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I am concerned about the financial pressures that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England are likely to be under, as their core funding—and, therefore, the funding for individual theatres—is threatened. I am also worried about the lottery, which, since its inception under John Major, has made such a big contribution to theatre life. I do not want to be partisan in what should be a bipartisan debate, but I fear that the rising costs of the Olympics could have serious implications for many theatres the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. I look for reassurance from the Minister about how he hopes to maintain the funding streams to performing arts in general and the theatre in particular in the face of that real challenge.

I said that not just London is involved. There is a huge variety of theatre. Theatre companies that serve my constituency, broadly defined, include touring companies such as Shindig, and Collar and Tie, which go to schools and rural communities. We should not forget amateur theatre in this debate. There is a small amateur theatre in Droitwich Spa, the Norbury, which faces huge challenges to keep itself on the road. It would normally have looked to lottery funding to do that.

There is an absolutely fantastic arts centre called No. 8 in Pershore, which is just outside my constituency. We should pay tribute to the work done by many councils. For example, Wychavon district council provides No. 8 with its accommodation at a peppercorn rent, which enables it to do a fantastic job for the people of Pershore. The theatre works almost entirely with volunteer management and staff. It hopes to apply for core funding from the Arts Council, but it thinks that the funding taps are being turned off because of the Olympics and so on and that theatre groups and art centres that are not regularly funded organisations at present will find themselves left out in the cold. Its excellent managing director, Ray Steadman, is genuinely apprehensive that the tendency will be to concentrate money in strategic areas—mainly urban areas—leaving rural areas to suffer.

The financial pressures on Worcestershire county council mean that it no longer has an arts officer or assistant. It will be interesting to see how Arts Council England will negotiate an appropriate settlement for No. 8, should it be minded to pay it at all, because, historically, the advice of the county council has been of great importance to Arts Council England.

I think of Malvern Theatres, which has benefited hugely from lottery funding and modestly from continued funding from Arts Council England. It is privileged to get many west end try-outs. I saw Felicity Kendal in “Amy’s View” there a few weeks ago before its west end run. Again, the facility exists in its current fine form only because of the huge amount of money that it has had from the lottery. The Birmingham Rep is a fine repertory theatre, and the Hippodrome was a huge lottery winner. Millions of pounds were spent on refurbishing that theatre, and many of the companies that perform in it are subsidised by Arts Council England or other parts of the Arts Council budget.

On other parts of the Arts Council, I particularly wish to highlight the threat to funding in Northern Ireland. Those of us in the performing arts alliance group were very disturbed indeed to hear a presentation from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland about the significant real-terms cuts in funding for theatre there. At a time of great hope for peace in Northern Ireland, it
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would be tragic if the arts, which can make such a major contribution to building a sense of social cohesion, spirit and harmony, were to suffer a significant reduction in their budget. All the evidence points to that happening, and on 21 March “The Stage” website said:

Such matters are of real concern, and I want to reinforce everything of a philosophical and powerful nature that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate said. I issue a strong plea from the provinces at all levels for Arts Council of England funding, for adequate funding for councils to do their job and for the lottery, which has done such fantastic work in my constituency and county over the past years. Of course, I also issue a plea on behalf of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, whose fine new theatre is shortly to be developed. The last performance in the old theatre will take place some time this week—on Saturday, I think—after which the old auditorium will close for major refurbishment.

I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to one other thing, if he is not already aware of it. Not only does the theatre face significant cuts in funding in real terms, but it may face an increased bill from the Government if Ofcom proceeds with its auction of spectrum, as it currently intends. I have heard hopeful indications that Ofcom is rethinking its position and promising a new consultation paper after the first consultation ends on the programme-making and special events sector, which covers drama, news gathering, sports and all kinds of other sectors, too. If the auction of spectrum proceeds on its current basis and is released for the digital dividend, there is a real risk that the radio microphone frequencies might be no longer available. If theatres cannot get that spectrum, it would mean the end for large swathes of theatre, and if they get it at a high price, it would mean a huge new bill for large sections of the performing arts in the UK. So I plead with the Minister to keep a careful eye not only on the Arts Council of England to negotiate sharply with the Chancellor, but to watch what Ofcom is doing, too. If the Government do not do that, we could land a massive new bill on our theatres with serious consequences for all of them.

