HC Deb 17 June 1936 vol 313 cc1080-2

Section forty-four of the Finance Act, 1921, and the proviso to Sub-section (2) of Section forty of the Finance Act, 1930 (which provide that death duties shall not become chargeable in respect of certain property on the sale thereof to the National Gallery, British Museum, or certain other institutions and persons therein mentioned), shall have effect as if the references to such a sale included a reference to a sale after the passing of this Act to the society known as "the Friends of the National Libraries."—[Mr. G. Kerr.]

7.21 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause is not one which will arouse any opposition. It is unnecessary to say anything to stress the importance of national and other libraries. They constitute a large part of the working equipment of civilisation. They constitute also a refuge to which one can flee from the ordinary dull and sometimes sordid surroundings of work-a-day life into a world of beauty and interest, where one can commune with the great figures of past history or with the charming characters of fiction. Those of us who are interested in that history of a larger growth called evolution recognise in books and libraries something else, for we see in them receptacles in which our civilisation is safely stored. The world is littered with fragmentary remains of civilisations of the past which have vanished away, many probably entirely gone but some of them still recognisable by fragmentary remains. Their fate will not be the fate of the civilisation of to-day because that civilisation is preserved in books and libraries. Even if the civilised races of mankind were entirely exterminated, their civilisations itself would remain perpetuated in books. I think the whole Committee will feel then that libraries are things that are in every way to be encouraged. As the Committee is aware, objects of interest, literary or scientific or artistic or historical or national, are exempted by the Finance Acts of 1921 and 1930 from death duties in so far as such objects are sold to national museums or certain public bodies. Amongst the public bodies granted this exemption by the Finance Acts of 1921 and 1930 is a body called the National Arts Fund, the splendid work of which is known to most Members of the Committee as having made possible many important additions to our national art collections. These exemptions were rendered in 1931 more precise than they had been in the earlier Act.

In. 1931, however, there did not exist this particular body, the Friends of National Libraries, but it had been felt for some years at that time how exceedingly desirable it was that in our country we should have a body which would act upon parallel lines with the Art Collections Fund but which would be interested not in objects of art but in books, manuscripts and objects which would naturally go to libraries. In 1931, just after the second of the Finance Acts that I have mentioned was passed, there was an important letter in the "Times" over the signatures of various distinguished persons, who pointed out the need of this body, and the need was stressed in a leader in that journal. The outcome was the foundation of this society called the "Friends of National Libraries." It has been the means of providing various important additions to our national libraries, and this expression "National Libraries" does not mean merely the British Museum Library. It means the national libraries of England, Scotland and Wales. It means the libraries of our great universities and municipalities and various others. All of them are recognised as receptacles into which the flow of important books and manuscripts should be encouraged. In the very first year of the society it was the means of making some extraordinarily important additions to our national libraries, including a very wonderful collection of manuscripts relating to the poet Goldsmith and some extraordinarily interesting criticisms of the Elizabethan poets by a very expert contemporary critic. Later there passed to the British Museum the final instalment of what is recognised by all scholars as the most wonderful collection of private family letters and documents illustrating the life of our country in the 15th century. There is a long series of such acquisitions which have been made either directly through the Friends of National Libraries or indirectly through their good offices. I am sure the Committee will agree as to the importance of this fund. There will be no dissent in any quarter, from this larger party with its rather diverse opinions right across to that party which is characterised above all by its homogeneity and its singular unity. With that harmony, I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will feel justified in yielding to the desire, which I am sure he feels, to accept the Clause which I beg to move.

7.30 p. m.


The Committee will agree that my hon. Friend has given us an impressive account of the work of the Friends of National Libraries. I have made inquiries and find that they are doing really the same sort of thing for libraries as the National Art Collections Fund are doing for picture galleries. In the circumstances, I propose to ask the Committee to accept the Clause, and I do it the more readily, as I am informed that it will cost me practically nothing.

Clause added to the Bill.