HC Deb 25 November 1976 vol 921 cc325-36

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of the greatest importance that has not been debated in the House for some 40 years—the plight and crisis facing our regional museums and galleries. It is my second attempt at this debate. I was run out last week and I am very grateful for this second opportunity to raise the matter.

The plight of our provincial museums and art galleries has given grave anxiety to many people for many years. There has been a long-standing feeling of the need for reform, culminating five years ago in the setting up of the Wright Committee, whose findings were published in February 1973.

Among the proposals of the Wright Committee was that a housing-the-museums fund should be established, that conservation facilities should be improved, and that provincial museums councils, replacing the existing area museums councils, should act as agencies through which a central body would allocate Government funds for the benefit of museums in their areas. Unfortunately, as yet very few of the Wright Committee proposals have been implemented, although they have been further supported this year by the Redcliffe-Maud Report on the Arts.

Of the thousand or so provincial museums in England or Wales, more than half are society and trustee museums while the remainder are local authority institutions. In all there are some 300 local authorities in England and Wales administering these museums and galleries. The very relationship of these museums to their local authorities is anomalous, for whereas library services are clearly the responsibility of shire county councils, local government reform in England and Wales has left museum powers at both county and district council levels. Although the Department of Education and Science Circular 9/73 suggests that county councils have a part to play in museum provision, few of them do so, and consultation between county and district council is urgently needed. There is all too little of it.

The result has been that within each local authority museums are often grouped with recreation and other services under another officer, and the scholarly independence of museums has been eroded, and those charged with the trusteeship of collections are no longer clearly identified. In times of financial cut-back such as we are experiencing now the rate support grant available for museums as a leisure service can compare unfavourably with the rate support grant for libraries, which are classed with education and other competing new projects involving sports or leisure which attract large subventions from national bodies such as the Sports Council or the Arts Council.

Lord Clark drew attention recently to the curator of a major city museum and art gallery whose letters are not even allowed to go out under his own name but have to be signed by the Director of Recreation and Amenities, which includes parks, museums, baths, sport, entertainment, civic catering, tourist information and publicity. It smacks, indeed, of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four" being here already. Local government changes have downgraded many museum directors in the administrative hierachy, and the fact that so many museum directors can no longer communicate administratively with the outside world means that it is now easier than ever before for information about the Cinderella treatment of museums to be suppressed.

Virtually the only Government finance received by the local authority museums comes either by way of rate support grants or the pound for pound Government support for the eight area museums councils, or disbursements from the purchase grant funds which the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum administer on their behalf. But this year the Science Museum's fund has been cut by two-thirds from £150,000 to £50,000 a year.

The only other Government support—if one can call it that—comes when a museum or art object accepted by the Treasury in lieu of estate duty is presented to a museum or gallery in the provinces. This, however, can raise even greater problems, because the money needed to conserve, display and insure that object is often not available to those local museums and galleries. It needs only a cursory glance at the present situation of provincial museums and galleries to see the major shortcomings under which they operate.

To begin with, this is not simply a problem of inadequate or non-existent buildings. Bristol Museum has lacked a building of its own since the second world war; at Blackburn the famous Hart collection has been kept in store for 30 years for lack of display space and is shown to the public only occasionally and then in piecemeal fashion; all the upstairs floors of the art gallery at Leeds are unsafe and closed; at Salford the science museum has been forced to close because the building is so badly affected by dry rot that it too is unsafe. One could quote many other examples. Many provincial museums, even those as important as the Walker Art Gallery, Manchester City Art Gallery and Newcastle Museum of Antiquities, have room for only a small proportion of their valuables to be shown at one time.

Proper museums and gallery buildings are important, because without proper facilities adequate display is impossible, and conservation and safeguarding of objects, even those on display, is inadequate. To raise this essential money some museums are having to sell their collections and many of these will leave the country. Many provincial museums and galleries perform a museum's function which extends far beyond the area of their rate support. The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is a case in point and so are the oriental exhibition at Bristol and the Egyptology and ethnology exhibitions at Exeter. Into much the same category come galleries such as the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge and the Ashmolean at Oxford. All of these are institutions of international standing, known throughout the world, yet nothing is done to ensure their future.

