Debate on Supporting the Creative Economy descends into political animosity

Last week, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee held a debate in Westminster Hall around its new report; Supporting the Creative Economy. John Whittingdale (Con) kicked things off by calling the arts ‘a great success story’. He went on to say that ‘the arts make a substantial contribution, not just to this country’s cultural life, but to our economic life, and provide an important economic stimulus’. Unfortunately, after this wonderful start Whittingdale continued by listing cultural output by commercial successes such as One Direction. Now whatever you think of 1D’s music, its fair to say they aren’t a product of publically subsidised art.


Of course we wouldn’t want a debate on the UK’s creative economy to focus soley on those projects that rely heavily on government subsidy, but nor should these crucial projects be overlooked in favour of ones that draw a huge income. Much was made of tax breaks for film makers using UK locations, at which point Sharon Hodgson (Lab) made clear that our many beautiful heritage buildings are far cheaper to film in than to build a replica on set. This is an original and compelling argument for bodies like English Heritage and the National Trust to continue their work in preserving the nation’s heritage.


I was surprised it took Culture Minister Ed Vaisey to speak up before theatre was recognised. Was this because theatre companies generally do not command the multi-million pound profits that a film might gross? Vaisey mentioned Les Miserables, the stage version of which has brought in ‘north of £1 billion worth of revenue’. The rights to Les Miserables are of course owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and this part of this revenue is used as funding for their less profitable projects.


Much was made of the issues around policing illegal downloading. There has been a call recently for theatre recordings to be made available online, but this seems unlikely to go ahead while film and music are in trouble. The MPs agreed that clearer rules surrounding digitally sharing material needed to be enforced, and that ways to legalise downloading of cultural products needed to be looked into. They didn’t seem to get any further with working out how any of this could be done however, and it was admitted that there simply isn’t enough research available to work out the extent of the problem. Google was praised for the work it has done in shutting down illegal download sites, though it was made clear that as soon as one site is shut down, another pops up.


The debate moved on, with Sharon Hodgson again speaking, this time to enforce the importance of the creative industries:

Britain’s creative industries account for more than 1.5 million jobs and contribute more than £70 billion to the economy. That should be all the reason we need to know why it is imperative that we do everything possible within our power to support such an increasingly crucial sector, and it is why the report is right to address issues that affect it, such as the protection of intellectual property, tax reliefs and education and skills.


It saddens me that time and again the culture sector proves it can be both economically and socially valuable, and yet the message isn’t getting through to key decision makers in Government. MPs from both parties agreed that an extension of the school day might be the key to solving the apparent crisis in getting a well rounded curriculum, where arts are not pushed out in favour of science and maths. I should make clear at this point that I’d never advocate science and maths getting pushed out in favour of arts! But I do question why it is so difficult to write a balanced National Curriculum.


Maria Miller came in for praise for her championing of ‘STEAM not STEM’ but there was yet more criticism for Michael Gove, who really didn’t have a good week last week. Hodgson raised the question of where the next ‘Julie Walters or Idris Elba’, ie. working class talent, would come from if a thorough arts education was only available to privately educated pupils.


Nigel Adams (Con) brought the debate back round to the often impenetrable issue of Intellectual Property. David Cameron was thanked (not often that happens in an arts debate!) for appointing a specialist IP advisor to help arts organisations (and others) properly protect their work. I was looking into IP regulations for League of Culture a few weeks ago, and to be honest I gave up. I can well imagine that many a creative business will have inadequate protection because clear advice is not yet available, though the situation is improving.


The Olympic Legacy is in peril as many of the creative organisations involved with that phenomenal opening ceremony have not been allowed to advertise that they worked on it. All MPs present seemed to get behind the idea that this should change and pressure applied to the Olympics Committee to make sure everyone got proper credit for their work.


It was here that the debate took a worrying turn. I fully appreciate that, especially in the run up to a General Election, MPs will look for ways to make one party look better than the other. But at this point in time I don’t much care whether Labour was more creative, or the Tories understand culture more. I just want whoever is in charge to make the necessary resources available to those who need it (this goes for any Department, not just DCMS). Whatever my personal politics may be (and yes, I do have strong views over which party is better for the arts overall), I don’t want MPs to score points in these sort of debates.


That to one side (and thankfully, those in the Hall did put it to one side), Ed Vaisey mounted a spirited defence of his department’s work, admitting that they were at the beginning of the journey. I only hope the road of this journey runs smoother than it has, or the crisis that the arts find themselves plonked into by the austerity agenda won’t sort itself out any time soon.


This report was written by League of Culture’s Director, Vicky Prior, and is not intended to wholly reflect the views of League of Culture.