Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Thanks to the Government’s support for the renaissance in the regions programme, museums across England are working with schools in greater numbers than ever before. I am pleased that, as a result of our investment, every school in Durham will benefit from educational access to museum collections.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in pressing the British Library to move the Lindisfarne gospels on a permanent or temporary basis to the north-east, so that local people, including schoolchildren and visitors, can better appreciate their significance to the cultural heritage of the region?
There is no doubt that the Lindisfarne gospels are one of our greatest national treasures, and are certainly a great source of pride in the north-east of this country. My hon. Friend will know that it is important that Ministers at the Dispatch Box always maintain the independence of the British Library and the decisions that its board feels that it needs to make about the gospels. However, I am pleased that I will meet her this week to discuss these matters in greater detail.
As I am sure the Minister knows, the chief executive of the British Library appeared before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport last week. Can the Minister therefore assure us that the British Library will not face cuts under the comprehensive spending review? He knows that we have been told that if that happens, it will have to cut its opening hours and some of the other things that it does, never mind be able to take its collections and share them with schoolchildren throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the British Library has done much in the last few years to ensure that it takes its collections into schools across the country. It has completed a successful modernisation programme and many of its collections are online. It is also in conversations with organisations, such as Microsoft, to ensure that its collections, many of which only it has, remain at the forefront, so it has an obligation not only to this country but to the rest of the world. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot undertake to say what the results of the spending review will be. The review is in the mind of one person—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and I do not think that he has yet completed his deliberations on those matters.
In his speech in Oxford last week, the Prime Minister encouraged us all to become more scientific. He said that we must become a more scientifically literate society and make the subject popular again. Does my hon. Friend agree that science centres and science museums have an important role to play in that respect? In particular, I would mention the national marine aquarium in the city of Plymouth. Will he consider the balance of funding and how it might be made more favourable, to enable such centres and museums to share their expertise and help us all to become scientifically literate?
My hon. Friend is right. There is no doubt that a key part in making young people not just want to take an interest in science but become scientists themselves is the work that our museums are doing. Both the national marine aquarium and the Science museum are doing a huge amount to make science accessible to young people and in getting through the doors to work with schools and with parents. As she would expect, we are looking at all these issues closely as we enter the comprehensive spending review.
Will the Minister congratulate the director of the Macclesfield silk museum, which was recently visited by His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, on involving junior schools and their curricula with the textile history and tradition of Macclesfield? Will he go a little further and assure me and the House that small museums will not be neglected in respect of funding? They are critical to the history and tradition of our country and, in particular, of Macclesfield and the textile industry in the north-west.
The hon. Gentleman is right to attach his museum to the social cohesion that is no doubt important in Macclesfield. The museum in Macclesfield has benefited from the renaissance in the regions programme, which has £147 million for our regional museums up to 2008. That money was not there before. Our regional and local museums were in a dire state prior to that funding. In the House last week, I was pleased that so many people, and so many Members, were able to attend an event at which we celebrated the success of that programme, which Macclesfield has benefited from.
I am sure that the House would like to congratulate Alex Ferguson on 20 years at Manchester United as one of the nation’s most successful managers—and he is a really nice guy, as well.
I have no immediate plans to meet representatives to discuss the subject of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I know that the fund has launched a well-received £50 million community buildings programme to benefit projects across England. In addition, the national lottery has already awarded £258 million to villages and community halls.
Is the Minister aware that although a number of village and community halls in my constituency have received lottery grants, for which they are grateful, many others have been refused grants, much to their dismay and disappointment? He mentioned Sir Alex Ferguson. I was not going to mention him today, but is the Minister aware that Manchester United, one of the richest football clubs in the world, recently received £30,000 from the lottery to run yoga classes and fitness sessions for its staff? What is going on? Why are Ministers and the lottery so against rural areas?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his supplementary question. To answer the first part of it, there are a number of applications from village halls which, because the right information has not been given, have not been granted. It is right that there is that prudence with public funds. The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter a number of times on behalf of his constituency—particularly in relation to Terrington St. John, which he also raised last time. That will be looked into, and has been looked into.
