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House of Commons

Monday 26 February 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Arts (North Yorkshire)

1. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): What steps he is taking to widen access to the arts in (a) North Yorkshire and (b) Scarborough and Whitby. [149384]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): Yorkshire Arts is strongly committed to widening access to the arts. Its budget from the Arts Council of England increased by 9.1 per cent. in 1999-2000 and in 2000-01 by 26 per cent., to £9.25 million. Among the excellent projects that are promoting wider access is Create, an arts development consortium working in partnership with Yorkshire Arts to promote residencies and participatory events at the Scarborough festival and, indeed, all the year round. That also benefits Whitby and rural areas in North Yorkshire.

Mr. Quinn: Such initiatives are extremely welcome in what are perhaps some of the most rural parts of the country. In the rural areas of North Yorkshire in particular, participation in the arts is difficult, whether in the performance arts or in other forms. I am especially pleased that many of the council estates in Scarborough and Whitby now have an opportunity to take part. This initiative from the Government is smashing and will make sure that we break down the barriers of exclusion in access to the arts. Will my right hon. Friend take an early opportunity to commend all the people at Yorkshire Arts for that important work?

Mr. Howarth: I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. He is a great advocate of tourism and culture in his constituency and in Yorkshire. He and his constituents are fortunate of course to have Sir Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph theatre in their midst. That theatre has been a priority for Yorkshire Arts.

Yorkshire Arts supports both the Crescent arts workshop--working to bring cultural opportunities to deprived estates in Scarborough--and the Whitby network, which provides a performance base in Whitby.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the Minister confirm that the restriction of school budgets in North Yorkshire poses tremendous difficulties for schools such as Thirsk school where, traditionally, pupils were bussed to venues in North Yorkshire and in Leeds so that they could experience arts to which their parents were unable to take them? Will the Minister speak to the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that the budgets are increased so that the trips continue to take place in future?

Mr. Howarth: We work closely with our colleagues in the DFEE. Education is of course a priority for my Department; a commitment to education is written into our funding agreements with the Arts Council and in the Arts Council's agreements with the regional arts boards. I hope that the hon. Lady will be pleased that North Yorkshire, which has 14 per cent. of the population of Yorkshire, receives 20 per cent. of the budget of Yorkshire Arts. Of that, a significant amount is committed to work with educational organisations--schools and other organisations--to ensure that culture and education reinforce each other, as she and I would both wish.

Heritage (Calderdale)

2. Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): What steps he is taking to support heritage initiatives in Calderdale. [149385]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): I was delighted to visit Calderdale last September, at the invitation of my hon. Friend, and to see for myself the exceptional regeneration project at Dean Clough. We must all admire what Sir Ernest Hall has achieved there. I also saw the restoration work on the 1855 station building and the Piece hall. The Government are committed to supporting the restoration of historic buildings for present-day use and I congratulate Calderdale on its success in attracting funding to preserve the best of the past.

Mrs. Mahon: I thank my right hon. Friend for the generous help that we have been given in the past. Does he agree that when an area such as Calderdale has a wealth of heritage, a regional strategy is a good way forward? Can we get the heritage lottery fund to speed up its grants? I am thinking, in particular, of the magnificent 15th century Shibden hall, which is falling into disrepair. It would be a tragedy if that continued.

Mr. Howarth: Halifax and Calderdale have a most remarkable built heritage but, as my hon. Friend says, that provides a huge challenge for a relatively small local authority. My hon. Friend understands that heritage; she loves and champions it, exactly as a Member of Parliament should. In recent years, English Heritage and the heritage lottery fund have given considerable sums--more than £5 million each--to Halifax. I hope that they will continue to respond to my hon. Friend's advocacy.

I note my hon. Friend's comments about the great importance of Shibden hall and, indeed, of the park. She is right that we need to take a regional approach. That is exactly why we have established the regional cultural consortiums.

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Library Services

4. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): If he will make a statement on the level of investment in new books made by local authority library services in each of the past four years. [149388]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): Library authority expenditure on books was £74.2 million in 1997-98, £75 million in 1998-99 and £79 million in 1999-2000--a 5.3 per cent. increase on the previous year. For 2000-01, it is estimated that expenditure on books will have risen to £79.5 million--a further 0.6 per cent. increase on last year.

Mr. Goggins: I assure my right. hon. Friend that those improvements are reflected in my constituency, where Trafford and Manchester councils are investing in new books and new facilities. What action is he taking to encourage libraries to work with schools and colleges to extend the joy of reading those new books to the 7 million or so adults in our country who still cannot read any better than an average 11-year-old?

Mr. Smith: Libraries are, of course, important for the whole population, including young people and students. The use of libraries is extremely prevalent; about 10 million people visit their public libraries every fortnight. It is important that libraries, which are primarily run by local authorities, invest properly in their facilities and in their book funds, and make them available to their populations. Trafford is a good example of a council that has done precisely that. For the first time ever, we have instituted library standards, which we published on 12 February. Those standards put in place targets for library authorities in matters such as opening hours, library location and book purchasing, which will ensure that library facilities become increasingly available in the next three years.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Secretary of State talks in rosy terms, as he always does, about the increase in spending on libraries and in reading and so on under the Labour Government. That would be wonderful if it were the case for all local authorities. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many authorities such as Wiltshire county council--the sixth worst funded county in England--cannot afford social services, or to educate children or mend the roads? I fear that under those conditions, it certainly cannot afford to increase spending on libraries. If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen to increase spending on libraries, will he make a specific grant available to increase the number of new books in counties such as Wiltshire?

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman implies that libraries should take second place to other council services. I remind him that libraries are a statutory service under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and that they are vital to the education of the whole population. Local authorities ought to pay attention to library services. The environmental, protective and cultural services block of

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the revenue support grant settlement, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently put in place, has been increased by 4.3 per cent.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): Is my right hon. Friend prepared to intervene if local authorities propose drastic closures, as is the case in Plymouth, where Trelawny library, Combe Dean library, Lipson community college library and the mobile library service all face cuts under our irresponsible Conservative council, which nevertheless finds it possible to axe parking charges for people who do not even live in our city?

Mr. Smith: I am indeed prepared to intervene where unwarranted cuts are threatened in library services, and we have done so on several occasions. I am pleased to say that when we have intervened in recent years, library authorities have either withdrawn or cancelled plans to close libraries and reduce services. That seems to be prevalent in Tory authorities. For example, Tory- controlled Kensington and Chelsea council recently proposed to close Notting Hill library; one of only six libraries in the entire borough. There was a lot of local unhappiness and we were contacted by many local residents. As a result of my chief library adviser's contacting the authority on two occasions, I am pleased to say that even the Tory party in Kensington and Chelsea has withdrawn its proposals.

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