HC Deb 05 November 1998 vol 318 cc1115-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Allen.]

10 pm

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

This is a tale of two cities. One is inhabited by white, middle-class, elderly citizens, outwardly genteel and soft spoken, but inwardly grasping and greedy with a belief in their divine right to use and, if necessary, empty the public purse for their own purposes. When they visit the Royal Opera house, they shuffle uneasily in the presence of unwelcome strangers wearing smelly trainers. When they leave, they step gingerly over beggars wondering what the world is coming to, blissfully unaware that all the brilliant entrepreneurial strategies for pulling this chaotic, shambolic and dysfunctional organisation from the brink of financial ruin consist of little more than begging for increased public subsidy to be paid by those who are considerably less well off than themselves. Were it not for the fact that I am an opera lover, I might be tempted to comment critically on that absurd situation.

A couple of miles away in the other city, a younger, more eclectic audience, streetwise and sharply dressed, many of them black, some of them Turks, a few of them Vietnamese and none of them rich, makes its way to the Hackney Empire. It is easily the largest and certainly the finest theatre in east and north London, with its wonderful proscenium arch and Frank Matcham's inspiring and dazzling interior.

It is not that those theatre-goers envy the patrons of the Royal Opera house—I dare say more of them might get into opera if the house dropped its sneering policy of paying only lip service to education—it is simply that those who live in the east end are a world apart from the AB social classes of the ROH. Profligacy and conspicuous consumption are not part of the east end lexicon. The Hackney empire audience is puzzled as to the whys and wherefores of how the British arts establishment works.

Those in the Hackney empire audience see that the toffs at the Royal Opera house have no difficulty in getting funding for their building. They sense that it has something to do with establishment cronies in the opera world moving through revolving doors. They worry that their Government may be giving middle England and metropolitan London a higher priority than disadvantaged London. They get angry when they witness the shenanigans and financial improprieties of the Royal Opera company. The minds of the Hackney empire audience can only boggle when they witness the ROH receiving a lottery grant of £68 million for a new building, followed by the promise of increased public subsidy, at a time when there is anarchy at the house and the company is building up a £20 million plus deficit to take with it into the new millennium.

Let us not beat about the bush. If the Royal Opera company was treated as it should be, like a private trading company, the members of the board and management of that bankrupt company would be up on charges of fraudulent trading. Millionairess Mrs. Vivien Duffield, the deputy chairman, would be carted off to Holloway prison. Sir Colin Southgate, the chairman and Lord Eatwell, two new Labour stalwarts, would find themselves being treated by Her Majesty, not at Buckingham palace but at Wormwood Scrubs.

When the Royal Opera company offers Sadler's Wells £1 million in compensation for breach of contract, it is offering the ballet company a bouncing cheque, as it has no money in the bank, only a mammoth pile of mounting debts—the Royal Opera is insolvent. That is a financial scam, based on the creditors' assumption that the Government will, in the end, always bail out the Royal Opera.

Even more bizarrely, as the Chancellor tells every firm in Britain to increase productivity or we die, the Minister for the Arts tells the Royal Opera company that, if it closes down its operation and reduces productivity to zero, a lot more subsidy will be on the way. That is obscene—a damnable disgrace.

It is no wonder that audiences at the Hackney Empire felt so cheated when the lottery application to preserve the theatre's stunning building and to provide modern facilities was turned down after the Arts Council's peremptory deliberations when, as a result of a change in policy, the new apparatchiks took over. It is no wonder that the "Save London's Theatres" campaign is up in arms and has told the Secretary of State and Gerry Robinson, the chairman of the Arts Council, so in no uncertain terms. It is no wonder that those who believe in fairness feel sickened at the way in which the Arts Council of England and the London Arts Board have told the Hackney Empire to get stuffed.

The Arts Council made its decision on the basis of a new policy to cut the size of bids. That policy was not approved until the Hackney Empire had spent £1.5 million on feasibility and development work with money provided by the lottery. What a wanton waste.

