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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 521: debated on Thursday 20 January 2011

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent progress his Department has made on the promotion of the UK as a tourist destination. (34700)

With private sector partners, the Government are creating a major, new overseas marketing fund. We are looking to create a fund of £100 million over the next four years which aims to deliver 1 million additional international visitors to the UK and £2 billion in extra visitor spend.

I thank the Minister for his reply. As he will know, the Government are rightly focused on an agenda of growth across our economy. Does he agree that tourism, especially to the regions, such as Leicestershire, and to regional attractions such as the Great Central railway, is a key part of that growth strategy?

I absolutely agree. One of the key points about tourism is that it is an efficient and rapid way of driving economic growth and regeneration and that it does that in all parts of the country outside the south-east. It is an excellent tool for rebalancing our economy.

My constituency is home to Chester zoo, one of our nation’s foremost visitor attractions. With more than 25 million people visiting zoos and aquariums in the UK every year, what help can the Minister offer to promote such an important part of our visitor economy?

We are engaged in a recalibration and reorganisation of local tourist boards—destination management organisations, to use the jargon—which are being refocused to become more private sector-led. The express intention is to give prominent attractions, such as Chester zoo, a much bigger and stronger say in how their local destinations are promoted and marketed to tourists in the UK and abroad.

What assessment has the Minister made of the rise in VAT on the potential for the promotion of tourism? Would he explain to people who provide tourism products whether they should absorb the cost of that rise, thereby cutting their profits, or pass it on to their customers, thereby offering a disincentive for tourism in the UK?

Clearly the rise in VAT is principally a matter for the Treasury, but it affects all economic sectors and every business in the country will have to make precisely the judgment that the right hon. Gentleman describes. As a politician, I would not dream of telling individual businesses how to run their business—it must rightly be a matter for them—but I am sure that, because they have skin in the game, they will make the right decision for their business in their particular sector.

Is the Minister aware of how important literary houses in the UK are to visitors from overseas and from this country? I chair the John Clare Trust—he was one of our greatest poets of the countryside and environment. It is very difficult these days to get a brown sign or any help to put such attractions on the map. Can the Minister help us?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that our listed houses are major tourist attractions, and that includes our great heritage houses and the smaller and more modest places that are listed. If he is interested in promoting them more effectively, and I applaud his efforts in doing so, he should speak first with his local tourist board, which will be refocused in the way I have explained. We are also evaluating whether there are other ways to improve things such as signage, and not just brown signs, but signs at major transport interchanges, such as those that direct people on how to get to a particular attraction once they have arrived at a train station. All those points are essential and should be handled by the newly refocused and, I hope, revitalised local tourist boards.

Grass-roots Sport

2. What proportion of sport governing bodies have committed to spend 30% of their broadcast income on grass-roots sports. (34701)

As these are the first departmental questions since the new year, I will start by putting on the record—I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members—our congratulations to the England cricket team on their triumph in Australia this winter.

At the same time as announcing the decision on listing of sports television coverage in the summer, I challenged sports to take a hard look at what more they could do to increase the proportion of their broadcast income that they spend on their grass roots. I am delighted to say that on 22 December all six of the governing bodies that are part of the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s voluntary code committed to ensure that at least 30% of the net revenues from their UK broadcasting rights are reinvested. In total, that means that at least £250 million a year will go to grass-roots sport.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, which is welcome news for sport, and I am sure that we all congratulate him on what he is doing. Can he confirm that, together with reforms to the national lottery, that will mean that funding going to grass-roots sports will be higher at the end of this Parliament than it was under the previous Labour Government?

That is indeed correct. Sport England will experience a small dip next year, but after that the lottery reforms kick in and its income will be up by 14% at the end of this comprehensive spending review period.

At the end of November, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), announced that he was setting up a UK film forum to plot the progress of UK film industry funding. Can the Minister for Sport and the Olympics inform the House whether the forum has met and what progress has been made?

Order. We are talking about sport, and I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to request a similar facility in relation to sport.

I am grateful to the Minister and to the hon. Gentleman.

Liz Kendall. Not here. I call Heidi Alexander.

Olympics (Economic Legacy)

5. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Greater London authority on the economic legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. (34705)

We are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Greater London authority to ensure an economic legacy for London, and we are in regular contact with the six east London host boroughs. London businesses, including five in the borough of Lewisham, which I know will please the hon. Lady, have already won from the Olympic Delivery Authority contracts with a total value of more than £3 billion.

May I press the Minister on the affordability of the housing that will be available in the athletes village once the games are over, particularly the flats that will be up for sale on the private market? On a recent visit to the Olympic site, I was told that the anticipated asking price for a two-bedroom flat is between £350,000 and £400,000. Does the Minister agree that that puts those properties out of reach of the vast majority of ordinary people and, in particular, ordinary Londoners?

I shall answer the question in two parts. Let us remember that a considerable portion of the houses in the Olympic village has already been acquired by Triathlon Homes as affordable housing; that is very much a key part of the scheme. In terms of what happens to the Olympic village after the games, we have been extremely careful with the expressions of interests that we have looked at precisely not to put housing values on it, so I do not know where the hon. Lady got that figure from. It might be a market guesstimate, but it is no more than that at the moment.

