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Culture, Media and Sport

Volume 493: debated on Monday 8 June 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Community Sport

1. What assessment he has made of the effect of the recession on community sports groups and clubs. (278188)

My Department is monitoring the potential impact of the recession on all its sectors. It recently published “Lifting People, Lifting Places”, which sets out the role that sport can play in lifting our communities. Our most recent figures show that participation is holding up well, and we remain on track with our ambition to ensure that 1 million more people engage in sport regularly.

Since 1997, grass-roots funding for community sports has been reduced from £397 million to £209 million. What impact does the Minister expect that to have on the efforts of British sportsmen and sportswomen to succeed in the 2012 London Olympics?

The hon. Gentleman, whom I respect, has got his figures completely wrong. Nearly £5 billion has been invested in sport over the past 12 years, and it can be shown that every sport and every area of sport has been very successful. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to tell me which sports have not been successful, at community or at school level, I shall be happy to discuss that with him.

The Minister recently gave us an assurance about the future of the English Institute of Sport facility at Gateshead stadium, in the context of UK Sport’s announcement of changes in the way in which it would fund local sports clubs. In the light of the recession, can he give us a further assurance today that that valuable project will not be put in jeopardy?

I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend has been doing for sport in the north-east. I am happy to confirm that the English Institute of Sport will have a presence in the region, and will continue to invest in it. I shall be happy to meet him, and to establish what progress is being made. I know that a number of outstanding issues need to be tidied up.

Perhaps the Minister could suggest to local authorities throughout the country—they are all Tory controlled now, and very receptive—that they make available facilities in schools and colleges, such as playing fields, at reduced prices, if not free, to encourage community groups to continue to take part in the sport that they enjoy, particularly at this time of deep recession.

It is vital for us to try to ensure that 1 million more people become active in sport, and I agree that local authorities have a major role to play in that. I know that they are happy to work with the Government, as they did in the case of free swimming. More than 80 per cent. of councils now offer free swimming to the over-60s, and 60 per cent. offer it to the under-60s. Some Conservative councils did not participate then, but I hope that they will do so now.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating all who were involved in establishing the boxing centre of excellence in Gorton, which provides facilities for boys, girls and people with disabilities? It already has a amateur boxing club with 100 members, and is part of a £200 million educational complex in Gorton. None of that would ever have happened without this Labour Government.

I am delighted to agree with my right hon. Friend, and I congratulate him on the work that he has done to support boxing in his constituency. We are trying to ensure that boxing facilities are available to all who want to take part, not just for the physical contact but for the fitness that can be acquired through boxing, and the self-respect that it teaches. I shall be happy to support the initiative in Gorton, and I should like to see more boxing in our schools and communities throughout the country.

Sports clubs undoubtedly make an invaluable contribution to our local communities, yet they continue to be swamped by regulations and bureaucracy. What more can the Government do to ease that bureaucracy and regulation, so that clubs do not go under during this difficult recession?

There are a number of ways in which we can help and are helping. We want to support clubs that apply for community amateur sports club status, with all the benefits that that gives them. We are also looking at water charges around the country, which have caused problems for clubs. We want sport to be firmly at the heart of what we are trying to achieve, because all of us—Members throughout the House—are aware of the benefits it provides for our communities.

My hon. Friend mentioned the excellent CASC scheme, which the Government introduced in 2002. It has helped sports clubs in areas throughout the country, including Newcastle-under-Lyme. As he will know, in November 2007 we wanted the Government to go a little further and extend gift aid to junior subscriptions. There was a “subs for clubs” campaign. What recent discussions has he had with the Treasury about that proposal?

We try to ensure that we support our clubs in any way possible. However, my hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, and we have raised it with the Treasury. As he is aware, tax-related matters are for the Treasury, but we will continue to try to persuade it that it should be supporting clubs.

