HC Deb 28 October 1976 vol 918 cc842-52

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

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I rise to draw attention to Command 6624, "The Export of Works of Art", which is the 21st report of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, whose task it is to advise on whether export licences should be refused for any particular object or objects because of its or their national importance. In doing so I express my warm appreciation to Mr. Speaker for having been good enough to select this subject for this short Adjournment debate.

The committee does a useful job, but unfortunately, in the past two years or more under its previous chairman, Lord Perth, the committee took up a political stance. Its reports, instead of being factual statements of the work of the committee, became pieces of propaganda against the Labour Government's proposed wealth tax.

If I had remained Minister for the Arts, I should have refused to recommend the present report to the Secretary of State for publication. My successor has accepted the report and published it in all its tendentious inaccuracy. However, he has carried on what I started and substituted another chairman for the Earl of Perth, and he has endorsed the changes that I initiated in the membership of the committee.

Today all the names at the head of the report are gone save one and with one exception we have a new committee under Professor John White, who is the new chairman. In fact, he was one of my appointments when I was Minister, Any remarks I may make that suggest that the report is not all that one might wish should not be taken as reflecting upon the present committee. I hope and believe that the committee's new men—I am sorry that there are no women judged to be capable of advising the Government on these matters—will revert to their proper role and that the committee not see itself as a stick to beat the Socialists on behalf of wealthy owners of art property.

The present report falls under two heads. First, there is the anti-Socialist propaganda, which might have been rejected by Tory Central Office as rather too extreme. It is odd that such a publication should be presented to Parliament by a Socialist Secretary of State, Secondly, there is the factual part, which is an excellent account that bears no relationship to the propagandist introduction.

Adam Smith once said that dealers were an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same as the public's, and who generally have an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public. Last year the campaign staged by dealers and their wealthy clients against the application of the proposed wealth tax on works of art showed just how true his words were. Time and again the dealers claimed that if the wealth tax were introduced and applied in any form to works of art, it would lead to the dispersal of our national heritage within a generation. One hysterical collector even claimed that the Government's wealth tax proposal was on a par with ordering that the heads be lopped off the carvings of medieval saints.

There was not one shred of evidence to support such ridiculous views. The reverse case—that the wealth tax if applied to works of art would lead to increased public access to significant works and could therefore be said to be extending the national heritage in any meaningful sense of the term—was convincingly argued by those who, though interested in the arts, did not personally stand to lose anything financially if such a tax were introduced.

A division of opinion along these lines was only to be expected. Wealthy aristocrats, millionaire art collectors, Mayfair dealers and auctioneers, not to mention a tiny minority of very rich artists, are bound to attempt to defend their material interests when they are threatened. Understandably, too, they will try as hard as they can to pretend that such interests are indistinguishable from the national interest and even essential for the survival of certain ill-defined cultural values. However, I think that most intelligent people and reasonable people are well able to see what lies behind these arguments. They treat them with the derision that they deserve. The only people who are deceived are the deceivers. They honestly believe that they are acting out of a desire to preserve the national heritage when all they are doing is seeking to keep as much art as possible in the hands of a wealthy minority.

It is one thing to expect and to smile at the self-interestedness of the excessively rich posing as what is best for us all in the letters pages of the national Press or even during the course of a Select Committee, but it is quite another to encounter it in an official report compiled by a Government committee and presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State. The report clearly states that the export control of art during the period under review was carried out against a background of our economic difficulties and of significant changes in taxation, actual or proposed. In fact. that is an understatement. During the period covered there was a nationwide debate about the possible effects of a wealth tax on the national heritage. Anyone who owned an important work of art would open his newspaper on almost any morning and find set out every conceivable argument why it was in his financial interest to export it without delay.

Were owners convinced by such arguments? Apparently not. Not so much as the first drop or trickle of the much heralded flood of standard works of art abroad was discernible. The committee found that none of the allegedly disruptive factors had any effect on the type or amount of works which were being referred to it for review.

Does the report therefore put to rest the fiction of the dispersal of the national heritage or does it properly ignore it? Regrettably not. The committee went on to state: Nothing which has happened since our last report has in any way altered our view that a wealth tax on works of art presents a serious threat to the national heritage of this country and would lead to pressure to sell works of art which would, it is to be feared, mainly go overseas. In defence of this claim, the report produces not one jot or tittle of evidence. Indeed, it had something of a hard time trying to discount on the data supporting the contrary view to which it is required to refer.

Thus, it correctly points out that the Customs and Excise figures of total imports and exports of works of art appear to point towards the "comfortable conclusion" that the trade in important works is roughly in balance. About the same number and value of such works leave the country as are imported into it each year. But the committee is unwilling to accept this finding. It states: Our own knowledge of the art market as well as our experience as members of the Committee leads us to the conclusion that items of heritage quality are leaving Britain in greater numbers and to a higher value than are being brought in by comparable imports…We are sure that the losses of great works of art to the country far exceed any gains. Sure on what grounds? Are we supposed to conclude that ex-members of the committee knew about secret, unauthorised, exportation of heritage standard works by corrupt elements within the art trade? If so, why are there no facts to support this argument? Why have they not made a full report about these matters to the Government? Why have they not told the police and the Customs and Excise authorities? Can it be that this certainty about a gross annual deficit of heritage quality works is nothing but an attempt to fabricate evidence of the most dubious kind against the introduction of a wealth tax which, though it would leave the national heritage unscathed, might personally affect ex-members of the committee should it be implemented?