I am sure we all agree that the economic legacy of the Olympic park will be in part secured by identifying a long-term tenant for the Olympic stadium. Does the Minister therefore agree that when we bid to host the games, the bid book was clear that the stadium’s legacy would have athletics at its core, with associated multi-sport availability for the local community? Does he also recognise that the Olympic Park Legacy Company will make a decision on the tenant on 28 January? There are two contenders, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham football clubs, but does he agree that only the joint bid from Newham council and West Ham football club fulfils the commitments we made when we won the games?

The right hon. Lady is of course correct. At the time of the bid, the commitment was to leave a 25,000-seater mixed-use stadium, with athletics at its core, so we have already broken a part of that, in that there is not going to be—I would guess—a 25,000-seater stadium. I hear what she says about the future of the Olympic stadium, as I have had my ear bent on the issue by a number of hon. Members. The Olympic Park Legacy Company is going through a quasi-judicial process, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment either way at this stage, but I hear what she says.

Community Broadband

My officials continue to engage with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and the devolved Administrations regarding the next wave of funding for superfast broadband as part of the £530 million that we have secured from the TV licence fee settlement. The next locations for funded projects are due to be announced in May 2011.

As the Minister is aware, Suffolk is a particularly rural county that will derive significant economic benefits from the widespread deployment of high-speed broadband. He will be aware also of our advanced stage of preparedness in having a public-private partnership to deliver it, so will he please be a little more specific and tell us when he is going to announce the timeline for the next delivery phase of those broadband projects?

I am delighted to do that. We have set aside £50 million for the next wave of superfast broadband projects, and as we hope to announce the winners in May, we will shortly be tendering for them.

What discussions has the Minister had with BT and other suppliers who still produce maps showing broadband coverage, sign people up and take their money, only for them to find that broadband does not work and probably will not work for many years?

We regularly have discussions with the operators on the advertised broadband speeds that they put out. As Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority have made clear, it is very important that broadband operators should be clear about what speeds are available. However, I am happy to pursue further the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Is the Minister aware that in many parts of the country broadband access is quite good in domestic premises, because the roll-out of cable TV has dealt with domestic problems, but often very poor in commercial premises in high streets and business parks?

Yes. It is important to emphasise that even in an area where, in theory, superfast broadband already exists, there will still be patches where the broadband connections are not as good. That is why we have set aside such a substantial sum of money to help with the roll-out of broadband.

Olympics (Scotland)

The UK Government have set out their plans to make the most of the games for the UK as a whole. Twenty-three businesses registered in Scotland have won work supplying the Olympic Delivery Authority and 36 contracts have been awarded to Scottish businesses through CompeteFor, the online brokerage service. In addition, I regularly meet the Scottish Government to ensure that Scotland continues to benefit from London 2012 and to support their plans for the Commonwealth games in 2014. I am meeting sports Ministers from the devolved nations next month.

I thank the Minister for his response. Next year, it will be four years since Team GB’s fantastic showing in Beijing. I am delighted to say that one of the supreme athletes of that team, Chris Hoy, said at the time when he won his medals that he was proud to be Scottish but also proud to be part of the UK team, and that he could not have achieved what he did had he not been part of it. I think that that sentiment would be echoed by almost all Members of this House apart from the separatists. Might the Government produce a report, or send me a letter, outlining exactly what benefits Scotland will see from the 2012 Olympics?

Yes, certainly. To some extent, I answered that question when I said that 23 businesses have won work and 36 contracts have been achieved through CompeteFor. Many Scottish athletes play a key part in our Olympic preparations; the hon. Gentleman mentioned one of many. The Scottish team is an integral part of Team GB and will, I am sure, contribute greatly to what I hope will be a record-busting haul at the London Olympics.

Is it not the truth, though, that Scotland will get absolutely zilch from the London Olympics? Written questions have revealed that out of 1,433 tier 1 contracts, Scotland has secured a measly 25. Yet the Minister will still not agree to apply the Barnett consequentials, which means that Scotland is owed some £165 million. Does not that make an absolute joke of the claim by Conservatives and Labour that this is a games for the whole country, when it is clearly a games for England and the south-east?

My definition of zilch is not 23 businesses and 36 contracts—that is not zilch in anybody’s language, even Scottish. Also, Scottish athletes will benefit from the changes made to the lottery. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that 23 businesses, 36 contracts and a lot of athletes is not zilch.

Creative and Leisure Industries

8. What steps his Department is taking to support jobs and economic growth in the creative industries and leisure sectors. (34708)

The creative and leisure industries have an important role in driving economic growth. We are therefore undertaking a number of initiatives to support these sectors, including a digital and creative industries growth review, the creation of Creative England, which will have a hub in Birmingham, a new overseas marketing fund for tourism, and the development of a new tourism strategy that will help to support the growth in tourism and leisure industries.

