HC Deb 22 February 1990 vol 167 cc1164-72

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

10 pm

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

It is a delight to continue the debate on the arts that began on Tuesday, although I must tell the Minister that hon. Members from all parties to whom I have spoken were disappointed by his reaction to the debate and by the way in which he studiously avoided talking about the problems of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now that the lights are dimmed, the stage curtain down, the audience gone and the television cameras about to be turned off, I hope that we can have a quiet and detailed discussion about the issues. Hopefully, we will get answers from the Minister to specific points.

I spent this morning at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was impressed by the attitude of the people, by their candour and by their ability. They made 11 points to me, each of which deserves a response from the Minister. First, they said that they were disappointed that the Minister seemed disinclined to talk about their plight and that he had not understood either its magnitude or its consequences. Secondly, they said that the staff at the RSC were "shell-shocked". They found the current position alarming and depressing. They want to know what the Minister intends to do to get the Arts Council to react.

Thirdly, they made it clear that the decision to close the Barbican in November was not a set-up, nor was it a phoney drama. It was not a repeat of Peter Hall's "Cottesloe." A female administrator put it with passion. She said, "Why should we make a deep incision into our own flesh? We lose sleep and sweat nightly because of this tragedy. The fault lies with the sheer bloody nonsense of the system." I turn that question to the Minister: what will he do about the "sheer bloody nonsense" of the system?

Fourthly, the people at the RSC said that the Minister and the Arts Council are forcing them to break their contract with their audience. Theatre going is a habit which requires continuity. The RSC does not know how the public will respond to a four-month closure of the Barbican. Fifthly, although they have said that they could reverse the decision to close in November if the necessary cash is forthcoming at any time before then, that is not true. The sheer logistics of getting plays on means that the deadline for the provision of the necessary money is July or August. If catastrophe is to be avoided, it is important that the Minister gets the Arts Council to start talking immediately.

Sixthly, the RSC insists that it is an efficient company. It points out that, during the last two lean and difficult years, it has played to audiences of 75 per cent. capacity. That compares favourably with the commercial theatres in the west end, whose modern dramas and comedies play to only 54 per cent. of capacity, and whose thrillers play to only 51 per cent. of capacity.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What about this place?

Mr. Sedgemore

It is not playing to great capacity at the moment.

Seventhly, the RSC says that the City of London is shocked at the prospect of the Barbican closing for four months, because the theatre is the heart of the Barbican centre. It draws in most of the people and it has a quality which is indefinably important. Eighthly, the RSC says that there is no question of it wanting to move from the Barbican. Adrian Noble is the person usually cited as saying what a poor place it is to work in, but he is on record last week as arguing that it is the best auditorium in the country, and possibly the best in Europe.

Ninthly, the people at the RSC point out that a lot of nonsense is talked about musicals losing the company money. Not one musical has lost the company money.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

What about "Carrie"?

Mr. Sedgemore

I shall come to that.

Not one musical has lost the company money because all have been undertaken on a guaranteed no-loss basis, signed with the commercial people with whom the company operates. Even the flop "Carrie", I was told this morning, made a profit of £220,000. Nor can it be claimed that the RSC has sold its soul to musicals. "Carrie" was one play out of 40 that took place in a year. There have been only three musicals in the past four years. The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) seems to dispute that, but that information comes straight from the RSC.

Tenthly, despite the regular contact that the RSC has with the Arts Council, it insists that it is not told from year to year the logical principles on which the grant is based. The company assumes that the reason is that there are no such logical principles.

Eleventhly—and this is the most important point—the company says that, contrary to what the Minister said in the debate on Tuesday, it and everyone else understood that the Government accepted the funding plan laid down by the Cabinet Office report in 1984. The company believes genuinely, as most people do, that the Minister and the Arts Council have broken their promises. The company referred me to the 113th report of the council, which says: and the then Minister for the Arts reported to Parliament that the new subsidy was 'to establish a satisfactory baseline for future operations', that it was intended that the establishment of the new baseline would enable the RSC 'to operate on a satisfactory basis in the future', and that 'provision will also be made for subsequent years'. I ask the Minister to answer the question that he refused to answer on Tuesday. What do those direct quotations mean unless the Minister accepted the funding plans in the Priestley report? The company told me that, if the Minister had said openly at the time that he was not accepting the financial proposals in that report, there would have been a public outcry. Here was the Priestley report saying that the RSC was a good, efficient company and here were three proposals, to which the Minister could have said, "I do not accept any of those cash proposals." It seems that that was what the Minister was doing.

