HC Deb 19 June 1953 vol 516 cc1442-8

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

3.59 p.m.

Sir Edward Keeling (Twickenham)

May I ask whether there is to be a Minister on the Front Bench to reply to this Adjournment debate or whether my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power, now sitting there, will deal with the matter?

Mr. Speaker

The question addressed by the hon. Member is not one for me.

It being Four o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

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

Sir E. Keeling

I wish to refer to the Banqueting House or, as it is sometimes called, the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, and to suggest that it ought not to remain for ever a museum.

Perhaps I might remind the House briefly of the history of this place. It was built by James I as the first part of a new Palace of Whitehall, the old Palace having been burned down. Inigo Jones was the architect. It is a superb example of Palladian architecture. Some people consider that in its stately dignity and beautiful proportions it is the masterpiece of Inigo Jones.

The next Sovereign, Charles I, commissioned Rubens to paint the nine gorgeous canvases which fill the panels of the ceiling. I think this ceiling is now looking as good as ever. Twice in recent years is has been cleaned, and I congratulate the Ministry of Works and the experts they employed on the way the work has been done. Little, perhaps, did Charles I think, when he put in those panels, that not long after he would be led through this hall to the scaffold.

Throughout the 17th century the Banqueting House was used for many ceremonial occasions and festivities. Here Cromwell received the Address from the City of London on his becoming Protector. Here he was asked to assume the title of King and, after taking three weeks to consider the offer, here he declined it. Here, at the Restoration, both Houses of Parliament presented Addresses to Charles II on his entry into London, and here, on St. George's Day, the same King held the Banquets of the Garter. Here our predecessors offered the Crown to William and Mary.

That was the last use of the Banqueting House, the last official use. In 1698 another fire destroyed the rest of Whitehall Palace. Only the Banqueting House survived, through the efforts of Christopher Wren who, I believe, bricked up the great south window to prevent the flames from getting in. He knew how important this hall is. Soon after the fire the Banqueting House was converted into a Chapel Royal. It remained one for nearly 200 years, until 1890, although it was never consecrated.

In 1890 Queen Victoria lent it for an unnamed period to the Royal United Service Institution for use as a museum, and they have been there ever since. Soon after, in 1892, the Office of Works granted a lease of the adjoining land for 80 years to the same Institution. On this land they built themselves a lecture hall and a library. They have certainly made excellent use of the place.

I thought it desirable to place these facts on record. I would make it clear that I have no criticism to make of the Royal United Service Institution. Its museum is a good one, though to a large extent it has been duplicated by the war museum established after the First World War. But here is England's greatest feasting room, built by one of our greatest architects, unavailable for the purpose for which it was built. Can that be right?

I make no suggestion that the United Service Institution should be turned out before their lease of the adjoining land expires in 1972, when the land and the buildings on it will, of course, revert to the Crown. But it seems to me utterly wrong that this historic building should be a museum for all time. With its great history, with its magnificent architecture and decorations, it ought again to become a banqueting house.

Since it was lent by Queen Victoria to the United Service Institution the need for this house for ceremonial purposes has returned, and the situation is very different from Victorian days. In 1890, I do not think there was any Government entertaining which required a hall of this size. Apart from Royal palaces there were great houses, such as Devonshire House, which were used for the purpose. Now such houses have, alas, either been pulled down or are no longer available. I submit that we need again this large historic hall for great occasions.

I am quite prepared to admit, before my hon. Friend points it out, that there are no kitchens or other necessary appurtenances if this Hall is to be used for banquets, and it is clear that the necessary work could not be done in the circumstances of the present time. All I ask is that the Government will say that they favour the restoration of the Banqueting House one day to its original purpose, and that they would like the question considered before the Royal United Service Institution's lease of the adjoining land expires.

To sum up, one purpose of raising this matter is to put the facts on record. The second is to ask the Government whether they will record their view that the question of restoring the Banqueting House to its original purpose ought to be considered before 1972, when the lease of the adjoining land expires.

4.7 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

If I may presume to speak on behalf of all the Opposition Members here at the moment, I should like to endorse what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir E. Keeling) has said on this subject. Like him, I have no complaint whatever about the manner in which the Royal United Service Institution conducts its very useful activities, but I do think it is a very great pity that this magnificent building should not be available to anyone but the Royal United Service Institution and that the public cannot see this Banqueting Hall without having to pay the fee of, I think it is, 1s. or 2s., which is now being charged for admission.

The hon. Member for Twickenham is quite right in saying that from the point of view of the museum there is a certain amount of duplication since the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth, to which he was referring, I think, was established. To whatever extent the museum facilities are going to be interfered with if his suggestion is adopted, I think those facilities can be more than amply provided at the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth.

I do hope that this historic building will be made available to the public, without charge to those members of the public who want to see what the building looks like, because it has very considerable architectural merits. If, combined with open and free access to the public we can also look forward at some future date to the time when banqueting or other festive functions can be held there, so much the better. I do hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take a favourable view, of what, in my view, is the very reasonable submission made to him by the hon. Member for Twickenham.

4.10 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I often think that the people of this country, and especially dwellers in London, do not appreciate sufficiently the immense wealth of historical and beautiful buildings which we have in this capital city, and when my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir E. Keeling) draws attention to the great interest and beauty of the Banqueting House he is serving a most useful purpose. It is certainly one of the responsibilities of the Ministry of Works, to which we devote a great deal of thought, to make certain that this masterpiece of Inigo Jones's architecture shall be well preserved.

