HC Deb 19 April 2004 vol 420 cc3-4
2. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Labour/Co-op)

If she will make a statement on progress on the merger of the Community Fund and the New Opportunities Fund. [166141]

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

The New Opportunities Fund and the Community Fund are now working more closely together. We have recently announced that Sir Clive Booth will be interim chair of both boards, and that the new distributor will be called the Big Lottery Fund.

Mr. Love

I agree with what my right hon. Friend has said, but she will be aware that there are continuing concerns about the merger. I therefore ask her to reassure the House on two points. First, will the new organisation maintain its independence; and secondly, will its focus be on local priority setting, rather than being driven by national considerations?

Estelle Morris

I am happy to give my hon. Friend assurances on both those points. I remind the House that the new, larger distributor will make it much easier for members of the public to access funds. He knows that many organisations and individuals try to access more than one lottery distributor at the same time, and the new arrangement will make things much easier for them. Also—this is a major point—we hope that it will save 10 to 20 per cent. of the operating costs, which will mean that more money will be available for good causes. I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurances that he seeks on both the important points that he raised and I shall keep my eye on them.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

A few weeks ago, the Countryside Agency announced that it was to end its funding for village halls, although they play a very important part in rural communities. Will the new lottery fund be able to provide a greater assurance that, when the volunteers—it is usually volunteers who run village halls—have gone through all the form-filling and been told that they qualify for lottery funding, they will not then receive letters telling them that the money has run out?

Estelle Morris

I acknowledge the importance of community and village halls, particularly in rural areas, and I know that most of the hon. Gentleman's constituency is rural. However, I cannot give an assurance that every bid for a community or village hall grant will be acceded to, because when the money runs out, the money runs out: it is as simple as that. I am happy to encourage Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), to buy more tickets to put more money into the kitty.

I believe that, from the two lottery funds, more than £200 million has been given to community and village halls since the lottery began. That is a sizeable amount. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the new distributor will continue to fund them, but I can give no guarantee that every application that meets the criteria will be accepted.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

The old Community Fund gave money to many unfashionable but genuinely needy causes. May we have an assurance that the new distributor will also give money according to objective criteria, without constantly looking over its shoulder for the tabloid press?

Estelle Morris

I am happy to give that assurance. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in congratulating the Community Fund, which has not run scared when certain newspapers have featured articles that, in some respects, have been dishonourable. I know that the new board members and the new chair will want to retain the independence, impartiality and courage shown by the Community Fund, and I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend will never have reason to doubt the independence of the distribution body.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

If I may say so, the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) was a little glib. Of course it is great that the Community Fund has spent £200 million on village halls over the years, but we fear that, following the merger with the New Opportunities Fund, no matter how many tickets we buy, the money will be diverted to equally worthwhile organisations such as the national health service. Will the Minister guarantee that the funding stream for village halls will remain as strong as it has been in the past?

Estelle Morris

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thought my response glib. I was trying to be honest in stating the obvious— that when the money runs out, the money runs out.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the commitment to ensure that the proportion of funds that currently goes through the Community Fund will be the same under the new distribution body. I also remind him that the saving in administration costs that used to cover two distributors will mean more money for good causes. I see no reason why community and village halls should receive a lower percentage than they do now. I say that guardedly because it is not for Ministers to commit funds from the lottery body, but village and community halls are important, and fulfil all the existing criteria. I should be dreadfully disappointed if they fared worse under a merged distributor.

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