HC Deb 29 March 1976 vol 908 cc1067-76

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I suppose that the House will be thankful to return to an atmosphere of comparative tranquility, following the procedural excitements of the last few moments.

This may be the last of a long series of encounters that the Minister and I—dare I say it?—have enjoyed during his tenure of office. It is possible that in a recast Government he will find himself translated to other things. I say that in no unkind way.

I hope that today the Minister will address himself, by arrangement, to the crafts, which are now on a firmer footing since Lord Eccles, in July 1971, set up the Crafts Advisory Committee. Indeed, I think that the Minister has claimed that the crafts have recently been going from strength to strength. Certainly the initial sum of £50,000 a year, rising to £178,000, to £304,700 in 1973–74. £411,500 in 1974–75 and £500,000 in 1975–76, in public money contributed to the Crafts Advisory Committee, shows a continuing and expanding Government interest.

I hope that the Minister will find it possible tonight to pay a warm tribute to Lord Eccles for having set the crafts on this course. I hope that his tribute will be unqualified by any reference to any past disagreements he may have had with Lord Eccles. There is no doubt that it was because of the lead that Lord Eccles gave as Minister that a new impetus was given to the artist-craftsman and his work.

One recalls the craftsmen's art exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum—and what better place could there be to have such an exhibition than the great repository of the craftsmanship of all ages and nations, from which all may learn and evolve new ideas? Lord Eccles did much to improve the structure of the organisation of the crafts. Has the Minister further thoughts on that? The reorganisation took a little time in the early 1970s. There may be need for further reorganisation, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman has a flexible attitude towards it.

The particular point which I wish to make tonight is that I hope that the Government's view is that the crafts should be related to life. We are familiar with beautiful examples of craftsmanship which have no particular practical use. Some of the fine things in pottery at the Victoria and Albert exhibition were made for looking upon and not for using. But we should relate the crafts to practical everyday life wherever possible. We do not want to be faced with the problems of building more and more galleries, with public money largely, to house the products of the artist-craftsman. I hope that it is not the hon. Gentleman's thought to create yet another estate within the world of the arts. We already have our opera and our ballet, our special high arts. Let us see the crafts related to everyday life.

The best place for the flourishing of the crafts is in relation to our historic buildings. The works of craftsmanship in the past were largely created—in the early days, entirely created—for secular or ecclesiastical buildings, commissioned by the great private patrons or the Church. I hope that some of this will be carried into the future.

I do not mean just that craftsmen should be concerned with conservation, because conservation tends to mean merely reconstruction or restoration of a building and its fittings. I hope that the artist-craftsmen will be encouraged to be inventive and to use new ideas, and even new materials, when they deal with the problems of historic buildings which are, as we have agreed, a living part of our national heritage.

For example, when the owner of Petworth House wanted some fruit and flowers carved round the fireplaces, he did not tell Grinling Gibbons what he should do. Gibons had his own ideas of what was right. The carver in that House imprinted his style upon it and I hope that that is what we are aiming for now. National and architectural heritage is not something to be pickled in aspic. We want to see continual development.

In the parts of the Chamber presented by various Commonwealth nations, designers have worked in something symbolic of their countries. One has only to notice the Indian feeling about the Gothic on the doors of the House to realise that.

In the old days, a craftsman became apprenticed to another, learned his trade in a workshop and, in due course, put his own imprint upon work. In some of our cities, workshops have been swept away or are threatened by massive so-called improvements. No doubt the Minister will be in close touch with those who, only last week, were deploring in a London newspaper the fact that many of them might have to leave the district in which they had worked for so long. Unless we can keep these workshops in our city centres, it will be difficult for people living in cities to play their part. I know that there is a great deal of activity in the country, with an increasing number of workshops springing up, but we must not forget the great cities where most of our people live.

I hope that some of the public money being donated to the crafts will be used to build up groups of craftsmen who could work on buildings, whether owned by the National Trust or privately, and, when they had finished, could move on to neighbouring properties. For instance, a craftsman in stained glass, metal or wood could probably have a lifetime's work at the ancient building of Knole, but if he finished, he could work at nearby houses and influence other people.

One of the most significant contributions to the crafts in recent years has been the Edward James Foundation's West Dean College. I was upset that the Secretary of State said in a parliamentary reply that none of his Ministers had visited the college. The Minister smiles encouragingly across the Dispatch Box. I assume that he, at least, has been there. I am sure he was delighted with what he saw. I am sure that the Minister will be paying a tribute to Lord Eccles. I hope he will mention that my noble Friend was not uninfluential in getting the Foundation to set up the College.

We are all concerned about communication between craftsmen and between them and the community. If this debate reaches the national Press, it will have done some good. I gave a preview of it on radio to the West Country. It is rather surprising that the radio should be interested in such things. We make progress slowly. There as a magazine called "Crafts" and I am sorry that the Library does not keep a copy. I see that the Minister has one. Perhaps that is the only copy. I hope he will arrange for the magazine to be deposited in the Library.

