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House of Commons

Monday 18 December 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What public funding is available for cathedrals; and if she will make a statement. [109405]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): The English Heritage grants for cathedrals scheme has made grants totalling £42 million for repairs to English cathedrals since 1991 and support is ongoing. Further sums are available for cathedrals under the listed places of worship grant scheme.

Mr. Jackson: The Minister will know that I am fortunate to have in my constituency one of the finest mediaeval cathedrals in western Europe. In March, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund made available a package of £17.5 million for repairs to the 147 grade I and grade II listed churches and chapels. The Opposition welcome that funding, but can the Minister give the House an assurance that such investment will not be diverted to cost over-runs in respect of the Olympics, given that the total cost of repairs to churches and chapels is £900 million over—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question has nothing to do with the Olympics.

Mr. Lammy: I should probably declare an interest as a former cathedral chorister at Peterborough cathedral, which is a very fine cathedral. However, I shall not give the House the benefit of that choral music now. We have made funding available for our cathedrals through English Heritage, and the backlog of repairs, which was in a dire state about 10 years ago, is nowhere near where it was then. Also, the Heritage Lottery Fund has made a contribution of £23 million since 1994. On the Olympics, I would say that it is important—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We do not say anything on the Olympics.

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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Would the Minister consider entering a concordat with both the Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies, to the effect that when public money is given to the cathedrals and other important churches, they nevertheless maintain the interior, particularly some of the beautiful sanctuaries and altars, which all too often have been taken out in recent years by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church? They are still demolishing some of those beautiful works, which should be maintained, just like the exterior of the building. There is a problem of trying to make the place attractive for worship, but some wonderful works of art in our churches are being ruined, and that should be stopped.

Mr. Lammy: When a church is listed, the criteria pertain to the beautiful architecture inside the church, as well. If there is a particular issue, I am happy to take it up with English Heritage.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Minister accept that, welcome as the English Heritage money has been, £42 million over a 16-year period is not a lot of money, particularly bearing in mind that Canterbury, the mother cathedral of the Anglican communion, is looking for £50 million? Does he therefore agree that if we are to lay claim to be a truly civilised nation, we cannot allow such incomparably rich and beautiful buildings to fall into disrepair?

Mr. Lammy: The thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says is right— our cathedrals are essential to the built heritage of this country. They are essential not only to the spiritual worship that goes on within them, but to the lives of the many cities in which they stand across the country. Apart from the wonderful architecture, they have a huge impact on the residents of those cities. There must be a partnership. Yes, there is the Government funding through English Heritage, but the Heritage Lottery Fund has rightly made an important contribution, which it has pledged to continue up to 2013. Also, we have been able to return up to £50 million to our churches through the listed places of worship scheme. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the spending review, but the hon. Gentleman is right that these matters are important, and they are important to the Department.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Many rural parishes are teetering on the brink of amalgamation and closure, at least in part because in the diocese of which they are part, the central cathedral is the focus of attention. Does the Minister agree that if our Government, generous though they may have been over the years, were to take the more enlightened attitude that is evident in other northern European countries, we could get more central support for cathedrals, which would relieve the pressure on the rural parishes that are facing such a parlous future?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend is right to say that this is not just an issue for our cathedrals. There is most definitely an issue facing some of our rural churches and parishes in particular, and that is why the Government are supportive of English Heritage’s
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desire over the next period to concentrate on our rural churches. Counties such as Norfolk and Oxfordshire in particular face problems. Again that is something that must be dealt with by dioceses and parishes, but also by Government, English Heritage, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, working hand in hand over the coming months and years.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): The Minister is aware that the grants from English Heritage to cathedrals have dropped dramatically from almost £3 million at the turn of the century to just £1 million today, directly as a result of the Government’s decision to raid lottery funds. With Christmas approaching, will the Minister shake off the Scrooge label that now attaches to his Department and put lottery money back into heritage?

