Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 456: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Digital Switchover

1. How the estimate for the cost of targeted help for digital switchover was arrived at; and what provision she has made for cost overruns. (111449)

Given the confusion caused by the spiralling costs of the scheme to help older and disabled people with the digital switchover, what specific reassurance can the Minister give to profoundly deaf people and severely disabled people on the higher rates of disability living allowance that any cost overrun will not threaten their access to television, which for them, far from being a luxury, is a vital part of their quality of life?

There is a temptation for me to tell the hon. Gentleman that this is a very good example of gratuitous scaremongering. He will know that there has been extensive consultation with a number of charities. We have done extensive work with the advisory groups to ensure that we deal fairly and that there is maximum take-up across the country. We are concerned to ensure that no particularly disadvantaged groups are left behind and that is why we work so closely with the charities involved.

Last Monday, I was at my local Age Concern in Sittingbourne at a discussion about digital switchover. I commend it to all hon. Members, and they should go to their local sheltered accommodation and Age Concerns to explain it. The question that was asked continually was, “The date for London and the south-east is 2012. When will we be able to say who can get free digital switchover sets?”.

We hope to make that announcement as soon as possible, but may I tell my hon. Friend how grateful we are to him for his work? I hope that other hon. Members will learn from his example to ensure truly that no people are left behind, rather than frightening people into thinking that they might be.

Does the Minister accept the independent estimate that roughly 5 per cent. of viewers are likely to lose reception because of the difficulties and costs of switchover? If not, what is his working assumption?

No, I do not accept that. The assessment that we are working on is that, at the end of digital switchover, 98.5 per cent. or better will have access to all the services.

Does my hon. Friend accept that we need to ensure that all older people and disabled people know exactly what is going on? Will he assure me that sufficient money will be set aside for a full-scale communication programme at a very local level?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. A large amount of the money for digital switchover and targeted help has been set aside precisely for a communications campaign to be led by Digital UK. It is essential that that campaign reaches everyone, particularly the most disadvantaged, who, he and other hon. Members know, are not necessarily the most economically disadvantaged but the oldest and most disabled.

The Minister will know that not long from now—in fact, this October, I believe—Whitehaven will have its analogue signal switched off, so digital switchover starts this year. Yet the legislation that will enable the Department for Work and Pensions to provide information about at whom such assistance should be targeted is only going through the House now. Can the Minister assure us that by October of this year, the people who need to be assisted with digital switchover will be assisted?

I put on the record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, who has done a great deal to ensure that digital switchover is a successful policy for the whole country. He rightly raises the issue of Whitehaven. We are, of course, concerned that no one in Whitehaven is left behind. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who has done much work to ensure that that is the case. The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are valid and I reassure him that we have assessed all those issues and that the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, which I am sure that he will support in the House this afternoon, will continue to ensure that no one is left behind.

Channel 4 has asked for a public subsidy of £100 million for digital switchover. In view of its performance over the past few weeks, will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that no public money will be given unless Channel 4 restores the proper sense of broadcasting that it has had in the past? Will he join me in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on winning “Big Brother” and the British people on their good sense?

I join my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that I can speak for all hon. Members, in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on an outstanding performance and on enduring, regardless of the circumstances in the “Big Brother” house, a pretty ghastly few weeks. She truly deserved to win, and I am sure that the whole House congratulates her on winning.

On my right hon. Friend’s question, I simply say that Ofcom is reviewing Channel 4’s finances, and we will pay careful and close attention to its recommendations.

Public Swimming Baths

I can guarantee that if “Big Brother” applies to become a sport, it will not be accepted.

Access to good quality sporting provision, including swimming pools, is an essential part of enabling people to lead healthier lives and to participate in sport. There are currently 4,400 swimming facilities across England that are open to the public. Some 62 per cent. are owned by the local authority or the education sector and more than half are pay-and-play facilities. Analysis of pools opening in 2004-05 shows that 131 have opened across the country. More public pools have opened than closed. Since 1997, just under £250 million of lottery investment has gone to swimming—the largest amount given to any sport.

The Minister may know that I have been part of a campaign in my constituency to get an indoor 50 m swimming pool. Given that the United Kingdom gained 52 medals in swimming at the Athens Olympics, what are the Government doing to encourage local authorities to keep the existing facilities for swimmers, as well as developing new facilities for our elite athletes, so that that record can continue?

The hon. Gentleman may need to do a bit more calculation when it comes to the medals won, but we will put that on one side.

