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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 403: debated on Monday 7 April 2003

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Culture, Media And Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Arts (Young People)

2.

When she next plans to visit Nottingham, North to discuss Government policy on the arts and young people. [104047]

Last summer, I announced the biggest increase in funding for the arts for at least 20 years. On 25 March, the Arts Council of England announced its spending plans for the next three years, which will provide major increases in funding for artists, performers and arts organisations in my hon. Friend's constituency and across the country. Support for young people is a key theme and investment in creative partnerships is set to grow from £25 million in the current year to £50 million in 2005–06.

In trying to hold the Government to account on creative partnerships, I made inquiries of Ellis Guildford, Trinity, Brocklewood, Gladehill, Hempshill Hall, Highwood, Rufford and Glenbrook schools, and every one had nothing but praise for the scheme that the Government have introduced. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend whether she will ensure that this universally acclaimed scheme, as it operates in my constituency, will have sustainable funding?

I thank my hon. Friend. He will be pleased to learn—although he has done his research pretty well already—that 13 out of the 23 schools in the Nottingham creative partnership are in his constituency, which reflects the nature of deprivation in his constituency. Yes, it is our intention that in due course, and on the basis of careful evaluation, creative partnerships will become a national programme so that children all over the country, wherever they live or are at school, can be exposed to the benefits of arts and creativity from a very early age.

Arts (Small Towns)

3.

What support her Department offers to small towns without theatres, galleries, or museums to create such facilities. [107048]

The majority of the funding that my Department provides for theatres, museums and galleries is broadly directed to supporting existing cultural institutions, aiming to broaden access and attract new audiences. We do, however, offer support to new facilities in a number of ways. As far as theatres are concerned, that comes through the Arts Council of England, a lottery distributor that can provide funding and advice at a regional level. In the museums and galleries sector, through our £70 million investment in the renaissance in the regions initiative, a network of regionally based museum development officers will be established to help small and medium-sized museums, and grants for museums will continue to be available from the regional agencies.

There must be many small and middle-sized towns such as Skelmersdale, which has a population of 42,000, yet has no theatre, no gallery, no museum and no cinema, although there is substantial demand that is met only at the margins by make-do venues in schools and the library. Does my right hon. Friend agree that up-to-date cultural venues have an important part to play in economic regeneration in towns such as Skelmersdale; and does he therefore agree that some of the grant aid earmarked by the Government for economic regeneration should be used to help communities like Skelmersdale establish such cultural venues?

The answer is obviously yes, but to a large extent local authorities or partnerships drive that process. We are not imposing it from the centre, and I do not think that my hon. Friend would want that to happen, either. In terms of theatres, a dialogue with the Arts Council of England should take place at a regional level. My hon. Friend should visit his local authority to ask what it is doing proactively to try to deliver the types of facilities that he wants.

Will the Minister take steps to ensure that boroughs such as the London borough of Havering are given a fairer share of grant aid for museums and for our local theatre in Hornchurch? Many boroughs on the outer rim of London are not getting their fair share in that respect: will he ensure that we do in future?

We want to be fair. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I will look into what is happening in relation to the funding agencies and the formula that has been applied to that part of London. I shall try to be as helpful as I can.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills in relation to bids for specialist schools in the arts? In Sittingbourne, which has a population of 42,000—about the same as that which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) mentioned—we, too, have no museums, art galleries and the like. If there was some combination between the work of the two Departments there is just a chance that our schools might get specialist status in the arts.

There are 173 specialist arts colleges; I do not know whether any of them fall within my hon. Friend's constituency. We do have a dialogue with other Departments about trying to use the arts and, indeed, sport and physical activity. One of those with which we have the most proactive approach is the Department for Education and Skills, which is making a difference in arts colleges and specialist sports colleges. If my hon. Friend writes to us, we will try to be helpful in providing information.

Let them come to Lichfield, which has a population of only 35,000 but boasts the Garrick theatre, which is an eco-friendly theatre that is about to open. Of course, David Garrick was born and brought up in Lichfield. A new arts gallery will shortly open and my constituency contains the St. Mary's heritage centre. However, may I ask the Minister about smaller theatres such as that in Pipe Ridware in my constituency? It has only 70 seats yet still puts on performances. It has been unable to secure grants from the Arts Council of England or any other organisation that gives lottery grants because such organisations say that the theatre must provide training schemes for young people in the area. That is impossible for such a small theatre, so how can we get round the problem?

