If we were to ask people what they were looking forward to when lockdown restrictions are eased, beyond seeing their family and luxuriating in the freedom to go wherever they like, many would talk about how much they have missed cultural experiences. Going to the theatre, listening to live music or comedy, watching a film at the cinema, browsing in a library or bookshop—those are the things that we have missed the most.
Many of us define ourselves in part by our responses to culture—even the Chancellor is keen to emphasise that he is a “Star Wars” fan—so being denied access to culture has denied us the opportunity to be our full selves: to think, to discover, to see the world differently. But the Chancellor is not a “Star Wars” fan just because of the special effects; he is also a fan of the vast amount of money that the franchise still generates, and that is also true of the economy as a whole.
It has been estimated that the arts and culture sector generated £10.47 billion for the UK economy in 2019. If we add on other creative sectors, such as fashion design, events and exhibitions, and video gaming, they not only add billions more to our economy but massively enhance our ability to reach out to the world to tell our story in many different formats and mediums. All that has been put at risk because of the lockdown.
There is little doubt that the lockdown was necessary and that the closure of theatres and other venues was essential for reducing contact. After all, contact is what the performing arts are all about—creating a dialogue between the performer and the audience. I commend the Government for their culture recovery fund. In my constituency of Richmond Park, the grants awarded to the Orange Tree theatre and the OSO Arts Centre have enabled those organisations to keep going throughout the closure.
However, the various funding schemes announced by the Government have not been enough to keep our cultural sector afloat as we progress towards a time when we can reopen. While the funding has been effective at keeping institutions going, it has ignored individuals. There is no point reopening our theatres and concert halls to find that there are no actors, playwrights or musicians to use them.
Many of the difficulties experienced by the cultural sector stem from the Chancellor’s baffling decision not to provide support to contractors. The cultural sector is built on short-term contracts. Many workers in these industries found themselves unable to be furloughed and did not qualify for the self-employment income support scheme. I heard from Amy Grudniewicz, who trained for five years to become a stage manager only to find that her first show closed after a few months because of lockdown. She qualified for only £18 a week in universal credit, which has not been enough.
There has been immense frustration, too, at the lack of recognition of the supply chain to our cultural sector. Many technicians and technical supplies companies have been left out of plans for help. Without grants, recovery fund, furlough or SEISS, many workers in the cultural sector have had absolutely no support.
I welcome the Government’s recent road map out of lockdown, and I support their cautious approach. What we need is clear guidance for all organisations and the general public. Above all, the Government need to underwrite the insurance so that live events can take place this summer; I am sure that the public will embrace them in their thousands after the months stuck inside looking at laptops.