Orders of the Day — Arts (Funding)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:53 pm on 26th March 1985.

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Photo of Mr Norman Buchan Mr Norman Buchan , Paisley South 9:53 pm, 26th March 1985

I had intended to be brief and I still intend to be brief. I want to deal specifically with funding, but it would be quite wrong if I did not say a word or two about the extraordinary speech of the hon. Member for Warwickshire, South (Mr. Maude). It is unbelievable that anybody in Britain can say that the period from the mid-1940s onwards has been the worst ever period for British art, given the background of Olivier, Richardson, Ashcroft, Gielgud, Redgrave, and, secondly, that there should be a substitution for public funding which is accountable to a very large number of people. The alternative is private sponsorship.

The hon. Member put forward two arguments for private sponsorship. The first was that it would be chosen by individuals. The mind boggles at the the thought of Rupert Murdoch in charge of the choice of works of art in this country. That is what it would amount to. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman says that private sponsorship has proved to be adventurous because it has put up money for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

As the man who started the Edinburgh Fringe, I am pleased about that, but in the initial years no such money was forthcoming for our productions. No money is being given for the present production of the play about the miners, "The Garden of England". When that comes, we might talk.

Such nonsense can be equalled only by the Minister for the Arts in his infamous speech in the House of Lords when he said that there had been an 18 per cent. increase in real terms in arts funding since the Government came to office. The funding and the figures are important. The Minister for the Arts claimed that the arts had received an 18 per cent. increase since 1978–79. He claimed that on television, in an argument with Peter Hall and others, and in the House of Lords. I assume that he intended to cover the Tory period in office.

The year 1978–79 was a curious year to choose. It was the last year of the Labour Government and therefore refers to a Labour programme. I am curious about why the Minister for the Arts should have sought some spurious credit. The answer is even more curious. In that year there was a computer strike and £6 million from the Labour programme was transferred to the following year's programme. About 5 per cent. of the total was therefore paid in the following year, thus producing an artificially low figure for 1978–79 and an equally high jump in the following year. That means that the 18 per cent. claim can be reduced by more than one third in real terms. The claim is nonsense, but it reveals creative accounting by an Arts Minister who was once a Treasury Minister. The claim is strange because, according to the Minister for the Arts, public expenditure is, by definition, evil. The Government say that all public spending is bad and that it must be cut. It is strange that they should take credit for a Labour Government spending programme.

Within one month of the general election in 1979, the Government started to cut money for the arts. Within a month they cut the programme which they inherited from us by 2 per cent. Well over 10 per cent. of that 18 per cent. was spent in a single year—in 1982–83, the year before the election. The 18 per cent. figure is the combined result of our actions, of the computer strike and of the 1983 election.

The Government's first action after that general election was again to cut the arts budget. To be fair, that did not take place within a month. It took two or three months. In October the Government cut the arts programme on which they fought the election Two elections were successfully over, and two cuts faced the arts world. So much for Government claims about total spending. The claim is nonsense.

Two matters are important. We are dealing with a tiny—some would say mean—overall budget for the arts, libraries and museums. Therefore, any single major item can immediately and adversely affect others. For example, this coming year alone necessary expenditure on the British Library of over £7 million will take half the apparent planned increase in cash terms.

Many museums and galleries such as the National gallery and the Victoria and Albert museum are in difficulties. The increased cost of necessary repairs to such museums and galleries will be three times the rate of inflation in the coming year. That single aspect accounts for over 10 per cent. of the total Department budget.

I deal next with the immediate issue, to which the Minister for the Arts referred in scathing terms as the crisis in the arts. Any claimed increase in real terms for Arts Council spending in the Tory period of office suffers from the same spurious and creative accountancy as the overall budget for the Office of Arts and Libraries.

In 1983–84, after the pre-election mini-boom in arts funding, the old cycle was repeated—a cut in the arts. Then came the attempt to demonstrate that the national institutions were all profligate and inefficient spenders. The Government tried to do this through the Priestley report, and it boomeranged, because they were wrong. Those institutions turned out to be more efficient than most of the capitalist organisations that the Minister has been praising. This error cost £3·5 million. The Government were determined that somebody else should pay for it. Instead of the Government paying for it, it was paid for by cutting what was made available to the rest of the arts. It turned out that the arts would have to pay for this.

Priestley became a camouflage. Whether from pique or from another burst of creative accountancy, the Government used Priestley to make a savage cut of 4 per cent. in real terms in the provision for the rest of theatre and music in Britain by claiming credit for fulfilling Priestley. With the inclusion of the extra amount in Priestley, there was still an overall cut. That in itself is a measure of what the arts have had to face. The effect only two years ago was a cut of 4 per cent. in real terms in the rest of the performing arts in Britain. It is a devastating figure for the arts world to sustain. The factor of over £4 million a year is applicable to last year, this year and next year.