My constituency includes some major employers in the leisure, creative and tourism industries, from the premiership football clubs, Aston Villa and Birmingham City, to the Symphony hall and Hippodrome theatre. With the regional development agencies being abolished and local enterprise partnerships having no statutory role to promote tourism, what are the Government doing to support these vital jobs in my constituency?

I understand that Visit England has a transition team, which the hon. Lady should call. I take this opportunity to heap praise on Birmingham as a creative and cultural centre. Perhaps everyone in the House could welcome the new Birmingham central library, in which some £200 million is being invested—a good news story for libraries.

High-speed Broadband

9. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the telecommunications industry on the delivery of high-speed broadband. (34709)

I am working intensively to ensure that the UK has the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015, and I am in constant contact with a wide range of telecoms companies and other stakeholders in that connection.

On 19 February, I and other North Yorkshire MPs from across the House will host the Ripon conference to celebrate North Yorkshire’s winning one of the superfast broadband pilots. It will bring together members of all parts of the community to consider how superfast broadband can made a difference to every part of North Yorkshire. Will he send a message to the conference or, hopefully, attend it?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the people of North Yorkshire on getting one of the pilots. I hope that I can make it to the conference. I spent new year’s eve in North Yorkshire before continuing my holidays in Newcastle.

Following the unfortunate conversation between the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and journalists from The Daily Telegraph, the whole of telecommunications policy has been vested in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. What steps will the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport take to ensure that the Department takes full account of the interests of internet users and service providers, as well as the content providers that have been its historical interest?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a number of officials will move over from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—indeed, they used to work for him. They are very experienced in working with internet service providers and others.

About 50% of households have access to high-speed broadband, but sadly only about 0.2% of them have bothered to sign up. Does the Minister agree that if we are to get what he wants, which is the best high-speed broadband in Europe, we have to stimulate demand for it? Does he agree that the BBC should use some of the money allocated to it for this area of work to stimulate demand, rather than just building infrastructure?

It is important to make it clear that the money from the TV licence fee will be used to roll out superfast broadband, but an important part of our broadband strategy—what is known as demand stimulation—is that more people take up superfast broadband. Martha Lane Fox and others are working to increase take-up of broadband.

I welcome what the Minister is saying. This matter segues into the Government’s proposal for more local television, which I also welcome. There is local town TV in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and much of Europe, but very little in Britain. I urge the Government to resist the big broadcasting monoliths and vested media interests, who will not like this proposal. Can Rotherham have an early experiment with local TV, because I do not feel that I get quite the airtime that I should on the national networks? I am sure that if there were a local TV station in Rotherham, I would appear at least once a month.

The right hon. Gentleman has given a clear signal to this House why every hon. Member should support the roll-out of local television—the flagship policy of this Department.

Football Governance

10. What plans he has to bring forward proposals on football governance; and if he will make a statement. (34710)

In line with the commitment in the Government’s coalition agreement, I am in discussion with the football authorities on what further steps they can take to bring about further governance reform and a greater involvement for supporters in their local clubs. I hope to set out the way forward in this area by May. I will take a close interest in the inquiry that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is conducting on this issue.

Last year, the future of Ilkeston Town football club in my constituency of Erewash was in doubt because of difficulties. New owners were secured, and I am sure that the Minister will join me in wishing them all the best for the future. It was the efforts of local residents, who submitted a supporters’ bid, that really caught the imagination locally. Will he set out in more detail what efforts the Government are making to advance this interesting policy area?

I absolutely hear what my hon. Friend says. It was our intention to bring forward plans in the new year, but in view of the huge interest in the matter throughout the House, which was evidenced by a debate in Westminster Hall, we thought it sensible to let the Culture, Media and Sport Committee look into it first, as it had announced its intention to do so. We will consider that report before deciding what further steps to take.

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point about her football club and the role that supporters have played. The problem we have historically had in this country is that there are many different types of football club ownership, which makes a one-size-fits-all solution hard to get to.

Premier league footballers are vastly overpaid, premier league clubs are hugely in debt and our national football team is, in many ways, a disgrace. Meanwhile, in the real world, non-league clubs such as Kettering Town football club are struggling to provide suitable ground facilities despite massive fan support. Does the Minister agree that football as it is in this country at the moment faces an unsustainable future unless governance issues are properly sorted out?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that football governance issues need attention and action, which I believe is precisely why the Select Committee has responded to the anxiety throughout the House and announced its investigation.

If we look across all sports, it is clear that football is the worst-governed sport in this country, without a shadow of a doubt. When Labour was in government, it often made the point that the levels of corporate governance in football lagged far behind other sports, which are by no means beacons in that regard. Action is needed and the Government will take it, but we want to see the results of the Select Committee report first.

BBC Governance

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the governance arrangements for the BBC; and if he will make a statement. (34712)

We have made good progress in improving governance at the BBC, including the announcement made in September by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster) about allowing the National Audit Office unfettered access to BBC accounts.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. When considering the governance of the BBC, will he also examine BBC impartiality? On “The Alan Davies Show” last year, BBC employees likened the Freedom Association to the British National party and its founder, the late second world war hero Norris McWhirter, to one of Mosley’s brownshirts. When I wrote to the BBC I received a ridiculous letter from Mark Thompson refusing to apologise. Will my right hon. Friend demand that the BBC starts to live up to the obligation in its own charter?

