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Hansard 23 March: Column 1143 ...
Hansard 23 March: Column 1143

The government was 'gravely concerned' about reports of claims by Westminster City Council's arts council chairman that arts funding was being slashed because of the cost of asylum seekers, peers were told yesterday.

DETR spokeswoman Josie Farrington, replying to Lord Strabolgi, agreed costs of asylum seekers could be recovered from central government. An additional£30m had been allocated to support arrangements for asylum seekers, particularly in the most affected areas, such as Dover and London. 'Local authorities will be able to recover the costs of accomodating and supporting asylum seekers. It would appear to be a tragic juxtaposition of two competing claims on a false premise', she said.

The minister told the Earl of Clancarty, who asked if the government would intervene to help prevent Westminster council's cuts to arts and community, that the government had no intention of interfering with these decisions.

She added: 'In areas where there is no statutory obligation for a local authority to provide funding - for example, Westminster City Council - the government can offer an opportunity for a partnership approach. For instance, the coming year will see the Arts Council and the London arts board spending between them£36m in Westminster. But ultimately it is for the council taxpayers in Westminster to make their views known when they believe that the council is not getting its priorities right...particulalrly in this case when reductions of such magnitude will have a grave effect on services'.

Baroness Farrington said some areas of local authority provision must be a matter for local decision. The government could not be held to account for not imposing their views on every council and then criticised for running a nanny state.

She told crossbencher and former Labour cabinet minister Lord Marsh, who said it was a matter purely for the city council: 'In a democracy we are free to express views on decisions taken, albeit by legitimately autonomous democratic authorities. I believe that for an authority to slash funding for the Serpentine Gallery, the Photographers' Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the orchestra of St John's, Smith Square, which must offer solace to people working in Smith Square [where Conservative Party headquarters are located] - and to have a situation in which we are not even allowed to comment is asking too much...

'Grant cuts made in a year when an additional£5m has been given to Westminster City Council is not the kind of political action that one can expect to go unchallenged'.

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