Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Broadband Coverage: Rural Areas
I wish to echo your words about the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s important work, Mr Speaker.
We are investing £5 billion through Project Gigabit to deliver lightning-fast broadband to hard-to-reach areas across our country. Last week, we announced that thousands of people living in rural Cornwall will benefit from a £36 million contract. We have now awarded six such contracts, covering up to 681,000 premises. More procurements are in the pipeline and we have also upped our voucher scheme so that more premises can benefit.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Obviously, I am delighted that last week we secured nearly £19 million from the levelling-up fund for Shrewsbury town centre, but we will never really have levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom unless rural parts of our constituencies have broadband coverage commensurate with metropolitan areas in coverage and speed. What is she doing specifically to make sure that improvements are made in the county of Shropshire?
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the importance of digital connectivity to the whole levelling-up agenda, which is why we are prioritising our procurement to some of the really tough-to-reach parts of the country that have been poorly served by broadband previously. I know that he has been campaigning hard on these issues since 2015. He has good superfast coverage now in his constituency, but I appreciate that gigabit is not where it should be in his county. I am pleased to say that our Mid West Shropshire procurement is going to be awarded in April to June this year, and I hope that his constituents will benefit from that.
The roll-out of rural broadband has made great progress in the past three years. Will my hon. Friend outline when the new framework and guidance for fibre community partnerships and the gigabit roll-out will be available, so that the roll-out can continue at pace across North Devon?
I thank my hon. Friend, because the progress has been substantial and she has been a key part of that by making sure that political pressure is maintained to get this kind of connectivity to places such as her constituency. On the fibre community partnerships, Openreach temporarily paused the registration while the supplier worked through the current requests. We have been working closely with Openreach to assist its review of that scheme. We hope it will be reopening it as soon as possible, but she will be pleased to hear that we are also on track to launch the Devon and Somerset procurements in April. Again, I hope that her constituents will stand to benefit from that.
I recently met people from CityFibre in my constituency to celebrate the roll-out of full fibre in Inverness. CityFibre is now moving into the rural areas, and it has taken the full fibre coverage from 0.8% to 60%. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that companies such as CityFibre, working in partnership with local councils and others, can continue to operate in this market as there is this competition, and that they have the ability to operate in and expand into rural areas?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention and question. CityFibre been fundamental in driving stiff competition in this area, which has really accelerated the roll-out. We thank CityFibre and other altnets and providers for all the work they are doing. We absolutely prioritise having a competitive framework, because we think it has been so crucial to making sure that areas such as his are covered.
As has been said, if levelling up is to mean anything, it would mean it in broadband. Often, what is needed is just a green cabinet and small amounts of money for rural areas. What confidence can people have that the Government will act in this Parliament? Other countries with a much worse topography have seen their rural areas get broadband years ago. What confidence can people have that the UK is going to act in the next two years—in this Parliament?
I am always grateful to hear from the hon. Gentleman. I know that his constituency is a very rural one with an island population, which creates particular challenges. Much of the broadband roll-out is being driven by the Scottish Government. Their R100 programme has had some problems, and I have spoken to Ivan McKee about how we can assist with those. We are keeping a very close eye on the matter, because we want to make sure that every part of our country is covered by this connectivity and is not disadvantaged by some of the local ways in which the projects are being managed.
The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme is not working as intended in the smaller rural villages of Tatton. The community groups have found that the scope of the local authority contract includes commercially viable areas, but excludes the remote areas. I thank the Minister for being very helpful, but, ironically, the more work that we did, the more we exposed the weaknesses. Will she meet me, representatives of Lower Peover and Building Digital UK to solve the issue?
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that she has done to make sure that Cheshire is connected. I have looked at the issues of Lower Peover. In particular, she highlights challenges with the voucher scheme. I want to assure her that we have upped the amount that can be claimed to £1,500 per premises. I am always happy to meet hon. Members on these issues, but I also hold BDUK surgeries regularly, so please book in for those, but, of course, I will meet her personally to discuss this.
I thank the Minister for her answers and for the help that the central Government at Westminster give to Northern Ireland for rural broadband. One issue is banking, online shopping and postal services. Has the Minister had the opportunity to assess how, in relation to rural broadband, these things impact on banking services in rural areas? We are moving forward to new technology and new times. We need help.
The hon. Gentleman highlights just how important good connectivity is to accessing all the services that are going online. One great thing about Northern Ireland is some of the progress that it has made on gigabit connectivity from its contract with Fibrus, and we thank Fibrus for all that it has done. I am happy to look into any of the issues that he raises, but, as I have said, he highlights very well just why it is so important that people do have that connectivity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish to begin by echoing your words about Holocaust Memorial Day.
