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I have said why we have listed events. The decision to review the listed events was based on a range of factors, partly on the recognition that with the development of
digital technologies and the changes to the broadcasting environment there are far more channels and far more ways to watch sporting events. In addition, subscription's place in the broadcasting economy is completely different from what it was. To take account of all those developments, the Government set up an independent advisory panel to review the free-to-air events regime and make recommendations to the Secretary of State.
Mr. Simon: We will look at the evidence if that ever becomes an issue, but it is not something that we should get hung up on. Let me return to the details that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan asked for, of the review process and how it has gone.
David Davies chaired the panel and was asked to review three areas: the principle of having a list, the criteria against which events are listed, and the content of any list. It was recognised that the widest possible range of views needed to be taken. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan said, the panel commissioned research. It undertook a public consultation from 8 April to 20 July, and wrote to 187 sporting, media, broadcasting, viewer and other organisations, inviting them to participate, and some of those organisations had meeting with members of the panel. Not every member of the panel attended every meeting, as has been noted, but I do not doubt that there will have been consistency of membership. Others of those organisations made submissions in writing. Perhaps not every member on every occasion, but the panel as an entity visited the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, arranged a joint meeting of the all-party media and sports groups, and generally put itself about and talked to as many people as possible.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): The Minister will not know this, but it would be interesting to find out how many of the panel have been to a challenge cup final. I wonder whether the Minister himself has been to one. All of us who go and see the very large crowd at that fantastic occasion simply cannot understand the decision. We also think that there is a blind spot. The Minister probably does not realise that Leeds Rhinos regularly have the biggest average crowds of any rugby club in the country. Rugby is a popular spectator sport, but that is not being reflected.
Mr. Simon: The hon. Gentleman makes that point very well. I cannot speak for the proclivities of the panel. Having grown up in a Welsh family, I was taught early the other way, in rugby terms, and then went to the only grammar school in Birmingham where they played only football, not rugby. So, no, I have never been to a rugby league challenge cup final, although if the hon. Gentleman is inviting me, I would love to go.
The panel reached clear conclusions as to the criterion that should be used in determining whether an event should be listed-the major event test. I am conscious
that I have only three minutes left, so I will not read out the definition of a major event but will move on to the Secretary of State's provisional conclusions.
The Secretary of State provisionally-I do not just emphasise that word with my voice; it is underlined on the piece of paper-concluded that he was minded to recommend that the recommendations be accepted. Those recommendations were, first, that there should in principle be a list; secondly, that the major event test should be a key criterion in drawing up the list; and thirdly, to accept the view that the events identified passed the major event test. The Secretary of State considers that the panel has come forward with a persuasive set of reasons, and he agrees that as many people as possible should have as much access as possible to events of major importance. We are particularly concerned-my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan raised this concern-about the ability of people on a low income to access subscriber services. They might otherwise be excluded from these nationally important events. We believe that listed events are part of our national identity, but we are also clear that the panel expressed no view and took no account of the impact or consequences on the sport or sporting body of the listing, stating that it considered that such matters were for the Secretary of State to take into account.
Our provisional conclusion is, therefore, that the final decision should take account of the possible impacts-not looked at by the report-that such listing might have on the sport or the event in question. We therefore consider that the major event test needs to be accompanied by an impact assessment. That will involve considering any matters relating to the impacts of listing that are drawn to the Secretary of State's attention, then assessing whether listing would have a disproportionate impact on the interests of those adversely affected by it-[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley is willing me on. Having reached his provisional conclusions, the Secretary of State is required to carry out a statutory consultation with the broadcasting authorities in line with the Broadcasting Act 1996. I am trying to conclude as quickly as possible before the time runs out. There is a consultation that runs until March. As part of that consultation-
We now move on to the next debate. However, I point out to the Minister and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) that we expect Divisions in the House at any moment. I leave it to you to decide whether you want come back between votes-I understand that there will a series of them. That would make for a disjointed debate, but we could suspend the sitting for an appropriate period.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I raise a subject today that is not much talked about. In recent weeks and months, we have become used to our armed forces making the news. Much focus is given, and rightly so, to what is happening in our theatres of operation. Today, however, I want to concentrate on something that will affect many military families-the proposed changes to some of the postal services. I also wish to talk about postal services to Afghanistan.
I know from personal experience that the British Forces Post Office has for many years provided a vital link between forces personnel and their immediate families, and wider friends and families. The service was cheap, and it was certainly efficient; I assume that nothing has changed. It was always highly valued by those who sometimes felt a long way from home. It is worth noting a little of its history.
