Covid-19: Cultural and Entertainment Sectors

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:55 pm on 2nd March 2021.

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Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:55 pm, 2nd March 2021

I also welcome Jo Stevens back to her place. It is very good to see her.

One year ago, the pandemic changed our world. Lockdown came and, as we found ourselves forced inside and away from our friends and families, many found comfort in the arts and culture. In the past year, every hon. and right hon. Member of this House will have, I am sure, searched for escape in a book, lifted their spirits with music, or distracted themselves with film. A world without literature, music or cinema would be intolerable and a lockdown without the arts would have been even grimmer than it has been.

As we continue to weather the crisis, culture still plays a significant role in getting us through the day. The artist has in many ways been an essential worker and one too often overlooked by the UK Government. One of the groups struggling with the impact of covid-19 is the freelance sector. A survey of Equity members found that 40% have not received help from the self-employed income support scheme. Various loopholes have left many out in the cold, unable, due to technicalities, to qualify for UK Government schemes.

That injustice has meant that many creative professionals have had to apply for universal credit, with many more considering leaving the culture sector altogether. In pre-covid times, the cultural and entertainment sector not only brought huge benefits to the economy, but gave the countries of the UK international acclaim. It is vital that we ensure that every one of those workers comes back into the industry, so that whenever the pandemic is over the sector thrives again. In the Budget tomorrow, the Chancellor must protect these essential workers and ensure that they no longer fall through the cracks. He must go further by guaranteeing them the backdated support they deserve.

Let us look at musicians as one key group. They are facing long-term worries about the viability of their industry. They are fighting on three fronts. In the last five years, the market for recorded music has shifted towards streaming. Opaque deals cut by the big record labels and the streaming model mean that most no longer have a viable stream of income from recording. The result is that they are almost completely reliant on live performance. Live performances in the Brexit age, a world of limitless opportunity—well, hardly, because the UK Government rejected the EU’s proposed artists’ deal. Musicians have now been landed with the very hardest of Brexits.

The Minister, appearing before the Select Committee, recently looked surprised to discover that a single one-night visa for a UK performer in Spain now costs €600. It is €500 in Italy. When covid lockdown ends, none but the wealthiest musicians will be able to perform across much of Europe. That means the end of orchestral tours. The Minister confirmed to us that no talks are ongoing to resolve this looming Brexit reality. Once again, jobs are being wilfully sacrificed for anti-free movement zealotry. The chaos visited on musicians impacts not just them but their support crews, technicians and haulage companies, all of whom will lose out on work to cheaper European alternatives. Put yourself in the shoes of one of these musicians, with no money coming in from record sales or European tours, the only saving grace being the upcoming domestic festival season—a season once again cancelled. The UK Government had the opportunity to underwrite insurance for festivals but decided not to. Glastonbury was one of the first to cancel. Musicians and their support staff did not get into this business for money but for a love of their craft. They have never asked for much from their Government, but they surely have the right to expect that their Government do not actively work against them.

Musicians, rightly, have received much publicity, but another sector that has been forgotten by the Government is advertising-funded media and entertainment. Local commercial radio stations have provided trustworthy news and a friendly voice for those living alone, but they have seen their revenues plummet. The drop in advertising revenue has also been a major problem for local papers. Some have had to shut their doors after decades of dedicated service to their community. That is why we on the SNP Benches backed a tax credit for the advertising-funded media sector, and I call again on the UK Government and the Chancellor, in particular, to listen and act.

In the time available, I cannot name-check every cultural and entertainment sector damaged by this pandemic and threatened by Brexit, crying out for help, but all are asking that this House hears one overriding message that is vital for their long-term recovery. Just because an industry limps on, it does not mean that the wounds dealt by the pandemic have healed. The Government must offer and maintain their support in the years to come.

The arts and culture communities the length and breadth of these islands eagerly await the Chancellor’s Budget tomorrow. Artists deserve more from the UK Government and I hope that he has been listening and will deliver, but I am not holding my breath. Westminster seems very distant, remote and unresponsive to the sector’s concerns.

The Canongate wall of the Scottish Parliament is covered with quotations from writers from across Scotland and from the length of its history. I will close with one of those quotes by Sir Walter Scott:

“When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns—But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.”

Let us hope I am wrong.