predecessor, Susan Elan Jones, who really was the best of us as a Member of Parliament, from any party, and who was a great champion in this place for Wales and particularly for the Welsh language.

It is a great pleasure to speak in today’s debate from the Back Benches, having served almost continuously for 15 years on the Front Benches, both in government and in opposition. It is quite a relief to have the freedom to roam and talk about anything I want. Today, I want to talk about the future of public service broadcasting in Wales, in particular BBC Cymru Wales, ITV Wales and Sianel Pedwar CymruS4C—not least in the light of the publication this morning by Ofcom of its five-year review of public service broadcasting, “Small Screen: Big Debate”. The key finding in the report is that public service broadcasting remains extremely important and relevant to the UK as whole, but I think that is especially true for us in Wales.

On St David’s Day 1967, BBC Wales opened Broadcasting House in Llandaff in my constituency. After 53 years, it recently moved to a brand-new, high-tech, modern headquarters just over the River Taff in the city centre. It remains a major employer for my constituents and residents of many other constituencies across Wales. Of more than 1,000 employees, many live in Cardiff West. BBC Cymru Wales is a key community partner in my constituency for the new state-of-the-art Cardiff West Community High School, which the Labour council recently built with funding assistance from the Welsh Government. That partnership provides exciting opportunities for students from the communities of Ely and Caerau who badly need them. Indeed, Caerau boy and top BBC talent Jason Mohammad was at the opening of the school, which was built on the site of the school he attended, to promote its partnership with the BBC.

I say all that to remind the House that public service broadcasting in the form of BBC Cymru Wales, ITV Wales and S4C, and the many producers and other ancillary services it supports, plays a huge role in Welsh culture, Welsh society and the Welsh economy. That includes Welsh language television and radio programming, which plays a key part in promoting and building the language and will make a vital contribution to achieving the Welsh Government’s aspiration of having 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. Part of the licence fee now funds the Welsh language channel S4C, so proposals to scrap or even, as I understand someone from No. 10 said, to “whack” the licence fee without properly examining the consequences threaten the culturally and socially vital programming that is so important to Wales as a nation. A purely profit-drive subscription system would destroy public service broadcasting, in particular S4C.

The Prime Minister likes to make a big point about his undying love for the Union, but it is strange how cavalier his Government are about Wales’s presence and influence within the Union. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of the importance of the licence fee, the BBC charter and public service broadcasting more generally to Wales’ place as one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. The BBC, ITV Wales and S4C are major Welsh employers, both indirectly and directly. They have brought many programmes we are all familiar with—“Doctor Who”, “Pobol y Cwm”, “Casualty”, “Torchwood”, “Life on Mars”, “Sherlock”, “Hinterland”, “Keeping Faith” and “Gavin and Stacey”—to UK-wide and indeed global audiences. Today, the Ofcom report shows that public service broadcasting production in Wales has risen threefold since 2010. It is still only 3% of the total, so there is room for further growth, but it is hugely important in our economy and a growing sector.

BBC Wales and S4C play huge roles in promoting Welsh music, employing musicians and composers not just through things like the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but through Welsh language music on Radio Cymru and S4C. I say to some colleagues on the Government Benches, who seem to be playing with the concept, that they should resist the temptation to pull at the loose threads of a carefully woven shawl that has been bequeathed to us, just because it looks slightly frayed at the edges. They risk unravelling something precious that can never be recreated.

Quite rightly, there is a debate at Welsh and UK level about the role that public service broadcasting can play in a new world in which we consume our media from a variety of different sources. The founders of the BBC in the 1920s could not have imagined a world in which people could pick up a mobile phone and watch whatever content they cared to choose—as the old Martini ad used to say, “any time, any place, anywhere”. The underlying question for this new world, however, is “Does the concept of public service broadcasting still have relevance?”, and I would argue that, more than ever, it does. In this information free-for-all, the original founding values of the BBC resonate more loudly than ever. In an era of fake news, when conspiracy theorists thrive and journalistic integrity is routinely questioned and undermined by, I have to say, all sides in the political debate, the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain” has never been more important.

Some ask why public service broadcasters need to entertain when entertainment can be supplied by the market. There are times, I agree, when those broadcasters can be legitimately criticised for straying too far in the direction of content of questionable public value, but we have to realise that in a world of high-tech global corporations hoovering up data and monopolising gateways to content, our cultural sovereignty will suffer without the public service broadcasting framework. It would be ironic if, having supposedly voted to take back control, we handed over the remote control from Cardiff West or Westminster to the west wing of the White House and big tech’s west coast of America.