From April, families across the country will face a 14% rise to their broadband bills, but, even before that increase, there were already more than 1 million households struggling to pay for the internet. Expanding gigabit coverage is vital, but it is pointless if families cannot afford a broadband package. How will the Department work with Ofcom to examine the impact of mid-contract price increases and wholesale prices rising by inflation?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right to highlight the cost of living challenges that are affecting so many households. We have worked hard on this. It is important that we have a stable regulatory framework that allows companies to invest, but we have hitherto had some of the most competitive telecoms prices in Europe and consumers have benefited from that. In relation to those who are really struggling with their bills, we have done a lot of work with telecoms providers on social tariffs. Unfortunately, the uptake of those tariffs is not where it should be, so I ask every Member of this House to help us raise awareness, because their constituents can get deals from as little as £10 a month. Trying to get them that connectivity is so important to people’s job chances, life chances and so on.
Ownership Structure of Football Clubs
The Government do not assess the ownership arrangements with individual clubs. However, the Government response to the recommendations made in the independent Fan-Led Review of Football Governance sets out our view that tests of new owners and directors are needed to ensure the future sustainability of football clubs and the stability of the game in total.
Thousands of West Bromwich Albion fans are deeply concerned about the actions of the club’s ownership. The owner took a £5 million loan from the club to fund his other business—money that is yet to be repaid. The club has now taken a high-interest loan of £20 million to fund day-to-day business secured against the club’s name and stadium. Will my right hon. Friend bring forward the Government’s response to the Fan-Led Review and introduce a regulator to give fans the power to stop owners abusing the club’s assets in this way and to penalise owners whose business decisions are not in the best interests of the football club?
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on her recent wedding and praise her for the work she has been doing in this area in support of her local football club, working closely with fans’ groups such as Action4Albion and Shareholders for Albion. We will set out our plans for reform in the White Paper, which will be published in the next few weeks and will include strong action on owners and directors to ensure that they are suitable custodians for clubs and to avoid harm to fans and local communities such as she has described.
Sustainable ownership in the long term can only be achieved if we sort out football finance. There are negotiations going on at the moment between the English Football League and the Premier League around the issue of parachute payments, which create a financial imbalance, particularly in the championship. There are 14 clubs in the premier league that will not move on the issue of parachute payments, because they are the most likely to fall into the championship. Are the Government going to act on that, or will it take a Labour Government to do it?
We have had extensive engagement with both the EFL and the Premier League, encouraging them to get on with the negotiations. Sometimes they have progressed and sometimes they have stalled, but I am pleased to say that they have been progressing somewhat more rapidly in recent weeks—I think the prospect of the coming White Paper may have encouraged that—and we hope they will come up with a solution that will bring financial stability to the whole of the pyramid.
Broadband Speeds: Urban Areas
We have made it as attractive as possible to deploy gigabit broadband in the UK by busting barriers and requiring Ofcom to promote competition and investment. There are now more than 80 providers investing nearly £35 billion rolling out gigabit broadband, and coverage has risen to 73% from 6% in early 2019. The vast majority of urban areas will be connected commercially, at no extra cost to the taxpayer, by 2025.
As we have already heard today, the spread of broadband into rural areas is going ahead at pace, but there are pockets in urban areas—I think particularly of Westminster and the centre of Birmingham —where Openreach is using very old copper twisted-pair technology, which has been around for more than 100 years and cannot develop the speed. It is up to firms such as G.Network, Hyperoptic, Virgin Media and City Broadband to provide that service, but they do not always provide a telephone service. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage Openreach to upgrade its technology and infrastructure in urban areas?
London and the west midlands are among the best-connected regions in the country: coverage in London is at 83% and in Birmingham it is even higher at 93%. However, as my hon. Friend points out, there is still more to do. This month we have brought into force new laws that make it easier for telecom companies to get faster broadband into 9 million flats where people are living, and the vast majority of premises in urban areas will be connected by 2025, whether by Openreach or another provider, at no cost to the taxpayer.
Grassroots Music Venues: Government Support
The Government are committed to supporting our grassroots music venues, the lifeblood of our world-leading music sector. Arts Council England has extended its Supporting Grassroots Live Music fund until 31 March 2023. During the pandemic, venues benefited from the cultural recovery fund; we are also supporting venues through the energy bills support scheme and will continue to do so through the energy bills discount scheme until spring 2024.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. With Independent Venue Week coming up next week, I pay particular tribute to Big Jeff, the best ambassador for grassroots music venues anyone could ever want, who is finally getting back out on the gig circuit after his terrible accident last year—thank you for indulging me on that, Mr Speaker. The sector is on a knife edge, sustained by a 0.2% profit margin. As I understand it —although the Minister may want to correct me, considering the answer he has just given—it is not included in the support for energy bills from 1 April. Will the Minister, if he does not have good news for me today, take that up with the Treasury as a matter of urgency, because it could be energy bills that finally push many independent music venues over the edge?
