HC Deb 17 May 1999 vol 331 cc625-6
3. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What steps he is taking to encourage national theatre, opera and ballet companies to put on more touring productions. [83410]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

We continually make it clear that improving access to the arts is among our highest priorities, and the Arts Council of England shares our commitment. Many of the national companies, including the royal ballet, the Birmingham royal ballet, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the royal national theatre, already tour extensively across the country. Further touring has been supported by the Arts Council through the new audiences programme, which covers the whole of England.

Helen Jones

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, but is he aware of the increasing disquiet in areas such as mine about the absence of many touring companies and the feeling that the regions are paying for companies that they never see? Is not it time that some of those companies became truly national rather than London companies and were made to tour as a condition of their grants? Will he put pressure on the Arts Council to bring that about?

Mr. Howarth

We have increased the budget of the Arts Council touring department by nearly 6 per cent. and my hon. Friend will, of course, be aware that the budget for North West Arts is up 12.8 per cent. this year. She is right to say that increased public funding should bear with it an entitlement to increased access to the arts by all those who contribute funding.

Among the major companies that have visited the north-west in the past year are the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has been to Ellesmere Port and to Morecambe; the royal national theatre, which has also been to Morecambe; the English national ballet, which has been to the Liverpool Empire and is returning for another week and for two weeks at the Palace theatre in Manchester; and the Birmingham royal ballet, which has also been to Liverpool and is going to Salford.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that Manchester and Salford are not a million miles from Warrington. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that her constituents have the cultural opportunities that they ought to have.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

The Minister should ignore the dismal whingeing from behind him and we should all rejoice in the scale and breadth of touring that companies undertake across the country, but will he see what he can do to encourage some of the great picture galleries of this country to lend more pictures to other institutions—perhaps to town halls and other places—so that people have the chance to see more of the regional aspect of some of the remarkable national picture collections in Britain?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He may be aware of the heritage lottery fund's £7 million allocation for ensuring that there is access to such opportunities, which it will use at its discretion. He will also have noticed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched the 24-hour museum last week. This new national museum will, using new technology, provide remarkable opportunities for people to see great works of art in amazingly vivid imagery.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his reply on production companies, but what strategy do the Government have for making theatre, opera and ballet available to and appreciated by working-class children? There needs to be a strategy and there is not one, and I hope that this radical Government see it as their duty to make theatre, opera and ballet available to kids in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom. What does he say about that?

Mr. Howarth

I assure my hon. Friend that that point is absolutely central to our strategy. We have made a commitment to ensuring that the arts play the wonderful part that they can play in education, and we insist on that in all the funding agreements that we have negotiated with the bodies that we fund. We find that those bodies readily welcome that, and share our strategy of ensuring that the arts play a far fuller part in education than they have hitherto.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Given that the Minister represents Newport, he will be well aware of the considerable contribution made by the Welsh national opera, not only by way of touring in Wales, but in a number of centres in England. Can he say whether a draft concordat has been developed with the Executive of the National Assembly for Wales with regard to the future of the funding and organisation of that sort of activity, which clearly is of benefit both sides of the border?

Mr. Howarth

I join the right hon. Gentleman in his praise for the Welsh national opera. I am pleased that it is jointly funded by the Arts Council of Wales and the Arts Council of England. Yes, my officials are working on the preparation of a draft concordat to take account of the new circumstances in Wales and we look forward to publishing it for consultation.