HL Deb 05 October 2000 vol 616 cc1755-71

7.56 p.m.

Lord Harrison rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the report by Peter Boyden to the Arts Council on English regional producing theatres.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, British boxer, Audley Harrison, winning gold last weekend in the theatre of the Sydney Olympics, was moved to quote French dramatist, Pierre Corneille, in describing his victory: Triumph without hardship is not triumph at all".

At box offices up and down the land, the act of achieving "triumph through hardship" is experienced by the bands of the happy few who, with ever slenderer means, courageously bring live theatre nightly to our people. English regional-producing theatre is in a parlous financial state. Years of under-funding have led to the closure of houses at Ipswich, Greenwich and Leatherhead and cutbacks at renowned producing theatres, such as the Octagon at Bolton and the Sheffield Crucible.

Retrenchment in theatre has had a deleterious effect on the product itself. Conservative programmes, demoralised staff, restrictive rehearsal times and slashed casts have all taken their toll. For too long we have been cutting down the cherry orchard and, with it, the quality, breadth and reputation associated with English repertory theatre. It is time to bring down the curtain on such cultural suicide.

Theatre is the well-spring of some of our most important, job-creating industries. English tourism owes its pre-eminence to the arts in which live theatre has a pivotal and leading role. The big-bang industries of TV, film and entertainments depend on the actors apprenticed in England's local theatres. But for too long we have treated such theatres as the cheap end of the West End.

Recently I was reappointed as governor of The Gateway Theatre in Chester. I declare an interest. It is a fine playhouse which has struggled financially over the past 20 years, leading to its recent temporary closure. Revived and now producing theatre of the highest quality, it survives on a shoestring. Each night's performance is literally threatened with imminent darkness while we wait for the funds to replace a defective lighting system.

The Gateway's travails illustrate all too tellingly the benighted state of English theatre today as so graphically depicted in tonight's excellent and influential report, The Roles and Functions of the English Regional Reproducing Theatre. How grateful we are for Peter Boyden—at last "The Inspector Calls". Peter Boyden notes the underlying strength of our theatre. Like many of its contemporaries, The Gateway Theatre still produces quality under fire. Indeed, many of the eight challenges promulgated in the national policy of the Arts Council of England, published in July 2000, are already part of The Gateway's central philosophy and culture. Its education work in local schools and youth clubs, in collaboration with the South Cheshire Health Authority, dramatises for instance the problem of drugs for young people in a way that mere prescription and proscription cannot. Its recent production of the Polychronicon illustrating the fascinating story of Chester past and present, using professional actors alongside local school talent brilliantly achieves the ACE's goal of recreating local and regional distinctiveness. The theatre's imaginative collaboration with the BP/Amoco oil company has developed a mode of working way beyond static sponsorship.

In theatre-based business seminars a better understanding of their industry is inculcated in oil drillers, petrol station forecourt designers, oil-rig health and safety officers, through the parallel study of theatre and the jigsaw of tasks entailed in keeping the show on the road. Theatre as a paradigm of business! Like oil, drama has to be delivered on time, to schedule and at the right price. Business learns from theatre just as theatre learns from business. Theatre can illumine and explain other worlds—the police, the health service to name but two—to the mutual benefit of all. Even your Lordships' House is not unfamiliar with costume drama. Even the Arts Council imperative for theatre to develop a European arm to build an international reputation is not foreign to us in Chester where the last quinquennial production of the medievil cycle of mystery plays was leavened by a contingent of actors from deepest Lapland.

What of the Arts Council's exhortation to reach new audiences, especially for those for whom theatre is the place where the audience dress up more than the actors, and wholly to impress their peers.

I well remember my wife's account of taking her pupils from the local council house/state comprehensive to the Gateway Theatre downtown. For all, it was a crossing of a Berlin Wall of etiquette—"Miss", asked one of her pupils, "do we have to pass the chocolates down the row to all the other theatre goers?" was an excerpt from that particular comedy of manners. But for some, that night at the theatre stirred the imagination and led to the gateway of dreams.

How welcome, then, is Boyden! How timely the Government's response of £25 million of revenue funding to help theatres to produce and actors to act. The money from the alchemist—Gordon Brown—is just the fillip that repertory theatre across the land, experiencing the same privations as The Gateway at Chester, deserve and need. But the year 2003–2004 is a time away. I only hope that the Government's further generosity of an interim £12 million will fend off further closures.