I thank the hon. Lady and congratulate Big Jeff on all the work that he is obviously doing in the sector. We will certainly reflect on that. I think that the new energy scheme strikes the balance between supporting businesses over the next 12 months and limiting taxpayers’ exposure to volatile energy markets, and there is a cap based on estimated volumes. It is really important that we support music venues, hospitality and wider community venues to the benefit of our community and the amazing creative sector.
Accessibility of Cultural Attractions
My Department is committed to broadening the accessibility of our cultural heritage sites across the country. Arts Council England recently announced the 2023-26 national portfolio, which will significantly improve access to arts and culture. DCMS also works closely with David Stanley, the disability and access ambassador for arts and culture, to improve accessibility to the sector for those with disabilities.
In recent months, projects in Blyth Valley have received upwards of £700,000 of funding from my right hon. Friend’s Department, including the refurbishment of the grade I listed Seaton Delaval Hall, Headway Arts in Blyth, and the replica of the Williams II sailing ship that discovered Antarctica in 1820—there is so much to see. On that point, I offer my right hon. Friend the opportunity to experience those projects at first hand, meet the people involved, and sample the excellent fish and chips on the north-east coastline.
Heritage and culture play a vital role in many of our communities, including in the Blyth valley, showing that they are great places to live, work and visit. I am delighted that the Department and our outside bodies are funding projects there, including the £96,000 for Headway Arts. That is just what we want to see. Of course, I would be more than happy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. As I represent the home of the original Harry Ramsden’s, I would be interested to compare them with good old Yorkshire fish and chips.
I am incredibly proud of the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford and the outreach work that it does in the wards of Stoke and Westborough, which have some of the highest rates of deprivation and the lowest health outcomes in Surrey. It does all that work outside the national portfolio organisation framework, with little support from the local authority. To truly level up accessibility to the arts for my constituents, what can the Department do to encourage local authorities to recognise and support arts organisations that sit outside the NPO framework?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to be proud of her theatre and all the work that it does despite being outside the portfolio. Our Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that all people have access to arts and culture regardless of where they live. Many local authorities invest in those sectors and respond in innovative ways, and have created many new models. I hope that her local authority will look at the huge benefits that others have enjoyed by accessing many of the partnerships that have brought about best practice in our country.
Unboxed was a £120 million investment to celebrate the best of Britain. The Department reported in November that the figure for audience engagement was just over 18 million. That sounds a reasonable reach, but it turns out that a one- hour “Countryfile” TV special was doing the heavy lifting with 5 million viewers—nearly a third of the total. I understand that a wider evaluation is in hand, but does the Minister think that the festival made the impact that his Department intended it to, and can he ensure that this point is considered in the wider evaluation?
The hon. Gentleman is right to question in the way that he has. Unboxed has had many successes, and it has brought about cultural and art experiences to places that would perhaps never usually enjoy them—I am thinking about the work that went on in Caernarfon in north Wales, for example. He is right that we are evaluating it, and this will be a part of the assessment that we make.
What steps will Ministers take to ensure that cultural attractions in tourist spots offer full disability awareness training for staff, covering not just physical disabilities but hidden disabilities, so that they can better accommodate their visitors?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: when we talk about access for all, we absolutely mean it. The disability unit in the Government has launched an enhanced and expanded programme of disability and access ambassadors to help us drive progress in increasing access. I am pleased that many of our establishments are working on that at speed.
The accessibility of cultural organisations will be affected greatly by the Government’s tapering of orchestra tax relief and theatre tax relief from April. The Association of British Orchestras tells me that the 50% rate has enabled orchestras to survive at a time when box office and other earned income is falling. It has enabled concerts in non- traditional venues, reaching new audiences in underserved communities. However, the tapered rate will cost some national organisations as much as £3 million. Jobs will be lost, there will be cuts to productions, and outreach work, such as that we have heard about, will not be possible. Some orchestras and theatres will just not survive. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to review urgently the reduction in orchestra and theatre tax reliefs?
The hon. Lady is right to raise those important points. I assure her that both I and my ministerial colleagues in the Department have regular discussions with colleagues in the Treasury. We will continue to do so and raise the points she has highlighted.
Grassroots Club Rugby: Recovery after Covid-19
Supporting grassroots sports is a key Government priority. It brings communities together and makes people happier and healthier. Through the sport survival package, rugby union received £160 million to ensure the survival of clubs at all levels during the pandemic. That was specifically designed to help those grassroots clubs. In addition, Sport England offered £23 million to support rugby union during the pandemic.
