It is a pleasure to follow Andy Carter, and I congratulate Neil Parish on securing this important Adjournment debate. I hope that the level of interest will not be lost on the Leader of the House and that he might consider trying to restore Westminster Hall debates as soon as possible, so that we can have more of these sorts of debates, on a range of issues, including and beyond covid-19, that our constituents care deeply about.
It is also a welcome novelty to be here in a debate where people are celebrating the contribution that the BBC makes to our national life. Every great nation is built on a set of shared values and shared institutions, and the BBC is one of our great institutions. We deride it and lose it at our peril. I have always thought it impossible to demand outstanding BBC services while also demanding the end of the licence fee, and although Jonathan Gullis gave it a go, I still think it is impossible.
The BBC should pay close attention to the speech made by Mr Harper, because although I do not think it would become impossible to defend the licence fee, it would certainly become a great deal harder if we lost the kind of unique content that includes BBC regional political coverage. There is nothing like it. It is an important part of the BBC’s public service remit. As someone who strongly supports the BBC and the licence fee, I hope that message is well understood, and I hope that the fact that it is coming from both sides of the House will serve to reinforce the point.
I come to this debate with the perspective of one who represents a constituency that, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, looks out towards Essex and in towards London. Depending on who I am speaking to and in which part of the constituency I happen to be, I am either the MP for Ilford North in Essex, or the MP for Ilford North in London. To try to bring some consensus, I think it is really those dreadful people in inner London who we ought to be railing against, not London as a whole. Let us have less anti-London sentiment in this House, and instead unite against zones 1 and 2.
BBC Essex provides a really great service not only to my constituents, but to those right across the modern county of Essex. There are journalists at BBC Essex who really know the patch, such as Simon Dedman, a political correspondent who came to the station from “Look East”. Having that ecosystem, where we recruit, train and retain experienced political reporters and broadcasters who focus on regional content, provides an enormous public service.
I also want to commend the BBC for the role that it has played through the local democracy reporters. This addresses the point, which we have heard expressed this evening, that the BBC competes with local newspapers that are already under considerable strain and financial pressure. The support for those reporters has been a really welcome innovation, fulfilling the BBC’s public service remit while also providing practical support for local newspapers, so the sense that the BBC competes with local newspapers can be remedied.
I joked earlier about the perils of being a London MP, and the extent to which we are reviled outside our great city, but there are some serious points to be made about that. London-based media is not the same as London journalism. I find it frustrating that in this place London is often presented as a city whose streets are paved with gold, where everything is wonderful, bright and rosy, and where every part is filled with prosperity. This city does have some of the greatest concentrations of wealth and success in the world, but it also has some serious issues with poverty and wider disadvantage.
Having London journalists reporting on London does a really great service to our diverse city, because London is about much more than the two cities of London and Westminster; boroughs such as mine, the London borough of Redbridge, and outer-London boroughs such as Havering, Bromley and Hounslow, are also part of this great and diverse city. Without the London regional political coverage, so many of the issues facing outer-London boroughs as well as the heart of London would be missed.
It is important also to recognise the powerful role of investigative journalism. I am thinking in particular of some of the reports that have stayed with me from the BBC’s “Sunday Politics London”, such as its groundbreaking reporting on female genital mutilation in our city. It reports not just on the problems we face, but on the great successes we have seen. There was a really great report and discussion one Sunday in which I took part with panellists from the London borough of Waltham Forest. As my hon. Friend Stella Creasy knows, I hate paying tribute to the London borough of Waltham Forest, but on that occasion it really did deserve it.
There has been great reporting on the challenges in the provision of sexual health services in the city, and on the unique pressures faced in London. Crime is a concern in every part of the country, and to all our constituents, but we know that in London crime manifests itself in a variety of ways, particularly serious organised crime, violent crime and the crime associated with county lines, which starts in London but travels across the country. We have seen some great reporting on that too.
I have alluded to the awful and completely unjustifiable levels of poverty that still exist in this city—the children who are moved from pillar to post in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation because they do not have a decent home to call their own, the levels of hunger and the levels of homelessness. All of that is given an airing and greater salience across the city, particularly among Londoners who may not know what it is like to live in poverty. That is an enormous public service.
As my hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins said, we have to bear in mind the trend towards the devolution of power in our country—long may it continue. I do not think it is a coincidence that as well as having striking levels of poverty and inequality in our country, we have enormous regional economic imbalances. It is no coincidence that there is so much wealth, prosperity and opportunity concentrated in London and the south-east, and that we have one of the most concentrated systems of political governance in the western world.
I hope the trend of the devolution of power will continue, but with it has to come the scrutiny that local and regional journalism brings. I know that even the Mayor of London can sometimes find himself at fault—even he is not perfect—and it is important that, whether it is the Mayor of London or other great local leaders across the country, they are held to account by strong regional political journalism. In London, we have that in abundance.
To conclude, it seems to me that with its review, the BBC is conducting one of those exercises that we in politics will find very familiar: we are told that there is a consultation and that there are open minds, but in fact the result is predetermined. I deeply hope that my cynicism is unjustified in this case. If not, I hope that the strength of feeling in the Chamber this evening, with an unusual turn-out for an Adjournment debate, helps to change minds at the heart of the BBC.