That investment shows very clearly that we do not discriminate against Tory constituencies. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was advertising tourism and inward investment when he got to his feet and extolled the virtues of his constituency. I obviously cannot respond to his specific point but if he writes to me, I shall take it up with the Arts Council because I assume that the theatre has been in contact with that body.

I have said clearly that we want viable theatres of the nature that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I stress that the broad approach of our policy is to try to get current facilities and investment to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. That is the right approach and after we have achieved that, we can move on to further developments for arts, museums and galleries.

Arts (Inner Cities)

What steps the Arts Council is taking to promote arts projects in inner-city areas.[107049]

The record levels of funding increase announced for the arts last week—the biggest for 20 years—recognise the importance that this Government attach to the arts and to extending their benefit to anybody who wants to enjoy culture. Jubilee Arts in Sandwell is a good example. It has seen an increase in its funding from more than £107,000 this year to £623,000 by the end of the spending round in 2005–06. That represents getting on for a 500 per cent. increase, which is in addition to the £29 million of lottery investment toward the c/PLEX building that will house the Jubilee Arts project. I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his advocacy of that important project.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. I welcome the national increase in arts funding and especially the money for the Jubilee Arts organisation and the c/PLEX project, which is an innovative arts and technology project that is pioneered by Sylvia King, who is one of my constituents. The Secretary of State may not be aware that the project has stimulated a further £250 million of regeneration and development money. Will she examine whether the example of West Bromwich and c/PLEX can be used to encourage other inner-city areas to promote arts-driven regeneration projects?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. We believe that there are tremendous opportunities to link regeneration and culture. We have seen the benefits in cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester; indeed, in almost all 12 of the cities that are bidding to be the European capital of culture. I shall ensure that the beneficial experience of West Bromwich is added to that proud list.

While I appreciate and welcome the increase of funding through the Arts Council of England, would the Secretary of State agree, on reflection, that that sum has been completely dwarfed by the significant decrease of grants made available from the New Opportunities Fund and the community fund? Surely she should address the reasons for that decline if we are to help the arts in the way in which we all want.

I do not accept the premise of the question. The sports and arts are funded by the Exchequer and the lottery, which in the case of the arts is provided in equal parts. There has been a small decline in lottery ticket sales in recent years, but the regulator and the operator are confident that that trend is set to reverse. The arts across every constituency in this country can look forward to a bright future because they have a Government who are committed to investing in them as part of our central purpose, not as an afterthought.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those cities that do not become the European capital of culture or win the bid feel rather bruised by that? Many of us in Yorkshire believe that having been left off the shortlist, Bradford feels that it is unloved and uncared for in the arts. Surely all those other cities that will not become the European capital of culture should have a chance that is not European funded but funded by her Department to take significant initiatives in cultural events.

No doubt we could hear a chorus of suggestions around the Chamber.

Bradford is a wonderful city and I look forward to visiting it towards the end of the month. It proudly boasts many cultural institutions. My hon. Friend is right: bidding for the capital of culture unlocked vision and ambition in those bidding cities, including Bradford. We are considering ways in which the ambition in those bids can—certainly in part—be realised.

Television (Cross-Ownership)

5.

If she will make a statement on her policy on cross-ownership rules in respect of (a) Channel 5 and (b) ITV. [107050]

The Government's policy is to deregulate where possible to promote investment and growth. However, we will retain those key ownership rules that safeguard a plurality of media voices and tough content controls to ensure quality and diversity. The Communications Bill, therefore, removes all rules on the ownership of Channel 5, which has only a 6 per cent. audience share and 80 per cent. coverage of the UK. The Bill maintains the rule that prevents a large newspaper proprietor buying into ITV, which in contrast with Channel 5 has universal access to a mass audience.

I thank the Minister for that detailed response, but is not there something illogical about her position? The logic she applies only continues if Channel 5 continues to have a small share of the audience and ITV continues to have a large share. Surely the danger is that Mr. Murdoch or one of the other big proprietors buys Channel 5 and injects money into it that leads to a big increase in audience share—the sort of audience share that she rules out for cross-media relaxation on ITV.

