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21 Jun 2006 : Column 1321

Points of Order

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps you can give me some guidance. In an answer on 24 May, the Prime Minister told me that

In a question answered by the Secretary of State for Health—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to stop the hon. Gentleman there. The answer that a Minister gives is nothing to do with the Chair. He will have to table more questions to get the clarification and answers that he wants, as he already knows.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health on 11 May, urging her to review a decision that she had taken on the location of a critical care hospital, in which she had overruled the recommendations of local managers and clinicians in the health community. I have not had even an acknowledgment of that letter.

On the substance of my point of order, the right hon. Lady is now being judicially reviewed, and you will have heard yesterday, Mr. Speaker, the frustrations of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) at not being able to arrange a meeting with Health Ministers. I am proposing to table a named day question to try to find out when I am going to get a reply to my letter and a response to the issue that I raised, but the Department of Health comes up constantly in complaints to you because Members of Parliament cannot get a reply out of it. Is there anything that you can do to get that Department, above all others, to answer our inquiries?

Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I am sure that he will act on it.

I have a bit of good news. Since the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the hon. Member for Chorley not being able to get his meeting, I am sure he will be very pleased to know that because the hon. Member for Chorley raised the matter on the Floor of the House, he has been able to get his meeting.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A young girl in Shrewsbury in my constituency has been raped by a failed African asylum seeker. I have been trying hard to find out the person’s immigration status by repeatedly
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asking questions of the Home Office through the Table Office, but to no avail. Will you advise me on how I can find out that information?

Mr. Speaker: I am very sorry that that terrible incident happened in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I repeat that perseverance is the most important weapon that a Back Bencher has. The hon. Gentleman must keep asking the questions, seek Adjournment debates and ask the Ministers concerned for a meeting; he is entitled to do that. It is important that he, as a representative of his constituency, ensures that he leaves no stone unturned in such matters.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Deputy Prime Minister said that local authorities could repossess houses if they had been empty for years. I may be wrong, but I think that he inadvertently misled the House, because it is, indeed, six months. What advice can you give on how I can go about correcting that error in Hansard, if indeed it was an error?

Mr. Speaker: There are lots of senior Members around the hon. Gentleman. He should go to them in the Tea Room and have a word on how to go about such matters. They will be able to help him.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard the Deputy Prime Minister answer my question earlier and state that he was not obliged to give information about who had visited Dorneywood because no public money was involved. On 21 January 2002, he gave a similar answer about why he would not give information on that matter, but subsequently in a written answer he had to correct it, stating:

Under those circumstances, the Deputy Prime Minister would appear to have inadvertently misled the House again today in giving a reason for not answering my question. Can you help, Mr. Speaker, to secure a proper answer and to have the Deputy Prime Minister correct that?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot enter into the substance of the matter that he raises. I observe, however, that the resolution of the House on page 74 of “Erskine May” requires that if a Minister gives incorrect information to the House it should be corrected at the first opportunity. The hon. Gentleman can of course also pursue the matter through parliamentary questions.

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St George’s Day

12.35 pm

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I beg to move,

If 23 April were to fall on a weekend, the following Monday or the preceding Friday would be a public holiday.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity once again to introduce a Bill on an issue that I sincerely believe to be dear to the hearts of so many in this country. The date of 23 April as the day of the patron saint of England means a great deal to the people of our country throughout our green and pleasant land. Sadly, it has become undervalued in recent times. When I introduced a similar Bill in autumn 2004, it was unfortunately defeated after an impassioned speech by the then Labour Member of Parliament for Hornchurch. Unfortunately for him, his constituents disagreed, remembering that to be born an Englishman is to have won the first prize in the lottery of life. I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the new Conservative Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) fully supports the Bill before the House.

Some were also concerned that the previous Bill sought to remove May day as a public holiday. Although I am still personally in favour of that idea, hon. Members will notice that in the interests of gaining cross-party support such a clause is not included in the Bill before us. I should further make it clear that I am also in favour of extending the same rights for St Andrew’s day in Scotland and St David’s day in Wales, but I shall leave that to other hon. Members, although I am sure that some of the reasoning that I shall put forward today is valid for all parts of the United Kingdom.

