HC Deb 18 February 1980 vol 979 cc21-5
23. Mr. Stephen Ross

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether, when assessing the Arts Council grant for the coming financial year, he will take into account the critical financial situation facing a number of provincial symphony orchestras such as the Bournemouth symphony orchestra.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

My right hon. Friend hopes to ensure that the Arts Council will be able adequately to discharge its obligations, including support for provincial symphony orchestras.

Mr. Ross

Does the Minister accept that the Bournemouth orchestras—two in particular—give enormous pleasure to a wide range of people living in the South and West of England? Is he aware that, in general, our provincial orchestras are in difficulty? The Bournemouth orchestra is reported to be in debt to the tune of £80,000, and that debt is likely to increase rapidly. I understand that the position of the Birmingham orchestra is even worse. Is the hon. Gentleman able to assure us—the money is unlikely to come from private sources and certainly will not come from local government—that an undertaking will be given in the House that our fine provincial orchestras will not be put in jeopardy?

Mr. Macfarlane

I am aware of the great contribution which the Bournemouth symphony orchestra makes in its part and region of the United Kingdom. I am certain that the Arts Council will do its best to maintain that level of support for the provincial symphony orchestras, taking inflation into account. I understand from correspondence that I have had with many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and from correspondence with Keith Whitmore, the general administrator of the Bournemouth orchestra, that discussions have gone into some depth with the Western Orchestral Society Limited. My door is always open to discuss the problem with members of the Arts Council and with general administrators of the symphony orchestras.

Mr. Mellor

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a matter for regret that orchestras such as the Bournemouth symphony orchestra have to undertake far more sessions every working year to keep their deficits down to the levels that have been quoted? Does my hon. Friend accept that even within the exigencies of the present financial situation a disproportionate amount of the Arts Council's support for classical music goes to opera houses rather than to symphony orchestras throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Macfarlane

That is not a matter in which I can personally intervene. It is very much a matter for the directors of the Arts Council. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) referred to private sponsorship. That is an avenue that we can explore. It must remain very much an issue for the Arts Council.

Mr. David Price

When my hon. Friend talks about sponsorship, will he bear in mind that increasingly, local firms are part of national firms, and national firms tend to sponsor national orchestras rather than local ones? Will he bear in mind that provincial orchestras, such as the Bournemouth symphony orchestra, break themselves down into small chamber groups in order to get round to serve the public in their areas in a way that no national orchestra finds possible?

Mr. Macfarlane

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. My right hon. Friend and I believe that there are many more people—for example, many more members of the business community locally—who can be drawn into the net. That is an aspect to which we shall be giving close attention over the next few months.

Mr. Cormack

We do not doubt my hon. Friend's intentions, but does he accept that unless the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes some radical moves in his forthcoming Budget private patronage, which is so necessary, will not materialise?

Mr. Macfarlane

I hope that my hon. Friend will not purvey that gloomy view all the time. There are many avenues that we can explore. As for the outcome of the Budget, my hon. Friend will have to be as patient as I shall have to be.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that provincial theatres and opera groups, as well as orchestras, are facing difficulties? If the Government are not prepared to go all the way with my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) and accept that VAT should be removed from the arts world, will they at least agree to revert to 8 per cent. VAT, the rate which existed until the Government took office? That would be of some assistance.

Mr. Macfarlane

I cannot give that assurance, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. It is my intention to have discussions with the various orchestras, as I intimated. I cannot guarantee that such a reduction will take place.

24. Mr. Neubert

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he expects next to meet the chairman of the Arts Council.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

On Monday 3 March.

Mr. Neubert

Is my right hon. Friend able to do anything to dispel the anxieties that are being expressed in such quarters as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden that the levels of Arts Council grant will bring widespread reductions in the arts next year?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I have endeavoured to do precisely that. The Royal Shakespeare Company received an increase in grant of over 15 per cent. last year. Before that it received an increase in grant of 36 per cent., and before that an increase of 35 per cent. It is now receiving about one-seventh of the Arts Council's budget. I do not think that it is doing too badly. The final announcement of the grant must be made to the House. The Government made it clear in a White Paper published in November 1979 that they hope to continue support for the arts at the same level in the coming year as they did during last year. In view of the public expenditure situation generally, that is no mean achievement.

Mr. Faulds

But has the right hon. Gentleman really no comprehension of the damage done to the practice of all the arts throughout the Kingdom by the late announcement of the Arts Council's grant? When he comes to make the announcement—or whoever does—will he see that he tries to live up to the Labour Party's record of a 250 per cent. increase between 1974 and 1979?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

A 250 per cent. increase over five years is not, as far as I know, a totally accurate figure. I shall have to check the hon. Gentleman's figures. If by some mischance he is right, I shall correspond with him privately. The hon. Gentleman must know that it has long been the custom, before the final figure is announced, for informal indications and guidelines to be given to the Arts Council so that it may make plans for its clients. The anxieties that have been expressed by some in the arts world have been greatly exaggerated.

Mr. Gummer

When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of the Arts Council will he be careful to stress the importance of community art, especially in rural areas, where there are not the advantages of being able to draw on the urban aid scheme, for example? This is especially important in Suffolk, where we are worried that the budget might be reduced to enable some of the more popular metropolitan budgets to be increased.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I agree that there must be a fair distribution of the money that is available. It is not for me to decide between the various projects. I am glad to say that whereas some years ago the majority of the Arts Council's money was spent in the metropolitan area, the position has been reversed and the majority of its budget is spent in the regions.

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