John McDonnell MP
Let me thank and congratulate the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for how they have jointly championed the sector on a cross-party basis. They have raised the issues of the lack of support for freelancers, the touring threat as a result of Brexit, and insurance. I fully support them in that. I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to sit down with Equity, the trade union, to discuss a number of the issues, as the union has been developing solutions to them.
I am also a member of the PCS trade union parliamentary group. PCS represents members working in museums, the royal palaces, galleries and historical sites, and is now yet again faced with large numbers of job threats.
The Government have brought forward financial support, as we have heard, with £1.5 billion and an additional £400 million in the Budget, but as the Chair of the Select Committee has said, that is less than half what is needed. It is taking too long to arrive and too long to distribute, and as a result we heard this week that six out of 10 museums are fearful for their future. Charlotte Higgins, the chief culture writer for The Guardian, summed it up exactly right:
“the government has not exactly abandoned the arts so much as behaved in a hesitant, inconsistent and basically incompetent manner easily recognisable from its approach to Covid-19 as a whole.”
What we need now is a longer-term strategy, as a number of Members have said, because I am fearful.
Let us take the example of the National Gallery. PCS represents members there, and some of the services have been privatised. Securitas, the private company that provides security and front-of-house services at the National Gallery, has announced a 20% cut in staffing. Compulsory redundancies are not being ruled out, and this is an institution that has received Government support. That comes on top of redundancies that took place in 2019, when there was a restructuring. It is proposing the temporary closure of some of the rooms and putting an emphasis on paid exhibitions rather than free access. There is a view that when these cuts are rolled out, they will put the safety of the collection and visitors at risk.
What has also angered staff is that, as a result of the privatisation, it is the lowest-paid staff who are being laid off or having their pay cut, as well as a higher proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff. In addition, the National Gallery spending several million pounds on extensive refurbishment of the front entrance to the building is not going down well with staff or supporters. It has to be remembered that those staff who have been privatised receive only a quarter of what they would have received in redundancy pay if they were employed by the gallery. The union will oppose those cuts and seek to negotiate them—of course it will—but this emphasises the need for a longer-term strategy.
We have all acknowledged in the debate so far that the recovery in this sector will take longer than originally expected—it will take the next few years, if not longer—so there needs to be a longer-term plan. We urge the Secretary of State to bring together all the stakeholders in this sector with the trade unions and management of the galleries, museums and sites to ensure that we discuss what is really needed, plan the investment that is needed and its roll-out and distribution, and ensure that it goes as rapidly as possible to secure this sector, which does not just bring income to this country but improves the quality of all our lives.