HC Deb 26 April 1976 vol 910 cc157-66

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

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Ted Fletcher (Darlington)

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to draw attention to the allocation of money for the arts.

First, I should say how sorry I am that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins), the former Minister responsible for the arts, is not in his usual seat on the Front Bench. He was a first-class Minister and I can asure him that the news of his departure from office was received with a good deal of sadness by many hon. Members on this side of the House who recognise the value of the work that he did. We shall now have to face the frustration that will inevitably arise from the fact that the new Minister responsible for the arts is in another place and is not answerable to Questions or criticisms in this House, although I presume that my remarks will be conveyed to him in due course.

Last year the Arts Council received£26 million from public funds and it is estimated that this year it will spend about£34 million. The British Council spends a considerable sum of money to subsidise artistic tours abroad, although it is difficult to get the exact figure of this expenditure. Other ad hoc Government-sponsored organisations such as the United States Bicentennial Celebration spend money on the arts. I estimate that we are probably spending about£40 million of public money on the arts each year in this country. That is equivalent to£2 per head in every family in Britain.

Let me hasten to add that I do not resent spending money on the arts. My objection is to the way in which it is allocated. In fact, I have always advocated that we should spend some money on the arts because it enhances the quality of life and enriches the community.

It is known to hon. Members that I was responsible in 1960, when I was Chairman of the Finance Committee of Newcastle City Council, for convening the first meeting of the Northern Arts Association. We got all the local authorities in Northumberland and Durham to agree to a levy on the rates to form the first Arts Association. Before that, Newcastle was spending about£3,000 a year on inviting prestige orchestras to the city, and today the Northern Arts Association is spending well over£700,000 each year on the arts.

It is true to say that the local sinfonia orchestra would have ceased its activities and many theatres would have closed their doors had the association not been brought into being. Indeed, the Arts Council said that the Northern Arts Association was the prototype for the organisation of the arts in the country in the future. This was originated by Labour councillors of Newcastle City Council in the 1960s. Now there are a dozen or more of these associations in the country.

The first point I wish to make is that the amount of money allocated to the provinces, which is £1¾ million distributed to 12 arts associations, is minuscule compared, for example, with the£5¾ million spent by the Royal Opera House, the English National Opera, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The bulk of the Arts Council money is spent in London or within easy reach of London.

I do not wish to make too much of this as I understand that the Gulbenkian Trust has financed an inquiry into the arts in the regions, under the distinguished chairmanship of Lord RedcliffeMaud, and those of us from the provinces look forward with a good deal of interest to what that committee will have to say about the allocation of financial assistance to the regional arts associations.

I want to turn to a problem in my own constituency of Darlington and to expand on it as seen through the eyes of 71 talented young musicians who have been trying through me to interest various public authorities, without any success, to sponsor a visit of the Darlington Youth Band to the United States. The Darlington Youth Band incorporates three—a brass band, a military band and a dance band. It is not just another youth band. It is a band with an international reputation. The Darlington Youth Band was national champion, a title it has won for two years in succession at the National Federation of Music for Youth held annually in London. The national acclaim has brought the band invitations to the national youth jazz band and an appearance at the first ever schools promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall in November last year under the direction of Johnny Dankworth.

What I am trying to impress on the House is that it is not just an ordinary school band. The Darlington music centre attracts youngsters from a 30-mile radius, and these are the cream of the school musicians. Let me point out what the Press has said about the prestige of this band. In fact, The Sunday Times said: If further testimony were needed, you should have heard the 5,000-voiced reception for John Dankworth at the Schools Prom in the Albert Hall last Tuesday. He played with the splendid Darlington Youth Big Band…in a memorable performance greeted with thunder fit for a winning goal at Wembley In addition, The Times Educational Supplement says: Later, discovering his alto saxophone in a convenient pocket, John Dankworth took the stage to lead the splendid Darlington Youth Big Band in a rousing performance It goes on: Darlington Youth Big Band are an example, and they were indeed the best with continual dynamics, genuine swing and impeccable section work". Our local newspaper, the Northern Echo, writes in a leading article: Do you ever shake your head and wonder what kids are coming to these days?…Well, cheer up, I've got news for you that should swell your old chest with pride. Right now there are 22 youngsters…who are currently putting Darlington and the old country itself well and truly on the international music map. All in their own spare time too. No perks or special rates for the job. They just do it for the sheer love of the thing, and you don't find too many folk like that around these days. This is a special band and it has been invited to tour the United States of America. It has been invited to play in New York, Washington, Columbus, Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, and so on in a tour beginning 10th September to 2nd October this year. The cost for these musicians—there are 71 of them and in addition there will be seven or eight teachers who will also go on the tour—will be about£250 per head. It is very cheap because in the main they will receive free hospitality from the cities which they visit. The parents themselves have agreed to pay half the cost—£125 each.

