HC Deb 18 June 1951 vol 489 cc185-92

(1) The Commissioners may, if they think fit, on the application of any person liable to pay estate duty or settlement estate duty on any property accept in satisfaction of the whole or any part of such duty such works of art as may be agreed upon between the Commissioners of Inland Revenue and that person.

(2) Where under the provisions of this section the Commissioners of Inland Revenue accept any works of art in satisfaction or part satisfaction of any duty, the works of art shall be disposed of in such manner as the Treasury may direct, and in particular, but without prejudice to the generality of the preceding provision, the Treasury may direct that all or any of such works of art shall be transferred to the appropriate department to be used in furnishing Government houses and embassies outside Great Britain.

(3) Where the Treasury have determined that any property accepted or to be accepted by the Commissioners under subsection (1) of this section is to be disposed of under subsection (2) of this section, they may direct that disposal thereof shall be effected by means of a transfer direct to the appropriate Department, instead of the property being transferred to the Commissioners.

(4) The Treasury shall lay before both Houses of Parliament as soon as may be after the end of each financial year a statement giving particulars of any transfers under subsection (2) of this section.

(5) In this section "works of art" means works of art, as defined by subsection (1) of section thirty-five of the Copyright Act, 1911, which have been declared by a committee of experts, appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to be suitable for the purposes set forth in subsection (2) of this section.—[Mr. Hamilton Kerr.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hamilton Kerr (Cambridge)

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

This Clause aims to establish the principle that works of art of particular merit may be accepted in satisfaction of Death Duty. I had originally drafted a Clause which I thought was simple and concise which consisted of two or three lines, but I was told by my friends, "This will never do. It will not be understood by the Treasury." So I have now adopted the technique of shock therapy.

In this present century we have seen a great revival in the interest in works of art which our ancestors contributed to civilisation. We now see the State, in the Gowers Report, definitely accepting responsibility for certain houses to be scheduled as ancient monuments; and even such voluntary societies as the Georgian Group cast a vigilant eye on our old towns to see that vandalism does not destroy our ancient monuments. But this interest in works of art has not extended to our foreign embassies and Government houses.

In the old days, an Ambassador, or Governor, was considered to possess ample means, and, therefore, able to furnish his house with suitable works of art. But that situation no longer exists and we suffer a disadvantage in not having something equivalent to the French garde meuble, which gives the French splendid resources to draw upon.

I suggest that the Chancellor should appoint an advisory committee, composed of members of the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and that those experts should be empowered to consider works of art such as pictures, furniture, silver, or glass, which private donors gave to the nation in satisfaction of Death Duty. This would establish a principle, already accepted in case of land, and I think that thereby we would be able to accumulate works of art, an equivalent of the French garde meuble which could give a picture of our way of life to those visitors who entered our embassies and Government houses.

Mr. Gaitskell

I have some sympathy for the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Hamilton Kerr) but I do not think that what he proposes quite takes into account what is already done by way of modifications to Estate Duty in connection with works of art and I wish briefly to remind the Committee of the present position.

In the Finance Act of 1894 the Treasury were able to remit Death Duty in respect of pictures, prints and works of art bequeathed to national authorities or to universities or local authorities. Further by the Finance Act, 1930, as modified by the Finance Act, 1936, the Treasury will also exempt from Estate Duty works of art that have not been given or bequeathed to the bodies I have mentioned, but simply on condition that they were not sold but remained the property of the family concerned. Even when they were sold, the duty did not apply if the sale was to the National Gallery, or to one of the museums.

I think the hon. Member will probably agree that already a great deal has been done by way of remission of Estate Duty with the general idea of preserving for the nation these treasures of art with which we are all very much concerned. I do not feel that what is now proposed is necessary. If the Government wish to buy over and above whatever may have been bequeathed under the various Acts I have mentioned, there is nothing to prevent them doing so.

