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Chris Smith
The full interview with BBC News Online
 real 28k

Friday, 19 November, 1999, 17:01 GMT
Chris Smith answers your questions

The Culture Secretary Chris Smith answers questions from users of BBC News Online.

News Online: It's five years now since the lottery was set up. Are you happy with the way it is being run, and the way the money is being spent?

A: I'm a lot happier now than I might have been two and half years ago.

Overall the lottery has been a magnificent success, 6.5bn has been raised over the last five-year period for the good causes, for sport, for charities, the arts and now health and education as well.

One of the things I've been very keen to do is to make sure that the money gets spread evenly all across the country and does not get concentrated in the big mega-projects in the big cities - that it gets right down to the grass roots level to help local communities.

I'm delighted that the figures actually bare out that what we've been doing has made a difference. The number of grants getting into the grass roots of communities has doubled and I am very pleased that that has happened.

News Online: Would you be happy to see a non-profit bid to run the lottery?

A: I'd very much welcome a not for profit bid should one come forward. From my point of the view the key test has to be which of the bids we get after 2001 is going to make the most money for the good causes.

News Online: But won't owning the infrastructure help Camelot?

The infrastructure, by the time we get to 2001, is going to be seven years old. Technology will have moved on quite a lot during that seven-year period.

So I think anyone coming in to run the lottery post-2001, whether it's Camelot or a new operator are going to have change a lot of that infrastructure anyway.

Q: Earlier this year the Arts Council handed out 10m to their music clients who had run up deficits. Organisations which had kept within budgets and, through good housekeeping, were able to maintain a surplus, were excluded.

Would not a fairer way of distributing this "pot of gold" have been based on quality and value for money. This may well include those with deficits, but the existence of a deficit would not be the only criteria.
Gordon Watts

A: I think I'd say three things in response to Mr Watts.

The first is that I think that the Arts Council was absolutely right to spend 10m on putting all the great orchestras of this country on a sound financial footing.

It was important that in order to secure a decent financial future for all of these orchestras doing good work - and in many cases giving real pride to the region were they are based.

Secondly one of the things the Arts Council has been doing is not just propping up ailing artistic organisations it's also been working with successes.

Funding for the National Theatre has gone up by a million pounds this year in order to build on that initial success.

The third thing to say is that it is very important that we encourage and enable art organisations to run themselves efficiently because good artistic work really does have to go hand in hand with sound financial management if you have got tax payers' money going in.

That is why we have set up a new body in my department called Quest - the quality efficiency and standards team which is there to promote value for money, to encourage good management and to disseminate best practice to try and help arts organisations to run themselves efficiently.

Q: In April the Voluntary Arts Network reported that to obtain grants, voluntary organisations might have to "re-invent themselves" on a regional basis to qualify for grants. (Source: VAN Update, April)

It also reported that your department has launched two new funds (New Opportunities and Adult & Community Learning) for organisations who are prepared to operate on a Regional basis.

Why should organisations that do not support New Labour's EU-inspired division of England into artificial regions be penalised?
Brian Mooney

A: I don't think the regions are artificial. If you go to places like Newcastle or Gateshead for example you will find a very strong sense of regional identity.

I think that the Arts Council was right to do a lot of devolution to the regions in terms of the specific funding for individual organisations. Because at regional level there's much greater knowledge about what is actually happening on the ground than is possible for an organisation which is centrally based in London [to have].

Now that does not rule out funding from national companies for national organisations taking place from the centre in London, we've got to do both.

One of the things that is becoming obvious is that you can have good administration and poor administration whether it's a national body or a small-scale local body.

What we've got to do is make sure both are operating efficiently. That is why we have spent so much time over the last couple of years sorting out the problems of the Royal Opera House.

I'm very pleased that we are going to see in a couple of weeks time that the Royal Opera House is re-opening with a clean balance sheet and full a programme, lower ticket prices and with a much more welcoming atmosphere.

It is a complete transformation and I am very pleased that that is happening.

Q: One of the British arguments for keeping the Parthenon marbles in London is that they will be better preserved. As it has been unveiled that the British Museum offers its halls for receptions, is this really a better way of preserving the marbles? Is now the right time to consider returning the Parthenon marbles to the Parthenon?
Panos Kakolyris

A: I fear the answer to that is no. Because the marbles were legitimately acquired when they came to Britain in the first place and they are being kept in the British Museum were they have been well looked after.

