HC Deb 22 July 1971 vol 821 cc1833-44

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

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise what many of us feel to be an extremely important matter. Although we are discussing it at a very late hour, and although the Chamber is not full, I know that I am speaking on behalf of many hon. Members who have had to return to their constituencies and who have asked me to say that they wish to be associated with what is said this evening.

It is often the case that deficiencies of Government policy are highlighted by a particular crisis—a crisis for which the Government of the day are totally unprepared. That is the case here. In November last year a picture by Velasquez was sold by auction at Christie's for the unprecedentedly large sum of £2,300,000.

This was an earnest of things to come. Last month one of the finest paintings of Titian's latter period, The Death of Actaeon, was sold in the same auction rooms for £1,600,000. It is the sale of these works of supreme importance to foreign buyers which helps to highlight the lack of co-ordinated Government policy on museum acquisitions and the shortcomings of museum policy generally. Unfortunately, it seems to many, including the trustees of our great collections, that the Government are peculiarly insensitive and inflexible here. The imposition of museum charges without consultation with trustees caused a great deal of disquiet in the art world. This disquiet is altogether understandable. Many of my hon. Friends who supported the Government's policy in this felt less than happy about the way the move was engineered.

All this is a great pity because we are aware that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science and my noble Friend the Paymaster-General have all the interests of museums at heart and that there is much that is good in what the Government have proposed. But there is a state of unhappiness which seems to be summed up with particular effectiveness in the annual report of the National Gallery, which was published a few weeks ago. It said : It has been stated in high places that acquisitions should not now be considered as the first priority, and that museums stand in much greater need of money to make the best use of the collections they already possess. We do not accept this thesis. We yield to no one in acknowledgment of the importance of proper accommodation and presentation for the precious objects of our cultural heritage. But the construction of their better housing although urgently necessary is something which, given the labour and materials, can be undertaken at any time. But once the very few of the greatest masterpieces now remaining in private hands have left these shores they never can be recovered. That was cogently put, and I think that many people were delighted when the trustees came out with such a forthright expression.

I will make a brief reference to another recent statement. On the question of keeping works of art in this country : there are some who say that whatever is here ought to remain here. This is not a philosophy with which I find myself entirely in agreement. We have benefited very much in the past with treasures from other lands. It seems a narrow view that they should never leave our shores. Nevertheless, there are some things that we would wish to keep here, and it behoves the Government to look to the future to see what we want to keep in our own land and we should make the utmost efforts to retain those here. That quotation comes from the Prime Minister's much-applauded speech at the opening of the antique dealers' fair at Grosvenor House at the beginning of June.

It is in the light of these two statements that I want to consider this particular aspect of museum policy tonight. It is necessary for the government to do three things, particularly in regard to the institutions for which they are ultimately responsible. First, they must recognise the continuing need for acquisitions if our great national collections are to be living collections. Second, they should identify these needs : what should be acquired when it becomes available. Third and most important, they must see how means can be found to meet the need without creating enormous or unreasonable demands on the public purse.

Recognition of the need means recognising what the word "trustees" means—people who are not only guardians of what has been acquired in the past and handed down for our enjoyment, but people who are in the real sense the trustees for posterity and who must make their mark by acquiring these great things which come on to the market and without which our national collections will for ever be incomplete.

Paitings, of course, present the acutest problem. I must apologise if I dwell on that this evening. After all, £100,000 for a piece of furniture is still considered astronomical, but it is chicken feed for a painting. We want a list of those works still in private hands which might conceivably come on to the market and which must be retained in this country if our great national collections are to be complete.

I have such a list here and I will give it to the Minister after the debate. It does not pretend to be comprehensive. Many people could quibble about certain omissions or inclusions, but it does begin to tackle this problem. It is a list of about 25 paintings, some of which are unlikely to come on to the market, many of which have been on public view for a very long time. At the maximum, we are dealing with about 50 pictures. It is important of course not to neglect the provincial museums, but it is the need of our great national collections which must be uppermost in our thoughts.

To identify the need more precisely, I would ask the Government to call upon the Standing Commission on Museums to investigate and to report in three months on our great national treasures and to undertake, possibly along different lines, a similar review with regard to provincial museums and their needs. Perhaps this double probe could be the prelude to a Royal Commission on our national heritage, co-ordinated by the Department of the Environment as well as the Department of Education and Science.

It is obvious that special circumstances call for special action without our museums having to sacrifice their normal grants. What is needed is a contingency fund. It seemed to many of us that museum charges could have been the ideal basis for such a fund. It is not too late for the Government to repent and do something along these lines.

But, of course, many other things have to be done. I would urge my hon. Friend, together with our noble Friend the Paymaster-General, to institute, if they have not already done so, discussions with the Treasury on tax concessions. It is, for instance, ludicrous that, when a great benefactor leaves a picture to the nation it is inviolate, but when he leaves a sum of money—as Sir Robert Hart did to the National Gallery—of, in that case, £500,000, the gallery gets about £100,000. That is absolute nonsense.

