HC Deb 12 July 1993 vol 228 cc651-3
1. Mr. Clapham

To ask the Secretary of State for National heritage when he next plans to meet the Secretary General of the Arts Council to discuss Government funding for the arts.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. lain Sproat)

My right hon. Friend meets the Secretary General of the Arts Council from time to time to discuss a range of issues.

Mr. Clapham

The Minister must be aware that there is a mounting crisis in arts funding. For example, the proposed budget for next year is to be 2 per cent., or £5 million, less. That proposal will have a devastating effect. The former Secretary of State for National Heritage said only a few days ago in The Guardian that the reduction in funding will not be spread evenly across the board, but will fall heavily on the smaller companies, which means that some of them are likely to be put out of business. How does the Minister intend to ensure that those smaller companies are protected and are able to continue to make their cultural contribution to the community?

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Member mentions an important point. This year there will be an increase in the Arts Council grant in aid of £5 million, or 2 per cent. Next year it will be cut by 2 per cent. At a time of economic difficulties, the Arts Council cannot remain immune to those difficulties but must shoulder its burden like everyone else. Much of the unease being expressed results from the Arts Council's deciding on new artistic priorities, not from the amount of funding that it has been given.

Mr. Renton

May I draw a comment from my hon. Friend on the reported decision of the Arts Council to ask three of the great orchestras to submit themselves, their musical standards and future programming to a judge for examination and for a decision on whether they should continue to receive public funding? If the musical experts at the Arts Council cannot reach a decision on that matter, what is the precise purpose of the Arts Council?

Mr. Sproat

It is a matter for the Arts Council to decide how to deal with its funding. We want London to have world-class orchestras and I am afraid—or perhaps I am not afraid—that it is a matter entirely for the Arts Council.

Mr. Sheldon

Surely the Minister cannot be immune from commenting on such important matters. He actually set up the Arts Council, which was established to advise on where the funding should go. If it makes a botch of it and relies on a judge to take over such responsibilities, surely he has something to say on the matter.

Mr. Sproat

I do indeed have something to say about it. There is a firm tradition of an arm's-length relationship between the Department and the Arts Council in these matters. If the Arts Council chooses to make its decision by taking outside advice, that is a matter for the Arts Council.

Mr. Jessell

What is the latest position on Arts Council support for the London City Ballet?

Mr. Sproat

My hon. Friend mentions an important subject. As I understand it, the Arts Council was perfectly prepared for the London City Ballet to go into liquidation. Now that a new company appears, possibly, to be rising from the ashes of the old, the Arts Council has said that it will not even pay the touring grant, which previously it was going to pay. I cannot openly give my views on the subject to the Arts Council because of the arm's-length principle, but I see no reason why my hon. Friend should not.

Mrs. Clwyd

The Minister obviously has a convenient memory. At the last general election, the Conservatives promised to maintain support for the arts, but they have ratted on that promise, just like everything else. Does the Minister feel any concern about the probability that one, and possibly two, of London's orchestras will he forced to close, and that several of our famous regional theatres are now under threat of closure because of Government cuts, or is the Minister totally apathetic about the wreckage being inflicted on the arts by the Government's policies?

Mr. Sproat

Perhaps I could remind the hon. Lady that funding for the arts has gone up by 45 per cent. under the Government. That certainly is doing our bit by the arts. It is true, as I said in answer to an earlier question, that next year there will be a cut of 2 per cent. only. The reason that so many provincial theatres are at risk is not the 2 per cent. cut but the fact that the Arts Council, in its wisdom, has decided that it does not want to concentrate as much on drama in the future. I hope that the Arts Council will read Hansard and see the strength of hon. Members' feelings about its decision.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, over the past five years, the Arts Council grant from the Government has actually risen by 20 per cent. in real terms? Will he state, particularly in relation to London City Ballet, that the Arts Council should be far more flexible about the way in which it allocates funding? It is disgraceful that, out of a classical ballet budget of £15 million, the council cannot find even £250,000 a year to give a touring grant to an established ballet company.

Mr. Sproat

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and I hope that he will make it forcefully to the Arts Council. He is correct in pointing out that the Government spend a great deal on the arts. At a time of economic pressure, the Arts Council grant this year is £225.6 million, which is a great deal of money.