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House of Commons

Monday 29 January 2007

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—

Digital Switchover

1. Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): How the estimate for the cost of targeted help for digital switchover was arrived at; and what provision she has made for cost overruns. [111449]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): We estimate the cost of the scheme at £600 million. The methodology used for estimating the costs was developed with the BBC and the Treasury.

Mr. Hunt: Given the confusion caused by the spiralling costs of the scheme to help older and disabled people with the digital switchover, what specific reassurance can the Minister give to profoundly deaf people and severely disabled people on the higher rates of disability living allowance that any cost overrun will not threaten their access to television, which for them, far from being a luxury, is a vital part of their quality of life?

Mr. Woodward: There is a temptation for me to tell the hon. Gentleman that this is a very good example of gratuitous scaremongering. He will know that there has been extensive consultation with a number of charities. We have done extensive work with the advisory groups to ensure that we deal fairly and that there is maximum take-up across the country. We are concerned to ensure that no particularly disadvantaged groups are left behind and that is why we work so closely with the charities involved.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Last Monday, I was at my local Age Concern in Sittingbourne at a discussion about digital switchover. I commend it to all hon. Members, and they should go to their local sheltered accommodation and Age Concerns to explain it. The question that was asked continually was, “The date for London and the south-east is 2012. When will we be able to say who can get free digital switchover sets?”.

Mr. Woodward: We hope to make that announcement as soon as possible, but may I tell my hon. Friend how grateful we are to him for his work? I hope that other hon. Members will learn from his example to ensure truly that no people are left behind, rather than frightening people into thinking that they might be.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Does the Minister accept the independent estimate that roughly 5 per cent. of viewers are likely to lose reception because of the difficulties and costs of switchover? If not, what is his working assumption?

Mr. Woodward: No, I do not accept that. The assessment that we are working on is that, at the end of digital switchover, 98.5 per cent. or better will have access to all the services.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that we need to ensure that all older people and disabled people know exactly what is going on? Will he assure me that sufficient money will be set aside for a full-scale communication programme at a very local level?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. A large amount of the money for digital switchover and targeted help has been set aside precisely for a communications campaign to be led by Digital UK. It is essential that that campaign reaches everyone, particularly the most disadvantaged, who, he and other hon. Members know, are not necessarily the most economically disadvantaged but the oldest and most disabled.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Minister will know that not long from now—in fact, this October, I believe—Whitehaven will have its analogue signal switched off, so digital switchover starts this year. Yet the legislation that will enable the Department for Work and Pensions to provide information about at whom such assistance should be targeted is only going through the House now. Can the Minister assure us that by October of this year, the people who need to be assisted with digital switchover will be assisted?

Mr. Woodward: I put on the record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, who has done a great deal to ensure that digital switchover is a successful policy for the whole country. He rightly raises the issue of Whitehaven. We are, of course, concerned that no one in Whitehaven is left behind. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who has done much work to ensure that that is the case. The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are valid and I reassure him that we have assessed all those issues and that the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, which I am sure that he will support in the House this afternoon, will continue to ensure that no one is left behind.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Channel 4 has asked for a public subsidy of £100 million for digital switchover. In view of its performance over the past few weeks, will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that no public money will be given unless Channel 4 restores the proper sense of broadcasting that it has had in the past? Will he join me in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on winning “Big Brother” and the British people on their good sense?

Mr. Woodward: I join my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that I can speak for all hon. Members, in congratulating Shilpa Shetty on an outstanding performance and on enduring, regardless of the circumstances in the “Big Brother” house, a pretty ghastly few weeks. She truly deserved to win, and I am sure that the whole House congratulates her on winning.

On my right hon. Friend’s question, I simply say that Ofcom is reviewing Channel 4’s finances, and we will pay careful and close attention to its recommendations.

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Public Swimming Baths

2. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): If she will make a statement on the provision of public swimming baths. [111450]

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): I can guarantee that if “Big Brother” applies to become a sport, it will not be accepted.

