HC Deb 12 March 1971 vol 813 cc874-84

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

4.4 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I have been very fortunate in securing the Adjournment debate for today. Since I have been in this House I have always had a great interest in the Arts and, under the heading of Government responsibility for the Arts, I want to introduce what I have to say in the debate.

We all of us today recognise the need for the Government to play a major part in the support and sponsorship of the country's cultural and artistic life. Hon. Members on both sides of the House can rightly take some pride in the record of successive Governments in seeking to meet this responsibility in recent years. Both have contained Ministers of considerable public standing with a special duty in this matter. Many tributes have been paid to Miss Jennie Lee, and it is in itself a tribute to the present Paymaster-General that under his guidance and persuasion the Government have allocated an extra £1 million to their programme for the Arts this year, despite the general stringency which rightly prevails in these matters of public spending.

If I have any criticism of the present Minister, it is simply the difficulty of getting at him to put one's points and extract the information one sometimes needs to form a proper judgment of what is being done. I believe that some other hon. Members have experienced similar difficulties, and I have tabled a Question to the Prime Minister in the hope that he may be able to do something to improve the situation.

I have sought to raise this matter today because I believe that, despite the efforts and the growing financial support which I have mentioned, many important artistic ventures are now facing grave and growing difficulties which demand urgent action.

The prime cause of the problem is, of course, the exceptionally rapid cost inflation which we in this country have experienced over the past two years, and which has indeed been building up ever since devaluation in 1967. This has set up a vicious circle in which the Arts are being squeezed harder and harder. Subsidies from central Government sources often do not keep pace. Where local authorities are also involved, they, too, are under intense pressure from every direction, and naturally want to keep to a minimum the rate increases which are already forced on them. There is growing consumer resistance to the raising of admission prices—even no doubt sometimes an increasing inability to pay existing prices so often. With rapid inflation and the associated rise in the burden of personal taxation, private patronage is reduced. And I think we may well find that company contributions to the Arts and charitable purposes generally, which have been of increasing value, have been among the casualties of the present industrial climate of general retrenchment.

Difficulties of this kind are not confined to the Arts, and there may be those who would argue that they have no special claim to protection or help. I take a very different view. A personal purchase deferred today may be made tomorrow, when things are better. An industrial investment or expansion plan which is not undertaken now can be undertaken later as the prospects improve. But if an orchestra or a theatre company or any other artistic venture collapses under these financial pressures, the chances are that we shall lose for good its contribution to our country's cultural life.

In a short speech on so wide and diverse a subject as the Arts, one cannot cover all the very different problems which arise. I choose as one example which is of particular concern to me the case of the Western Orchestral Society, which runs the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the associated Sinfonietta— a chamber orchestra created two years ago which has made it possible to take good music to smaller halls throughout the region.

This year, under the kind of financial pressures which I have described, the Society faces a deficit of some £20,000 for the first time since 1954. I will not attempt to set out all the problems in detail today—they were well described in an article in The Times on 30th January this year, which no doubt the Minister has seen. But it is clear that such a situation cannot long persist without risk- ing the disappearance of either the symphony orchestra or the sinfonietta, or both, or at the very least a serious cutback in their provision of music throughout the area. I believe this would be a tragedy for the town and the whole region, and one which could moreover have harmful effects on the area's attraction to the visitors so important in its economic life.

There are no doubt similar examples in many other cases. I recall that only the other day, using some considerable ingenuity to overcome the procedural difficulties I mentioned earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) was pressing the case for a bigger grant for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

What, then, shall we do?

Obviously more Government money, whether through the Arts Council or in any other way, would help. But I think we all know the difficulties at the present time, and this is certainly not the point I wish to press particularly today.

Moreover I believe there are many other steps which can be taken, some of them perhaps even more important in the sense that they would not only help to ease immediate embarrassment but would also help to create a healthier pattern of support for the Arts in the longer term.