Local rugby clubs play a vital role in encouraging a healthy lifestyle, bring communities together and provide young people with an opportunity to develop friendships and skills for life. As the Minister knows, the pandemic has proved ruinous for many clubs, with clubs local to me in Ilford, Dagenham, Barking, Romford, Chingford and Wanstead all facing either closure or significant difficulties. The president of my local club, Ilford Wanderers, told me:
“We aren’t just losing players; we losing wholesale teams.”
That has been compounded this week by the controversial changes to the amateur games rules for rugby union regarding safe tackle height, announced without consultation. I seek the Minister’s assurance that funding will be ongoing and he will work with the Rugby Football Union on financial support to save those community clubs and ensure that this fantastic game, in all its forms, continues for many generations to come.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the significant contribution that rugby union makes in many of our communities. I pay tribute to the many thousands of volunteers who give up their time to ensure that these clubs survive. We work constantly with the RFU and Sport England to ensure that the best assessment is made of support that is needed for the sector. I will continue to do that and raise the points that he highlighted.
I welcome the news that more than 200 grassroots rugby, football and boxing organisations across England and Wales are to be awarded £5 million to put on local schemes. Does the Minister agree that, apart from the obvious health and wellbeing benefits, these schemes help to keep vulnerable young people out of antisocial behaviour and crime?
My hon. Friend is right. The power of sport is significant and far-reaching: it helps with health and wellbeing and, as he rightly points out, can be a great avenue for helping people not to be tempted into areas of crime. That is why grassroots sports will be a key focus of our sports strategy.
We all love the game of rugby football union. In Wales this week, the Welsh Rugby Union was accused of sexism and misogyny. It is shocking and, unfortunately, reaches throughout the culture of Welsh rugby. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State reach out to the Welsh Government to provide their support and give the right guidance on setting up an independent regulator?
Sexism, misogyny or any prejudice has no place whatever in any of our sports. As the hon. Member knows, sport is devolved, but I will reach out to colleagues in the Welsh Government and have a discussion about that. I am absolutely clear that our sports strategy will have inclusion at its heart.
First, may I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on last month becoming the new president of the Rugby Football League? I suspect that your form of the game will see a big influx of new players as the English Rugby Football Union seeks to rewrite the rules of the union game.
Does the Minister agree that, given 75,000 players, coaches and supporters of the union game have already signed a petition rejecting the new rules, the RFU should think again, work more collaboratively with the grassroots across all the home nations and ensure that all steps taken to improve player safety are consistent and workable and do not lead to a player exodus?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point that a number of colleagues have already raised with me. As he will be aware, national governing bodies such as the Rugby Football Union are responsible for the regulation of their sport and ensuring that appropriate measures are in place to protect participants from harm and serious injuries. I can assure him that we continue to work with sports bodies, including the RFU, to ensure that player safety is prioritised, and I will certainly raise the points he has raised in my next meeting with it.
Rugby Football Bicentenary Celebration
The Government are delighted that rugby union is celebrating 200 years in 2023. We are looking forward to working with my hon. Friend to mark that occasion, and I am delighted that the Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), plans to join some of those celebrations at Rugby School. Rugby continues to be one of our biggest participation sports, and the very best of the game will be showcased in the men’s world cup later this year. We also look forward to supporting the growth of the game, with England hosting the women’s world cup in 2025.
Mr Speaker, you will know that my constituency is known around the world as the birthplace of the game, where it is played in both codes—both union and league. The game all started in 1823, when a Rugby schoolboy, William Webb Ellis, picked up and ran with the ball at a time when everybody else just kicked it. The bicentenary this year gives both the town and Rugby School the opportunity to celebrate with events and matches on The Close, including one with the parliamentary team from the Commons and the Lords. We are welcoming the Minister for Sport, and we look forward to seeing him at the celebrations with the first pass of the ball, which will be transported to rugby- playing countries around the world.
The Minister is very much looking forward to joining the start of the global pass, which will see 200 passes take a rugby ball through the hands of fans across the globe. The programme of events will give plenty of opportunities for the people of Rugby and beyond to celebrate their role in the history of the sport.
Football Governance: Fan-Led Review
When we published our response to the recommendations made by the independent Fan-Led Review of Football Governance, we were clear that football needs reform to ensure the game’s long-term sustainability and to safeguard clubs, and I have met the authorities to push for action now. We will publish a White Paper setting out our detailed position within the next couple of weeks. That will set out the direction of travel for significant reform within football.
