HC Deb 22 March 1974 vol 870 cc1491-3
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Hugh Jenkins)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

It was announced in the Gracious Speech that museum charges recently introduced would be abolished, and I have been considering the necessary arrangements with my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

After consultation with the national museums and galleries, it has been decided that such charges will not be levied after the museums and galleries close on Friday next, 29th March 1974. Consequential Supplementary Estimates for 1974–75 will be presented to Parliament in due course to make good the loss of VAT reimbursements.

The abolition of museum charges does not require the repeal of any existing legislation in England and Wales or in Scotland. The employment of the staff recruited for the administration of the charges scheme is being discussed fully with the museums and galleries.

We and the trustees of the various institutions have agreed that they should refund, at the place of issue 80p for each season ticket issued to adults and 40p for each season ticket issued at the reduced charge if this is claimed by 30th June. Unused gift vouchers may be redeemed at face value at any place of issue.

I should like to express my appreciation to all the trustees. Some were more eager to be rid of the charges than others, but all have enabled me to act swiftly and without recourse to legislation. Freedom day will be tomorrow week, Saturday 30th March.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The House will be grateful for that most interesting statement. I should like to felicitate the Under-Secretary on his appointment and his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I thank him for his courtesy in letting me have what might be called in this context an advance private view of his statement.

There are a number of questions which I wish to put to the hon. Gentleman. First, is it the Government's intention to repeal the relevant legislation, or will it be left on the statute book?

Second, in view of my announcement to the House in December that museums and galleries could retain the proceeds of charges and use them for acquisitions, do the Government intend to make good this loss of revenue?

Third, bearing in mind the record amount of £50 million a year spent by the Conservative Government on the arts, is it the intention of the present Government to continue the policy of increasing regularly in real terms the grants to museums and galleries and to the Arts Council?

Mr. Jenkins

Dealing with the hon. Gentleman's first question, it is not our intention, nor is it necessary, to repeal any legislation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Museums and Galleries (Admission Charges) Act 1972 was merely an enabling Act to empower certain museums and galleries in England and Scotland whose powers to charge were in doubt to levy charges. It has proved possible by agreement between the parties in this case, and, therefore, it is not necessary to go through the process of repealing legislation.

The hon. Gentleman's second point was about finance. We do not anticipate that there will be any considerable changes here. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter is being dealt with on the basis of the net Vote. Therefore we do not believe that there will be any problem arising on this point.

As for the hon. Gentleman's third question, we take the view that it is necessary to maintain the policy which we introduced of keeping these institutions at a level which will enable them to continue to fulfil and expand their functions. But the hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is impossible for me to anticipate the statement of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer next Tuesday.

Mr. Stephen Ross

We congratulate the Minister on his appointment and on his statement. We also congratulate the Government on their prompt action, as well as on their decision to make the refunds set out in the last paragraph of the statement. We hope to hear no more of this unfortunate episode and that the long enjoyed right of the public to see our national collections without charge will not again be challenged.

Mr. Jenkins

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. May I rectify an error I made in not expressing my appreciation to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas)? He must put it down to nervousness on making my first statement at the Dispatch Box.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

May I respectfully add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman, as an old friend of his? Does he not consider, however, that his answer to the second of the questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) was rather lacking in particularity? May we be assured that any shortfall arising to the museums for the purposes of acquisition or otherwise will be made good from public funds? If not, what does the hon. Gentleman contemplate will be the effect on acquisitions and museum policy generally?

Mr. Jenkins

I am not in a position to give the right hon. and learned Gentleman any such categorical assurance for the reason that I explained just now. On the other hand, we recognise that there will be some problems. I think that we shall be able to deal with them on a basis which will not leave the museums and galleries in a position which they will find difficult to face.