HC Deb 22 May 1989 vol 153 cc742-8

Not amended, in the Standing Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

8.1 pm

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is fair to say that the Bill has received general support as it has passed through its various stages in this House and in another place. We had an interesting and lively Second Reading debate on a number of matters relating to the national maritime museum. However, there were no significant differences of opinion on the proposals of the Bill itself.

I will briefly remind the House of the purpose of this short Bill. It is to equip the board of trustees of the national maritime museum with similar powers to hold land and property to those already enjoyed by the other national museums and galleries. The Bill repeals a provision in the National Maritime Museum Act 1934, which vested the main property occupied by the museum at Greenwich in the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Bill proposes to vest the property with the museum's own board of trustees. There are a number of important safeguards about the use of the property which are repeated and updated in the present Bill.

The provisions have been welcomed by the museum and will allow the trustees and the director to use the magnificent buildings at Greenwich to even better effect than they have done previously. Since the Second Reading debate I have paid a visit to the museum and I am full of admiration for the imaginative leadership provided by the chairman, Lord Lewin, and the director, Richard Ormond and for the commitment of the staff, many of whom I had the chance to meet. I am happy to commend the Bill to the House.

8.4 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

As the Minister has said, we debated this matter on Second Reading and, in so far as the Bill gives new powers to the national maritime museum, the Opposition welcome it. But that museum and others will want to know about the funding, powers and responsibilities they are inheriting from the Government and today's debate gives another opportunity for the Minister to explain Government policy briefly and for the House to look in a little more detail at the inheritance of this museum and others.

The Minister explained that the Bill will transfer property from the Property Services Agency. Few hon. Members of any party have any brief for the PSA and I welcome the fact that the museum's property will be transferred from the PSA. However, the transfer makes sense only if it is properly financed, and on that point, the Minister appears to be self-satisfied. On Second Reading, he said: the National Maritime museum is heading for success … the … museum is an outstanding success story."—[Official Report, Second Reading Committee, 28 February 1989; c. 10.] We agree with that in so far as the museum is well managed and we join the Minister is paying tribute to Mr. Richard Ormond. However, that success has been in spite of, rather than as a result of, Government policy.

There is a problem about the buildings that the Bill will give to the museum. The Government gave the museum £3.5 million this year for repairs and maintenance, but that sum will decline to £2.7 million next year, although the museum estimates that it needs £19 million over the next five years. By any estimate, there is a shortfall of at least £2 million. The repairs include such basics as new heating and wiring, roof repairs and floor strengthening. Does the Minister agree that, when he visited the museum, it was explained to him that the inheritance of the buildings is sour and difficult? If he agrees, what will he do about it? What does he advise the national maritime museum to do?

The Minister is giving new powers and responsibilities to the museum. Will he tell the museum that it should try to obtain more sponsorship? Prince Charles said last week that it is very much more difficult for the unglamorous side of a museum's world, such as repairs and maintenance, to appeal to sponsors. Will the Minister advise the museum to lengthen its five-year plan to 10 years and, effectively, put off dealing with the repairs and maintenance that are part of the backlog it will inherit from the PSA? That is the state of repairs and the extent of the problem that the Bill will give to the museum. It is a reflection of the degree of care and concern that the Government have shown for the national maritime museum and for other museums, which are being treated in the same way.

When seen in that context, the transfer of power and responsibilities to the museum, far from being an imaginative move, will look to many hon. Members and to the public not like a transfer of responsibility, but a way of passing the buck for repairs to the museum and of saying to the museum, "You get on with it. We have failed to do our job and have left you with a building with inadequate heating and wiring, leaking roofs and a floor that is not strong enough for many of your artefacts. Now you take over, although we won't fund you any more."

The House must understand that that is what will happen if it passes the Bill. The Bill is passing on the responsibility for a museum that has been inadequately financed in the past. It will pass on to the museum a £19 million bill for repairs and maintenance.