I agree that impartiality at the BBC is paramount and that the particular comments to which my hon. Friend refers were totally inappropriate. I can understand why many people found them offensive. By way of reassurance, I say to him that in the selection process for the new chairman of the BBC Trust, which is responsible for impartiality, we have said that all candidates must show commitment to improving governance at the BBC. I hope that these issues will continue to be addressed.

The Secretary of State and I agree about the importance of the impartiality of the BBC. With the withdrawal of Sir Howard Davies from the shortlist for the chairmanship of the BBC Trust, there is growing speculation that the favourite is now the former chairman of the Conservative party. In those circumstances, it is particularly important that the appointment process is transparent. Will the Secretary of State therefore agree that the all-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee should scrutinise the two candidates referred to him by the appointment panel before he makes a recommendation to the Prime Minister?

Let me reassure the shadow Secretary of State that the process is transparent and fair. If he does not like it, he and the last Labour Government should not have set it up when they established the BBC Trust.

I thank the Secretary of State, from the bottom of my heart, for what he said about the disgraceful attack on the reputation of Norris McWhirter, whom the BBC was delighted to have as one of its star celebrities for decade after decade. May I tell him that I worked with Norris McWhirter for many years in politics, and one could never find a more dedicated opponent of totalitarianism? That is hardly surprising given that at the age of 17, he volunteered for the Royal Navy and took part in one of the most successful anti-U-boat organisations in the battle of the Atlantic. It was a particular disgrace that someone—David Baddiel—who, like me, is from a Jewish background, should denounce that admirable man as a fascist or a Nazi sympathiser simply because he disagreed with him politically.

I echo what I said about the importance of impartiality, and say simply to my hon. Friend that given his sustained interest in that, many people at the BBC are gutted that he did not put his name forward for the chairmanship of the BBC Trust.

BBC World Service

We had a number of discussions on funding for the BBC both with the BBC and with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the context of licence fee discussions.

For those living in countries where free speech is threatened or non-existent, the BBC World Service provides a vital and powerful source of unbiased information. I welcomed the Foreign Secretary’s reassurance back in September that the Burma operation is unlikely to face closure, but will the Secretary of State reassure the House that he is working with his Cabinet colleagues and the BBC to ensure that in countries that face significant political upheaval, that voice of independent free speech will be upheld?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about the outstanding beacon for freedom that the BBC World Service represents, not least given the lifeline it offered to the people of Haiti and the 3.1 million people who are reported to use it in Iran. She is absolutely right. If it is any reassurance, closure of any language service must have the written consent of the Foreign Secretary. We are confident that the BBC World Service can sustain its current plans.

Access to Culture (Young People)

13. What proportion of his Department’s expenditure for 2010-11 supports access to culture for young people; and if he will make a statement. (34714)

My Department invests more than £1.6 billion into our sponsored bodies and much of it is fundamentally connected to improving children’s and young people’s access to the fantastic culture that we enjoy in this country. We are working closely with the Department for Education on a review of music education, and will shortly announce details of a review of cultural education, to ensure that we are taking the best approach to investment in, and the delivery of, culture for young people.

Now that young people have lost their education maintenance allowance and their free theatre ticket scheme, “A night less ordinary”, and that we know that there is no replacement in a good education for access to live music and theatre and other arts, what action will the Minister take in these very difficult circumstances for the cultural sector to ensure that young people, and especially those from poorer backgrounds, are not the ones who lose out?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiments. I know that she used to work for Creative Partnerships and was a trustee of the South London gallery. She will know full well that almost all our cultural organisations work extremely hard to ensure access for young people to their work. We will continue to work with them and the Department for Education to ensure that that is maintained.


14. When he expects to reach a decision on whether to refer to the Competition Commission the News Corporation bid for BSkyB. (34715)

As a former Minister with responsibility for competition in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I know that the Secretary of State will want seriously to consider the evidence and not to prejudge what should be done in this case—unlike his predecessor. However, does he agree that given his own very high-profile comments about Rupert Murdoch and BSkyB, it might be sensible in this case, in which justice needs to be seen to be done as well as to be done, for him to hand over the decision to someone who will be seen to be more impartial, if not actually more impartial?

This is not a decision about Rupert Murdoch or his business; it is a decision about whether a specific transaction will affect plurality. I am approaching that decision with total impartiality and following strict due process.

What purpose does the Secretary of State believe is served by ministerial discretion on such decisions when Parliament could instead empower the Competition Commission to instigate such investigations on its own initiative?

Ministerial discretion is restricted to what is reasonable and fair in the eyes of the law. The process was set up in the Enterprise Act 2002 by the previous Government. It is incredibly important that due process is followed at every stage. We will publish exactly what we have done and whom we have met at every stage of the process when I make my decision, in order for Parliament to be able to scrutinise the process and ensure that it has been totally fair and impartial.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would accept that the Government’s handling of this quasi-judicial responsibility has been nothing short of a constitutional disgrace. The Business Secretary was stripped of his responsibilities because he

“declared war on Mr Murdoch”,

the Culture Secretary is on record as saying that he sees no problem with this particular deal, and the Prime Minister has now been found tucking into turkey in the middle of the process with the chief executive of News International. What breathtaking arrogance and contempt for their constitutional responsibilities!