I feel it is a far better principle that we should retain under our Parliamentary control the expenditure of public money on works of art of this kind, rather than to accept them by way of remission of Death Duty, which would necessarily bring upon us the offer of a large and miscellaneous collection of works of art, many of which we should not be very enthusiastic about receiving.

Therefore, while I appreciate the sentiment behind this proposition, my own feeling is that it is really better to leave things as they are. We have done a great deal. We are doing one other thing in connection with the Gowers Report. We are providing that chattels may be taken over in one of these historic houses free of duty at the same time as the house itself. I think, therefore, that for this year at any rate we should leave the matter there.

Mr. Eccles

I have sympathy with what the Chancellor has just said, but he ought to go a bit further in providing money with which our museums can buy, and I think that is the reason why my hon. Friend has put down this Clause. He feels, rightly, that His Majesty's Government are stingy in the acquisition of works of art compared with many other Governments.

The Clause is open to certain objections which the Chancellor has put forward, but he ought to take it as a real sign that this side of the Committee would like to see the Government do a little more to buy some of the things that come on to the market. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will not fob us off with what has been done in the past, but find a little more money to prevent some of these very fine things from leaving the country by buying them ourselves.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

If the Chancellor is to be persuaded, and I hope he is, that a little more money might be made available so that the best kinds of paintings, sculpture, glass, and so on, are to be made available to people through the great galleries of our country, will he bear in mind that at present there is considerable feeling outside the Metropolis and the great national collections about the assistance which is being given to them. None at all is given by way of direct assistance from the Treasury to the 700 or 800 galleries in the provinces.

The Treasury has felt itself—and still does—bound to assist our national collections. Apart from Cardiff, which is partly rate-aided, we are compelled to support ourselves through the rates or through private benefaction. This creates a great difficulty for us. It is true that we are able to get some things, not the most valuable, on loan in a way that was not possible until a few years ago. None the less, a great storehouse of art treasures comes on to the market. An agency which would consider the provincial galleries as well as the national collections and the embassies would be valuable, and therefore I lend my voice to urging this useful expenditure upon my right hon. Friend.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I should like to support what has just been said about the need, if we are to get more money for the buying of works of art, to assist the smaller provincial galleries. Many lesser pictures are seldom seen by the public at all. I do suggest, therefore, that in the National Gallery and in many other galleries there are many pictures which could be made available to the public and which could be made available without the Chancellor of the Exchequer having to spend any extra money at all—but if he has any money it might well be spent for these purposes.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I think the Chancellor was on an easy wicket tonight because it was easy for him to shoot down the suggestions for dealing with this question. But unless the Government come forward with suggestions of their own a series of Private Members on a series of Finance Bills will make suggestions of their own—and I am afraid that they too will be merely shot down.

The problem is that this country is suffering a severe drain on its works of art. Big collections are being dispersed, many of them overseas and, in effect, the Government are doing very little about it. I should say that of all the great nations we claim the least interest in the preservation of the national artistic heritage. I therefore hope that we shall not indefinitely be content to allow Chancellors to reject all suggestions and make none of their own.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I was delighted to hear the Chancellor go some way towards trying to keep the best of our works of art in this country. I would emphasise what has been stated by other hon. Members, that we need to encourage some of our works of art to go to smaller and more local galleries if possible. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that in 1930 a Socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer brought in this most vital and most useful proviso—it was the only useful thing he did. The present Chancellor is the only one of three successive Chancellors who have not acted in this matter.

Let him, therefore, between now and the Report stage, readjust the Clause to bring about what I believe everyone in the Committee would like to see done and so do some good in his Finance Bill. His two predecessors having failed, he at any rate might do something to show that in this respect he has a real care for works of art—and show a much greater concern in this matter than the then Mr. Snowden did.