The national maritime museum is not the only museum that is suffering. The trustees of the Victoria and Albert museum and the Tate gallery have refused to accept the new powers in this Bill until the position on repairs and maintenance has been worked out. Legislation is not needed in those cases. The Victoria and Albert museum needs £125 million over the next 10 years and it will inherit a backlog of £50 million in repairs and maintenance from the PSA. Its grant from the Government is £7.6 million this year. It is no wonder that Sir Clifford Chetwood, a museum trustee, said recently: Our buildings have suffered from years of neglect while they were maintained by the Government. We will not take over responsibility for them unless the Treasury is prepared to finance this backlog of work. Lord Armstrong, the chairman of the trustees of the Victoria and Albert museum has said that he agrees that the museum has been underfunded over many years. That is the backlog that the V and A has inherited and which the Bill passes on to the national maritime museum.

As I have said, the Tate gallery is in the same position, needing £27 million-worth of repairs and maintenance. It has buckets in its galleries; its roofs are being distorted by the sun, and the wiring is 50 years old. Three galleries had to be closed last year. Antiquated air conditioning causes high humidity and a temperature that affects many of the exhibits.

That is what is happening in many of our museums. However, on Second Reading and again this afternoon, the Government have shown that they do not seem to understand the crisis that is building up because of the past 10 years of neglect. In the Bill, the Government seek to pass on the legacy of neglect and underfunding to this museum and to others, telling them to get on with it. That is not good enough and the museum world knows that it is not good enough. Hon. Members must understand what they will be doing if the Bill is enacted. We must ask ourselves whether we trust the Government and whether they should be handing over museums in such a state.

The problems relate to security and insurance as well as to repairs and maintenance. The national maritime museum has no alarm system when it is open. It relies entirely on the eyes, diligence and alertness of its wardens. Once the doors are opened in the morning, there is no alarm system. Not only are the exhibits not alarmed, but there is no insurance whatsoever and the Tate is about to inherit severe fire protection problems from the PSA.

The Government have said that everything is wonderful and that they are spending so much money but in reality by 1991 the building programme budget, of which the Minister is so proud, will be £55 million per year. The director of the Museums Association, Dr. Patrick Boylon, has said that an extra £200 million is needed to undertake repairs. However, in 1989–90 the Government are increasing that budget by only 2.1 per cent., and in 1991 it will go up to the magic figure of 2.5 per cent. With inflation at 8 per cent., those museums are running backwards, even without allowing for the fact that, in the south of England, inflation in the cost of building repairs is estimated to be running at 20 per cent. The House must understand the inheritance that it will be passing on to the national maritime museum.

Does the Minister agree with the figures that I have given? If not, what are his figures? Why does he refuse yet again to face up to reality and conduct a national audit so that he, the museum world and the public can see how serious the position is? He may well say that the Opposition are doom-mongering and taking selective figures but let us have the facts and a national audit so that we can see whether the figures given to me by the Victoria and Albert museum, the Tate gallery and the national maritime museum are wrong. If they are wrong, the Government ought to say exactly where they are wrong and conduct a national audit to make the facts clear.

The fist element of what we are doing in the Bill is handing over underfunded buildings. The second element relates to the powers of the trustees. As the Minister has already said, the present trustees of the national maritime museum are very good and have real expertise in nautical affairs. They include Lord Lewin; Mr. Wright, a nautical architect; Mr. Corlett, a ship architect; Mr. Tidbury, who is involved with the Mary Rose trust, and Dame Naomi James, who is a sailor. That is not the case with the Victoria and Albert which has no specialist museum, librarian or other appropriate academic on its board. This legislation would hand over responsibility without making sure that the board, unlike the board of trustees of the British museum, is composed of people with relevant expertise in the running of museums.

As we said on Second Reading, the Government ought to do something about that. We are expecting the trustees to take on responsibilities that they are not in a position to fulfil. Last year's report by the Museums and Galleries Commission said that it was unreasonable, to make trustees responsible for raising money to meet museums' basic needs". It also said that if we carried on like that, suitable people would not be willing to serve as trustees. However, that is precisely what the Government are doing and that is the state of affairs that they are perpetuating with the Bill.

