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House of Commons

Monday 26 March 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Channel 4

1. Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): If he will make a statement on the contribution of Channel 4 to public service television. [153861]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson): Channel 4 provides distinctive and innovative programming, and both provides competition for and complements the other public service broadcasters. We will maintain its current status and ensure that it remains a key element of public service broadcasting in the multichannel future.

Mr. Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that last year alone, Channel 4 invested £30 million in British film and that that investment levered in an additional £73 million from overseas and other sources? How important is it to that level of investment in that important industry that Channel 4 remains a public service broadcaster? What would be the consequences if the ill-advised privatisation policy espoused by the Opposition became Government policy?

Janet Anderson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. Privatisation would damage the British film industry, for which Channel 4 has been a front-line source of finance for two decades. It would jeopardise the channel's remit to serve minority interests and it would lose its creative edge. Dividends to shareholders would take money directly out of programme budgets. We made it clear in the White Paper that

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the hon. Lady realise that Carlton UK Television and Sky television might be upset by that response, given that they are private organisations and also fund the film industry? Does she not realise that it is possible for Channel 4--

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which is, after all, funded by advertising--to be privatised provided that there are safeguards to ensure continued investment in the film industry and public service broadcasting? Indeed, Carlton, Granada Television and other private media organisations can rightly be proud of their public service broadcasting.

Janet Anderson: The hon. Gentleman seems to argue for more regulation, which I thought that the Conservatives were against. Do they not recognise that public service broadcasting will be more important than ever in the digital age as a benchmark of quality and diversity? I remind him that a Conservative Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, set up Channel 4 and a Conservative Secretary of State for National Heritage, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), rejected a proposal to privatise it. The latest Opposition policy is a significant U-turn which would do nothing to preserve the quality of public service broadcasting.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The Minister should be more cautious. She knows that we propose to privatise Channel 4 and reinvest the proceeds in the cultural sector. She should also know that our proposals have been well received. No one doubts that Channel 4 at its best makes a significant contribution to public service broadcasting, but can she provide a shred of evidence from outside Channel 4 that the introduction of shareholders would automatically cause it to commit commercial suicide by abandoning its audiences and deserting such a successful formula, which raised £650 million last year? Before she treats the House to another dewy-eyed lecture about the purity of Channel 4 and dumbing down, can she explain the public service contribution of "Ibiza Uncovered", "Get Your Kit Off" and "Eurotrash"?

Janet Anderson: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not understand that dividends to shareholders would take precedence and take money directly out of programme budgets, after all that is not rocket science, but common sense. I remind him that in 1999, Channel 4 broadcast the work of more than 400 independent production companies, at least eight times as much as any other broadcaster. What opportunities would those producers have under the Conservatives policies? What is more, the hon. Gentleman's figures do not add up. If the Conservatives ever got a chance to implement their policies, they would need a fund of £9.2 billion to generate the £275 million Treasury grant for arts bodies that we have announced. I suggest that he goes back to the drawing board.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): This talk about public ownership just before a general election is wonderful news. Keep taking the tablets.

Janet Anderson: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I thank him very much for his visit to my constituency on Saturday night, when he reminded people of what the Government have done since their election--in stark contrast to what that lot on the Opposition Benches did in 18 years.

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Museum Charges

2. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): What estimate he has made of the impact on attendance of the lifting of museum charges on attendance at national museums and galleries. [153862]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): Our policy is to encourage all museums to offer the widest possible access to their collections. Two years ago, we introduced free admission to national museums and galleries for all children. In the first year, attendances rose by 20 per cent. Last year, we introduced free admission for all those over 60, and those attendances have since risen by over 40 per cent. As a result of the VAT change announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget we will be able to provide free admission for everyone to all the national museums and galleries from 1 December.

Valerie Davey: May I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend for his reply? I am sure that everyone in the Chamber will celebrate that news. More than 436,000 people visited the Bristol city museum and art gallery last year, which was a 50 per cent. increase since charges were lifted. Will my right hon. Friend also celebrate with me the fact that Bristol City council scrapped admission charges in 1998? Will he also endorse the city museum's good practice of having fun days for children and staging family events alongside major exhibitions?

Mr. Smith: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Bristol City council on its progress. I understand that there has been an increase in attendances of about 50 per cent. at the Bristol city museum and art gallery since charges were lifted. Of course, Bristol City council was two years ahead of the national museums and galleries because local authorities have always been able to reclaim their VAT. Bristol city museum and art gallery is a designated museum of national importance and it is wonderful that so many more people can now enjoy it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Before congratulating himself in such sickly fashion, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what assessment he has made of the impact of the current inability of free museums to reclaim VAT on the provision of services?

Mr. Smith: That point was central to the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget. As a result of the decision on VAT that we have now announced, free national museums will be able to reclaim VAT, with substantial benefit for their budgets.

Tourism (Foot and Mouth)

3. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What assessment he has made of the effect on the tourist industry of the foot and mouth outbreak. [153863]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): The loss of tourism business in England is in the order of £100 million a week and

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could reach £250 million a week if the consequential implications of the foot and mouth outbreak continue well into the main summer season.

Mr. Dalyell: Farmers apart, what is being done to help the total rural economic community? Many small hotel keepers are simply reeling.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the severe impact of the foot and mouth outbreak on the entire rural economy. Tourism has been particularly badly affected, but many other rural businesses have been affected too. When I visited Cumbria last weekend to see for myself the impact on local tourism and businesses, I was told a grim story. Hoteliers, guest house keepers and people dependent on the tourism industry were extremely anxious that two things should happen.