I do not know whether I need to declare an interest as a supporter of Barnsley football club, but I put that on the record anyway. Further to the point made just a moment ago, we are still waiting for progress between the Premier League and the English Football League on increased funding to the pyramid, which could, hopefully, avoid another Bury football club or Derby County scenario. The Minister and the Secretary of State have mentioned the White Paper, but given that it may be 18 months before any new regulator is operational, can the Secretary of State say what she will do in the interim to break the deadlock and ensure that football clubs are financially sustainable for the longer term?
While we will publish the White Paper in two weeks’ time, it is clear that football does not need to wait for the Government to act. Both the Minister for Sport and I have had several meetings trying to push that along. I urge football to act now because it is in its interests, too, to safeguard clubs and to protect the interests of fans.
I welcome the news that the Government’s White Paper will be published shortly. Does the Secretary of State agree that most football clubs that get into financial difficulties are already trading outside of the rules of the competitions they play in? If those rules were properly enforced, these problems would not occur, and that is why we need the regulator to ensure that transparency exists.
As always, my hon. Friend talks a great deal of sense, and I completely agree with him. That is why this Government will be acting and standing up in the interests of clubs and fans to ensure that the regulator is in place to do just that, but of course the rules of the game could be enforced now.
Everton football club is reportedly up for sale, with its stadium half-built. With others up for sale, this looks set to be a record year for premier league clubs changing hands. Many others face financial problems and ownership uncertainties, all since the Fan-Led Review was published. Yet fans will have no say and new owners are not subject to robust independent checks. We still do not have the deal on financial distribution in the pyramid. Will the Secretary of State take responsibility for the clubs that go under or get themselves into trouble before the independent statutory regulator is finally implemented?
This Government have proven time and again that we are on the side of the fans. We committed to the review in our manifesto. We stepped in during covid to protect clubs with a £600-million sport survival package. We stepped in again to prevent the super league —a competition that no fans wanted. Whenever fans have needed us, we have been in their corner. This will be a huge shake-up of football, and I will not apologise for taking the time to get it right. We will come forward with the White Paper in the next two weeks.
The Online Safety Bill reached a major milestone when it passed its Third Reading. It is now being introduced in the Lords. Last week I visited Birmingham to hear how the 2022 Commonwealth games has contributed £870 million to the UK economy. Meanwhile, another major event is heading down the tracks, with just 100 days to go until the King’s coronation. The Government are helping to deliver a historic weekend that will bring our country and communities together. Everyone can join us across the whole weekend, whether it is hosting a street party or volunteering through the Big Help Out for causes that matter to them.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that update. There has been much conjecture in the press about widely differing rules on transgender people participating in elite sports, with very different agreements made. Could my right hon. Friend give an update on her position, to ensure that we protect the integrity of women’s sports?
On all sport, the Government are clear that a way forward is needed that protects and shows compassion to all athletes. We are also clear that sex has an impact on the fairness of competitive women’s sport. Fairness should be the primary consideration. We need a common-sense approach in this area, which is why I am holding a roundtable with domestic governing bodies in the coming weeks, and working with UK Sport on an international engagement plan.
Half the DCMS shortlisting panel for the BBC chair had close links to the Conservative party, but even they managed to put forward five candidates. So what does the Secretary of State think it was about the close confidante of the former Prime Minister who was helping with his personal finances that first attracted him to appoint Mr Sharp over the other four candidates? Does she have confidence in the process and that the actual and perceived conflicts of interest were fully disclosed?
Richard Sharp was appointed chairman of the BBC following a rigorous appointment process in line with the public appointments governance code and the BBC royal charter. The advisory assessment panel included a senior independent panel member approved by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who praised the process as fair and robust. In addition, there was pre-appointment scrutiny by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which confirmed Mr Sharp’s appointment. I understand the current Commissioner of Public Appointments will be investigating.
My hon. Friend has spoken to me on a number of occasions about this issue. As I said to him, these national and international governing bodies are independent of Government, but he raises important points that I will be more than happy to raise in my next meeting with the RFU, and perhaps he and I can have a further discussion about this in due course.
Does the Secretary of State believe the public think it is ever acceptable for anyone to donate hundreds of thousands to a political party and then be appointed by that same political party to a plum public post—in the case of BBC chair Richard Sharp, having been interviewed, we now learn, by a panel including another Tory party donor? Rigorous—really?
For some of the most vulnerable people in Darlington and up and down the country, terrestrial broadcast TV and radio serves as a lifeline, as we so starkly learned when the Bilsdale mast caught fire last year. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring that broadcast TV and radio will be supported well into the future, so that everyone can enjoy these services?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of terrestrial, particularly to the most vulnerable communities. We have committed to ensuring that it is in place until at least 2034, and we are supporting the continued use of spectrum for that purpose. We have also commissioned a study to ensure that we are fully aware of how TV habits are affecting this.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting this issue. The Competition and Markets Authority has already looked into that and was not concerned about competition issues in relation to some of the platforms, but we are looking at this as an intellectual property question. The relevant Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and I will have a roundtable on this issue, to ensure we are fully across it and to highlight its importance.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the exemption proposed for artificial intelligence from copyright restrictions on text and data mining. I have been struck since I became acting Chair of the Select Committee by the weight of worry from different creative sectors, including music and cinema, that this could destroy the copyright protections that many creators have. Are Ministers looking carefully at that?