In the past, Governments of both parties accepted that they were responsible for the nation's heritage and for funding museums. All that has changed. The Government now have a policy of saying, "We will give you so much and no more. You find the rest." Trustees work part-time; they are not executives and cannot operate like the board of a public company. They are not there to raise money, so it is a totally unreasonable and misconceived policy to expect them to finance the museums and to raise money for them when those museums are the responsibility of the whole community and society. That is a responsibility that the Government have neglected. They will not accept it, and in the Bill they are legislating for the passing on of such responsibilities.

The truth is that the Government have no museums strategy. In recent weeks there has been an interesting conference entitled "Museums 2000" which was organised by the Museums Association. Museum experts came from 12 or 14 countries and all paid tribute to the high degree of professionalism and the technical expertise to be found in British museums. They agreed that we continue to lead the world in conservation, curatorial skills, exhibition and professional skills. However, they also said that in terms of policy and in the thinking about the role of museums in our culture, we were way behind the rest of the world.

Because of the Government, museums are not clear about what is expected of them. They are not sure how they fit into a cultural policy because the Government do not have a cultural policy. They are not sure how they fit into an educational policy. They are not sure what weight that they should give to the tourist and leisure role. They are not sure of the responsibilities of local authorities. Those basic questions about the role of museums in our society have not been answered by the Government and they are certainly not addressed in the Bill.

In this legislation we are handing over to the national maritime museum—and to others—new responsibilities in a strategy and policy vacuum. What are we preserving? For whom, why and how? What is our attitude towards our heritage? Because the Government have never addressed such questions, they do not have any answers. If one asked the Government, "If these museums did not exist, what sort of museums would you be setting up, for what purpose, where and in what sort of business location, with what relation to broadcasting and to modern means of communication?", one would realise that the Government had no answer. They have never produced anything on paper and apparently they have never done any thinking about policy or strategy or about the role played by museums in our culture.

That is especially true——

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to speak specifically to the Bill. Although I have been interested in what he has been saying, he is going wide of the Bill now.

Mr. Fisher

It is particularly true of the national maritime museum. We accept that our nautical heritage is even less protected than our heritage on land. When the Minister visited the museum last week he will no doubt have been given its new publication, "Heritage at Sea" which lays out exactly the problems. The legislation—the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 and the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973—is inadequate. There is no equivalent to English Heritage for nautical sites.

We are in a catch-22 situation in that the Merchant Shipping Act encourages and almost demands that all artefacts are sold to pay the fee of 7.5 per cent. that is required from salvors and the Department of Transport. That added cost means that museums cannot afford to buy, and when wrecks and sites are discovered they are broken up rather than held together. The Mary Rose is a notable exception, but it is indeed an exception. Our nautical heritage is being destroyed by the very legislation that was meant to protect it. The document recently published by the national maritime museum shows that we need new legislation, a national inventory of sites and a maritime heritage protection agency.

Why are the Government not addressing those problems? Why are the Government devolving powers and responsibilities to the national maritime museum in this Bill without addressing what the museum is about and without taking on board the important "Heritage at Sea" document that was published by the staff of the national maritime museum? Why do they not incorporate all those points and give the money to the national maritime museum? Indeed, why do they not also give it the legislative context in which it can get on with the job that we should be giving it in the Bill?

I fear that the reason the Bill transfers responsibilities to the national maritime museum without providing the money to carry out those responsibilities is that the Government believe in the free market for museums. They are prepared, reluctantly and grudgingly, to maintain the present level of funding, but no more. They say that others, whether independent museums or sponsors, should get on with the job because they will not give them any further help. New thinking and new money from the Government is desperately needed. The Minister should follow the French example, where the Government, with all-party support, have just voted a 12.5 per cent. increase for the arts and museums budget. If the Minister announced a 12.5 per cent. increase in funding for the national maritime museum, he would have all-party support.

Although we are not prepared to vote against the Bill because we support its general thrust, we feel that the Government are handing over to the national maritime museum problems that can be dealt with only by additional funding.

8.21 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and your intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker, underline the need for more general debate on this issue. The massive deterioration of so many of our treasures will cause the most appalling problems. Many buildings are aging, and such mundane matters as wiring, lead piping and so on are putting enormous strains on our heritage.

