I congratulate Neil Parish on securing this debate. As he knows, I had hoped to intervene during the debate, but I have waited so that I can give my contribution with the full force of a speech.
I am keen to ensure that this issue is fully considered. I raised it in the House at business questions a couple of weeks ago, and had a tremendous response from people in the region and from other colleagues. It seems that we are practically all in agreement on this issue. Whatever party we are from, we are all convinced of the need for regional coverage.
In my case, that coverage is “Inside Out North East and Cumbria” and “Sunday Politics North East and Cumbria”. And therein lies an interesting point; we have talked about having localised coverage, and to those of us in the north-east and Cumbria, we divide into distinct areas. For us, that region in itself is a large area to cover all the local topics. I am sure that other hon. Members will have had the same experience—dividing the issues and dividing the coverage. But regional coverage is a hugely important part of ensuring that local issues—things that are of importance in the region or in part of the region—are considered. In the case of “Inside Out”, it is important to ensure that things that are important locally, and local aspects of national situations, are covered. I am therefore keen that we retain our regional coverage in “Sunday Politics” and “Inside Out”; it is hugely important.
Some of the issues covered by our local “Inside Out” team over the past couple of years include the future of local newspapers, which, as others have said, are going through their own difficulties; railway services in the north-east, which we have had difficulties with in the past; the introduction of universal credit across the region and what that has meant for families; the Medomsley Detention Centre in my neighbouring constituency; and how frontline care workers are affected by the current coronavirus pandemic and what it means for them.
I was particularly pleased that “Inside Out” two years ago covered the situation at the Blaydon Quarry landfill site in my constituency, where we have had enormous problems over the years. At last someone was able to give proper time to understand what was going on, and to communicate that to the wider community. I thank the team for highlighting that issue. It is really important to my constituents—and to other hon. Members’ constituents, no doubt—that we have the space to discuss issues that matter to us on the ground and that make a difference to the lives in our communities.
Last week, over 100 stars and celebrities joined the call to retain regional programming, and to save regional current affairs and regional political coverage. They have written a letter to Lord Tony Hall, the outgoing chair of the BBC—I think he has actually gone now—and to Tim Davie, the new chair of the BBC, calling on them to reconsider the issue and stressing the importance of regional coverage, as we have done. I, too, wrote to Lord Tony Hall, or copied him into a letter to Helen Thomas, the director of regional programming for England, in which I raised the issue with her. I had quite a brief reply from Helen Thomas. I have not had one from Lord Tony Hall or from Tim Davie, so I hope that the stars do better than I do in getting a full response in response to their concerns.
Like many hon. Members, I suspect, I received a response from Caroline Cummins at the BBC yesterday evening, ahead of this debate. She talked about the issue of regional broadcasting. One of the things she pointed to was the ambition to have two thirds of BBC staff in the regions by 2027. None of us would disagree with that ambition, but we do not just need staff in the regions covering national issues; we need regional staff covering regional issues, ensuring that they get the coverage they deserve. So that answer simply does not wash.
Caroline also said that it was good that some of the crews had been doing pieces for “Look North” and other regional programmes over the period that we have not had the “Sunday Politics” or “Inside Out” regionally. It is good to see those issues being raised, but it does not give us the depth of coverage that we get on the “Inside Out” and “Sunday Politics” regional shows. It is good to carry that on, but it is not good enough for what we need in the future.
The one thing that Caroline does not mention is the future of the regional “Inside Out” and “Sunday Politics” shows. She needs to hear loud and clear—and I am sure she will from all of us—that we need to see those regional programmes continue. We have excellent regional reporters, producers and teams putting together those vital local programmes, and we need that to continue. Before I finish, I want to refer to some of the comments made on Twitter about “Inside Out” locally, but having held my iPhone, I cannot find them, so I will ad lib.