HC Deb 17 December 1959 vol 615 cc1748-56

4.39 p.m.

Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)

I wish to raise a general and not a particular question. Although it concerns the estate of the late George Bernard Shaw it is a question which applies to all estates in which the testator was intending and was legally entitled to benefit a section of the public by a legacy to a public institution and/or a legacy to a charitable institution, which is an institution wholly or in part supported from public funds.

The short point is that if the Exchequer contribution to such institutions is, by reason of the legacy, in any way reduced, the purpose of the testator is pro tanto frustrated, and the will rendered de facto void. I will now give the facts of the case. I have here Bernard Shaw's will, clauses 35 to 40 of which say: I devise and bequeath all my real and personal estate…as to one-third…for the trustees of the British Museum"— and we should note these words— in acknowledgement of the incalculable value to me of my daily resort to that Reading Room of that Institution at the beginning of my career, as to one-third for the National Gallery of Ireland and as to the remaining one-third…for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. As I say, it is a general point. Whether it be Shaw or anyone else it is important that the strictest regard should be paid to the terms of any such will and to the intentions of any such testator—all the more so when the benefaction and the intention is directed to the public benefit. Indeed, any other course—and I am not yet asserting that it has happened, only that I have reason to believe that it has or at any rate will otherwise happen—would be a vicious violation of a sacred trust and a stupid detriment to the future interests of the public.

Why should any trust testator ever again seek to benefit the public interest unless he may be assured that the solemn words of his last will and testament will not be rendered null and void and in effect scored out after he is dead? Surely, too, such a well-intentioned testator needs to be assured that his estate will not, in blatant contempt for the intentions of his will, be subjected to additional and unconstitutional Estate Duty. Why so insult the dead and penalise the public by so discouraging all future attempts to improve the quality and quantity of public services without cost to the taxpayer? Why not, per contra, respect the wishes of the testator, and, in so doing, go out of our way to encourage such testamentary generosity directed to the benefit of the public?

It is not as if the Exchequer does not do very well out of such legacies in any case. Estate Duty has to be paid to the Exchequer as a first charge—in this case 70 per cent. on the top tranche of the valuation and a total of over£½million.

It will be seen, therefore, that any diminution of the sacred intentions of a will, by diminishing pro tanto or even in part, the Exchequer's contribution is in effect nothing but an underhand operation, a deceit on the dead, an unconstitutional tax on estate and a robbery of the living.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

But, of course, he is not really dead.

Mr. Pitman

Hear, hear.

It will be apparent to the House that Shaw's intention was not to benefit the generality of the taxpayers but rather those. relatively few in number, who would be using the thus better facilities of the Reading Room of the British Museum and those would-be actors, actresses and producers who would be thus better training themselves for a part in the dramatic arts—in the English language.

Some testators leave their money for reduction of the National Debt, and so to benefit the generality of taxpayers. Shaw did not. He left his money to two special selected sections precisely.

As I have said before in this House, Bernard Shaw asked me to keep a friendly eye on the carrying out of his will. In his name, therefore, I ask for him—indeed I consider that he is entitled to demand —that the money be used as he, the testator, intended, in the interests only of those two special sections of the public which are entitled to benefit and as thereby, incidentally, the public interest to encourage future generous testators requires.

Perhaps I ought to forestall a point which may be wrongly alleged, that the factor of degree is important. This cannot be so because, in the first place, it is not relevant. It is an issue of principle which applies generally, however small or however big the estate may be—indeed, the bigger the estate the greater the benefit to the generality of taxpayers by Estate Duty and therefore the greater reason why the chosen section of the public should receive its entitlement to the very much smaller residue. In the second place, any difference in degree can be well taken care of by a suitable allocation to the future. Indeed, since Shaw's estate is not capital but only a vanishing income from his copyrights, it would be improper if the beneficiaries were not to set aside a substantial annual saving to enable the as yet unborn generations of those sections of the public to share, as the living generation will share, the benefits of Mr. Shaw's legacy.

