Covid-19: Cultural and Entertainment Sectors

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 2nd March 2021.

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Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 3:41 pm, 2nd March 2021

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I thank the other Madam Deputy Speaker and the Minister for their kind words? I also thank the very many Members and staff across the House who wished me well during my hospitalisation and recovery, and the wonderful NHS staff in Wales.

Let me turn to the business of the debate. It is the eve of the Budget, and it is right that we debate the severe problems facing one of the UK’s most important economic sectors. Our cultural and entertainment sector is globally renowned and economically critical. It showcases innovation and creativity; develops specialist knowledge, skills and jobs; drives opportunity, significant inbound tourism and economic regeneration; and, as we know, improves our health and wellbeing. The Opposition believe that our cultural sector is integral to our national recovery from this crisis, and that it also has a key role to play in shaping the kind of society that we want to see in the future. But to do that, the jobs, skills and talent need to survive and be supported.

In the most recent Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport annual report, the Secretary of State talks about preserving our cultural heritage, but our culture is not something to be preserved in aspic. Instead, it is a sector that is built on people and their dynamic connections with one another. It is this misunderstanding that lies behind the lack of appropriate provision to support the brilliant professionals in the sector, hundreds of thousands of whom have fallen through the gaps because of the Chancellor’s rigid criteria for support and his complete refusal, despite numerous requests, to provide financial help to those he has excluded and who have become known as “the excluded”. There are more than 3 million such people, and many of them are in the cultural sector.

During this fast-moving pandemic, there has been a great deal of sympathy for the Government having to react quickly to events, but we are almost a year on from the first lockdown and the refusal to help people in the cultural sector can only be seen as a choice—a choice to ignore them for an entire year. We know from the decisions taken in Wales that it did not have to be that way. The Welsh Labour Government’s freelancer fund has already supported thousands of freelancers in three phases of support.

The Opposition believe in fairness and equitable access to support during the pandemic and that no one should be excluded because they are engaged to work outside of permanent employment contracts. The rich patchwork of creative talent in this country is built on freelancers—people who work across different projects or genres, and it is that cross-pollination of ideas that makes it so rich. But because they do not fit the Chancellor’s model, this Government have excluded them from support, even speaking about those in the cultural and creative sectors as if they were people exercising their hobbies rather than world-class skills.

Tomorrow, nearly a year after the start of the first lockdown, the Chancellor has another opportunity to right that wrong and level the playing field. We have heard today about the topping up of the pot for theatres, but people who work in theatres still do not know how long they can be furloughed for. Self-employed people have no idea what level their next grant will be. Freelancers have still been left out of support altogether, as I have described. The industry faces a VAT cliff edge at the end of the month, and none of that needed to wait until tomorrow’s Budget: it should have been clarified by the Government weeks ago.

At least 55,000 culture jobs have already gone—nearly a third of the arts element of the workforce—and two thirds of people who have lost their jobs in this sector have already decided that they cannot risk returning to it, meaning that those skills and talents are lost to our economy. The Government should be going out of their way to save those jobs, but we have heard virtually nothing about those jobs from either DCMS or the Government as a whole. Is that indifference or incompetence? I know what the cultural sector’s verdict is.

Last July, we welcomed the announcement of the culture recovery fund but, as I said at the time, it came too late for some people and organisations. The distribution of the fund was delayed, characterised by slowness when the need was immediate, and it has still not reached some of the places where it is required. The criteria are rigid, and its hallmark is to protect institutions rather than jobs. It could have been designed in a much better way, to provide protection for people’s livelihoods, had there been a proper understanding by Government of the ecology of how employment works in this sector. The top-up announced in the press release last night still does not address those problems and it does not say when the money will be distributed.

I also hope that the Chancellor will tomorrow heed Labour’s call to continue the VAT rate of 5% on tickets. That scheme could not be used by many in the cultural sector because the restrictions meant closure and, in the short periods outside lockdown, there simply was not enough time while open to be able to sell any tickets. We need to see an extension of the reduced rate, so that venues and festivals can start to benefit from the scheme and the public can be incentivised to buy tickets.

The VAT issue is another example of the Government’s lack of understanding of the day-to-day realities of the pandemic for our cultural venues. That was never more apparent than in the run-up to last Christmas, when the Secretary of State was busy encouraging theatres to put on pantomimes, while at the same time knowing that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advice and data suggested that cases were rising to such an extent that theatres would inevitably have to close. Even the retired Conservative peer Lord Lloyd Webber spoke of his frustration with the incompetent handling of reopening dates.

The sector has been hugely sympathetic to the difficulties facing the Government, but that sympathy is now wearing thin. We see Ministers spending their time feigning concern for statues, rather than figuring out how this resilient and dynamic sector can be best supported through this crisis. The thinly veiled threats to museums and galleries and the attempts to bully independent cultural organisations packed with national expertise that rely on Government funding show where the Government’s priorities for our cultural sector really lie. No matter that the sector was the fastest growing ahead of the pandemic, no matter that the role of arts and culture in social prescribing and education delivers huge returns on investment and no matter the potential for brand GB from our biggest exports—this Government’s priority is stoking a culture war, rather than championing our world-class cultural sector. There are other problems of the Government’s own making that the pandemic has masked. The broken promise on post-Brexit touring by performers has already been laid bare for its failures.

Labour strongly believes in the artistic and creative life of this country not only as a powerful driver of economic growth but as a part of who we are as a nation. There is a reason why so many people still talk about the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony as a great national moment. Not only did it display some of our finest talent; it allowed us to celebrate our history in all its complexities and contradictions, and to do so with a good dose of self-deprecation and some laughs at our own expense. But this Government do not get that. They do not get what it is to be British in the 21st century. They see the world in black and white and we know that this is not how many of us live. The fact is that our arts and culture allow us to examine that—to ask questions, to respectfully disagree, to challenge each other and to find common ground.

There is no doubt that the last year has been one of the hardest in living memory. The work of nurses, doctors, carers, scientists and many more people is rightly at the forefront of our minds when we think about recovery, but to me national recovery—our national recovery—is something greater and wider. This national trauma has caused a huge rupture in the fabric of everybody’s lives. We have lost family, friends, colleagues. We have lost opportunities and missed out on key milestones of our lives. We have had to Zoom watch funerals, unable to properly say goodbye. We have had to send cards for weddings we would rather have travelled across the world to be at. We have all put things on hold. When we are safe and when we still need to grieve collectively, we will do that and move on together.

The cultural sector is not one that typically asks for Government support. Instead, a series of Conservative Governments have reduced public funding and made many theatres and arts organisations radically change so that they rely solely on ticket sales and outside sponsorship. Therefore, when the pandemic hit, this left them utterly vulnerable. Tomorrow, the Chancellor needs to give our world-leading creatives the support they need to get on and create. Can I say this to him? That does not simply mean employing them to make his own promotional videos. It means addressing all those problems with the culture recovery fund and, specifically, a whole year on from when it should have been done, providing support for those whom the Government have deliberately excluded. Our cultural sector is not just a huge and vital part of our economy. For many people, it is what makes life worth living.