HC Deb 18 April 1996 vol 275 cc937-44

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

10.12 pm
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House the serious funding problems of the Commonwealth Institute, which was established by an Act of Parliament. A number of Commonwealth countries contributed substantially to the cost of its specially designed building in Kensington, prior to its opening back in 1962. To some extent, the institute is an international entity.

In an Adjournment debate on the Commonwealth on 31 March 1994, I told the House: When Her Majesty the Queen visited the Commonwealth Institute last May, she remarked: `The institute brings the reality of the individual countries of the Commonwealth alive, and demonstrates the role the Commonwealth can play in the world and among its Members.' Unfortunately, as the House will know, in September—owing, I believe, to an excessive Treasury squeeze on the FCO budget, and to a belief that the institute should raise more of its own money—the Government announced, without prior consultation, the decision to stop all future funding of the institute. That represented a massive blow to a popular and important institute."—[Official Report, 31 March 1994; Vol. 240, c. 1100.]

The main purpose of this debate is to bring the matter forward from there and to give the Minister of State a chance to tell us what he is proposing to do to prevent the institute from being permanently closed, which is a real possibility. I warmly welcome the Minister to the debate. I am well aware that he has on his mind some large and crucial responsibilities in other parts of the world.

The Foreign Office can point out that it has been the main source of funding for the institute since its inception, meeting more than 90 per cent. of its costs since 1963. Alack, under this Conservative Government, there has been a general underfunding of the institute. A few years ago, it was estimated that the building required a minimum of £3 million-worth of essential repairs to bring it to an acceptable standard and that desirable repairs and refurbishment would cost between £8 million and —10 million. That is hardly an example of good housekeeping for a building that has grade 2 listed status.

It was, perhaps, mainly falling visitor numbers that prompted the Government to cease grant in aid—more than £3 million for the financial year 1994–95—from March 1996. The Government then offered —2.4 million, to be spread over 1996–97 and 1998–99, conditional upon the institute and its staff attracting £5 million from other sources for its relaunch strategy by July 1995.

I pay tribute to the institute's efforts to raise money. It exceeded —1 million in the financial year 1994–95 but, unfortunately, the —5 million target was not reached and probably could not have been reached. As a result, the Secretary of State proposed that the institute's galleries—they are well known to many hon. Members and I know that Madam Speaker has visited them regularly—should be closed on or before 1 April 1996. In a letter dated 13 March to Mr. David Thompson, the chairman of the institute, the Secretary of State confirmed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now prepared to provide a grant of —1.5 million. Of course I welcome that but, crucially, the letter states: I cannot, however, give you the assurance you seek about provision of further public funds for your running costs beyond March 1997. At present, the galleries remain closed and I regret that. Staff numbers have tumbled from 96 to 37 and are set to fall even further.

I should like to commend to the House the recent excellent report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. It is entitled "The Future Role of the Commonwealth". It contains a section on the institute. Paragraph 143 says: We are most concerned at the current situation and recognise that considerable efforts have been made by the Commonwealth Institute to cope with the financial difficulties, including imaginative plans for a major new exhibition entitled 'Wonders of the World'. However, the Institute has received no assurances about the provision of further public funds for its running costs beyond March 1997. If, by the end of 1996, the Institute has not secured private finance sufficient to give it a reasonable prospect of being self-financed from April 1997, there must be a real prospect of permanent closure. This must be avoided. Indeed so. That is the key aim of my speech tonight.

As the Minister will know, permanent closure of the institute would require primary legislation. The Committee sensibly pointed out that the House should have a proper debate on the subject of permanent closure if that is seriously being contemplated by the Government. The Minister's thoughts on that recommendation would be appreciated.

The Minister will know that the Commonwealth Trust works closely with the institute, and the Committee was told by witnesses from the trust that the role of the institute is crucial to us in terms of educating young people in Britain". The trust leaves to the institute the task of promoting knowledge of the Commonwealth in schools.

