Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Officials from the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and my Department met representatives of the publishers, wholesalers and retailers of magazines and newspapers earlier this year to discuss this issue. As a result, the trade associations issued guidelines reminding members of the need to exercise common sense in deciding how to display material intended for adults.
My hon. Friend will be aware that earlier this year I introduced a ten-minute Bill that called for a ban on the sale of sexually explicit material to children. Despite huge public support for that request, the response from WH Smith was to issue a notice that such material may still be displayed at 1.2 m, which is the height of the average seven-year-old. Given that the industry appears incapable of regulating itself, will my hon. Friend consider meeting me and child-centred agencies to talk about what we can do to prohibit the sale of such material to children?
First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to the attention of the House? Both sides will agree that self-regulation is always preferable to Government regulation. We saw a good example of that with the video games industry two or three years ago. A problem was drawn to its attention and it responded by changing methods of classification and dealing with retailers. My Department is consulting on the issue that my hon. Friend rightly raises, and I hope that she and other hon. Members who wish to lobby on the issue will provide more evidence. It is appropriate to encourage the industry to self-regulate. I have now seen some of the content in question and it is clearly preposterous to suggest that placing the material at a height of 1.2 m is an adequate safeguard.
The definition of pornography is a grey area. One of the main publications that has given rise to concern is the Daily Star. Has the Minister had any discussions with the printing industry on whether the contents of that publication constitute pornography, because I am sure that most responsible newsagents would happily consign it to the top shelf?
We have not had specific discussions with the Daily Star—[Hon. Members: “Daily Sport.”] Indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has now given me a copy of the Daily Sport and I understand that hon. Members are interested in looking at it.
The material in some of the publications is the kind of stuff that one would expect to find, at best, on the top shelf and probably not in any newsagent. It is important that the House takes the matter seriously and that we consult on it. It is our ambition to achieve a resolution through self-regulation, but we would like the industry to take the issue as seriously as it merits.
I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comments and the slightly more open approach that he is now taking to the issue. In his consideration, will he take into account the fact that retailers and distributors of magazines have contractual arrangements under which more is paid to have magazines displayed at the most visible levels? It should therefore be straightforward to sort out which contracts are acceptable and which are not.
The latest estimate, from 2000, suggested that 0.6 per cent. of the adult population in Great Britain are problem gamblers. That is a low proportion and we intend to keep it that way. The Gambling Commission’s next prevalence study is under way and will report in September 2007, to coincide with the introduction of the Gambling Commission. The figure for problem gambling in that report will provide the benchmark against which further judgments will be made. We intend that the Gambling Act 2005 will introduce the most protective regime in the world, with the key aim of protecting the vulnerable and children from the risks of gambling. It is worth underlining the extent to which the Gambling Commission and I, as Secretary of State, will have unprecedented powers to intervene in how gambling is run to minimise harm, protect children and keep the levels of problem gambling low.
GamCare says that the number of people using the charity for gambling-related counselling has increased by 41.3 per cent. between 2004 and 2005. The Secretary of State gave a figure of 0.6 per cent. in her answer. Does that mean that 250,000 to 350,000 people have gambling problems? Therefore, has she not presided, perhaps irresponsibly, over an enormous explosion in problem gambling?
Not at all. The figure that I quoted of 0.6 per cent. represents about 360,000 people in Great Britain, and derives from the 2000 prevalence study. It is time to update the figure, because new technologies mean that more people are gambling. It is precisely because of the inadequate protection offered by the existing regime that, two years ago, we introduced the Gambling Act 2005. It established the Gambling Commission, which will be a powerful regulator, with the central aim of promoting social responsibility among operators and keeping problem gambling low.