As far as Manchester United and many other employers are concerned, we are trying to get corporate UK to be active—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with this—in making our nation much fitter. We are spending billions of pounds in relation to obesity. Through Sport England and the north-west regional sports board, that initiative is being tried. I congratulate people on that.
Kenfig Pyle Community Youth, which serves three village communities in my constituency, was recently awarded £300,000 to continue its work offering alternatives to drink, drugs and antisocial behaviour. That work is appreciated by the police and there is great acknowledgement of the benefits that that lottery money will bring to the community. May I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for her support in meeting the group from Kenfig Pyle Community Youth, and may I urge the importance of providing—
I am pleased that my hon. Friend made those comments. They clearly show how the Big Lottery Fund can add real value to a number of funding streams. When the legislation was going through Parliament a few weeks ago, the wide consultation throughout the whole of the United Kingdom showed that there was a desire to make sure that the lottery money was used positively to add real value to many funding streams.
Rural communities have been disadvantaged by post office closures, they have been infuriated by community hospital cutbacks, they have, in many cases, been driven into poverty by the single farm payment fiasco, and they have been infuriated by the hunting ban. Will the Minister accept that rural communities feel abandoned and betrayed, and will he play a personal role in ensuring that our village halls at least get an investment in their social capital, which he otherwise preaches so much about?
I understand the points to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I have already said that the lottery has invested £258 million in village halls. When we were in the process of winding up the Millennium Commission money, we noticed that considerably more village halls had been supported in Scotland and Wales than in England, because those in England had not made applications. The hon. Gentleman can read the minutes of the Millennium Commission: Lord Heseltine and I were concerned that many of the village halls in England had not made submissions, which was regrettable.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that a load of village hall applications are in the pipeline. When he meets representatives of the Big Lottery Fund, will he stress the importance of supporting the over-60s at Croston village hall, and others in Chorley? Will he point out the benefits that supporting them would bring to Chorley?
I make it absolutely clear that all the lottery funds, including the Big Lottery Fund, operate at arm’s length from the Government. My strong advice to my hon. Friend is that he help his constituents to ensure that they make full applications. I have no doubt that the various lottery distributing authorities will give such applications a very good hearing.
Of course, the correct answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is that there is less money for village and community halls as a result of the Government having absorbed—shall we say?—£3.2 billion of national lottery money since 1997. It is only thanks to pressure from the Daily Mail and the Conservative party that money has now been found for the armed forces memorial. Will the Minister agree to re-examine the criteria to ensure that applications such as that made by the armed forces memorial fund, which has overwhelming public support, are able to attract lottery funding without needing to obtain the support of a national newspaper?
First, may I say that there is no doubt that the memorial is an excellent idea? There has been considerable investment by the lottery: there has been £45 million to commemorate and preserve the experiences of those who lived and fought through the second world war; 39,000 veterans of world war two—and their widows and carers—were funded for the journey back to the battlefields; and 11 million people participated in the veterans unite programme. By any standard, I do not think that anyone could say that there has not been investment, and rightly so.
When the armed forces memorial trust made this application, it was told that unfortunately, anything below £10 million would not meet the criteria. The amount came in at £4.4 million. On Friday last week, my chief executive from the Millennium Commission phoned me to find out whether it could assist to ensure that the application was met. After I had consulted the trustees and those of the Big Lottery Fund, at 4 pm on Friday, Lord Heseltine and I cleared the £2 million that was subsequently released. The outcome was not pushed by the Daily Mail or any other body. The application went through in the normal way. As you know, Mr. Speaker, there are politicians—
Cut off in his prime, Mr. Speaker.
Will the Minister confirm or deny reports that Treasury officials intend to make another hit on the national lottery to pay for Olympic overspend, which would mean that even less money would go to community groups and the original good causes?
