Nadine Dorries hits out at Arts Council England over cuts to opera funding

Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries has hit out at “political bias” by arms-length bodies during an attack on Arts Council England for cutting funds for English National Opera.

Arts Council England (Ace) has said it would remove the opera company from its grant portfolio, which equates to a cut in annual funding of £12.6 million.

Writing on Twitter, Ms Dorries accused Ace of having “pulled this as a stunt to try reverse #levellingup and funding being transferred to poorer communities in the north of England.

“It’s lazy and political. Their money comes from you, the tax payer via Gov but only they get to decide where it is spent.”

But Ace has pointed to Ms Dorries’ instruction when she was culture secretary to reduce its funding for London and to disburse money elsewhere.

Ms Dorries said on Twitter: “There is something fundamentally wrong with arms length bodies such as ⁦(Ace) being given large amounts of public / taxpayer funding over which the Secretary of State with departmental responsibility has no say and no control.

“The public don’t pay their taxes for unelected individuals on generous salaries to sit in swanky offices deciding how they think it should be spent. The reason it happens is to ensure decisions taken are not made with undue political bias.

“However, this reasoning is now nonsensical as political bias in the decision making process is rife. I saw it over and over when I was a health minister and I had to deal with it as (culture secretary).

“This is not the fault of civil servants, who have to pick up the fallout.

“And who also have to oversee a difficult process. It is a process which is now openly abused.”

English National Opera (ENO) has been offered £17 million over three years, conditional on relocating outside of London.

ENO chief executive Stuart Murphy reportedly told The Stage earlier this week that it now has three options, to relocate, reshape or close, but that the decision would ultimately be in the hands of Ace.

Ms Dorries resigned as culture secretary two months before Ace announced its funding decisions last November, having held the post for about a year before resigning when Liz Truss was set to take over as prime minister.

In a letter to Ace, sent in February last year, Ms Dorries said of arts funding: “For too long there has been an imbalance in funding – with a large proportion of the pot going to London-based organisations compared to those based in other parts of the country”.

She added: “I am instructing the Arts Council to significantly increase investment outside of London over this spending review period, and to rebalance funding between regions to achieve a more even distribution of funding, including through a reduction in the Arts Council’s London budget.”

In her thread on Twitter criticising Ace, Ms Dorries said she was not a fan of opera when she became culture secretary but “turned that around in a flash”.

She said organisations like ENO “reach out into deprived communities” and “have been the front runners in levelling up for a very long time”.

A spokesperson for Ace said: “We have delivered on the instruction given to us by the Government in February 2022 to disburse additional funding we received to benefit areas outside of London and to reduce the budget for London.

“We were clear with organisations throughout the funding application process that a smaller budget for London would result in difficult decisions.

“Each year, over the next three years, £43.5 million will be invested in 78 levelling up for culture towns and cities, and £294 million will go to 708 organisations outside the capital, ensuring that more people in more places will find fantastic, fulfilling art and culture on their doorsteps.”