HC Deb 15 December 1971 vol 828 cc792-9

8.56 a.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

Before dealing with the subject I wish to raise, may I say that it seems to me extraordinary for a legislature to vote hundreds of millions of pounds and for us to consider estimates of that volume every year without the House first referring the estimates to a committee of the House. I cannot say that it is a unique habit among legislatures, but it is certainly unusual. Most legislatures would not dream of having complicated estimates of this kind and of enormous value, totalling in this Bill over £5 billion, without referring them first to some or many subject committees. We do not have many subject committees, but we have some. I should have liked to ask why we are voting the Vote on Account at this time of the year, but there is no point in my doing so since the Minister who is to reply to this debate is not the right Minister to answer that question. But it seems to be a curious practice to vote, four months in advance, the money for the first part of the next financial year.

The subject I want to raise arises from the Vote on Account provision of £192,000 for the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The total cost of that museum to public funds each year amounts to about £600,000—approximately £400,000 on its own vote and approximately £200,000 in ancillary expenses borne elsewhere but out of public funds. In view of the enormous magnitude of that figure, which is not in the least improper in itself, I think that I am justified in looking carefully at the behaviour of the museum, particularly in respect of one case affecting a constituent of mine which has been going on between that constituent and the museum to nobody's satisfaction, especially not the Minister's, for the last 18 months or so.

The case involves a publishing company which uses the facilities of the museum to produce what would be commonly called "the coffee table book". This is a common practice. The British Museum, the Maritime Museum and many others provide these facilities to publishers at a fee. I recognise that the Minister is not responsible for the day-to-day running of the museum, and if I had not recognised that, he and his senior colleague have impressed it upon me. Nevertheless, he is asking the House to vote this large sum of money, and neither the House nor the Minister can be totally indifferent to the manner in which the museum behaves towards members of the public and companies.

The case in question involves this man. The museum sent to the publishing company an invoice for a cost of £650, approximately, for the work which the publishing company wanted done. The company protested that that was high. The museum then reduced the bill by about £50. The publishing company then complained again and that it thought it was still too high, and it went on complaining for a letter or two, whereupon the museum referred the matter to its trustees. The trustees promptly ordered that the original bill should be doubled.

It seems to me that that is an extraordinary way for a quasi-public institution, almost exclusively dependent upon public funds, to conduct its relations with members of the public. When the bill was first presented to the company it was perfectly clearly marked that the cost for the work would be £212 for the book if it were published in one languauge of £650 approximately if it were published in three or more languages. That was according to the standard set of fees which, I think, had been publicly announced by the museum at the time, subject to a reduction of 50 per cent. on account of the fact that the book was conceived to be of an eduational nature. There was nothing said at the time that that invoice was sent to suggest that the educational nature of the book needed to be verified after publication. Indeed, the museum perfectly well knew the kind of publication involved, as much as the publisher did.

When the company protested, very politely, about the size of the fees, pointing out that the amount was a lot more than the British Museum charged for that kind of thing, and saying We hope you will be able to reconsider it the museum came back with a rather tart letter saying that in view of the bulk of the order the museum was prepared to reduce the cost for the world rights for the book to £600 from £650.

The publisher then came back, very politely and moderately—more moderately than I think I would have written—and pointed out that there had been recent discussions in the museum world between museum administrators and representatives of publishers and that in the discussions the whole question of the charging of these fees had been brought up. So a legitimate general point was being made to the museum about charges which the museum was making, particularly in relation to the much lower charges made by the British Museum. The letter ended very politely, I respectfully request that the matter should be reconsidered. The museum undertook to reconsider it, and there followed one or two more items of correspondence, and then the next substantive event was that the museum said that it was referring the matter to the board of trustees of the museum. Having consulted the trustees, the museum, on 21st September, 1970, wrote saying to my constituent that the museum now believed that the book in question was not of an educational nature, that, therefore, it should not be subject to the 50 per cent. reduction for books of that kind, and that, therefore, the original bill for £650 ought to be approximately doubled. My constituent naturally reacted to that with some feeling, but he expressed himself, again, very moderately, I think, in the circumstances.

The result of that was that the matter was referred in the first place to the Paymaster-General and then, later, to the Treasury Solicitor, and my constituent received a solicitor's letter from the Treasury Solicitor saying, in effect, that he had better pay up or else proceedings would be taken.

In effect, therefore, what happened was that the museum, having announced a certain charge, having had that charge questioned, having then reduced it by a little, and having then had that bill questioned, promptly doubled the first figure. I do not know whether the initial offer formally stated in an invoice constitutes a contract. Perhaps it does not. I am not much concerned with the legal rights of my constituent against the museum, because they can be pursued through legal means. But, whether legal or not, I regard it as exceedingly bad practice—I know of no private company which would do it—to set a figure for a certain service and then, because the customer protests about it over some lengthy period, to double the original figure. Yet that is what was done here.

There have been three principal changes in the museum's position. First, having offered the educational rate, openly and in terms, that educational rate it later withdrew, although it knew all along what kind of publication it would be. Second, having offered world rights, that is, the right to publish in all languages, for a fee three times the basic figure, the museum then withdrew that, made a new charge for the basic figure, and said that publication in any other language would cost the same again. Third, having initially given a small reduction or discount for a large order, it then withdrew that small discount.

In sum, my constituent, having first had a bill for £600, had it more than doubled —so far as I can see, not only from my constituent's account but from a reading of the correspondence—in a fit of pique at the annoyance he was causing by the troublesome business of getting this service out of the museum. That is how I read the correspondence.

