HC Deb 19 March 1973 vol 853 cc197-208

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Cohen (Leeds, South-East)

I, and I am sure most hon. Members representing provincial constituencies, would argue strongly for the establishment and maintenance of national theatres for opera and ballet, the object of which should be to provide opportunities for our singers, musicians, composers and dancers to show the world what we can achieve and, in the process, to bring a great deal of pleasure, happiness and satisfaction to many people. We have every right to feel proud of our national cultural institutions—our art galleries, museums and theatres—but pride cannot be accepted as a reason for justifying neglect of the provinces, which have been, are being and, unless we take drastic action, will continue to be neglected in the cultural sense, as in so many other senses.

I would not suggest for a moment that as a nation we are spending sufficient on art, even in the capital, London. The reverse is the case. I would even recognise that from the meagre total available London is entitled to a greater proportion than other areas. But I must express grave concern, having carefully studied the Minister's reply to my Question last week. He informed me that no less than three-fifths of total Government expenditure on cultural activities was spent in London. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) is anxious to say a few words on this matter.

Apart from the fact that the provinces —and here I am thinking of areas like Leeds, Southampton, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bradford and Sheffield—need and are entitled to a much greater proportion of the national cake, there is deep concern in them and in other areas about the attitude of mind and the outlook which result from financial limitations. That has been highlighted by the recently published annual report of the Directors of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It is said on pages 7 and 8 of the report: Both the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet perform within productions which are entirely related to the size of the Royal Opera House stage. There is no other theatre in existence outside London which compares in size. This means that the majority of our productions cannot be seen effectively and we believe that the degree of compromise in presenting them is such that we should not attempt to show them out of London until such time as theatres are built which will enable us to perform them in the way it was intended. It is because of this that we came to the conclusion in the early 1960s that we could no longer tour the Royal Opera. This decision was accepted by the Arts Council and we are now convinced that the Resident company of the Royal Ballet is in the same situation. In saying this we believe that we are speaking in the best interests of audience and artists alike". I am sure the Minister will appreciate the relevance of that quotation to the points I made earlier.

The Minister will also, I hope, recognise that we in the provinces find ourselves faced with a ridiculously unfair situation. Having contributed so largely to the disproportionate amount of grant received by institutions such as the Royal Opera House, thereby helping them to achieve the standards of excellence they now fortunately appear to enjoy, we are to be treated with what can only be described as cultural contempt. This is, in my opinion, an arbitrary decision arrived at by a small group of people who appear not to admit of any consultation with those most affected. By what authority do they assume the right to interpret what we in the provinces regard as acceptable standards? I can assure them that we are quite capable and sufficiently well equipped to make that decision for ourselves.

We have not only supported but actually enjoyed these so-called inferior productions for many years. Why this sudden change? Is it that the scenery has grown or theatres have shrunk? If recent attendance figures are anything to go by there is no waning of enthusiasm, certainly in Leeds, which, I imagine, is typical. The only complaint one comes up against is about the limited number of occasions when we are able to suffer those so-called unacceptable performances by the main companies. I think I am correct in saying that during the last three years they have spent only seven weeks in the provinces, and yet they could still find time to spend six weeks in New York alone. It is interesting to note that while it is suggested that provincial tours should cease, international and North American tours will continue.

The report suggests that the cutting out of tours by the major companies might encourage the keepers of the public purse —here is where the Minister can come into his own—to encourage the people responsible for the expenditure of public funds to authorise the building of regional opera and ballet centres. I would agree that to be a desirable course but I am afraid that this rather unsubtle form of cultural blackmail is doomed to failure, because my own estimate—I am open to correction—is that some 12 centres would be required, and I understand, on reasonably good information, that the one at present under construction in Edinburgh will cost about £10 million. If the Directors of the Royal Opera House feel that that suggestion is within the balance of possibilities all I can suggest is that they come back to earth.

