Saturday 25 July 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Serious Questions for Oliver Dowden and the DCMS

On the 5th July when the government announced its £1.57 billion arts support package I honestly hoped it would mean I could stop having to ask questions of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden. Sadly here we are three weeks later and there are again reasons to be seriously concerned.

Overnight on the 22nd/23rd July the Commons Select Committee for the DCMS published a report on the DCMS's (& to an extent the wider government's) response to Covid. It's an admirable document, from a Committee with a Tory majority, which lays out in detail the devastating impact which Covid has had on the cultural sector (Section 3). It makes a series of detailed recommendations for assistance to the sector (Conclusions & Recommendations, Sections 10-19), many of which have been proposed during the crisis by the sector itself. Among these are a call for extensions to the furlough scheme for these sectors where recovery will be delayed, extending the cut in VAT on ticket sales, and ensuring financial aid is not confined only to those previously receiving subsidies.

Equally significantly the Committee makes some criticisms of the DCMS and its ministerial team (the quotations are all from the Report, link above). The following on the £1.57bn aid package is particularly notable:

"On announcing the package, the Government stated that "further details will be set out when the scheme opens for applications in the coming weeks". This had echoes of the Government's previous announcement of £750 million in support of charities: despite these funds being announced on 8 April, eligibility criteria and application guidance was not published for the £200 million of it distributed by the National Lottery Community Fund until 22 May, and by 3 July it was reported that only 1% of that money had actually been paid out to charities. Moreover it is unclear how the support will benefit those individuals and small companies in the creative supply chains: on 7 July, the Minister for Digital and Culture told MPs that the best way to support freelancers would be getting institutions back up and running; however, this ambition is directly undermined by the Government's own restrictions around reopening." (Section 3, Para 58)

It further notes that "it is also regrettable that it took so long for the package to be announced, as the uncertainty inevitably led to closures and redundancies in the cultural sector that might otherwise have been avoided" (Para 59).

However, there are equally places where the Report chooses not to comment on what seem to me pretty evident ministerial failings. In Para 61 the Report discusses the proposals for further tax relief and in Para 62 that for a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. At the end it notes "In early June, the Minister for Digital and Culture [Caroline Dineage] confirmed that DCMS was considering the CIPS and tax relief measures, and "thrashing out with the Treasury right now which will work, which can be delivered at pace and which can be delivered without massive overheads."" We are about to enter the last week of July and nothing has happened on either of these points. How long does it take for DCMS/Treasury to thrash this out? As so often during this crisis the government has failed to give a clear timeline by which it can be measured, and meanwhile, as we'll see, the crisis in the sector continues.

In Section 5 of the report, "The role of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport" there are some further telling nuggets on the Department/Government's handling of the crisis in relation to these sectors. The Festival Sector Bodies submitted that "there is a sense that once issues have been escalated to Ministerial level, Government has not taken meaningful action to protect our sector and has not made any sector specific interventions" and describes the Government rejection of measures to change requirements around refunds as "perfunctory at best considering it [the measures] was the culmination of eight weeks of discussion and presenting data and evidence" (Paragraph 111).

Paragraph 112 in this section is especially revealing of Departmental weakness and buck passing and deserves to be quoted at length: "We were initially reassured by the Secretary of State that he had "not reached the end of the road" in making representations to the Treasury about the potential flexibility in the self-employment scheme; however, in a follow up letter, he rowed back from this pledge, stating that "HMT has difficult decisions to make and will have to draw a line somewhere on each of its schemes". Likewise, the Minister for Digital and Culture told us that although solutions to address gaps in provision have been proposed, "they are not without risk and they are not without fraud potential. That is why Treasury has found that they are not workable or are expensive to administer."" Did the Minister provide any evidence to support these assertions? If so it is not indicated in the report. The report continues: "When we asked the Director for the Covid-19 Economic Response and Arts, Heritage and Tourism, Emma Squire, whether DCMS has been effective in advocating on behalf of its sectors to the Treasury, she replied: "Our focus has been on sharing all of the evidence we have been gathering with the Treasury on where the gaps are, rather than trying to design solutions to those gaps." Yet, the Minister for Digital and Culture also told us that DCMS has "found it quite difficult to get robust data" on the scale of those gaps in eligibility for Government support." This hardly sounds like a Ministry addressing a crisis effectively.

The Report's final conclusion on government handling of the crisis in relation to these sectors hedges its position. While accepting that "the government has been too slow to respond to the needs of sectors" covered by DCMS it rather absolves the Department itself by arguing that it "has been hampered by its overall spending power, a lack of robust data on ineligibility for support and a fundamental misunderstanding across Government of the needs, structures and vital social contribution of sectors such as the creative industries." I might find this more convincing if it was actually clear what DCMS has been doing instead of dealing in a timely way with any of these issues since March. Or if DCMS (or indeed anybody in the government) were actually prepared to concede there was anything they had mishandled. Or if government showed any sign of learning from its mistakes which is of course rather difficult as long as it refuses to admit that there have been any (Johnson's interview with the BBC on Friday made a tiny but hardly sufficient step in that direction).