Can I say, to reassure the hon. Gentleman, that we have one of the lowest rates of problem gambling in the world, and we intend to keep it that way? That is not in any way to diminish the suffering of those people and families for whom gambling becomes a problem. However, the list of measures includes, from September next year, the removal of 6,000 machines from unregulated premises such as minicab offices and fish-and-chip shops, to protect children from the risks of addiction to fruit machines. The Gambling Commission will have powers to oversee and to control the rate and frequency of play, stakes, and access to gaming machines which, as we know, can be a source of addiction. In particular, £3 million a year will be levied from the industry to support services for people who become addicted. Such work will be undertaken through the good offices of GamCare and the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). In addition, at the end of the month we will host an international summit that will look at the exponential increase in online gambling. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) will take comfort from the measures that the Government have put in place to protect people from gambling and the risks, particularly from new technologies.
The Secretary of State will be aware of concern about the rise in online gambling. It is difficult to see what social good will come from it, as it does not even create jobs. She will be aware, too, that the US Congress is examining steps to clamp down on online gambling by stopping credit card companies processing payments. Are the Government looking at such measures for the UK?
As I said to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), at the end of the month we will host an international summit to address precisely that problem. As things stand, such offshore gambling is beyond the regulatory reach of the UK. The United States has recently introduced new legislation to enforce existing powers. We can certainly—[Interruption.]
I apologise, Mr. Speaker.
To sum up, of course, we will look at that issue, but our approach to gambling regulation is different: to avoid prohibition, to introduce regulation and to avoid the damage that the free market will do. That is the approach—not just to gambling in this country but to the increased gambling opportunities online.
The Gambling Commission is central to this, so I congratulate the Secretary of State on the decision, taken over the summer, to locate it in Birmingham. May I suggest that she take a similar approach to the regional casino and to what may technically be known as the London Olympics but which we in Birmingham hope will be known as the Birmingham and rest of Britain Olympics?
I thank my hon. Friend and I am sure that the Gambling Commission will flourish in Birmingham. The decision about the location of the single regional casino is a decision for Parliament, on recommendation from Professor Crow when he and his panel report later this year.
Is not the Secretary of State right in acknowledging that, if online gambling is the largest cause of increases in problem gambling, it is crucial that we get online gambling organisations registered and regulated in the United Kingdom? She is right to say that in this country we have the toughest regulatory regime, but at the moment nobody is coming here because we do not have the taxation regime right. When will she sort that out with the Treasury?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, my Department is in discussion with the Treasury about precisely that point. We are concerned to ensure increasingly that online gambling companies understand the benefits of registering in this country. The consequence of that is their good name in complying with the very high regulatory standards and standards of public protection and social responsibility that will accompany the issue of their licence.
But is not the real problem that the internet is now spreading gambling as a vice, as it does with pornography? I welcome the action of the American authorities in clamping down on that. A little bit of prohibition in both areas would be a good thing. Will the Secretary of State talk to the United States to see what we can do to stop pornography as well as online gambling polluting the screens that our children and too many of our fellow citizens look at?
I understand why my right hon. Friend links the two issues, but it is important to take this on a case-by-case basis. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country gamble online and never have a problem with it. We have to ensure that the small majority who have a problem are properly protected and that there is no scope for exploitation, fraud or any of the other detriment that will harm people and undermine the objectives of our policy. We certainly ban internet material where it is pornographic and promotes violence. It is not our intention to ban internet gambling as such, but it is our intention to make sure that people are properly protected when they play.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Presumably, the Secretary of State agrees with her official briefing, recently quoted in the press:
“It is a government-wide policy, and that includes HM Treasury, that Britain should become a world leader in the field of on-line gambling.”
How can the Secretary of State justify giving tax advantages to online gambling operations that other forms of gambling and betting will not enjoy? Given the mounting evidence that problem gambling is growing fastest in the field of online gambling, what assurances can she give that Britain will not become a world leader in problem gambling as well?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my assurances, and indeed the careful scrutiny before the House of the Gambling Act 2005 as a measure to prevent problem gambling. In relation to his point about the regulatory status of online gambling, there are decisions to be taken by my Department; ultimately the taxation position is a judgment for the Treasury. It may be that in other countries—other jurisdictions—the tax advantages will be better, but in the long run it is in the interests of modern gambling companies, if they want to protect their reputation, to be prepared to comply with and to abide by the social responsibility standards that we will insist on in this country. That is what we offer online firms which come to this country.
