HC Deb 02 May 2001 vol 367 cc225-48WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Touhig.]

9.30 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

In recent years, the Arts Council of England has achieved laudable objectives. It embarked on a programme of devolution to the regions. It successfully advocated more central Government funding and sorted out the mess of lottery capital funding. For all those achievements, Mr. Gerry Robinson, the chairman of the Arts Council, deserves credit. Given such a record it was a surprise when, in mid-March, the Arts Council announced its plan to abolish all 10 regional arts boards by the end of April. The plans were sprung on the world and politicians without prior consultation. Whatever the chairman, Gerry Robinson, and his chief executive, Peter Hewitt, had in mind, they have disastrously mishandled their plan.

After the initial shock, anger has grown throughout the country at the Arts Council's unilateral attempt to remove local accountability from the arts funding system. The arts boards, elected politicians from all spheres—including Members of Parliament, the Mayor of London and councillors—universities, artists and regional consortiums have expressed their opposition to the plan. The Deputy Prime Minister is also opposed to it. It is an audacious and misguided attempt to centralise in an age when other organizations are moving towards devolution and localised decision making.

Moves to devolve arts administration began in the 1970s and were developed as a result of the Wilding report, when Richard Luce was Minister for the Arts. They have been vigorously pursued by successive Governments. ACE would sweep all that away. Everyone supports efforts to reduce bureaucracy and spending on administration in the arts, but ACE's proposals are not the way to achieve that. The plans are under attack from all sides and have created great confusion and uncertainty. It is high time that the House examined them and their genesis. It is also notable that the implementation of the plans is now behind the chairman's announced schedule.

What are the proposals? At present, 10 regional arts boards decide arts funding and policy in the regions with good input from local government and local education institutions and have developed links with regional development agencies and regional assemblies. ACE proposes to abolish those boards, take all decisions in London and execute them through subsidiary offices in the regions—a system similar to that which was abandoned as long ago as 1957. It argues that such action would deliver a range of benefits that most of us would happily support. They include a simpler, quicker, more arts-friendly service to the arts community, more flexible funding decided at regional level and reduced administration costs which would produce more money for the arts.

The press release accompanying the plans promised greater autonomy for the regions. It stated: more will be managed and delivered regionally than is currently the case. The truth is, however, that such benefits are mere aspirations. No detail has been given regarding how they might be achieved. It is difficult to understand how requiring artists to engage with a regional office that must refer back to its boss in London about policy and funding will result in a more friendly arts service. While flexible funds may be further devolved to the regions, funding for regularly supported organisations will be clawed back to London. That amounts to more than 80 per cent. of regional arts boards budgets, but we will have gone through a complex and far-reaching process of devolution for nothing. Everyone would welcome reduced administration costs, but handing power to ACE in London is not the answer. Its record of restructuring to save money is not encouraging. In 1998, it promised to reduce its staff to fewer than 200 and plough an extra £2 million into the arts as a result. This year, ACE still has more than 200 employees, and staff costs at the centre have increased. Figures show that ACE employees cost a good deal more than RAB employees.

The promise of greater capacity to address needs and act on bold ideas for the arts throughout England sounds hollow when we consider how the inadequately bureaucratic London-based organisations respond to regional diversity and bold local innovation. The RABs were formed in 1991. They were built on regional arts associations, which were established independently to co-ordinate arts in the regions, and purposely involved local authorities. All RABs have guaranteed local authority representation, and local authorities pay financial subscriptions to them. ACE proposes regional offices accountable to London and advised by regional advisory boards, which will include local authorities. It also suggests that councils should hand over their financial subscriptions to RABs to new local partnership funds. Councils that have enjoyed a vote on the executive are extremely unlikely to be impressed with a post on an advisory board.

Already, in the south-west, councils are cancelling their subscriptions to the RABs. With local authorities providing half of arts funding in England, we cannot afford to alienate them from the arts scene. The proposed centralisation will do just that. RABs are also building relationships with regional assemblies. For example, South West Arts is a member of its regional assembly. In the capital, London Arts is currently developing a strong relationship with the Greater London Assembly and mayor—a model for progress under future moves towards regional governance. Both the mayor and the Assembly have rejected the proposals.

The Arts Council's prospectus promises a single agency that will provide the arts with one voice…a single voice and a single brand…and one funding organisation with one set of priorities and objectives. A clearer definition of a centralised body would be hard to find. In any event, is single branding the way to represent the diversity of the arts? We are not marketing sandwiches.

Chief executives of the regional offices will be line-managed by the chief executive of ACE. There will be regular reviews of their performance and agreement of targets. They will also sit on the executive board of ACE in London. While ACE makes sweet noises about devolution and decentralisation, the truth is clear. Taking back 80 per cent. of RAB funds and deciding priorities in London is indeed centralisation. Making regional chief executives accountable to a superior London chief executive is centralisation. Giving regional chiefs a job in London is centralisation. The many artists, business people and other volunteers who give their time and expertise to deliver the remit of the regional arts boards are unlikely to do so with as much conviction if their role becomes solely to advise London.

To understand the Arts Council's real attitude towards regional input and decision making, we need only examine how the root and branch changes were developed and proposed. Far from believing in consultation, it sent the proposals to the RABs 24 hours before they were launched to the press. Hon. Members received them at the same time as the press did, and it appears that even the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport had little notice. An article in Monday's Guardian painted a vivid picture: in mid-March…Gerry Robinson launched a dawn raid on England's ten Regional Arts Boards…Plans were drawn up in secret and sprung on astonished RABs, which were given six weeks to hand over all their assets to Gerry…The six weeks are up and no one has handed over anything. Eight out of ten of the RABs are in open rebellion. The prospectus pledged that it would move swiftly to build a new structure, but only with the consent of the regional arts boards as to what form that new structure should take. ACE called on the RABs to sign over all their assets and staff, and then engage in consultation regarding the way forward. In other words, the main act of centralisation would be achieved before the new regional structures were agreed. At the time, such proposals were presented as having the support of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and most of the chief executives of the RABs. However, it has since emerged that the Secretary of State—and no doubt other Ministers—has serious concerns about the proposals and their effect on regional accountability in the arts.