All this is far from academic. The £1.57bn support package already came too late for many individuals - both freelancers and permanent employees - with redundancy processes already commenced by a number of venues and venue closues already having occurred. This stark reality should have made clear to the DCMS and the Treasury that the support package needed to be swiftly implemented. Instead, what has happened? Three weeks of silence, during which redundancies have started up again with several venue managements noting that a key factor was the inability to get any clarity from DCMS about the scheme (examples: this statement from Sheffield Theatres (para 2), from York Theatres (para 3), and the remarks from the Horsecross Arts Chief Executive at the very end of this story). Once again, as on earlier occasions during the crisis, the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden disappeared from view until yesterday, when he popped up with one of his defensive tweets. He provided a link to a "shorthand story" which showcased the many expressions of praise delivered to him and the ministry after the aid package was announced on the 5th July and then stated "We'll be releasing details of the process for applications within days - imp we get this right to get help to where its needed quickly". Quite frankly, this will not do. It is unacceptable that three weeks have passed since the original announcement and the application process is still not ready - did the Department prepare nothing in advance of that original announcement? Help is clearly not getting where it's needed quickly for either freelancers or organisations as the further announcements of redundancies show. Finally, I would suggest that it does not show the right tone to be retweeting 3 week old praise of yourself and your department to try to deflect from the fact that you have failed to follow up promptly and effectively on the promises for which the praise was received.

Meanwhile the media has continued to fail to hold the government effectively to account on these issues. The arts pages remain full of reports of what you can consume in lockdown. The DCMS Select Committee report got a few write-ups on the morning of release and has since disappeared from view - I have seen no evidence that any journalist asked the Secretary of State or the Ministry to respond to the specific criticisms in the report, and no public sign that Dowden or his Ministry have bothered even to note the existence of the report. This isn't good enough. Both Dowden and the Ministry should be asked: Do they accept that the report's criticisms are justified? If so, what steps are being taken to ensure such criticisms don't arise in the future and how will progress in achieving those steps be measured? If they do not accept that the criticisms are justified, why not? The members of the Select Committee should also be asked what steps they will take to try to ensure their report actually produces change.

The failures of Dowden and the DCMS are a microcosm of the larger failures of the government during this crisis. They should be held to account. At times in these blogs and in my questions to them on social media (all ignored) I feel as if I am shouting into a void. I work in a very heavily regulated sector - I fail to see why government departments should not be subject to similar scrutiny. In particular, the DCMS and Dowden persistently fail to give clear public timeframes and outcomes for policies on which they can be measured and judged.

A further point that mitigates against the Select Committee report actually becoming the basis for change is the timing of its release (this also applied to a similarly critical report from the Public Accounts Committee, which again has a Tory majority). Parliament is now in recess till September, so Dowden cannot be called before MPs to answer questions about the criticisms in the report. By September an already overlooked document will, one imagines, have vanished without trace. These are not processes operating effectively to hold the executive to account.

After I wrote the first draft of this post, a further announcement came this morning. Dowden and the DCMS announced that the first £2.25million of the support package would be used to support "up to 150 [grassroots live music] venues". As usual this press release provokes as many questions as it answers and, as usual, the press doesn't seem to have asked them. Has it already been decided how the money is to be distributed? If so why is that process not public? If not, what is the application process, and why has it not been released alongside this announcement? And if there is an application process, what systems have been put in place to enable the government to meet the press release's aspiration "that funding will be received by organisations within the next few weeks"? There's also that little matter of the "150 venues" - it is completely unclear what the basis for that number is - has the government already got a list, if so why isn't it published and the basis of its construction explained? If not, what is the basis for the number? The press release includes a number of statements from individuals in the live music sector praising the announcement. Perhaps they have been given more details in private. But if I were them, I would look at the experience of the broader arts sector in the three weeks since the larger support package was announced and demand clear written guarantees of what is going to happen from Dowden and the DCMS, to the delivery of which they can then be held.

The plain fact is that it is not enough to promise financial aid, welcome though that promise is, but that aid must reach the sector promptly if it is to do any good. Government promises should also be accompanied by clear public timelines and measures by which progress is to be measured - how else can we, the public, or the press effectively hold them to account? As Oliver Dowden was at pains to remind us, all those of us who love the arts or whose livelihood depends upon it were indeed very thankful when news of the arts support package was announced three weeks ago. But the sector cannot survive on goodwill. There are clear ways by which the government might sustain that goodwill. At the moment it is, regrettably, not taking them.

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