Government too late for UK culture sector in Covid-19 crisis, say MPs

The government’s response to the impact on the culture sector of the Covid-19 crisis has been too slow, too vague, and has jeopardised its future, according to a damning report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

The MPs found that the government has consistently failed to recognise the size of the task facing the sector, and that its responses – including a £1.57bn support package and a five-step roadmap for reopening – could have saved jobs and cultural institutions from closure if they had been released sooner and with more clarity.

“The failure of the government to act quickly has jeopardised the future of institutions that are part of our national life and the livelihoods of those who work for them,” said the committee’s chair, Conservative MP Julian Knight.

“We can see the damaging effect that has had on the robustness and ability of these areas to recover from the Covid crisis. The £1.57bn support is welcome but for many help has come too late.”

The report criticised culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s roadmap for when theatres will reopen as being “vague and slow-coming”, and said the support package came too late for many in the sector. According to the MPs, it will not be enough to stop mass redundancies, such as those seen at the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House.

The report said it was “regrettable” the emergency package took so long to be announced as redundancies could have been avoidable if the government had acted sooner. They said the package’s success depended on “how long institutions remain closed or subject to social distancing”, with many venues requiring 60-80% capacity to make them financially viable.

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The committee’s recommendations include extending the furlough scheme, which has helped stop redundancies in cultural institutions, until mass gatherings are allowed. It also called for continued support for freelancers, clear timelines for reopening, and “long-term structural support” – including tax relief and a VAT cut.

Contemporary music, circus, amateur theatre and other areas of culture which have traditionally struggled to get public funding must be able to access the emergency arts package, according to the MPs, who said the support “cannot be limited to organisations with a track record of public funding”.

“We urge the government to act on our recommendations, to recognise the value these sectors provide and imagine how much bleaker the outcome for all without their survival,” Knight added.

The committee said the loss of cultural infrastructure puts the government’s “levelling-up agenda” at risk and could “reverse decades of progress in cultural provision and diversity and inclusion that we cannot afford to lose”.

The report drew attention to the fact 93% of grassroots venues say they face permanent closure, with 70% of theatres and production companies at risk of going out of business by the end of this year. The first 12 weeks of lockdown were estimated to cost the theatre sector more than £300m in lost income.

MPs also warned that the current state of the recorded music industry means musicians cannot earn enough from streaming services such as Spotify to build a career, and are instead dependent on live gigs for their income. They called on ministers to investigate how the market for recorded music is operating in the era of streaming to ensure that musicians “are receiving a fair reward”.

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