First, I suggest that more could and should be done to foster private patronage, notably by allowances under the tax system both for individuals and companies in respect of contributions to the arts. The Paymaster-General, were he here, would no doubt, recall his own eloquent plea on this very point when he spoke at a Conservative Party seminar on the Arts on 26th March, 1969. He is also no doubt well aware that in the Conservative Manifesto at the last election that section dealing with taxation states fairly and squarely that we will encourage the flow of private funds to charities including voluntary social service, sport and the arts Naturally I do not expect the Minister in his reply to anticipate the Chancellor's Budget Statement. But I hope he will agree to pass on the message that some of us are expecting to see the appropriate action on 30th March.

Secondly, I think that it would also be helpful if more could be done to encourage local authority patronage. This again was the subject of a specific commitment in the last Conservative manifesto, and I would be glad to hear from the Minister what action has been taken, or is planned, in this direction. One practical step would perhaps be to make more information available about precisely what is being done by local authorities, for example by comparing their efforts in terms of their rate product potential and in relation to the size of their population.

Thirdly, there is scope for further steps to stimulate regional co-operation and in establishing regional arts associations. A particularly good opportunity for this is now arising with the prospect of local government reform. I refer once more to the Conservative manifesto, and its promise that the Arts Council would be strengthened to this end. I hope the Minister will be able in his speech to report progress on this, too.

Fourthly, and most important of all at this moment, there is a pressing need to bring about a more certain framework for forward financial planning by those concerned with the running of artistic bodies. Planning is all too difficult for everyone in these inflationary times. The problem is compounded when the grants and subsidies involved both from central and local sources are all too often notified very late and only for one year at a time.

In the case of orchestras, this matter was the subject of specific recommendations from the report to the Arts Council of Professor Peacock's Committee on Orchestral Resources, published last year. They included the proposal for a"rolling triennium" as the basis for notification of these grants, which seems to me a thoroughly necessary and sensible reform. I trust the Minister will be able to tell us that this or some equivalent system will be introduced as soon as possible, not only for orchestras but in every other area where it would be appropriate and helpful.

Fifthly and finally, I believe in a more general way that a great deal could be done in the case of individual problems by the Paymaster-General taking the initiative, by using his standing and pres- tige and deploying the services of his office, to bring together the people concerned and thrash out practical solutions.

Again, I refer to the case of the Bournemouth orchestras. There is endless scope for arguing who is to blame and who should act—whether it is the Bournemouth Corporation, even though its contribution in relation to its size is probably greater than any other authority supporting an orchestra, or the other local authorities concerned, who have also helped greatly but who some people think could and should have done more, or the Arts Council, or even the orchestra society itself in its publicity and the appeal of its programmes.

But these arguments are essentially fruitless. What is needed is for someone to bring together all those involved and work out an agreed answer—and one which at least creates a more certain framework far planning on the lines I have already argued. I hope that the Paymaster-General will be able to take such action in this case and in others of a similar kind.

These then are five suggestions for action which I believe would help in resolving the present difficulties which face the arts and concern us all. I look forward to whatever encouragement the Minister may be able to give me in his reply—and then to action!

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) on the lucid, cogent and extremely forward-looking way in which he introduced this debate and on raising the important question of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which, though for him a constituency interest, is of considerable concern to all of us who live in the South of England.

Although my hon. Friend was, in effect, modest enough to say that he was raising a matter of interest to the west of England, this is a typical example of the lack of balance between the fact that the London area has four full-scale symphony orchestras while the rest of the provinces have only four altogether, two situated in Lancashire, one in the Midlands, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with its great reputation, covering the whole of the South of England. It, of course, serves in many ways other than being a symphony orchestra. It has been, for example, the traditional orchestra serving the Welsh National Opera for many years and has played a large part in the musical life of this half of the country. It would be a tragedy in these circumstances if this orchestra were to suffer.

