HC Deb 16 December 2002 vol 396 cc517-9
2. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

What estimate she has made of the costs that will be incurred by churches and church halls as a result of the provisions contained in the Licensing Bill. [85569]

4. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

What representations she has received from church organisations concerning the Licensing Bill. [85572]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells)

Any costs for churches and church halls under the provisions of the Licensing Bill as it stands would depend on the licensable activities, if any, which are undertaken and their frequency, and whether temporary or permanent permissions are sought. The Archbishops Council of the Church of England wrote to me to express its concern that the provision of entertainment in churches outside Greater London would be brought under the licensing regime by the Licensing Bill. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will accept that while I cannot provide them with a solution today, the Government have made a commitment to reconsider our position on this issue and will announce our conclusions as soon as possible.

Mr. Randall

I am very grateful to the Minister for seeing sense. The sooner we get the new regulations, the better, as that part of the legislation would best be described with the words that he used to describe certain types of modern art.

Dr. Howells

I could not possibly comment.

Mr. Boswell

We have the answer for which we were hoping. Would the Minister accept as representative the comments of my constituent, Mr. Williams, who is chairman of the trustees of the Holy Sepulchre restoration trust in Northampton? In particular, he points out that the use of his church, which is an 11th century crusader round church, is as important to the schools that perform there as to the church which brings in the takings. Will the hon. Gentleman give us an absolute assurance—or as absolute an assurance as he can—that nine centuries of history are not going to be sacrificed to nine minutes of ministerial inadvertence?

Dr. Howells

I will certainly do my utmost to ensure that that does not happen. If I may, however, I ask the hon. Gentleman to hold his fire until we have reconsidered our position on the matter.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East)

Can I—I think I can—congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on intervening to restore common sense and ensure that, in an uncharacteristic excess of bureaucratic zeal, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport does not wipe out the indispensable tradition of music-making in churches? Will they go further and impress on the Arts Council the need to support church and cathedral music positively, just as English Heritage has supported the conservation of the physical fabric of our churches and cathedrals?

Dr. Howells

My right hon. Friend has fought long and hard to help church and cathedral music wherever he can. I reassure him that I have no intention of doing it any harm whatever, and that I will do all that I can through regulation to ensure that it thrives.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

Having met a group of clergy in Blackpool on Friday, may I tell my hon. Friend how welcome were the words of Baroness Blackstone in another place on Thursday? Does he appreciate the extent to which many places of worship depend on the activities and income that come from such events, the licensing of which is now to be reviewed? Will his Department do everything that it can to make sure that a perfectly reasonable attempt to correct an existing licensing anomaly does not become an unfair and intolerable burden on places of worship?

Dr. Howells

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. I also thank him for the work that he has done to make my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me very much aware of the circumstances that obtain both in his constituency and in those of many other right hon. and hon. Members.

Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Does the Minister agree that, in the absence of the guidance promised in the Bill, it is quite to hard to decipher the Department's intentions on church concerts or anything else? Do we need to license activities in church at all, given that there has not been a serious public order offence in a church since the time of Thomas à Becket? Does he accept that, even if he waived the fee, the application process would in any event be an unwelcome layer of bureaucracy for already hard-pressed volunteers?

Dr. Howells

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point very well. I hope that he will accept the statement that I made earlier.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his statement will be widely welcomed, not least in rural areas where churches and church halls sometimes provide the only facility in which cultural, educational and musical activities can take place? They are therefore an essential part of the fabric of rural communities for those as well as other purposes. Will he ensure that, when he reconsiders the matter, churches and church halls are finally completely exempted from the proposals?

Dr. Howells

I get my right hon. Friend's message loud and clear. I shall certainly consider what he said.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

I welcome the Minister's statement as far as it goes, but does he accept that a Bill that will require anything up to 15,000 parish churches—not to mention the places of worship of other faiths—to apply for a licence at a not insignificant cost cannot possibly be described, as the Secretary of State has described it, as deregulatory, and that anything less than the continuation of the existing exemption and a complete abandonment of the proposals in the Bill will be unacceptable?

Dr. Howells

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that, for a long time, the Conservative Government had a chance to get rid of the rule that has existed for 40 years, which says that churches inside London have to apply for and receive a licence for the playing and singing of secular music. I hear what he says, but I hope that he will accept that we do not need lessons from the Conservative party on getting rid of the regulations.

Mr. Whittingdale

I point out to the Minister that the existing exemption for churches was granted by Parliament in 1982, under the previous Conservative Government. However, given his willingness to see reason this afternoon, perhaps he would like to consider another aspect of the Licensing Bill, which is that covering licensing for the live performance of music. Will he explain how a Bill that will require thousands of live musicians to perform only in licensed venues, when there is at present no requirement for a licence, is deregulatory?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That goes far beyond the original question.

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