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Commons Chamber

Volume 454: debated on Monday 18 December 2006

House of Commons

Monday 18 December 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cathedrals

The English Heritage grants for cathedrals scheme has made grants totalling £42 million for repairs to English cathedrals since 1991 and support is ongoing. Further sums are available for cathedrals under the listed places of worship grant scheme.

The Minister will know that I am fortunate to have in my constituency one of the finest mediaeval cathedrals in western Europe. In March, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund made available a package of £17.5 million for repairs to the 147 grade I and grade II listed churches and chapels. The Opposition welcome that funding, but can the Minister give the House an assurance that such investment will not be diverted to cost over-runs in respect of the Olympics, given that the total cost of repairs to churches and chapels is £900 million over—

I should probably declare an interest as a former cathedral chorister at Peterborough cathedral, which is a very fine cathedral. However, I shall not give the House the benefit of that choral music now. We have made funding available for our cathedrals through English Heritage, and the backlog of repairs, which was in a dire state about 10 years ago, is nowhere near where it was then. Also, the Heritage Lottery Fund has made a contribution of £23 million since 1994. On the Olympics, I would say that it is important—

Would the Minister consider entering a concordat with both the Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies, to the effect that when public money is given to the cathedrals and other important churches, they nevertheless maintain the interior, particularly some of the beautiful sanctuaries and altars, which all too often have been taken out in recent years by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church? They are still demolishing some of those beautiful works, which should be maintained, just like the exterior of the building. There is a problem of trying to make the place attractive for worship, but some wonderful works of art in our churches are being ruined, and that should be stopped.

When a church is listed, the criteria pertain to the beautiful architecture inside the church, as well. If there is a particular issue, I am happy to take it up with English Heritage.

Does the Minister accept that, welcome as the English Heritage money has been, £42 million over a 16-year period is not a lot of money, particularly bearing in mind that Canterbury, the mother cathedral of the Anglican communion, is looking for £50 million? Does he therefore agree that if we are to lay claim to be a truly civilised nation, we cannot allow such incomparably rich and beautiful buildings to fall into disrepair?

The thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says is right— our cathedrals are essential to the built heritage of this country. They are essential not only to the spiritual worship that goes on within them, but to the lives of the many cities in which they stand across the country. Apart from the wonderful architecture, they have a huge impact on the residents of those cities. There must be a partnership. Yes, there is the Government funding through English Heritage, but the Heritage Lottery Fund has rightly made an important contribution, which it has pledged to continue up to 2013. Also, we have been able to return up to £50 million to our churches through the listed places of worship scheme. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the spending review, but the hon. Gentleman is right that these matters are important, and they are important to the Department.

Many rural parishes are teetering on the brink of amalgamation and closure, at least in part because in the diocese of which they are part, the central cathedral is the focus of attention. Does the Minister agree that if our Government, generous though they may have been over the years, were to take the more enlightened attitude that is evident in other northern European countries, we could get more central support for cathedrals, which would relieve the pressure on the rural parishes that are facing such a parlous future?

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is not just an issue for our cathedrals. There is most definitely an issue facing some of our rural churches and parishes in particular, and that is why the Government are supportive of English Heritage’s desire over the next period to concentrate on our rural churches. Counties such as Norfolk and Oxfordshire in particular face problems. Again that is something that must be dealt with by dioceses and parishes, but also by Government, English Heritage, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, working hand in hand over the coming months and years.

The Minister is aware that the grants from English Heritage to cathedrals have dropped dramatically from almost £3 million at the turn of the century to just £1 million today, directly as a result of the Government’s decision to raid lottery funds. With Christmas approaching, will the Minister shake off the Scrooge label that now attaches to his Department and put lottery money back into heritage?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position. It is absolutely wonderful and I very much look forward to working with him over the coming months. That said, the hon. Gentleman has unusually on this occasion got his facts wrong. English Heritage made the investment in our cathedrals and it is precisely because of the effect of that investment that it, as an independent body, was able to decide that it wanted to put funds into other parts of the built environment. It is important that English Heritage can do that. It has absolutely nothing to do with the lottery. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Olympic lottery in particular will mean huge investment in the built heritage tourism subsequent to 2012, so we are working hand in hand.

BBC

The new arrangements for BBC governance take full effect on 1 January. The separation of the trust from the executive board will strengthen the BBC's independence from Government and its accountability to its licence fee payers will be its principal responsibility. Chitra Bharucha, vice-chairman of the BBC Trust, is acting chairman until a new chairman is appointed next year.

Technological innovation and the internet are transforming the broadcast media. Big top-down broadcasting is giving way to user-driven media. Will the Minister consider a future governance model for the BBC that relies less on technocrats and remote governors, and allows more direct accountability to the actual users?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the case for the BBC Trust and the new governance for the BBC, because that is precisely the purpose of the BBC Trust. No longer are the governors of the BBC principally accountable through a rather confused relationship with the BBC itself, but they face outward to the licence fee payer who funds everything that the BBC does—more or less everything that it does.

No matter how the BBC is governed, it is clear that the preferred way of paying for the BBC is through the licence fee. What advances have there been in the licence fee settlement this year to ensure that the BBC has the money to provide the quality and breadth of service required and to fulfil its important role in the digital switchover in the year to come?

Discussions are continuing in government about the level of the licence fee settlement. It is worth recording that the last licence fee settlement was not concluded until the middle of February. The BBC licence fee settlement has to achieve the following objectives: first, that the BBC has enough money to lead on digital switchover; secondly that it has enough money in order to be a broadcaster of scale in an increasingly competitive global marketplace; and, most important of all, that it has enough money for the high quality programming that licence fee payers over the last two years have time and again said is what they want. But against the background of those three needs, the BBC must be an efficient organisation that spends its money well and wisely in the interests of the licence fee payer.

Does the Secretary of State agree that under the new governance arrangements the BBC Trust is to be independent of the Executive and will oversee the BBC’s work and adjudicate on any possible complaints? Will she join me in wishing Michael Grade every success in his new job, which will certainly be challenging? Does she accept, however, that if the trust is to remain credible, its next chairman should be a critical judge of the BBC, not a cheerleader for it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome the opportunity to place on record my thanks to Michael Grade and my appreciation of all the work that he has done for the BBC over the past two and a half years during a difficult time of change. He has provided exemplary leadership, and I think that when the time comes he will also do an extremely good job for ITV. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the role of the chairman of the trust is different from the role of the chairman of the BBC, because it is to ensure that accountability to the licence fee payer is absolutely clear and is honoured in every penny of licence fee money that is spent.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while we want to get the governance of the BBC right—it was long overdue for a shake-up and a renewal—it is also important to give proper funding to the BBC given the role that it plays in preserving a democracy that desperately needs some independent and objective media? Does she agree that if we do not give sufficient funding for pushing out some of its activities to places such as Manchester and Leeds, there will be some very unpopular Ministers sitting on the Front Bench?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to recognise the BBC’s role as more than just a broadcaster. At the same time, the BBC must spend public money carefully and in the public interest. He is right to underline the importance of the BBC’s independent and impartial news coverage, because fundamental to the level of trust in the BBC is the confidence that people have in the veracity and objectivity of its news reporting. That is a tradition that the BBC must attend to every single day.

The BBC is widely acknowledged as being the best and most impartial public service broadcaster in the world, and it must be kept that way. What steps, then, will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the appointment of a new chair of the BBC Trust is not only transparent, but beyond all criticism, so that it is not viewed with the same understandable suspicion as the appointment of five out of 12 Big Lottery Fund board members who are members of the Labour party or the nominations of Labour party donors and creditors for peerages and honours by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor?

That is an unworthy smear by the hon. Gentleman. Anyone can allege anything without substance. The members of the Big Lottery Fund board were appointed entirely consistently with the rules of public appointment. The Ministers who made the appointments were, as is right and proper, completely unaware of their political affiliations. Of course it is important that there is public confidence in the appointment of the chairman of the BBC: that is why it will be conducted in full accordance with the rules of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

In looking at the future governance of the BBC, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that she will resist any attempt to break it up, as suggested by some Opposition parties? Does she agree that that would dilute its service not only for people in this country but its service worldwide, for which it is well respected?

It is now three years since the charter review process started but the BBC is entering the Christmas period with no chairman and no licence fee settlement. At a crucial time of preparing for digital switchover, and with the BBC’s trust yet to begin formally operating, the Government's mishandling of the situation has left the corporation in limbo, unable to plan ahead effectively. The Opposition are gravely concerned that at such a crucial time for the BBC there is no one at the BBC’s helm with any broadcasting experience, which could be the case for many months. What would happen should another Hutton-type situation arise? Can the Secretary of State tell the House when the licence fee announcement will be made, and crucially, whether a new chairman of the trust will be in place when it is finally decided?

The Opposition can be reassured. The BBC is completely relaxed about the timing of the licence fee settlement and it is fully aware that arrangements are now in train to recruit a new chairman for the BBC. Those negotiations on the licence fee will continue and I hope that they will be concluded very soon, within the terms that I set out to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg).

On the day after Michael Grade stepped down as chairman of the BBC, I put in train the arrangements for his replacement. The advertisements will go out early in the new year—[Hon. Members: “The Guardian.”]—in a very wide range of newspapers, as is consistent with the guidance of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and we hope for an appointment in the spring. The difference between being in opposition and in government is that the Opposition panic but the Government get on with the job.