Mr. Lammy: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position. It is absolutely wonderful and I very much look forward to working with him over the coming months. That said, the hon. Gentleman has unusually on this occasion got his facts wrong. English Heritage made the investment in our cathedrals and it is precisely because of the effect of that investment that it, as an independent body, was able to decide that it wanted to put funds into other parts of the built environment. It is important that English Heritage can do that. It has absolutely nothing to do with the lottery. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Olympic lottery in particular will mean huge investment in the built heritage tourism subsequent to 2012, so we are working hand in hand.


2. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): If she will make a statement on the future governance of the BBC. [109406]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The new arrangements for BBC governance take full effect on 1 January. The separation of the trust from the executive board will strengthen the BBC's independence from Government and its accountability to its licence fee payers will be its principal responsibility. Chitra Bharucha, vice-chairman of the BBC Trust, is acting chairman until a new chairman is appointed next year.

Mr. Carswell: Technological innovation and the internet are transforming the broadcast media. Big top-down broadcasting is giving way to user-driven media. Will the Minister consider a future governance model for the BBC that relies less on technocrats and remote governors, and allows more direct accountability to the actual users?

Tessa Jowell: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the case for the BBC Trust and the new governance for the BBC, because that is precisely the purpose of the BBC Trust. No longer are the governors of the BBC principally accountable through a rather confused relationship with the BBC itself, but they face outward to the licence fee payer who funds everything that the BBC does—more or less everything that it does.

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Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): No matter how the BBC is governed, it is clear that the preferred way of paying for the BBC is through the licence fee. What advances have there been in the licence fee settlement this year to ensure that the BBC has the money to provide the quality and breadth of service required and to fulfil its important role in the digital switchover in the year to come?

Tessa Jowell: Discussions are continuing in government about the level of the licence fee settlement. It is worth recording that the last licence fee settlement was not concluded until the middle of February. The BBC licence fee settlement has to achieve the following objectives: first, that the BBC has enough money to lead on digital switchover; secondly that it has enough money in order to be a broadcaster of scale in an increasingly competitive global marketplace; and, most important of all, that it has enough money for the high quality programming that licence fee payers over the last two years have time and again said is what they want. But against the background of those three needs, the BBC must be an efficient organisation that spends its money well and wisely in the interests of the licence fee payer.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that under the new governance arrangements the BBC Trust is to be independent of the Executive and will oversee the BBC’s work and adjudicate on any possible complaints? Will she join me in wishing Michael Grade every success in his new job, which will certainly be challenging? Does she accept, however, that if the trust is to remain credible, its next chairman should be a critical judge of the BBC, not a cheerleader for it?

Tessa Jowell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome the opportunity to place on record my thanks to Michael Grade and my appreciation of all the work that he has done for the BBC over the past two and a half years during a difficult time of change. He has provided exemplary leadership, and I think that when the time comes he will also do an extremely good job for ITV. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the role of the chairman of the trust is different from the role of the chairman of the BBC, because it is to ensure that accountability to the licence fee payer is absolutely clear and is honoured in every penny of licence fee money that is spent.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that while we want to get the governance of the BBC right—it was long overdue for a shake-up and a renewal—it is also important to give proper funding to the BBC given the role that it plays in preserving a democracy that desperately needs some independent and objective media? Does she agree that if we do not give sufficient funding for pushing out some of its activities to places such as Manchester and Leeds, there will be some very unpopular Ministers sitting on the Front Bench?

Tessa Jowell: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to recognise the BBC’s role as more than just a broadcaster. At the same time, the BBC must spend public money carefully and in the public interest. He is
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right to underline the importance of the BBC’s independent and impartial news coverage, because fundamental to the level of trust in the BBC is the confidence that people have in the veracity and objectivity of its news reporting. That is a tradition that the BBC must attend to every single day.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The BBC is widely acknowledged as being the best and most impartial public service broadcaster in the world, and it must be kept that way. What steps, then, will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the appointment of a new chair of the BBC Trust is not only transparent, but beyond all criticism, so that it is not viewed with the same understandable suspicion as the appointment of five out of 12 Big Lottery Fund board members who are members of the Labour party or the nominations of Labour party donors and creditors for peerages and honours by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor?

