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House of Commons

Monday 20 December 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Television Licences

1. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What arrangements he is making to ensure that rights to free television licences apply for those who are obliged to purchase a television licence covering periods both prior to and after their 75th birthday. [101995]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Janet Anderson): The Government anticipate that the arrangements for free television licences for pensioners aged 75 and over will incorporate provisions for refunds for unexpired licences. We intend to announce shortly full details of the scheme's operation.

Mr. Barnes: I welcome that reply and the movement towards free television licences for those aged 75 and over. Has not that provision established an important principle--that, in some circumstances, people can get free television licences? We can build on that in future and on the principle of benefits being provided on a universal basis.

Janet Anderson: My hon. Friend is right. The intention of the concession is to help older pensioners who are more likely to rely on television for information and entertainment. They are also more likely to live on low incomes: nearly half the pensioners who are over 75 are in the bottom three income bands. The concession will assist some 40 per cent. of pensioner households.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): Does the Minister agree that all those who are to get free television licences--a measure that I support--and, indeed, those who are not, are entitled to expect value for money from the BBC? In the light of the report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which was published this morning, does she agree that the BBC should show that it is eliminating waste before it demands more money? It should seriously consider scrapping News 24 and use the money to support BBC local radio and BBC World, both of which valued services are underfunded.

Janet Anderson: The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are keen for the BBC and anyone else to take

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steps to eliminate waste. We shall make our decisions on the Davies proposals in January and we shall take account of the Select Committee recommendations.

Angela Smith (Basildon): Does my hon. Friend know that there are currently concessions on television licences for pensioners in sheltered accommodation, but that when someone who needs sheltered accommodation but is not of pensionable age moves into the same complex, it puts the concessionary television licence in jeopardy for everyone in the complex? My local authority is experiencing increasing problems with that, and I should be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that she will examine the matter.

Janet Anderson: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that continuing problem. The Government were the first to realise that the current system is anomalous and unfair. We are still considering the recommendations of the Davies report on existing concessionary arrangements in the light of responses to the public consultation. An announcement will be made in January.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Does the Minister agree that it would be ironic if television licences were free for over-75s, while everyone else, rich and poor, was hit by a digital licence fee? Does she realise that, if such a fee were introduced, it would be wholly characteristic of the Government in that it would amount to yet another stealth tax?

Janet Anderson: The hon. Gentleman should not be too presumptuous. As I have already said, the Government are still considering the Davies report recommendations, and we shall make an announcement in January.

Tourism (River Thames)

2. Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): If he will make a statement about the promotion of leisure and tourism services on the River Thames, with particular reference to the role of London River Services. [101996]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Janet Anderson): The Government are keen for the vast tourism potential of the River Thames to be maximised in a sustainable way. We are supportive of the work that London River Services has undertaken towards furthering our objective of improving and enhancing the river. We are confident that it fully shares our view that the objective includes promoting the use of the river for tourism and leisure purposes, as well as transport. I was glad to have the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those important issues for London.

Mr. Darvill: I thank my hon. Friend for that statement. She will appreciate the fact that the River Thames attracts more than 2 million sightseeing and restaurant cruise passengers every year, which generates some £30 million of revenue. However, does she agree that, when granting licences to river operators, London River Services should take account of existing contractual arrangements as well as past investment and future planned investment?

Janet Anderson: Precisely for those reasons, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport

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and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), recently wrote to London River Services. He said:

    "We recognise the wish to protect"--

the investment that has already been put in

    "and the need, in promoting new services, to have regard to the well-being of existing operators, and I know you are taking steps to ensure these matters are evaluated systematically when new licences are being considered."

I reassure my hon. Friend that, because of my Department's interest in tourism, we shall keep a close watch on developments. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary recognises the importance of tourism on the Thames, particularly for the millennium year, during which we anticipate that about 2.4 million extra visitors will be attracted by the millennium dome, which is now the international symbol of the millennium.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): I am grateful to the Minister for her paving answer. Can she now tell us whether the Under-Secretary has received a reply from London River Services?

Janet Anderson: I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman is disappointed with my reply, but I have given him all the assurances that he needs. He knows, too, that he came to see me, with my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), to discuss the issue. I am confident that we have assured him that the Government recognise the importance of tourism and of continuing to maintain those services on the River Thames.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Now that Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry has confirmed that the river is safe for use for the millennium festival and beyond, can the Minister ensure that information is easily available and accessible on websites and elsewhere so that there is maximum use of the river to provide an alternative to road and land-based transport throughout next year? Will she and her colleagues get on with putting the final safety measure in place and take the legislation through the House quickly to make sure that people cannot drink and drive on the river, just as they cannot drink and drive on land?

Janet Anderson: On the latter point, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will, of course, do everything they need to do and can do to ensure people's safety on that important occasion. A number of websites make available the information to which he refers and I shall, if I may, write to him with the details of those.


3. Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): What support his Department gives to local museums. [101997]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): My Department directly sponsors 12 national and five non-national museums and galleries. Its support to the wider museums sector is channelled via the Museums and Galleries Commission.

Ms Perham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. My local council in the London borough of

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Redbridge will open its first ever museum in spring 2000, after many years of campaigning by local people. Will he join me in congratulating the councillors and officers of the London borough of Redbridge and the local groups and individuals who have worked hard for this much- wanted facility? What support does his Department give to local museums at local level?

Mr. Smith: I can certainly join my hon. Friend in heartily congratulating the borough of Redbridge on its initiative in establishing a new museum in Ilford central library. I am pleased that it has received a grant of £182,000 from the heritage lottery fund. That has been matched by a contribution of £263,000 from the borough itself, which speaks volumes for its commitment.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What confidence can we have in anything that the Secretary of State says about museums? In the first three months of this Parliament, did the Government not give a pledge that there would be universal free admission to the nation's galleries and museums by 2001? Has that pledge been dropped?

Mr. Smith: No such pledge was given. Indeed, I shall quote to the hon. Gentleman from our document "A New Cultural Framework", which we published in summer 1998. It set out our programme for the succeeding three years, and said:

that is done--

    "and for children and pensioners in the following year."

That is shortly to happen. The document continues:

    "These are the first stages in our programme of broadening free access to the great national collections; funds have also been set aside to take this programme further in 2001."

That will be done.

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