As to the talk of an increase of £5 million, four fifths is coming out because of the pledge in Priestley which has been borne not by the Government directly but by the rest of the arts. Thus there is the continuing factor of the drop of 4 per cent. because Priestley has continued into 1984–85, when total art funding is virtually frozen in real terms. That is the reason for the crisis and why it is correct for Sir Peter Hall, Melvin Bragg, others and myself to say that there is a genuine crisis in the arts.

In the coming year, there is to be a new factor. On top of Priestley, there is "The Glory of the Garden". This developed a strategy for devolution of the arts, but without the funds to carry through the strategy. Three million pounds was allocated for the strategy and its development this year, when the total grant in real terms has been cut, even taking account of the Priestley money. The real problem is that the development will cost £3 million, which has not been provided, and it must therefore come from the existing art world.

It is not the Government who are paying for "The Glory of the Garden", but the rest of the arts. It is a repeat of the Priestley sleight of hand. To that £3 million must be added another £1 million of costs that have come out of the Arts Council budget because of the £600,000 properly allocated to Scotland to compensate for the loss of local authority funding following the implementation by the Government of the Stoddart report. Another £400,000 is to come out of arts expenditure to prepare for the running of the South Bank by the Arts Council following yet another piece of political pique and stupidity by the Government in seeking to abolish the Greater London council.

Taking these factors into consideration for last year, this year and next year, we are witnessing a cut in real terms of about 5 per cent. for the majority of the existing performing arts. That is serious, but the story does not end there—the worst is yet to come.

Great play has been made—correctly—of the value of the plurality of funding in the arts. The main source of funding in the arts other than central Government—indeed, greater than central Government — is local authorities. They gave 50 times as much money to the arts in 1981–82 as private sources. In 1984–85 they gave between 15 and 20 times as much. They are the main bulwark of support for the arts today and without them the arts would collapse.

We now know the depth of the crisis and the reason for the fear. In the same period about which the Conservatives boast—from 1978–79 to the present time—there has been a collapse of over 8·5 per cent. in local authority finance. The 5 per cent., in effective terms, from central Government, plus the 8 per cent. from local authority funding, proves the point.

We are only now beginning to appreciate the effects of cutting, capping and abolition. The Scottish experience shows how changes of this kind can drastically affect support funding for the arts. In total public spending there has been a real decrease in financial terms and a major decrease in effective terms.

Each day my post contains letters from companies throughout Britain which are in increasingly desperate straits. Today I received a letter from the director of a major music festival outlining anxieties about the festival. The British Council is worried about the general effects on the arts. Another letter tells me of a major British city that is anxious about the consequences of the Government's policy on library provision. From a group of young unemployed actors seeking to mount a new company comes a letter telling me about their fears. I suspect that many hon. Members with an interest in the arts receive similar letters.

We shall reverse the trend. We find it shameful that Britain should be at the bottom of the league in Europe in provision for the arts. The very existence of our national theatre is threatened. More important, we see being threatened the flourishing work that was done in the last decade or more by local communities, ethnic groups and local authorities. What has occurred has been a national scandal, and the trend must be halted and reversed before deeper damage is done.

With that in mind, I give a pledge. Bearing in mind the present level of central Government funding through the Arts Council, my intention is to double that amount within the first 12 months of taking office. That will be done either through direct central Government funding or through additional earmarked support to local authorities. I stress the latter point, because we recognise—I regret to have to say this—that the present leadership of the Arts Council has failed. Where they should have fought, they have surrendered. Where they should have spoken as advocates for the arts, they have acted as apologists for the Government.

We recognise, further, that if the principle of devolution of the arts—ill-thought out in "The Glory of the Garden"—is to be rescued and made effective, it must be through the strengthening of the regional and local control of funding. We shall therefore begin immediately on taking office the necessary structural changes in the funding of the arts to bring that about.

Next, I pledge that if the philosophy of the Conservatives in the arts is extended to charging for museums, galleries and so on, we shall reverse that process too, as we had to do on a previous occasion.

This is a philistine as well as a monetarist Government. Indeed, they are a philistine Government because they are monetarist. They cannot understand art in any terms but cash. They fail to understand the deeper value of art because they see it only in cash terms. We value the arts because we are committed to the arts. We recognise the importance of public expenditure in relation to the regeneration of the economy as a whole, but we, who are concerned to change the world, recognise that the engine of change can be through the arts.

Shelley described poets as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. We accept that. Marx once said: The Bourgeoisie erect statues to the great writers of the past. If they had ever read their books, they would have burnt them. That is the difference between the two sides of the House. I am glad that we have had this opportunity—although it is no substitute for a major debate — to discuss the matter. We promise as quickly as possible to reverse the disastrous effects of this philistine Government on the arts in Britain.