HL Deb 27 April 1955 vol 192 cc599-609

2.52 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD TERRINGTON in the Chair]

Clause 1:

Power of Trustees to lend for research purposes objects comprised in the natural history collections

1. The Trustees of the British Museum (hereafter in this Act referred to as "the Trustees") shall, in their discretion, have power to lend for the purposes of research, whether within or outside the United Kingdom, any objects vested in them which are comprised in the collections of the Natural History Departments of the British Museum; and any objects lent under the power conferred by this section shall be lent on such terms as the Trustees think fit, and subject to such conditions as they may impose for the purpose of securing the safe custody and due return thereof:

Provided that, where an object comprised in the said collections has become vested in the Trustees by virtue of a gift or bequest, the power conferred by this section shall not be exercisable as respects that object in a manner inconsistent with any condition attached to the gift or bequest.

LORD CHORLEY moved, after "Provided that," to insert: (a) the said power shall not extend to the lending of type specimens; and (b)

The noble Lord said: I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper. I make no apologies for bringing this matter to your Lordships' notice, as on the Second Reading of the Bill I said I would put down an Amendment. Though it is within a small compass, I think the point is an important one, involving the question of whether, in giving to the Museum complete power to loan their exhibits and specimens, the Bill goes too far. Your Lordships will be aware that Clause 1 confers upon the Trustees of the British Museum power to lend for research purposes objects comprised in the natural history collections of the Museum. The object of the Amendment is to cut down that power of lending in respect of type specimens. As the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, explained to your Lordships on the Second Reading of the Bill, a type specimen is the specimen originally discovered and described by the scientist responsible for that piece of work, and your Lordships will appreciate that the type specimen, which is the very fountain of the work of research in its line, is of great importance. To allow these type specimens to be lent out from the British Museum is taking a substantial risk.

I think all scientists and all sensible people will be in agreement with the main object of this Bill, but in regard to type specimens there is a substantial divergence of opinion among experts. This divergence has been made clear by a leading scientist in the columns of the Manchester Guardian, a correspondence with which no doubt some of your Lordships are acquainted and to which the noble and learned Viscount referred on Second Reading. I understand that this divergence of opinion which exists among what I might call the independent scientists reflects a similar divergence of opinion which exists among the scientific members of the staff of the British Museum. Therefore, as I say, I make no apology for bringing this matter to the attention of your Lordships by means of an Amendment to the Bill, because when experts are in disagreement on a matter on which I think any educated man can come to a reasonably good opinion, it is right and proper that Parliament should resolve the dispute between them; and I have put down this Amendment to enable your Lordships to do that.

Let me remind your Lordships of a similar dispute which gave rise to considerable discussion when the Bill to enable the National and Tate Galleries to lend their pictures came before your Lordships. While there was general sympathy with the main objects of that Bill, a number of the greatest experts in the land, including distinguished Members of your Lordships' House, felt that there was a certain danger in regard to certain types of pictures which were very old and liable to be damaged, and that it was not right to confer such an extreme power upon the Trustees of the Galleries. Your Lordships will remember that we had considerable discussion about that matter and eventually a certain compromise was reached. I suggest that here is a similar situation. We are all agreed that ordinary specimens and co-types, when there are co-types, can properly, reasonably and safely be lent out, but I suggest that there ought to be a ban on the lending out of type specimens.

I am informed that the collection of type specimens in the Natural History Department of the British Museum is perhaps the finest in the world and that the Natural History Department is the one place where experts can come from all over the world and be quite certain of finding the type which they wish to study and which is so important from the point of view of their being able to prosecute their researches in a satisfactory manner. Not only experts but also students come from all over the world to the British Museum. It would be unfortunate if this Bill were used in such a way that they might come here and find that the type specimens they had come to study had been sent away, and perhaps sent away for a substantial period of time.

Apart from this point, there is a decided risk that these important type specimens might be lost and never come back to the Museum. Perhaps that is the most serious aspect of the matter. As the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack pointed out, they are often minute and fragile objects. They presumably would be sent overseas by registered packet, which would frequently travel by air mail, as these things do in the ordinary way. As your Lordships know only too well, from time to time planes and their contents are lost. No doubt one world say that the loss of life that occurs on those occasions is the more serious aspect, but clearly there is a danger here. Even if they are not sent by air but are sent by registered packet overland, I remember that in answer to a Question put to the Assistant Postmaster General in another place some weeks ago it was revealed, to my considerable astonishment, that no fewer than 10,000 registered letters and packets are lost every year. That shows that in the handling of these objects in this way there is considerable risk. I suggest that this is a risk which ought not to be taken in respect of the type specimen. It is, I imagine, legitimate to take that risk in respect of the ordinary specimens, or in respect of one of the co-types, but not in respect of the type specimen itself.