The hon. Gentleman knows that there is a joint agreement among the three funding partners—and that is what we are sticking to. If he could start thinking a little for himself, instead of being informed by the journalists of the Daily Mail, some original thinking might actually come from the Conservative party, rather than their pathetic attempts at the moment.
The Government are doing a lot to promote participation by young people. Some 80 per cent. of both primary and secondary school children are doing at least two hours of sport and physical activity a week, which is up from 25 per cent. in 2003. By 2010, every child who wants to, will be able to do four hours a week. We have reintroduced competitive sport in state schools, and there is record investment in elite athlete development. I place on record my particular thanks to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport for his work on establishing the UK school games. We are also seeing a net increase in modern sport facilities. London’s promise at Singapore was to inspire a generation of young people through sport, and we are proud of the progress that we have made. I am especially proud to commend the efforts of my hon. Friend. She and the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) have brought together community organisations in Northampton to ensure that Northampton and its young people get the maximum benefit from the possibilities of the Olympics.
When will the information be published on the regional games, which will be extremely important in the run-up to 2012? Will that focus not only on elite sport but on wider participation, so that all the 10-year-olds who are starry-eyed about the Olympics get a chance to take part? May I make an early bid to have one of the regional finals in my county?
My hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate for Northampton’s hosting of the UK school games. Next year’s games are to be held in Coventry. I think that 11 cities around the country are bidding—including Bath, I must add, before the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) rises to make that point—and the decisions on the remaining cities will be made next year.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the chief executive of the Central Council of Physical Recreation told the Select Committee two weeks ago that the hiving off of an additional £340 million from the main lottery to the Olympics will leave Sport England without the resources necessary to generate the legacy of participation which was a main plank in our successful Olympic bid? Will she put in place the national strategy and the necessary funding to ensure that we achieve a successful legacy right across the country, which is what we all want?
Yes, of course we are determined to do all we can to ensure that the whole country has the opportunity to benefit from the Olympic legacy. The hon. Gentleman refers to evidence, and it is correct to say that £340 million from existing sports lottery distributors is part of the lottery contribution to funding the 2012 games, but it is misleading to portray that money as being taken away from wider work to promote participation and grass-roots sport. Some of the money from Sport England, for example, is being used to fund the new aquatic centre, which will be designed specifically to promote community use as a legacy; the velodrome is being treated similarly. Other spending by lottery distributors will go to Olympic-related projects, not only in London and the east end, but around the country. Both the hon. Gentleman and I are determined to make sure that the whole country benefits from the Olympics, and the comment to which he refers is unnecessary scaremongering.
Will my right hon. Friend put into the public domain the criteria on which cities can bid for the UK youth games and the regional games? Will she consider, as part of the Olympic legacy, an Olympic sports day for the nation?
The Secretary of State knows that the national lottery provides financial support for many of our grass-roots sports initiatives that encourage young people to participate in sporting activity. Will she therefore rule out any further raids on the national lottery to pay for overspends on the London Olympics?
No, I will not—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am not in a position to do that. As the hon. Gentleman—indeed, the whole House—knows, provision has been made in the joint venture agreement so that in the event of further funds being needed to support the Olympic games, there is a formula, unspecified in its detail, to enable sharing between London and the lottery. It would be irresponsible of me to give the House the undertaking that he asks me to give.
My right hon. Friend will, I know, be as proud as we are in Crewe that we have two disabled children going to Beijing as part of the Paralympics team. Will she do everything she can to encourage disabled children and children with special needs to prepare for the Olympics in 2012, and to make them as proud as we are of our existing team?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I know how strongly she has argued for that. I can assure her that the elite programmes being established for our young athletes to take part in Beijing and in 2012 and beyond make no distinction between able-bodied athletes and young disabled people.
But is not my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee, right: is not Sport England, the Government quango responsible for these matters, widely regarded as a failing institution in need of urgent reform? The last eight chief executives of sport governing bodies whom I have met have all complained about it. Is it not the case that the Big Lottery Fund has no money earmarked in the 2006-2009 period for mass participation payments, and that the Government have cut the amount of lottery funding going into sport from £397 million in 1998 to a paltry £260 million last year—a cut of one third? When will they make proposals to deal with mass participation sport in this country?