The facts, as can easily be discovered by a careful reading of the report, are that during the 12 months under review a total of only 21 cases was even considered after reference to the committee because expert advisers had recommended that a licence to export should be refused on grounds of national importance. Of those 21, the committee found it necessary to suspend export licences in only 12. In only four were insufficient funds to be found in Britain, with the result that they went abroad. Those four objects are the molehill on which this mountain of argument against the wealth tax has been constructed.

In case it is thought that these items were of momentous importance, among the object which the committee no doubt correctly felt it was desirable to keep in Britain was an Anglo-Saxon brooch valued at £1,323. This was eventually acquired by Prittlewell Priory Museum. In other words, even by applying such a fine-toothed comb as this to applications for export the committee recommended that export licences should be refused in 12 cases. Those 12, except for the four to which I have referred, were retained in this country.

The four items were a pair of silver gilt claret jugs of 1685, a nineteenth century vase, a pair of pistols of 1730, and an eighteenth century pottery group. They were valuable and good objects but hardly represent a flood of valuable art which the threat of a wealth tax was supposed to create.

The committee argued against a wealth tax in its introductory section, unmindful that the argument was without foundation. I hope that we shall not see this kind of report again. It was wrong to speak of the proposed wealth tax being a potential disaster to the national heritage. It was irresponsible of the committee to suggest that this was happening when its own figures show that it was not.

The figures indicate that a slight increase in the total value of all works of art exported occurred last year and that exports marginally exceeded imports. But there is no need for us to endeavour to keep within the country every work of art regardless of quality. We do a substantial trade in art and many of our exports are re-exports.

The report of the Reviewing Committee does not do justice to its own work. I hope that we will not use HMSO in future to produce this sort of argument at the taxpayers' expense.

The Committee does a useful and essential job. Its future reports should be about that job. There are persons and organisations who are as dedicated in their opposition to the wealth tax as Lord Perth and the committee members, and such persons have at their command many instruments of public information through which they can develop their arguments. They should not use the report of the Reviewing Committee.

I congratulate my successor, the Minister for the Arts, on the drastic changes that he has made in the membership of the Reviewing Committee. My successor is a gentle person who would probably attribute these changes to the effluxion of time. Some of us know that time had to be given a push and we do not wish to deprive him of the credit for accepting the good advice which was given him.

I wish the new committee every success in its work. I do not wish to deprive Lord Perth of any credit for the work that he has done—he is a courteous and charming man—but I do not withdraw anything that I have said about the use of the committee for propaganda—I feel my comments are justified.

I realise that the Minister will be answering the debate under some difficulty, but I hope that he will recognise that my purpose in raising the matter is to deprecate the wrong use of the work of the Reviewing Committee but to recognise the value of its real work, to welcome it and to wish the new committee every success.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I hope that the Minister will address him- self to the work of the Reviewing Committee and this serious problem. The Conservative Party rejects every sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins). His speech was a travesty of the facts and we share Lord Perth's grave alarm about this matter.

I do not want to intrude further into the debate because we want to hear what the Minister has to say. However, can the Minister give an example of any work of art of real national importance which has been imported into this country during the period in question?

10.40 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) for speaking on the motion to adjourn the House about the twenty-first report of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. I always think that it is very valuable in any Adjournment debate, as he said, that, apart from the constituency points that are very often raised in the House, a Member has the opportunity to raise a matter about a report in the debate, as my hon. Friend has done tonight.

As my hon. Friend said, the report covered a period when he was the Minister responsible for the arts in this country—and a very distinguished Minister. I shall certainly draw many of his remarks to the attention of my noble Friend the Minister for the Arts for further consideration by him.

My hon. Friend seemed to draw a distinction between the way that the chairman presented the report and the factual report itself. He condemned the presentation as propaganda against a wealth tax, but he rightly greatly praised the work that this committee has done. As my hon. Friend said, the composition of the committee has changed somewhat considerably—probably by the effluxion of time—since the report was prepared.

Concerning the wealth tax, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the Chancellor of the Exchequer in whose province the tax proposals are, will take note of the points raised from behind me, tonight. The Government have yet to make an announcement on the wealth tax proposals in relation to the national heritage. I cannot, therefore, as a Minister in the Department of Education and Science, say more. From the standpoint of the arts, however, the important issue is that any proposals that are put forward should not threaten the machinery and relationships that underlie the present effective system of export control on works of art. There are those who feel that my hon. Friend's arguments for deferment of tax, rather than exemption, would drive more objects towards export than would be in this country's interest.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Hear, hear.

Mr. Oakes

The Reviewing Commit tee put forward this view to the Select Committee, and I note that Lord Perth's letter of 29th July is reproduced in Appendix 1 of the report.

