HC Deb 16 April 1981 vol 3 cc478-84 1.58 pm
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

I am very glad to have the opportunity of raising what is perhaps at first sight a slightly esoteric but nevertheless a rather important subject, namely, the withdrawal of grant from the International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. The work of UNESCO is often criticised, I think sometimes justly, because of the vague general nature of its objectives, because of expense, and because it is perhaps of questionable value.

I suggest, however, that none of those criticisms can be levelled at what is generally known as ICCROM. The centre was founded in 1959 on the initiative of Dr. Plenderleith, a former head of the British Museum research laboratory. He became its first director and Britain has always played a very strong part in its work. Indeed, there have always been British subjects in the forefront of its councils and two of its three directors have been British. In addition, Britain as a country has benefited.

I shall not weary the House, but I should like to give a few examples. Up to 1980, the latest year for which full figures are available, 20 participants have received training at the centre in Rome. The centre has been a channel for the Italian Government and EEC scholarships to British participants, equivalent to about $3,000 per person. ICCROM subsidised a lecturer at the London university institute of archaeology for four years. It supported a British conference on wall paintings with a subsidy of $5,000.

It has enabled British experts to attend international conferences with contributions to meet their expenses. It has advised British consultants on projects abroad. Such projects have been many and various, but I name only three—Michael Rice's work on the museums of Saudi Arabia, Shankland Cox on the Luxor West Bank and Mr. Faulkner on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. British suppliers are frequently recommended for contracts abroad. They have recently been recommended in China and Equador.

I merely quote those few examples to show that we as a nation have benefited both directly and indirectly from our participation in the work of this centre. It has brought great benefit to countries throughout the world, especially to the Third world, which is the concern of my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development. I am delighted that he is present and grateful that he will reply to the debate.

We must also bear in mind that it has not just been Britain that has been rescued economically by tourism. Many of the underdeveloped countries increasingly depend, and will continue to do so, on tourism. Anything that helps them to enhance and preserve the heritage of historic buildings and other objects that tourists go to see can only fall into that sensible category of the best sort of aid—enlightened self-interest.

All this is done at very little cost. If we were debating a large sum of public money, I would not seek to detain the House. If it meant my hon. Friend cutting hundreds of thousands of pounds from his budget, much as I might have regretted his action I could not have criticised it. But in all conscience we are talking of a very small sum indeed. This year, it amounts to about £39,000. Yet the decision has been taken that the grant will be withdrawn.

From the moment that that announcement was made at the end of last year, in a written reply, there has been increasing concern, which has built up to what could almost be called an outcry. I can do no better than to quote from a letter to The Times, which Dr. Bernard Feilden, the current director of ICCROM, sent on 23 February. It states: The United Kingdom's withdrawal from the International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property … was sudden … No warning was given of the Government's intentions, no reason being provided at the time to justify its actions on December 22. Since then I have met the Minister for Overseas Development who assured me that there were no complaints about the work of ICCROM, but explained that it was the Government's policy to cut back on multilateral aid. As Britons receive $170,000 back from participating in the activities of ICCROM in return for $65,000 subscribed it is hard to see why ICCROM's work is classified as aid. One might say aid to whom? Unfortunately the immediate sufferers from the withdrawal are British candidates for places at ICCROM, who probably lose grants of the order of $30,000. Then comes the most important part of the letter, which states: The work of ICCROM in conserving our heritage, be it in museums or in historic buildings and towns, is multidisciplinary, bringing together archaeololgists, architects, art historians, engineers, museologists, curators/conservators and scientists. Distinguished members of each of these disciplines have written to support ICCROM and protest in astonishment, amazement and disgust at the Government's clumsy action. Unfortunately, because it is broadly based on humanistic, scientific and artistic skills, conservation has no one sponsor in governmental circles, so when financial cuts were made no one wanted to speak for ICCROM. Unfortunately for Britain, these cuts will have long-term repercussions far beyond those envisaged. ICCROM has been an agent for spreading British culture, skills and technology in a field where quality counts. British teachers have helped and British experts have been recommended for many interesting and difficult jobs. As Director, I have been proud to be a Briton and an ambassador for our country to the four corners of the world". Let us remember that Dr. Feilden is a very distinguished man. He helped to save York Minster, he helped to save the spire of Norwich Cathedral, and he was the architect to St. Pauls before he went to Rome. He has given long and distinguished service to conservation and has achieved much of great practical importance.

