Civic Inquiry: Interview with Jen Harvie

In putting together this issue on the ‘civic’, we were keen to include a very concrete example of an interaction between a civic institution and the theatre. In the spring of 2017, Professor Jen Harvie worked as a specialist advisor on an inquiry into skills for theatre for the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications. In this interview, Harvie speaks about the processes and procedures that go into an inquiry like this, and some of the specific challenges she faced. Some of these are ideological, some very practical or circumstantial. For example, during the inquiry, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election which materially affected the outcome. Harvie details both the opportunities and limits of this particular civic process. The resulting report ‘Skills for theatre: Developing the pipeline of talent’ can be found here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201617/ldselect/ldcomuni/170/17009.htm

 

Johanna Linsley: How did the committee come to undertake this inquiry?

Jen Harvie: Most of that pre-dates me being there. There were some intellectual and professional reasons, and pragmatic reasons. Pragmatically they knew that they should do a relatively short inquiry because they wanted to do something that could complete before the summer term, so that gave less than two months. I assume that a lot of the provocation had to do with the public discourse around especially BAME actors and exclusion from acting industries, and also the dominance of upper-middle class and privately educated people in the industry, especially in acting. The committee is committed to communications, and obviously not just theatre, but they decided to select a single cultural industry to focus on as a case study to try to illuminate the bigger picture of skills for cultural industries. I am making certain presumptions about how they came to that in the first place, but there was an understanding that there were problems in what ended up being called the flow through the pipeline of talent – who has access and how that’s supported or isn’t supported.

JL: How does such an inquiry work, and what is the intended impact?

JH: What happens in an inquiry is there’s a panel, and the panel is chaired by somebody on a rotating basis from the House of Lords. All the committees in the House of Lords are cross party. So, there was a bishop, there were people who were affiliated with the Lib Dems, the Labour party and Conservatives, and there were people who were non-aligned. There were a number of people who were former MPs, and then there were people from industry like Genista McIntosh who was executive director at the National Theatre for a long time, and the filmmaker, Beeban Kidron, who did the film version of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and whose husband is a playwright. There was also Baroness Benjamin, or Floella Benjamin, who was a children’s television presenter.

The panel has a closed meeting that is not recorded or publically disseminated where they agree some of the terms of the investigation. Lots of the legwork is done by the clerk, who contacts people to be witnesses. There were four or five weeks of witness testimony, and the sessions are mostly made up of members of the panel asking questions of the witnesses. Some of the witnesses we had included the chair of SCUDD [the Standing Committee of Undergraduate Drama Departments] and his equivalent from practical and technical disciplines. There was the artistic director from the Tricycle, and a representative from the Young Vic. The committee made a trip to the Royal Court. Timing is really a challenge – there isn’t a lot of capacity, and it’s like, we need somebody tomorrow. Nevertheless, there were some really interesting witnesses.

So, what contribution does the inquiry make? For one thing, all of those testimonies are in the public domain, so everything is available on television on the day – it’s live feed – and all of the transcripts are also available from the House of Lords website. There’s an accumulation of evidence and expertise. That happens over several weeks, and then the clerk takes the lead on drafting a report, which I collaborated on. The report is principally evidence, drawn from what people have said over the course of the enquiry. This gets distributed to the committee and goes through a series of iterations. Long story short, the report gets published and normally it has recommendations, and normally the relevant part of government would have to respond. And normally, in my understanding, a minister would attend a future meeting of the committee and respond to the report, and also make a written response. Unfortunately, partly because of the snap election, all of the recommendations that were drafted for this report were removed because the committee felt that they couldn’t agree to the recommendations without further discussion and there was no time for further discussion. So that means there’s no ask for anybody to respond, because there were no recommendations.

I said to the committee that I was disappointed that they didn’t feel they could support the recommendations, because I thought there were some really good and important recommendations, and I personally feel that although a lot of that is implicit in the report, it’s nevertheless possible not to read it that way, if it’s not explicit about what the recommendations are.

JL: What were the major points of the inquiry, and was there a general consensus about their interpretation, in spite of the lack of recommendations?

JH: One of the strongest lines of inquiry had to do with education at school level, so up to 18. There was a lot of discussion about how much support there was in primary, secondary and college education in the arts, and there was certainly debate about this. We had an MP from the culture sector who came and robustly in his terms defended the record in terms of student uptake of arts subjects. I didn’t agree with his reading of the data and I think that in any case, there was a general understanding by the committee that there was less emphasis on arts subjects in the evolving curriculum in school up to 18, and that was having damaging effects on the pipeline – so who flows up by taking those subjects.