They are seen by about six million people a year coming to the British Museum.

Entry to the museum is free and people come from all over the world to see them.

I think that if you make a special case out of the marbles and say just because they are the Parthenon marbles and people in Greece have been asking for them to be taken back to Athens that wouldn't close down arguments as to where historic artefacts are around the world.

News Online: But we sent the Stone of Scone back to Scotland.

Well that was a decision made jointly by the people of Scotland and the previous government.

And I think that was a sensible thing to do.

In general terms - for example if you look across the Atlantic and the great museums of America, many of the contents of the great houses of Britain are located in the museums across the Atlantic and I don't think it would be right to demand them back.

Q: Quite simply, why wasn't the British public allowed a say on the Millennium Dome, surely the money could have been spent on more worthy projects, like new hospitals, or am I being much to simplistic?
John Wardell

A: Of course the money from the Millennium Commission which is going into the Millennium Dome which is about 450m is money from the national lottery - it is not tax payers' money.

I believe very strongly that you should not spend lottery money on the basic services like hospitals and schools.

What we have done however is to ensure more lottery money now, and indeed far more money than is actually going into the dome, can be spent on projects related to health and educational needs.

We recently announced the 125m of lottery funds going into the provision of cancer equipment around the country.

Now this is upgrading cancer equipment and going to help voluntary fund raising in hospitals - leagues of friends and so on. And that is something I am very pleased about.

So we are doing quite a bit of what our correspondent wants us to do on that front.

Having said that the Millennium Dome is going to be a very real and exciting way of marking this special moment in time. It's going to draw many extra visitors during the course of next year, with all the economic benefits that come with that.

It is helping to regenerate a run down area of south east London, it is providing several thousands of jobs during the course of next year. And it is also going to have a permanent legacy because the building will remain.

I think it is also going to provide something that people around the country are going to find really exciting and interesting to visit

News Online: If you can sell the tickets.

There's a lot of nonsense been written in the press about ticket sales. The reality is well over a million tickets have already been sold for the dome.

The first few weeks of next year - as I understand it - are pretty well sold out already.

What is also happening is some very good travel deals are already emerging. National Express for example are offering a 29.99 ticket which includes travel from anywhere in the country and entry into the dome.

Now that is a pretty good deal for people who want to come down from around the country and visit the dome.

I think what we will find is that in the same way with the festival of Britain in 1951 a lot of people may have been a little bit sceptical when all the plans were being made, and while the construction was going on.

But once it is open, once it is there people are going to say gosh this really is something that is going to be pretty exciting and I want to see it because I have only got this one chance in may life time to go and see it.

News Online: Do you think that it will be a pleasant and comfortable experience for people, especially with young families, to travel down to the dome from different parts of the country?

Well I hope that people, particularly families, are going to make a bit of a thing of it.

Not just come down to see the dome but also perhaps take a trip on the millennium wheel as well, towering above County Hall.

Perhaps come to see the new modern art gallery the Tate Gallery has transformed out of the old bankside power station.

Or perhaps go and see the great court at the British Museum when that is open, or the new science museum.

There are all sorts of things happening that are going to be really exciting and that is just in London - and there's a lot else that is happening around the country.

So let's hope that people are going to decide to make a bit of thing of it and spend some time exploring the good things that are happening here in Britain.

Q: Do you think that it would be worth the government paying for certain socially excluded and deprived groups of people to share the Millennium Experience at the Dome?
Malcolm McCandless

A: One thing we have put in place is a million free tickets for school children around the country and schools and local education authorities are organising how those tickets are going to be distributed.

In addition to that there are of course special concessions for people coming as a family group, for groups of pensioners - if they want to hire a coach and come down and spend a day at the dome.

Q: Are there any more projects like the millennium wheel planned?
J Woodgate

Well the wheel of course is very much a one off - although I hope it is going to be there for a very long time to come.

It is something that looks really exciting and is a major addition to the London skyline.

But there are a whole host of things that are happening right the way around country to mark the millennium which the Millennium Commission has, with then help of lottery money been putting together.

