HC Deb 01 December 1999 vol 340 cc93-100WH 12.30 pm
Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

I declare a non-financial interest as a member of the board of Gwent theatre in education. The debate will cover not just the future of a few theatre companies, but the future of theatre in education and the benefits that our children derive from that experience.

I was reminded of that some days ago when I received correspondence from Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who stated: I feel very strongly that involving children in the performing arts at an early age is vital for two reasons. Firstly, it opens their minds and releases their imaginations to creative possibilities and secondly, it allows children from any background or economic circumstance to show and develop their talents on an equal basis. There is no better way in which children can express their self-worth than through working with other children and being encouraged to show what they can do. Similar sentiments and recognition of the importance of the work were expressed by Hannah Gething in a letter to a local newspaper, the Abergavenny Chronicle, which stated: I never realised that education could be so enchanting, inspirational and fun until, at the age of ten years, our class was dragged down to the school hall to watch 'A Midsummer's Night Dream' by William Shakespeare. A play containing fairies, love, comedy, oppression and class divisions, was softened by Shakespeare's portrayal of magic. Yet, in my opinion, this magical play would not have captured the intentions of its playwright if it were not for the spectacular performance of Gwent Theatre. Despite being a small company, they create performances that all professional theatre companies would be proud of. To lose Gwent Theatre would be to lose a valuable and creative part of the community. The letter continued: How many theatre companies would be willing to take in the youth of our town … in order to give them a chance to get off the streets and realise talents they were unaware of; talents that could go unrecognised at school? It is Gwent Theatre who have enabled our young people to attend some of Britain's most successful musical and acting institutions and have prepared other young people for film and television. Cutting Gwent Theatre's funds is a tragedy but surely not a tragedy where we can simply close the script! This debate is our way to ensure that the script is not closed. Indeed, it will not be closed until the drama strategy of the Arts Council of Wales is scrapped.

Only yesterday, the Welsh parliamentary Labour party unanimously called for an inquiry into the matter. It was right to do so, because before becoming the chairperson of the Arts Council of Wales, Sybil Crouch described the drama strategy as a tragedy that will further deprive valley communities outside Cardiff, Milford Haven and Mold, and the consultation process as a mockery. Yet when she became the chairperson, by sheer coincidence, she decided that the strategy was acceptable and proceeded to defend it.

I can forgive a fool, but it is difficult to forgive those who sell their past and everything that has been important to them to further their self-interest and to damn those who are victims of their decisions. Unfortunately, the Minister in the Welsh Assembly who is responsible for the arts seems to be willing to peddle the nonsense provided to him by the Arts Council of Wales. He announced a few days ago that the drama strategy will result in more money, more performances, more actor weeks and larger audiences. That is untrue, and if he did not know that then, I hope that he does now. My hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) and I issued a statement that we were saddened that that Minister should be part of such a publicity stunt, which gave a totally inaccurate picture of drama in Wales. My hon. Friends and I met the Arts Council of Wales on Monday and were told that theatre in education companies that had made bids for the franchise for the work had to be wanted in the area". I suppose that that is what Hannah Gething was trying to express in her letter to her local newspaper, and we agree with that sentiment—if we did not, we would be treating our communities and their opinions with disdain.

Theatr Iolo's successful bid for the Gwent area had support from London, Cleveland, Warwick and Merthyr, but not one organisation or individual in Gwent was willing to support that bid for the franchise. When we met the Arts Council of Wales, we suggested that, following the publicity surrounding the recent scandal, someone must have written in to support Theatr Iolo's bid, but the council could not name a single organisation in Gwent that had supported it.

Compare that with Gwent theatre, which received support in Gwent from all—I emphasise all—Members of Parliament, Assembly Members, members of the House of Lords, local authorities, 120 schools, 120 voluntary organisations, a petition signed by more than 8,000 people and stars of stage, screen and television, including Victor Spinetti and Caroline Sheen, who played the lead in "Mamma Mia" in the west end a few days ago and who is a product of Gwent young people's theatre. That support is not confined to the people of Gwent. Outside Gwent, 125 Labour Members of Parliament and dozens of Welsh Assembly Members showed their support.

Gwent theatre is "wanted in the area" because it started theatre in education in that country 20 years ago. It built up a company and a service that is one of the finest in the United Kingdom. The Arts Council of Wales told us that the successful applicant had to be wanted in the area", but it is ignoring its own rules, the support for Gwent theatre and the total absence of local support for Theatr Iola.