As my hon. Friend will know, we are considering what further support we can provide. The other week, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that a further 5,000 young people would be given the opportunity to become coaches and to be involved in employment. I believe that we are doing all that we can to deliver and develop sport.

“Digital Britain”

2. What plans his Department has to take forward the recommendations contained in the interim “Digital Britain” report published in January 2009. (278189)

Since the publication of the interim “Digital Britain” report in January there has been extensive consultation, and we will publish the final report shortly.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position, and I am sure he will do a very good job. I am also sure that he is aware that the “Digital Britain” report raises concerns about, and makes recommendations on, the future of regional news and regional content. Does he not agree that reallocating the money currently used for implementing digital TV would be one way of ensuring that the regions continue to get regional news and programme content on independent television?

I think that every Member of the House values the role played by regional news and acknowledges the importance of some competition and plurality of provision in regional news. The hon. Gentleman is right: this is one of the important issues that will be addressed when we publish the final report, and I invite him to be patient a little longer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment; it is an excellent appointment and I wish him well in his post.

Yes, third time lucky.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that “Digital Britain” takes heed of the interests of the very successful UK video games industry? Video games make their players think, and they challenge them and make them focus, and many people in Britain believe that a medium that does that should be elevated to an art form. I hope my hon. Friend’s Department gives the video games industry a similar status to that of the UK music and film industries.

I assure my hon. Friend that we do recognise the importance of the video games industry to the British economy. Research and development tax credits are available for the industry, and we are looking at introducing further tax breaks. We will deal with the issue of classification, and other announcements that will, I think, please my hon. Friend will form part of the final report.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on taking on one of the best jobs in government. He will have already discovered, however, that he has a very full in-tray, and one of the most pressing problems he faces is the need to tackle online piracy. While I welcome the proposals in “Digital Britain”, does he agree that the best way forward is to press internet service providers to adopt a graduated response against offenders, rather than expect content providers to sue every offender in the courts?

I certainly agree that it is important that content providers work with all the other interested parties in addressing this problem. As part of our “Digital Britain” final report, we intend to ensure that that happens, and I think the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by the proposals that we expect to make. He is right that piracy is a serious issue, particularly for the creative talent of this country, given the revenue that is lost as a result of the practice.

May I also welcome my hon. and, I hope, personal Friend to his new post and say how pleasing it is to see a new Secretary of State sitting in the House of Commons? The BBC lies at the heart of the “Digital Britain” issue, of course. I do not know whether my hon. Friend heard the Public Accounts Committee Chairman trying last week gently to persuade Mr. John Humphrys to reveal how much he was paid by the public. Mr. Humphrys refused—so some people know how to keep secrets. When a Bill is introduced, will my hon. Friend add a clause obliging the BBC to be subject to the full rigour of the Freedom of Information Act so that we can know everything about pay, allowances and expenses for all areas of BBC employment, including its presenters?

As a co-former BBC employee, I am sure my right hon. Friend shares my admiration for the BBC as an organisation. The question he asks is, of course, for the BBC, but perhaps I can reassure him by saying that I believe that when the public pay for something through their taxes—or, in this case, the licence fee—they expect transparency and accountability, and I think they are right to have that expectation.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. Having already praised the BBC from the Dispatch Box, does he agree that “Digital Britain” provides a golden opportunity to sort out an anomaly in the regulation of the BBC’s charter? Is it not ludicrous that the BBC Trust remains within the BBC, so that on the one hand it is a flag waver for the BBC on issues such as the licence fee and on the other hand it is a supposedly independent regulator on issues such as “Canvas”? Would it not be better to see if we can develop an independent regulatory body for all our public service broadcasters?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern—which other Members have expressed—about the fact that the trust acts as cheerleader and regulator of the BBC. I hope he would not expect me to announce Government policy on the hoof, but I can say that I envisage that we will address this issue in the final report. I am, of course, happy to consider his views, which are, by and large, usually very sensible, and to continue to have a dialogue with him about this issue in the weeks to come.