I can confirm that we are looking carefully at this. We have had a range of reactions to the proposals. The Minister for IP, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), welcomed the additional evidence, and the Government have now launched a period of stakeholder engagement on implementation options, taking into account the evidence received. We are confident that, together, we can come up with a proportionate response.
I have not heard the song, but I will look it up. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), we are confident that we will design a balanced approach. We will work with the industry to develop the creative industries sector vision and set out our ambitions for the sector, including in that important area.
North Norfolk is home to some of the most incredible and beautiful heritage landscapes. We know that the benefits to our mental health are enormous when we have equal access to these surroundings. Will my right hon. Friend thank my constituent Laura Drysdale, who is director of the Restoration Trust in Cromer, for all her charitable work to help those suffering with mental ill health and support her National Lottery Heritage Fund bid for the Norfolk landscapes for wellbeing project?
I raise the plight of the Peacehaven and Telscombe conurbation, which has more than 23,000 people, with no further education provision, high levels of free school meals and pupil premium, and, despite improvements, below average rates of literacy and numeracy. Despite that, the county council wishes to downgrade the library from 900 square metres to 300 square metres and to reduce its opening times. Will the Minister join me in calling for libraries of an appropriate size in large towns? Will the Department publish statutory guidelines on the square meterage and opening times expected per population for large towns?
As the hon. Gentleman says, public libraries are run by local authorities, so it is up to each local authority to identify the needs of local residents. DCMS has previously received representations about the relocation of Peacehaven library and we have engaged with the local authority to understand the plans and their implications. The Secretary of State has a statutory power to intervene by way of a local inquiry if she considers that a local authority is not providing a comprehensive and efficient library service. That is taken seriously, so if a complaint is received, the Department will challenge the council and evidence will be carefully considered before it is decided whether a local inquiry is needed.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Parish Churches: Family Attendance
There are Church of England churches that provide breakfast and lunch clubs, as well as youth, children’s and toddler activities, including messy church and much more besides. A vibrant children’s and youth ministry is often a key component of church growth.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The core of any parish mission is outreach to the community, with events such as the forthcoming family fun day at St Martin’s church, Barton, which will offer local families a chance for free fun, with lunch included. What resources are the Church Commissioners providing to support parishes in that mission and to ensure that details of such events reach those who would most benefit from attending?
I commend my hon. Friend for drawing attention, for the second month in a row, to the great work done by his local churches—none more so than St Martin’s church, Barton under the inspirational leadership of Father Nick Debney and Pamela Macey. On behalf of the House and the Church of England leadership, I warmly thank them for everything they do. I will send my hon. Friend details of the national churches strategic funding programmes, to which the diocese of Exeter can apply for St Martin’s church and other local churches.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for South Norfolk, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
National Audit Office’s Estimate
In line with its statutory duties, the Public Accounts Commission sits formally to discuss the NAO’s main supply estimate, taking evidence from the Comptroller and Auditor General and other NAO officials. On 1 March last year, the Commission approved the NAO’s supply estimate for the financial year that will shortly end, and it also approved an adjustment in November to allow the NAO to enter into a lease in Newcastle. On 8 March this year, the Commission is due to consider the NAO’s supply estimate for the forthcoming financial year, which will end in March 2024.
The National Audit Office does superb work with penetrating analysis of public expenditure, but it now covers the greatest ever number of public sector organisations. Will the Public Accounts Commission take that into account when arriving at the estimate for next year?
Yes, it will. The National Audit Office is affected by inflation, which is now at 9.2%, as well as other cost pressures relating to its statutory role, including the greater work required by updated international audit standards and the fact that when more public bodies are created, they need to be audited. The Commission also notes that the NAO is competing against private sector audit firms in recruiting and retaining staff, and needs to take that into consideration. The Commission will discuss those issues in more detail when the NAO presents its main estimate on 8 March.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Churches and Cathedrals: Maintenance
The Taylor review of cathedral and church building sustainability was published in 2017. There is an urgent need for dialogue with the Government about it, because without a bedrock of basic maintenance and repairs funding, there is a real risk to many of our amazing church and cathedral buildings. In passing, I note that such issues are always easier to address with a full church.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. My constituency is home to no fewer than 24 churches, including every branch of Christianity, but St Lawrence’s church in particular is in dire need of repair. It is a very well populated church, but it does need additional funds to restore it to its previous good keeping. Can my hon. Friend tell me what help will be given to St Lawrence’s church?
