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Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): May I also pay tribute to the Ministers predecessor, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who brought huge passion and enthusiasm to her job? I regret that she has left the Front Bench, but my regret is tinged with joy in welcoming the new Minister, who also brings huge passion to the job, as well as a close association with one of the greatest literary figures in this country. We will welcome her contribution over the next few months.
I invite the Minister to admit that she feels ashamed that, on this Governments watch, seven out 27 of our world heritage sites have been threatened with inclusion on UNESCOs in-danger list. Now we learn that the Government have overruled their own planning inspector on the Doon tower. When will this Government take our world heritage sites seriously?
Barbara Follett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gracious remarks. I do not think that my husband would describe himself in such terms, but I will convey them to him. I am only proud of what this Government have done and what we intend to do for heritage. Some of the UNESCO reports have been slightly exaggerated.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The governance and ownership of football clubs is primarily a matter for football. However, I believe that given the changes in the game in recent years a number of legitimate concerns are being expressed by football supporters and now is the time to have a proper and open debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will shortly meet the football authoritiesthe Football Association, the premier league, the Football League and othersto discuss the financial regulatory framework of football and a range of issues surrounding the game.
Mr. Cawsey: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he will want to join me in passing on our best wishes to Mike Newell, who was announced as Grimsby Towns new manager this morning. The club suffered financial difficulties due to the collapse of ITV Digital and I know that the Ministers own club, Bradford City, has had financial problems, too. In those meetings with football authorities, will the Minister discuss ways in which they can help with the governance of the game to ensure that clubs do not amass crippling debt and that there is greater financial transparency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, which has been raised with me by a number of colleagues in the House and in the other place, as well as in correspondence from a variety of football supporters. The time is right to look at football. On his initial point, I, too, wish Mike Newell wellas
an ex-Evertonian he must have some knowledge of the gameand I wish Grimsby Town well. This is a serious subject that affects many football clubs and a great number of people in the country. We want to work with the football authorities and look forward to doing so.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I appreciate that the Minister is a hard-working and committed football fan, but I think that his sense that football can get on and regulate itself is somewhat far from the mark. There is great concern that football needs to get its house in order, particularly given the amount of public money that has gone into the game over the past decade and a half and the fact that we also wish to host the World cup. Those are real concerns that he touched on earlier. Will he ensure that he works closely with his erstwhile colleague, Lord Triesman, who now has an important role in the Football Association, to ensure that more is done and that the high-profile concerns about the football industry are brought to book?
Mr. Sutcliffe: I understand that it is the hon. Gentlemans birthday, so I wish him a happy birthday. We have to consider the key issues, and it is quite interesting to hear from Conservative Members suggestions that we look at more regulation. We have to take the key issues into consideration, and first of all the international bodiesFIFA and UEFAwill play a role.
We have to appreciate that some work has been done. That done by the conference on early warning systems and financial difficulties has been an important step forward. We want to see transparency, and perhaps we need to look again at the fit and proper persons test. Clearly, the matter has to be the responsibility of football, but we will do what we can to ensure that the concerns of supporters are addressed. The hon. Gentleman will know that the FA has an independent chair as a result of the Burns report, and so movement has clearly taken place.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Given the takeover of Manchester City by a mega-rich plutocrat from a country governed by a hereditary dictatorship and given the dubious source of finances used to buy Chelsea and Heart of Midlothian football clubs, does the Minister agree that now really is the time to regulate the way in which British football clubs are acquired, particularly when they are acquired by people who have become billionaires through corruption, dishonesty or extortion, or all three?
Mr. Sutcliffe: First, I do not think that it matters what the nationality of an individual is. We have examples in the premier league, such as that of Aston Villa, where people are doing well in their ownership of the club and in its development within the community. My hon. Friend touches on the fit and proper persons test, which needs to be revisited. That is one of the issues that we will take up with the football authorities.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD):
I am grateful to the Minister for the answers that he has already given. I join him in believing that we need football club owners who really care about the long-term interests of the game. Indeed, the Secretary of State said that more than 10 years ago. In each reply so far, the Minister has said
that the football authorities should resolve the issues, including the fit and proper persons test. Does he accept that the premiership has said only recently that the Government and not the football authorities must lay down the rules of ownership for football clubs? What are the Government going to do?