The Arts Council of Wales is telling people in my valley and other valleys in Gwent that they are not clever people, but idiots, so it cannot allow them to determine the direction of theatre in education or the company that should represent them. The Arts Council of Wales, in its plush offices in the capital city of Wales, is making decisions for those people. Its argument is that not only are people in Gwent incapable of determining the direction that theatre in education should follow, but none of the hundreds of thousands of people in Gwent has the skill, talent or creativity to direct a theatre in education company. The Arts Council of Wales decided to overcome the problem by asking a Cardiff-based company to go and to educate the people of the valleys.

People from the valleys are not idiots. They are capable of making such decisions, as they were capable of creating the history and a community spirit of which we are proud. The first production by Gwent theatre, which I was with 23 years ago, reminded us of that history. It taught us that the history of our community is not a history of kings, queens and generals, but a history of working people, miners, steel workers and women who worked in factories and at home. That is the history of my village and of our parents. Gwent theatre consistently reminds us to be proud of that history and those communities and never to apologise for them. It can do that because it has been a part of those communities and that history, which it has helped to create.

We wanted to have a rational debate with the Arts Council on the franchise for theatre in education, so we requested certain information. We asked to see Theatr Iola's bids. We asked for the minutes of the discussions in which the decisions were taken, for the minutes of the discussions on Theatr Iola's business plan, for the details of the organisation that supports Theatr Iola and for copies of the individual marks on the 13 criteria that the evaluation panel awarded to each franchise, but all those requests, and more, were refused.

I can only assume that there is something to hide, but what? We are talking about a charitable body—a small theatre company—not about an arms manufacturer selling dodgy weapons to even dodgier foreign powers, so what is there to hide? Why should these requests be refused? Companies such as Gwent theatre and Theatre Powys have made their bids public.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

The value of theatre in education, as the hon. Gentleman has said, is immeasurable to young people; it gives them poise, confidence and the ability to make progress in society and to carve out a career. In rural east Wales, companies such as Theatre Powys will not be able to continue as a result of the strategy of the Arts Council of Wales. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there should be a major inquiry and a reversal of that strategy, which is destroying community-based theatre in Wales?

Mr. Smith

I agree totally with the hon. Gentleman, but that inquiry would be worthless unless we have access to the information that he and I, and many others, have demanded. However, being optimistic, I always believe that it is impossible to keep a secret. Information is leaking out. Although Theatr Iola refused me access to information on the bid, it provided me with other information. I discovered, for example, that its business plan did not mention where in Gwent the company would be sited, or the costs of setting up such a company in a different county. I do not understand how the Arts Council could have accepted the business plan without that information, especially as Gwent theatre's building, which has been refurbished in the past few years, is now worth about £500,000. If Theatr Iola wants to go to Gwent, it will need a similar base. Surely the cost of that base should have been included in the business plan.

Theatr Iola informed me that the funding for its base could come from the money in its bank account and from any other successful bids for funds that it may make in future. Obviously, future grants will not help to solve its immediate problem of setting up a base in Gwent by April 2000. I contacted Companies House in Cardiff to check how much money Theatr Iola had in the bank in April 1999. It was £25,000 in credit. If it used every penny of that money. It could not purchase a dilapidated building in the most deprived part of our community.

Mr. Livesey

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that Powys county council has earmarked £145,000 to support Theatre Powys this year, but it is not prepared to match that sum for an outside company? That puts in focus the inadequacy of its financial plans.

Mr. Smith

The position is similar in Gwent. When we asked the Arts Council why it did not check that financial backing was not available to Theatr Iola, it informed us that it could not be certain about such matters. We were staggered by that remark, because that is the one thing that should certainly be demanded in determining a business plan. Where will the base be? What will it cost? How will the money be raised? Those are a few of the questions that must be answered. When I asked the director of Theatr Iola where its base in Gwent would be, he admitted that he did not know, saying, "Look here, we would not want the base to be more than 25 miles away. If it was more than 25 miles away, we would have to pay the additional expenses demanded by Equity." So we can forget about Theatr Iola being based in the northern part of my community—the most deprived part—because those additional expenses are more important than anything else.