There has been huge investment in swimming. I contacted Sport England before I came here this afternoon and it has received no application from Peterborough about a 50 m pool. If the hon. Gentleman wants to take that up, he can. Corby borough council is starting the construction of a new 50 m pool this week. That is about 45 minutes or 25 miles from the centre of Peterborough. The project is fully funded by the local authority, which is paying £18 million. Even saying that, it will cost the local authority some £500,000 in continued revenue to make sure that the pool stays open. There will be a new pool by 2008.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that there was huge disappointment in Bolsover when we did not manage to get sufficient lottery funds several years ago? We are thankful that we can restore the campaign now because of the Olympics and because it will be necessary to have more swimming pools in other parts of the country. Is everything going okay?

I hope that we can get a swimming pool in Bolsover so that my hon. Friend can have a swim there before he retires. Seriously—[Interruption.] He is a good swimmer. In December last year, a project team was put in place. It will report in mid-March on the feasibility aspect. As I understand it, things are going okay to date. There will be further meetings. I hope that by the end of March, we will be able to report on that feasibility study and that that project will be able to go ahead.

I was pleased to hear the Minister’s commitment to swimming and swimming pools—a view that I am sure is shared by the Liberal Democrats. Is he aware that, of the six pools in my constituency, three of them—in Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne—will be closed by the Liberal Democrat-controlled district council? What can he do to help me in my efforts to persuade the council to change its mind, or to bring in private finance to assist those pools to stay open?

I hope that Liberal Democrat Members were listening to that and will persuade their colleagues on the council to revisit that decision. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for local authorities to determine their sports strategies. They work with Sport England. If he writes to me on the matter, I will contact Sport England and the local authority to see whether what it is doing is in line with the broad policy that Sport England has laid out.

I would not expect my right hon. Friend to be aware of an administrative problem that affects the Portobello water polo club in Edinburgh, but he will know that it is one of the best water polo clubs in the United Kingdom. Will he take this opportunity to express the Government’s full support for water polo and, in particular, will he take the opportunity to visit the club when he comes to Edinburgh?

That is a devolved matter, but I hope that Scotland will join the water polo team that will compete in the 2012 Olympics. I hope that we will have an excellent water polo team for 2012. If Prince William wants to play, we are more than likely to recruit him as well. We are now investing in the Great Britain water polo team so that, hopefully, they can go to Beijing in 2008, and so that we will definitely have a first class team for 2012. I hope that some of the Scots will be in that team.

As the Minister is apparently selecting the water polo squad, such is his power, perhaps he can select some sites for new swimming pools, too. It is great to have elite swimming pools, but he must remember that the vast majority of people will not be elite swimmers. There appears to be a swimming pool divide in this country between the major cities and towns and smaller rural towns. Will he examine again not only the provision of lottery funding for swimming pools, but the running costs of such pools, which can be very high? Will he also ensure that people living in rural areas have as much access to swimming pools as those who live in cities and large towns?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been taking up with Sport England the question of how we can rationalise on swimming pools. Some pools have a subsidy of more than £6 a swimmer, although several local authorities have got it down to something like 50p a head. As I have indicated, even a brand new 50 m pool will cost a local authority £500,000 a year to keep it operational. There are serious questions about swimming pools. The recent soaring energy prices have hit swimming pools hard. We must make the pools as cost-effective and energy efficient as possible so that we do not have to give subsidies to swimming pools that should be going to other sports. That is not to say that subsidies will not go to swimming pools—that will be inevitable because otherwise the cost of swimming would be prohibitively high. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point up with Sport England so that it can examine the formula.

Digital Switchover

3. How many people she expects to receive targeted assistance on digital switchover; what she expects the cost to be; and if she will make a statement. (111451)

We estimate that 7.1 million UK households will qualify for assistance from the scheme and that around 4.7 million of those will use the scheme. The cost of the scheme over its lifetime will be in the region of £600 million.

The Government’s estimate of the cost of assistance with digital switchover has increased from £250 million to £600 million. Will the Minister assure the House not only that the vulnerable in my constituency will get the help that they need, but that licence fee payers will not have to foot the bill if the cost continues to spiral?

Despite an intensive advertising campaign and the launch of a dedicated website, a recent survey shows that three in five adults in the United Kingdom believe that the Government have provided no information, or inadequate information, to describe why and how the digital switchover will take place. Fewer than one in five people even know when their region is scheduled for transfer. Will effort be intensified to tackle that situation?

My hon. Friend makes an important contribution, but it might be helpful if I set out some facts. Three quarters of homes in the UK already have at least one digital television and have thus effectively gone digital. Awareness is now running at about 80 per cent. I can tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) that the figure for Grampian in Scotland is running at 87 per cent. One should thus dispute some of the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) cited. However, we are not complacent, which is why £200 million has been set aside for a communications campaign by Digital UK to ensure that no one is left behind.

