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Topical Questions

Volume 521: debated on Thursday 20 January 2011

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.