HC Deb 02 November 1948 vol 457 cc820-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn"—[Mr. Popplewell.]

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Gilzean (Edinburgh, Central)

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising a question of some importance to the City of Edinburgh and to Scotland generally. About 23 years ago the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland decided to make a gift of their 260-years-old library for the purpose of forming the nucleus of what would ultimately be a National Library. Along with that very generous gift on the part of the Faculty of Advocates, Sir Alexander Grant gave £100,000 for the purpose of making the library possible, and some little time afterwards he gave a further £100,000, with the addition of £16,000 accrued interest; so there appeared, on the sur face, to be every reason to anticipate that without much loss of time Scotland would have a National Library that would be worthy of the country.

The trustees who were responsible for making this hope a reality unfortunately found themselves, before very long, confronted with circumstances, due to the war, that made it impossible for them to carry out their scheme in full. They had, however, got to the length of a steel erection of what was to constitute the building of the National Library, and there that steel structure stands at the present day. I am not going to suggest tonight that anything should be attempted in that direction, but there are one or two things that have to be borne in mind and which call for the consideration of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works, who is responsible for the building side of this business.

This library is one of three libraries in this country which, under the Copyright Act, are entitled to a copy of every book that is published, and the accessions to the library in the course of a year amount to something like 60,000 books. The total number of volumes in the library is in the region of two million. The question is: how are we to overcome the increasing difficulty of handling this considerable number of books and at the same time give patrons of the library the opportunity of getting the information they require? The question is one that rests with the Minister of Works. Can he not do something in the direction of giving the library the space that it requires so that the books can at least be stacked in some sort of order, making it possible to use them?

Up to the present time they have been putting books into prison cells, and putting them into air-raid shelters, simply because there was no other place in which to put them. In those circumstances, I hope there will be a reply from the Minister which will indicate that something can be done. The library is at a great disadvantage. Compare it with others of similar importance in the country. The Bodleian Library has approximately the same number of books—somewhere in the region of two million—and it has a staff of 65 persons. The Cambridge University Library also has two million books, and it has a staff of 53 persons. The National Library of Wales, with one million books, has a staff of 31 persons. The National Library of Ireland, with 500,000 books, has a staff of 33 persons; and the National Library of Scotland, with two million books, has a staff of only 28 persons.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the Department refuse to give extra help. The broad fact of the matter is that, although our staff is not as many as the staff of any other library which I have mentioned, it is impossible to employ any more staff because we have not the room to use them, just as we have not room to stack the books, and have not the room where readers can come to get the information they desire.

Edinburgh has been aspiring in the last year or two to a cultural development which hitherto she has not been able to attain. She is attempting this cultural development through music, through the drama, and through the arts, although I am afraid it will take a long time for Calvinistic Edinburgh to attain the standard one would like to see her reach in that particular direction. Although her attainments in the realm of drama, music and of the arts have still a long way to go, Edinburgh has never been behind in literature, in which she has a great reputation. For those reasons, while not asking the Minister to do anything which would put difficulties in his way—because I know the building problems which confront the country at present—I hope he will seek to ease the situation to some extent by at least giving us space in which the books would be safe from wind and weather and where they could easily be got at, even though the outward appearance of the building were far from desirable. We should be grateful to him for that, and it would be a great boon to booklovers, not only in Edinburgh but in the many parts of Scotland from which they come to visit the library.

I will say one word about the National Portrait Gallery. Like many other places, it had to be turned over to more utilitarian uses during the war. The war has now been over for some considerable time, yet the pictures which constitute the story of Scotland in art are still in the wrappings into which they were put for safety when they were put away during the war. These pictures, apart from the interest they offer when displayed in galleries, also have a very fine educational value for children, especially children in the City of Edinburgh. Children read the history of Scotland at school, but their knowledge is greatly improved if, along with their reading, they can see displayed fine paintings of the people of whom they are continually reading. I think it would not be too much to ask the Department that, once again, the Scottish Portrait Gallery should be returned to its original use. It is something which is part of Scotland, and it should, I am sure all hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree, be given back to us.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. Gilzean) for having raised this question, which is one of very great concern to the people interested in the National Library and the National Portrait Gallery. I must say at the outset that it seems a pity that Scottish hon. Members opposite are apparently not interested in either of these institutions, as they are absent, with the single exception of the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie). The war has been over now for more than three years, and I think that it is true to say that in no other country which participated in it, with the exception of the conquered countries of Austria, Germany, and Japan, is a national art gallery still used for war-time purposes.

At the present time, the National Portrait Gallery is occupied by the National Registration Department, and the pictures forming the exhibition in the Gallery are stacked in piles between the desks and tables, typewriters, and filing cabinets, and the hundred or so staff employed in the building. It so happens that I have a little shop opposite the portrait gallery, and visitors who come to the shop, looking round the books which I sell, often say in the course of conversation, "Where is the National Portrait Gallery?" I apologetically have to tell them that it is just across the road from my shop, and that, even if they entered the building, they would find the pictures probably hidden under some typist's desk. I suggest that this is an insult to Scotland; it is an insult that one of its national collections should be in this state.

We have tried to develop Edinburgh as an international festival centre, and I think it may be said that the endeavours which have been made there have met with a fair measure of success. They augur well for the future, and it should be remembered that they have been of great help to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in encouraging visitors and tourists and attracting foreign exchange. But fancy this city—a capital city, and a very old city—having to tell its visitors during an international festival, "You cannot see our books or our pictures; they are in store." Fancy having to tell visitors that the building is used by the National Registration authorities. I suggest that, had this library and this portrait gallery been in London, they would have received some different treatment from that which they have received.

