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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 27 April 2023

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

BBC Local Radio: Proposed Cuts

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport regularly meets the BBC to discuss a range of issues. Ministers have met the BBC on several occasions since the announcement, where we have expressed the House’s shared concerns about the BBC’s plans to reduce parts of its local radio output. Ministers made clear that the BBC must continue to provide distinctive and genuinely local radio services, with content that represents and serves communities from all corners of the UK.

Well, the BBC is not doing that, and I am furious that BBC Radio Humberside is essentially being trashed. Local radio content will end at 2 pm each day. There is no coverage at weekends. Local presenters, including Burnsy, have had to apply for their jobs, and only one was successful. The rest are facing gagging clauses and fear losing their redundancy pay if they speak out. This is basically the end of local public service radio, which is irreplaceable, and the BBC management will not listen. It is easier to get a meeting with the Prime Minister than the director-general. Can I ask Ministers to do what Burnsy would suggest, and get BBC managers to give their heads a wobble and sort this out?

I shall do my best to get some heads wobbling. I know that the right hon. Lady is a big supporter of Radio Humberside and her local BBC television service, “Look North”. I know this situation is difficult for the journalists affected. The BBC has told us that these are cost-neutral changes and that it is moving resource into digital and providing some additional resource in relation to original journalism, but this House has said many times and has effectively expressed its collective opinion that these cuts are regrettable, and it is something we will continue to discuss with the BBC.

The Minister is correct that this is in the end a decision for the BBC, but the House will be considering a media Bill in the coming months. Will the Bill do anything to protect the essential BBC local radio services that many people beyond this House—not just in this House—find to be an important part of the broadcasting landscape?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. We are not going to protect specific parts of the BBC by primary legislation, but we have a number of important measures on radio services that we feel strongly about including in that legislation, and that includes measures on smart speakers. We want to reduce the regulatory burden on and costs for radio stations, but we also want to strengthen the protections for local news and content. Hopefully that legislation will help with some of these issues.

At a time when accountability and scrutiny in public life are more important than ever, the role of the BBC and other media outlets is so important. My local newspaper, for example, will not run any political stories, and has not really done so for many weeks now. Will the Minister consider the role of local media and why local newspapers will not run political stories?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the importance of local news reporting to the health of our democracy, and I met news publishers recently to discuss how we might support a more thriving local newspaper ecosystem. There is a range of challenges in making those publications commercially successful, but as he says, if they do not have that local content, they are fundamentally undermining their own importance in the communities they serve.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I agree with the sentiments expressed so far. We are very well served by BBC Three Counties Radio. If I could pick out one example, Roberto Perrone’s drivetime programme is in danger of being axed, as are many other good programmes. Will the Minister use the Department’s power to have another word with the BBC? Much as I am a big fan of the BBC, I do not think it has got this one right.

I wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday, as I am sure does the whole House. He asks us to speak again to the BBC about this matter. This issue has been running since the autumn, and the appetite of the House to raise it in the Chamber has not waned. The BBC should take that as a mark of the strength of feeling in this House and a mark of how important we, as representatives of communities across the country, think BBC radio services are.

The BBC’s cuts to local radio services will be a great loss to communities. I know the immense benefit that Radio Sheffield brings to my area. The BBC’s plans to redirect this resource into online local news may place the BBC in direct competition with existing local news sites. Can I press the Minister again on what she is doing to discuss the impact of these cuts with the BBC? What steps are being taken to support local journalism outlets and their employees?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the impact of the BBC, and the care that it needs to take in relation to the impact that it can have on commercial services. We do not want the support that the BBC gets from the licence fee to be seen as something that crowds out market competition. We will consider that in the mid-term review. I thank her for her comments

The local radio situation must cause stress for hard-working BBC staff across England, and they have my sympathy. The Minister will know about the deep disquiet among BBC staff across the countries of the UK about the fact that they have a chair in Richard Sharp whose tenure is hanging by a thread, and who is resisting calls to resign despite the clear improprieties around being given a job by a Prime Minister for whom he facilitated an £800,000 loan. What reassurances can she give to BBC staff and the general public that her party will not in the future give plum positions to people who have been involved in lavish donations, given the propriety issues that inevitably occur?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the appointment of Richard Sharp is the subject of an Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments report. We do not control the timetable for that, but it will hopefully shed some light on the appointment. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman raising concerns about the propriety of the appointment. We in DCMS believe that we ran that appointment to the letter and, as he will know as a member of the Select Committee, it was also endorsed by the Committee.