Perhaps my noble friend the Minister might comment on the allocation of the interim funding, on the criteria determining the distribution of the £25 million revenue monies and also on the definition of "theatre". Boyden, one will recall, confines himself to physical playhouses. Are all forms of producing theatre eligible for Boyden funding?

For those whose lives are enriched by a visit to the theatre, the 78 per cent overall increase in arts funding is a godsend—a deus ex machina—as unexpected as it is welcome. A tribute must be paid to the persuasive powers of Gerry Robinson and Chris Smith in achieving it.

Live theatre is a quality of life issue and a national responsibility, or, as Garcia Lorca puts it and as quoted in the preface to Boyden: An intelligent theatre can change the sensibility of the people; a disintegrated theatre, with clumsy hooves instead of wings, can cheapen and lull into sleep an entire nation".

The Government's acknowledgement of the importance of English regional producing theatre is a vote of confidence in a home bred industry.

Like Audley Harrison, England's theatres in the future will be able to punch above their weight and for the foreseeable future, for our repertory theatres, thankfully, there will be no more "Waiting for Godot".

8.5 p.m.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, I have to start by thanking my noble friend, Lord Harrison, for introducing this short debate. I would like 'to congratulate him on a barnstorming performance. He may have missed his vocation. Certainly, the theatre can do with many advocates of his persuasiveness. I hope that we shall hear much more from him.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this topic, which is quite close to my heart. I declare an interest in this respect: I was consulted in my capacity as a then member of the Board of the Young Vic Theatre by the Boyden team. I would agree with my noble friend, Lord Harrison, that the Boyden Report is an excellent report about which a great deal can be said and has already been said by my noble friend.

In the limited time available I am going to concentrate on two issues to which the report draws attention—the role of regional theatre in the development of creative talent, to which my noble friend has alluded, and the importance to theatre of sustained core funding.

I have mentioned before in your Lordships' House the high regard in which British artists are held worldwide. This year two directors—Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry—have become the latest to achieve major success in the notoriously difficult and unforgiving world of film. Both of them did their early work in regional theatre and so did the artistic directors of both our national theatre companies, Trevor Nunn and Adrian Noble, as did their predecessors. All these are artists of international standing.

Many of our finest actors obtained their grounding in regional theatre. Many writers in film and television, as well as in theatre, have emerged over the years through the opportunities provided by regional companies. As the Boyden Report states: Years of funding attrition have undoubtedly had a negative impact on the development of creative talent". The report points to a long-term decline in the numbers of actors employed, in the number of commissions offered to writers, in the number of productions created, and therefore in the number of directors employed. Technical, managerial and production staff have traditionally learned their skills in the regional theatre. These opportunities too have declined and the work that is available is often low paid, with long hours and poor working conditions. The report goes on to say: There is a widening gap between the English Regional Producing Theatre's potential to act as a training ground for creative talent and craft skills and its capacity to do so. The knock-on effect will be felt across the creative industries which require a stream of writing, directing, designing and acting talent as well as of production and technical staff". As a long-time observer and employer of theatre professionals, I can say that this effect is already being felt. When I started my career, regional theatre was providing a huge range of opportunity for young practitioners to learn their craft. This is no longer the case. I intend no disrespect to anyone in noting how much we have lost. If we are to ensure that those who come after us can point with pride to the next Nunn or Mendes or Dench or Fiennes—major or minor—then we must reinvest now in the training grounds that they need.

How is this to be achieved? In his recent New Statesman arts lecture, the chairman of the Arts Council of England, Gerry Robinson, stressed three issues in the Arts that he believed required particular attention—education, core funding and theatre.

In emphasising the especially vital importance of sustained core funding, he pointed out that, fixed costs in arts organisations, because they are so labour-intensive, are high". But provision of adequate core funding has, at least until recently, been a politically sensitive matter. Widespread misunderstanding, sometimes wilful, of the necessarily high costs to which Gerry Robinson referred, led to the accusations of inefficiency over staffing and waste which have bedevilled discussion of the arts for two decades. I can tell your Lordships, speaking from the war zone, that it is a relief to find an acknowledged expert in business saying unambiguously that he has looked closely at the arts world and found a sector with very little slack.

He rightly asserts that cutting back on core funding to arts organisations is counterproductive because fixed costs do not go away; what goes away is the art. Programming is always the first thing to suffer when the financial going gets tough. That is nowhere more evident than in our regional theatres, as Boyden has shown. They have been progressively starved of core funds for years.

