HC Deb 14 January 1985 vol 71 cc141-8

'Where the Boards of Trustees of the National Museum of Scotland, the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and the National Galleries of Scotland intend to institute payment for admission they will require an Order made by Statutory Instrument and subject to affirmative resolution by both Houses of Parliament.'.—[Mr. Buchan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Buchan

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Our discussion in Committee on this was merely exploratory. It may be useful to deploy the arguments at greater length and we make no apology for returning to the matter today. In Committee the Government argued, first, that there was nothing in the Bill to enforce changes and, secondly, that the power to make charges already existed if the museums chose to use it. That was buttressed by the argument that, democratically. it should be up to the trustees of the museums to impose charges if they so wished—giving them the kind of freedom that Scottish local authorities are supposed to have on matters other than fluoridation.

We challenge that argument because we do not believe that the trustees should make that decision. On the contrary, we regard it as a matter of supreme national policy for museums and galleries. We are reinforced in that view for two reasons. First, there is the financial squeeze on authorities in Scotland. I appreciate that it is less cataclysmic and less devastatingly mean than that imposed on English authorities this year. although no doubt it will be our turn next year. Nevertheless, we fear that the general squeeze will create conditions in which museums will be tempted to introduce charges to try to help their finances.

1 am

We are concerned, because the squeeze is occurring under this Prime Minister. It is largely forgotten that she was the first person to seek to introduce charges when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1971. It is worth reminding ourselves of the attitude that she adopted then. She is fairly influential within the Cabinet, if we are to believe reports. When she was Secretary of State she introduced the enabling power to make charges and to put the power to charge beyond dispute. She quoted the White Paper and said that it was Legislation to enable the Trustees of the various national museums to charge— The enabling nature of the legislation has been made clear throughout. One or two of us pressed the right hon. Lady on that. I said, "Explain that." My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) said: Will the right hon. Lady make it clear"? She said: That is quite clear. The Government require charges to be made. Therefore, within two paragraphs enabling powers meant that the Government required charges to be made. I hope that I have made that quite clear. A little rattiness was creeping in. The right hon. Lady said: I understood that the trustees wanted an unequivocal statement. I believe that I have now given them what they want."—[Official Report, 21 June 1974; Vol 819, c. 1012–3.] She gave them an instruction on charges.

Since the National museum and the galleries were wholly dependent for their expenditure on Government finance through the taxpayer, once the powers were complete the decision that charges should be made was the Government's. That is the Prime Minister's attitude. Therefore, we have reason to be anxious.

We are also anxious because we do not believe that the concept involved in admission charges for museums is good for the health of a civilised community. I know the jeux d'esprit of the Minister for the Arts. We went through this in committee when he said that there was more satisfaction and pleasure to be derived from payment for services rendered. As I pointed out then, it is the philosophy of the prostitute— one that should not be advocated for our young people.

In 1971 Paul Jennings wrote a little poem, when he said that the Government were attempting to equate cash with art. It was called Lines Written in Despondency in Trafalgar Square"— the site of the National Gallery—and said: Oh God, a dreadful army comes, Of foppish hardhats, po-faced bowlered bums Whose mealy minds, whose souls of dust and ash Chafe for the chance of turning art to cash. That is the philosophy of the Government, and that is why we are opposed to it.

This matter has been discussed at great length in museums. I have with me reports of discussions at an international conference about charges in 1969. One speaker said: if one admits the state's obligation— through national, provincial or municipal channels—to educate the population, there seems no good reason for justifying the erection of an economic barrier precisely at the level where the masses are directly involved. It is interesting that that was said by the director of the La Plata museum—Mario Teruggi—in Buenos Aires. The Argentine was well in advance of the rulers of this country.

There is another interesting historical fact. We were told in Committee that the proposal would have little or no effect on admissions. Some of us challenged that and said that it would certainly alter the nature of those admitted—the little snotty-nosed youngster from Partick would not find it easy to dive into a gallery. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) was once— unbelievable as it is— a snotty-nosed youngster. Such youngsters will no longer get the chance to dash in to press buttons on machines, and trigger off an interest. The nature of the admissions will change. The casual visitor who will get excited about a particular subject will be stifled. Only the intentional visit will take place.