As the Minister must know, Sir Kenneth Cork wrote an article in The House Magazine recently. The chairman of the RSC, in his article on 29 January, was of the same understanding about the obligation laid down by the Minister after the Priestley report was published in 1984. Sir Kenneth Cork, commenting on the fact that the Arts Council's contribution to the RSC's costs had fallen from 44 per cent. to 31 per cent., said: We feel this shift in the balance of funding is unreasonable, and it is certainly dangerous. Sir Kenneth Cork, as I understand it, is no radica; Socialist. Why did everyone except the Minister understand what was said in 1984?

I raise another question in more detail than I raised it in the debate on Tuesday, when it was left unanswered. Why was the Arts Council prepared to bail out the English national opera and the English national ballet when they got into trouble, but not to bail out the RSC? The conventional establishment wisdom has it thus. First, Tory Westminster city council withdrew 90 per cent. of grants to the English national opera and to the English national ballet. The Tory chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Palumbo, then described that withdrawal of funds by Westminster city council as "scandalous". He then went on to give £12.25 million from the reserves built up out of the recent increase in grant to the Arts Council to fund the English national opera and the English national ballet.

Yet the Minister says, "None of these things has anything to do with me." Indeed, as part of his written answer to a question that I tabled on 13 February about the RSC and its problems, he replied: It is for the Arts Council to determine the allocation of this additional money to individual companies. As part of his answer to a similar question on the same date about the English national opera, he said: for the Arts Council to determine the allocation of this additional money to individual companies."—[Official report,15 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 417.] Hiding behind the arm's-length principle, the Minister was saying, "It has absolutely nothing to do with me."

However, is that the case? Along comes Westminster city council, stung by the criticism, and Roger Bramble, the chairman of Westminster's arts sub-committee, effectively said, "No, it does not operate like that at all. The arm's-length principle does not exist. Mr. Peter Palumbo effectively made a fool of himself. He does not know what is going on, and the Minister has misled Parliament."

I ask the Minister to answer this point. I quote from a news release from Westminster city council in which Councillor Roger Bramble, chairman of Westminster'sarts sub-committee, said: I am pleased that the Arts Council has at the eleventh hour honoured the commitment which was made by government to pick up the funding of these two major national arts bodies which Westminster is no longer in a position to provide. If that commitment was made by the Government, how could the Minister say to me: It is for the Arts Council to determine the allocation of this additional money to individual companies."? Councillor Bramble also stated: The funding which the Arts Council received for next year from the Office of Arts and Libraries included specific provision for these grants and I only regret that this was not made clear to the companies earlier. How can the Government making specific provision for these grants fit in with the Minister's answer to me: It is for the Arts Council to determine the allocation of this additional money to individual companies."? Which Tory is telling the truth? Is it Roger Bramble, Peter Palumbo or the Minister for the Arts? Does the Minister believe that Peter Palumbo was right to describe the conduct of Westminster city council as "scandalous", or has it given a proper explanation when it pointed out that the arm's-length principle did not exist?

There seems to have been some deception and irresponsibility in this matter. However, it is worse than that because, whichever of those people is right, we have seen that £2.25 million, which Parliament and the public were told was extra money for the arts, has gone to reduce Westminster's city council's poll tax bill. It has gone into Lady Porter's election fund. We were told that that increased cash was for the arts. However, it is not really increased cash because it is money to reduce Westminster city council's poll tax bills. It seems that the arm's-length principle has been abandoned without public or Parliament being informed.

Personally, I am pleased that the English national opera and the English national ballet have got the extra money, but I now believe that the Minister should see about giving the RSC some extra money. Mr. Peter Palumbo's handling of the affair has been fatally flawed. I hope that the Minister will not simply act as his apologist.

The Minister has accused my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) of "gloom and doom". However—I shall close soon because I want to give the Minister plenty of time to reply—the Royal Shakespeare Company told me this morning that its intelligence, which it suspects is better than the Minister's, about what is happening to the arts and to theatres around the country is deeply worrying. It said that cumulative problems are building up and that their extent will become apparent over the next year.

I do not know whether the Minister claims that he has more knowledge about these things than the Royal Shakespeare Company, but that view has not only been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. On 10 February, the Financial Times, which is hardly a radical Socialist newspaper, contained an article by Antony Thorncroft that begins: Just three months after the Minister for the Arts, Mr. Richard Luce, staggered the art world by announcing an unexpectedly generous increase in the Government grant for the arts for 1990–91, most of the major theatre, opera, dance and orchestral troupes in the country seem to be in a state of severe financial crisis. The future for the arts suddenly looks bleak … The arts will lose some of their zing and the nation will suffer—slightly and silently. I end with a plea to the Minister. Is it really the case that London, the capital city of the world, is either so poor or so philistine that it intends to close its Shakespearean theatres? Surely to God, no. Surely to God the Minister will offer us some hope tonight.

