Inside Parliament: Palumbo defends spending on arts: Menuhin uses maiden Lords speech to praise teachers - Donoughue says Arts Council's main product is bureaucratic verbiage

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Lord Palumbo, the departing chairman of the Arts Council, yesterday hoped for a Damascene conversion of the Treasury and Department of National Heritage to reverse what he called the 'irresponsible neglect of a precious national asset'.

In a foretaste of the scorn he is likely to visit on the council's detractors and ministerial paymasters when his five-year term ends in April, Lord Palumbo hit out at those who had criticised it for adopting 'so-called fatuous policies of 'social engineering'.

'Is it fatuous to apply a modest proportion of our funds to enable disabled people to participate in performances and have access to exhibitions, theatres or concert halls, to reward the rich artistic talents of our Afro-Caribbean and south Asian communities?

'Is it fatuous to provide access to the arts in hospitals and prisons? It cannot be. People may call these policies fatuous. I call them a response to the realities of our times and to the fulfilment of our chartered purposes.'

Lord Palumbo's combative defence of the council came during an Opposition debate on arts funding which included a maiden speech by the 77-year-old violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Describing himself as 'an itinerant musician who has fiddled his way through life', Lord Menuhin appealed for social recognition and financial reward for teachers.

'It is teachers, musical or others, who are called upon to fulfil the greatest and most important task of society - to instil in our young not only learning, but character, compassion, courtesy and creativity in a society wherein the lack of those basic qualities can only encourage crime,' he said.

Convention dictates that maiden speakers keep out of controversy. Lord Menuhin stayed within bounds but the elevated tone and length of his contribution clearly unsettled some peers - save one Lord who snored.

Posing the question of what 'so alien a character' as himself could offer in return for a place in the Lords, he said: 'Perhaps that long and concentrated discipline demanded by music which harnesses the players to a rhythm, a basic rhythm which at once supports and governs him, giving him a wider sense of the myriad fluctuating pulses of all speeds which propel mankind on its tortuous course.'

Lord Menuhin said that within the Lords' chamber was 'a remarkable human organism' which had bridged some five centuries precisely because its concerns were not 'chained to the immediate or transient' but guided by the longer spans of succeeding lifetimes.

'I am sometimes saddened that wider sections of our population are not inclined to hold the House of Lords in the esteem it so richly deserves . . . This House has the talents, the abilities, and the opportunities to explore in depth causes. It does not have to be distracted by the symptoms, the dissatisfactions, the discontents and the accusations with which the Other Place must daily battle.'

The Commons - as peers must never refer to it - was indeed battling with symptoms and accusations. At Scottish Question Time, Tories recycled claims of corruption on Monklands district council, trying to embarrass the Labour leader, John Smith, who is one of the area's MPs. And during a debate on housing Labour trawled over Westminster City Council's alleged 'homes for votes' policy.

But Lord Palumbo, too, was battling with symptoms. He said Lord Menuhin was an idealist and a visionary. 'But I fear these self-same qualities, admirable though they are, do not always sit easily with the reality of arts funding at the coal-face.'

Opening the debate, Lord Donoughue, Labour's heritage spokesman, said the post-war renaissance of the arts in Britain was founded on public funding and it would be a tragedy if it were terminated by a reduction in those funds.

'The arts are the living expression of our linguistic, visual and musical heritage.' Government funding was crucial, though by international standards it was not generous. Per capita support in Britain was only pounds 9.80 whereas in Germany, France and the Netherlands it was double that.

Lord Donoughue said worries about the Arts Council concerned much more than its pounds 7m cut in funding this year. Its main product over the past five years had been 'an unstoppable flow of bureaucratic verbiage and redundant reports'.

A recent infliction on its clients, the regional arts boards, had been termed 'an activity analysis done against an agreed list of outputs', he told peers. Staff had to remember every minute spent in the past year on 41 tasks, including advocacy, accountability, photocopying and faxing. 'So one of their main activities became filling up forms about activity analysis.'

Lord Palumbo said the analysis had been requested by the heritage department. There had never been a moment in his years at the council when it had not been 'reviewed, counter-reviewed, surveyed, appraised, or tested against market forces . . . We estimate that it has probably cost the taxpayer something of the order of pounds 6m in an attempt to establish value for money, and I doubt very much that we have been able to do that.'

He said the past five years had seen a 15 per cent rise in the arts subsidy in what he had hoped was a latter day conversion to the real worth of the arts and their place on the political agenda. But this year that 'brief dawn' had been darkened by the first cut in government funding for 48 years. In the next three years it would produce a net loss in the available funds for artists of 12 per cent.

'This amounts to an irresponsible neglect of a precious national resource which generates a threefold return for every pound of taxpayers' money invested.'

Tuesday, Lord Palumbo observed, had been the Feast of the Conversion on the Road to Damascus. 'Without being impious, I can only hope that the same blinding light and impact of conversion will profitably fall upon the Treasury and upon the Department of National Heritage.'

Winding up the debate for the Government, Baroness Trump ington sounded unconverted. She reminded peers that over a year, in a very difficult economic climate, the Government had signalled a reduction in Arts Council funding for 1994-95. That was the basis on which the council had to plan throughout last year, though some extra money had been found.

For the future, Lady Trumpington said, there is 'the exciting prospect of the National Lottery'. It hardly seemed the same debate in which Lord Menuhin had spoken of good music feeding 'the intangible tangibles which enable us to breathe and to dream'.

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