They range from the biggest greenhouse in the world - being created in a disused claypit in Cornwall where different climate zones are going to be created so people will be able to walk through and experience being in a jungle or in a California climate and still be in Cornwall.

There is the national space science centre in Leicester.

People will be able to learn about space travel and also be able to simulate what it is like to be in a space capsule.

There are all sorts of exciting things that people are going to be able to do. I think that what we are going to see after this period of the millennium years has happened is that we are going to have a real legacy of major attractions and of major facilities, things that people will be able to treasure for years to come.

Q: In the advent of the digital age how important is public service broadcasting and what is it's future.
David Cooke

I think the digital age will make public service broadcasting even more important than it has been up to now.

When you have a multi-channel environment, when you have got so much choice available to the viewer the role of public service broadcasting and in particular the BBC is to ensure that they are providing a real bench mark of quality against which everything else has to measure itself.

One of the things that has happened in this respect is the development of BBC Online - and I'm not just saying this because I'm on BBC Online at the moment - it has been a class act.

It is a new service that the BBC has developed over the last couple of years. It has been enormously successful. The quality of the news, of the discussion the way in which people can interact with it is of a very high order and it really challenges the rest of the field to compete. That is where public service broadcasting really comes into its own.

Q: Do you think the News at Ten will return?
Colin North

A: The decision is of course not up to me, it is up to the Independent Television Commission.

I have in the last couple of weeks reminded them of the commitments, which were given by ITV, by the News at Ten when the decision to allow them to shift was taken.

Those were commitments about the way in which news was going to be presented at other times during the evening and there were commitments about what sort of programming was going to fill the gap when the News at Ten moved.

I've asked the ITC to make sure that they very rigorously look at those commitments and measure them against the performance of the last six months or so when they come to conduct the review that they are going to be doing in a few months time.

News Online: Why is it important? Why does it matter if fewer people should choose to watch the news?

The point that is being made by some is that the if you look at the overall audience for news now on a weekday evening on ITV it is something like three quarters of a million less than it was when News at Ten was in place.

There are questions that need to be asked about people's access to news in a democracy. Because access to news is important for people making decisions about who should govern them and who should represent them.

But these are decisions which it shouldn't be up to government to make. It is very important that government doesn't dictate in these matters.

It is legitimate for government to raise questions but the answers to those questions and the analysis that leads to those answers have to be done by an independent body like the ITC.

I have my own view but it is not up to me to impose that view.

Q: Will the government change the law to allow religious groups to own radio licences on the same basis as all other groups?
Simon Calvet

A: This is something that has been a matter of great concern particularly to organisations like United Christian Broadcasters, who have been arguing to have a national religious station.

It is of course perfectly possible at the moment for local or regional religious stations to establish themselves and some have done so very successfully, Premier for example in London.

In order to create a new national station two things need to have happened.

One is we need to have moved into the digital world for radio so the spectrum is available.

The other thing is that we need a change in the law. We don't have the legislative vehicle to do that at the moment, but this is something we are certainly not ruling out.

We are in discussions with people like United Christian Broadcasters we will continue those discussions in a constructive frame of mind.

Q: Are you glad you didn't run for the mayoral nomination after all - your name had been mentioned a few times as a possible contender?
David Banks

A: I have to say I never had any intention of doing so. I am enjoying doing what I am doing at the moment in the cabinet for culture, media and sport far too much to want to change.

I think it is important that we now have a serious and sensible discussion between the various candidates for the Labour mayoral nomination.

About the future of London and what the mayor can and should do.

I am a very strong supporter of Frank Dobson I've known and worked with Frank for many years and I strongly support his candidacy.

I know that he will be addressing the issues about the future of London's transport network, about fighting crime in London, about the overall planning provisions that need to pout in place, about being a voice for London that can be listened to with respect on the international stage.

I have to confess that the selection process has not been of the smoothest. But anyone who would want to claim that Labour was some heartless, thoughtless machine - I think that evidence is that we are not.

We have had a difficult process arriving at the shortlist of candidates but we now have the next three months ahead of us to make that decision as members of Parliament, as members of the trade union movement and as member of the Labour party.

I hope that we are not just going to be looking at the personalities but also at the serious issues as well.

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