May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on taking up his post? He is the fourth Culture Secretary in less than two years. In fairness, he has had only two days to prepare for today’s questions, so he has the support of the whole House, particularly today.

One of the crucial issues for the “Digital Britain” report is how to preserve impartiality in a digital era. Does the Secretary of State believe that Sir Alan Sugar can combine his role as host of Britain’s most popular business TV programme with his new job as the Government’s enterprise champion, whereby he will sit in the House of Lords, taking the Labour Whip?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has written to the BBC Trust to express his concerns and I should be interested to see a copy of its reply, if he sends me one. On the face of it, I do not see a conflict of interest; my memory of the BBC producer guidelines is that they were very clear about people who were involved in political programming not doing political jobs, and I recall that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) presented a jazz programme without there being any suggestion of a conflict of interest. This is a matter for the BBC. I understand that Sir Alan discussed it with the BBC before this decision was taken, that he is not being paid and that all his business interests are being put at arm’s length. We will have to wait to see how the trust responds to the hon. Gentleman.

I urge the Secretary of State to examine this arrangement closely, because someone having their own weekly TV programme at the same time as being one of the main ambassadors for Government policy in precisely the same area is unprecedented. If there is a general election in June 2010, according to the current schedules “The Apprentice” will be shown during the campaign. Would it be right for the BBC to carry on screening “The Apprentice” in that period, given that its main star is a principal advocate of Government business policy?

As I said, these are matters for the BBC. The hon. Gentleman will have a robust exchange with the BBC about them. I have just explained that I am prepared to criticise the BBC where I think it has made a mistake. If he were to examine my record on the Gilligan scandal and on the Hutton inquiry, and my comments after the BBC’s failure to publish the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, he would find that I am not backward in coming forward to criticise the BBC where I think that the criticism is justified. This is an issue for the BBC, and I shall be interested to see how it responds to his letter.

Let us hope that the Secretary of State does not hear the words, “You’re fired.” We know that the digital money underspend is crucial to regional news and current affairs programmes, so will he make sure that it is given to the ITV network, ensuring that we have regional news in the north-west and across the other regions? Without it, the BBC will not have the competition it needs to ensure that quality and impartiality in news programmes.

My hon. Friend is right to mention the importance of sustaining a plurality of provision in regional news. However, I do not think it sensible at this stage to narrow the options for ensuring that. He advocates one position, but there might be others to consider. Whatever happens, I assure him that we will address the importance of regional news provision, its continuity and its plurality when we publish the final report.

Digital Switchover (South-West)

Switchover is on track in the south-west: viewers served by the Beacon hill and Stockland hill transmitter groups have now successfully switched, and other parts of the region will switch between July and September. Three months away from the remaining south-west switchovers, 97 per cent. of residents are aware of switchover and 96 per cent. of homes already have access to digital TV on their main sets.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to an area that is so important in Plymouth, Exeter, the rest of Devon and Cornwall; I am sure that their media industries will look forward to his contribution as Secretary of State. On digital switchover, does have confidence that when it comes to the turn of the Caradon hill transmitter, which serves Plymouth, things will go as smoothly as they have done thus far? What is his assessment of how far the help scheme is reaching out to the people it needs to help?

As I understand it, Plymouth will begin to switch on 12 August, with the Caradon hill transmitter, and will conclude on 9 September. We believe that we are prepared, as are viewers across the region. Leaflets have been sent to every home, and there have been television, radio and press adverts. As my hon. Friend will know, people are eligible for help if they are over 75, registered blind or receive certain allowances or benefits. In total, 300,000 eligible people will be offered help in the old ITV West Country region. So far, we are aware of 26,000 people requesting help.

May I join the general acclamation of the Secretary of State’s appointment and wish him every success in dealing with his crowded in-tray? One of the complex issues that he has to confront is the consequence of digital switchover and the release of spectrum that flows from that programme in the south-west and elsewhere. Will he pay particular attention to the consequences for the programme making and special events sector, and the continued viability of radio microphones for broadcasting entertainment and a wide variety of other purposes?