But looking forward, there are reasons to be cheerful. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has finally succeeded, as my noble friend Lord Harrison pointed out, through the recent spending review, in doing what few of his predecessors ever achieved; that is, he has wrung a decent settlement for the arts out of the Treasury. I take this opportunity to congratulate him.

A significant sum within that settlement has been earmarked by the Arts Council for addressing the problems in theatre which Boyden has identified. Much can be done with what has been provided but the health and strength of theatre will be achieved only by sustained investment over a long period of time.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend but I must draw the House's attention to the fact that the limit for each speech is four minutes. The time is extremely limited in this debate and we really must stick to it.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, my last sentence. The Boyden report puts it thus: The prize is an integrated theatre working with renewed confidence to deliver to its full potential a range of important artistic, social and economic benefits". I look forward to hearing my noble friend confirm, as I anticipate he will, the Government's view that that is a prize worth striving for.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Alexander of Weedon

My Lords, I, too, warmly welcome the Boyden report and the two fine supportive speeches we have already heard. My own interest is that in December I shall have the immense excitement of taking the chair at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I am fortunate that my deputy chair will be Lady Sainsbury of Turville who brings her ability and passionate commitment to our work.

The company is led with great flair by Adrian Noble and the current standing of our artistic work is splendidly high. While the Royal Shakespeare Company is a national company, its work, as Boyden recognised, is intertwined with that of the regional theatres. We tour widely, performing in some of the theatres mentioned in the report such as the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, and in Newcastle upon Tyne. Our small-scale tour takes both stage and auditorium to towns which, to adapt the old Heineken advertisement, other theatres do not reach. In the last years we have been from Penrith to Penzance, from Braintree to Brighton and from Sheffield to St Austell. We aim to perform, if possible, within 45 minutes of the homes of 80 per cent of the people of England and Wales. It is a touring programme without any parallel and a major contribution to the accessibility of theatre.

The contribution of the Royal Shakespeare Company to theatre is breathtaking. Between Stratford and London and our touring, we played last year to more than 1 million people. We give annually about 2,000 performances of about 30 plays in 50 venues. Some two-thirds of audiences see our plays outside London. Our national coverage is unrivalled. And thrillingly, 25 per cent of our audience are under 16.

Yet our Arts Council subsidy has, for too long, been considerably lower in absolute terms than that of the other fine national companies. So, by a long chalk, is our subsidy per customer, our subsidy per performance and, indeed, our cost per performance. We pay back to the Government in taxes 85 per cent of what we receive in subsidy. We contribute strongly to employment, particularly in the Midlands and in Stratford, a town of 25,000 people which has 3 million visitors per year.

We are passionate about touring but we cannot stretch ourselves ever more tightly. Gerry Robinson, the excellent chairman of the Arts Council, said in June, in his New Statesman lecture: With no increase in funding, the RSC would probably have to retrench to Stratford, reduce and, in time, withdraw from national touring. Further cuts would have to take place in its London work. Yet with a reasonable increase, it could turn a disaster into a triumph, consolidating its touring and residences work, reaching new audiences through new media and new technology, significantly enhancing its educational programme and ensuring that its work for the main stage continues to confirm its positioning as the great Shakespeare company of the world". I ask the Minister: do the Government share that vision? Gerry Robinson is absolutely right. He highlights the fact that where excellence is delivered with efficiency, investment should be made.

We are currently engaged in a stabilisation exercise with the Arts Council. It is being conducted very constructively with full consultation. Out of it will come a formidable case for investment and it has been understood from the outset that that will mean appropriate increases in revenue funding.

I conclude within my timescale by asking the Minister whether we have full support for that programme and for the development of work with which I am quite thrilled to be in any way associated.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Bragg

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for giving us the opportunity to speak on this Question, even though he makes Roger Bannisters of us all.

This sprint through regional theatre seems a long way from the massed marathon forces that are currently deployed on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. But all is not as it seems. I speak of the right to roam in the imagination and of cultural health delivered with great skill and devotion in many theatres in the regions of this country night after night. I declare an interest. I am president of the National Campaign for the Arts.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Harrison about the deleterious state of the regional theatres at the moment but I am more stirred to optimism because of the work of Chris Smith and Gerry Robinson and impressed by what they have wrung out of the stony Treasury. But regional theatres are right to warn about surviving until that promised moneyed lifeboat arrives. Interim measures must be given priority or the lifeboat will arrive to find nothing but flotsam.