The Hackney Empire also seems to have run into the anti-London bias that has been developing at the Arts Council, a bias that the London Arts Board has, to its shame, done little to stop. There is also an element of snobbery and elitism that frowns on popular culture, although I do not want the House to be misled on that point. The Hackney Empire puts on first-class opera and has produced some of the best Shakespeare that I have seen, in addition to dance, music hall entertainment, comedy and alternative comedy. In October, we had a fortnight of "As You Like It" and "Antony and Cleopatra" directed by Michael Bogdanov and performed by the English Shakespeare Company. This week, we have the Carol Straker Dance Foundation and, next week, the Venice baroque orchestra Accademia Di San Rocco. This is state-of-the-art culture.

I am both saddened and pleased to be able to report that an insider at the Arts Council has confirmed my understanding that the council concocted the reasons it gave for rejecting the Hackney Empire bid. The true sequence of events—in so far as the Minister's brief from the Arts Council differs, it falsifies the record—is as follows.

A £1.5 million award was made by the Arts Council national lottery panel in October 1996. The purpose of the award was to contribute to the costs of feasibility and design studies to restore and upgrade the Hackney Empire, and to rebuild and add essential facilities. Part of the award was for the purchase of the Samuel Pepys public house. The size of the bid—£28 million—was determined partly by the need to integrate physically three sites and to dig out the basement, and also by the request for first-class architecture from all concerned.

Following European Union procurement procedures, a full design team, headed by a small group of architects, was appointed during July and August 1997 after an exhaustive series of interviews. Hackney Empire management and the design team developed the design brief and began the design process in August 1997, with an agreed deadline for completion to design stage—ready for a planning application—by the end of February 1998, and an agreement to submit an application for full lottery funding by the end of April 1998. Regular contact was maintained with the Arts Council, through written reports, the Arts Council's appointed project monitoring team and face-to-face meetings at the Arts Council offices.

On 17 November 1997, the Arts Council made the strange announcement that capital lottery awards were generally to be limited to £15 million. However, a statement was also made that an additional £200 million was available for "large scale projects of national or international significance", with a clear inference that the Empire was eligible.

On 21 November 1997, in anticipation of a meeting arranged for the beginning of December, Hackney Empire's chairman wrote to the national lottery director at the Arts Council of England's lottery unit, saying that he was assuming that the Empire would come under the national significance classification and stating that it was essential that the Arts Council's position be made clear at the December meeting.

At no time did officers from the Arts Council state that Hackney Empire could not be considered in the national significance classification. In a meeting at the Arts Council on 11 March 1998, the progress of the project was discussed. Once again, outline costs were given and nobody said that the Empire's bid was too high. The bid was supported by English Heritage, which liked the mix of modern and traditional architecture; the Royal Fine Arts Commission; the Theatres Trust; Sir Ian McKellen; Julie Christie; Griff Rhys Jones, the fundraiser, who had an enormous £7 million in place; Sir Norman Foster; and Sir Jacob Zunz, the engineer for the Sydney opera house, who was so excited by the scheme that he joined the Hackney Empire board. It seems that all those people knew nothing about theatres but that the Arts Council, with its new policy, suddenly did.

The lottery application was submitted to the Arts Council of England on 30 April 1998 and finally discussed by the council on 29 July 1998, in what was reported to be a two-hour meeting that considered more than 130 applications. The bid was rejected. Hackney Empire believed that it was part of a process, starting in October 1996. The approximate project costs were known at an early stage and were reported back to Arts Council officials. The expectation was that the bid would go through if the Empire kept in contact with the officials. Enormous pains were taken to follow the procedures outlined by the Arts Council.

For many reasons—not least its unique audience and its widely acknowledged architectural importance—Hackney Empire continues to believe, as I do, that it is of national significance. If the Empire had made a decision to redraw the scheme to fit into the sudden, arbitrary £15 million limit, it would have been unable to fund the scrapping of the original scheme and the complete rethink that would have been required. In that event, it would undoubtedly have missed the agreed deadline for submission.

