HC Deb 12 June 1964 vol 696 cc890-902

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill]

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)

You may recall, Mr. Speaker, that when I gave oral notice of my intention to ask your permission and that of the House to discuss the matter of the London Opera Centre on the Adjournment, I did so in an unusual form because I felt that it would have been discourteous to the Economic Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to query the way in which they have dealt with the very difficult questions which I had been posing for two weeks and the way in which the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) had joined in.

I felt that this was an extremely complex matter, and that they had dealt with the questions that had been posed quite fairly. The argument really runs counter to our usual procedure in Adjournment debates, when there is a little cut and thrust between Opposition back benchers and the Government over a political difference. In this case there are no political overtones or undertones. In fact, as has been demonstrated at Question Time, in our discussions on the London Opera Centre the line runs straight across the Chamber.

I did not wish to start the debate on any other premise than that there is a general acceptance, between the Economic Secretary and the Chancellor on that side of the House and those of us on both sides who are anxious to bring to light some of the problems that have arisen in recent months, that the general aim is to have a discussion, and not merely an inquest on who said what, when and how. Hon. Members on both sides are most anxious to arrive at a constructive solution to the present difficulty.

I accept the contention of the Chancellor that, in the main, it is not the Treasury's job to interfere with the day-to-day running of the Arts Council. Most of us would accept that argument. My plea is that sooner or later we reach a stage when the exception proves the rule, and the problem that has arisen with regard to the establishment and continuance of a centre for training in opera in this country has now reached the stage where that exception needs to be accepted, and where the House needs to consider ways whereby the Government can have an influence on the matter.

My purpose in raising the subject is twofold. First, there is a certain amount of injustice about it at present, in that although there are at least two sides to the case—and perhaps many more—in another place it has been possible for one side of the case to be fully presented. The noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, has been able to present the case of the Arts Council, which naturally sets out very clearly most of the facts which the Economic Secretary will have been made aware of from his advisers on the Arts Council.

It therefore seems only common justice that Parliament should endeavour to consider some other aspects, as well as those which have been put before the other place, and we should seek to assist in the formation of opinion and policies which will make a success of the opera school, which I believe to be absolutely vital to the future of opera in this country, and will also make a contribution to opera in the Commonwealth.

I now turn to the background of the present conflict. I reject straightaway the idea that the sole cause is a clash of personalities. My upbringing, in a household of militant suffragettism, enables me to resist the suggestion that there is only one side of the question, that it is a matter of temperament, and that only the ladies have temperaments. We can accept the fact that there has been a certain clash of personalities, but I contend that in most of the discussion that has gone on in public there has been a certain amount of anti-feminist opinion. In effect, it has been said, "What can one expect of people who are opera singers and ladies? We cannot expect them to be truly rational." We ought to accept the fact that if there has been a clash of temperament it has been a clash not only between the two ladies but among the gentlemen.

I agree that in respect of creative artistes certain problems arise. I have followed this matter right from the outset, when the two ladies—Anne Wood and Joan Cross—resigned from their positions. I was a little concerned when I heard that a Press conference had been called, because, knowing the depth of feeling in this matter, I felt that at that conference a statement might be made which instead of helping to solve the issue might further cloud it. What emerged was one of the most restrained Press releases I have ever seen. It was constructive criticism which was clear and dealt primarily with the problems of policy.

Since I have only 15 minutes at my disposal, I cannot deal with the 40 minutes of discussion in another place. I cannot deal with 13 points on which I differ from the noble Lord and which appear in the House of Lords HANSARD for 3rd June at cols. 509–516. I should, however, like briefly to make two points. The first is the point which has arisen in the controversy that the two ladies concerned absented themselves without notice. This was given as one of the reasons for summary dismissal. I consider this to be absolutely out of keeping with the dignity of a gentleman with so much responsibility as administrator as Sir David Webster. These two ladies are famous musicians who occupied executive positions and are of high status in the world of music. The idea of having to clock on or clock off or having to seek the permission of the teacher to leave the class was rather less than one would expect in this kind of controversy.

Secondly, however, the main theme of the noble Lord's address was that it was too early to judge, that everything has teething troubles, and so on. I cannot answer those things specifically but I suggest that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury should take into consideration that another noble Lord, the Earl of Harewood, who is far closer to the situation and has been on the board and on the previous committee of the National Opera School for so long, has seen fit to offer his resignation. That contradicts the fact that it is irresponsible to try to take action in the early days of a new venture in the hope that it will grow in the right direction.

