Why Cameron must not abolish the culture department

The abolition of the DCMS would be a disaster for the creative industries.

As we approach the Olympics, rumours that the government is planning to abolish the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – the creative industries' place at the cabinet table (as well as heritage, the arts, libraries, sport, the media and tourism to name just a few) – are becoming more widespread, and more grounded.

Anyone who works in the arts and the creative industries understands their worth – not only in terms of the value they provide to us as consumers, but the value they add to our economy; 1.5 million jobs and more than 10% of the UK’s exports – this is not a sector which should be underestimated or sidelined. A recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs claimed that closing DCMS would save £1.6bn, a figure which will appeal to this government as they plan policy based on short-term savings, rather than long-term strategy. This figure is based almost wholly on funding which is distributed to other organisations such as the Arts Council. To make these savings in their entirety would mean abolishing schemes such as free museum entry.

The other, more likely, option which it is rumoured the government is actively considering, would be the redistribution of the elements of DCMS to other, beefed-up, Whitehall departments: the creative industries to Business, Innovation and Skills, Sport to Health or Education and Heritage perhaps to Communities and Local Government. To do this would be very, very short sighted.

The arts and creative industries provide both massive cultural and economic benefit. A decade of free entry to our museums and galleries has seen visitor numbers more than double from seven million to 18 million a year; a child at school in Britain today rightly has free access to learn about our important heritage and history.

Through the flagship creative partnership scheme, which Labour introduced, a young person had the opportunity to develop their creative skills and learn about work in the creative industries; a scheme which has been cut by this government. We are now able to enjoy festivals which embrace our unique identity, and our ability to lead in the world of culture – the Manchester International Festival, Animation Exeter, Sheffield Doc/Fest; all of these are the result of the championing of the DCMS during the Labour years.

Labour also understands that the arts and creative industries more than earn their worth. Free entry to museums has meant that not only have visitor numbers increased, they also earn Britain over £1bn a year in revenue from overseas tourists.

Creative industries rely on three elements which, although not perfect, were successfully fine-tuned in the last decade; a strong intellectual property framework (although this could be made stronger), a wide variety of skills with leading universities such as Central St Martin’s and the University of Brighton, and incentives to encourage exports, and inward investment. Fashion, for example, recruits heavily from UK graduates and contributes nearly £21bn to the UK economy. Since 1999, this vibrant sector has grown by an average annual rate of 3.3% and shows no sign of slowing down, despite the double-dip recession made in Downing Street.

But our position as a world leader becomes threatened without a department which champions the arts and creative industries and represents them at the government’s top table. We have already seen the disregard in which David Cameron and George Osborne hold these important sectors with the budget announcement on the heritage tax, and the misguided philanthropy cap. Thanks to a strong campaign from arts and heritage organisations, the latter has now been one of many U-turns, and the former has seen a partial U-turn but still leaves 93% of listed buildings in danger. The proof remains – we cannot allow the creative industries, the arts, heritage, libraries, tourism, sport and the media to be without a champion at the heart of government. 

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Harriet Harman, raised concerns at the potential abolition of the Department in April this year, at which point Number 10 stated that “it did not recognise” the reports, and yet these rumours persist. If David Cameron is serious about the arts and creative Industries, he should give a categorical assurance that he will not abolish this important department - unlikely to be forthcoming in the short term.

Last week, Labour held a reception with over 150 figures from the creative industries to demonstrate the immense talent and potential which these industries hold. The reception was attended by not only the shadow DCMS team, but also members of the shadow treasury, business, innovation and skills and education teams. Hundreds of people are feeding into our report A Vision for Jobs and Growth in the Creative Industries which focuses on what the government should be doing to provide much needed support – not one person has advocated the abolition of DCMS.

We know that the success of these vibrant industries relies not just on the continued existence of the department, but also on a department which champions it across government, and fights its corner. The abolition of DCMS would be a disaster for one of Britain’s true success stories, and we must not allow that to happen.

Will Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's department survive the reshuffle? Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.