Coronation: Community Participation

2. What steps her Department is taking to encourage community participation in the celebration of the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. (904660)

10. What steps her Department is taking to encourage community participation in the celebration of the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. (904675)

Many people across the UK will take part in what will be a very special coronation weekend. My Department has worked with local authorities, charities and community groups to ensure that there is something for everyone. There will be street parties and big lunches, and hopefully people can watch it on a big screen, if there is one near them. An interactive map on highlights what is happening in people’s local communities across the weekend.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to support this historic event across the UK, and I am deeply honoured to represent Old Bexley and Sidcup, which was recently voted the most patriotic constituency in the country. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in encouraging local children to enter my free “A Card for the King” competition, and in thanking all the residents, businesses and volunteers in Bexley who have arranged more than 95 street parties and a range of community events to celebrate the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III?

I encourage as many people as possible to take part in my hon. Friend’s competition, and I congratulate his constituency. I thank the residents, businesses and volunteers who are truly embodying the spirit of the coronation. I am delighted to hear that so many events will take place, with communities coming together for street parties for the coronation. I hope that all the residents of Old Bexley and Sidcup have a great celebration.

In 10 days’ time, the world will tune in to watch the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla at Westminster Abbey in my constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster. The people of the two cities are very proud that we have been involved in the coronation of our monarch since 1066, but it is not just about the ceremony; it is about the work that goes on behind it to make it what it will be, and the procession that we will see across Westminster. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State join me in thanking all those involved in making the coronation what it will be? The street cleaners, the unsung heroes who will tidy up—

I join my hon. Friend in thanking everybody who will make the coronation so special. It will be a world-class event that will be seen across the globe, and that is down to the hard work of many people, including her constituents and the emergency services in the Cities of London and Westminster, which will ensure that the weekend’s celebrations are a safe historic moment. I was also pleased to note that various community projects will take place in her constituency over the weekend, including a range of street parties and a wonderful opportunity to help London zoo care for its animals.

I thank the Secretary of State for her energy, interest and enthusiasm for this matter. After reports that nationalist-led councils across Northern Ireland have blocked proposals for funding for the King’s coronation, and the welcome recent news that Michelle O’Neill, the leader of nationalism, has now decided to attend the coronation, will the Secretary of State ensure that all councils across Northern Ireland, whether nationalist or Unionist, have the funding required to enable all to celebrate the coronation of our great King Charles?

It is important for the celebrations to take place across the UK. We have funded devolved Administrations, 11 mayoral combined authorities and 10 local authorities to have screens as part of the celebrations. I know that Northern Ireland will be screening the service across nine different locations, so I hope as many people as possible can take part.

Grassroots Sport

Supporting grassroots sport is a key priority for the Government. Last year, Sport England received almost £350 million to fund grassroots sports projects. We are also supporting community participation, with more than £300 million between 2021 and 2025 to deliver up to 8,000 multi-sport facilities in communities across the UK.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the support he has provided to the campaign to confront the ownership of West Bromwich Albion, working with Andy Street and supporters groups. We have seen the huge step of the release of the football governance White Paper. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to monitor the situation at clubs such as West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City, and ensure that the new regulator will have the ability to take action to protect the clubs that support grassroots sport in the west midlands?

May I praise my hon. Friend and her colleagues for the tremendous amount of work she has done in standing up for the fans of the clubs she has worked with so closely? Frankly, too many clubs face financial troubles, and we continue to monitor situations across the football pyramid. We have set out the reforms that will protect football clubs so that they can meet their day-to-day liabilities and preserve the clubs for the future. That will include sanctions, where necessary. We will introduce new owners’ and directors’ tests, including a fitness and propriety test and enhanced due diligence of owners’ sources of wealth, and we will require owners to demonstrate robust financial plans to provide people like her constituents with the assurances they need.

In Wilmslow in my Tatton constituency, we have a football academy run by Erik Garner, which will be putting on a girls’ world cup for primary age children this summer. That is possible only because town councillors stood in to give funding to ensure the maximum number of girls can participate. Given that women’s football is still growing, will the Minister explain how organisations that do not have parish and town councils that can step in can access financial support from the Football Association for similar events, to help to inspire the next generation of Lionesses?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend’s constituent for the work he is doing. We are all proud of the Lionesses’ success and the inspiration it has given. The majority of funding for grassroots sport is delivered through Sport England. We invested £21 million in 2021-22 and £46 million in 2022-23 in grassroots sports facilities in England. We suggest that organisations hoping to run similar events contact Sport England or the FA, and many community groups that do not have parish councils do so. We are also carrying out an in-depth review of women’s football, chaired by former Lioness Karen Carney, which will report this summer.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I will pop round with a cup of tea later, Mr Speaker.