Despite all that, the Hackney Empire continues to present approximately 240 events a year in the main theatre, and 380 on the Samuel Pepys site, which currently houses a studio theatre and a small cabaret stage. About 150,000 people use the Empire each year. With the lottery grant, the number of events would rise by between 10 and 15 per cent., with a corresponding increase in audience size.

If the Minister is tempted to plead that he cannot intervene because of the arm's length principle, I remind him that the Secretary of State's finger, thumb, palm and foot prints are to be found all over the ROH fiasco. The arm's length principle is a myth and has been so for more than a decade. I gave a lecture at City university a few weeks ago devoted entirely to that subject.

I beg the Minister to instruct the Arts Council to get together with the Hackney Empire board to discuss a renewed lottery application, and to ensure that the council does not foul up a second time.

I end unashamedly on a personal note. A few weeks ago, Audrey Sedgemore, my ex-wife, almost died at the Hackney Empire. It was a Sunday—an open day—and, with other volunteers, she was showing people around. Suddenly, she fell and fractured her skull, ending up in the intensive therapy unit of the Royal London hospital, helplessly wired up to any number of machines. I am not asking the Secretary of State or the chairman of the Arts Council to die for the Hackney Empire, but I am asking them to produce a rescue plan, for the sake of Audrey Sedgemore and all who love the Empire and for theatre, art and culture in our capital city.

10.14 pm
The Minister for Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) on securing tonight's Adjournment debate. He has expressed his views with characteristic trenchancy and, as he put it, unashamedly. I wish to address some of the particular issues he raises, but also to look beyond to the wider arts policy scene, which is one of great change and much promise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch has understandably raised issues on funding for theatres and made a comparison with funding for opera. There has, of course, been much coverage of the latter in recent months. There is much public interest and concern about both theatre and opera, which is as it should be. The Hackney Empire and the Royal Opera house are very different. I do not believe that one either does or should prosper at the expense of the other. The policy of this Government is access to excellence for all: culture as a shared experience, not a divisive one. I would remind my hon. Friend that, although £78 million of lottery money funds have been spent on opera and ballet, £145 million have gone to theatre.

I will speak only briefly about the Royal Opera house. It is essential to find a long-term solution to the problems of the Royal Opera house. The artistic merits of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet are not in doubt: both are world-class companies. I would add that the Royal Opera house has a highly developed educational programme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have made it clear that we are wholly committed to securing a proper long-term future for opera and ballet of the highest quality in the redeveloped Royal Opera house. Covent Garden, after its reopening, will be one of the most advanced and exciting venues for lyric theatre anywhere, and will provide the stage for world-class opera and ballet. The redevelopment represents a significant investment from both the public and private purses, and we are committed to securing the future of the ROH.

Unfortunately, standards of financial planning and management at the Royal Opera house have not always in the past matched the high standards of the companies. The financial situation had deteriorated to such an extent that the ROH was on the verge of insolvency this year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State approved the appointment of Sir Colin Southgate as chairman of the ROH board with a clear mandate to remedy the financial situation, complete the redevelopment, and ensure the long-term artistic and financial success of the ROH. It was clear at that stage that to maintain the status quo was not an option. In September, Sir Colin announced a radical strategy to put the ROH's affairs on a proper footing. My right hon. Friend and I support this strategy.

I deplore, in the strongest possible terms, the aspersions cast by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, taking advantage of parliamentary privilege, on Sir Colin, Lord Eatwell, and Mrs. Vivian Duffield, whose generosity to the Royal Opera house and museums and the arts throughout the country deserve admiration and gratitude. The new board and generous donors deserve our appreciation, not abuse.

Of course I understand the disappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch about the decision by the Arts Council not to fund the proposed redevelopment of the grade 2* Hackney Empire in his constituency. He has rightly praised the theatre for the important role it plays not just in the local community but as a magnet to audiences from outside the borough. Although primarily a receiving house, providing a venue for touring productions, it has, as my hon. Friend noted, been reclaiming a reputation as an important theatre able to combine popular culture with Shakespeare and opera. I admire and welcome the contribution of the Hackney Empire in developing audiences of people for whom the theatre may not have formed part of normal cultural experience and for whom it has been difficult to find such an opportunity. To experience performances at the Empire has, I am sure, been a revelation and a delight for them.