I should explain that these are mostly working-class children. Their parents work as engineers or textile workers. Yet they are prepared to sacrifice£125 to meet half the cost. This has left £10,000 to be raised locally. The parents' association has organised garden fetes, sponsored walks, sponsored swims, and jumble sales. Four or five members of the orchestra set up a shoe shine stand in the High Street in Darlington to collect£50 to contribute to this fund of£10,000. To date, by its own efforts, the association has raised£3,700.

When we are spending£34 million on the arts, surely it is possible for public funds to subsidise such a tour of the United States by a distinguished band. But I have written to the Minister responsible for the arts, to the British Council, to the Northern Association for the Arts and to the Bicentenary Committee which is financing visits to the United States by prestige orchestras. But there has been no offer of assistance. It is outrageous that we should subsidise the seats at Covent Garden to the extent of£2 each for every performance, which is attended mainly by the well-heeled and the wealthy or by American tourists, yet we cannot afford to subsidise a genuine effort by people in Darlington, a town which has nurtured such an outstanding band.

I should like to know what the Minister can do to assist this tour. It is all very well to put public money at the disposal of prestige orchestras, whose conductors get£5,000 or£10,000 for every performance, and to send them to the United States on this 200th anniversary of its independence. But those orchestras can tour at any time. Is it not more sensible to send ordinary citizens who will receive hospitality in American homes? Is not that a better way of furthering international understanding?

The new Minister for the arts was reported in the Sunday Press as saying that art is outside politics. I disagree with him. As a politician, I shall fight hard for working-class people with an interest in the arts to be encouraged to develop it. Such people are being neglected. The further one goes from London, the harder it is to get the ear of anyone who has the disposal of money to further artistic activities.

What does the Minister intend to do to help this worthwhile project? It will encourage the mixing of American youth and British youth. I am certain that these young people will be our ambassadors in America. It is time to consider how these vast sums are allocated. It is preposterous that working-class people should, like everyone else, contribute£2 per family to the arts yet be fobbed off with excuses in a case like this. We are told that the British Council has allocated all its funds, someone else will put them on a waiting list, money is not available for a tour of this kind.

I hope that what I have said will induce the Minister of State to approach the Minister for the arts to state a case, as I have done, for assisting this band. We are proud of these talented youngsters, who have twice won national competitions. I am certain that the United States will be delighted to receive them. I hope that the Department will think again and that I shall soon receive an assurance that it is Prepared to help to finance this tour.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

1 should like to commend the action of the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fletcher) in raising an important local matter which none the less has national significance. He made certain remarks about the subsidy to the Royal Opera. Some of the attacks on the Royal Opera could best be met by widening the audience, and if some of the problems with the unions could be overcome we could see national opera on the television. I hope that the good beginning which was made during the Easter Recess will be maintained.

I hope that the Minister will say who will answer in this House for the arts now that the Minister directly responsible sits in another place. Will he confirm that there is no problem of privilege over the Bill to establish a public lending right, and that we shall in due course receive the Bill here with full Government backing after, as seems possible, the other place has approved it? Will he confirm that the administrative costs of the public lending right are to be taken out of the£1 million a year provided for in the Bill, and that therefore not much more than £500,000 a year will be left for the authors? It would prepare this House for the Bill if the Government could state their position in that respect now.

If I may return to the question of arts finance, will the Minister bear in mind that however well the Arts Council has managed on an annual ad hoc basis—and in difficult times there have been some successes—this approach can be wasteful? Will the Government endeavour to aim at a triennial budget to allow for continued and satisfactory forward planning?

10.27 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

I know of the passionate interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fletcher) in the affairs of his constituency and I commend him for the duty he has fulfilled in raising this subject tonight. His speech was mainly concerned with the possibility of financial assistance for about 70 school pupils aged 11 to 16 in their endeavour to visit the United States as selected members of three youth bands from Darlington as part of the bicentennial year celebrations. But he set that in a wider context and he referred to the sponsorship from public funds of the arts in the regions as opposed to London, and of amateur bodies as opposed to professional organisations. I can set his mind at rest on the first point. Over the last 10 years the proportion spent through Government sponsorship of the arts and the Arts Council in London has declined from a half to about one third of the total. That spent in the provinces has increased to about two thirds of the total.

On his latter point, we have to take the judgment of those bodies which have been established to disburse public funds through regional associations for the arts and so forth in sponsorship of the arts. I shall draw to the attention of the Secretary of State and my noble Friend the Minister in the other place the view that my hon. Friend has expressed.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) asked who would answer on arts questions in this House now that the Minister is in another place. The Secretary of State retains his overall responsibilities for the arts as a part of the Department of Education and Science. 1 am sure that he and I, as another Minister of State in the Department, will be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's Questions and those put down by other hon. Members in this House. The hon. Gentleman will remember that when his party was in Government the noble Lord, Lord Eccles was for a time responsible for the arts, so there is a precedent here.

