HC Deb 28 July 1982 vol 28 cc1206-12

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

1 am

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I am glad to have the opportunity to draw attention to the threatened closure of the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. I shall seek to do so in a considerably shorter time than is usual for hon. Members introducing the Adjournment debate, principally because I know that one or two other hon. Members wish to speak.

I believe that I can put my case shortly, because, in making it to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, I believe that I am pushing at an open door. Had the Minister for the Arts been replying, that would have been equally true. I fully understand why he cannot be here and I am grateful to him for his note of explanation. I fancy that if the decision were left to those within the Department, those who care about education and the arts, there would be no question at all of closing the museum.

The threatened closure of the museum arises from the recommendations at the end of a report on a group of museums which was recently presented by the unit that is led by Sir Derek Rayner. His scrutiny of the museums was so superficial that the recommendations simply cannot carry any authority at all.

I do not want to anticipate the debate on the Theatre Museum which will take place in a few hours time, but the report of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, which looked at the recommendations on the Theatre Museum, made one or two observations which apply a fortiori to the Museum of Childhood.

Paragraph 13 of the Select Committee's report states, that we were not impressed by the manner in which the investigation was carried out…on the basis of one ill-informed layman's brief investigation. Later, in paragraph 16, the Select Committee says: We suspect that the recommendations of the Rayner Report regarding outstations and the Bethnal Green Museum"— that is the Museum of Childhood— may well be as ill-considered as those concerning the Theatre Museum. Mr. Burrett's investigation of the Museum of Childhood was a great deal more superficial than his investigation of the theatre museum. The Museum of Childhood is open every day of the week except Friday. Mr. Burrett made only one visit, and he chose to make that for the three hours on a Friday—the only day of the week when it is closed. Brilliant, is it not?

If I may strike a personal note, for many years I headed a management consultancy team. If in those days I had been asked to assess the viability or validity of, an institution, a company or a factory, and I had sent one chap down with an adviser for three hours, picking a day on which the place was not working, and then sought to make a client pay fees for my report, I should confidently have expected to be prosecuted for attempting to get money by false pretences. That is exactly what the Rayner unit has done.

Mr. Burrett went to the museum for one three-hour visit on the only day of the week on which it was shut. Perhaps he went on that day because he did not want to see what goes on when the museum is open. Perhaps in making his cost-benefit analysis—that is what he was supposed to be doing—he did not want his lofty thoughts about money to be disturbed by any sordid considerations of the pleasure and knowledge gained by the 4,000 children and adults who visit the museum every week. Perhaps he did not want to be reminded, by their presence, that Man does not live by bread alone. The museum is not just a set of show cases. It is also a notable centre of education and scholarship, with its well-attended lectures, workshops and art classes, and with its seminars, which are over-subscribed and which are attended by people from all over the country and, indeed, from other countries.

Perhaps I should explain how the museum came to be in Bethnal Green. Shortly, the history is that in 1865 the South Kensington museum, which was the Victoria and Albert's precursor, found that it no longer needed the prefabricated iron building in which it had been housed since 1856, so it offered the building to various parts of London, to be re-erected as a museum building. The only takers were a group of people in the East End, who put some money together and bought the present site from private owners and presented it to the Government on the explicit condition that it should be used as a museum and for no other purpose. That undertaking is still extant and is as valid and binding as it was when the museum was first opened in 1872.

The Rayner report does not explain why it accepts non-commercial criteria for the main Victoria and Albert museum in Kensington but demands the application of commercial criteria for the Victoria and Albert's outstations or branches, including the Museum of Childhood. The Museum of Childhood costs one-fortieth of the cost of the whole Victoria and Albert complex, including the outstations. It provides one-eighth of all attendances in the complex. Therefore, it is much more cost-effective than the main museum. Why has it been picked on for victimisation? Is it because it is all right to subsidise culture in SW7, but not in E2? Is it because it is all right to provide culture on the State to the well-heeled burghers of Kensington but not to the less well off in the East End?

Perhaps I am doing the Minister an injustice, but I shall remind him—although I am sure he knows—that the Museum of Childhood is the only Government-funded cultural activity in the whole of east London. It is the only bit of the national heritage anywhere east of the Tower of London.