First, they wanted the Government to recognise the difficulties that they faced with cash flow; the initial package of measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment last week will go some way to providing initial relief. In addition, they were extremely anxious that we should emphasise that visitors to the countryside are very welcome and that there are many things that those visitors can do with great enjoyment and benefit all around the country, without any threat or danger of the spread of the disease.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Does the Secretary of State endorse the British Tourist Authority's recovery programme for tourism, and are the Government prepared to make money available now to enable the BTA to combat the sharp decline in visitor numbers and inquiries, not just to the areas most severely affected by the disease, but even to our resorts around the coasts? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the increased money made available for our tourist operations abroad will not rule out money being made available to tourist boards in the affected areas such as Cumbria and Devon, where work is needed now?

Mr. Smith: There are two crucial tasks. The first is to ensure that overseas visitors do not get an erroneous message about Britain being closed for tourism business. Over the past few weeks the British Tourist Authority has been working actively to combat that impression. We strongly support those efforts and we are in discussion with the BTA about a package of proposals, with new resources, to provide the right sort of information and advertising abroad.

The second task is to ensure that, particularly with the Easter break coming up, domestic visitors are encouraged to enjoy holidays in Britain, especially in the British countryside. It is crucial to ensure that accurate information is available about what is and what is not available to them to do. The regional tourist boards and local tourist information centres are working closely and carefully on that. The helplines are available and the information is getting out as rapidly as possible.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland): Although I know that my right hon. Friend recognises that in Cumbria the tourism industry contributes almost £1 billion per annum to the county's economy, does he recognise that in the remoter parts of west and south Cumbria, and particularly in my

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constituency, Copeland, the tourism industry is made up of very many small businesses, which depend overwhelmingly on walkers and climbers for their income? Given that the necessary restrictions are being extended, regrettably and sadly, into my constituency because of an outbreak there, may I urge my right hon. Friend and the Government to look closely at how those very small businesses in the remote valleys and dales can be sustained for the future? They are the most vulnerable of all, because they are such tiny businesses. In particular, will my right hon. Friend consider how the Government might offer some direct assistance to those people? I applaud what is being done through the tourist authorities and the Cumbria tourist board, but those businesses will not survive unless they get direct assistance in this dire emergency.

Mr. Smith: I understand the issue that my right hon. Friend raises. For small businesses that are heavily dependent on walkers and climbers for their income, the position is nowhere near as revocable as it is for more broadly based businesses that can attract car-borne visitors. Those small businesses will immediately qualify for the package of measures announced last week by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and we will consider further what more might be done to assist them.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I endorse entirely the remarks of the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). The House will be dismayed at the news that an outbreak has been discovered in the heart of the Lake district. The impact on farming communities and on tourism is becoming catastrophic. Although the effect is more acute in rural areas, there is clear evidence that towns and cities across the United Kingdom are suffering from cancelled bookings, and the cost is running into billions of pounds.

Does the Secretary of State agree that extra funds for marketing will help, but that realistically, they will be of limited value while the pyres continue to burn and the footpaths are closed? Will he ensure that when help does come, it is targeted at the areas where the problem has been most acute? Does he understand the growing anger and frustration in the tourism industry at the lack of immediate and effective action to tackle the cash flow problems faced by many businesses today?

When will the Secretary of State--or the Minister for the Environment or whoever now claims to be in charge of the crisis--offer, not promise, rate relief and emergency loans for companies whose businesses have collapsed? Will he now consider scrapping his unpopular and unwise decision to abolish an England-wide marketing remit in tourism, which has hampered the efforts of the English Tourism Council during the crisis and fuelled uncertainty and confusion over the Government's handling of the whole affair?

Mr. Smith: Coming from the party which, when in office, cut the old English tourist board by 70 per cent., the hon. Gentleman's last remark is perhaps a bit unwise. We must obviously try to approach this issue in as bipartisan a manner as possible, because there is a real and serious difficulty facing the tourism industry across the country, including the cities, owing to the fall in overseas visitor bookings. It is particularly acute in the

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countryside and especially in Cumbria, Devon and mid- Wales, which have been especially affected by the foot and mouth outbreak.

We have already put on the table a package of measures, as announced last week, which include enhanced rate relief for businesses in the affected rural areas. We shall of course be looking at what more needs to be done as the picture become clearer, but the most useful thing that we can all do to try to help those businesses in the rural economy is to encourage people to continue taking their holidays in the countryside.

I fear that, in the first few days of the outbreak, many people cancelled bookings in the countryside, perhaps in the mistaken belief that they were somehow helping. I would argue that they can help the rural economy and rural businesses best by continuing their visits, by going to see the countryside, and by engaging in activities that pose no threat to livestock or of progress of the disease.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Will my right hon. Friend join me in appealing to members of the national media, particularly the broadcast media, to stop the practice of frightening tourists away from the Lake district by what they say? If they carry on, they will create hundreds of bankruptcies in west Cumbria and in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and in mine. We cannot go on like this. They are making things worse. Furthermore, they are exaggerating the impact on the Lake district, in which until last weekend there were almost no cases of foot and mouth.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the impact of some of those impressions on tourism and holiday making, particularly in the Lake district. It is of course very sad news that one new case was identified yesterday in the Duddon valley on the edge of the Lake district national park. We must hope sincerely that the outbreak will not spread further into the park, which is still very much open for business. There are 100 visitor attractions in the Lake district that people can go to see. I very much hope that they will still want to do so.

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