It is extraordinarily interesting to hear Liberal Democrat views on the important issue of cross-media ownership. On the day that they tabled amendments to the Communications Bill in Committee, they overslept and Committee members were denied the opportunity to have the debate that the hon. Gentleman is now trying to initiate rather late in the day. However, as it is the middle of the day and Liberal Democrats are awake, I can tell him that we anticipated precisely the scenario to which he refers by creating provision in the Bill for the public service broadcasting requirements on Channel 5 to be strengthened if there is a significant increase in its audience share.

Tough content controls can stand separately from ownership requirements, so why not set ITV free as well?

Because ITV has a mass audience. It covers 100 per cent. of the country and has an audience share of about 24 per cent. That may well change. It is precisely because we take a different view of media ownership than the Opposition—we believe that competition alone is not enough to safeguard plurality and diversity—that we have retained a rule restricting cross-media ownership for ITV for the reasons that I identified, but have proposed to lift that rule for Channel 5, a minority channel with a small audience share.

Sports (Maintained Schools)

6.

If she will make a statement on the level of sporting activity undertaken by pupils in maintained schools. [107051]

It will probably come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman, but comprehensive data on physical education and school sports have never been collected. However, I can assure him that we are putting that right. On 3 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport placed in the Library of the House the initial results of the survey of school sport co-ordinator partnerships that took place towards the end of 2002. Updated figures were published on the website on 1 April. The second annual report on the Government's plan for sport shows that one pupil in seven has moved into community sports or physical activity clubs, one pupil in five is involved in inter-school competitions, and 50 per cent. are involved in intra-school competitions and events. Those figures are still well below the targets that we have set; they are not satisfactory. That is why, over the next three years, we are investing about £1 billion to put facilities and people in place so as to build on the figures that I have just given.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his candid and informative reply. As long ago as 5 June 1998, the then Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), told the House that there should be an irreducible minimum of three hours per week of sport for children in schools. However, almost five years later, the Government's two-hour PE and school sport target is missed respectively by three quarters, three fifths and two thirds of schools at key stages 1, 2 and 3. Why should we hold out any prospect of success under this Government when their record both past and present is one of miserable failure?

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to have a serious discussion about this, I do not know where he gets his facts and statistics. I have been quite honest with the House and said that the data have not been available. We are trying to establish a database and, once we have that in place, as we now have, we will be able to measure results consistently. Our target is to offer every child between the ages of five and 16 two hours of quality physical activity or sport every week. The investment of £1 billion over the next three years is to put in place facilities—there will be something like 2,500 developments across the country through the New Opportunities Fund investment of £560 million—and 3,000 school sport co-ordinators. We now have 201 sports colleges out of our target of 400; and just under 1,000 school sport co-ordinators out of our target of 3,000 to be in place within the next two years. We believe that we have made a significant investment in the development of the infrastructure to bring quality physical activity and sport back into our schools.

Although I accept the points that the Minister has made, is the bigger problem not the drop-out rate from organised sport of people over the age of 16? Does my right hon. Friend agree that partnerships between schools and local communities to expand the use of school sport facilities are making a positive contribution? I welcome the £600,000 from the New Opportunities Fund to refurbish the swimming pool at Montsaye school in Rothwell. That is helping to promote more sporting activity for the school and the local community.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. It is a serious matter that 70 per cent. of young people who leave school and go into the world of work or higher education never return to active sport. In France, the figure is around 20 per cent. We have to look into that. The prerequisite for applications to the New Opportunities Fund for investment through the local education authorities is that funds will be used for community activities. We hope that the £60 million that we are investing through the governing bodies to strengthen the sports club structure the length and breadth of the nation will make a major contribution towards arresting that awful figure of 70 per cent. for people who are not active in sport once they leave school.

On statistics, has the Minister seen the latest Sport England survey, published at the end of February, which reveals that the number of children who do not take part in regular weekly PE or sport at the school at all is rising and now stands at 18 per cent.—almost one in five children? Some 51 per cent. of young people do less than two hours of PE a week. Does he agree that that scandalous failure of schools policy must be reversed if we are to tackle child obesity and prevent ill health in later life? I acknowledge what he is trying to do, but can he tell us how the joint public service agreement between his Department and the Department for Education and Skills will be monitored and when we can expect results, because a lot of public money is involved?

That is exactly what I have suggested. The hon. Gentleman refers to a survey by Sport England and, helpful though that survey is, it is just a snapshot of what is happening in this country. We need much more robust figures. As the Government are investing such amounts of money into sport and physical activities, it is necessary to get robust baseline data. In fact, that is exactly what we are doing. There is no disagreement between those on the two Front Benches—we want to ensure that obesity in our young people is reduced, along with diabetes as well. That is why the investment is there.

