HC Deb 23 January 1987 vol 108 cc1197-204

Motion made, and Question proposed, that this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

2.31 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

This is the third time lucky for me in respect of this subject, because I first attempted to raise the matter of the Arts Council budget on 11 December but abstruse parliamentary procedure at that time conspired against me. There was a point when I thought that I might end up raising Arts Council budget for 1988–89, but I realise that by then we shall have a Labour Government and a Labour Arts Minister with far greater resources at his or her disposal. There will be infinitely more imagination and excitement in our arts policy.

This is the first occasion upon which the matter of the Arts Council budget for 1987–88 has been raised on the Floor of the House other than through parliamentary questions. The Government's original announcement was made on 17 November by the somewhat sneaky method of a planted written answer. There was no statement from the Dispatch Box, when the Minister would have been forced to answer questions from both sides, and no debate has been arranged in Government time since the announcement. I believe this to be cowardly behaviour on the part of the Arts Minister. Perhaps he is afraid to come to the House to justify himself in relation to the Arts Council budget for 1987–88. Thousands of organisations and millions of people in this country are very interested in this annual round of government announcement, Arts Council consideration and decisions and then, of course, the subsequent reactions from the clients who receive the money.

I believe that there are three main reasons why the Minister should be far more forthright in initiating and encouraging broader parliamentary debate on the arts. It is up to him to do this. First, one has to consider the sheer number of people in the country who are genuinely interested in the subject. One can witness to that fact the amount of press interest shown in anything connected with the arts.

Secondly, there is the significance of the arts in our society generally. Socially and economically, the arts are a major factor and it is ridiculous that they should be given such a low priority in the deliberations of this House.

Thirdly, and most importantly from the Minister's point of view, if the Minister is genuinely interested in promoting the arts and the share of public expenditure going to the Office of Arts and Libraries, he must be heard far more shouting the odds for the arts and seen far more fighting his corner, and this is the place where he could most effectively do that. There is not much evidence of it here today, but we know from arts Questions that there is a very big arts lobby in both this House and the other place. Yet the arts are not given sufficient parliamentary time, perhaps because the Minister has shared responsibilities and is more interested in his Cabinet Office duties, or perhaps because he believes that the arts already receive a sufficient share of Government resources. In either case, he should tell the House.

If the Minister is really interested in gaining more resources for the arts, he is going about it in the wrong way. He should be making the case for the arts in this House and in the country generally. There are countless opportunities for an arts Minister to do that. Every respectable and semi-respectable newspaper has one or more arts correspondents—one excludes The Sun, of course, though if the Minister considered going topless he might even persuade that publication to devote some attention to the arts. Many radio and television stations are also prepared to give the Minister a platform for the arts. He could be in the news every day of his life—a wonderful opportunity that is denied to a large number of Ministers and politicians generally. I do not understand why the Minister does not seize the opportunity with both hands. If he went on the stomp for the arts around the country, he could whip up a great deal more public opinion and in the end force his ministerial colleagues, both inside and outside the Cabinet, to give him more resources for the arts. They would respond to the amount of public pressure that the Minister had helped to whip up.

In this imperfect world, made that much worse by the divisive policies of the Government, the good guys are usually ignored. I do not wish to be offensive to the Minister—I recognise that he is a pleasant and decent soul—but given the hatchet-faced men and women who are Ministers in the present Government the very fact that he is a pleasant and decent soul probably makes him singularly unfitted to be Minister for the Arts. I am not suggesting that the arts are more important than education, social services, transport or defence. I am simply arguing that they are equally important and relevant to every other area of social concern and expenditure. All too often in this society the arts are regarded as some sort of luxury, as a bit of flimsy, a bit of social decoration. They are not regarded as politically significant. That error is made by both sides of the House. The Minister for the Arts is usually regarded as occupying a rather lowly position in the political pecking order. That has been true, and at the moment it remains true, in both the Conservative party and the Labour party. As in local government, responsibility for the arts is traditionally given to politicians who have reached the end of the political road and have their political futures behind them, but there are encouraging signs that that attitude is changing among the Opposition parties.

I put it to the Minister that by his low profile, either out of choice or by personal disposition, he has done a bad job for the arts in respect of the 1987–88 budget. There are many arguments about how much or how little the present Government have invested in the arts. I use the word "invested" deliberately. Like Oscar Wilde, I have no great love of those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, but the Minister must not be allowed to continue to make his extravagant and at times very misleading statistical claims. According to the Government, the grant to the Arts Council has risen by 8 per cent. in real terms since 1979–80, but no one in the art world believes that.

