HC Deb 21 April 1980 vol 983 cc27-8
23. Mr. Canavan

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what is the policy of Her Majesty's Government on the sale of works of art by public bodies.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The museums and galleries for which I am responsible have very restricted powers to sell items from their collections, and these powers mainly affect duplicates and objects no longer of use. The powers of other public bodies vary widely, but I am sure that those responsible for them are well aware of the strong arguments against disposing of items, however acquired.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Minister intervene to stop the Glasgow university from selling off 11 Whistler paintings to try to raise £320,000 for a new art gallery? Since Government cuts in university budgets are behind this philistine proposal to sell off part of the nation's cultural heritage, will the Minister consider giving extra financial assistance to the university to help? In any event, will he place a ban on the export of those paintings?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, the universities are not my responsibility but that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The art gallery is not his responsibility, because it is an independent art gallery. I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that, subject to representations, the sale has been postponed in an effort to find funds from another source. It is a matter for the university authorities, and if they sell some of those minor paintings it would be within the terms of the bequest.

Mr. Cormack

While I acknowledge that such action would be within the terms of the bequest, does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a wide measure of support for the sentiments advanced by the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) on this matter? Will he, perhaps, put in a good word with the trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, when they are appointed, on behalf of Glasgow art gallery, so that it may be an early recipient of the generosity of the fund?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is an interesting suggestion. However, it would be a mistake for me to start putting in good words for various applicants to the fund, because that would put both me and them in an invidious position. I understand that the Glasgow art gallery has applied to the fund, and I wish it well.

Mr. Faulds

In view of the prevailing economic climate, and the pressures for disposal and dispersal, would not the right hon. Gentleman consider it advisable to set up a committee to look into the sale of works of art by both public and semi-public bodies, including the Churches? I would welcome a carefully contemplated reply rather than a speedy, witty one.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Careful contemplation and wit are not necessarily contradictory as the hon. Gentleman thinks. I shall consider what he has said, but there are so many committees in the arts world at the moment, that whether another committee is necessary is open to doubt.

Mr. David Price

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the case of the galleries and museums over which he has even the remotest control it is reasonable that people running them should be free to buy and sell to fill gaps in their collections, and that they should not sit with pictures in their cellars that are redundant, and for which there is no gallery space?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

What my hon. Friend has said is unexceptionable. They are, and should be, free to do so. But, like everyone else in charge of art objects, they are trustees for the nation and the heritage.