When we raised such issues with the Arts Council, we were shocked to be told that the money could come from the £125,000 franchise. If Theatr Iola used all that money, it could have a base similar to that of Gwent theatre. Every penny of that money that it uses is a penny less for the services that were awarded the franchise. We asked how many members of the evaluation panel, whose responsibility it was to decide which bidders would be successful, had allocated points when judging the individual companies that applied for the franchise, but the Arts Council refused to give us that information. It also refused to deny that Theatr Iola was allocated points for criteria on which it should have been impossible for it to receive points. For example, a company cannot be given points for receiving local authority support if it receives no such support. It cannot receive points for having a base, if it has no such base. It would be as though I had awarded top marks to someone who had not even bothered to sit an examination.

It is scandalous that only half the evaluation panel that took the decision had witnessed a performance by Gwent theatre. How can a company's artistic ability be judged without seeing one of its performances? The Arts Council would not tell us of the scores allocated to each company. It did not explain the allocation, nor did it convince us that nothing underhand had taken place in awarding the franchises.

This debate is part of a campaign to rectify that wrong. We hope that the Welsh Assembly, as one of the bodies responsible for Arts Council moneys, will insist on an inquiry, as did the parliamentary Labour party yesterday evening. During the elections to the Welsh Assembly, nearly all the parties told us that they would make a bonfire of the quangos; they would end the quango state in Wales. Unfortunately, that has not happened, but they could begin to rectify that wrong by putting pressure on the Arts Council to change its decision. The Arts Council is as much a quango as any other. The campaign will continue until the injustices have been rectified, and the Arts Council must realise that it is as simple as that.

12.48 pm
Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) for securing this debate, for his vigorous support of the campaign and for his work as a member of the board. I also thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) for his contribution to the public meeting on the issue. The same points can be made about Theatre Gwent as about Theatre Powys.

The headquarters of Theatre Gwent is in my constituency at Abergavenny. I have been associated with the company all the time that I have been a Member of Parliament. I have seen performances in village halls, in the middle of Monmouth during the festival and in schools recently.

The decision taken by the Arts Council of Wales not to award Gwent theatre the contract to provide theatre in education of Gwent is mistaken and perverse; it will have catastrophic consequences for a theatre company that has gained a reputation for excellence. That is a serious problem.

I am not qualified to comment on artistic matters, but I can comment on public accountability. How can a publicly funded Welsh body allocate £125,000 without making available its business plan? I ask the Minister to request that the companies' business plans be deposited in the Library.

How can Theatre Iola show evidence of support from local authorities, which was a key criterion, when it did not seek any such support? According to the criterion, each applicant must supply evidence of planned or obtained local authority financial support. To our knowledge, none of the local authorities in this area gave any support. They were not asked to do so, even though a key criterion is to provide education through education authorities, which are funded by local authorities. In response, Blaenau Gwent county council said: The whole procedure has been deeply flawed and none of the stakeholders, the funding partners, have been involved in the allocation of the new franchises. Monmouthshire county council said: All members of the Council have unanimously condemned the decision of the Arts Council and asked all authorities in Wales to hold them accountable for recent decisions. The third point that I wish to make is on the assessment of artistic ability of the two companies—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to speak because the Minister and his hon. Friend have given him permission. However, the debate is intended to be between the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and the Minister, and the hon. Gentleman is now eating into the Minister's time.

Mr. Edwards

I shall just finish my last sentence, having sought permission to contribute from the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent. How can the panel assess the artistic ability of either company if it has not gone to the schools? I have been to the schools—I asked permission to do so. It is incredible that a decision can be made on the performance of a company in a school without the evaluation board going to the school. That raises serious issues about public accountability and the accountability of the Arts Council of Wales, and I hope that there will be an investigation.

12.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson)

I am pleased to take part in a debate on this subject, in which there is great interest. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) secured the debate, but I am also glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) and others are present and taking an interest in this important matter.

I recognise that the issues that were raised today are of a serious nature. They were well presented, with passion, by my hon. Friends. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent will be aware, the Arts Council of Wales is the responsibility of the National Assembly. Nevertheless, arts policy is important to the UK Government, and I fully recognise the concerns raised by my hon. Friend in defending his constituency interests.