Over the years, many hundreds of thousands of children up and down the country have learned to swim in their local swimming pool, and the clubs that provide those facilities are quite often very grassroots and local. However, our local swimming baths are under threat. The energy they consume is enormous and they are extremely expensive to run. The £63 million announced in the Budget is welcome, but we have yet to see the detail of how that money will be rolled out. Can the Minister tell us when it will be rolled out and when we will know the criteria?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I have spent a lot of time listening to local organisations making the exact same points. That is why, as a Department, we lobbied the Treasury heavily to get that £63 million. That will not only help with the current issue of the costs swimming pools are facing, but address some of the long-term issues to make them more sustainable. We are working through the detail and will make an announcement in due course.

A key element in ensuring the success of grassroots sport is having a good pool of talent and enough participants. However, one problem is that a number of young people, once they leave school, do not continue participating in either team sport or individual sport. What is the Government’s strategy to ensure that as many young people as possible continue to do some sort of sporting activity when they leave school?

Again, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue. Participation in sport and physical activity is a key piece of work that we are looking at. It is good to see that it has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, but we need to go even further. We are working on the sports strategy, which will address some of the issues he has raised, and I hope to make an announcement on that in due course.

Musicians from Ukraine and Europe: UK Tours

My Department regularly engages with the Home Office on supporting international talent to come to the UK. The Government have provided direct support for Ukrainian musicians, including on priority visa applications for orchestras and performers. There are a number of ways to perform in the UK, including the creative worker route, which enables workers to come to the UK for up to 12 months. The UK/Ukraine season of culture and the upcoming Eurovision song contest demonstrate our ongoing support for Ukraine.

We knew things were bad for UK creatives when, last year, an Andrew Lloyd Webber company chose to take a Chinese production of “The Phantom of the Opera” on European tour rather than a home-grown one, because it was cheaper and less hassle, but last week at Calais, the German punk band Trigger Cut spent three days wrangling over the permitted entry route, only to be told that they were not professional enough musicians. Since when was that kind of judgment part of a customs officer’s duties? Will the Government urgently negotiate friction-free touring? This situation is wrecking livelihoods, our cultural offer and our reputation abroad.

I appreciate that a number of cases recently have caused concern; I am happy to take those up with the Home Office, including the case of Trigger Cut. I know there was also an issue in relation to the Khmelnitsky Orchestra from Ukraine, which was unblocked with help from ambassadors. There are creative routes to come here, but if there are any frictions, my Department is eager and happy to resolve them.

Touring musicians from overseas and our home-grown talent need venues in which to perform, yet many brilliant grassroots music venues up and down the country are really struggling. They are so important because they are effectively the research and development department of our music industry, which is our global superpower. The cultural recovery fund enabled many of those venues to survive, but how will we ensure that they are not destroyed by the cost of living crisis?

My hon. Friend has tremendous passion and expertise in this area and I know that, like me, she recently met Mark Davyd from the Music Venue Trust, a grassroots music venue organisation. I discussed with him a range of issues facing the sector, including energy costs and ticketing, and various proposals that involve both Government and the private sector. We are exploring how we can help those critical grassroots music venues to survive because, as my hon. Friend recognises, they are vital to the development of talent in our wider music industry.

Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster for touring musicians right across the UK and within the EU. The international language of song and music is being constrained by a barrage of bureaucracy and opportunities lost across continents for generations. Bands from the EU now say they will boycott the UK because of what they describe as degrading treatment at our borders, and most UK bands have given up trying to enter the EU at all. The all-party parliamentary group on music recommended appointing a touring tsar to fix the problems. Whatever has happened to that, and what is wrong with that suggestion?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight how valuable and life-enhancing UK music is, including the folk rock that he produces, and I know Europe is eager to hear it. He paints a fairly bleak picture of touring, but we have been doing a whole range of work to unblock some of the issues that have been raised with us by touring groups. There is now a range of visa, transport and other arrangements, but it is in our interest to make sure that those music bands can reach their key audiences, and we continue to look at what other frictions there are so that we can try to unblock them.

A few days ago, a Marks & Spencer store held a minute’s silence for the people of Ukraine and to honour a Ukrainian employee. There is clearly a huge well of feeling in this country for the people of Ukraine and the suffering that they are currently enduring. Can the Minister arrange a tour for the Ukrainian band? Can we do a lot more to promote the Eurovision team?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the work of the Marks & Spencer store in his constituency. We are doing a tremendous amount of cultural co-operation to support our Ukrainian friends. We are hosting Eurovision, and that includes £10 million-worth of support to provide a truly collaborative show. We are also providing 3,000 subsidised tickets for displaced Ukrainians in the UK. It will be a tremendous celebration, and it is being ably organised by my dear colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew).

