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The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): We have set a target that all UK public libraries, where practicable, will have public internet access and link to the national grid for learning by 2002. Through the national lottery new opportunities fund, £170 million is being provided to support the network infrastructure, train library staff and create content for delivery over this people's network.
Mr. Howarth: I agree with my hon. Friend and share her pleasure at the increased funding to strengthen library services in Stockport. The award from the DCMS- Wolfson reader development programme to the National Library for the Blind's project, called "A Touch Of", represents support for an excellent initiative that involves specialist staff in Stockport and public library staff across the country. All the funding that she reports for Stockport shows how we are working to ensure that there is no digital divide and that everyone--including, importantly, disabled people--has access to a full range of information, lifelong learning and cultural opportunities.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Although increased internet access through public libraries would be welcomed in rural constituencies such as Vale of York, that will succeed only if a library is open for enough hours to make it possible and if sufficient qualified library staff are available to guide people through the internet. Can the Minister assure the House that that will be possible?
Mr. Howarth: As the hon. Lady is probably aware, we have put out for consultation draft national library standards, with the thought very much in mind that it is important to ensure that people in rural areas have access to a proper public library service. The proposed standard is that no user should have to travel for more than 20 minutes to use a library. We have also suggested standards for opening hours and for book purchases to enable public libraries to make further progress towards recovering from the blighted years of the mid-1990s.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): From 1 April, free entry for the over-60s was introduced to those museums funded by my Department that currently charge for admission, including the national museums and galleries on Merseyside; the national museum of science and industry, including the national railway museum at York; the natural history museum; the imperial war museum; the national maritime museum; the Victoria and Albert museum; the royal armouries at Fort Nelson, Portsmouth; and the Tate gallery at St. Ives.
Mrs. Humble: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he welcome the free access to the Grundy art gallery in Blackpool and the special concerts and exhibitions that it puts on to attract pensioners and does he recognise that physical barriers may deter older people from enjoying, for example, the excellent exhibitions at
Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend raises a valid point about the importance of physical as well as financial access to museums and galleries, particularly local ones. I envisage that museum as a prime candidate for an application to the heritage lottery fund special access fund, which was created two years ago with our encouragement, and I certainly suggest that it discusses those possibilities with the HLF.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the right hon. Gentleman's Department issued a press release on 24 July 1998 signalling that there would be free access--first for children, subsequently for pensioners and ultimately for everyone--to all our DCMS-sponsored national museums, does he have the good grace to admit that he has broken that pledge and to apologise to all the people whom he has disgracefully let down?
Mr. Smith: No. Criticism on that subject comes rich from the Conservatives, who introduced charges for museum access. In the comprehensive spending review document "A New Cultural Framework", which we published at that time, we said that we would introduce free access for children. That we have done. We said that we would introduce free access for pensioners. That we have done. We said that we would seek to widen access further. That we have also done, with the commitment, which is on the table, for charging museums to make a £1 charge for adults from September next year.
Ms Claire Ward (Watford): My right hon. Friend may remember that, at the last culture questions, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts mentioned the importance of free access for pensioners and said that it had been linked not to pension age, but to the age of 60. There is concern that some Departments are introducing schemes based on the ages of 60 and 65, contrary to the policy of other Departments. Has any progress been made in providing the House with the legal advice that the Department has received, and which I requested at the last Question Time?
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport): Many pensioners go to museums and galleries because they are interested in a particular exhibition. Is the Minister aware that galleries and museums now find that they have to charge extra for those special exhibitions, but do not take pensioners into consideration?
Mr. Smith: Ultimately, that is for individual museums or galleries, of which there are more than 2,000 around the country, to decide. I hope that they will bear pensioners' needs in mind when considering charging regimes for such exhibitions.
I was pleased that, in May, some 1,340 museums took part in museums and galleries month, with special events, special exhibitions and special access schemes. I was particularly pleased that a large number of hon. Members took that opportunity to visit local museums and to highlight the work that they do.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): We have estimated that switchover could take place between 2006 and 2010. The date, however, will depend on the two key tests of availability and affordability that we have put in place.
Jane Griffiths: On the question of affordability, does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the high cost of digital radio sets, which cost several hundred pounds and are thus beyond the reach of most people? Does he anticipate that radio sets, in particular, will have become affordable by that date?
Mr. Smith: The switchover date applies to television, not to radio. No date has yet been set for switchover from analogue to digital radio. I would certainly hope that, as both the technology and manufacturers' capacity develop, the cost of digital radio sets will fall.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the Secretary of State agree that, until the board of governors and the board of management of the BBC learn what public sector broadcasting really means, he should consider switching off BBC 1?
Mr. Smith: No. It is my strong view that the BBC, as our premier public sector broadcaster and our most important cultural institution, must retain its public service remit into the digital age. It must be the benchmark of quality.
There has been speculation recently about our approach to the governance of the BBC. Let me put the position clearly. As part of our overall review of regulation in broadcasting and communications, we are indeed looking at the role of the board of governors, which currently acts as both judge and jury--managers and regulators. No decisions have been taken on this subject. We are listening to the wide range of views that we have received. Whatever happens, two principles must be paramount: first, the special protection of the BBC's remit; and secondly, the robust independence from Government of any regulatory mechanism that might emerge.