ITV

3. What recent discussions she has had with Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading on BSkyB's acquisition of shares in ITV. (109407)

The Secretary of State and I have been briefed by Ofcom on the process for considering whether there has been a change in control of the Channel 3 licence. We have had no discussions with the OFT.

Can my hon. Friend assure me that both the OFT and Ofcom will carefully scrutinise whether BSkyB, as the largest shareholder in ITV now, has material influence over it; and whether there are potential conflicts of interest, such as in the tendering of the ITN news contract in 2008, the sale of sports rights, or the fact that whereas BSkyB is opposed to the Government’s plans for digital switchover, ITV is very much in favour of them and is even in discussions with the BBC about possibly launching a Freesat service?

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, which I know is of concern to a number of Members in the House. It therefore may be helpful if I briefly set out the process that is in train to address the questions that my hon. Friend has raised.

There are two regulatory areas of concern; the first relates to the OFT, the second to Ofcom. The OFT is looking at whether there has been a merger, and is seeking views from interested parties—NTL, Virgin, BSkyB and ITV. The OFT has four months from the date of transaction to determine, first, whether there has been a merger, and secondly, whether that has resulted in a substantial lessening of competition, in which case it may refer that to the Competition Commission. We expect the OFT to reach its decision early in the new year.

The second area raised by my hon. Friend touches on the work that falls within the compass of Ofcom. Ofcom is considering whether there has been a change of control of an ITV licence holder. It has six weeks to do that, and it will look at four factors: the level of shareholding acquired, voting rights, constitution and funding arrangements. Ofcom expects to reach a conclusion early in the new year.

In relation to—

The Minister has said that Ofcom will reach its conclusions early in the new year. If Ofcom deems that there has been a change of control, what is he going to do about it?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in relation to these issues and in relation to the Communications Act 2003 and the Enterprise Act 2002, this matter would ultimately be in the hands of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but at this stage we must decide whether or not there is an issue to be investigated, and the hon. Gentleman will have an answer to that early in the new year.

Roman Sites

The promotion of Britain’s Roman heritage is an important part of the work of VisitBritain, and that of English Heritage, both of which the Department sponsors. A new dedicated area of VisitBritain’s website to promote further our Roman heritage will be launched shortly.

I am grateful to the Minister for that positive response. He will probably be aware that, two years ago this month, the remains of the only Roman chariot racing stadium in Britain were discovered. It was Britain’s largest Roman building, and the circus could house up to 15,000 spectators. The setting is now threatened by new housing and a car park. In view of the international and national importance of the discovery, will he receive a delegation from Colchester to consider how that national site can best be preserved from such destruction?

I am well aware of the interest that the hon. Gentleman has taken in the Roman chariot racing stadium in Colchester, which is of national architectural importance. It is a matter for Colchester borough council and English Heritage, however, and I understand that discussions are taking place with local developers about future management of the site. As that is a planning issue, it will ultimately be a matter for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that part of the heritage left to us by the Romans was the road system in Britain. That road system, and particularly Watling street, passes through the jewel in the crown, Tamworth. As so many road developments now run alongside, if not on the original Roman roads, will he assure me that some measure will be taken to maintain that road system for future generations?

In the interests of brevity, Mr. Speaker, after my previous response, the answer is yes; I will take my hon. Friend’s point into consideration.

On behalf of Verulamium, or St. Alban’s, our proximity to London means that we would very much like to benefit from visitors to the 2012 Olympics. My council is keen to do that and is setting up a taskforce—even though it is a Liberal Democrat council, it has my full support on this matter. Is the Minister prepared to help us to capitalise on our assets in Verulamium?

Order. Unless those assets are something to do with the Roman empire—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister can answer.

The Department is always happy to help and we would be delighted to do so in any way in relation to Roman history. I hope that the hon. Lady and her councillors have made representations under the “Welcome>Legacy” document; if they have not, I invite them to do so.

Olympic Games

5. What estimate she has made of the public liability arising from the 2012 Olympic games in excess of the sums already guaranteed from London councils and the national lottery. (109411)

On 21 November, in front of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I announced that a further £900 million would be required for the Olympic park. I explained that we are awaiting the results of the assessment by the Olympic Delivery Authority’s delivery partner, CLM. I also said that the Government are discussing the requirements for security, contingency and the treatment of tax. I will report to the House when those discussions are concluded.

To ease public anxiety that the rising costs of the Olympics will fall on London or national taxpayers or the lottery, will the Secretary of State confirm that she and the Mayor are both operating strictly within the budget agreed on an all-party basis when the bid was submitted? Will she specifically rule out new items such as the £400 million now proposed for an Olympic delivery partner?

No, I cannot. It seems to be a quirk of the Liberal Democrats’ approach to public spending that the need is for more but the means to raise it is denied. In relation to the Olympics, the hon. Gentleman has described himself as being like Victor Meldrew on a bad day. He wrote forcefully in the Richmond Informer that London did not need the Olympics. Let me reassure him, in a spirit of Christmas cheer, that he is adrift of the 75 per cent. of Londoners—and rising—who support the Olympics, see the benefit that it will bring to the city and support the great legacy. A number of those who provide such echoing endorsement also live in his constituency.

I think—the Secretary of State will tell me if I am wrong or right—that the Olympic lottery fund is ahead of the set budget, so more will be spent. Outside the M25, there is a real love for the Olympics. What the nations and regions need, however, is a fund. Has she been able to persuade the Treasury to part with 12p in the pound from a lottery ticket to make that a challenge fund for the nations and regions for Olympic facilities?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work as chairman of the all-party Olympic group. He is right: it is important for the high levels of support for the Olympics around the United Kingdom to be maintained, and for the people’s confidence to be justified. That means branding local activities as being associated with the games, and also—as my hon. Friend says—producing evidence of benefit, such as investment in support, culture, creativity and other activities allied with the games.

There is not yet a specific challenge fund, and it is for the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to determine lottery duty, but I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the need for the whole country to understand the benefit that will result from the games in London.

Two of the largest threats to the Olympic budget are clearly the VAT bill and the level of contingency funds. Given that the whole Cabinet approved the original budget, which waived VAT and set funds for contingencies and preliminaries at a level—23.5 per cent.—considerably lower than is currently being mooted, and given that those clear commitments were presented to the world, accepted in Singapore and confirmed to the House on countless occasions during the passage of the London Olympics Bill, why is the Treasury now threatening to renege on them?

With great respect, I do not think the hon. Gentleman should mistake a proper engagement relating to large sums of public money in the interest of the biggest capital project in the country for reneging on an agreement. The nature of contingency provision is different. The hon. Gentleman is right: project contingency provision for each and every venue is about 23 per cent. The question is whether programme contingency is necessary to safeguard against further risks. All who apply it in the construction industry would say that contingency provision diminishes over time, not necessarily because it is drawn on but because as delivery becomes closer, the risks themselves begin to diminish.

We are discussing those matters in Government. I have also had discussions with the Opposition, in the spirit of cross-party consensus on the Olympics, and will continue to do so.

In my constituency we expect to see great investment in our area of the Olympic park, for which many Hackney residents are extremely grateful. We are already seeing investment in the burying of power lines, in the East London line—which is currently being built—and, from next November, an increased service on the North London line. I understand that none of that investment is in the Olympic funding envelope.

Will my right hon. Friend tell me, and my constituents, what discussions she is having with agencies and other Departments about investment in jobs for the future, after the Olympics? That is one of the main concerns in my constituency.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done for her constituents in making them aware of the potential benefits of the Olympics. She is also right to draw attention to the extent of investment in 2012, beyond any Olympic funding package. During that period, the eyes of the world will be on London and the United Kingdom. Both London and the United Kingdom more widely will benefit from expenditure decisions—whether in the private sector or by local government and other public bodies—enabling new projects, such as the investment in London’s transport infrastructure, to be completed in time for 2012.

Slave Trade

6. If she will make a statement on Government support for commemorations of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. (109412)

As the Prime Minister's statement on 27 November made clear, the Government fully support plans to commemorate the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The Deputy Prime Minister's advisory group on the bicentenary is due to meet tomorrow to discuss plans, which include a wide range of national and community-based events in museums, archives and other cultural organisations.

I was in Ghana in September and I visited the Cape Coast slavery centre where the full horror of that shameful episode in our history hit home. May I draw the Minister’s attention to what the United Nations has referred to as modern-day slavery? Bonded labour affects about 27 million people around the world. Does the Minister have any plans to raise awareness of that while we commemorate the 200th anniversary of legislation to abolish slavery?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As I am sure she knows, the Deputy Prime Minister met Kofi Annan and, during their discussions, they talked about what slavery has meant for Africa and the Caribbean nations. That is why a UN resolution has been introduced. I am pleased about the work that the community in Hull has done with Ghana as we prepare for next year. My hon. Friend is right to focus on the awful trade that is happening now. As she knows, colleagues in the Home Office are clear about redoubling their efforts in relation to human trafficking, and we have a new centre dedicated to bringing together all the work on it. She will also be aware of the work of Anti-Slavery International to highlight that throughout next year. She is right that there is a serious problem throughout the country that we must all redouble our efforts to deal with.

Public opinion on the slave trade would not have been changed as early as it was without the meticulous research and lifelong campaigning of Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech in my constituency. While the bicentenary celebrations rightly focus on the parliamentary efforts of William Wilberforce and his connection with Hull, does the Minister agree that that should not be to the exclusion of other key abolitionists and their links to other constituencies?