I should add that in respect of another book similar though less serious difficulties have arisen. For instance, much more recently my constituent has been told that the fees charged by the Maritime Museum are as laid down by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. That is simply not true. Her Majesty's Stationery Office does not lay down the fees for the Maritime Museum. If the phrase is intended to mean that the museum charges the same fees as the Stationery Office charges, that also is not true.

So there seems to be a regular botch-up in the handling of this case on the part of the museum. A botch-up can happen in the best-organised places, and I should not mind it happening here if the museum displayed any remorse for what it had done and showed some sign of wishing to put it right. I regret to say that it does not. The Minister, no doubt, will say that he is not responsible for the day-to-day running and cannot instruct the trustees what to do. But I submit that the Maritime Museum will acquire for itself a bad reputation among museums if it is prepared to behave in this way.

I copied some of the correspondence to the chairman of the trustees. I have heard nothing from him. It has been possible for the trustees to get in touch with me and explain their position. I think that they may have been in touch with someone else in the House, but they have not been in touch with me.

I hope that the Minister will use his influence to persuade the museum to revert to the original figure which it quoted, and to charge the kind of fees stated on the prevailing list of fees which applied at the time that the first request was made.

9.10 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

The point raised by the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham), as he will readily appreciate, is a very narrow one, and he will acquit me, therefore, of discourtesy if I deal with it briskly, especially at this late hour.

May I first establish absolutely clearly, although I will try to assist him a little, that he is quite right in saying that there is a properly constituted Board of Trustees, constituted under the National Maritime Museum Act, 1934. Those trustees have been given certain duties by this House, and it is not for me to detract from those duties by seeking to give the trustees detailed instructions.

I had guessed what he hon. Member intended to raise, and I have therefore looked carefully at the file. I find it highly significant that he has left out the most crucial letter of all. It is so crucial that I am sure he does not know of it, because obviously he would not want to present a case, as he has, which is not complimentary to the trustees—indeed, it was not intended to be. But in this House where we speak with total privilege we have to weigh our words carefully. I have something to say about his constituent, and I shall weigh my words.

It is surprising to me that he did not mention the key letter which was written by his constituent on 18th May, 1970. The hon. Member did not mention the name of his constituent's firm and, as he would probably prefer the name not to be given, I will do the same. The letter was written by the managing director to the museum on receipt of the invoice. This is the key phrase: May I say at once that I am not aware of anybody responsible here accepting these fees, and I assure you that the first news of this came with the actual invoice. This establishes right at the outset that there was, according to the hon. Member's constituent, no agreement of any kind, and this was the position each maintained all the way through the negotiations. Far from having said that a fee had been agreed, he started and went right the way through these negotiations saying, "No, I never agreed anything at all", until his solicitors have recently said with a certain coolness that, as a former and future practising solicitor, I admire: However, with respect, you have overlooked the fact that your clients Mr. Robinson, not only orally agreed with our clients on 30th April the cost…". Indeed the problem is quite simple and quite resolved. The original invoice of about £600 is now agreed. The hon. Member's constituent who had firmly throughout the negotiations said, "We have never agreed anything", has now said, "Oh, yes, we orally agreed."

All the trustees have done is to say, "All right, if you give us £600 the matter will be over."

Mr. Cunningham

I was perfectly well aware of that letter, and I have it here. I thought it best not to refer to accounts of telephone conversations which I cannot vouch for but to rely on the formal correspondence. Whether or not the publishing company agreed the £600 or £650 does not affect my argument. I am complaining that the bill was increased to more than £1,200. If someone does not agree to pay £600, one does not bump it up to £1,200. I am not saying it is illegal, but it is certainly bad practice, and it is not proper for a public authority to do it.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The hon. Member is doing his best for his constituent. The position is quite simple. Originally, there was an invoice. The hon. Member's constituent said that he had never agreed to it, but verbally had done so. Then the matter started off afresh, with, incidentally, certain considerations about whether this was or was not an educational matter. I do not enter into that at all, it is a matter entirely for the trustees. They were considering whether there should be certain rights for certain overseas countries.

Had the hon. Member's constituent from the word "go" said, "Yes, I agree the figure", the trustees would have said, "So did we." The matter would have ended there, and there would have been no further discussion. The hon. Member has handled this with extreme coolness. It was his own constituent who denied the existence of an agreement which, as honourable men, the trustees would also have acknowledged. However, we need not worry, since his constituent has now said "Yes, I did agree the figure. So that is the figure to be agreed.

I have had a great deal of experience of looking through solicitors' files in tracing debtors. I must say that the hon. Member's constituents are some of the coolest operators I know, and on no grounds at all am I prepared to intervene. I have explained that my noble Friend has no duties in respect of detailed administration, and I reject totally and absolutely the inference that there has been some bad faith or bad dealing by the trustees. I think the hon. Member would be well advised to get clearer instructions the next time he raises a matter in the House.

Mr. Cunningham

The Minister has maligned my constituent in firm words. I am not pursuing this matter just because this is a constituent but because, having read the papers, I am satisfied that he is right on the main point. Whatever may be said about whether a figure was agreed in the first place, no respectable institution issues an invoice for a certain service and then doubles it at a later stage. That will not do, and nothing my constituents have done takes away from the guilt of that.

Mr. van Straubenzee

But it does. These are highly reputable trustees, and I am sure that when the hon. Member reads his speech he may well reconsider what he said about them. If a straightforward body of trustees issues an invoice, which they did, and are first told there was no verbal agreement between two honourable people, then they are free to explore the matter further. What happened was that the hon. Member's constituents finding themselves faced, possibly quite lawfully, with a larger sum, then decided to remember the agreement into which they had entered previously. I think the hon. Member is trying very hard, but I am not prepared to take the matter further.