HC Deb 18 March 1999 vol 327 cc1374-82

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

7.28 pm
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

London is home to a flourishing and diverse artistic community. We are truly fortunate in that we host centres of excellence in the performing and fine arts that draw on a magnificent heritage going back for centuries. However, the arts are not only a heritage from the past. We also have a thriving modern cultural sector that reaches into new mediums of delivery and celebrates our dynamic multicultural present.

Culture and the arts are not an optional add-on for a society that has resources to spare. They give expression to our humanity, enrich our lives, stimulate the imaginations of our children and act as a barometer of our self-esteem. We should be proud of what we do to promote the arts in our society and cautious of those who see the arts as a frivolity or as one more consumer good to be left to the market to deliver.

Fifteen months ago, I was delighted to attend a celebration of the arts in Westminster at the London Palladium, set up by Westminster city council. Westminster's gala nights for the arts were grounds for pride on the part of the council. They showcased the enthusiasm and talent among our schoolchildren and youth in music, dance, drama and the carnival arts. They demonstrated the dynamic that exists when the artistic traditions of China, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and the many countries whence our asylum seekers come meet modern Britain's world of classical, rap and rock music.

My purpose in seeking this debate tonight is to give expression to the profound disappointment I now feel at Westminster city council's decision to slash funding for the arts and community groups in central London. That disappointment is all the more acute because it contrasts with the positive support and statements of support given by the borough up to and including its recent gala nights for the arts.

Only a few months ago, Councillor Harvey Marshall, chair of the arts committee, said: Westminster is certainly the capital and it must be the heart of the arts in London and the country. We shall continue to support the arts at all levels, for the benefit of residents, businesses and visitors. At the beginning of last month, the council cut its funding to all but one of the 24 arts organisations that it had supported. Cuts ranged from 6 per cent. to the complete loss of grant. Decisions came out of the blue for many groups, and they were taken in a thoughtless, blustering manner that made a mockery of the pious words of Councillor Marshall just weeks earlier.

Out went the grants to the orchestra of St. John's, Smith square. Out went the grant to the Photographers Gallery. The Yaa Asentewa centre lost four fifths of its grant, and it is struggling for its life. That organisation may need to make changes in the services that it delivers, but I must wonder about the message being sent to black Londoners by the loss of support for the only Londonwide black arts centre.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

My hon. Friend will recall that I was a Westminster councillor in my previous life. For 10 years, I was opposition spokesperson on the arts committee, where, on what was otherwise a highly politically polarised council, we were able to achieve a great deal of consensus because of the chairmanship of the then Councillor Roger Bramble, a great supporter of Yaa Asentewa and some of the more avant-garde arts. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly demeaning that, now that Roger Bramble has moved on, Westminster is taking a much more right-wing approach towards the arts? The situation at Yaa Asentewa illustrates the way in which Westminster is targeting arts that support the ethnic minorities. In addition, the council is targeting the avant-garde arts organisations—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I am afraid that I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman.

Ms Buck

I am grateful to my hon. Friend who is completely right.

I need not explain to the Minister the importance of carnival in my constituency. The Yaa Asentewa is among the centres at which carnival arts are nurtured and promoted. They are of great significance, particularly to Afro-Caribbean residents.

The most recent edition of the bulletin, "The Arts in Westminster", advertises the fact that the Yaa Asentewa has been funded by the local single regeneration budget to run a holiday play scheme and an after-school club involving drama and music skills as well as basic skills tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Cuts have also fallen on the Serpentine gallery, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the English National Opera and Ballet, Paddington Arts, Wigmore hall, Photo Works Westminster, the Soho Theatre Company, London Print Workshop, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Westminster Youth Dance Scene, Alternative Arts—which was singled out for praise by Councillor Marshall just weeks earlier—and more.

In all, £360,000 has been cut from arts organisations. That has been partially offset by some small additional funding, but 15 per cent. of the arts budget—£230,000—has been lost to the arts in the borough. I should like to deal briefly with the borough's arguments in justification of that action.

Westminster claims that the Government have cut support to the borough. Yet the December policy and resources budget paper admitted that the grant settlement meant that the position for next year is better than expected". Since then, the council has received additional money for education and several other additional special grants. As standard spending assessments have been agreed for a three-year cycle, there is no justification for panic spending cuts.

Westminster has long been, and remains, one of those authorities that raise the smallest proportion of spending from the council tax. Only £1 in every £10 spent by the council comes from the council tax payer—a proportion virtually unchanged since 1995. As a percentage of budget, Westminster's council tax requirement was the fourth lowest in the country in 1997, and the fifth lowest last year. Those figures give the lie to claims that the Government have been excessively punitive towards Westminster and that council tax payers bear too much of the spending burden.