It is true that the noble and learned Viscount went some distance in his speech on Second Reading to meet this point when he promised that the Trustees would make regulations under which type specimens would only occasionally be lent out, and I and those for whom I speak are grateful for his promise in that regard. But I suggest that it is not altogether satisfactory to be content with promises of that kind. Time after time we are told in this House that if we pass a Bill obvious objections to it can be overcome by departmental action, and Ministers make promises—we have had to be content with that type of assurance on a number of occasions. However, I am sure that most of us feel that it is not really satisfactory. It was interesting that in the debate which we had last week on the "Horror Comics" Bill my noble and learned Leader dealt with that very point: that Parliament ought to legislate about these things, and it ought not to be left to the Attorney-General to exercise what my noble and learned Leader called a kind of dispensing power, which is really what the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack was suggesting we should be content with in this particular case. As I have said, this argument falls within a narrow compass, although the point is an important one. I hope I have said enough to convince your Lordships that there is a case for cutting down the power of lending conferred upon the British Museum by Clause 1 of the Bill. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 15, after ("that") insert the said paragraph.—(Lord Chorley.)


I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, for the attention he has given to this matter, but I hope that when he has considered what I have to say he will not press the Amendment, because the effect of passing it would be to prevent the Trustees from making loans of type specimens in any circumstances whatever. I tried to put before your Lordships in the Second Reading debate the immense importance of this Bill to science in general and to international co-operation in science. I said that the Trustees of the British Museum, of whom I have the honour to be one, will regard this matter most scrupulously and will use this power in respect of type specimens only in the most unusual cases, which I mentioned. The noble Lord who has just spoken has put it as a constitutional point. With great respect to a lawyer of his distinction, I ask him to regard it in a different way. The Trustees of the British Museum are a body who have responsibilities, and they have carried out those responsibilities for 200 years. There is nothing unconstitutional in the fact that they should have a discretion, which they undertake to exercise with the most scrupulous care in cases where they think the interests of science are involved.

I should like to deal with one or two practical aspects of the matter, because I do not think the danger in loans is as great as the noble Lord makes out. It is certainly not as great in respect of some kinds of materials—it is not in the case of plants, for example. I do not know whether the noble Lord is aware that the two great national herbaria, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and at Edinburgh, frequently lend type specimens, to their own advantage and to the advantage of botanical science. I would ask your Lordships to take a rather wider view. The purpose of the Bill is to remove obstacles to the private use of the natural history collections of the British Museum. These obstacles were created by the rigidity—which was possibly unpremeditated—of certain expressions in the Act of 1753. Apart from difficulties of definition, which I will come to in a moment, the Amendment would introduce another rigid provision, which would hamper the Trustees in enabling the collections to be used to the fullest advantage in the future.

I am sure the noble Lord will acquit me of in any way trying to make debating or grammatical points on the Amendment: I simply want to show the difficulties which might be involved. The actual terms of the Amendment are open to the objection that they could not be precisely interpreted. Type specimens are of many different categories, of varying degrees of importance. A topotype, for instance, is merely a specimen of the same species collected from the same locality as the original type, and it may well be that great numbers of them could easily be obtained. The noble Lord has referred to the difference of opinion between notable scientists in regard to this matter. I respectfully say that that is an argument for giving a discretion to the Trustees—and I shall refer to the limits in a moment. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, has expressed with great moderation and clarity the views that have been expressed in the Manchester Guardian by Dr. Marie Stopes, but, if I interpreted his speech correctly, I think he had in mind that those views are not shared by all scientists. I would direct your Lordships' attention to the letter on the opposite side, from Sir Guy Marshall, of the Royal Entomological Society, who is a former Director of the Commonwealth Institute of Entomology, which was published in the Manchester Guardian on April 23, and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, saw it.

