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8. Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): What steps he intends to take to ensure that opera is available to the widest possible range of ages in every part of the country. [144786]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): Access to all the arts, regardless of age, geography or financial circumstance, is one of my Department's key policies, and one to which the substantial increase in the Arts Council of England's budget of £100 million by 2003-04 has provided a valuable boost. The Arts Council's "spheres of influence" policy, which I commend, is working to increase access to opera and ballet across the country. The policy maximises national coverage by pairing individual touring companies and receiving theatres, ensuring that high-quality opera and ballet take place in each region.

Mr. Michael: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he share my aspiration to see opera in the United Kingdom attain an image closer to the one that it has in Italy, where it is seen as an activity for the whole community, and one in which young people can aspire with enthusiasm to develop their talents as much as they do in sport or any other artistic activity?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of Welsh National Opera in pursuing the objective of engaging young people at the earliest possible age, through the activities of outreach and education, in several regions of England as well as in Wales? Will he confirm his continued support for that activity?

Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend reminds us that the people of Wales have a passion for opera that is

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perhaps matched only by that of the Italians. Let us hope that, as opportunities improve, more and more people in England will also develop that passion.

I willingly join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of Welsh National Opera, which runs admirable education programmes in all the towns and cities in which they perform and tour. It bodes well for the future of Welsh National Opera that my right hon. Friend--in whose constituency it now has its headquarters--is its champion. I am pleased that the Arts Council of England has increased its support for Welsh National Opera by 8.4 per cent. in the present year. However, the support that the Arts Council of Wales has been able to give has not matched that of the Arts Council of England for some years. I hope that my right hon. Friend will use his influence in Wales to bring about a change in that regard.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Prior to the re-opening of the Royal Opera House, the Secretary of State said that he would like to see people wearing trainers viewing the opera next to people wearing dinner suits. What has been the change in the demographics of the audience over the past few months since the Royal Opera house reopened?

Mr. Howarth: I am pleased that, under the chairmanship of Sir Colin Southgate and the direction of Mr. Michael Kaiser, a greater range of audiences has come to the Royal Opera House to enjoy wonderful opera of world-class quality. I believe that that will continue when Mr. Tony Hall arrives to succeed Mr. Kaiser, and the Government remain determined to ensure that the Royal Opera House has the opportunity to provide wonderful operatic experiences for all our people.

Free Television Licences

9. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): How many families in Exeter will benefit from the introduction of free television licences for households with a member aged 75 years or over. [144787]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): TV Licensing, which administers this concession for the BBC as licensing authority, is not able to provide geographical breakdowns of the number of free licences issued. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that estimates of the over-75 population based on the 1991 census indicate that there were approximately 7,900 people aged 75 or over in the Exeter constituency.

Mr. Bradshaw: Is my right hon. Friend aware that a pensioner in Exeter told me at the weekend that he would vote Labour for the first time ever because this is the first Government who have done anything for him? Bearing that and the Tories' pledge to scrap free TV licences in mind, has he thought of extending that popular measure to all pensioners?

Mr. Smith: I am delighted to hear what my hon. Friend has to say about his constituent. We wanted to focus the initial help on that section of the pensioner population because its members not only often have the least means, but depend more on television viewing than any others because of poor mobility. That was why we introduced the concession in the way that we did. I shall of course

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draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and those are matters that we shall want to discuss further, but, in the process, we should remind the voters that the Tories have pledged to scrap that free licence.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) on finding a 75-year-old in his constituency who is so impressed by the measure? Does he agree that the hon. Gentleman is more likely to find many more 65-year-olds who are distinctly underwhelmed by the 75p rise in the basic pension that they received? Is not the real reason why the Government are so keen to give out free television licences that they want to maximise the number of people who will be exposed to the BBC's propaganda, orchestrated by the Government cronies who they have put at the head of the corporation?

Mr. Smith: I trust that the 65-year-olds to whom the hon. Gentleman refers will note that their pensions will rise by £5 this April.

British Library

10. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What guidance he gives to the British Library concerning its policy of retaining a copy of every publication published in the UK. [144788]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): We do not provide guidance on that matter as it falls entirely within the responsibility of the British Library. Section 15 of the Copyright Act 1911, as amended, requires a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom to be delivered to the British Library. The board of the British Library is aware of the important responsibility that it bears as the repository of our literacy heritage and its policy is to retain all material received under the legal deposit legislation.

Mr. Prentice: I find that reply immensely reassuring because I found myself believing a report in The Guardian--[Interruption.] We should never believe what we read in The Guardian. A report of 11 August 2000 directly quotes a British Library spokesperson as saying:

Reference is made to 80,000 books having been binned--weeded out by very junior staff--although I understand that that report and others that appeared in the national press is false. However, is it true that 10 per cent. of the national newspaper collection in Colindale is to be destroyed if it is not sold?

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his vigilance and concern. I believe a lot of what I read in The Guardian, but that story was comprehensively misinformed. The British Library is conscious of the important responsibility that it bears as the repository of our heritage of printed books and is committed to collecting and retaining all British material received by legal deposit. It has never discarded such books, and I am assured that it has no intention of doing so now. Some years ago, the library disposed of large numbers of United States Government publications, all of which were already

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archived in the United States, but it is certainly no part of British Library policy or practice to engage in the sort of activities about which my hon. Friend has been so exercised.

Mr. Fearn: Is it also the policy of the British Library to allow its extensive and very good property to be used for other cultural activities? For example, at one time it was suggested that dance events would occur there. Is it going to introduce other cultural activities and, if so, will it charge for them?

Mr. Howarth: That is entirely a matter for the British Library. I have had the pleasure of seeing some wonderful exhibitions in the gallery in the new building, and the hon. Gentleman may have seen the remarkable tapestry that hangs by the staircase. However, it is for the director of the British Library to respond to such issues, and no doubt he will address himself to those matters.


The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked--

Church Repairs

29. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): What recent representations he has made to the European Commission regarding VAT rates for church repairs. [144808]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): I understand that the Church value added tax group, which consists of staff of the central institutions of the Church, is preparing for meetings with Customs and Excise and other relevant agencies that will put the Government's case, as appropriate, to the European Commission.

Mr. Ruffley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Is he aware that many clergy in my constituency of Bury St. Edmunds welcomed the Chancellor of the Exchequer's announcement in his pre-Budget report that VAT on church repairs would be cut from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent? Is he further aware that the same clergy are now very angry because they have discovered that the European Commission is now saying that it advised Her Majesty's Treasury all along that such a cut would require

In light of that, will the hon. Gentleman tell my concerned constituents, in particular, the Rev. Jonathan Ford of Christ Church, Moreton Hall, Bury St. Edmunds, what is the earliest possible date when they can expect the much needed cut in VAT on church repairs?

Mr. Bell: I am always grateful to hear from the hon. Gentleman. Various discussions are taking place between Customs and Excise and the Church VAT group. The scenario is not as pessimistic as he paints it. We are considering possible derogations. Churches within other EU member states have the same interest in the matter. We travel on hopefully and believe that we will, in the end, reach a satisfactory conclusion. I again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the

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first Chancellor in 25 years to take an interest in the issue, on taking the lead within the European Union and on continuing to do so.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Can my hon. Friend confirm that Churches of all denominations welcome the Government's intention to reduce VAT after three and a half years of being in government? Can he also confirm that, for 18 years, the Tory Government failed to do so?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a party political point. I try to be non-partisan in this job, but the whole House welcomed the Chancellor's statement of his intention to reduce VAT on church repairs from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent. It is a lengthy task, but it has been properly prepared and we are hopeful about the outcome.

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