Another severe difficulty faced by all provincial museums and galleries is the inadequacy of their purchase funds. Clearly it is unrealistic in our current economic climate to expect that large annual sums will be forthcoming, but is a total purchasing fund of £4,000 enough for the Fitzwilliam Museum or £5,000 for the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum? These are the most recent figures and the paucity of the sums is a growing scandal, all the more so in view of the Government's proposed wealth tax which will break up private collections still further and so cause a flood of works of art on the market which no museum or gallery will be able to buy.

We have witnessed already this year the effect of this tax before it is on the statute book. Auction rooms have been filled, private art collections broken up and sold, and many items have gone abroad. The blame for the rapid break-up of Britain's art heritage lies fairly and squarely on the Government.

Conservation facilities are by any standards woefully insufficient. The inadequacy of conservation facilities in provincial and regional galleries has been criticised by the United Kingdom group of the International Institute of Conservation which suggested in its annual report that regional conservation groups should be set up. This situation will be aggravated if the wealth tax becomes law and more objects pour into museums too small and ill-equipped to receive them.

Most collections in private houses are reasonably kept, in stable conditions, away from pollution. Most urban museums are the reverse. Even at present over 50 per cent. of the contents of provincial museums' collections await conservation treatment and the backlog of neglected material is growing constantly.

Before coming to the need for rationalisation of our museums' and galleries' organisation, let me refer to the vital area of archaeology. There are many ways in which the laws relating to it might be improved, but I want to draw attention to three aspects.

First, the law on treasure trove, highlighted by the find of a third century gold coin this week, which resulted in £8,000 being paid to the finder, should be amended so that the finder of gold or silver objects is no longer entitled to compensation amounting to their full market value. This should also apply to archaeological objects found adjacent to them. Provincial museums find it extremely difficult in present circumstances to reward finders and the British Museum or national museums are the only means whereby these objects can be taken into our collections. It might be possible to extend the protection under the Ancient Monuments Act 1931 to cover non-gold and silver objects found in scheduled areas.

The second improvement I suggest is that provision should be made for accommodating and processing finds and data resulting from the increasing number of rescue-archaeological excavations. The Department of the Environment gives £2.6 million a year for these excavations, but once a find is made, there is no further back-up and we therefore have no proper collating of information and data or the bringing together of various finds into a proper collection.

There is also the problem of illegal exports of artefacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages and the Roman period which are increasingly coming to light. There is substantial evidence of illicit smuggling out of the country, which will be an irreparable loss to archaeological research and to the public educational function of British museums. The Government should ratify the UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. The designation of areas of archaeological importance, on the lines of our conservation areas, would also be helpful.

Most of the problems and deficiencies which I have outlined stem from the lack of a national museums council or any co-ordinating framework at Government level. There is a wide gap between national museums and provincial museums which has led to the present dilemma over the proposed closure of the Department of Regional Services at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Minister of State may not yet have picked up all the intricate threads of arts policy, but the storm over Dr. Strong's decision will certainly have reached him. Its implications for our regions are universal. I can do no better than quote the headline in the Western Morning News: Museum's cutback could 'starve South-West of culture'. The article goes on to underline the importance to the outer areas of this country of the tours which have been undertaken by this Department of the V and A.

I do not wish now to go into the reasons for this decision except to point out that the Minister's Department represents the only formal link between the national museums and the rest of the country. These savage cuts in an already bare-boned system can only result in tragedy for the provinces. They are in direct contradiction to the Wright Report of 1973.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I have been listening with the greatest interest to my hon. Friend's important speech. Does he not agree that there is a direct link between the Department of Education and the V and A because the museum is an intrinsic part of the Department? The Department therefore has an influence on this museum which it has on no other and I hope that it will be exercised in such a way that this vital service to the regions is not discontinued.

Mr. Hannam

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. He has underlined the responsibility of the Minister and the Government.

