David Lister: Tough questions, but still no answers

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The Independent Online

In the midst of world-shattering events and important political debates, a little-noticed but fascinating question was asked in the House of Commons the other day. The Labour MP Tom Watson asked the arts minister which private members' clubs used by Arts Council staff and board members are funded by the council.

In fact, there were 50 little-noticed but fascinating questions asked in the House of Commons. And they were all asked by Tom Watson, and were all about the Arts Council. Mr Watson clearly shares my concern that the much vaunted "arm's length principle" in the arts which avoids government interference by delegating power to a non-elected quango can lead to a lack of accountability. Mr Watson would also seem to have a disgruntled source in the Arts Council as his questions seemed detailed and knowing.

To prove his point and mine about worries over accountability, most questions were answered by the arts minister Margaret Hodge with the response, "The information requested relates to operational matters that are the responsibility of Arts Council England." Parliament, it seems, could not be less interested. Most of Mr Watson's questions concerned weighty matters such as redundancy payments, pension arrangements for Arts Council staff and general administrative costs, though there was more than a sprinkling of light relief with probing questions about the exact sums spent on flowers for the Arts Council headquarters.

But it was those private members' clubs that intrigued me. And, unlike Margaret Hodge, I was able to discover the answer. No Arts Council staff have their private clubs paid for from taxpayers' money, though my own Arts Council sources tell me that had Mr Watson asked his question a couple of years ago, he might have received a more entertaining answer.

But even if his more colourful questions have not elicited the desired response, the fact that a senior Labour MP asks 50 questions about how the Arts Council is run does not exactly bode well for it. Add to that some interesting comments from the shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt at a state of the arts conference last week. He bemoaned the fact that 11 per cent of the Arts Council's budget was spent on administration (the Council says it is nearer 6 per cent), and said it would have to be leaner under the Tories.

I enjoyed the response of the Arts Council's redoubtable chair Dame Liz Forgan, who said: "I have been trying to be leaner all my life." But she will have been startled by Mr Hunt's subsequent comment that more policy should be made by the DCMS rather than the Arts Council. There, in a throwaway line that went largely unreported, was a severe dent to the arm's length principle. It does seem that the way the arts are run is going to change. A senior Labour MP has made it his business to see that happen, and, more importantly, a future Conservative government has served notice that it will too.

In the meantime, the Government and the Arts Council could pre-empt that by showing that they are properly accountable. Instead of an arts minister brushing off questions with the response that it is a matter for an unelected quango, she could find out the answer and tell it to the country's elected representatives. It might be against the spirit of the arm's length principle, but it would stop all those rumours about Arts Council employees watering their plants before they go off to their club.

Where were all the hens?

I went to see Legally Blonde, The Musical at London's Savoy Theatre. It's smart, funny and hugely enjoyable, with a scintillating performance by Sheridan Smith in the lead role as Elle Woods.

She had already shown huge comedic potential on TV as James Corden's sister in Gavin and Stacey, even though she was rather underused. There was also an off-screen romance between the two.

But though I loved Legally Blonde on stage, I was rather nonplussed by the audience. I had read all the articles, columns and general publicity about how the show was attracting hen parties and Elle Woods lookalikes all dressed in her "signature colour" of pink. I went on a Saturday night, not exactly the quietest night of the week, and the audience was your bog-standard theatre audience, largely middle aged and in this case more male than female. Where were the hordes of lookalikes? Where was one single hen party?

Oh well, it's good PR spin, and repeat it often enough and pretty soon those hen parties are sure to come, so as not to miss out. I even feel a party pooper for not playing along.

Farewell to Frances the firebrand

It was no surprise to see leading figures from the arts world at the funeral of Frances Morrell yesterday, which was held by candlelight after a power cut in the church.

Frances was leader of the now defunct Inner London Education Authority, adviser to Tony Benn, and a friend for many years, was best known as a left-wing firebrand and feminist, though her attitudes to politics and feminism were more complex than generally realised. What is less known is that in the last decade of her life she became very involved in the arts, setting up Arts Inform with Linda Payne, developing projects for students and arts professionals.

A genuine character, she was not a woman to cross. At the height of her notoriety in the press, a Daily Mail journalist located her young daughter and tried to question her. Soon after, at a session at County Hall, Frances interrupted her own speech when she saw the reporter in the press gallery and, pointing at him, said to her fellow politicians: "Look everyone, take a look at that man. There is a man who abuses little girls." It's no wonder she ended up in the arts. She had a fine sense of theatre.

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