I cannot fail to mention the fact that Westminster is sitting on reserves of £84 million.

The council also ignores the fact that Westminster, which has the highest concentration of arts organisations in the country, benefits from inward investment because of its support for the arts. Westminster's local economy benefits from tourism and visitors, half of whom cite the arts as a reason for their visit. The London Arts Board invests £2 million in arts provision in Westminster, and the city is also a major recipient of lottery arts funding. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to that point in his reply, as it will help to disabuse us of the notion that local council tax payers are subsidising national organisations from which they receive no benefit.

The other important counter-argument to the charges laid by Westminster lie in our schools. Many of the institutions savaged by grant cuts have an excellent record of work with school children. Wigmore hall states: The £8,000 cut in funding restricts the Hall's ability to fund an education officer … our schools projects complement the national curriculum and to date they are offered almost exclusively to schools within Westminster. As the city does not have a Music Co-ordinator, the Hall arranged for teachers to meet regularly to share ideas and good teaching practice … the relationship developed and Wigmore Hall raised funds to employ an administrator to arrange inter-school activities and a pool of musical instruments. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has listed educational initiatives that will have to be scaled down, including a consultancy scheme on the deeply and multiply deprived Mozart estate, developing teaching and learning materials with teachers and community groups and organising evening taster sessions for residents. The Photographers Gallery drew attention to recent community projects that involved working with the Marylebone Bangladeshi society, Soho parish school, deaf artists from the area and others. The Serpentine gallery warns that a 48 per cent. cut will have a serious impact on the Gallery's education programme and the service it can offer to residents … half the children who attend the Saturday Art Club are Westminster children and they have priority … these activities and policies are now in jeopardy. In conclusion, I should like to raise three points. First, Westminster is wrong to make damaging, philistine and financially devastating cuts to arts and community organisations. Secondly, it is repugnant to attempt to pin the blame on the cost of asylum seekers to the local community.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I know the subject to which the hon. Lady is turning. Does she agree that that was a coda to the central problem, which is that the Government had decided to take millions out of Westminster's budget in respect of people who come in for the day as visitors? The figures for several of the institutions that she has mentioned show that, to a great extent, they service people from outside Westminster, rather than purely Westminster people.

Ms Buck

I have attempted to make it clear that the funding Westminster gives to community organisations is directed to the benefit of local residents and school children, and funds projects involving work with local schools and community groups, so it is not right to make the allegation that the right hon. Gentleman makes.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's point about cuts in funding to the borough in previous years, he is absolutely correct to say that a change was made to the spending formula in 1997. Westminster objected to that; the council sought and was not refused leave to have a judicial review of that decision. However, that decision was taken in 1997, and the local elections were fought in 1998, after the decision had already been incorporated into the Budget. The manifesto did not say a word about the fact that the council would seek another round of cuts—indeed, the council prided itself on the fact that, thanks to its good housekeeping, it was able to sustain front-line services and maintain a low council tax. However, immediately after the local elections, an axe was taken to community, voluntary and arts organisations.

To return to the point about asylum seekers, I want to express my anger about the fact that some extremely vulnerable people who have arrived in this country are being blamed for the crisis in arts funding. Although in recent years many London councils have borne too large a part of the financial burden for a matter that should be dealt with at national level, Westminster council knows full well that the new Government are taking several measures to assist central London boroughs, including Westminster, with the cost of asylum seekers. Those measures include an additional £130 million grant to help London boroughs, which was announced before Christmas. The combination of proposals to assist other communities to take a fair share of asylum seekers and the additional money means that it is completely wrong to attempt to pin the blame on asylum seekers. I believe that was a cynical and provocative playing of the race card for which there is no excuse.

The arts and community groups deserve nothing but praise for the work that they do, and have done, in Westminster and for the campaign of persuasion that they have run in recent months in an attempt to influence the council to change its decision. The London Arts Board and the National Campaign for the Arts should also be commended for their vigorous support at this difficult time. The arts will survive in Westminster because our communities and our institutions are strong, but much damage has been done to both morale and vital services.

I know that the Minister cannot write me a cheque—although, if he did, I would certainly not tear it up. However, I would be grateful for a sign that he and the Government recognise the value of the arts in the deprived, multicultural Westminster community and that he shares my regret about the damage being done to arts institutions.

7.41 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

As is her way, my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has done a service to Londoners and to us all by securing this debate. I am grateful to her for raising the issue of funding for the arts in Westminster, and for speaking with such vigour and strength of feeling.

