HC Deb 13 July 1959 vol 609 cc169-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

9.59 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

My hon. and. learned Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, speaking on an Amendment to the Finance Bill asking for tax concessions on gifts to the Arts, made the statement that he preferred grant-aided objects because in that way Parliament exercised control. I pondered for quite a long time on what my hon. and learned Friend meant by that, because I have observed—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Whitelaw.]

Dame Irene Ward

—over a period of time that what my hon. and learned Friend meant was that there was control by the Executive and that Parliamentary control in the sense which I mean, as a representative of the back bench Members, is almost non-existent.

With the agreement of my hon. and learned Friend, although I admit that he had not much chance to oppose me, I decided that, tonight, speaking as a back bench Member, I would not call upon a member of the Executive to answer what I shall say about a grant-aided body in the shape of the Arts Council. On another occasion my hon. and learned Friend suggested that if one had one's ear close to the ground it became so full of grit and grime that nothing else penetrated to the brain. I would point out to him that if one sits on a summit one may get into a very rarefied atmosphere and may become like the pilot in an aeroplane who, flying too high, begins to lose his sense of direction and his sense of balance and has to have an injection of oxygen. I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend that although I agree that one ought not to go about with one's ear close to the ground, nor ought one always to sit on a summit. What one wants is a balanced approach to these matters.

I think that the whole House welcomes my hon. and learned Friend as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Hon. Members admire his competence, his charm, his efficiency and his method of dealing with the problems which arise from time to time. At the same time, there are occasions on which he could descend from always supporting the Arts Council when Parliament is anxious to obtain some information because of the growing anxiety of the general public about what the Arts Council's policy is driving at. I do not want unduly to criticise my hon. and learned Friend, because we are devoted to him in the House, but I think that he makes a mistake in not asking hon. Members under his own ideal of Parliamentary control, what evidence they can produce when they seek to criticise the Arts Council's policy.

Fortunately for everybody concerned, J do not often speak about myself in the House, but I have been in the House for twenty-three years, whereas my hon. and learned Friend has not been here nearly as long, although I recognise that he has reached Government circles. I would also add that under no circumstances would I think that my judgment was always right. It could not possibly always be right. I make a distinction, however, between judgment and evidence, and I also make a distinction between judgment and integrity.

My hon. and learned Friend and I have the honour to represent parts of the North of England. In the North, many people challenge my views, many people dislike my views, many people would fight me to the death over my views, but nobody has ever challenged my integrity. Therefore, when I make a statement on what I think is a wrong policy on the part of the Arts Council, my hon. and learned Friend might do me the honour and justice of asking me to produce my evidence. I am a little surprised that a distinguished lawyer should be prepared to exercise his judgment on behalf of the Arts Council without seeking any evidence as to whether the Council is right or those who are criticising are wrong.

I feel—and I am not alone in this matter because this is not, I am glad to say, a party question—that what is causing a great many people anxiety is the continuing attempt of the Arts Council to concentrate the whole of its direction from the centre. I want to develop that argument. First, we had the break-up of the regional organisations. Of course, the Scottish and Welsh organisations were retained intact, but the regional organisations, which were the contact between certain parts of the country and the centre, were by an action of the Arts Council disbanded. That was the first action by the Arts Council, and no one paid very much attention to it, because it takes a long time for public opinion to tumble to what is happening.

The second action on behalf of the Arts Council was the elimination—I am not going into this in great detail—of the Carl Rosa touring opera company, the only provincial touring opera company which we had in Great Britain. It was eliminated, and there was a concentration of power at the centre. I am very proud of the heritage of our great capital city in the Arts, but I also argue that the provinces enrich the centre as well.

The Carl Rosa Opera Company was eliminated. My hon. and learned Friend did not ask for anyone's evidence but took the side of the Arts Council. I will deal with one aspect of that in a moment. Having got away with that, the next thing was that Sir William Williams, without even consulting his own Council, gave a very long and detailed interview to the Daily Telegraph. In that rather delightful and free-and-easy way of his he said that opera had been dealt with—put out of action—and then announced that he intended to telescope the provincial repertory theatres. I am glad to say that that evoked very much criticism from all over the provinces.