There has been a suggestion in the argument that the appointment of a new director is one of the reasons for dissatisfaction on the part of the staff and of those who resigned from the school. I suggest that if the Angel Gabriel had been appointed to direct the harping section of the London Opera Centre and yet was confronted with bad communications and with the wrong building and wrong policies, he could not achieve a harmonious set-up. Therefore, it is important that in the new arrangements the new director should not be saddled with an impossible policy and position. If the thing is to be made to work, before he gets to grips with his problems the policy must be straightened out. It is not fair to the new director if these things are not done.

I take strong exception to the statement by the Secretary of the Arts Council, Mr. Nigel Abercrombie, which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph of 31st May. I have not raised this matter with you, Mr. Speaker, as to whether it constitutes a breach of privilege, because I do not want to make heavy weather of the procedural difficulties, but as a critic of the Opera Centre I was attracted by the bold headline "Opera critics are warned". It goes on to say that if opera critics are not good boys in future—remembering the part played by the hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth, we can take that as meaning that if we are not good boys and girls—the Opera Centre will be closed down. I do not know whether that is an attempt to prevent criticism on the Floor of the House. If so, it would certainly constitute a grave breach of our usual privileges. I do not raise the matter officially, but I object to any muzzling of criticism at this stage.

My second objection in the controversy is to the action of the administrator of Covent Garden when six of the well-known musicians resigned. The Press report which was handed out showed a contemptuous disregard of the standing of these people in the world of music. In suggesting that they could be easily replaced and denigrating the service which they had given to the centre, it was again an action not consistent with the dignity of the office of administrator of a world famous opera house, Covent Garden.

We have reached the stage where a committee of inquiry has been established. I make the point made by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth that the committee is, unfortunately, not independent. The only truly independent member is the charming Ninette de Valois. Four members of the London Opera Centre Board, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond), in paying tribute to whose judgment and clarity of thought I defer to no man, are serving on the committee and the fifth is attached to Covent Garden.

It has always been our principle that if a judgment has to be made it should not only be fair but should be seen to be fair when it is made. It would appear that in this case five of the people concerned will make a judgment on something in which they are intimately concerned and I would ask the Economic Secretary, as this inquiry committee cannot be independent, why there should not be a really independent inquiry into what has gone on.

Out of the present chaos and confusion what we must hope for is some kind of firm policy for the future. I would submit to the Economic Secretary, and through him to the Arts Council, that there are some things which should he borne in mind for consideration. First of all, there is need for the opera school or London Opera Centre to have independence. I quote from the Report of the Bridges Committee which led to it being set up, from page 9. where it is said: The new school can only attract official recognition and receive financial support from public funds if it is from the outset independent, not merely of existing organisations in the world of opera but also independent of existing education institutions. I think the need for that is clearly illustrated by what has occurred. The London Opera Centre has not fulfilled these conditions.

There are several things which emerge as important in policy for the future. First, there should be a professional approach and not an academic approach, a kind of opera workshop rather than an academic school duplicating what is already done by other people such as the Royal Academy. Then we want accent on people, not buildings; more money than the £7,000 for the actual tuition and coaches; to make sure that there is a professional orchestra; to make sure there is a proper opportunity for full operas to be staged by students. A proper stage is needed, and one should be able to produce a full opera once a year in normal working conditions not classroom conditions. This means that there must be master classes.

I cannot now go into the technicalities. A letter in the Sunday Telegraph did it much more effectively last Sunday. It means that there must be a specific techniques practised, not just guest lectures by visiting celebrities. Unless this kind of thing is done and results seen to be achieved it will be very difficult for the students to get grants from their local authorities and for this work to receive the recognition which is needed.

It must have standing amongst its peers—I do not mean members of another place, and I do not even mean Mr. Peter Pears, but among people in the world of music—if it is to attract people to attend the school.

Immediately, the problem is to safeguard the 18 students there. I have had an opportunity of discussing this matter with several of the students, and things are not running smoothly for them. They have lost a complete term, although they have been promised that it will be made up, but they are in the first year of a three-year course, and something should be done to assure them that they will not be left holding the baby after this very sticky controversy.

