HC Deb 14 November 1972 vol 846 cc208-10
Q2. Mr. Guy Barnett

asked the Prime Minister whether he is satisfied with coordination between the Scottish Office, the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Education and Science over the scheme to administer charges for admission to national museums and galleries; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Barnett

Is the Prime Minister aware of the deep hostility aroused in all parts of the House by the imposition of museum and gallery charges? Is he also aware of the fact that this is of no advantage to Britain whatever? Since we are given to understand that the charges are being delayed during the 90-day freeze, will the right hon. Gentleman please take this opportunity to reconsider the whole policy with a view to not bringing in these charges?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir; I am afraid I cannot accept that conclusion. It is right that they should be delayed during the standstill, but this does not affect the matter of principle. It is an interesting point that this year attendances at museums and historic places at which charges are in force have risen at a faster rate than at museums which are free.

Mr. Faulds

Does not the Prime Minister realise that he has a marvellous opportunity to display his real concern for the arts—a concern which I believe he has—by dropping this universally-disliked piece of legislation and at the same time to set a good example to some of the less enlightened European museum authorities—or does he intend to wait until I have to do the job?

The Prime Minister

If I were to wait that long, it would never be done! I would point out that the present Government have done more to help the arts than any other Government previously. I believe that this is not a matter of a reactionary approach by European galleries; it is a characteristic throughout the whole of Western Europe. I find it difficult to understand the argument that there should be no charges. When we know of the enormous success of the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum, which has been attended by over one million people at a standard charge of 50p and when we also know that a large number of hon. Members are now waiting to visit that exhibition privately at a cost of £1 per head.

Sir J. Rodgers

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the whole country is behind him in his view about museum charges—[Interruption.] Certainly everyone who cares about these matters is. To say that the French, Germans or Americans do not care about the arts because they charge for admission to their museums is proof positive that we are wrong in trying to pretend that admission should be free. But let us ensure that students and old-age pensioners get in free.

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend, and special arrangements are made. With regard to the other branches of the arts, musicians always pay. Sometimes as students they pay half the normal charge for concerts. I learned all my orchestral music by going to the Proms and paying two shillings a night, and I appreciated that infinitely more than if I had been allowed in for nothing.

Mr. Strauss

Is the Prime Minister aware that there has been a substantial drop in the number of visitors to the National Gallery and other national museums this summer because of the general belief that the charge was already in operation? That was evidenced by the fact that when the National Gallery advertised that admission to the museum was still free, instead of a drop there was a big increase in the number of visitors? Does the Prime Minister appreciate, when he is putting this policy into effect, that what was not realised when the Bill was first introduced was that, out of the £1 million to be raised as a result of charges, £150,000 would come from children whose museum-going habits were bound to be impeded and that not a penny of their money or of that subscribed by anyone else would help a single museum or gallery?

The Prime Minister

I quite appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's concern for the arts, which is deep and well known. But I differ from him in his conclusions. I have heard what is alleged to have happened at the National Gallery. I have given examples of what has happened elsewhere this year when charges have been in force. The fact that people are prepared to pay to see special exhibitions shows that they are quite prepared to pay a reasonable sum to go to galleries. I also know that since the introduction of these charges those who are trustees and others responsible for museums and galleries have done a good deal more thinking about how to make them attractive and their displays modern and acceptable than ever before.