I will give some of the facts. The basic Arts Council grant was £63.125 million in 1979–80. In 1987–88 it will £113.8 million. That is the basic grant. I am excluding abolition money because it is not new money for the arts. If one measures those figures against the retail price index, they represent a real decrease of 3 per cent. against the RPI between 1979–80 and 1987–88. There is a difference between the figures that are being bandied about. The Minister uses the gross domestic product deflator rather than the RPI for calculating the changes in the grant. The most relevant index for the arts is the average earnings index. If that index had been applied to the Arts Council between 1979–80 and 1987–88, it would be seen to have suffered a 22 per cent. cut in its grant in real terms.

The Minister may ask, "Why use the average earnings index?" The answer is obvious as 60 per cent. of arts expenditure is in direct labour costs. One can be even fairer, however, and use the arts index employed by the Cork theatre inquiry—60 per cent. average earnings index and 40 per cent. retail price index. If one uses the Cork index, which seems the most appropriate for the arts, the decrease in the Arts Council grant, between 1979–80 and 1987–88, is 15 per cent. To make the calculation, assumptions are made of a 6 per cent. increase in average earnings for 1987–88 and a 3.5 per cent. increase in the retail price index, which I think is a conservative estimate as the general feeling is that for 1987–88 inflation will be running at about 5 per cent.

If we compare the period 1984–85, when there was a strong downward pressure on earnings and prices, with 1987–88, which is the most helpful comparison for the Government, the arts index shows an 8.5 per cent decrease in the Arts Council's grant. If we use the Cork arts index to compare the periods 1986–87 to 1987–88, the decrease in real terms for the Arts Council is 1.5 per cent. All the time we are talking about real decreases in the money that the Minister has made available to the Arts Council.

What has been the impact for the arts? The Arts Council can pass on to its clients only that which the Government give it in central funds. That means that for 1987–88 the great majority of Arts Council clients will receive real cuts in their budgets. As both Priestley and Rayner discovered, the major arts organisations are efficiently run; they are not profligate, as some members on both sides of the House would maintain. One of the advantages of my speaking on the matter now is that the Arts Council has made its decisions, and we know that the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House and the South Bank board have been given stand-still grants. In effect, that means that they will face real cuts of the order of 6 to 7 per cent. Even English National Opera, which has been given a 2.6 per cent. increase in its grant, will be facing a cut after allowing for inflation. I could go through each of the clients of the Arts Council to prove the point, but I do not think that there is any need to take it further.

The arts now face a double failure—first a failure by the Arts Council to act as an aggressive campaigning lobby for the Arts. The reappointment of Sir William Rees-Mogg shows how highly the Government regard him, which, I imagine, shows how little he must have troubled them on behalf of the arts. The other failure is the failure of the Minister to win more Government resources for the arts, if he ever attempted to do so. I would be obliged if the Minister would reply to that point. That double failure of the Arts Council and the Government means that the arts in Britain are desperately in need of friends.

In the end, all the arguments about Government financial support for the arts are about insignificant crumbs when one considers the extent of the Government's public expenditure each year. For 1987–88, total Government spending will amount to £148 billion. The total arts budget—all the money in addition to the Arts Council grant which goes to museums, art galleries, libraries; the lot—amounts to £339 million. That is less than one quarter of 1 per cent. of the Government's total spending. That is crazy. The £339 million for total arts spending amounts to less than one year's expenditure on fortress Falklands, which is now running at £1 million a day. The Government wrote off £1 billion of taxpayers' money in respect of Nimrod, and that represents 10 years of total arts spending on the Arts Council grant.

That is the scale of the difference in the spending patterns of the Government. Their priorities are all wrong in this respect. What, in future years, will be the most treasured legacy that we shall be passing on to succeeding generations? Will it be the scrap metal of once expensive military hardware or the timeless cultural heritage of music, plays, literature and works of art? By virtue of the miserable 1987–88 arts provision, the Government have yet again revealed their perverted social priorities, lack of vision and philistine mentality. The arts world in its entirety is now praying for the return of a Labour Government.

2.46 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce)

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) on achieving this Adjournment debate, even though he says, "third time lucky". I can assure him that it was no intention of mine, and I have no powers, to seek to delay an Adjournment debate. Whether it could have been achieved before Christmas was entirely in the hands of the House. For my part, I am glad that he has this debate because it gives me yet another chance to talk about the arts.