Following the previous question, I, too, read the press report suggesting that the Government are seeking to make Britain a centre for online gambling and I am much more concerned about that than even Front-Bench Members. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to think about reversing that policy and not make Britain a centre for online gambling?
As I think the Daily Mail pointed out today when it made that claim—[Hon. Members: “And The Times.”] And The Times. It is certainly not our intention that we become a world centre for online gambling. Do not confuse that, Mr. Speaker, with our aim to get online gambling companies to register and to come on-shore. If we do that, we will have better powers and those companies will be in a better position to act in a socially responsible way, so we will ensure that, in a rapidly increasing area of gambling, we can keep down the proportion of problem gambling. We are not marketing the UK as a centre. We are marketing the UK as having the toughest regulatory regime in the world and as being the safest place for people to gamble. It is a public interest test.
It is still too early to draw firm conclusions, but indications are that the new licensing regime has been successfully implemented and is working well.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Why do certain activities on the Isle of Wight, such as the Chale show, the county show, the garlic festival and other very attractive festivals, find themselves regulated both under the Licensing Act and under the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971, despite my having been told by the Minister’s predecessor—the present Minister for the Middle East, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells)—before the Licensing Bill became law that it would impliedly repeal parts of the Isle of Wight Act? Which sections have been repealed?
I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I am glad that the Chale show, notwithstanding the difficulties that were faced, was a success. None the less, I recognise the problems faced as a result of the Isle of Wight Act and the Licensing Act both having to be navigated by those putting on the show. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my predecessor wrote to him in 2002, setting out the Department’s view that there would be implied repeal of elements of the Isle of Wight Act as a result of the new legislation. I have asked my officials to look into the matter and I am happy to meet him to discuss it because, as he knows, the intention behind the 2003 Act was to simplify the procedures, not to make things more difficult.
I therefore remind the hon. Gentleman that, as part of the new Licensing Act, we were able to reduce from 174 to 20 the number of forms, licences, notices, certificates and declarations. We managed wholly to repeal 23 Acts of Parliament relating to licensing and all associated regulations, and 69 Acts in England and Wales were reduced. Nine licensing regimes were reduced to a single regime. However, there was clearly a problem in the Isle of Wight and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to see what we can do so that the problems faced by the Chale horticultural show can, if possible, be avoided in future.
My hon. Friend will remember the dire warnings about the implementation of the new Licensing Act leading to an increase in drunken violence. Can he confirm the figures given to me by West Midlands police, who say that more arrests were made this summer in one day at Ascot than during the whole World cup period in the centre of Birmingham nightlife, Broad street?
It is always difficult to account for particular behaviour at major events such as Ascot. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to inform me of any individuals from the House who may have taken part in those events. The overall evidence on the implementation of the Act is being collated at the moment—it is important to look not at a particular moment or day but at a long period—but early anecdotal evidence from the police and the local licensing authorities is that, by and large, it is successful and is having a positive effect on crime and disorder. Of course, there will always be exceptions.
The Brecon access group in my constituency, whose purpose is to promote access for disabled people to public buildings and private businesses, complains that when licensed premises undertake substantial refurbishment the opportunity is not often taken to make reasonable adjustment, as in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to allow disabled people to use their facilities. Will the Minister see whether anything can be done through the advice notes to local authorities or by changing the legislation to make sure that licensed premises are available to disabled people and that they can enjoy them in the same way as more able people?
Is my hon. Friend aware that in Newport city centre, robbery, assault and violence are down this year by 40 per cent., which Gwent police attribute to the new licensing laws and the staggered opening hours? Will he join me in congratulating the police, the council and the licence holders on their teamwork, which has cut city centre crime?