The Wright Report recommended that national museums should consider expanding their loan services to provincial museums and should further develop the system of travelling exhibitions. The V and A guillotine is not the first cut-off in regional services. In 1975, the Federation of British Artists had to close 500 annual exhibitions in provincial museums and galleries. If the Secretary of State, who has the final responsibility, allows the closure of the V and A department, it will mean the severance of virtually the last of the links between metropolitan museums and galleries and the provinces.

In conclusion I should like to draw these threads together and outline the major objectives which the Government should aim for and for which the Wright Report, the Redcliffe-Maud "Gulbenkian" Report and other conferences have called. First, the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries should be converted into a national museums council with a "housing the museums" fund to assist local authorities in the provision of proper facilities for arts and archaeological treasures.

The Government should also follow the Scottish lead and impose an obligation on local authorities to make adequate provision for museum services. No such obligation exists in England and Wales, where the concurrent powers lead to confusion, the dissipation of resources and conflict.

The revitalisation of our museums would pay times over again in attracting tourists, who now represent our second largest source of hard currency. For example, the Gladstone Museum at Stoke did not exist three years ago, but this year it has received an estimated 7,000 foreign tourists, as well as visitors from other parts of Britain. In other words, our cultural heritage is as much an integral part of our economy as our car industry, but with the added value of having educational and social benefits.

Thirdly, we should define a structure of national regional museums as recommended by the Wright Report. These would house in proper surroundings those important provincial collections which perform a museum's function extending far beyond the area of their rate support.

My final request is that the Government should abandon their quest for further tax impositions upon the arts and our cultural heritage. Instead, they should consider introducing new tax reliefs for sponsorship of museums and arts projects. Industry is keen not only to sponsor the performing arts, but to preserve and enhance that continuous record of our national culture and heritage which is the first and proudest aim of museums to provide.

I hope that the Minister will accept that there is a real crisis facing our provincial museums and galleries which lie outside the usual Government "arts umbrella" and which do not even have a permanent under-secretary in the Department of Education and Science. Museums are responsible for maintaining a national resource which cannot be renewed—the artistic and scientific collection of this country.

10.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Education and Science (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for raising this subject in the House tonight, because both he and I are regional Members. I endorse what he has said about the enormous importance of our cultural heritage in local authority museums, and in particular in private museums, which are often forgotten. This heritage includes many of the more humdrum everyday objects of the past which are found more in regional than national museums. It surprises me that this subject has never been raised in the House in 40 years. It is amazing that that should be the case.

It may help the House if I give a brief account of the Government's responsibilities in this field, which are well known to the hon. Gentleman. We maintain the national museums and galleries mainly in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. But the National Railway Museum is at York, and this is part of the Science Museum. There are no regional museums and galleries as such, but there are about 950 local museums, some of which are maintained by local authorities. But many are important museums which are maintained by private collections, industries and so on. The nearest to my constituency of Widnes is the Glass Museum, which is internationally known and is maintained by Pilkington Brothers at St. Helens. Many places such as Kendal and Telford have private museums, and these are of immense importance to the nation.

The hon. Member asked whether the Drew Report was now being prepared and whether the interim report to be submitted soon on the museum service will take account not only of local authority museums but of private museums as well. I assure him that it will, because private museums form an important part of our heritage, and any comprehensive plan must take these into account as well as those in the public sector.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me on the subject of local government reform, because I think that he was a member with me of the Standing Committee on the Bill in 1972–73 when this change was perpetrated. It affected not only museums but airports and, worst of all, planning, so that there was a duality of approach between county and district. Continuous squabbles have taken place between the two as to who does what. The problem is particularly acute in the case of museums because it tended to be the old county borough which had the museum rather than the county council.

There have been difficulties at Manchester over this point. With the vagaries of what was introduced in 1972–73, some of the county boroughs are now county districts. Some of the former county boroughs cannot maintain a museum. It would be far better if the metropolitan county was the responsible authority because it has a wider area, and people can now go to the county town in their cars whereas this did not happen in the past.