In 1808, during the peninsular war, the first Army post office was put into operation. It was followed during the first Chinese war in 1840 with another Army post office. In 1882, Queen Victoria authorised the formation of the Army Post Office Corps to serve during the Egyptian and Sudanese campaigns. A number of reorganisations took place-it is not a modern fad, as we often think-but eventually the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) was formed.
That organisation served during the first world war in France, Belgium, the Dardanelles, Egypt, Palestine, east Africa, Greece, Italy and north Russia. The ingenuity of the personnel was unlimited. As well as being transported by conventional means, mail was transported by mule, sleigh, trawler, minesweeper-in fact, by any form of available transport. That is an example of the resourcefulness of the organisation, which has always given high priority to getting messages to the troops.
In March 1919, the first regular airmail service from Folkestone to Cologne was set up to provide British troops in Germany with a fast mail service. It was the world's first scheduled airmail service. Due to its success, the model was adopted by civil post offices worldwide. I could spend 15 minutes recounting the development of the forces postal service. The organisation's history of resourcefulness and its ability to adapt over the years to ensure that our troops had access to the biggest morale booster of all-mail from home-is second to none. However, it was with some consternation that I learned of plans to close 12 of the forces post offices. The offices destined for closure are those providing support-[Interruption.]
Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. There is a Division in the House. I am in your hands. You may prefer to come back after you have voted, so that we can move straight away, so that when the three of us are back here we can recommence. We will adjourn for an appropriate time.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I want to congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a very important debate. Quite rightly, she spelled out the importance of boosting morale, and the morale-booster is getting the mail there, never more so than getting mail to the front line of theatre. I think that she would agree with me that what we need from the Minister, when he gives his winding-up speech, is confirmation that the theatre will not be affected and that that vital link between families, friends, sweethearts or whatever they may be will continue, that mail will always get there and that we always ought to see if we can get more. Does she agree?
Sandra Gidley: I could not possibly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that he has to rush off, but if he stayed to hear the end of my speech he would hear me return to that issue very forcefully. As I probably hinted in my historical comments, this issue was very important and it remains so to this day; it may even be more important now, so I thank him for his intervention.
My small interest in this area centres on the fact that one of the BFPO numbers that will be affected-well, the number will exist, but the post office will close-is BFPO 28, which serves Brunssum in the Netherlands. For a couple of years, that was my number and my address, so that I could keep in touch with my teenage friends back in England. The service was effectively subsidised, so it was cheap to use and, as I said earlier, it was efficient.
Teenagers today probably use a home personal computer, and the art of letter-writing is dying out somewhat. However, when I was a teenager, I had to write to my granny-well, I wanted to write to my granny. As we all know, granny is less likely to have a computer, so we should not lose sight of the range of people with whom a forces family will want to keep in touch. The postal mechanisms are not just available to the forces themselves, but to those responding to the letters.
The forces have always tried to adapt to changing times. There is now a system for something known as the e-bluey. Letters are e-mailed directly to the BFPO, which then dispatches them via the traditional postal system. Obviously, such developments are welcome. My understanding is that the BPFO numbers themselves will be retained, but the forces post offices will be closed and only a limited postal receipt and dispatch facility will be left. There will no longer be a facility to send parcels to the UK, although it will still be possible to receive parcels.
One of the biggest drawbacks of the proposed system is that the over-the-counter post office services will cease and for services outside basic mail provision, forces personnel and their dependants will use the relevant international mail system. That will invariably mean that people will have to pay more to send parcels and they will also have to depend on the vagaries of less efficient postal systems. We sometimes knock the British postal system, but in comparison with other systems it is very good. Currently, for example, someone at BFPO 8 in Naples can send a BFPO letter weighing up to
100 grams for 39p; hopefully, the Minister can confirm that that will continue. However, if they want to send a small letter-type package of just over 100 grams, the picture changes. The current BFPO cost is 90p, but the cost of sending a similarly sized package through the Italian premium mail service-I do not think that anyone with experience of the Italian postal service would risk paying less for the slower service-ranges from just over £1 to more than £1.50. To some, that might not seem like a huge difference, but costs mount up over the course of a year. In Norway, at BFPO 50, the costs are even higher: it costs about £4 to send a letter of just over 100 grams to the UK. Costs are even higher for personnel based in the USA. The situation gets worse when applied to parcels, as the cost of sending some of them will double.