Absolutely. I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments, but the picture is not always so rosy. As we know, there have been problems with young people, particularly. The new licensing regime has enabled the police to deal more effectively with those. Police can issue £80 fines to those who act in a drunk and disorderly manner, and they have not been afraid to use them, with 8,000 fixed penalty notices being issued during the enforcement campaign last Christmas alone.
Is the Minister aware that many tourists on the north Yorkshire coast this summer have been disappointed at not being able to have a drink in small hotels and guesthouses because the owners of those premises have been put off by the cost and the bureaucracy involved, so the tourists have to go into seaside towns to other institutions where there may have been a lot of trouble in the past, which have longer opening hours and more problems?
I am not aware of the specific venues to which the hon. Gentleman refers. By and large, however, the effect of the Licensing Act has been to simplify procedures, although there are problems in relation to the forms. We have been considering the length and complexity of the forms that have had to be filled in. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me about the establishments of which he speaks, I will be more than happy to look into the specifics.
I welcome the new measures under the licensing law. Will my hon. Friend review the level of fines for convenience stores that have alcohol licences and which are found guilty of selling alcohol to people under the age of 16? There is growing concern about the matter in my constituency. The minimum fine is too low. If it were raised to £2,000, so that a store could opt to go to a magistrates court and risk a higher fine, the measure would become more self-policing and we would be more effective in stopping young people gaining access to alcohol.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Licensing Act has already increased fines for selling alcohol to under-18s from £1,000 to £5,000. That is welcome. However, he rightly draws attention to another aspect. He may wish to know that, as well as the review that will take place after 12 months, I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), are meeting the trade this afternoon to discuss those matters. We will continue to keep them under review, because under-age drinking and the problems associated with it are a menace in our society, and it is the job of Government and all parties in the House to deal with it.
Before I answer the questions, I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering Lord Monro—Hector Monro—who, sadly, died on 30 August. He held many ministerial posts, but the one that he held with the greatest pleasure was the one that I now hold, as the Minister with responsibility for sport. He and I have something in common: we were both brought back from Australia, where we were watching rugby. He was brought back in the 1970s when he was manager of the Scottish team, and I was brought back in 2003 when I wanted to watch England win the World cup. The great game of rugby union binds us together.
The independent casino advisory panel is continuing with its work, and remains on track to make its recommendations at the turn of the year.
I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about Hector Monro.
Can the Minister confirm that it is alleged that people are being recruited and trained as croupiers in the area around Greenwich to work in the former millennium dome? If that is the case, does it not suggest that the entire selection process may be a farce? Can he state categorically that some deal was not cooked up on a dude ranch somewhere in America, and that that is not a means of getting rid of that white elephant, the dome, which has remained an embarrassment to the Government?
Can I say very clearly that the panel that is now looking into the siting of these casinos is independent? What the hon. Gentleman has just said is very serious. We have brought together an independent panel under Professor Crow, and what the hon. Gentleman says brings Professor Crow’s integrity into disrepute. That is very serious. Professor Crow will make the decision, and that decision will come back to the House, and if the hon. Gentleman—or, indeed, any other Member—wants to question that decision of the panel led by Professor Crow when it comes back to the House, they have the right to do so. There will be an affirmative vote of this House to determine where those sites will be. Members ought to remember this: we have brought in an independent person of the integrity of Professor Crow to head this panel, and to impugn his integrity in this House is unacceptable.
I noticed that the Minister made a slip of the tongue about sites. Stephen Crow, head of the panel, said:
“How are we going to make up our minds? I don’t know.”
Given that we might have more than one site brought back, will the Minister select just one of those sites, or will the House have a chance to vote on all of them?
There will be a recommendation to the House on one regional site, eight large sites and eight small. As for how that decision is brought about, the hon. Lady might wish to look at the Gambling Act 2005, as she will find guidance in it. The panel has been set up under it, and there will be a recommendation—and the final decision will be taken by this House.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that the whole process for selecting a site for a regional casino has to be seen to be transparent and fair. Is it his understanding of the process that the casino advisory panel will listen to representations from local authorities and will then make a recommendation to this House about which local authorities should be chosen, and that the local authority should then decide, through a proper and open process, who the operator for that site will be? Does he therefore understand that it is slightly against at least the spirit of that process for local authorities to come forward with what are effectively joint proposals and joint bids from an operator who has already been selected in advance of the whole process being started?