Even if one were to accept—and I do not—that an institution such as the Museum of Childhood ought to be considered or judged purely on hard, commercial business grounds, Mr. Burrett's business analysis is grievously defective for two reasons. First, if he had done even a hap'orth of arithemetic, he would have realised that there was no sense in recommending even an examination of the possibility of recovering the running costs by means of admission charges. Those running costs are about £300,000 a year. The number of admissions is over 200,000 a year. So, calculates Mr. Burrett, all one has to do is to get £1.50 off every grown up and child who goes into the place. He would get his £300,000, always assuming that the law of supply and demand does not apply and that one will get as many people paying £1.;50 as one does with free admission. Of course, that is a piece of arrant nonsense.

Many organised parties, including school parties, go to the museum. I have received lovely letters in the past few days from schoolchildren, including one from a darling boy—I should like to meet him—who lives in Hertfordshire, who said: I love that museum. I would go more often if I did not have to go to school. That is rather sweet.

A teacher taking his class to the museum would have pay £30. It is only on the basis that he will take his class that the arithmetic of the Rayner report can be substantiated. It is a piece of nonsense.

There is a second piece of nonsense in business terms. I am looking at the matter for the moment in cold business terms. The report says that if the museum is shut the building will fetch about £½ million for storage purposes. There are one or two hurdles to be crossed before that can happen. Will the planning authority allow a listed building to be used for storage purposes? Secondly, if Mr. Burrett had had a good look at the site he would have seen that there is difficult access to it for large vehicles. Who on earth will buy a building for use as a store if lorries are not able to get to and from it?

The building is prefabricated. It is light, with cladding on it. The floor loading is light. One cannot put weights on it. One could not have a hoist there. What sort of a store is that? The only thing that could be stored is hollow spheres made of a virtually weightless material such as expanded polystyrene. No one will pay £½ million just for that.

The so-called Rayner scrutiny was not a scrutiny at all, but a casual glance. The investigation was perfunctory, unprofessional, unskilled and imperceptive. It does not make any case for ending the great work done by the museum and the great pleasure and instruction that it gives to hundreds of thousands of people, young and old alike.

1.13 am
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South

I join the debate as another east London Member of Parliament. The proposed closure is seen by the people of east London as a slap in the face for east London, for reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) has mentioned. I sympathise with the Minister's job tonight. On almost any ground, this proposal is destructive, narrow-minded, discriminatory, vindictive and nasty. One wonders where the political nous was of those who let it pass over their desks.

My hon. Friend mentioned the requirement, in theory, for entrance fees. What headmaster will spend large sums of money to send whole classes a round such an establishment when his capitation is being cut because of reasons that we know about, with regard to local government expenditure? It just does not add up.

Moreover, the economic superstitions behind all this are, to say the least, questionable. The Government may say that they have to cut something and ask what we would cut instead. I am not sure that anything is gained by considering such relative candle-ends in expenditure terms. I draw the Minister's attention, however, to a reply that, by happy coincidence, I received today to a written question in which I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what was the United Kingdom contribution in the latest financial year to the European university institute—an EEC affair in Florence. The answer was that we contributed some £550,000—nearly double the cost of the children's museum in Bethnal Green. What do we get for that money? On 13 July 1981, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), told us that there were 15 United Kingdom students at that institution. The cost was £30,000 per year or more. I recommend that Sir Derek Rayner take an air trip to Florence—tourist class, no doubt, to save money—and examine that institution, which I suggest has far greater capacity for providing savings than the institution that we are now discussing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow mentioned that the prefabricated building dated back to 1856 and was removed from South Kensington. The South Kensington complex, which is an important part of our national heritage, came into being as a direct result of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The trusteeship which was extended into the east end was regarded as a duty by the people whom my hon. Friend described. It is part of our heritage and any Government who seek to destroy it are guilty of vandalism.

1.17 am
Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Hemel Hempstead)

I am glad to have the opportunity briefly to support the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikado) and Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) in urging the Government to change their minds and to keep open the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green. Not only are they absolutely right that the East End should have its museum, but the Bethnal Green museum has a special place in its community. That 200,000 people should go to it within the east end shows how popular it is in that area and further afield.