It is not for me to go into details of the application itself. However, I know that the Arts Council took the decision to reject the application with reluctance. Mr. Hewitt has told my hon. Friend that the decision to reject the application was taken on a proper assessment against the published criteria. It should at least be noted that although the Hackney Empire bid failed, Hackney has benefited from lottery funds of £11 million since the lottery began.

The lottery, as the House will acknowledge, has done much to improve Britain's arts infrastructure. We have recognised, however, that it was not sensible to restrict the use of lottery funds to capital projects and to spend money on buildings while the artists that we want to perform in them lack funds. The new National Lottery Act 1998 will change that so that lottery distributors, including the Arts Council, will be able to use lottery funds more strategically. They will be able to fund people as well as buildings, and if particular parts of the country or sectors of the arts world seem not to be sharing in the lottery as much as we would expect, the distributors will be able to solicit applications so that lottery money can go where it is needed and where people up and down the country can benefit from the differences that it makes.

We are changing the lottery for the better. I am pleased to say that an extra £50 million will go to the arts over the next three years or so. That has become possible because the lottery is set to deliver higher levels of income than forecast, which is another testament to its success. We are changing the lottery for the better, and we are changing the relationship between Government and the arts. The new contract with the arts between Government and the bodies that receive public funding, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in the summer, re-states the arm's-length principle, but makes clear what we expect in return.

In July my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced spending plans for the next three years. I am delighted that my Department will receive an additional £290 million of which £124 million will go to the arts between 1999 and 2002. That is very good news after years of standstill funding. The arts, and our cultural life in general, have been a political afterthought for too long. The comprehensive spending review places them again at the heart of Government and reflects the central role that all my Department's sectors, including the arts, can play in delivering wider Government priorities. The arts are, of course, important in their own right, but they are also generators of employment and economic growth, a key educational resource and an important way of asserting and enhancing community identity. We want to create a healthy and stable arts sector and to make sure that the arts play their part in advancing our social and economic goals.

The additional funding announced will be linked clearly to outputs, so that the taxpayer can see what the funding is buying. It will allow progress on our principal objectives: the promotion of access for the many, not just the few; the pursuit of excellence and innovation; the nurturing of educational opportunity; and the fostering of the creative industries. Those are the Government's priorities, and the arts are well placed to help us deliver them.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also announced proposals for revising the structure and mechanisms through which Government support will be channelled in future. The principle of arm's-length funding will remain and Ministers will, rightly I believe, not seek to intervene in individual funding decisions. Equally, it is right that my department should give a clear policy lead in the context of the overall strategy.

In January, Mr. Gerry Robinson was appointed Chairman of the Arts Council with a clear mandate to bring about changes. Mr. Robinson has recently announced his strategy to restructure and redefine the Council's future role, and the Secretary of State and I fully support him in that. I want to put on record my appreciation of the way in which Mr. Peter Hewitt, the chief executive of the Arts Council, has set about addressing the responsibilities entrusted to him.

The Arts Council has already committed itself to delegation. The aim is to devolve as much as possible of what is currently dealt with by the Arts Council to the regional arts boards, including in particular grant-making and stewardship responsibility for regional clients. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch may welcome that development, which will enable the new national body to give a strategic lead across all its sectors and to set the framework within which regional bodies operate, taking into account their own local circumstances and priorities. This will of course mean in my hon. Friend's case that responsibility for the Hackney Empire will be devolved to the London Arts Board which already provides its grant-in-aid funding— currently £120,393.

We will be taking steps with the Arts Council to assure ourselves that the regional arts boards have the necessary capacity and systems in place to take on the additional responsibilities required of them.

This is a time of great change in the arts and a time of great opportunities, too. I have been struck by the willingness of the arts community to embrace that change and its determination to make a success of it. The Government share that determination and, in setting out their new approach to the arts, have made clear their belief that the arts have a central role to play in improving the quality of our lives. We look forward to working with, and through, the arts to achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o 'clock.