I advise local authorities not to go down that course. There are three stages. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) would listen—and, indeed, read the Act—he would not make comments as stupid as those he made to the Conservative party conference, but that is an aside, Mr. Speaker. I see you have a smile on your face, so you obviously appreciated the joke.
The Gambling Commission will find out whether those applying to run a casino in our country are fit and proper to do so. It is then up to local authorities to site casinos in their area—anybody would think that we were haranguing local authorities, but we are not. They will come forward on two matters: premises licenses and planning under planning regulation 106. It is up to them to get the best possible deal. I advise any local authority not to pre-commit themselves. They have a fantastic negotiating position—if they get an offer from Professor Crow’s committee in respect of siting.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key element in the deliberations of the panel should be the strength of local support and interest in a regional casino bid? If he does, will he note the comments of Professor Crow at the Blackpool examination that there were more people at that examination than at any of the others all together? Will he underline to Professor Crow and his associates the need to take into account the groundswell of public opinion when reaching their decision?
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for Blackpool. I will not go down the route that he wishes me to go down, other than to say that clear terms of reference have been set out. I think that what he mentions will be factored into that, because the terms of reference under which Professor Crow and his colleagues are operating would allow that. So the answer to the point he makes is yes, but equally that goes for every other local authority—and, indeed, lobbying group—as well.
In commissioning the Budd report, the issue was not casinos but online and internet gambling, which is the big growth area. The 2005 Act for the first time protects children and the vulnerable through an Act of Parliament, which the Gaming Act 1968 does not. I am absolutely confident that the Gambling Commission and the actions that we will take under the 2005 Act will protect the vulnerable and probably provide more protection than any other country in the world provides. Many countries are looking at the Gambling Commission, which we put on to the statute book, to see whether they can use the same model.
I suppose that the Minister’s having paid so much attention to what I said at last week’s highly successful Conservative party conference is a form of progress. However, it is astonishing that, just weeks away from the decision on the super-casino licence, we still do not know the criteria by which the pilot scheme will be judged a success or failure. Is not the reason that the Minister and his Department have already decided that they want more super-casinos, and will use any excuse to increase the number? The Minister said in an earlier answer that this matter would be brought before Parliament by the casino advisory panel, but he should be aware that, under clause 175 of the 2005 Act, the Secretary of State has the right to increase the number. Will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out increasing the number of super-casinos, even if the panel fails to recommend just one? A simple yes or no will suffice.
The hon. Gentleman’s definition of “success” differs from mine, to be honest. If he thinks that the Conservative party conference was a success, he will have to go a long, long way before he occupies the seat occupied by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If that conference was a success, he needs to keep on going. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government proposed eight regional casinos and the proposal was in the wash-up before the last general election. The Conservatives decided to come back with the proposal of one regional casino, which we accepted because we wanted to get the Bill on to the statute book in order to protect the vulnerable in our society. That is where it now stops—at one regional casino—unless the hon. Gentleman says to the Government that the Conservatives want to change the proposal. The proposal is very clear: one regional casino, and eight large and eight small. That is what we agreed before the election, and that is the basis on which the 2005 Act went through. [Interruption.] Absolutely no: there will be one regional casino, and eight large and eight small—unless the Opposition propose an alternative that is acceptable to us, up to a figure of eight.
We recognise the important role that skateboarding and other non-traditional sporting activities can play in attracting young people to participate in sport. Sport England advises that, over the last 10 years, skateboarding has received some £1.5 million in lottery funding.
Recently, I had the opportunity to open a skate plaza in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Middlesbrough council and Councillor Coppinger, who has been the driving force behind this project, which has been of great benefit to the community? Does my hon. Friend also recognise that young people indulging in sport is one way to keep them occupied, instead of getting involved in antisocial behaviour?
