HC Deb 25 February 2004 vol 418 cc386-94

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

7.17 pm
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

I am very pleased to be given this opportunity to urge the Government to take steps to ensure the permanent return of the Lindisfarne gospels to the north-east of England. I am also pleased to see in the Chamber several of my right hon. and hon. Friends who take a great interest in this issue, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) and for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who, although he does not represent the north-east, comes from my part of the north-east in Gateshead. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is here, because I am aware that the issue crosses the party divide. I pay tribute to other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp), who has taken a long-standing interest in the subject.

I had a vivid realisation of just how dear the Lindisfarne gospels are to the hearts of people in the north-east some three years ago, when the originals were displayed in the Laing art gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne for three months. The number of visitors was very considerable—approaching 200,000, which, I understand, is double the number of visitors to the British Library in the same period. Having been one of the people who stood in line to view the gospels on that occasion, I well remember the excitement and exhilaration felt by those queueing.

It is important to stress to people from outside the north-east that the gospels, more than any other work of art, encapsulate the cultural achievement of what is described as the golden age of Northumbria—the age of Cuthbert, Aidan and the Venerable Bede. As such, the gospels are a huge and powerful symbol of the region's proud past, but I should like to argue that they can be something more—an inspiration for the region's future. The campaign to secure the return of the gospels has existed for a long time, and will, I am sure, continue until success is achieved. I pay tribute in particular to the work of the Northumbrian Association, which has led an active campaign in recent years. I also acknowledge the efforts of previous Bishops of Durham and the current bishop in support of the campaign. Five years ago, the previous Bishop of Durham inaugurated a debate in the other place about the return of the gospels. Interestingly, he won the firm support of the Earl of Carlisle, whose family were connected with Sir Robert Cotton, who acquired the gospels 100 years or so after they were looted from the region at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. It was good that someone connected to the person who bequeathed the gospels to the British Museum was calling for their return to the north-east.

I am pleased that the press in the north-east, includingThe Journal in Newcastle this week, have supported the campaign to return the gospels. Indeed, a number of well-known north-east personalities, including this week Brendan Foster, who is well known to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism, have spoken out in favour of their return. In any debate about the relocation of national treasures, worries are expressed about the setting of dangerous precedents and the fact that many more demands for relocation may follow. However, having visited the British Library and seen the works on display, I know that there are many works, manuscripts and books from different parts of the United Kingdom, including a fair number from the north-east of England. However, I do not know of any campaigns, and do not expect any, in favour of the relocation of those objects, which do not have the special significance or iconic status of the gospels. A helpful precedent would be an event that took place a few years ago, when the stone of Scone was returned to Scotland. It was a special object with iconic status, and its return has similarities to the case for the return of the gospels.

I stress very strongly that the issue is not related in any way to that of the Elgin marbles, and should not be confused with it—they are completely different. The reason is obvious: the north-east is a part of the United Kingdom, and we are talking about the relocation of an item of our national heritage within our nation. Indeed, north-eastern taxpayers pay taxes towards the upkeep of the British Library just as much as taxpayers in London or anywhere else in the country do. National treasures do not lose their status as national treasures by being located outside the capital. Indeed, if the Lindisfarne gospels came back to the north-east, their status as a national treasure would be enhanced, not diminished.

It is appropriate that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism will respond to our debate, as he and I have worked together enthusiastically to promote policies of decentralisation and devolution. I therefore hope that he agrees that the Government's record in promoting decentralisation in a range of policy areas including culture is laudable. Returning the Lindisfarne gospels would work with the grain of the Government policy of ensuring active regional and decentralisation policies in the cultural sector. Moreover, returning the gospels would boost the already important tourism industry in the north-east, and thereby boost the wider north-eastern economy.

As a Member representing part of Gateshead, I am conscious of the important link between culture and economic regeneration, which has been given dramatic emphasis in cultural developments such as the renaissance of the Gateshead quays and the important boost to the region's image provided by cultural innovations and attractions such as the angel of the north. Returning the gospels would be a significant further step in the economic regeneration of the region and the enhancement of its image, the importance of which should not be underestimated when attracting investment to the region and portraying it as an attractive region in which to work and live.

