The Coalition and the Arts: culture and revolvers

21 November 2012 By John Medhurst In the 1930s leading Nazi Hermann Goering once said: “When I hear the word Culture, I reach for my revolver”. So, apparently, does the UK’s Coalition government.

Commentary icon21 Nov 2012|Comment

21 November 2012

By John Medhurst

In the 1930s leading Nazi Hermann Goering once said: “When I hear the word Culture, I reach for my revolver”. So, apparently, does the UK’s Coalition government.

Following the success of the 2012 Olympic Games, over 400 staff working for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) who put together the successful bid for London to host the Games have received their personal Olympics legacy – they have all been given “At Risk” of redundancy notices.

In the post-war years every European country created a culture ministry of some kind, to act as the voice and advocate of the arts and culture within government, to make policy, to direct spending to facilitate arts/culture, to oversee new projects, and to promote the country’s artistic and cultural life on the international stage.

The UK was backward in establishing such a ministry, only creating the Department for National Heritage (a name which itself looked backwards) in 1992 – over 30 years after its French counterpart. This became the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in 1997. Since then DCMS has made a real difference in acting as an enabler and promoter of art, culture and sports policy in the UK.

It co-ordinated the successful bid for the 2012 Olympics and oversaw the Olympic Delivery Authority and the Paralympics. It has led the way in creating a Digital Economy. It is responsible for historic buildings, the Royal Parks, and for all state ceremonial and royal occasions (such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee). It provides humanitarian assistance in the event of disaster, and co-ordinated the government response to the 7/7 bombings. It oversees all creative industries including advertising, Design, Fashion, Music and Film. It has been an outstanding Whitehall success story on a relatively small budget and staff headcount.

The returns are clear. The culture sector accounts for 10% of the UK’s GDP, and for every £1 the government spends on culture the UK gets £2 back. The British film industry alone contributes £1.2bn to the exchequer. Benefits in terms of tourism, education and health are vast. At the last social survey, over 4 million people from under-privileged households were able to enjoy the cultural resources which DCMS oversees, and DCMS’s funding of sport generates long term economic value in terms of avoided NHS costs and improved quality of life.

None of this concerns the government. DCMS’s budget has been cut by at least 25%, meaning a drastic reduction in subsidies to cultural bodies. The budget of the Arts Council has been cut by 30%. Bodies such as the UK Film Council, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Theatres Trust were abolished and their functions transferred to DCMS. Despite this increase in work, DCMS staff levels have reduced from 520 to 400 in the last 18 months.

Now the government wants to cut that further. With no strategic planning the former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt decided on an arbitrary 50% cut to the DCMS admin budget simply in order to demonstrate how “lean” he could make his department, and so no sooner had the Olympics finished than DCMS staff were all issued “At Risk” notices – which means they could be made redundant in the near future. The department aims to shed about 25% of its remaining staff, but has yet to decide who. It has asked for expressions of interest in voluntary exits, and will apparently select who remains through a rough and ready process of checking skills and “psychometric testing” – although such testing is a highly dubious procedure and is open to challenge on equality grounds.

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) Branch Chair at DCMS, John Baldock, says “Staff morale here is at rock bottom and there is a lot of concern over job security. There has been a lot of talk about Olympics legacy, but the only legacy many DCMS staff may get is the dole”.

Since the announcement PCS has campaigned hard to save members jobs, by highlighting the many successes of DCMS. The message has been taken to parliament, and MP’s have been asked to sign an Early Day Motion in support of DCMS. Unions are also concerned that the recent transferral of equality policy to DCMS (with some held at MoJ and BIS) will now be adversely affected, given that there are fewer staff to handle an increased workload. With savage cuts to the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (now a shadow of its former self, with its advice helpline outsourced to a contractor that promises a cheaper service and doesn’t recognise trade unions) vital equality initiatives will wither and die.

Those who share PCS’s concern at the scale of these cuts can support the campaign by writing to their MP asking for their intervention or by writing to the new DCMS Secretary of State Maria Miller urging her to review the decision of her predecessor and provide the funding necessary to avoid the cuts.

If this goes ahead, only a rump department will remain. DCMS HQ in Cockspur St, London, will close, and the surviving 200 or so staff will operate from a floor in the Treasury Buildings. If, as many suspect, DCMS is then wound up, that would leave the UK as the only European Country without a culture Ministry. This would be fitting, as the government’s cuts to the culture budget (and resultant cuts in regional provision, with closures of local museums, libraries and sports facilities) will slowly denude the UK of any culture but that of expensive, elitist institutions based in London. For a Cabinet of millionaires, that is not an issue. For the rest of us, it should be.

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John Medhurst

John Medhurst John Medhurst John Medhurst is a Policy Officer with the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS). Prior to this he was a civil servant for 22 years and a CPSA/PCS lay activist in Jobcentre Plus, HSE and DCMS. He was HSE London HQ Branch Secretary, DCMS National Branch Chair, and a member of the PCS National Executive Committee. He is PCS representative on the EPSU Public Services Network and has been published in the Journal of Contemporary European Research (JCER).