Sue Robertson, chief executive of London Arts, who previously worked for the South Bank centre and the Arts Council of Great Britain, has resigned her post as a result of the proposals. RABs that regarded the plans as ill thought out and backward looking soon learned that they were not alone. All have registered their discontent about the lack of consultation. South West Arts noted: It would be wrong to under-estimate the offence this has caused and the extent to which it has undermined trust and confidence in ACE. ACE's attempts to bounce the arts community and politicians, including the Government, into accepting its proposals have failed, and its timetable is in disarray. It had intended to have the new structures in place by the end of the year. The RABs are self-determining companies, and have rightly shown that they will not bow to ACE's calls to disband. ACE proposes a more detailed prospectus by June, perhaps to coincide with an election period and the first days of an incoming Government. ACE says that it will take on board concerns over loss of regional autonomy. Given its record on consultation, we should not be optimistic.

In a recent parliamentary answer, the Secretary of State said: I am looking forward to receiving formal, detailed proposals in due course and will consult".—[Official Report, 20 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 171W.] Such proposals are far from ready and, given that the Secretary of State's commitment to consultation is greater than that of ACE, it seems unlikely that satisfactory proposals will be in place for months.

All the uncertainty has a cost. Staff have been told that no post is safe, which has had terrible effects on morale. Artists have been told that flexible funding for 2002– must be put on hold. Local authorities and regional development agencies have no idea whether the bodies with which they are engaging will have any power within months. ACE's staff are running up and down the country trying to convince RABs that the plans are the best way forward. RABs have been forced into hurried meetings, consultations and press gatherings, as well as into efforts to reassure local artistic and political communities. That is expensive.

We also know that ACE was planning to hire change-management consultants from the end of April to effect the changes. With the timetable in flux, will the Minister tell us whether such consultants are in place, what that has cost, and what funds ACE has earmarked for them? It is a curious way for an organisation that proclaims its intent to watch the pennies to proceed.

The Government's reservations about the proposals are understandable because they have consistently supported the RABs. In 1998, the Department's comprehensive spending review document stated: At a local and regional level, many RABs have successfully developed a role as a wider investment agency for the arts in liaison with other regional bodies and in building local partnerships…ministers want to ensure that decision making takes place as close as possible to the point of delivery". Such goals were publicly shared by an Arts Council that at that time had pledged to devolve responsibilities and reduce itself at the centre. That was restated time and again in the House. The Minister will recall that on 5 November 1998 he told the House: 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…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."—[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1120–21.] On 18 March 1999, the Minister still supported ACE's mission to become a leaner, more effective organisation. Many of its current responsibilities will be delegated in future to the regional arts boards".—[Official Report, 18 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 1378.] On 26 November 1999, the Secretary of State told the House: The Arts Council is devolving decision making…the process of delegation chimes well with the Government's own emphasis on the importance of regional decision making."—[Official Report, 26 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 862.] It is, therefore, small wonder that the Secretary of State is now seeking detailed proposals to gain reassurance that the voice of the regions will not disappear.

Why has ACE made those proposals in such a disastrous fashion? At first glance, it might appear idiotic to make major restructuring proposals without holding consultations or explaining matters in detail, and in such a way as to cause disruption, recrimination and financial loss. However, such a view might be regarded as charitable. It seems more likely that, following ACE's failure in 1998 to restructure at the centre and to reduce waste, senior people at the council decided that the axe should fall on the regions.

Moreover, those people have seen that the writing is on the wall for ACE in its present form. The Conservative party has pledged to abolish the Arts Council, and my party has pledged to devolve further to the regions and to reduce the role and size of the council at the centre. As regionalism enjoys an ascendant position in the Government's political agenda, perhaps Mr. Robinson thought that the best time to pounce was a few weeks before an expected general election. Perhaps he thought that the political community would be distracted in the pre-election period, and that that would allow ACE to bounce artists and politicians into accepting its plans. Fortunately, a strong Department for Culture, Media and Sport manages to keep such issues centre stage. The secrecy surrounding the launch, and the duplicity of the false suggestions that the chief executives of the RABs supported the proposals, appear sufficiently Machiavellian to suggest that ACE knew that its grab for power would be opposed unless it rammed them through.

What should happen now? With trust between the centre and the regions destroyed, and the future uncertain for artists and employees, what must be done? All the RABs have acknowledged that bureaucracy must be slimmed down and that reform is desirable. There are several available options. One option is to rely on a single, centralised arts council for England that dictates to the regions. My party's preferred option would be for most funding decisions to be devolved to the regions, and for the Government to take responsibility for funding the few national organisations. The Arts Council would become a small but authoritative advocacy body for the arts at national level, advising the Government, and acting as a repository of expertise for the regional arts boards. It might retain some funding for touring, and to support innovation. The RABs would be accountable to regional government, and they would work closely with regional cultural consortiums.

Arts funding underwent a significant restructuring in 1998, and the RABs were established only in 1991. It might appear macho to sweep away all that went before, but real savings will be delivered by creating a system that is based on consultation and consent, and which will not be uprooted again five ears in the future. I suggest that the Government make it clear that there is no question of the RABs' ceasing to exist. We do not need a new structure, as the existing one is fairly new and is only now beginning to function as intended. It must be made to work even better, and it should absorb less of the Treasury's grant in aid to the arts. It must be able to carry authority and trust, and to attract, at reasonable cost, regional managers of high quality. Its decisions must continue to be examined and endorsed at regional level: that will make it independent of central policy fashion. It must have an easy, close and knowledgeable relationship with artists and their organisations, and it must carry the respect of Parliament and the public.

I ask the Minister to invite the chairman and chief executive of the Arts Council of England to withdraw their unacceptable proposals and work within the system laid down by successive Governments and supported by all parties. Given the widespread rejection of the proposals, failure to do so may make the position of the chairman and chief executive untenable.

9.49 am
Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

I listened with great care to the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), and I understand his concerns. Change is always a difficult process, but I am sure that everyone wants a system and a structure that is simpler to understand and navigate, has clear links between the regions and national decision making, and is responsive to local concerns, flexible in its way of working and funding and organised on efficient lines to remove unnecessary waste and duplication. The new proposals must be judged against such criteria.

I shall reflect on the impact that the Arts Council and East Midlands Arts have made in my constituency, in the hope that future structures and proposals can be secured and enhanced in years to come. Art is playing a key role in the regeneration of my constituency, especially in the town of Corby, and several exciting initiatives in the town are helping to raise people's aspirations and educational standards and involve people, especially young people who have in the past been excluded from art almost entirely, in planning Corby's future and tackling problems.