It is time that we paid particular attention to the American system, whereby gifts from living donors can be offset for tax purposes up to a certain amount. Again it is necessary to adopt a sensible policy with regard to works of art coming into the sale room. What we need to do is to categorise those works of supreme importance so that before the auction, the Government say, "We will waive our right to estate duty on this." After all, the sums involved for the Treasury are infinitesimal, but the percentage of the auction price is enormous. The Government ought to consider the immediate setting-up of an art loan fund. In this week, when the "never-never" has suddenly become so respectable, I hope that what we understand will be the National Gallery's plea with regard to the Titian will be regarded with the utmost sympathy.

Long-term, I should like to see us thinking, again in conjunction with the relevant Departments, of a tourist tax, levied on arrival—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. The Chair has been lenient, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will realise that it is not in order to discuss matters which will require legislation during the course of an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Cormack

I apologise. I appreciate your lenience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the Minister has taken the point. As I hope that at least two of my hon. Friends will have the good fortune to catch your eye, I conclude by saying that we are not here talking about one picture or one problem. What we are seeking to do is to emphasise that there is, within the Government's policy, an area which leaves a great deal to be desired. We must have a co-ordinated policy on museum acquisitions which recognises the need for acquisitions, identifies the needs and seeks to find the means by which the needs can be supplied.

We have spent most of the last two days talking about Europe. Surely it would be a great sadness if this, the greatest nation of collectors, in a year when many of us hope that we will decide to enter the Common Market, turns its back upon its great heritage. I hope that tonight we can take a small step towards establishing a co-ordinated acquisitions policy which will help provide for the future leisure hours of millions of people, collections which have been augmented with works of supreme worth which have not been allowed to leave these shores, so that we cannot say that the Government in 1971 failed to do what enterprising private benefactors did 100 and 200 years ago.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)

As the son of one who, for much of his working life, was responsible for one of our great national collections, I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) for giving me the opportunity to intervene briefly in this debate. I agree with everything that he has said. I would just add that, in addition to these 50 or so great pictures, there will always be lesser works which must necessarily be acquired to complete and round off a collection. I hope that Ministers will recognise that there are many people who feel strongly on this subject.

It seems sad that a Government who are doing more for the arts than any of their predecessors should have succeeded in losing the sympathy of those who care about these matters. The priorities outlined by the Paymaster-General are perfectly sensible, but however right the priorities may be we are more likely to gain acceptance of them by consultation than by assertion and by recognition of the fact that there other priorities which cannot be simply swept aside and ignored.

I refer primarily to the need for an acquisitions policy and the method of financing it. A Government who ignore that will not just label themselves Philistine, but will lay themselves open to great political and financial embarrassment. I know that the Minister cannot speak for the Chancellor, but I would say that some of us would be able to bear the loss of the Titian, tragic though I believe it would be, if it marked the turning point and if the Government would take the opportunity to show that they recognise the problem, to state that they are urgently seeking a solution and to declare that they will put the solution before this House as a matter of high priority.

11.20 p.m.

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

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) who I know would have liked to have contributed to this debate. He will appreciate that only a limited time is available, and half of it having been taken up by my hon. Friends putting one side of the case, it is reasonable that I should claim my ration to put the other side.

Without being discourteous to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), I must tell him that it is misleading to speak of Government policy as such—and I emphasise "as such"—on museums acquisitions. It is the museums themselves, and only they, that decide, in relation to their purpose, development plans, existing collections and total resources, what they wish to acquire, and the Government's part is to be concerned only with the resources that can be allocated to the museums.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock asked me to identify the problem in this regard. My answer is to suggest that the record of successive Governments speaks for itself. We must recall that the present rate of £2 million per year from 1970–71 allows for forward planning up to 1974–75. In the same period, the total annual grant to local museums and galleries—and I was glad that my hon. Friend mentioned these—has been raised to £150,000. I am entitled to say that the increase in the sums available for acquisitions demonstrates that the Government mean business when they say that the arts should be supported.

Nothing in this or in any other sphere is as good as we would like it to be, and the first problem I wish to identify is the fact that the acquisition grant for local museums and galleries at £150,000 is small compared with the £2 million for national institutions. One of the issues which the Committee on Provincial Museums and Galleries will examine is the needs of the local institutions in this respect.

The second difficulty is that in some—though not in all—fields of the arts prices have risen, due to international and largely speculative factors, faster even than the rise in purchase grants. The two recent occasions quoted involved two great pictures, and they were sold for a total of £4 million. I am advised that this is far and away beyond what most experts would have envisaged before the sale of the Velasquez.

