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House of Commons

Monday 21 November 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock.


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): If she will make a statement on the privatisation plans for the Tote. [29634]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The Government's objective remains to sell the Tote to a racing trust. We are working closely with the Tote, the shadow Racing Trust and the European Commission to achieve that objective.

Mr. Wallace: It has been six months since the plans to privatise the Tote were referred to the European Commission, which has decided to investigate. The suspended animation of the Tote does no one any good, least of all racing. Will the Secretary of State tell us about her contingency plans should the Commission uphold the complaint?

Tessa Jowell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We await the outcome of the Commission's investigation, and discussions will proceed to ensure stability in an uncertain time for the Tote. We are determined to sustain the benefits of the Tote for racing.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will recall that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and I have already written to the European Competition Commissioner about this very matter in our capacity as joint chairs of the all-party racing and bloodstock group. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the onward sale of the Tote to a British racing trust at a fair price—"fair" being the operative word—is essential if British horse racing is to continue to thrive in future?

Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend, who takes a close interest in the issue, is right. It is in the Tote's interest and, we believe, in the interests of racing that the Tote should be sold to a racing trust. The obstacle with the Commission is the issue of a fair price, which is under
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negotiation. I am sorry that I cannot be more forthcoming, but the Commission's investigations are under way and have not yet reached a conclusion.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State talks about a fair price, but is she aware that no Government have ever put any money into the Tote at all? The Bill that was introduced to sell off the Tote had to nationalise it first, so no Government have ever put any money into the Tote. If the European Commission makes that objection, it is a spurious one. It is many years since the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was Home Secretary and announced that the Tote would be sold. In the intervening period, we have had years of uncertainty. The Tote sponsors the Cheltenham gold cup at a meeting that is worth millions of pounds to my constituency, and it does similar things throughout the country. The decision is crucial, so will the right hon. Lady do everything that she can to bring about the sale of the Tote?

Tessa Jowell: I am struck by the extent of support for the Government's position on the Tote on both sides of the House. The spirit of the former Member for Livingston, who was such a powerful advocate for the Tote, is watching over us and willing this to a conclusion. I can give the House an absolute assurance that we will do everything that we can to bring matters to a conclusion, consistent with whatever ruling the European Commission determines, but also in the interests of the Tote and, indirectly, in the interests of racing.

Historic Buildings (Halifax)

2. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab): If she will visit Halifax constituency to see the effects of the Government's spending on, and protection of, historic buildings in the town. [29635]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): Diary commitments mean that I cannot visit my hon. Friend's constituency in the near future. I will visit neighbouring constituencies in the region in the new year.

Mrs. Riordan: The Minister will know that since 1997, £10 million has been invested in the historic Shibden hall in Halifax. Is he also aware that, with the exception of Liverpool, Calderdale has more listed buildings than anywhere outside London, and that the unique Piece hall is in desperate need of major investment?

Mr. Lammy: In fact, £12 million has been invested by the Heritage Lottery Fund in Halifax in a short period, and my hon. Friend will be grateful for that money. The Heritage Lottery Fund met the community only last month to discuss how it can give even more support to initiatives in the town centre.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Halifax is too far from East Londonderry for me to call the hon. Gentleman.
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Digital Television (Wales)

3. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): If she will make a statement on the timetable for digital switchover in Wales. [29636]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced in September, digital switchover will happen region by region, between 2008 and 2012. For the region covered by the HTV Wales service, switchover will be in 2009.

Mr. Jones: As the Minister said, Wales will be one of the first regions to experience the digital switchover. Despite that, public awareness in Wales is extremely low. I receive repeated complaints from constituents, particularly those involved in the tourism industry, that they have very little information about what is happening. Can the Minister assure the House that he will introduce a programme of public information that will reassure my constituents?

James Purnell: Wales is the world leader in the proportion of households with digital TV, with 71 per cent.—higher than any other nation. We want to build on that. We have set up Digital UK to promote awareness of switchover around the whole country, and it is working with the Welsh Language Board and other organisations to make sure that its service is available both in Wales, including the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and in England.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May I ask the Minister for reassurance that arrangements will be put in place to help those who, like me, find managing even the digibox extremely difficult, to help them equip their homes for the digital switchover, especially the disabled, the elderly, those with learning disabilities and people like me, who are technophobic?

James Purnell: That is a good point. Digital UK will provide a helpline, advice, leaflets and advertisements. We will also provide extra help for groups that our research has shown have the greatest technical difficulties in fitting new technology, in particular those over 75 and those with disabilities, so I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Does the Minister accept that some people in Wales will be unable to receive digital signals even after the switchover, and that that has implications for democracy—at the time of an election, for example, for people wishing to receive information about an election campaign in Wales? What steps can the Government take to remedy that?

James Purnell: We have given a clear guarantee that the coverage of digital transmissions will be at least as great as that of the current system, and we will be working with Digital UK and the broadcasters to ensure that that is the case. Wales has a greater proportion than average of households that cannot receive TV at present, and they will be helped by the switchover.
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Licensing Act

4. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What measures the Government are taking to ensure full use of the powers to review licensing decisions under the Licensing Act 2003. [29637]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (James Purnell): Later this week, my Department will issue specific guidance to local residents associations, small businesses and others on the processes for reviewing licensing conditions. The guidance will also cover how to make representations to licensing authorities and appeals.

