HC Deb 27 June 1947 vol 439 cc889-93

Order for Second Reading read.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Key)

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

2.27 p.m.

This Bill provides for the transfer to the Crown of the freehold interest in Apsley House, commonly known as "No. I, London," in Piccadilly, and its site, with the garden and forecourt, together with certain valuable objects associated with the great Duke of Wellington, so that a Wellington Museum can be set up there. During his lifetime, Parliament voted to certain trustees substantial sums of money for the purpose of purchasing estates for the benefit of the Duke and his successors. Apsley House was one of these, and was purchased in 1830 from money voted to the trustees under the Wellington Estates Acts. These Acts created a statutory settlement in relation to the estates so purchased and provided also that, as long as the title of the Duke of Wellington should endure, neither the first Duke nor any of his successors should bar the statutory entail. It is, therefore necessary that legislation should be passed before the offer that has been made by the present Duke can be accepted.

This really very great offer covers not only Apsley House itself, which by reason of its intrinsic and architectural merits and history is a valuable acquisition to the nation, but covers also many valuable pictures, pieces of plate and other objects, some of which were given to the first Duke by his great contemporaries and others which are the personal property of the present Duke of Wellington. These treasures will be shown in the museum for which provision is made in this Bill. Under the powers that were conferred by one of the Estate Acts, the Duke in 1841, assigned many of these objects that will figure in the Museum to the trustees as heirlooms, so that no person to whom they should descend could be made capable of alienating them or disposing of them. Therefore, it is necessary in this Bill to make provision to free from these restrictions such of the articles now offered as were originally included in the great Duke's assignment.

The part of Apsley House which is to be used as a museum, as provided in the Bill, may also be used for purposes of Government hospitality and any similar use, subject, of course, to the Duke's consent. The Dukes of Wellington will maintain a right to use a portion of the house as a private residence, together with the garden, free of rent and free of rates. The Minister of Works for the time being will be responsible for maintaining the structure of the whole of Apsley House, while the Duke himself will be responsible for the ordinary tenant's liabilities in respect of the part of the house that he will occupy. The museum part will be run by the Victoria and Albert Museum, under the supervision of the Minister of Education. Complete possession of Apsley House, together with its site, will revert to the Minister of Works if the Dukedom of Wellington becomes extinct, or if the building is so very damaged that its historic connection with the Duke of Wellington can no longer be maintained. Such a thing might result from a very serious fire. In this event, provided that the Duke is not himself responsible for the damage by negligence of otherwise, the Duke will be compensated for his loss of rights under the Bill.

It has been very difficult for us—pretty well impossible—to arrive at any very precise statement of the value of this remarkable gift. With the existing restrictions that there are upon its disposal, the house, with the garden, is worth roughly about £50,000, but freed of those restrictions the value would probably be £400,000. The value of the pictures and the other treasures would be at least another £400,000. It is estimated that to repair the house and adapt it for the museum and other purposes for which it may be used will cost us something like £50,000 and that, thereafter, the annual maintenance will be about £2,200. The running of the museum will probably involve about £5,000 annually.

I have endeavoured to explain very briefly the provisions embodied in this Bill. Hon. Members will. I am sure, realise that the real motive of the Measure is to give effect to the very magnanimous gesture of the present Duke of Wellington in offering Apsley House and the possessions I have described, and I think the House will agree with me that it would be fitting on this occasion that I should pay tribute on behalf of the Government —as has already been done so well in another place—to the great public spirit displayed by the Duke in allowing the nation to acquire these invaluable objects which I have enumerated. I am sure that this Bill, which will secure to posterity such historical and cultural benefits as those I have mentioned, will commend itself to the unanimous support of this House.

2.34 p.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

We think this Bill marks a very wise acceptance by His Majesty's Government of a very generous and public-spirited offer by the present Duke of Wellington. As the right hon. Gentleman explained, the value of what will pass to the nation cannot be assessed accurately in terms of money, but if an attempt were made to do so the figure placed upon them would be very high. The people who will really gain by this arrangement will be the British public and our visitors from overseas, who will in this way obtain the privilege of seeing many things associated with the Iron Duke to which they could otherwise never have access. His Majesty's Government will obtain a fine house in which they will be able to entertain in a more fitting way than they have sometimes done in the past. We commend this Bill to the House, and give it our support.