Mr. Walter Fletcher (Bury and Radcliffe)

I do not know whether I shall have to declare my interest in works of art as a producer, but I do not feel that those works of art will enable me to pay Death Duty on my estate. Nor are those works of art capable, I feel, of being "defined by subsection (1) of Section 35 of the Copyright Act 1911." I feel that if the Chancellor pursued a more enlightened policy it would be one of the most worthwhile things he could do because there would be made available to executors of estates a choice of works of art.

The plea that has been made for provincial museums has my full support and I would like to make a plea too for our overseas embassies. There is a greater interest in art than there has been for a long time past, but those who visit the overseas buildings of the Government look rather to what comes from this country than what is of the local style. If they are able to do that it will have considerable effect. I believe that the Chancellor has an opportunity here to do something a great deal more far-reaching than he appeared to realise, judging from his speech.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will unbend in this matter. He has depicted himself as a stern, unbending young man. Would this not be an opportunity for him to show something of that admirable quality of subtleness?

I wish to support the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross). There may be plenty of pictures travelling the galleries, but there are places which would welcome an opportunity of seeing these treasures. I do not think that London Members—particularly the Chancellor—perhaps appreciate how barren and sterile it is outside this overgrown city, where artistically life is often barren and barbarian. Here is a chance for the Chancellor to take away that stigma. It was the claim of the Socialist Party in the days of William Morris that it stood for sweetness and light and the delights of art. Today, we see nothing of that. I believe that the plea of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, will go unanswered.

I believe this is a proposal which the Chancellor will have to support sooner or later. Some people will only be able to meet their commitments by payment in kind. The Scotsman may have to part with his breeks in order to pay Death Duty on his estate. This is an innovation, and I should like to see it on the Statute Book because I am sure many others will be compelled not only to give works of art but more essential parts of their property.

There is a chance here, too, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. W. Fletcher) said, to stimulate artists in a big way. In one's lifetime we are all patrons of the art or creators, and in death these may be disposed of in payment of the liability to the State. This is a lively and re-enter-prising opportunity, and the Chancellor has been singularly unyielding in any concession. I hope that this will appeal to him. It will cost him nothing. It is only canalizing certain methods of paying taxation. On a day in which he has been ungenerous I hope that he will grant this concession.

Sir I. Fraser

I am not in the least opposed to the use of public money for maintaining treasures of art in this country, and avoiding their leaving the country in periods of bad times, but it seems to me deplorable that speakers in all parts of the Committee have based what they have said on the assumption that the only way we can look forward to any work of art being bought, sold, or retained in this country is by the action of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Let us hope that we are not forever banned from the possibility that we may once again be a prosperous country in which the individual may be able afford to sustain the arts.

Captain Crookshank

I do not think we need continue this very interesting discussion much longer. We have drifted away from the point of the Clause, which was that the Commissioners should be enabled to accept works of art in acceptance of Death Duty. That is different from the general argument that we ought to retain as much as we can of our national possessions in this country, because the fact remains that the larger number sold to foreign countries are sold by living people and not necessarily out of dead estates, I hope, therefore, that on the general artistic conception raised during the debate the Government and all of us will take further thought.

The Chancellor has already told us of the opportunities that exist for the State to acquire, after a death, some of the more valuable possessions—he has told us exactly what the position is about that—and it seems to go certainly some way, if not all the way, to achieve what my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Hamilton Kerr) has spoken about. We ought also not to forget that, while it sounds admirable that we should keep as much as we can in this country, it is not much use unless the treasures are kept in the places where they have always been. The last thing we want is to clutter up museums, whether national or provincial, with a great mass of works of art which can never be seen at all, because of the lack of space to exhibit them.

While we also agree that our embassies and other public buildings abroad would be useful places in which to show the arts and crafts of our country, even there limits exist to the number of rooms in which these treasures can be exhibited. I hope, therefore, that the Government will take note of tonight's debate and the general desire of the Committee to see that somehow arrangements are made so that as much as possible can be kept in this country and not become, what unfortunately it is today, one of our great dollar earners.

Question put, and negatived.