You have to feel sorry for Oliver Dowden. When he became Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the ambitious politician must have thought that he had hit the jackpot.
Even for someone who shows no instinctive liking for the arts, the chance to get free tickets to the theatre, the opera and the ballet, to attend concerts whether classical or rock and effectively enjoy a free pass at every sports ground in the country must have sounded too good to be true.
He probably also fancied his chances of getting an early look at the latest technology and perhaps even a free Amazon Prime account.
Sadly, it has not quite turned out like that. The beleaguered minister has consistently looked out of his depth, constantly badgered by the kind of famous people who should be lionising a generous benefactor, as a result of the devastation that coronavirus has caused to all of those in the arts.
If it isn’t Lord Lloyd Webber and Sonia Friedman begging for additional funds, his pal Rishi Sunak is asking him to play stooge in a three-card trick that would embarrass a lesser man.
Almost five months into the pandemic, when many of those who used to work in the arts are stacking shelves or starving, his efforts to provide funding have so far come to nothing, with the prospect of some companies receiving limited financial assistance in about four months’ time, while others will be left to go to the wall.
Just when the Minister must have come to the conclusion that nothing else could go wrong, his inbox has been invaded by a letter from Baroness Donaghy Chair of the House of Lords EU Services Sub-Committee.
Wisely, given his lack of industry experience, the Baroness opens by explaining the sub-committee’s responsibility for scrutinising EU policies on creative services and the implications of Brexit for these sectors.
In the teeth of a pandemic, it would not be unreasonable for any Arts Minister to take his eye off the ball and, like so many of his colleagues, (apologies for mixing metaphors with such gay abandon) stick his head in the sand, hoping that the EU problem mysteriously passed him by.
In fact, the two-page letter, which respectfully demands a response by 1 September, sheds a rather insightful light on the pandemic bailout in addition to raising some thought-provoking questions about what will happen come January when Britain is no longer a member of the European Union and has quite possibly reached no agreements about how the messy divorce is to be administered.
Beating any figures that the DCMS committee came up with, she proudly announces looking back a few months that, on top of forming an important part of the UK’s cultural fabric and shaping our national conversations, “the creative industries are growing at more than twice the rate of the UK economy, generating over £100bn per annum in gross value added. The sector employs over 2 million people, with jobs growing at three times the UK average, which produces more than £30bn in service exports.”
This is the moment to stop and think. We have a £100 billion industry which produces more than £30 billion in service exports and employs over 2 million people and the government’s much lauded financial rescue package totals £1.57 billion i.e. just over 1.5% of the industry’s annual turnover or around £750 for each employee.
This would be enough any self-respecting minister to hang his head in shame or possibly seek an office to which he was better suited.
However, this is not the aim of the sub-committee. Their interest lies in mitigating the impact of the European departure and that is not pretty either.
With a straight face, Baroness Donaghy initially requests a comprehensive update on the government’s efforts to secure an agreement with the EU that supports the UK’s creative services.
More particularly, she is interested to know what arrangements the government is seeking to negotiate to mitigate potential future barriers and include the audio-visual sector in the future relationship agreement.
That is one of several specific concerns that affects the theatre only indirectly, since so many of its representatives are multi-talented, but on similar lines there is also a serious question regarding the designation of TV content originating in the UK as “European works”. This doesn’t seem to have been considered and could have a significant negative effect on the industry.
More directly, the mobility of individuals working in the creative industries is a serious issue, with travel in both directions, facilitated by a touring visa necessary. To be fair, in the current economic climate, one might observe that the potential risk to theatres from the absence of European staff may be somewhat reduced both by impending closures and mass unemployment in our own country.
Last and most certainly not least, there is the big issue of how the government plans to ensure that the creative industries’ needs are reflected in future relationship negotiations and how (or whether) EU funding is to be replaced by UK alternatives.
It will be good to read Mr Dowden’s response, but there must be some question as to whether he manages to achieve the 1 September deadline.