Despite the Minister’s comments, the truth is that the Home Office failed to issue visas on time to five Ukrainian musicians from the Khmelnitsky orchestra, which was due to perform in the UK. That was despite promoting the concerts on a UK Government website as an example of British-Ukrainian relations. The difficulties have cost that orchestra tens of thousands of pounds. It is important to the war effort in Ukraine that such classical music ensembles can perform here, and this incident has done damage to the UK’s international cultural reputation. Can the Minister tell us what action she can take, working with the Home Office, to avoid such damaging incidents happening again with Ukrainian musicians. A number of orchestras are preparing to tour, and we do not want to leave them high and dry like the Khmelnitsky orchestra.

I do not think that anybody in this House should be in any doubt about the Government’s wide-ranging support for Ukraine and its people, across the cultural sphere, into defence, and through other huge forms of co-operation. Obviously, what happened with that orchestra is regrettable, but once the musicians had produced all the information that was required, their visas were fast-tracked and they were able to perform in the UK. If there are ongoing issues with the Home Office that we need to resolve, we shall engage carefully with our colleagues, but I think the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation is grossly unfair.

Besides making it hard for touring musicians to enter the UK, the funding cuts affecting classical music and opera are leading to Britain not being attractive to musicians for training or performing. Last Sunday, Sir Simon Rattle denounced the funding decisions of the BBC and Arts Council England, saying:

“When the two largest supporters of classical music in this country cut away at the flesh of our culture…it means that the direction of travel has become deeply alarming.”

All these problems, from visas to funding cuts, now pose a fundamental threat to the future role of our world-leading classical musicians. What future do Ministers see for classical music in this country?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising Sir Simon Rattle’s comments—obviously, he is a tremendously valued performer in this country. But again, she paints an absurdly bleak picture of classical music in this country. It is tremendously valued by this Government and by the people we represent. Obviously, there is an issue with the approach to the BBC Singers and BBC English orchestras, and we are very glad that the BBC has paused its decision on that matter. This Government have put forward a tax relief for the orchestras, which has been extended. Arts Council England is run by somebody who used to run Classic FM. It has given huge amounts of money to orchestras. We are now funding 23 orchestral organisations, up from 19 last year. We are putting forward a music education plan. We have a whole range of interventions to support classical music in this country, so I fundamentally disagree with the way the hon. Lady tries to characterise the Government’s tremendous support for orchestras.

Cost of Living: Cultural and Charitable Organisations

7. What steps she is taking to support cultural and charitable organisations with increases in the cost of living. (904669)

As announced at the spring Budget, we are providing £100 million for charities and community organisations in England. It will support frontline organisations experiencing increased demand and higher delivery costs, and will provide some investment in energy efficiency measures. Charities and cultural organisations are also receiving support for their energy bills until March 2024 under the energy bills discount scheme.

While the Government continue to fail the most vulnerable in our society, the charity sector is left to fill in the gap. In my constituency, we are very fortunate to have the County Durham Community Foundation, which has raised £900,000 through its Poverty Hurts appeal, allowing many fantastic local projects to literally keep their lights on during the cost of living crisis. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of support for charitable organisations, but what steps is the Department taking to establish a wider and longer-term funding commitment to the sector?

I spent 16 years of my life working in the charity sector, and I cannot praise it enough for the tremendous amount of work it is doing. That is why I spent time speaking to the sector, to listen to its concerns about the cost of living issues, hence why we have announced this £100 million, which I know the sector has warmly welcomed.

One of the cultural cornerstones in Barrow and Furness is CandoFM, a fantastic local community radio station that I was fortunate enough to bring to Downing Street to meet the Culture Secretary last week. It walks like a charity, talks like a charity and supports the local community, but because of its licensing arrangements, it is not allowed to hold charitable status, unlike hospital radio stations. I wonder whether the Minister might look into that, because it would be a route for funding hard-pressed organisations such as CandoFM.

My hon. Friend raises a very interesting point, and I would certainly like to praise CandoFM for the work it is doing. Obviously, there are conditions for achieving charitable status, but I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss what might be possible.

Topical Questions

I will shortly be making an oral statement setting out details of a White Paper to bring our gambling regulations into the smartphone age. My Department has recently unveiled landmark reforms to our broadcasting regulation with a new draft Media Bill. We have given 43 youth centres a share of £90 million and backed our outstanding bid to bring Euro 2028 to the UK and Ireland.

With days to go until the historic coronation of King Charles III, I am sure Members across the House will join me in thanking everyone who is working so tirelessly to apply the finishing touches to what will be a magnificent celebration of British national life.

