HC Deb 09 May 1988 vol 133 cc14-5
39. Miss Lestor

To ask the Minister for the Arts what have been the administrative costs of admission charges at the Natural History museum in 1987–88.

41. Mr. Boyes

To ask the Minister for the Arts what was the level of admission to the Natural History museum in 1987–88.

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce)

The administration and monitoring of admission charges at the Natural History museum are matters for the museum's trustees. On 9 April the trustees announced that the number of visitors to the public galleries, including the geological and zoological museums, during 1987–88 was 1,633,000, and that the net receipts from admission charges were £1,352,000.

Miss Lestor

Does the Minister put in the debit or credit column the amount being charged to the 50 Third world countries which use the Natural History museum for research into a variety of matters, such as mosquitoes, blood worms and various parasitic diseases? As the Overseas Development Administration uses that museum for research, will he say what discussions he has had with his hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development about the effect that that will have on the ODA's budget?

Mr. Luce

There are a number of sectors in which it is sensible for the Natural History museum to collaborate on research projects with people in other countries. It is for the trustees to decide what priority should be given to projects, but it is only reasonable that the essential costs of that service should be covered.

Mr. Boyes

Do not the figures that the Minister has given hide the fact that attendances at the Natural History museum are at least 40 per cent. down? Does that not mean that many people who get much pleasure and education from visiting the museum are, because of charges, being denied access to it? As the figures show that the numbers of visitors are dropping, will that not inevitably lead to redundancies and low morale among the staff? Should not the Minister withdraw these charges immediately?

Mr. Luce

The trustees must decide whether to accept voluntary donations or make admission charges. It is absolutely right that they should decide whether to introduce charges. The Natural History museum introduced charges just over a year ago. It has increased its overall resources by £1,300,000 and announced that it will improve its facilities as a result. The public, therefore, will get a better service. We find that although in the initial stages of the introduction of admission charges there is a drop in attendances, it does pick up. Attendances at the National Maritime museum increased by 16 per cent. last year compared with the previous year. That museum has introduced admission charges. It is only right that we should leave such decisions to the museums. And they should use that money to increase overall services and facilities for the public.

Mr. Jessel

Have the Government upheld their grant to the Natural History museum, regardless of any charges?

Mr. Luce

I can confirm that without any shadow of doubt. The amount given to the Natural History museum has gone up in real terms by 37 per cent. during the past nine years. Moreover, it has had its funding earmarked for the next three years so that it knows what money it will have. In no way has punitive action been taken on account of the introduction of charges.

Mr. Harris

Can my right hon. Friend explain why museums and galleries are sacrosanct? Why should trustees not be able to raise extra revenue to supplement Government grants if that is what they want, just as their counterparts do in practically every other country?

Mr. Luce

My hon. Friend is right. As he says, it is for the trustees to decide. Western and Communist countries have museum charges in addition to basic Government funding. The choice should be open to museums and galleries. If they make charges, however, what matters is that they show the public how facilities will be improved to their benefit.

Mr. Fisher

Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that the figures that he gave the House should be compared with the 3.3 million admissions the year before? Is he aware that his figures show a drop of 40 per cent. on the previous year? The trustees have not been anxious to introduce charges, but they have been forced to do so because the Government are under-funding and neglecting their service. That neglect is documented in the National Audit Office report, which shows under-funding in conservation, research, display, cataloguing, building maintenance and the rest. Is it not time that the Minister faced the time bomb ticking away under our national museums, recognised his responsibilities, and funded museums and galleries properly?

Mr. Luce

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. He is fishing around for a crisis when there is none. He says that funding has been diminished, but since 1979 it has increased by 26.5 per cent. in real terms. That is not a crisis. Funding has increased. Moreover, in the next three years we shall increase funding for museums and galleries by just under 16 per cent., and this year we shall increase by 20 per cent. the money available for building and maintenance. The Government are earmarking £11 million for increased storage. We can be proud of our record.

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