My hon. Friend is right, and we want to associate ourselves with, and to encourage, such informal sports. I congratulate Middlesbrough on having one of the best skateboarding facilities for young people in the region. That is precisely what we need to avoid antisocial behaviour in our communities, and my hon. Friend and Middlesbrough council need to be congratulated in that regard.
May I publicly thank Mr. Ken Lynch of Sandy, who works tirelessly with youngsters in my constituency to identify and provide facilities such as skate parks for the many who wish to practise the sport responsibly? However, may I share his concern with the Minister that, when these facilities are planned, enough attention should be paid to security—lighting and closed circuit television—in order to protect such youngsters, who are often bullied by others who want to disrupt them? I should be grateful if the Minister ensured that, when these facilities are planned, proper attention is paid to security to encourage youngsters, so that they are not driven away by those who are out to spoil their sport.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement, but what steps are his Department taking to encourage teenagers to have a say in the process of obtaining facilities in their local area and to engage with those youngsters so that they can be kept away from antisocial behaviour?
My hon. Friend is right. He knows that the Government will shortly be introducing a local government White Paper and appreciates that, while Sport England wants to ensure that it consults young people on its plans, a large part of sporting provision is run by local authorities. I hope that, when we debate the White Paper, we can take those issues forward.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Stonehenge last month. She will be speaking at the launch of the English Heritage report on 15 November and will visit more English Heritage sites in an official and private capacity by the end of the year.
My constituency probably has more listed buildings than almost any other area of England and I was pleased recently to welcome both the chairman and chief executive of English Heritage to the underground bunkers in Corsham and to Brunel’s famous Box tunnel, but is the Minister not concerned that, if the rather peculiar plan to bring in a hybrid Bill to de-list and then to demolish to Commonwealth Institute building in London is brought forward, that will set a worrying precedent for buildings at risk across England?
We are having discussions on the Commonwealth Institute, but those discussions are unique. There is no other building whose sale and listing have a bearing on education in the Commonwealth. We clearly have a responsibility in that regard and that is why we are having the discussions.
It is always a pleasure to welcome the Minister to the Stonehenge world heritage site in my constituency and it was a pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State last month, together with the chairman of English Heritage and the Roads Minister, and, significantly, a Treasury official. Are the Government fully apprised of the importance of the development of the visitor centre at Stonehenge, of getting the decision on the road right and of the fact that this is about the Olympics as well? It is not in competition with the Olympics but should be seen as complementary to the Olympics, as showcasing the best of English Heritage properties to the world.
There is no doubt that Stonehenge is a great iconic site and incredibly important to Britain’s heritage, and that is why the Secretary of State made her visit recently and why I too have visited it in my present capacity. The hon. Gentleman will know that, because of the huge cost implications in relation to that site, there was a review that will be considered by Ministers shortly, and that must be right. I make no comment in relation to the planning matters raised, because those have been called in by the local authority.
Shurland hall in my constituency is a building in which Henry VIII had one of his honeymoons. Ten years ago, English Heritage put up special scaffolding at a cost of £200,000, probably more than the building was worth at the time; at one point I asked whether that could be listed. I am pleased to say that we have won a £300,000 award from English Heritage to restore the façade of this fantastic hall. When it is finished, would the Minister would come and open it?
I appreciate the problems with regard to Stonehenge that the Minister pointed out, but may I try to ensure that it is predominantly a heritage rather than just a transport-related matter, and that the heritage rather than transport issues hold sway as far as possible? It is disappointing that, in the Secretary of State’s first five years at the helm, she failed to visit a single English Heritage property in an official capacity, as the Minister said in a parliamentary answer on 6 April. As well as her endeavours to acquaint herself with English Heritage property, will she ensure that its vacant chairmanship is taken up by a Government appointee not as closely associated with the Labour party as the incoming chairmen of Ofcom and Sport England?
