HC Deb 29 October 1990 vol 178 cc720-2
26. Dr. Marek

To ask the Minister for the Arts what information he has on the level of deficits in national and regional theatres in England and Wales.

Mr. Mellor

I understand that building-based drama companies funded by the Arts Council and the Welsh Arts Council have projected accumulated deficits at the end of the current financial year of £6.57 million. There are wide variations in the performance of individual companies, both national and regional, within this estimate.

Dr. Marek

The Minister could have been more honest. For example, he could have been specific and said that the Royal Shakespeare Company has a deficit of £3 million and has just turned off the lights at the Barbican for the winter. What kind of Government can allow that to happen to one of our most prestigious companies which has an international reputation?

Mr. Mellor

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to bandy about questions of honesty. If he had asked a question designed to elicit that answer, he would have got it. Unfortunately, he asked a different question and he received the answer to it. He might like to bear it in mind that had we merely index linked the contribution to the Arts Council that was current when the last Government were in office, we would have been paying it £134 million, instead of which this year we are paying it £175 million, a significant proportion of which goes to the Royal Shakespeare Company. I am of course aware of the particular difficulties facing the RSC and of the particular courage and skill with which it is trying to overcome them. I regularly discuss those matters with Mr. Geoffrey Cass and the Arts Council.

Mr. Jessel

Should not we build on our national strengths? As the Royal National theatre is a tremendous centre of excellence and a great national asset which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to our shores annually, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider most carefully what can be done to uphold its remarkably high standards?

Mr. Mellor

A great deal is being done to uphold its remarkable standards in the sense that the grant in aid for the Royal National theatre has increased above the rate of inflation and the theatre is one of those that are not significantly in deficit at the moment. I am also delighted that it has been possible for funds to be found from a variety of sources to allow the Royal National theatre to undertake one of the longest overseas tours ever made by a British theatrical company. Having been in Japan in the immediate aftermath of its visit, I know how impressed the Japanese were with its performances.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the Minister acknowledge that the predicament of the theatre, with 30 of the 32 clients of the Arts Council in serious deficit, is critical? The theatre is one of Britain's great successes for which the Government could claim some credit, but not if they do not recognise the need to inject a considerable amount of money and not stand behind the shield of the Arts Council. Does the Minister accept that, unless the Government act, the closure of the RSC's London venues will be inevitable, as Mr. Hands has said, and that would be a national shame and disaster?

Mr. Mellor

As I have already said, substantial improvements in funds have been made available to the Arts Council and it has then made them available to a range of clients including many of the theatres that have been mentioned. I am also aware of the problems of deficits which I am discussing with various concerned parties. Obviously, a number of points about financial difficulties form part of the representations that I have made to the Treasury recently.

Sir Antony Buck

While congratulating my right hon. and learned Friend on his new appointment, will he grasp an early opportunity to get around the provinces and visit some of the regional theatres where he will see the excellence of the works that are produced, particularly in the Mercury theatre in Colchester, and hear of their funding problems?

Mr. Mellor

I am extremely keen to travel outside London, and, now that I have finished my labours on the Broadcasting Bill it will be easier for me to do so. Tomorrow, indeed, I have a full day in the west midlands, which will culminate in the inauguration of the Birmingham Royal Ballet at one of the leading theatres in Birmingham. I expect to spend at least one day a week out of London, doing exactly what my hon. and learned Friend has advised.

Mr. Fisher

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on his appointment, and welcome him to his new responsibilities. The House knows that he has a genuine and deep love of classical music: indeed, he has the reputation of having the largest collection of compact discs in the whole of Putney. However, he must know that he will be judged not on the size of his CD collection, but on his ability to obtain money for the arts.

As several hon. Members have already said, the arts are facing a financial crisis. He knows that this week the Royal Shakespeare Company goes dark in London, and that the Theatre in Crisis campaign, launched today, identifies 30 of the 32 English repertory theatres as being in deficit. When we add the national theatres, the real deficit figure for the performing arts is £16 million.

Will the Minister tell the House today whether he believes—as we do in the Labour party—that the arts should receive an increase this year above the rate of inflation? On that will depend whether his time at the Dispatch Box is happy or unhappy. One thing is certain: it will be a short time before the next general election and a Labour Government who do value the arts.

Mr. Mellor


Mr. Tony Banks

Sell your CD collection.

Mr. Mellor

Or perhaps my season ticket to Stamford Bridge.

Mr. Banks

No, no.

Mr. Mellor

Before we get down to the nasty business, let me say politely to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) that I wish him a very happy birthday. May he pass many happy birthdays sitting on the Opposition Front Bench.

I have already made it clear that the Government have nothing to be ashamed of in regard to the level of state funding. I have made to the Treasury the case for increases, with what effect will soon be revealed. It is also the case that a successful theatre, like any successful arts organisation, must look to others for assistance and must run its affairs properly. State funding is only one part of that. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central would speak from the Dispatch Box with much more credibility on these points if he took the matter up with some of the Labour councils which, for purely political reasons, are cutting their grants to the arts. For instance, how can he justify the position at the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith, where £100,000 of grant is to be lopped off by a council which has increased its staff by 1,000 in the past four years and does not propose to make any of them redundant, preferring to sacrifice the arts instead?

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