This matter is vital not only for the opera school but also for the Arts Council. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Mr. (Mr. Jeger) for pointing out that there is a peculiar similarity between the troubles which have recently disturbed the opera school and those a few years ago over the Carl Rosa Opera Company. In each case Professor Proctor-Gregg was at the helm. In each case mass resignations followed dissensions. In each case the Arts Council retreated into aloof unconcern, with threats of withdrawal of support. It should be remembered, too, that it threatened to close down Sadlers Wells and the Ballet Rambert. It failed, thanks to the L.C.C. and public pressure. With the Carl Rosa it succeeded, and the valuable training for opera and the provincial touring of opera which the Carl Rosa company fulfilled has not been replaced. Not only was the professional opera school run by the ladies concerned highly successful, but the gala performance which took place last year at Sadler's Wells was indicative of the kind of affection in which past students hold it.

I hope that we shall not see the kind of comment which I received from a correspondent who is very well known in the musical world—that the forces ranged behind the cultural Establishment are very powerful; so are the forces of inertia and silence which spring from the natural reluctance of those still enjoying Arts Council patronage to open their mouths and risk draining their pockets.

Many of my colleagues have asked me why I have interested myself in this matter. Well, I have followed with great interest the National School of Opera for many years before the absorption into the Centre, and for me one of the great joys of life is music. Dr. Johnson said in another context that hanging concentrates one's mind wonderfully.

You kindly acquitted me of discourtesy the other day, Mr. Speaker, because I have an impediment in my hearing. I am aware that in my case this joy of music is going to be limited by eventual deafness and, like the man to be hanged, my awareness is acute. Although I am personally fighting for the benefit of opera, and I know that my own enjoyment will be limited, yet I must make possible this art for others. I must say that I find opera one of the greatest antidotes to a surfeit of oration, and I shall miss it very much when my hearing finally goes.

When I was young I did not buy discs of the Beatles. The first operatic record that I had was one of Joan Cross's. I and others who first tasted opera at Sadler's Wells remember with much gratitude the pleasure and joy which was given to us by those who provided it. It is these people for whom we are fighting. It is this which goes beyond the petty squabbling which has been taking place. We hope that there will now emerge an opera school worthy of our tradition.

4.21 p.m.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Maurice Macmillan)

The hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) has raised a matter of considerable, though limited—I do not mean that in a pejorative sense—importance which has recently attracted a good deal of attention in another place and in the Press and the country at large. I am extremely grateful to him both for the somewhat unconventional way in which he gave notice of the debate and for the moderation with which he has put the case following from that.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) is not here. She has told me that she is unfortunately unable to be present. But perhaps her absence is compensated for in some sense by the presence of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond).

I think that this is a field in which Government interference is particularly difficult, not only in respect of the London Opera Centre in particular or of opera in general, but the whole field of the arts. I would agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a field, too, in which disturbances of this kind are not altogether unknown, and I would certainly say that as far as opera and ballet is concerned temperament is not the prerogative of the female sex.

The Government have deliberately and, I think, rightly avoided accepting a managerial responsibility or even the sort of responsibility that in any business would be taken by a board of directors. In this as in other matters concerning the arts the Government and the Treasury, therefore, are more in the position of trustees on behalf of the shareholders, the people as a whole. The London Opera Centre was set up under a board of governors in what might be called a managerial rôle and under the general supervision of, and with provision of money from, the Arts Council.

I would not altogether agree with the hon. Gentleman in saying that this incident has shown that it is now time for the Government to intervene directly in this issue. In so far as this recent agitation and the debate in another place and Questions here have had an effect they have achieved the setting up of a committee of inquiry, and, although I am sure we would all agree that the events are deeply regrettable, I do not think in all honesty that they give enough evidence for the Government to lose confidence in the Arts Council.

First of all, there was no question, as has been said from time to time, of this being a sort of take-over bid by the Arts Council, a grab made to suppress a small semi-independent private concern and bring it into the great maw of the cultural establishment. It was, after all, the consumers, so to speak, of the opera school who took the initiative in this. It was at the instigation of the three organisations—Covent Garden, Sadler's Wells and Glyndebourne—and to some extent because of their dissatisfaction, not with the work of Miss Wood and Miss Cross, but with the scope of the then existing organisation for training, that the Bridges Committee was set up. This eventually produced the organisation of the London Opera Centre. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Committee said that there should be an autonomous Board which is independent. The Board is autonomous, and it is independent. As far as the London Centre is concerned, Sir David Webster is responsible only to the Board.

I think that there is some conflict of evidence about some of the incidents which have taken place. Because I do not have time to do so—any more than the hon. Gentleman had—I do not want to go into the details which Lord Cottesloe gave. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, or directly to Lord Robbins, I am sure that the Committee would find everything that he had to say worth reading.

It was not, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, a question of clocking on. On the other side, to stay away from work to give a Press conference which is at least mildly hostile to one's board of directors is not a very conventional action to take. Equally, there was a conflict of evidence about the possibilities of putting forward complaints direct to Sir David Webster.

