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28 Mar 2007 : Column 449WH—continued

However, Kosovo’s economic and political development continues to be inhibited by the uncertainty over its
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status. The current situation—an unresolved status while Kosovo is administered by the United Nations—is fundamentally unsustainable, failing to provide the clarity needed for sustained economic investment or to fulfil the aspirations of the vast majority of Kosovo’s population. In recent months, we have seen the potential for instability: in Pristina on 10 February, two Kosovar Albanians tragically died when a demonstration organised by the self-determination movement turned violent.

However, after almost eight years of UN administration, the way forward is in sight; on 26 March, UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari submitted his final settlement proposals to the UN Security Council. The recommendations reflect more than a year of negotiations and detailed discussion with Belgrade and Pristina. They strike a balance between meeting the aspirations of the majority in Kosovo and providing far-reaching guarantees to protect the rights of the non-Albanian communities, especially the Kosovo-Serbs.

We would all prefer a negotiated settlement that was mutually acceptable to the parties. However, it was clear from the special envoy’s consultation process in Vienna in February and March that the gap between the two sides is, at least for the moment, unbridgeable. The choice is therefore between prolonging the current unsustainable situation or grasping a clear opportunity to move forward.

Ahtisaari describes his proposals as representing independence for Kosovo, supervised by the international community. That is the outcome that Kosovo Albanians—90 per cent. of the population—want and expect, and it would give Kosovo the clarity that it needs to develop politically and economically. Furthermore, the proposals contain robust mechanisms to defend the rights, culture and heritage of Kosovo’s Serbs and other non-Albanian communities. Protecting multi-ethnic society in Kosovo is a fundamental element of the plan. In particular, the settlement provides for minority participation in central Government and for far-reaching decentralisation, including through the creation of new Serb-majority municipalities. Furthermore, the plan would create protection zones around more than 40 key Serb cultural and religious sites in Kosovo.

Kosovo will continue to require international supervision, assistance and support in the years to come. The UK will continue to play a role in supporting the implementation of the settlement. We look forward to contributing to both the NATO and European security and defence policy missions envisaged in the proposals. We shall also maintain an active diplomatic presence in Kosovo. Discussions on the proposals have now moved to New York. We are in touch with our Security Council partners and are underlining the need for the Security Council to act decisively to resolve the issue and secure the best possible future for all Kosovars.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Russia in particular. We work very closely with the Russians in the contact group. They, too, have a clear interest in resolving Kosovo’s status. Obviously, it is not for me as a UK Minister to go into detail on the Russian position, but I can say that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Balkan directors from the contact group countries, including Russia, are meeting in London today. I spoke to all of them this morning, and made it very clear that we now need to bring the process to a successful conclusion.

The hon. Gentleman also referred in passing to the EU’s position. There has been some discussion. As the
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hon. Gentleman made clear, there are sensitivities in some states. However, the discussion has consistently led to clear messages in support of the work of the special envoy and congratulations on his efforts. On12 February, the General Affairs and External Relations Council

I accept that we will need to ensure that, in the short term, a settlement in Kosovo does not heighten tensions in the region. Keeping Serbia firmly on the path to the European Union will be a priority. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I visited Belgrade on 7 February. It is very important that Belgrade and Serbia seize the opportunity available to them. It is crucial that when they are formed, the next Serbian Government quickly make sufficient progress on co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia so that the EU restarts stabilisation and association talks. It is also important that Kosovo and Macedonia demarcate their border in an orderly manner; I accept that that is a continuing issue. Having also visited Macedonia relatively recently, I think it important that we find a sensible solution to the problem.

Ahtisaari's proposals provide for a joint technical commission physically to demarcate the border and address other outstanding issues in the next year; there is a mechanism for dealing with the issue. For the sake of completeness, I should say that we remain actively engaged in Bosnia, although the security situation there is now stable, allowing us to withdraw our troops, who have done such an excellent job in the past15 years. However, there is still further work to be done in taking forward the necessary reforms, particularly to the police and armed forces.

Kosovo is the last outstanding status issue subsequent to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Martti Ahtisaari's proposals offer the Balkans a chance to draw a line under the conflicts of the 1990s, take a decisive step to underpin multi-ethnic, democratic societies and move further down the path towards membership of the European Union. His proposals offer a better future for all in Kosovo, and the Government unequivocally support his recommendations.

11.26 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Theatre Funding

2.30 pm

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton? It is traditional in the House to offer thanks for the opportunity to introduce such a debate. In one sense I am thankful, but in another, I have an overwhelming sense of déj vu. It seems to me that I, in concert with many others, have been making the case for a secure subsidy to British theatre for the whole of my adult life. Clearly, my arguments have proved remarkably unsuccessful, so let us hope that I will break that trend today.