I will be happy to look into the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) said, I have had only two days to get on top of the issues, so I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) will forgive me if I am not on top of every detail. I will ensure that I look into the one that he raises.

May I also add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? He was a superb regional Minister and I was proud to be his deputy. All of us in the south-west are delighted to see him elevated to the Cabinet.

He may be aware of an issue in Swindon that I have raised with several of his predecessors—the digital switchover for the railway village. It is one of the poorest communities in Swindon and a conservation area, and the switchover faces extreme difficulties. Will he look into that?

I will happily do that. May I also use this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for her assistance in her role as assistant regional Minister?

I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State. May I say how welcome it is that we may now expect a large dose of culture in DCMS? Will he look at the situation in Salisbury and south Wiltshire, one of the last switchover stations? Is there any hope of accelerating digital switchover for people in rural communities who depend on it more than other people for any possibility of choice and diversity?

Again, I will happily look into the situation in Salisbury and the rural areas of Wiltshire that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and I will write to him.

Sport (North-West)

The majority of UK Sport and Sport England funding is allocated to organisations such as national governing bodies rather than regionally. It is used to deliver the Government’s key sporting objectives across the country, including in the north-west. Specific grants benefiting the north-west this year include more than £10 million of Exchequer funding for county sports partnerships and the English Institute of Sport in the region, and more than £1 million of UK Sport Lottery funding for major events, including the Paralympic World cup.

The Minister will know that the previous Conservative Government set up the lottery with provision for grass-roots sports as one of its primary good causes. The sport industry in the north-west makes up 1.5 per cent. of the area’s economy, but—in my experience recently—ever-decreasing funds are dedicated to grass-roots sports. What may my constituents expect in sport funding for 2009-10? This is important, because grass-roots sport is critical.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his involvement in sport. I remember as a new Member discussing with him sport in Macclesfield, many years ago. I do not accept that there has been a reduction in funding for grass-roots sport—indeed, the opposite is true. In schools, we are trying to bring the two-hour offer up to five hours and encouraging sports clubs to work with schools, to try to bring them together to increase the number of young people taking part. We have also seen an increase in the number of girls taking part in sport at all levels. I also mentioned to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) the investment of more than £5 billion in the last 12 years. Rather than seeing a reduction in funding for community sports, we have seen a three-fold increase. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) will also be aware of the funding available not only through the governing bodies, but through Sport England’s rural and innovation funds. Many of the clubs that he mentions will be able to take advantage of that funding.

We heard earlier how receptive councils will be to the Minister’s advice and views on developing and enabling sport. Will he give advice to local education authorities in the north-west and elsewhere, such as Essex county council, that they should not sell off school playing fields, such as the field at Castle View school in Canvey Island, for development, but should retain those school fields for sport?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that over the past 12 years we have safeguarded school playing fields, ensuring that they cannot be sold without procedures being followed and without Sport England being involved. There is a debate about playing fields as opposed to the provision of indoor sports facilities, which I accept. Our record shows that we have stopped the sell-off of playing fields that happened under the previous Government. We want to see more world-class facilities available to everybody.

One of the most successful funders of sport in the north-west, not mentioned by the Minister, is, of course, the Football Foundation. There were reports last week that the Football Association intends to cut the grant it gives the Football Foundation by approximately 15 per cent., or at least £2 million each year. Incidentally, that contradicts all the assurances that we were given as part of the 2018 World cup launch last week, which the Minister and I attended together. Given that the Government are the FA’s funding partner for the Football Foundation, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees with this policy? If not, as I suspect, what is he doing to stop it?