It was partly about curriculum, but also about general support for things like going to the theatre. So, unless you’re exposed, you might not imagine it as a possibility. There was also a big emphasis on career support, and a feeling that there was more work that could happen around good career support to help people see the diverse range of future careers they might have and how to get there through routes of further education. So the biggest emphasis was on children and young people, and how important it was to support the arts and engagement with the arts for young people in order to generate future generations of people who think that they can do those things and know that those things exist.

I would have liked to put more things in that asked government to do things, like to try to mandate certain kinds of engagement with the arts in schools. I recognise that’s really challenging for schools that do not have enough resource. If the school doesn’t have enough resource, how do they do that? They have to make really challenging decisions.

Ultimately, both Conservative and Labour members of the panel said they did not feel they could support the recommendations that we had with the time we had available. So, I did feel like I really couldn’t presume according to party what people’s attitudes were.

I hope that if there had been longer, we would have published a report with recommendations, and rather than them getting diluted to something everyone could agree with, there might have been some people who were prepared to say, I don’t agree with that, but I’ll give it you if I can have ‘X’, or I’ll say I just can’t put my name to this. I don’t know. But we didn’t have the capacity because of the timing. Which felt like a convenient excuse, sadly.

JL: What was your practical participation? In other words, how did your job function?

JH: I was surprised by my job in certain ways. My role was principally consultative and most of the consultation I did was with the clerk. Before the committee started its inquiry, I read a draft of the terms and conditions of the inquiry and gave some feedback on that, and I read a list of proposed witnesses and gave feedback on that and suggested other areas or that kind of thing. The questions for witnesses and panel members’ briefing notes were generally drafted by the clerk; I would respond to those questions and briefing notes and add more. I also read a draft of the report and gave feedback on it. I did some additional research, on tax breaks for theatre and a couple of other areas.

Whenever there were witnesses I wasn’t allowed to talk – I’m not a member of the committee, but simply an advisor to the committee. In some respects, I was there in a similar capacity to the clerks, who are civil servants – we’re not appointed to the House of Lords. We’re supporting that committee’s work. I sat next to the Chair and I think if there had been some major point that was incorrect, I could have informed him. I think I was also supposed to prevent the committee from making any big gaffes, like getting their information wrong.

JL: There was a snap election called during the inquiry. How did this affect things?

JH: In a way, I wasn’t prepared for it to have changed the outcome as significantly as it did. Certainly, for the civil servants I was working with, it really made a difference for them, because the project that they’d been working on was really put in jeopardy, and they do a lot of the leg work. And then so much is unclear. If there’s a different government, the whole agenda could change. In terms of the committee’s work, it meant we were going to have one last meeting instead of having two last meetings. There’s the purdah period before the election when nothing is allowed to be published which might influence the election. So not only did the report need to be finalised but it needed to go to press immediately, like within two days of this last meeting, whereas if it hadn’t, if it had just been the summer recess, it could have just been published over the course of the summer, as long as it was agreed beforehand.

I went into that last meeting expecting us to ratify this second draft of the report. But that wasn’t what happened. And maybe if I had more experience in that context, I would have been less naïve. Also, maybe things would have been different if who was attending that meeting had been different – not everybody was there, and there might have been advocates who might have been more aggressive or assertive. So how did the snap election affect things? I think it is principally responsible for the withdrawal of most of the recommendations. It’s a real pity because it’s a significant loss of impact.1

I’m also trying to answer the bigger question which I think you’re asking, which is what is the civic function of something like this? Does it work? There was a roller coaster I went through where I was really impressed and inspired and in awe, actually – really pleasantly surprised by the hard work [of the committee, civil servants and others working in the House of Lords]. I was also aware of the privilege that allowed the committee members to be there. They’re paid, but they’re wealthy enough to be there in the first place and they’ve had extraordinary careers, so the exclusivity was very apparent. However, I also felt like I was seeing what good philanthropic labour can do. If you have the privilege of doing philanthropic labour, it can be amazing. Then I saw, however, the challenges of trying to do cross-party collaborative work – that if there was stress in the structure, like timing, that it might not work very well.

 

Jen Harvie is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary University of London. Among her publications are Fair Play – Art Performance and Neoliberalism (2013) and The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver (2015; with Weaver). Her podcast Stage Left features interviews with performance makers.

Homepage image: House of Lords Chamber <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:House_of_Lords_Chamber.png>

 

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Notes:

  1. In another part of the interview, Harvie spoke about the inquiry in relation to other initiatives around the same topic, e.g. a Labour Party inquiry called ‘Acting Up’ (http://www.tom-watson.com/actingup) and an Equity campaign around the minimum wage called ‘Professionally Made Professionally Paid’ (https://www.equity.org.uk/campaigns/professionally-made-professionally-paid/). She expressed the hope that the Lords inquiry might be part of a critical mass of effort that can produced longer term change.

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