During my Adjournment debate on 31 March, I complained—I think justifiably—that the Government had failed to stir the imagination of the younger generation about the Commonwealth. The institute is one obvious way to approach that task. We spend only a few hundred thousand pounds each year educating people about the Commonwealth, whereas the European Union can spend very large sums on educating people about the EU.

I cannot justify the harsh approach adopted by the Government to the institute in recent years. I suspect that part of the rationale behind that approach has been a feeling in the Foreign Office that the Commonwealth itself should give greater financial support. I think that that is right. Apparently only a tiny proportion of the institute's budget comes from other Commonwealth countries. Singapore, Canada and Australia all have a higher gross national product per capita than does the United Kingdom; they could, and should, do more.

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Mr. Stephen Cox, the outstanding director general, and to his shrinking staff for their sterling efforts to keep the institute's doors open. They must be supported by this House. Indeed, I believe that there is considerable support for them in all quarters.

I believe and have said before that the Foreign Office budget is far too small. We need to expand our diplomatic posts in eastern Europe. As happened about a decade ago, we are back to underfunding the BBC World Service, and the British Council is in danger of having to close a number of offices. Our aid programme is diminishing as well. Some of us find that pretty depressing and not in the national interest.

The underpinning is, I accept, partly to blame for the crisis facing the institute. The future of this important institute must be seen against the background of the growing importance of the Commonwealth. The Foreign Affairs Committee's report has much to say on the subject. As early as paragraph 4, it remarks on how the Commonwealth's membership has changed beyond recognition in terms of economic performance: While it is still the case that some members of the Commonwealth are amongst the poorest in the world and rightly deserve the help and support of the richer developed world, the organisation now also contains some of the world's fastest growing economies, and even some of the richest. Thus, Singapore's income per head is a fifth higher than that of the United Kingdom and Malaysia is catching up fast. India's overall poverty conceals pockets of enormous dynamism and prosperity, whilst both Australia and New Zealand are now clear beneficiaries of the Asia-Pacific growth momentum. Hopes are also high for the resumption of significant growth in southern Africa. No wonder that the Committee feels that the implications for our country of some of the world's fastest-growing markets being within the Commonwealth ranks deserve urgent re-examination.

Paragraph 9 of the report states: If the centre of gravity of the world economy is shifting in Asia's direction, then the Western countries best positioned to take advantage of this new scene will be those that have taken the trouble to maintain strong links of every kind with this emerging world. The old Commonwealth ties could therefore become, for the United Kingdom, the new Commonwealth opportunities. One wonders if the Foreign Office is running ahead of or behind that kind of new thinking.

It is not too late for the Foreign Office to take another look at the importance of that well-known and well-loved institute and to make sure that it has the public funds that it needs not only to survive, but to prosper and help meet the needs of our rapidly changing Commonwealth.

10.25 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

The Government welcome the debate. The Commonwealth Institute has many supporters, and I congratulate one of its most faithful supporters—my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend). He is an honourable Friend indeed, and his knowledge of, and interest in, foreign affairs the world over is second to none in the House. The Foreign Affairs Committee has taken a close interest in the Commonwealth Institute's well-being, and included some pertinent observations in its welcome report, "The Future Role of the Commonwealth", which was tabled before Easter.

My noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development will visit the institute next week to discuss with Asian high commissioners in London how their galleries can best be developed. The permanent under-secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be able to answer questions about the institute when he appears before the Foreign Affairs Committee next month to discuss the FCO's departmental report. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has taken a close personal interest in the institute since he assumed office. He discussed future financing by the FCO for the institute with its chairman, Mr. David Thompson, in October and decided in March to make available £1.5 million this financial year, to enable the institute to maintain its core education, library and conference operations.

The Government's support for the Commonwealth Institute is part of a wider support for Commonwealth links worldwide, but I shall not rehearse them all now. Our decision to invite the Commonwealth Heads of Government to meet in the United Kingdom next year shows our confidence in the Commonwealth's continuing vitality and usefulness. Differences of view between Commonwealth countries over Rhodesia and South Africa have been replaced by a shared adherence to the democratic and liberal values set out in the Harare declaration and by the work that the Commonwealth can do to fulfil them. That common purpose was evident at the last Heads of Government meeting in Auckland last November.