Corby Community Arts was established as long ago as 1977 and is possibly one of the longest-standing arts organisations in the area. It has a proud track record, established by the Arts Council, of supporting community development through art throughout Corby's history, and throughout the closure of the steelworks, when Corby faced difficult circumstances in the early 1980s. Indeed, it was through a project supported by Corby Community Arts, the Corby Balls Up juggling club, that I first learned to juggle—a skill that, regrettably, you would not permit me to demonstrate in this Chamber, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I could cite many examples of how such projects, supported by the Arts Council, help bring young people who are otherwise excluded from art into art and into Corby's future, and raise the standard of art performance and the quality of life in Corby.

Another example is the It Matters photo-stories group, a young people's photography group, which is supported by Arts Council and East Midlands Arts funding. It is a group of young people who have produced a series of photo-stories as magazines, similar to those that young people buy in newsagents. They have written them from a young person's perspective, using photography to explore issues such as bullying, smoking, racism and even the stress of taking exams. They are written by young people for young people, using art as the medium to make that contact.

The latest project involves a photo-story about stealing cars, a problem that I assume is found in other constituencies. Young people are saying to other young people, "Look, come on, there's a better way of living your life." The group is working with young people from a local school who would not be attending that school if they were not engaged in that project: they would be out stealing the very cars with which they are now dealing in a magazine photo-story. The It Matters group has been recognised by the Home Office for its work in countering racism in its photo-story magazines, and it even travelled to China, with help and sponsorship from the Arts Council, to share its ideas and work with young people from another country.

Another group that is excluded are the young people from the Kickstart project, who have been excluded in years 10 or 11 and will not return to mainstream schooling. It is using art to tap into the creativity and imagination of young people whom the rest of the education system has failed. The fantasy town planning project in which they are involved has arts workers motivating and exciting young people with whom others have been unable to connect.

In Corby, the Arts Council has supported dance in a big way. Young people in Corby are famous for their talent in dance. A former mayor of Corby adopted dance as his theme for his term of office, and the celebration of talent and skill that that unleashed was staggering. As you may know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Corby has a strong Scottish heritage, a legacy of the steelworks, and I am delighted to say that the two young national champions of Scottish dancing come not from Scotland but from Corby. Last year, the many different schools of dance came together to hold an evening of dance at Corby theatre, to raise money for Children in Need. They even managed to get me on stage, not juggling but tap-dancing, which is another hidden talent that—to the relief of all present—I shall not demonstrate. However, it raised hundreds of pounds for charity.

The Arts Council and East Midlands Arts have provided an arena for celebrating art and making art happen in Corby, as well as grabbing national lottery money. National lottery funding has paid for a "year of the artist" programme, a local residency and two artists working with young people at the Pen Green centre. It also funded the Shout youth theatre, which provides workshops for young people to explore issues of concern. The lottery also funded the Corby choral society, catering for an older age group, which provides musical performances for local communities and raises funds for churches and charities. Last year, millennium funding helped to pay for the making of a community banner to celebrate Corby's success, and, in the process, engaged people in talking about the problems and issues in the town.

There is also a strong link, supported through the Arts Council, between art and education. I recently judged a "Stars in their Eyes" competition—I dare say that other Members of Parliament do similar things—at the Kingswood secondary school in my constituency. It was a showcase of musical and singing talent of young people in the school, and the whole evening was organised by the young people themselves. That school is also host to the Corby music school, which meets every Saturday and allows young people to sing, perform and learn musical instruments. Students from that music school can progress to the renowned Northamptonshire youth orchestra. I am grateful that Studfall junior and Rockingham primary schools will be receiving £450,000 from the space for sport and the arts scheme, which is supported by the national lottery and the Treasury with the Arts and Sports Councils, to create new multi-use arts and sports spaces in the area.

I would guess that all of those present have a love of art. We know that art is special because it gives us hope, pleasure, inspiration and excitement, and that art can connect to parts of ourselves that other activities cannot. We also know that art can connect to people who have low self-esteem and self-confidence, and help them to find self-esteem and self-confidence. It can connect with people who are not reaching their potential, but who, through art, can achieve spectacular results. We must prove that, however, in order to convince policy makers, especially the Treasury, to fund more of the arts. We must show how art can have a wider impact, and we must measure that impact in terms of raising educational attainment and regenerating rundown areas.

I am therefore delighted that Corby has been chosen by the Arts Council as one of two pilot areas to assess the impact that arts can have on raising educational standards. The arts and education interface programme will measure the long-term sustained impact on young people as well as the impact of short-term discrete pieces of art on young people, teaching, educational attainment and arts learning in and out of the school, and, in the process, it will be part of the education action zone. A new forum of teachers in the town—the Corby arts teachers forum—is now in place. It is planning a musical play to raise young people's self-esteem, and is even talking about staging a large-scale rock opera in Corby, which will involve hundreds if not all of the young people in the town. Those and other projects in Corby show how the contribution of the Arts Council and East Midlands Arts has been successful in Corby. Elsewhere in my constituency, Oundle has a nationally famous festival, the Stahl theatre and the Court House museum, which opened last month, and other marvellous events.

Art is alive and well, and that is because the Arts Council and East Midlands Arts are doing such an effective job. They are not only raising performance in the arts but tackling social exclusion and the Government's whole agenda of trying to raise educational performance. I shall listen to the Minister with care. I hope that the new structures will ensure not only that those initiatives survive, but that they flourish and develop in the years to come.

9.59 am
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope). My father worked for Stewarts and Lloyds before the war and once asked the chairman whether he had experienced any difficulty in introducing the concept of the works in Corby in the depths of the depression in 1932. The chairman replied that only one question was asked at the annual general meeting at which the concept was announced, from an elderly Glaswegian who stood up at the back of the hall and asked whether there was adequate provision for Presbyterian worship in the county of Northamptonshire.

There is an element of farce to the events that we are describing today. In an introduction by P. G. Wodehouse to a book of humour, he takes the line from "Julius Caesar" about "That day" we beat "the Nervii" after which he adds the results of a football match in brackets—Dulwich v. St. Paul's 3–0.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) will recall me saying on the Floor of the House, in the words of Milton's "Lycidas", that we were nursed on the self-same hill. I do not know whether this is his valedictory speech, but I think that all of us are grateful to him for instigating this debate. As a Unionist, I am grateful that the matter was raised by someone from the north of Scotland. That is good for the kingdom as a whole—I note that we are discussing the Arts Council of England.

