National Theatre

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:33 pm on 18th May 1989.

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Photo of Mr Richard Luce Mr Richard Luce , Shoreham 10:33 pm, 18th May 1989

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) on taking this opportunity to debate the arts and, more particularly, the Royal National theatre, and on the way in which, with his tremendous knowledge of the subject, he expressed his views and anxieties about it.

I am glad to say that this is the third debate of an artistic nature since March of this year. I am also glad my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) was able to be here and to intervene. I shall deal with the Royal National theatre in a moment, but it is important to view the position of any one company in the context of Government support for the arts as a whole.

It is our policy to keep up the level of central Government support for the arts—indeed, we have done better; the Arts Council's grant is up by 13 per cent. in real terms between 1979–80 and 1988–89—and to create the conditions in which the arts can develop by attracting additional funds from other sources. Our overall objective is to increase funding by improving self reliance. The Government have encouraged a range of initiatives to help bring that about. In 1984, for example, we launched the business sponsorship incentive scheme, which has now brought in more than £25 million in new money and has attracted 1,000 new sponsors. I presented the 1,000th award in Scotland this week. We have made extra funds available to the Arts Council for its incentive funding scheme, which encourages subsidised bodies to become more self reliant in their development and growth. In its first year the scheme is expected to bring about £13.5 million of new private sector money into the arts, plus £3 million from the Government—a 3:1 ratio, rather than the 2:1 ratio demanded by the scheme.

The cornerstone of my policy is the need to increase access to excellence in the arts. To that end, I asked the Arts Council to earmark a certain proportion of its grant to increase touring in the regions. Its new Great Britain touring fund financed more than 60 weeks of extra touring, including 38 weeks of drama, in its first year. I am glad to see that the Royal National theatre has an ambitious touring programme and has an increased emphasis on access through education.

An important part of the Arts Council's strategy has been to shift more resources from London to the regions. I accept the implication of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury that it is difficult for the Arts Council to get that balance right. The council has devolved more of its money and responsibilities to the 12 English regional arts associations. The council's grant to the regional arts associations has doubled in real terms since 1979–80. Expenditure on directly funded Arts Council clients in the regions has increased considerably. However, we must not—and I am sure that my hon. Friend does not—assume that all centres of excellence are in London. We have a vast range of centres of excellence in the regions —for example, the Welsh national opera, the Edencourt theatre in Inverness, the Royal Liverpool philharmonic orchestra and the City of Birmingham symphony orchestra, to name just a few.

I now turn to the Royal National theatre. I listened with great care to what my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said. I am aware that this great theatre faces a number of pressures and problems, which my hon. Friend highlighted so carefully. However, I will re-emphasise and reinforce what my hon. Friend said about its achievements. The Royal National theatre's policy is to present to a high standard and within a balanced programme classic, new and neglected plays from the whole world of drama. I echo my hon. Friend's praise for the theatre. Since its formation in 1963, the company has won 134 awards, which is more than any other theatre company. It was fitting that the theatre be granted the "royal" prefix in October 1988 to commemorate its 25th anniversary. The RNT consistently plays to 80 per cent. of its capacity, which is a remarkably high average. More than 700,000 people saw the company in 1987–88. The RNT's recent productions, under the excellent chairmanship of Lady Soames, and the outstanding management and direction of Richard Eyre and David Aukin, have been of a very high standard. I saw an excellent performance of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" there last week, and I remember seeing a superb performance of "The Winter's Tale" in Georgia, performed in plain clothes because the costumes had gone astray amid Soviet bureaucracy. That standard of excellence cannot be achieved without leadership from the top and commitment from every member of staff—from the stagehands to the front-of-house staff.

The theatre receives its grant in aid—more than £8 million this year—from the Arts Council; 51 per cent. of its income comes from private sources. I congratulate the theatre on the launch of its endowment fund initiated by Lord Rayne, the previous chairman. I operate under the arm's-length principle, which has been adopted by successive Governments since the war. I believe that it is essential that the allocation of specific grants and judgments of artistic merit should continue to be taken at arm's-length. The Arts Council exists to distance such decisions from political considerations. That is as it should be. Governments and civil servants should not be arbiters of taste and Arts Ministers must not allow their own artistic inclinations to govern their policies. Let me also make it plain that no one should assume an automatic right to an increase in grant or a certain level of grant. Judgments must be made on merit by the Arts Council and, of course, the regional arts associations.

I see no need to change the present arrangement whereby all the subsidised arts bodies are funded by the Arts Council. Moreover, the terms of reference of the Wilding review of the structure of arts funding make it plain that the arm's-length policy will continue.

The three-year funding has laid new foundations for long-term strategies, which apply to the Royal National theatre as well. Its introduction in 1987—88 included an 8·5 per cent. increase in the Arts Council grant that year and a 17 per cent. increase over the three years to 1990–91. I am fully aware, however, of the problems and pressures imposed by inflation. It is important to remember that it affects everyone, not just the arts organisations. It is, therefore, essential for the Government to defeat inflation, which remains a top priority.

It is for the Arts Council to determine how it should allocate its funds. In recent years the council's priority has been to devolve resources and responsibilities to the regions. I know that Peter Palumbo, the new chairman of the council, is well aware of the particular problems of the national companies, some of our flagships of artistic excellence—the Royal Opera house, the English national opera, the Royal Shakespeare company and the Royal National theatre. Incidentally I look forward to visiting the RNT in July to meet the staff. I know that the theatre is concerned, as always, to achieve the most excellent productions that provide access to the most number of people—the goal of all of us concerned with the arts. It is wrong to assume that it is not possible to reconcile excellence with improving access to the public. Both must be achieved.

I believe that people in all parts of the country have a right to the best of the arts. That is why my hon. Friend drew attention to the importance of touring. The tours undertaken by our great centres of excellence, such as the RNT, are important because people in different parts of the country are thus able to see the greatness of that theatre.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important subject, for airing the concerns of the RNT. of the trusteeship and of the chairman and for clearly putting to me some of the problems that the theatre currently faces.

I take this opportunity to assure my hon. Friend that I will draw his concerns to the attention of the chairman of the Arts Council, Mr. Palumbo. I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing attention to the increasingly important role not only of the theatre, but of the arts as more a nd more people enjoy them.

Because of the RNT and the rest of the arts, I believe that we can look to the 1990s with optimism—despite the pressures that the arts currently face—especially as more and more people realise that the quality of their lives can be improved by the excellence of British arts.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.