According to the National Audit Office, the wider nation's economy loses £2 billion a year because of obesity, £500 million of which falls on the national health service. Those horrendous figures need to be arrested, and we are setting off at the very beginning—in our primary and infant schools—and moving on to secondary schools and, I hope, into the club structure as well.

Heritage Sites

What recent discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on protection of international heritage sites. [107052]

Officials from my Department attended a specially convened session of the world heritage committee at UNESCO in Paris last month. My Department will also be represented at the main session of the world heritage committee in China this summer, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that we are supporting the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), which will allow much easier prosecution of anyone who tries to trade in this country in objects stolen or looted from cultural heritage sites across the world.

I gave the Department notice of my supplementary question mid-morning. Has the Minister had discussions with either the international body or the Ministry of Defence about the fate of the museum at Basra, the shrine at Al-Kawaz, the great mosque that is 16 km to the west of Bara, or the early Islamic site at Tulul ash Shuaiha? In the light of the answer that was given at oral questions by the Prime Minister before the war started that everything possible would be done to protect sites of holy or cultural interest, why has no one in the Government contacted, after their pleas, Professor Postgate and his team at Cambridge, Harriet Crawford of the Institute of Archaeology or John Curtis of British Museum?

I have not had discussions with the experts that my hon. Friend mentions, but I have been informed that representatives of the British armed forces have discussed with those of our coalition allies how best to make all coalition forces aware of the many historic and important sites in Iraq, and I am sure that they will do all in their power to minimise the damage to those sites. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that the United Kingdom is prohibited under article 53 of additional protocol 1 to the Geneva convention from directing any attack on cultural property, unless, of course, that property is used to support Iraq's military effort.

Will the Minister use his best efforts in the European Union to try to get our partners around the Mediterranean to do rather better at identifying such sites and protecting them? Is this not another case of Britain playing the game and enforcing the rules much better than our southern partners? Can he help them to do rather better?

I am not aware that the countries to which the right hon. Gentleman refers are deficient in any sense. If he has examples of such sites that are not being identified and recognised in other parts of the world, I am sure that he is ready to write to me about them; I have not heard of them.

When considering international heritage sites, will my hon. Friend take into account objects at the birthplace of the industrial revolution, such as the weaving mill at Queen street in Burnley? [Laughter.] Well, such things still work. We need to preserve them, to ensure they are successful and to attract tourists to them.

The Government have a tremendous record of identifying, looking after and putting money into sites relating to the industrial revolution and to industry in general. I will certainly look at the example that my hon. Friend has given.

Lottery

8.

How many responses she has received to the consultation on the future of the national lottery. [107053]

The Department received 425 responses to the consultation paper on the review of lottery funding.

I declare an interest as a member of the Benfleet horticultural society. I congratulate the Secretary of State on her good humour, and on the professionalism shown by her and by lottery staff in the distribution of grants. Does she agree that lottery sales would increase if grants were directed away from politically correct and controversial schemes towards genuine community-based schemes such as that of the Benfleet horticultural society, which is doing such excellent work in the Castle Point community?

I looked at the figures relating to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I note that his constituents have benefited less than they should have from the distribution of lottery moneys. I hope he understands how seriously I take the need to ensure equitable distribution. As for his swipe at political correctness, what is politically correct today may be progressive and socially acceptable tomorrow. I would bet a small lottery prize that had we been debating the lottery in the early part of the last century, the suffragettes would have been dismissed as politically correct.

Is the Secretary of State aware that thousands of small retailers are currently having their lottery franchises removed? While her main concern must of course be to maximise the take for good causes, will she look into the growing concentration of distribution that is benefiting supermarkets and disadvantaging small retailers?

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I know that Camelot has a rationalisation under way, and that being a lottery distributor it is extremely popular. I am glad it has taken the needs of rural areas into account, but I will keep a close watch to ensure that people in all areas have easy access to shops where they can buy lottery tickets.

Is it not the case that only six of the 425 respondents favoured merging the community fund and the New Opportunities Fund, while bodies representing voluntary organisations were overwhelmingly against it? Will the Secretary of State assure us that the merger will not go ahead until Parliament has properly considered and approved it?