The Minister of Works(Mr. Key)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Willis

My right hon. Friend shakes his head, but he would have some difficulty, I assure him, in convincing people north of the Border that that is not the case. In fact, I think there has been a tendency to treat this as a purely local affair—as something which can be dismissed as being in the Provinces. But it is not. I have raised this matter of the portrait gallery on previous occasions during Question Time. On the last occasion I was informed that the Ministry hoped to commence additional office building in the new year, that is, 1949; and that when the additional office accommodation became available, the portrait gallery would be freed. Cannot the Minister move the National Registration people from the portrait gallery before the festival which is to take place next year? Can we not have something rather better than the indefinite promises which he has made concerning this building? I think that if he made some statement along those lines, it would give great satisfaction indeed to the people of Scotland.

10.46 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. Key)

I hope that in the short statement I am going to make I shall be able to give some satisfaction to my hon. friends about both these problems.

First, so far as the National Library is concerned, I think it must be admitted that my Department acted very well when there was a chance of doing things—at least in the early stages. When the gift, to which there has been reference, was made for the extension of the National Library, the terms of the gift were such that it entailed the necessary extension being built on the site of the old Sheriff Court House. The first thing my Department did was to undertake, as a charge on Exchequer funds, the erection of a new Sheriff Court House, which was completed in 1937.

Then the Department obtained possession of the site where the extension was to be built, and had to undertake the work of demolition of the old Sheriff Court House. That was started in November, 1937, and completed in August, 1938, and tenders were invited for the foundation work and superstructure work of the new National Library. Work on the new building went on very satisfactorily from October, 1938, but had to be suspended because of the war—and was suspended by agreement with the trustees, on the understanding that we would do our best to provide them with necessary accommodation for the storage of books during war-time. We had hoped to do that on the three advanced stackage floors which had already been erected when the work was suspended, and my Department felt at that time that it would be possible to provide the necessary stackage for books accumulating during the war period on those three floors. Unluckily, the supply of steel during the war made that impossible, but the Department did everything it could to provide storage accommodation in the vaults and old police cells of the Law Courts. It has now completed the erection of shelving on one of the stack-age floors of the new building, and this will make it possible for stackage to proceed at least until the end of 1950.

I know that this in itself is not all that is necessary, and we now want to go further and make it possible for general development to proceed. Up to the present time, because of the building difficulties in Scotland, we have not been able to make this extension fit into the Scottish building programme, but things have now improved and we now feel that it is possible to bring it into the building programme for 1949. I want to say quite definitely that we have included the continuation of this work in the draft estimates of our Department for 1949. These are draft estimates and they have got to be considered by the Treasury, in conjunction with all the estimates we shall put in, but I feel it is going to be possible to get agreement to that, and, subject to the international situation and financial exigencies, it is our intention to restart building operations in 1949.

We shall have to go out for new tenders for the work, but I see no reason why we should not get on with completing the stackage arrangements in that part of the building which has already been begun, so as to bring about the transfer from the existing part of the building, and then go on with the completion of the whole scheme. I am advised that it is quite possible, if we can get a start in 1949, that we shall he able to complete the whole of the building by the end of 1953. Therefore, I hope that this will help to meet the stackage problem of accumulated books and satisfy my hon. Friends that we are really in earnest in going forward with this job.

As far as the National Portrait Gallery is concerned, we have had very great difficulties in finding accommodation for the National Registration staff because, frankly, there have been great difficulties in getting office accommodation in Edinburgh. I did feel at one time that the only way to satisfy this need would probably be the erection of new office accommodation, but I am glad to be able to inform the House that negotiations are in progress for the acquisition of premises which have been accepted as satisfactory, as regards both location and size, by the Registrar-General, and that we have every reason to believe that those negotiations will be shortly completed.

All we have to do is comparatively minor adaptations in those premises to make them satisfactory to the Registrar-General. We are, therefore, now making arrangements to proceed with the adaptation of those premises, and I am sure that we shall be able to start almost immediately on the work and that it will be completed in some three or four months' time. I believe I am not holding out a hope that will not be realised, but I feel certain we shall attain it, and that the gallery can be vacated at the end of March, 1949. I hope these two statements that I have been able to make will satisfy my hon. Friends.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I think the whole House is under an obligation to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. Gilzean) for having raised this matter on the Adjournment tonight, because he made it very clear in his speech how deep the feeling is in certain quarters of Scotland regarding this matter, particularly the Advocates' Library and the extreme lag in getting on with that job. I thank the Minister of Works for what he has said on these two points. I confess I do not feel as deeply as hon. Members opposite regarding the National Portrait Gallery, but I am not myself insensitive to the necessity for enabling the public to see all those great works of art at the earliest possible opportunity.

I was sorry that the hon. Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis) saw fit in his speech to include a gibe regarding hon. Members on this side representing Scottish constituencies not being present in larger numbers. That is not in any way due to any lack of appreciation on their part of the necessity for getting on with the work as far as the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh is concerned. The right hon. Gentleman made it quite clear that nearly 15 years—from 1923 to 1938—elapsed before work was really started. I recall that in 1932 the former hon. Member for Hillhead, Sir Robert Home, urged the then National Government to proceed with that work without delay.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I approach this matter more or less from a non-party point of view. Having regard to his well-known partisan views, I hope he will appreciate what his speech tonight means. I am delighted with his speech as a whole, but so far as the Advocates' Library is concerned, I would urge him to realise how much time has been wasted.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.