East London Line

4. What discussions she has had with Ministers in the Department for Transport on the prospects for completion of both phases of the East London line extension in time for the London Olympics in 2012. (111452)

The Olympic bid that was submitted in November 2004 committed Transport for London to deliver the first phase of the East London line in time for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, and it is on track to do so. In addition, TFL has committed to completing the Dalston curve section by bringing forward the connection of the line to Highbury and Islington, which had originally been part of phase 2. As yet, no decision has been taken on phase 2 of the scheme, in which my hon. Friend and I have constituency interests and for which he has been an extremely powerful campaigner.

Will my right hon. Friend stress the advantages of starting phase 2 a little sooner so that it can be completed in 2012 rather than 2013? That would help millions of people from south London—from her constituency and mine—to get to the Olympics. It would also help Olympic competitors and visitors to get to Olympic venues in south-west London, such as Wimbledon, and venues with linked cultural events, such as Battersea arts centre—if Wandsworth council has not closed it by then.

I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members with an interest in the subject, whether direct or indirect, will make the case for phase 2 with the Mayor of London, on behalf of their constituents. On Battersea arts centre, I echo the Prime Minister’s words: Wandsworth should do everything that it can to keep the centre open. I should make it absolutely clear that we are talking about a Conservative authority that has had a 25 per cent. plus increase in its grant since 1997, so any decision to close the centre is a Conservative choice, not a Government requirement.

The Secretary of State will be aware that it is not just new lines that London is dependent on for Olympic success; we also need to ensure that existing lines can cope with the extra passengers. One of the lines that I have in mind is the District line, which will be the key line feeding Wimbledon and Olympic tennis, but it is already seriously overcrowded. Has her Department made any estimate of whether such lines will be able to cope, given the extra capacity required for the Olympics?

Very detailed analysis has been made of London’s capacity to handle the additional traffic generated by the Olympics, and that has been incorporated into the transport plan, which has been highly commended for both its timeliness and comprehensiveness by the International Olympic Committee. Because of the timing of the games, commuter traffic levels will be about 20 per cent. lower than normal, but the Olympics will add about 5 per cent. to that. I am sure that the hon. Lady will take every opportunity to raise her specific concerns with Transport for London.

Given all the building work in London, the extension of the East London line, all the work being done in preparation for the Olympics, and the fact that many projects in the early waves of the building schools for the future programme are in London, does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the tremendous need and drive for more skills in London? Is she sure about the planning for 2012, because many of us believe—and this was suggested in evidence to the Select Committee on Education and Skills, which I chair—that there will be dreadful skills shortages in construction if we do not act fast?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the subject. The creation of a more skilled work force, particularly in east London, is an important part of the legacy of the Olympics and is a prerequisite for ensuring that all the infrastructure for the Olympics is built within budget and on time. I am sure that he will commend the work of the London employment and skills task force, which addressed that subject specifically and linked it to the commitment to using local labour from the east end wherever that is possible, so that local people can build what will be their facilities.

The Secretary of State will appreciate that 2012 provides a focus for a number of regeneration projects in central London. However, I would like her to give thought to not just phase 2—and if it is to be delayed, let us make sure that it takes place as soon as possible after 2012—but a number of other regeneration projects, particularly those around King’s Cross, which have been put on hold pending the Olympics, often for the reasons that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned, namely, a lack of skills. Will she ensure that we take a proper look at regeneration, both looking to the decade beyond 2012 and focusing on the short term?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that regeneration and legacy are fundamental justifications for holding the games. The decision has been taken to go ahead with the major ticket office project at King’s Cross. He will know that the channel tunnel rail link will convey passengers in seven minutes from King’s Cross to Stratford. We will arguably have the best public transport facilities of any Olympic city ever.

National Lottery

5. What recent discussions her Department has held with national lottery distributors on the potential impact of the funding for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics on lottery good causes. (111453)

I am responsible for lotteries, and lottery distributors, like Members of the House, strongly support the 2012 games. That includes paying some of the costs from the lottery. Since we first announced our intention to bid way back in May 2003 we have kept distributors informed and will continue to do so.

The lottery will provide £1.5 billion for the Olympics, but there is already a £900 million overspend. If that sum, too, is taken from lottery funds, it will have a devastating impact on spending across the country. The Big Lottery Fund alone would lose £450 million, which would result in every constituency in the country losing £500 million-worth of local projects in the next five years. Will the Minister give us a guarantee that there will not be any further Olympic smash-and-grab raids on lottery funds?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a full account of the budget to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. When the previous Select Committee conducted a hearing in June 2003, at its request the documentation included an appendix on the memorandum of understanding between the Mayor’s office and the Government explaining how any overshoot would be funded. The Government expect to discharge that responsibility through shared arrangements, to be agreed with the Mayor of London, and by seeking additional national lottery funding in amounts to be agreed at the time. Government discussions on the overspend are under way, as my right hon. Friend told the Select Committee.