I am also sure that the Government will note the several points made about the import-export balance of works of art, to which my hon. Friend drew attention. As he knows, as an ex-Minister, it is very difficult to draw comparisons here. The number and value of exports are known but there are no comparable import figures. Her Majesty's Customs and Excise give figures that provide a rough balance over a much wider field. Whilst no reliable conclusion can be drawn in the absence of firm figures, one point not in question is that this country is still very rich in works or art. The export of works of art which are considered by the committee to be less than of the highest importance is undoubtedly significant to our balance of payments as a nation.

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the committee as a whole, whose members put in a great deal of time in considering policy issues in this field and individual cases of works of art which are proposed for export. I join my hon. Friend in this tribute to the work done by the individual members of the committee.

As those who have followed with interest the recent detective work pursued in the columns of a national newspaper will know, the art world is a complex one in which great knowledge and care is required, not least by Governments. Over-simple recipes just do not work. Simple prohibitions can drive what is at least in this country a reputable trade into less reputable channels, and an attempt to enforce an absolute control would not only be a major restriction on passenger movements but would also be extremely expensive and not very effective.

The question of retaining and conserving the national heritage is a complex and many-sided one. On the one hand, there is the extreme view that anything in this country which is museum worthy ought to be kept here regard. less of origin or cost. At the other extreme, there is the view that, a few exceptional masterpieces of native origin apart. a country in financial difficulties ought to use its works of art like any other natural resource to earn foreign currency.

If the first view had been held in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by those European countries which were glad to sell to the English milord on his Continental travels, we should not have the wealth of masterpieces that we have today.

But the truth is that neither extreme is a reasonable one. We must conserve the best of the works of art which are in this country with the resources we can make available. Our present system attempts to do just that. It is based on criteria set out in the Waverley Report, which only the most distinguished works can meet, and then seriously sets about trying to save the best works of art for the public collections. Owner and taxpayer are both entitled to a fair deal, and the system involves a fine balancing between the interests of either side.

I do not think that we should panic about the risks. There have always been, at least since the last war, grave risks to the works of art in this country, but so far we have been able to face the problem and deal with it.

It is the individual recommendations of the committee to the Minister for the Arts on the suspension for a specified period of an export licence for a nationally important object which undoubtedly catch the art headlines. The publicising of these decisions was, of course, strongly proposed by the former chairman, and was accepted by my hon. Friend when he was Minister as being in the overall interests of national and local collections which might wish to bid for the object concerned.

The report now before us does, however, show the generally valuable work done by the committee in its general supervision of the operation of the export control system.

My hon. Friend mentioned the pressure that is upon us from countries outside Europe and North America for the restitution of works of art which now reside in some of our collections. I do not propose to reply in detail to this point. But many of the objects in question have undoubtedly had a better history—however they were acquired—of care, conservation and public access than if they had not been acquired by United Kingdom collections, and these benefits are available, at the United Kingdom taxpayer's expense, to anyone from these other parts of the world to see in London or elsewhere.

The best way to avoid illicit export or import of works of art is to contrive an effective form of control. The United Kingdom sets an example in this, as in other aspects of the arts—

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I did not, in fact, make the point to which my hon. Friend is now replying. None the less, it is a suitable opportunity for the Government to state their position on the matter. But that position is being stated unprompted by me.

Mr. Oakes

Often, as my hon. Friend knows—he has done this himself—an opportunity to state the Government's position is taken in an Adjournment debate such as this. I was hopeful that my hon. Friend would mention this particular aspect. Since he did not, I certainly admit that I tried to put the Government's point of view in the debate. I know that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) and my hon. Friend are interested in the Government's position on this aspect.

My hon. Friend particularly dealt with the report of the noble Earl, and with some justification—no matter what the hon. Member for Bristol, West said—pointed out that there may have been an undue bias in the way in which the report was presented.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Every single witness who attended the Select Committee on the wealth tax, on the subject of the national heritage, except the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins), shared Lord Perth's view—and they were chosen by the entire committee.

Mr. Oakes

That may be so, but I repeat that the actual decision about a wealth tax on works of art has not yet been taken. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and my hon. Friend's views and those of the hon. Member for Bristol, West will be taken into account before that final decision is taken.

In his presentation of the report to the House of Commons, my hon. Friend was extremely fair. He said that there was a factual side to the report which he accepted and applauded but that there was another part which perhaps overbalanced towards a particular view about a tax, which is really a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and another Department. My hon. Friend is entitled to express his view on that, as is the hon. Member for Bristol, West—

Mr. Robert Cooke

That is what the witnesses said, not what I said.

Mr. Oakes

The hon. Gentleman repeated what the witnesses said. However, we are dealing with the actual report of the chairman to the former Secretary of State.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

This is precisely my point. We should not in this report be talking about a wealth tax at all. That is for the Select Committee. This is a report of the Reviewing Committee.

Mr. Oakes

I do not think that I can go that far. I do not think that a committee considering this matter could exclude the wealth tax. It would be disingenuous of it to exclude it altogether. But no doubt my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will take note of the reservations put forward to this House by a distinguished former Minister for the Arts about what the report says about a wealth tax.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.