We have interesting evidence about other effects of charging. I have an article from the Museums Bulletin back in 1973 when good old Edinburgh council had five museums in its care, and abolished charges at the end of 1972 in four of the museums.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I was on the council at the time.

Mr. Buchan

Good. The four museums were Lady Stair's house, Huntly house museum, Canongate tolbooth and Lauriston castle.

Mr. Foulkes

And the Museum of Childhood.

Mr. Buchan

No, there was an intractable problem that year with the Museum of Childhood, which was privately owned, but later the charges were abolished, as my hon. Friend says.

In those four museums, the following things happened. In February 1972, Lady Stair's house had 263 admissions. After the abolition of charges, it had 898 admissions in February 1973. In May 1972 Lady Stair's had 972 visitors, and in May 1973, 2,800— three times as many. A similar thing happened with the Huntly house museum. In May 1972, it had 1,200 visitors, and in May 1973 4,600— nearly four times as many visitors. Canongate tolbooth had 758 visitors in May 1972, and 3,300 in May 1973— again, nearly four times as many. Lauriston castle had 340 visitors in May 1972, and 1,309 in May 1973—again nearly four times as many.

Therefore, admission charges change the nature of admissions and the number of visitors.

Mr. Foulkes

I do not think that my hon. Friend has made the political point that between 1972 and 1973 there was a major political change in the council and the Conservative, or, as it was called at the time, quite wrongly, the Progressive, majority, was replaced by a majority of Labour and, I must admit, Liberal members, and that is why the change took place.

Mr. Buchan

I thought that that was almost understood. It was from the Labour party— and in this case the Liberal party as well— that civilisation had to come.

We reject this move on practical, economic and, above all, on philosophical grounds. It would be shameful for Britain, which has led the way in this in the past, to go back not to Victorian ideas, because it was the Victorian philanthropists who left us so much, but to the pre-Victorian. primitive ideas. We are concerned because the Prime Minister has more regard for cash than for the arts, and therefore we have proposed the solution that if the charges are to be permitted, that can only be done on the say-so of the House. If the Government wish to remove all power from local authorities in this matter, let there at least be some parliamentary control. The power should be made only after the passing of an order by the House.

Mr. Allan Stewart

As always, I have listened with great respect to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan). I fear that I cannot emulate his example in literary quotations, but I hope that I shall be able to reassure him about the Government's intentions. As he said, this debate follows a lengthy debate in Committee on a group of amendments tabled by Labour Members. Those amendments were designed to restrict the powers of the various boards to levy admission charges for entry to their collections. As I explained, and as the hon. Gentleman repeated tonight, those amendments failed to recognise that the reference to admission charges in the Bill in respect of the national museums and galleries was included merely for the avoidance of doubt. The powers for the boards to charge admission are contained in the Museum and Galleries Admission Charges Act 1972.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that Parliament should have the right to approve any proposal that admission charges be introduced at any of our national institutions, although, as he will know, recently charges for special exhibitions have been instituted without great controversy. It was to decide on such matters, which are principally for the institutions concerned, that we are establishing independent boards of trustees with wide-ranging expertise and flexibility. The 1972 Act, which gives those powers to the independent boards for the national museums, remained on the statute book, unamended, throughout the term of office of the Labour Government, so that the approach in the Act was clearly not then believed to be contrary to the policy that the hon. Gentleman's colleagues were following.

The hon. Gentleman's major point in raising this subject is to query the Government's view. I confirm that the Government's view has not changed. It is this: in respect of the museums and galleries, the boards of trustees should be free to decide for themselves whether charges should be introduced for entry to special exhibitions or to the permanent collections. I assure him that there is no intention to force institutions to introduce general admission charges. Secondly, as far as I am aware, no proposal for general admission charges is under consideration at any of the Scottish national institutions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by those two points.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

In the spirit of Lib-Lab agreement, which undoubtedly influenced decisions in Edinburgh city council in 1972 or 1973, I lend my support to the new clause. The Minister maintained that the boards would be free to decide for themselves and that there would be no Government direction. Of course, it is well recognised that there need not be a direct order sent from the Scottish Office to the boards to impose charges. That can be done much more subtly. If the funding to those bodies is not adequate, they will be forced indirectly to impose charges. Any imposition of charges for the general exhibitions in museums, and even in the royal botanic gardens, which are much used by the citizens of Edinburgh and by visitors to the city, would be a retrograde step.