Will the Secretary of State now tell the whole House whether he intends to meet any of the concerned parties before making a decision on this referral? Will he also release the Ofcom report—he has the ability to do so—in advance of making his decision, so that the House can be reassured that his judgment is impartial?

I remind the shadow Culture Secretary that when the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) made the decision on the Sky ITV purchase he published the Ofcom report when he announced his decision, so I am doing nothing different to what he did. On the issue of impartiality, I say this:

“Rupert Murdoch”—


“been a force for good in improving the quality of broadcasting for British consumers”.

Those are not my words, but those of the shadow Culture Secretary. I wish that he would stop sucking up to the Murdochs.

Topical Questions

I am pleased to announce that we have appointed three new non-executive directors to the Department’s board. They are David Verey, who is the chairman of the Art Fund and former chairman of the Tate; Peter Bazalgette, who is the former chairman of Endemol; and Lord Coe, who is attending on an ex-officio basis as chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Many young people across north Yorkshire will be hoping to get tickets for the Olympics when they become available next month. How can we ensure that travel costs do not become a limitation for young people coming from the regions and hoping to take advantage of this fantastic event?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we want the Olympics to be something that is exciting for everyone throughout the whole country. On the specific costs of travelling to London, I suggest that he talks to his rail company to see whether it can help out. We wish him every success, and will give him every support we can, in that process.

The Labour mayor of Lewisham says that he did not seek election to close down libraries, but that is the scale of the cuts. In Milton Keynes, a Liberal Democrat councillor says that the financial challenge means that money will be taken out of the library service. My local council in Nottinghamshire, run by the Conservatives, tells me that, to reduce expenditure, 28 libraries will reduce their opening hours. So councils of all colours do not want to reduce library provision, but the Government are forcing them to do so. What will Ministers do about it?

I remind the hon. Lady that one of the reasons why councils have reduced funding is the economic mess that her party left this country in; that is why they are having to make the tough decisions that they are having to make. We are not standing by: I have contacted all local authority to remind them of their statutory duty and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council continues to work closely with a number of authorities on their proposals for the future of their library services.

T3. A campaign group in my constituency has recently submitted an expression of interest in applying for an FM licence to run the first community radio station covering the whole area, to be called Chase FM. Can the Minister assure me that part of the community radio fund will still be available for new licence applications such as that one, and will he join me in wishing Chase FM all the best with its application? (34722)

We are strong supporters of community radio. We have set aside almost £500,000 this financial year for it, and that funding will continue for the rest of this Parliament. Ofcom is considering whether there should be a third round of community radio licences and I will keep my hon. Friend informed.

T2. I noticed earlier that the Minister never really answered the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), so I will put it again. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of the withdrawal of the education maintenance allowance on the participation by young people in the arts and the theatre? (34721)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, several arts organisations provide fantastic opportunities for young people to access culture and education, and we will conduct a review of cultural education in the next few months which we hope will come up with recommendations that will enhance it.

May I take this opportunity to wish Chase FM the greatest of luck in applying for a community radio licence?

T5. Given the increasing reliance of businesses on the internet and the Government’s commitment to economic growth, will the Minister assure me that he will favourably consider including rural Devon, which has some of the poorest internet coverage in the country, in the second phase of the broadband pilot scheme? (34725)

As I said earlier, we hope to set up a second round of pilots for broadband roll-out, for which we have set aside £50 million, but obviously that process is being run by Broadband Delivery UK, and it would be wrong for Ministers to favour one area above another.

We would obviously like to associate ourselves with the Minister’s congratulations earlier to the England cricket team. However, he also claimed that funding for grass-roots sport will be higher at the end of the Parliament than it was at the beginning. How can that be the case, when local teams and clubs up and down the country are on the front line of cuts and facing higher fees and charges to hire pitches, sports halls and pools, and when local sports co-ordinators and county sports partnerships are sacking staff, all as a result of the cuts to local government spending imposed by his Government? What assessment has he made of the impact that local government finance will have on grass-roots sport, and what discussions has he had with his colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government?

I gave the answer I did because, according to the figures and projections for Exchequer and lottery funding to Sport England, the latter received £249 million this year and will receive £284 million by the end of the Parliament. That is a 14% increase by anybody’s maths. On local authorities, we are looking at the matter closely, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in trying to convince and reassure local authorities that they should not be closing sport and leisure facilities. There is no reason for them to do that—it is a choice they have to make—and I would encourage all of them to continue to build on the considerable investment that the Government are making in sport, both through UK Sport, Sport England and the London—

I am delighted that the Government have committed to backing the 2013 rugby league world cup, but there remains a concern that with the abolition of regional development agencies some significant funding from those sources will no longer be available. Will the Minister reaffirm the Government’s commitment and perhaps update the House on discussions with the Rugby Football League about ensuring that this important tournament is a big success?