I want to ask the Minister a gentle question. Is it the Government's policy that funds should be given as a priority to those areas of our maritime heritage where deterioration has already begun—in fact, the equivalent of rescue archaeology? I suspect that the Government are aware that public interest in our heritage is escalating; it is not simply a question of Huggin hill or Roman remains. The House should take that into account.

8.22 pm
Mr. Luce

I shall first respond to the short speech by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) before dealing with the points raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). The hon. Member for Linlithgow rightly referred to the increasing public interest in heritage and, by implication, more widely in the arts. Indeed, there is a relentless upsurge of interest. In the financial year 1988–89 there were 80 million attendances at museums, including local authority museums, private sector museums and national institutions. It is Museums Year, during which it is estimated that there will be 100 million attendances at museums. That is a story not of collapse but of a dramatic expansion of interest. New museums are opening at a rate of one every fortnight. I accept that the Government have a special obligation to our national institutions, museums and galleries, which is why we give more than £150 million of taxpayers' money to them.

During the past three or four years, I have received representations about the amount of money available—or not available—for the maintenance of our great institutions. I understand the point that it is not easy to find sponsorship for rewiring or for mending roofs. That is why, when I launched the three-year funding policy in November 1987, I said that we would shift greater emphasis and more resources to building and maintenance. Some of the institutions have been operating for a long time, and their maintenance problems have become more acute. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, inflation costs are especially acute for building and maintenance. However, I wish that the hon. Gentleman would sometimes acknowledge that I have responded to the problem and shifted additional resources to deal with it—for example, £48 million this year, a 50 per cent. increase in real terms since 1979–80. Over the period to 1991–92, the figure will be £55 million a year.

The hon. Gentleman threw out a great many figures. We are discussing the National Maritime Museum Bill. The hon. Gentleman understandably asked about the amount of money for the building programme. This year it will be just under £3.5 million, and I have earmarked £2,770,000 for next year and £3,200,000 for the following year. However, that is only a partial allocation, because for the second and third years I prefer to wait until closer to the time to gauge the real building and maintenance problems. I am holding back a certain sum of money that I can then allocate. In fact, therefore, the total sum for the next three years will be a great deal larger than that shown in the chart.

Mr. Fisher

Does the Minister accept the national maritime museum's estimate that its five-year plan to deal with the backlog of repairs and maintenance will cost £19 million? The current grants announced will fall about £2 million short of that figure.

Mr. Luce

The museum has submitted fresh figures as a result of the corporate strategy that I asked each institution to supply each year, and we are examining those figures. The museum has a five-year strategy, whereas the funding covers a three-year strategy. A considerable sum of money has been allocated for the next three years, and I shall take into account the figures that the museum has submitted, looking five years ahead. I want to ensure that the building is maintained at a decent standard.

The hon. Gentleman gave the impression that he had never visited the museum, but I cannot believe that. I am glad to see him shaking his head—of course he has visited it. Nevertheless, when listening to parts of his speech I wondered whether we were living in slightly different worlds. I do not suggest that everything is perfect with our national institutions; I accept that there are pressures on building and maintenance, especially for the older institutions where the pressures of inflation are more acute. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to be truthful and acknowledge that what the museum is achieving is a remarkable story. The 700,000 attendances last year show the general support for the museum and the growing number of people who want to visit it.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the high calibre of the trustees and the cross-section of interests that they represent. They do a marvellous job. I strongly believe in the concept of devolving responsibility to the museums and galleries. Of course, that means more responsibilities for the chairman, trustees and director, and I acknowledge that the policy must be carried out with care. It is right to have less central control—a proposition that the Labour party does not support.

A seminar on nautical sites was held recently following a report on underwater archaeology. I am interested in the recommendations of the report and I am aware of the concern about the preservation of the sites and the work that is needed on them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do not have direct responsibility in that area, but it is something that I think the Government should take seriously. A number of Departments have responsibility, including the Department of Transport.

Without going outside the terms of reference of the Bill, I hope that I have responded to the main points raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. I hope also that the House will agree that the national maritime museum is doing a remarkable job, that it is not surprising that attendance is increasing at a remarkable rate, and that the strategy of joint funding between the public and private sectors is the right basis for a successful future. I am happy to commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.