HL Deb 13 February 1989 vol 504 cc6-8

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Birk asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure the future of the British Theatre Association.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

My Lords, I can confirm that we attach great importance to ways being found of preserving public access to the British Theatre Association collection. We have encouraged the association to enter into discussions with the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum about ways of ensuring the survival of the BTA library. These discussions are not yet concluded, but I can assure the House that all parties are striving to find a viable solution.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that to encourage discussions with the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum will not achieve any results? Moreover, is the Minister also aware that the British Library has made it quite clear that it cannot back up with money anything that is suggested? The V&A has enough of a serious crisis on its own hands at the moment without this problem. Is the Minister further aware of the unique nature of the British Theatre Association library and information services, and their usage by professional and amateur theatre—and increasingly by school groups and people from abroad? Therefore, is it not essential that the small sum which is needed in order to ensure that the library services and the information services are continued should be a high priority in the mind of the right honourable friend of the Minister at the moment?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I must reiterate that we are doing everything that we can to try to find a satisfactory solution. However, 1 should draw the attention of your Lordships' House to the fact that it is not the Government's policy to fund directly independent specialist libraries. There are some 2,100 independent specialist libraries in this country.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the British theatre is not only the brightest jewel in our cultural crown, but it is also a major earner of foreign currency? So what justification can there be for a candle-end economy in stopping a grant of £14,000 to an essential theatrical resource? Will my noble friend get the Government to change course on this matter, and get them to provide a permanent home for this unique collection? If that is not done, the collection will next month find itself on the streets.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I shall certainly draw my noble friend's remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend the Minister. I draw the attention of your Lordships' House to the fact that my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts is today meeting my noble friend Lord Bessborough, president of the BTA, to discuss developments.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that my noble friends on these Benches agree wholeheartedly with the point of view expressed by the noble Baroness which was supported by my noble successor as Minister for the Arts on the other side of the House? Is the noble Lord further aware that we feel that nowadays it is so often the case that something which is going really well is being allowed to slip away for trifling money?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. I can go no further than to say that it is the earnest intention of this Government to find a satisfactory solution for the further continuance of the BTA.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I wish to press the noble Lord a little further. May we assume from the noble Lord's first Answer that it is no longer a question of whether the British Theatre Association and its library are to be saved, but rather it is a question of how that is to be achieved? Are we at that point?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, we hope that we shall be arriving at that point.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the British commercial theatre at the moment is enjoying great prosperity and bringing in a great deal of money, some of it, as we have been told, in foreign currency? Can it not afford to keep a library which is primarily of use to the theatre itself?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, as I am neither a thespian nor an angel, I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer for the financial state of the private sector in the British theatre today.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, would the Government consider merging the British Theatre Association library with the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, and providing sufficient funds for this as the sum that has been mentioned today is not very large?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I shall certainly draw the suggestion of the noble Lord to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, in view of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is the Minister aware that the British Theatre Association provides and gathers in the greater part of its funds by its own efforts and spends a great deal of time on that? Is the Minister further aware that a solution to this problem must be found before the end of this month? The association will start to pack up in March unless something emerges. Will the Minister bear in mind and remind his right honourable friend of the need for urgency as well as a good solution?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am certainly aware that urgency is part of the problem. I can assure the noble Baroness that this matter has the fullest attention of my right honourable friend at this moment.