It could be argued that gift vouchers and so on can be used, but people like to receive personal gifts. There is another side to it as well. Despite the best efforts of the NAAFI, there is always something from home that people living in another country yearn for. UK-based families often make up packages of such sought-after items and post them. That, too, will cost more in future, and even if a small adjustment is made to the cost-of-living allowance for those based abroad, it will not be extended to families in the UK who send things to our forces.
There are also broader concerns. It is now widely accepted that there will be less money in future to spend on public services and that all organisations will look for efficiency savings. The UK has other overseas postings, and many personnel are still based in Germany. Will the Minister give me an assurance today that there will be no further slash and burn of BFPO services? Currently, 23,000 personnel are based in Germany, and they could be looking at NATO's savings with some trepidation.
I also want to use this opportunity to mention those who send cards, gifts and letters to our troops in Afghanistan. Military personnel at the sharp end acknowledge that troops on the ground appreciate support from back home, but mountains of well-intentioned mail can cause difficulties that outweigh the benefits. Mail from friends and family-the packages that have the greatest effect on morale-can be delayed significantly. If someone does not receive something from their family, they might become concerned that something is wrong, which could obviously detract from their day job.
The onward delivery of good-will parcels to forward operating bases necessitates additional supply flights and convoys, which the Ministry of Defence says puts our personnel at greater risk every time an extra convoy is added. I am sure that nobody sending a parcel would want the troops to be put at greater risk. The MOD is keen to ensure that members of the public who wish to support British service personnel can do so, and I understand that a list of recommended service charities has been drawn up.
The standard advice seems to be that if someone wants to help, they should donate to one of the charities. The preferred charity appears to be the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which has a long record of work in supporting our troops. I do not wish to deter people from sending money to that worthwhile charity, but it is important for some people to feel that they are making or doing something practical. They might not have huge amounts of money and might think that what little they have is best given in the form
of a personalised gift. There are also troops who are not in touch with their families and do not receive anything from loved ones. For them, a parcel must be a morale booster, whoever it is from. Many members of the public who want to do something might not be aware of the warning not to send parcels.
I decided to google the subject. Typing in the keywords "parcels", "soldiers" and "Afghanistan" produced the following results. The top link was to a charity called Support our Soldiers, which-guess what-sends parcels to troops, except that it now says that it cannot accept more gifts, only money. The second link was to a story about Joanne Goody-Orris and her partner Maurice Benton, two pensioners who have been sending parcels for some time and have received many letters of thanks from grateful service personnel. The third hit mentioned a scheme in Otley, and the fourth a woman named Maria Wood, described as Father Christmas to the troops. The fifth concerned Karen Brittle from Orford, a similarly public-spirited individual. The sixth described a campaign last summer by the Dorset Echo, the seventh was a Yahoo! discussion of what to include in parcels and the eighth was a link to the Birmingham Mail.
I could go on, but I think that the Minister gets the gist. The information available is not terribly relevant to what is happening on the ground. No helpful guidance exists on the best way to help our troops. It is probably too late to make a difference this year, but in all likelihood, our troops will be in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. An interested and engaged public will continue to want to help and show their support in the most practical and personal way possible.
My plea is this. It should not be beyond the wit of the MOD to ensure that the first Google hit gives official advice, tells people the best way to help and directs them to approved charities. I urge the Minister to do so in order to help people make the most of their efforts. My second suggestion might require a little more work. I hope that the MOD will like it; it could work with a charity to see whether the idea can be developed. When people support Oxfam, for example, they can make a donation to buy mosquito nets or a goat. I am not suggesting that we send goats to our troops in Afghanistan, but in preparing for this debate, I became aware that many of them find certain small pieces of gadgetry useful, such as a wind-up torch. A member of the public could go to a website and decide whether to fund a wind-up torch or another gift, and their name could become associated with that gift. They could also name a recipient or group of recipients, because one reason why people want to give tangible things is that they want the soldiers to know that they are in their thoughts. A physical gift makes that knowledge much more real, and such a gift could be seen to benefit a real person instead of being swallowed up by an anonymous charity pot. People are not always sure where the money goes.
It seems to be a relatively simple idea that could work. It would relieve the strain on the system while making people feel that they were giving something tangible, and the soldier would receive a real gift. I hope that the Minister will want to do it. It would usefully channel the efforts of the many people who want to do their bit to help. I shall end my remarks by thanking all those who will be away from their families this Christmas
doing their duty for our country, but I feel somehow that that is insufficient, and I want to do more. That is exactly how many people feel who have sent or want to send parcels to our troops.
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