With close proximity to Peterborough, I am happy to put on record the work of the people of Wisbech, and particularly Thomas Clarkson who, alongside Wilberforce and people such as Equiano and Ignatio Sancho, did a lot to bring the impact of the slave trade to the attention of the people of that era. Thomas Clarkson was certainly a key figure in that movement.

Underlying what the hon. Gentleman said—and why next year is so important—is that supporting the clamour for the abolition of the slave trade were many ordinary men and women who petitioned, marched and boycotted in towns and villages throughout the country, and it is right that they should be remembered. Many Christian people were involved in that, particularly Quakers, who led the fight many years before others had caught on to it.

Bristol welcomes the support that the Government have given to its efforts to commemorate Abolition 2000, including the £770,000 that the Heritage Lottery Fund recently gave to the British Empire and Commonwealth museum for a two-year exhibition. On 5 December, Bristol city council passed a motion calling for a national African remembrance day, similar to the holocaust memorial day, to be commemorated in August each year. What discussions are taking place at Government level about whether we should have such a national day of remembrance?

I am aware of the work that has been going on in Bristol, and I am grateful for all that my hon. Friend has been doing to lead and steer some of that work and also to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has given grants amounting to more than £21 million to organisations large and small across the country. Discussions about that memorial day continue. She will understand that there are differences of opinion about whether the date should be the one in August or the March date. We continue to talk to the members of the advisory group about that, and I think that that debate must continue into next year.

BBC (Live Music)

Although the Secretary of State meets the chairman of the BBC from time to time, matters of editorial policy are of course solely a matter for the BBC.

Is the Minister aware of the extraordinary proposal to cut drastically the broadcasting of live concerts on Radio 3, which could affect a number of classical concerts, especially those put on in the regions? Is this not yet another example of cultural dumbing down that will reduce listener choice, and where is the accountability in this regard?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, today, the BBC’s conditions for Radio 3 were published by the BBC Trust, two of which it is essential that he recognise. First, 50 per cent. of Radio 3’s music output each year will consist of live or specially recorded music; secondly, it must broadcast at least 500 live or specially recorded performances each year. That is a noble objective for the BBC, which safeguards the situation that the hon. Gentleman is worried about.

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but he will be aware that, during consideration of the Communications Bill, it was agreed that a significant amount of live music would be played on the radio, and to me, “significant” means a lot more than the amount that he has been describing. Can he have a word with the BBC about regional live music in particular? It is all very well saying that so many concerts are being broadcast and so much live music is being played, but we want to hear it out in the regions, and to hear local and ethnic music being played on the BBC.

Again, I entirely appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns about regional music, but if I may, I shall give one more instance. The BBC has published a number of commitments to live music for 2006-07. For example, Radio 1 will broadcast a minimum of 250 new sessions and “Live Lounge” performances.

There is considerable confusion about the rules and guidance on live music in the Licensing Act 2003 affecting the BBC and many smaller live music events. I understand that a 73-page simplification plan from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport acknowledges the need to clarify the situation, citing carol singing as an example. Does the Minister acknowledge the absurdity of reviewing live music guidance after Christmas, rather than sorting it out before the festive season? I know that Christmas comes earlier each year, but perhaps he could tell us whether he is aware of any carol singing events planned for this March.

In the Christmas spirit, may I suggest to the hon. Lady that these issues were resolved last year through the 2003 Act? The live music study, which is indeed a significant document, was published last week, on 7 December, and is available for her to read. On carol singing, I would always be happy to go carol singing with the hon. Lady, and as she knows there are many venues where no licence is required.

Olympic Games

The budget for the Olympic games will be agreed as early as possible next year, when the work under way on a number of outstanding issues, including security, contingency and tax, has been finished.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. She will know that the last two Olympic games had cost overruns of more than 100 per cent. Given those circumstances, is it not reasonable to expect further upward revisions of the Olympic budget? If that happens, and given that the national lottery fund is not inexhaustible—and if London taxpayers are not to be asked to pay more—will the Secretary of State guarantee that my constituents and others outside London will not see their taxes rise to pay for filling the gap?

It is extraordinarily difficult to establish comparisons with other Olympic games, but I certainly have not seen any figures suggesting—particularly in relation to Sydney—that the cost overrun exceeded 100 per cent. The confusion arises because of what is included under Olympic costs, which is why, when I talk about them, I refer not to the regeneration costs but specifically to the costs associated with the Olympic park. On the hon. Gentleman’s second question, there is a memorandum of understanding on how the financing of the Olympic project remains secure and costs are rigorously and continuously controlled, and the Government’s work on the issue has been heavily informed by advice from KPMG.

My right hon. Friend knows that not all the Olympic events will take place in the Olympic park. Rowing, for example, will take place on the borders of my constituency. Can she ensure that the budget covers the build-up to the events for constituencies in far-flung areas such as mine?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of that and I can assure her that it is being taken full account of in the planning both by the local organising committee and by the nations and regions group, which is considering how to maximise the benefit across the country. The benefit is maximised if one plans early, and that is what we are doing.

Church Commissioners

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

Hymns

19. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to celebrate the centenary of the “English Hymnal” and promote hymn and carol singing. (109425)

We warmly welcome the publication of “New English Praise”, a supplement to the “New English Hymnal” published this year to mark the centenary of the original “English Hymnal”. The Church’s liturgical commission is engaged in promoting good practice in worship of all styles across the Church of England, working in close co-operation with the Royal School of Church Music.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the “English Hymnal” of 1906 celebrates the fact that the rhythm of the Christian year is not just a matter of ecclesiastical convenience, but a map of the soul’s seasons through darkness and light, and hope and fulfilment, and that the singing of carols and hymns is one of the more exhilarating ways of celebrating the soul’s progress?

Unlike other Christian Churches and unlike the Anfield Kop, the Church of England has never had an official Anglican hymnal. However, in this season of good will and grace, new figures released today by the Church show a 6 per cent. increase in the Church of England’s overall Christmas eve and Christmas day congregations last year.

Should not the Church Commissioners organise a great big party to celebrate the anniversary of the “English Hymnal”? Perhaps they could invite a few bishops along. In particular, would not the Church Commissioners wish to celebrate the fact that, for more than 100 years, the “English Hymnal” has sustained the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England—a vital part? Does my hon. Friend also celebrate the fact that the hymnal was put together by Percy Dearmer, a prominent Christian socialist and member of the Labour party?

I am glad to note that Christian socialism and the Labour party go hand in hand at this Christmas season. My hon. Friend will know that the Royal School of Church Music is an ecumenical body and the Church of England’s official musical agency. The protection of our wonderful, uplifting church music is in good hands and, with the support of my hon. Friend and this House, I am sure that we will go from strength to strength.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to attend the 50th anniversary of the Friends of Cathedral Music a couple of weeks ago. What are the Church Commissioners doing to encourage high-quality church music?

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Church Commissioners are not responsible for church music, but we do follow the issue closely. I am in touch with the Church’s national worship development agency and will be pleased to pass on his views, as well as those of other hon. Members. The ceremony to which he referred was well attended and shows the strength of the Church, the strength of our cathedrals and the strength of our music, not only in this Parliament but throughout the country.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

National Audit Office

20. What account was taken by the commission of the performance of the National Audit Office in approving the office’s draft supplementary estimate for 2006-07. (109426)

Before approving the supplementary estimate, the commission took evidence from the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office about progress on the refurbishment project. The commission also took the opportunity to ask about the financial impact of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s work and how improvements in the quality of public services arising from the recommendations of the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee might be reflected in the office’s performance figures. As regards performance, the NAO has been successful in recent years in securing financial savings equivalent to eight times its annual net expenditure, amounting to some £555 million in 2005.

When the Public Accounts Commission meets in February or March to consider the National Audit Office’s main draft estimate for 2007-08, which particular reports does the Chairman feel have especially benefited from the scrutiny that the office provides?

My personal choice would be the investigations into the refinancing of the private finance initiative. When we started looking, it was a case of persistence rather than a single report and when the NAO started looking at it, hardly any Department was claiming any share of refinancing gains. After the first inquiry, Departments were set a target to get a 30 per cent. share; after another inquiry, the target being aimed at is 50 per cent. of all PFI refinancing gains. It is resulting in gains to the taxpayer of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Party Funding

21. What assessment has been made of the initial findings of the research project by the Electoral Commission on public attitudes to party funding. (109427)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it commissioned a body of research, the principal reason for which was to inform Sir Hayden Phillips’ review of party funding. The report was passed to Sir Hayden and a copy has been placed in the Library. The commission itself has made no assessment of the findings.

Will the hon. Gentleman ask some questions on behalf of ordinary Members? We accept that transparency is probably at the utmost when it comes to political funding, but does he agree—and will he put the question to the commission—that political parties and their members must be consulted on any kind of funding that parties may have in the future?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. The main guiding principles that came out of the research were that any system of party funding should concentrate on transparency, accountability, limits and controls on party spending, greater equality between the political parties and funds being used to achieve greater engagement between political parties and the public. When Sir Hayden Phillips reports, there will, of course, be widespread discussion and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, other hon. Members and the political parties will participate in it.

Given that the Electoral Commission report says very clearly that a huge majority of the public feel outrage at the allegation that there might be a link between peerages or honours and funding by individuals, will the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that the Electoral Commission will be very robust and ensure that, under the new settlement that we anticipate will be with us next year, there will be an absolute end to the link between honours and donations, loans or peerages?