We live at a time when it is predicted that there will be ever-increasing leisure time for people to enjoy. One aspect of that leisure time that many will wish to develop is a greater interest in our heritage and culture, and at this stage we should not put harriers, especially pecuniary ones, in their way. Although such cultural excursions are no substitute for proper jobs, it must be said that, at a time of high unemployment, many people who are on the dole take the opportunity to visit our museums.

I believe that, for some time, London zoo has had great difficulty in financing itself, because it has not been able to attract the public and because it has admission charges. We are talking not about one person visiting the zoo, but about someone taking his wife and children. It becomes a special burden, on top of travelling expenses, to undertake such a cultural expedition. Therefore, it is only right that Parliament should have the chance to debate any decision to impose charges.

1.15 am
Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

One of the advantages of having served on the Committee on a Bill is that one can be brief on Report.

However, it is worth reiterating that one reason why this matter was raised in Committee was that there was suspicion of what the Government may be up to. The Government may have no direct policy of coercion of trustees— whom they appoint— but it is apparent that after this year, when they have, admittedly, been generous to the Scottish museums, they can ensure that charges are made, simply by cutting the amount of money available—it is the rack principle which the Government operate on local government; a few turns of the screw will presumably do the trick when trustees are worried about how to make ends meet.

The SNP believes that it would be a retrogressive act if payments had to be made at the door of public collections. That would reduce the number of people who could visit those collections, and the figures quoted by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) show what could happen if charges were introduced.

If the Government had a reputation for being liberal towards the arts, there would be no need for the debate. It stands to the eternal shame of the previous Labour Government that they did not alter the 1972 Act so that there could be no doubt. The present Government would have had to legislate to reintroduce charges and would thus have given the game away.

I hope that the Government do not intend to compel trustees to impose charges. If they are sincere in what they say, there is no reason why they should not accept the new clause, which would at least allow us to have another bite if the Government change their mind or compel the trustees to change their minds.

Mr. Craigen

I wish to be clear about the Government's stance. In Committee, the Minister said that charges were nothing to do with the Government. He said: we would expect the trustees to discuss any proposals for charges with Ministers before the charges were introduced."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 11 December 1984; c. 57.] All that we are saying is that we do not trust the Government in the present economic climate. We do not want Ministers to say to trustees on the quiet, "We want you to introduce charges to increase your own resources." Before Ministers agree to the imposition of charges or bring trustees round to the realisation that they may have to introduce general admission charges, the matter should be discussed by Parliament.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

The Opposition are making desperately heavy weather of the new clause. As one of the Ministers in charge of the 1972 Act, I know that all the legal issues were cleared in relation to the trusts, and in particular to the Vaughan Bequest. I hope that all Opposition Members will go to see that this month, free, in Edinburgh and that they will see the Turner watercolours.

We are talking about relatively few national galleries and museums compared with the enormous number of other museums in Scotland, some of which charge in accordance with their local authority's decision Thus, I cannot see why the Opposition make such an issue about the national institutions. I was charged to go to see the exhibition on Ramsay MacDonald in Lossiemouth museum. I had to pay to see it, and it was an excellent exhibition. Indeed, it was much enhanced by a large section on the fishing industry.

There is nothing wrong in charging to see some of the exquisite works of art that our national exhibitions have. For an individually very small charge, an enormous sum could be provided collectively with which to enhance the standing of our facilities and exhibitions. It would be a great help to purchase and retain in Scotland some of the things that we would like to see on exhibition.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

The national galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh have 400,000 visitors a year, which is less than a third of the number who have visited the Burrell collection. Those visiting are not unemployed and do not come from Craigmillar but are, I regret to say, members of rather a restricted social class. They do not pay charges that they could afford, but the many people whom we should like see visiting them do not do so despite the absence of charging. Thus, I do not see why charging is said to be a deterrent.

Sir Hector Monro

I quite agree with my hon. and learned Friend. I hope that my last point will reinforce the view held by my hon. Friend the Minister. We look on Edinburgh as one of the great tourist attractions of Scotland. Hopefully, we can take a lot of money from the tourists who wish to see the exhibitions available. That money from overseas could go towards improving the facilities and adding to the collections.