Even if the Minister were able to inform us this evening that the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State had suddenly been transformed into a fairy godmother with power to wave a magic wand to produce the necessary funds, we have to recognise that a considerable time would of necessity have to elapse before such centres could become functional. I would say in the meantime to the decision-makers at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, that I and the people of the West Riding—I am sure I speak for the rest of the country as well—would still look forward to enjoying the main company's performances in the provinces, and I of course have the Leeds Grand Theatre, of which we are very proud, much in mind.

Because I know that others wish to take part, if possible, in the debate, I conclude briefly by making two appeals to the Minister. First, I ask him to look sympathetically at our problem and to ascertain what additional help the provinces might have, not only to build reasonable ballet and opera centres but to develop and encourage the growth of culture in many other spheres. Secondly, I ask him to use his good offices in support of the Arts Council's view—and possibly the view of the Chairman of the Royal Opera House—to bring about a change of attitude on the part of the Royal Opera House to prevent a grave injustice.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Mr. Cohen) for quickly taking advantage of this vacant Adjournment debate to raise the question of culture in the regions. Motion No. 182, which has been on the Order Paper for about two weeks was tabled by the Yorkshire group of Labour Members of Parliament and is backed by 108 hon. Members from all the regions. It expresses concern that not enough is being done for the regions by the National Arts Council and the regional associations.

Lord Belstead stated early in January that the Arts Council in 1973–74 would be receiving £17.3 million, of which £1 million would be provided for further encouragement of the arts in the regions, including Scotland and Wales. Those figures speak for themselves. They are a national disgrace and the Government in putting them forward are treating the regions with contempt.

I reinforce the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East. The tours of the Royal Opera have been curtailed, and we are seriously concerned about that. The annual report of the Arts Council suggests that the major tours of the Royal Ballet may also be cut back. The regions have been deprived of the Royal Opera for a long time, and we fear that they may now be denied the tours of the Royal Ballet.

These major companies, which are helped by national taxpayers' money, should be performing not only in the South for southerners and overseas tourists, but also in the North. They are national companies, nationally assisted. They are here for the nation's enjoyment, and the nation includes the regions.

The Yorkshire Opera Company is receiving no financial aid from the Arts Council or the Yorkshire Arts Association. Why? Its application for assistance was turned down in 1972. Thirteen local authorities protested to the Minister, yet he turned down a further request for assistance for 1973–74. Only recently he has replied to Wombwell Urban District Council, which strongly protested about the refusal of Government finance, referring the council to the Yorkshire Arts Association and stating: any support for your organisation should be regional, and not a national commitment. The Yorkshire Opera Company feels very perturbed. The company has been in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Edwin Wain-wright) and me, asking us to give it parliamentary support. The Yorkshire local authorities, too, are angry and dismayed at the Minister's attitude and equally upset that the Yorkshire Arts Association will not recognise the Yorkshire Opera Company. Last year 42 local authorities contributed to the Yorkshire Opera, in spite of the Arts Council and Yorkshire Arts Association rejections.

With the increase in Government money for 1973–74, Yorkshire feels that it is getting neither fair recognition nor a fair slice of the Arts Council national grant. The aim of the Yorkshire Opera Company is to establish a professional opera company to perform throughout Yorkshire. When the company produced "Carmen" last year it went on tour to Barnsley, Ilkley, Spenborough, Castle-ford, Todmorden and Middlesbrough, towns that eagerly need this type of production but are starved of good opera. Yorkshire Opera fills a need that the national companies cannot fulfil.

Yorkshire Opera needs encouragement. I know that the local authorities, regional newspapers and Yorkshire Television have played their part in financing the Yorkshire Arts Association. But Yorkshire Opera now wants a boost either from the Arts Council or from the association. It is planning to tour the county again this year with a production of "Hansel and Gretel". Without the backing of the Arts Council or of the Yorkshire Arts Association, it will face a struggle. Barnsley is the working centre for Yorkshire Opera's projects for rehearsal and production. I want to see Yorkshire Opera thrive and expand and become a permanent, professional touring company which can visit more of the Yorkshire towns.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to give us some assurance, first of all, that the major companies, operating from this metropolis and receiving national grants, will be able to move out into the provinces more than they have been doing and, secondly, that he will re-examine the claim of Yorkshire Opera and give it some financial support.

