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Arts: Energy Cost Support

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the rising cost of energy, what support they will provide for arts venues, museums, libraries and other community spaces.

My department, the DCMS, has engaged with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that the energy bill relief scheme is supporting businesses and other non-domestic customers, such as arts venues, museums, libraries and other community spaces. The support provides a discount on gas and electricity unit prices applied to energy usage initially between 1 October this year and 31 March next year. DCMS continues to liaise with all the different sectors under our portfolio to support BEIS’s three-month review of the scheme to determine what support might be needed.

My Lords, the arts and cultural sector emerged late out of Covid and some spaces are still recovering. In terms of current problems, to take the example of theatres, threefold and more increases in energy bills are being reported, even allowing for government support. Apart from the clear concern of arts and community spaces about getting through the winter, what reassurance can the Minister give that they will not fall off a cliff edge at the end of March, bearing in mind that energy cost for many spaces is not all about heating but includes other significant year-round usage?

The Government fully realise that after March some organisations may need assistance. One of the reasons that we have a three-month review, which started in October, is to see how effective the scheme is and to look out for unintended consequences and perverse incentives.. After the review, we want to make sure that we target those organisations that really need help after March—some of the more vulnerable ones that we may not have picked up initially—and know how best to help them.

My Lords, I first declare an interest: I am a trustee of two galleries and my daughter works for V&A Dundee. Museums and galleries have to keep to specific temperatures and light levels to ensure the protection and security of valuable collections, so reducing energy consumption is just not an option. Modern Two, part of the National Galleries of Scotland group, has closed due to rising energy costs, and other galleries and museums are warning of closures. What support is the DCMS going to provide to protect our cultural assets from cuts and closures beyond the end of the six-month energy price cap? Does the Minister think that closed galleries are a reasonable price for the public to pay for the Government’s incompetent mismanagement of our national economy?

My department is in conversations with museums and others and is fully aware. I am sure that many noble Lords will recognise that my department does not just wait until it is contacted by the sector; we are in constant dialogue with different parts of the sector. One of the things we have been discussing is how we protect vulnerable collections and what sort of extra protection might be needed.

The cultural sector needs support. Alongside the effects of the pandemic and now the rising cost of energy there is also the knock-on effect of inflation, which inevitably means that fewer people are able to afford to visit art venues which involve paying. Does the Minister, whom I welcome to his role, not agree that part of the solution is a reduction in VAT on tickets? This would help venues to absorb some of their increased running costs. A temporary VAT reduction was introduced during the pandemic. The sector is facing another crisis. Does the Minister agree that the same remedy should be applied?

Officials in my department are constantly talking to the sector to understand the best way to support it, and we want to listen to it rather than assume that the Government have the best answer. One thing that is quite clear—I am sure that the noble Baroness will recognise it—is that during Covid we had a Cultural Recovery Fund. We continue to talk to all areas of the sector to make sure that people still have access, up and down the country, whatever their background and wherever they live, to the rich culture of this country. It is very important, especially during difficult times.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, made some very important points. Many people have been suggesting that galleries and libraries could be places of refuge where people could go to find comfort. If that is the case, will the Minister make proper arrangements to ensure that galleries are introduced to the people who go to them and that they get some cultural benefit as well as physical warmth?

In a recent conversation with my officials, we were talking about how galleries, museums and other community spaces may well be used this year by people who do not normally attend them. I do not want to overplay this card, but it may well bring a new audience to libraries. Central government needs to be careful because local government is very fierce and tells us that it knows what is best for local communities, so we are working at local level with galleries, museums, libraries et cetera to look at whether they can be warm hubs or whether there are other solutions.

My Lords, at the height of the pandemic, local arts centres demonstrated their commitment to their communities by pivoting business to meet their needs by supporting education catch-up and health and well-being and even providing food banks. It is likely that they will attempt to do the same in the current crisis, opening as warm banks and possibly offering well-being activities too. What will the Government do to incentivise and encourage partnership working between local authorities, statutory services, the voluntary sector and the cultural sector to maximise this kind of much-needed provision and make sure that it is advertised and available to the people who need it most?

The noble Baroness makes a very important point about partnerships. Government partners, the sector itself or even individual galleries cannot do this alone; we have to work in a clear partnership. It is quite clear that public libraries are run by local authorities, but some are run by local communities and are a great example of civil society. We want to make sure that we understand the picture. We are talking to local authorities, the sector, the Arts Council and UK Theatre, for example, to understand the granularity of these needs and the best way to help people during this difficult period. We know very well the role that the cultural sector has played in the past. It will continue to play a role and we hope it will be open to new audiences.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Royal Albert Hall. I would like to ask the Minister to grant it and other such institutions the same sympathy and consultation facilities that were given by the commendable acts the Government took to help us during Covid.

Ah, it was my noble friend; I thank noble Lords. Next time I will bring my rear-view mirror. One of things we have to be very careful about are those organisations that are commercial but also receive taxpayer or lottery funding. It is important that we understand which sectors needs support. We are constantly in conversation with individual venues, and the umbrella organisations of different sectors. We want to understand how the plan that we have put in place works and where it might not work, so we can look at the plans beyond March next year.

My Lords, I can assure the Minister that the entire sector needs support at the moment. Of course he is right that choices have to be made. We are well aware that some of those choices may be very uncomfortable and will be threatening to a number of sectors. Could he reassure the House that the DCMS will fight the corner of the cultural sector when these challenges come forward? It can look very successful from in front, because it is a very successful aspect of our economy, but behind the scenes it is really struggling and it will need all the support it can get from the department.

The noble Baroness makes a very important point about the importance of our cultural sector to our economy, but also to the social life and well-being of so many people across the country. Sometimes that cannot be measured in simple econometric terms. I remember, from my time as Health Minister, how much social prescribing was helpful. Cultural organisations and individuals play a role in well-being, and help people get through difficult situations. I assure her that I am so excited to have this job because I am now the Minister for Civil Society—my dream job. I want to work right across the sector, with the heritage sector, the museum sector and others, to champion them, not only to the outside world but also within government.

My Lords, rising energy bills are affecting businesses across the economy, but I am glad to hear my noble friend recognise the particular role that cultural organisations play in community life. We saw that recently, after the death of Her late Majesty the Queen, when all the major cultural organisations along the South Bank opened their doors—and their loos—to the many people who wished to queue to pay their respects. Some larger organisations have formed consortia to buy their energy up front and in bulk. Have the Government given any thought to encouraging smaller organisations to see how to do this? Might there be a role for the Arts Council or other umbrella organisations to negotiate better deals on their behalf?

I take great pleasure in thanking my noble friend, my predecessor, for his question. I pay tribute, once again, to him for the work he did during the Queen’s funeral, working together across the sector and with the cultural organisations in the examples he gave. This scheme is led by BEIS. We have to work very hard to make sure that BEIS understands any specific needs of the cultural sector, and those of community organisations and civil society. I do not know about the specific example he gives, but it seems very sensible and I will take it back to the department.