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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:48 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Crossbench 6:48 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, who made a powerful and important speech. There are six themes on offer in today’s debate and I have chosen to speak about the one that is conspicuous by its absence from the gracious Speech, in order to fill the void where I believe that culture, creativity and the arts ought to be. I start by welcoming the announcement prior to the Queen’s Speech of a £250 million cultural investment fund for infrastructure improvements in regional museums and libraries. It is a timely response to a cri de coeur from museum leaders who have warned of a quiet crisis in infrastructure brought about by a decade of cuts to local and government funding. As welcome as this money is, though, it begs a question. In shoring up our museums, galleries, libraries and theatres for the future, are we doing enough to ensure that every citizen has an equal opportunity to access and enjoy them?

In 2015, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value revealed a worrying lack of social, economic and cultural diversity in audiences and participants across arts and culture, with the higher social groups accounting for 87% of all museum visits. Cultural organisations up and down the country are working hard to address this imbalance through innovative programmes, marketing and the use of technology, but they do so with one hand tied behind their backs—trapped by the narrowing over the past decade of cultural education in schools. Report after report has detailed the reductions in hours and teacher numbers and the number of students taking arts subjects at GCSE and A-level, yet Ministers are still reluctant to acknowledge that there is a problem.

Like other noble Lords, I welcome the ambition to,

“ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education, unlocking their full potential and preparing them for the world of work”,

but I regret that it does not explicitly include a commitment to reversing the decline in arts provision in state schools.

This is not just about providing the encounters with arts and culture that would diversify audiences of the future, nor even ensuring equitable access for every child to the rich cultural heritage that is their birthright. No, it is about social mobility, unlocking potential and the preparedness for work to which the gracious Speech refers. Evidence shows that learning through the arts develops core personal and employability skills —confidence, collaboration, communication, problem-solving and resilience—and builds the cultural capital that is crucial in determining who gets into the elite professions and who rises to the top. Independent schools have long understood this, selling themselves to parents on the basis of high-quality arts provision. Meanwhile, art is squeezed out of education for 93% of the population.

Studying arts subjects is also one of the most effective ways of developing creativity, a skill that experts predict will be the most valuable we can offer the next generation. We miss the point if we imagine creativity to be the preserve of artists alone. Without creativity there would be no innovation, no technological breakthroughs and no scientific discoveries.

Of course, science has its place in the Queen’s Speech, with a commitment to establish the UK as,

“a world leader in scientific capability”,

to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing society. It is a laudable ambition, but it ignores the role of the arts and humanities in addressing these complex questions—the historians, anthropologists, ethnologists, philosophers, ethicists and artists who can provide the context, culture and understanding of human behaviour that will be key to driving sustainable change.

This prioritisation is not surprising. The Prime Minister’s most senior adviser has a long-held passion for science, advocating back in 2014 for,

“a civilian version of DARPA aimed at high-risk/high-impact breakthroughs in … energy science … quantum information and computing”.

The reference to this in the Queen’s Speech raises questions about the Haldane principle and the systems in place to separate government from decisions on which research gets funded. Perhaps the Minister can clarify whether this new agency is intended to sit within or outside the UKRI umbrella.

The Speech closes, as will I, with the aspiration for the UK to continue to play a leading role on the global stage. Our artists and creative organisations are among the UK’s greatest ambassadors, but their international standing has been built on the freedom to move people and equipment across borders without carnets, tariffs or visas. It is a sector dependent on importing specialist freelance talent and in which even the brightest and best can earn less than the £30,000 salary threshold proposed in the immigration White Paper. Its number one priority post Brexit is continued and reciprocal mobility to protect the sector’s success and the substantial contribution it makes to the economy, exports and employment across the UK.

Given this, perhaps the Minister might take away the suggestion that the more accessible visa system promised for scientific talent might reasonably be extended to cultural and creative talent too. As we work to rebuild our global reputation after Brexit, the soft power our artists and cultural organisations generate for the UK will be more important than ever before.