11.56 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

I am grateful to my colleagues for speaking on this topic. The income of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet last year was £3.250,000, of which almost precisely half, £1,640,000, came from the Arts Council—that is, the taxpayers. Our taxpayers live in all parts of the country, and we in the provinces are entitled to see the benefits of our money as taxpayers there.

The excuses which are given are totally unsatisfactory. The Royal Opera has managed to get away for 10 years without sending opera into the provinces. When one takes into account the foreign tours by the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, and the number of foreign tourists who see them in London, one begins to wonder whether they are companies for the benefit of people abroad rather than for our people. It simply will not do.

I am delighted that we are siphoning public money into the Arts Council, but the Arts Council must see to it that the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet give us in the provinces some of the first-class entertainment which they regularly produce.

11.57 p.m.

Mr. Eddie Griffiths (Sheffield, Brightside)

The Under-Secretary of State should appreciate that the heart and soul of the country are to be found not in the West End of London but in the dales of Yorkshire, in the hills and valleys of Wales and in the Highlands of Scotland. That is where our musical heart is to be found, and I wholeheartedly support the plea that we outside London should get a fair share of the good things in the arts. The real guts of the nation are in the provinces, and the people of the provinces should have the opportunity to enjoy the arts.

11.58 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, South-East (Mr. Cohen) on raising this extremely important topic and on the moderate and cogent way in which he put his case. He has been ably supported by the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, and by his hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) and Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Eddie Griffiths).

I assure the hon. Member for Bright-side that I do not think that the soul of this country is in the West End of London. If I did I would be rather alarmed about the future of our country, as its soul might be in danger of being lost.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South-East asked me to show sympathy to the point of view he expressed. I am very glad to do so. I have a great deal of sympathy with the arguments he has deployed. It is true that we do not spend enough on the arts, although it is also true that we are spending more than ever before on them.

The hon. Member asked rhetorically whether the Secretary of State could not become a fairy godmother. Certainly my right hon. Friend has the good will and the benevolence and, if I may say so, the looks for the part. There has been a certain amount of waving of the magic wand because, although I agree that the amount which we spend on the arts is inadequate, nevertheless we are spending more than ever before. In 1972–73 the sum will be £28 million, of which £13 million will come through the Arts Council. In 1973–74, subject to parliamentary approval, the estimates will go up to £40 million, of which £16 million will come from the Arts Council.

With regard to the plea for the regions, certainly I respond, and my noble Friend has done so too in a practical way as he has obtained more money for the regional arts than ever before.

I turn to two general principles which must, however, operate in considering this important problem. First, it is the Arts Council and not the Government which decides in relation to individual projects where its grant will be spent. That is a function conferred upon the Arts Council by Royal Charter. That fact necessarily limits the rôle of the Government.

The second general point is that the channel for public support for local activities is through the rate support grant. It is through that machinery that local authority expenditure on the arts, which is approximately £9 million on museums and galleries and £2 million on other forms of the arts, is supported. Direct grants from the Exchequer to local functions are the exception, therefore. The general principle is that Government help should be given in support of the general grant, and in this respect the arts in the provinces are in no different position than other activities for which locally elected bodies are responsible or have powers to help.

The 1972 Local Government Act clarified the powers of local authorities to help the arts. For the first time, in Section 145 there is specific mention of powers for the development and improvement of the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts and the crafts which serve the arts and earlier restrictions on the amount of the support were repealed. It is fair to say, therefore, that the local authorities as well as the Government must play their part in the support of the arts. They have the powers, and they should be encouraged to do so.

Having stated those two general principles, I look at the figures which the hon. Member for Leeds, South-East quoted about expenditure on the arts being three-fifths in London and only two-fifths in the provinces. That is taking total expenditure on the arts, including expenditure on the national museums and galleries, the great majority of which are in London. But if one deals with the agencies with responsibility over the whole country such as the Arts Council and other bodies, the picture is different.