Tessa Jowell: That is an unworthy smear by the hon. Gentleman. Anyone can allege anything without substance. The members of the Big Lottery Fund board were appointed entirely consistently with the rules of public appointment. The Ministers who made the appointments were, as is right and proper, completely unaware of their political affiliations. Of course it is important that there is public confidence in the appointment of the chairman of the BBC: that is why it will be conducted in full accordance with the rules of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): In looking at the future governance of the BBC, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that she will resist any attempt to break it up, as suggested by some Opposition parties? Does she agree that that would dilute its service not only for people in this country but its service worldwide, for which it is well respected?

Tessa Jowell: I can give my hon. Friend a complete assurance on that point.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): It is now three years since the charter review process started but the BBC is entering the Christmas period with no chairman and no licence fee settlement. At a crucial time of preparing for digital switchover, and with the BBC’s trust yet to begin formally operating, the Government's mishandling of the situation has left the corporation in limbo, unable to plan ahead effectively. The Opposition are gravely concerned that at such a crucial time for the BBC there is no one at the BBC’s helm with any broadcasting experience, which could be the case for many months. What would happen should another Hutton-type situation arise? Can the Secretary of State tell the House when the licence fee announcement will be made, and crucially, whether a new chairman of the trust will be in place when it is finally decided?

Tessa Jowell: The Opposition can be reassured. The BBC is completely relaxed about the timing of the licence fee settlement and it is fully aware that arrangements are now in train to recruit a new chairman for the BBC. Those negotiations on the
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licence fee will continue and I hope that they will be concluded very soon, within the terms that I set out to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg).

On the day after Michael Grade stepped down as chairman of the BBC, I put in train the arrangements for his replacement. The advertisements will go out early in the new year—[Hon. Members: “The Guardian.”]—in a very wide range of newspapers, as is consistent with the guidance of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and we hope for an appointment in the spring. The difference between being in opposition and in government is that the Opposition panic but the Government get on with the job.


3. Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading on BSkyB's acquisition of shares in ITV. [109407]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The Secretary of State and I have been briefed by Ofcom on the process for considering whether there has been a change in control of the Channel 3 licence. We have had no discussions with the OFT.

Mr. Grogan: Can my hon. Friend assure me that both the OFT and Ofcom will carefully scrutinise whether BSkyB, as the largest shareholder in ITV now, has material influence over it; and whether there are potential conflicts of interest, such as in the tendering of the ITN news contract in 2008, the sale of sports rights, or the fact that whereas BSkyB is opposed to the Government’s plans for digital switchover, ITV is very much in favour of them and is even in discussions with the BBC about possibly launching a Freesat service?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, which I know is of concern to a number of Members in the House. It therefore may be helpful if I briefly set out the process that is in train to address the questions that my hon. Friend has raised.

There are two regulatory areas of concern; the first relates to the OFT, the second to Ofcom. The OFT is looking at whether there has been a merger, and is seeking views from interested parties—NTL, Virgin, BSkyB and ITV. The OFT has four months from the date of transaction to determine, first, whether there has been a merger, and secondly, whether that has resulted in a substantial lessening of competition, in which case it may refer that to the Competition Commission. We expect the OFT to reach its decision early in the new year.

The second area raised by my hon. Friend touches on the work that falls within the compass of Ofcom. Ofcom is considering whether there has been a change of control of an ITV licence holder. It has six weeks to do that, and it will look at four factors: the level of shareholding acquired, voting rights, constitution and funding arrangements. Ofcom expects to reach a conclusion early in the new year.

In relation to—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can write and leave a copy of the letter in the Library.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Minister has said that Ofcom will reach its conclusions early in the new year. If Ofcom deems that there has been a change of control, what is he going to do about it?

Mr. Woodward: As the hon. Gentleman knows, in relation to these issues and in relation to the Communications Act 2003 and the Enterprise Act 2002, this matter would ultimately be in the hands of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but at this stage we must decide whether or not there is an issue to be investigated, and the hon. Gentleman will have an answer to that early in the new year.

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