2.52 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) on securing this important debate—it was not before time. It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend, who is not only a fine friend and parliamentary colleague, but one of our most distinguished actors with whom we cannot hope to compete in terms of speaking ability. I wish to declare an interest as my son is a member of Equity and I love the theatre. Beyond that, theatre is important for all of us—for our culture and our future. That is not just because the greatest playwright of all time is one of our past countrymen, but because it is important to how we develop as human beings.

We are fortunate that we have the English language, which means that we have a thriving commercial theatre in London that serves a massive worldwide English-speaking audience. Many countries do not have that and subsidise their theatres to a much greater extent to sustain their own languages and cultures. We have the benefit of English, but that is not enough. We boast about our wonderful theatres in London but neglect the base from
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which our performers and domestic audiences come. We must spend more locally and regionally and redevelop a professional theatre at that level.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) said that the arts in general and theatre in particular have always been subsidised. There has been some mass popular theatre, but of course that took a big knock in the 20th century from radio, television and film, which provide a very different experience from a live performance that is life-enhancing and stimulates the imagination. We learn to suspend disbelief when we see a live play on a stage and two or three people pretending to be someone else. That is different from watching soap operas on television that attempt to look like reality. Theatre provides wonderful exercise for the mind, but also looks in a very intense way at the human condition—fear, love, war and all the things that we debate in this Chamber and, indeed, in Parliament can be found in theatre. I sometimes think that we have been half expecting what I would call a “Julius Caesar” moment in our own party—although it will not actually happen as I think that the relevant person is retiring from the scene. Nevertheless, something in Shakespeare will always fit with what we are doing at a particular time in politics. Shakespeare had a wonderful understanding of politics and the things that drive human beings in politics and elsewhere.

My own children both love the theatre and performed when they were young. However, nothing was as great as when the Royal Shakespeare Company once came to Luton about 23 years ago with a travelling theatre—they set up their own stands and seats. Both my children saw Fiona Shaw in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Merchant of Venice” and went behind the scenes and met the actors. It was an experience that they never forgot, but the Royal Shakespeare Company has never been back. Why not? Why do we not say that the Royal Shakespeare Company should visit every town regularly? That would make a real difference but would require money and subsidy.

I love the familiarity of the magical world of performance and have seen young people transformed by performing at school. However, nothing compares with seeing professionals performing brilliantly, which also provides something to aspire to. Amateur theatre is fine and we all have local amateur theatres that do a great job, but it is not the same as seeing professionals. The same can be said for music, which is another passion of mine. The experience of seeing the great orchestras of the world and musicians play is very different from going to see the local town band—although that is both welcome and enjoyable. It is important for everybody to see the arts at their best and in their locality.

The issue of local theatres is my main theme. Some 40 years ago there were two theatres in Luton, but they were knocked down to make room for a large shopping centre and various car parks, which were considered more important. I consider that an act of barbarism. Since then, we have tried to build a new theatre in Luton, but there has never been enough money. We have a bowling alley and various other enjoyable things that make money, but we do not have a theatre and young people from the schools in the town cannot see a professional performance. I would like to have a subsidised local theatre in all major cities so that every schoolchild would consider it normal to be taken to the theatre during school time to see professional acting, to be
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inspired and to feel a sense of wonder at proper theatre. Of course, initially some children may find theatres embarrassing because actors are a bit like politicians and when they speak they are rather intense and embarrass people. However, although we happen to be a naturally reserved people, we should perhaps break out of that and learn that intense experiences and understandings deserve to be expressed in an intense manner and there is nothing more intense and wonderful than the theatre. As I have said, theatre is about human relationships, an understanding of the human condition, and politics.

I want local theatres to be expanded and for the Government to spend a lot more on them. My hon. Friend talked about the figure of £3.5 million, but losses from VAT fraud alone amount to £1 billion every month—I want a bit of that. We should collect a bit more VAT with a few more VAT inspectors and spend it on theatre—that would be very good value for money. We still do not take the arts in general and the theatre in particular seriously in this country. On the continent of Europe they spend a lot more on such things.

