There was an unexpectedly high degree of unanimity from all parts of the house and all parties in this debate. Those interested can see a recording starting at approximately 2:36PM.
Julian Knight, Conservative MP and Chair of the DCMS Committee, has become a hero to the arts over the last six months, championing the sector and challenging his ministerial colleagues. He introduced the debate with an impassioned appeal to his ministerial colleagues, making cogent points about the value of the arts to the United Kingdom and the increasingly desperate need for adequate support.
He reminded the House that the sector has grown at five times the rate of the economy more generally in recent years and that, without its contribution, the UK would have been in recession for three out of the last four years. As a result, he couldn’t understand why the Treasury constantly overlooked this area, which receives a paltry 0.5% of government spending even though it represents approaching 25% of the economy.
Knight regards the cultural sector as one of the UK’s great success stories and suggests that the a series of serious issues should be addressed as a matter of urgency:
- Introduce a sector-specific furlough extension.
- Provide a reinsurance scheme to protect those attempting to reopen.
- Create a functioning test and trace scheme.
- Consider and introduce a safe, smart way to reopen with clear timelines.
Over 30 other speakers felt equally strongly about the various sectors that make up this wide ministerial remit including everything from broadband to charities and sport, many offering strongly felt complaints about lack of support for the theatre and the arts more generally. All clearly believed that our cultural sector represents “part of the joy of being alive” as Damien Hinds so cogently summarised their enthusiasm.
No speaker was allowed more than five minutes, subsequently reducing to as little as three. The Parliamentary web site allows viewers to listen to individual speeches easily and speakers who were particularly notable from an arts and theatre viewpoint included Kevin Brennan, Ellie Reeves and former Minister for the Department Karen Bradley as well as a wider brief from the final backbench speaker, Alison Thewliss.
To summarise, the themes that kept recurring in a debate which lasted almost two and a half hours included the following:
- The fact that, after six months and more of closure, almost all funding is still outstanding despite having been promised in July.
- The inadequacy of the promised funding, when it does eventually come through.
- Imminent redundancies, which could ultimately number into hundreds of thousands across the sector.
- The expectation that permanent closures of many businesses will come very soon if either companies fail to secure grants from the “bailout” fund or cannot survive due to closures and redundancy costs.
- The plight faced by approximately 3 million freelancers, many in the creative industries, where up to 70% of workers fall into this category.
- Going a step further, those freelancers are at best going to be receiving 20% of normal income from now on, while a significant proportion have received and will receive nothing.
- Silence from the government regarding even an earliest opening date for theatres and other entertainment venues.
- The failure of test and trace, which is needed to make theatres safe.
- The need for insurance against potential coronavirus closures.
- The economic and social value of the arts, sports and also the media.
- The cultural sector’s contribution has been calculated at £111.7 million, employing 2 million people. Without detailed research, this almost certainly excludes the sports part of the Minister’s remit.
- The failure of the Chancellor’s winter economic plan to address this sector or offer any significant benefit.
- The observation that closure has been enforced, is not voluntary, and therefore there is a desperate need for a sector-specific furlough for an industry that can recover in the longer term when social distancing is no longer necessary.
- Even those arts venues that have managed to open are doing so at a loss and require financial support, possibly via an equivalent to the August cheap meals scheme.
- The level of insult felt by those in the sector at the implied suggestion that the Chancellor of the Exchequer believes they should forego the trade for which they have trained, often for decades, and retrain to do something with which they feel no affinity.
- A plea that the reduced VAT rate be extended for the duration of closures.
The Shadow Minister, Jo Stevens, summarised the outstanding issues sector by sector, summarising most of the points above but especially the failure of test and trace and what she regarded as the government’s lack of respect for the sector.
Her speech was poignant and begged for the urgent financial help that companies and individuals need, if the sector is not to die—“much of the sector faces decimation”—attacking the Chancellor for referring to arts and allied jobs as “unviable”.
It was notable that Oliver Dowden did not attend, instead leaving the response to Under-Secretary Matt Warman, who offered little comfort beyond rhetoric. Unexpectedly, he was stopped in his stride by a colleague from his own side, Steve Brine, concerned about the large proportion of the recovery fund that has yet to be allocated, requesting a commitment that this would not be lost to the sector.
Despite the pleas for further funding and support, nothing was forthcoming beyond vague promises to reopen the arts at some point, making one wonder about the value of the debate.
As Julian Knight concluded, “I really do fear that we are standing on the edge of a cultural, sporting, arts abyss… What about the next act in this drama?”
We must all hope that there is a next act for so many theatres and workers rather than a final curtain.