I must tell the House that for £4 million one could have, even at today's inflated prices, a whole new gallery with all the opportunities that that would allow for the better display of the treasures that we have and better facilities for the public who, in increasing numbers, are visiting our museums and galleries.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich) rose

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way.

This is the crux of the problem which the House must face. One could afford the luxury of being a purist in the days when the most expensive masterpieces could be purchased by a combination of the private resources of the galleries, public appeal and a small additional grant. But we are now considering sums of money which must be found from the total resources available to the Government and which, if available, could other wise be used to provide enormous opportunities for the future.

Nor have prices risen like this in every field. We are here essentially talking about paintings. I am saying, therefore, that the Government cannot allow current problems affecting a small number of the finest paintings to govern the whole of the acquisition policy, which is what this debate is about, of all museums and galleries. Nor, frankly, tonight can I say anything that is helpful about the very great Titian, because the reviewing committee has not yet met.

Having stated this with some blunt-ness, I want to make it extremely clear that the Government have concern at the loss of masterpieces from this country. This is particularly so in the case of those which may be shown to be intimately associated with our own history. I feel that I am entitled to say that the Government have acted in this sense. For example, a special grant of £31,500 was given to the National Portrait Gallery towards the purchase of two miniatures, one of them being the only authenticated likeness in the country of Sir Francis Drake by the first, and one of the greatest of English miniaturists, Nicholas Hilliard. Moreover, when the opportunity arose for the acquisition of other works of art, and I think of the Domenichino, the Government have been able to help, and that painting is now in the National Gallery of Scotland.

The problem therefore relates to particular works of art and to particular institutions. For my own part, I much admire the trustees of the National Gallery in their determination to acquire or to keep here virtually every masterpiece which past good fortune has enabled us to enjoy and so doing, I say it respectfully, nothing less than their duty. But the Government have a wider responsibility. They have to ask themselves the brutal question of what could be done even in the field of the arts with the sums of money which would have to be found for massive purchases of this kind. So I look at certain other possible ways forward.

I hope, for example, that all owners of masterpieces will recall the fiscal advantages which can be obtained by sale to a national institution. I should be happy to arrange for any hon. Member who is interested to have full information. Obviously, whether these concessions are in every case decisive must be a matter for a decision of the individual, but the existing concessions are many, and in my view should be more widely known. The effect in any particular case depends largely on the circumstances of that case. But if I take as an example an estate valued in excess of £2 million and an overall rate of estate duty of 80 per cent., exemptions from aggregation of large works of art bringing the remaining estate down to £300,000, the effective advantage to that remaining estate is 18.5 per cent. It would be a useful result of the debate if we were to draw attention, however briefly, to the advantages which estate duty has to give, and the other fiscal advantages to which I do not now have time to make reference.

I hope also that public bodies, and here I include the churches, will consider carefully the possibility of sales to the institutions rather than public sale by auction. I hope that the bodies concerned to which I refer will review the arrangements they have for controlling the disposal of works of art, and make quite sure that they are adequate for the pressures of the present day.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock asked me a specific question about the Standing Commission, and was courteous enough, as always, to give me notice that he would raise the question. I will deal first with the question which I thought he intended to pose and then with that which he actually asked, because I misunderstood his courteous message. My noble Friend has asked me to say that he would be delighted to receive any advice which the Standing Commission was good enough to offer him on any aspects of museum policy, but the Government see no need to refer the particular problem of acquisitions to the Commission since, as I sought to explain at the outset, the choice of items which it is desirable to acquire is a matter for the institutions. The problem arises when resources are not available to acquire all that is desired.

Dealing with the second point my hon. Friend raised, which was the question of a list, I should prefer at this stage to say simply that this is a useful idea which I am sure that my noble Friend would like to consider, and I know that some ideas of this kind are in his mind, though not necessarily in precisely the same way as my hon. Friend outlined in his interesting speech.

I repeat my apologies to my hon. Friends who would like to have spoken in this debate, but I do not think that I have trespassed in any way upon my time. I suggest that we must not be misled by exceptionally high prices in a few fields into drawing general conclusions about Government policy for the museums and galleries. Acquisitions policy has, and I think always will be, a matter for the institutions themselves. It is only when exceptional circumstances and speculative prices create particular pressures in a few areas that the Government have to be involved, and when they are involved this becomes an issue of priorities for major resources.

I must remind my hon. Friends and myself, as one who as an individual would naturally wish to do even better in this field, that this means either resources taken from somewhere else or increased taxation, against which all of us have set our face firmly. If prices rise in one particular field, the Government must be fair to other institutions which specialise in other fields. I once again draw to the attention of the House the claims and requirements of the provincial galleries and museums. Above all, we must be fair to the public who need better display and better amenities than can be found today, even in the national institutions.

That said, I hope that this debate, short as necessarily it must be, will have served to bring a searchlight to bear on some of the problems which surround this very difficult problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.