On this business of musicians being turned away at our borders, having tried to enter the UK via the permitted paid engagement route, can the Secretary of State have stronger words with the Home Office? I know that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s job tends to be treated as a bit of a one-off gig by this Government, but she needs to show some heft and really get stuck into the Home Office on this issue. How can we credibly argue with our European neighbours that our musicians should be getting better access to go and play in Europe when we are treating European musicians trying to enter this country to do a few gigs like criminals?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman highlights that the DCMS has some heft, because we are responsible for some world-leading departments. We are absolutely committed to supporting the creative sector to adapt to requirements for touring in the EU, and actually the vast majority of member states, including the UK’s biggest touring markets, offer visa and work permit-free routes for musicians and creative performers. Of course, there is more we can do, and my Department is looking closely at this. I spoke to the Foreign Secretary about it yesterday, and I know that he raised the challenges faced by touring artists at the Partnership Council at the end of March.

T2. The Advertising Standards Authority, despite its misleading name, is a self-regulating body. Nevertheless, it has considerable powers within DCMS’s areas of responsibility. If those were used for social engineering rather than factual accuracy purposes, would that cause Ministers some concern? (904680)

I know how strongly my hon. Friend feels about freedom of speech and thought, and I have great admiration for the work that he does in this wider area. He is right that the ASA is a self-regulating body for the advertising industry, and he is also right that it is at its best when it focuses on its core purpose of making sure that consumers get legal, decent, honest and truthful adverts, rather than value judgments on social issues and pushing a certain world view.

This week, yet another case of music copyright dominated headlines. Our proud creative industries are facing significant challenges, as we have heard. The role that AI will play in the future is also concerning for many. Exactly what action is the Minister taking to ensure that emerging tech and our world-leading creative industries are supported rather than sidelined?

I am very conscious of this issue. We have fantastic creative industries that do original work, and we need to protect them. That is why I have held roundtables with the music industry to discuss that very issue. The idea is to put together a code of conduct, working closely with industry, to ensure that we protect the original work that they produce.

T4.   Last Saturday, the National Piers Society launched its national touring exhibition of seaside pier posters at the Claremont pier in Lowestoft. There is a concern that the international promotion of tourism is too London-centric, and I would be grateful if the Minister could outline the work that is being done to promote the unique offer of coastal Britain to overseas visitors, as illustrated in those posters. (904682)

My hon. Friend is very fortunate to represent one of our beautiful coastal communities, and he is right about the importance of promoting non-London destinations. There is a tremendous amount of fantastic things to visit out there beyond our capital. To give a couple of examples, we have a GREAT-funded campaign to see things differently, which includes the Pembrokeshire coast national park, Thorpe Bay beach and Brighton pier. Earlier this year, VisitBritain welcomed more than 120 international trade buyers in the travel industry for a series of educational visits across Britain that focused on coastal communities. I hope that they will take the wonderful things that they saw back to the buyers in their own countries.

T3. First, I wish to thank you, Mr Speaker, for hosting last week’s reception celebrating the successful four decades of our Great North Run. Chuter Ede community centre in South Shields is facing closure, as are many other centres with sports facilities across the country. Does the Minister think it is the lack of Government help with their high energy bills, the Conservative cost of living crisis or the Conservative-led local authority cuts that are to blame? (904681)

This Government have given significant support to organisations up and down the country to help with cost of living issues. That is on top of the programmes that we are providing, including the ones that I was talking about a moment ago, for grassroots sport. We are putting more money into grassroots sport now than has been put in for probably decades.

British motorsport, in order to stay at the cutting edge, wishes to transform itself to use synthetic and sustainable fuels, but the taxation regime disincentivises that. Will the Minister work with me and colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that the use of sustainable fuels is incentivised?

I completely agree about the importance of motorsport in this country, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his commitment and hard work in this area. We already support sustainable and synthetic fuels under the renewable transport fuel obligation scheme. Tax policy, as he knows, is a matter for the Treasury, but I will of course work with him and ensure that his ideas are shared across Government.

T5. The reputation of the BBC has been dragged through the mud by the grubby loan deal that Richard Sharp made with a former Prime Minister, which allegedly was to curry favour to become BBC Chairman. Does the Minister therefore think that the current Prime Minister’s pally-pally relationship with Sharp is why he has not sacked him yet? (904683)

As the hon. Member will know, the Commissioner for Public Appointments is looking into this matter, and it would not be appropriate to comment until it has published its full report.

The Folkestone library at Grace Hill in the town was one of the early Carnegie libraries, an important cultural hub as well as a working building. It is currently closed because structural repairs are required. Does the Minister agree that the Arts Council strategy should recognise not only the need to support working library facilities, but that they are often important heritage assets that benefit the whole local community?