I will finish with an anecdote. When Vaclav Havel and his new Government first came to Britain to meet Mrs. Thatcher after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, as it was then, he brought about12 people with him. They went to Downing street and Mrs. Thatcher was introduced to the spokesmen for foreign affairs and for energy and transport. There were also five other people there and when she asked who they were President Havel said that they were representatives for culture. It is unimaginable that Britain would take 12 people abroad, five of whom were representatives for culture. I know that he was a playwright and had an interest in such things, but nevertheless I believe that on the continent they take cultural issues more seriously than we do. We should imitate that. As my hon. Friend said, we believe that we have the greatest playwright in history. I certainly believe that, and it is about time that we celebrated it by having a properly funded theatre ourselves.

2.59 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) on obtaining this important debate. I recognise that time is short, so rather than covering the full range of topics I will focus on one issue—the relationship between spending on the 2012 Olympics and funding for the theatre through the lottery. When, in 2005, we heard that London had been awarded the Olympics, it was a moment of joy and celebration for me, as for many people. It meant even more to me when I heard that there was to be a cultural Olympiad. I do not wish to be a pessimist, but it is probably unlikely that in 2012 people will leave London talking about the extraordinary prowess of the British in sports and games. However, there is a good chance that they will go away imbued with admiration and feeling much enriched by the cultural life on offer in London and the United Kingdom. That is something to be valued and we must hold on to it.

In order for that cultural happening to flower, we have to ensure that the roots continue to be nourished. The roots of great theatre in London and of the great performances that we see in the big theatres are to be found in our local theatres, but they have been under pressure and are somewhat in decline. I look with great pain at some of
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the cuts in lottery funding; they go to the heart of the issue by threatening some of that regional and local theatre funding. I hope that we hear today an assurance that that will not happen, but I have seen the numbers. There is a cut in the Arts Council of England lottery funding of about £112.5 million; for Scotland the figure is £12.5 million; for Wales it is £8.1 million and for Northern Ireland it is £4.5 million. Those are terribly serious numbers for that sector of our communities.

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but will she not acknowledge that lottery funding for the theatre rose to £100 million in 2004-05 and then dropped back to £26 million in 2005-06? That shows that the theatre sector is robust and that a lot of grant money has been going to the theatre directly from the Government. Although we all have some concerns about the subject, the hon. Lady should not overplay it.

Susan Kramer: I thank the hon. Lady, but the community to which I speak expresses a great deal of concern and worry, and it is looking for reassurance.

In my community, we have the Orange Tree theatre. It calls itself a mini-National Theatre, but although it is only one small theatre, the talent that it nurtures stimulates the infrastructure of the commercial theatre in our area. We had a meeting in the House with actors, ranging from those who will be familiar to everyone in the House—many of them at the late end of their careers—and young schoolchildren. The children were incredibly excited and were invigorated by being able to share in that meeting. It struck me then that communities can be built upon the relationship that the theatre uses to bring people together across age groups and generations. In my community and in much of London, that kind of connection is sorely needed.

My community also has the Barton Green theatre. It is a small, amateur youth theatre in the heart of the community, yet virtually nothing else is on offer for the young. It will be applying for lottery funding; otherwise, the roof will fall in. The great fear is that, as all the various sources of funding disappear—a bite taken here and a large chunk taken there—those projects will be the ones to suffer. As the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) so eloquently said, once we lose those theatres the chances of bringing them back are minimal. If the theatres are not there for the oncoming generation, that generation will be lost to the theatre. I am extremely concerned about that.

We have a unique opportunity to use the Olympics to express a great deal more than our sporting prowess; we can use them to build up the arts and culture, and to build up the theatre. As part of that, we must look back to the roots. I should like to hear how the Government intend to fund that sector, and how it is to be protected and nourished.

I have one niggle, but it is not a partisan point. The Olympics funding includes money being set aside for contingencies—in other words, money that people hope will never be spent. For that to be a reason for losing local theatres would be a tragedy. Money provided for the Olympics by the private sector has not yet been pulled together and does not yet seem to be available; that that should be a reason for taking funding from our theatres would be another tragedy. I hope to hear answers on those issues today.