It is not just I who wish formally to recognise the day. Many people and organisations are clamouring for St George’s day to be given adequate recognition. Indeed, St George’s day is fast becoming a national event. Last year, a third of members of the Trades Union Congress voted in favour of reclaiming the day for public enjoyment and celebration; unsurprisingly, the Royal Society of St George is also doing an enormous amount to promote St George’s day; and if anyone was lucky enough to have visited Romford market on 23 April this year, as I was, they will have noticed that every stall displayed the cross of St George flag, as market traders proclaimed pride in their country.

In Romford, red roses were handed out in the town centre by my local St George’s committee. Flags were given away to children and live music and entertainment were provided. As you might expect, Mr. Speaker, my loyal Staffordshire bull terrier, Buster, did a walkabout dressed in the flag of St George, proving once again that he is Romford’s most patriotic dog. Indeed, there was a genuine belief that people of all backgrounds wanted to celebrate the day. My local council, the London borough of Havering, ensures that the flag of St George is displayed alongside the Union flag, not only on 23 April but throughout the year. Many hon. Members will have experienced the same sense of celebration in their constituencies, as businesses, shops, schools, scout groups, charities, sports clubs and churches joined in the commemoration of England’s own day.

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Many people choose to celebrate St George’s day, because it represents the true spirit of England. Making it a public holiday would give all the people of England a wonderful opportunity to participate in events and parties celebrating our country. A fine example of such a practice is to be found in Ireland, where St Patrick’s day—17 March—is famously celebrated. Gibraltar’s national day—10 September—is a magnificent celebration not only of Gibraltarians’ pride in being British but of their love of their homeland. On the Isle of Man, Tynwald day is a public holiday, with celebrations throughout the island, and the Falkland islands mark Liberation day and Battle day with public holidays and celebrations. British people everywhere else are proud to participate in the celebration of our culture, history and heritage, so why not in England? Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and scores of countries, particularly in Scandinavia, celebrate their national day in style, with great pageantry as well as great parties. In Switzerland, 1 August is a wonderful day in the calendar of that proud independent nation at the heart of Europe, with the sound of alpine horns and cow bells echoing throughout the land as the distinctive Swiss flag flies from every building and, indeed, every home. It is no accident that all those nations have a strong sense of pride in their national identity, which is a source of strength and unity in any country. I hope that England follows their example and gives our country an annual day to remember and cherish.

There are economic advantages in celebrating St George’s day. A recent study by the “Value of St George” campaign, which aims to make companies aware of the benefits of making our patron saint’s day a national celebration, said that while celebrations had increased, much more could be done. It concluded that businesses across England were missing out on nearly £40 million a year by failing to celebrate their national day as much as their Irish counterparts. During the World cup, there has been a resurgence in English pride. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition have shown their pride in St George by displaying the flag on their homes and bicycles. What better way to show our support, thanks and pride in our rugby team, who won the World cup, our cricket team, who won the Ashes, our Olympic team, who have won many gold medals, and our football team, who will win the football World cup, than by making St George’s day a public holiday in England?

St George’s day is a day when we can celebrate Englishness, represented not only by sporting achievement but, at best, by great English heroes such as Churchill, Nelson, Wellington, Shakespeare and Margaret Thatcher, who all believed in the values of St George. Ours is a country that believes in tolerance and understanding, welcoming everyone who wants to celebrate our English way of life under the red and white banner of St George. Let us not allow our pride and enjoyment in taking part in the World cup to be forgotten in a month’s time. It is time that we celebrated pride in our country, our flag and our English way of life and allowed all English men and women to celebrate their heritage and culture each and every year. Therefore, I call on all Members—of all parties, and from all regions and countries in the United Kingdom—to join me and to celebrate 23 April in order to allow England to come
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together and its people to celebrate the country of which we are all so proud. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Andrew Rosindell, Angela Browning, Mr. Peter Lilley, Bob Spink, Mr. Andrew Turner, James Brokenshire, Mr. Simon Burns, Angela Watkinson, Mr. Shahid Malik, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Geraldine Smith, Bob Russell.

St George’s Day

Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented a Bill to designate St George’s Day as an annual public holiday in England; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 20 October 2006, and to be printed [Bill 199].