Access to good quality sporting provision, including swimming pools, is an essential part of enabling people to lead healthier lives and to participate in sport. There are currently 4,400 swimming facilities across England that are open to the public. Some 62 per cent. are owned by the local authority or the education sector and more than half are pay-and-play facilities. Analysis of pools opening in 2004-05 shows that 131 have opened across the country. More public pools have opened than closed. Since 1997, just under £250 million of lottery investment has gone to swimming—the largest amount given to any sport.

Mr. Jackson: The Minister may know that I have been part of a campaign in my constituency to get an indoor 50 m swimming pool. Given that the United Kingdom gained 52 medals in swimming at the Athens Olympics, what are the Government doing to encourage local authorities to keep the existing facilities for swimmers, as well as developing new facilities for our elite athletes, so that that record can continue?

Mr. Caborn: The hon. Gentleman may need to do a bit more calculation when it comes to the medals won, but we will put that on one side.

There has been huge investment in swimming. I contacted Sport England before I came here this afternoon and it has received no application from Peterborough about a 50 m pool. If the hon. Gentleman wants to take that up, he can. Corby borough council is starting the construction of a new 50 m pool this week. That is about 45 minutes or 25 miles from the centre of Peterborough. The project is fully funded by the local authority, which is paying £18 million. Even saying that, it will cost the local authority some £500,000 in continued revenue to make sure that the pool stays open. There will be a new pool by 2008.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recall that there was huge disappointment in Bolsover when we did not manage to get sufficient lottery funds several years ago? We are thankful that we can restore the campaign now because of the Olympics and because it will be necessary to have more swimming pools in other parts of the country. Is everything going okay?

Mr. Caborn: I hope that we can get a swimming pool in Bolsover so that my hon. Friend can have a swim there before he retires. Seriously— [ Interruption. ] He is a good swimmer. In December last year, a project team was put in place. It will report in mid-March on the feasibility aspect. As I understand it, things are going okay to date. There will be further meetings. I hope that by the end of March, we will be able to report on that feasibility study and that that project will be able to go ahead.

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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I was pleased to hear the Minister’s commitment to swimming and swimming pools—a view that I am sure is shared by the Liberal Democrats. Is he aware that, of the six pools in my constituency, three of them—in Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne—will be closed by the Liberal Democrat-controlled district council? What can he do to help me in my efforts to persuade the council to change its mind, or to bring in private finance to assist those pools to stay open?

Mr. Caborn: I hope that Liberal Democrat Members were listening to that and will persuade their colleagues on the council to revisit that decision. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for local authorities to determine their sports strategies. They work with Sport England. If he writes to me on the matter, I will contact Sport England and the local authority to see whether what it is doing is in line with the broad policy that Sport England has laid out.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I would not expect my right hon. Friend to be aware of an administrative problem that affects the Portobello water polo club in Edinburgh, but he will know that it is one of the best water polo clubs in the United Kingdom. Will he take this opportunity to express the Government’s full support for water polo and, in particular, will he take the opportunity to visit the club when he comes to Edinburgh?

Hon. Members: It is devolved.

Mr. Caborn: That is a devolved matter, but I hope that Scotland will join the water polo team that will compete in the 2012 Olympics. I hope that we will have an excellent water polo team for 2012. If Prince William wants to play, we are more than likely to recruit him as well. We are now investing in the Great Britain water polo team so that, hopefully, they can go to Beijing in 2008, and so that we will definitely have a first class team for 2012. I hope that some of the Scots will be in that team.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): As the Minister is apparently selecting the water polo squad, such is his power, perhaps he can select some sites for new swimming pools, too. It is great to have elite swimming pools, but he must remember that the vast majority of people will not be elite swimmers. There appears to be a swimming pool divide in this country between the major cities and towns and smaller rural towns. Will he examine again not only the provision of lottery funding for swimming pools, but the running costs of such pools, which can be very high? Will he also ensure that people living in rural areas have as much access to swimming pools as those who live in cities and large towns?

