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Topical Questions

Volume 517: debated on Monday 25 October 2010

During the summer, despite the pressures of the comprehensive spending review, we made good progress in our priority areas of tourism, philanthropy, broadband roll-out, local television and the schools Olympics. We will have announcements on all those areas before Christmas.

Many of my constituents have contacted me, concerned about the local independent BBC news that runs in East Yorkshire and Hull through Radio Humberside and programmes such as “Look North”. There is great concern that, because of the cuts to the BBC budget, areas such as East Yorkshire will lose that local independent news. What guarantee can the Minister give me that we will continue to have that?

There is no bigger supporter of local news than me. I made it one of the most important parts of our media policy, but if we are to have a thriving local media sector, people in the sector need an assurance that the BBC will not undertake more local activity than it does; otherwise, they simply will not take the risk of setting up newspapers, radio and television stations, and so on. We have come to a very good solution in this licence fee settlement, which is that the BBC has made a commitment that it will go no more local than it does currently. It is confident that it will be able to continue with its current obligations for the period of the settlement.

T7. Is it not quite wrong that somebody can be sent to jail for not paying their BBC television licence fee? Will the Secretary of State liaise with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the BBC, like every other utility, pursues its civil debts through the civil courts rather than using the force of criminal sanction? (18969)

The licence fee is a curious system, but it has delivered outstanding results for British broadcasting. Most British people, when they go abroad, find that one of the things they miss is the BBC. One reason the BBC has been successful is that it has had sustained income through this rather curious system. That is why we have said that we are on the side of the public on this. We have given the BBC a tough settlement—freezing the licence fee for six years—under which we will continue with the structure of the licence fee as it is.

We will work with the Government on issues where we agree, such as the Olympic games and England’s World cup bid. The Secretary of State will agree that the BBC is one of this country’s great institutions and its future a matter of public interest. Of course, the BBC cannot be exempt from cuts at this difficult time, but may I ask the right hon. Gentleman how he can justify a negotiating process that rode roughshod over the independence of the BBC, crushed any serious prospect of reform and involved no consultation with licence fee payers or parliamentarians? Will he confirm that at one point in the negotiations the BBC Trust board considered mass resignation and that he now faces a judicial review sought by S4C? Is that not another example of the Secretary of State doing a dodgy deal for the Chancellor to further his own political ambitions, instead of providing responsible leadership on an issue of crucial importance to the future of this country?

May I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his post? I am delighted to talk to him about the BBC because the new licence fee settlement was announced last Wednesday and the silence of the Opposition’s response has been absolutely deafening. They have not been able to work out what to do because we have agreed a settlement that is acceptable to the BBC and is very popular with the public. Let me tell him the difference between what happened when his party negotiated the licence fee and when we did it. With his party, it took two years, it cost £3 million and we ended up with an above-inflation rise. With us, it took two weeks, it cost nothing and we got a freeze for six years.

Given Ministers’ helpful answers about the funding of regularly funded organisations in the arts, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that those organisations will be encouraged to do developmental and outreach work in such a way that all corners of the country are reached and that younger and smaller organisations are supported?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right: we have given regularly funded organisations, with the agreement of the Arts Council, a settlement that is nothing like as bad as those in other parts of the public sector. I am very keen that on that basis—I have made this point to everyone I have spoken to about it—they should not cut outreach and education work, of which there are some outstanding examples in his constituency. On the basis of the conversations I have had, I am very reassured that those obligations will continue to be fulfilled.

T2. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating all those involved in Newport’s successful staging of the Ryder cup last month, but does he understand that it is hard for the Government to talk about the long-term economic legacy of major sporting events such as the Ryder cup given that two days after that event they announced 300 job losses at the local passport office? (18964)

I went to the Ryder cup and I thought it was a fantastic example of how major sports events can make an incredible contribution to our wealth. Every year, 3.5 million people come to this country to watch or play in sports events, so they are big wealth generators. However, if we are to continue to support such events, we have to put the public finances on a sustainable footing, and that means using public funds much more efficiently than the hon. Lady’s party did in its 13 years in power.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Yorkshire’s tourism board, Welcome to Yorkshire, is the only tourism agency in Britain to be shortlisted for an award in the world travel awards? Will he join me and all other hon. Members in the House from God’s own county in wishing Welcome to Yorkshire the very best in its endeavours?