Nettles must be grasped. Subsidy is not a pension for life. Someone has to take the axe here so that the seedcorn can be planted there. Perhaps above all, for too long and unfairly, the regional theatre in particular has been kept in business only by the low wages paid to those who work in it. That must be changed.

Even now, there is not full recognition of the multiple benefits brought by the arts and perhaps by theatre in particular. Like sport, the arts have long ceased to be a hobby and now, as well as being art and as well as being a passion and a source of individual and communal regeneration, they are a skill-based economic locomotive of growing power. It is possible now to build a new environment, not around the arts but alongside the arts. Look at Leeds, Manchester, Colchester, Watford, Nottingham, Sheffield, Keswick, Ulverston. I could go on.

But here, to welcome this report, I want to conclude by describing one regional theatre and what it does, which I think stands for the best of what regional theatre can do. That company is the Northern Stage. It recently adapted William Trevor's novella The Ballroom of Romance. That is set in a village in Ireland in the late 1950s. It has been transplanted to northern Britain.

What needs to be emphasised is that Northern Stage has used its dramatic resources, its plant—the Playhouse Theatre—its professional talents, its equipment and its energies to fuse together gainfully elements in that north-eastern society which could cohere in no other way. The company went out to six village halls in Northumbria and, with its musicians and actors, made an event which galvanised those places across the class and generational spectrum, bringing them into the adaptation of the piece and, at the end, the performance of the piece.

A regional culture is refreshed, examined, celebrated and linked to what can be seen at first as a most unlikely project. The living past of that rich part of our nation is uncovered. The town centre is financially enriched by the villages outside its walls.

Theatres everywhere in the region can deliver all of that and more, more than is dreamt of in our philosophy. This is only the beginning. The 21st century will turn what we now see as leisure into big and growing businesses. I welcome the report and trust it manages the tightrope walk from the still embattled present to the sunrise of a future well foretold by Boyden.

8.19 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, it has always been my view that the arts are one of the primary things that make us human. Through drama we can explore and express our humanity. The best drama makes us think and feel differently about things. Since ancient times drama has been used by society to air the most contentious social, moral and political issues of the day. As such, drama is a valuable tool of communication within society and it is a way of enriching our lives. It should never be looked on purely as an economic activity.

My belief in that means that I welcome this report, the attention that the Government are belatedly paying to our regional producing theatres and the additional funds that are being allocated. It is surely the eleventh hour for some of them. For too tong we have taken for granted the devotion of people who work in the theatre. For too long we have underpaid and overworked them, made it difficult for their managers to plan properly and relied too much on the goodwill of local volunteers. For too long we have accepted that building-based theatre companies should struggle, often with a fabric that badly needs investment, to compete with exciting new arts venues and the burgeoning world of electronic entertainment.

However, the fact that many such theatres rely on local volunteers to help, particularly front-of-house, is good, because it is a clear illustration that the theatres are and must always be a focus of the local community. I have rarely felt such a strong sense of community as I did recently sitting in my local theatre, the excellent New Victoria, Newcastle. That little theatre serves Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stoke-on-Trent and the whole of North Staffordshire. It often has three plays in production at any one time. The ability to create new work and new productions of old work makes such theatres the life blood of British theatre, which is a very successful part of our national economy.

However, there is much more to it than that. If we stopped the creative process by forcing these local community theatres to perform only that which is considered "safe programming", we would cut off the life-saving drip from the veins of the bigger professional theatres which are so important for the tourism industry. Therefore, it is vital that those companies do not have to rely totally on box-office takings to survive. It is appropriate that they should be realistically subsidised—although I would rather call it investment—for the services that they render to society.

Regional producing theatres were, and still could be, micro-universities of theatrical skills. Not only the obvious performing skills, but also directing, writing, design, technical and production skills, front-of-house and financial management can be learned and developed there.

As to work in the community, recent cash from single regeneration budget bids, in co-operation with the local authorities, and Arts for Everyone grants have allowed the New Vic and others to undertake valuable work in the community and to demonstrate clearly the opportunity cost of failing to support them.

