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Topical Questions

Volume 480: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

Mr. Speaker, with your leave, I wish to update the House on important developments announced by my Department since the summer break.

I have set out the timetable for my review of public service broadcasting, which I will continue to take forward in conjunction with Ofcom, and I am very pleased that Stephen Carter has been appointed to support me in this work. I have also announced that I will commission an independent review of listed sporting events to look again at whether the right sporting events are protected for free-to-air broadcasts, and whether the right balance is struck between the interests of sport and the interests of television viewers.

We continue to work on the implementation of the McMaster report, including the recommendation to make more arts events free to the public. I recently announced a £2.5 million programme, funded through the spending review by Arts Council England, to give young people under 26 the chance to see free theatre at 95 venues across England. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) played an enormous role in that scheme and in the implementation of the McMaster report. I would simply like to echo the very generous comments made by Opposition Front Benchers earlier in Question Time. My right hon. Friend stepped back for family reasons; I am sure that the whole House wishes her well, and wishes the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), well in her new role, too.

The Wellingborough and District Nene angling club has existed for 139 years, and owns and operates lakes in Northamptonshire. Recently, Natural England slapped an SSSI—site of special scientific interest—designation on it and imposed hundreds of restrictions, which makes the club’s viability doubtful. Is it a new Government policy to close angling clubs, or is Natural England out of control?

We fully support angling. Indeed, we have had regular meetings with angling associations. I am pleased that many of those associations have come together in one body, as we start to look at how we can be more supportive in future. Clearly, however, this is an issue, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and go through it in greater detail.

T7. Given that the Secretary of State said in a speech in June that it was very disappointing that ITV had failed to meet its regional production quotas for two years running, and that that was non-negotiable, was it not an act of defiance for Ed Richards, the boss of Ofcom, last week to suggest reducing that quota from 50 to 35 per cent., particularly given the fact that his predecessor Lord Carter, who is now broadcasting Minister, set the figure of 50 per cent. just three years ago? (224341)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a passionate interest in these matters, as do I. I have a strong belief in ITV as a company that has its roots in the regions, and has produced excellent news programmes for many years. He is right: I said I was disappointed because that was a legal requirement, not an optional target. Ofcom is dealing with the matter, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment further. However, my hon. Friend must recognise, as must Members on both sides of the House, that as the analogue licences wind down and we move towards a new world in broadcasting, which is all multi-channel and fully digital, the basis on which we regulate broadcasters changes and we cannot ask for the same deal in return for access to the scarce spectrum. That is just a fact of where we are, but I think we are all united in saying that we want strong regional output with a range of voices—more than one company providing it—in future, and I will talk to all broadcasters, ITV included, about those very issues in the months ahead.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that, should Newcastle and Everton be acquired by private owners in the near future, as is likely, more than half the clubs in the English premiership would be foreign owned, leading the former Sport Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), to refer to that as a tipping point, so that the English game would “cease to be English”. Is it not therefore time that the Government ordered a royal commission, or some other inquiry, into the whole stewardship and future of the national sport? (224337)

As I tried to say earlier, we want football to resolve these issues. I do not think it is a question of nationality. We can give examples in which foreign nationals do well with some of our premier league clubs. However, I take the point that there are issues that we need to consider, which have been raised by supporters and by many in the House, concerning the governance of the game and concerning early warning systems in respect of financial accountability. A royal commission would be going too far, but we will report to the House the outcome of the discussions that we have with football authorities. Then we can have a debate in the House about the future of the game.

T8. My right hon. Friend will be aware that during the summer the Performing Rights Society carried out a clampdown in certain areas, one of which was Yoker resource centre in my constituency, where the after-school care group was prevented from playing music and DVDs to entertain the children after they came out of school. Will my right hon. Friend look into such cases at Yoker and other centres so that people in deprived areas do not have to fork out an exorbitant amount of money to keep children occupied? (224342)

I have to say that I was not aware of the issue that my hon. Friend raises in relation to his constituency, but I am prepared to look into it. I agree that in general terms we want young people to be able to enjoy music without any barriers.

Mr. Speaker, may I welcome you back after the recess? I welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), to her post. Her biography states that she is not so much a champagne socialist as a cappuccino socialist. As a cappuccino Conservative, I look forward to many stimulating cups of coffee with her at arts events. [Interruption.] May I move the discussion on from cappuccino to ask the Secretary of State about the free swimming offer that he announced earlier this summer?

The Opposition welcome anything that gets more people involved in swimming. What is the Secretary of State’s response to the letter that he received this summer from the Labour leader of Stevenage council, the new Minister’s constituency, which said that the average cost to a district council of implementing that offer for the over-60s alone would increase council tax by nearly 2 per cent? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House a categoric assurance that his Department will fund the offer in full and not pass the costs on to hard-pressed council tax payers by the back door, when they are already so concerned about rising bills?

