Hodge admits free entry scheme is not quite the ticket

Natalie Woolman

Culture minister Margaret Hodge has admitted that the government rushed through plans for the free theatre ticket scheme A Night Less Ordinary.

At the National Campaign for the Arts political hustings last week, Hodge said of the scheme, which aims to give away 602,000 free tickets to young people aged under 26 over two years: “I think we should have spent a little bit more time devising the scheme before we embarked on it and I think that is a justified criticism.”

The culture minister continued: “We did take a risk, we are learning from it and we have now got to think, was that an appropriate way in which we could encourage young people who haven’t been to theatre before to come there? Is there a better way of doing it or is it a policy that has no future? There’s another year for this to run and then there will be a proper evaluation and we’ll learn from it.”

Ed Vaizey and Don Foster, the arts and culture portfolio holders for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats respectively, both said that they were surprised at Hodge’s public admission.

Foster said: “I was surprised but also pleased that the government have recognised something we said right at the beginning when the scheme was first announced.

“It was ill-conceived, unsuccessful. I think probably the admission that they got it wrong is more surprising than the fact it has been remarkably unsuccessful.”

Foster hit out at the scheme last month when it was revealed that only 177,345 tickets were made available during the first ten months of the initiative and only two thirds of the tickets offered had been taken up.

He said if the Liberal Democrats were elected in May and decided to pursue a theatre ticket scheme as a means of increasing access, he would look to link theatres with voluntary organisations because “what we’re trying to achieve is to get new people going to the theatre and not simply to reward regular theatre-goers with cheap tickets”.

Meanwhile, Vaizey said he would look to work with organisations like Audiences UK and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, as well as arts bodies, to find ways of improving access.

He commented: “For government to risk taxpayers’ money on such a huge scale is bordering on negligent in this current economic climate.”

When plans for the scheme were originally announced, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport planned to release one million free tickets, but this was later reduced to 602,000. Arts Council England currently estimates that more than 500,000 tickets will be given away.

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