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House of Lords

Monday, 14th December 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Sandwich: Local Council Constituencies

Lord Pender asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the reason for the proposed division of the Cinque Port of Sandwich into two electoral constituencies for district council elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I understand that Dover District Council has made an order dividing the parish of Sandwich into two parish wards. Such decisions as to parish warding and the reasons for them are, under the statute, matters for the district councils concerned and for which the council is accountable in local elections.

Lord Pender: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Following the voting down of this proposal by the local residents by a 3:1 margin, and the fact that the status quo was accepted by the local officers only to be overruled by the leader of Dover District Council, does not the Minister consider that that might be construed as gerrymandering?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not see how the matter can be construed as gerrymandering because it has no implications for the structure of the district council itself; it simply relates to the town council of Sandwich. Although it is true that the majority of those who responded to consultation were against the measure, that did not constitute the majority of those whose views were sought. As I say, it is a matter for the district council under the legislation passed in 1997.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that my name is Trumpington of Sandwich? Is it usual to split electoral constituencies where the population is under 4,000? The population of Sandwich is 3,836. Is the Minister further aware that Sandwich people very much resent being bullied against their will by Dover District Council?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in this context the town council in Sandwich is a parish council, despite its glorious history; and, as I understand it, it is quite common to have smaller parishes than is envisaged in this case. I am aware of some of the local feeling, but at the end of the day this is a matter for Dover District Council.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can advise me, because it seems

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to me that this Question has no bearing on ministerial responsibility. I am anxious to get some publicity for the proposed closure of two schools in Bristol--Merrywood and Pen Park--which I think is a disgrace. However, I do not think I can ask a Question about that directly. Can the Minster advise me how I might go about this?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I rather feel that the noble Lord has done pretty well without any advice from me. The tabling of Questions and the acceptability of Questions is a matter for the House authorities rather than for me.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, further to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, does the Minister agree that the sandwich has always traditionally been divided into two and what matters to the people is the filling in the middle?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Earl speaks from authority on this matter. I note his concern.

Local Council Allotments

2.40 p.m.

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take steps to encourage local councils to promote the use of allotments.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my department is currently working with the Local Government Association, council representatives and allotments interest groups in order to produce best practice guidance on allotments for local authorities. The Government recognise the importance of the promotion of allotments and in March placed an additional requirement on local authorities to demonstrate the active promotion of allotments before they can dispose of statutory allotment land.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that in many journals, local papers and newspapers great concern has been expressed about the number of allotment sites that have been sold off for development? Is he further aware, and does he agree with it, that Birmingham City Council has been active in promoting allotments, especially for use by ethnic groups and women? I am sure that many of the women could do with the exercise.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I accept much of what the noble Baroness said, even the last point. It is important that publicity be given to the facilities. However, at the moment the background is that the vacancies far outnumber the applications. That is one of the reasons why we asked local authorities to give greater consideration to publicity. I understand that a number are doing so.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, is my noble friend prepared to consider the possibility of helping those local

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authorities who wish to encourage people to do the work they think they can? Can the Government help in providing them with tools for the job? Without them, men who are hired or wish to make a contribution will be unable to do so.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in so far as this relates to the allocation of allotment plots, I believe it goes beyond the terms of ministerial responsibility here. However, in certain circumstances it may be a matter for local authorities.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, in his Answer, the Minister mentioned the disposal of statutory allotment sites. It used to be the law that where a disposal was in the offing, allotment holders were offered alternative sites or a new allotment. Is that still so?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is still the case where there is a significant number of plot holders in place. With many of the allotments which have been disposed of recently--certainly those which have come to the Secretary of State for approval--there are no extant plot holders.

Libraries, Museums and Archives: New Commission

2.42 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they propose to release the result of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's consultation exercise concerning a possible merger between the Library and Information Commission and the Museums and Galleries Commission.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced earlier today in another place the result of the consultation on his department's spending review. The announcement included the decision to create a new strategic body for libraries, museums and archives, to replace the Library and Information Commission and the Museums and Galleries Commission.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend for that Answer. I declare an interest as a former and long ago chairman of the Museums and Galleries Commission, deeply honoured to be so and totally unpaid.

However, is it not a fact that in the DCMS consultation a significant majority of the respondents were entirely against any union of the Museums and Galleries Commission and the Library and Information Commission? In the MGC's own consultation exercise, the responses were three to one against any such merger. Can the Minister explain what arguments in favour of

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bringing the two sectors together were so compelling as to outweigh the clear majorities of the undoubted experts in this field?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am afraid I cannot accept my noble friend's statistics. Of the responses to the consultation on the issue, 63 were in favour, 21 were against and the remainder-- a minority--were neutral or made other comments. So it is not the case that a majority of respondents were against the proposed merger.

It is true that the Museums and Galleries Commission and the National Museum Directors Conference were both opposed to the merger, but the Library and Information Commission and a large majority of local authorities were in favour.

Perhaps I may seek to go a little further than that factual reply. There are matters in common between museums and libraries as they move from a responsibility for display and conservation into the field of information and education and, generally, into knowledge and understanding. I hope that in due course my noble friend will feel that this is the direction in which all museums, libraries and archives should move.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many libraries accommodate museum work as well?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords. I am grateful to the noble Lord for that observation; it is one of the considerations that we took into account. Most local authorities have departments which comprise museums, libraries and galleries. They have found the link valuable.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether there will also be a merger between the Arts Council and the Crafts Council?

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