Dealing first with the Arts Council, which has come in for some criticism, £8.75 million of its total current grant of just over £13 million will be spent outside London, and more than half the expenditure of the British Film Institute is incurred outside London. I need not remind the hon. Gentleman that the film is perhaps the art form which is most influential and appeals most strongly to the younger generation. Furthermore, about three-quarters of crafts expenditure is also spent outside London.

The Arts Council has always had the function of raising the standard of performance in this country to compete with international art elsewhere. But it has increasingly as an additional task the duty of broadening the base throughout the country and widening the involvement in the arts throughout the regions. The Housing the Arts Fund has been almost exclusively devoted to regional developments.

Then there is the part that my noble Friend the Paymaster-General has played. He announced last December that for 1973–74 and 1974–75 an additional £1 million would be provided for the encouragement of the arts in the regions, with special reference to the development areas.

The right hon. Member for Barnsley raised in particular the case of the Yorkshire Opera Company and asked why the Arts Council had refused to support the company. I am sorry to tell the right hon. Gentleman—and this is the council's judgment, not mine—that the reason was the standard of artistic performance. There was also a secondary problem that the proposals clashed badly with a Yorkshire tour by the Sadler's Wells company which was supported by the Arts Council under the DALTA scheme. Those were the reasons. One may regret it, but I have no power to intervene, nor has my noble Friend, to override the Arts Council in questions of taste.

I now turn to the general policy of the Arts Council in stimulating and subsidising high-quality performances in music, drama, ballet and opera. It has done this and it has paid dividends, and we now have in Britain companies of world class in all those arts. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is not enough that outstanding performances of this nature should be available in London only. They should as far as possible make themselves available to as wide a section of the population as they can by touring in the country as a whole.

However, it would be short-sighted of us not to recognise that there are certain physical limitations to the realisation of that ideal. For example, if an opera company performed every night of the year and every seat was occupied, still only a small proportion of the population would see that company. In those circumstances I hope that we shall not overlook the tremendous new opportunities which modern communications techniques have opened to us. Records, radio and tapes have brought music to millions. We also have television, and on the horizon there is the development of the video cassette to bring the visual spectacle of opera and ballet into every home.

There are other physical limitations which we have to recognise. For example, one cannot stage a full-scale operatic production in a local village hall—not even "Cosi Fan Tutte". One cannot expect every village or small town to have a full-scale opera house. Touring needs have to be adapted to the resources available and to the audience that it is intended to attract. A large-scale production is always restricted by the relatively limited number of theatres which have adequate facilities. I know how good the theatre is in Leeds. Before the hon. Member for Bradford, East intervenes, let me tell him that I know how good the theatre is in Bradford too. Nevertheless these limitations exist.

I do not wish to discuss the negotiations going on between the Arts Council and Covent Garden on the company's suggestion that Royal Ballet main company should reduce its touring in this country but not in the United States of America and elsewhere abroad. The hon. Gentleman quoted, with a great deal of dismay, from the report of the Directors of Covent Garden. I share his dismay; it is well founded. I am, however, confident that a successful compromise will be arranged which will, I hope, go some way towards meeting the objections that the hon. Gentleman has raised. All I say is that the reaction of people outside London to the prospect of no visits from the Royal Ballet main company has been very strong, and I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the force of the reaction cannot be disregarded.

In conclusion, may I again thank the hon. Member for Leeds, South-East for the public service he has done by raising this important matter in the House and express my wish that the Directors of the Royal Opera House and others engaged in the arts world in London will read this debate with great care. I hope they will read the wise words that have been uttered by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope too that they will be kind enough, when they have finished doing that, not altogether to ignore my inadequate contribution but will see that although the Government do not have power in this respect my noble Friend and I hope that they will be in no doubt about the importance that we attach to the provision of adequate opera and ballet in the provinces.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.