HL Deb 24 March 1977 vol 381 cc627-31

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to state what contribution to the artistic and cultural life of the nation the Arts Council is securing by granting aid to the Institute of Contemporary Arts' latest presentation by the Joint Stock Company.

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

My Lords, it is for the Arts Council to assess what benefits result from grants made by it. In making this assessment the Council has to take into account the achievements and standards hitherto attained by each client and the importance of protecting artistic activity from censorship.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that emollient Answer, may I ask whether he is aware that he has some responsibility for the distribution of funds by the Arts Council? Is he aware that this show was castigated by the drama critics of the London newspapers for its extreme obscenity? Does he appreciate that most people expect Ministers in Government to protect the public against this sort of pollution? Is he aware that when the taxpayer is required to pay towards producing it, that is adding insult to injury? Will he please ask the Arts Council to use some restraint in its judgment before giving further grants to the ICA?


My Lords, this is a difficult side of near censorship which we in this House have discussed before. I do not think many noble Lords would think it suitable that the Minister for the Arts or the Secretary of State for Education and Science should exercise censorship in this way; indeed, I do not think that is what the noble Lord is asking me to do. The Arts Council is my agent. I give it a bulk sum of money which it distributes extremely carefully, and it gives, with my full approval—though it does not need to ask for it—a proportion, and a very small proportion, of that money to experimental and fringe activities. We must face perfectly seriously the fact that all through history there have been artists of extreme merit who have enjoyed nothing so much as shocking the Royal Academy. I do not think these people should be suppressed or chased.


Chased or chaste, my Lords?


We do the best we can to amuse the House, my Lords. I think the best safeguard we have is the police. That is where the line should be drawn, and that is where the line is in fact drawn, and I do not propose to make any immediate alteration to that.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one eminent critic said that this production was calculated to put everyone off pornography for life?


I am aware of that, my Lords; but another critic, I think in The Spectator—not a publication I normally read from cover to cover—described it as an absolutely first-class performance. However, I do not wish to be concerned in judging merit. That is not my business, nor should it be.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the vast bulk of the effort of the Arts Council goes to support work which commands fairly universal support and therefore attracts very little publicity? Secondly, would the noble Lord agree that we at the Arts Council are right to devote part of our funds to new work, some part of which is bound to be controversial and some tiny proportion of which is certain to be unacceptable? Lastly, would he agree—and this is the most important part of my question —that the Arts Council would be wrong to censor in advance, but right to take into account afterwards?


My Lords, my noble friend—if I may so call him—the chairman of the Arts Council has expressed the position exactly. I believe that we have to take risks but that we must learn from them. In so far as advantage is taken of the freedon given and it is abused, we have our remedy, which is, first, to limit and, secondly, to suppress the subsidy which is given. That is the right of the people who pay the money, but not until the people who are receiving the money have had a chance to justify themselves. I should like to add that the Joint Stock Company is a company that has done very good work indeed and is extremely well thought of wherever it has been. This is the first time that it has—if I may assume the verdict of the public—put a foot wrong.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether, in the present circumstances, he will watch very carefully the liberal tendencies at work in the ranks behind him? Would he agree that it is one thing in a free society to tolerate a certain amount of deviancy here and there, but it is quite another to support and encourage it with public funds? I think that that is what we are objecting to.


My Lords, this is certainly a point which I take. Obviously, nobody in this House, short of the line drawn by the police, will complain about what people do if they do not receive public funds. The problem before us is that there is a small element of public funds encouraging experimental work of this kind. I repeat and stand by the statement that experimental work of this kind ought to be supported by the Arts Council at a small level. The Council will occasionally find that the people it supports make mistakes and, when it does, like me, it will have to do the best it can to get through it.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware, as he put the suggestion to me that I might be asking for censorship, that I am not? Is he further aware that the comments made by the Daily Telegraph are typical? It reads, This show is as likely to give offence as anything I have ever seen in the theatre. Is the noble Lord aware that this really was a shocking show and that my objection is soundly based? I dislike obscenity on the public stage but I strongly object to being required to pay towards promoting it. Will the noble Lord please use his influence in his grants to the Arts Council to ask it to take note of what has been said here today?


My Lords, it is quite unnecessary for me to use any particular influence on the Arts Council. It completely agrees with this point of view and it also thinks that it would be absolutely wrong for it to dictate to its clients what they did. This is a difficult line to ride and I believe that the Arts Council is doing it extremely well. I am very grateful to it for the way it has done it. In the past year we have had about three rather awkward slip-ups. We admit this and we shall try to have no more.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, for many of us, his answer is extremely confusing? Are we to understand that this was a slip-up and, if so, will he express regret for that slip-up?


My Lords, my position as Minister for the Arts is not one of critic or censor. I will express no regret except to say that it seems to me that, on some accounts of this play which I have not seen, though not on others, it would, if they are correct, have been better not done.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a Minister for the Arts speaking for the Government —any Government of any complexion—is in a difficult position and is liable to be attacked on questions of this kind, either for prosecuting something he is told he ought to have subsidised, or for subsidising something that ought to have been prosecuted? Does the noble Lord think that this particular performance should have been subsidised, prosecuted or neither, as many people would think or—and one would have to consult a Treasury official about this—both?


My Lords, I believe that the answers that I have given to various other questions this afternoon answer that.