Absolutely. I can confirm the answer that I gave on this subject during, I think, the previous Culture, Media and Sport questions or the ones before that: I have made it absolutely clear that all world cups, in whatever sport, should be treated on exactly the same basis, and I have written to the chief executive of the RFL to confirm that. I am aware that there is an issue, however, because the regional development agency has withdrawn its offer of funding. Those involved are trying to work through that, and I will do everything that I can to help.

T4. My constituency is in central Scotland, and is neither rural nor isolated, but it does suffer from problems with broadband coverage. At the moment, it is falling between the cracks of action—or rather inaction—between what industry is doing and what the Government are doing. What will the Government do to help constituencies such as mine, and will West Dunbartonshire be considered as one of the pilot programmes to be announced later this year? (34724)

I will say again that we have set aside £530 million for broadband. We are starting with four pilots in the next few months, and will be announcing another four pilots—or possibly even more—in May 2011. We continue to engage through Broadband Delivery UK with regions across the United Kingdom, and I would urge the hon. Lady to work with her local councillors and BDUK.

Areas served by relay transmitters, such as Darwen, Whitewell, Newchurch, Bacup and Whitworth, receive about 15 Freeview channels, while those served by a main transmitter receive up to 40. Before switchover is complete, will the Minister confirm whether he has any plans to deal with this digital deprivation?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of his constituents, and it is good that he has raised it. There has never been universal television coverage. About 90% of television viewers get the full range of Freeview channels, and about 98.5% get the basic 15. I will be happy to have discussions with him. This is a commercial decision for the operators, but it is worth having a dialogue.

Among the great cultural gems of this country are the regional museums of England, such as the People’s History museum in Manchester, so why is this most philistine of Governments withdrawing funding from these great museums, given that they know that local authorities cannot pick up the tab?

I object to the Government being described as a philistine Government, particularly by one of the country’s leading television historians. He and I are working extremely closely on preserving the Wedgwood collections, and I hope he is not thinking, “Philistine, philistine” as we sit down for our discussions. Funding is tight because his philistine Government bankrupted the country.

Is the tourism Minister aware that because One North East did all its tourism promotion work in-house it fell foul of the Government’s advertising ban, and that there is currently no promotion of the fantastic attractions of Northumberland? Will he work to ensure that a business-led alternative can get into place quickly?

I am aware of the problem; indeed, my right hon. Friend and I had a conversation about it in the Lobby yesterday evening. There are isolated examples of such issues in different parts of the country, depending on what has been happening with RDAs and their wind-down. As we discussed last night, I would urge him to speak to the transition team at VisitEngland and, if necessary, its chief executive, James Berresford. VisitEngland has a team specifically set up to help midwife the change from the old regime to the new, but if my right hon. Friend has any problems, he should let me know.

T6. My constituents in Wirral currently enjoy the regional television that exists. Although we offer a cautious welcome to the Secretary of State’s proposals for local television, there is a fear about what might happen to that which we already enjoy. Can he say more about how he will protect the quality of local television services? (34726)

Let me reassure the hon. Lady that we are interested in this issue because we want local television to be more local and better than it is. One of the problems with regional television at the moment is that the footprint is so large that it is difficult to put out programming and news that have the impact that real local television has. I have every confidence that what we announced yesterday will make a huge difference to her constituents in the Wirral.

The Minister might consider the failure of north-east tourism to be able to promote itself—a failure caused by the cuts that this Government have imposed—to be an isolated problem, but it is a real problem in the north-east. If he takes the trouble to visit the north-east, I am sure that an array of critics in the north-east tourism industry, including the National Trust, will make their feelings well known to him.

As I hope I have made clear, I am aware of the issues. I would be delighted to come to visit some of the north-east’s impressive tourism attractions, including such places as Holy island and many others. I would love to do that in due course, but if the hon. Gentleman has specific examples of problems in his area, I would repeat what I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) earlier, which is that there is a team specifically set up at VisitEngland to cope with precisely those issues.

The Government claim that the Olympic games would benefit the whole of the UK. Does the Minister agree that the 0.17% of contracts awarded to firms in the north-east is absolutely disgraceful and another kick in the teeth for the region?

No, I would not, because all such contracts have to be competed for on a commercial basis, as the hon. Gentleman needs to be aware, and there are strict rules that govern that. He is perfectly well aware that we cannot simply award contracts to one part of the country because it has not had enough before. What firms in those parts of the country should be doing is putting in competitive contracts because, as we heard in previous answers, many of those contracts have been awarded to British firms.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

IPSA (Liaison Group)

1. What progress has been made on the creation of a liaison group between hon. Members and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. (34728)

My hon. Friend will be aware of your statement on this matter yesterday, Mr Speaker. I welcome the initiative, and I understand that the liaison group will meet soon.

At present, IPSA costs the taxpayer more than its predecessor and employs one member of staff for every nine Members of Parliament. Its bureaucracy is so complicated that it takes staff roughly 1,700 calls a week to unravel its complexities. Does the Leader of the House consider that to be progress, and could he do the taxpayer a great service by offering assistance in haste to the parliamentary standards—

Order. I think we have got the gist of it, but the hon. Gentleman’s question was too long.