Library facilities are very important, and I was pleased to visit a library facility recently. We have put more funding into libraries and into communities across the country.

BBC Radio York keeps North Yorkshire connected to the local community, but the reforms will remove that vital link. It would be such little cost to keep afternoon programming and “Drive Time” running. Will the Minister look at the real cost of running that programme and ensure that the BBC does not cull BBC local radio?

As the Minister of State has already mentioned, decisions on BBC programming are a matter for the BBC; as she also mentioned, the BBC will have heard the points made today about how strongly Members of this House and people across the country feel about this issue.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Rutland-to-Melton CiCLE Classic—the only international men’s single-day race cycling competition in the whole UK? It was best listened to on Rutland and Stamford Sound, Rutland’s only radio station, but we need three RSL licences to cover all our three towns. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss those urgent needs?

Any day now I will be going on maternity leave, but I will be covered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale), who is an absolutely passionate supporter of the radio industry and who as a Back Bencher spoke to me about radio issues. I am sure that he will be happy to look into the licensing issue that my hon. Friend highlights.

The Rugby Football Union has announced groundbreaking policies on maternity, pregnant parent and adoption leave, which have been said to normalise motherhood in sport. Will the Minister encourage more sporting bodies to introduce similar inclusive policies?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this. One of the key elements that we will be looking at in the sporting strategy is how we increase opportunities for women and girls in sport. I am pleased to say that we have made significant announcements about equal provision in our schools—but yes, we absolutely push the governing bodies to do all they can to increase opportunities in the way the hon. Lady suggests.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Holy Land: Desecration of Religious Sites

1. What discussions the Church of England has had with international counterparts on the desecration of religious sites in the Holy Land. (904699)

4. What discussions the Church of England has had with international counterparts on the desecration of religious sites in the Holy Land. (904702)

In the first three months of this year, seven cases of serious vandalism and antisocial behaviour against churches have been recorded in Israel. That is a sharp increase on the previous year. The Church of England continues to work with the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, the heads of other Churches, other faith leaders and the Jordanian Government, as custodian of the holy sites, to maintain the peace.

It was particularly galling to see these scenes in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy in the middle east: the desecration of Christian graves and other Christian sites—something that, I am afraid, we have become used to in other countries. These were effectively religious terrorists and extremists, with no regard for the Christian religion. What measures are taking place to ensure that, in future, Christians can celebrate the Easter fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem without facing undue restrictions as a result of the fear of violent clashes?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right to draw attention to the Easter fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That 2,000-year-old ceremony has repeatedly taken place without serious incident. It is certainly our view that the restrictions have been overly heavy-handed. As he will know, the Archbishop of Canterbury has called out what has been happening—the attacks on Christian graves and so on —as blasphemous attacks. The UK Chief Rabbi has also spoken out, as we need to do across the House. I hope the Foreign Office will have similar things to say.

Last Thursday, the Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), came here and announced a strategic partnership with the Government of Israel. That ought to give us some influence over the level of vandalism and antisocial behaviour to which churchgoers are being subjected, oughtn’t it?

As always, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. He may have seen that over Easter the Latin Patriarch said:

“The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new. These people feel they are protected…that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians.”

Attacks are simply not acceptable, whether against Christians or people of any other faith or no faith. I hope that what my right hon. Friend has said, as a distinguished former International Development Minister, will be heard loudly and clearly at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Christians in Nigeria

2. What discussions the Church of England has had with the Church of Nigeria on the killing and abduction of Christians in that country. (904700)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is also the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, for the service she does in bringing this appalling issue back before the House. Since the matter was last raised with me on 9 March there have been further atrocities against Christians in Nigeria, and the issue does not get enough attention in our media, which is why I am extremely grateful to her for raising it. The Archbishop of Canterbury met the candidates in the presidential election, and stressed the need to prioritise ending inter-community and inter-religious violence, and we will continue to speak out.

Open Doors reports that on Good Friday

“32 Christians were killed…in an attack by suspected Fulani militants on an IDP camp in Benue State…while people were asleep”,

and that the camp

“houses nearly 30,000…mostly Christians, mainly women and children, who…fled their villages because of Fulani militant attacks.”

Open Doors described this as part of a number of “widespread attacks” across the state, including an attack on a church in Akenawe village on Palm Sunday, when a boy was killed and three people, including the pastor, kidnapped. Does my hon. Friend agree that stronger measures are needed to protect such vulnerable communities in Nigeria? What can the Church do to call this out?

Frankly, words are a rather inadequate response to what we have just heard, but we must not tire of raising our voices with Nigeria, which is, after all, a Commonwealth country with which we have very good relations. As a good friend to Nigeria, I would expect our distress to be heard loudly and clearly. The Foreign Office obviously needs to keep on passing on the message.