Such partnerships with local authorities are vital for the survival of those theatres. However, if the local authority does not see the need to support the arts, or is struggling financially, the theatres lose out. The Arts Council should be seeking to provide a buffer of core funding against that situation while, of course, encouraging such partnerships. At the same time, it is important that money allocated in that way is properly accountable to the local community for delivering its objectives.

Extra cash should not be seen as a subsidy but an investment. The benefits are clear and include jobs, training, tax-take, high quality, dynamic, relevant cultural experiences for our citizens and opportunities for young people, older people and unemployed people to volunteer. In my view, the key words are accountability and regionalism. If the structures put in place to deliver the national policy are not firmly underpinned by those two considerations, they will fail.

8.23 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for drawing attention to this report. In discussing it I shall not attempt to compete with the vivid metaphors used already by several noble Lords. I want to highlight the need for strong strategies for education, particularly for young people in regional theatre and in any future national plan for the theatre.

As the report says in more than one place, theatre makes a contribution to the cultural wealth of the nation. I believe that young people should be engaged in that wealth from an early age, with schools, parents and the theatre itself encouraging that involvement.

There may be tension between live production and education programmes. Surely they must be complementary if young people are to be drawn into the theatre as writers, actors or on the technical side, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Indeed the Arts Council's response to the report suggests that the spend on education should be doubled.

Most theatres in the survey seemed to agree that being part of a wider community is important, not only in itself, but also in order to attract local funding. Thirty-four out of 47 respondents quoted in the report employed a full-time head of education, but resources are a problem. The report suggests that education programmes make up just under 4 per cent of expenditure, while production costs take up almost 43 per cent. We are back to the tension about where a theatre puts its emphasis and its money. I suggest that, without determination to attract young people as participants and as audiences, the theatre cannot flourish.

I quote the experience of an opera company as an example of that determination that is applicable to the arts in general. The programme brochure for Opera North, based in Leeds, has a section on education. It says: Providing access to opera goes beyond cheaper ticket prices: it involves the demystification of the art form itself and the encouragement to participate in the creation of truthful, contemporary responses". That surely applies to all the arts. Opera North has worked in communities such as Bradford—in multicultural communities—producing opera that attracts young people.

In order to encourage the arts, the first thing to do is to attract interest. The sophistication and the finer points come later. Some young people will have access to the arts, some will discover an interest by accident but some will never, sadly, be touched. I am arguing for a deliberate policy which draws in young people and cultivates talent and accessibility.

Regional theatre is in a unique position to educate according to local needs. A good case must be made for strategic funding for education, particularly education to encourage the involvement of young people in the theatre.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Bernstein of Craigweil

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating this debate. I also want to associate myself with other noble Lords who have welcomed the Boyden report which is very instructive.

In the 1980s and 1990s I was chairman of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester for 10 years. The Royal Exchange is one of the major regional producing theatres that puts on eight or nine productions a year. Despite being designated a centre of excellence by the Arts Council, its grant was cut, in real terms, almost every year by Conservative Governments that seemed to have little concern for the arts.

Therefore, I congratulate Chris Smith at the DCMS and Gerry Robinson at the Arts Council on allocating an increase of £25 million for regional theatre which is in a desperate state. The money is only just in the nick of time.

Both the Boyden report and the Arts council stress that money is not the only problem facing theatres. They say that, the theatres need to produce vision and talent". That is undoubtedly true. The theatre audience is still mainly white, middle class and middle-aged. If it is to remain a relevant art form in the longer term, theatre must appeal to the young and to those who would not normally go to the theatre.

The Government are quite right to place great emphasis on education and access, but I make a plea to the DCMS and the Arts Council: in your understandable desire to further your policies, please avoid the temptation to lay down detailed plans and targets from the centre and do not make funding dependent on special schemes designed to achieve your aims. This has happened before and it is counterproductive. There have been many schemes-based funding initiatives coming from the centre and they have led to a mound of paperwork, additional administrative staff and a liberal use of consultants. Money has been spent on administration and not on what appears on the stage.

I say trust the artistic directors. By all means agree objectives with them; by all means evaluate their work each year; and by all means hold them accountable if they do not perform. But do not circumscribe them with detailed and aimless initiatives; people matter, not procedures. If we want excellence, we must give them adequate core funding and let them get on with the job. The Boyden report says of artistic directors, Without their passion and talent, our cultural world would be diminished, our communities less capable of self-expression and all our lives made smaller". I congratulate again the DCMS and the Arts Council on making available additional funds. I hope they will now permit the theatres to use them in the most constructive and creative way and without undue direction from the centre.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I reiterate the thanks of others to the instigator of this debate. I must confess to being a complete theatre nut. My first memory of my parents taking me to a production in London in either 1947 or 1948 was of "Annie get your gun" where I believe, probably for the first and last time in British theatrical history, people came down the aisles throwing pound notes into the audience singing, "Money is the root of all evil".