Surely the Opposition can do better than that. The Secretary of State is the first Secretary of State for 20 years to introduce heritage protection legislation, which will be introduced shortly. She is the first to begin a discussion about the public value of heritage, which she began last year in her essay and which led to a huge conference in January with the heritage community. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State and others will decide the future chairmanship of English Heritage in an appropriate, transparent and open way.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church Heritage Forum, of which the commissioners are members, has welcomed “Inspired”. The forum’s chairman, the Bishop of London, has also said that the repair needs of historic churches are much greater than the sum that English Heritage has asked for.
Is there not an urgent need to maintain and repair many crumbling cathedrals, churches and chapels? While congregations and local communities must play a role, the sheer scale of the sums involved means that the Treasury also has a part to play. Is it not disappointing that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has seemingly not signed up to English Heritage’s “Inspired” campaign?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who often raises the matter in the House. He is right that the upkeep of our magnificent church buildings should be properly reflected in funding received from the state, and the Church Heritage Forum and the Archbishops Council are constantly exploring possibilities with a number of Government contacts. The interest that this House takes in that Church-state relationship and getting more money into our churches is welcome.
Is it not true that a tiny fraction of the money spent on that ridiculous dome, and an even tinier fraction of the money that will be spent on the Olympics, would ensure that all our cathedrals and churches were safe for a further 100 years?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act
The Electoral Commission has informed me that it issues advice and guidance on which accounting units are required to submit a statement of accounts and on the format and content of those submissions. Additionally, it provides advice through central party organisations on the reporting of donations. The commission checks all the statutory information that it receives to identify any discrepancies or inconsistencies, and all those arising are addressed with the relevant parties and accounting units.
PPERA states that constituency parties with incomes more than £25,000 must declare their accounts. At the end of the last financial year, 308 Conservative associations, 93 Liberal Democrat associations and only 38 Labour associations had filed their accounts. The worst offender was Hammersmith and Fulham constituency Labour party. Regardless of political party, what progress is the commission making in ensuring compliance with the 2000 Act?
The accounts that Hammersmith and Fulham Labour party submitted for 2005 were received on 12 July 2006, and they are in a satisfactory form. My hon. Friend makes a fair point, as a considerable number of accounting units have not reported on time. However, the Electoral Commission takes the view that it is appropriate to have a sense of proportion about this, and that the criminal penalties available in legislation are disproportionate. The commission has the option either of reprimanding the accounting unit or of seeking to impose a criminal sanction against the treasurer, who will often be an untrained amateur. The commission has therefore made recommendations for a more enforceable scheme, and its review is expected to report in December.
The Electoral Commission informs me that research conducted after the 2006 local elections in England found that the overwhelming majority of voters and non-voters, including 97 per cent. of those who voted at a polling station, found the voting process easy and convenient.
In the Rushden East ward of my constituency, there have been two district council by-elections separated by a few months. In the second by-election, the number of polling stations was halved from what it had been for the first by-election. As a result, turnout in the second by-election was a third lower than in the first. What assessment has the Electoral Commission made of the need for more, not fewer, polling stations?
I am advised that special circumstances may have applied in the Wellingborough district council area. Portakabins were initially used and subsequently found to be inappropriate as regards access for the disabled, and the presence of a contractor outside one of the polling stations required using only one door instead of two. That may have had some special influence. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 requires local authorities to complete a review of the accessibility of polling districts and places throughout their area within 12 months after the provisions come into force. Local authorities must thereafter undertake further reviews within four years of the latest review.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the recent changes in electoral law passed by this House, it is likely that the counts for general and local elections will take place on the day after the close of poll instead of overnight immediately after the close of poll. Will the Electoral Commission consider a system whereby any voter can vote at any polling station and polling stations can always be sited in places convenient for large numbers of people, such as railway stations and supermarkets, so that we maximise the catch of people who can vote on their way to, or back from, where they usually go on their business?
How easy will it be for the Electoral Commission itself to vote if it does not have a chairman? My hon. Friend will know that the chairman’s present term of office expires at the end of December, but no decision has been announced. Can he tell the House when that will take place?