I want to begin by paying tribute to our Government, who became an oasis in the financial desert of subsidy for British theatre. They listened to the arguments that had been put to them and, in 2000-01, made a subsidy to the theatre of £120 million. Equity—I am tempted to say the actors’ union, but it does not like that phrase and prefers to be called an association—made its case for investment in subsidised theatre in an extremely helpful document called “A Brighter Future”, and it made several important points about the benefits that accrue from subsidy to our theatre. The public, the theatre sector and the economy all benefit.

Equity made the point that, from the Government subsidy of some £120 million, the economy benefits by £2.6 billion annually. As Equity says, the theatre sector as a whole benefits, because subsidised theatre increases interest and attracts greater audiences by virtue of the high-quality and in some instances rather difficult work that it can produce. That has a knock-on effect of enormous benefit to commercial theatre. I am grateful to Visit London for an extremely helpful briefing, which makes precisely that point. Visit London would prefer that we did not use the word “subsidy” but “investment”.

The briefing from the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association, which was furnished to me via Visit London, said that theatre is an enormous attraction for foreign visitors. The briefing gives figures that are exclusively for London, but I am sure that other hon. Members will be able to paint an equally rosy picture of the benefits that have been brought to all the United Kingdom’s regions by virtue of what is, in effect, a small amount of money.

Visit London made the point that

without the attraction of the theatre. It said that

by almost 5 per cent.—

Visit London went on to make an interesting point, by saying that the massive revenues generated for the Exchequer would pay for

I hope that I have managed to show that a comparatively small amount of national money produces enormous
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financial benefits for the country. That has undoubtedly been my experience in other parts of the world. For example, in America, I once did a tour of various cities whose indigenous economy had totally disappeared. Great amounts of money had been invested in those cities to try to re-attract business and to bring visitors. The areas in those cities that had created an endemic economy were sited around centres of cultural excellence—theatres, concert halls or art galleries. Those are venues to which people are prepared to go regularly, and other smaller businesses therefore grow up around them: cafés, restaurants, bookshops and art shops. They were the thriving centres.

The argument is virtually irrefutable that culture—certainly theatre—has strong economic drivers. That has never been the reason for my commitment to subsidised theatre. I am grateful for the fact that the theatre produces economic benefits, but it seems that a society that values its theatre and regards it as something for which there should be consistent support by the nation state is one that acknowledges that the spiritual health of the nation—I am tempted to say—benefits from such subsidy. The theatre is not merely entertainment or a place for spectator sport. People should not go to the theatre if their lives are ideally spent as couch potatoes. The theatre makes infinitely greater demands than that on those who participate and those who visit. Only the subsidised theatre can begin to explore such demands if the overwhelming and crushing burden of having to make a profit at the end of every week is lifted from it.

I am not arguing for any kind of feather-bedding for the theatre. My argument has always been that, when the country is doing well and if we genuinely value our theatre, it should have a proper share of the national cake. If the economy is not doing very well, the theatre, along with the other vital factors of a cultivated society, should consider cuts. The central crucial argument for me—it has still not been made, put away and accepted totally—is that theatre is as vital for our society in many ways as anything else that the state regards as a basic function that it should provide for its citizens.

It is entirely shocking and utterly disgraceful that the birthplace of the greatest dramatist that the world has ever and is ever likely to see—William Shakespeare—has still not accepted that argument. Shakespeare did not chose to express his genius by writing a book or a pamphlet, or by putting notices on the wall. He chose the very medium that can most directly and fundamentally express the exchange between what happens in the light and passes through to the dark.

It has always been my somewhat idealistic belief that theatre at its best is a model for an ideal society. What happens when people go to the theatre? It is quite remarkable. For no reason other than that they think, “Oh, I’d like to go and see that tonight”, a large group of strangers decide to go to one theatre on one night of the week. They sit there in the dark, and another group, who are strangers to them, come on into the light. When it is working well, an energy goes from the light into the dark, is reinforced and is sent back. On a really good night, a perfect circle is created. It is a unique and transforming experience. As an actor, it lasted no longer than the walk from the stage to the dressing room. For an audience, it might last no longer than the walk from the seat to the exit. However, it happens; it is real; and it happens nowhere else. It is a remarkably unique experience.
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It does not happen every time, but it happens often enough for people to have tasted it, to have felt it and to want to experience it again.

