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House of Lords

Monday, 15 January 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Introduction: Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury

Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury—The Right Honourable Sir David Edmond Neuberger, Knight, a Lord Justice of Appeal, having been appointed a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and created Baron Neuberger of Abbotsbury, of Abbotsbury in the County of Dorset, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Bingham of Cornhill and the Baroness Neuberger.

2.42 pm

Waterways: Tourism

Lord Lee of Trafford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the lead department for inland waterways in England and Wales is Defra. While there have been no specific discussions on the matter that the noble Lord raises, Defra and DCMS Ministers do speak from time to time on tourism issues.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I declare an interest. British Waterways is a member of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions of which I am chairman. Very positive developments with our waterways have taken place in recent years. There has been a massive contribution towards regeneration of many cities and, on tourism, more than 100,000 hire-boat holidays. Given the tremendous potential, should not the Government put more money into waterways rather than less?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government have put substantial sums into waterways—more than £500 million since 2000. That has helped to realise the benefits that the noble Lord identified in terms of the rural part of waterways and, as he rightly says, the regeneration of many of our major cities to the improvement of waterways. We look towards British Waterways to carry on that important work.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, given that the income of British Waterways has trebled in the past seven years and that almost half of its income last year was from trading activities, would it not be an idea to consider making it a self-financing agency

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by giving it a dowry of some of the land alongside its banks? It could become self-financing and make better use of its many assets.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is an interesting and radical idea. The Select Committee in the other place is looking at the future of British Waterways and I do not doubt that my noble friend will take steps to draw the committee’s attention to his radical proposal.

Lord Elton: My Lords, can the Minister tell us what he expects us to infer from his substantive Answer, and whether that would be correct?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I hope I give answers that lead to a common understanding across the House of what is intended in them. Suffice it to say that although the Question is about tourism and is therefore accurately and appropriately addressed to the Minister responsible for tourism in this House, budgetary decisions on British Waterways are the responsibility of another department.

Lord Elton: My Lords, at the risk of appearing tedious, does the noble Lord realise that all Ministers answer for the whole Government, and the fact that a particular Minister belongs to a certain department has no bearing on his access to the knowledge required?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course I understand the point entirely. I was merely describing factually the ministerial line of responsibility in this area.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, if the Ministers in the two departments speak to each other, even on this very day, what was the reason for the reduction in the budget?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Defra has had its budget re-evaluated this year for a reduction of 7 per cent. Although it has been widely reported that the budget cut for British Waterways is £9 million, it is in fact £3.9 million, which it was felt would be appropriately attributable to it.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords—

Lord Trimble: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, is it not the case that the cuts were made because of a lack of year-end flexibility, which is code for saying that the Treasury decided it was going to claw a large sum of money out of Defra? Is this not highly unfortunate from the point of view of Defra generally and in particular with regard to British Waterways, in respect of which I should have declared an interest as a boat owner?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, all government departments have organisations which derive substantial resources from them. Those organisations—particularly one as enterprising and constructive as British Waterways has been in recent years—have ambitious plans for development, which cannot necessarily be funded in the immediate year.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords—

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, how does the river Lea fits into the tourism and navigation plans for the Olympic Games? Will he confirm that there is a plan to put a £50 million lock across the end of the river to make it better for tourism and for the Olympics by bringing in materials and so on? How is that £50 million to be spent and how much of it will come from British Waterways ?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the river Lea will certainly play a significant part in the development of not just the main Olympic site but also the canoeing and kayaking site further upriver in Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. The river Lea will have an important role to play in the development of our Olympic facilities and will add to the attractiveness of the site. I should add that we are also guaranteeing that a certain amount of the freightage necessary for developing the site will be water-borne.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister agree—

The Earl of Glasgow: My Lords—

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I have tried to speak so often that I am jolly well going to go on. First, does the Minister agree that certain goods could be well transported on our canals and inland waterways, and thus taken off the roads, and that more commercial traffic might be a great help financially to our canals? Secondly, do the authorities hold conversations with the French, who seem to make very good commercial use of their canals?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to the noble Baroness, who is always constructive on these matters. It will be recognised that British Waterways has difficulty making comparisons directly with French waterways, which are constructed on a much wider scale. We operate with much narrower boats, which presents a problem with freight traffic. Nevertheless, in its forward plans British Waterways looks toward an expansion of freight. Anything that contributes in those terms helps to reduce congestion on our crowded roads and, to a certain extent, our railways.