I will not rehearse the narrative that the right hon. Gentleman deployed because he did that admirably and comprehensively, but I reinforce his comments on timing and consultation. I am surprised that there was no reference to a referendum, but perhaps referendums have gone out of fashion since the first spate took place, when the rules could still be changed from referendum to referendum to suit the Government's view. Now that we have rules, perhaps referendums have become less popular.

I echo the right hon. Gentleman's comments about Mr. Robinson, and about Mr. Hewitt, whom I knew during his time at Northern Arts. I have the greatest respect for him and, in the context of the regional network, he certainly knows how many ducks make five. I also admire and respect Mr. Robinson, whom I knew during my time in the National Heritage Department. I understand how the private sector operates when it is engaged in restructuring, and there may not be much consultation about it. However, one still expects to have some idea of where the whole thing is supposed to go, and how it will work. I grew up, in part, at the Harvard business school, where there was a famous phrase: If you do not know where you are trying to get to, any road will get you there. I add to my words of respect for Mr. Robinson and Mr. Hewitt, by paying tribute to those who have worked in the regional arts field and on regional arts boards over the past 10 years, some of whom are among the most outstanding people whom I have met during my time in public life. As for the Government, they either knew what was going to happen or they did not—which is a tautology. If the Minister says that the Government were not consulted, and there was neither wink nor nod, I shall, of course, believe him implicitly. The arm's length principle is reinforced when a case such as this proves an exception to the rule. That should be a reassurance. The Government have a rare capacity to turn a problem into a crisis. On the first evening following the Wall street crash of 1929, the French ambassador in Washington, Paul Claudel, was giving a soiree at which he expressed the view that between the crisis and the catastrophe there is always time for a glass of champagne". If I may say so, that is a very new Labour sentiment.

We live in the era of devolution, but the Government deliver—by actions louder than words—the message that the man in Whitehall knows best. If there is any doubt about that, one need only examine what is happening in the national health service, or the actions of the Department for Education and Employment. It is not surprising that non-departmental public bodies—if that is what they are still called—do not know where they stand. This farce is a good index of what can happen. There is a separate problem for morale in the regions.

I do not think that the following fact is relevant, but in this era of political correctness one cannot be too careful, so I should tell the Chamber that I am the president of the British Antique Dealers' Association and of the British Art Market Federation. At the BADA millennial dinner last November, the Secretary of State heard Sir Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, rehearse eloquently the problems in provincial museums. That is an index of the very problem that we are discussing.

I have said that we owe a debt to the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross for introducing the debate, because we do not know where we are, how we got here or where we are going. That confers major importance on the Minister's speech and I remind him of Mr. Claudel's words that between the crisis and the catastrophe there is always time for a glass of champagne. I look forward to his sparkling proof that we have all got the matter wrong and that in this new Labour era, all is still for the best—in the Panglossian phrase—in the best of all possible worlds.

10.5 am

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I should like to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and congratulate him on raising this issue. It was not prominent in my mind until yesterday, when I received several communications drawing my attention to today's debate.

I, too, am concerned about the manner in which it was announced that a centralised structure would be created, especially given the lack of consultation or any real attempt to assess the scope of the work being done in the regions. There was no consultation with the partner organisations and the clients of the regional boards. That does not augur well for the claim that the new structure is intended to give more autonomy to the regions. The manner in which the new arrangements were announced and the speed with which they are to be implemented do not suggest that there will be that devolution of power or autonomy.

It would appear that, because the proposals have aroused such disagreement, the implementation of the structure has been deferred. However, there is concern that what consultation is taking place is based on the principle that the creation of a single organisation is non-negotiable.

It is clear to me, from the representations that have been made, that West Midlands Arts is valued as a partner by local authorities. I know that Councillor Andrew Coulson, the cabinet member responsible for regeneration in Birmingham, has written to the Secretary of State expressing his dismay. Staff of the board are also worried about the manner in which the proposals were announced and their lack of involvement in that process, and of course they worry about their own future. The arts organisations who have worked with West Midlands Arts value that partnership and are equally dismayed by the proposals.

I am heartened to learn that the Secretary of State is looking forward to receiving detailed proposals and that he will consult further on them. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will demonstrate that the Government are committed to the open consultation and debate without preconceived ideas or conditions that is necessary for us to progress and create arts organisations in this country of which we can be proud. I will not go into details of arts organisations in my constituency, but certainly the arts are an important part of generating an inclusive society. They are playing an ever greater role in our economy. It is essential that we get this right.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. I understand that the Minister wants slightly longer than is normal to reply to the debate. I think that we want to give him that time. If the next two speakers are prepared to use self-discipline and be brief they will both get in, but I hope to start the winding-up speeches at about 10.20 am.

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I emphasise that above all I want to hear the contributions that hon. Members wish to make? It may be for the assistance of the House if I have the opportunity to set out the Government's position a little more fully than is conventional in these debates, but I do not want anyone to feel constrained on my account.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are obviously grateful to the Minister for that response. It is an important subject.

10.10 am
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) on securing this short debate on what he rightly described as an audacious smash-and-grab bid by the Arts Council. I was involved in a professional capacity in the previous reorganisation and when I heard about the proposal on the radio news, my heart sank. We are only just starting to make sense of the current system and it is premature to contemplate something as radical as this.

I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend and others in bemoaning the manner in which the reorganisation is being done. It was astonishing that the plan was whipped out of the hat in the middle of March and that those organisations were expected to hand over all their assets and amalgamate themselves by the end of April. I cannot imagine how the Arts Council supposed that anyone would acquiesce in the process on such a time scale. If it is attempting to convince us, the regional arts boards and the arts world that it will form a central organisation based in London, which will nevertheless be decentralist at heart and have the needs of communities at the forefront of its thinking, the manner in which it has gone about it could not have been less successful in persuading anyone of its noble intentions.

The prospectus that the council put forward advocating the changes spoke of creating an organisation that would be simpler, quicker and more arts-friendly. There was talk of greater flexibility for funding decisions at a regional level. As the council saw it, the reduction in administrative costs was behind the proposals. It is vital that more of those decisions are taken nearer to the community. The regional arts boards offer the right means for forming partnerships at a regional level with the emerging regional development agencies and the local authorities. I simply do not see how an office that is an outpost of a central organisation can possibly form the same meaningful partnerships at community level as an autonomous board, existing in the region in its own right.