I do not believe the theatre thinks that any more. The problem is rather different, as we have heard. As the excellent Boyden report so accurately says, the decline in local authority funding in particular, according to his statistics, has been dramatic. It is as well to remember that local authorities provide a great deal more support to theatres than do central government—between £300 million and £70 million.

I hope to spend a moment talking about what used to be "little theatres" and small and medium-sized theatres—others have referred to them. A week or so ago we had a debate on sport. It was interesting to hear the analogies between the dependence of national excellence in sport upon local amateur sports clubs and their vital contribution, as with small theatres, to issues of social exclusion, community vitality and so forth. It is also interesting that nearly half the speakers in tonight's debate spoke then.

To give a story from the front, I come from a little town in Suffolk called Sudbury. We must be one of the smallest towns in England that has sustained its own theatre for many years. That went into near liquidation last week—an administrator has been put in. It is worth saying—neither the Boyden report nor the Government's response to it adequately recognises this—that though a theatre may not be a producing theatre, it is nonetheless a crucial locus of local artistic awareness, effort and performance. The Sudbury Quay Theatre is no exception. Wirth a turnover of £250,000, the total support by the regional arts board is only 2.5 per cent of its budget. The total local authority and regional arts board support is a mere 16 per cent of its budget, which is only half the average for a producing theatre.

One of the problems is that local authorities and regional arts boards sometimes stand in opposition to each other. The regional arts board says it wants more high culture, more classical and innovative works, whereas the local authorities say that they do not want that high-falutin stuff. They want popular stuff. Somewhere in the middle the poor old theatres are trapped. Frankly, unless they can put enough "bums on seats" they will go out of existence altogether. It is no good expecting small theatres to produce Richard Condons or some of the other brilliant, innovative and highly talented theatre managers that fortunately we have got.

In Suffolk we saw the Wolsey Theatre, a purpose-built repertory theatre, close. In north Essex, the Colchester and Mercury Theatre nearly went under last year. Fortunately it has a bright young woman administrator, Dee Evans, who is now doing all the things that an effective administrator will do and it is on its way back. But I emphasise that local authority financing needs more attention. At the moment it is only a discretionary expenditure and I believe that that needs looking at. Perhaps, being a Liberal Democrat, I am suspicious of any mandatory requirements. However, perhaps one could have a central fund into which local government could dip for topping up finance, which would reward those who spent most and give incentives to local authorities to spend. And perhaps I can briefly mention the prospect of some form of hypothecation of local rates which might bring in more finance.

This has been a frustrating evening. The issue is so large and important. I am afraid I must conclude by simply saying—in this I agree with my noble friend Lady Walmsley—that it is not sufficient to look at theatre funding in the role of subsidy. As others have said, it is a crucial component of a massive industry. Tourism in this country depends more, I suspect, on the brilliance of British theatre than any other single attribute. When we look at the entertainment industry all in the round—music, arts, television—it comes back again and again to providing more resource.

8.35 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for giving us the opportunity to debate the Boyden report. Among the panoply of talent that has spoken tonight I very much see myself as the ordinary member of the audience but none the less someone who loves the theatre as much as anybody who may be present tonight. Our theatre is still amongst the best in the world and we should be grateful to all those who make it possible for us to enjoy it.

In July I tabled some Written Questions on the report and in one of his Answers the Minister said: We need to ensure that the range, viability, accessibility and excellence of theatre across the regions of England end up stronger as a result of this review".—[Official Report, 6/7/00; col. WA155.] That is exactly the point. The question is: how does that happen? Over what period? And how will the Government measure success? They are very much a government into measuring things. For example, do they intend to apply the recommendations of the Quest Reports published earlier this month to the activities of the Arts Council? The reports I refer to are Creating e-Value, Developing Risk Management in DCMS Sponsored Bodies, A New Approach to Funding Agreements. I remind the Minister tonight, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Bernstein, that there might be cause for him to be alarmed by Appendix K: Template for linking performance indicators to objectives.