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Opposition Day

[17th Allotted Day]


[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 650-1, on Analogue Switch-off; the Government response thereto, Cm 6850; and the uncorrected transcript of evidence taken before the Committee on 13 June 2006, HC 1091-iv, on new media and the creative industries.]

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.46 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I beg to move,

The subject of this debate is the future of the BBC, and that is precisely what we seek to ensure—a future for the BBC that allows it to continue to fulfil its public service role to educate, inform and entertain the British public long into the future, while, crucially, also offering value for money to the taxpayer.

It is a considerable disappointment that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is not present, not least because of events that we witnessed two weeks ago. Many Members of this House—and many in the other place—have taken a keen interest in the debate on charter renewal and in the negotiations on the BBC licence fee. However, we learned that the licence fee announcement had been postponed from the expected date in late July until some time at the end of this year not from the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House, or anywhere else in the House, but from comments she made at a recent drinks party, which The Guardian reported.

Can the Minister tell us why the decision was announced in that way? Can he also tell us the reason for the delay, because as yet we have received no official explanation? Indeed, it does not even warrant a statement on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website. Is the reason for the delay, as some suggest, that the recent reports by PKF and Indepen have undermined the submission made by the BBC, or has the Secretary of State simply kicked the decision into the long grass?

All that adds to a sense that there has been a lack of transparency in how the negotiations have so far been conducted. The process has been dogged by delays and
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uncertainty, to the point where many of the figures submitted in the initial document are now very out of date. For example, the estimate of the cost of the move to Salford has now been reduced by £200 million.

The recent PKF report, which was commissioned by the DCMS, was very critical of the figures used by the BBC in its submission, citing the “changing numbers” involved in the negotiations, and concluding that

Given that we are talking about a settlement of £4 billion, surely the Minister will accept that the new figures must be made public, and that arguments about commercial sensitivities just will not wash.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The BBC spends more than £3 billion-worth of taxpayers’ money; effectively, it is paid for by a poll tax. Does my hon. Friend not think it ridiculous that there is no proper parliamentary scrutiny of the BBC through the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee? After years of campaigning we have achieved a voluntary agreement. Will my hon. Friend commit a future Conservative Government to ensuring that we get full scrutiny of the BBC, like any other spending Government Department, through the NAO?

Mr. Swire: I am very glad that my hon. Friend is here this afternoon and can take part in our deliberations; he performs a magnificent role for this House—and, indeed, for the country. I think that he will be happy with what I am about to say, because I very much agree with his sentiments.

We have long made the case that the decision to have the debate on charter renewal and the level of the licence fee in isolation made no sense. The arguments about what we want the BBC to do and what it will cost the taxpayer are inextricably linked. Thanks to the decision to delay, we now have much more time between the two decisions. It is therefore all the more important that we have a clear picture of what the costs submitted by the BBC are, if we are to have confidence in the decision reached.

It is important that everyone concerned—broadcasters, Parliament and licence fee payers—have a clear understanding of the negotiations. Will the Minister therefore confirm that he will make public the current figures that his Department is working with?

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Does my hon. Friend also understand that a substantial proportion of the licence fee increase includes an element for a spectrum tax? The Government have not made it clear precisely how much that stealth tax will be. Should that not be an important part of our considerations today, and the debate on the total licence fee package?

Mr. Swire: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, the Secretary of State and her Department are in denial about the existence of that spectrum tax, which we know is very likely to feature rather large.

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Given that PKF made clear its belief that the savings made by the BBC could be significantly improved, can the Minister assure us that he will ensure that those efficiencies are maximised, in order to reduce the settlement?

Another issue raised in the Indepen report was super-inflation and an over-funded BBC, leading to a spiralling of salary costs. Surely the Minister must accept that recent leaks about the pay levels of presenters only add to the argument that too generous a settlement will damage the broadcasting sector, and could lead to the BBC outspending or outgunning the opposition in a hunt to bag star names.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): On payments for presenters, in what universe does my hon. Friend think that Jonathan Ross is worth £18 million? Is that not the kind of absurd and inflated contractual arrangement that really gets up the noses of our licence fee paying constituents and brings the existing system into disrepute?

Mr. Swire: A parallel universe. The Secretary of State is reported in the newspapers as saying that she thinks—my hon. Friend, and neighbour, will probably agree with her—that

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