I would prefer not to comment on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee on the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the issues he raised are extremely important and will be noted by the Electoral Commission.

Is the Electoral Commission aware that discussion of the funding of political parties must be very widely based? Is it also aware that there is an enormous and fundamental difference between a political party created out of the commitment of ordinary workers to protect their terms and conditions and one that is in any way supported or subverted by those who have very narrow personal gains in mind?

I hesitate to follow the hon. Lady’s point, but I would like to put on record the commission’s views on state funding. The commission published a report in 2004, which made a number of recommendations for limited changes, including a modest expansion of the policy development grant scheme and a system of income tax relief on small donations. Beyond those measures, the commission argued that any further significant increase in public funding must be contingent on acceptance of a cap on donations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the research project to which he referred and the wide-ranging questions that he has just answered, coupled with the imminent publication of the Hayden Phillips report, mean that the House should debate very urgently the whole question of party funding?

When, on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee, I made an application to the Liaison Committee for a debate on Electoral Commission matters, a half-day’s debate was granted. Many hon. Members commented to me subsequently that they valued the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on Electoral Commission matters.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) was right to focus attention on the importance of transparency? Does he accept that, in terms of transparency and with the legislation, we have probably now got to the situation that is as far as we can reasonably go? The link between the cap and state funding is not acceptable and even the hawks who want comprehensive state funding of political parties should recognise that this is not the time for it.

The discussion on a cap is no doubt a matter that will come out in Sir Hayden Phillips’ report and there will be widespread discussion. The right hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that transparency, along with accountability, were the two most important principles recognised by the public.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, once the Electoral Commission has done its work into attitudes on party funding, we will all be left in rather an invidious position in so far as the public appear not to want to pay for party politics themselves out of taxpayer funding and nor do they want wealthy people to make large donations to any of the political parties? That leaves us with the difficult issue of how we fund democracy in the United Kingdom.

These are extremely difficult issues, which is no doubt why the Prime Minister asked Sir Hayden Phillips to carry out an independent review. As I said in my reply to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Electoral Commission takes the view that any increase in state funding must be connected with a cap on funding, but these are all issues that will be discussed in due course.

Church Commissioners

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

Clerical Pensions

23. What assessment the commissioners have made of the likely impact of the provisions of the Pensions Bill on clergy pensions. (109429)

The Pensions Bill is primarily about state pensions and there is no indication of any direct impact on the clergy pension scheme.

Is it not the case that the employment status of the clergy is rather ambiguous? A good number of them decline to accept that they are employees of anyone other than God. Does my hon. Friend agree that, taking into account the personal account statement that we heard from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions last week, there is a need to avoid the future poverty of the clergy in retirement by spelling out clearly how they might take advantage of the 3 per cent. required contribution from other employers that they themselves may not have access to because of their ambiguous status?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern about this matter. He will know that a report setting out a number of options for the future was published by the Church on 30 June and that the consultation period ended on 10 November. The results of that process are being evaluated with a view to proposals being put to the General Synod in February. I will ensure that his concerns and remarks will be reflected in that review.

Notwithstanding the valid observation of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), it seems improbable that God himself decreed that any retired members of the clergy should be obliged to live in destitution. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman representing the Church Commissioners can tell us today, but will he say what proportion of the clergy are dependent on means-tested benefits and what will the Pensions Bill do to reduce that number?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I disagree that any of our retired clergy are living in destitution. As to his more detailed question, I am happy to give him a proper letter on the subject and, if necessary, place a copy in the Library. As he is aware and as I have indicated, the Church has been reviewing its pension arrangements. The scheme’s costs have increased owing to reduced investment returns, new regulatory requirements and increased life expectancy but all that and the hon. Gentleman’s views will be taken into account.

Cathedrals

25. What representations the commissioners have made to the Government on state funding for repairs to cathedrals. (109431)

The commissioners continue to support the Church Heritage Forum and the Archbishops Council in their efforts to secure a more symmetrical balance between the contribution that churches and cathedrals make to the community and the contribution that they receive from public funds.

Will my hon. Friend join me in wishing York minster well with its £10 million bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for assistance towards the £23 million cost of restoring York minster’s great east window? Seeing the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), the Minister with responsibility for heritage, sitting on the Front Bench, does he agree that our most important mediaeval buildings ought to be protected by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and not just left to the lottery?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution. He will know that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) asked about cathedral repairs earlier. My hon. Friend may also have spotted the Under-Secretary up the scaffold at York minister’s £20 million-plus east front project last month. I did not have the delight of seeing him abseiling on the York minster front, but I know that that indicates his dedication and the dedication of his Department. My hon. Friend’s point is well taken.

European Council

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the European Council held in Brussels last Thursday and Friday. As the House knows, it is customary for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make the statement, but I have been asked to convey his apologies as he is currently on an official visit to the middle east.

There were two main outcomes to the Council. The first, as expected, related to enlargement. The Council endorsed the agreement reached earlier in the week by Foreign Ministers on what action the European Union should take in response to Turkey’s failure to implement the Ankara agreement protocol. There was also a wider discussion on enlargement strategy.

There had been widespread predictions that the discussion on Turkey at the General Affairs Council would be extremely divisive, would spill over into the European Council and might risk derailing the process of Turkish accession—the so-called train wreck scenario. But that was avoided. The UK, along with others, made a strong strategic case for Turkish membership—a case that I know is shared across the House—and the train remains very much on the track. Negotiations can move forward on 27 of the 35 chapters of the acquis and, for the first time in an EU of 25, there is positive language, which will be adopted by the Council in January, on resuming work “without delay” on a direct trade regulation to end the economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriots. No one is in any doubt that Turkey must meet all the requirements and obligations of membership before joining the European Union. But as the House has consistently agreed, a European Union with Turkey as a member will be stronger, richer and more secure.

The conclusions of the European Council further stressed the strategic importance of enlargement more generally—in inspiring reform, driving prosperity and competitiveness, and strengthening the EU’s weight in the world. Those conclusions reaffirmed that the EU should keep its commitments towards all the countries that are in the enlargement process, moving forward on the basis of strict conditionality at all stages of the negotiations and judging each country on its own merits.

The second focus of the Council was to make progress on the very practical issues that resonate with, and matter to, the people of Europe and where, through joint action, the European Union can make a positive difference on the ground. On climate change and energy, the Council built on progress made at the informal summit in Lahti. We agreed that the spring Council will discuss options for a global post-2012 agreement on climate change, consistent with the EU’s objective of a maximum global temperature increase of 2° C above pre-industrial levels. We reiterated the need for a global carbon market and reaffirmed the crucial role and the long-term ambition of the EU emissions trading scheme.

The Council called for the priority measures in the Commission’s action plan on energy efficiency to be implemented rapidly and endorsed the setting up of a network of energy security correspondents early next year. The spring 2007 European Council is due to adopt a prioritised action plan as part of an integrated approach for a secure, environmentally friendly and competitive energy policy for Europe. We also agreed that European energy and climate change policy will be discussed by the European Council on a regular basis in the future, beginning with an integrated debate on those issues at the spring 2007 meeting.

On Africa, we welcomed the progress report on the implementation of the EU strategy “The EU and Africa: Towards a Strategic Partnership” and called for the implementation of the priority actions for next year that are identified in that report. We also reaffirmed our commitment to working towards a joint EU-Africa strategy, which is to be adopted at the second EU-Africa summit in the latter half of 2007.

On the globalisation agenda, we asked the Commission to take a number of concrete steps to promote further innovation in Europe. They included presenting a comprehensive intellectual property rights strategy in the course of 2007, working up proposals for industry-led joint technology initiatives with a view to launching the most advanced ones next year, and, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, coming up with ways in which to improve the working methods and overall resources of the European standardisation bodies. We also agreed to do further work on the idea of a European institute of technology.

On justice and home affairs, the Council agreed to consider options for strengthening the framework for decision making in order to respond effectively to the current challenges in the areas of freedom, security and justice.

On migration, we agreed that we needed to strengthen our efforts on the global approach and to make sure that we addressed migration in a comprehensive manner. The Council agreed on the next steps that the EU should take in 2007, including detailed action in three areas with regard to illegal migration: first, strengthening and deepening international co-operation with third countries of origin and transit, for example by doing more to integrate migration issues into aid policies and working more effectively with third countries to combat human trafficking; secondly, strengthening co-operation among members states, for example by intensifying measures against illegal employment and developing identification technology at borders; and, thirdly, improving the management of the EU’s external border, for example by finding sustainable and effective ways to enhance the capacity of Frontex. The Council also agreed to have a common European asylum system in place by the end of 2010, starting with a preliminary evaluation of its first phase next year.

The Council issued separate declarations on Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran and Africa issues. On the middle east peace process, the European Council set out how it would engage with a legitimate Palestinian Government who adopted a platform reflecting the Quartet principles.

The European Council quite rightly concentrated on areas—not least enlargement—in which the European Union can make a real difference to the lives of the people of Europe. The progress that we made at the Council, and, perhaps just as importantly, the dangers that we avoided, demonstrate again the benefit of having a UK Government with not just a clear strategy on Europe, but the strong influence, based on consistent and close engagement, to see that strategy through. I commend the outcome to the House.