Rosie Cooper: Like the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), I broadly support the new licensing laws, but in my constituency, in, for example, Ormskirk town centre, residents are blighted by alcohol-related nuisance that causes them sleepless nights. Can my hon. Friend offer my constituents assurances that the Licensing Act will also address those problems, so that they can get a good night's sleep?

James Purnell: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Those problems are occurring under the current licensing framework. From this Thursday, any resident, any member of the police and local authorities will be able to ask for a review of any premises that are causing problems. From Thursday, any premises selling to people who are under age or to drunks, or holding irresponsible drinks promotions, are on notice that their licences are at risk.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Will the Minister take into account in his review the case of the Grove bowling club in Tunbridge Wells, which has 50 members, mostly pensioners, who like to serve a drink to their members and guests? To do that used to cost a licence fee of £16 for five years. It now costs £910 for five years. Does the Minister agree with the secretary of that club, who thinks that that is a "stupendous" increase in tax?

James Purnell: We will examine that matter in the review that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The review is independent. It is being conducted by Sir Les Elton and it will examine whether the exact detail of the fees is right. It is worth putting the matter in context: the court system subsidised the licensing system for alcohol to the tune of £25 million, and both sides of the House agreed that that was unacceptable and that the full cost of licensing administration should be borne by those who benefit from it—premises that obtain licences. There was cross-party agreement when the 2003 Act went through.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend pass on to Sir Les Elton and his team the thanks of small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency, which have been concerned—obviously, we await the review—about the fee regime? How much money would have been lost by small businesses and hotels if the Opposition parties' suggestion of aborting the second appointed day had been implemented?

James Purnell: It would have lost them about £2 billion over the next 10 years. The 2003 Act is an
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important piece of deregulation and it is interesting that, when the Conservative party was asked to stand up for deregulation, it failed to do so, which is why we were joined in our desire not to delay the 2003 Act by Action with Communities in Rural England, which represents village halls, the Local Government Association and the police.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Will the Minister accept that many people who have purchased their homes near to pubs and clubs had a reasonable expectation that licensing hours would not be unduly extended? The hours have been extended in a number of cases, which has caused huge concern. If those people's fears are confirmed and the extensions blight their lives, will the Minister guarantee that it will be possible to appeal and obtain redress against such decisions?

James Purnell: The policy has been developed since 1998. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, at the moment anyone who wants to close down rogue premises will find it very difficult—only 0.2 per cent. of premises failed to have their licences renewed last year. From Thursday, if any of his constituents face that worry, it will be easier for them to challenge rogue premises and get them to close down or improve behaviour. We are changing the incentives open to landlords.

Mr. Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab): Does the Minister agree with this comment:

Those are not my words, but those of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). Does the Minister welcome his support for licensing reform?

James Purnell: I agree with those views and we are glad that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has joined us in supporting licensing reform. It is important to support the police by giving them greater powers and to treat people like grown-ups where they are drinking responsibly. The Conservative party's position is unclear. The shadow Home Secretary is against licensing reform—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The clarity of the Conservative party's position has nothing to do with the Minister.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): In answer to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), the Minister told the House that the views of local residents and councils were taken into account in deciding the new licences, but that is simply not true. Only today, a leading local government organisation said:

Will the Minister assure us that the views of local residents and councils will be taken into account during the review? Will he also assure us that local people and councils who request a non-vexatious review will not be financially penalised for so doing?
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James Purnell: I can give the hon. Gentleman that guarantee on his final point. If he contacts LACORS—Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services—the organisation to which I think that statement was attributed, he will find that it is putting out a statement that makes it clear that that is not its view. In two thirds of cases, applications have been resolved through negotiation and the process is about devolving powers to the local level. We are happy to work with all parties in the House to ensure that local authorities have all the powers that they need, but this is local democracy in action, and not the opposite of that.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to areas where the licensing law is working very well? In particular, two or three pubs in my constituency that had very poor records of behaviour have been refused licences under the new legislation. Will he congratulate my local authority on taking those steps?

James Purnell: I congratulate my hon. Friend's local authority on taking those steps, because it has been tough on those pubs, which, I believe, were involved in drug dealing and other offences. That example demonstrates exactly what the 2003 Act is here to do. It was introduced to crack down on irresponsible premises and let the rest of us who behave like grown-ups be treated like grown-ups.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): A recent Home Office survey showed that an alcohol-fuelled violent crime takes place every 13 seconds. Does the Minister still believe that extended licensing hours will not lead to a rise in alcohol-related crime?

James Purnell: Our enforcement campaign over the summer resulted in a decrease in serious assaults of about 9 per cent. in the areas where it happened. We are now launching the toughest ever crackdown on alcohol-fuelled violence through the extra powers in the Act. We look forward to similar progress being made through the campaign over Christmas.

Mrs. May: I notice that the Minister did not answer my question. Last week, the Government launched a poster campaign against antisocial behaviour fuelled by alcohol. At the weekend, they announced a "one strike and you're out" policy against pubs. We now hear that they are recruiting 1,000 children to identify retailers who sell alcohol to under-age drinkers. Do not those last-minute panic measures show that the Government have finally woken up to what we have been saying all along—that their new licensing laws, 24-hour drinking and extended hours will lead to more problems for local residents living near pubs, more binge drinking and more alcohol-fuelled crime?

James Purnell: No. In fact, the Act is the reason why we can bring forward the poster campaign and the enforcement campaign. The Act introduces tougher powers to deal with alcohol-fuelled violence and that is exactly what we are doing. It is the right hon. Lady who is changing her position at the last minute, because she is refusing to support the position of the candidate whom she is backing for the leadership of the Tory party.
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