HC Deb 01 March 1999 vol 326 cc729-30
7. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

If he will make a statement on his plans for the future of the Arts Council. [72095]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

My Department is currently preparing a funding agreement with the Arts Council of England which will set out its funding for the next three years and ensure that the council pursues the Government's overall objectives of excellence, access and education in the arts.

Mrs. Bottomley

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the chairman of the Arts Council has a greater opportunity than ever before with the massive amounts of lottery money that are available for spending on the arts. Did he note the comments made today by a former chairman of the Arts Council, who complained that the Government had substituted truth and logic with spin and image? The spin is that there has been an increase in funding for the Arts Council; the truth is that the increase is less than one tenth of the amount that the Government have raided from the arts to support their other pet projects.

I would be grateful if, in his reply, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the decisions made in May 1997, not the originally anticipated lottery money of 1994. All agree that the lottery has been more successful than anyone anticipated, and the arts have lost over £350 million as a result of the Government's decisions.

Mr. Smith

I am afraid that the right hon. Lady is wrong. She may not have noticed that something else happened in May 1997—there was a general election, during which we said clearly to the electorate that we proposed to establish the new opportunities fund to provide a stream of lottery money for health, education and environment projects, and we subsequently did so.

I have to assume that the right hon. Lady welcomes that decision because she wrote to me last February about a project in her constituency. She said: The changes in direction"— the direction of lottery funding— should provide an excellent opportunity for them. I wonder if you could brief me on the likely timetable in which applications will be received for the New Opportunities Fund. She was clearly in favour of the fund being established.

On funding for the arts, the right hon. Lady may also have failed to notice that she was responsible, in 1995, for a £5 million cut in money for the Arts Council and, in 1996, for a standstill in cash funding for the Arts Council. She may not have noticed that we are responsible for a £43 million increase for the Arts Council next year, a £10 million increase in the year after that and a £15 million increase in the following year.

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

In view of the role of the Arts Council primarily as a distributor of public funds, and the difficulty that it may create in the way in which the Arts Council acts as an advocacy body, does the Secretary of State welcome the establishment of an alternative arts council, with which Sir Peter Hall and other critics of Government policy have become associated?

Mr. Smith

Sir Peter Hall stood on the stage at the Olivier awards at the Royal National theatre and grandly announced the establishment of the so-called shadow arts council. He named a number of people, including Sir Tom Stoppard, Sir Jeremy Isaacs and Sir Richard Eyre, as being members of that council, but they have all subsequently said that they have never heard of it.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

The Secretary of State seems unconcerned by the rising concern in the arts about political interference and funding, and he was wrong in his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). Instead of relying on Lord Bragg to be on-message—Melvyn takes his party whip a little too seriously these days—and being rude about Sir Peter Hall, why does not the right hon. Gentleman listen to people in the arts world and their concerns about dumbing down and political interference in the arts?

Mr. Smith

I have to say that there is no dumbing down and no political interference. Does the hon. Gentleman mean that it is wrong for the Government to set a broad framework of objectives—eminently sensible objectives for access for the many, not the few; for nurturing excellence in the arts; and for ensuring that arts can make their proper contribution to education? Those are absolutely valid objectives for the Government to be concerned about and to be setting in place as a framework for the arts. That is not political interference, but sensible government.