My special reason for taking part in the debate is that that museum has gone to particular lengths to draw in not only the public but children. This was pioneered by Janet Gladstone who worked there until her tragic death some 12 years ago. She opened classes on Saturday mornings and after school, especially designed to bring in children from the local neighbourhood and involve them in the activities of the museum—in painting, drawing and making things and taking a deep interest in and learning profoundly from what was to be found in the museum.

When Janet Gladstone was tragically killed just after her child was born, her friends set up a trust, of which I am proud to be a trustee, to keep that work going. It has been kept going to this very day by Imogen Stewart. It has expanded and pioneered. It has shown the way to other museums. It has shown the way for holiday projects. It has been of immense catalytic benefit far beyond the region in which the museum is situated but also within Bethnal Green itself. It would be a tragedy if that valuable work were brought to an end. Three hundred thousand pounds is important in some ways but it is also important that it should be spent there for that purpose. I urge the Government to think again on this, to recognise the huge value of the museum in that position and to keep it open.

1.20 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William Waldegrave)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikado) for giving us the chance, even briefly, to discuss this important subject. Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts is in Mexico addressing at this very moment—given the time shifts—a UNESCO conference. The arguments were set out well by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and, if I may so, by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell), whose particular connection with the museum was of great interest. The Conservative Party Back-Bench heritage committee was represented silently, because of the pressure on time, by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy).

The status of the Burrett report should not be exaggerated. It is necessary to have sceptical looks at even the smoothest-running parts of the Government machine. I know that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow will agree with me when I say that it is sometimes necessary to have a sceptical look at those parts of the establishment that can muster great support in the newspapers and elsewhere. But that does not necessarily mean that such reports should be accepted immediately by Ministers. It is necessary to have reports, but it is also necessary for Ministers to exercise their responsibility when they come to examine the reports. It is no criticism of Mr. Burrett or of Sir Derek Rayner. They were doing their job in casting a sceptical eye over this area and many of the other recommendations—we are dealing with only one recommendation in a long report—are sensible. The Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts congratulated the Government on the speedy acceptance of the principal recommendation to give trustees to the two great museums. The principle of some charging for outstations, such as Osterley Park, of the great museums has been accepted by Governments of both parties. The hon. Gentleman made the fair point that in a museum dedicated particularly to children the opportunity for charging must be smaller. Most of the museums with charges also have exemptions for children. That argument must be put in the balance on the other side.

The interest, for better or for worse, that has been aroused in the work of the museum by the Burrett report, whatever the future, will reap benefits. The Department has received 309 letters in the short time since tie report was published. There have been two petitions. There have been debates in another place about the Bethnal Green museum and the other museum whose future is under question, and there has been this short debate tonight. All of us are now better informed about the interesting history of the museum.

Although my small child is too small yet to do other than add to the museum's problems by her arrival, now that I have learnt from my brief about the interesting collections that will be available for her to see, I shall in due course be taking her along. I am advised by my private secretary who, with the heirarchical systems that we organise in Government, has a child older than mine, that his child has been much amused by the collections, which he thought were of high quality.

The museum makes a contribution to the life of the East End and its community. It reminds us once again of the foresight of the Victorians in their public policy. The explicit purpose of setting up a museum in the East End can be admired from the distance of more than 100 years. That argument must also go into the balance.

In addition, there are the restrictions on resources. There is also the principle of limiting the necessary coercion which is implicit in the State asking people who do not use a facility to pay for those who do. It is a coercion which all Tories—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield will concur—will accept as necessary. They will accept that some necessary use of the State's power to tax is in order for the arts and museums. Only the most unreformed and unregenerated Cobdenite Liberals, of whom there are one or two on both sides of the House, could possibly stand four-square against that principle. The use of the State's great power of taxation and coercion must be examined closely. It is a great power that must be used with discrimination. Therefore, it is not wrong to cast a sceptical eye over its use in different aspects from time to time.

I shall report to my right hon. Friend the issues that have been raised tonight. I have no doubt that he will read them for himself in the report in Hansard. Undoubtedly he will be meeting some of those who want to pursue the matter with him. I think that he has met members of the staff and others concerned. The case will not go by default. This useful little debate has made extra-certain of that. I think that the House and the children of a wider constituency than the East End will be grateful to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow for raising the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past One o'clock.