I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would come to the Dispatch Box to congratulate schools throughout the country on exceeding the target for getting young people to do two hours a week of high-quality sport and PE, and that he would congratulate the local authorities and community clubs that have made such heroic efforts to improve their facilities. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] To deal specifically with the hon. Gentleman’s point, I am proud to be part of a Government who, since the launch of the school sport programme in 2000, have seen investment of £3 billion in sport. I am proud to be part of a Government who have overhauled Sport England and given it a clear focus on two things: first, boosting participation, ensuring that another 400,000 people a year are getting active and taking part in sport; and secondly, overhauling the outdated facilities that are the only resort for too many people who want to exercise. We have a remarkable story of success—
But what the Secretary of State does not answer is why the amount of money going into sport through the national lottery, according to a parliamentary written answer that she gave me, has been cut from £397 million to £260 million. Key components of the Olympic bid are the mass participation benefits that will arise from the post-games use of the stadiums. The Secretary of State gave me a personal assurance that VAT would not be levied on their construction. The organisers were clearly given the same commitment, because they made no allowance for VAT in the budget. Will she confirm to the House that a possible VAT bill of a quarter of a billion pounds will not be levied by the Treasury on the 2012 Olympics?
Perhaps the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) would like to listen to the answer. Let me deal first with the VAT point. The candidature file did not include VAT on construction of venues for 2012 because at that time the position of the unspecified delivery body, which had not been legislated for or given effect, could not be anticipated. A cross-Government group signed off London’s plans and agreed that it was the right approach not to anticipate at that point the VAT status. The issue was not raised by PricewaterhouseCooper, who advised us on the costs, nor were issues in relation to VAT at that point identified by the Treasury or by departmental accounting officers—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] However, what I did do when we won the bid was to initiate an immediate review of the costs and funding needs of the games. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the costs of the Olympic park have been significantly reduced. The funding needs of the games—including VAT, the need for security and so forth—are a matter of continuing discussion within Government. That is the position, delivered to the hon. Gentleman on the Floor of the House rather than in corridor conversations.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have a new deal for communities in my constituency called “New Heart for Heywood”, which is part-funding a new sports village complex? I know that she has both eyes on the Olympic games at present, but could she move one of them towards Heywood to keep up to date with progress on that development, whereby my local young people may well play a part in the Olympic games in 2012?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clearly, our participation ambitions for young people will be met only if they are playing sport in modern facilities. Every Member of the House should be an advocate of that in their communities, as is my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate.
The issue of VAT on the Olympic buildings is of crucial importance to everyone in this House. If the Secretary of State is unable at present to confirm whether VAT will be paid on the buildings, given that £1 billion is at stake, will she at least agree to come before this House as a matter of urgency and make a statement on that issue?
I am a subject of this House on any matter to do with the funding of the Olympic games, or any other aspect of them. This is a large and complex project and a major issue that we are working through. The International Olympic Committee has expressed its utter satisfaction with the progress being made in the planning of the games. I will answer to the House at any point on the issues as they arise.
Schools in my constituency are generally fortunate in having their own sports fields, but some schools in inner-London boroughs such as Hackney do not have a single blade of grass. Will my right hon. Friend consider working with the Department for Education and Skills, local education authorities and the Olympic partners to install playable surfaces in inner-city schools so that their pupils have a dowry from the Olympics right away?
My hon. Friend is right. However, I would point to the London borough of Lambeth, which, although it does not have acres of open space, has a participation rate by young people running at about 90 per cent. Yes, the facilities have to be there, but so too does the determination to get young people involved.