There is no doubt that the Paralympics and the 2012 Olympics will benefit every part of the UK, but does my right hon. Friend accept that there are genuine concerns that good causes could be affected if increased funding is to be provided by the lottery? Will he assure the House that that decision will be made after full consultation with the Scottish Executive so that they can express their views on the effect on good causes in Scotland?

We have received fantastic support from Scotland for the 2012 Olympics and have been in dialogue with the Scottish Executive on all the issues, without exception. We will continue to hold that dialogue, as we have received first-class support, and we will discuss any decisions that are made.

I am sure that the Minister will accept that many good causes that receive lottery funding help to alleviate the burden on the state in various ways—the South Warwickshire carers support service in my constituency is a good example. Does he therefore accept that if some of those good causes lose lottery funding, the state will bear the burden and that that would be completely unacceptable if it were the result of further overspending on the Olympics because the Government got their sums wrong?

I am not prepared to answer hypothetical questions at the Dispatch Box. I have said very clearly that discussions are under way between the Government and the Mayor’s office on how we can deal with that overspend. Until those decisions are made, such questions are hypothetical.

Does the Minister agree with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the director of the Big Lottery Fund in Scotland that good causes and grass-roots sports could be threatened to the point of closure if the lottery is further plundered? Is it not absurd and unfair that homelessness projects and children’s care groups in Scotland should lose out to pay for the redevelopment of London’s east end?

We have heard all that rhetoric before from the hon. Gentleman on a number of issues connected to the Olympics. May I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) about hypothetical questions? Decisions on funding the £900 million overspend, which was discussed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Select Committee hearing, have not yet been made. Until they are, such questions are hypothetical.

Perhaps I could ask the Minister a question that he will not regard as hypothetical. According to the Big Lottery Fund, the voluntary and community sector will lose more than £300 million if the lottery is used to make up the current £900 million Olympic budget overrun. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be concerned to learn that that would result in an average loss of up to £700,000 to charities and good causes in every constituency. What assurances can the Minister therefore give charities up and down the country that face closure if, as a result, their lottery funding is axed?

The hon. Gentleman knows that that was part of the agreement for funding the Olympics. It is not just the Big Lottery Fund but across the spectrum of the lottery—

I hear from a sedentary position that that makes it worse. The decision to provide £1.5 billion to fund the lottery was not opposed by the Opposition. The Scottish National party—and I have answered its objections—made it quite clear that it does not want the Olympics, full stop. That is on the record, and I remember it being said. Let us park that on the side, as that is an honourable position from Scotland. The SNP may not want the Olympics—that is fine. However, the point is that there was all-party agreement about funding. The memorandum of understanding was put to the House via the Select Committee and was not challenged at the time. We have done no more and no less than what we set out in the memorandum of understanding with respect to the funding of the 2012 Olympic games.

It would help if the Minister confined himself to answering questions that he had been asked, rather than questions that he has not been asked. We, like other hon. Members, have been contacted by dozens of good causes that face a bleak future owing to the Government’s reckless raiding of the lottery. It is worth remembering that the Olympics were won on the basis of cross-party co-operation, but regrettably the Government are keeping us all in the dark about the new budget and the impact that it will have on the lottery. Is it not high time that the Secretary of State and her Ministers admitted that she has lost control of the figures and opened the books up to full public scrutiny?

If there was any substance to the hon. Gentleman’s questions, he might lose the tag “rent-a-quote”, because that is what we increasingly hear from the Opposition, particularly from him. There is no substance behind his questions, and we see that also more and more in the newspapers, especially on a Sunday morning. I say again that we have done nothing more with the lottery than was agreed by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson), who is giggling like a public schoolboy. We have done nothing more than was stated in the memorandum of understanding that was presented to the Select Committee and reported back to the House. The sum of £900 million is still under discussion in Government and will be discussed with the Mayor’s office. When we have reached a decision, we will report to the House and to the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government.

Olympics 2012

The budget for the Olympic Delivery Authority for the next financial year will be finalised in March. The overall budget is under discussion in Government and with other stakeholders, and will be published in due course.