My congratulations must end there. Some of the things that the hon. Gentleman says are extraordinary. Not long ago he asked me what my activities in the arts world had been in the previous year and a half or so. I gave him a full answer which showed that I travel round all parts of the country and have visited over 150 arts organisations. Each time I go out I talk to the media in the regions, who take an intense interest in the arts. Since arts should be available for all people in Britain, it is important to get out and about and see what is happening. That is the key to this debate. Therefore, I shall seek to answer some of the hon. Gentleman's points.

The hon. Gentleman sometimes reminds me of that great character from English literature, A. A. Milne's Eeyore, who, whenever confronted with news of any kind, would contrive to turn it into forebodings of doom.

Last year, for instance, the hon. Gentleman forecast for the South Bank: dark nights in all the theatres and concert halls".—[Official Report, 14 November 1985; Vol. 86, c. 702.] He forecast enormous suffering from the great centres of art to the smallest of the touring companies." [Official Report, 27 March 1986; Vol. 94, c. 1102.] and estimated a shortfall in arts funding in London which would run to about £10 million in that year. Of course, none of that proved to be true, as we all know.

What are the facts? Let me get to the heart of them. The central arts and libraries expenditure for 1987–88 will rise by 5.4 per cent., which is broadly in line with the increase for public expenditure as a whole that year. The hon. Gentleman made play with the criteria for those statistics and said that he would rather have the earnings or the retail prices index. The plain fact is that the GDP deflator is the understood measurement for that type of public expenditure, and it was used by the Labour Government in the 1970s. That is the standard understanding of the basis upon which we calculate those prices and increases. There has been a 5.4 per cent. increase in the overall expenditure, in line with the general increase of public expenditure that year.

The arts have not lost out. The new British Library project is, of course, part of that programme. It was a 1979 manifesto commitment and we have upheld it. We are reaching the peak years of expenditure on that major new institution, which will be for the benefit of learning in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that. Some people say that that project has nothing to do with the arts, but arts and libraries should go together because each has a mission of civilising and enriching that complements the other. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is attacking the Library. However, we must take the British Library into account when we consider the global arts expenditure figures.

Mr. Tony Banks

That is why the percentage that the Minister has given is being pushed up.

Mr. Luce

We must take every component part of the arts budget into account. We should consider our national galleries and museums, the British Library and also the performing arts.

I shall now turn to specific aspects concerning the Arts Council. Next year's budget gives it an increase of 3.5 per cent. in its basic funding from central Government. That is broadly in line with predicted inflation. Over and above that—the hon. Gentleman did not recognise this fact—I have managed to provide an extra £3 million for the Arts Council, which it did not expect, to lessen the incidence of the taper on abolition funding. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about that.

To put it mildly, there seems to be considerable confusion as to what the hon. Gentleman's party's policy on the arts is. The Government have upheld their policy commitment to keep up central Government funding support for the arts. Indeed, we have surpassed our commitment. The Arts Council grant is up by over 7 per cent. in real terms since 1979–80. If one includes abolition money—the hon. Gentleman chooses not to do so, but I accept that there has been a shift from local to central Government—the Arts Council's grant has risen by 32 per cent. in real terms. It is receiving more in real terms than it ever did under any previous Government. I should have thought that that was an occasion for praise rather than for criticism by the hon. Gentleman.

I recognise that there are continuing problems and pressures in certain areas, many of which arise from the increasingly competing demands in the arts world. It is for the Arts Council to seek ways to overcome them, often in conjunction with regional arts associations, local authorities and the private sector.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the purveyors of pessimism to forecast Armageddon and "cataclysmic collapses" when they are faced, as they are, by the evidence all around us of a remarkable growth of interest and participation in the arts. Even The Guardian recognised that in a recent reference to the "positive flowering" of the arts. There has been a resurgence in cinema attendances, a virtual doubling of the number of arts centres since 1979, a doubling of the number of museums over the past 15 years, with a new museum reportedly opening every fortnight now, more people attending the theatre than going to football matches, and in autumn 1986 Greater London Arts claimed, in its quarterly journal, to fund more arts activities by more artists, in more areas than ever before". The evidence is there on nearly every front, but the hon. Gentleman simply chooses to ignore it. I see those developments for myself as I travel round the country. As he will know from my answer to his recent question, I have visited over 150 arts organisations. Only two evenings ago, on Wednesday, I visited the Temba theatre to see "Woza Albert!" I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no lack of enthusiasm or vigour in the performance. The Temba theatre is financially supported by the Arts Council, among others.

There are many other examples of success stories, rather than failures, upon which the hon. Gentleman could focus. There is, for example the Beck theatre in the borough of Hillingdon where Charles Vance Ltd. has been brought in to help run the centre and is saving the Hillingdon authority considerable sums of money over the next five years by its very efficient running of the theatre.

