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Topical Questions

Volume 493: debated on Monday 8 June 2009

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.