HC Deb 12 June 2000 vol 351 cc624-6
4. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

If he will make a statement on access to museums. [123671]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth)

Our policy is to encourage all museums to offer the widest possible access to their collections. We have enabled national museums that are funded by my Department and offer free admission to continue to offer it. We have scrapped entry charges for children and the over-60s to museums that currently charge for admission. Funds have been set aside to enable trustees to introduce a standard admission charge of £1 from September 2001, and to grant free admission to all those, including people with disabilities, who are in receipt of the major social security benefits.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the Minister scrap his fatuous, insulting and politically correct proposal that museums are to have funds withheld if they fail to attract enough ethnic minority visitors? If he will not scrap that ludicrous scheme, how are museums expected to distinguish between ethnic minorities and, for example, natives who are excessively suntanned? Will that ludicrous policy also apply to this place—which, thanks to the Prime Minister's indifference, is rapidly turning into the museum of democracy?

Mr. Alan Howarth

That scheme is a figment of the hon. Gentleman's imagination, fed by a peculiarly silly article in The Daily Telegraph. I assure him that there are no quotas and that there is no link between museum funding and ethnic minority visitor numbers. Of course we want people from all backgrounds to have access to the best of our culture. I regularly discuss that matter with the chairmen of trustees and the directors of our national museums and galleries, all of whom share the Government's enthusiasm for ensuring that our museums are accessible to the many, not the few. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman does not share that vision.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on presiding over a great increase in the number, and the enthusiasm, of people in this country who visit museums and art galleries. What discussions has my hon. Friend the Minister had with the Treasury on VAT, which, of course, limits the opportunities that we had hoped for as a result of my right hon. Friend's initiatives?

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind words. We have scrapped admission charges for children and pensioners at 23 museums and galleries, and, in the first year, child visitor figures are up 18 per cent. In the two months since we abolished admission charges for pensioners, recorded numbers of visitors over 60 have increased almost two and a half times, which is encouraging.

My right hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the tension between our ambition to ensure that our museums and galleries are accessible to the largest number of people, and the impact of the VAT regime, which penalises museums and galleries that charge for entry. With that in mind, I convened a meeting last year with the directors of national museums and galleries and the National Art Collections Fund, as a result of which the NACF produced an extremely helpful paper, which is assisting us in our discussions with the Treasury.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Is it still the Government's intention that there should be free access for all to national museums and galleries, and is not the issue essentially one of working out ways of bringing that about and calculating the cost? Will the views of people such as generous benefactors—for example, Sir Denis Mahon—be borne in mind when it comes to the crunch?

Further to the point about VAT, in the two months since the Budget, have the Minister and his colleagues made progress in the discussion about the possibility of adding national museums and galleries to the bodies covered by section 33 of the Value Added Tax Act 1994? That seems to be the most sensible way of avoiding the nonsense whereby the Government give cash grants to national institutions and then reclaim them through VAT.

Mr. Howarth

I readily echo the tribute that the right hon. Gentleman paid to Sir Denis Mahon, who has been a most remarkable benefactor of our national museums and galleries. As we said in our pre-election document, "Create the future", access will be a cornerstone of our cultural policy, and we remain committed to making the best progress that we can towards extending free entry. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that section 33 of the VAT Act seems to be the most promising avenue to enable us to overcome that important snag, and we shall continue to explore it.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

What legal advice did Ministers receive before deciding to introduce free admission for the over-60s rather than linking it to pension age? Has that advice been made available to other Departments?

Mr. Howarth

If I may, I will write to my hon. Friend on that point. We had to make a judgment, and it did not seem sensible to persist with gender differentiation in free access for people of retirement age. I hope that she will feel that in opting for 60 rather than 65 we erred on the right side.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Is the Minister aware of the progress that has been made on charges by the national museum and galleries of Wales, with free entry available not only to children and pensioners but to students and unemployed people? Is not that a good model for the other parts of these islands, and will he congratulate the national museum of Wales and the National Assembly for Wales on that scheme?

Mr. Howarth

I do, with pleasure.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

The fact is that Labour stumbled into making a pledge about universal free access without having even thought about the Treasury implications. Is the Minister not aware of the growing frustration of museum directors and trustees about the way in which their service agreements are becoming increasingly intrusive, patronising and political? Does he not understand that they resent being bullied on access, when they have always tried to increase access anyway?

Now that the Government have completed the U-turn on their pledge for universal free admission, what practical assistance will the Minister provide to all the other museums throughout the country, many of which are local, which face an uncertain future under this Government?

Mr. Howarth

I do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. We did not make the pledge that he described. Far from what he says being correct, the chairmen of trustees and the directors of national museums and galleries appreciate the opportunity that the negotiation of funding agreements gives them to explore our shared objectives in depth.

As for the important issue of how we are to ensure better support for regional museums and galleries, I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the £15 million designation challenge fund, which is already in place, to the funds to support museums and galleries in education spending and investment in information technology, and to the extension of the heritage lottery fund's access fund by £3 million a year into the future.