I do not know about cappuccino, but there was a certain amount of froth in that question. The hon. Gentleman seems to have misunderstood the package that we proposed. The initiatives began in local government. Many councils have begun to make swimming free for older and younger people. My council, Wigan, has, entirely from its own resources, already put in place a free swimming scheme. We said we would like to help councils to go further, so in support of our objective of getting 2 million more people active by the time of the 2012 games in London, we wanted more councils to offer such schemes to their public. We said all along that it was a challenge initiative and that local authorities could opt into it, should they choose to. Of the 354 eligible local authorities, some 300 have confirmed their participation in the over-60s element of the free swimming programme, and 296 in the under-16s element. It is their decision to take advantage of the scheme. If the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman’s council do not wish to take part, that is a choice for them, but Labour and the Government believe in sport for all.

T10. Will the Minister redouble his efforts in respect of sport as a way of tackling regeneration? Is he aware of the efforts by Sport for Nottingham, part of the local strategic partnership in Nottingham, which is trying to get young people on the outer estates and in the inner cities involved in sport as a means of team building and leadership building? It is already putting considerable effort into that. Will my hon. Friend ensure that sport is undertaken not just at the prestige level but at grassroots level, where it can help with crime, health and many other issues? (224344)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on showing such great leadership in his locality on sport and showing the impact that it can have on people’s lives. He is quite right: this is not just about elite sport, important though that is; it is about ensuring strong community sport and strong sport in schools. He will know that we have restructured Sport England so that we can now work with governing bodies to look into whole sport plans. For me and the Government, a key element of that is ensuring that communities benefit from that participation through sport. We are happy to work with my hon. Friend and Sport England to ensure that everybody has access to sport.

T4. Has the Minister seen “Dance Manifesto”, which is supported by more than 130 dance organisations across the spectrum, from our wonderful English National Ballet to I Love Salsa? Given the health, social and artistic benefits of dance, what will the Government do to strengthen it as an artistic pursuit? (224338)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue, because it is ever more popular across the spectrum, as we see in the variety of television programmes about it and about dance fit for young people. The Government are fully supportive. We believe that dance is an ideal tool for making people’s lifestyles healthier and improving their self-esteem and confidence. We are working with the dance authorities and with regional partners to ensure that we invest in dance.

T5. Kettering borough council is keen to opt into the free swimming initiative. Although it can already do so for the over-60s, it is unable to do so for the under-16s because it still awaits detailed financial information from the Secretary of State’s Department about how the grant funding mechanism will work. That information was due in September, but I understand that Kettering borough council is still awaiting it. Will he ensure that it is released as soon as possible to district authorities? (224339)

I welcome Kettering borough council’s participation in the scheme for older people. My local experience is that not only was there an increase in people going swimming when we made it free for the over-60s, but there was an increase in the secondary income that comes from people using leisure centres and pools more regularly, which is another good source of income for local authorities, so the scheme seems to work. We have been in discussion with local authorities, asking them to opt into the different funding streams. We will give final allocations to local authorities on 15 October, so I am sure that we will be ironing out those issues with Kettering in the next few days. However, I will ensure that we do so, following up the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he does not oversee the end of political programming in the regions? Will he now give Ofcom the teeth to ensure that it makes ITV stick to the franchise agreements on which it is currently trying to renege?

I know that my hon. Friend appears regularly on Granada’s late-night programme—indeed, I look forward to his words of wisdom when I get home on a Thursday evening. He and I are from the same region and we share the same passion for regional broadcasting. As I was saying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) a moment ago, as long as there is still value in the licence, it is important that we prioritise news, current affairs and political programming. That comes out loud and clear from Ofcom’s research into the issue. I will continue to talk to Ofcom and ITV to ensure a good, strong regional offering in news and current affairs.

T6. The Taking Part survey has shown a decline in the number of over-75s taking part in cultural activities. Given that the Government are reviewing their ageing strategy, what steps is the Secretary of State’s Department going to take to reverse that decline? (224340)

We commissioned the Taking Part survey precisely to ensure that we do reach all parts of the community. One of the great things about free entry to museums and galleries over the past 10 years is that it has encouraged more people to use them more regularly. However, we keep such issues under review, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall respond in due course to the issue that he raises.

T9. The Secretary of State will be aware that there has been something of a renaissance in British film recently. Will he guarantee the future of local cinemas, such as the Ritz in Thirsk, which may suffer unfair competition from home entertainment plans? (224343)

This is a very important issue, and I am sure that it raises strong feelings locally in areas such as Thirsk and elsewhere in the hon. Lady’s constituency. The Film Council has given some funds to help to put digital screens into smaller local cinemas, but ultimately I cannot guarantee their future. That is something that it is beyond my power to do, but we do support local cinema and we will engage constructively—as will the Film Council—to ensure that their survival continues.