The focus of the summit, as the Foreign Secretary said, was enlargement, which has been the European Union’s greatest achievement. We join in welcoming Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union. As she said, we have long supported Turkey’s membership of the EU, so we have much agreement with her on that. However, does she still agree with us that, as she put it before the summit, the measures proposed, and indeed agreed, were “too harsh” on, and possibly “counter-productive” towards, Turkey? She obviously agrees that Turkey must work to resolve the dispute over access to its ports, but that is a challenge to overcome, not an opportunity to deny Turkey membership in the future. To resolve these matters, what will the Government and our European partners do not only to end the economic isolation of Turkish Cypriots, but to ensure that there is movement over time towards Turkey’s eventual recognition of the Republic of Cyprus and on other measures necessary to bring about Turkish membership?

A larger Europe should mean a more flexible Europe, not a less flexible one. It is thus right that proposals to abolish vetoes over criminal justice and to move that area from an intergovernmental pillar to full Community jurisdiction were not adopted. Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear that any such proposal in the future will be rejected by Britain? A Government spokesman apparently said at the summit:

“We are prepared to give up the veto on some security issues”.

Will she say what those issues are?

Does the Foreign Secretary not agree with the European Scrutiny Committee that the use of the so-called gangplank clause would be of “constitutional importance” and, as the Committee said,

“it is vital that there should be no doubt or equivocation about the Government’s position”?

[Interruption.] I use the Committee’s form of words. Are the Government in fact willing to give up the veto on some of these issues? Does the right hon. Lady accept our view that that would be a serious mistake that would limit British sovereignty in a sensitive area?

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House why the employment chapter is being used to introduce EU legislation on migration? Should that not be done through immigration provisions or not at all? Why is the EU now extending its powers into Community integration, in paragraph 24 of the Council conclusions? Does not a common asylum policy run the risk of losing national control in that area?

Our view is that the EU should concentrate on where it can add value to its people’s priorities, so we welcome what the Council agreed on climate change. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the EU does not need new powers here but must make better use of existing ones? Europe is not on track to meet its Kyoto target, so will the Government ensure that the revision of the EU trading scheme receives urgent attention?

On global poverty, the Council discussed the Africa strategy; it is right to make that a priority. But does the Foreign Secretary agree that many of the EU’s policies—the common agricultural policy, trade barriers and so on—continue to make poverty in developing countries worse? Nevertheless, climate change and global poverty are real, tangible issues on which the European Union should be concentrating.

The Foreign Secretary, however, failed to mention one thing—the European constitution. It was on the agenda and a summit has been called of the 18 nations that have ratified it. Her predecessor, who is sitting next to her, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), said that

“it was hard to argue that the Constitution is not dead”.

The right hon. Gentleman nods. The Dutch Government have said that the constitution is dead. But some people are now arguing for its resuscitation, so will the Foreign Secretary make it clear that the Government have no plans to ratify the constitution and will not revive such plans? Her predecessor stated that the Government would not bring in any part of the constitution through the back door, so will the right hon. Lady guarantee that any new treaty that contains any significant part of the constitution or increases the EU’s powers in any way would merit the promised referendum?

The European Union has the potential to be a great force for good in the world, but if it returns to the old ways of deeper integration, the constitution’s failure will be repeated again and again. So is it not the Government’s urgent task to lead that debate and convince our partners of the need for an open, flexible, modern European Union which all its nations need?

First, to pick up on what the right hon. Gentleman said about Turkey, I recognise and much appreciate the common ground in the House on that issue. On the relationships between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus, he may be aware that one of the declarations—the presidential statement that accompanied the Council conclusions—has encouraged a return to the United Nations process to begin to resolve some of the issues. I sincerely hope that that will indeed be successful.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the need for greater flexibility as the European Union becomes larger, and I agree with that, but he also spoke about what he was reluctant to call the passerelle on justice and home affairs issues. I am not aware of the statement that he quoted from a Government spokesman. I simply repeat what we have said to him before: there is flexibility on this issue in existing treaties and we do not rule out, as a matter of principle, ever exercising such flexibility. Certainly there are no proposals at present to which we are particularly attracted, but given that that flexibility is in existing treaties, it would be a mistake automatically to rule out its use. We would discuss and consider issues on their merits and make a decision on that basis. I feel confident that this will be an ongoing exchange, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman yet again that no Labour Government have given up the principle of the veto—that was done under Lady Thatcher.

On asylum, we understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. We are anxious to preserve the right kind of flexibility on the issue, certainly in the United Kingdom, where we believe that that can be achieved. I share his view that the European Union should increasingly concentrate on areas where it adds value. He touched on the emissions trading scheme, and I hope that the House is aware that the United Kingdom is the only member state to have its proposals for the next round of the emissions trading scheme accepted. Everyone else was told that their proposals were not sufficiently stringent, so we are making progress and are heading in the right direction. I share his view that we must look at our wider policies, including the common agricultural policy, if we are to deal with global poverty, not least through trade.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman says that the constitutional treaty is dead, but in my first debate on the subject as Foreign Secretary, we had an interesting theological discussion in which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who happily is present this afternoon, defined the treaty, theologically and very accurately, as being in limbo, on the grounds that that was the place for the unborn. That is certainly incontestable. As to bringing things back, whether through the front or back door, there is no suggestion that we would do any such thing, but we will see what proposals are put forward.

May I also welcome the statement? The Foreign Secretary referred to keeping commitments to all the countries involved in the enlargement process. Was there a detailed discussion of the situation in the Balkans, in light of the forthcoming election in Serbia and the negotiations about the final status of Kosovo, and does the European Union still have as firm a commitment as it did to enlargement to include south-east Europe?

First, I should say that on this occasion there was no particularly detailed discussion of the issues surrounding Serbia’s potential moves towards the European Union, as there has been a lot of detailed discussion of the subject on previous occasions, and nothing has changed. There was not that detailed discussion, but it is still our firm intention to keep open the door for future enlargement, not least because we believe that that will be a strong driver towards reform. Again, I think that that is common ground, shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

This was hardly the most spectacular of summits, but in its own way, I suppose that that may be regarded as a triumph. In this country, there will be a broad welcome of the intention to focus early attention on climate change, and to consider ways of achieving greater co-operation and co-ordination on migration. There is also support on both sides of the House for the reaffirmation of the enlargement process as regards Turkey. It was right for the summit to emphasise that all applicants must meet the tough entry requirements in full, but is the Foreign Secretary confident that the new impact assessments will not simply provide the opponents of enlargement with a new method of blocking Turkey?

On the middle east, we welcome the Council’s recognition of the deterioration of the socio-economic situation in the occupied territories, and of the extension of the temporary international mechanism for a further three months. Will she clarify what funding the British Government and their EU partners have pledged in support of that extension? On the wider peace process, how will the Prime Minister’s latest efforts in the region be linked to the new European initiative agreed at the summit, and what other British input will there be? Finally, given the approach of the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome, can we expect, sometime soon, an updated White Paper on the necessary reform of Europe’s institutions to cope with current and future enlargement?

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome on some of the issues? One must always view such matters with caution, but I am reasonably confident that having rigorous requirements that are properly monitored will not necessarily prove to be just a stumbling block and an obstacle to any future enlargement, whether in respect of Turkey or any other applicant state. There was a discussion on precisely that issue. The overwhelming majority of the member states have ruled out—at least three times so far, in my experience—the idea that we should introduce some kind of new conditionality. There is a clear recognition among member states, just as there is across the House, of the value of applications in driving reform.

On the extension of the temporary international mechanism, I am not carrying in my head the latest figures, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman both that the European Union as a whole has put more money than last year into helping the Palestinian people through the present crisis, and that the UK is the largest donor to that overall EU funding. If we obtain information in the near future about what the extension will mean, I will let him know.

With regard to the Prime Minister’s present visit, the House is aware that he is hoping to communicate support and concern for moves towards the middle east peace process and towards the road map, and to hear from those on the ground what the latest position is and what, if anything, the UK or the EU can do to help.

On the notion of an updated White Paper, I have not given thought to that. I will consider it. I am not giving an undertaking at this time.

My right hon. Friend mentioned enlargement. She is aware that next year we will see the presidencies of Germany and of Portugal, followed by the presidency of France. Would it not be appropriate during their presidencies to seek a deeper integration of the present Union in relation to promotion of the Lisbon agenda and the services directive, so that we are in a better position to face the global challenges of India and China?

My hon. Friend, who I know has long taken a great interest in these matters, makes an interesting point. With regard to the Lisbon agenda, progress is certainly being made. It is the intention that all the countries of the European Union will work more closely together and seek areas where we can co-operate, and at the same time look for areas where we can be genuinely effective and genuinely add value, as opposed to merely duplicating what is happening elsewhere, as is sometimes the risk.

I have just returned from a visit to Berlin with the European Scrutiny Committee. Would the Foreign Secretary endorse the idea, which we heard there quite a lot, that the acquis is inviolable? Would she rule out in principle the idea that Westminster legislation should be passed in the House to override the European Communities Act 1972 as and when required, and to require the judiciary to give effect to it?

Yes, but experience leads me to conclude that if I do not entirely understand what he is asking, I should not run the risk of agreeing with him.

May I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend on pursuing the enlargement agenda and making sure that the train carrying Turkey is kept firmly on track, despite efforts by others to derail the process? In respect of the justice and home affairs agenda, can she confirm that notwithstanding the retention of our veto, which I welcome, we will continue to co-operate with our EU partners and our agencies will work with their agencies in order to deal with those who wish to traffic people or drugs or behave in a manner that could help terrorists?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He is entirely right. The House will always be extremely cautious about any movement on the veto in such a sensitive area. I agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). One of the reasons why I have always approached the matter with considerable caution is that there are some very difficult issues of cross-border crime, people trafficking, narcotics and so on, on which we need stronger and deeper co-operation. If we ever came to the conclusion that that required some change, we should not rule it out.

