HC Deb 20 June 1990 vol 174 cc1086-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

3.15 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

This is the first debate on the problems of the natural history museum since the time of Victoria and Albert. The director and senior curators were in the Gallery until 2 am, when, naturally —having a day's work to do—they went to their beds. They could be forgiven for thinking that the House of Commons contains some very curious and unusual specimens.

I spent some 10 hours attending the recent defence debates, and, indeed, participated. I say that to put the problems of the natural history museum in context. I argued the case for ending our main battle tank programme. Getting rid of one tank would alleviate the cost of the crisis in south Kensington; getting rid of two would restore south Kensington to its former level of ability to carry out its programmes. Getting rid of three would, it is reckoned, fulfil the obligations of south Kensington and Britain to the world: in this context, they are very real.

The armies of Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin, rolling across the north German plain, are not now the main threat to this country. The real peril posed to Britain—and Europe—is global warming, the destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain and other environmental problems. South Kensington can provide the crucial raw material for the battle against that threat.

The Minister has received a number of letters from all around the world—from Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Washington—all pleading the case for the natural history museum. Let me quote just one, from Cardiff: as a former beekeeper, I think it appropriate. Dr. Paxton writes: I wish to bring to your attention my deep concern over the proposed course of action detailed in the Corporate Plan concerning the termination of taxonomic work on bees and wasps at the Natural History Museum. Bees and wasps are important components of our fauna, not only as entities in their own rights but also as vital pollinators of a wide range of wild plants. In addition, there are growing agricultural industries based upon the uses of bees and wasps (e.g. honey production, pollination of agricultural crops). Over the past 8 years, whist a PhD student and subesequently whilst lecturing at UWC Cardiff in the Bee Research Unit, I have often required the taxonomic skills of those at the Natural History Museum concerned with bees and wasps for my personal researches. The Bee Research Unit at Cardiff has a growing number of students, a product of the increased awareness of the role and importance of bees both in agriculture and conservation throughout the world. They, too, have made good use of the excellent and unique expertise in bees and wasps at the Natural History Museum. I feel that this expertise is well worth maintaining. One of the hardest-hit sections in entomology is hymenoptera where research on most of the aculeate forms would be closed down under the plan. Bees, of course, are the most important of insect pollinators and stinging wasps, which are the bird of prey of the insect world, are important predators. Both groups are therefore of first-class environmental significance.

The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) will bear out the fact, because he was with me at the post office, that this evening I opened two letters from a small collection of mail. Professor Exley of the university of Queensland wrote: As an entomologist, I am fully aware of the enormous contribution the Museum has made to our knowledge of insects. Its significance is that the collections contain specimens from all over the world so that international workers need only travel to one place to gain a perspective of the world fauna. The acquisition of specimens is not very useful unless they are made accessible and how can that be if staff is cut too drastically? He continued: I can't understand how you can have an aim concerning quality of the environment and simultaneously stop research on bees, wasps, bugs, weevils, lacewings and spiders. Lacewings, spiders and wasps are major predators and bees are largely responsible for the pollination of flowering plants. All these insect groups have enormous impact on the environment. It seems especially ridiculous that just when the world seems to be growing aware of the ecological importance of aculeate Hymenoptera, the largest world collection of these insects is to be kept on a care and maintenance basis only. Dr. Packer of York university in Ontario, Canada, wrote: It is sheer sacrilege to consider defiling such a globally important institution in this manner—an act of governmental vandalism that will shame the nation as much as the acts of football barbarians, but with far more serious long term repercussions. That concerned view among informed people can be repeated time and again.

Last Monday, 11 June, I spoke for 18 minutes, setting out the whole case. This evening, it is more important to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the Minister.

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


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. Does the hon. Member have the agreement of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and the Minister to speak?

Mr. Dalyell


The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Mr. Mark Fisher.

Mr. Fisher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and to the Minister for allowing me to intervene in this short debate. I am sure that all those people in this country and elsewhere who care about the natural history museum, Britain's scientific heritage and the quality of our national museums will thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the way that he introduced it.

