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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I agree that Ministers cannot be responsible for what Meridian told its staff, but surely they are responsible for what Meridian told its viewers about the retention and building up of a regional dimension in its programming. That is manifestly lacking in the proposals as we see them.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue relating to, in particular, the new role of the new regulator. It brings me to my second point: the changes are taking place before Ofcom has decided how to interpret its requirements for regional production quotas and expenditure outside the M25. Ofcom recently wrote to me

That requirement was a key element of the Communications Act 2003. It seems that, by presenting a fait accompli at Meridian, the new ITV will effectively set its own baseline for Ofcom and reduce Ofcom's scope to set a challenging interpretation of those regulations.

I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would respond directly on whether the reduction in Meridian's programme-making capacity can be held back until Ofcom has decided how to approach the issue. If that can be done, will she use every power that she has, either legally or by persuasion, to

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ask for that to be done? At the very least, it would be much better if the issue were looked at when those at Ofcom have got their feet under the table and have worked out how to approach the issue, which would ensure that it is considered properly.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman is making a very good case. Does he agree that the transmission of local news for Sussex and Kent from a base in Hampshire, following the closure of any Maidstone outlet, will be detrimental to people in Sussex and Kent and that such news cannot possibly be of the same quality? More importantly, is this not the thin end of the wedge? If Granada gets away with that closure strategy without intervention from Ofcom or the Government, it will be repeated throughout the country.

Mr. Denham: We have already been promised that what is being done in Meridian is the model for the whole of the rest of the ITV network. That is what we seem to have been told, and those are the risks. As I said earlier, I can accept that there may be different, better and less expensive ways to organise the way in which news is delivered, but I am pretty clear that these proposals have been driven by a desire not to improve, but to cut the cost of the news service, so my hon. Friend is right, as I hope that other hon. Members and I are, to express those concerns about the risks that are involved.

A couple of colleagues wish to speak briefly in their own right, so I will conclude my remarks. I hope that everyone will recognise how many hon. Members have attended the debate. This is a matter of great concern. Unusually, while it is a big issue for my constituency, this Adjournment debate is of national significance. What happens in the south-east will have repercussions throughout the United Kingdom, and the fact that hon. Members from Northern Ireland and Scotland are present reflects that interest.

7.32 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) on putting such a strong case, and I associate myself with all that he has said.

I raised this issue first with the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and our report will be out shortly. Although I cannot say whether this will definitely be in the report, there is one thing that we will ask: will Ofcom please handle the issue in the open? In other words, when it takes evidence from Meridian, the National Union of Journalists chapels and other people, will it do so in the public domain, not behind closed doors? That is something about which the Minister might have a view.

In the 1960s, a famous chairman of Anglia Television—once a very great company—said that ITV was a licence to print money, and it wants to get back to exactly that. The Carlton merger will benefit senior management, not the viewers. I am told that two things were on the agenda at a recent senior management away day—one was something about communicating the changes and the other was to ramp up the share price.

Let me deal with the communications bit. The first thing is that there was a leak, which shows how good that management is. There was no communication with

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the staff, the workers, the producers or anyone. The proposal came out of the blue, from left field. Those involved are running to catch up, which is what happens. Secondly, I ought to congratulate not just my constituents who raised the issue with me, but the NUJ chapel at Maidstone, which has been absolutely fantastic. I congratulate the chapel on its efforts.

Why would anyone want to reduce the service to ramp up the share price? People would only want to do that for two reasons: first, to reward senior management and, secondly, to make the company attractive to a buyer. They are the only two reasons, and they do not serve the population and the viewers. I am a moderniser and I understand modernisation issues, but once Maidstone has been stripped out, the local journalists will be stripped out, even those with cars, laptops and digital cameras. Within three years, if the company has not been sold already, the political correspondents will be stripped out. Look at what has happened with the political correspondents in Parliament. In fact, there will be no local service, no local knowledge—no local anything—and certainly nothing regional. That is what the company wants to happen.

ITV2 could have been the regional option for ITV, but it is not. ITV2 has a budget of just £1 million for original programming. The situation is crazy and a disaster because there was a chance to use the channel for regional programmes. I hope that the Minister will be persuaded that the BBC charter review could give a regional channel, as part of the public sector service review, to take the place of ITV. The situation is appalling, so I am grateful for the few minutes that I have had to make my case.

7.34 pm

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) on securing this important debate. The Meridian studios in Maidstone are located in my constituency and "Meridian Tonight", which covers both Kent and Sussex, has the highest ratings of any regional news programme in the country. My right hon. Friend cited a ratings figure of 50 per cent. Meridian has reached that figure and is talking about improving on that record, which I hope it does. However, for the reasons set out by my right hon. Friend, many of us have a jaundiced view about whether the figure will be breached. Many ITV companies throughout the country would look enviously on the successful regional news programme's record and we should not forget the advertising revenue that it brings to the company. The BBC recently moved its south-east operation from London to set up a dedicated news programme covering Kent and Sussex in response to Meridian's lion's share of the audience viewing figures.

Although Meridian's studios are in my constituency, we are not wedded to buildings and there is not necessarily a question of whether the building will remain. However, the location and quality of the staff who produce such an excellent programme cannot be dismissed because that infrastructure has been built up over many years.

We are greatly concerned about the mixed messages that have come from Meridian. Mr. Clive Jones, its managing director, recently told the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport:

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Tim Suter of Ofcom said a similar thing in response to a representative of the National Union of Journalists. He said:

In reality, however, both presenters will be based in Hampshire. The sports presenters will be based in Hampshire, so there will be no one in Kent or Sussex to cover sport, and the sports job in Maidstone is being axed. Only two out of seven production journalists will remain in Kent, the size of the news desk will be reduced from three people to one and one reporter's job will be lost. Perhaps it is not surprising that today's edition of The Guardian says that the head of ITV news is considering quitting. Ofcom must take a robust line, as the Prime Minister said to me a couple of months ago when the proposals came out. We want a robust response from the Minister.

7.38 pm

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): I apologise for the fact that I have only eight minutes in which to reply, but I wanted to give hon. Members as much time as possible to speak on what I know is an important regional issue. Every Member of Parliament understands the importance of regional media coverage. Indeed, I understood that importance better as an MP than as someone who was not especially actively involved in politics. I know that many issues that we raise on behalf of our constituents would never get back to them if it were not for regional broadcasting and journalism. Our constituents, as citizens, have the right to have their concerns raised here, so we need a channel of communication between this place and their homes to ensure that they know that we are acting on their behalf. I understand the anger that I sense and—without prejudging the issue—the feeling among hon. Members that they have been let down. It is for Meridian and hon. Members to talk about that, but I understand the strength of feeling and know what an important local issue we are debating. The irony, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, is that, having set up a framework and given the regulators the power to act, there is very little that the Government can do at this time. I therefore want to make a robust response, as hon. Members asked me to do, and make a few observations.

It does not matter whether it is Meridian or any other employer, it makes good sense and is good management to let people know that their jobs are at risk before telling the outside world. It is only humane to treat individuals in that way, and if that did not happen in this case, that is regrettable.

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