HC Deb 28 January 1991 vol 184 cc647-50
28. Mr. Maclennan

To ask the Minister for the Arts what representations he has received on its financial position from Welsh National Opera.

33. Mr. Michael

To ask the Minister for the Arts what representations he has received about the future funding of the Welsh National Opera.

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Tim Renton)

I have received a large number of representations on behalf of Welsh National Opera. Helpful discussions have taken place between the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Welsh Arts Council and the Welsh National Opera, together with a further detailed review of the company's financial position and planned touring commitments in England. I am informed that at its meeting on 30 January the Arts Council of Great Britain will consider a recommended increase in its grant to the Welsh National Opera of between £200,000 and £300,000 in 1991–92 and the two subsequent years.

Mr. Maclennan

Although I recognise that enhancement fund expenditure is primarily a matter for the Arts Council, does the Minister accept that when it was set up it was recognised that Ministers would be interested in how the money was spent? The Welsh National Opera's quality is appreciated far beyond the bounds of the Principality and particularly in the midlands, where its excellence is widely acknowledged. Would the Minister regard it as an infringement of the arm's-length principle if he were to add his personal approval of the Welsh National Opera's work? Is he happy about the progress of the discussions to which he alluded? I was pleased to hear that a substantial increase in the WNO's grant is being considered.

Mr. Renton

Yes, of course I am delighted to endorse the artistic quality, repertoire and singing of the Welsh National Opera. I approve and endorse the general criteria under which allocations are made from the enhancement fund. However, the individual allocations are traditionally an Arts Council responsibility. The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten that the Welsh National Opera received £175,000 from the Welsh Arts Council's part of the enhancement fund. At the Art Council's meeting next Wednesday a decision will be taken on whether to increase further the Welsh National Opera's touring grant.

Mr. Michael

I welcome the Minister's positive response and also the endorsement of the Welsh National Opera by Scotland as well as by England. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the limited budget available to the Welsh Arts Council for other aspects of the arts in Wales should not be eroded to meet the Welsh National Opera's shortfall? Does he also agree that we hope his answer means that there will be a positive outcome for the Welsh National Opera without any such erosion, which would threaten the other arts in Wales?

Mr. Renton

I do not want the other arts in Wales to be threatened. The Welsh Arts Council received about £750,000 from the enhancement fund. If it has decided that part of that money should be given to WNO, essentially for its work in Wales, that is a perfectly proper decision for it to take. I remind the hon. Gentleman that WNO is receiving a general increase of more than 8 per cent. in its grant for the year ahead and a 11.5 per cent. increase in its touring grant—in addition to the sum that the Arts Council will consider this Wednesday. On that basis, the hon. Gentleman, who has campaigned actively on this matter, should not cry foul too often.

Mr. Cormack

I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. Will he convey the views that have been expressed this afternoon to the chairman of the Arts Council and tell him that there would be widespread disappointment not only in the Principality but throughout this country if this excellent company had to close? We all expect—[Interruption]—or at least, most outside Hayes and Harlington expect, the Arts Council to do the right thing on Wednesday.

Mr. Renton

I thank my hon. Friend for his support, which does not surprise me. I understand what he means about the widespread support for the WNO. Even the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is not in his seat today, put his name to an early-day motion confirming, I think, "the brilliance of the singing and repertoire of the WNO". That shows that, although that Bench below the Gangway is empty this afternoon, the WNO's message has reached far in the land.

Mr. Dicks

Many people in this country will still wonder why this subsidy from public funds is going to these organisations, wonderful though they may be. Will he tell the people of this country that he is thinking twice about the amount of money that is given to the arts from public funds—an amount that is increased per annum?

Mr. Renton

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Perhaps he might like to get in touch with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and have a good discussion on the subject. Generally, I am told that not enough money is being given to the arts. In successive public expenditure rounds, both my predecessors managed to obtain settlements in excess of the rate of inflation.

Mr. Dicks


Mr. Renton

As in opera, it is always helpful to have someone crying "Shame" from the gallery. It reminds one that there is another voice.

Mr. Fisher

I welcome the Minister's statement, which appears to resolve the Welsh National Opera crisis—that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place—and his assurance that that money will not be given at the expense of other Welsh Arts Council clients. But will he explain, first, whether his office will contribute money directly to the settlement and, secondly, whether the other companies that received a cash standstill budget or a cut of 9 per cent. in real terms—the Bristol Old Vic, the Lyric, Hammersmith, the Black Theatre Forum, the Three Choirs festival, the Eastern Orchestral Board, the Liverpool Playhouse and the Everyman theatre—will receive the same just settlement as Welsh National Opera?

Mr. Renton

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads an article written by Ian Brown, the drama director of the Arts Council, in last week's edition of The Stage. It is headed, "Keep Calm in a Crisis"—a message that the hon. Member might learn to advantage. He says that it is not the Arts Council's job to come to the rescue willy-nilly of every provincial theatre that gets into trouble, no matter whether it has put on the right programme for its customers or whether it is receiving local authority support. That message must be taken on board throughout the country. The settlement to WNO does not mean any direct money from my office.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's comment that this should never have happened in the first place. The Arts Council, rightly, has again crawled over the touring plans of WNO and has reached the conclusion that it should try to make a little more money available—a lot more money available—if that is what its council agrees on Wednesday.

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