I should like, on behalf of the Department, to express my appreciation of the kind words that have been said about the difficult task that was undertaken by our picture restorers in trying to bring back the early brightness and beauty to the Rubens ceiling. It has been the general view of experts that it is work that has been very well done.

My hon. Friend has explained how the Royal United Service Institution comes to have titles both to the Banqueting Hall and to the site. When this matter is raised, we must, I think, in the first place, consider what alternative accommodation should be provided for the Royal United Service Institution if they were asked to vacate this building, and. in the second place, whether the Government could find a suitable use for the building. As my hon. Friend has said, it was in 1890 that Queen Victoria granted to the Royal United Service Institution the use of the Banqueting Hall under what are known as grace-and-favour terms; that is rent free for an indefinite period of time at the will of the Sovereign. It hardly seems likely that any Sovereign would withdraw this favour from a distinguished and useful body like the Royal United Service Institution unless alternative accommodation were provided for them. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, two years after the grant of the use of the Banqueting Hall, the Royal United Service Institution built for themselves a library, offices and lecture room on a site belonging to the Commissioners of Crown Lands, for which they obtained a lease terminating in 1972. In 1972, therefore, this site will revert to the Commissioners of Crown Lands, and at that time it will be possible for the Government of that day to resume possession of that site, with the buildings which go with it. should they decide to do so.

We have always in mind the possibility that at some time a Government might want to obtain possession of this land, and when in 1947 the Royal United Service Institution sought to obtain a new lease for 60 years, which would give them security of tenure until 2007, their request was refused by the Commissioners of Crown Lands who wished to retain their freedom of action. I am bound to add, however, I think that probably any Government which was in office at that time would feel, if it resumed possession of the land, that as the Royal United Service Institution had erected these buildings upon the site the Institution would have, at any rate, a moral claim to be provided with alternative accommodation. We did go as far as considering what the cost of this would be in 1939, and it was thought to be between £150,000 and £250,000. In view of the increase in the cost of building, I estimate that it would now be somewhere in the neighbourhood of £500,000.

I now come to the second question: Would the Government find it useful to have the Banqueting Hall for purposes of hospitality? There is certainly no doubt that there can be no more beautiful building in the world as a scene for a State banquet than this sole-surviving part of the Stuarts' Whitehall. I entirely agree that it is an attractive idea to bring it back after three centuries to its original use. But there are many difficulties.

There are, as my hon. Friend mentioned, no kitchens, no pantries, no lavatories and no reception rooms. The minimum cost of providing these would be nearly £60,000 and, in the view of our architect, if the thing was to be done in a way worthy of the Banqueting Hall— my hon. Friend would not want it to be done in any way that would be unworthy of the Banqueting Hall—the cost would be more nearly £200,000. I am also inclined to think that the alterations would have to be so extensive that they would be offensive to many people who are keen on the preservation of ancient buildings.

The actual situation of the Banqueting Hall would make it extremely inconvenient for the setting down and picking up of guests before and after a banquet, and our experiences at various receptions during the last few weeks are sufficiently vivid in the minds of hon. Members for them to realise that this is by no means an unimportant point. There is, of course, no garden there which could be used for the guests to go out to on a summer evening.

The Government have just recently, at considerable expense, restored Lancaster House, and done so in a way which, I believe, commends itself very much to all those who were fortunate enough to attend the banquet on 5th June. These great banquets are rare, and I am inclined to think that in this second half of the 20th century they are likely to become rarer. The long gallery, on that occasion, accommodated quite comfortably more than 150 guests, and I do not think that, generally speaking, larger banquets than that are likely to be frequent.

My hon. Friend did say that since 1890 there has been an increase in Government entertainment. That is perfectly true, but most of the entertainment is now done on a much more modest and intimate scale. What so often happens now is that distinguished visitors from the Empire or from foreign countries come here, and the Government arrange small luncheon or dinner parties, and there are perhaps a dozen people from this country invited to meet and talk with perhaps six or eight guests from overseas.

For purposes of that kind, the Banqueting Hall, as I think my hon. Friend will agree, would be entirely unsuitable, but that would not be the case with Lancaster House, which has numerous rooms of different sizes, has a large garden and is in a secluded situation. The proposal that my hon. Friend has made has often been made before. I have no doubt that a short time before the lease runs out in 1972 the Government of that day will take this matter carefully into account. I am not, however, disposed to think that I shall then be occupying my present position and, therefore, I would not like anything I say now necessarily to commit our successors at that somewhat remote date.

It would, however, probably involve a measure of consent from the Royal United Service Institution which would not, I understand, be very easily obtained. I am sure that it would require the consent of the Sovereign of that time. It would involve great expenditure, probably exceeding, in all, £750,000 on the Banqueting Hall itself and the alternative accommodation which would have to be provided. It seems likely that by then Lancaster House will have proved itself on the whole a more convenient, a beautiful and an entirely satisfactory centre for Government hospitality.

So, without in any way pre-judging the issues which will have to be settled in some 15 years' time, I would say that I am not at present convinced that the proposal which has been made is likely to prove entirely practicable or desirable.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, is it possible for him, as a matter of public interest, to make representations to whatever authorities are concerned to make the Banqueting Hall available to the public free of charge on one or two days a week? It is a great pity that this architectural gem should not be visible to the public except on payment of a fee.

Mr. Molson

I do not think it is unreasonable to ask of anyone who desires to see this beautiful Banqueting Hall that he or she should pay the normal entrance fee to see a museum which is of quite outstanding interest in itself.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two Minutes past Four o'Clock.