I am grateful for the fact that the hon. Gentleman has not used this debate to make privileged attacks on people who cannot answer, but has confined his remarks to general principles. I think that that is best for all concerned.

There are, admittedly, difficulties with regard to the building, and also with regard to the facilities available, but I think that it is fair to say that these difficulties are inherent in not having a specially designed and specially constructed centre for this sort of work. Accommodation for this purpose is extremely difficult to find in London, and many of the troubles which have been met in the Troxy Cinema are troubles which would be met in any converted building in the early stages of its use.

With regard to expenditure, it is fair to say that in a new organisation the tendency is for the administrative expenditure to be proportionately rather high until its work develops, when the administrative overheads remain the same and the expenditure on the more productive side can increase.

I deal next with the question of the conflict of policy. There was a clash of personalities, as well as undoubted policy differences. I would not suggest that the change of director was the cause of the resignations, but I would perhaps say that it was the occasion which led to the conflict of personalities and to the differences of policy becoming insupportable in the eyes of those who resigned.

The Opera Centre is primarily not for the students but for the opera companies. It is there to provide what in other countries would not be necessary because of the greater operatic traditions there. In saying that I have in mind the situation in Germany.

One of the students was quoted as saying that a centre of this sort had two functions: first, as a way into the opera world, and, secondly, as a training ground, but he added much of that, honestly, we could get on the job, if we had a job. I think, therefore that the need for a centre such as this is due in part at least to the lack of opera performing companies, and it is this which gives importance to its link with Covent Garden and with the three opera companies.

In conclusion, I say that there is no evidence on which the Arts Council should be so to speak deposed in this matter. The court of inquiry which has been set up under the chairmanship of Lord Robbins is surely independent in the sense that those who are conducting the inquiry are doing so on the basis of their independent judgment, their wide knowledge and indeed their general interest in opera, with the intention of reaching a sure conclusion, and not with the intention of protecting anyone at all.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

Would the hon. Gentleman confirm that the committee of inquiry is limited to inquiring into the administration of the Opera Centre, that an unhappy situation has arisen and it is desirable to find why it arose and to prevent a recurrence of anything such as this? To do this one needs a more fully independent committee of inquiry with considerably wider terms of reference.

Mr. Macmillan That is not quite so. The Committee that has been set up is, as Lord Robbins or Lord Cottesloe stated, very much concerned with plans for the future. The implication is that part of its concern is to see that the London Opera Centre runs smoothly in future and it must look sufficiently to the past to see that mistakes which have been made are not repeated.

We can all deplore the fact that this new organisation has received a severe jolt at such an early stage in its career. Normally there would have been more time for it to be judged, and judged fairly. It is right that Parliament should be concerned and I am grateful to the hon. Members who have raised this matter for the moderation they have shown and the constructive line they have taken, but I suggest that this is not the time to use the Centre as a forum for what we might call the power politics of the arts to be fought out. Nor is it the time to turn a spotlight on this particular organisation, but we should give the committee a chance to inquire, without the blaze of publicity on all its work, to report and then see what happens.

4.32 p.m.

Mr. George Jeger (Goole)

I am profoundly disappointed with the speech of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. He appears to have relied completely on a brief supplied to him by the Arts Council, whereas it is the Arts Council itself which is to blame for much of what has happened.

The hon. Gentleman admitted that when in an aside he said that there are not enough opera companies. The fault for the lack of opera companies lies absolutely at the door of the Arts Council. If the hon. Gentleman were fulfilling his function as custodian of the arts on behalf of the Treasury, of the Government and this House, he would be instituting an independent committee of inquiry into the Arts Council's working itself.

Mr. Macmillan

If I may, I will interrupt the hon. Member on two points. First, that is not within the terms of reference of this debate, of this Committee or of the London Opera Centre. We are not discussing the Arts Council, and I said that I have no evidence on which the Arts Council should be deposed. Secondly, on a point of fact, it is not the responsibility of the Arts Council that there are few opera companies but that the demand for opera is not very great. A large proportion of the money spent on the arts is spent on opera. The Government could be under very strong criticism if much more were pre-empted for that particular purpose.

Mr. Jeger

In reply to that last point about the amount spent on opera, is it not concentrated in a few towns, and, therefore, a touring company such as the Carl Rosa had to close down because support was withdrawn by the Arts Council? If there is more demand for opera, the Treasury should be inquiring into the activities of the Arts Council.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.