Is the Minister aware that a recurring theme at the Equity conference earlier this year was the growth of bureaucracy in arts funding, not the way that people in the arts spend the money that they are given where there is little or no slack. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said earlier, at that conference speaker after speaker complained that an ever-decreasing percentage of government money for the arts was actually getting into productions and on to our stages. It was said that there was an overwhelming feeling that the roles of the Arts Council of England and of the original arts boards need to be rigorously clarified and assessed—something the Boyden report itself recommended.

Do the Government agree with Boyden's suggestion that the Arts Council of England should be limited to a strategic and focused policy development role delivered by a much smaller organisation than presently heretofore? Are the Government satisfied with the percentage of its budget that the Arts Council spends on its bureaucracy and with its performance? Do the Government agree with me that the Arts Council needs to acknowledge the importance of private investors such as Cameron Mackintosh, Natwest and Equity Partners—I hold no brief for any of those—and that the Arts Council needs to make more of an effort to establish a dialogue with business?

We are pressed for time tonight. We went a little over with two speakers so I am trying to cut down my contribution. When the Minister answered my Written Questions in July, he did so in his customary courteous fashion. The Answers were as full and fair as he could make them at that time. I look forward tonight to hearing his response as to how far Government policy has moved on since then to take account of the reactions to the report. And I very much look forward to hearing his response to the questions put by my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon. I am delighted that when he becomes chair the RSC will maintain its passion about touring. I am sure everybody delights in its work. I assure my noble friend that it does get to Woking too where I live. I hope the Minister can give my noble friend the commitment that he seeks.

8.40 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for introducing the debate. I congratulate him on attracting a body of speakers who are extraordinarily expert, well informed and passionate about the subject. They are also skilled at staccato delivery. Making a four-minute speech is a fine art form; a parliamentary version of a haiku. But when it works it works well—and it has worked well tonight.

Perhaps I may remind the House of the arm's length principle and the way in which we deal with the Arts Council and those to whom it gives grants. We could be tempted into saying, "Yes, more money for the Chester Gateway; yes, more money for the Sheffield Crucible; no, no more money for that other one", but that would be generally agreed to be extremely dangerous. The Arts Council's responsibility is to decide national strategy together with the regional arts boards which have devolved funding responsibility. Ministers do not intervene.

The point about that is that the Boyden report was not to Ministers but to the Arts Council. However, we try to give a general steer and Chris Smith has been doing exactly that. As part of our funding agreement with the Arts Council, we have already agreed that priority will be given to try and resolve the problems of the regional producing theatres. Perhaps I may quote from Chris Smith's press release at the end of July. He stated: I have asked the Arts Council to give priority to two particular programmes of work within the new allocation. The first is to try and resolve once and for all the endemic problems of regional producing theatres up and down the country. In far too many of our towns and cities, theatres are struggling financially. Some are dark for long periods. Artistic excellence is threatened. Following on from the Boyden report, this settlement"— which I shall explain in a moment— will enable these problems to be addressed". He went on to say, as I am sure my noble friend Lady McIntosh is aware, that the second particular programme is the development of creative partnerships, bringing together the artistic and cultural organisations in an area to work in particular with schools. What my noble friend said about the educational role of the theatre is important.

Beyond those general directions within the funding agreement, we do not interfere with the allocation of money. Indeed, the detailed allocation by the Arts Council from the spending review 2000, which was announced in July, will not be announced until February next year.

I want to reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who seems to believe that there is a particular problem of bureaucracy in the Arts Council. I believe that she should look at what has happened to the Arts Council since Gerry Robinson went there. There has been a significant reduction in the number of what she calls "bureaucrats". Of course there has been an increase in the regional arts boards but the thrust of the past two years has been the reduction of bureaucracy. I hope that when the noble Baroness looks at the figures she will accept that.

We must recognise that although many people regard the theatre in this country as the best in the world it has enormous difficulties. Everyone knows about the triumphs of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. We are pleased to have the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh here, not to represent them but to present the case for them.

