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Covid-19: Orchestras and Cultural Venues

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to reports that orchestras and cultural venues are facing permanent closure as a result of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to my interests in the register.

My Lords, we recognise how severely the cultural sector has been hit by Covid-19. That is why we are providing unprecedented assistance, including government loans and the job retention scheme, from which hundreds of organisations have received support, including, importantly, orchestras and cultural venues. DCMS arm’s-length bodies have also provided tailored support. The Arts Council, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England have together provided £250 million in emergency funding. We continue to engage with the sector and we are working with Arts Council England to ensure that we fully understand the impacts of Covid-19 and to consider the additional measures that are needed to ensure the long-term recovery and growth of the cultural sector, including orchestras and cultural venues.

I thank the Minister for that response. Has the Secretary of State’s promise of further funding been sat on from above? Musicians, actors and artists, as well as orchestras and venues, have either fallen between furlough and emergency funding, which is indeed welcome, or are coming to the end of that assistance. We have already lost one theatre and, for example, the Lighthouse in Poole and the Manchester Camerata have only weeks of funds left. What these and the larger organisations need now is a definite date and figures so that they can plan ahead as businesses and replenish both our cultural heritage and, indeed, the coffers of the Treasury.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to highlight the importance and variety of our cultural heritage. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been absolutely clear that the Government will continue to take action that is commensurate with the scale of the crisis at the time that action is needed.

I declare my interest as chair of the Design Museum in its new premises in the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington. Perhaps I may acknowledge the emergency short-term help that has been offered by the Government to national portfolio organisations, but this amounts to £90 million spread over 800 cultural organisations, and therefore inevitably it is being spread very thinly. I would remind the Minister that, extraordinarily, after the Second World War, at a time of huge deprivation and austerity, the Arts Council was created with cross-party backing under the leadership of Maynard Keynes to deliver major co-ordinated support for the performing arts, museums and other cultural venues. Now that these entities are once again facing the extreme financial consequences of forced closure and further restrictions as a result of Covid-19, will the Government mount a similarly extraordinary and co-ordinated long-term response to sustain their existence?

The Government understand the hybrid nature of the way the arts sector is funded in this country and are keen to encourage funding from many different directions. The noble Lord asked about the scale of ambition. He will be aware that the Secretary of State has set up the Cultural Renewal Taskforce, which includes a range of leading thinkers and experts in this field. Its report will be very important to influencing the scale of our ambition.

I declare my interests as a trustee of The Lowry and One Dance UK. The situation in which cultural venues find themselves is dire, especially without specific dates in the recovery plan. However, does the Minister accept that this goes further? Many organisations do not have a permanent home and rely on touring, such as dance troupes, theatre companies, festivals and so on. They should not be overlooked and need to be supported as well. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that the Government do not conflate the two? Also, if we do not get the EU-UK deal right, does she not accept that these organisations will face another catastrophe in a few months’ time?

The noble Baroness has raised an important point about clarity of timing. The Secretary of State recently revealed a five-stage road map that will allow the performing arts sector to get back up and running, and more detailed guidance will be published shortly. She has also raised a question about organisations that do not have a permanent home and are touring. First, we will obviously endeavour to ensure that they do not, in her words, fall through the cracks. We are also working with organisations to be innovative, including being able to perform out of doors.

My Lords, on 8 June the Secretary of State said that he will not stand by and see our world-leading arts and cultural sector destroyed—but it seems to many of us that that is exactly what is happening. The Government’s road map sets out five steps to reopening but fails to recognise the cultural ecosystem, of which live performance is just one part. It has no financial support and, crucially, no timetable. Does the Minister agree that, while definitive opening dates clearly cannot be given, a not-before timetable, just like hospitality and hairdressing were given, would at least enable the sector to plan properly and avoid as far as possible job losses and further closures?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right about the ecosystem. The department has heard that loud and clear and understands it well. On detailed guidance as regards timings, I can only say that it is being worked on and will be published soon.