With the huge increase in the cost of the Olympics, will the Secretary of State assure people in my constituency and throughout London that the cost will not be borne by the London taxpayer? The games are a United Kingdom event, so will she undertake to ensure that the costs are spread across the country, and are not paid just from the pockets of people in London?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport has set out clearly the agreement that was reached and signed up to by all parties in the memorandum of understanding, which defines how any cost overrun for the Olympics will be met, so, at a point where we are discussing the apportionment of responsibility for paying for any increase, I will not rule anything out. This is an example of politics at its worst. The Conservatives support the Olympics publicly, but then, in a narrow and populist way, seek to undermine every reasonable attempt by the Government to ensure a proper and sustainable budget.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the Sydney Olympics site, and was heartened to hear there that London was ahead of the game on transport and environmental aspects. Can my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that, when she is helping to set the budget for the Olympics, her eye will be closely and firmly on the ball of sustainable development—from water and transport, all the way through—which is a big concern, and that we will not lose sight of that?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. These will be the most sustainable games ever. Ambitious targets were set for a reduction in carbon emissions and especially for the use of waterways for transporting materials, and there are very demanding targets that exceed those of the Government generally for the disposal of waste. Sustainability was fundamental to the bid and will continue to be a driving discipline in achieving the games in 2012.

If the right hon. Gentleman would like to look at the bid document, he will find that the status of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which at that time did not exist and had not been legislated for, has now been established. There continues to be a discussion within Government about VAT and its recovery, but as the Chancellor has made absolutely clear, that is not an issue for the taxpayer, but a question of managing where the responsibility sits for VAT and its payment.

Teachers in my constituency are telling me that there is genuine enthusiasm among young sportsmen and women and that the thought of the Olympics in London in 2012 is a real motivation for them. That is not just the case in my constituency, but throughout Scotland. Would my right hon. Friend enlarge on any other benefits to Scotland and the rest of the UK from holding the Olympics here in London?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. We will see more and more young people taking part in sport as part of their school day and competing through the establishment of inter and intra-school teams, and the pursuit of real excellence not just as part of the legacy, but in the years in the run-up to the games. We can congratulate all our young athletes who recently did so well and did their country proud in the youth Olympics in Australia.

Of course, Scotland will be a beneficiary not only of investment in sport but of increased tourism, and I hope that we shall see Scots from throughout the country offering to sign up as volunteers. In addition, Scotland will no doubt be looking at the commercial and business benefits that it can derive from the enormous increase in inward investment and visitors that will arise from the games.

Is not the Secretary of State concerned that everything is still under discussion? After all, in relation to VAT, is it not the case that the Government signed off a bid document that said that taxation would not be a problem, and is it not bizarre that the Treasury now wants a 60 per cent. contingency? Specifically in relation to announcements she made earlier about London council tax payers potentially having to pay more, does she recall that on 6 November last year, the Prime Minister said about the Mayor of London:

“Ken is basically right. We have said what should come from Londoners and I don’t think we are looking for more”?

Was the Prime Minister wrong to have said that?

The Prime Minister was expressing his view very clearly indeed, but I am involved in negotiation in Government about the fair and proportionate way in which we cover the costs. It is important that the House remembers that this is the biggest public construction project in Europe. It is like building two terminal 5s, but in half the time.

Precisely. I am in charge of a project where we are years ahead of where Sydney or Athens were at an equivalent stage. Sydney did not conclude its budget until two years before the games. Beijing has promised a revised budget, but the games are next year and that has not yet been published. As far as we can discern, Athens never published a final budget. We intend to proceed by ensuring that the money is there, that the costs are controlled and that we, in time, host the best games ever: a great tribute to the young people of this country.

A number of Members on both sides of the House have asked about the memorandum of understanding. The Secretary of State drew it up. Will she confirm now whether the Mayor does indeed have the power to block any future increase—yes or no?

The responsibility for any further increase in council tax would sit with the Greater London authority, which would have to approve it.

I think that we can take that as a yes.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has just produced a highly critical report of the Government’s management of the Olympic budget. When the London Olympics Bill was going through this House, the Minister for Sport said:

“when the organisers have to ask for more funding…it is seen as a failure.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 13 October 2005; c. 42.]

Does the Secretary of State stand by that, and if so, whose failure is it?

Look, the Select Committee did not criticise the financial management of the games. Such quoting is highly selective. That is the trick that the Conservatives are now trying to play, and people see through it. The Conservatives pick away at specific criticisms while saying publicly, “We are right behind the games.” They are seeking to undermine public support for the games, which has remained remarkably robust throughout this period. On the specific point made by the hon. Gentleman, we will study the Select Committee’s recommendations closely. It was a very balanced, authoritative and measured report and its conclusions are not at all surprising. I am proud of the progress that has been made with the Olympic games and I think that the Opposition should stop talking the Olympic games down.


