Cultural Attractions: Contribution to Local Economy — [Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:35 pm on 6th October 2020.

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Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:35 pm, 6th October 2020

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank Nickie Aiken for securing this important debate. No one is a more passionate advocate for the west end than the hon. Lady.

Is it not delightful to be back in Westminster Hall, having proper debates? I cannot say how grateful I am to everyone who spoke in this debate. We have seen, across all parties, how everyone in the debate really cares about the cultural sector and the cultural industry. That includes people who worked in the industry, such as Giles Watling, or as I did for three decades as a freelance actor and writer; musicians such as my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan, who is a fantastic musician, and I urge everyone to buy his album; or people whose children are interested in the arts. We all know, too, the impact that the arts have on our own communities, for wellbeing, tourism and so on.

Obviously, we are in a difficult time. I will go through some areas on which great points have been made. On the events sector, Stephen Hammond talked about tests being done—can we see those tests being rolled out to open the sector up? The events sector feels absolutely abandoned and left to one side.

On community and how mental health is supported by work done in communities, my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about the work in their constituencies. In Hammersmith, I know that work is being done on equality, inclusion and diversity. My concern is that, as we get our sector back on its feet, such work will be the low-hanging fruit that we will lose across the piece—that work with communities and schools, and on bringing on new writers from diverse communities. It is vital for such work not to be cut as we try to survive.

Pantomime is the first chance that most young working-class kids have to go to a theatre. The concern for pantomime was mentioned by the hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter). Last week, in a great demonstration, in the panto parade we saw a lot of the freelancers in their pantomime dame costumes. The dedication they give to their sector is really a joy to behold.

In Vauxhall, we have the Young Vic. I am so excited about the work being done there, and about its anniversary. On our museum sector, as my hon. Friend Kim Johnson said, when we go to Liverpool we all know about the vibrancy and energy we get just from being on the streets, because the music-based passion for culture is at every corner.

Concerns were expressed about the involvement of councils and how we should support them. Theatres and music venues are civic centres. Andrew Lewer said that the council is one of the biggest investors, and that is absolutely true.

With tourism, we cannot get away from this—in the majority of our communities, tourism is held up by our cultural offer. My friend from the all-party parliamentary group for theatre, the hon. Member for Clacton, talked about his constituency and about the voucher suggestion—the seat out to help out. Any support for our regional theatres to open would be welcome.

Let us not forget the issue of freelancers. My hon. Friend Stephen Doughty knows this perhaps more than others, because the BBC is in his constituency, but the BBC is held up by limited companies, freelancers, PAYE freelancers and creative freelancers, who come in and out for shows. They really need our support. Alison Thewliss has done so much to raising the issue of the excluded and freelancers.

The Minister has shown great dedication in this area. While the Chancellor clarified his statements to ITV by saying that they were not specifically about musicians, there is a sense that the creative industries feel misunderstood, as we heard this afternoon. They will be the last to come back and the least supported. There is a sense that they are not viable or that the people in them could retrain. As we know, musicians spend all their lives, day in day out, learning their musical instruments. To be told to become a care worker instead will only lead to poor mental health and depression because they are not doing the thing they have trained for. The Minister is assiduous and I am sure she will take that point back to the Chancellor. What was said on ITV has impacted us all and deeply upset the industry, which does not feel that the Government understand its value.

We all want to see our venues get back to normality. We have heard today about their financial impact. We have also heard about the cultural hub of a community in terms of visitors, support for local restaurants, taxi firms, employment and our local economies more widely. During the summer months when restrictions were easing, we had a sense of positivity and excitement, but with local restrictions it is unfortunately unlikely that those activities will flourish.

The Government’s furlough scheme and self-employed income support scheme are very welcome. I am very grateful and I know other hon. Members are also grateful that that has been extended. However, it has been extended in a way that makes it impossible to use. How does a venue that cannot open contribute to a workforce’s salary? Sadly, we heard today about the RSC potentially laying off hundreds of its staff, which will be devasting for them and their communities. We have also heard from the sector that delays in the cultural recovery fund have brought great anxiety.

I thank the Minister for her letter, which I received today, regarding my concern around the “crown jewels”. In my mind, the crown jewels are our community offer as well as the west end—the ecosystem of regional and community theatres that the west end needs. We are all intertwined—push over one domino and the rest of the dominoes will fall. It is really important that the money does not only go to the crown jewels.

When I put a call-out on social media for freelancers to tell me their experiences of what is happening—perhaps slightly foolishly—my inbox exploded and I received over 4,000 responses from people I know and care about. Couples have lost a year’s work and still have childcare costs and a mortgage, and they are leaving the sector. We have heard from the Musicians Union that one third of musicians are thinking of leaving the sector. The support for freelancers could not be more needed. Cineworld’s 5,500 workforce is a tsunami of job losses. The training is not there for people who want to retrain. We have to put support in as fast as possible.

In the time I have left, I have a number of questions for the Minister that I hope she will address in her response. I work with a culture committee of people in the sector and we had a meeting this morning. My understanding is that there is still no news of who has the money. Will the Minister explain the delay? On what date will the successful organisations receive their funding? A number of organisations did not apply for funding, because of the restrictions. For example, to show that they have tried everything to stay afloat, they have fired all their staff, or they were unable to show that they could spend all the money from the Government by 31 March. With stage 5 now kicked further into the year, have those criteria changed? Does that mean that those organisations that originally did not apply because they did not fit the criteria will now have an opportunity to apply? Clarity on that would be extremely helpful. What was the total number of organisations that applied and what was the total amount of funding applied for?

For concerts and theatre to return with confidence, we really need an answer about insurance. I asked the Minister a question about insurance in DCMS questions, but she was unable to give me an answer. I am sure that there are lots of conversations going on with the Treasury. We have insurance for film and TV, and that is why they are back up and running. What does she know about the negotiations that are happening around insurance? Can she at least give us a chink of hope around that issue?

Have the applications for loan supports been greater than expected? If so, will the cost of additional loans be taken from other funding pots? Would the Minister explain the 10 pm curfew that applies to music venues but not to theatres? What evidence can she share with us that the 10 pm curfew will save lives? In order for venues to reopen, they have to spend money on covid safety costs. Will they get that money back, even if they do not get money from the ACE funding? Is there a contingency fund in place to help venues that reopen but have to close again? What framework is in place to support local authorities and metropolitan Mayors to work together to support those who need support? Finally, I was surprised to learn that the cultural taskforce has been wound up for now. Can she elaborate as to why that is? Is there a feeling that its job is now done? I look forward to hearing from the Minister.