I thank the right hon. Lady for an advance copy of the statement, which suggests that on justice and home affairs the Council agreed to consider options for strengthening the framework for decision making in order to respond effectively to the current challenges in the area of freedom, security and justice. That is likely to mean a far more uniform and unified approach across Europe to sharing police information and intelligence. Given that Scotland has a separate legal system, eight separate police forces and the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, all under the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, how does the right hon. Lady envisage that that strengthened framework will embrace each of those in that regard?

Of course there are different legal systems and jurisdictions throughout the EU, but when it comes to the need to share information in order to combat security risks or cross-border crime, in most jurisdictions, most police forces and other security forces are only too happy to co-operate.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the United Kingdom would never support any suggestion of a modification of our rights, particularly the right to strike for UK citizens?

I am just wondering what my hon. Friend has in mind, but certainly I have seen no such proposal, nor have I seen one that I would support.

Given the welcome remarks of the right hon. Lady regarding enlargement, would she be good enough to elaborate on any discussions on Ukraine, given its huge geopolitical significance and the fact that so much of the energy supplies are routed through Ukraine to the rest of Europe?

There was not detailed discussion about Ukraine, but the point was made clearly and firmly on a number of occasions, not least by some of the newer member states, that this is a country that they would also wish to see on the path ultimately to membership of the European Union—some considerable distance away, no doubt, but that point was made.

Next year, Britain will celebrate two great acts of union—that with Scotland and that within the European Union. May I invite my right hon. Friend to take off her sober Foreign Secretary garb and, now and then, return to Margaret the great campaigner and campaign against some of the rancid rabble on the Opposition Benches who reject both the EU and the Act of Union with Scotland?

Order. The hon. Gentleman makes a habit of this. He did it the last time that I called him. I did him a favour this time and called him thinking that he had learned the lesson. He is running the risk of not being called.

Order. I heard the remark made by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). He has been long enough in the House. Of course, he can raise political matters, but he is questioning a Minister on her responsibility. If he cannot learn that, I will not be long in teaching him.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary whether in the margins of the Council either she or the Prime Minister talked to their counterparts from Germany and France, or indeed their counterparts from any NATO country, as to their willingness to deploy more troops into the Helmand province so as to reinforce British forces when under attack? If she or he did, what was the response? If they did not, perhaps they should have done.

There are considerable and detailed ongoing discussions about the issue, as I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows. It is not just a matter of personnel, although that is an area where there is an interest, it is also a matter of equipment and the role that people can play. Those discussions continue, not only with those two colleague states but also with others.

May I tell the Secretary of State that I am uncomfortable about the cosy consensus between the three Front-Bench spokesmen on Turkey? Indeed, I noted that the shadow Foreign Secretary said that our conditions as regards Turkey were over-harsh. There are still some people who are alarmed about the prospect of enlarging the EU to include Turkey, which would mean that we would have common borders with Iraq, Iran, Syria and a number of other friendly states, and who believe that this really is not the most sensible or strategic approach to our collective security, nor in the best interests of Turkey or the EU.

I say to my hon. Friend, with affection as well as respect, that he is never comfortable with any cosy consensus, whatever it may be about. I take his point entirely. However, it would be a huge strategic error for the European Union not to hold out the prospect of membership to Turkey and not to take Turkey into membership. We have already talked about cross-border terrorism, people trafficking, narcotics and so on. Those are all issues where we have a lot of common interest and where Turkey can do a great deal to help and support us, as it can as a conduit for energy and on security matters. I am mindful of the fact that across the middle east people are watching to see whether the EU will stand by its word in being prepared to take in a country such as Turkey. People are also watching the process of reform that the prospect of EU membership is bringing about in Turkey, not least to see whether it is a model for them. I would be reluctant to lose any of those advantages.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with what Mr. Barroso said about relations with Russia this morning in Strasbourg in the equivalent debate there—that is, that the Union must avoid the twin risks of business as usual on the one hand and outright confrontation on the other, but must instead always stick to its basic principles, including those of human rights? If so, does she further agree that those principles should also apply to our relations with other countries—for example, Saudi Arabia?

Who can query the notion that whether dealing with Russia or with other countries, we should always bear in mind those principles, as indeed we do?

When the Council met, what discussions took place about the humanitarian crisis facing people who have migrated from west Africa to the Canary islands, many of whom have perished in the sea on that perilous journey, and about the increasing militarisation of the Mediterranean, which has resulted in the loss of many lives of people trying to cross from north Africa to Europe? Does she accept that we need a much more human and humanitarian approach to migration and asylum? Can she assure the House that any common asylum policy agreed will be based entirely on the 1951 Geneva convention and will not become a system of cherry-picking skilled people who happen to be asylum seekers from those who have different skills or no particular skills suited to an industrial society?

There was a certain amount—if not a massive amount—of discussion about migration and asylum, which is recognised as a common problem and, in many cases, a very serious one. A common approach to asylum will be developed over a considerable period of time. I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the humanitarian aspects of the problem, as does everyone, but I take the view—which I suspect that he might, on this occasion, share—that one of the best ways to tackle the issue is through tackling global poverty and the trade barriers that create the circumstances that drive people to consider leaving their homeland.

The Foreign Secretary might agree that it was a very quiet summit. Why would that be so? What has happened to the rhetoric about bringing the Union closer to its citizens? Has it been abandoned in the light of the French and Dutch referendums?

No. Indeed, the view expressed by our Prime Minister at the Hampton Court summit during the British presidency—that one of the best ways to bring Europe closer to its citizens is for Europe to devote itself to things that its citizens actually care about—is widely welcomed and is an approach that people are increasingly trying to follow. As for why it was such a quiet Council, perhaps it was because people were leaving space for a train wreck that did not happen.

It has been suggested that the question of enlargement be linked to a resolution of the difficulties over the EU constitution. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for any of the accession countries, whether Turkey, Croatia or Macedonia, to be refused membership, having reached all the criteria required of them, on the basis that the EU has been unable to resolve its constitutional difficulties?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we have not only resisted any attempt to put in new criteria for membership but rejected, on every occasion when it has been raised, any attempt to suggest that there is an automatic link between future enlargement and institutional reform.

In the declaration on the middle east peace process, the European Council noted the importance of a ceasefire in Gaza. Was there any discussion about reports that American Government agencies have been channelling funds to one of the parties in Gaza with the precise objective of undermining that ceasefire?

May I press the Foreign Secretary a little bit further on Afghanistan, which was the subject of a separate declaration of the Council? Did we know or were we warned about the withdrawal of French troops in advance, and if so what was our response?

I am afraid that that is not something that I have had time to familiarise myself with since the Council finished.

What discussions were held on the future status of Kosovo, particularly considering the current stance of both Russia and China?

There was no discussion really about the future status of Kosovo, but that was partly because there had been much discussion previously about Serbia and its potential application, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and in that context there was also much discussion about Kosovo. So the issue has been extensively aired lately and, consequently, it was not raised at the European Council.

May I seek further clarification from the Minister on the question of the common asylum policy, which is to be introduced by 2010? Given that we have already lost powers to deport many criminals that we would wish to deport, is there anything in that policy, or anything that the Government would accede to, that would force us to accept people that the British Government would not wish to accept?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that that is a potential danger. A range of issues will have to be considered, and that is one of the reasons why we think that the timetable for this policy may be a little ambitious, although obviously we shall work on that basis. We strongly take the view that we have to maintain the flexibility for different nation states to handle this issue in a way that is best suited to their particular needs, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we are mindful of the sort of danger that he has identified.

Does the Secretary of State endorse the comments made by Mr. Peter Mandelson this morning that the French Government’s proposals for trade restrictions on countries that do not implement the Kyoto protocol are foolish and counter-productive? If she does agree with that, how do the British Government propose to reconcile global trade and environment rules?

There is already a mechanism for taking into account environmental issues and concerns alongside the work of the World Trade Organisation with the multilateral environment agreements, so this is not a new issue. I was not familiar with the fact that the French Government have made such a proposal and would wish to study exactly what has been said, but certainly I take the view that we should be easing trade restrictions rather than tightening them.

While I agree with the former Foreign Secretary that the constitutional treaty is probably dead, does the present Foreign Secretary agree with me that, nevertheless, treaty changes are needed in the foreseeable future so that the European Union continues to function effectively?

Certainly, there are some issues that will have to be considered because the Union has already made a decision that we shall look again at, for example, the numbers in the Commission once Romania and Bulgaria join the European Union. As to whether changes are needed, that is obviously exactly the kind of issue on which the Germans will be taking soundings in the early part of their presidency to see whether there is a process that they can recommend as to how we might consider these matters in the future.

The German Government have said that central Asia will be one of their priorities for their presidency starting on 1 January and their G8 presidency. I ask the right hon. Lady to ensure that there is no relaxation of Britain’s position on civil and human rights in central Asia during the German presidency. What effort is she making, perhaps with the Minister for Europe, to persuade others, including the German Government, to keep up pressure on the Uzbek and Turkmen regimes in particular, and to maintain the EU sanctions regime against Uzbekistan?

