Friday, 9 December 2016

Curiosity being quashed

Fifteen years ago, the then Labour government enabled free entry to Britain’s national museums. The policy came into practice on December 1st, 2001.

Visitor numbers at the museums that once charged have rocketed by over 200% from just 7 million in 2001 to nearly 22 million in 2016. Some of the museums – like the Royal Armouries in London, Leeds and Hampshire have seen visitor numbers rise by over 700%, and Liverpool’s National Museums have seen a rise of over 300%.

Not only did the number of visits to national museums increase, but there was also an increase in the number of visitors to many local museums, which received improved grant assistance to improve the quality of their presentations and to improve the educational experience for millions of school-children.

However, since 2010, the whole government approach to our arts, libraries and museums has gone in to reverse. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, and then Conservative governments under David Cameron and Theresa May, have significantly cut financial support, requiring councils to cut arts and cultural expenditure by £165 million, including nearly £17 million in Yorkshire and Humberside. The government has now promised further cuts each year through to, at least, 2020.

Now, we are beginning to learn of the scale of EU resources which are used to support cultural services and are now at risk. The UK’s Arts and cultural bodies receive millions of pounds funding from the EU every year – including €17 million from the Creative Europe Programme in 2015 alone.

The Government announced in August that it would underwrite money awarded by EU competitive funds before Brexit through to 2020. The Creative Europe Programme is a competitive fund and, on the face of it, comes with the scope of that announcement; however, there was no mention of arts and culture in the statement and the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, has been remarkably quiet about the commitment. Even if this resource was protected in the short-term, there is no commitment from 2020.

The free museums policy was bold and has delivered great achievements. It has been hugely successful. But the prospects for our museums and the cultural health of local communities are not good as the government imposes bigger and bigger cuts.

Monday, 5 December 2016

OFCOM asleep on the job

In October 2012, I called on the Competition Commission and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to launch an investigation into the telecoms’ suppliers and, particularly, into landline charges. 1

SKY had just announced that it would increase phone line rental charges by 18%. BT had already announced inflation-busting rises. Virgin and TalkTalk had already implemented way-above-inflation increases in line rental charges, but BT and Sky are the dominant domestic telecoms suppliers.  These new charges were almost double those of the lowest-cost provider. There was no justification for any price rise at all.

I strongly made the point that increasing the unavoidable line rental charges meant that those who made the fewest calls – typically pensioners on the lowest incomes – were getting the highest percentage increases in their bills.

Further, I was sharply critical of the suppliers’ claims that there was a ‘highly competitive market’, asking how it was that BT and Sky managed to arrive at the same charges for daytime calls and connection fees. I said that customers were being taken for a ride.
But, what was the response of the Conservative Minister, Ed Vaizey, and OFCOM then? They said that they believed the retail market was competitive and

“… for Ofcom to open up an investigation in this area, it would need evidence of an abuse of a dominant position or evidence of collusion or anti-competitive agreements.”

They refused to budge from this position, despite the evidence staring them in the face.

Then, last week, Ofcom announced a review 2 into “unnecessarily high charges paid by the estimated two million households who pay for a standalone landline service…. Ofcom is concerned that (these) people are not being served well by the market.”

The regulator said that all the major landline providers had raised charges significantly since 2010, by between 28 per cent and 41 per cent in real terms. This was despite benefiting from a 25 per cent fall in the underlying wholesale cost.

Customers have been taken for a ride for the last 6 years whilst OFCOM and the government have been asleep on the job.

1 LINE UP – we’re being taken for a ride, 16th October 2012,