7. On how many occasions her Department provided advice to members of the public on the nomination of individuals for honours within her Department’s areas of responsibilities in the last 12 months. (111458)

The Department regularly provides advice and guidance to members of the public on all aspects of the honours process, including how to nominate someone for an award. We do not keep a record of the number of occasions on which we have provided information to members of the public.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. He may be aware that more than 1,500 people have signed a petition asking the Queen to grant Ringo Starr a knighthood. Despite my grave misgivings about the honours system—in fact, my opposition to it; I regard it as anachronistic—it appears that at least some members of the public take an interest in who receives the awards. With that in mind, does my hon. Friend agree that it might be an idea to open up the honours system to greater democratic accountability, rather than having the fairly obscure, opaque system that we currently have?

I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that there has been progress on the honours system since the new committees were set up. In effect, they have a panel of experts who can decide who merits an honour on the basis of comparing candidates. My hon. Friend will also appreciate, I suspect, that popularity is just one indication of merit.

Arts Funding

8. What discussions she has had with the Treasury on the financial settlement for the arts in the 2007 comprehensive spending review. (111459)

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. [Laughter.] I am sure that there is more to come.

I was at an Arts Council training event in Bradford last Monday, with representatives of a variety of west Yorkshire-based arts organisations, who were extremely concerned about the 2007-08 spending review. May I ask the Minister to make the point, when he has discussions with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that investment in the arts brings social regeneration, tourism, job creation and community pride, and that a pound spent on the arts is a pound well spent?

I thank my hon. Friend for that and make it clear that, across the House, we all understand the real contribution that arts and culture have made to regeneration throughout the country. If we look at cities such as Newcastle, Manchester, Glasgow—

And Sheffield. If we consider such cities, the arts have made a tremendous contribution, as they have in schools, with creative partnerships touching the lives of many young people. I hope that it is understood, and certainly we continue to make the case to colleagues in the Treasury, that the work that we have been doing over the past few years has huge benefits throughout the country.

Is the Minister aware that the British Library, for one, is acutely concerned about its future? Will he give the House an assurance that he will fight hard to ensure that the greatest library in the world is not jeopardised by a very miserly settlement such as is being threatened at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman is right: the British Library is a No. 1 institution in the world. It has made huge efforts over the past few years to modernise; it has been pivotal in the digital revolution that we are experiencing in this country and in ensuring that all the records in its keep are online for people not only in this country, but throughout the world. It has been very helpful in our negotiations with the Treasury and has provided us with very useful information. I am pleased to be going to the British Library on Wednesday.

Last Friday, I visited the Wilbury Way primary school in my constituency to see the work being carried out by creative partnerships: a partnership between primary schools and community arts organisations to develop learning among young people. Will my hon. Friend do everything that he can to persuade the Chancellor of the efficacy of such arts projects, which provide learning opportunities to our youngest pupils?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Chancellor has been able to see the Ofsted report on creative partnerships, which demonstrated that the programme is not just successful in relation to the arts but in increasing attainment across the school curriculum because of the benefits provided by creativity. My hon. Friend spotlights a programme that is valued in the schools in which it operates, which are mostly in deprived areas. That programme has touched the lives of pupils in more than 3,000 schools across the country.

Internet Gambling

9. What progress has been made on measures to regulate internet gambling; and if she will make a statement. (111460)

From September 2007, the Gambling Act 2005 will introduce one of the world’s strictest licensing regimes for remote gambling. New provisions include a duty on operators to act in a socially responsible way. On 31 October 2006, the Government hosted an international summit for more than 30 jurisdictions, and the process of establishing international standards is now under way. There was widespread agreement on further co-operation in several key areas to ensure that gambling remains fair, and that the vulnerable and all those who gamble are protected.

I thank the Minister for that response. But given the addictive nature of the internet and internet gambling in particular, will the Government keep under review the possibility of credit card restrictions, which exist in some countries?

Yes, we considered that issue in our discussions on both national and international regulation. I could not concur more with the hon. Gentleman. This country now has 60 million television sets; 14 million households are connected to the internet; and, on average, we all have a mobile phone. All of those are now platforms for gambling, and that is why it is so important that the legislation comes into effect by 1 September. Those platforms are seeing the real growth in gambling, and the vulnerable people who need to be protected are among their users.

What power does my right hon. Friend have over offshore internet sites, and what power would he like to exercise over them?