So far, the British Library and the Government have resisted the permanent return of the gospels to the north-east and I should therefore like to attempt to forestall some of their arguments against our campaign. First, the library points to the fact that, recently, high-quality facsimiles have been available. That is true; they usefully contribute to making the gospels visible in several different locations.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend knows about the connection between the gospels and St. Mary and St. Cuthbert's church in Chester-le-Street. Its fight to have a facsimile on permanent display is obviously commendable but it would add to the history trail in the north-east if the gospels were on permanent display somewhere in the north-east. That would recognise the cultural and historical significance of the north-east to the development of Christendom in this country.

Joyce Quin

I greatly appreciate my hon. Friend's point. The importance of Chester-le-Street in the story of St. Cuthbert and in that of the gospels should be commemorated in the way he suggests. However, what appeared to be a special deal between the British Library and the region on the availability of a limited number of facsimiles has been somewhat undermined by the fact that the firm responsible has produced approximately 980. They are now viewed as a commercial venture rather than a sensitive response to the region's case. Nevertheless, their existence suggests a strong case for the British Library to have a high-quality facsimile and for the originals to be located permanently in the north-east.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

I hope that the right hon. Lady will recognise, in pressing her powerful case, that in the view of the inhabitants of Holy Island, whence the gospels originated, the British Library has been helpful in making available a virtual version there and in supporting the presentation of information about the gospels on the island. I would not like the British Library simply to be criticised when it has given that help.

Joyce Quin

I appreciate that point and I know that people on the island value the help. The island is a tremendously important tourist asset for our region, attracting almost 1 million visitors each year. Since the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has intervened, I acknowledge the cross-party support for the issue. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has also been supportive.

When I recently revisited the British Library and looked at the Lindisfarne gospels in the John Riblatt gallery there, I was interested to note that they are not highlighted in the way that I believe that they would be if they were permanently housed in the north-east. A leaflet about the John Riblatt gallery sets out its 10 highlights but the Lindisfarne gospels are not included. The British Library understandably views them as an important manuscript and in the context of the evolution of book production. However, the Lindisfarne gospels an much more to the people of the north-east of England.

Those who want to retain the originals in London argue that they can be kept in appropriate conditions for their conservation. However, the gospels were exhibited in the Laing art gallery without conservation problems. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be sympathetic to the point that, if we have a decentralised cultural policy for exhibitions, we should have such a policy for cultural skills and the ability to look after objects in the region where they are found. As a Gateshead Member, I know the expertise on conserving paintings that exists in the Shipley art gallery. I am therefore sure that skills can exist in the region. Sometimes, it can appear patronising when such doubts are raised.

I have mentioned the number of visitors on Holy Island. In Durham, there are half a million visitors a year. There was a huge turnout of support for the gospels when they were in the Laing art gallery. Therefore, I believe that the region is a very suitable location for exhibiting the gospels. Although many of our London museums are wonderful, there is often such a concentration of treasures that it is difficult to single out particular treasures in the way that the gospels when they were exhibited in the Laing art gallery so well illustrated.

Sometimes the objection is also raised that scholars tend to congregate in the capital and they need access to the gospels. Some scholars I am sure would be able to look at the facsimile versions, but others could be attracted to the north-east, not least because we have five very good universities. The rather amusing brief on this subject provided by the Northumbrian Association says that pioneers from the north-east thoughtfully provided the railways for people to get from London to the north-east, and, through Joseph Wilson Swan, provided the electric light so that the gospels could be well viewed when they got there.

I also note the content of parliamentary answers. For example, I have here an answer to a written question given by the former culture Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), who mentioned having more regular displays of the original gospels in the north-east than has so far occurred.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will understand that I want the permanent return of the gospels to the north-east. But at the same time it would be good if the Government could at least signify their willingness to have more regular displays of the original in the region, perhaps annually, or to facilitate a delegation of Members and representatives of organisations in the region to put their case to the board of the British Library.

