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Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): As my hon. Friend will be aware, in my career before joining the House I was a regeneration officer for Carrick district council and much of my role was devoted to helping local community groups bid for funding. Is he aware of the bureaucracy that those voluntary groups must go through and the difficulty that many of them experience simply processing the very many forms involved in finding out whether they are eligible for any funding?

Matthew Taylor: My hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is never a single pot or a single entry point, given the nature of government these days, but one or two counties have experimented with a single front door into the various funds. There has been an organisational pulling together of the opportunities. As development work is ongoing and liaison is taking place with organisations such as ACRE—Action with Communities in Rural England—I hope that there will be an effort to discover whether it is possible not just to provide funding through the Big Lottery Fund to renew such infrastructure, but to make the process more simple when those largely voluntary organisations seek to access the wide range of relatively small amounts of funding. We all know what community groups must do to get their new roof or to get their new project under way. They must put together a jigsaw puzzle of different, sometimes small funding pots that add up to the necessary total.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us some of the details and that he can indicate that work is being done to improve access to the funds. However, the announcement covers £50 million over three years. If that scale of money is made available regularly, it will allow the renewal of village halls over time. No one suggests that all the renewal will take place in two or three years. In 2002, a study estimated that the backlog of necessary repairs was worth some £400 million, and there is no reason to think that that figure will have declined since then. In that context, I hope that the Minister will recognise that it is also important that the funding should roll on into the longer term. I appreciate that it is unlikely that firm commitments can be made today, but I hope that the Minister will give me some indication that it is recognised that a one-off, three-year £50 million fund will not tackle the problem once and for all any more than the similarly sized millennium fund did. Some £50 million went into village and community halls through that fund. It was very welcome and made a huge difference, but unfortunately
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such buildings do not stop ageing, so the need for renewals does not stop. I hope that there will be some indication of a willingness to address the matter.

The new licensing laws have been discussed before, but I want to talk about the way in which they will affect community groups and village halls that are operated by volunteers. The Minister will be aware that a lot of campaigning has taken place on the requirement for community and village halls to have a specifically licensed individual if they hold more than 12 events a year involving alcohol. In the past it was possible to apply to magistrates before each individual event, and realistically, few community or village halls hold only 12 events involving alcohol a year. During a wedding party, fête or amateur-dramatics event, one can almost guarantee that a bottle or glass of wine will be on offer, or be available to be won, but that requires a licence holder. Parties that local people put on—even, dare I say it, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat events—tend to attract a bottle of wine or two along the way.

I suspect that the Minister will say that most halls have managed to get their applications for licences in, which is true, but the problem is persuading volunteers to take on responsibilities that they perceive as possibly onerous. There has been an enormous effort to comply with the new laws and although not all halls have managed to do so, the majority have. However, people involved in those halls tell me that they had to twist arms to get volunteers to take on the responsibility and that it is extremely difficult to persuade people to do so. They think that it will take only one or two events to go wrong, with people being held to account for that, before the volunteers will start to dry up.

I hope that the Minister will be able to go back to his colleagues to determine whether there is a way in which such community facilities, given the wide variety of organisations that use them and the voluntary nature of the people who run them, could be given a facility for licensing that made more sense and did not make people think that they were taking on legal liabilities beyond their capacity or willingness. If halls find that they increasingly run into difficulty attracting volunteers and are thus able to put on fewer facilities, their steady income stream from making bookings will go. That income is the fundamental way in which halls keep going from day to day.

I have not come here to criticise the Minister. I welcome the announcement that has been made, for which hon. Members on both sides of the House and I have worked for a long time. We have clearly been listened to and that is good news.

10.33 pm

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): I thank the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) for raising an important issue. The Big Lottery Fund must have noticed that he had secured today's debate and thus announced the £50 million funding—I do not know whether that is true or not. I am grateful for the opportunity to emphasise the fact that the House recognises the importance of village and community halls to the local services, well-being and necessary regeneration of rural communities.
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We understand that funding for new or replacement halls must come for a vibrant partnership. As the hon. Gentleman said, that partnership is made up of each local community and district, with county, regional and national bodies. We welcome the superb work that the Big Lottery Fund has undertaken in helping village halls to continue to play a vital role in many communities throughout the land.

There are a wide number of reasons why village halls play such an important role in community life. The amenities that they provide are integral to the communities that they serve. They influence the survival of many community groups, local societies and interest societies. It is important that such groups continue to attract new members, and they improve the quality of life for many local residents. Furthermore, village halls increase community involvement and cohesion, so they need diverse community support to survive and to attract funding. When I was the licensing Minister, I responded positively to representations from Action with Communities in Rural England about the number of events in such venues. I am not au fait with all the details, but I will take up the points that the hon. Gentleman made with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), who is now responsible for licensing.

Community halls are important, because they aid the provision of public services such as surgeries, outreach GP services, libraries, clubs and social events. As the Minister for Sport and Tourism, I am pleased that many of them offer physical activities and run walking clubs. I was in Cornwall only a few weeks ago and met members of a vibrant walking club who had ended a walk at the Eden project. Many of those clubs are being run from village halls, which is welcome.

Those are a few examples of the services that village halls provide and which reach out to communities, especially disadvantaged ones. Village halls provide a place for family learning, which encourages and enables lifelong learning and includes a wider range of activities and roles than those traditionally provided by libraries, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That service will help to develop the untapped potential of libraries, as village halls are uniquely placed to offer a focus for community activity and development by widening their traditional role and providing a true community resource. I am pleased to be able to highlight the fact that the national lottery has supported community and village halls in a number of ways, and there has been a huge amount of good work in this area. The hon. Gentleman spoke warmly about the role of the Millennium Commission, which provided £65 million, while the Community Fund has awarded over £138 million to community buildings since 1995. That funding was viewed in a very positive light. Other distributors have funded appropriate projects within their remit for village halls and community buildings.

Overall, the national lottery has awarded £258 million to village and community halls in the past 10 years. We would all agree that that impressive figure is evidence that the national lottery supports community buildings in a substantial and fundamental way. The Big Lottery Fund,
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as a major funder for communities, is building on the strengths and successes of what has gone before, as well as introducing exciting new approaches. Yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Big Lottery Fund announced that it will make £50 million available over three years through the community buildings programme to projects across England. That programme will focus solely on civil renewal. The hon. Gentleman asked me to spell out the criteria for that programme, but unfortunately I cannot do so because they have not been settled. The programme has been agreed in principle and it will become operational in 2006. I will, however, relay to the Government the points that he made about funding regimes posing difficulties for applicants.

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