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

It would be churlish not to congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) on achieving the Adjournment debate and on choosing the arts and, in particular, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the English national opera and the subject which he did not reach but gave notice that he would raise, the English national ballet. Perhaps that was embraced in his point about financing from Westminster city council. I should certainly like to tackle that point.

The only thing that took me by surprise was that the hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to have a quiet debate. I had assumed that he would resume where he left off in last Tuesday's debate when he made quite a noisy speech. Compared to his speech on Tuesday, his speech tonight was relatively quiet. I shall respond in the same fashion, although we are bound to have something of a repeat performance of Tuesday. I hope that it will be of a high standard, as the hon. Gentleman's speech was.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman did not resort to some of the more vindictive remarks that he made.

Mr. Skinner

I had a word with him.

Mr. Luce

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for his restraining influence. I shall call on his help on future occasions to restrain the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch.

In the time that the hon. Gentleman has allowed me, I shall make some general points before coming to the specific points. It is important to reiterate the broad context in which we are discussing this problem and the Government's strategy. As a Government, we are committed to maintaining taxpayers' support for the arts. That is a clear commitment that we have made and have kept to. It is a commitment that we must keep to.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) has in the past, along with many other hon. Members, welcomed the concept of three-year funding, which was introduced in November 1987. That, too, has a bearing on the points that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch raised about important companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. It helps them to organise their long-term finances on a better basis than hitherto.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the settlement of autumn 1989. It incorporated a 24 per cent. increase in cash terms in the next three years. That demonstrates a clear commitment to the arts on the part of the Government. It includes a 22 per cent. increase for the Arts Council over the next three years. The cash position of the Arts Council—this is important in answering the hon. Gentleman's questions—will rise from £155.5 million this year to £175 million in the coming financial year. That is just under a £20 million cash increase. Of course, I accept that inflation must be allowed for. Nevertheless, I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that that is a substantial increase in the grant to the Arts Council.

That leads me to my next point, which was central to some of the discussions that we had on Tuesday. I shall meet the hon. Gentleman on his point about Westminster city council. It is a fair point to make. I hold, just as every Government since the second world war have held, that the arm's-length principle is the right principle to stick to. Every Labour Government and every Conservative Government since the war have done that. There is nothing new in my approach. I am simply reaffirming the approach of my predecessors of all political complexions. How one interprets arm's length is a matter for debate. How far it is taken is a matter for argument and discussion.

Before I discuss—if that is the right word to use—with my colleagues, the Chief Secretary and others, what should be the budget for the arts in the next three years, I take into account the views expressed to me by the Arts Council on behalf of its clients, which include the Royal Shakespeare Company, the English national opera, the English national ballet and others. I take into account all the arguments, including some of those put by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch tonight. It is then up to me to argue and discuss the case with my colleagues and to reach an agreement, as I have done.

I reiterate that that agreement includes a 22 per cent. increase in the next three years for the Arts Council. That is the basis upon which the decisions are made, and I do not believe there is much difference between my approach and that of my predecessors, of any political party.

The logic of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch is that we undermine the arm's-length relationship. Whenever an arts organisation faces a problem—there will always be such organisations at any one time—he believes that the Minister should intervene immediately. But I believe that that action in itself would flout the arm's-length principle. Having negotiated the funding, it is right to say to the Arts Council that it should take the decisions that it believes to be right. based upon the financial and artistic circumstances of the relevant organisations.

Once again I must express my great confidence in Mr. Palumbo and his vision and leadership of the Arts council. It is up to that council to decide whether it should continue to subsidise or increase the subsidy to particular organisations or reduce it. That is its job. The hon. Gentleman approaches this subject with great seriousness, and it is right that I should outline the broad context of funding.

I shall take head on, as best I can, some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We come back, although it is something of a repeat performance, to the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I shall add one or two extra points which were not mentioned on Tuesday. I shall then consider the important points raised about the English national opera and the English national ballet, which I did not deal with on Tuesday as I was not challenged about them.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and with the view expressed to him when he visited Stratford, that the RSC is a highly efficient organisation. It does an excellent job and the quality of its arts is outstanding. In common with the hon. Gentleman, I have enjoyed the experience of seeing some of its performances and I do so every year. I have nothing but admiration for their quality.