There is also the interesting example of the Empire theatre in Liverpool, where Apollo Leisure is playing a leading part in helping to make it a success and to save the taxpayer and the ratepayer money. That is an example of how partnerships between the private and public sectors can play a positive role.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts is now celebrating its 40th anniversary, and I am sure that both sides of the House congratulate it on that. It is increasingly dependent upon resources from a variety of areas, especially the private sector, even though the Arts Council has managed to increase its support.

The hon. Gentleman continues to be one of many on the Opposition Benches who were profoundly pessimistic about the effect on the arts of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties, but the fact is that I was able to increase the Arts Council funding for abolition purposes in the current financial year from the £16 million originally allocated to £25 million.

The Arts Council had calculated the total requirement for arts bodies that served a wider area than a single borough at £35 million, and I was confident that the successor authorities—the London boroughs, the districts and the metropolitan county areas—would come forward with the remaining £10 million. In the event, they did much better than that. I congratulate them. After some intricate bargaining, the Arts Council contribution was matched by £14 million from the local authorities. No major arts body went to the wall, and many have expanded since then. The crisis did not happen. Of course, I look to the local authorities to play an increasingly important role in the financing of arts organisations.

In the past, the hon. Gentleman has referred repeatedly to the South Bank. The Arts Council has allocated £8.76 million for 1987–88, and I am confident that it will continue following the constructive policy of keeping the best from the previous GLC regime while introducing sensible innovations of its own. This is an appropriate occasion to congratulate Mr. Ronnie Grierson and his board on the South Bank. Their ambitious programme for the future includes the material refurbishment of the whole area. They are doing a splendid job.

The record of this Government on the arts is one of which we may be proud. We promised to uphold central Government support for the arts and we have done so. We said that we would ease the transition in the abolition areas and we have done so. But the hon. Gentleman, like his colleagues, has far too narrow a vision of the arts. It is a profound mistake to think that the climate in the arts is determined solely by the level of central Government funding. Important though that funding is, the whole thrust of our strategy has been to encourage the funding of arts from a plurality of sources. Central Government, local government, businesses, private patrons, and above all the consumer at the box office all have an essential contribution to make.

In addition, it has been part of our strategy of creating a framework of opportunity for the arts to encourage and promote business and private support. The business sponsorship incentive scheme began two years ago. That scheme, ably administered by the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts has dramatically accelerated the rate of growth of business sponsorship until it is now running at the rate of some £25 million a year. I know that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that scheme and I trust that he will share my optimism that business sponsorship will continue to flourish to the benefit of the arts throughout the country.

While I am on this subject, I am sure that the House will join me in welcoming the announcement this week that Sainsbury's arts sponsorship committee is to give over £100,000 to the National Youth theatre. That is a marvellous memorial to the late Michael Croft, who built up the theatre over a period of 30 years. In the same way, the measures announced in the 1986 Budget to encourage charitable giving will enable both corporations and individuals, through single donations and the payroll scheme, to increase their contributions to the arts.

The hon. Gentleman is also using too narrow a focus when he neglects to look at the consumer side of the equation. In fact, the dominant factor in arts expenditure is the consumer. It is for that reason that the Arts Council has recently established a marketing department that is designed to help arts institutions to target their customers and provide the services that the customers would like to see. To help foster this new climate of opportunity, I have recently announced a new arts marketing scheme with a budget of £0.25 million of public money, to encourage arts bodies to market themselves more actively and effectively. The scheme will take the form of matching grants to enable arts organisations to put into practice a selected number of new and original marketing ideas—the results will be available for the benefit of others.

The hon. Gentleman has argued the case for greater funding of the Arts Council. I confess that I—and I think many in the country—are highly confused as to what his party's policy on the Arts Council is. He wants to expand its funding, but a recent policy document by his party appeared to envisage emasculating it entirely. I do not know what the position is, now that disaster has befallen the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan). However that may be, the Government's support for the principle of "arms length", and for the excellent work of the Arts Council, is very clear. I gladly pay tribute to the way in which its secretary-general Mr. Luke Rittner and his staff carry out their duties. I add my appreciation for the outstanding contribution of Sir William Rees-Mogg, who has recently agreed to continue as chairman of the Arts Council for a further two years. I have noticed during my time in office that neither of those two gentlemen hesitate to make their views known, in public and in private, about what they think is required in funding for the Arts Council. I have every confidence that the Arts Council will continue to do an excellent job.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.