At a meeting of the Football Foundation board, the issue was raised of the potential reduction in funding to grassroots sports. It is not something that I would be very happy about. I am told that it is only a proposal at this stage, but the hon.Gentleman is quite right to raise it and I shall be raising it with the FA as soon as possible

Cricket

5. What steps his Department is taking to encourage young people to play cricket; and if he will make a statement. (278192)

Through the PE and school sport strategy, £1.5 billion was invested in the five years to 2008. A further £783 million has been committed for the next three years. That has already helped to ensure that 90 per cent. of schools now provide cricket to their pupils. The “chance to shine” programme has also played a significant part in bringing the sport to young people, with 20,000 sessions delivered across 2,000 schools in 2008. In addition, Sport England has awarded nearly £38 million over the next four years to the cricket programmes.

The cricket board’s “chance to shine” programme is an excellent initiative, but it is able to get into only about a third of all state schools. Of the competitive matches it has organised, only a tiny percentage—about 4 per cent.—are played with cricket balls. How on earth are we going to beat the Windies, India and Australia in the future when so few youngsters are playing competitive cricket and when, of those who are playing competitive cricket, only a tiny proportion are learning to play with cricket balls?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I had the misfortune to be at Lord’s on Friday to see England being beaten by Holland. Thankfully, England managed to rectify the situation against Pakistan yesterday. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right, and what we are trying to do with the investment—cricket gets the biggest investment of Sport England money—is to ensure that we have the best coaches and the best opportunities, particularly for school children. We are trying to get school children and the clubs together to ensure that that coaching continues. The way in which that coaching is provided is surely a matter for the England and Wales Cricket Board and not for the Government.

In inspiring young people to take up cricket, is it not a great shame that alone of the major sports there is no live coverage of it on free-to-air TV, particularly in a summer when there are the Ashes and the Twenty20 world cup? Is this not something that the David Davies review of listed events should consider seriously?

Certainly. I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a keen supporter not only of men’s cricket but of women’s cricket. He will congratulate the England women’s team that won the Ashes in Australia and will hopefully do very well in the world cup that is now taking place. We asked the David Davies review of listed events to ensure that we look at all the things that need to be considered. When that report comes to us shortly, the Secretary of State and I will make recommendations, which will then go out to consultation.

Does the Minister agree that if cricket is to flourish, particularly in state schools, we need close links with clubs and a commitment from teachers to stay on after hours to coach and take teams? What discussions has he held with his colleagues in other Departments to make sure that those people are able to commit their time?

One of the good things about sport is that we work with colleagues right across Government—whether it is cricket or swimming, we are showing the impact that sport can have on other programmes for individual development. Specifically on cricket, the increase in school sport from two hours to five hours can be delivered only by clubs working closely with schools. Yes, PE teachers, and teachers, are important, but we also have specialist sports colleges and competition managers in schools. We need to encourage more coaches at different levels. We certainly want volunteer coaches, but we also want coaches for specific sports, including cricket, which is why we set up investment to offer 5,000 young people the opportunity to become cricket coaches.

The Minister realises of course that for young people to play cricket there must be cricket clubs. What advice can he give Wilnecote sports and social club, which runs two teams, but is suffering from a high level of vandalism and needs £20,000 to build a perimeter defence to reduce it? The club has made applications to our local council, which has reserves of 200 per cent. in its annual budget but refuses to pass on to local clubs the money the Government have sent down. Of course, it is a Conservative local authority. What advice can my hon. Friend give?

I hope the local authority will support its local sports clubs. Whether it is cricket, football, rugby or hockey, the role of the local sports club in our communities is vital. Clubs do work that is usually unpaid and usually done by volunteers, but the impact on our communities is large. The amount of vandalism we see in many sports fields and clubs is regrettable. Sometimes, volunteers are sickened by the mindless vandalism that takes place. If my hon. Friend needs my assistance to speak to the local authority about the specific case he raises, I am happy to provide it. The authority should understand the significant contribution that the local club is making.