The Financial Secretary ought to bear in mind that the same issue will arise for decision by the Irish Government. Let it not be said in the world of literature, and throughout the whole English-speaking world, that a great Irishman and genius of the English language who sought to help English literature and English drama found honourable respect for the terms of his will only in Ireland.

4.46 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Edward Boyle)

By leave of the House, I reply to this debate, having already replied to an Adjournment debate earlier this afternoon. I am very pleased indeed that we have had time for it and that the patience of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) has been rewarded.

In the will of the late George Bernard Shaw, as I think the House knows, the Trustees of the British Museum, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the National Gallery of Ireland were named as residuary legatees. The will directed that a trust be set up for the purpose of devising a new British alphabet, and went on to say that, if and so far as such a trust should fail by judicial decision or any other cause beyond his Trustee's control, a third of the estate should go to each of the residuary legatees. The third part assigned to the Trustees of the British Museum is described in the will as being in acknowledgment of the incalculable value to me on my daily resort to the Reading Room of that Institution at the beginning of my career. In 1956, the residuary legatees and the Attorney-General were defendants in an action brought by the Public Trustee with a view to establishing the validity of the Alphabet Trusts, on the ground that they were charitable or that, even if they were not charitable, they were valid and enforceable. The judgment of the court was, of course, that the Trusts were invalid. I fully recognise how much regret that decision must have caused my hon. Friend the Member for Bath who has been concerned with spelling reform and, indeed, a sincere advocate of such Measures in this House, even though, as he knows, he and I were not always quite on the same side.

Since that date, the residuary legatees have received payments of income from the estate. Owing to the fact that Estate Duty was levied on an assessment of the value of all the copyrights in Shaw's works, practically the whole of the cash assets in the estate were swallowed up in payment of duty, with the result that, in the period immediately after Shaw's death, there was virtually no income. But the House may be interested to know that, since the great success of "My Fair Lady", income from the estate has become very considerable. I am bound to say, in all fairness, that it is the only work of Shaw's which I have never enjoyed as much as the others. For the time being, the administration of the residuary estate remains in the hands of the Public Trustee.

I am very grateful, in the context of this debate, to the authorities of the British Museum for the information with which they have furnished me. I can tell the House that, at the present time, the Trustees of the British Museum are receiving about£2,000 a month from the estate. The total amount they have received to date is just over£163,924, and it is possible that they will receive up to£85,000 in repayments of Income Tax levied on the income of the estate prior to the settlement of the action.

The terms of Shaw's will—I think that this is really crucial to the point we are discussing this afternoon—make it clear that the bequest is unrestricted, in the sense that the Trustees of the British Museum are free to do what they like with their portion of it. I fully agree with my hon. Friend and, obviously, with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes)—incidentally it is a pleasure to be debating with him in such a friendly context this afternoon—in the strong feelings they have about carrying out Shaw's will correctly. I say quite genuinely that there is no greater admirer of Shaw's works in this House than myself. I was brought up to admire them, and I still not only find his plays remarkably brilliant intellectually, but I think that the best parts of "John Bull's Other Island" have a poetic quality which is found in very little drama in this country. I agree, therefore, that we all want to do justice to the name of an extremely great literary figure.

It is important, however, to be quite clear on this point that the bequest to the British Museum was unrestricted.

The Trustees have, in fact, decided two things: first. that as it is only for a limited period that they will benefit by this bequest—because within fifty years of his death copyright in the works of Bernard Shaw will lapse and income cease—the receipts from the copyright should for the present be used to build up a capital fund and not for current expenditure. I think that a very reasonable decision. When one has a wasting asset it seems a useful thing to build up a capital fund. Secondly, because of Shaw's statement in his will about the value to him of the use of the Reading Room at the British Museum, the Trustees have decided that the income from the new fund should in due course be used primarily for the benefit of the Library.