Premium Line Competitions
Regulation of premium line television competitions rests with independent regulators Ofcom and the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that last month ICSTIS announced a review of the quiz television sector, including premium line competitions.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but is it not clear that many of the so-called competitions on programmes such as “The Mint” are nothing other than crude money-raising scams designed to replace lost advertisement revenue? Is he aware that it is possible to make up to 150 calls a day at 75p each, so that someone could spend more than £100 making futile calls to such programmes yet not even get on to them? Is it not time that ITV should be forced to publicise how much profit it is making from these lines, and will the Minister urge it to do so in time for the investigation by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the review that was announced by ICSTIS last month will look into a number of issues, including the transparency of the service, on-screen statements, concerns about excessive use, prize fulfilment and free web entry offers. It is important that the review be undertaken properly. Of course we are aware that some people have made representations about these particular programmes. Equally, it is important for the hon. Gentleman to realise that ITV has stated categorically that it meets all regulations, standards and codes of practice. We agree, however, that we need to ensure that these services are trusted. For that reason, it is important that the review should take place. I am sorry that it cannot be hurried to produce its findings in time for inclusion in the Select Committee report, but it is important that it do its work properly.
While my hon. Friend is having his discussions with Ofcom about the continuing dumbing down of ITV, will he take the opportunity to raise the real worry that digital switchover could well result in the end of regional news programmes on ITV?
Does the Minister agree that it should be made crystal clear to people before they ring in that they might be confronted by a premium rate tariff, and that all they might get at the end is a message saying, “Your call has not been selected for answer”? Is it not important that Ofcom should come down tough on some of these schemes for making money?
We could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman about Ofcom coming down tough in such circumstances. As he knows, the code of practice provides for ICSTIS, when it finds that a breach has occurred, to issue a formal reprimand, to bar access to the services or to impose fines. The right hon. Gentleman should also know that those fines can be as high as £250,000.
The Minister was talking about quiz programmes; indeed, he mentioned the word “programmes” more than once. However, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was referring to the single quiz questions that appear in advertising slots. It is those advertising slots that have given rise to the suspicion that they are a revenue stream for the ITV companies, in place of the advertising that would normally be in those slots. In these cases, however, it is the viewers who have to pay for them.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I believe that the ICSTIS review will look into these issues. It also has to be said, however, that despite the feelings of Members of Parliament, there are many people out there who enjoy playing these games. Whether my hon. Friend would wish to take part in them is another issue. However, we should be careful about telling people how to lead their lives.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for digital television, he will be pleased to know that take-up in the Central region is among the highest in the country, with more than 80 per cent. of first sets now converted. The digital switchover help scheme will provide support with equipment and installation for those who are over 75, have a serious disability, or are partially sighted. Those who are eligible can also opt for a different platform, such as cable or satellite, and receive a contribution towards the cost of equipment.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer. She will know that this is to be funded out of the licence fee, which is borne by everyone who watches television. She will also be aware, however, that digital switchover will result in the analogue spectrum being sold off, and the Treasury taking all the money. What representations will she make to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that some of that money is brought back in to the BBC so that the licence fee can be lowered?
That is quite a rich mix that the hon. Gentleman has created. Yes, the Communications Act 2003 provides for the technology-neutral auction of the spectrum that will be released. Yes, discussions are going on at the moment about the licence fee. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is the established policy of the Government that, as switchover is a broadcasting cost, the cost will be borne by the broadcasters, and principally by the BBC.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that appliances left on standby are producing 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. That is enough to heat the homes in the whole of County Durham. Will she take the opportunity of digital switchover to consider introducing regulations to control the sale of wasteful standby televisions?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the sort of point required to demonstrate how climate change and environmental sustainability are, in part, a function of changing our own personal behaviour. That is a very good and practical example of the contribution that we can all make by being more vigilant about ensuring that we do not leave our sets on standby. I do not think that regulation is necessary.
The Secretary of State has explained the mechanism for support in respect of digital switchover, but what people want to know—in my area, they will shortly be going through the process—is exactly when they get help and where it will be available.
