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22 Jan 2009 : Column 321WH—continued

The Government have introduced measures—the Minister referred to them—to increase participation in sport and the arts. I know that he has accused some people of playing party politics with the concerns that have been expressed about the free swimming scheme, but he was wrong to do so. He may be aware that when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport came to my constituency to discuss a range of issues
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with local people, including that particular one, he was told very clearly that my local authority would willingly join the free-swimming scheme, if it had the resources to do so. However, in a very harsh financial climate, it would have great difficulty in providing both parts of the scheme. That was not a party political attack on the Government. It was simply that the sums of money that are being made available do not add up. The Government wanted a scheme on a shoestring. The Minister shakes his head, but the Local Government Association made it quite clear that the sums of money would be inadequate to provide a full scheme.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I should like to know who said that. The hon. Gentleman says that the Local Government Association made that point, but I met Councillor Chris White who leads the LGA—

Mr. Foster: He is a Liberal Democrat.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Liberal Democrat or not, I met him and we had a discussion about free swimming. The fact is that the free-swimming initiative came from some local authorities, and they did not ask for a Government contribution.

Mr. Foster: The Minister misses my point. I am not trying to make a party political point. I said that Chris White, who leads for the LGA on such matters, is a Liberal Democrat to make the point that there is a problem with the funding arrangements. If one looks at the total package, it may work out, but there are huge variations from one local council to another, and it is their individual circumstances that make it difficult. That scheme is no different from schemes from other Departments, such as free transport for the over-60s, which is of great benefit to many older people and which I welcome. Unfortunately, the funding scheme means that it is difficult for some local authorities not to end up having to put some of their own money into the scheme.

May I mention a missed opportunity? The free-swimming scheme, as it is currently designed, enables two groups of people—younger people and older people—to benefit from free swimming. Of course, that is a good thing, but the Government failed to take the opportunity to do something about swimming lessons. They failed to give more young people the opportunity to learn to swim, which is the missing part of the scheme.

The same could be said of the free theatre tickets in the project for arts inclusion. The Minister knows that £2.5 million was committed to get 1 million free tickets into theatres. Everybody can do the maths; 1 million into £2.5 million means £2.50 a ticket. Clearly, that would mean that any theatre that got involved in the scheme would have to subsidise it or get money from elsewhere. As a result, we do not have 1 million people participating in the scheme—although we have good take-up. Again that scheme was done on a shoestring, but it got the good headlines.

The one missing element in all this is education. Everybody whom I have spoken to has made it clear that linking a free theatre visit with an educational experience that prepares young people for the theatre would significantly enhance the benefit of such a scheme. I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity to talk to his colleagues in other Departments about that issue.

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Much has been said about those areas that are covered by DCMS and receive money from the national lottery that are losing out because of the second take of money to pay for the burgeoning budget of the Olympics. As the Minister knows, two years ago the Liberal Democrats proposed a rethink of the way in which the national lottery is taxed, and I am delighted to say that the Conservatives have now given us their support. The figures that have been compiled independently show that if we were to move from the current tax regime to gross profits tax, it would lead to a significant increase in funding not only for the good causes, but for the Exchequer itself.

The Secretary of State promised me that he would do everything in his power to push the Treasury. I accept that it is a Treasury decision, but the pressure from the Department is critical. We were disappointed that no reference was made to it in the pre-Budget report. I suspect that the Minister shares the view that it would be a great benefit, but I would be grateful for an update on where his or the Department’s discussions with the Treasury are. The matter no longer divides people who are concerned about the Department.

I join the hon. Member for Pudsey, who has had to leave the Chamber, in saying that there are other ways of getting money in that require pressure from the Department. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the campaign by the CCPR in respect of gift aid for junior club subscriptions. As the Minister will know, that would cost a small amount of money compared with the Department’s overall budget, and I would be grateful, as I know that the hon. Gentleman would be, to hear what progress has been made in the Department’s thinking on that, what pressure is being put on the Treasury, and whether the Department supports the proposal.

Unfortunately, the work of the DCMS often depends to some extent on other Departments. I have just given two examples—GPT and gift aid for junior membership—where Treasury agreement is necessary, but other Departments partly block some of the things that DCMS wants to achieve, such as on playing fields. The Minister will be well aware that departmental representatives get up and say, “We’ve done a great job. Aren’t we wonderful in reducing the number of playing fields that have been sold?”, but, depending on how we take the figures, that is not entirely true.

Aside from that, and even if we accept for a minute that the measures that the Government have put in place are welcome—they are welcome, but I do not think that the Government are achieving as much as they claim—there are two matters on which they have promised, since as far back as 2002, further to tighten up the rules. The first thing is the size of the school playing fields that have to be considered. For schools, it is 0.2 hectares and above, but for all other playing fields that effectively have to go through the process of winning the approval of Sport England, the current limit is 0.4 hectares and above. The DCMS committed to pressing for a change in the rule, and other Departments with responsibility have promised it, but it has not happened. Indeed, the consultation that was yet again promised—

Mr. Sutcliffe: Soon.

