HC Deb 22 January 1990 vol 165 cc614-6
26. Dr. Marek

To ask the Minister for the Arts what is his policy on compulsory admission charges to national museums.

27. Mr. Haynes

To ask the Minister for the Arts what is his policy on free access to national museums.

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce)

The Government's repeatedly stated policy is that the decision whether to operate a system of admission charges or voluntary donations should be for the board of trustees responsible for each institution.

Dr. Marek

Surely the Minister now recognises, given the evidence all round him, that the introduction of charges has affected museum attendances. At the national maritime museum, for example, attendances have dropped by 35 per cent; at the natural history museum they have fallen by 40 per cent; and, worst of all, at the Welsh national museum they have fallen by 85 per cent.

Does the Minister agree with the claim by my hon. Friend for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) that the Government believe that people value only what they pay for? Does he value only what he pays for? Does he think that the public value only what they pay for, and does he believe that members of the public who now pay charges to go to museums value those museums doubly because they have paid twice over?

Mr. Luce

The hon. Gentleman may care to note that museum attendance all over the country—including attendance at a mass of independent museums, most of which charge—reached record levels last year, which was museum year. It is entirely for the trustees to decide whether the introduction of charges would bring benefits to the public and to individual museums, and it is right for us to leave that practical, pragmatic decision to them. All this must be seen against the background of a real increase in resources for our national institutions, to the benefit of the taxpayer.

Mr. Haynes

May I ask what responsibility the Minister has? He is always blaming someone else. Let me tell him in no uncertain terms that the proposed charges will reduce attendances, and let me tell him this, too: I have the backing of Nottinghamshire county council, which does a marvellous job for the arts. Let us have less rhetoric from that Dispatch Box, and let us have some action—and we do not want any charges either.

Mr. Luce

I feel inclined to recommend the hon. Gentleman for a drama award: he certainly qualifies for one.

Each individual institution has its own decision to make. Evidence shows that, since the introduction of charges, attendances at the imperial war museum are up on the last full year in which there were no charges. Other museums have experienced a drop in the first year or two of charges, but it is usually temporary. If museums are to introduce charges, however, I strongly believe that they must be linked with an improvement in services to the public, and that is what is happening in most museums.

Sir Philip Goodhart

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the national museums in almost all the EC member countries make admission charges? Does he agree that, in France, all Louvre museum acquisitions are paid for by admission charges? If that is right on the continent, why should it not be right here?

Mr. Luce

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One is being told repeatedly that people in France are less philistine than people in this country. There is nothing philistine about making admission charges; the vast bulk of the French museums do just that.

Mr. Jessel

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no reason why the trustees of museums and galleries should not be allowed to make up their own minds about this matter? Does he know that the most important thing is the quality of display? Will he congratulate the Tate gallery on its rehanging?

Mr. Luce

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I congratulate the Tate gallery on its remarkable achievement. I am glad that, in addition to sponsorship from British Petroleum, the Government and the taxpayer have been able to contribute to the very excellent rehanging and reorganisation of, the Tate.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there have been remarkable improvements in museums that have introduced charges. That is very important, but it is equally important to note that a large number, if not a majority, of museums that have introduced charges have set aside certain free, open days and hours, in addition to their concessions for school parties and for other people in special categories.

Mr. Fisher

Is it not clear that the Government are content to sit and do nothing while admissions to national museums plummet through the floor? Indeed, are not the Government directly responsible, in that the Minister's refusal properly to fund the base budgets of national museums is forcing museums into making admission charges? Is the Minister now repeating his disgraceful remark to the conference of the Council of Regional Arts Associations a few years ago—that if a service is any good, people will pay for it?

Mr. Luce

The hon. Gentleman talks an awful lot of nonsense. He will have to make up his mind. During previous questions on the arts he was good enough to congratulate the Government on the substantial increase in taxpayers' funding for national museums and galleries. In fact, provision has been made for a 27 per cent. increase in the amount of taxpayers' resources allocated to museums and galleries. To suggest that national museums base decisions on inadequate funding when, in real terms, funding is far greater than it was under the Labour Government is absolute nonsense.

Mr. Cormack

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the Select Committee examined this matter in 1981, it got it about right? It produced a unanimous report which said that trustees should have the ultimate discretion, but that, in exercising that discretion, they should always make provision for days free of charge and so preserve a great tradition. My right hon. Friend will agree that if we are seduced by the latest Select Committee report we shall reach the stage of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Mr. Luce

The Government will, of course, reply to the Select Committee's latest report. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of allowing decisions to be taken on a practical, pragmatic basis by the trustees, who are the people in charge of these national institutions. The evidence suggests that museums that have introduced charges have made a wide range of concessions, including open days and free days. Those changes are extremely important, and they follow the recommendations of the Committee to which my hon. Friend referred.

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