HC Deb 13 December 1993 vol 234 cc668-70
3. Sir Thomas Arnold

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what is his policy for the future of the Arts Council; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Brooke

Under the arm's-length principle, the Arts Council is responsible for providing a strategic policy framework for the arts, for managing grant in aid and for the monitoring and appraisal of arts organisations. It is important that it does so within a stable framework that provides clear accountability and is administratively effective, to allow the maximum funds available to go to the arts. I have recently announced proposals for improvements in both those sectors. We shall continue to monitor the council's efficiency through the annual planning process.

Sir Thomas Arnold

May I invite my right hon. Friend to give us his response to the lengthy article that appeared last week in the Evening Standard, written by his predecessor, our right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), who urged the abolition of the Arts Council? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread public dissatisfaction with the Arts Council's behaviour in respect of London's orchestras and that that controversy is unlikely to subside until the council clarifies its policy and shows some real leadership?

Mr. Brooke

I have no intention of abolishing the Arts Council, but I am anxious to ensure that the arts funding system as a whole runs smoothly and effectively. I fully agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex that audiences and performers are the people who matter most, and that is why we want to see more of the money that the Government provide feeding directly into the arts. As to the orchestras, the situation is still evolving and the full meeting of the Arts Council has not yet come to its conclusions.

Mr. Sheldon

The right hon. Gentleman said that the purpose of the Arts Council was to provide a stable framework. That is exactly what it is not doing, particularly for the orchestras and the regional theatres. If the Arts Council is failing in one of its central duties, as explained by the Minister, surely we must ask what is its function. Surely the Minister needs to bring the Arts Council closer to his way of thinking, which might be a sensible way to proceed.

Mr. Brooke

The right hon. Gentleman has been a Member for a long time and knows the nature of the arm's-length principle between the Government and the Arts Council. We have had discussions in the House in the past year about the way in which the Arts Council might be more accountable to its public for its decisions. The Arts Council has made suggestions and recommendations on how that course might be pursued.

Mr. Channon

Whatever criticism some hon. Members may have about the Arts Council, is my right hon. Friend aware that at least one of his predecessors thinks that it would be sheer folly to abolish the Arts Council and to expose the Department of National Heritage—and himself in particular—to having to take individual decisons between artistic organisations? I do not know who will advise him on that. Does he agree that if he were to go down that road it would be what Sir Humphrey would call a very brave decision?

Mr. Brooke

My first words in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir T. Arnold) were that I have no intention of abolishing the Arts Council. I am grateful for the support and reassurance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon).

Mr. Fisher

Will the Minister now address the crisis of confidence and credibility in the Arts Council that has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House? He further damaged confidence and credibility last week by his cut of £3.2 million, which will lead to the council's having to cut £7 million from its clients. Confidence and credibility have also been damaged by the Arts Council itself in the shambles over the orchestra decision and the problems with the regional theatres this summer.

Will the Minister make a much sharper and clearer statement about the responsibilities of his Department and what he expects of the Arts Council, rather than the bland generalisations that he has given the House? Will he require the Arts Council to fulfil its responsibilities and not delegate them to High Court judges? Will he announce the successor of Lord Palumbo now and not leave the decision until next year? Will he set the Arts Council a stiff target, to reduce its staff further, in line with the devolution of more than 40 clients in April? Unless he does that, the Minister's own indecision will deepen the crisis that many members on both sides of the House agree currently faces the Arts Council.

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman derived a series of questions from a series of running stories in the press, which do not all go in precisely the same direction as the central thrust of his question. The distinction between the responsibilities of my Department and those of the Arts Council have been clear throughout the almost half century that it has existed. I have reasserted those responsibilities at a time when there was concern that there might be some shading occurring within the past six months.