HC Deb 08 December 1997 vol 302 cc652-3
Mr. Loughton

If he will make a statement on charges to the nation's museums. [17978]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

This morning I placed in the Library details of the progress of the review of admission charges, together with a consultation paper on the development of a code of good practice for museums and galleries. I am delighted to announce that the heritage lottery fund is to create a museums and galleries access fund, which will assist initiatives to extend access to our great collections. I shall make a further announcement when my Department's spending review is completed next summer.

Mr. Loughton

That is all very well, but as my grandmother would say, what has that to do with the price of fish? Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with the directors of our major museums, who believe in the principle that free admission to our museums is the cornerstone of democratic access to our cultural inheritance? If he does not agree, does that represent yet another people's U-turn by this Government of one principle in the interests of budgetary expediency? Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the recent announcement by the British museum was made in the light of preferential treatment negotiated between his Department and the museum?

Mr. Smith

I look forward to discovering in detail the representations that the hon. Gentleman made on this subject to the Conservative Government over the past 18 years. We said before the election in our document, "Create the Future": We would like to see institutions do all they can to balance the books while maximising access. That has been our policy throughout, and remains so. It is up to each institution and its trustees to make decisions about how best to carry forward the process of maximising access. The Government's job is to make it as easy as possible for them to choose and pursue their own course. We intend to carry on doing that.

Mr. Sheldon

I welcome the British museum's decision not to introduce admission charges for the time being. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that what he has said today will provide the means for other museums to remain free of admission charges in the years to come?

Mr. Smith

I have said two things today. First, we are consulting the national galleries and museums on the development of a code of good practice, with a view to making that code a condition for the receipt of grant in aid in due course. Secondly, a heritage lottery access fund is being developed, and all museums will be able to apply to it, whether they are chargers or non-chargers, so as to broaden access for the citizen.

Sir Sydney Chapman

Accepting what the Secretary of State has just said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), and notwithstanding his consultation paper, may I—as someone who felt impelled to vote against the Museum and Galleries Admission Charges Bill in the early 1970s—ask the Secretary of State to give a commitment that all galleries and museums, at least in part, will be kept open and have free access, and that national lottery funding will be used, if necessary, to subsidise those museums and art galleries that would have difficulty doing so?

Mr. Smith

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means by "in part". If he is referring to the fact that the science museum, which charges for entry, none the less allows 43 per cent. of its visitors to get in free, he makes a valid point. The overwhelming majority of museums are already doing that. We have made it clear both before and since the election that it is up to the trustees of each gallery to decide how best to maintain good access for the public. For some, that may be a wish to see free admission. For others, it may be free periods or free entry for certain groups but not for everyone. It is up to the museums to decide. The Government's job is to provide the framework within which they can pursue their chosen course.

Dr. Iddon

I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that museums play a key educational role, especially for young people. Our museums in Bolton design special projects in partnership with schools. Will my right hon. Friend consider that aspect when considering the question of access, which should preferably be free for educational purposes?

Mr. Smith

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. Part of the code of practice on which we are consulting flags up the importance of education and the access for schoolchildren, in particular, to this country's great national collections.

Mr. Maude

Is not the Secretary of State wriggling off a virtual commitment that he would ensure free access to all museums? What financial support has he offered to the trustees of the British museum that has enabled them to change their settled intention to introduce entrance charges? Can he give the House an unqualified assurance that the British museum has not been offered any support that is not available on identical terms to all other museums of national importance, irrespective of whether they charge for entrance?

Mr. Smith

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman two things. First, our commitment was set out clearly in black and white before the election. As it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear the first time, I will repeat it. We should like to see institutions do all that they can to balance the books while maximising access. What matters is maximising access in the best possible way for each institution or gallery. If the right hon. Gentleman talks to the directors and chairmen of galleries and museums, he will find that that is what they are anxious to do. Secondly, public expenditure survey allocations to individual museums and galleries will be announced within the next few days.

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