I have read up on St Lawrence, Little Stanmore: its baroque interior and internationally renowned organ—Handel was employed as a composer in residence —are real treasures. I will put my hon. Friend in touch with the national church buildings department, which advises parishes on grants and support for refurbishment. I can also tell him that the Willesden area council of the diocese of London is able to distribute grants of up to £20,000 for urgent repairs.
As the hon. Member said, a large number of churches and cathedrals in this country are in serious danger, including a number in my constituency. He also mentioned discussions between the Government and the Church of England on securing the future of churches. Will he say if those discussions are imminent?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I think the answer is that they need a bit of a boost, if I could put it that way. I would welcome his support, and indeed that of hon. Members on all sides, because I think all places of worship—and the Church of England does have an enormous number of grade I and grade II buildings—are important in all of our communities, and we do need a serious national conversation about how we keep them going for the future. Other countries fund them from the state. Personally, I do not think that is right, but I do think we need a dialogue with Government as to how we go forward in this area.
Restoration and Renewal Client Board
The hon. Member for Broxbourne, representing the Restoration and Renewal Client Board, was asked—
Restoration of the Palace of Westminster: Sustainable Procurement
The delivery authority leads on procurement for the restoration and renewal programme. The delivery authority’s procurement policy includes sustainability as one of the criteria to consider when making procurement decisions. The aim is to deliver a refurbishment programme that ensures efficient and responsible resource consumption, helps to develop construction and craft skills nationally, and increases social mobility—for example, through taking on apprentices.
What a mess we are in with both Houses. What a mess restoration and renewal is in. I campaigned for putting a lot of the work on the river, but that pales into insignificance when we see the mess we are in. People locally—my constituents—say, “Quite honestly, you people in Parliament couldn’t organise a proverbial in a brewery!” The fact is that we look ridiculous in this House because, whether it is sustainable or non-sustainable, we simply seem to be making no progress at all.
Forgive me, Mr Speaker. I am not sure what the question was there, but I shall try to answer. I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire with regard to the Thames, because I know we have a passion for the Thames. I want to see the River Thames thrive: I want to see it thrive with fish for personal reasons, but I also want to see it thrive with commercial endeavour. Despite the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations, the delivery authority is looking at conducting feasibility studies on using the Thames to deliver construction materials, and I can write to him further about that. I am not sure I can help him with his frustrations immediately, but perhaps in the future we will ease them somewhat.
I often agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), and this is no exception. I would like to ask my hon. Friend—a very good friend—what on earth we are doing. Why are we not out of this place or making plans to remove ourselves to somewhere else while restoration and renewal carries on? Are we ever going to do it, or are we just going to wait until asbestos, a sewage leak, a fire or some other disaster befalls us?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her—incredibly helpful—question, and I shall try to answer it as best I can. The delivery authority is working tirelessly to deliver a programme to renew and restore the Palace of Westminster, and there are enormous complexities here, as she knows. I do not want to stray into politics, but ultimately any restoration of this place will have to be funded, and we do need to find a mechanism for funding that the Treasury feels comfortable signing off. As far as the plans are concerned, progress is being made, and I am more than happy to keep my right hon. Friend informed, despite her fierce questioning.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Political Donations and Donors: Electoral Law
The Speaker’s Committee has not held recent discussions on the matters raised. The UK has one of the most transparent political finance regimes in the world. However, the Electoral Commission has highlighted that reforms are needed to modernise and further safeguard our system, and it has made recommendations to ensure that voters can have greater confidence in political finance in the UK. Those include new duties on parties for enhanced due diligence, risk assessment of donations, and changes to the law to ensure that companies have made enough money in the UK to fund any donations.
While I welcome steps to improve transparency in donations to political parties, what more can the Speaker’s Committee do to support improved transparency in donations to, and campaign activity of, non-party campaigners, and on increasing levels of foreign interference?
The commission regulates the spending of organisations campaigning during the regulated period ahead of an election or referendum. It also regulates donations to political parties and candidates. Unless an organisation is engaged in regulated campaign activity, it will fall outside the commission’s area of responsibility. The commission does not have a role in regulating spending on political activity more generally. The National Security Bill includes measures to tackle foreign interference in the UK’s political processes, but could provide additional security by incorporating additional recommendations. That would include strengthening existing controls on donations and loans to political parties and campaigners, such as enhanced due diligence checks based on anti-money laundering regulations. I know the hon. Gentleman is an active and interested member of the Speaker’s Committee, and I am sure that the Electoral Commission would be happy to meet him if he wishes to discuss the matter further.