We have no power other than our ability to stop those sites advertising in this country. We now have a white list, and those who want to operate in the United Kingdom must comply with its conditions: that we can have access to the information; that their licensing regime is robust and transparent; and the three core conditions, which are that their operation is crime-free, that it looks after the vulnerable, including children, and that it ensures people a fair bet. If they comply with those requirements and are open to scrutiny, they can operate here, but they must be on the white list.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Repairs (VAT)

18. What assessment the commissioners have made of the impact of VAT on repairs to church buildings which are not listed. (111469)

Parish estimates indicate that in 2003, the latest year for which we have figures, the estimated cost of major repairs required to the 4,000 unlisted Church of England churches was £50 million. At the full rate, VAT of £8.75 million would be charged on those works, if they were carried out.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reply, as he will understand the enormous burden on congregations of ordinary churches of trying to raise the large sums of money necessary to maintain their buildings and grounds. My church happens to be on a corner, so members of the public, as well as members of he church, take a short cut through the grounds, and last year our pathways needed to be relaid. When VAT was added to the bill, it came to the enormous sum of £45,000, which is very difficult to raise. As he will understand, the burden of VAT on such small numbers of people is extremely onerous.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. The listed places of worship grant scheme, introduced by the Chancellor in 2001, has paid out more than £42 million to English churches. I recognise the difficulty for unlisted churches, and in “Building faith in our future” we asked for a fresh funding partnership between the church and state. As I have said many times in the House, those who have ears, let them hear.

The hon. Gentleman will be conscious that unlisted buildings usually come after listed buildings in the pecking order, and listed buildings are very dependent on grant from English Heritage, which, over the past few years, has had an increase of just a miserly 3 per cent. in its budget. Presumably, he answers questions because he is part of the Government, so when he negotiates the settlement for English Heritage with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will he lobby the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who is at the Dispatch Box, and say that English Heritage needs a much greater chunk of cash to help our churches—

I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker.

In relation to grant money, we have a new memorials grant scheme, which has paid out more than £190,000 in England since this time last year. On the question of lobbying the heritage fund and the appropriate Department, that is done mercilessly and without ceasing, and, one hopes, at the end of the day, with some results.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voting Age

20. What further research the commission is considering into the social and political awareness of those at or near the current minimum voting age in relation to proposals to reduce that age. (111471)

The vast majority of 16 and 17-year-olds are decent, caring and responsible youngsters who have complex and important decisions to make about their careers and education, and they pay taxes and can join the services. They have a bigger stake in democracy than any of us in the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not be afraid of trusting them with the vote? Will he ask the commission to drive the issue up the agenda?

That is ultimately a matter for the Government. I recall that on a previous occasion, my hon. Friend asked whether there could be a discussion about that during the passage of the Electoral Administration Bill, and there was indeed such a discussion. At that point, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, said:

“We will keep this under active consideration, not because we believe that there is some absolute right figure or because we believe that it is an exact science, not even necessarily because we think that it is a question of rights, but because we are concerned about participation.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 22 November 2005; c. 167.]

My understanding is that that remains the Government’s view.

It is my impression that as citizenship is being taught in schools, the rising generation know a lot more about the electoral system than their predecessors and their parents. However, one thing they lack is a philosophical understanding of the differences between the various political views. Will the hon. Gentleman recommend that some component of philosophy be built into citizenship studies so that young people know what they are voting on as well as how to vote?

The commission is concerned about that and it is happening. It has said that the developments in citizenship education and new research information may lead to different conclusions over time. Its position is that it stated in 2004 that it would undertake a further review of the issue within seven years, but it will need to consider whether that remains appropriate in the light of any changes to its mandate following the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Church Commissioners

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


21. How many (a) male and (b) female priests were ordained by the Church of England in the last year for which figures are available. (111473)

Will the hon. Gentleman meet me either here or in Church house to discuss ways in which we can improve the collection and updating of church statistics, which are a little less forthcoming than we might hope for some of the complicated debates that we have? Notwithstanding that, the figures that he gave are remarkable. They are up 100 in a decade for the Church of England and compare remarkably with other figures of ordination for Great Britain in the last year for which they are available, when only 25 priests were ordained for the Roman Catholic Church.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for suggesting that we meet in Church house. As he knows, it will reopen in March, and that would be a good inaugural meeting.

I think that the Church would be amenable to any suggestion that we expand the information we provide, although clearly there are resourcing implications, which will need to be worked out. I shall, however, put the hon. Gentleman in touch with the relevant colleague at the Archbishops Council and together we will see how his point can be taken forward.

As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) observed, those are remarkable figures. What is particularly welcome is the near-parity between women and others who are ordained. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the future of our Church will depend increasingly on the availability of high-quality, committed non-stipendiary ministers? Of the 500 who were ordained, how many went into non-stipendiary posts and how many were to be paid clergy?

The number of ordinations rose from 493 in 2003 to, in fact, 505 in 2005. As the hon. Gentleman says, the number has increased. As for the non-stipendiary ministers, he should be aware that there are vocational events helping people to explore their calling. We hope that that will encourage people to come forward in the interests of the Church’s ministry and its administration.