I have referred to Shakespeare, and he is not the only reason why theatre’s value in our society should be treasured and valued. We should not have to make the same old argument every decade or so that it must be invested in by the state. I have made the point that the amount of investment from the state can transform not only the theatre and those who practise in it, but attendant industries and businesses. There are other benefits, too.

The Government, to their credit, have acknowledged those benefits. They have supported, for example, programmes that invest in interesting young children in how the theatre can be part and parcel of their lives in the most practical sense. Such programmes work: young people do become interested, and they find that the disciplines that are an absolute requirement of any professional or theatrical performance can have a profound effect on how they view the world. They learn how to work in teams, and take on responsibility and carry it through to the end. I hope that hon. Members will not take this personally, but if this place had to run according to the disciplinary mores of the theatre, we would get through 10 times the amount of business in one quarter of the time and probably at a fraction of the cost.

We have also seen at the other end of the age scale how drama and the telling of a story in an exchange between human beings can have a profound effect—for example, in respect of elderly people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and are losing their memory. An interesting programme of work was carried out by an organisation called Age Exchange. Its director processed her experience in theatre and education into working with elderly people, initially in hospitals and residential homes over a wide area. The work that she did with people who are suffering the loss of memory has been taken on board by the medical profession not only in this country but in other European countries. It has immense potential for the exploration of whether there is some way to break through the barrier of forgetfulness, and it is drama—that exchange—that seems to do it.

We know also of the immensely valuable work that drama can do in assisting people who are in prison. I do not have the actual data on the tip of my tongue, but there is undoubtedly an improvement and a reduction in recidivism when people in prison are engaged in such programmes.

We have seen the enormous benefits of organisations and companies working with homeless people. They give back to people something that is easily lost but can be immensely difficult to restore: a sense of themselves as being human beings who, by virtue of their humanity, are valuable. That is, in essence, one of the most valuable things about theatre, and it is why we would be foolish as a nation to ignore the possibilities to maintain, retain and enlarge it.

To go back to the greatest dramatist that the world has ever seen or is ever likely to see, what are the questions that Shakespeare poses in a variety of guises in pretty much all of his plays? There are three of them, and I have always thought that they are very simple. All he ever asks is, “Who are we?” and “Why are we?” and “What are we?” No one has or ever will have the answers, but the pursuit of the questions and the possibility of answers are central and essential to our being human.

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In my humble opinion, there is no better arena for examining and pursuing such quests than the theatre, which is why I hope that the Government, to whom I pay full credit for what they have done in the past, will think about the minute amount of money that is required to maintain British theatre in its excellent state and to give it possibilities of expansion. I understand that the amount is as minuscule as £3.5 million a year. To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, and having mentioned Shakespeare, that is surely a mere spit in the ocean. I have seen the odd nod here and there, so I am fairly certain that other Members will help to ensure that the argument about whether this country should put money into its theatre will never have to be made again.

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, perhaps I should advise Members that I intend to start the winding-up speeches as near to 3.30 as possible, votes in the House permitting. I already have a long list of possible speakers, so would hon. Members please bear that in mind?

2.44 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Caton. I shall be brief.

It is a great privilege to follow that very fine speech by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). I agree with every word that she said. As I cannot begin to match her eloquence, I shall make a much more pragmatic and mundane contribution to the debate.

I want to speak about one thing. Although I agreed with every word that the hon. Lady said, we must remember that this debate is not just about London, although it is tremendously important. I declare an interest: I am a passionate theatre-goer, and a strong supporter of the Royal Shakespeare Company in particular. I was privileged to see Patrick Stewart’s extraordinary performance as Prospero in “The Tempest” only the week before last. That company gets 43.4 per cent. of its income in grants of one kind or another. For the sake of propriety, I should declare that my son is currently at drama school training to be a stage manager or technical theatre expert.

Theatre, like all art, has always been subsidised. I sometimes hear the argument that art should stand on its own two feet, but great art has almost never done that. There have been patrons of the arts down the centuries: princes, kings, counts, dukes and rich people of one kind or another sought to immortalise themselves through their patronage. The leading patron now perforce must be the state.

I welcome the increase in funding that the Government have made available to the Arts Council over the years, but we must remember two things. First, theatre funding is 0.02 per cent. of all public expenditure, so it is hardly a great sum to maintain against all the other competing priorities. I hope that that will help the Minister in his negotiations with the Chancellor. Secondly, there have been net reductions in real-terms funding for the arts since 2005. I agree that they have been modest, but I hope that we can at least put the arts back into a period of stability again, after the welcome growth that they experienced earlier.

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