As the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, on which I sit, was acutely concerned about this matter, we decided, during our recent visit to Rome—a visit that was not planned specifically in order to go to ICCROM—to see for ourselves the centre and what it does. We were deply impressed. We saw a group of dedicated, knowledgeable experts, working with enormous enthusiasm—and, indeed, love—and instructing and inspiring students from all over the globe.

My hon. Friend may say that only 30 per cent. come from the so-called underdeveloped world, but 30 per cent. is a fairly large percentage. When we consider the riches with which that world is entrusted, it becomes a very significant percentage. I know that I can speak for all my colleagues on the Committee who took part in that visit—six of the nine members were able to go—when I say that we were deeply impressed, not to say moved, by what we heard from the students.

It was particularly notable that the British contribution was of paramount importance. English is one of the only two official languages of the centre, the other being French, and as we went round and saw young Finns, Bulgarians, Nigerians, Ugandans and people from the Arab world studying in our language the techniques of preserving their heritage, we realised that here was something of very great importance.

We felt so strongly about this that when we returned we decided to produce a brief report and present it to the House. It was published last week. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to refer to it and answer it in some detail when he replies. But perhaps I may draw the attention of the House to the conclusions of our report. We said: The Committee believe that the amount of the British contribution"— I repeat; it is £39,000— is so small that it could and should have been possible for our contribution to be maintained. We consider that the work accomplished by ICCROM is of fundamental importance in the field of conservation, and should not be jeopardised. We are concerned that the withdrawal of this grant will cause damage out of all proportion to the sums saved, and that the decision to withdraw it neglects the cost effectiveness of ICCROM. We concede that the cost of funding ICCROM might well be better borne on another budget"—— I stress that point—— but, because of the smallness of the sum involved, think it regrettable that a precipitate decision was taken without adequate prior consultation and without consideration of transferring the funding to another budget. I emphasise that there really was not consultation outside governmental circles. Indeed, the cultural commission that advises my hon. Friend on UNESCO matters and on which I have the honour to serve as a result of his kind invitation was not consulted. At its last meeting on 27 March it felt, unanimously, so concerned about the matter that it requested an urgent meeting with my hon. Friend.

The Select Committee went on to say that it was firmly of the opinion that the preservation of heritage objects and cultural property is of prime importance, and a fundamental duty of national governments and international organisations. The work of ICCROM is of particular significance in this regard, and Britain should continue to play its full part both in the funding and development of this valuable international centre. The Committee therefore recommend that our notice of withdrawal from the centre should itself be withdrawn forthwith, and that immediate consultations be held between the Foreign Office, including the Overseas Development Administration and the Department of Education and Science, to decide how best to continue our membership. I ask only that my hon. Friend the Minister should remove that sword of Damocles. It hangs above the head of the centre and causes concern that is out of all proportion to the sum involved. The very prestige of our nation in certain influential circles is at stake. We are talking about those who are considerable formers of opinion in their own nations. It is extremely regrettable that we should precipitately and at a stroke withdraw from ICCROM.

I have it on the best authority, and have been given permission to say, that only yesterday the director of the British Museum wrote on behalf of his trustees to my hon. Friend pointing out the significance of ICCROM's work and urging that the decision be reconsidered. If my hon. Friend thinks that the budget is wrong and that his Department should be not be permanently. responsible, I understand that. However, I urge him to accept the Select Committee's recommendation and to take part in the discussions. He should remove the threat and say that it is the Government's intention to find that small sum of money.