However, we recognise that the theatre is an art form in crisis. The overall situation has been of theatres surviving rather than thriving, as many speakers have made clear. Richard Eyre, in his LAMDA lecture, said: Established actors, writers, directors and designers continue to produce occasional stabs"— "occasional stabs" is a threatening phrase— of thrilling theatre and are challenged by a new generation of actors/writers—Patrick Marber, Martin McDonagh and Jonathan Harvey, to name a few—and directors—Simon McBurney, Stephen Daldry, Nicholas Hytner, Deborah Warner, Declan Donellan, Sam Mendes, to name a few more". But he added: The body of British theatre is atrophying, largely, it might appear, through lack of consistent financial work, which has induced a lack of confidence and ambition, leading to poor work, which has been rewarded by poor audiences … No one—at least privately—believes that the current problems with the theatre are all due to lack of money, but everyone believes that they have been greatly aggravated by it". Those views—both the praise and the criticism—are reflected in the Boyden report.

Boyden concluded that there had beer fewer performances, contributing to a reduction in audiences. There is less employment in the theatre, the average actor being employed in the theatre for only 11 weeks a year. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, they are badly paid, particularly in the regional theatres. Boyden also concluded that there are smaller casts; shorter rehearsal periods; less new work being commissioned; a significant reduction in the number of tours; and an accumulated deficit of £4.4 million to the end of March 1999.

That is the basis on which we have been able to encourage the Arts Council to refine a national policy based on the wider theatre ecology. I want to say a little about how that has developed and is developing. In the Government's first spending review in 1998, we were able to start reversing the decline in real term spending on the arts. In July, the Secretary of State was able to do even better over the next three years. This year, arts funding stands at £238 million. In 2003–04, it will be £338 million. With that settlement, arts funding will have increased by 60 per cent in real terms in five years. That is an average annual growth of almost 5 per cent. That cannot be right; it does not make sense! I must think about that again. There are different figures from different phases and I guess that I have calculated some of them myself.

However, looking at the record of previous years, I am afraid it is true that during the period 1993–99 the national theatres had a standstill in cash terms and the regional theatres had an increase of only 10 per cent compared with a growth in the economy of 15 per cent. That is a significant decline.

With the additional funding that we have been able to announce for the period up to 2003–04, which by then will exactly match the figure that Gerry Robinson said was necessary in his excellent New Statesman lecture, it must be appreciated that we recognise the range of artistic activity flourishing in every region and every art form. The Arts Council and the regional arts boards have a challenging task in determining how best to support the many artists. However, the Secretary of State's announcement adds significantly to their ability to give that support and to enhance the nation's cultural life. It is fair to say that both Gerry Robinson and Peter Hewitt., chief executive, have recognised that.

The total spend on theatre by the Arts Council and the regional arts boards in 2000–01 will be approximately £70 million, including funding through the national touring programme, new audiences and other programmes. The Arts Council has already announced additional money for the theatre; honouring existing commitments in 2001–02; £12 million extra in 2002–03; and £25 million extra in 2003–04. As I said earlier, the allocation of that money will be announced in February next year. This is a collaboration which depends upon the theatre community coming up with imaginative programmes to revitalise the theatre. In many parts of the country it is dependent on local authority funding. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that private support is both necessary and very welcome.

I refer next to the thoughtful speech of my noble friend Lord Bernstein. There is a difficulty about how far we seek to intervene in the way that the money is spent. He made a plea against undue direction from the centre, with which I sympathise. At the same time, we must positively encourage the educational and outreach work of the theatre and its touring activities, particularly those of our national theatres. We must ensure that the policy of the Arts Council embraces the theatre as a whole: producing, receiving and touring. We do not look for change for change's sake. We are not just about doing more but doing it better, and sometimes differently, and spending the money in new ways. We believe that the regional arts boards, like local authorities, can play a major part in developing the regional context. It is important that, like the Boyden report, we address the failures of the regional theatre as well as applaud its successes.

As far as we know, theatre has been a living force in this country since the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. I am sure that it goes further back than that, although it has been lost. Even now with so much electronic entertainment, theatre has a power which comes from creating a shared live experience that can move, surprise and engage us in a way that a screen or radio can never do. I shall not say that in a television debate.

Stephen Daldry said in a recent interview: Finding truth in the theatre is not enough. The actor also has to find that truth repeatedly, night after night, in front of very different audiences … which is why the theatre will always be a more dangerous medium. It's not just the excitement that the audience knows things can go wrong, it is also the knowledge that the moment witnessed is unique, never to be seen by anyone else". The Government genuinely recognise the excitement and difference of the theatre, including the regional producing theatre. I hope that I have shown how much we care.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 8.55 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.52 to 8.55 p.m.]

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