Had I asked my hon. and learned Friend to reply, he would have said, as he said in an Answer to the hon. Gentleman for Goole (Mr. G. Jeger), in reply to a Question the other day, that it was all a matter for the Arts Council. If my hon. and learned Friend accepts the basis of Parliamentary control, it is not all a matter for the Arts Council. I do not want Parliament to interfere in the day-to-day running of the Council, but I do want to know what its basic policy is.

I am not satisfied with this zest for power, the desire to put everyone in a gilded cage, the "old boy" theory of being on all the committees in London and the provinces never being heard. The provinces look for some support. I think that the country is now thoroughly alarmed and, speaking with all the force at my command as a back bencher, I hope that the provinces will revolt. I hope that every single repertory theatre will make it perfectly plain to my hon. and learned Friend that it does not intend to tolerate the Secretary-General of the Arts Council, without even consulting his own Council, announcing to the world what he thinks ought to be done to the provincial repertory theatres.

Before moving on to my next point, I want to make one other rather difficult comment. A very distinguished member of the musical profession, Sir Steuart Wilson, who, at one time—and I have his permission to refer to this—was the Deputy General Administrator at Covent Garden, put in a very strong report on certain aspects of administration. As was very proper, he put it in to the then Chairman of the Covent Garden Trust, the late Lord Waverley. Lord Waverley did not feel that he could deal with the matter, so, as is the case with many other criticisms, any discussion of or action on the Report was abandoned. Sir Steuart resigned, and is now the very distinguished principal of the Birmingham School of Music.

My only reason for raising this is to show that I am not the only person—nor, indeed, is the hon. Member for Goole the only person—who feels strongly about the actions and the attitudes of the Council. I have to add that Sir Steuart Wilson does not agree with my views on the Carl Rosa but, fortunately, he did have some slight regard for my integrity. He gave me the Report and told me that I could do with it as I wished, and it may be of some small comfort to him to know that although it was rejected by the Prime Minister, by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and by the Chief Whip, none of whom felt able to deal with it, I placed it in the hands of the Gulbenkian Foundation when I approached it about difficulties in the administration of the Council. I hope that that may prove some source of satisfaction to Sir Steuart.

I come now to my next point. I raised with my hon. and learned Friend, and I hope that he will not mind my saying so, the fact that the last annual Report of the Arts Council contained gross inaccuracies. As far as I could make out he seemed to think that the Council's Report was a matter for the Council, but that Report must have been paid for from money allocated by the British taxpayer. My hon. and learned Friend is always talking about the British taxpayer and his rights—and, indeed, he has some rights—and this Report, which contains gross inaccuracies, was paid for by the British taxpayer. In addition, the salaries of the Secretary-General and all the Council's administrative officers are paid for out of the taxpayers' money.

I do not think that it is consistent with sound administration, nor is it right that Parliament should have confidence in the Council when it issues a Report that contains a gross inaccuracy. I shall give the evidence for that statement. I have tried to make my hon. and learned Friend believe that I am "on the level" about this, but he does not think that that is the way to handle the Council.

Perhaps I may read the relevant passages and appropriate minutes that dispute what was contained in the last Report. I quote, first, from page 15 of the Report: The proposal to amalgamate Sadler's Wells and the Carl Rosa was neither initiated nor urged"— and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will note the word "urged"— by the Arts Council. It was wholly their own idea. On page 16, we find: A few reflections on this opera crisis are, perhaps, admissible. The first is that the Arts Council rejoices that allies have at last reached the battlefield and that Sadlers Wells, as we know it and respect it, is to continue in action. The next, and the one particularly appropriate in its own annual report; is that the Arts Council neither imposed nor sought to impose amalgamation upon the companies concerned. I take great exception to that, because it does not happen to be true. I have a copy of the minutes of the Carl Rosa Trust. In answering a recent Question asked by the hon. Member for Goole, my hon. and learned Friend said that there was now a senior representative of the Treasury on the Arts Council. From that I assumed that there was not a senior representative of the Treasury on the Arts Council before. I cannot help feeling that, if the Treasury is represented on the Arts Council, when the controversy arose over Sadler's Wells and the Carl Rosa Opera Co. Ltd. the Treasury representative should have called for the minutes of the Carl Rosa Trust.

