Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): What assistance his Department (the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) is giving to Ukraine.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois): The UK remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. We welcome the ceasefire agreement reached between Ukraine and Russia in Minsk on 5 September and the subsequent agreement on 19 September setting out the modalities for its implementation. The ceasefire agreement is broadly holding, although there have been a number of breaches on both sides. The MOD will continue to build on its long-standing relationship with the Ukrainian MOD. We have increased our defence engagement, providing additional support on crisis management, anti-corruption measures, defence reform and strategic communications.

Mr Whittingdale: As my right hon. Friend is aware, Ukrainian forces recently engaged not just with Russian-backed separatists, but with regular Russian army troops and their armour, which invaded their country and inflicted upon them heavy losses. Will he see what more can be done to rebuild Ukraine’s defence capability?

Mr Francois: We are clear that there cannot be a simply military solution to this conflict. We have provided military support and additional non-lethal support in line with Ukrainian priorities. Specifically, the Government have already provided non-lethal support to the Ukrainian security forces, including personal protective equipment, and last week the Government announced their intention to deliver more than £800,000-worth of further kit, including body armour, medical kits and winter supplies. Also at the NATO summit the UK committed to leading a new C4—command, control, communications and computers—trust fund. We have pledged over £500,000 to the C4 logistics and standardisation trust fund as well. With contributions from other nations, those trust funds and wider NATO activity will play a significant role in supporting the Ukrainian armed forces.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon)(Con) I am pleased to have the opportunity to present to the House the Committee’s report “Future of the BBC”. Our major inquiry began well over a year ago, and I express my thanks to my colleagues on the Committee, our Clerks and our specialist adviser, Mr Ray Gallagher.

As is well known, the BBC charter expires at the end of 2016. The renewal process provides an opportunity to examine all aspects of the BBC—scale, scope, governance and funding. Since the previous charter renewal, huge changes have taken place to the way in which people watch television. At the time of that renewal, most households had access to only four channels, but since then we have had analogue switch-off, meaning that everyone has access to 40 or more digital channels. Many people also access catch-up television through the iPlayer or some of the new streaming services. The whole media landscape therefore looks very different from how it did 10 years before.

The Secretary of State has said that it will be for the next Government to consider the future of the BBC and charter renewal—I understand his reasons—but the Committee points out that at the time of the previous review, an independent panel led by Lord Burns conducted a long public consultation before reaching conclusions. We think that this matter is so important that a similar process should take place this time, and there is no reason why that could not be initiated as soon as possible. Either way, I hope that our report will set the agenda for the forthcoming debate.

Read more ...

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the appalling incident in Ukraine is the consequence of a war that has been raging for many months and that had already led to the loss of hundreds of lives? As well as now imposing the toughest possible sanctions on President Putin and Russia, if it is shown that they continue to support the separatists, will he consider what additional support he can give to President Poroshenko to restore the authority of the Ukrainian Administration throughout the whole of the country?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. The most important thing we can do with regard to Ukraine is to help its economy recover and to make sure it has the assistance to restructure and be a successful, prosperous democracy. That is the best thing we can do. The association agreement signed between the EU and Ukraine is very important in that regard.

John Whittingdale attended an event organised by the SportsAid charity to highlight the support that they give to promising young athletes with money raised from My Lotto 24. At the reception, John met Danica Brazier who lives in Bicknacre and plays water polo for the GB ladies junior under 17s water polo team. Her home swimming club is Chelmsford Swimming Club, although she also trains with Basildon, Crawley, London Otter and Mid Sussex Marlins. Last year, Danica received an award of £1000 from SportsAid and My Lotto 24.

In March she will take part in the qualifying competition for the 1st European Olympics being held in Baku, Azerbaijan in June. John said: “I am very much aware of the significant costs faced by young elite athletes and am very pleased that SportsAid is supporting them in this way. I warmly congratulate Danica on the success that she has already achieved and wish her every success in her future sporting career.”

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past 12 months, more than 60 journalists have been killed in the course of their work, including those at Charlie Hebdo last week? Just five weeks ago, I and several other Members of Parliament attended the signing in Paris of a declaration by representatives of every European country, recognising the vital role of journalists in a free society and pledging to do everything possible to protect their safety. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that commitment today?

The Prime Minister: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in supporting the freedom of the press and I certainly reiterate what he says today. This most struck me when I visited Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, and went to see a newspaper office that had been shot up, bombed and burned. That brings home what journalists in other countries have for years faced in bringing the truth and putting it in front of the people, which is a vital part of a free democratic system. Obviously, the events in Paris are truly horrific, and the duty of everyone in public life is not necessarily to say whether or not we agree with this or that being published—everyone can have their opinion; it is not that that matters. What matters is that we should always defend the right of people to publish whatever is inside the law and in their opinion right to publish. That is our job and we must do it properly.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for their efforts to address this problem of partial not spots and not spots. But does my hon. Friend agree that the best solution would be to obtain an agreement with the industry on how to move forward and that it may also require the Government to make some changes to the electronic communications code and possibly the planning rules?

Mr Vaizey: When I said that we are consulting on national roaming, I should have made it clear that we are consulting on a range of options, and a voluntary agreement with the operator remains our preferred solution. Looking at the electronic communications code and the planning laws is also part of the options that we are considering.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Red Arrows on their 50th display season this year? Will he give an assurance that the future of the Red Arrows is secure under a future Conservative Government? The shadow Secretary of State was unable to give such an assurance for a future Labour Government.

Michael Fallon (Secretary of State for Defence): Yes. As the Prime Minister made clear, so long as there is a Conservative Government, the Red Arrows will continue flying.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on obtaining this debate, and add my congratulations to the Minister on his appointment.

Every speaker so far has talked about the value of community hospitals. I do not want to repeat what has been said, but I utterly endorse the tributes that have been paid to the dedicated staff who work in those hospitals, the intimate care that they are able to provide to patients—sometimes lacking in very large, more general hospitals—the proximity they have to communities and the fact that patients can be visited by relatives and friends much more easily. All those factors are real strengths that contribute to faster recovery times.

I am afraid that, like every Member, I will talk about my own experience of my local community hospital in Maldon, St Peter’s community hospital, which is greatly loved. Like many, it offers out-patient treatments, has rehabilitation beds and offers therapies. It also has a maternity unit. In my early days as a Member of Parliament I marched down Whitehall with the local protest group in defence of that unit when it was suggested that it might close. I am pleased to say that it did not and is still there; although I cannot personally say that I have contributed to its work, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who I am sure would be here had she not become a Minister, had her first child in the Maldon hospital maternity unit.

Read more ...

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): May I commend my right hon. Friend on his efforts to extend mobile coverage, but is he aware that many of my constituents have been without any mobile coverage for nearly three weeks due to Vodafone having to remove a mast from premises that the landlord required it to vacate? Will he consider looking at the electronic communications code to see whether it can be strengthened to give the same sorts of rights that already exist for other utilities, such as water and electricity?

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Sajid Javid): I was not aware of that particular issue in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but now he has raised it I will certainly look into it and see whether we can help. The electronic communications code is a very important issue and I am looking into it right now, because I agree that it was set up for a different age and there need to be significant changes.