There has been a muddle, but it was the responsibility not of my Government but of the hon. Gentleman's Government. The question of the muddle brings me on to the hon. Gentleman's next point. If I did not know the hon. Gentleman as well as I do, I would think he was making what was suspiciously like a cry from the heart for increased public expenditure. I know, however, that he would not dream of making such a suggestion. Nevertheless, I am sure that he and the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) both realise that this is one of the crucial difficulties facing the Government.

The museum service could be a casualty, but I hope not as much a casualty as the hon. Gentleman sought to make out, of public expenditure restraint. The nation cannot at present fund from national resources many of the things that we would wish it to. The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that these are important matters. They should be preserved for future generations. How ever, we are in a difficult financial situa- tion and it would be very difficult for us to accept that money should be spent on this service when we are refusing it to so many other services.

That is not a counsel of despair. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House what he described as a crisis. I would not describe it as such, but the situation is difficult, given the financial constraints. He asked why we did not have a mandatory system in England and Wales such as that which applies to museums in Scotland. Our respective systems, however, have ever been different. We prefer not to have a mandatory system. The system is much tighter in Scotland. Museum services south of the border, however, may well expand when times are better without the mandatory control which exists in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the direct responsibility which exists for the regional service. The hon. Member for Chelmsford also raised the subject, and I am grateful that both of them did so and referred to Dr. Strong's speech about the regional service. Let me make perfectly clear that no decisions have been taken about where the staff cuts should come. Some premature letters may have been issued within the service, but, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford said, this is a direct responsibility of my noble Friend Lord Donaldson and, ultimately, of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I shall convey to my noble Friend and to the Secretary of State the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Exeter and the official sentiments of the Opposition that if cuts are to be made, as they must be in view of the public expenditure constraints, they should not be made at the expense of the regions as would happen if some of the rumours contained in that speech were to materialise.

The hon. Gentleman raised many matters about archaeology and treasure troves and the difficulties in which museums find themselves in dealing with artefacts. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about treasure troves. There are two sides to the coin. If one does not pay the full value of the treasure trove, one runs the risk of creating a black market and people not reporting a find—which would be bad archaeologically—so that they could get the full value when they sold it abroad or on the private market. If people felt that they were not getting the full value of the treasure trove by making it clear where they found it, they would sell it on the black market at a higher price, and that could have severe repercussions. I know the difficulties that face museums, but the hon. Gentleman's remedy contained many difficulties, particularly archaeologically, because of the evasions that could result.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not made any decision about a wealth tax on objects of art. I repeat that to the House now, as I did to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) when he initiated a debate on the subject of a wealth tax on works of art.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the illegal export of artefacts, particularly the Bronze Age ones found in this country, and asked why we had not ratified the UNESCO Convention. The ratification of the convention raises problems. If we compare our record of illegally taking other people's artefacts with that of other countries, we realise that we do not come out very well. We have taken things from the rest of the world. Therefore, if other countries are now taking some of our things, we are in a poor position with regard to the UNESCO Convention and the record of our museums and what other countries might rightfully say should be returned to them. Hon. Members will recall that there was a furore in the summer over demands by Pakistan and India. There are two edges to the sword, and one has to be careful before signing the UNESCO Convention.

The hon. Gentleman said that a grant was given by the Department of the Environment for rescue operations involv- ing an archaeological find but that no grant is made by the Government for keeping what is found. The difficulty inevitably is one of finance, and this whole sector has to be considered in the light of the severe economic constraint that the Government must impose, which I am sure the Opposition will agree must be carried out.

What I think has emerged from the debate is that in our local and regional museums we have a national heritage, and the question is what we as a Government must do to try to ensure that, so far as practicable, we know where the objects are. I therefore pray in aid the assistance of local government and private museums. We must bear in mind that we have severe adverse economic weather to meet. There are many friends of the museum service, and they may be able to render assistance during these difficult times to preserve our treasures for future generations. Certainly their assistance would be most welcome.

The museum services, both regional and local services and the private museum service, have an enormous part to play in maintaining our cultural heritage. Therefore, I will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said. I wish that I had more money to spend on this facet of our national life, but I assure the House that that which can be done and which does not entail the expenditure of money will be considered by my noble Friend and myself in an endeavour—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.