I have one question for the Minister. I remind him of the question that the Senate of Scientists at the Smithsonian institute in Washington put to him in a letter of 14 June: Surely Britain can find a place for the primary research and public education that have brought the NHM world renown and act as a barometer of the cultural health of the nation? The answer appears to be no. The museum is being forced to cut 15 per cent. of its scientific staff, crucial skill departments, such as its exhibition in-house unit—which has won awards for the superb creepy-crawlies exhibition—and the specialisms that my hon. Friend outlined.

The reason is that the museum has to save £2 million each year. The cuts will enable it to save that sum. Who is to blame? The Government are to blame. The chairman of the museum's trustees, Sir Walter Bodmer, writing on 14 June in Nature, said: The essence of our financial problem is that the Government's grant in aid will not compensate adequately for inflation". Sir Walter is not a politically motivated man—he is an excellent and well-respected chairman of the museum's trustees—yet he makes it clear where the responsibility lies and what is the cause of the cuts.

The question for the Minister, to which the whole scientific world and the whole museum world needs an answer, is whether the Government will fund adequately this great museum. Will they fund it in such a way as not just to ensure the safety of its 67 million specimens but also to ensure that it can continue and develop its scientific research? Much is at stake, not only for the natural history museum but also for the quality of scholarship and research in all our national museums. The millions of people who have visited the natural history museum and our other great national museums wait for reassurance that funds will be found to maintain the international reputation of our scientific culture.

3.26 am
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on obtaining this debate on a very important issue: the natural history museum and its objectives and priorities. I welcome it. All hon. Members acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's interest and expertise in scientific matters. It is significant that at this late hour the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) is also here, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) who has conveyed to me a number of letters on the subject that he has received from constituents. I am impressed that so many hon. Members are present at this hour.

Let me take this opportunity—I am glad to have it—to set the scene in the broadest context that I can. I hope that the hon. Member for Linlithgow will find it helpful.

I am in no doubt, and I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree, that in the natural history museum the nation has a great asset. On my visits to the museum I am always highly impressed by the quality of its staff and its high standards of display, curation and research. It is second to none. This applies when measured on a national or an international scale. The natural history museum is an institution of which we can all feel very proud: a British museum leading the world in its field.

Under the 1963 Act the museum has a statutory duty to care for the nation's natural history collection. Responsibility for setting priorities and taking decisions on the museum's approach to fulfilling that statutory duty lies with the director and trustees.

It is the museum's announcement on 23 April 1990 of priorities and decisions in its corporate plan that has given rise to the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman. I shall try to set the scene and answer some of his questions.

The Government's record on funding the natural history museum is good. Reflecting my commitment to the value of the museum's work, I announced last November a 16.5 per cent. increase in its total grant in aid to a new 1990–91 figure of £25.2 million, including an 11.4 per cent. increase in running costs and provision for the replacement of its Ruislip store.

Over the past 10 years the Government's contribution has risen by 12.8 per cent. in real terms, but I must make it absolutely plain that this figure includes funding for the geological museum which the natural history museum took over in 1985 and the purchase of office supplies previously covered by Crown Suppliers. That is in addition to the substantial resources which the museum has raised. These have risen from £4.6 million in 1989–90 to a projected £6.8 million in 1990–91. They now account for over 21 per cent. of the museum's total resources. I warmly congratulate the museum on its increasing success in this area and the efforts that it is making. I am encouraged by the way in which it is developing its plural funding. While, like all institutions, the museum has to live within its means and is determined to do so, the changes it is now proposing are not primarily about money but about reassessing the museum's objectives and priorities.

In a recent article in Nature, Sir Walter Bodmer, the chairman of the trustees of the museum to whom the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) referred and who is an outstandingly good chairman, said: It would be impossible to carry out effective research on all the groups of organisms in the museum's collections, even if our resources for research were doubled or trebled. The proposed changes are set out in the museum's 1990 corporate plan, which looks forward at least five years. The key objectives of the reorganisation proposed in that corporate plan are to strengthen curation; to focus research effort more sharply into areas of particular importance; to improve the management of the collections; and to develop exhibition facilities and other services for all who use the museum. Those aims are fully in line with the museum's statutory duties. Their object is not just to maintain but to improve the care and maintenance of the nation's natural history collection of over 67 million specimens, as well as the largest natural history library in the world.

As Sir Walter explains: The museum supports a major research programme based on its collections, with taxonomy as its central theme … taxonomy is the science of classification of living organisms and, with its evolutionary basis, provides the underpinning to almost all biological research.