I know the Trustees would object strongly to any suggestion that they should use trust funds in a way which would merely reduce their demand on public funds, either to maintain an existing service or to start a new one. The Treasury would entirely sympathise with that view. It is accepted that all the running costs of a Vote-borne department at a level approved by the Treasury are a proper charge on the Exchequer. The Treasury even in times of great stringency in our national and economic affairs has never sought to argue that the cost of a service should be reduced by a contribution from other resources available to the Trustees, or that public funds should not be provided to improve a service merely because the Trustees could afford to do it themselves. For the most part, trust moneys available to the various museums and galleries are restricted by the terms of the endowment to the purchase of objects of the collection. In a few cases they can be used to supplement the Vote provision for current expenses. For instance, the National Gallery regularly supplements the travel provision on Subhead B, and it may be that but for the availability of trust funds the Trustees would press for increased provision to be made on the Vote. But the Treasury in considering the Gallery's requirements for current purposes takes no account of any other income the Trustees may have available, but deals with the application on its merits in exactly the same way as if it were made by an institution which had no other resources. I mention that because I do not think there has been a convenient occasion for stating the principle, which I think is an important one, that in deciding the expenditure on Vote-borne departments we do not say that the Treasury contribution should be automatically reduced simply because some other source may become available.

It is quite true that when a museum asks for a special purchase grant, the Treasury asks what provision it can make from its own resources, including trust funds. It is not accepted policy that all exceptional acquisitions outside the scope of its annual purchase grant should be automatically financed by the Exchequer. The administration of trust funds is entirely at the discretion of the Trustees. The amounts are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, but expenditure is not scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee or the Treasury.

I hope I have shown that the line taken by the Treasury and the Trustees of the British Museum is in no way inconsistent with the terms of Shaw's will, and therefore we are not doing any act of discourtesy or showing lack of due attention to the wishes of the dead. So far as later opening of the Reading Room is concerned, while still awaiting the Trustees' proposals for evening opening for an experimental period starting some time in the next financial year, I cannot say any more than when I answered a Question by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson), but my right hon. Friend made it quite clear that he promised to deal with the request in a sympathetic manner.

I do not want to deprive the hon. Member for South Ayrshire of the opportunity of addressing the House for two or three minutes on this Motion, but perhaps, as I am almost the last speaker today and it is for the first time that I am addressing the House at this time of the year, I may be allowed to wish you, Mr. Speaker, all hon. Members and visitors to this Chamber a Happy Christmas.

4.55 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

We all agree with what the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said in his tribute to Bernard Shaw. Shaw had a very good Christmas card. It was, "Cheer up, comrades; Christmas only comes once a year and does not last very long."

I assure the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) that there are people in the country who are watching very closely the interests of Bernard Shaw, not because we think he is dead but because we realise that his spirit is very much alive. I am not sure whether I am lost in a maze of legality, but I impress upon the Financial Secretary that the last thing Bernard Shaw would have wished was to relieve the Treasury. I hope that the Minister's speech does not mean that in some indirect way Bernard Shaw's literary work will finance the armaments programme or result in easing the expenditure which might otherwise be incurred by the Government on such things as hydrogen bombs, which would have been a horror to Bernard Shaw.

He had a great affection for the Reading Room of the British Museum, because when he did not have much money he went there not merely to read books but for warmth, as he explained. He realised that before him other great people who had contributed to the literature and thought of this country had also taken advantage of the facilities offered by the British Museum.

I knew Bernard Shaw almost up to the time of his death, and I can assure the Minister that when he said he wished to give money to the Reading Room for a specific purpose, he meant it, and he was not wishing to finance the British Museum Library. He may have wished it knowing that Karl Marx had produced his monumental work in the British Museum. I hope that the Economic Secretary will be inspired to carry on his study of Bernard Shaw to the study of his predecessor, who also enjoyed the facilities of the British Museum.

Sir E. Boyle

I have read the first part of "Das Kapital" but I got stuck in the second part, and I defy anybody not to do the same.

Mr. Hughes

I always suspected that the hon. Member had got lost somewhere. I now understand where it was.

The hon. Member for Bath and I have noted with sympathy certain of the Minister's references. We will keep a most vigilant eye upon his activities and we hope that the results may be that, with our combined efforts, we may be able to see that the purpose for which Bernard Shaw left his money will be fulfilled.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Five o'clock, till Tuesday, 26th January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.