We do not envisage relaxation of our stance on civil and humanitarian rights, nor have I read into what the German Government have said that that is their idea either.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Chancellor Merkel has suggested not just that a revised version of the constitution be driven forward, but that she wishes to use the German presidency to drive all member states to join the eurozone. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to Mrs. Merkel that we have no intention of joining the eurozone, and that if the Germans want to reduce their unemployment they would do well to withdraw from the eurozone and reduce their interest rates?

I shall not venture to advise Chancellor Merkel on the policy that the German Government should pursue. Although she has made it clear that she would prefer to be able to move forward on the constitutional treaty, she has also made it clear that the main thrust of the German presidency’s approach will be to establish whether there is a consensus and, if so, what it is, and that she is under no illusions that decisions can be made under the German presidency.

The French are alleged to have withdrawn their special forces from Helmand province. Given the pressure that our forces are under, that seems completely at variance with the statement made by the Defence Secretary after the Riga summit. If, as the Foreign Secretary indicated, she has not familiarised herself with that position, when will she do so, and when will she make representations to the French?

Let me gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that I am the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, not the Secretary of State for Defence. To some extent, this is a question for my right hon. Friend.

In relation to Turkey’s application to join the EU, will my right hon. Friend say what discussions took place about the continuing involvement of the military in Turkish politics and about Turkey’s human rights record, particularly with reference to the enclave people of the Karpas, who continue to suffer appalling oppression.

People are mindful that those are among the reforms and changes that we would wish to see in Turkey. My hon. Friend will know, I am sure, that Turkey has made some progress in the right direction on such issues, but there is a general view that much more progress would be desirable, which is another reason for Turkey to maintain its move towards the standards required for EU membership.

The Foreign Secretary referred to EU policy towards Africa. I am sure that she will agree that removing trade barriers is one of the most important things that the EU can do. What progress was made, if any, to ensure that the EU takes a more flexible approach to the Doha World Trade Organisation negotiations?

There was not much discussion of the Doha round at the European Council. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Pascal Lamy has recently taken steps to reactivate those talks. I strongly share the view expressed that it is important that the talks have a successful outcome and that the EU should play whatever role is necessary to help to secure that.

Given that the problems with the Doha round have been due, to a considerable extent, to the EU’s inflexibility on modifying the common agricultural policy—and particularly the stance taken by the President of France—now that the Foreign Secretary has announced that the next EU-Africa summit will be in the latter half of next year, after the next French presidential elections, can she reassure me that the UK Government will press colleagues in the EU for further changes to the CAP, so that progress can be made at the EU-Africa summit to facilitate the Doha round?

I find myself slightly torn. While I entirely share my hon. Friend’s point of view, both as to what is a desirable outcome and the fact that the EU must contribute to it, I say with some slight regret—as this is not easy for us to overcome—that the EU has not been the major stumbling block in the Doha round negotiations. The major reforms of the CAP that we negotiated in 2003 made a huge difference to the stance that the EU was able to take. Unfortunately, until now the failure of others to move has been the stumbling block. I share his underlying view that those stumbling blocks should be removed and that progress should be made.

Given the Foreign Secretary’s enthusiasm for Turkish membership of the EU and the experience of the miscalculation over the number of migrants from eastern Europe, do Her Majesty’s Government have any projections about the number of Turkish immigrants expected to come to this country if Turkey accedes?

I am afraid that we are rather a long way from an agreement for Turkey to join the European Union. As for miscalculations, I have pointed out to the House previously that the Government made no calculation; we commissioned a piece of research that turned out not to be as accurate as perhaps one might wish.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), may I ask whether there was any discussion of EU relations with the Russian Federation? Was there any discussion of Amnesty International’s recent report on the widespread use of torture in Russian jails and police cells? Was there any discussion of the murder of 21 journalists in Russia since President Putin came to power? And was there any discussion of the fact that at present, following the undermining of property rights in Russia, many people are finding it difficult to invest in the energy market that we so desperately need for Europe?

My hon. Friend has made a number of points in expressing his concern—which I know many will share—about various events in Russia. No, there was not an extensive discussion about Russia; that was not a major item on the agenda.

I apologise for missing the beginning of the Minister’s statement.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), can the Secretary of State confirm that the situation in Afghanistan is not like that in Iraq, that great progress is being made in terms of both reconstruction and peacekeeping, and that the EU, like Britain, remains firmly committed in the long term to solving Afghanistan’s problems?

I can certainly confirm that there has been substantial progress. One always says that with great trepidation, fearing that someone will come along and describe all the problems that still exist, but the hon. Gentleman is right: a great deal of excellent work has been done in Afghanistan, and we need to continue that work.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I speak, a very damaging postal strike is taking place in Stafford and North Staffordshire, where about half a million people live. I am concerned for members of the public who are waiting for contact from family and friends at this time of the year, and I am concerned for postal workers and their families who can ill afford loss of wages at Christmas. I would like to keep on top of the issue by way of parliamentary questions, but when the recess begins tomorrow there will be no facility for Ministers to answer questions until the second week in January. In September, for the first time, there was a facility for Members to answer questions during a recess. Would it be in order, Mr. Speaker, for that facility to be extended to other recesses, and is there anything that you can do to make this winter recess the first of those occasions?

That is not a matter for the Chair, but tomorrow there will be an Adjournment debate in which Back Benchers can take part. It will give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to raise the matter with the Minister who will respond to the debate.

BILLS PRESENTED

Crown Employment (nationality)

Mr. Andrew Dismore, supported by Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Andrew Slaughter, Martin Salter, Annette Brooke, Mr. Andrew Love, Keith Vaz, Ms Karen Buck and Mary Creagh, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the removal of general restrictions as to nationality which apply to persons employed or holding office in any civil capacity under the Crown; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 29 June, and to be printed. [Bill 38].

Freedom of Information (amendment)

David Maclean presented a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to exempt from its provisions the House of Commons and House of Lords and correspondence between Members of Parliament and public authorities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January, and to be printed. [Bill 39].

Provision of Palliative Care

Jim Dobbin, supported by Mr. Frank Field, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. David Crausby, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas, Paul Rowen, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Julian Brazier, John Robertson and Mr. Joe Benton, presented a Bill to require the provision of palliative care for persons suffering from a terminal illness; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January, and to be printed. [Bill 40].

Termination of Pregnancy

Mrs. Nadine Dorries, supported by Mr. Michael Howard, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Anne Main, Bob Russell, Mr. John Hayes, Dr. Liam Fox, Mr. Edward Vaizey, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Mike Penning, Mr. Mark Field and Mr. Brooks Newmark, presented a Bill to reduce the time limit for legal terminations of pregnancy from 24 to 20 weeks; to introduce a cooling-off period after the first point of contact with a medical practitioner about a termination; to require the provision of counselling about the medical risk of, and about matters relating to, termination and bringing the pregnancy to term as a condition of informed consent to termination; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March, and to be printed. [Bill 41].

Orders of the Day

Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Digital switchover in the United Kingdom is necessitated by the pace of change in consumer choice and by technological change. It brings with it the opportunity to revolutionise the way in which people use media in the UK, but obviously it also brings major challenges. The Bill should be seen as a small part of a much larger jigsaw of public policy that comprises our response to those challenges.

Our approach is based on clear principles—the principles of universal access, platform neutrality and an obligation for the Government, the industry, Ofcom, broadcasters and charities to work in partnership. Our fundamental objective is to ensure that nobody gets left behind during the digital switchover process.

I do not doubt the good intentions behind the legislation—in particular universal access—but I am sure that I am not the only MP who has been contacted by constituents about this subject. A pensioner household asked me to put the following points to the Secretary of State. Some households have significant difficulties with data sharing between Departments, agencies and public bodies as the data was not collected for that purpose. Some households watch hardly any television—they might even switch off when digital arrives. Does the Secretary of State understand the concern that such households have about this process, regardless of the good intentions behind the Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He and I are as one in being concerned that there must be proper protection of the people—according to some estimates there will be 6 million to 7 million of them—who will be the beneficiaries of the provisions. If the Bill continues its passage, I hope that one of the focuses of the debates in Committee will be confidence in the level of protection afforded to the data, and therefore to such individuals.

As one side of the argument has been presented so early in the debate, I rise to ask the Secretary of State whether she also recognises that great damage would be caused to some individuals if they were to be missed out due to a lack of data sharing? Caring for the vulnerable involves appropriate sharing of data, which is why the Bill is essential.

Yes. I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments and I pay tribute to the work that he did when he was a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry to advance switchover to the point that we are now at. We have heard just two sides of the challenge: the necessity both of undertaking the process of data sharing and of ensuring that safeguards are in place in order to build confidence among vulnerable people about the scheme.

On the safeguards point raised by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), once a family that the Bill seeks to help has made the switchover to digital it will have made the switchover—that is a one-off event. As that is the case, why does the Bill not contain a sunset clause?

Effectively, a sunset clause will be operated once switchover is complete in 2012. Members might wish to look at the application of sunset provisions on a region-by-region basis when the Bill is in Committee, but I remind Members that we must uphold the following two imperatives: ensuring that everybody knows about switchover and about the help that is available and whether they are eligible for such help, and ensuring that the sharing of data is not open to abuse, which might lead to people being exposed to risks. That is the balance that we have to strike.