If the hon. Gentleman would like to raise any particular concerns with the commission, I extend the invitation to him. The commission would be happy to meet him to discuss political donation. The commission has recommended that political parties be required to conduct enhanced due diligence checks, so that voters can have greater confidence in political party finance.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church’s Assets: Historic Involvement with Slavery
The Church Commissioners have not tried to draw a direct line from historical investments to current assets, given the myriad inflows and outflows over 300 years. Our forensic accountants estimate that investments linked to the slaving activities of the South Sea Company were equivalent to several hundred million pounds in today’s money. That is deeply shameful to acknowledge, and while no amount of money will ever be enough to repair the horrors of the past, the Church Commissioners have decided to invest £100 million over the next nine years in a better future for all, particularly in those communities affected by historical slavery.
The £100-million fund will enable impact investment grant funding and research in response to the findings in the Church Commissioners’ report. An oversight group will be established to help the Church Commissioners shape and deliver that response. Today the Church Commissioners, as award-winning ethical investors, punch well above their weight in combating modern slavery and human rights violations all around the world.
While we cannot and should never ignore the Church’s historical involvement with slavery, is it not better to focus on the missionary work that churches did over the years, with the spread of the Gospel and the best story ever told: that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners?
I do not think it is a question of either/or. When the chief executive of the Church Commissioners was on the “Today” programme recently explaining why we have done this, he was contacted later that day by a global majority heritage individual who had stayed away from the Church for 40 years and is now going to come back again. I say also to the hon. Gentleman that full churches do not tend to fall down.
I look forward very much to visiting Lichfield cathedral, but sadly that may not be until after Dean Adrian Dorber retires. I know that the dean’s work has been so significant that I will see many ongoing examples of his tremendous legacy when I do visit.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because he will see the Herkenrode glass, which has been restored, and he will hear the magnificent organ, for which £6 million had to be raised to make it sound so beautiful. They are a reminder that a dean’s work is not just worship, but fundraising, management and all the other factors in running a great and successful cathedral such as Lichfield. What sort of training is given? It seemed to me that poor Adrian Dorber had to learn on the job and then, with a little bit more investigation, Mr Speaker—it is a bit like being a Speaker, actually—that they all have to learn on the job. Can we not improve on that?
One might think that Lichfield cathedral was the only cathedral in the Church of England, because my hon. Friend is one of the very few Members who regularly stands up for his cathedral. Running a cathedral, as he rightly says, is not only a major spiritual undertaking to proclaim the good news of Jesus, but a huge management task, which is why we require all new deans to undertake a component of an MBA module before taking up office.
Blessings for Same-sex Couples
With you permission, Mr Speaker, following my response to the urgent question on Tuesday, the advice I was given then was by the Church legal office, and I was yesterday asked to make a small clarification. A simple majority in each of the three Houses of the General Synod could suffice to pass a measure and amending canon to change the definition of marriage in ecclesiastical law, but circumstances could also arise in which two-thirds majorities in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy would be needed, and, as with all authorised forms of service, a two-thirds majority in each House would be required for the approval of the Synod as a form of service for the marriage of a same-sex couple. I apologise, Mr Speaker, but I was only informed yesterday. Given that I was answering questions today, I thought you would find it acceptable that I put that slight clarification on the record.
In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), it is the case that the General Synod of the Church of England can make its own decisions on these matters. Members of the Synod will have a chance to make their own views clearly known, having listened to the very forcible views expressed in this House on Tuesday. I repeat that the Church of England has apologised for past behaviours, and welcomes and values LGBTQI+ people unreservedly and joyfully.
I thank the hon. Member for that clarification and for his comments about welcoming the LGBTQI+ community joyfully. But can I ask him to clarify then why it is that a man and a woman who do not believe in God and do not regularly attend church are welcome to marry in the Church of England—indeed, the Church’s website says, “God’s blessing is the main attraction for many couples”—but a couple in a same-sex relationship, both of whom may have worshipped in the Church all their lives and live in the spirit of Christian faith, are denied the same right in the Church, even though similar denominations in Scotland offer that opportunity? Can the hon. Member inform the House whether the Commissioners have discussed that inequality with the Church of England?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. These matters will be very livelily debated at the General Synod between 6 and 9 February. I can also tell her that each province in the global Anglican communion is autonomous. The majority of the provinces in the communion provide neither blessings nor marriages for same-sex couples: the Scottish Episcopal Church provides marriages, the Church in Wales provides blessings, and the Church of Ireland provides neither for same-sex couples, so the hon. Lady can see that there is a variety of practice within these islands. But I have heard what she has said and, more importantly, I will make sure that the General Synod is very well aware of her views and those of others in this House.