Mr. Dalyell

Does not that make the museum a special financial case for funds because so many other institutions depend on it, as do other countries? Is not it part of Britain's worldwide international obligation?

Mr. Luce

Yes. In no way do I underestimate the significance and importance of the research that is carried out, some of which is unique because of the nature of the institution. If the hon. Gentleman allows me to continue I shall be able to reflect on some of the points he raised.

The letters that I have received from all parts of the world clearly demonstrate the museum's wide sphere of influence in taxonomy. There is no doubt about that.

It is generally recognised that a focus for taxonomic research in the United Kingdom is vital. The natural history museum provides that focus and will continue to do so. Taxonomy will continue to pervade all the museum's scientific work. But, as Sir Walter Bodmer has said, no institution can carry out effective research across the whole range of animal and plant life. It is obviously necessary to pick and choose. The museum intends to concentrate its research efforts primarily into a series of six scientific programmes that emphasise the unique and vital contribution its collections and expertise make to issues of contemporary human concern. Those six programmes will be biodiversity; environmental quality—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned; living resources; mineral resources; human health and human origins. Under those broad headings come many specific areas of research. Those programmes have been designed to respond to changing needs and the museum believes that by their interdisciplinary nature they will enhance co-operation between the museum and other national and international organisations.

The museum has also announced that for the foreseeable future it will cease or severely restrict research in some areas—I stress that—of botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology. But I should stress that there will be no diminution of the care and maintenance of all the museum's collections. While in-house research may be curtailed, I also emphasise that the museum's collections will continue to be available to anyone who wants to work on them. That goes a considerable way towards answering the important letter from Dr. Paxton in Cardiff, from which the hon. Member for Linlithgow quoted, about the availability of research facilities and the museum's care and maintenance policies. I will of course have that point more closely looked into and I hope in a moment to expand on what I intend to do.

Mr. Dalyell

If people are given retirement or made redundant or have to leave the museum for financial reasons, in practice the availability is that much less. I am saddened that some scholars who have given a lifetime of service have been given early retirement. That is terribly sad.

Mr. Luce

I will reflect briefly in a moment on the staffing situation.

It is important that curatorial skills will not only be maintained but enhanced. A more effective and efficient advisory service will be provided for all those who use the museum. In addition, the museum will continue to provide unique training for scientists drawn from this country and worldwide.

In the context of the comments made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, it is perfectly possible for the museum to apply for grants and respond to requests for research from any relevant source, whatever those sources may be, including universities or research councils, so long as the proposed research fits within the museum's objectives. That is clear and I have given the trustees a clear instruction that that is possible and people can make applications. That would be in addition to the research that I have already said will continue.

Mr. Dalyell

That is important and I support the Minister on that.

Mr. Luce

Naturally the announcement of those plans has generated a lively discussion about the relative priorities that should be accorded to particular areas of research at the museum. I know that the museum is in close touch with the scientific community on those points. Indeed, last Friday a special meeting was arranged at the museum to discuss those issues.

As the director, Dr. Chalmers, told the meeting on Friday, the museum is also in discussion with the Government's chief scientific adviser, as are my officials. I have asked the adviser to keep me informed of the museum's position in relation to the United Kingdom's science base. I hope that the hon. Member for Linlithgow appreciates the importance of that.

Mr. Dalyell

Is that Professor Stewart?

Mr. Luce

No, Sir John Fairclough, the chief scientific adviser to the Government. I shall be calling a further meeting with Sir Walter Bodmer and Dr. Chalmers to discuss the corporate strategy and the wider issues.

To achieve the aims that the museum has clearly identified and published it has to adapt. I understand that the museum intends to make more appointments on a fixed-term basis, and that will be reflected in a reduction in permanent posts. It is important to make that clear, because that point has not perhaps been sufficiently clear hitherto.

The necessary reductions will be achieved, where possible, by natural wastage and through some redeployment within the museum. The detailed arrangements are, of course, matters for the director and the trustees.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow referred to other letters and he has sent me copies of communications that he has received. I assure him that I will take the views that have been expressed extremely seriously in the discussions that I will be having with the chairman of the natural history museum and the director, Dr. Chalmers. I believe the staff do an outstanding job. We are very fortunate to have them. They are taking any representations extremely seriously as I requested that they should and they are looking into all the points that are raised. In my meeting with Sir Walter Bodmer, I shall then have the opportunity to go through many of these issues and discuss the wider implications.