Mr. Foster: The Minister knows only too well the number of times that he has said “soon”, and I have waited nearly a year to get an answer, as was demonstrated
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recently in a debate on a statutory instrument. Will the Minister give me greater precision than “soon”, “very soon” or “imminent”, which are words that he frequently uses when speaking to me? What is happening about the reduction from 0.4 to 0.2 hectares?

Secondly, and equally importantly, what about the bizarre rule that allows a field that is fenced-off, and therefore not used for a period of up to five years, to be exempted from the rules? That needs to be changed. Again, I have had assurances that it will be changed, but absolutely nothing has happened.

Finally on playing fields, may I pay a huge tribute to Fields in Trust, which has done a tremendous amount of work since 1948 to protect playing fields in this county? In discussions with me, it has expressed real concern that when fields are sold off and the money goes into sports—rightly, sometimes it does—there is a huge disparity, because for every £1 that is spent on an outdoor playing field and the facilities that go with it, around £2 is spent on indoor facilities. That needs to be addressed.

The creative industries are crucial but, as I have said, although I welcome the rhetoric, I am not convinced that there is any real action on the ground. Indeed, the PSA targets on the creative industries have not been met. When the Minister replies, will he say more about what he is going to do about the creative industries? For example, what about the computer games industry, which has been overtaken by Canada from a position of third in the world? That happened because tax breaks were given to that industry in Canada. I am not saying that tax breaks are the way forward when it comes to helping the computer games industry, but they should be seriously considered. We give tax breaks to the film industry, for example, and we ought to consider doing so for the computer games industry. That is one of the many examples I could give.

I echo everything that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East has said about tourism. The Government do not take tourism anywhere near seriously enough—the cut to Visit Britain was a stark example of that. There is a problem, as I said in an intervention, when the Prime Minister pretends to be interested and announces money, only for us to find later that the money is not the Government’s, but other people’s. That does not send out the right signals. We must start taking tourism seriously.

I am not going to talk about the Olympics or gambling, because the Minister and I will have the opportunity to do so in more detail later, so I shall talk finally about heritage. Someone mentioned Stonehenge, but heritage is hardly ever mentioned in our debates. There has been a significant cut in the money available to heritage. Heritage Lottery Fund money has decreased tremendously, and it now rejects some 80 per cent. of applications that meet its criteria—they are good applications. There are nearly 30,000 properties on the at-risk register, and there has been a real reduction in the number of young people visiting stately homes on school visits and the like.

We must take the heritage of this country much more seriously. There is hardly any talk of heritage within the Department—there is at least a lot of talk about tourism—and the final insult was for the Department to drop, or allow to be dropped, the heritage protection Bill from the Government’s programme. That was the final blow
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for anyone who felt that the Government are interested in heritage; they clearly are not. Dropping the Bill has let the heritage sector down.

I began by saying that there have been a number of improvements, which I welcome. There is a lot of work still to be done, and there is a degree of complacency in the way in which the Minister has so far taken us through the report. I hope that he will now rebut some of the challenges that have been made, or at least explain why the Department has failed in quite a large number of areas.

3.58 pm

Mr. Sutcliffe: What we lack in numbers we have not lacked in quality, even if I disagree with large amounts of what was said by the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Bath (Mr. Foster). Nevertheless, I am impressed by their commitment to the DCMS’s work. The hon. Member for Bath was spot on when he said that the impact of the Department on the lives of our constituents is perhaps not noticed by many of our parliamentary colleagues. We can look at that in two ways: the fact that nobody is here means that far from being complacent, people are happy with the work that we are doing and so do not wish to come here to complain; on the other hand, it would have been nice to have more contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, because these matters affect all our constituents’ lives.

I shall try to be as quick as I can given what might be happening in the main Chamber. Elite sport funding is vital. We were proud to have the investment in place for the Beijing Olympics and pleased that we can do considerably more for London as hosts of the games. What is important to me and the Secretary of State is a long-term commitment to elite funding. We have lottery funding and Exchequer funding, but we need a private sector stream of funding as well to maintain elite funding post-2012, into 2016 and beyond. It is important that sport infrastructure is in place. We have created that with our work through the Youth Sport Trust, which deals with school and youth sport, and Sport England, which deals with community sports.

I fully understand the points made by the hon. Member for Bath about PSA targets. I know that he accepts that failure to reach the targets does not mean that there have not been increases in certain areas—he acknowledged that at Question Time the other day.

We must be careful about continually attacking the burgeoning costs of the Olympics. It is quite right that people should question and scrutinise the costs, because the Olympics are a major spend, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics has stated to Opposition parties her willingness to explain in great detail the amount of spend and the reason for the changes. I hope that that continues to be the case. I am slightly concerned about scrutiny of the Olympics, because we should not turn people off them. We are all committed to the success of the London 2012 Olympics, and we all agree on the great benefits that they will bring.