I hope that the Queen's Jubilee, about which the Minister was a little coy recently, will be commemorated by some splendid examples of the craftsman's art. He said that he was not senior enough to tell us who are the Ministers concerned, but I know that he is much concerned. Let us hope that this great national event will be commemorated in a permanent form by a substantial number of works of the craftsman's art.

I suppose that a practical note must creep in. Many artist-craftsmen, being artistic people, are sadly unbusinesslike. The Minister, or whoever carries the torch after he has retired from his onerous office—I do not suggest that he should retire, but no one lives for ever in a Government job—will take a continuing interest in making sure that artist-craftsmen find openings for their works. That includes marketing their products. Some of them are not interested in money, but they have to live and they cannot all be supported by the State.

I have had some moments of disillusion. I have ordered pieces at exhibitions which have never turned up. I have asked craftsmen to produce pieces similar to those on exhibition and given firm commissions, but nothing has happened. They are not as businesslike as they might be. If there were a more lively organisation to find markets for their work they would have a more settled future. I am enthusiastic and hopeful about the future of crafts. I hope that the Minister is in a similar state of mind, that he will give a comprehensive picture of what is going on and perhaps even suggest some ideas for the future.

11.52 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Hugh Jenkins)

I am glad of the opportunities provided by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) and others which enable me to give periodical reports upon what is happening in various aspects of the arts and crafts. I make no distinction between arts and crafts except a purely functional one. It is a convenient but not always a qualitative division. There is craft work which is superior to art work. When I say that I welcome these occasions, I do not intend this as a formality. My only regret is that they usually take place so late at night that the media take not the slightest notice, but our discussions go on record and are noted by those who are interested in the subject.

Although we are speaking tonight to a small audience—not as many as we would wish—we are talking to a much wider audience outside the House. The hon. Member should feel that his efforts tonight have in any sense been wasted, and I shall try to ensure by my response that they are not.

Crafts are very seldom debated in the House, and I am therefore glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on the subject. The products of craftsmen are primarily for use by people in their everyday life. Some of the latest products transcend the utilitarian role which crafts have hitherto performed. I welcome that development without reservation. I do not know what the hon. Member thinks about that. I had better not be led into paths of artistic judgment. It is not the role of the Minister to involve himself in those kinds of question, and I do not propose to do so.

The crafts are assuming increasing importance as a bridge between old skills and new and in an increasingly technological age of mass-production the resurgence of interest in the crafts is very striking. One of the main problems in front of us is how to encourage an increase in the volume of craft products used by a wider public while maintaining the best standards of quality, and raising these still higher. This is one of the central problems we have to face.

The hon. Gentleman referred to my tenure of office as though it were about to come to an end. I have no ambitions to be translated elsewhere. I should like to stay in my present job in order to see a number of things done. I should like to see public lending right on the statute book, for example. I do not, however, want to hold on to office for ever. I have no immediate intention of leaving the job, unless it is forced on me. I enjoy doing it, and, in quarters where my efforts have not always been appreciated there are signs now of a more appreciative attitude towards what I have been trying to do in the last two years. I welcome the beginning of that more appreciative and encouraging note, which is now to be found in some parts of the media where it has not been found before.

As to West Dean, one of the first things I did on coming into office two years ago was to visit that very interesting college and to see in particular some of the restoration work being done on furniture there. It struck me as some of the most remarkable work in furniture restoration that one could wish to see anywhere. As soon as my right hon. Friend can spare the time, he will, I am sure, be glad to see the loving care and skill being put into the work there.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I am sorry that the Secretary of State did not tell the House that the Minister for the Arts had been to West Dean. The Secretary of State answers for his whole Department and it was rather remiss of him not to give the credit to the Minister for the Arts.

Mr. Jenkins

I do not subscribe to any suggestion of that sort. The question put to my right hon. Friend was whether he himself had any intention of going to West Dean. Having a note of his outstanding commitments and appointments, I know that, much as my right hon. Friend might wish to do so, he could not go there in the immediate future.

However, I join the hon. Gentleman freely in his praise for the noble Lord, Lord Eccles, for the fresh approach to the support of the artist craftsman which he initiated under the last Conservative Administration. I do so without qualification. I am happy to say that the efforts of his noble Friend in this direction have borne fruit. I shall say nothing at all about his other policies. The bad we overthrew. The good we built upon. I wish to make no more qualification than that.

