HL Deb 07 March 2001 vol 623 cc199-201

2.44 p.m.

Lord Harrison

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the report from the Theatres Trust that many of Britain's most historic and best-loved theatres are uncomfortable and unsafe.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Theatres Trust's annual report did indeed make reference to theatre audiences in uncomfortable seats but it did not state that any of the country's theatres are unsafe. The Theatres Trust says that nearly all of the theatre buildings in London's West End, most of which are in commercial hands, need improving to meet modern standards of comfort and safety. The Government welcome the work of the trust in advising theatre managements and others on how theatre buildings can best serve the needs of modern audiences.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, performing so ably, as he does, on the best upholstered red-Bench live theatre in town here in the House of Lords, does my noble friend agree with me, nevertheless, that the poor physical condition of many of our theatres compromises the enjoyment and safety of theatregoers, which indeed is confirmed by the Theatres Trust's report?

In addition, given that more people still go to live theatre in this country than attend live football every week, does my noble friend consider that the Government might commission a Taylor report into British auditoria?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we have the Theatres Trust doing that job very effectively. It was set up by the British government, specifically by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney, in 1976. It performs extremely effectively in that way. I do not think that we need an extra report on the subject.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, surely the report is right to point out the particular difficulties in the West End, where there is little scope for refurbishment and improvement compared with other parts of the country. Does the noble Lord agree that, since the average body mass and height of our population have increased enormously since the days when most of those theatres were built, there needs to be some creative thinking about how that space should be used? Does the Minister agree that the number of seats should be reduced so that the level of comfort is increased while at the same time increasing the amount of standing room so that poor people and young people in particular could gain admission at a reduced price? If the entertainment bored them, as Richard Eyre tells us it may do now, they could then slip away unseen.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I did not expect that the theme of the Taylor report was going to lead to us talking about terraces in our theatres. I do not think that that would be a very good idea. The problem arises particularly in commercial theatres in the West End of London and in a number of our regional and provincial theatres. The problem that they have is that the sites are extremely restricted and they have great difficulty in raising money for capital programmes. We cannot help them by intervening in commercial theatre. But what we can do, and what we shall be doing, is to increase the amount of public money which goes to the touring theatre, to the support of the art itself rather than the venue for the arts. In turn, that will help the economics of the commercial theatres and will help them to have money for other purposes.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the way to become more fully aware of the problems of the theatre is to listen to the Theatres Trust? Is my noble friend aware also that both the previous government and the present Government have shown signs that they appreciate the nature of the problem? I am afraid that in future, the trust will need more backing for the financial consequences of the situation which it now faces. I hope that when the request comes forward, the Government will be eager to fulfil it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have already expressed my warm appreciation for the work of the Theatres Trust and the role of my noble friend in setting it up. Of course, he is right that what is needed is more money. But the difficulty that I have is that today is 7th March and tomorrow, on 8th March, the Government will be announcing a further allocation of £25 million to the theatre in England, which will clearly help a large number of the programmes which have been referred to in debate this afternoon. But I cannot give the detail of how that £25 million is to be allocated.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, recalling the experience on the Greater London Council which the Minister and I shared, will he join with me in welcoming the funds that have been raised to restore the Hackney Empire to, I understand, its full grandeur?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, under the arm's length principle, that matter is devolved to the Arts Council. I am extremely sympathetic to what the noble Baroness says, as I am sympathetic to her reference to our joint painful experiences on the GLC Film Viewing Committee.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, without in any way undervaluing the importance of buildings, does my noble friend agree that audiences are attracted into the theatres mainly because of what takes place there? Does he also agree that there is a significant dependence in the commercial sector of theatre on work that originates in the subsidised sector? Can he add to what he said about how the Government will help money and other resources go towards theatre practice as opposed to theatre building?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I strongly agree with what my noble friend says. Historically, support from the National Lottery has been to buildings rather than to the people who work in them. More recently, the Arts Council, encouraged by the Government, has had a deliberate policy to divert that support from the buildings to the people. In particular, the support that the Arts Council now gives to touring theatre and productions for new theatre audiences should be a great encouragement to both commercial and subsidised theatres.