The hon. Gentleman asked two specific questions about the Public Lending Right Bill. On the question of privilege, I understand that a Bill which entails public expenditure and begins in the other place always has the privilege clause attached to it which is normally deleted when the Bill reaches this House, and that that safeguards the question of Commons privilege. I think, therefore, that the normal rules apply. There is no special question of privilege in this case.

The hon. Gentleman also asked a detailed question about the administrative costs of the provision made in that Bill. As I understand the situation, he is right. The administrative costs will be born out of the sum total that is provided by that Bill for public lending right. On the question of what proportion that will form of the total, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman puts down a Question or waits until the Bill reaches this House. Perhaps we can debate the matter then, but on the basic principle he is right.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that in future the Arts Council should be supported by a triennial grant rather than by an annual one. I am not entirely clear about the advantage of such a system, granted that all this has to be seen in the context of the annual review that the Government—and here I am speaking for the Governments of both parties—undertake of public expenditure, and that is undertaken on a five-year rolling programme. If the hon. Gentleman is talking about a fixed triennium, he will know that in the case of universities where there was a fixed quinquennium we have, in the present difficult circumstances, had to suspend that arrangement, and that at the moment we are operating an annual arrangement and are looking for the future for a substitute for what we have—and perhaps for what we have had in the past. I should want to con- sider the hon. Gentleman's question in some detail before giving a final answer, and I am sure that on this my noble Friend's view would be the same.

Perhaps I may now turn to the specific question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington. Government assistance towards the bicentennial celebrations is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. It is not possible for these funds to be used for the cause that my hon. Friend is advocating, not least because all the money has already been allocated. Perhaps I can explain that in more detail so that my hon. Friend is clear about what has happened.

The British Bicentennial Liaison Committee was set up in 1972 under the chairmanship of the Marquess of Lothian to plan the British contribution to the celebrations. The Foreign Secretary gave details in a Written Answer to the House on 19th January last, but in summary these were that£500,000 should be made available by the Government on a centrepiece gift from Parliament to Congress, a programme of Fellowships in the Arts, assistance to British artistic groups to visit the United States—which is the only part that is relevant to my hon. Friend's question—and the gift of a special bicentennial bell.

My hon. Friend is particularly interested in the activities of the arts sub-committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Jack Lyons, which has been assisting British orchestras, ballet, theatre and other artistic groups to tour the United States during this calendar year. The visits of these groups cover the period from February to November and include a number of the leading orchestras and ballet companies. I shall not detail them, but they include the King's College Cambridge Choir, the Northumbrian Traditional Group and the Scottish National Orchestra Chorus. Some of these are professional and some are amateur groups.

My hon. Friend believes that more of that money should have been disbursed to amateur groups. I will relay that point to my noble Friend the Minister responsible for the arts who I am sure will write to my hon. Friend on that matter. I stress that this sub-committee under its distinguished chairmanship determined the precise breakdown of the available funds.

Apart from money specifically provided for the bicentennial celebrations by the Government, another possible source of assistance is the local authority, in this case the Durham County Council. For instance, local education authorities are able, at their discretion, to provide assistance for a wide range of activities with an educational content. I am sure that this activity falls within that remit.

My hon. Friend is, however, well aware that all authorities' resources are under severe pressure at present, and the Government issued a circular as long ago as December 1974 to local authorities on rate fund expenditure and rate calls in 1975–76, accepting that there would be no scope for any general improvement in standards of material provision in schools and colleges. That very much affects the matter raised by my hon. Friend. I will not go through the history of the Government circulars issued since then because it will be familiar to the House.

Worthy though the cause of the Darlington children might be, therefore, it must be left to the Durham County Council to decide what assistance it can give in today's difficult circumstances.

Mr. Fletcher

An application has been made to Durham County Council and rejected. Durham County Council makes a contribution to the Northern Arts Association. In addition, it has given seven or eight teachers leave with pay to conduct the students to the United States. Each family in the county makes a contribution of£2 towards the£40 million we spend on the arts. So the county council and the Durham families are making a contribution and getting nothing in return.

Mr. Fowler

I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that every family in the country contributes in the same way. Therefore, he cannot fairly argue that families in County Durham alone are contributing specifically. I am a Durham man by ancestry and, much as I should like to believe that Durham has a special entitlement, I cannot accept that assumption.

Expenditure on the arts by the Arts Council is not generally or directly aimed at children still in school. It is basically for the promotion of the professional arts and cultural activities in the wider community in Great Britain. This means that help for these youngsters from Darlington would come, if at all, from local authority rather than Arts Council or regional arts association sources. But the points raised by my hon. Friend require me to say something in general about resources for the arts and how decisions in this area are taken.

Decisions on the detailed application of those resources are taken by the Arts Council, and the Arts Council clients in turn make their own decisions within their own budgets. Amongst those clients are the regional arts associations, which are independent bodies which grew out of their localities. They have strong local authority and other arts interest representation. The Northern Arts Association has a distinguished record of achievements and fund-raising—

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

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.