The Earl of Glasgow: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Scottish Executive, unlike the British Government, are fully supporting Scottish waterways? Do the English need some major visitor attraction, like the Falkirk Wheel, to persuade them how important waterways are to tourism?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Scotland has responsibility for its own waterways and, as the noble Earl says, certain advantages. However, it will also be recognised that, in England, substantial parts of our waterways are greatly attractive. One thinks of, for example, the gorge in Shropshire, which is part of the origins of the Industrial Revolution and is, of course, close to a waterway.

Museums and Galleries: Funding

2.51 pm

Lord Sheldon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, DCMS funding for sponsored museums will increase to £336 million by 2008, a real terms increase of 28 per cent since 1997. Renaissance in the Regions funding will increase by 40 per cent next year to £45 million. A key outcome of this investment is free entry to national museums, which has led to a 40 per cent increase in visits. Funding for museums from 2008 is being considered as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. However, his department covers the two widely different activities of sport and the arts. What effect will the increasing cost of the 2012 Olympics have on government spending on the arts?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, there have been recent rumours that the cost of the Olympics will have an impact on arts funding. As I said in response to a question last week, there is an overrun on funding for the Olympics and various methods are being looked at to bridge the gap, but it is unlikely that the arts will suffer as a result.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords, there is no question that one great success of the Government in this area has been the Renaissance in the Regions programme. In areas where it has been fully funded, according to the Museums Association, attendance by schoolchildren has increased by 120 per cent. The Minister mentioned the forthcoming funding, but only three out of nine regions are receiving full funding. Can he assure the House that the whole of the funding will be forthcoming and not adversely affected by the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: As I said, my Lords, £147 million was allocated to Renaissance in the Regions, which, as the noble Baroness said, has been a huge success. Government investment rose from £10 million in 2002 to £45 million in the next financial year. My view is that the initiative has been such a success that its funding is very likely to continue.

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Lord Sterling of Plaistow: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as we sit here today, detailed discussions are going on at the DCMS with the museums and galleries, including my own—I am chairman of the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory—to suggest cuts of 5 per cent, which will equate to 8 per cent or more with inflation. Can the Minister assure us that that will not take place?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I cannot assure the noble Lord that that will not take place because it is part of the next spending review, and the Treasury has asked all government departments to look at possibilities for reduction, as it will be a quite tight review. The DCMS recognises that there are funding problems, particularly for acquisitions, and it has established a forum for national directors, which met once last year and is due to meet in a few weeks’ time, to discuss innovative ideas for raising more money for museums and galleries.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, my noble friend rightly took pride just now in describing the substantial increases in funding the Government have provided for museums and galleries. Does he agree that there can be no case for not at least sustaining present levels of grant in aid? Does he also agree that, since the National Heritage Memorial Fund was created to honour men and women who have died in the service of our country by enabling museums and galleries to make important additions to our national collections, it would be gracious if the Government, having committed themselves some time ago to increasing their grant to the fund to £10 million this year, would now go even further and set out a path to doubling that grant to £20 million, thus bringing the fund much nearer to its original value?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend Tessa Jowell will take note of my noble friend’s last point. Obviously it would be difficult for me to stand here and agree to a doubling of that sum.