As I have told the hon. Gentleman in a parliamentary answer, about 12 respondents expressed a view. The ratio between those expressing reservations and those supporting the merger was 50:50. The proposals arising from the review will form part of a White Paper, which will be published later in the year, and Parliament will have ample opportunity—as Parliament should—to debate not just the merger proposals but the other proposals for revitalising our national lottery.

When the Secretary of State draws up the White Paper, will she say whether she is satisfied that despite the Government's pledge to reduce it, the amount of money still sitting in the national lottery distribution fund stands at £3.2 billion, 14 per cent. over the figure inherited by her Government? Is it riot a scandal that in the last five years more than £1 billion has accumulated in interest payments—money that could have been used to transform the lives of thousands of people?

First, the hon. Gentleman should understand that the money raised in interest by the NLDF does go into good causes, so the income has been realised for good causes. Secondly, the balances are now at their lowest level for five years, but I agree that the balances at their present level are unacceptable. However, it is important to understand that balances that stand at £3.24 billion represent on the latest figures almost £500 million of over-commitment. That is money being held on account for organisations that have been awarded lottery grants which have yet to be drawn down. The distributors gave an undertaking to halve the level of balances, and I am working with them to ensure that we accelerate the rate of draw-down. Proposals relating to that will form part of the review to be published later this summer.

Will the Secretary of State be very cautious when she cites figures for lottery money given to constituencies? If she looked at the figures for West Derbyshire, she would tell me that we had had a huge amount of lottery grant over the past few years, but considering that much of that lottery grant goes to the county council for schemes that it is promoting, the money is spread across the county. The figures that she gives are often misleading.

The figures are not intended to mislead, but if one examines the figures on a countywide rather than a constituency basis, there will appear to be clustering of lottery grants in particular areas. My hon. Friends representing Birmingham constituencies make a similar point about the distribution of grants in Birmingham, and I am sure that there are other examples. One of the purposes of undertaking the review of lottery distribution is to tackle some of these tricky questions. Principles of equity demand that we do everything we can to make sure that organisations right across the country have the opportunity to enrich their communities with successful lottery grants.

Sporting Facilities

9.

What steps she is taking to improve sporting facilities in disadvantaged areas. [107054]

The Government believe that sport can play a valuable part in alleviating economic and social deprivation. Programmes such as space for sport and the arts, the New Opportunities Fund school PE and sport funding, the PE, school sport and club links initiative and the community club development programme are all targeted at deprived areas.

Edmonton Rangers football club provides sport and recreation to some of the most deprived kids in my constituency. It does a tremendous job, but it could do an even better job if only it had a permanent site. There is a site available, but unfortunately it is owned by a neighbouring local authority, which has left it to rot over the past 15 years. What can my right hon. Friend do to assist clubs such as Edmonton Rangers, which is trying to reach out to deprived kids in my communities, and what action can he take with local authorities, especially those that are not represented in the area, in order to bring such sites back into use?

I do not know all the details of the case that my hon. Friend describes, but if the facts are as he says, that local authority should re-examine its attitude to sport and physical activity. I know that there have been developments in the area with the participation of the Edmonton sports and social club and the local authority there, and I hope that that results in better facilities, including changing accommodation and all-weather pitches. If my hon. Friend writes to me about the matter that he raises, I will look into it and contact the local authority in question.

Does the Minister agree that what is important is not just the provision of facilities, but access to them and whether young people in particular can afford to get into them? Does he agree that there is a need for joined-up government thinking with the Department for Education and Skills and local government to ensure that not only are facilities provided, but that young people can afford to use them?

Very much so. The hon. Gentleman knows that many local authorities—particularly Labour-controlled ones—are trying to ensure that the facilities are accessible, especially to people who can currently ill-afford to use them. I have seen many innovative schemes around the country. Using the modern technology that is available, such as the chips that can be put into passcards, we can distinguish between various categories of economic well-being among the populace in a city without it being seen as discriminatory. Many schemes are operating throughout the country, but he is right to say that, in some areas, financial barriers are preventing people from gaining access to the facilities. I hope that local authorities and other partners can look at making that access available.

Entertainment Licences

10.

What plans she has to promote the use of live music in pubs and clubs by reducing the cost of entertainment licences. [107055]

The Licensing Bill will do away with the current system of separate, annually renewable and often very expensive public entertainment licences and establish a system under which a pub or club obtaining permission to sell alcohol will not pay anything extra to seek permission to provide live music.