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Access to Churches
That is a matter for individual churches and their insurers and it depends largely on local circumstances. However, we know that the major insurer encourages churches to remain open during the day.
That is the problem, is it not? We have 16,000 Church of England churches, more and more of which are closing their doors to the public outside service times because they fear vandalism and theft. Why is it not possible for churches to get a better deal by pooling their insurance premiums?
As my hon. Friend says, it is unfortunate that many churches feel the need to close their doors to protect themselves. The major insurer—Ecclesiastical Insurance—has suggested that an active, well-visited church should deter arson, theft and vandalism. Advice on extra security measures is available and the insurance company provides a security marking system free of charge to all churches. However, my hon. Friend’s suggestion is worth taking up with Ecclesiastical Insurance, and I will do so.
A benefice in my constituency consisting of eight churches, with a church roll of 2,500 people, has to find a diocesan contribution of £63,000 a year—and that is before it has started paying for insurance premiums and the maintenance and repair of buildings. Will the hon. Gentleman convey to the church authorities the funding crisis in rural parishes in constituencies such as mine that cannot afford the contributions that they have to make to the diocese as well as to the maintenance and insurance of these buildings?
I am grateful for, and would be happy to make, the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, I could not make it better than he has done and I congratulate him on that. He is right that there is a huge problem with church funding, which is reflected in the questions that I am asked in the House, between what the state and what the Church can provide. We have seen many articles in the newspapers about cathedrals and churches that are in difficulty. The question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is about that. We need to deal with the matter and, to do so, the state must take a much more proactive role.
There is a growing problem with insurance, whether the churches are open or closed during the day, arising from the increased ingress of bats. If only they would stay in the belfry, but they do not. In several churches—especially in Norfolk, I am told—bat excrement is causing serious damage to the interior fabric of churches, at the cost of thousands of pounds and the great inconvenience of those who wish to worship.
Before the recess, I saw a bat in the House of Commons corridor. I do not know whether it had come from the Chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is valid. The problems add to those that the Church already has with repairs, security and those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that bishops should be appointed on their spiritual and administrative attributes and skills, not time served? If so, what is the Church doing to recognise such skills earlier in those clergymen who have not served 20 or 30 years? [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made the sedentary comment, “Answer that if you can.”
The criteria for appointing bishops are in line with the hon. Gentleman’s question. The criteria that he mentioned are in place. We are considering the average age of bishops, which is 57, and doing our best to bring forward those who are younger and can invigorate the Church, as those who are in their posts do.
Church of England Calendar
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the rule was changed in 2000 in the lectionary, which is the Church of England calendar for vicars and priests. Does he have any information about how the rule came to be applied, given that prayers are still an obligation every 6 February as the date of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession both to the throne and as Supreme Head of the Church of England? Would it be possible to publish the minutes to ensure that there was no political correctness or political interference in the decision?
I am happy to refer the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question back and give him a written response. The anniversary of the sovereign’s accession is observed annually by the Church, but it does not form part of the ecclesiastical calendar. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman believes that it might, as his question suggests. I shall pass that view to the Liturgical Commission, which is responsible for such matters. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman about the publication of minutes.
Church of England Estate
A wide range of Church of England bodies, including the commissioners, own land and property and it is not possible to give a single figure covering receipts for the whole Church. However, the Church Commissioners’ total property sales in 2005 were worth £242 million.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree, as a point of principle, that, if land in a parish is sold for housing while in the same parish the church is raising a public appeal to modernise its church hall, the least that could be done would be to pay for those improvements from the proceeds of the sale of any land that had been owned by the parish?
The two sets of circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers are not mutually exclusive. In relation to property sales and to the Church’s expenditure in 2005, the commissioners spent about £100 million on pensions, £31.5 million on parish mission and ministry support, £21 million on bishops and £6.6 million on cathedrals. The parish land to which the hon. Gentleman refers might not be within the domain of the Church Commissioners.