Major changes of the kind proposed at the natural history museum are inevitably difficult to make and, of course, can be painful. I should therefore like to make clear my appreciation of the museum's staff and the valuable work they do. I am sure that the proposed changes will take the museum into the 1990s with renewed vigour and contribute to my overall aim of ensuring that the highest standards of excellence in scholarship and research are allied to maximum public access to the museum's treasures. It is by giving people today the chance to see and enjoy the museum's unique collections that we shall ensure a healthy future for scholarship and research in natural history.

I want to give the hon. Member for Linlithgow the broadest possible answer to his questions on this important issue. He may already have this document but, if not, I shall make it available to him because I should like him to see the extensive range of research that the museum is planning to undertake in the years ahead. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern that certain areas will be jeopardised. As I have already said, the wider implications of that will be examined carefully. I urge him to look at the document because it illustrates that within the six research programmes that I have highlighted there is a wide diversity of research to be carried out, covering a wide range of issues. I find it most impressive. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I attach great importance to the debate that he has launched today and that I shall take what he has said fully into account.

Mr. Fisher

Much of what the Minister has said today will provide considerable reassurance and be worth studying. People around the museum and in the science world will read carefully what he has said. However, he has given the impression that the changes in the corporate plan were positive changes, taken for scientific reasons, whereas the corporate plan and what Sir Walter wrote in Nature magazine last week make it clear that the museum has to take this action to save £2 million. The museum has made it clear on all occasions that if it was adequately funded by the Government, it would not have to make these extremely difficult scientific decisions. The Minister must address that point. His remarks have—inadvertently—addressed only the scientific element, on which he has given a reasonable and helpful reply, but will he address the fact that it is his Government's neglect and underfunding that have put the museum in the position of having to make these difficult scientific choices?

Mr. Luce

I shall reiterate what I said at the beginning. It is not reasonable to suggest that the Government are underfunding in a year when we have increased funding by 16.5 per cent., which is a substantial increase and includes an increase of 11.4 per cent. for the running costs. It is not reasonable to suggest that that is gross underfunding. It shows the significance that we attach to the work of the natural history museum.

However, the hon. Gentleman is right about the corporate plan. I ask each national museum and gallery to look at a corporate strategy, which includes every aspect of their work, including, for example, accessibility to the public, the extent to which they make their scholarship and research available to the public, and their exhibitions. After all, they need to do a great deal of work on their exhibitions. I understand that it is a priority. I shall take the corporate strategy carefully into account. As hon. Members know, it looks five years ahead and, as they also know, with the help of the Treasury, I plan budgets for three years ahead. I shall take the views expressed in the corporate strategy seriously into account before reaching a final decision about the next three years' funding.

Mr. Dalyell

I, too, think that the Minister has given a helpful answer tonight. I say that publicly and privately —and many things in it can be built on. However, I am bothered about his use of the word "jeopardised" because what are jeopardised are important collections and research availability on the most vital matters affecting the global environment, such as the diatoms and the whole question of entymology. Some of those areas are being threatened, yet they are the very lifeblood of increasingly important sciences.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said from the Opposition Front Bench, anyone who sees the 25 million specimens in spirits will understand that someone has to maintain them. They are biodegradable. They go back to the time of Captain Cook. They are treasures of immense importance and science can make use of them. A comparison has to be made with other spending and there are many other yardsticks, but we are dealing with a vital lifeblood.

Mr. Luce

I think that the hon. Gentleman's intervention pinpoints the importance that I, Sir Walter Bodmer, and the chief scientific adviser attach to assessing the wider implications. I believe that that assessment is the key and that it must be given serious consideration. I must defend the natural history museum. It has to take decisions within its resources and decide its priorities. I must assess what it sets out in the corporate strategy and take its views seriously into account. I have already undertaken to the hon. Gentleman that that is something that I shall do.

Mr. Dalyell

I have a particular comment to make, and it involves the Prime Minister. I am not getting at her. In 1981, she confirmed to me, as she said in 1979, that she is the Minister who is responsible for co-ordinating science—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes to Four o'clock.