I thank the Minister for his illuminating reply. I am sure that the House will welcome many of the changes that he has made to the Licensing Bill. May I say that he has carried them out with his usual grace, good humour and Pontypridd panache? However, he will know better than most the concerns that the Bill aroused; indeed, he still bears the scars. What steps has he taken since making those changes to reassure pubs, clubs, entertainers and the Musicians Union in particular that the Bill is both in their interest and the public interest?

I had a meeting very recently with the new general secretary of the Musicians Union, Mr. John Smith, and I have met representatives of various folk group organisations, wassailers, folk dancers and even Somerset folk singers. We are determined that, between us, we will ensure that the licensed trade knows the potential of the new arrangements. I am convinced that we will see many more venues for live music in this country, not fewer, and that those that will put on live music will not have to suffer the distortions of the two-in-a-bar rule.

The Minister has already conceded in answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) that the Government got the original proposals in the Licensing Bill catastrophically wrong. We are very pleased that the Government have now backed down, as his hon. Friend pointed out. Does he recognise the concerns of those of us in the all-party music group that further changes would still be welcome? Will he continue to listen to the proposals not only of the all-party group, but of all other organisations involved in Keep Music Live?

It always amazes me that somebody can stand up in the Chamber and say that we have got something catastrophically wrong when, for 18 years, their Government put up with this nonsense and did absolutely nothing about it. We are determined that there will be a much better regime in this country for putting on live music and that we will see a renaissance of that music, which is a very important part of our economy. If we do not encourage the grass roots of music of whatever sort, I am not sure how the tall plants will grow out of it. The entertainments industry is a very important part of our economy and we should never forget that.

But is the Minister aware that, despite his assurances, more than 80,000 people have now signed the petition against the Bill and remain utterly convinced that it will result in the loss of thousands of venues for live music? Does he understand that he has completely failed to convince anybody as to why those venues should have to have an entertainments licence in future when they do not need one now and about why it is so necessary for pubs and clubs in England and Wales to be licensed when those in Scotland do not need a licence?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that those venues do need licences now. If he does not know that, he should, because he has been told enough times. If he means that we should continue with the two-in-a-bar rule, despite the fact that it was the Musicians Union and musicians throughout the country who said that it was distorting live music in this country because it was not allowing musicians to explore anything beyond having two in a bar, which usually means one person with a karaoke machine, I am afraid that he will never grasp the reality of the situation. I would have thought that he would want to support something that will secure real improvement in this country in terms of the mounting and performance of live music.

Public Libraries

11.

If she will make a statement on the implementation of the Government's policy of ensuring that all public libraries are online. [107056]

The £100 million lottery funding for the people's network programme has enabled 4,085 libraries in the UK to be connected to the internet, including all the libraries in my right hon. Friend's constituency. That represents 99 per cent. of libraries in England, 95 per cent. in Scotland, and 100 per cent. in Wales and Northern Ireland. Only 39 English and 30 Scottish libraries have still to be connected, and we expect all but two to be online by summer 2003. That is a significant achievement.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Gateshead council on not only the people's network project but the lending time project? Does he agree that, taken together, they mean that not only is the policy of bringing libraries online being fully undertaken, but that the number of local people who can develop their computer skills and gain access to the facilities has greatly increased through work with volunteers? Is not that one of the many reasons why Newcastle/Gateshead would be an excellent capital of culture?

I could not possibly comment on my right hon. Friend's last question. Nevertheless, what is happening in Gateshead mirrors events throughout the country. Libraries are perceived, not in the traditional sense as places where one can simply borrow books or go to read, but as true resource centres for developing the skills of my right hon. Friend's constituents and others. Many people are taking advantage of the £100 million investment and libraries have developed well beyond their service of simply lending books.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the
Church Commissioners, was asked—

Clergy (Conditions Of Service)

21.

When he expects to receive proposals from the Archbishops Council on conditions of service for the clergy. [107082]

May I say at the outset how much I welcome the presence of the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) at our joint Question Time? I wish him well in his many endeavours in the weeks, months and years ahead.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) knows, the Archbishops Council has set up a working group under the chairmanship of Professor David McClean to review various matters relating to clergy terms of service, including the freehold and improving protection for clergy without it.