The measures would have a hugely centralising effect. The majority of funding decisions would gravitate back to London and, with the best will in the world, no matter how talented the staff of an organisation based in London are, they simply cannot have the feel for what is going on in a region. They cannot know about emerging talents that have not yet hit their radar. They cannot know about a project that deserves to be given a break and some early funding so that it can go on to become successful.

My own regional arts board, South West Arts, looks after diverse interests throughout the south-west peninsula. I do not always agree with every decision that it takes. Even in its own notes on this subject, the recitation of the things that it has done reminds me yet again that I wish that it had done more for North Devon. My constituency is something of a rural outpost, although we have two good theatres and much emerging talent in the arts field. Nevertheless, I prefer my chances of persuading the regional arts board in Exeter of the need to support and fund specific projects in my constituency to my chances of persuading an organisation based in London.

No one claims that the current arrangements are perfect. It is always worth looking for improvements. It may well be that those organisations could have a lighter touch, or could respond more rapidly. The arts world could have a more effective voice in London, and no one is saying that the current arrangements must be preserved in aspic. However, the way in which the proposals have been brought forward, and the proposals themselves, are unacceptable. I am not surprised that there is open revolt throughout the country. There is no way that the arts world will be persuaded that this is the right direction to take. The Arts Council should withdraw from the proposals. We should have a blank piece of paper and start again from scratch.

10.15 am
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) on securing the debate, the focus of which I thought would be narrow. However, having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope), I realise that the debate is not just about the future of regional arts boards, but about procedures in the House. If we could find some way of allowing him both to juggle and to tap-dance in the Chamber, I would look forward to that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), I have had representations from the West Midlands about the genuine concerns of a wide range of people about the proposals for the regional arts boards. As the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, it is a shame that the proposals have provoked those criticisms, as many of the things that Gerry Robinson has done have been laudable and have met with a great deal of support. Last year, Birmingham celebrated its Forward festival—a massive extravaganza over the millennium year, involving hundreds of artists, more than 100 new works and 46 arts organisations—made possible by a whole range of organisations and bodies. The £1.7 million lottery grant was vital to the festival and the role of the Arts Council of England in that is to be applauded, welcomed and recognised. It put Birmingham back on the map as a city of culture, and we look forward to its bid to be European city of culture.

Coming on the back of those sorts of things and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, of the whole trajectory of policy making towards devolution and more local decision making, the proposals as they stand give cause for serious concern. Will the Minister give some indication of the kind of questions that will be asked of the Arts Council of England when it brings forward its proposals?

My hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak referred to a letter to the Secretary of State from the Birmingham city council cabinet member for regeneration. Some of the cabinet member's comments do seem to outline some of the existing concerns in the arts community and the region about disparities in arts funding. Those concerns may be aggravated if the proposals go through in their current form. He gave the example of the City of Birmingham symphony orchestra—world famous under Sir Simon Rattle, with massive progress and a commitment to excellence continued by his successor. Its excellence lies not only in its work in Birmingham's Symphony hall and around the world, and in requests for tours, but in its community and educational work in Birmingham. It has received enormous support from the people of Birmingham and elsewhere. Yet there are worries about funding reviews. Even under the current system, the City of Birmingham symphony orchestra received a 3 per cent. uplift in funding, whereas two competitor orchestras, based in the capital, received an uplift in funding of 160 per cent.

I do not want to present the difficulties as a row between London and the regions because, as the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned, there have also been concerns from London about the proposals. However, I ask the Minister to recognise, and I am sure that he does, that there are real concerns in the regions that our ability to develop the arts in the way that we need to, and to do right by the communities that we serve, require an equity in funding. If there is to be that equity, there must be an element of local decision making. On the face of it, however, ACE's proposals—perhaps I have read them wrong—lead in the other direction. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will listen seriously to what is said today. I ask ACE to reconsider the way in which it has gone about the proposals, which seem to constitute a centralisation of power when all logic suggests that we should go the other way.

If we have read the proposals wrong, surely ACE needs to take the time to become involved in the consultative procedures. That would allow a dialogue to take place and a solution to be found with which everyone could feel comfortable. Unless that time is given and ACE has the confidence of people in the regions, the reorganisation will start on the basis of distrust, which sounds like a recipe for disaster.

I look forward to what the Minister has to say and I wish him well in asking questions of the Arts Council in the coming weeks. I ask the council to listen seriously to the genuine concerns that are being expressed in the regions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful for the self-discipline that has been shown. I hope that the Opposition spokesmen will show similar discipline in winding up.

10.21 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I will indeed show discipline, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I take as an optimistic sign the fact that the Minister wants to speak for some time. I should have thought that if he had bad news, he would have asked for a shorter period, so I draw the opposite conclusion and assume that we shall hear an encouraging speech.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) on securing the debate. The issue was in danger of being swept under the carpet, but by putting down a marker for it in what could be the final week of the Parliament, he has done a great service. He has brought the situation to the attention of the media and of many hon. Members who were unaware of what was taking place. The Minister has also been provided with a chance to respond, so the debate is very welcome.

I shall discuss the timing, the proposals and the way ahead. If I may, I shall also indulge in saying a little about Southern Arts, which has its base in my constituency. We should first place the debate in context. We have heard about the many aspects of the work carried out by the Arts Council that we should celebrate. As a vehicle for managing the considerable funding from Government and the lottery, it has been successful. Hon. Members have described projects throughout the country that would not have happened if we did not have the Arts Council.

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the work carried out by some of the individuals whom we are now tempted to criticise. The tone of the debate is interesting, because there has been no anger, as there sometimes is when such proposals are made. Instead, there is bewilderment: we cannot quite understand why an organisation with such a reputation has done what it has, and in such a way.

The decision taken on 15 March to bring forward the proposals took the arts world by surprise. We rightly condemn the plans immediately to announce the abolition of the regional boards without giving them notice. I understand that six weeks' notice was given to wind up staff contracts, undertake the difficult process of talking to staff about the change and send through centrally all the contracts and administration. How can any organisation suggest that it can turn around in such a period? It was pleasing that it at least recognised that early and decided to extend the consultation period. However, it has been extended only until mid-May. Given the broad range of the issues that have been raised this morning, a much longer period is needed to enable us to work out where the organisation is going.

I am told that Southern Arts, for example, has still been put on notice that, subject to that consultation period, it is expected to wind up its organisation by the end of the year. It seems bizarre that those plans must be put in place before a consultation period has been completed. Let us imagine the reaction of the 400 or so staff who are affected by the proposal. They must be very worried, and we must ensure that their rights as employees are protected throughout the process.