Mr. Sutcliffe: I do not recall the premiership saying that it wants Government interference, but I will check the record for the hon. Gentleman. Clearly, the country has laws on fit and proper persons, on company directors and on their rights, responsibilities and duties. Yes, there are laws effective on insolvency, and we need to find out whether we can do any more in terms of the laws of the land. But at the end of the day, it is not for the Government to run football. That would be the wrong thing to do, but we are certainly working with the football authorities to ensure that we do everything that is possible. We are ensuring that the concerns of supporters and others are getting across. The Government have supported Supporters Direct, and we have been working with the supporter organisations to ensure that they have a voice.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is important to keep his beady eye on Abramovich and all the rest of them, it is probably more important in this world of politics, especially at this time, to ensure that bloated plutocrats such as Lord Ashcroft do not own the Tory party?
Mr. Sutcliffe: I take on enough in dealing with the world of sport. Clearly, the funding of the Tory party is a matter for it, but Lord Ashcrofts donations have not gone unnoticed on the Government side.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): As the Minister knows, I have written to him to express my concerns about the penalties that the football authorities imposed on Luton Town football club. That is clearly a major issue for Luton Town, but it also affects other small clubs around the country. Can the Minister assure me that the same penalties would have been imposed if Luton Town was in the premier league, or is there no level playing field in football these days?
Mr. Sutcliffe: I can understand the frustration of Luton Town fans, particularly as its new owners have done everything by the book. I can understand their feeling frustrated at the number of points that have been deducted, but that is clearly a matter for football and how it operates. However, such concerns have been put to me, and we will take them up with the football authorities.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): Blind or partially sighted people are eligible for the digital switchover help scheme, which provides help with equipment, installation and after-care support. Audio description is accessible through the equipment provided by the scheme.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his interest in this subject, particularly in relation to audio description, but is he concerned that the industrys target is 10 per cent. by 2013, whereas awareness of the service has already gone up from 43 to 72 per cent. among people with visual impairment? Is not digital switchover a unique opportunity to ensure that people can get Freeview receivers that include audio description? Will he urge the industry to increase the target to a more realistic level and to do so within months, rather than years, so that my constituents can benefit during 2009?
Andy Burnham: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the determination with which he pursues these issues and for his work with the Royal National Institute of Blind People on these incredibly important matters. He is right to remind us that the digital switchover provides an opportunity to ensure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of digital technology. There are two issues on audio description. One of them is to ensure that it is as easy as possible for people to use. We are currently reviewing the core receiver requirementsthe set-top box requirementsto find out whether we can make that easier still, so that we give people single button access to audio description. But he is right to push me and to ask whether more programme makers should include audio description on their services. Although I cannot give him a firm commitment today, I give him a commitment to look again at whether the ambition for programmes to carry audio description can be raised.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the past few months, it has been apparent that a number of people who invested early in digital terrestrial TV set-top boxes to get ahead of switchover have discovered that they now do not work due to the fact that Freeview has changed the technology that it uses? Will he consider whether there is a case for extending the help scheme to any vulnerable or elderly person who suddenly finds that they are faced with black screens as a result?
Andy Burnham: I am aware of the technical problems raised by the hon. Gentleman, who is the Chairman of Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Indeed, I have begun to notice an increasing number of letters on the issue arriving from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I agree with him that it is somewhat annoying, to say the least, for people who invested in digital technology very early to find that it does not work. I will look closely at the issue, and if he wants to meet to discuss it further, I am happy to do that, too, but it is now very important to maintain peoples confidence in the services that they are switching to.
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): With regard to access, the Secretary of State will be dismayed to hear that my local council has announced that many, if not a majority, of its tenants are likely to be without any access to TV after digital switchover. That is absolutely unacceptable for all my constituents, particularly those who are disabled or who have any sensory impairment. What guarantees can the Secretary of State giveI am not referring to the companies, which are offering a prayer and a promisethat my constituents will not be without a TV signal, and that switchover will not be allowed to happen if huge numbers of people cannot access TV?
