HC Deb 04 March 1971 vol 812 cc1885-90
17. Mr. Strauss

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will make it a condition of the Government grant to the Arts Council that plays put on by the subsidised theatres should take account of the moral susceptibilities of the public.

Mr. van Straubenzee

As my noble Friend explained in another place, he is consulting the Arts Council on how the moral and religious feelings of the public can best be taken into account.

Mr. Strauss

Does not the Paymaster-General's proposal mean selective application of censorship in the least appropriate area—the theatrical enterprises of high artistic standard and with experimental purpose? I remind the hon. Gentleman that the criteria laid down by the Paymaster-General—possible affront to some members of the public—were the exact criteria which impelled Lord Chamberlains in the past to ban plays which afterwards proved to be of high dramatic quality.

Finally, may I ask whether the Paymaster-General is seeking by his action to impose indirect Government censorship on some theatrical enterprises, thereby circumventing the unanimous decision of both Houses of Parliament to abolish all theatrical censorship?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should take that position. I should have thought that it was a broadly acceptable proposition that it is not reasonable for public money to be used to support those enterprises which are gravely offensive to the moral and religious susceptibilities of a large number of people. All the indications are that that has been widely welcomed.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

May I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind that while most people in this country will undoubtedly support his attitude towards what the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) described as "censorship by the Paymaster-General", they will take a very different attitude towards censorship by foreign Governments of exhibitions in this country financed by the Arts Council? Will my hon. Friend in future ensure that there is no subsidisation by the Arts Council of exhibitions which are subject to censorship by the Russian or other Governments?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I must make it clear that there was nothing in the general approach of my noble Friend which changed the relationship of the Arts Council to the Minister of the day. I must make it clear that decisions of the kind to which my hon. Friend refers, however strongly he feels about them, are essentially those of the Arts Council. There is no disposition whatever on the part of my noble Friend to set himself up in the position of personal censor.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I believe that the Arts Council will refuse to implement the Paymaster-General's proposed censorship and that, as a member of that body, I shall encourage it to do so?

Mr. van Straubenzee

The hon Gentleman ought to know that I, too, am very well informed about precisely where the discussions have got to. I do not take the hon. Gentleman's gloomy view. But if the hon. Gentleman takes that view, he is saying that in the expenditure of public money in this respect there are no barriers at all and that absolutely anything goes.

18. Mr. St. John-Stevas

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will make a statement on the principles governing the nature of theatrical and other artistic productions that will be financed by Arts Council grants.

Mr. van Straubenzee

My noble Friend considers that the nature of artistic productions is a matter of good taste rather than of principles.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Since my hon. Friend has made it clear that no regulation is to be carried out by the Minister but is to be carried out by the Arts Council, may I ask whether it is not essential now to know exactly what principles the Arts Council will apply and to have a clear statement of policy from the Minister about the views of the Arts Council, in view of the statement which has been made by the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins)?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I should think that this is not quite appropriate when there is the special relationship with which we are all familiar. My hon. Friend took a very distinguished part in the debate in question in which I recall that I used the analogy of the University Grants Committee. When we have a body of this kind, it is surely much more in accord with our general way of doing things that the Minister makes a general approach and sees what the response is. I should much prefer to leave it as a matter of good taste.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

May I ask the Minister to make a simple statement to the effect that the Government are against censorship of the arts—

Mr. Orme

Of all censorship.

Mr. Davidson

Censorship of freedom—and accept the proposition at least that it is the plays which challenge conventional ideas, which occasionally shock and sometimes outrage, which need subsidising, and that plays which are conventional—drawing-room comedies and "Who's for tennis"—are always put on by the commercial theatre anyway?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I gladly make the straightforward and simple statement that the Government are not in favour of censorship of the arts. But I must plainly differ from the hon. Gentleman, because I think that a very wide range of people have been gravely offended by the use of public money in some limited number of ways. I believe it to be part of the duty of Government to set standards in this kind of matter.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

For the better understanding of this rather difficult and delicate matter, may I ask my hon. Friend to consider asking the Arts Council whether, in its Annual Reports, which I read with great interest, it will include the titles of the productions and not merely the institutions in receipt of Arts Council money?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I will gladly see that my hon. Friend's suggestion is forwarded to the Arts Council.

Miss Lestor

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the fact that the Government were guided by what was offensive to the majority of people. May I ask whether, if the hon. Gentleman equates that with not being in good taste, he intends to recommend that we now have a Minister of Taste?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Until now this matter has been dealt with in a pretty high and serious way. It is a perfectly reasonable attitude for the Government, by an approach to the responsible statutory body, to seek to ensure that public money is not used in a way which the Government are entitled to judge is gravely offensive to the religious and moral susceptibilities of a large number of people.

19. Mr. St. John-Stevas

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will introduce legislation to abolish the Arts Council and make grants on her own authority.

Mr. van Straubenzee

No, Sir.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Is my hon. Friend aware that the form of my Question is the only way that I can find to press him to get the Council to increase the grant of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is completing a notable decade of achievement and which cannot, because it is playing to capacity audiences, increase its revenue?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am used to my hon. Friend's ingenuity in getting his point across. I must make it clear that this is essentially a matter of priority decision by the Arts Council and not by my noble Friend, as I suspect he knows. But he would be well advised to make these views well understood in the Arts Council area. He moves with far greater authority than I do in artistic circles.

Mr. Pavitt

Will the hon. Gentleman consult his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary with a view to protecting hon. Members from receiving line-by-line and blow-by-blow accounts of various plays which have been put on, sometimes under the auspices of the Arts Council, which many of us find very uncomfortable and—a noble Lady has been to one of them four times—rather disreputable?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am not entirely certain that I have grasped the full significance of the hon. Gentleman's question, but if he has some specific matter in mind which falls within the responsibility of the Department, I will gladly look at it.

Dame Irene Ward

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind and convey to the Arts Council the fact that I am much more in favour of the Royal Shakespeare Company having public money than I am of some of the performances which are put on at the Royal Court Theatre, which are certainly bad for children? I hope that that will be widely expressed in no uncertain terms to the Arts Council, because I am not at all satisfied about what it does.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am sure that my hon. Friend's words will reach the Arts Council.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that complaints received by the Arts Council in respect of productions financed directly or indirectly by it have amounted to about six in the course of the year? Is he further aware that no one has named these unnamed plays, which exist apparently in people's own fevered imaginations? Is he further aware that the production to which my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) referred was not, in fact, supported by the Arts Council?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I gladly make it clear that we are dealing here only with a fringe matter. The hon. Member, who took part in the debate in question, will recall that I was at great pains to make that absolutely clear. I have total faith in the ability of the Arts Council and of my noble Friend to reach a very happy understanding in this matter.