Why was the process so rushed? Can the consultation period be further extended? It would help if the Minister said when the Government first knew about the proposals. There would be concern if the Government had been made aware of them before the arts world was. Might the system be examined to ensure that the Arts Council can never again do anything like that?

On the proposals, we have heard many arguments why it does not make sense to move towards a single tier. The Arts Council has argued that it would be a quicker, simpler and less bureaucratic structure. Why is it assumed that delays in the process have been caused by the regionality of the system? It has been put to me that one reason for those delays is the structure of the centre and the way in which it operates, and it has been argued that the centre has been at fault for not giving clear guidelines to the regions. I have heard examples of lack of clarity in communication. Will not centralisation prolong the decision-making process? If decisions are taken from the centre, will not fieldwork have to be done in the regions to try to establish local knowledge? Rather than speeding things up, suddenly removing the arm in the regions that gives immediate information about applications could lengthen the process.

The administration costs of the Arts Council run to about £36 million. It is estimated that the regions cost about £16 million. Why, then, is it assumed that the burden of responsibility for reducing costs should fall on the regions? Has the option of reducing costs at the centre been examined? I have seen nothing to suggest that such work has been undertaken. The board members of regional boards give up their time for no payment. If one is trying to reduce costs, it seems strange to remove a tier of individuals who give knowledge and expertise at no cost.

Will the Minister also comment on what assessment, if any, has been made of the administrative costs that will be involved in the proposals? Hon. Members have talked about what I would describe as the deficit of democratic accountability. A third of the members of Southern Arts are from democratically elected councils, which is extremely healthy. As other hon. Members have said, we need to protect the link between local government and local authorities, which already do so much for the arts. They have invaluable knowledge.

Do not the proposals go against the devolution to the regions that we are trying to enable? Do not regions know what is best for them? Do we not want to celebrate diversity? Do we not want a structure that allows different systems in different regions? What works best in northern England may not work in the same way in southern England. We could lose all that with a centralised system.

Southern Arts is based in my constituency and I am proud of the work that it has done in the area. Its chairman, Robert Hutchison, came to see me two days ago to express his concern about the proposals. In the time scale that Southern Arts has been given, it has done its best to consult some of the individuals that it supports. I do not know how scientific the consultation was, but the organisation claimed that 85 per cent. of the people to whom it had written, whom it has supported over the years, are against the proposals. I am sure that other hon. Members, like myself, have received several letters from high-profile organisations.

We are proud of the work that the regional arts boards have done. Incredibly, three years ago Winchester had no theatre or cinema—a bizarre anomaly for such a city. We now have a thriving cinema and hope to have a theatre opening within months. We do not, thankfully, yet have "Stars in their Eyes" competitions, but I was interested to hear the list of work that also goes on in other areas.

We need a sensible way forward. Hon. Members have demonstrated their willingness to try to work through the issue. No one is against change for change's sake—not even the regional arts boards, which recognise that the systems need to be improved. It is annoying that the Arts Council does not accept that some faults, and some of the need for change, could lie at the centre. Is the possibility of cuts act the centre being explored? The regional boards may need to be reduced in some way, but do we not need better decision making and clearer criteria on how decisions should be taken to speed things up? Above all—I am optimistic about it because I believe that the Minister can take a lead in this respect—we need to buy ourselves time to think about the proposals and to ensure that, at the end of the year, there is a robust organisation that supports arts in this country.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) for his co-operation in this important debate.

10.29 am
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

As I was driving back to Yorkshire last Thursday evening, wondering what on earth we would discuss in the debate called by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan)—the area of responsibility is usually that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth)—I tuned into Radio 3 and heard the live relay of the first concert in the BBC tour of south America from a cinema in Montevideo. The orchestra was outstanding and it was given a tumultuous reception. It served as a timely reminder of how successful and precious the arts are to so many of us.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross on securing this timely debate. I am grateful for the presence in the Chamber of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who referred to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman came from Scotland. I cannot match the courtesy with which my right hon. Friend alluded to the incongruity of a Scottish Member securing a debate on the arts council for England and Wales and discussing our regional arts boards. However, we are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and acknowledge his vast experience and interest in the matter.

We have too few opportunities to debate the arts and the debate is all the more welcome to the Conservative party as we highlighted the need for the reform and restructuring of the Arts Council and the regional arts boards in the launch of our arts policy on 13 March, to which the right hon. Gentleman briefly alluded.

The case for reform should not be ignored or underestimated. Hon. Members have referred in the debate to central and regional bureaucracy; staff in the regional arts boards have grown in number from 380 to 419 in the past four years and more than £16 million has been spent in administration. Levels vary significantly between boards, but in the most recent year for which figures are available South East Arts spent 34 per cent. of its entire budget on administrating. That is too much. Equally, too much of the Arts Council's budget is spent monitoring and administering the regional boards, and more money is wasted by the requirement for the Department to monitor the Arts Council. There are English regional arts boards, the club of the arts boards and the regional cultural consortiums set up by the Government—what are they for?—all of which are a potential waste of time and money.

It is disturbing that the Arts Council, the prime purpose of which is to distribute funds that sustain the arts—it is remarkably successful—appears to command so little respect or affection. I commend to hon. Members an article in the Evening Standard on 27 March by Mr. Brian Sewell, which encapsulates the attitude of many people to the Art Council.

Our policy paper, "Common Sense for the Arts and National Lottery", promised a fundamental review of ACE, its structure and function. If the present organisation, which is half a century old, proves incapable of further reform we will replace it with a new, simplified national body that will better reflect the contemporary needs of the professional and voluntary arts.

Four principles should underpin any reformed structure, whatever emerges following the Arts Council's announcement. There must be consultation with the arts sector to achieve a system of funding in which artists can have confidence. We must reinforce the arm's length principle in arts funding, enabling decisions to be taken in the interests of art, rather than in pursuit of Government policy. We need to ensure that the voice of the voluntary arts sector is heard where decisions are taken and to ensure that more money from the arts budget is spent on the arts themselves and less on administration.

We were favourably surprised when, two days after making our views public, the Arts Council made its own announcement. We have heard what a furore that caused. At the same time, we were bewildered, if not astonished, that the Arts Council had taken its decision without consulting the regional boards or their many clients. There was no evidence of consultation with Ministers—not even a nod or a wink, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said.