I now wish to make some progress, as I know that many Members wish to speak. Our objective is to ensure that nobody is left behind. In little more than eight years, digital television provision in this country has grown from a standing start to give the United Kingdom the highest level of digital penetration anywhere in the world. Countries all over Europe—Germany, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands—are setting plans to go digital. We are part of a global trend, but we are also leading the way—for example, Digital UK, our partnership for co-ordinating digital switchover and advising the public, is being emulated in other countries facing the challenge of switchover.

In the UK, 17 million households now have digital television of one form or another. That is almost as many as have cars. The reasons for that are clear. Digital offers a great choice of channels, including radio channels, better picture and sound quality, more interactivity and more access to services such as audio-description for people with disabilities.

I gave notice to the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary that I would raise this question, but I should confess in putting it to her that I am a bit of a technophobe. I understand that one consequence of the changeover is that some of the remote microphones used by, for example, rock stars, performers of “The Sound of Music”, church preachers, head teachers and, indeed, some politicians will be useless at the point of changeover. Will any data on that issue be obtained during consideration of the Bill, has cognizance been taken of that effect, what advice has been given to those who use such equipment, and how will this problem be overcome? It was drawn to our attention by a lobby just last Thursday so that Members present would know about it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that, but I am afraid that I am unable to give a specific response on the point about microphones. However, almost all equipment used for analogue is adaptable for digital. One reason why it is so important to combine targeted financial help with advice and assistance is that there will, for example, be elderly people with a second television set that is very old, and in such cases there might be some difficulty in fitting it with a set-top box. We will address such specific problems through Digital UK, in part by ensuring that when people buy new digital technology or a new television, they are aware of its compatibility with the new digital regime.

Am I right in thinking that the changeover is likely to give rise to a great deal of redundant receivers and other equipment? Has the sustainable disposal of all that been discussed with the manufacturers?

We seem to have some cross-party agreement on this point, which is indeed a good one. I am sure that Digital UK is already looking at the issue and it will be aware of the significance that my hon. Friend attaches to it. Yes, it is highly likely that a significant number of televisions will be redundant at the end of the process.

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me again. Ought not her Department to take the initiative in this area?

Well, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—[Interruption.]—it says here—have jointly commissioned research to consider this issue in detail. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point it out, and given that Digital UK will be the body communicating with millions of people throughout the country, we have to make sure that it, too, is carrying this message.

My right hon. Friend is very gracious in allowing these interventions. Has she had words with the trading standards bodies about the fact that people are being sold television sets that will not be compatible following the switchover, or that will need other equipment? It is important that anybody who buys a television is made aware that they will need to buy at least a freeview package to participate in the next stage.

This is an absolutely critical point. Through Digital UK, retailers have undertaken extensive training of staff so that they are alert to precisely such issues and can inform people about the digital-compatible status of the equipment that they are buying when they buy it. However, my concern is that we will reach the point of switchover region by region, and a handful of people will not know about or understand it, or will feel alarmed by it. That is why we have to be forensic in providing the help, advice and assistance in every town, city and village, with special attention to rural areas—I say that to save hon. Members from getting to their feet to make that point.

The Secretary of State referred to people buying new digital sets. One of the difficulties is that they do not always know whether they will be able to get a signal. They are told that if they cannot get a signal now it is because it is at only a weak strength but will be boosted at switchover, and that in the final month before switchover it will run at the higher strength. If that is correct, why is it not possible for the digital signal to be increased for trial periods beforehand, as was done with BBC 2 when it was introduced, say between 2 am and 4 am on a Wednesday?

The technical problem is that if one boosts the digital signal, one knocks out or interferes with the analogue signal. As I will explain—members of the Select Committee are well aware of the finer points about the weakness of analogue interleaving—that is why we have reached the point with digital terrestrial television that we have to mandate switch-off if we are not effectively to lock 30 per cent. of the population out of access to digital.

Given the pressing concern about the proper disposal of equipment, I can provide further assurance that the requirements of the EU waste electrical and electronic equipment directive will be fully complied with.

I wish to make some progress now, but I am not surprised by the number of interventions, because I have received hundreds of representations from Members and the public on why digital cannot be enjoyed by everyone. The simple truth is that some 25 per cent. of homes are not covered by the digital terrestrial signal and will not be until the analogue signal is turned off. That means that, at present, while 100 per cent. of households are paying for BBC digital television services through their licence fee, only three quarters of them can actually get a free service through their aerials. In the interests of basic fairness and choice, we must ensure that access to free-to-air digital TV is as near universal as it can be.

Such a move will benefit the UK in many other ways too. Efficient digital broadcasting will free up spectrum for other uses. Possibilities include high definition television; more national and, especially, local digital terrestrial television, which is strongly supported by the public; new services such as mobile TV; or wireless broadband services. We simply will not be able to meet the consumer demand for such developments unless digital switchover proceeds.

The economic benefits are also clear. The regulatory impact assessment completed in September last year described a boost to the UK economy as a whole of some £1.7 billion as a consequence of digital switchover. There are also advantages to broadcasters in not having to continue investing in outdated analogue technology and ending wasteful simulcasting in analogue and digital. Making best use of any newly available spectrum is clearly critical and Ofcom will tomorrow begin a consultation to ensure we get the very best out of what is called the digital dividend.

Many households in Britain do not need persuading of the case to switch, as they are already choosing the benefits of digital, but because switchover needs to happen everywhere if all are to benefit, Digital UK is leading a major information campaign to ensure that, across the country, people know what is happening, what they need to do and when they need to do it. We should not, however, underestimate the scale of the challenge, which is comparable to conversion to North sea gas or decimalisation. It is a process that requires proper planning and co-ordination. Broadcasters, transmission companies, the Government, Members of the House, Ofcom, and, of course, individuals and families, all have a part to play. We have to mobilise a whole network of information and support right across the country.

I want to make some more progress.

Digital UK, for example, is working closely with the major charities and is soliciting their support both in communicating the switchover message and in providing practical help and advice. Hon. Members may already have seen the adverts starring a little robot, Digit Al. Between now and switchover, Digital UK will be communicating with every single TV-viewing household in the country to ensure that they are prepared for change. Now is a particularly important time, because a large number of new televisions and other digital equipment are bought at Christmas.

The Secretary of State is quite right to point out how successful this country has been in ensuring that digital television already has a huge percentage of digital homes. Much of it is due to the BBC. The BBC is, on the whole, the largest funder of Digital UK and also, in the sense of the licence payer, responsible for funding digital set-top boxes in some extreme cases, so does not the Secretary of State fear, as I do, that because only a limited amount of licence fee is available, it will affect the quality of programming broadcast on analogue and digital terrestrial channels?

The hon. Gentleman has studied the matter over many years and makes an important point. We have to ensure, of course, that the BBC is in existence principally as a broadcaster and BBC support derives from public enthusiasm for programming, so we have to get the balance right. It is worth drawing the House’s attention to the fact that, as a result of growth in the number of households, the BBC secured increased income over this licence fee period of some £600 million.

The Secretary of State has already made half of my argument about the enormous injustice faced by a lot of—no, all—my constituents and many others who have no opportunity to get freeview, do not receive a digital radio service and have no prospect of doing so. When digital switchover happens, it looks as though the freeview service available in constituencies such as mine will be only a second-rate one. Is it not an injustice that we must end if we are really to talk meaningfully about universal access?

I do not accept my hon. Friend’s concern that it will be a second-rate service in any sense and I am not entirely sure exactly what he means by it, except—

Half the channels is absolutely right, but part of the success of freeview has been precisely because there are people out in the country who would love to have 30 channels but do not necessarily want 500 channels. That is part of the reason for freeview’s great success. It has found a very large gap in the market.

The Secretary of State mentioned the conversion to North sea gas and I am old enough to remember it, but the difference is that that was a free service. I know that digital now has about 70 per cent. penetration into people’s homes, but the vast majority have both digital and analogue, so switchover will have its costs for many. My specific point is about blocks of flats in private ownership for which the landlord needs to change the aerial. Is there going to be any legislation to enable that to happen?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In fact, progress is being made and public sector landlords of houses in multiple occupation are paying attention to the issue. We estimate that about 60 per cent. of the houses in multiple occupation are in the public sector, with a smaller proportion in the private sector. The public sector is making good progress and Digital UK will be working with local authorities and other bodies to ensure that the tenants and residents of privately owned houses in multiple occupation are not left behind. I do not underestimate the challenge of that, and I know that my hon. Friend does not either. We will obviously want to keep this issue under review.

The Secretary of State is making a very important point, but she has appeared to elide the issue of high-definition television. If terrestrial television is to be made available in high definition, some bandwidth will have to be made available to the BBC and existing terrestrial television networks. Does she agree that it would be intolerable to ask people to pay a BBC TV licence fee and then not be able to receive high-definition terrestrial TV pictures, especially for the 2012 Olympics?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s conclusion. She will know that Ofcom will publish tomorrow the first stage of its digital dividend review and it will seek to answer some of these complex questions. Those questions also fit with decisions that will be taken about the disposal of spectrum and the opportunities that should be given to the widest range of interests—mobile phone companies as well as the public service and other broadcasters—to improve the service to their viewers through the acquisition of more spectrum.

Frankly, it is too early for me to come to the Dispatch Box to give any kind of categorical assurance about how spectrum will be used, but we all know about the enormous consumer demand for high-definition TV. However, high definition is already responding with technologies that improve the levels of compression and therefore the efficiency with which the spectrum is used. Therefore, as the hon. Lady will remember from the Communications Act 2003, we need to ensure that we regulate and make decisions on public policy in a way that anticipates the rapid pace of technological advance.