I agree with my hon. Friend: there are opportunities to drive down the costs, and not just for IPSA, but for Members and their staff who have to operate the system. The existing regime was set up to a challenging timetable, and IPSA is the first to recognise that improvements can be made. I hope that my hon. Friend will respond to the review that is under way and put forward suggestions for reducing the costs on both sides of the equation.

Does the Leader of the House agree that the comments made over Christmas by a member of the IPSA board—comments that were ill-informed and insulting to many Members of Parliament—were not helpful in building a positive relationship between this House and IPSA? Could he put those comments on the agenda for the liaison group’s first meeting?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those comments were not helpful. I hope that one of the benefits of setting up the liaison group will be that we will now have a proper forum for consultation between IPSA and the House, and that there will be no need to resort to public acrimony in the newspapers. I hope that we will be able to have a sensible discussion and iron out some of the real difficulties that exist, without experiencing the kind of incidents to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred.

Earlier this week, because IPSA had failed to tell me that it had put in place a direct payment to my landlord of my London rent, as I had requested, I also paid her for my January rent. This makes for one very happy landlord and one less happy bank manager. Does my right hon. Friend agree that better communication between IPSA and MPs is vital if the expenses system is to operate in a fair and efficient way?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has had to dig into her own resources to pay her landlady twice. One of the initiatives that I and other Members are anxious to drive forward is the removal of the need for payments to go in and out of MPs’ bank accounts. If we can move more towards direct payments by IPSA or the use of a credit card, the sort of misunderstanding that has just occurred could be avoided.

I declare an interest, as a member of the new liaison group. The House has made it clear that IPSA must reform to provide a simpler, cheaper and non-discriminatory expenses system, and the Prime Minister has told it that it must “get a grip”. What assurances has the Leader of the House had from IPSA that advice from the new liaison group will be take seriously in shaping that reform? Can he also tell us what tests the Government will apply in deciding whether IPSA has reformed itself sufficiently or whether further action needs to be taken?

I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady will be serving on the liaison group; she will make a really positive contribution to its proceedings. IPSA will take the new body seriously, because it was set up at IPSA’s suggestion. On her last point, it will not be for the Government to decide whether IPSA has responded to the challenges that she has outlined; it will be a matter for the House.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Savings Programme

2. What assessment the House of Commons Commission has made of the effects of its savings programme on the ability of Committees of the House to scrutinise the work of the Executive. (34729)

A guiding principle of the savings programme, as agreed by the Commission and the Finance and Services Committee, is that it must not damage the ability of the House to scrutinise the Executive. The Commission is confident that the savings being made in 2011-12 will adhere to that principle and enable Committees of the House to continue to fulfil their vital scrutiny role, and this is a matter that we will keep a close eye on.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role. I understand why the House is making savings, but we would not find it acceptable if budget cuts prevented a quarter of our Members from travelling to Westminster to attend debates or Committees. A few of our Select Committees exist specifically to scrutinise the impact and effectiveness of Government policies and expenditure abroad. Does the House of Commons Commission accept that it is sometimes essential for those Committees to travel to other countries, and that, when they do so, none of their members should be excluded from their meetings?

The hon. Gentleman is a noted member of the International Development Committee. There will be £800,000 for Select Committee travel in 2011-12. That is a substantial sum of money at a time of financial stringency, and the Commission believes that it will be sufficient for those occasions on which an overseas visit makes an essential contribution to an inquiry. The Committees that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned will have a clear claim to be making essential inquiries, but the way in which the budget is used is ultimately a matter for the Liaison Committee.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post as well; he will do a good job. Is he aware that younger, and—dare I say it?—more progressive Members of the House scrutinise the Executive using social media such as Facebook and Twitter? Twitter is free. Will he give us an unequivocal commitment that Members should be able to use Twitter to hold the Government to account?

I deeply regret to inform the hon. Gentleman that I am a dinosaur when it comes to the Twittery thing; I really have not a clue how it works. May I discuss the matter with him later to find out exactly what he is talking about?


The Leader of the House was asked—


3. What recent progress he has made on the Government’s plans to link petitions to debates in the House. (34730)

5. What recent progress he has made on the Government’s plans to link petitions to debates in the House. (34732)

6. What recent progress he has made on the Government’s plans to link petitions to debates in the House. (34733)

As the Leader of the House has said, the Government will move the online petition system to the Directgov portal soon—certainly before the summer. Officials are now working on an effective verification system to ensure that petitions become a useful tool for engaging with the Government, in contrast to the gimmicky approach of the previous Government’s No. 10 petition site. My briefing notes say that, at this point, I should use the pseudo-word “clicktivism”, a neologism as ugly as it is unintelligible. I have no intention of associating myself with it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He is, I know, aware that the rail line between Manchester and Clitheroe is in desperate need of improvement. If the requisite number of signatures were collected by a “clicktivism” or anything else, could it be debated in this House and, if so, what impact does he think it would have on Government policy?