Our own discussions with the Arts Council chief executive threw some light on why this stance was adopted. The Arts Council concluded that a single structure was essential to achieve the objectives of a new streamlined organisation with less bureaucracy, and wanted to signal that that was its clear and settled intention. It was a serious mistake not to consult because it generated great opposition and hostility, much of which has been articulated in the debate. A new maxim has been coined: how to displease all of the people all of the time.

The announcement may have been heroic but, having so clearly and controversially set out the stall, the chairman and chief executive now have the monumental task of explaining how the new structure will work, and how regionality, local decision making and accountability can be maintained and strengthened—the stated aim. How can the regions be represented on a single national council that avoids over-centralisation but must not become too unwieldy? How can more money be spent directly on the arts?

Part of the problem is that there is no obvious model or organisation that adopts the structure that ACE advocates. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned that ACE intended to publish a more detailed prospectus in June, which we look forward to reading.

Some critics say that the existing boards could be reformed and restructured. Several representations made by the regional boards to Members of Parliament advanced that view. The Southern Arts brief says: there are cheaper and better ways of achieving the aims stated in the prospectus". Southern Arts spends more than a quarter of its budget on administration. Yorkshire and Humberside Arts in my region was slightly less critical, but is not persuaded that the removal of regional autonomy means anything other than increased centralisation.

Critics cannot argue that a regional structure is essential and then deny ACE the opportunity to establish a new, less bureaucratic structure based on regional committees with closer links to the council and perhaps including dual membership between the council and the regions. ACE already gives considerable resources—even more in recent years—to the regional arts boards, which demonstrates how regional committees could redistribute funds. Such a demonstration would be vital to winning over the regions.

As the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, the regions are independent now and cannot be forced into the new position. The council must take people with it and win the argument. An enhanced role for local government will be a crucial ingredient of any new arrangement if the new organisation is to be more responsive to local needs and local democracy.

The present arrangements are highly unsatisfactory and some reform is needed. The question is as to the form that any change should take. The Conservatives recognise the need for change in our own review of arts policy and emphasise the value of consultation to take the arts world along with any proposals. ACE should now do the same and put some meat on the bones of its ideas in an effort to win over the regional arts world. We say, give it a chance and then review. We believe that ACE has the interests of the arts in Britain at heart. Reference has been made to its achievements under the chairmanship of Gerry Robinson. I believe that Peter Hewitt, with his background in Northern Arts, has the interests of the regions at heart.

However, the one missing ingredient in the debate is the view and role of the Government. In light of all the furore, the lack of any leadership from the Secretary of State has been lamentable. We hope that the Minister will explain today—we are grateful for the opportunity to provide him considerable time in which to do so—how the Government view the matter and what they want the structure and governance of the arts to be in the long run. For our part, we have criticisms of the way in which the announcement was made, but the objectives are right.

The Arts Council may have bungled its announcement, but it is difficult to resist the temptation to rejoice at the prospect of a serious setback to the Government's regional agenda if the plans proceed. We feel sure that the Secretary of State will not allow that prospect to influence the eventual outcome of that sorry mess, because the arts in Britain are too precious for that.

10.41 am
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

You have noted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is an important debate. I welcome the opportunity to respond on the Government's behalf. I am most grateful to the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) for giving us the opportunity to debate these matters today. It is entirely proper that we should; they are serious and important. The right hon. Gentleman set out his anxieties fully in a passionate speech. He was wrong in some of his interpretations, but none the less stated some important issues.

I am most grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) was mellow—he hardly needs champagne. He will undoubtedly correct me if I am wrong, but I recollect that Disraeli characterised the speeches of Palmerston as ginger beer, not champagne. The right hon. Gentleman's speech this morning was sparkling, and we are all grateful for it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) gave us all pleasure by introducing a thoroughly positive note and describing the successes that have been achieved in collaboration with East Midlands Arts in Kettering. My hon. Friend spoke of Corby Community Arts, with its long and distinguished history. He drew attention to the successes of the young people's photography group. He surprised us all by telling us how Scottish dancing is thriving in Corby—but we can understand the historical reasons for that. He spoke of the Northamptonshire youth orchestra, and I am grateful for what he said about the contribution of Government funding for the project to provide space for sport and the arts. He was right to stress the value of the arts in encouraging young people to have high aspirations, and the contribution that the arts can make to education and social inclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) drew attention to the position of the City of Birmingham symphony orchestra—an orchestra of which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) are, rightly, especially proud. I should just say that it has been offered a funding increase of 6 per cent., not 3 per cent., which will bring its funding level above that of the London orchestras. It is worth our reflecting on the fact that that decision, about which my hon. Friend to some extent complains, was a decision taken at regional level about an orchestra of national—indeed, international—standing. We must reflect on how things work now and how they might work. My hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak also set out her anxieties.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) for speaking in a thoroughly constructive spirit. He expressed some bewilderment—a well-chosen word—at what may be in train, but he was fair minded, and I am grateful to him for acknowledging that additional funding is entering the system. It gave me especial pleasure to hear what he said about Winchester, which is my home town. I am delighted that there should now be a cinema and hope, as he does, that a theatre will also be established.

We all appreciate the gallant efforts of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) in deputising for the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). I will return to some of his comments.

Let us be clear about what the Arts Council proposes. It is proposing that the regional arts boards and the Arts Council of England be merged into a single organisation, and that the offices of the regional arts board become regional offices of the Arts Council of England. It is proposing that the regional chief executives become members of a national executive team and that the Arts Council regions be aligned with the Government office regions, which would mean a reduction in the number of regional organisations of the Arts Council from 10 to nine. It also proposes that more funding be delegated to the regional offices and that new relationships be established between the regional structures of the Arts Council and other regional Government structures and local government.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was incorrect in what he said. The Arts Council wants to scale down the centre, reduce the overall cost of administration and spend more on the arts. We are all at one on much of this, as we desire greater simplicity, a smaller centre, less money spent on administration, more spent on the arts and—as the hon. Member for Ryedale said—an enhanced role for local government. I praise him as a repenting sinner, as that was not always his party's view.

The proposals emanate from the Arts Council. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State believes, as I do, that it is entirely appropriate that the Arts Council should have taken an initiative in this respect. My right hon. Friend has consistently enjoined the Arts Council to cut excessive bureaucracy, and it has made an important start in doing so. In 1999, 330 staff were employed in Great Peter street; in 2001, 220 were employed there. That process has been traumatic and painful for Arts Council staff, but none of us would dispute that it was important to scale down that central bureaucracy.