Historic Environment

7. When he plans to introduce the new planning policy statement on the historic environment; and if he will make a statement. (278194)

The new planning policy statement will be published in draft this summer and consulted on immediately afterwards, with a view to its coming into force early next year. I know that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) will now take me to task because I promised that it would be available by Easter, but we believe that it is important to get it right.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but does she not appreciate that there is some urgency about not only the reforms and proposals on the PPS, but also the Heritage Protection Bill that the Government should have brought in last year but did not? There is a whole swathe of legislation that we were told would be brought in because we did not need primary legislation, such as reform of secondary legislation to deal with the Shimizu judgment, the heritage partnership agreement, the guidance for investment in and promotion of historic environment records and improved protection for world heritage sites. When will those matters be dealt with?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I appreciate his concern. My Department and I have been working with heritage groups to address exactly the matters he has raised, not all of which need primary legislation. I should be happy to copy him into the work we are doing in those areas.

Would the Minister be kind enough to tell the new Secretary of State—I welcome him warmly—that one of the biggest disappointments in his excellent predecessor was that he did not bring in the heritage Bill? May we have some real action on that now? There is plenty of parliamentary time.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment and the disappointment felt in the whole House about that; we argued with L Committee and fought for the Bill and I shall continue to do what I can to advance heritage protection. I know that my about-to- be right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do the same.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government have been short-sighted, mean-spirited and lacking in vision on their duty of care towards the maintenance of the royal palaces? At what stage will the Government agree to play their part in maintaining those vital historic places?

I am afraid that I cannot possibly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that the predecessor of my about-to-be right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had a meeting with representatives from the royal palaces last week, and I will follow the matter up with the new Secretary of State.

What progress has been made in resolving the various disputes about the options for development close to, and around, Stonehenge?

We are making quite a few advances on the issue. We have decided that the new visitors’ centre will be at Airman’s Corner.

As the hon. Gentleman says, at last we have agreement. As he will confirm, we are beginning the work.

I am flattered that the Minister knew that I would intervene on this question—and, indeed, knew that one of the things for which I would take her to task was the fact that the planning policy statement has been delayed since Easter. Was she also aware that I would take her to task for the fact that the Government have cut £100 million from the heritage budget over the past 10 years? Was she aware that, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), I would invite her to ask the new Secretary of State, whom we all welcome to his new position, to speak to the Prime Minister, so that we can bring forward a heritage protection Bill that has the support of all parties in this House? It would have the added benefit of giving a Government who are currently focused on their own preservation something else to focus on.

I am glad that I can read the hon. Gentleman’s mind. Like him, I am extremely concerned about conserving our heritage, not least because I am Minister for tourism, and people come to look at our marvellous and unique heritage. I will work with the new Secretary of State on that. I realise that there have been cuts, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to pause and consider what his own party has promised in the way of cuts, and what he would do with heritage if those cuts were made.

Museum and Gallery Admissions

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on visitor numbers of free access to national museums and galleries; and if he will make a statement. (278195)

Visits to national museums and galleries are at a record high for the third year running, with more than 40.3 million such visits recorded last year. Since the Government introduced the free admission policy in 2001, visits to previously charging museums have more than doubled, from 7.2 million eight years ago to 16 million last year.

On Friday my grandson Charlie enjoyed the delights of Bolton’s excellent free aquarium and museum. Does my hon. Friend agree that the pleasure of museums should not be confined just to rich children, any more than membership of this House should be confined to rich adults?

I could not agree more. It is wonderful to see grandchildren enjoying the museums that the Government have made free; I have taken my own grandchildren to them.