I should briefly outline the context of arts funding in Wales. As hon. Members will be aware, the Assembly has the power, under section 32 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, to do anything that it considers appropriate to support the arts in Wales. The Arts Council of Wales is an Assembly-sponsored public body set up by royal charter. The relationship between the Assembly and the Arts Council is governed by the council's management statement, which makes it clear that it is for the council to allocate resources, and for the Assembly to satisfy itself as to the proper conduct in fulfilling that role. Tom Middlehurst, who is responsible for post-16 education, retains direct political control of the Arts Council of Wales and of the areas mentioned. Given the seriousness of the points made today, I am taking an interest in such matters, as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Clearly, my hon. Friends who have spoken today are unhappy about the Arts Council's decisions on who will obtain funding under the new theatre for young people scheme, and about the process by which such decisions have been made. The scheme has replaced the school-based theatre in education scheme, which was previously run by the Arts Council. Under the new scheme, funding to provide theatre and educational experiences will be limited to five theatre organisations, which is a reduction on the eight companies that currently receive funding. My hon. Friends have mentioned Theatre Gwent, Theatre Powys and Clwyd Theatre Cymru in north Wales, all of whose bids were unsuccessful. At this point, I should declare an interest: my wife, Councillor Margaret Hanson, is the chair of the Clwyd Theatre Cymru board, but she receives no remuneration for that post.

I am aware that early-day motion 980, which calls for a review of the proposed scheme, has been signed by well over 100 colleagues. I am also keenly aware that there have been meetings in the House of Commons between hon. Members and the Arts Council, between the First Secretary and hon. Members and between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and hon. Members. Deep concern has been expressed about the impact of the decisions on the theatres that have been mentioned.

In preparing for this debate, I read with great interest the detailed press reports, from all parts of Wales, of further representations. Among those making representations were Victor Spinetti and the Guild of Writers and Musicians, who live and breathe the theatres involved, and recognise the great contribution that they have made to the community in Wales. I must not ignore the local authorities, which are integral to the success of theatres in north, mid and south-east Wales, and which have also expressed concern.

I intend to ensure that the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent, and by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, are put to the Assembly and the Arts Council.

Mr. Edwards

Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that he will request that the bids of Theatre Gwent and Theatr Iolo are deposited in the Library of the House and, possibly, in the Welsh Assembly library?

Mr. Hanson

I shall put the request to the Arts Council and the responsible Assembly Secretary.

As I have mentioned, I have no direct responsibility for the Arts Council in Wales. However, I believe strongly in openness and transparency in decisions made by public bodies; I always have and I always will. Openness and transparency were central to the devolution settlement that was agreed: making decisions more open and accountable, and making them closer to the people affected. I was not party to the process by which decisions were made by the Arts Council in relation to the scheme. However, in the interests of openness, I shall write to the Assembly Secretary, Tom Middlehurst, and to the chief executive of the Arts Council, to pass on the concerns of hon. Members who have spoken today. I shall ask them to reply to me at the Welsh Office about those concerns. I shall also request the information for which my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth asked, and I shall consider the possibility of placing those items in the Library.

Devolution is about partnership. Just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State listened to the Assembly's thoughts on the Queen's Speech, I hope that the Assembly will listen to the concerns expressed in this House today, in the spirit of co-operation and openness that we are seeking to engender in the partnership process. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent will be aware that the theatres concerned can appeal should they so wish. An independent assessor would sit on any appeal panel.

Mr. Llew Smith

May I inform the Minister that that is a misuse of the English language? The Arts Council took the decision that Theatre Gwent should not have that franchise, and the Arts Council will decide whether that franchise should be restored. As I understand the meaning of the word, that is not independence.

Mr. Hanson

I shall look into that. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the appeal process, it is in place. I have seen correspondence that my hon. Friend has had with the Assembly Secretary, and he may be able to refer the matter to the Welsh administration ombudsman, if there is evidence of any inappropriate action. I have heard his request for a full inquiry into the matter, and I shall ask the Assembly to treat it with the gravity that it deserves.

The Government believe in theatre and education in the UK context. It is one of the main strands of our arts policy proposals. Education and theatre provide a great opportunity to expand people's potential, involve them in our communities, and make Britain a centre for world excellence in arts and culture. Our three aims are building excellence in the arts, allowing greater access and allowing education to develop a love of the arts and a skill base for future economic development.

I support the call for openness. I shall write to the Assembly Secretary and the Arts Council, and I shall consider the question of the appeals panel, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent mentioned. I shall also ensure that the Assembly addresses his concerns. It is important, in a spirit of partnership, openness and sharing, that differing views are understood, and that the future of the arts in Gwent, Powys and north Wales is considered. I cannot comment on propriety, but I shall ensure that those matters are dealt with.