I stress some words in Professor Peacock's Report on page 29: The Western Orchestral Society Ltd. represented to the Committee that it envisaged the concert and subscription income of the B.S.O. rising conceivably by something like one-third over the next ten years, but that its projected orchestral costs would double over the same period. It is in these circumstances that I hope that the Minister, who has been able to encourage us in many ways about the Arts, will comment on the whole question of increased financial support for the Arts, in this case for orchestras, in the light of the other recommendations in the Report; for example, when Professor Peacock and his Committee say on page 23: If increased financial support is not forthcoming, regional orchestras will not be able to continue along their present lines of development. It might be necessary to return to a non-contractual method of organisation, and thus, many of their most valuable services would inevitably be curtailed; playing standards would deteriorate rapidly from a reduction in rehearsal time; fewer concerts would be given in rural and small urban areas; the earning capacity of the players would be lowered, and many of them would move out of the region I hope the Minister will be able to give us encouragement along the lines sought by my hon. Friend and will say that not only will further financial subventions be forthcoming to make up the gap that increased prices have made but that the triennial system recommended not only by the Peacock Report but by the Estimates Committee of this House will be followed.

4.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) on his good fortune and on his wisdom in choosing this topic. I welcome the opportunity of saying a few words in what must be a short debate, and I hope that some of what I have to say will be found satisfactory.

My hon. Friend referred to what he called the difficulty of getting at my noble Friend the Paymaster-General. I am only too uncomfortably aware that I am but my noble Friend's mouthpiece in this House, and I would not for a moment pretend to be anything so much as beginning to be a substitute for him. Nevertheless, I believe my noble Friend to be a man who is most anxious to make himself available, certainly to hon. Members, and that I could commit him totally to being exceedingly responsive to approaches made by my hon. Friend or by other hon. Members interested in Arts matters.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that it is a great advantage for the Arts generally that the Minister responsible for them is a man of enormous experience and prestige, that this in itself was an indication of the importance which the Prime Minister attached to the subject when initially forming his Government, and that all that has happened in the months since June has indicated the wisdom of that decision.

In so far as my services can be of assistance—and I repeat that I can be of only very limited assistance—they are totally at my hon. Friend's disposal. I am anxious that he should not feel that Ministers are not easily available. The only thing we cannot alter is that a member of another place cannot answer in this Chamber. Other than that, I want to make it quite clear that available my noble Friend wishes to be.

My hon. Friend made a number of specific suggestions with which I shall seek to deal in the short time available to me. First, there is the very cogent point about Government patronage. My hon. Friend was good enough to recognise the total inhibitions placed on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and even on junior Ministers of another Department, when the Chancellor is in purdah. That being so, I can do no more than say that my hon. Friend's point is clearly taken. I shall make certain that my noble Friend is made aware of the support that my hon. Friend gives to that particular concept.

Some people argue, though my hon. Friend did not, that local government support should be made mandatory: my hon. Friend chose the happier expression that local authority support should be encouraged. As he and I think alike on these matters, he will agree, though not everyone does, that the Arts above all should reflect local attitudes and desires in terms of local authority support, and that it would be wrong for that support to be imposed on local authorities. I see my hon. Friend indicating that he agrees with that point of view.

I accept the fact that some local authorities could give more support, but the pattern varies very much throughout the country. Some authorities recognise their special responsibility in this matter and are generous in their approach: others do not respond so warmly, and feel, perhaps, that there is not the same demand, as they interpret it, for the opportunity to hear music and to enjoy opera, ballet, and so on.

Nevertheless, the signs are hopeful, as a figure I have here will illustrate. The total cost to date of buildings over the whole of this field reaches a figure of £13.7 million. Of that amount, the Arts Council has given only £2.75 million. That means that the greater part of the balance of nearly £11 million is being provided by local authorities. That is a bigger figure than one might have supposed and is, I hope, an encouragement.

I have taken careful note of my hon. Friend's specific suggestion of what I might call the league table. He may not be aware that the information is available in relation to the performing arts and other activities in the survey published in 1970 by the Institute of Municipal Entertainment. It goes wider than my hon. Friend's request, but he might wish to look at it. I readily undertake, however, to bring my hon. Friend's suggestion to the attention of my noble Friend and of the Arts Council.

I merely enter the caveat that league tables of that kind necessitate considerable work, particularly if they are to be published annually. I also psychologically have the feeling that persuasion can sometimes be a more potent weapon than some form of competition. I repeat, however, that I am happy to pass on the suggestion.

My hon. Friend made an important point about regional arts associations, in which I am very much in sympathy with him. There is here progress to report. There are already 10 of these associations in England, and an eleventh—the Eastern Arts Association, which, therefore, will be of direct interest, apart from all other matters, to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich—comes into being on 1st April.