The overhead costs of the Arts Council and the total system, including the regional arts boards, are approximately £36 million. We should place that in context: the total turnover of the system is some £500 million, so the overheads represent some 7 per cent. Many may feel that that figure of 7 per cent. is too high, however. In all, some 660 people are employed in the system.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

If the right hon. Gentleman will excuse me, we are tight for time.

For a long time, we have operated on an arm's-length principle in the funding of the arts in this country, which is a vital principle in a liberal state. I hope that if the Conservative party contemplates the abolition of the Arts Council, it will consider the possible risks in politicising arts funding decisions, because that would be a dangerous policy to follow.

If the arm's-length principle is to work, we would all agree that the precondition must be that there will be trust, that full information will be given and that there will be proper consultation. That is the strong opinion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Of course, it is true that Mr. Robinson and Mr. Hewitt came about a week before they made the proposals public to advise my right hon. Friend and myself of what they had in mind. We believe that it is proper, in an arm's length arrangement, that the Arts Council should initiate consideration of reform for a process that it is tasked to operate. However, let me make it clear that it is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to approve any eventual restructuring, because the proposals are plainly of major importance. They offer an opportunity for major benefits: reduced bureaucracy, devolved decision taking and benefits to the arts throughout the country.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is attracted by the objectives that the Arts Council has established and broadly supports them. I shall not dwell on the technical reasons why it would be necessary for my right hon. Friend to approve important proposals such as those for pay, pensions and conditions of employment. Under Treasury rules, matters concerning insurance and trusts all need to be approved by him. As Parliament wishes, he must be satisfied that public funds are applied efficiently. There can be no rushing headlong into a premature resolution of such matters.

Mr. Oaten

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I am sorry; we lack the time.

I understand the worries that have been expressed about the time scale originally set by the Arts Council. It wanted to bring matters to a rapid conclusion to minimise the period of uncertainty. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I made it clear from the outset that it was important to be realistic about the timetable and to consult fully. The Arts Council has accepted that fuller consultation is needed than it envisaged originally. It made that clear in its letter to the chairmen of the regional arts boards on 30 April. The Arts Council has now proposed that the consultation period should close on 15 May, but said that it will remain in listening mode. I am sure that Mr. Robinson and Mr. Hewitt agree with us that it is a case of more haste, less speed.

I shall clarify the tests that my right hon. Friend will apply when he makes a judgment on the proposals that emerge from the process. He said what the tests would be when he first discussed the matter with Mr. Robinson and Mr. Hewitt. As a result of change, there must be more genuine power in the regions. The devolution of power must be real, not cosmetic. The regional directors must become not representatives of the centre but champions of their region. There must be a genuine increase in decision making in the regions. We require a reduction in bureaucracy, so that it would be genuinely simpler for clients to navigate the system and cut out duplication and waste. We must achieve real savings throughout the system, which should be genuinely deliverable and delivered. As a consequence, more money should be spent on the arts. There must be a clear benefit for the regions, one that must be sufficiently accepted in the regions.

We must ensure that the voice of the arts is enhanced in the emerging regional forums to make possible richer collaboration between the Arts Council bodies—whatever regional entities emerge—and other regional organisations sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In response to a point raised by the hon. Member for Ryedale, I say that such policies must not run counter to other key Government policies for the regions.

I say to the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that we need to emerge with an open, intelligent, collaborative pattern of dealings between the citizen and the Government. Gone are the days—if ever they existed—when culture was a matter of crumbs thrown down from Olympus or from some metropolitan Parnassus.

The main themes expressed in representations to us concur with the analysis of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. People ask how we shall ensure genuine local and regional distinctiveness under an altered system. How will regional autonomy and accountability be preserved or enhanced? How precisely will regional voices be heard under the new system? What decisions will be made at regional level? What relationship will there be with other regional structures? What will be the savings in bureaucracy and administration? Will the new model really mean less bureaucracy, a simpler structure and no duplication? "If so, good, but persuade us", people are saying. There is scepticism about whether such action is genuinely that of devolution, or centralisation as suggested by the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey). Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak insisted on full consultation. As the hon. Member for North Devon said, people have told us that they agree that change is needed. They would welcome more simplicity and greater consistency and fairness across the country.

Let me note that the criticisms that have been expressed have come predominantly from politicians and people working in the system. Relatively few criticisms have come from artists or arts organisations. Ultimately, the crucial test will be how the system works for artists.

I join those who paid tribute to the work of those who are responsible for administering arts in the regions—I appreciated what the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said about that.

A distinguished theatrical manager and director has described the costs of operating the regional arts boards as a handling charge. That grossly underestimates the contribution that members and chief executives of the regional arts boards make. I have spent days alongside Felicity Harvest of South East Arts—the administrative costs of which are high, as we have noted—and with Sue Robertson, who, as was mentioned, has resigned because she does not see a future for herself in the model proposed by the Arts Council. I have no doubt that the work that they do in fund raising, mobilising local authority support, spotting talent, offering advice and counselling, in diplomacy and brokerage is an important and indispensable contribution to the vitality and success of the arts in this country. Some arts practitioners grumble about the very existence of the regional arts boards, but that is an overwhelmingly unfair change. We cannot decide everything at the centre.

The issue of the balance between the centre and the regions is an old conundrum. It has been a live issue in the administration of arts funding since at least the late 1940s. The Arts Council was set up in 1945 and, by the late 1940s, offices were being set up in the regions, in big cities outside London. People have gone to and fro with a variety of attempted solutions ever since. We now have an important challenge to arrive at the right solution in our time, and to do better than has been done previously.

Perhaps the most difficult set of issues are those in connection with regionalisation and relations with other regional structures and local government. The Arts Council recognises the strength of feeling on that point and the importance of it. Solutions must be found that genuinely command wide assent in the regions. Hon. Members will have seen the useful briefing note for Members of Parliament that the Arts Council issued yesterday. I hope that it will be recognised that that briefing note expresses a serious attempt to come to grips with issues of regionalisation and relations with local authorities. I am grateful to the Arts Council not only for initiating the discussion but for seriously addressing such issues.

Following the close of a two-month consultation period on 15 May, the Arts Council will draft a new prospectus, which will be submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who will heed carefully everything that is said to him on the issue. We have set out our tests; if they are met—and only if they are met—my right hon. Friend will approve the proposed changes.

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