Of the total number ordained, how many applied for and were recruited to rural parishes, and what is the level of recruitment generally? Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern, and the concern in rural communities, about the number of rural parishes that are having to “double up” when there is only one parish priest looking after three or four parishes?

I do not know the exact recruitment figure, but I shall be happy to relay it to the hon. Lady. I know of her concern about the ministry in rural areas, which her question reflects. The Church recognises that worshipping congregations are at the heart of rural life and it seeks to appoint a stipendiary, resident priest where possible, but as the hon. Lady knows, it is not always possible. That it why it is sometimes difficult to attract stipendiary clergy into rural areas.


22. What advice is given by the commissioners to cathedral chapters on programmes to encourage non-worshippers to use cathedral spaces. (111474)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, such programmes are arranged locally, but the commissioners are aware that there are all kinds of initiatives to encourage as many people as possible to visit our cathedrals and appreciate their special significance.

My hon. Friend has been, at my invitation, to the Lichfield festival of the arts, which is held mainly in Lichfield cathedral. I know that he has also been to a number of other non-worshipping events in the cathedral. He says, rightly, that it is up to local communities to decide what they can do, but can there not be a sharing of knowledge between cathedrals and churches about what they do? Are not the Church Commissioners the ideal fountain to pool such information and disseminate it to all bodies?

I am grateful for that excellent suggestion. I agree that there ought to be a body to co-ordinate the work of the cathedral chapters, provide a benchmark and pass on information.

As the hon. Gentleman said, I have visited Lichfield. I know that it has many visitors, and that some may participate in worship and some may not. The fact that people visit at all is greatly encouraging, and if they do worship in the Christian faith, so much the better.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Parliamentary Constituency Boundaries

23. When the Commission expects the new parliamentary constituency boundaries to be laid before the House. (111475)

The Electoral Commission is responsible for conducting reviews of English local authority ward boundaries, but not parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are the responsibility of the respective boundary commissioners. Statutory responsibility for laying their reports before Parliament, and for laying draft orders to give effect to any proposed new boundaries, rests with the respective Secretaries of State to whom the boundary commissions submit their reports.

The hon. Gentleman will know that under sections 16 and 17 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it is in the Government’s power to transfer boundaries to the responsibility of the Electoral Commission. Has he any view on that, in the light of the report that was published recently?

My hon. Friend is right that that is a matter for the Government, who made it clear when the provisions were enacted that they did not intend to take such steps before the current general reviews of all UK parliamentary constituencies had been concluded. My hon. Friend also rightly points out that the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended in its recent report on the Electoral Commission that the provisions should be repealed, as part of a wider series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the Electoral Commission no longer has any involvement in electoral boundary matters.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to do so.

I put it to my hon. Friend that even if the Electoral Commission does not have formal responsibility in this matter—which is a source of some surprise, and also disquiet, to me and a number of my hon. and right hon. Friends—it will have a view about the transparency and accountability of the democratic process. Is it not unsatisfactory that instead of the changes having been laid in a timeous fashion, they have not yet been laid at all and we have had too much procrastination and delay? Is it not a good thing that the Leader of the House is present in the Chamber so that he can at least witness our protests and seek to ensure that something is done to address them?

The Committee on Standards in Public Life made some robust comments about the timeliness of the reviews of the boundary commissions. I noted that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House said that he thought that the Committee’s report should be debated by the House, and I am sure that that is one of the aspects of it to which Members will wish to give consideration.

Electoral Commission Review

24. When do the Speaker’s Committee and the Electoral Commission plan to respond to the recommendations of the review of the Electoral Commission by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. (111476)

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has not yet had an opportunity to meet to consider the report. The chairman of the Electoral Commission wrote to all Members on 19 January setting out its initial reaction to the report, and Mr. Speaker arranged for a copy to be placed in the Library. The Electoral Commission informs me that it intends to publish a formal response to the report within the next three months.

Once the Electoral Commission has published its report, will the Speaker’s Committee, in conjunction with the House authorities, make sure that we have an early debate on some of the robust proposals of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to restore confidence in the electoral process and the accountability of the Electoral Commission to all Members of this House? That is a hugely important matter outside the House, and I am keen to know that there will be enthusiasm from inside the House that it gets on our agenda so that we can legislate by changing the law if necessary.

The Speaker’s Committee took an initiative to promote a debate in the House by asking the Liaison Committee for time and that was granted. It is open to those on either Opposition Front Bench to table a motion for debate, but I think that the reassurance of the Leader of the House that an opportunity will be given for the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to be debated in the House is broadly welcomed.