Next Tuesday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary will attend at the Commonwealth headquarters at Marlborough house, as one of eight Foreign Ministers who are members of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, which was established in Auckland to follow up the Harare declaration. They will see how they can best influence the Nigerian and Gambian military Governments to return to civilian democratic rule. Recent elections in Sierra Leone received significant help from the Commonwealth and we hope that the Commonwealth can help the Gambia to organise free and fair elections later this year.

I do not deny that the Commonwealth Institute and, specifically, providing adequate funds for it, poses the Government a problem. The essence of the problem is simple: funds at a level required to make the institute vibrant, to increase visitor numbers, to bring its galleries and exhibitions up to a modern standard and to put the building, which has special features, in a good state of maintenance cannot be financed out of the FCO's budget alone without unacceptable damage to other priorities. We already contribute significantly across the board to Commonwealth activities: to Commonwealth scholarships, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation.

The Commonwealth Institute does worthy work. I shall talk later about its interesting history, but its overall role is somewhat apart from the FCO's core activities. That means that we have to be imaginative in finding ways of securing the comparatively large sums needed to make it thrive.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

I may be forecasting what my right hon. Friend is about to say, but it is important that this should come out. What efforts are the Government making to get a greater contribution from Commonwealth members?

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend, as ever, is right. I shall refer to that a little later.

In 1993, the Commonwealth Institute celebrated its 100th anniversary. We are dealing not with a new body but with one which, at a number of points in the last century, has changed its focus to remain up to date and useful. The Imperial Institute, to which the Commonwealth Institute is the legal successor, began life in the 1890s as an integral part of Imperial college, as one of those fine institutions established in Kensington, using funds from the Great Exhibition and public subscription. Indeed, the Imperial Institute's distinctive tower can be seen standing out among the newer buildings of Imperial college, behind the Albert hall. Its original purpose was as a scientific research institute that made its findings available for all Britain's colonies and dominions.

Those with an interest in the history of the British empire will not be surprised to know that the hand of Joseph Chamberlain, the energetic colonial secretary at the time, was active in creating the institute. By the 1920s, in the trend that led to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the willingness of the dominions and some colonies to fund a central research organisation in London came under question. Canada, Australia, South Africa and others understandably established their own scientific research institutes, specialising in products of interest to them.

In 1925 the Imperial Institute passed to the care of the Board of Trade, as a body concerned with furthering economic links in the empire. Indeed, at that time it was touch and go whether the institute would survive. However, it developed a new role, publicising the empire and particularly the economic benefits for its constituent parts, in line with the major imperial exhibitions held in the 1920s and 1930s. The institute played its part, with film shows and other activities, in spreading knowledge of the empire. After the second world war, that new educational and publicising role was recognised, when responsibility passed from the Board of Trade to the Department of Education.

In the 1950s the Department of Education launched an ambitious programme to increase the number of science graduates in the United Kingdom. The space occupied by the institute was needed to expand Imperial college. The Department of Education decided to provide the institute with a new home on Kensington high street, in a new building designed as a symbol of Britain's support for the Commonwealth and opened in 1962. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office took over responsibility in the late 1960s, in recognition of the role that the new Commonwealth was playing in British political life.

To begin with, everything went swimmingly. Commonwealth Governments contributed generously not only to the building, but to their exhibition galleries. The building was new. The Commonwealth was renewing itself. New educational techniques were exciting for children coming on visits. By the 1980s, the picture was somewhat different. Precious little money was forthcoming from other Commonwealth Governments to help run the institute. Indeed, in recent years the UK Government's contribution has been some 99 per cent. Some countries provided money to renew their exhibitions, but far from all did so. Many of the exhibitions have begun to look rather tired. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, there is a splendid New Zealand mechanical cow, which illustrates that country's dairy industry. It has been munching away to the delight of schoolchildren since the 1960s, with all the transparency of Damien Hirst, but 25 years earlier. Perhaps for some, the cow has the same horror, but for most it has been supremely educational.