I remember attending a conference on the arts at which the Prime Minister spoke before the Conservative Party had come into office. If my memory serves me right, it took place in May 1978. All sorts of people who took an interest in the visual or performing arts gathered together. We heard splendid speeches from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and others. The most stirring speech of the day was made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. With precision and passion she pointed out that there were certain areas in which a little money did a great deal of good and in which its withdrawal did harm out of all proportion to the sum involved. She spoke about candle-end economies that could do great damage. There was not a person in the hall who did not cheer to the echo when she sat down.

We are talking not about candle-end economies but about matchstick-economies. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) is in the Chamber. He is a distinguished member of the Select Committee and was with us on the visit to Rome. No doubt he will endorse all that I have said. This does not represent an attack on the Minister as a politician. Nor is it a party argument. Britain is making a valuable and valid contribution. The cost is very low. It is in our interest to continue participating in ICCROM. We shall derive enormous benefit from it and We shall help to preserve that cultural heritage which it is the common duty of us all to seek to enhance.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)


2.13 pm
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Neil Marten)

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) is sitting opposite me. It is a curious feeling to stand at this Dispatch Box and to see completely empty Benches before me. I apologise to him if I have prevented him from making a speech. I am sure that it would have been a good one in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack).

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this subject and congratulate him on having made such an excellent speech. I am very much aware of the depth of feeling which the decision to withdraw from ICCROM has aroused. Over the past few months—since I told Parliament of the decision—I and my officials have replied to more than 50 letters on the subject. On each occasion we have been at pains to explain the reasons behind our decision in as much detail as possible.

My hon. Friend referred to the Select Committee report. I do not intend to answer that now. We are studying it and we shall answer in due course. He said that the report was a precipitate action. I assure him that that was not so and I shall deal with that shortly.

The debate gives me an opportunity to reiterate the reasons for withdrawing from ICCROM to hon. Members and through them, with any luck, to as wide an audience as possible. I am anxious to ensure that it is clearly understood both here and overseas that this decision should not be taken as implying any criticism of the performance of ICCROM in its activities.

ICCROM, formerly known as the Rome centre and now bearing as its full name the International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, was established by UNESCO in 1959. Membership is open to all member States of UNESCO and, to date, membership stands at 67, which is slightly less than half the possible membership if all eligible States joined.

ICCROM's functions are broadly fourfold. I apologise for saying this to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for Blaydon, because they know the facts, but I hope that the debate will be read in a wider context than that of the six hon. Members present in the Chamber. The functions are, first, to collect, study and circulate documentation concerned with the scientific and technical problems of the preservation and restoration of cultural property: secondly, to co-ordinate, stimulate or institute research in the field, for example, as my hon. Friend said, through international meetings, publications and exchange of specialists or by engaging bodies or experts for this type of work: thirdly, to give advice and general recommendations on matters connected with the preservation and restoration of cultural property and, lastly, to assist in training research workers and technicians and raising the standard of restoration work.

The centre is still sited in Rome and, as might be expected, a lion's share of ICCROM's activities—about a third—is of direct benefit to Italy. About the same proportion is directed towards other developed countries—for the most part those in Eastern and Western Europe. The remaining third—the part that concerns me most—is of benefit to the developing countries, for which I have responsibility.

I have already mentioned that ICCROM originated from UNESCO and the connection between the two organisations remains close. The greater part of UNESCO's programme is directed at developing countries. For that reason, overall responsibility for Britain's relations with UNESCO rests with me and my Department. It follows from that that prime responsibility for Britain's relationship with ICCROM has, in the past, rested with me also. The connection with UNESCO is underlined in the method of calculation of the annual subscription to ICCROM, which amounts to 1 per cent. of each member State's assessed contribution to UNESCO, which is expressed in United States dollars.

In 1982, assuming that the exchange rate remains at its current level, the saving will be, as my hon. Friend said, about £39,000. I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend when he says that it is not a large sum. In terms of many items of Government expenditure, including many which are the responsibility of my Department, it is very small. However, it is not immaterial to the point that a great many activities are financed through the aid Vote which involve similar sums of money and which, taken together, amount to a considerable financial obligation.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Prime Minister's speech in which she referred to candle ends. This is a candle end in financial terms, but I was faced with a large number of candle ends which, when melted down, made a whole candle. That was a substantial saving to our budget.