Mr. Ellwood: The Minister has made an important point, and we should be careful about our comments to ensure that we do not turn people off the games. As he has said, however, it should not prevent us from scrutinising
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what is going on, including the bigger decisions. Why, when we knew years ago that we would be bidding for the Olympics, was Wembley stadium not built with a running track? Why is Bisley, a state-of-the-art, internationally competitive shooting arena, not being used? Why will many of the places that will host disciplines of sport during the 2012 Olympics be only temporary? In China, horse racing took place in Hong Kong and aquatics took place miles from Beijing. I do not understand why we are not using existing facilities more appropriately, thereby saving money.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman’s party was involved in the original bid proposals—as was the hon. Member for Bath, who led for his party on this matter—so he will know what was required in putting together the bid, what the International Olympic Committee agreed, and what the IOC will expect from the London games. Commitments were made in those bidding documents. My right hon. Friend and I sit on the Olympic Delivery Authority board, and discussions have been held about what opportunities exist to make variations, not only for the sake of cost but for legacy reasons as well. I can honestly say that decisions are taken with maximum involvement and consideration of the commitments given, as well as of the legacy. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Mayor of London sits on the board and has made similar points.

It is obviously the Opposition’s right to scrutinise what goes on, but we need to get the balance right. We may give the impression that costs are out of control and things are not going well, but the reality is quite different. The IOC was here recently, and it has given its support to the progress made. There is a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, not only in east London but across London and the UK, for the success of the games. We must balance the position of the Olympics with their possible impact, which we all want to see, on developing sports participation and culture in this country.

The hon. Gentleman asked what will happen to the stadium. Work is being done with the London Development Agency, the partners and the ODA on what its future use should be. Again, however, commitments were made to athletics about the need for an athletics stadium with a warm-up track, and the stadium’s future outcomes for the legacy must be considered. There is no doubt in my mind that the success of the Olympians and Paralympians in Beijing, to which we all pay tribute, has created enthusiasm, interest and inspiration for London 2012. We need to maximise the benefits.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned free swimming, as did the hon. Member for Bath. I make no apologies for the attacks that I made on those local authorities that are playing politics with that issue. I accept that there were some problems with flexibility, but we have tried to accommodate that in the outcomes by considering their impact on over-60s and under-16s. I also accept that it is for local authorities to make that decision. We did not say that a Government scheme would be imposed on local authorities; we said that our surveys show that swimming is the activity that most people can do and that it is most likely to gain the support of local government in terms of impact and development.

We are pleased at our ability to get other Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and the Department for Children,
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Schools and Families, to contribute to that bigger picture. One authority, a Liberal Democrat authority in Hull, told me quite bluntly that the over-60s are not a priority. If that is the authority’s decision, fine, but it seems like a wasted opportunity to me. The issue was about not only free swimming, but the opportunities that free swimming gave for local authorities to offer other recreational services, which could have enhanced the sport offer. However, we have been flexible. We have tried to work with local government and will continue to do so. Hopefully, some who said no will reconsider their position in future rounds of bidding.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East welcomed library modernisation and made a relevant point about how libraries must reflect the changing nature of society. He also discussed the digital switchover, which is going to schedule. Some 80 per cent. of UK homes have taken up digital TV, and we want to work with others to ensure that everybody has the opportunity.

I was not too sure about the attack on the regional development agencies and the hon. Gentleman’s perception that they have problems passing on money. The Northwest Regional Development Agency has been outstanding in its work with Liverpool, and Liverpool’s position as a capital of culture gave the regional economy an £800 million boost.

Mr. Ellwood: The Minister said that although there are not many Members here, an exchange such as this provides us with an opportunity to tackle and scrutinise issues in detail. I place on the record that of all the RDAs that I have visited, the Northwest Regional Development Agency is probably the best, but the reason why it is the best is that it does not hang on to money centrally. It has five areas with key brand names, such as Blackpool and Manchester, and those brand names are probably recognised the world over. The RDA does not say, “Come to the north-west.” Instead, it says, “Come to these five distinct areas.” That is not the case in other parts of the country. Nor is there a huge amount of communication between the RDAs on best practice. If the approach of the Northwest Regional Development Agency were replicated throughout the country, we would have a much better system, and I would be less critical in speaking about it.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the point in more detail. I understand what he has said, although I might not agree with him. I will have the opportunity to meet the RDAs next week, funnily enough, so I will try to pursue and develop his point on good practice.

The other interesting thing about Liverpool is that there were 3.5 million first-time visitors to the region, which is another testament to what was done there.

I am grateful for hon. Members’ support for seaside regeneration, even though I was chided for the fact that the sum involved is only £15 million. That is still a significant investment, and it will give great opportunities for development.

I was not trying to be party political when I mentioned spending plans. Opposition parties cannot continue to say that we are spending too much and that investment is too great, when they have said on the record that their spending plans would reduce the amount spent on tourism.

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