I want to place the problems with which the arts have been confronted in Westminster in the context of this Government's policy for the arts. To us, it is a central and welcome responsibility of Government to support the arts. The arts are integral to the quality of our lives, private and public. For the experience of the arts to be accessible to all people, there is an inescapable obligation on Government to act to bring that about. It is a responsibility that falls on both central and local government.

We have been willing to find the money that the arts need. The settlement we achieved in the comprehensive spending review will put an extra £125 million into the arts over the next three years—the largest increase for a generation at least, and is in stark contrast to the recent history of arts funding in this country. In announcing my Department's funding plans for the next three years, we intend that the Arts Council and the bodies it funds should have greater certainty over the coming period and an unprecedented opportunity to plan strategically.

Beyond money, we are working to create an environment in which the arts can thrive and satisfy audiences across the country. We want access, as I have said, to ensure that the arts are for the many, not the few. We want excellence, because we believe in it for its own sake. We want education, so that people's enjoyment of the arts is enhanced and because that is our investment in the long-term future of the arts and in the quality of life of our society. We want a healthy arts economy, because it underwrites the rest of our objectives and provides jobs. In the United Kingdom, the creative industries have been growing at about twice the rate of the economy as a whole. They already employ more than 1.4 million people—5 per cent. of the total employed work force.

All those principles will be enshrined in the funding agreement we are currently preparing with the Arts Council. We are investing on the condition that the recipients of public investment—our partners—share our commitment to excellence and innovation, access for all, education and the creative economy. We believe that the administration of funding for the arts should be cost effective. Accordingly, the Arts Council is restructuring to deliver a better service to arts practitioners. It will be a leaner, more effective organisation. Many of its current responsibilities will be delegated in future to the regional arts boards, bringing funding decisions closer to the people most affected.

I am happy to be able to tell the House that, in the coming year, the Arts Council and the London Arts Board between them will invest £36 million in Westminster. Like my hon. Friend, however, I am very unhappy about the view that Westminster has taken of its own responsibilities in the coming year.

Our system of public support for the arts will work as it should only if everyone plays a part. Responsibility must be shared between the Arts Council—in distributing grant-in-aid and lottery funds—the regional arts boards, local authorities and other funders, such as business sponsors and the European Union. One partner cannot retreat in the expectation that others will pick up the tab. Our artistic ecology is fragile. The confluence of funding streams that keeps many precious artistic enterprises afloat is finely balanced: damming just one tributary can be enough to leave them high and dry.

My hon. Friend will understand that, as Minister for the Arts, I cannot and do not wish to determine local priorities in Westminster or any other authority. If the arm's length principle applies to the way in which the Arts Council and regional arts boards distribute grant-in-aid, it must also apply to local government spending on the arts. The accountability of Westminster city council is to its electors. If the people of Westminster do not believe that their council is getting its priorities right, they can seek to persuade their locally elected representatives to take a different course of action. They can also express their dissatisfaction through the ballot box.

It has already become clear that cutting funding to arts organisations is not a soft option for a local authority. When damage is gratuitously inflicted on the cultural life of an area, there is a public outcry, both from the artistic community and from local people. So it has been in the case raised by my hon. Friend. Her voice and mine are but additions to the many who have criticised the actions of Westminster city council.

Trevor Phillips, chair of the London Arts Board, has written eloquently in the Evening Standard of Westminster's lamentable decision, of the joyless, miserable and depressing vision of the chairman of Westminster city council's arts committee, Councillor Harvey Marshall, and of the ugly whiff of bigotry that he detects. Peter Hewitt, chief executive of the Arts Council, has said that he is deeply disappointed by Westminster's actions. The Evening Standard itself, in an editorial, has described Westminster's decision to cut arts funding as one that smacks of Philistinism and narrow-mindedness, and has deplored the damage that Westminster will do to the education of its children.

I can only agree. Westminster's cuts to arts funding will do damage to arts organisations of high reputation. To name but a few of the hardest hit, we are talking about, as my hon. Friend told us, the orchestra of St. John's Smith Square, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Photographers' gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Another is the Serpentine gallery. Westminster's grant to the gallery is spent on education, but it will now be reduced from £58,000 to £28,000. Last year, more than 500 teachers, mostly from Westminster, attended workshops run by the gallery. The gallery runs regular events for three local primary schools. Disabled people attended 12 similar events. The reduction in funding can have only the most serious implications for all those activities.

