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The need for a cross-government approach to arts in health – including education reforms – has been highlighted by MPs at a Westminster Hall debate.

Photo of Ed Vaizey with report
Ed Vaizey: “Arts engagement does have a hugely beneficial effect upon health”

MPs have called upon Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to help create a culture change in Government towards arts and health.

At a Westminster Hall debate on the effect of the arts on health yesterday, the absence of a representative from the Department for Health was noted by several MPs, with Arts Minister John Glen agreeing that more engagement was needed from the department to help realise the potential of the arts to support health and wellbeing.

“We need to make a vital cultural shift to ensure the arts are fully embedded in the health and social care system,” Glen said.

Conservative MPs battled to keep education policy off the agenda at the debate, while Labour MPs argued reform was needed to safeguard young people’s mental health.

The debate, tabled by former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, followed the publication of the findings of an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, which Vaizey co-chairs.

Glen expressed support for a number of recommendations made in the report, but Vaizey called out the DCMS for failing to deliver an official response to the inquiry.

He also implored a health minister to write a letter responding to the debate.

Arts in health

Vaizey spoke passionately about a growing bed of evidence that demonstrates the arts are a cost-effective way to prevent and treat health and social issues, including those posed by an aging population, chronic conditions and mental health issues.

“Arts engagement does have a hugely beneficial effect upon health in people of all ages and so it must play a vital role in the public health arena,” he said.

He repeated the report’s call for a cross-departmental government strategy to support the delivery of arts-based interventions in health and social care, calling for culture, health and education ministers to work together with the Department for Communities and Local Government.

“We need greater engagement from policy-makers, and ministers therefore must be a part of the process,” he said.

“I am delighted to see the Minister here,” Vaizey said, addressing Parliamentary Under Secretary Glen, who took over the DCMS arts portfolio from Matt Hancock earlier this year. “But part of me wishes it wasn’t him here, part of me wishes it was a health minister who was here to respond to this debate.”

He added: “The current Health Secretary is a former culture secretary. He knows this sector well and should understand the opportunities it presents to make a real impact on health and wellbeing.”

His wish to hear from a health minister was echoed by several MPs during the debate, including former Shadow Culture Minister Helen Goodman and Lisa Cameron, Shadow SNP Spokesperson on Mental Health. “Perhaps a health minister could write to the people who take part in this debate today,” Goodman added.

In response, Glen said: “I’m sorry I’m not a health minister but obviously I am able to interact with other ministers and I hear that point that’s been mentioned a number of times, and I take that on board.”

He expressed support for a cross-government strategy, saying he had asked his officials to explore its potential, as well as the report’s recommendation for a national strategic centre for the arts and health. “We must be realistic that this will take some time to establish, but it is a task I am engaged in,” he said.

The part of education

Opening the debate, Vaizey called on those present to ‘leave aside’ the issue of arts in education for a debate another day, but this didn’t stop Labour MPs voicing their concerns.

Shadow Arts Minister Kevin Brennan warned that accountability measures introduced for schools that focus on ‘core subjects’ are leading to a drop in the number of young people who study the arts.

“I’m going to call it out in this way,” he said. “In the Department for Education, the Schools Minister who has been almost a constant fixture in that department has been a blockage, in my view, to all of the good rhetoric that comes out of Government about the importance of creativity. At some point, someone in Government – a minister – has got to do something about it.”

He said the Government was right to emphasise basic skills in education but warned that “the pendulum has gone too far”. He continued: “Creativity and the arts are being squeezed out of our education system and all the calls for culture change will come to nothing unless action is taken on that point.”

His views were echoed by Shadow Education Minister Tracy Brabin, who raised concerns about what a drop in engagement in the arts might mean for young people’s mental health.

“If we want a country fit and ready for the future, healthy in mind and body, we need to widen access to the arts, rather than allow this Government to withdraw the privilege,” she said.

A photo of Frances Richens