HC Deb 10 November 1954 vol 532 cc1345-9

(1) The Treasury shall appoint a chairman of the National Gallery Trustees and a chairman of the Tate Gallery Trustees.

(2) A chairman appointed under this section shall hold office for so long as he shall remain a trustee or for such shorter period as the Treasury may determine at the time of his appointment:

Provided that a chairman may at any time resign his office as chairman whether or not he continues to be a trustee.

(3) This section shall come into effect as regards the Chairman of the National Gallery Trustees on the first occurrence of a vacancy among those trustees and similarly as regards the Tate Gallery Trustees.—[Mr. K. Robinson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. K. Robinson

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

I referred briefly during the Second Reading debate to one of the main considerations which led to the tabling of this new Clause. When the recent Tate Gallery controversies broke upon us I was somewhat surprised to find that the chairman of the trustees—the person who was responsible for making public statements and the person who was besieged by the Press reporters—was, in fact, a civil servant. This seemed singularly inappropriate. I always imagined a senior civil servant as someone who administered anonymously, and who was cushioned from the public by a Minister of the Crown. The chairman of the trustees of the Tate Gallery is undoubtedly a public figure, but he has certainly not been cushioned from the public by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the past, the Chancellor has interposed himself between the Chairman and this House, but that is another matter.

I repeat what I said during the Second Reading debate, that I do not intend to cast any reflection whatever upon the person of the present chairman of the Tate Gallery trustees; indeed, I think that the final subsection of the proposed new Clause makes it perfectly clear that we do not desire any immediate change in this matter. I know that the chairman is a very distinguished civil servant, and I believe that he has handled these recent difficulties skilfully and properly. I am sure that he has acted at all times on his own responsibility as chairman and has interpreted the collective responsibilities of the trustees.

I am also sure that he has acted independently of the Treasury and of any Treasury pressure which might have been brought at any time. But is it not better that the chairman of the trustees shall not only be independent of the Treasury but shall manifestly appear to be independent? In general terms, I do not think that it can be said that a senior civil servant appears to be independent of the Treasury in this capacity.

I made inquiries to see how this situation arose, and I discovered that it is the practice of the trustees of both galleries to elect the chairman from among their own numbers, and they naturally select the person most likely in their opinion to be the best chairman of their meetings. They probably take a few other considerations into account. But in my view, in this instance they made a mistake of principle, and I think that it is a mistake that the Treasury itself would not be likely to make. We know it makes mistakes, but I do not think that this is the sort of mistake which it would make.

The effect of the new Clause is to make the Treasury responsible for appointing the chairman of the trustees, as such, for both the National and the Tate Galleries. There is nothing revolutionary about a situation of this kind. The Committee knows that the Minister of Health appoints the chairmen of regional hospital boards for a period of three years. That is another very responsible honorary job, and I am quite sure that that example could be duplicated in other fields. I have not done any extensive research into this matter, but I should not be surprised to find that that was the normal procedure and that the procedure adopted by the boards of trustees in this case is the unusual one.

In general, I am averse to giving additional powers to the Treasury. I should be very much happier if some of its present powers were taken away. But I am satisfied that the change advocated by the proposed new Clause, though a small one, is thoroughly desirable, and I hope that the Government will accept it.

Mr. H. Brooke

I thought that I had a friend of the Treasury in the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson), until he turned round in the last few moments of his speech and spoilt the whole thing by saying how important it was that the Treasury should be watched.

There are two points which his speech raised. The first is the position of the present chairman of the Tate trustees, and the second is the larger question of how the chairman should be appointed. So far as the present chairman is concerned, it is a matter of chance that he happens to be a civil servant. He was not a civil servant when he was appointed a trustee, nor was he one when he was elected by his fellow trustees to be their chairman; and when the hon. Member spoke of the importance of the chairman being independent of the Treasury, I could not help wondering whether he was contradicting the purpose of his proposed new Clause. I say that because his proposal as embodied in the Clause would establish, in one sense, a closer relationship between the Treasury and the chairman than exists at present.

My approach to the general major question which the hon. Gentleman has raised is this. It would seem, in a matter such as this, hardly wise to make a change unless one really believes that the present system is not working well. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has no criticism of the way in which the system is working, or has worked in the past, and I have no reason whatever to think that the trustees of either gallery would desire any change or that public opinion generally believes that the present system is unsatisfactory.

I am asked to consider what happens in other bodies, and I can tell the Committee that I have made some researches into that point in order to find out what does happen, especially in bodies controlling museums and galleries; and the conclusion is that I find it would be quite out of accord with the general practice for the Treasury to appoint the chairman. I believe that there is one single case which can be found, but the proposal put forward would not accord with practice, or with constitutional principles. It would be most unusual for the Treasury to appoint the chairman.

I can reinforce that statement by reminding hon. Members that there was a Royal Commission on Museums and Galleries which reported in 1930, and that Royal Commission was of opinion that no change was necessary. I do not think that the situation has altered since then, and I must say that I think there is something positive to be said for the trustees selecting their own chairman. The trustees are unpaid people, working in an honorary capacity, who get to know one another pretty well, and they get to know the contribution which each can make to the job and how much time each can give to the task; and I fancy that they build up a closer knowledge of who would be the best leader of the team than the Treasury could ever do, with all its qualities and skill.

I do ask the hon. Gentleman to accept it from me that I have considered his suggestion very carefully, but find that the existing arrangements seem to work smoothly and that they commend themselves so strongly to the trustees of both Galleries that it would be a pity for any change to be made.

Mr. K. Robinson

The Financial Secretary has not convinced me that the present system is better than that which I advocate, but he has convinced me that the anomaly to which I have drawn attention was an accident, and not likely to recur, and, for that reason, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion and Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.