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Government Policy (Presentation)

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.10 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I beg to move,

This debate is not some end-of-term tease at the expense of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It goes to the heart of the way in which this Government do business. This afternoon, Conservative Members will set out to expose the shallow, superficial and cynical way in which the Government approach their task.

Fifteen months into this Parliament, there is more than ample evidence that power has gone to the heads of Ministers. I exclude, of course, those Ministers who lost their heads in Monday's reshuffle. Power in that case has gone to someone else's head. I welcome the two new members of the ministerial team to what one person in the museum world has described to me as the battlefield of art. I look forward to debating with them in the months ahead.

We have a Government composed of a Prime Minister who thinks he is a president, a Chancellor of the Exchequer who thinks he is Prime Minister, a Lord Chancellor who thinks he is a cardinal, and a press secretary who thinks he is the whole lot rolled into one. But let us start with the Secretary of State, otherwise known as Mr. Cool, or, in the words of the novelist A. N. Wilson:

I know that that description is not entirely fair. The Secretary of State will probably claim that it was a misleading headline. He should know, because, with the Prime Minister and the rest of the Government, he is an expert in misleading headlines.

It is not hard to work out exactly why the Secretary of State attracts that type of adverse criticism. Consider his oeuvre "Creative Britain", produced to loud fanfares earlier this year. I will not embarrass him by referring to the critical reviews: I observe merely that it was described as a book. It looks and feels like a book and has a nice cover, but it is not a book. It is a pamphlet full of old speeches. Full marks for style; zero for substance.

What about the allegation that the Secretary of State does nothing? When the Royal Opera house gets into difficulty, what does he do? He commissions a review. When the results of the review are published, what does he do? He sets up a committee to review the review. In sport, after eight months of delay, he finally announces, in a blaze of publicity, that the United Kingdom sports institute is to be set up in Sheffield. Since

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then, he has almost nothing to show for his efforts. Have any contracts been announced? No. Have any been put out to tender? No.

When the BBC suddenly announces out of the blue that it wants to renegotiate the terms of its licence fee, what is the response from the Secretary of State? Nothing. His Department is keen on putting out lengthy documents about media convergence, new broadcasting technologies and digital television, but does he understand who is going to pay for all that? Who will be the driver behind it? Advertising will pay for it. Nor do we hear anything from the Secretary of State about what he is doing to prevent the tide of politically correct EU and other home-grown initiatives that are designed to restrict and impede the advertising industry.

Last December, the Secretary of State promised a much-vaunted tourism strategy by the early summer. Where is it? It is delayed until the autumn, or even the winter. Perhaps the Secretary of State is indulging in a bit of pathetic fallacy. He will know what I mean by that. He is imitating the weather, and turning summer into winter.

There has been a lot of doing nothing over the past several months, but, when one considers what the Secretary of State is doing, that is probably just as well. Last Friday, he published his Department's comprehensive spending review: "A new approach to investing in culture". He chose to make it coincide with a photo opportunity sitting on a magic carpet.

I shall return later to the bogus claims of the Secretary of State about the extra funding that he announced that day, but let us first have a quick look at the document, which is a fairly thick one. Across the board it presages a new era of meddling, interference and state control. When the Secretary of State finally got around to doing something, he chose to abolish the English tourist board, despite the fact that opinion polls in the industry suggest 97 per cent. support for the board. People wanted it to be enhanced and strengthened, not abolished. His decision comes at a time when the English and the Welsh tourist industries are going through a particularly difficult time, not just because of the bad weather, but as a consequence of the Chancellor's high pound. They also face a new tide of Government regulation. That is a particularly bad start for the Secretary of State.

Across the board we see new structures to

The Government want to

    "develop tangible indicators of performance linked to our key policy aims".

It may sound like officialese, but what it points to is more state control.

There is much talk about new regional executive bodies acting as the Government's local agents. No doubt they will also be required to develop tangible indicators of performance linked to the Government's key policy aims. The dismemberment of autonomous national bodies will leave the regions exposed more directly than ever before to the Government's key policy aims. Just to make sure

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of that, the Secretary of State proposes a new national watchdog which would

    "review and report to us on performance in achieving standards set, meeting aims and objectives and efficiency targets."

I have been speculating about the new watchdog and wondering what it should be called. I thought that it might be called "Ofcult". Somebody else suggested "Ofart", but I am not sure that the Secretary of State will take up that suggestion. Nowhere is that idea more misguided, and nowhere will it be more resented, than in the arts.

The music critic Norman Lebrecht has taken the promise of extra funding for the arts at face value. Even so, he realises what is going on. He writes:

The Government's approach to the arts is dirigiste, paternalistic old Labour. As if to reinforce the point, when the Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts held a recent awards ceremony at the Globe theatre in London to celebrate a record year of business investment in the arts, not one Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport bothered to turn up.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): My hon. Friend has given a fair assessment of the Secretary of State's performance to date. Has he, by any chance, seen the commentary of the distinguished parliamentary sketch writer, Quentin Letts, in yesterday's edition of The Daily Telegraph, in which he said:

Mr. Ainsworth: I did see the piece in question; and, er, we, er, look forward to hearing the Secretary of State's speech.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): I have listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Now we are the Government who are to blame for everything--naturally, they always are--including the weather, will he turn his mind to the following tiny fact? Why do more and more people want to come to this country for their holidays, why do we have a developing film industry, why do we produce some of the best music, and why are our people some of the most creative in Europe if this country is ruled by a Government who are not encouraging all those fields?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sorry to correct the hon. Gentleman, but he may have missed the fact that, in the first three months of this year, there was an overseas visitors deficit of £1.7 billion. I am afraid that the Chancellor's policies, mismanagement of the economy and the high pound have been a major deterrent to people visiting this country.

I wonder whether the arts are safe in the hands of a Secretary of State who is on record as saying that Bob Dylan is the artistic equal of John Keats.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): Will the hon. Gentleman tell me exactly where I said that--because I have never done so?

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Mr. Ainsworth: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting the record straight. He had better address his comments to The Spectator. He is also quoted in The Spectator as saying:

If he really believes that, is it surprising that he has remained so dumb amid all the accusations that the BBC is dumbing down its programme quality? This Government are dumbing down politics altogether.

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