HC Deb 01 June 1998 vol 313 cc1-3
1. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

If he will make a statement on his plans to support regional theatre. [41984]

The Minister for Arts (Mr. Mark Fisher)

The network of British regional theatres and touring companies is one of this country's great artistic achievements. We are determined to strengthen and develop that network.

Mr. Rammell

Under the system of theatre funding by the regional arts council, two theatres in my region are funded at the expense and to the exclusion of all the others, including the successful Playhouse in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that such an unfair system of funding should cause concern? Does he further agree that regional arts councils should be charged with distributing their funds more equitably?

Mr. Fisher

My hon. Friend and the new management of the Harlow Playhouse have been having discussions with the chief executive of the Eastern arts board. I wish them well in those discussions. My hon. Friend is right to say that the record of the Arts Council and regional arts boards in backing new companies and developments is less than inspiring—their priority has tended to be the defence and preservation of existing companies. I am confident that the new Arts Council and its chairman, Mr. Gerry Robinson, will want to take an early and positive look at that.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

The new structure of the Arts Council has led to the resignation of the entire theatre panel. How will the perceived needs of theatre in the regions be communicated to the Arts Council?

Mr. Fisher

The new chairman of the Arts Council and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have made it clear, in letters to the papers and in press statements, that they recognise that one of the Arts Council's great strengths lies in its professional, independent, detailed advice from specialist panels. That will continue, and my right hon. Friend's letters and statements have made it clear that that advice is valued and that the council will have access to it.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

What does the Minister think about the resignation of the entire drama panel of the Arts Council and the unprecedented refusal by 58 theatre directors to fill the gap—coming on top of the closure of regional theatres such as the one in Farnham, the Liverpool Playhouse and Greenwich theatre? Does he agree that that is a shocking indictment of the Government's policies, as opposed to the false impression of support that was conjured up in the Secretary of State's book?

Mr. Fisher

No, I do not. All those on the advisory group were eminent people who gave good advice, but, as I said to the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), professional, expert advice of that quality is at the heart of all the Arts Council's decisions. I assure Opposition Members that that specialist advice, not just in drama but in other art forms, will continue.

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