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Topical Questions

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 5 November 2020

I know that the restrictions introduced in England from today are causing huge anxiety for many sectors covered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which continue to be some of the hardest hit by covid. Of course, these restrictions will not continue a day longer than is necessary, and we have worked closely to ensure that covid-secure venues are able to remain open where work is taking place. Unlike in March, elite sport including football, as well as theatres, and film and TV production, will all continue behind closed doors. I also know, though, that the new restrictions will badly affect jobs and businesses, which is why we have extended our multi-billion pound furlough scheme and increased support for the self-employed. In addition, over £500 million has already been allocated from the cultural recovery fund, and we are working to finalise the sports package with the Treasury.

Without the safety net of league-wide sponsorship and TV broadcast deals to fall back on, second tier rugby clubs will not make it through the pandemic without financial assistance. Will the Secretary of State commit to a £1 million support package to ensure that Bedford Blues—a cherished and viable small and medium-sized enterprise with an attached charity at the heart of our community—survive the season?

I know the challenges that all sports are facing. That is why we have prioritised sports behind closed doors, which will continue through the lockdown. In addition, we are working with the Treasury on what further support may be necessary.

Wicksteed Park is a much-loved leisure and heritage park in Kettering that has been badly hit by the pandemic. Will the Secretary of State do all he can to help Wicksteed Park weather the storm, with a view to a full reopening in its centenary year, next year? (908212)

I share my hon. Friend’s desire for that to happen, and I know what a champion of Wicksteed Park he is. As he will know, the park received almost £250,000 from the heritage emergency fund in June and almost £250,000 from the culture recovery fund in October; that was on top of other awards totalling £2.7 million over the past couple of years.

Does the Secretary of State have a plan for live music and other live performances reopening fully—stage 5 of the route map after 2 December? Will he give an indicative date to allow businesses to plan ahead and take the decisions they need to in order to allow our world-class creative professionals to get back to what they do best?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. There are three main elements to it. First, I very much hope that socially distanced performances will be able to return once we are through this lockdown period. Secondly, we are providing support throughout the covid crisis through the culture recovery fund, and hundreds of millions of pounds have gone to that sector. Thirdly, I very much want to give that date for return. At the moment, I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that it is very difficult to give an accurate date, given the wider context. I want to be able to do that as soon as we can.

The Government knew on 21 September—nearly seven weeks ago—that a national lockdown was necessary to slow the spread of the virus, so why did the Secretary of State encourage cinemas, theatres, venues and other organisations to spend large sums of money on preparing, resourcing and marketing loss-making, reduced capacity productions, knowing that almost all of them would have to close for an extended period of time?

As the hon. Lady will know, we sought to have a regionally based approach, and that was working. Ultimately, though, we could not sustain it, so we had to have this period of lockdown. I am hopeful and confident that once that period of lockdown ends, those productions will be able to continue. I note that we have ensured that rehearsals for them can continue behind closed doors during this lockdown period, which was not the case previously.

Mobile and broadband coverage are going to be important during this winter lockdown, especially for those working at home. What steps has the Department taken to improve mobile coverage in rural areas where it is poor, such as Rowlands Castle, Hambledon and Cheriton in my constituency? (908214)

I know that all those areas in my hon. Friend’s constituency struggle with coverage. That is why we agreed a £1 billion shared rural network deal with operators that will see them collectively increase mobile coverage throughout the United Kingdom to 95% by 2025. I am confident that her constituency will be a beneficiary of that.

[R] The impact of the pandemic on museums across the country will not be wholly understood until funding decisions and budgets are set for the next financial year, whether a museum is funded by a local authority, by a university or directly by central Government. What steps will be taken to ensure link-up and cross-departmental working between Government Departments that directly or indirectly fund museums to ensure that no museum at risk misses out or falls through the cracks? We have one of the Ministers coming to address the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on museums next week, but may I extend an invitation to the Secretary of State also to come to the all-party group shortly? (908217)

I would be delighted to attend my right hon. Friend’s all-party group. Heritage is often an overlooked part of our cultural sector. That is why I am delighted that we have been able to support over 150 museums up and down the country as part of the culture recovery fund. That includes, in his own area, Bristol’s iconic SS Great Britain getting £900,000, and more than £500,000 for the aerospace museum in Filton.

Freelancers in my constituency and across the UK are the backbone of the culture and arts industries, but many have suffered badly through their exclusion from the furlough and self-employed support schemes. Has the Secretary of State persuaded the Chancellor to include them in these, or parallel, schemes while restrictions continue in the months ahead? (908223)

I understand the many challenges faced by freelancers and I hear about this every day in my capacity as Culture Secretary. Across the economy, 66% of freelancers can benefit from the Treasury scheme, which has been increased again by the Chancellor. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman knows, as a result of Barnett consequentials and the culture recovery fund, there are opportunities for almost £100 million to be spent on this by the Scottish Government.

Over the past few days, I have had many requests from constituents in Aylesbury to keep gyms, swimming pools and golf courses open to enable people to maintain both their physical and their mental health under the new coronavirus restrictions. What can my right hon. Friend do to convince the Cabinet Office to consider this? (908218)

As my hon. Friend will know, it is a cause of great regret to me, and indeed to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, that these restrictions had to be imposed. Put simply, they are necessary to help to control the virus, which thrives on social interaction. However, I can assure him that I am working closely with other Ministers across Government to ensure that those places will be at the front of the queue to return when the restrictions expire.

Brexit and covid are proving to be a devastating double whammy for the creative sector, including iconic events like the Edinburgh Festival and Celtic Connections, and the artists in my constituency who perform in them. They are crying out for certainty and support. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with organisations like the Musicians Union about their proposals for a creative passport for post-Brexit travel that would help to provide some of that certainty?

As we leave the European Union and leave the transition period, we are looking at what we can do with replacement funds from EU funding to ensure they benefit the whole of the United Kingdom, and those discussions are going on with the Treasury. In addition, we are having the festival of the United Kingdom in 2022. That is £120 million, more than £10 million of which will go to Scotland.

I recently met Luton’s Unite retired members, who expressed their deep concern over the Government’s removal of the TV licence concession for the over-75s. The covid pandemic has shown how important TV can be for the elderly, not just as a source of news and entertainment, but also companionship, especially for the 40% of over-75s who live alone. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Health and Social Care regarding the impact of the removal of the TV licence on the mental health of the over-75s?

As the Minister for Media and Data, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and I have made repeatedly clear from this Dispatch Box, we did not want the BBC to do this. I welcome the fact that at least the most vulnerable are covered and will continue to get support.