The Arts Council also had an assessor on the Carl Rosa Trust. Therefore, everything which went on at the Carl Rosa Trust was known to the Arts Council. I am bound to say this, in case my hon. and learned Friend does not think that I am giving a true statement of the facts. I am sorry to say that, but I think that it is absolutely essential.

This is minute No. 313 of 24th February, 1958: He— that is, Sir William Williams, who was present at that meeting— then repeated that although Sadler's Wells faced the sharpest disappointment it had accepted the proposal for a unified operation of the two companies, and he"— that is, Sir William Williams— had the authority of the Arts Council to say that if the two Trusts should be unable to combine on these lines there was no room to suppose that either would receive a grant individually. Does my hon. and learned Friend think that that minute confirms the statement in the Report of the Arts Council that no action was taken or urged by it on the two opera companies?

I turn now to an extract from the minutes of the meeting of the Carl Rosa Trust held on Monday, 21st April, 1958: Dame Irene Ward had submitted an additional paragraph which had been circulated to members, prior to the meeting, for consideration, as follows: Dame Irene Ward asked who was responsible for the document submitted at the last meeting of the Carl Rosa Trust at which the merger scheme with Sadler's Wells was based and discussed. Dame Irene referred to a letter she had received from the Assistant Editor of the Observer, in which he asserted that, on the very highest possible authority, he had been informed that the Arts Council strongly opposed this Scheme which was drawn up without the Council's knowledge. Sir William Williams reminded members of the Trust that the basic document had been drawn up by Mr. Denison'"— he is the head of the music panel of the Arts Council and the assessor on the Carl Rosa Trust— 'and submitted by him for discussion at a meeting called by the Arts Council of the Chairmen of the Trusts concerned. Sir William said the Observer's letter was inaccurate.' Mr. McRobert said that, in view of the fact that this Amendment quoted Sir William Williams, he was not prepared to accept it until such time as it had been referred to Sir William for his approval. It was agreed therefore that the Amendment should be sent to Sir William". It was sent to Sir William. It was approved and is in the minutes of the Carl Rosa Trust.

Is my hon. and learned Friend, who I am sure wants to do the best that he can for the Arts, prepared to argue in favour of the annual Report of the Arts Council, which deliberately misconstrues its attitude towards the amalgamation of Sadler's Wells and Carl Rosa? If, as I have proved, it is a false statement in the Arts Council's Report, I wonder whether the country, which depends on the Arts Council for the sound administration of the money granted by Parliament as a grant in aid to the Arts Council, is right to have any confidence in the administration of the Arts Council.

I want to say one other word about the Carl Rosa Trust As I say, there may be legitimate difficulties. As my hon. and learned Friend said to me one day, he thought that I was too much in the centre of it to be able to exercise a reasonable judgment, and I am prepared to accept that from him because an enthusiast sometimes allows one's enthusiasm to run away with one. At the same time, I feel very strongly that the members of the Carl Rosa Trust, whose integrity and position in life are equal, if not better than, those of the members of the Arts Council, are equally entitled to consideration by my hon. and learned Friend. I fail to see why members of a Trust, who have given loyal and devoted service to a well-loved and admired provincial opera company, should be held up to ridicule by the Arts Council. I go further than that and say that there was not only ridicule but bribery and bullying.