The hon. Gentleman has, I think, read the stimulating Report of the Crafts Advisory Committee on its work over the period 1971 to 1974. I shall take the precaution of making sure that there is a copy of it in the House of Commons Library. I shall also ensure that in future there is in the Library a copy of the magazine issued regularly by the Crafts Advisory Committee. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is a first-class production, and one only has to look at this magazine to see that the line between the artist and the craftsman is not a real one at all.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the main purpose of the CAC, which brought together a number of loose and less effective organisations, is to advise me on the needs of artist-craftsmen and to promote through the Committee's central office a nation-wide interest and improvement in their products. In accordance with this, the Committee has taken many steps to encourage public appreciation of the crafts and to develop machinery for sales of products in step with the growth of production. There is one factor about craft work, and that is that it is impossible to do what can be done in mass production. There is sometimes a pause before the craftsman can produce his stuff. His speed cannot be increased without depreciating the value of the product.

This growth itself has depended heavily on a programme of grants to individual craftsmen and to groups of workers. They also cover the setting up of workshops and the training of new craftsmen. This entire programme is working well, and it may be said that the renaissance of the artist-craftsman is in sight.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Can the Minister give any example of a group of craftsmen who have been grafted on to a historic building, as I suggested? If not, will he give it serious and sympathetic consideration?

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I do not know of such a group, but I shall make inquiries and see whether there is one. I shall also see what the possibilities are of promoting that interesting suggestion.

The hon. Member, I expect, is already aware that the CAC administers the Government's grant to the crafts in England and Wales, whereas Scotland administers its own funds through the Joint Crafts Committee and the Scottish Economic Planning Department. I am happy to say that the total grant for the crafts from the Government in Great Britain increased from just £50,000 in 1971–72 to nearly £589,000 in the current year. As this is a more than tenfold increase, I think the present Government are justified in taking their full measure of credit for this achievement whilst still acknowledging that the last administration set the process in train.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Before the hon. Gentleman becomes over-excited about the achievement of his Government, let me point out to him that it was £304,700 in 1973–74, which was the last year of the previous Administration, and that the present Administration upped it to £411,500 and now to £500,000. Will the future be as bright or shall we see a tapering down?

Mr. Jenkins

We are in a cold climate at the moment, and it would be unwise to predict the growth of fresh spring flowers. However, it is spring, and it will be my endeavour—as it has been, not entirely without success so far—to ensure that in this cold climate the arts and crafts continue to thrive. We are entitled to take credit for what we have done so far, and we shall hope to conduct ourselves in such a way that we are still entitled to take credit in the future.

I am entitled to ask, however, if the hon. Gentlemen's Government had remained in office, whether they would have lavished upon the new baby the care, attention and the monetary nourishment which its Labour foster parents have brought to the CAC?

Mr. Robert Cooke

I can give the hon. Gentleman the answer. There were plenty of us who would have seen that our Government did just that.

Mr. Jenkins

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's efforts in that direction would have had more success than his efforts in some other directions.

About half the expenditure of the CAC is in order to stimulate the production and distribution of craft products and to improve craft skills connected with conservation. I shall return to this briefly at the end of my speech. Under the grant scheme, financial help is offered to individual craftsmen at the beginning of their careers for workshop training, the equipment of workshops and support during the first crucial year of business. Another type of grant encourages specialised projects planned by the craft organisations and groups as well as individuals. This helps with events such as the mounting of exhibitions or the provision of gallery accommodation. It is under this heading that the CAC will, I think, look at the proposal of the hon. Gentleman to see what it can do to move in that direction. If there is any information which I can usefully convey to him arising from that, I shall be happy to do so.

The CAC also has the task of promoting the products of the artist craftsman. I have already referred to these efforts in an Answer to a Question by the hon. Member on 16th February, and I do not wish to repeat the details here. I should stress, however, the great and increasing use that is made not only of the Index of Craftsmen, but of the advice given on craft courses. In addition, useful information is made available on the supply of materials and equipment, on publications about museums, galleries and on craft shops and current exhibitions of craft work. The marketing side covers a wide range of outlets such as Norwich, Exeter, Lincoln and the Arts shop at Birmingham which I enjoyed visiting recently where the range of work available is astonishing and most heartening. The hon. Member also knows that a substantial part of its annual grant is given by the CAC to the British Crafts Centre in Earlham Street.

What is also impressive about the development of the CAC is the effort that is being put into its regional work, the increasing numbers of touring exhibitions and the constant contact and consultation with the regional arts associations and other bodies. I was interested on a recent visit to Earlham Street to encounter the noble Lord, Lord Eccles. Although he no longer has official responsibility, I welcome the fact that he retains his interest in the crafts and demonstrates it by his presence from time to time.

Finally, I am considering proposals from the CAC for help with the conservation crafts which cover a wide area, including skills needed to ensure the maintenance of historic houses, which I know are close to the hon. Gentleman's heart. Much of the Government concern in this field naturally falls to my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for the Environment, but the CAC is already giving help to workshops and trusts in this most important area. I hope to be able to give further details of this work to the House on another occasion.

To sum up, the artist-craftsmen is a favourite of the Labour Government. We regard his contribution to the welfare and health of our society as vital and we shall maintain our support with admiration and flexibility and with enthusiasm.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.