Inside Parliament: Heath makes a stand for orchestra cash: Former prime minister claims MPs seldom seen at concerts - Major manages last-minute attack on 'inefficient' Labour local authorities

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Indy Politics
Sir Edward Heath yesterday called for more support for the arts and music in particular, comparing state funding of British orchestras unfavourably with that of their continental counterparts.

While the Berlin Philharmonic has an annual income of pounds 16.2m, of which nearly pounds 10m comes from public funds, the London Symphony Orchestra survives on a total income of only pounds 7.7m, the former Conservative prime minister said during a debate on the arts.

Sir Edward's 'local' Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gets pounds 4.8m while the New York Philharmonic gets pounds 16.7m and Chicago pounds 22.5m. He told MPs that the differences showed in fewer members of British orchestras on contracts, fewer rehearsals and lower performance standards, though he was diplomatically non-specific.

State funding for orchestras is channelled through the Arts Council, whose budget for England this year was cut by pounds 3.9m to pounds 187m. Opening the debate, Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, said subsidy for the arts had to be considered alongside other calls on the public purse.

'The economic climate is, and has been, very difficult, and this has inevitably meant that some organisations have needed to cut their coats according to a rather smaller piece of cloth.'

But Sir Edward, who also wanted more attention to music teaching in schools, said he took exactly the opposite view. 'There are some items of expenditure which ought to be exempt in such an economy drive.' Spending on the arts should continue to be raised.

Recalling his days as a founder and conductor of the European Youth Orchestra, Sir Edward took a swipe at the Eurosceptics. 'Our purpose was to show that in our continent we had a common heritage. When I hear opponents of European Union saying we must keep our national heritage, then I ask myself 'what on earth do they want?'.' Were they dismissing Bach, Brahms and Beethoven? 'It makes no sense.'

Indeed, the Father of the House seems to regard the modern Conservative parliamentary party as a bunch of philistines. There was a time when at the Festival Hall or Covent Garden he could depend on meeting 'a considerable number' of colleagues. But he said: 'It is very seldom now at Covent Garden or any musical festival that I find a large number of my colleagues anxiously waiting to imbibe culture.'

Terry Dicks would find that perfectly understandable. Making his familiar case for ending all arts subsidies, the Tory MP for Hayes and Harlington indulged in a little opera criticism.

'Take Pavarotti. He now has to be helped on to the stage. He has to be supported by other singers. He has a hanky soaked in sweat. He's 25 stone and his voice is going. And he's supposed to be singing to his girlfriend who is nearly the same weight and is rocking and rolling at the same time. If people want to say that is their heritage, let them, but let them pay the full price.'

Mr Brooke illustrated the quality and diversity of artistic provision with a run through the listings. 'Tonight, for example, honourable members could choose between a new production of Cosi fan Tutte at the Coliseum, Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Cocteau at the National Theatre or Berio on the South Bank.'

Perhaps that is where they were. There was never more than a score of MPs in the chamber for the debate. But Sir Edward's observation and the fact that the polling booths were still open in the council elections suggested otherwise.

John Major managed to get in a late plea to the voters at the close of Question Time when Bridget Prentice, Labour MP for Lewisham East, asked why the Government was failing to collect pounds 240m a year due in National Insurance contributions. 'Why doesn't the Prime Minister do something to ensure the money is collected, rather than slapping massive tax increases on ordinary families?'

Mr Major said the Inland Revenue tried to collect all the tax available. Then he moved into the party political broadcast, hoping that Mrs Prentice would also address her strictures 'to those large number of Labour authorities that don't actually collect rents, that don't actually collect council taxes, and that have run up quite shocking debts, not just in one or two isolated occasions, but in a very large number of occasions'.

Concern at the threat to the public's freedom to roam over thousands of acres of British woodland posed by the sale of Forestry Commission land - let alone wholesale privatisation - has been impressed forcefully on ministers.

Michael Jack, Minister of State for Agriculture, told MPs that 3,600 individuals and some 600 organisations had submitted representations in the hope of preserving the commission's open-access policy. Ministers are currently considering the report of the Forestry Review Group set up to advise on the future of the Commission and its estate.

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, said hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed walking and cycling, 'indeed they enjoy doing all sorts of things in our state forests'. Yet when commission woodland had been sold public access had either been restricted or totally prohibited.

The telling contributions, though, came from Tories Andrew Robathan (Blaby) and Patrick Thompson (Norwich N), who sought assurances that future plans would take full account of the 'so- called freedom to roam' valued by their constituents.

Noting the volume of representations, Mr Jack assured them: 'The importance of this point is certainly not lost on either the FRG or ministers.'

(Photograph omitted)