Mr. Caborn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been taking up with Sport England the question of how we can rationalise on swimming pools. Some pools have a subsidy of more than £6 a swimmer, although several local authorities have got it down to something like 50p a head. As I have indicated, even a brand new 50 m pool will cost a local authority £500,000 a year to keep it operational. There are serious questions about swimming pools. The recent soaring energy prices have hit swimming pools hard.
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We must make the pools as cost-effective and energy efficient as possible so that we do not have to give subsidies to swimming pools that should be going to other sports. That is not to say that subsidies will not go to swimming pools—that will be inevitable because otherwise the cost of swimming would be prohibitively high. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point up with Sport England so that it can examine the formula.

Digital Switchover

3. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): How many people she expects to receive targeted assistance on digital switchover; what she expects the cost to be; and if she will make a statement. [111451]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): We estimate that 7.1 million UK households will qualify for assistance from the scheme and that around 4.7 million of those will use the scheme. The cost of the scheme over its lifetime will be in the region of £600 million.

John Barrett: The Government’s estimate of the cost of assistance with digital switchover has increased from £250 million to £600 million. Will the Minister assure the House not only that the vulnerable in my constituency will get the help that they need, but that licence fee payers will not have to foot the bill if the cost continues to spiral?

Mr. Woodward: The short answer to that is yes.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Despite an intensive advertising campaign and the launch of a dedicated website, a recent survey shows that three in five adults in the United Kingdom believe that the Government have provided no information, or inadequate information, to describe why and how the digital switchover will take place. Fewer than one in five people even know when their region is scheduled for transfer. Will effort be intensified to tackle that situation?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend makes an important contribution, but it might be helpful if I set out some facts. Three quarters of homes in the UK already have at least one digital television and have thus effectively gone digital. Awareness is now running at about 80 per cent. I can tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) that the figure for Grampian in Scotland is running at 87 per cent. One should thus dispute some of the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) cited. However, we are not complacent, which is why £200 million has been set aside for a communications campaign by Digital UK to ensure that no one is left behind.

East London Line

4. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): What discussions she has had with Ministers in the Department for Transport on the prospects for completion of both phases of the East London line extension in time for the London Olympics in 2012. [111452]

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The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The Olympic bid that was submitted in November 2004 committed Transport for London to deliver the first phase of the East London line in time for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, and it is on track to do so. In addition, TFL has committed to completing the Dalston curve section by bringing forward the connection of the line to Highbury and Islington, which had originally been part of phase 2. As yet, no decision has been taken on phase 2 of the scheme, in which my hon. Friend and I have constituency interests and for which he has been an extremely powerful campaigner.

Martin Linton: Will my right hon. Friend stress the advantages of starting phase 2 a little sooner so that it can be completed in 2012 rather than 2013? That would help millions of people from south London—from her constituency and mine—to get to the Olympics. It would also help Olympic competitors and visitors to get to Olympic venues in south-west London, such as Wimbledon, and venues with linked cultural events, such as Battersea arts centre—if Wandsworth council has not closed it by then.

Tessa Jowell: I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members with an interest in the subject, whether direct or indirect, will make the case for phase 2 with the Mayor of London, on behalf of their constituents. On Battersea arts centre, I echo the Prime Minister’s words: Wandsworth should do everything that it can to keep the centre open. I should make it absolutely clear that we are talking about a Conservative authority that has had a 25 per cent. plus increase in its grant since 1997, so any decision to close the centre is a Conservative choice, not a Government requirement.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that it is not just new lines that London is dependent on for Olympic success; we also need to ensure that existing lines can cope with the extra passengers. One of the lines that I have in mind is the District line, which will be the key line feeding Wimbledon and Olympic tennis, but it is already seriously overcrowded. Has her Department made any estimate of whether such lines will be able to cope, given the extra capacity required for the Olympics?

Tessa Jowell: Very detailed analysis has been made of London’s capacity to handle the additional traffic generated by the Olympics, and that has been incorporated into the transport plan, which has been highly commended for both its timeliness and comprehensiveness by the International Olympic Committee. Because of the timing of the games, commuter traffic levels will be about 20 per cent. lower than normal, but the Olympics will add about 5 per cent. to that. I am sure that the hon. Lady will take every opportunity to raise her specific concerns with Transport for London.

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