The grant to the RSC stands at just over £6 million. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggested on Tuesday, it received an 11 per cent. increased allocation for next year. The hon. Gentleman implied that the English national opera got that increase but the RSC did not. All the flagships will receive an 11 per cent. increase in the coming financial year.

It is also fair to say that the Royal Insurance sponsorship is a magnificent support to the RSC. Over the years the RSC's box office has done extremely well and its overall turnover is about £20 million a year. Last year the RSC gave 2,000 performances and undertook a great deal of touring. It performs on two stages at Stratford and it has used its London base at the Barbican since 1982.

The purpose-built home provided by the City of London is important to the RSC. The corporation has been very supportive of the RSC. In 1988 a new 22-year lease was agreed that provided for low rents and limited overheads. It was a favourable deal for the RSC and it would be wrong of me not to highlight the contribution made by the corporation to the strength of our arts in London at the Barbican and its support of the RSC.

I accept that Mr. Cass and his team have had to take a difficult decision. As the Arts Minister I do not enjoy the situation in which any arts organisation must announce, because it is pressed for resources, that it needs to prune its operations.

We must keep in perspective what is being done. The hon. Gentleman implied that it was stopping completely. It is not. Its decision is to close its two London theatres, the Barbican and The Pit, for four months from 5 November 1990. There is some question—frankly, I am not clear about it, and I do not think anybody is—about regional tours to small venues. That issue, in discussion with the Arts Council, will have to be clarified.

I have given the factual situation. The RSC is adjusting its expenditure to the resources available to it, which is what I have been asking the arts world to do. It is the only responsible thing to do. The hon. Gentleman may argue that the amount available is insufficient, but the fact remains that it must remain within its resources.

The hon. Gentleman went on to deal with the Priestley—the Cabinet Office—report. I reiterate what I said in the debate on Tuesday. There were three recommendations in that report. The first was to write off an agreed level of deficit at that time. The second was to increase the basic grant to £4.9 million. The third was a series of recommendations under one heading, basically to index-link for the future. As I explained, the first two were accepted and dealt with. It was never fully accepted that that or any other arts organisation should be deliberately insulated in terms of inflation.

Having said that, I should point out that the Government's commitment is to maintain overall support for the arts, to give to the Arts Council sufficient sums of money to enable it to deal with its priorities. It is up to the Arts Council to decide how much to give and how much is deserved.

I must meet head on the hon. Gentleman's points abou the English national opera and, by implication, the English national ballet. ENO has had its grant increased by 11 per cent. and ENB by 12 per cent. for the coming year. Both those organisations have performed at a very high level and I have been deeply impressed by the performances that I have seen. They have a great deal of public support.

But it would be wrong of me to allow the debate to end without dealing with the argument adduced by the hon. Gentleman in which I think he implied that what had happened over the withdrawal of most of the funding by Westminster city council of the ENO and the ENB was in itself leading to direct intervention by me as the Minister.

Both of those companies, with the financing from Westminster city council, have been facing a special financial problem arising from changes in the system of local government finance, starting with the abolition of the GLC in 1986. The city council agreed with central Government and the other London boroughs that it would pick up the GLC's funding of the ENO and London festival ballet, as it was then called, provided that the amount of the grants, which then totalled £2.2 million, was deducted from the city council's contribution to the extended London rate equalisation scheme.

Under that scheme, some of the proceeds of the business rates in the city of London and Westminster were spread around other London boroughs to help even out or equalise the rate base. From 1 April 1990, when the new system of local government finance comes into operation, that mechanism will cease to exist. I should point out that none of the grant came from Westminster's domestic rate-payers.

I realised early in 1989 that there was a problem, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central must also have known; I have no doubt that the chairmen of the companies drew his attention to the problem. There was that problem at the time and I took that factor—which was a special factor peculiar to Westminster—into account in my discussions with the Chief Secretary and in relation to the final settlement.

It was against that background that the Arts Council announced on 14 February that it was replacing the grant to the two companies that was formerly made by Westminster city council, although we should acknowledge that the city council will still give—albeit a more modest sum—£160,000 to the ENO and £100,000 to the ENB.

I understand that Westminster's total expenditure on the arts, as earmarked for 1990–91, will be about £1 million, which puts it at the top of the league table of local authority arts expenditure in the London boroughs area. It was important for me to deal with that specific point made by the hon. Gentleman.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I take seriously the issues that he has raised. However, from my own experience of travelling around the country, I believe that there is growing public support for arts of all kinds. As I look around, the evidence is that, although companies have problems, organisations are doing well, whether they be orchestras such as the City of Birmingham orchestra or major arts centres in various parts, or theatres like the Plymouth theatre royal. All those organisations—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER, adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.