Topical Questions

My Department’s responsibilities are set out in our website. They have an important part to play in sustaining and boosting Britain’s economy, helping define our national identity and improving people’s health and well-being. I look forward to working with my ministerial colleagues and Members in all parts of the House to continue to maximise the public good of the arts, culture more generally, sport and media in all our lives.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. He may be aware that I chair the all-party group on libraries, literacy and information management, which is undertaking a review of the strategic leadership of our public libraries sector. May I ask him to honour his predecessor’s commitment and come before the group to give us a strategic view on the leadership of that important public service, especially in the light of the anger expressed about closures and the failing services evident in the country?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern for the future of libraries and recognition of their importance. I will be happy to meet her and her all-party group. She may, though, wish to reflect on the fact that I might be able to give her a better strategic view when I have had a little more time to settle into the job.

T5. Does the Secretary of State agree that participation in local cultural activities, such as the Lyceum theatre and Crewe carnival in my constituency, helps strengthen society and community cohesion and should be supported, wherever possible, across national and local government, as well as our public services? (278215)

I thoroughly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Such participation increases not only cohesion but well-being, and something that is in rather short supply at present—happiness.

T6. Does the Minister agree that any relaxation of media ownership rules should be accompanied by a strengthened public interest test to ensure that in the event of media mergers, the resources devoted to journalism and news gathering are not diluted or weakened? (278216)

That is certainly something that we shall have to think about carefully as we address the problem of regional news and the merger and acquisitions legislation in the context of the very difficult times that some of our excellent local and regional newspapers are going through. Members in all parts of the House recognise and value the role played by regional and local newspapers not only in informing the public in their local areas, but in holding us and locally elected officials to account. It would be very sad to see the demise of local and regional newspapers.

Now that the appalling system of proportional representation has, predictably, led to the election of two neo-Nazis from the British National party to the European Parliament, does the Secretary of State agree that this raises serious issues for the concept of due impartiality on the part of the BBC and independent television when reporting political matters? What conversations does he propose to have with the broadcasting authorities to ensure that appropriate fairness does not mean a platform to spout racist and other unacceptable views?

Although we agree on many things, the hon. Gentleman and I do not agree on a fairer voting system. I point out to him that in Germany, Italy and a number of other countries that have a more proportional system, that has not resulted in extreme right-wing parties being elected to the Bundestag or the Italian Parliament. I am sure the broadcasters will take their duties under the impartiality rules extremely seriously, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that what happened yesterday poses a dilemma for them. My own view is that usually, when one gives those people a platform, they condemn themselves out of their own mouths.

Given his immediate past responsibilities, I am sure the new Secretary of State will be aware of the benefits of audio description for elderly people and people with poor eyesight. Will he take the opportunity to build on the excellent work undertaken by his predecessor in promoting the availability of set-top boxes with one-button click to audio description for elderly people generally, throughout the community?

I shall look into the issue that my right hon. Friend raises. As I am sure he is aware, audio description is now a mandatory requirement for the equipment provided as the standard offer under the digital switchover scheme, and blind and partially sighted people are also eligible for help with the scheme. I assure him that I will also look into the particular issue that he raises about the single switch.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion. Will he join me in congratulating the Royal Shakespeare Company on its new production of “Julius Caesar” at Stratford upon Avon—a play full of deceit, lies, gossip, intrigue and assassins, but assassins with sharp knives not blunted knives? Will he tell the House what lessons can be drawn from Shakespeare, particularly from plays such as “Julius Caesar”, for the modern world?

What I can say is that, having had to almost give up my cultural life over the past few years, I am looking forward, in this job, to spending a bit more time in the theatre in order to reacquaint myself with the lessons for our modern politics to be found in the great man’s works.

T7. Free swimming has been great in the authorities that have introduced it, but it is not much use to someone who cannot swim. Bolton council has introduced free swimming lessons during the school holidays, and that has been terrifically successful, so will my hon. Friend take a lesson from Bolton and introduce free classes throughout the country so that my other grandchildren, Poppy, Gabriel and Thomas, can learn to swim for England? (278217)

We are happy to look after my hon. Friend’s grandchildren for their cultural and sporting activities—but he raises a fair point. It was important to us to ensure that the whole country supported free swimming, and more than 80 per cent. of councils have introduced it for the over 60s, while 60 per cent. have done so for the under-16s. A significant part of that activity is school swimming lessons, and we have been speaking to the sport’s governing bodies to find better ways to try to ensure that we have enough coaches to teach swimming. That is an important and integral part of what we are trying to achieve. It is one of the successes of this Government, working in conjunction with local authorities, that we have built up free swimming to its current level.