That is happening in the heart of our capital city, which is one of the world's great capitals of the arts, attracting artists and performers from within and beyond our shores. London's audiences create the opportunities for London's performers; they treasure and insist upon the public support that is indispensable to the vitality and quality of the arts in London.

The particular organisations that I have mentioned will have to bear reductions of between 47 and 100 per cent. in their local authority funding. For smaller organisations, cuts of that order can have a devastating, if not terminal, effect. For their larger colleagues, they are still deeply undermining. Twenty-three arts organisations in Westminster are to suffer. Those that will bear lesser cuts to their funding will still be damaged.

As in the case of the Serpentine gallery, to which I have already referred, so too with Wigmore hall—my hon. Friend described the damage to its educational programme—the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Photographers' gallery and other organisations, where Westminster's dereliction will hit the activities that put most back into the community, such as arts education. Dr. Nicholas Tate, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has said: It has become very clear to us how powerful is the contribution of the arts to a whole range of skills and attitudes that are vital to learning right across the curriculum, and indeed to employability. Westminster's schools face many difficulties and challenges. The arts offer to schoolchildren, not just the high fliers but those who are disaffected and see too little prospect for themselves in formal education, a kindling of the imagination and opportunities for personal development, which we should grasp and not reject. It is not some social elite that suffers when the arts are cut, but people—adults and children—who might otherwise have little or no opportunity to experience what the arts have to offer.

The harm done to individual organisations aggregates into a bleaker picture overall. A community in which those in authority care about its culture, reflecting the values of the people whom they represent, has depth and substance. It has pride and it presents itself proudly to the world. The damage that the authority may do to itself through a cut of £360,000 in investment in arts organisations in the city of Westminster, through discouraging tourists, investors and employers, not to mention the detrimental impact on education, is incalculable.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State negotiated the substantial increase in arts funding during the comprehensive spending review, he did not do so with the intention of filling, in retrospect, the gaps left by local authorities. When we see the Arts Council offering the Serpentine gallery an increased grant of £80,000 in the coming year, while Westminster city council withdraws £58,000; when we see the London Arts Board upping funding to the Unicorn children's theatre by £8,000, while Westminster withdraws £17,000; when we see the way in which funds channelled through my Department are negated by cuts by Westminster, we feel a sense of betrayal.

We all know that when a local authority sets its budget, some hard choices are inevitable. There are many competing demands for funding, of course. From time to time, funders of arts budgets need to alter patterns of support—perhaps because the management or the artistic output of an organisation is not what it needs to be. But, as my hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have made clear, there is no persuasive rationale for what is planned by Westminster. It intends to cut the funding of the organisations I have listed by nearly 30 per cent. for no decent reason.

The chairman of Westminster's arts committee, Councillor Harvey Marshall, has stated that one reason for the cuts is a reduction in central Government support for the council. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) also made that point. I will give the House the facts. The standard spending assessment for Westminster city council—the pot from which arts funding is drawn—has risen by 5.2 per cent. compared with 1998–99. That compares with an average increase for inner London of 4.2 per cent. Overall, the total external support for Westminster will rise from £187.72 million to £192.74 million in the coming year.

I turn to the most extremely offensive aspect of what Westminster has done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North told us, Councill or Marshall has stated his view that cuts in the arts are necessary to pay for asylum seekers in the borough. Again, I will set out the facts. Westminster has by no means the largest task among the London boroughs in dealing with the number of asylum seekers needing support. Moreover, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already responded to pleas from local authorities for more assistance, making an extra £30 million available to support new arrangements for asylum seekers, focusing on London and Dover in particular. Local authorities will be able to recover from Government the costs which fall to them of accommodating and supporting asylum seekers. Those steps have been welcomed by both the Association of London Government and the Local Government Association.

Councillor Harvey Marshall proposes an equation—more asylum seekers equals less art for Londoners—which should shame the local authority whose arts committee he chairs. The politics of making scapegoats is ugly, nasty and unacceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North expressed her anger about that. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster offered a plea in mitigation, but it will not suffice. He is a thoroughly decent man, and must be as ashamed as any of us of what his Conservative colleagues have said and done.

It is a relief at least to be able to say that Westminster's attitude towards the arts and its policy are an aberration. They are exceptional. Although there are certainly other authorities where we would welcome stronger support for the arts, and for museums as well, I pay tribute to the many local authorities whose commitment to the arts is unhesitating and strong, and who are actively developing their cultural strategies. Just as joined-up Government is necessary in Whitehall, so it is necessary between central and local government in terms of the arts as in other sectors. I value our partnership at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with the Local Government Association and with other individual local authorities and look forward to developing it further.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eight o'clock.