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Public Libraries

4. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What steps he is taking to encourage greater use of public libraries; and if he will make a statement. [101998]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): We have raised the profile of the public library service through the introduction of annual library plans and the forthcoming minimum service standards. We have also, through the new opportunities fund, committed significant direct investment to enable libraries to offer a new range of information technology services, along with funding to promote reader development programmes.

Helen Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but does he agree that many families, particularly those on low incomes, have relied on library services not only for factual knowledge but for access to the world's great literature, and that they were seriously hampered by the scandalous neglect of the book stock under the previous Government? Will he assure me that he will continue to monitor library services and ensure that they

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receive resources adequate to provide a varied supply of books in good condition, so that readers can once again make proper use of our great public library system?

Mr. Smith: I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. Work currently under way with the Local Government Association and the Library Association on the setting of minimum standards will ensure that the maintenance of a comprehensive book stock that is in good condition is very much one of the standards that we expect libraries to meet.

I have responsibilities under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to ensure that library authorities provide a full and comprehensive service to their local population. The work on the setting of minimum standards is the first time that a Government have taken this issue seriously and set about defining what those minimum standards should be.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): Is the Secretary of State aware that last year a mobile library service in Suffolk was shut by the Labour-controlled county council, and another is threatened for closure this coming year? Will he assure me that he will speak to the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that Suffolk gets the standard spending assessment that it deserves, so that it can continue to fund mobile library services?

Mr. Smith: This year's settlement for local authorities has been better than for any of the previous seven years. It is up to individual local authorities to decide their own spending priorities. However, earlier this year we were concerned about the plans for the future of library services in a number of local authorities. I am pleased to say that, as a result of the action that we took at that time, six of those library authorities have now dropped their closure plans.

Disabled Sport

5. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): What plans he has to increase support for disabled sport. [101999]

The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey): Through our Sport for All policy, we are determined to promote sport for people with disabilities. In this financial year, more than £1 million of Exchequer funding will go to sport for people with disabilities, which is an increase of about 28 per cent. In addition, from November 1997 to April 2000, the British Paralympics Association will have received more than £1.8 million from the world-class performance funding programme.

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she join me in congratulating the local partnership of Harrow council, Harrow Mencap and Harrow special olympics committee on successfully securing Millennium Commission funding to develop a new and expanded Harrow special olympics in September next year aimed at disabled children and children with learning difficulties in my constituency and the neighbouring area? Is not that precisely the type of partnership that we should encourage to promote access

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to Sport for All? What other action has she taken, and what further action does she propose to take, to promote such partnerships?

Kate Hoey: I certainly want to congratulate everyone in Harrow involved in that partnership to ensure that Sport for All really means sport for all, including people with disabilities. Since I became Minister, I have made a point of visiting as many of the disabled events around the country as possible, including the cerebral palsy European athletic championships. I was pleased about the launch of the English Federation for Disability Sport. For the first time, disability sport is speaking with one voice. A united voice for disability sport will be heard, especially by the Government.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Like me, the Minister has had a long-standing commitment to helping with disabled sport. Is she embarrassed by the fact that, before she became Minister for Sport, the Government's raid on the national lottery resulted in sport's total share of lottery funding falling from 28 per cent. to 18 per cent? Is she concerned that the Government's obsession with their pet project is having a knock-on effect on disabled sport, which is dear to her heart as it is to mine? Will she ensure that that cut is reversed in the Government's future programme? Will she also try to ensure that, in future national sporting projects, including the Wembley fiasco, proper facilities are available for disabled sportsmen and sportswomen?

Kate Hoey: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been, because he should be aware that more than £1.9 billion from the national lottery has gone into sport over the past five years. Money from the new opportunities fund is going to after-school activities, which include sport. People involved in sport at the grassroots feel much more confident about its future because of national lottery funding and because the Government are determined to make sport a huge priority among our other priorities. Within that, disabled sport--about which the hon. Gentleman, like all hon. Members, feels strongly--will be protected.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough): Does the Minister recognise that sport for the disabled--along with, probably, many other kinds of British sport--is particularly successful in terms of the winning of gold medals? Should we not ensure that people take up sport as early as possible, especially in our schools? Will the Minister ensure that the schools co-ordinators who will be appointed later this year and next year have a specific responsibility to ensure that sport is played by disabled people from an early age? Will she also ensure not only that such sport is played between schools but that facilities are available locally so that disabled people can continue to play subsequently?

Kate Hoey: My hon. Friend is right: what happens in our schools is the bedrock, or foundation, of our country's sporting future. I hope that the co-ordinators will consider their job to be promoting sport between schools

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throughout the country and ensuring that sport for disabled young people is just as high a priority as sport for everyone else.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): We appreciate the money that has been invested to help those with disabilities to participate in sport, and the Minister will know of the thrill felt by people, young and old, who now have that opportunity. In her capacity as Minister for Sport, is she keeping in touch with those in devolved regions to ensure that equal opportunities prevail throughout the United Kingdom?

Kate Hoey: The hon. Gentleman is right: it is crucial for all of us in the United Kingdom to work together to ensure that people with disabilities can fulfil their potential. Part of the role of the "sports cabinet" is to bring together representatives of different parts of the United Kingdom, and to prevent the difficulties envisaged by the hon. Gentleman. The aim is to unite in ensuring that people with disabilities have opportunities, and we are clearly going to do that.

Opera Tickets

7. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the use of public funds to ensure that tickets at the Royal Opera house are being sold at a lower price than before the refurbishment took place. [102001]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): We believe that the board and management of the Royal Opera house have responded to the Government's desire for Covent Garden to be open to a broader audience and for the public to have the widest possible access to performances--for instance, through lower ticket prices. I understand that the Royal Opera house will keep the pricing structure under review and will continue to ensure that tickets are available at a wide range of prices.

Mr. Rendel: Does the Secretary of State realise that a couple on the basic state pension would now have to spend about a third of their weekly income to buy a couple of tickets for the Royal Opera house, even at the lowest price? How does that square with what was said by the Minister for the Arts in an Adjournment debate on Government funding for the arts only three weeks ago? He said then that he was

Does that mean culture, except the Royal Opera house?

Mr. Smith: No; it means culture, including the Royal Opera house. In fact--this may be of particular interest to the pensioner couple to whom the hon. Gentleman referred--222 tickets are available, at £6 each, for matinee performances of a full-length opera there.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): That is good news for all of us, including the impoverished and the old.

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Will my right hon. Friend talk seriously to those at the Royal Opera house about provision for the disabled? There is a real problem in that regard, and, if they are genuinely concerned, they must allow free access for all. I sent in some distressing details today, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will have a right go at them.

Mr. Smith: I very much take on board my hon. Friend's point. The issue of access to the Royal Opera house for those with disabilities is crucial. The building work that has been undertaken has resulted in substantial improvements, but there is room for further progress, and I will consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Is it true that the Secretary of State has sought an assurance from the Royal Opera house that there will be no more "black tie" evenings? If so, why?

Mr. Smith: No.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): I welcome the new price structure, which is definitely an improvement, but is my right hon. Friend aware that the Royal Opera house has discontinued the practice of selling a number of tickets in the gods on the day of performances? Does he agree that that limits accessibility, particularly to those less well off opera fans who do not have the luxury of planning their lives for months ahead? Will he use whatever influence he has to try to make the Royal Opera house think again about that practice?

Mr. Smith: I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's point to the attention of the Royal Opera house authorities. However, in their defence, for the first three months of programming since the Royal Opera house re-opened, some 88,000 tickets have been available for public sale at the box office.

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