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Performing Arts: Job Support Scheme

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 29 September 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Jobs Support Scheme on live performing arts organisations.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper of which I have given private notice. In doing so, I remind the House of my interests as listed in the register.

My Lords, the Government have committed more than £190 billion to deal with the Covid pandemic and to support the economy and jobs. This includes a £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund to support arts and cultural organisations. While furlough was previously the right intervention, we must recognise that the virus will be with us for a while, so our economic support needs to evolve. Businesses must adapt and receive support that helps them to do that. The job support scheme is targeted at businesses that can support their employees doing some work but which need time for demand to recover.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer and I hear what she says, but does she not accept that the effect of the Chancellor’s post-furlough arrangements is that many perfectly good businesses in the performing arts sector will become unviable because they are not allowed to operate under the current restrictions? The Culture Recovery Fund has still not reached theatres and production companies. Arts organisations are already making staff redundant and some will not survive, despite huge pent-up demand for their services. Many freelancers, who make up 70% of the workforce, have been, and remain, unable to access any government emergency funds. As the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre made clear last week, the Chancellor’s announcements do little, if anything, to help. Will the Government act now to provide further sector-specific support to prevent irreversible damage to one of our most successful industries?

My Lords, performing arts organisations can benefit from the job support scheme. We understand that although performances are allowed indoors and outdoors with social distancing and there is no set limit on audience numbers, the need for venues to adhere to social distancing guidance can make it very difficult for them to operate profitably. That is why we have the Culture Recovery Fund. The noble Baroness is right that that money has not yet been distributed, but I reassure her that DCMS and the associated arm’s-length bodies have been processing more than 4,000 applications for more than £880,000 million of grant funding, and announcements will be made about hundreds of allocations in the coming weeks.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady McIntosh on asking this Question, and I thank the Minister for her response. However, does she recognise—I think that she does—that thousands of jobs in the arts community are at risk, especially in local communities? Does she also recognise the valuable work that they do in a variety of locations—for example, in care homes and through street theatre? Can the Government look at ways of assisting local authorities to support these vital jobs? I understand that they are processing lots of applications but, in the meantime, these jobs really are at risk.

My Lords, I think that the Government do recognise that these jobs are at risk, and the Job Support Scheme is open to these organisations. Some will have benefited from the VAT cut, the business rates holidays and local government funds and grants. However, the Culture Recovery Fund is the big government policy that will provide further support, and that will come online within the next few weeks.

My Lords, 36% of freelancers in the performing arts receive no support from the Self-employment Income Support Scheme and will get none under the new scheme. However, in Wales, yesterday, it was announced that a freelancer pledge is to be established and that some of the Culture Recovery Fund is to provide grants for their excluded freelancers. Are there any plans to do the same in the rest of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I am not aware of any specific plans to do that, but the noble Lord is correct that these organisations may use the Culture Recovery Fund to employ freelancers or staff to put on performances and offer other services. Through that route, they can provide support to freelancers.

My Lords, it is clear that those in the arts industry and in leisure will not enjoy a rapid recovery from the pandemic. Even in good times, business rates had a disproportionate effect on the leisure industry and the arts because of the number of large buildings that they occupied in towns and city centres. The current holiday is very welcome. Will my noble friend keep in mind the need for the holiday and, as things start to improve, will she look at the possibility of business rates not being imposed on the arts industry immediately but being phased in?

My Lords, the business rates holiday applies for the year 2020-21. The Government will in future keep under review all the policies that they have put in place to support businesses and arts organisations.

My Lords, the winter economic plan, including the Job Support Scheme, is bold and will, I hope, save hundreds of thousands of viable jobs this winter. However, will the Government acknowledge that the Chancellor’s announcements will not help everyone, especially when the medium-term outlook for some sectors, such as hospitality and the creative industries, looks so uncertain? Do they agree that further business support for these sectors might be required, including in relation to business rates? Do they also agree that there is a huge requirement to provide people with the skills that they need for the jobs of the future?

My Lords, the Government have recognised the specific pressure that certain sectors are under, and extending the 5% VAT cut until the end of March is one measure that they have taken. We also recognise that not every job will be saved, and that is why we have invested £2 billion in the Kickstart jobs scheme for young people. I believe that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is making further announcements on skills training today.