2.36 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

This Bill asks us to do two things, one is to take over a piece of property, and the second is to take it over for a particular purpose. I am in favour of taking over the property and I am in favour of the purpose for which we are taking it over—the creation of a museum connected with the Duke of Wellington. I hope that in running it we shall have regard not only to the profound military genius and services of the Duke of Wellington, but also to the wisdom of many of the things he said, which have a significance for today. For example, it may be of some significance to Governments that they should recollect his observation on the quality of some of his recruits, when he asked whether the damned cowards expected to live for ever. That is a remark which the Government might well take to themselves. There was another occasion when, looking at another batch of recruits, he expressed sentiments which might have been inspired by a cursory inspection of the Minister of Mines, the Attorney-General, and some Members of the House of Lords. He said, "I do not know what effect these fellows will have on the enemy, but by God, they frighten me."I think those observations of the Duke of Wellington, together with his great services to Britain, ought to be commended. I bless the Bill as one means of doing this.

2.38 p.m.

Mr. Rees-Williams (Croydon, South)

I welcome the Bill. I believe that this is a gift by the Duke of Wellington which will give great pleasure and afford much information to the people of this country. The very valuable site alone makes this gift one which we should receive with gratitude. There are one or two points I should like to mention, and the first is that at Woolwich in the Rotunda there are a number of Wellington relics. As hon. Members may know the Rotunda tent was originally erected by the Prince Regent in the gardens of Carlton House after the first fall of Napoleon—when the latter was sent to Elba—for the welcoming of and hospitality to the persons who were arriving here for the peace conference— one of the many peace conferences which have been held, this one unfortunately with as little effect as many others. After the conference was over, the Prince Regent presented the silken tent in which his guests were entertained to the Royal Artillery at Woolwich, and that tent is still there to this day, bricked over. In it there are a number of Wellingtonian relics, including the famous umbrella which accompanied him right through the Peninsular campaign, and I am wondering whether the Minister of Works could arrange with the Royal Artillery Institution for the collection of these relics from the Rotunda. They are rarely seen by anybody at Woolwich, as they are tucked away in a corner which is not really known to the public nowadays. I hope they can be made available to add to those at Apsley House and so to augment this handsome gift by the Duke of Wellington.

The second point is one of criticism, not of the gift but of the Bill. It is one of those instances which we see—too often, in my opinion—of bad draftsmanship, where more is put into the Bill than need be put in. If the Minister will turn to Clause 4 (2), he will see that this Clause reads as follows: Save as aforesaid, nothing in this Act shall be construed as exempting the Duke of Wellington for the time being from any taxes or imposts of any nature in law falling to be paid by reason of any occupation by him of any portions of Apsley House other than those-described in Part I of the Second Schedule to this Act, or of the garden of Apsley House. According to the Schedule, and from what the Minister has said—and I listened carefully to him—nothing in Part I of the Schedule falls as a burden on the Duke at all. If that is so, why on earth put in those words which are confusing, which caused me some little trouble in looking up, and will cause the same trouble to other simple souls like myself who do likewise. It is time we insisted on the Government, and on the draftsmen, trying to achieve simplified Bills instead of putting in every possible form of words they can think of to complicate them. I cannot see that these words add anything at all to the effect of the Measure and will only lead to confusion. With that one criticism, I heartily welcome this Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee of Six Members, four to be nominated by the House and two by the Committee of Selection;

All Petitions against the Bill presented at any time not later than the fifth day after the day upon which this Order is made to be referred to the Committee;

Petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their Counsel or Agents, to be heard against the Bill, and Counsel or Agents heard in support of the Bill;

Committee to have power to report from day to day the Minutes of the Evidence taken before them;

Three to be the Quorom.

Ordered: That Petitions against the Bill may be deposited in the Committee and Private Bill Office, provided that such petitions shall have been prepared and signed in conformity with the Rules and Orders of this House relating to Petitions against Private Bills.".—[Mr. Key.]