That is exactly the sort of issue that might well commend itself for a debate via the petition system. I commend my hon. Friend for his vigorous campaigning on the issue. Rather than wait for that to happen, he might like to pursue the option of having an Adjournment debate in order to debate the matter further.

Can the Minister say what a “direct portal” is? As I understand it, petitions were made to No. 10, so I hope he is going to confirm that petitions will now go to the House of Commons and that the House of Commons will debate petitions to it, not to No. 10.

Well, the petitions will be to the House of Commons, but the Government’s site will be used simply because it is there. The “Directgov” site is the common site for connexions via the internet to Government. I believe that the address is, so the hon. Gentleman might like to look at it and see whether it is a sensible portal to use—if he accepts the word “portal” at all.

The Committee itself made it clear in its first special report that in determining what business should be taken, it would consider

“public petitions recently submitted to the House and petitions published on the Downing Street website—until such time as a system for electronic petitions to the House is implemented”.

We very much welcome the Committee’s continued interest in e-petitions as a source of debate, and we will work with it and with the Procedure Committee in making sure that we have a proper procedure for linking petitions to Parliament.

I am very surprised that the Deputy Leader of the House has not followed the Scottish Parliament system for public petitions, given that that has been widely praised both by his predecessor and by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Will he briefly outline why there is such a divergence between the 10-year-plus Scottish Parliament system and this system?

I do not think that there is a huge divergence. We looked at the Scottish system and at whether it was applicable. The Procedure Committee, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has also looked at the issue. We have the Directgov site in place, and we are keen for people to be able to put petitions before the House at the earliest opportunity—and this provides the earliest opportunity. As I said, I hope we can get it up and running before the summer. If the Procedure Committee has further views on how the system could be changed in the future, we would certainly be open to its suggestions.

Pre-Adjournment Debate

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the format of the pre-Adjournment debate held on 21 December 2010. (34731)

May I say how much I welcome the decision of the Backbench Business Committee to retain the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which is a venerable institution, as indeed are the contributions of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) to it, as they always provide a tour d’horizon of his constituency? We are always very pleased to know what is going on in Southend West.

I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and its excellent Chairman on their innovative work and I am delighted that all those who wanted to speak in that Adjournment debate were called, but does the Minister have any feel for whether the new arrangements have achieved the objectives on ministerial responses?

I think that ministerial responses—I set aside my own efforts—were better than usual, simply because they were informed by a pre-knowledge of the topics that Members intended to raise.

Forty-five Members participated in the debate on 21 December 2010, compared with 23 in 2009 and 25 in 2008, and I believe that according to most measures that must be considered a success.

Not only did 45 Members speak, but every Member who wanted to speak was able to do so. The fact that six Ministers responded from the Dispatch Box made the occasion very popular with Back Benchers, and also ensured that they were much more able to hold the Government to account. The debate was in its usual slot, but does the Deputy Leader of the House welcome the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has done some innovating of its own?

I think it is terrific that the Backbench Business Committee is prepared to consider new ways of doing things in order to establish whether we can improve the procedures of the House, and I can only congratulate it on doing so. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady for ensuring that I had sufficient time in which to address, at least briefly, the points raised in the debate.

I know—my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will announce it later—that the hon. Lady’s Committee has decided that there is scope for a debate on parliamentary reform, and I think that that too is extremely useful. We will work closely with the Committee in trying to do things better in future, and I hope that the hon. Lady will continue her good work.

There is no reason why the end-of-term Adjournment debate need take place only at the end of term. It could take place on other occasions in the parliamentary timetable as well. Would the Deputy Leader of the House welcome that?

I always welcome opportunities for Back Benchers to have their say on matters that concern them and their constituents, and I am always happy to make myself available to respond to such debates. I am sure that my ministerial colleagues would say the same.


The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Procedural Data Programme

7. What progress the procedural data programme has made on the provision in electronic form to the Official Report of the text of answers to parliamentary questions. (34735)

On 16 December, the procedural data programme board agreed to the project initiation document for a pilot project on electronic delivery of answers. That pilot is due to end in March 2011. The project team will produce a report recommending next steps, which the board will consider in May.

I was astonished to learn of the inefficient process by which—in the 21st century—written answers are published in Hansard. They are typed in the Department and delivered by hand to the House as a print-out, at which point the Hansard reporters have to type them again. I am glad that the Commission is considering changing the process, but may I urge it to do so quickly, and to recognise that short-term costs such as the cost of the necessary software will be outweighed by long-term savings in staff time?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her approval of the steps that the Commission is taking. The process is somewhat complicated, not least because no two Departments use exactly the same technology when preparing answers, and a large amount of business analysis must be conducted to produce a sufficiently detailed understanding of their working practices. However, resource expenditure of £34,970 has been invested in the project, and we will work as expeditiously as possible to arrive at a resolution.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we would save a huge amount of money if written answers and early-day motions were published electronically rather than being printed?

A key part of the savings programme as a whole is considering all the instances in which the use of electronic media would improve the service to Members and reduce costs, while also having the environmental benefit of reducing the use of paper. The Commission certainly intends to consider those matters.