HC Deb 10 November 1980 vol 992 cc24-6
20. Mr. Canavan

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether he is satisfied with the amount of public investment in the arts.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for the Arts (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

Naturally I should like to see more public investment in the arts, and this continues to be my objective. However, I am satisfied with the public investment made to date.

Mr. Canavan

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that public investment is essential in order to encourage variety of expression in the arts and that it should never be used as an instrument for political blackmail, to try to shut people up? Will he therefore ignore the Philistine demands of the ambitious Southend crawler who wants to stop the Arts Council from giving grants to certain theatre companies because they are understandably critical of the worst Government and worst Prime Minister that this country has ever had?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Those are fighting words. As usual, the hon. Gentleman has hit out in all directions and has missed most of his targets. I am certainly in favour of increasing investment in the arts, whether from public or private sources. I do not beleive that it is the job of a Minister responsible for the arts to be a censor. The responsibility for the way in which the money is spent belongs to the Arts Council by its constitution. I have no plans for changing the balance between myself and the Arts Council.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I have no idea as to which Southend Member of Parliament the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) was referring. Will the Minister at least condemn the activities of the Arts Council in supporting groups that exercise political discrimination in their employment policies by advertising for Socialist actresses?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not wish to condemn anyone. Under its constitution there is a duty on the Arts Council to decide how to dispense public money. It would be highly undesirable for Ministers to start intervening in the day-to-day administration of the Arts Council. If there is a cause for complaint that is drawn to my attention, I, in turn, draw it to the attention of the Arts Council, which investigates it. It is the responsibility of the Arts Council, and that is essential to the preservation of freedom of the arts from political interference.

Mr. Faulds

Will not the right hon. Gentleman be frank and honest enough to admit that, however effective his exhortations, commercial sponsorship will only ever provide a fraction of what is needed for the life of the arts in this country? His responsibility is to increase the public funding of the arts. Will he do so?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State pointed out to the hon. Gentleman, the Arts Council grant has been considerably increased this year by £10 million, or 20 per cent. I encourage private sponsorship, not as a substitute, but as a welcome addition to support by the Arts Council. I am glad to have the support of the hon. Gentleman in both my campaigns. With his support we are bound to succeed.

Mr. Neubert

Apropos public investment in the National Theatre production "Romans in Britain", will not my right hon. Friend at least tell Sir Peter Hall that there has always been an audience for gratuitous brutality and violence or throwing Christians to the lions, and that full houses are no guarantee of artistic merit, dramatic integrity or continuing public support from the taxpayer or the ratepayer?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I saw the play "Romans in Britain" in anticipation of Question Time today. I saw it in the course of duty. I thought it was an extremely bad play, scatological and somewhat offensive, but I do not believe that it is a case for suppression or censorship. Unsuccessful attacks on books or plays serve only to raise sales. When will we learn that lesson? After all, we learnt it first in 1877 when the first tract on birth control called "The Fruits of Philosophy" was attacked in the courts. A few hundred copies were sold at the beginning of the case, and by the end of the case 120,000 copies had been sold. Attacks on "Romans in Britain" at the National Theatre have only one tangible effect—that is, to fill that theatre.

Mr. Buchan

While we all applaud the fact that we have here one shining light opposed to censorship, may I express the hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not go too far in saying that he will not condemn anyone? He could start by making an exception in the case of his hon. Friends the Members for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and Romford (Mr. Neubert). Surely the point is that there is a means within his grasp of dealing with public investment, and that is by getting the Treasury immediately to abolish value added tax in the theatre, as most of Western Europe has already done.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I would certainly welcome that decision if it were reached by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I shall not set out on the path of condemnation. There is the highest authority for saying: Condemn not and you shall not be condemned. I commend it to the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) in his present travails.