HC Deb 11 December 1973 vol 866 cc180-3
10. Mr. John Smith

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will make a statement on the Government's policy towards allowing national museums and galleries which make admission charges to have a free day without having to increase charges on other days.

40. Mr. Jeffrey Archer

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if it is her policy to permit national museums and galleries, after the start of admission charges, to have a free day at their discretion without requiring them to increase charges on other days.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am pleased to be able to inform the hon. Members of the following measures.

First, I have offered the trustees of the national museums and galleries the opportunity to propose, if they wish, new arrangements for free days. I have said that the Government are prepared to consider applications for a free day each week at any time during the low season or throughout the year, in which case weekends would be excluded. I have also explained that it would be up to the trustees to decide whether to cover the fall in receipts by an extension of the higher charging period or not to do this and to accept a slightly lower level of receipts from their museum charges money.

Secondly, without prejudice to subsequent arrangements for the next quinquennium for museum acquisitions, museums or galleries may opt in 1974–75 to use part or all of the additional resources from charges to supplement acquisition grants. Thirdly, if institutions earn more for charges than the sum estimated the balance will represent additional resources, which they can use without the procedure of a supplementary vote.

Finally, old-age pensioners will be admitted free to the national museums and galleries after charges are introduced.

Mr. Smith

May I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment, and wish him luck on the road which he has chosen to follow? May I also welcome his resolution of the free day problem and the old-age problem, which have caused unnecessary controversy over the last three years? In the same vein, will he make it crystal clear that there will be no budging from his right hon. Friend's pledge, made in the recent debate, that all the money raised by admission charges will go to museums and galleries as a genuine extra without having an adverse effect on the money which they will get from the Government?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for his congratulations. I can give him the unqualified assurance that he requires.

Mr. Archer

May I be the first from the Government side to congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and to say how we on these benches will be delighted by his announcement? Does he realise that we are particularly delighted, in view of some of the cynical cries when some of us chose to abstain rather than vote with the Opposition when we were told that this might happen? May we wish my hon. Friend further success in his appointment?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I am delighted to be high in his hopes, and I hope that I shall manage to remain there.

Mr. Faulds

May I, Sir, warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his artistic courage and compassion? We have been waiting for some little while for a Minister for the Arts like him. Will he say why he intends that these charges will be involved in the Estimates at all, since they were apparently promised to the museums in our late debate, and this new departmental device—which is what it is—simply gives the Minister an opportunity to rig the estimates?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his remarks. In the last resort, the Government must decide how much of the taxpayers' money can go on various items of expenditure, but I can assure the hon. Member that the Government will be fair with the institutions, and if the estimate of receipts made in advance of charges proves to be too high an adjustment will be made so that the institutions will not suffer from a guess made in the absence of evidence. The Government will play fair by the institutions on the principle that they can have extra resources in relation to charges.

Mr. Money

May I join in the general welcome to my hon. Friend, and say that those of us on this side who have been deeply interested and concerned in this subject will find his clear and extremely constructive answer—[Interruption.]

Mr. Donald Stewart

You voted for the charges.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) must ask a question concisely.

Mr. Money

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, in view of the barrage that is coming across the Chamber. As I said, I welcome my hon. Friend's extremely clear and constructive answer, and I hope that in looking at the question of admissions he will be able to take into account the position of the National Heritage as well as the position of the National Arts-Collection Fund.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am in correspondence with the National Heritage but I cannot hold out hopes in that regard. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I have tried to be as fair as I can on this matter, but I am unable to make any further concessions. The House is always generous when the sun shines.

Mr. Strauss

If the Minister's reply means anything it means that if a museum or gallery wants to have a free day it will have to charge double on at least one other day or surrender to the Treasury the equivalent amount of money that would have been received in charges. Surely that breaches the principle of a free day and reveals that the concession made to the House before is not a concession at all, with these conditions attached.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not believe the right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that. The choice is for the trustees of the museums and galleries. If they wish to extend the period of double charging they may do so and thus incur no diminution in revenue. If, on the other hand, they prefer to have a free day they are entitled to do so and all they will lose is the hypothetical revenue.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

How much will the Government get in cash from all this nonsense? Would it not be better for the Minister to forget the whole thing?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Government policy is to preserve the principle of charging and at the same time to be as reasonable and flexible as possible in the operation of the principle.