Reference was made by my hon. Friend to the generous increase in the grant given to the Arts Council under the present Government. Because of this, the Arts Council is providing in 1971–72 additional grants to the regional associations totalling £100,000. That brings the Council's total contribution to over £400,000. In Wales, the North Wales Arts Association, which received £40,000 from the Welsh Arts Council, will be joined on 1st April by the newly-formed West Wales Association. There is, therefore, progress in the direction required.

My hon. Friend will be glad to know that the Paymaster-General has taken an initiative in ensuring that within the increased grants provision is made for strengthening the staff of the associations with particular reference to officers concerned with fund-raising, from both the public and the private sectors. I hope that this indicates that my noble Friend's well-known concern to strengthen regional arts associations is, in the comparatively short time that he has had at his disposal, being translated into action and that this will be encouraging.

My hon. Friend made a valid point about forward planning. At this moment, although he will not find this entirely satisfactory, I can do no more than take careful note of the suggestion. He noted, I dare say, that in a recent debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill the same point was put to me concerning Covent Garden. My hon. Friend may have noted the understanding noises that I made on that occasion. I cannot, of course, speak for local authorities, although, no doubt, they will have noted what has been said. I can, however, say that my noble Friend is actively considering—that is the phrase on which I will rest—how this difficulty which faces the Arts Council can best be met. I accept totally from what my hon. Friend and others have said that the problem is a very real one.

Finally, I come to the question of the role of the Paymaster-General. There may be occasions when it is right for the Minister with responsibility for the Arts to take a personal initiative in helping to solve an intractable problem, and I would not write that off as an impossibility. Where, however, the problem concerns a body subsidised by the Arts Council, I would have felt it right that it is the Council which has, and which accepts, the main responsibility.

I attach importance to the relationship of the Arts Council to the Government of the day. It is a relationship with which we are familiar, too, in other aspects of our public life, and I think, on the whole, it has got broad acceptance. For example, my hon. Friend will know that the Chairman of the Arts Council has in the past been to Bournemouth to try to help in working out a solution to the kind of problem to which my hon. Friend specifically referred. While not excluding, as I have carefully not excluded, the possibility of individual initiatives, I would have thought it right to preserve the distinction between the role of the Minister on the one hand, with his overall responsibility for policy and, on the other, the role of the Arts Council, which has the central responsibility for deciding the distribution of the central Government subsidy between, for example, orchestras and other organisations and of negotiating with local authorities the right ratio in any one area of Arts Council money on the one hand, and local authority subsidies on the other hand.

My noble Friend does not tell the Arts Council what grant any individual organisation should receive, and I suggest that it is important that he should not do so and that he should not appear to do so. I doubt whether that would be wise. I do not think that is what my hon. Friend had in mind; that is to say, he had not got in mind the actual distribution of funds as between one orchestra and an- other controlled by the Minister, but there are people who would like to do that, and I am anxious to preserve the clear distinction between the Minister's functions on the one hand and the functions of the Arts Council on the other.

However, I am very glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch, and for Ipswich —in his necessarily brief intervention—stressed the regional nature of one of the orchestras which particularly interests the House, namely, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I add my full tribute to its work not only for the immediate area but, as has been said, for the region which it serves. It is probably true to say that the Arts Council would regard it as the most effective regional orchestra in the country.

Mr. Cordle

Hear, hear.

Mr. van Straubenzee

It is a very important contribution to our cultural life. Its musical standards have risen to a most significant degree over the last few years, and I think under its principal conductor it makes a great contribution to the area.

I will certainly draw the cogent remarks which were made by my hon. Friend to the attention of the Arts Council, which, as I have suggested, properly have the duty of the allocation of funds between individual claimants. But the overall responsibility must remain with it for the detailed accounting of its money.

The background against which we met to debate this, and which is the reason why there can be grounds for some optimism over the whole Arts field, is the greatly increased grant to which my hon. Friend so rightly drew attention at the start of his remarks, which I hope will have given thought to many people in many parts of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

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