Help will be available through the telephone or in people’s own homes. The Select Committee placed great emphasis on the importance of elderly, vulnerable and isolated people receiving a personal service and individual help with fixing the equipment or providing whatever advice they need. It is interesting to note that the trials showed that one of the most difficult choices that people, particularly elderly people, have to make is deciding on the right kind of remote control. A personal service is appropriate, because it will be a difficult and worrying transition for some people.
Creative Partnerships Programme
Creative partnerships is a real success story. It has reached more than 300,000 young people and 1,600 schools. The evaluation of the programme, particularly the recent Ofsted report, has shown that it is having a real impact in the communities that it serves.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I, too, was impressed by what Ofsted, BMRB, BOP and NFER said about children doing better and the creative industries and their workers succeeding as a result of the programme. What will happen next? It has done so well thus far, so can we have more of the same?
Creative partnerships have been such a success that we will, of course, have more of the same. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to press the point. We are seeing more in respect of extended schools, more in our mainstream arts organisations being engaged in schools and more specialist schools choosing the arts option. That is where creative partnerships move from existing only in some schools to existing across the country. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the success of this particular scheme. Contact with schools from a range of artists is not just for a day or a week; we are talking about prolonged contact with some of our most deprived children. I thought that the most impressive report was the one from head teachers, 70 per cent. of whom said that creative partnerships had driven up attainment across the curriculum. That is why my Department supports the programme and is working closely on it with the Department for Education and Skills.
I may not be alone in understanding none of the acronyms to which the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) referred. I am sure that it is a brilliant programme, but I ask the Minister in all seriousness how it is promulgated, who may apply for it and how.
The programme has existed for some years now. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) used those acronyms because she is well informed about the programme. This is creative partnerships, serving schools in our poorest and most deprived areas and bringing young people—sometimes including those in pupil referral units—together with a range of artists. Poets, actors and visual artists, for example, are involved over a prolonged period to help drive up standards in schools. They seek to find new ways of bringing the arts and creativity into schools while having a positive impact on the rest of the curriculum. The programme is in its third phase, so I am rather surprised that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) is not aware of it.
Responsibility for the regulation of television and radio media campaigns is a matter for Ofcom.
Just as it is right for the BBC to show the problems that children face through its Children in Need appeal, surely it is right for organisations and campaigns such as Make Poverty History to show us through TV adverts the problems that young people face in Africa. Does the Under-Secretary agree that it is disgraceful that the TV advert was banned because it was too political? Will he get his officials to meet Ofcom to ensure that anything similar in future is considered more sensibly?
My hon. Friend raises an issue about which several hon. Members have been concerned. The Communications Act 2003 is critical because it prohibits radio and television advertisements being broadcast on behalf of political organisations that would
“influence public opinion on a matter of controversy”.
The key issue is impartiality. Of course, all hon. Members support the work of Children in Need, which is clearly not a campaigning organisation for political change. I appreciate that many hon. Members, including me, support the work of Make Poverty History, but Ofcom found that the advert directed viewers to the Make Poverty History website, which encouraged them to lobby the Prime Minister and the Government directly to make the campaign a high priority on the political agenda. The organisation therefore strayed on to the ground of political partiality, and I believe that is why Ofcom made its adjudication. I know that several hon. Members regret that and find it difficult to understand, but the matter was carefully considered in the House during the passage of the Communications Act.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
The National Audit Office has been involved in correspondence to look into the Environment Agency’s expenditure, planning and preparatory work in the Cuckmere estuary in Sussex on whether to breach the river banks and allow the sea to flood the valley. To date, the NAO has reviewed Environment Agency papers that are relevant to its inquiry, interviewed a range of interested parties, discussed matters with Environment Agency staff and is currently considering its response. It is worth noting that it is an unusual topic for the NAO to consider, in that the Environment Agency has not decided on the action that it will take on the estuary as part of its shoreline management plan for the area.
