HL Deb 21 April 1955 vol 192 cc512-6

4.11 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in rising to move the Second Reading of this Bill I ought to declare my interest, for I am, by nature of my office, one of the principal Trustees of the Museum. I ought also to inform your Lordships that my noble friend Lord Ilchester was good enough to write to me to inform me of his support for the Bill and to express regret that he could not be with your Lordships to-day.

The purpose of the Bill is to clear up certain statutory disabilities under which the Trustees of the Museum suffer. The first point arises out of the fact that the sciences which are covered by the Natural History Museum, namely, zoology, entomology, geology (including palæontology), mineralogy and botany, have reached such a high stage of specialisation that there are sometimes only a few people, often in distant parts of the world, who can help us with specimens on which assistance is required. The powers contained in this Bill would make it lawful for the Trustees of the British Museum to refer such specimens to the appropriate expert for comparison, identification, research and report. The powers would also make it possible for the Trustees, under proper safeguards, to lend specimens, which would enable important pieces of scientific research to be brought to a successful conclusion. This is part of a reciprocal dealing in specimens which is essential to modern science. Clause 1 is designed to empower the Trustees to send objects in the Natural History Museum outside the precincts of the Museum for the purposes I have mentioned.

The object of Clause 2 is to make it lawful for the Trustees of the British Museum to order the destruction of natural history specimens which, by reason of their infestation with organisms of various sorts, have not only ceased to be objects of value to the museum but have become a menace to the rest of the specimens. The Statutes are somewhat narrowly drawn on this point, and Lord Macmillan and Lord Greene, who in their time were well known to your Lordships, advised that it would be better to get the Statutes quite clear upon this point.

Some of your Lordships may have seen a letter in the Press dealing with a special aspect of this matter—namely, the question of "type" specimens, the identical specimens Which were before the author who gave his name to the species. The Natural History Museum possesses many such "type" specimens which are of great importance as affording the only standards by which doubtful points of identification can be solved. We, as Trustees, are fully aware that "type" specimens stand in a category by themselves and that, in the vast majority of cases, they would not be permitted to be lent. In certain rare instances, however it may be desirable to submit such specimens to an expert on the group to which they belong, in the interests not so much of the borrower but, more particularly, of the museum and, indeed, of the specimen itself. Problems that might otherwise be insoluble can thus occasionally be elucidated.

Specimens which are in any case on the verge of disintegration can be sent for examination to a foremost authority who may be able to derive valuable information from them before it is too late. May I give your Lordships an example? Certain minute organisms such as mites, when mounted on slides, sometimes become progressively more transparent, and a point may be reached when they cease to be of further value. Before that stage is reached, such specimens ought to be studied by the best available expert on that particular group. I have dealt with that somewhat exceptional case at some length in order to explain how exceptional it is; but the Trustees wish to assure your Lordships' House, through me, that they have very much in mind the necessity for safeguarding "type" specimens and that this power will be used only in most exceptional circumstances. I hope that your Lordships will give a Second Reading to the Bill and thus remove the Trustees from the difficult position in which they have been working for some years. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, it appears that we must largely take this Bill on trust from the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor and give it our support. By virtue of the office that I then held, I was for six and a half years a Trustee of the British Museum and, therefore, of the Natural History Museum. The subject matter of Clause 2 was urgent even in those days, and I tremble to think what must have happened to the specimens in the meantime. With regard to Clause 1, I saw the letter to which the noble and learned Viscount referred, for it appeared in one of the few newspapers which we have had available to us. I confess that it gave me some anxiety, but in view of the explanation which the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor has given us this afternoon, we can, I feel, rest assured with his statement. So far as I am concerned, I support the Second Reading of the Bill and the steps required to see it through all its stages.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the scientific world as a whole will welcome this Bill, because it removes an unfortunate rigidity. I am not altogether satisfied that the doubts and anxieties of many people in the scientific world on this subject of "type" specimens will be completely removed by what the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack has said. I understand that there is very considerable danger in sending, through the post and overseas, and by similar means, "type" specimens of the kind to which the Lord Chancellor has referred. There is a considerable argument in favour of not allowing such specimens to be taken out of the particular museum in which they exist. After all, famous men of the kind who are expert in these things come to London sooner or later—and sooner, rather than later.

I am also informed that, from the point of view of students, it is essential that they should be able to rely upon the "type" specimens being at a certain museum at the time they come to make their studies. It would be a thousand pities if students were to come from overseas to visit the Natural History Museum in London—which is one of the best, if not the best, in the world—for the purpose of studying certain "type" specimens, only to find that the specimens in which they were interested had been lent away. I am not altogether relieved of my anxieties, as my noble and learned Leader appears to be, and I may put down an Amendment in order to make it clear that these "type" specimens shall not be lent away. However, perhaps we can be reassured in the interval, so that it will not be necessary to put down an Amendment.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, may I just say one word in furtherance of what I have said already on this point relating to "type" specimens, and in the hope that it may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Chorley? I did give the undertaking that the Trustees—and of course I speak for the Trustees and all authorities of the Museum—would take the greatest care. That was not merely the expression of a pious opinion, but will show itself in the framing of detailed regulations regarding loans. I should like to reassure Lord Chorley and his friends, whose doubts about this matter I wholly realise and appreciate, but I would ask them to consider that in the very exceptional case I mentioned it is a difficult balance. So far as I am able to judge, I think the balance of advantage to science lies in having that rare specimen which, as I say, may be deteriorating—and, indeed, disappearing—examined by the greatest experts that can be found to-day. All I ask is that the noble Lord should consider that point before the next stage of the Bill.


My Lords, if I may, with your Lordships' permission, intervene once again, I should like to thank the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack very sincerely for what he has just said. I appreciate that if regulations are drafted in this way it may well relieve the anxiety of those who have asked me to intervene on this point. I will consult them and see whether we need prosecute our difficulties and doubts any further.


My Lords, may I intervene simply for the purpose of saying that, having some slight knowledge of the very great scientific advantages involved, I entirely agree with what the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor has said.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.