The Department for Education and Employment has increasingly devolved money to schools to decide on their own purchasing. Institute curriculum materials and education programmes are highly valued, but other Government Departments do not contribute to running costs.

Then there is the building itself. Those with the appropriate powers decreed that its special architectural merits—I understand it was a forerunner for the Sydney opera house—made it of outstanding architectural importance. It was listed as a grade 2 starred building and, in practice, that means that it can be altered in any way only with the greatest difficulty. Whatever views are held on the design, the requirement for money to maintain the roof—a novel and spectacular design, certainly in the 1960s—and other features in the building, has come back year after year to haunt us.

Against that background, the Government decided in the mid-1980s to find a way to inject new money into the institute. Initially, an ambitious plan to develop the site commercially was investigated. It looked promising, but the decline in London property values in the late 1980s put paid to it. In 1992, we asked Lord Armstrong, now the vice-chairman of the institute, to report on how the institute's future could best be secured. Essentially, he concluded that the worst option would be to allow the institute to wither on the vine. Visitor numbers have been declining. The building was deteriorating. The exhibition galleries were becoming outmoded. Running costs were high in relation to the work that the institute did. After considering Lord Armstrong's report, the Government decided that the institute should be given two years to find commercial private sponsorship. If that was not forthcoming, the Government concluded, reluctantly, that their own funding for the institute should cease and the building be put to another use.

Since September 1993, the institute has engaged with great energy in increasing its revenue. Staff numbers have been reduced, as my hon. Friend mentioned, by 66 per cent., largely because of the closure of the exhibitions. The conference centre and other activities have increased their earnings by 77 per cent. to nearly —1 million a year. I congratulate Stephen Cox and the staff on a splendid achievement. They have put a huge effort into identifying commercial finance. To our great regret, their efforts have not yet proved successful. The Government agreed to extend by six months, from July to December last year, the period for fund raising, but to no immediate avail. In those circumstances, Government funding was set to end in April this year—this month—and the institute was to close. Instead of doing so, the Government have decided to provide the institute with at least one further year to find out whether private sponsorship can be found.

We proposed that savings should be made immediately by closing the exhibition galleries temporarily. They were in any case due to close for refurbishment. The Government will provide a grant for the coming year sufficient to keep the institute's key operations—the education operation, the library and the conference centre—going. Meanwhile, the search for sponsorship and the programme for redeveloping the galleries can continue.

The Government have also provided more than £500,000, as I mentioned earlier, to help improve the building. Ministers have worked with the institute's governors to identify companies that might wish to become partners. We are examining the scope for using the private finance initiative, and we shall have intensive discussions with the institute over the next two months to find whether there are other ways in which finance can be raised.

I hope that other Commonwealth countries will produce income and that they understand the historical nature of this building in London, but we must be realistic. I hope that my hon. Friend will lend his considerable efforts and ask his contacts to consider such action.

It would be tragic if the institute had to fold. We do not want it to close, but it would not be responsible for the Government to continue drip-feeding it with grants simply to enable it to tick over and go into slow decline. We consider it better to face the problem squarely and recognise that fresh thinking and a fresh injection of money is needed. We are disappointed that, so far, new money has not been found, but we are not giving up. The institute has a valuable role to play, but it must adapt to modern conditions. It draws on immense good will throughout the country and in the Commonwealth. The challenge is to tap that good will to produce finance.

I hope that children will be attracted to the institute and that school parties will not only receive the educational benefits of the London Dungeon and Madame Tussaud's. I hope that they will recognise the history that is demonstrated by the establishment of the Commonwealth Institute. It is a unique organisation that spans the world: 53 countries which all, when they meet, speak one language and all attempt to achieve good government and the friendship that spans the races. As the institute's governors work at that task, they have the Government's firm support. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having given us the opportunity to dwell on an important and lasting institution.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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