I am glad that the Environment Agency has not decided yet—perhaps I can influence it. May I welcome the NAO’s work on the matter and express the considerable public concern in my area at the fact that the Environment Agency has run up a bill of almost £500,000 on a highly controversial scheme that has no planning permission and lacks public support in the area, where both district councils oppose it? Does not the NAO need to take steps to make it clear to unelected bodies such as the Environment Agency that they can proceed with schemes only with public support, not in the face of public opposition?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Electoral Commission has no current plans for such a review. Its recent recommendations on the variation of election expenses for candidates at UK parliamentary elections came into force on 4 March 2005. The commission also recommended a more fundamental review of the candidate and party spending limits. That is now being considered as part of Sir Hayden Phillips’ review of party funding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful reply. We have only to look across the Atlantic to realise what happens when there are no effective limits on national party expenditure. However, although the limits for national expenditure may be too high, all candidates for and Members of Parliament could make a clear case for increasing expenditure limits for local candidates somewhat. At the moment, £7,000 or £8,000 barely covers one direct mail shot to all our electors. Will the hon. Gentleman consider urging the Electoral Commission again to examine the matter more fundamentally?
The hon. Gentleman will know that when the commission carried out a review in 2004, it took the view that higher limits for candidates’ individual expenses would enable them to run more effective campaigns, ensuring that their messages reached more voters. Coupled with a lower limit for national party spending, the commission believes that that would encourage parties to channel more of their funds into local campaigns. Of course, that is one of the issues being considered by Sir Hayden Phillips, whose review is expected shortly.
When Sir Hayden Phillips has finished his review, which we understand may be at about the turn of the year, does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that the Electoral Commission and the Speaker’s Committee will examine not just whether we ought to reduce the total limit of campaign expenditure, which the public want, and whether the official election campaign should have a slightly larger limit, but whether to stop the huge expenditure in support of an individual candidate before the general election begins? The public have shown no appetite for that activity, which seems to be wasteful of public expenditure and party funds. It would be a service if the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues recommended strongly that that expenditure should be capped at a pretty low level.
Further to the comment made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), perhaps the Speaker’s Committee ought to consider the activities of the midlands industrial council, which, prior to the 2005 general election, pumped enormous sums of money into a range of midlands seats, all of which, coincidentally, happened to be Labour marginals, and all of which had a bigger than average swing. As a part of that covert and shady activity, some fine Members were lost.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is strong public opposition to elections being more heavily funded by the taxpayer and the Government? I am happy to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in respect of reducing dramatically the amount that parties spend nationally, but perhaps greater funding of local expenditure to enable candidates to put out better literature might be considered.
Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, is not it an important principle in this country that no British person should have a better chance of election either because they are wealthy or because they have wealthy friends? If so, it is important that we consider expenditure not only during elections but in the year preceding, when many people pump tens of thousands of pounds into certain constituencies—particularly those which are potentially Conservative-leaning—so as to gain an unfair advantage.
The Electoral Commission informs me that, for the financial year ending 31 March 2006, the total amount spent on promoting public awareness of electoral and democratic systems was £7.1 million. For 2006-07, the current forecast expenditure on public awareness is £6.3 million.
The Electoral Commission was created by the House, and one of the duties laid on it was a statutory one to promote public awareness of electoral systems and systems of government. As the commission set out in its evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, it is considering focusing its efforts more heavily on promoting voter registration and information about elections and democratic institutions, and less on seeking to encourage voter turnout. I suspect that that would inevitably result in some reduction in expenditure by the commission. The commission will consider the matter further once the Committee on Standards in Public Life has reported.
The commission informs me that since January 2006 it has distributed about 13,200 overseas voter leaflets, and that more than 8,500 overseas registration postal and proxy forms have been downloaded from its website. During elections in which British citizens resident overseas are eligible to vote, it runs campaigns which include newspaper advertising, public relations activity and online information.
But the number of eligible overseas voters who register is very small by comparison with those who could. Part of the problem is that very little of the £6.3 million being spent is ever spent on publicising overseas voter eligibility. Could my hon. Friend have talks with the Electoral Commission, which might be able to exert some influence on the Foreign Office? Perhaps our high commissions and embassies could be used to distribute literature on eligibility to overseas voters, and perhaps those who renew their passports abroad could be sent literature in the post with their new passports.
