HC Deb 08 July 1963 vol 680 cc1001-5

Lords Amendment: In page 3, line 43, at end insert new Clause A: A. The Trustees of the British Museum shall within three years after the commencement of this Act and subsequently at intervals of not more than three years prepare and lay before each House of Parliament a report on the Museum. Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.—[Mr. du Cann.]

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I hope that: my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary will accept this Amendment. When we discussed the Bill on a previous occasion there was a good deal of talk about publicity for the British Museum. As a result of a continuation of that, their Lordships have seen fit to suggest that the Museum should produce a report at intervals of not more than three years, That seems to me not a very great im-

position on the trustees of the Museum. They are not obliged to produce it at very regular intervals. I feel that such a report as is envisaged would create more public interest in the Museum, and that is what we all want. During the previous debates a good deal was said about that aspect.

The Museum has done much to modernise itself, and if the public is to enjoy all these new facilities its attention surely should be drawn to them. Therefore, I feel that the Government, who perhaps were not over-keen on this Amendment in their Lordships' House, would be well advised to reverse their decision and accept the Amendment because it continues the policy which the Government have been trying to pursue recently of bringing all our great national institutions into line with the needs of the day.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Edward du Cann)

This is the first of the three Amendments which we are to consider tonight. It is a minor matter but, none the less, the most important of the three and covers an interesting point.

At present there is no obligation on the British Museum to publish reports. Up to 1938 it published an annual report, but the practice lapsed for reasons of economy, induced, of course, by the war, and it has not yet been resumed. This is a subject which, in spite of the correct reference of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), was not touched on in detail in this House when we were considering the Bill earlier, but it caused a good deal of interest in another place and a clear view was expressed there that there should be such an arrangement.

This is a Government proposal designed to meet that intention but, at the same time, to allow the trustees some latitude about the timing and content of their report. It would enable them, for example, if they thought fit, to issue reports two or three years running on different aspects of the Museum's work and then, perhaps, have a gap of anything up to three years, but not more, before issuing another report. There can be little doubt that it is appropriate to put on the Museum some obligation to produce reports, for, as my hon. Friend says and as other right hon. and hon. Members well know, there is intense interest, not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the academic world, in the valuable and exciting work which the Museum is doing with such distinction.

We think that this flexibility will make for more interesting and valuable reports than might perhaps have flowed from an obligation to produce reports without fail every year. One might say that the object of the Amendment is"away dullness". It certainly does not imply any desire to discourage the trustees from issuing comprehensive reports, but leaves it to their judgment what to write about and, within limits, when. I am advised that the trustees welcome this provision which was well received on Report in the House of Lords.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

This is not a very thrilling proposal to come from another place. Those of us interested in the Bill in its earlier stages in this House hoped for something more. We did not think of this matter in our discussions either on the Floor of the House or in Committee upstairs. It seems to have had a rather rough passage in another place.

It is rather surprising that the trustees have been under the blight of economy for so long. Reports which were issued up to 1938 were suspended on grounds of economy and have not been resumed since. One wonders what is the explanation of that. It is probably that the Government have kept the British Museum so short of money that the trustees have not felt that they could spend any of their meagre resources in publishing a report of their activities. In the last dozen years, we have had reports on everything else under the sun, but not a report from the trustees of the British Museum.

In another place, the Government suggested that there was nothing to stop the trustees of the British Museum from publishing a Report and that, indeed, it would be welcome if they did. It would be undesirable to impose upon them a statutory obligation to publish a report every so often irrespective of whether they had anything interesting to say, and it would be much better left as it is. That was the Government's idea when the matter was first introduced in another place on 6th May.

It is, however, a little difficult to justify leaving things as they are if nothing happens as things are. Since the trustees have not published a report, although they were free to do so and the Government would have welcomed it had they done so, it is not surprising that a majority of their Lordships took the view that it was time to put a little discipline on the trustees of the British Museum to require them to say something at least once every three years.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Is it not a fact that the trustees have published a great deal of other matter, even if they have not published these annual reports?

Mr. Houghton

Yes, but, apparently, what they published did not satisfy the requirements of noble Lords, who pressed this matter to a Division against the advice of the Government in another place. This is a Government defeat brought here for ratification. That is the importance of this occasion. The Government has not resigned; they are bluffing it out. As the price of the Government's defeat in another place, the trustees of the British Museum are to labour under the yoke of a statutory obligation to report at least once every three years.

As the Economic Secretary has said, the trustees can report in driblets, if they like, now and again, but there must never be longer than a three years' gap between the last report and the next one. They can report every year if they like, if they have something to say, and then leave it for not more than three years before they make another report. Even if they report every year for 10 years, they have still to make another report within three years of the last one. This is a form of tyranny which is now being imposed on the trustees of the British Museum owing to the weakness and indecision of the Government in another place.

I have read carefully the debates in another place. I have read the way in which the Government spokesman tried to slither through that important debate and I am not surprised that one noble Lord expressed something near to consternation at the indifference on behalf of the Government in another place.

The new Clause has important political significance. It is simply another indication that the Government have lost their grip and are slithering to defeat as a result of their incompetence in another place as well as their incompetence in this House. Nevertheless, we support the new Clause.

Question put and agreed to.