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Topical Questions

Volume 471: debated on Monday 28 January 2008

I take on this new role at a time of tremendous opportunity for culture, sport and media in this country, and I will work enthusiastically to ensure that we make the most of that opportunity. I pay tribute to my predecessor—and, indeed, to my predecessor’s predecessor—for setting the Department on a clear direction towards delivering world-class cultural and sporting activity. I intend to continue that work, and my primary focus will be where the Government’s should be: on the base of the talent pyramid, giving people new opportunities to develop artistic and sporting talents. The Government have made progress, but too much talent is still going unspotted. That is the challenge, in my dream job—to make sure that everyone else has the opportunity to realise their dreams.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I echo the good wishes of all Members of the House and congratulate him on his new appointment.

I am the Member of Parliament for the most diverse constituency in the UK. Will the Secretary of State say whether he supports the new McMaster review on excellence, and in particular, its recommendations on diversity?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for her warm welcome. I am happy to endorse fully the conclusions of the McMaster report. People who have read it will have seen that it is the very opposite of elitist. It seeks to reclaim the word “excellence” from those who push an elitist view of the arts. It is not without its challenges. On diversity, McMaster says:

“We live in one of the most diverse societies the world has ever seen, yet this is not reflected in the culture we produce, or in who is producing it.”

My hon. Friend is right to highlight diversity as an incredibly important issue for the arts in the years to come. There is more to do, but we have set out the right direction in this report, and we will follow it through.

T2. The new Secretary of State has a lot of experience of comprehensive spending reviews. In the 2004 review, the Government set a target for the growth of the tourism and creative leisure industries. By 2007, no mention was made of tourism at all. Why was there that change in Government priorities? (182005)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the funding settlement for the Department; my right hon. Friend the Minister of State also mentioned it a moment ago. Like her, I pay tribute to the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury for securing such a marvellous settlement for the Department. The Department has more funds; it can prioritise and ensure that the Olympics bring more tourists into this country. Like everybody else, the tourism authorities in this country have to prioritise and make sure that they spend their funds as wisely as possible. That is what they will do.

T3. Sport is topical at the moment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important thing is to get people to play sport and that they have to have facilities? Will he ensure, through his good offices, that funding will be available for sporting villages, which Chorley sorely lacks at the moment? (182007)

I heartily agree with my hon. Friend; a sports village in Chorley would be more than welcome. We are happy to work with him and the agencies to ensure that we have the sporting infrastructure to build on the £4 billion of investment in sport that there has been in the past 10 years. The Government cannot be accused of not investing in sport. We want to do more and to get more people actively involved.

I believe that the Secretary of State is an Everton fan, so he will know the importance of stable management at the top of clubs. No doubt he will be as bemused as we are that he is the third Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in just eight months. However, we warmly welcome him to his post.

The Secretary of State said that he fully endorsed the McMaster report. One of its recommendations is that the Arts Council should have a representative in the recruitment processes for every organisation that he funds. Is that not an appalling imposition of central control that completely breaches the arm’s-length principle of arts funding and is completely against the spirit of letting a thousand flowers bloom?

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his kind introduction. Mr. David Moyes is probably a fine example to everybody in Government of stability and making the right decisions for the long term.

I spent the weekend studying the McMaster report in some detail. It articulates the right way forward at this precise moment in time for arts in this country. It does not involve a debate between access on the one hand and excellence on the other, but is about having the two together so that the highest quality art can be made available to as many people as possible. Not every recommendation in the report falls to the Government—some of them are for arts organisations and the Arts Council to consider and take forward. It is a good principle that those who care about and are passionate about the arts are involved in the decision-making process.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State is new to his role, but may I ask him about an important point in the McMaster report, which specifically says that the Arts Council should have a representative involved in the recruitment processes of all the organisations that it funds? As he will appreciate, such a representative would have enormous weight in that process because of the money that the Arts Council wields. Would not that mean a huge increase in the Arts Council’s central control of the way in which its funded operations operate and, among many good recommendations in the McMaster report, be a bad step backwards?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If he has genuine concerns about that particular part of the McMaster report, I would be happy to discuss it further with him. I read it not as an attempt to extend the reach of the Arts Council into every organisation, but as a sensible attempt to ensure clarity throughout the system and consistency in how decisions on arts funding are taken. However, there is, of course, an opportunity for debate to take place about this very important report for the future of the arts. If the hon. Gentleman has a different view, I would be happy to discuss it with him, but I am very encouraged and enthused by what Sir Brian McMaster has put forward to the Department.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post, even as an Everton supporter.