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3.4 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I declare a very minor £1 interest in the National Youth Theatre, as an associate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), not least because in her acting career she did more than many could aspire to do for British theatre, even making some shows commercially viable that many might have considered to be commercially impossible. For instance, productions such as “The White Devil”, “The House of Bernarda Alba” and “Hedda Gabler” are all doing extraordinarily well in this country, and “Hedda Gabler” is also doing very well abroad.

There are many utilitarian reasons why the theatre is vital. Its importance to the economy has been cited. Stratford says that the Royal Shakespeare Company brings to the region about £58 million a year. That simply would not happen if it were not for the theatre. In London, three times more people go to the theatre than attend football matches. Theatre plays a key role in London’s economy.

Theatre also has an important role in education. We will have no great teachers of drama in schools without a strong theatre tradition throughout the United Kingdom. Theatre in schools can make a dramatic difference, enabling some of the kids who have had a difficult family background to achieve self-confidence and the ability to communicate that they would otherwise never achieve. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, that is true also in many prisons. It applies also to youth clubs. The ability to communicate is sought by most employers. Those who do not have the personal confidence that acting on a stage can give—even if only in a small part—will not have such good opportunities at work.

Acting also gives individuals the skill of working in a team and the understanding that it is not enough for them to shine on their own if the entire cast are not performing together, and that if one does not turn up on time, the rehearsals cannot happen. All those disciplines are essential to the skills that people need—in life and in work.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, theatre is important also to the British tourism industry. When questionnaires are put to tourists asking what were their main reasons for coming here, an extraordinary number cite the British theatre; it is either first or second on the list of priorities for the majority of international tourists.

The theatre is vital for training people in the television and film industries. Apart from the United States, Britain is the only country that has a positive balance of trade in television shows. In large measure, that is because of the training that people have had, both backstage and on stage, and the skills that they have acquired through their experience of theatre and of performing before live audiences. The UK can be proud of our Oscar winners; not a single one of them would have risen to prominence without experience in the subsidised theatre. The spin-offs for all sorts of creative industries are dramatic.

The last of the utilitarian reasons why it is important to have a strong theatre industry, but the most important to the Treasury, is the VAT that the theatre pumps into the Treasury—to the tune of £100 million a year. That is only £20 million short of the state’s subsidy for the
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theatre. The truth is that British theatre receives only £20 million from the state. It is a pretty poor show.

However, there are less tangible reasons why we should be passionate about supporting the theatre. We have referred to Shakespeare, but his understanding of holding a mirror up to nature is vital. Politicians should be forced to go to the theatre more often, especially when it shows us at our worst.

Kelvin Hopkins: Is it not disappointing that several of our later Prime Ministers appeared to have no interest in the arts, and would it not have done them a lot of good to have been to the theatre?

Chris Bryant: Funnily enough, apart from in the House, the last time I saw the Prime Minister was in a theatre. I would not go quite as far as my hon. Friend.

In the theatre, the sense of being able to peer into the heart of humanity can be achieved, both to laugh out loud and to enjoy oneself but sometimes to cry with pity at what has been seen. I think of those classic moments of Shakespeare, such as when Cordelia is found dead or when Leontes finds that Hermione is alive despite what he had done to her years before. All those are reasons why we should be passionate about theatre.

However, there are real problems. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate will not mind my mentioning this, but I wrote a rather poor biography of her a few years ago. In the process of doing so, I had to visit an awful lot of people with whom she had worked in the theatre. In their day, many of them had been famous performers, but many were living in abject poverty in retirement. That may have been because of the feast-and-famine nature of many performers’ salaries, but it is also a fact that the theatre’s biggest subsidisers are the actors and performers themselves. In that respect, it is a disgrace that the minimum that can be paid in the west end is as low as £366.82 a week for eight performances, and that should be dramatically higher. Nearly half of all performers earn less than £6,000 a year, and such poverty should not exist when we take so much pride in the theatre.

There is also a problem with west end theatres. Although they are very beautiful—Frank Matcham did a wonderful job in his time—many are now dilapidated and clapped out, and the seats in many of them are too small for modern posteriors. Despite the fact that many are commercial theatres, it is time that the state made an investment in them. The theatre management has no interest in limiting the number of seats, and it is important that we make a contribution. A report in 2003 urged the Government to take action, but there has been none so far, although I note from the DCMS website that discussions are ongoing.

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