Dozens of musicians have been to see me, and I agree with the point of view that they hold. They all said that if they make any criticism of the Arts Council their career is finished. Certainly, after the withdrawal of the grant from the Carl Rosa Opera Company, many people who had not been involved at all in the controversy were thrown out of employment. Many people who had served the Carl Rosa Opera Company for many years with no adverse criticism against their character were ruthlessly thrown out and my hon. and learned Friend and Parliament failed to stand up for them. That is not what Parliament is for. It certainly is not what I stand for, neither is it what I think British democracy stands for.

Those people have no chance. Nobody will hear their case. I can take all these criticisms and antogonisms on my shoulders because I have been long enough in Parliamentary life not to let them worry me at all. But I have to speak up for people who were thrown out of jobs, with nobody to fight their battles because, forsooth, the Arts Council wished to concentrate the patronage of the Arts Council in London and anybody who went contrary to that policy was regarded as an enemy of the Arts.

When the question of the Arts Council was raised in another place the Minister without Portfolio was asked to reply. It has been extremely difficult to find out who briefed the Minister without Portfolio, but—I do not think it was his fault—the speech that he made was completely inaccurate. He led those who were interested in the Carl Rosa Trust and who were discussing the withdrawal of the grant to believe that a meeting was to take place on the future of the Carl Rosa Opera Company.

The Minister indicated that the Arts Council and the Carl Rosa Trust were to meet to see what the future of Carl Rosa could be. Of course, that was completely inaccurate, and the Chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Kenneth Clark, has repeatedly refused. Indeed, when he did see members of the Carl Rosa Trust before the Trust was finally closed down we were told that we could go to see them—very graciously—but under no consideration were we to be permitted to discuss the controversy which had arisen between the Trust and the Arts Council.

I must say that Sir Kenneth Clark came to see me and told me that the Carl Rosa Trust had a very distinguished and good chairman, who is Mr. Charles Wilson, of Jesus College. I quite agree that he is a good chairman, but I would have much preferred Sir Kenneth Clark to have said that we were all very bad administrators, rather than play up like that, knowing, at the same time, that they were going to stab the Carl Rosa Trust, in the back. That is not the kind of thing that I expect of people in public positions with public money to spend.

It has taken me a very long time to find out about the debate in another place, but I am glad to say that with the support of our Chief Whip, who has been extremely helpful, and the support of the Leader of the House of Lords, I have had a note from him today which is not marked "Private and Confidential", saying that the Minister without Portfolio has written to me. I have not yet received the letter, but I hope that in it he will express his regret at the kind of interpretation which he put upon the artistic directorship of Mrs. Phillips. It has taken me all these months to get the Minister without Portfolio to make an apology, and I do not think that that is consistent with proper behaviour on the part of Her Majesty's Government.

I do not like that sort of thing. I do not mind if there is a genuine controversy. It might well have been that Lord Bridges felt that there should be an overall policy for opera. I might agree with that, but the Arts Council made it perfectly plain, and I do not blame it, that it does not like Members of Parliament sitting on its committees, but if Members of Parliament were not sitting on these committees, I hope that my hon. and learned Friend realises that there would be no means of exercising Parliamentary control. In these difficult months, the Executive has been always on the side of the Arts Council, and has never been prepared to examine any evidence given in this respect, and therefore Parliament cannot exercise adequate and proper control over public expenditure on the Arts.

I think my time is coming to an end. I think that it will be understood why my hon. and learned Friend has not intervened, because I feel on this occasion that for once Parliament should speak and not the Executive. I know very well that in our Parliamentary life we base our whole Parliamentary system on the power of the Executive, but if the power of the Executive is exercised in such a way that ordinary people who were in the Carl Rosa Company had to be thrown out because of the desire of certain people to concentrate power in London, as opposed to the provinces, all I can say is that it is time that, in this respect, the Executive were shot up.

I am going to be delighted that representatives of the Arts Council, including the Secretary-General, will read my criticism of the Arts Council, and for once there has been no member of the Executive to stand up here and say that what I have been saying is inaccurate.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.