My right hon. Friend rightly talks about the encouragement of diversity in our arts. The Arts Council North West has threatened LipService, the radical and innovative theatre company, and Queer Up North with cessation of funding. He may be right that the Government should not directly influence the views of the Arts Council, but should not they be saying to the Arts Council that it is unreasonable of it not to give adequate notice of or to have proper discussion about when it is going to withdraw funding, because that is the real issue about the incompetent way in which this year’s funding proposals have been taken forward?

First, I say to my hon. Friend that final decisions have yet to be taken and we will know what they are by the end of this week. Secondly, he is right to say that proper notice should be given, and the Arts Council intends to work through that with individual arts organisations. Thirdly, the Arts Council takes diversity in funding of the arts extremely seriously, as we do, and we will have to see whether that is reflected in its decisions; I hope and believe that it will be.

T5. The Minister will be aware of the iconic “Angel of the South” sculpture proposed for the Ebbsfleet area. This morning, the five finalist artists have been chosen. How much say does he think that local people should have in the final choice? (182009)

The hon. Gentleman touches on a matter that we all feel is extremely important—that local people should be engaged in the decision-making process on public art ventures in localities. The art is for them, will be enjoyed by them, and will give an identity to the place in which they live. They should therefore feel that they too are engaged in the decisions about which artist is commissioned and which particular bit of sculpture they have.

T8. Has the Minister had a chance to discuss proposals by the British Council to downgrade activities and funding for the promotion of British art abroad and instead to spend the money on more conferences, multi-resource interactive facilities, networking and so on? Does she agree that it is essential that we promote the best of British art abroad, and will she make that clear to the Foreign Office and to the British Council? (182013)

I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is crucial that we promote the best of British art—a field in which we are so great—abroad, not just because of what it says about Britain, but because of the role it plays more broadly in the creative industries. The Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary and his Ministers believe, as we do, that that is important. I am aware of the proposals made by the British Council to change the way in which it works in the arts field, and we are in discussion with the council to ensure that it meets the right hon. Gentleman’s aspirations and ours.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role, and I also welcome his praise for the McMaster report, including its recommendation to reduce targets. Is he aware that his new Department has failed to meet its target to boost participation and attendance at artistic events? If there are no longer to be targets in that area, can he assure us that he will continue to work to ensure that we see an increase in attendance, and not a reduction, as in the past 12 months?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome, and I also thank him for his support for the McMaster report. It is important for the arts world to hear that there is consensus in the House on these matters.

I was considering the spending review from a different vantage point only a few days ago, but we are trying to create a framework in the review whereby the level of ambition in a target is set at a local level, so that local organisations have ownership of that target and can believe that setting such a target is the right thing to do. Such targets can be made part of the local area agreements that local authorities are currently striking. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there should be no let-off in our ambition to get people into the arts, but it is also right that we hear the complaints made about having too great a reliance on targets, and that we free up organisations up to fund what they want to do.

May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to an exchange I had with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families on 17 December, in which I alleged that there is cultural impoverishment of many schoolchildren because they are denied access to and experience of quality opera, ballet and classical music? Will he ensure that that issue does not fall between two ministries? We must really address this matter of cultural impoverishment. Will he allow me to bring the English Youth Ballet and the national chamber music school, Pro Corda, to see him and an education Minister to see how we can remedy this wrong? It is working class children in particular who are denied access to such quality culture.

My hon. Friend is on the right theme as far as I am concerned, because the issue is a passion of mine. We can look forward to significant progress in this area with the development of what we call the cultural offer, whereby we make available a much wider range of cultural and artistic opportunities to young children at school. Some arts organisations, such as the Royal Opera House and others, are doing a great job in forging links with schools and making new opportunities available. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to see whether we can take that agenda still further forward.