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Arts (North-East)

Volume 471: debated on Monday 28 January 2008

Arts Council England is responsible for Government support for the arts. Its budget for the north-east is £ 13.5 million this year.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment, and wish him well for many years to come? The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art is very popular, thanks to financial support from the Government and Middlesbrough council: the funding that has been provided has gone down very well. So far this year, 150,000 people have visited the art gallery. May I invite my right hon. Friend to visit the gallery and see for himself the great success that the Labour Government have created in Middlesbrough?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, both for his question and for his kind invitation. Indeed, I will take him up on it, and go to Middlesbrough at the earliest opportunity. In towns in both the north-east and the north-west, we see the crucial role that arts and culture can play in leading regeneration. I saw it myself in Liverpool on Saturday, where the new Museum of Liverpool is changing the shape of the Liverpool waterfront. He is absolutely right to say that arts and culture can be the centrepiece of successful regeneration programmes, and I look forward to seeing what is happening in his own area of Middlesbrough.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s comments, is he aware of the serious concerns expressed by many arts organisations, including the Compass theatre in Sheffield, that decisions by the Arts Council are dictated more by questions of social engineering than of artistic merit? Will he undertake an urgent review of the guidelines under which the Arts Council operates?

May I tell the Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that it is a long-standing principle that the Arts Council should operate at arm’s length from the Department and from Government generally? It would be quite inappropriate for me to breach that principle so soon into my job. In a former role, I made it clear that all public sector bodies should be subject to challenge and that money should be moved around the system to fund greater excellence. I support the Arts Council in what it is doing to ensure that that goal is achieved.

May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment? The last time the Lindisfarne Gospels visited the north-east at the Laing art gallery in Newcastle, record numbers of visitors came to see them. Would he agree to meet a delegation of people who are campaigning for a return visit of the gospels to the north-east, particularly in light of the exposé in The Journal in Newcastle of the concerted campaign by the metropolitan cultural snobs on the board of the British Library, who have worked hard to try to prevent them from visiting the region again?

I am grateful for that question, but I will not pass comment—[Interruption.] I hesitate to agree with my hon. Friend, as that would be a sure way to the exit door. However, I would, of course, be happy to meet him and a delegation from the north-east.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), has the Secretary of State in the short time in which he has been in post, had an opportunity to see the grant application form from the Arts Council, which asks people who have applied to funding to give the number of members of their management committee who are bisexual, gay, lesbian or heterosexual? Will the Secretary of State explain why on earth funding should be based on people’s sexual orientation, and is funding for the arts in the north-east really dependent on how many gays and lesbians happen to apply for it?

I am dismayed by the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I know that he is following the tone set by the Leader of the Opposition, who complained that the Arts Council was giving too many grants to “one-legged Lithuanian lesbians”. That is wrong on two counts: it is not just offensive but it breaches the Arts Council’s arm’s length principle. It is important to point out that the excellent McMaster report, published just a few weeks ago, says very clearly that we should move from measurement to judgment: we should reduce the targets for arts organisations, fund excellence, and give those organisations the freedom to put on the very best possible work for as many people as possible. I entirely endorse that principle, and I do not believe that politicians in the House should meddle in the Arts Council’s decisions.