As an example of the types of activity more usually associated with the Overseas Development Administration, I remind hon. Members that the sum saved by our withdrawal from ICCROM would amply cover the cost of sending two child health workers to Africa. That is the sort of problem with which I am faced—that of balancing those two possible expenditures. Equally, it would represent the cost of bringing to Britain several people for courses of training in practical matters necessary further to stimulate development in their own countries.

Mr. McWilliam

Will the Minister accept that it was not the intention of the Select Committee—all of the Select Committee; it was a unanimous report—to suggest that the activities which he has just described should be sacrified for ICCROM? What the Select Committee suggested was that, perhaps, it was on the wrong Vote, and that, perhaps, by transferring it, the benefits which accrue to this country by membership of it could continue to be enjoyed.

Mr. Marten

I recognise that point. I hope that we shall be able to deal with that when we reply to the Select Committee's report. This is a question whether it is right for it to be on my Vote. As I have explained, UNESCO happens to be with me, and it therefore follows that this is with me.

I shall not develop further the line I was taking before that intervention; nor shall I try to get us involved in what might be a fruitless argument about whether remaining in ICCROM is a better use of funds than sending two child health workers to Africa. This could be as unproductive as the argument that we should not consider small items of expenditure as potential economies.

Once the decision had been made to cease making the annual payment from ODA votes, I discussed with colleagues in the Government whether there was some other Vote from which Government could find the money. There was none, and we reluctantly decided that we must give to the director general of UNESCO by the end of 1980 one year's notice of withdrawal from ICCROM, as required by the statutes of the organisation. This was a step I took with considerable regret, but it was unavoidable, given the circumstances.

This was announced to the House in the form of an answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) on 18 December. At that stage I notified Professor Lasko, British member of ICCROM's governing council, and Mr. Feilden, director of ICCROM, who is British. I am aware that some hold the view that Professor Lasko should have been brought into the consultations which led up to our decision to withdraw. I hope that I have already made it clear that the decision was made entirely on financial grounds and that, therefore, there would have been little purpose in seeking Professor Lasko's views since these could only have been on the intrinsic merits of ICCROM—matters which were not at any time called into question. It would also have been quite improper in my view for advance warning of our withdrawal to be given to anyone before I had informed Parliament of my decision.

Subsequently, I agreed to see Professor Lasko and Mr. Feilden, who wanted to put their case to me in person. I took the opportunity of inviting representatives of those Departments I had earlier consulted—about whether they would accept the cost—to be present at the meeting. This meeting was useful and informative but neither I nor the other Departments' representatives found anything in what Professor Lasko and Mr. Feilden told us to warrant a reversal of the decision to withdraw, which, I repeat, was taken only after long and careful consideration.

It is, I hope, clear that the decision to withdraw was reached after a thorough examination, first, of the case for retaining it on ODA' s Votes and, secondly, through consultation with other interested Departments on the possibilities of finding other departmental sources for Britain's subscription. At no stage has it been suggested that our action reflects any dissatisfaction with ICCROM. On the contrary, we have always recognised it as a body with a thoroughly high standard of professional competence and with a deservedly high international reputation, and I should like to pay a particular tribute to the work of Mr. Bernard Feilden, the director of ICCROM. At no stage did those involved imagine that news of our withdrawal would be welcomed—and our considerations were all the more careful as a result.

When I met Mr. Feilden he said that he intended to look into the possibility of the British subscription being raised from private sources. My officials are currently looking into whether, if the money can be found in that way, it would be possible for our official membership to continue. There may well be other such proposals being put together by the many people and organisations I know to be interested in our continued membership of ICCROM. I can assure the House that I am prepared to consider sympathetically any such proposals provided they do not depend upon any continuing financial commitment from the aid programme.