I should be delighted to do so. I spoke to the chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, Gary Verity, last week, and he told me about its excellent progress. It is worth pointing out that the board is up against tourist boards that represent entire countries, rather than single counties, in having got this far. I am sure that everyone here is delighted by its progress thus far and of course we wish it luck in the final.

T3. Before the election, the Minister for Sport was keen to applaud Labour’s record on sport and pledged not to undermine it. With the massive cuts to funding for school sport, to local authorities and to Sport England, does he now feel that his Government are undermining the excellent progress that was made under the Labour Government? (18965)

Absolutely not, because, as the hon. Gentleman will see if he examines the figures, in every year for the next four, the amount of money going to UK Sport and Sport England, with the exception of that to Sport England next year, is greater than it was under the Labour Government—so, no.

Many Members on both sides of the House have been kind enough to share their sympathy with me and my constituents about the devastating fire that afflicted Hastings and its pier recently. However, the reports of its death are exaggerated: the sub-structure is intact, the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust is launching an appeal and we hope to rebuild on top of it. Will the Minister meet a group of us so that we can tell him more about it and learn from his experience?

I should be delighted to do so. I confess to some personal experience, in that two years ago Weston-super-Mare pier in my constituency went up in flames, and I am delighted to tell everyone that on Saturday just gone I had the honour of opening it. It was like the first day of the sales, as everybody dashed up to be first through the door. I should be delighted to meet representatives from Hastings and I hope only that they will have a similar renaissance of their pier.

T4. Will the Minister explain why the Government have decided to underwrite the 2015 rugby union world cup, but will not give the same guarantees to the 2013 rugby league world cup? To paraphrase a famous comedian, “Is it because we is northern”? (18966)

Tempting though it is, the answer is absolutely not. If the hon. Lady gets hold of a copy of the letter I wrote to the chief executive of the Rugby Football League when I took over, she will see that I said I was absolutely determined to ensure that precisely the same treatment was applied to both codes of rugby—for obvious reasons. The slight problem was that the RFL did not ask the then Government—of course, the hon. Lady’s Government—as the Rugby Football Union did when mounting the bid. My intention is to treat both similarly.

Before taking office, my right hon. Friend was keen to promote the subtitling of parliamentary coverage. He may be aware that the service often ends by 6 o’clock in the evening, long before our debates here conclude. Will he urge broadcasters to ensure that all our proceedings are accessible to the 1 million users of subtitles who are either deaf or hard of hearing?

We are obviously keen to make parliamentary proceedings accessible to everybody, particularly late-night Adjournment debates, which I take. We now have an e-accessibility forum that is progressing that agenda, and we have also increased the amount of subtitling by broadcasters on a voluntary basis.

T5. Last year, more than 2,500 athletes with learning disabilities took part in the Special Olympics in Leicester. Will the Minister agree to meet those involved, to learn lessons from the event and make sure that people with learning disabilities can play a full part in sports and athletics in this country? (18967)

Absolutely. I visited the event in Leicester last year, and, as the hon. Lady will be aware, the Special Olympics GB team has already been to No. 10 Downing street to meet the Prime Minister before going off to the games in Warsaw. I am absolutely behind the team and would be delighted to meet them. If the hon. Lady would just give me a month while we get the 2018 bid out of the way, I should be absolutely delighted to do anything I can to help.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s earlier comments on broadband. When will the BBC contribution from the licence fee come on stream? Will it form part of the £830 million commitment? Is it designated for a specific project or just part of the general fund?

I am happy to answer that question. As part of the licence fee negotiation that we concluded, the BBC has committed to put £150 million into broadband roll-out for every year of the new BBC licence fee settlement. That is how we shall get the nearly £1 billion of secured investment for the broadband roll-out, and I hope it will benefit my hon. Friend’s and everyone else’s constituency.

T8. How do Ministers intend to ensure that blind and partially sighted people, for whom radio is a vital lifeline, will not be disadvantaged if commercial pressures mount to switch from analogue to digital radio? (18970)

As I mentioned in an earlier answer, we now have an e-accessibility forum that is taking forward many of those issues. One of the vital functions of the forum is to make sure that manufacturers take on board the issues and ensure that partially sighted people and people with other difficulties have full access to programmes through technology.