Given that the Archbishops Council has given the impression of substantial inactivity on conditions of service for the clergy since the Employment Relations Act 1999 was passed, and has appeared reluctant to set up the McClean committee—it did so late and slowly—would not it be a travesty if the workings of the committee were perceived as a reason for delay rather than a vehicle for progress, and if the contentious issue of the future of the freehold were to be used as a reason to delay granting conditions of service, which others have enjoyed for some years, to the clergy?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's great interest in the subject and I respect and admire his persistence over the years since 1997 when he first became a Member of Parliament. I welcome the fact that he has an Adjournment debate on the subject in Westminster Hall.

The working group's initial report will be made available to the Archbishops Council by the end of the year, and subsequent consultation will take place with the Church Commissioners. As my hon. Friend knows, the Church is anxious to co-operate with the appropriate Department, Professor David McClean and his committee.

Should not those conditions of service include an express requirement for wisdom? How wise is it for the Archbishop of Canterbury to visit Qatar this week but to refuse to visit our troops, many of whom are laying down their lives for this country?

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voting Age

22.

What representations the Electoral Commission has received on reducing the voting age to 16. [107083]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The votes at 16 campaign has made such representations to the Commission. It is also aware of support for moves to reduce the minimum voting age on the part of several parliamentarians, political parties and other bodies.

Will the hon. Gentleman try to ensure that, through the representations that it receives, the Electoral Commission tries to listen to the voices of young people on this issue? Those young people are asking why they can pay tax, get married and join the armed forces at 16, if they cannot vote.

Yes, indeed. The Commission is aware that there has been strong support expressed in some quarters that the voting age should be reduced. The purpose of the fundamental review that the Commission now has in hand is to gauge how wide that support is.

Has my hon. Friend, whose presence answering questions I warmly welcome, received any even more stupid representations in regard to votes at 14?

Yes. [Laughter.] I say "yes" to acknowledge that I have heard the question. The Commission has put in hand a wide-ranging survey, which was announced on 27 February. Its timetable is to consult over the summer and early autumn of 2003, with publication of a final report, with recommendations, in early 2004. It is, perhaps, worth reporting, if one is seeking to improve the turnout at general elections, that the overall turnout in the 2001 general election was 59 per cent., but the estimated turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was 39 per cent.

Ward Boundaries

23.

When the Electoral Commission last met the Boundary Commission to discuss the review of ward boundaries in metropolitan authorities; and if he will make a statement. [107084]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Responsibility for reviews of ward boundaries in metropolitan authorities falls to the boundary committee for England. The Electoral Commission has not met the committee to discuss this matter.

May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the guidance issued in the periodic electoral review, which states that the Electoral Commission and the boundary committee for England

"must have regard to the desirability of fixing identifiable electoral area boundaries"
and ensure that community interests are safeguarded? It is, therefore, apparent from the directive that both organisations have responsibility for this issue. I would like to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to problems that are developing in some of the metropolitan areas in which boundary reviews are taking place. In Wakefield, for example, there are two communities with a vast distance between them. The M62 passes through the area, which also has a railway container depot and a vast industrial area, and a railway going along the division between the two communities. There is also no natural identifiable boundary. There has been a tremendous increase in community interest in this issue. Will the hon. Gentleman take this matter on board and ensure that such proposals will be examined in detail, and that the community interest is given priority when it comes to identifying ward boundaries?

Yes. Electoral equality is the starting point for the boundary committee's review, but of course it also takes account of other items, including community identity. As to the consultation on the boundary committee's draft recommendations in relation to Wakefield city council, the public consultation period ends today, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman is making representations in that regard.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Church Repairs

24.

What assessment he has made of the impact that the revision of the sixth VAT directive will have on church repairs. [107085]

As the hon. Lady knows, I led a delegation to the European Parliament on the subject of the sixth VAT directive in December. I have since discussed the matter with representatives of the European Parliament. The Church knows that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury are committed to achieving the changes required to the directive to enable a permanent reduction in the rate of VAT charged on the repair and maintenance of listed places of worship.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that such a revision of the sixth VAT directive would have a very positive impact on church repairs, but we seem to be no closer to achieving it. Will he put a deadline on when such a revision might be achieved?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her persistent efforts in this area, and for keeping the issue on the boil. As she will be aware,

"the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small".
That might be equally true of the European Parliament in relation to the sixth VAT directive.