May I take this opportunity to wish the Church Commissioner a very happy birthday? He, like me, does not count the years but makes the years count; we’re at that age!

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), there are missionaries from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Nigeria, including some from my constituency and across all of Northern Ireland. What discussions have taken place to ensure that support is available for ex-pat and United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland missionaries in the regions we are discussing who are isolated and may be in a vulnerable position?

I thank the hon. Member for raising this issue, for his continued interest in it and for the magnificent work he does chairing the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The Bishop of Guildford was recently in Nigeria, speaking out on behalf of all Christians, not just members of the Anglican communion, in Nigeria. The Church of England will keep on engaging in this issue—sometimes quietly, sometimes behind the scenes, but we will continue to speak truth to power.

Electoral Commission committee

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Postal Votes

3. What recent discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission on the security of postal votes. (904701)

The Speaker’s Committee has not held recent discussions on the matter. The Electoral Commission has highlighted that voting by post is a safe and popular method of voting, with safeguards in place to protect against fraud. The voluntary code of conduct makes it clear that political parties and campaigners should not assist in completing a ballot paper or handle completed ballot papers. The commission encourages campaigners to follow this code.

I think the Speaker’s Committee should have discussions about this issue. Has my hon. Friend seen some recent examples of Conservative party leaflets, where people are being encouraged to return postal vote applications to Tory headquarters rather than back to the local authority, and where millions of people are being disenfranchised through lack of voter ID? Leaflets have also gone out—in Norwich, for example—saying that people do not need ID to vote. Should not the Electoral Commission take the view that although such practices may technically be legal, they are in fact harmful to our democracy?

The code of conduct is of course voluntary, but the code of conduct for campaigners states that parties can provide applications for postal votes but the forms must include the address for the electoral registration officer as the preferred address, even if an alternative address is provided. Campaigners should send on any application forms they receive to the relevant address within two working days, and the commission recommends that any concerns that the code has been breached should be raised first with the candidate, political party or campaigner in question, and any further concerns should be drawn to the attention of the commission. The commission is aware of the Conservative party leaflet in Norwich and has had conversations with the party.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Grant Funding from Local Authorities

Grants that would cover kitchens, loos or disability access, basic repairs to rooves and windows and so on are in many cases unavailable to Church of England parish churches because of an inconsistency in the way in which local authorities are applying the law, and the Bishop of Bristol has tabled an amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to resolve this so that parish churches can apply for such grants, and I hope the Department will be supportive of it.

I recently visited Meshaw Together near South Molton to discuss plans for its local church, St John the Baptist, reordering the church for wider community use. The project led by Jeff Souch and supported by the vicar was unsuccessful in securing platinum jubilee funding, but might I be able to meet with my hon. Friend to try to find additional funding that may be available for this community initiative that also secures the future of the church?

Yes, of course I will meet with my hon. Friend. I have also heard of the good work of St John the Baptist, Meshaw. The Church Commissioners have given £11 million over the next three years to fund specialist support officers to advise on community projects of this nature and to help with fundraising. Small grants are available to help with repairs and towards buildings becoming net zero. may also provide helpful information. The Exeter diocese recently held a “meet the funders” day, to which more than 100 people turned up, to learn how churches such as St John the Baptist can approach funders such as the Benefact Trust. I encourage Meshaw to follow that up.

My hon. Friend has made reference to the speech of the Bishop of Bristol in the other place highlighting an apparent inconsistency between the Local Government Act 1972 and the 1894 Act, which gives cause for concern as to whether local government funding for Church buildings is legal. Does my hon. Friend recognise that as a serious concern, and if so how does he propose to clarify the issue?

My hon. Friend is right about the Bishop of Bristol, whose amendments in the other place have the support of heritage bodies and the National Association of Local Councils, whom I have also met on the issue. All we are asking is for Church of England parish churches to be treated the same as other faith and community buildings, which does not seem a lot to ask for, and I would hope that both my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), are listening hard to what I have said and representations will be made to Ministers about these issues.

Parish Ministry

Parish ministry is at the heart of everything we do in the Church of England. Between 2023 and 2025, to support our mission to tell people the good news about Jesus Christ, we will distribute £1.2 billion—a 30% increase. The largest part of that funding will be used to revitalise parish ministry.

My hon. Friend will be well aware of concerns in congregations up and down the country about the diminishing number of priests. Will he assure the House that the Church will continue to do all it can to provide funds for the stipendiary ministries?

There has been an increase in the number of ordinands between 2016 and 2020, when we had 1,373 in total, including 591 starting training, which was the largest in a generation. There was a slight dip during the pandemic, but we are committed to continuing to train more priests; that is absolutely essential and is exactly what the Church of England wants to see.