Although things are quite tight, the income that the national museums are now generating for themselves is encouraging. For example, for every pound the Tate gets in grant in aid, it now generates 67p. There has been a 73 per cent increase in total self-generated income from 1997 to 2005.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that while we can congratulate museums and galleries on the increase in the numbers visiting them, future generations will not have the benefit of those collections unless more money is put into the care of collections? Will he assure us that sufficient money will be allocated during the Comprehensive Sending Review for the proper care of collections?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I cannot give that undertaking. I have spent a great deal of my life in the arts world, and whatever money goes into, it

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is never enough. However, we recognise that we have to watch this area very carefully, and I am sure that the Government and the Wolfson Foundation, which has been very generous over the years, will continue to ensure that the fabric of our museums does not decline.

Post Offices

2.58 pm

Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Truscott): My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government’s proposals to sustain a nationwide network of post offices, announced on 14 December 2006, draw on a wealth of advice and research from organisations such as Postcomm, Postwatch and the National Federation of SubPostmasters. In developing these proposals, we are satisfied that the case in support of the social role of post offices has been made.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I went into my sub post office in Potton, Bedfordshire, this morning, the couple who run it so well asked why they were not allowed to do international money transfers, why they could validate a passport but not a driving licence, why they could not have the link facility for the whole Royal Bank of Scotland Group, why TV licences had been taken away from them and why in today’s world pensioners could not get their pension in cash? Would it not help in running a viable sub post office network if some of those restrictions were removed so that they could compete on level terms with the banking fraternity?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, Post Office Ltd maintains trading restrictions in sub postmaster contracts because it believes it is essential for the survival of the network. Restrictions cover certain key products and services that generate income for the network. The company needs to preserve the ability to negotiate new business on behalf of the full network. Allowing potential suppliers to cherry-pick branches in which to sell their products would make it impossible for Post Office Ltd to negotiate agreements for all branches. The noble Lord mentioned TV licences. The BBC took that decision on cost grounds. The Post Office has to ensure that it remains competitive at all times.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister accept that those can only be crocodile tears for the Post Office from a Conservative Party which, during its last Government, presided over 3,500 post office closures and more than £2 billion being siphoned off from the Post Office network for the benefit of the Treasury, which could have been invested in the furtherance of the network? Does he also accept that his Government do not have entirely clean hands, as 4,000 post office branches have closed since Labour

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came to power in 1997, during which period we have seen the phasing out of facilities that post offices provided, as the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, described? Will the Minister confirm that, at the end of the consultation period in March 2007, this Government will maintain the sub post office network at a level that will preserve the social role of post offices in our towns and villages?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I certainly agree with him on the former point but not on the latter. The Government have invested something like £2 billion in the Post Office network since 1999 and we are committed to investing another £1.7 billion up to 2011. Of the 14,300 odd branches, only about 4,000 are commercially viable. The 800 smallest post offices receive, on average, 16 customers a week, with a loss of £17 per visit. That position is not sustainable. Current losses run at about £4 million a week, so we need to make changes, but we also need to ensure that we retain the social Post Office network. The Government are committed to doing that.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, if the Post Office does not win the contract for the Post Office card account, it is possible that pensioners will have to pick up their money from PayPoint outlets, which is inconvenient and possibly dangerous. That would lead to a further loss of business for the Post Office network. What assessment have the Government made of further post office closures if that happens?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, on POCA, we are committed to a replacement product available on the same basis as now; it will be introduced from 2010. The Government feel that the Post Office is well placed to bid for the contract, but as the noble Baroness knows full well, we have to abide by EU regulations which require that that goes out to tender.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the developing use of community buildings, including churches, in providing Post Office services, as in Sheepy Magna in Leicestershire? What way does he see of encouraging such developments in the interests of community cohesion?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his intervention. The Government will be setting up at least 500 outreach outlets, which will serve small communities along the lines that he suggests, including mobile post offices and services in village halls, community centres and pubs. I think that we can build on that.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, has my noble friend noticed that noble Lords opposite have been arguing for more money for waterways—

Noble Lords: Reading.

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