In her 1981 book about the Lindisfarne gospels, Janet Backhouse, then assistant keeper in the department of manuscripts in the British Library, recognised that this particular book has never been regarded merely as a museum curiosity of interest only to scholars … but has kept something of the mystique of a holy relic even into the 20th century". We could now add "the twenty-first century". She also noted in that book that local awareness of the importance of the gospels remained very much alive.

I conclude by telling my right hon. Friend that this would be an ideal year to decide on the permanent return of the Lindisfarne gospels, because September marks the 900th anniversary of the arrival of the body of St. Cuthbert in its permanent home in Durham cathedral. Perhaps even better, the gospels could be returned before 20 March, which is St. Cuthbert's day. I believe, and I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends also believe, that the case for returning the Lindisfarne gospels to the north-east is overwhelming. Therefore, I urge the Government to respond positively to our campaign.

7.33 pm
The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on securing this debate. As she said, we have stood shoulder to shoulder on the whole question of devolution, and I have no doubt that we shall do so later this year on the referendum for a "Yes" vote for further devolution to the north-east. There is no greater advocate for the north-east than my right hon. Friend, particularly with regard to devolution.

I come to the subject of the debate, the Lindisfarne gospels, an issue of particular resonance to the people of the north-east. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it more fully in the House tonight.

The Lindisfarne gospels are unique, unquestionably one of our greatest national treasures and a world heritage item. Now believed to have been created in the early part of the eighth century at the monastery of Lindisfarne, by a single author, they contain both the Latin text and the oldest surviving English example of a translation of the gospels. This remarkable work is a testament to the historic cultural diversity of the British Isles. They were created at a time when the monastery of Lindisfarne had a central role in fostering a spirit of collaboration and reconciliation during a period of great uncertainty and political change—history does keep repeating itself. To understand the spiritual and artistic roots of the great work is to understand much about its time.

It is both clear and right that the Lindisfarne gospels are a source of great pride to the north-east. They hold an iconic status and it is understandable why people want them to be displayed in the region. It is for that reason that my right hon. Friend views their return as important. However, I can equally appreciate the rationale behind the British Library's view.

We do not know the location of the gospels prior to the 17th century, but by 1702, they were in the possession of the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection was given to the nation. They were part of the founding collection of the British Museum, and were thus transferred to the British Library when it was created in 1972 as the National Library. The Lindisfarne gospels, as part of the British Library collection, are the property of the British Library Board, and they are held for the nation. The Government's view remains that the decision to return the gospels is rightly one for the British Library Board.

Mr. Stephen Byers (Tyneside, North) (Lab)

My point is about the role of the board. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend could say whether there have been any discussions with the board with the purpose of achieving a meeting between the board and the delegation to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) referred, because that would demonstrate his good will toward the campaign. I know that my right hon. Friend answers in a ministerial capacity, but he will have a degree of personal sympathy toward the case that is being put for the Lindisfarne gospels. May I give him a word of warning? We feel that the Government have a responsibility in the matter, and there might come a time when they will have to indicate to the British Library Board the strength of feeling not only in the region, but in a broader area than the north-east—as we can see from the attendance in the Chamber—about the rightful place of the Lindisfarne gospels.

Mr. Caborn

As I have said, the matter is the responsibility of the board, not the Government. However, if my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West wants to lead a delegation to put points to the board, I understand that it would respond favourably to such a request. I shall tell the board and my officials tomorrow that I would welcome a meeting between a delegation led by my right hon. Friend and the board. Points about the feeling in the north-east could then be put forcefully to the board.

As I said, the decision is one for the British Library Board. As with all our national museums and galleries, the Government have an arm's-length relationship with the British Library, under which it can, and should, take decisions about its collections and future free from political intervention.

Mr. Kevan Jones

Is not the root cause of the problem the London-centric policies in this country? I doubt whether many of the individuals on the board represent anyone apart from an elitist group of individuals representing London. Is not the fact of the matter that whatever provocations I, as an elected north-east Member, or other hon. Members might make, unless we are in the London-centric clique, the board will frankly not listen to what we will say?