Andy Burnham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. The problem relates to a relay transmitter in the Skelmersdale area, if I am not mistaken. Obviously, we are approaching the switchover point in Granada-land, as we in the area like to call it; I think that a date is to be announced later this month. That should focus the minds of a few Labour Members. Clearly, we have to be sure that we are on top of such issues and that there is a fair solution, so that people can continue to access television services. I am aware of the issues that my hon. Friend raised and I am working through them, but I would be happy to meet her to discuss them further.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): None. The licence fee settlement announced in January 2007 by the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), covers the period from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2013.
Mr. Robathan: By 2013, we may find that the licence fee itself is somewhat out of date. Mr. Speaker, when you and I were boysnot so long agothe BBC was regarded across the world as the gold standard of broadcasting, but many people now question the regressive nature of taxation through the licence fee. They question whether it gives the BBC an unfair advantage over commercial competitors, not just in the broadcast media but among local newspapers. Notwithstanding the work of the BBC Trust, people question the accountability of the BBC. Does the Secretary of State believe that the BBC gives the licence fee payer value for money, and will he address the concerns that people have raised?
Andy Burnham: The hon. Gentleman sounds dangerously off message; it sounds as though he has not done his homework. I am led to believe that one Polly Toynbee is the columnist of choice for those on the Conservative Benches these days, and I am sure that her column is the first thing that he looks for when the papers drop through his letterbox. In The Guardian today, she says that:
at less than the price of a daily newspaper, the BBC remains astounding value.
I happen to agree with that [Interruption]but from the noises on the Opposition Benches, I am beginning to pick up on the fact that the Opposition do not. If they do not, they should make that absolutely plain.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Obviously I agree with the Secretary of States estimation of the BBC, but he should accept that this reactionary and regressive tax, which means that the poorest in the land pay the same as the richest, may no longer be sustainable. I ask him to talk with the BBC, just as we are talking with energy companies and others. If very poor people in my constituency who do not watch the BBC continue to have to fork out for this ever-increasing tax, there will be serious social problems.
My right hon. Friend will remember that there was a very thorough debate on the issues when my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood set the new licence fee only a few
months ago. All those issues were taken into account. The charter review concluded that, compared with the alternatives, the licence fee continues to be the best funding mechanism for the foreseeable future. Now that there is pressure on commercial public service broadcasting, it is crucial that we maintain a strong BBC as the backbone of our public service broadcasting system. The BBC is an international beacon, and I think that the licence fee is the fairest way to fund a universal service that is widely loved and respected by many.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): BBC Alba, an excellent new Gaelic channel, has met with popular acclaim, particularly in my constituency, since it began broadcasting about two weeks ago, on channel 168 on Sky. Will the Minister use his influence with the BBC and the BBC Trust to make sure that the licence fee is used to ensure that the channel is accessible on Freeview as soon as possible?
Andy Burnham: I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I will look into that proposal. My Department has been very supportive of the service that he mentioned, and we will continue to support it in whatever way we can. I cannot stand here today and give him a precise answer to his question, but I will look into it.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): Mr. Speaker, with your leave, I wish to update the House on important developments announced by my Department since the summer break.
I have set out the timetable for my review of public service broadcasting, which I will continue to take forward in conjunction with Ofcom, and I am very pleased that Stephen Carter has been appointed to support me in this work. I have also announced that I will commission an independent review of listed sporting events to look again at whether the right sporting events are protected for free-to-air broadcasts, and whether the right balance is struck between the interests of sport and the interests of television viewers.
We continue to work on the implementation of the McMaster report, including the recommendation to make more arts events free to the public. I recently announced a £2.5 million programme, funded through the spending review by Arts Council England, to give young people under 26 the chance to see free theatre at 95 venues across England. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) played an enormous role in that scheme and in the implementation of the McMaster report. I would simply like to echo the very generous comments made by Opposition Front Benchers earlier in Question Time. My right hon. Friend stepped back for family reasons; I am sure that the whole House wishes her well, and wishes the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), well in her new role, too.
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