My hon. Friend’s first point is absolutely right. Some 13 million United Kingdom citizens are resident overseas, and we do not know how many of them are eligible to register to vote by reason of having been registered. Only about 17,000 of those 13 million or so are registered. Although that represents an increase of nearly 50 per cent. in the last couple of years, the figures are extremely small.
The Electoral Commission does use the facilities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through embassies. It has also recently discussed with the Department of Work and Pensions the possibility of a further list of people whom it could contact.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking a fair and important question.
The commission informs me that it has had significant success in increasing young people’s interest in politics through activities such as its advertising campaigns, educational resources, workshops and grants programme. An independent survey of people aged between 18 and 24 found that 52 per cent. claimed to have seen the commission’s 2006 local elections campaign, and 24 per cent. claimed to have voted because of it.
I welcome the recent reduction in the age of candidature to 18. Indeed, I hope to be able to pass on the title of youngest Member of Parliament sooner rather than later as a result. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree, however, that we should try to build on that move, and reduce the age of voting and candidature to 16 so that young people can participate in elections as citizens in the fullest possible way?
Having conducted a comprehensive review of the matter in 2004, the Electoral Commission concluded that in the short term the voting age should remain at 18, but that it should be reviewed again when the citizenship programme in schools was more established. Interestingly, a recent survey of some 1,000 people showed a majority in favour of retaining the voting age of 18, both among older age groups and among those aged between 15 and 19.
Would the hon. Gentleman consider sending advice to hon. Members? I conducted a survey of people who attend my surgery and found that, sadly, up to 40 per cent. of the young people who come to see me are not on the electoral register. I have been trying to sign them up, and wonder whether some guidance could be issued.
That is an alarming statistic. It is of course for local electoral registration officers to maintain the register and ensure that it is as accurate as possible, but recent legislation passed by the House gives the Electoral Commission powers to involve itself more closely in the work of individual electoral registration officers. I hope that that will have some effect in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Most youth worker posts are funded not directly by the diocese, but by parishes or clusters of parishes. Two youth workers are currently employed in the Hereford diocese and 20 in the Lichfield diocese, and there are plans for more to be employed.
I am not entirely clear whether I can enter the domain of public funds, but in recent years there has been considerable growth in the number of young workers employed by local churches, and the commissioners and the general Church welcome and support that.
Will the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the bishop’s growth fund in the diocese of Lichfield, which has been used to encourage new youth workers and leaders who in turn encourage young people to take part in church services throughout the diocese?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the bishop’s growth fund. In fact, part of that funding comes from the parish mission fund set up by the commissioners and the archbishops’ council to resource all kinds of innovative parish work. I am glad that Lichfield diocese is using that money so wisely and increasing young people’s attendance. That is a very good model for others to follow.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The chairman of the Electoral Commission, like the other commissioners, is appointed by Her Majesty, following an address from this House. The appointment of the current chairman, Sam Younger, expires on 18 January 2007. I can announce that on 18 October Mr. Younger was offered a further period of office, to expire on 31 December 2008, subject to the statutory consultation required of the registered leaders of certain political parties and the agreement of this House. Mr. Younger accepted that offer on 27 October and the statutory consultation of party leaders was initiated on 30 October.
I am heartened by that reply and to learn that Sam Younger’s appointment has finally been sorted out. It is in the interests of all of us that such appointments are made in good time, and I was a little concerned that this one might not have been. Will the Committee consider examining the procedure for appointing the chairman with a view to ensuring that such appointments are made in good time in future?
Approaching first reappointments on the basis of a satisfactory performance appraisal reflected the approach of the code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies and Cabinet guidance on making public appointments. You, Mr. Speaker, invited Sir William McKay, a former Clerk of the House, to carry out an appraisal and consulted the Speaker’s Committee. As a result, it was unanimously decided that Mr. Younger should be invited to accept a further term. I note the other points that my hon. Friend has made.