Since 2014, the Church Commissioners have planted 819 acres of new woodland in the UK. Over the last two years we have bought 438 more acres in south Wales and Angus in Scotland, to plant 350,000 more trees, subject to planning permission. Over the last five years we have planted 11.8 million trees globally.

That is great news for Scotland, Wales and the rest of the world, but what about England’s green and pleasant land? England has, at 10%, the lowest tree coverage in Europe, so can we have more church trees, please, in England?

My hon. Friend speaks so well, not only for Kettering

but for England. He is right to draw attention to the fact that England is among the countries with the least tree cover in Europe. The Church absolutely wants to play its part in changing that. To help achieve that, it participated in the Queen’s green canopy initiative, including through work on an 8,000 mixed-tree plantation in north-west England. We also work with farming tenants across England to explore every possible planting opportunity, including planting trees in hedgerows, agri- forestry and field-scale woodland planting, and will carry on doing so.

Electoral Commission committee

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voter ID

8. What recent discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission on the implementation of voter ID in (a) Scotland, (b) Wales and (c) England ahead of local and national elections. (904707)

The Committee discussed the commission’s work supporting the implementation of the voter ID requirement at its recent public evidence session in March. A transcript of that session is available on the Committee’s website. The commission continues to support voters, campaigners and electoral administrators ahead of the implementation of the voter ID requirement at local elections in England next week. Its research shows that public awareness of the requirement increased from 22% in December to 76% at the end of March. Voter ID will also be required at police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales, UK parliamentary by-elections, and recall petitions from 3 May, and in general elections from October. The commission will run further public awareness activities and provide guidance for electoral administrators ahead of future elections, including in Scotland.

The SNP has consistently opposed the requirement for voter ID since it was brought in under the Elections Act 2022. The requirement is about to take effect for the first time in England. It will effectively disenfranchise many people, including disabled people and people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Given that only about 50,000 people have applied for the free ID certificate, while the number of voters without the necessary ID is thought to be about 2 million, and given the gulf between the enfranchisement of older and younger voters, what steps will the Electoral Commission take to make sure that all people, even those who do not vote Conservative, can take part in elections?

The commission has said that voter authority certificate applications were lower than might have been expected. That may reflect the number of people wishing to vote in the elections, the take-up of postal or proxy voting, or some voters not having taken action in time to meet the deadline, as the hon. Lady suggests. The commission will consider the levels of take-up and the reasons for them in its evaluation of the implementation of the requirement for voter ID, and that will include detailed public survey work. The commission has been working with key groups who have been identified as needing additional support to navigate voter ID requirements, including the over-85s; people with sight loss or learning disabilities; Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; people experiencing homelessness or living in refuges; trans and non-binary people; and anonymous voters.

May I raise the issue of the immunocompromised—people who are still shielding for fear of catching covid? If they turn up to a polling station next Thursday, they will be asked to remove their mask. What guidance has the Electoral Commission brought forward to protect the immunocompromised?

I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting question. The guidance that the Electoral Commission has given to polling clerks is that face coverings will need to be removed so that identity can be verified. If he wishes to arrange a meeting with the Electoral Commission, I would be happy to co-ordinate that, as I know that this is an issue that he feels passionately about.

The additional voter processing will place more requirements on staff at polling stations. Has that resulted in any problems for local authorities in recruiting polling station staff?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct: electoral administrators have been reporting difficulties to the Electoral Commission in recruiting polling station staff. That was the case in recent elections, too, but the issue has been exacerbated by the new role that there will be in administering voter ID requirements. Local authorities are working to address recruitment difficulties, including by calling on staff who work in areas that do not have elections in May to work in the areas that do. Of course, there is the additional challenge of needing a woman at every polling station to verify the identity of women who wear face coverings for religious reasons.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


10. What steps the Church of England plans to take to mark the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III in (a) cathedrals and (b) other places of worship outside of London; and if he will make a statement. (904709)

There will be services and events all over the country in cathedrals and parish churches to celebrate the coronation. The one in Lichfield cathedral will be on Sunday 7 May, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will attend if he possibly can.

My hon. Friend has put me on the spot, but I confirm that I will attend. I hope that reassures him. Could he quickly—or even slowly—outline what further work the Church of England is doing to engage people locally in the coronation?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Church is doing a great deal in that area. We are supporting the Big Help Out to promote volunteering, along with many charities and businesses, as well as the Big Lunch to break down barriers and combat loneliness. We also have Sing for the King and Ring for the King to promote choral singing and bell ringing, linked to the coronation. [Interruption.]