This is an issue of particular concern to members of one of the churches in my constituency, who have been extremely effective in raising money to repair its roof but are dependent on additional moneys. This issue, which seems to be making no advancement at all, is causing them grave concern. So far as my hon. Friend is aware, will the Government help such organisations to bridge the gap, if time is of the essence in tying up the additional funding that they might receive from other organisations?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to a church in her constituency. As she is aware, the Chancellor reduced VAT on church repairs of listed buildings from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent. as a temporary measure. We are aware of and comforted by the fact that the Chancellor will continue that scheme until such time as the sixth VAT directive is passed. I will be grateful if my hon. Friend lets me know of any particular difficulties for her church in relation to those matters, and we will take them up personally.

Pensions

26.

Will he make a statement on pensions provision for the clergy. [107087]

Clergy in office receive a stipend and are housed. When they retire, they make their own housing provisions, but they receive a Church pension in addition to their state pension. The basis for determining the benefits provided by the Church—a lump sum at retirement plus a pension takes account of all those factors. The full service pension from 1 April 2003 is £11,013 per annum. The lump sum is £33,039.

What can the Church Commissioners do to reduce the proportion of retiring clergy who have to rely on means-tested state benefit and to improve pension provision for those clergy?

I am not entirely sure what we can do about those who wish to retire early, as that, if I may say so, is their God given right. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the clergy pension scheme is a defined benefit scheme. Many companies are switching to money purchase schemes that, in effect, switch risk to the employee. The Church has chosen not to do so, which highlights its commitment to adequate remuneration for retired clergy. We are also considering how we can increase the pensions for the clergy.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Experimental Voting

27.

What statutory measures allow experimental voting procedures in individual constituencies at general elections. [107088]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The statutory provisions for experimental voting procedures apply only to local authority elections in England, Scotland and Wales.

A while ago, my hon. Friend referred to the number of younger people who vote. I and, I am sure, other colleagues have received representations from people of all ages asking for the opportunity to vote by e-mail or via the internet. Can the Speaker's Commission enable an experiment to see whether that would make a difference? It might allow the country to see whether those methods would work or whether more traditional ones are preferable.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is indeed an area in which the Electoral Commission has a keen interest. The commission's strategic evaluation report on the May 2002 electoral pilots notes that voters generally found electronic voting systems easy and convenient to use. However, the commission also recognises that evidence in relation to turnout remains unconvincing and recommends further trials to build on the experience of this year's pilots, which, of course, will be held in relation to the May local government elections.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked

Fundraising

28.

What advice is given by the commissioners regarding the use of Church premises for fundraising; and if he will make a statement. [107089]

The Church Commissioners give no such advice. Parishes make their own arrangements for fundraising events, and we applaud them for what they do. Many use their buildings for activities intended to raise funds, and well-planned events can benefit both the congregation and the wider community.

I am very grateful for that answer, and it is right to say that a variety of activities can take place. May I again implore the hon. Gentleman to visit Lichfield to see not only activities such as the Lichfield festival, which occurs annually in our cathedral, but the many different churches, which raise money not only from jumble sales and bazaars, but through artistic events in the area?

I am grateful for the question. If the hon. Gentleman remembers, at the previous Question Time, I accepted an invitation to visit Lichfield in July. When he sends me the invitation, I will be glad to accept it. Having said that, I was in mid-Wensleydale parish last week, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), and I must tell him that there was a strong response: all those in the room said that they had supported him, did support him, and would support him. I can only congratulate him on his role as a constituency Member of Parliament. At mid-Wendsleydale, a clear local connection existed between the parish church and the parish in relation to fundraising, which was very successful. The hon. Gentleman reminds us of how much work is done in parishes up and down the land in relation to fundraising and in relation to their parishioners.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Literature

29.

What monitoring of electoral literature the commission carries out. [107090]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The commission does not have a specific role in monitoring electoral literature, although it maintains an overview of the way that the law operates in that area.

Given that all our constituencies and all the opinion polls show that the one thing that electors want from all parties in the House and elsewhere is more information that is, to use the words of the Advertising Standards Authority, "decent, honest and truthful", would it be helpful to the interests of the credibility of politics were the Electoral Commission to consider the issue and come forward with recommendations that we could all follow to public advantage?

I am not exactly certain what the hon. Gentleman is urging. If there is a breach of electoral law, it is a matter for the police prosecuting authority: it is not a matter in which the Electoral Commission becomes directly involved.