All in all, the Opposition have made a very feeble case, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will stick to his guns.

Mr. Buchan

I shall be brief, but I should like to deal with a few canards. We have been asked why we are making such a meal of this issue, but the answer is that we are dealing with national museums. That is why the House must pay attention to it. Indeed, above all, this measure could be a trend-setter for other museums and galleries.

As it happens the local authorities have a pretty good record, including Glasgow's courageous decision— despite being financially squeezed by the Government— to open the Burrell gallery and to make it free.

Mr. Fairbairn

A collection is made.

Mr. Buchan

Money is indeed collected, and people generously pay without being asked, because they say that the exhibition is good and that they want to contribute to it. There is a world of difference between people who have entered and seen the exhibition freely, and who wish to contribute to it and—

Mr. Foulkes

Sock it too them, Norman.

Mr. Buchan

I shall try not to do that, because the time is late. The mentality and philosophy of Government Members cause me rue.

A terrible intervention was made by the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn). He said that 400,000 people a year visited the national gallery and that 1,200,000 visited the Burrell collection. That is three times as many. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the national gallery attracted a restricted social class. I like the language of Government Members. The truth is that the Burrell collection has succeeded from the beginning because it is seen as being popular in the best sense. It belongs to and emanates from the people of Glasgow and they have responded. If the hon. and learned Gentleman went there he would see that. Yes, the unemployed go there. Yes, families go there. People from a wide social class go there. If the hon. and learned Gentleman does not know that, he has no right to participate in the debate.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right that that does not apply to the national gallery. That is because it has not succeeded in making contact with the people of Edinburgh. The new director clearly wishes to move in that direction. Because of its nature, the national gallery has never been deployed in the same way. It has been regarded as a repository rather than a collection. That is the reason.

All the nonsense about social class is merely an argument for making those who can afford it pay. Some argue that tourists should also be made to pay. Tourists come to Britain for two important reasons. Without tourism, Britain would be bankrupt. Only oil and tourism keep Britain afloat.

Americans are attracted to Britain because we speak English and because up to now our great national institutions and galleries have been free. That is where the income comes from.

Mr. Fairbairn

The hon. Member suggests that I have not seen the Burrell collection. That was intentionally offensive. None has been more anxious than I to see the Burrell collection properly housed. It was properly housed under this Government. The Burrell collection is popular for many reasons—one of which is that people can go there by bus. That is not possible if one wants to visit the national galleries and museums in Edinburgh. That is one of the problems.

Alas, only a restricted type of person cares to go to the galleries in Edinburgh. That has nothing to do with charges.

Mr. Buchan

Most of the hon. and learned Gentleman's points are rubbish. Buses pass the national gallery every day. It is only 200 yards from Waverley station. What is the man talking about? It is rubbish.

1.30 am
Mr. Allan Stewart

The debate has touched on several points and a variety of views have been expressed. I hope that we can all agree that the Burrell has been an outstanding success. In my view, it has been an outstanding success not only for the people of Glasgow and the surrounding area but in terms of its effectiveness as a tourist attraction.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) rightly pointed out to the House, it has been opened under this Government and 50 per cet. of the capital cost was supplied by the Scottish Office. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that. The decision may have been made by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan), but the money to ensure that the museum was built was found by this Government.

I want to concentrate on the new clause. I think that the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) will accept that the new clause would mean that on each occasion that an institution wished to impose charges—for example, for a special exhibition— it would need an affirmative resolution of the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish such a restriction to be imposed, because it is widely accepted that when institutions incur extra costs to lay on special exhibitions it is reasonable that charges should be imposed to raise the necessary finance.

I end by reiterating the Government's position, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept it. There is no intention to compel institutions to introduce general admission charges— I think that that is the essence of his concern—and, as I said earlier, so far as I am aware no proposal for general admission charges is under consideration at any of the Scottish national institutions.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) asked me about the Government's role in all this. I simply reiterate what I said in Committee: that, while decisions are for the trustees. I would expect them to discuss any such proposals with the Department before implementing them.

Question put and negatived.

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