HL Deb 06 June 1995 vol 564 cc1342-6

8.28 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th May be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Arts Council (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 be agreed. I wish to inform your Lordships that as a result of wide-ranging consultation with arts interests it has been decided to drop from the original proposal Articles 4(3) and 9 on powers of approval and directions by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. Those articles, along with the original draft Article 6 regarding grants to the Arts Council, and the schedule, paragraphs 7(1) and (3) on the approval of arrangements for committees, were the subject of concern by the Arts Council and a number of others. They felt that those provisions vested some unnecessary powers in the Department of Education for Northern Ireland and could have the effect of undermining the Government's commitment to the arm's length principle which allowed the Arts Council independence to make decisions on matters of artistic judgment and allocate resources in line with those decisions.

The Government do not envisage a situation whereby instructions or directions on such matters have to be given to the Arts Council, and for this reason decided that Articles 4(3) and 9 can be omitted from the draft order. Article 6 and the schedule have also been amended.

The main purpose of the order is to establish the Arts Council of Northern Ireland as a statutory body and provide for its membership, procedure and functions. The order is necessary because government expenditure on the arts has risen from £3.2 million in 1985–86 to a planned grant-in-aid of £6.7 million in 1995–96 and it is now appropriate that the Arts Council should be fully accountable to Parliament for this substantial amount of funds. In addition, the council will be responsible for the disbursement of lottery proceeds to arts bodies in Northern Ireland. These will be worth in excess of £4 million per annum.

It has been decided not to place limits on the size of the membership of the council but it is intended that the present members of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland will be appointed as the first members of the statutory body.

It is important that the arts are available to every section of the community in the Province and that no one is precluded from participating in them. The provisions of Article 4 charge the Arts Council with the responsibility of developing and improving the knowledge, appreciation and practice of the arts, and of increasing public access to and participation in the arts. To ensure that there is co-operation at local level the Arts Council is required to consult regularly with district councils.

A major part of the Arts Council's responsibilities will be giving financial assistance to individuals and bodies. Article 5 provides for these safeguards to ensure the effective and efficient use of public funds.

Article 6 permits the Department of Education for Northern Ireland to attach such conditions to grants as it thinks appropriate for securing the proper management and control of money received by the council and to provide power for the department to attach such other conditions as it thinks necessary in the public interest, but not—I stress the word "not"—to exercise this power with the intention of interfering with the exercise of the Arts Council's artistic judgment.

The council will be required to keep account of all monies received and paid out by it and submit its annual statement of accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland for certification. It must also prepare and submit to the Department of Education for Northern Ireland an annual report on the exercise of its functions. A copy of the annual report, together with the certified statement of accounts and any report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, will be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly by the department. While the Assembly stands prorogued, the report will be laid before Parliament.

I have dealt only with the main provisions of the order. The remaining provisions are largely of an administrative nature and are set out in a supporting schedule, the main elements of which cover membership, staffing and procedures of the council. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th May be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, similarly, we are happy to endorse the passage of the order. In particular it seems that the consultation process was fruitful, in that the Government recognise the limits on sensible directions and instructions in an area of this kind.

However, the corollary to that is the question of accountability. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is, as I understand it, the successor to the marvellously named Centre for Encouragement of Music and the Arts which was a company limited by guarantee and therefore was liable to have annual general meetings. I would welcome an assurance from the Minster that general accountability will be fully borne in mind in the operation of the new body. Other than that, I have nothing to add or to question.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for her presentation of the order. It is one that we broadly support, not least because it has been welcomed by the Arts Council for Northern Ireland and other arts bodies. From these Benches we support the order because it pursues the policy that arts councils should be devolved in structure. It is worth while to pay a tribute to the Arts Council for Northern Ireland, which has responded to the needs of a divided society in a most admirable way by placing valuable emphasis on community arts, on traditional dance and on crafts, as well as supporting the justly renowned Ulster Orchestra, the Belfast Festival, the Grand Opera House and the Lyric Theatre. Anyone who follows the very lively arts scene in Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole knows what good work the Arts Council for Northern Ireland does.

From these Benches we welcome in particular the provisions which require that the Arts Council for Northern Ireland consults with district councils. However, the noble Baroness will recognise that district council sponsorship varies greatly. I hope that the Government will keep under review the variable levels of assistance for the arts by district councils so that we can create a more comprehensive arts policy for Northern Ireland.

I should like to take up one issue with the noble Baroness. There is little, if any, reference in the order to the National Lottery. If the Northern Ireland Arts Council receives the anticipated £21 million to £22 million from the lottery for 1995—and, who knows? with the success of the National Lottery the figure may be higher—how will it be implemented? Do the Government intend to maintain the commitment that they have made for the remainder of the UK: that lottery monies will not by used in substitution for existing revenue commitments?

Although the Northern Ireland Arts Council does wonderful work, the noble Baroness will be aware that support for the arts in Northern Ireland has always been lower on a per capita basis than for the remainder of the UK. On a per capita basis, last year's figures were £4.12 for Northern Ireland, £4.73 for Scotland and £4.75 for Wales. Given the vital role that the arts play in rebuilding a civic society in Northern Ireland, and the economic circumstances and geographical isolation of Northern Ireland, should the Northern Ireland Office be looking to achieve at least the same per capita funding for Northern Ireland as is the case in Scotland and Wales? In reply, perhaps the noble Baroness will briefly address that point. Otherwise I have pleasure in supporting the order.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, again I thank noble Lords for their support. The order is important because there is such a wealth of culture and art in all its forms in Northern Ireland. Sharing that wealth of culture has to be part of the task in the years ahead. It can bring unity where there has not been unity before, and that is exactly what we need.

There is much to do, but the growth has been substantial. I hear the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, that the grant per capita is higher in Scotland and Wales than in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to be able to reassure him that, in terms of percentage uplift, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has fared better in the current financial year than any of its counterparts in Great Britain. I hope that that will indicate to him that we regard such funding as an area which requires attention, against difficult pressure from other areas. We shall continue to regard it as a key area.

With regard to lottery money I am delighted to assure him that the Government do not intend that money provided to the Province by the lottery—as he rightly says, it could be substantial—should substitute for that provided from public expenditure. It has been a clear statement that projects should not emanate from government departments but should emerge from the community. We shall be delighted to watch that occur to the benefit of the arts.

The Government fully recognise the importance of the contribution of district councils to the arts. They believe that it is the duty of the Arts Council to seek to galvanise them into further investment. The Government expect the council to enter where possible into partnership agreements with local authorities with a view to increasing their involvement in the support of local events and arts organisations, and to ensure maximum collaboration and complementarity in the use of public funds.

One of the most pleasing aspects over the past few months has been the determination of the local councils to take responsibility for what is happening in their own communities. That extends from the economic areas to the arts and social areas. What we see occurring in Northern Ireland benefits all sections, all sectors and all communities. It is a great privilege to see that occurring.

I thank noble Lords for their support. I commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-one minutes before nine o'clock.