I declare my interest as a theatre producer and a member of the DCMS task force looking at reopening the different constituent sectors under the DCMS. In that regard, I take this opportunity to place on record how extraordinarily impressed I have been by the effective work of the Secretary of State and his team, who are working day and night to try to get all the different sectors open as fast as possible; it is an extraordinary amount of work. We all know that there is a mile-long queue at the Treasury for help through this dreadful time, but the creative industries and arts sector will lose for ever a large swathe of our regional venues throughout the UK, particularly outside London. Can my noble friend the Minister give us any indication of how well the conversations with the Treasury are going, given the queue that exists?

I thank my noble friend for his contribution as part of the task force. We are acutely aware that, as government support unwinds, the situation becomes much more difficult for both regional and other theatres and venues. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned, we have seen some closures already. The Government will not be in a position to save every venue, but we are regularly listening to the sector, actively talking to the Treasury and considering how best we can respond to the long-term challenges that the sector faces.

My Lords, it is not just the performance venues that are suffering but many churches and halls rented out for rehearsal space. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of research undertaken into singing and playing woodwind and brass instruments, to see how these activities might be safely undertaken while minimising the risk of spreading Covid-19?

Our understanding is that, as I am sure the right reverend Prelate is aware, there is a risk of increased transmission involved in singing and the use of wind instruments. That is why non-professional choirs and orchestras will not resume for the time being, although professional orchestras can start rehearsing from 4 July on a socially distanced basis. As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, we have commissioned scientific studies, which are being carried out by SAGE, to try to build a really robust evidence base. That advice will be used to inform future policy and guidelines.

My Lords, do the Government accept that, as the creative industries are distinctive in that they are mainly freelance and self-employed, they may need special continuing support as the recovery gathers pace? Can she explain why the practical guidelines for live music-making have been delayed? Without them, organisations cannot plan and audiences are deprived of the benefits of live performance.

We absolutely recognise the nature and important role of freelancers in these sectors. They are in the region of 72% of the workforce, compared with 16% across the rest of the economy, so the noble Lord raises an important point. Colleagues are working night and day to get the guidelines out.

My Lords, my own town Blackpool has a “Know Before You Go” campaign that sets out for visitors what is open, what they should not do and how they should go into some venues. But a whole part of this sector—including the most iconic visitor attractions—still has no timeline, road map or long-term financial assistance, as said by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. This is crippling to the industry and putting it in grave danger. There is a question there.

The “Know Before You Go” scheme that the noble Lord mentioned sounds very sensible. I can only repeat what I already said: active work is going on with all the key sector stakeholders to understand how we can build back better for our cultural sector.

There will be a large number of performing arts students graduating from universities and drama schools whose short and maybe mid-term job prospects will be looking pretty bleak. I ask my noble friend not to forget the plight of these young people, many of whom would have been joining touring companies, as was mentioned earlier.

My noble friend is absolutely right: those young graduates should not be forgotten. I think I am right in saying that in the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday there was a particular focus on the importance of opportunity for our young people.

My Lords, the Minister may be aware of the excellent initiative by Wigmore Hall, which in conjunction with Radio 3 streamed and broadcast live concerts throughout June, providing work for artists and bringing pleasure to many. But it has proved much more difficult for it to continue its crucial outreach work with disadvantaged and diverse communities of many ethnicities and backgrounds, with all the social benefits this brings. In looking at the way ahead for the sector over the coming months, will the Government pay particular attention to this important dimension of our cultural landscape?

The noble and gallant Lord raises a really important point. We know that the evidence in relation to social mobility and the arts is very strong. In the new Arts Council England five-year strategy, which is shortly to be published, we expect to see more evidence of focus in exactly the areas the noble and gallant Lord refers to.

My Lords, the whole House will welcome the positive things said by the Minister about her department’s work, but if she puts herself in the shoes of working musicians—not working at the moment—or administrators, does she realise what a contrast they will see between the extreme urgency with which the Prime Minister launched with a fanfare yesterday all sorts of infrastructure spending for the future and the reality in this sector that iconic venues and great orchestras absolutely do not know where their future is going?

Sadly, I do not have the talents to put myself in the shoes of musicians, but I understand the point the noble Lord is making. I can stress only that, from my perspective, in the department this is taken extremely seriously as a matter of great urgency.