My Lords, is it not the case that a theatre or concert hall that simply cannot open, and therefore cannot provide even partial employment for staff or contracted freelancers, cannot gain any benefit at all from the new jobs scheme? Surely we desperately need to provide something better for this sector, not just through the Culture Recovery Fund, or we will lose the very heart of our cultural life.

My Lords, the Government completely recognise the importance of the cultural sector to the British way of life and to people’s morale during this difficult time. As I said, it is possible for theatres and other arts organisations to reopen. We recognise that they have specific challenges with the costs of reopening, given that they might not be able to do so at full capacity. The Job Support Scheme might help them with that, but there are a number of other schemes in place that will also help organisations with the additional costs that they face if they are not able to operate at full capacity.

My Lords, as the Minister has heard, the UK’s vibrant and successful creative sector, particularly the parts that support local communities, is angry because the Treasury’s original one-size-fits-all scheme did not reach the freelancers and self-employed who make this sector viable. The DCMS schemes are taking too long and, in any case, are focused on the national companies and their London buildings. On top of that, it was deeply unhelpful of the Chancellor to stress that his priority was to protect jobs in “viable” businesses. Will the Minister confirm on the record that the Government believe that the creative industries are a vital and important component of the economy, and will she agree that rather than question the sector’s viability, what is now needed is a sector-specific winter economy plan along the lines of the £7 million scheme just announced by the Welsh Government, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Foster?

The Government absolutely believe that the cultural sector is a vital and important part of the UK economy. That is why we have put in a specific scheme to support that sector with £1.57 billion. If I understand it rightly, the initiative announced by the Welsh Government is a reflection of that money that has gone in.

Will the Minister accept that the issue here is not that nightclubs, theatres, concert halls and other live venues are not viable; it is that they cannot operate under the Government’s rules? Surely the Chancellor needs to put in place a different support scheme for those businesses, and the freelancers and self-employed who work within them, that are prevented from working and operating not because they are long-term unviable but because of the Government’s rules.

I believe that the Government understand and accept that. That is why we have put record funding into the cultural sector through the recovery fund.

My Lords, given that over a third of musicians are considering leaving the sector and that many freelance musicians do not even qualify for the support that is currently available, what prospects can the Minister offer to freelancers who remain ineligible for the extended Self-employment Income Support Scheme either because they have only recently started work or because their work is split between paid and freelance, or because they are paid via dividends as small business owners?

My Lords, although the Culture Recovery Fund has not been dispersed yet, the DCMS has provided £3.36 million in emergency funding, which has been allocated to support 135 grass-roots music venues. Support for the self-employed was extended as part of the winter economy plan. For those who do not qualify for that support, the application period for bounce-back loans was also extended. The repayment period for bounce-back loans was extended to up to 10 years, and that can nearly halve the monthly repayments for those who are eligible and choose to take out those loans.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as listed in the register. The heart of the cultural industries in this country lies with freelancers, and at the moment that heart is being ripped from the body. I ask the Minister to look at one or two specific schemes. The one mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, as being used in Wales, is a very practical idea to give some help to a really challenged freelance section.

I absolutely commit to noble Lords that I will take the specifics of that scheme back to the DCMS and the Treasury, if appropriate, to look at how it is proposed to operate and whether it can be integrated into the operation of the Culture Recovery Fund.

My Lords, as vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fairs and Showgrounds, which includes circuses, can I ask the Minister if she agrees that these groups are of great value to the culture and heritage in the UK and much loved by the public? If so, does she also agree they clearly fall within the definition of live performing arts groups and qualify for assistance under the scheme announced by the Chancellor last week?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord about the enjoyment derived from going to a fair or a circus. On his point about their eligibility under the scheme, I am afraid that I do not have that level of granular detail before me, so I will write to the noble Lord with that.

My Lords, the arts and creative industries find themselves at the bottom of the Chancellor’s new economic package. However, they are an enormous help in sustaining well-being in the current Covid-19 pandemic. Will the Minister consider a further temporary lowering of VAT and an expansion of the Culture Recovery Fund to ensure the continuing viability of this important sector of our economy?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the arts and culture to our well-being, but I have to disagree with him that it is at the bottom of the Chancellor’s list. In fact, the VAT cut extension which the noble Lord has called for was delivered as part of the Winter Economy Plan, which was due to end in January but has been extended to March. The plan has been designed to see us through the next six months, which the Prime Minster has said these measures could be in place for, and we will continue to prioritise the arts and culture as an incredibly important part of our national fabric.

Sitting suspended.