We therefore need new, flexible regulations to guarantee continuing prominence for public service content, even when the gateway to that content is through a set-top box, a smart TV or a smart speaker. In a world in which Amazon determines what is on the home page of a deliberately discounted loss-leader television monitor, there is a danger that public service content will be locked in a dark cupboard with no key easily available. S4C already suffers from that on the electronic programme guide, having been relegated to channel 166 on Virgin Media and multiple clicks away from the home page of a Sky+ box.

It should be obvious that we need to ensure that trusted, curated information is available to young people in particular, and that they can distinguish between fact and fake, between informed opinion and hateful prejudice. What future is there for democracy without an informed next generation in Wales and beyond with the skills to navigate the deluge of information in the digital era? Public service broadcasting and streaming, through content such as BBC Bitesize, “Newsround” and “My World”, can help to thwart the penetration of untrustworthy news sources to younger generations.

In fact, Ofcom is currently consulting on changes proposed by the BBC to reinvent the service that “Newsround” provides for young people by replacing its evening bulletin with more online content, which already has nearly 1 million users a week compared with the 35,000 six-to-12 year-olds who currently watch the televised 4 pm bulletin. The fact that younger people watch less linear television does not mean that they will not consume public service content, provided that it is made available to them in places where they look for their content.

I was going to say something about sports rights and, in particular, the need for the Six Nations to be put on the category A list, but I do not want to detain the House for too long, so I will just say a bit more about the licence fee. The Government have launched a public consultation on the so-called decriminalisation of non-payment. That proposal was not in the Conservative party’s manifesto. It has been launched within a few years of a previous review which provided clear evidence that decriminalisation would not help those in Wales struggling with their bills, would draw more people into the courts, and would undermine the funding of the BBC.

That review, the Perry review, clearly concluded that the current system was the fairest, and that any move towards decriminalisation of non-payment of the fee would undermine the BBC’s ability to enforce the licence and would not remove the risk of imprisonment. In any case, imprisonment is not an available punishment for non-payment of the licence fee; it is a penalty available to the courts for wilful refusal or culpable neglect on the part of the offender to pay any court-ordered fines. Often, those who are caught for non-payment are fined the value of the fee itself and no criminal case is brought. When cases are brought, the only directly available penalty is a maximum fine of £1,000 and no criminal record, with actual fines served averaging £176.

Furthermore, the Perry review outlined that the current regime serves as an effective deterrent, maintaining the offending rate at a very low 5%. One has to question the Government’s motives in reopening this issue now, in the light of that very recent evidence. If they really want to ease the burden of the licence fee on any group of people, why do they not reinstate free television licences for those over 75 rather than passing the buck on to an already underfunded BBC with no means of sustaining it, and simultaneously undermining BBC finances through this bogus consultation?

This is all part of an agenda by some to undermine, to cut and eventually to privatise large swaths of the BBC, including BBC Cymru Wales. It is also a direct threat to employment in Wales, particularly in my constituency of Cardiff West. As this proposal is not a manifesto pledge, the House of Lords would have every right to reject it if, as expected, the Government decide to ram it through for ideological reasons using their Commons majority. If ever there was an instance in which the Salisbury convention would apply, this is it. The method of enforcing licence fee collection should not be changed before the next charter renewal in 2027. Labour and the Conservatives, and the other parties, can set out in their manifestos for the next election—probably in 2024—where they stand on this issue.

Public service broadcasting through BBC Cymru Wales, ITV Wales and S4C plays a huge part in the lives of our constituents. They are major employers and cultural leaders, and they produce trusted quality television, radio and online content. Back in 1964, Wales got its very own TV service. It was our service and our programming, reflective of our talent and our culture, with content made in Wales by Wales, for Wales and beyond and recognised worldwide. In fact, the Union is stronger for our role in providing some of the UK’s leading TV, film, radio and online exports.

Public service broadcasting might need to be renamed in the age of digital streaming, perhaps as “public service media”, but whatever we call it, we should value and nurture it. We should ensure that it is not locked away in that dark cupboard where it is difficult to find. We should ensure that it has a sustainable source of funding—either through advertising, in the case of some public service broadcasters, or through the licence fee for others—that allows it to remain independent of Government. We should acknowledge its relevance in a world of fake news, and for Wales we should fight to protect, preserve and enhance it so that it can continue to play a positive role in the language, culture, life and economy of our nation.