MPs attack Labour over £34m cut in funding for the arts

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The Independent Online

An investigation into the state of British theatre has criticised the Government for forcing through savings at the Arts Council, only to freeze its funding, leading to the axing of grants to 121 groups.

An investigation into the state of British theatre has criticised the Government for forcing through savings at the Arts Council, only to freeze its funding, leading to the axing of grants to 121 groups.

Members of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee called on the Government to find the extra £34m needed to keep Arts Council of England funding in line with inflation over the next three years.

There was uproar after the Arts Council received standstill funding from government, which forced it to axe grants to 121 groups previously funded - and award some organisations less-than-inflation increases.

The select committee put its full weight behind theatres and arts organisations by highlighting the strong economic argument for public subsidy.

"Theatre is important to the economic life of the country and generates a significant return for the exchequer as well as showcasing the UK to the world, the report said. "The commercial theatre sector often rests on work that originates, is developed, tested and proven within the subsidised sector.

"We agree with witnesses who said that a real-terms cut in funding for the arts is a mistake ... A policy of stop-go-stop, eschewed by the Treasury in macro-economic terms of 'boom and bust', is not a prudent approach to the long-term investment in the arts to which the Government claims to be committed."

After hearing evidence from the leaders of theatres including the Donmar Warehouse and National Theatre in London and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, the committee concluded there were "high levels of support" from the public for investment in theatre.

But Rosemary McKenna, a committee member and MP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, admitted they had failed to persuade either their colleagues or the Treasury of the case.

"The amount of money required is insignificant in terms of the gross national product of the country but to the arts and theatre it would be a huge amount. I would hope that the argument in this report would persuade [the Treasury] they could look at that small amount of money and make a huge difference to theatre."

The MPs also backed commercial West End theatre owners who have asked for £125m in public money towards a 15-year programme of refurbishment. Most West End theatres are listed buildings dating from the Victorian and Edwardian period and offer poor facilities for modern audiences. They said there was a "compelling" argument on grounds of heritage and the economic impact of tourism for public support, but the money should not come from the Arts Council but from the Heritage Lottery Fund and local government.

The committee also criticised booking fees at the theatre as a "blatant rip-off" and lamented the "scandal" of low pay for actors and theatre staff.

Christine Payne, the assistant general secretary at the actors' union Equity, said the Government should do as the committee suggested and find the £34m needed to keep funding of the performing arts in line with inflation. "Theatre offers a great return for comparatively low levels of public investment," she said. "As the committee discovered on closer inspection, this makes an overwhelming case for continued funding. The talent and creativity in theatre in this country makes us the envy of the world."

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