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Pugh's handling of arts sector was ill-judged.

Byline: By Martin Shipton Western Mail

Chief reporter Martin Shipton explains why the Stephens Report could be Alun Pugh's ministerial swansong THE National Assembly has had its ups and downs over the past seven and a half years, but the only Minister who has managed to offend most of the practitioners in his own sphere of responsibility is Alun Pugh.

Elan Closs Stephens, who chaired the Arts Review, made it clear that she and her colleagues were not in the business of apportioning blame.

But there are occasions when making judgments on political performance is appropriate, and Mr Pugh's ill-judged handling of the arts community is one of those.

He decided, without consultation, that six big arts companies should no longer be funded via the Arts Council of Wales, but directly by himself.

In doing so, he opened up an inevitable hornet's nest of opposition from arts practitioners who jealously guard their independence from political control.

The point of the arm's length principle is to ensure that politicians - most of whom do not have artistic sensibilities - are not allowed a say in which artists should receive public funding, and how much.

By suggesting that this long-established principle should be jettisoned, Mr Pugh invited criticism that he was seeking to introduce political control into an area where it was entirely inappropriate. His decision to effectively sack Geraint Talfan Davies, the highly respected chair of the Arts Council, appeared to confirm fears that anyone who failed to toe Mr Pugh's particular line would suffer. It made no difference that Mr Davies had the confidence of the arts sector: he had to be removed because he had dared to question the Minister's dogmatic approach.

For public consumption, however, Mr Pugh devised another justification for the steps he was taking. He claimed that not enough was being done to spread accessibility to the arts across Wales, and particularly to underprivileged communities and groups. In seeking to advance this position, Mr Pugh ignored the commendable and demonstrable steps taken by arts companies to widen access - cheap opera tickets from the WNO, for example, introduced during Mr Davies's tenure as chair.

Mr Pugh also misquoted research commissioned by the Arts Council, making the elementary mistake of confusing attendance figures with participation figures.

But as material subsequently released to the Western Mail under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act made clear, Mr Pugh's real objection to Mr Davies was not that he was preventing poor people from attending theatrical performances (which he wasn't), but that he had strongly defended the arm's length principle.

Unfortunately for Mr Pugh, his party had lost its majority at the Assembly after Peter Law's defection.

That meant that he could not push his direct funding idea through the Assembly, which he most certainly would have done if he had been able to muster the votes.

Instead the opposition parties agreed that a panel of experts should be established to recommend a way forward.

The Arts Review's conclusions represent a humiliation for Alun Pugh because the arm's length principle is being maintained and direct funding will not happen.

Instead, in time-honoured fashion a new committee - or in this case a 'strategy board' - will be set up, largely, no doubt, to save the Minister's face.

Except that by the time the new system is brought in, Alun Pugh is likely to have lost his seat.

Instead of being Culture Minister, the cycling enthusiast could well be running a bike shop.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 30, 2006
Words:578
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