Mr. Caborn

I do not think that that line of thinking should be taken with the British Library Board, because it would not get an especially good reception. If I may give a little advice, I suggest that it might be more useful to keep to the facts that my right hon. Friend presented in her contribution this evening.

The British Library Board cannot freely dispose of any artefacts within the collection to other countries or collections. It must secure those artefacts and items for successive generations. I think that most hon. Members would accept that the British Library is one of the preeminent libraries in the world. As my colleague, the Minister for the Arts, commented recently in another debate about cultural property—unfortunately she cannot respond to this debate because she is on ministerial business in the States—such important works should be viewed within the context of institutions that have a powerful national, and international, reach.

The British Library Board has to preserve and interpret these as well as other outstanding works in its collection. This places on the board an important responsibility. However, the British Library can, and does, take other courses of action to ensure that access to the gospels is as wide as possible, particularly for those to whom they have particular significance, namely the people of the north-east. If the meeting takes place with the board, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West may be able to raise some of the points about the publicity given to the gospels that she has made in the debate.

In recent years, the British Library has made great efforts to bring the gospels, with its other treasures, to the attention of visitors to the British Library, both on-site and online. Since the opening of the St. Pancras site, the gospels have been on permanent display in the John Ritblat gallery of treasures from the collection, under stringently controlled conditions, and placed alongside other landmarks of literary and human achievement. Entry to the gallery is free and it is open seven days a week.

In April 2003, the library opened a new exhibition dedicated to the gospels, entitled "Painted Labyrinth— The world of the Lindisfarne Gospels". This displayed the gospels in the context of other eighth century artefacts. The exhibition was a huge success, both critically and in terms of visitor numbers. Alongside the exhibition, the British Library produced a virtual exhibition, accessible through its website. The virtual exhibition was also hugely popular. In addition, the library is well advanced in a project to produce an electronic facsimile of the gospels on CD-ROM.

British Library staff are also working closely with teachers in the north-east to produce gospels school packs and resource boxes. These are intended to be distributed to local schools, teaching children about the rich history of this unique part of the United Kingdom. The British Library has also been at the centre of development of innovative new technology to allow visitors, both on-site and online, unprecedented access to the library's treasures. Indeed, the development of the "Turning of the Pages" interactive digital display allows the visitor to look at, and turn each page virtually, allowing increased access and interpretation without in any way harming the manuscripts themselves.

The need to care for the collections must at all times be balanced against the need to provide access, and the British Library has actively sought to loan the gospels, when it can, to the north-east. However, due to their fragility, the gospels have been on loan only five times since entering the collection. Three of those have been to the north-east over the. past 20 years. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the most recent loan was to the Laing gallery in Newcastle in 2000.

In early 2003, the British Library made further moves to preserve the integrity of the gospels as works of art, while ensuring that they are made accessible in the north-east. The library entered into an agreement with Faksimile Verlag for the production of "state of the art", museum-quality, full-colour facsimiles. Part of this agreement was to provide two facsimiles to the north- east—one to Durham cathedral and the other to Holy Island, as my right hon. Friend said. A third facsimile is on a seven-month tow of the north-east. It has already visited Bede's World in Jarrow, Hartlepool museum and Hexham abbey. Today, I understand, it is being shown to Durham county council staff before going out on a tour of schools in County Durham. While on display at Bede's World last October, visitor figures increased by a staggering 34 per cent. in comparison with October 2002. That gives a clear indication of the success of this initiative.

The decision of how to care for the gospels must be a matter for the British Library Board. I believe that the British Library has discharged its responsibility to make these treasures publicly available with imagination and determination, and has shown that such works can be made accessible through a variety of means to perform their original role—that of inspiring and symbolising aspects of human history and the human spirit.

I understand the strong points that my right hon. Friend and others have made in this short debate and I hope that they will be put to the British Library Board. We will see the response to that, but I reiterate that overall responsibility rests with the British Library.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eight o'clock.