Like the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby), I have grandchildren—eight, actually—[Hon. Members: “Name them.”] I could, but it would take a little time. Some of my grandchildren are already swimmers. Following up the hon. Gentleman’s question, my question to the appropriate Minister is, does he not think that local authorities should be encouraged to give a substantial discount on the hire of a leisure centre swimming pool to amateur clubs that spend a great deal of time and effort on teaching young people to swim—and particularly, to a club in Macclesfield, which provides teaching for people with disabilities? Should we not encourage those clubs by giving them a discount that would enable them to hire the pool more easily without spending so much time raising money?

I hope that we will now see that progression in terms of local authorities working in their communities and with different partners, both public and private, on the provision of swimming. A great opportunity exists, and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the subject of people with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, having the opportunity to become involved in sport in the same way as everybody else. I do believe that we should look at ways in which the governing bodies can be creative in supporting clubs through the club structure, which comes under the governing bodies, and in working with local government. That is why the money has gone through the governing body process. I am also pleased that many local authorities now use sport as a performance indicator. I believe that that progression will develop, and I hope that it will develop in Macclesfield as well.

As a part of the new Secretary of State’s programme for refreshing his interest in the arts, may I invite him to visit Battersea Arts Centre? It pioneered the first “pay what you can” scheme, which still runs on Tuesday evenings, and, under the Government’s free theatre initiative, has now given away more than 630 tickets to local young people in Wandsworth. My right hon. Friend will be able to see two schemes that have already spun off that initiative—“A Night Less Ordinary”, which brings together all the London theatres that put on cutting-edge new work, and BAC’s young critics review, which has engendered huge enthusiasm in young people and now been taken over by Arts Council England.

I shall be happy to visit my hon. Friend’s local arts centre, if I can squeeze that into my diary. I understand that until recently it was under threat of closure by his local Conservative borough council. He may also like to know that although we do not yet have the official figures for the free theatre tickets scheme, the anecdotal evidence is very encouraging: the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has already been referred to, has already allocated almost 1,700 tickets for its summer season in Stratford-on-Avon; the West Yorkshire Playhouse has issued more than 1,000 tickets, 87 per cent. of which have gone to young people who are new bookers, who have not been to the theatre before; the scheme’s website has received more than 360,000 unique visits; and, there are now 3,500 members of its Facebook group—one of the other Facebook groups that I shall have to join.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to congratulate Burton Latimer library in my constituency on proving to be an increasingly popular local library resource, and on using ever more innovative ways to encourage local community participation?

Both the Secretary of State and I would like to congratulate the staff at that library in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As the Minister for the region, I know what good work is being done in libraries in Kettering.

I am told that the national skills academy for creative and cultural skills, which is to be co-located with the Royal Opera House project in Thurrock, is in jeopardy because of the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary funding from the Arts Council and the regional development agency. My hon. Friend is the Minister for the East of England as well as being at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Can she assure me from the Dispatch Box today that the inertia will be broken through and that the funding will be obtained? Jobs are in jeopardy and the situation is jeopardising some of the Government’s other strategies for the Thames Gateway. Furthermore, we want the investment for cultural and economic reasons. What is the hold-up? Will my hon. Friend please say what she will do about it?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. The Royal Opera House is to move its scenery operations and some of its rehearsals base to Thurrock. Its work there and the national skills academy’s work at the Royal Opera House are vital. We are working to resolve the hold-up involving the money; I am working on the issue both as Minister for the East of England and as a Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.