I think it would create a difficulty if the Trustees could never approve a loan which a responsible scientist regarded as of overwhelming importance. I do not want the noble Lord or your Lordships to think that the Trustees are taking this matter in any other way than most seriously. I appreciate the dangers which might attend indiscriminate loans of type material, but occasions do arise when it is highly important in the interests of science that such specimens should be allowed to go out of the Museum. It is only then that the Trustees will use their powers, and they will not resort to indiscriminate loans. I hope that the House will give the Trustees a little latitude. I have had the advantage of discussing the matter with my fellow Trustees, and with some of those who are much better in formed than we are. I repeat what I said—that the Trustees may be relied upon to make such regulations as will ensure the proper control of loans of Museum material in general and type specimens in particular. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, to consider that one of the grounds which has always justified the leaving of a matter to the discretion and regulation of a responsible body is flexibility and the obviation of rigidity which might have a harmful scientific consequence. While I fully appreciate his point—and I assure the noble Lord that all my co-Trustees appreciate it, too—I hope he will allow us to have this latitude in the interests of science, and that he will not press his Amendment to-day.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I strongly support my noble and learned friend who has just spoken. I regard this as a very important point, and I feel that too much rigidity would be very serious. I am sorry that I was not able to be with your Lordships last week, but I was attending a meeting in the country which concerned both sea fishing and oil in the sea, both of which subjects have been before your Lordships recently, so I know that your Lordships will pardon my absence. I am afraid that I must oppose the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who has produced this short Amendment. It is not that I disagree with him entirely—in fact, think our difference of opinion is probably a matter of 2 per cent,; but that 2 per cent. is extremely important. We must have some flexibility in this case and the Trustees, of whom I am one, feel strongly on this point. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, seemed to suggest that these type specimens will be allowed to go out on many occasions. I wonder whether they will ever go out. I am glad it has been suggested that, if this Bin passes, a new regulation should be made for the Natural History Museum, and I think we can perfectly well prevent any of the happenings of which the noble Lord is afraid or seems to be afraid.

I am now going to say something with which your Lordships may not agree at all. I shall certainly be on that subcommittee, and I may be in the chair—though perhaps your Lordships will not feel that that will help the matter. But the point is that every care will be taken to ensure that no specimen that should not go out is allowed to go. I should like to give your Lordships a slight simile, as the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, has referred to measures relating to art galleries and their contents, which were discussed in your Lordships' House recently. I have the honour to be Chairman of the National Portrait Gallery. There we have a self-denying regulation by which, since we look upon the Gallery as a reference library, we do not allow pictures to go away from it if we can avoid it. However, we have the right to let them go out if necessary, and in the fifteen years that I have been Chairman I have always done my best to impress upon my colleagues that this is all-important. Therefore, I think your Lordships will realise how strongly I am opposed to allowing these type specimens to leave the Museum, especially abroad. But there are occasions when it is absolutely necessary, possibly for only a few hours, to allow those things to go out of the Museum; and to tie our hands completely would be a retrograde step.

There is another point which has not been mentioned. If, as I hope will not happen, the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, carried his Amendment, we should lose our Bill, because I am given to understand that there would be no chance of the Amendment's being considered by another place. That raises a most serious point. We have for some years been trying to get a Bill of this nature, because we feel it advisable that we should have such a measure on the Statute Book. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, will not risk throwing this Bill out. We have thrown away all the top hamper which we had so as to get it through, and to lose the Bill at this stage would be lamentable, especially, as I feel that the noble Lord's fears are quite unnecessary and that everything will be perfectly all right.

3.19 p.m.


May I ask the noble and learned Viscount whether it would be possible to consider an Amendment at the Report stage to limit the time for which a specimen may be lent? My noble friend Lord Methuen and I proposed an Amendment rather on those lines to the National Gallery and Tate Gallery Bill. It was not acceptable to your Lordships, but it was eventually accepted in another place and was incorporated in the Bill. It did solve this problem of ensuring that a unique picture—which is comparable to a type specimen—would come back. This is the third Bill since I have had the honour of being a Member of your Lordships' House to give the trustees of our national collections the right to lend them. I think that this Amendment raises an important question of policy, because we are tending to get away from the attitude adopted by our forbears in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when these museums were first set up: that the national collections should be treated as being in the nature of libraries and kept intact for the use of students, whether they be of pictures or, as in this case, of specimens of natural history. It is for that reason that, if the noble and learned Viscount cannot see his way to introduce some further Amendment to limit the period of time, I shall feel bound to support most warmly the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley.


If the Committee will allow me to answer the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, I will look into his point with pleasure: it is too technical a subject, over too large a field, for me to give an answer straight away. I should like to consult the staff of the museum upon it; but I hope that that will not prevent my noble friend Lord Chorley from withdrawing his Amendment to-day.

3.22 p.m.


I cannot say that I am altogether convinced by the arguments of the noble and learned Viscount, but there is obviously not the amount of support for the Amendment for which I had hoped. I should like to make two points in reply to the noble and learned Viscount. The first is that he says the Amendment would establish rigidity. But, of course, this is only a very small aspect of the matter: the Bill itself gives full powers to lend in respect of the wide range of ordinary specimens which make up the great bulk of the collections. What I am trying to do is to put a slight amount of stiffening into a Bill which, as it stands, in my submission, is too fluid; I am not seeking to make it rigid at all. I am entirely in agreement with the main object of this Bill. Secondly, I was making what the noble and learned Viscount called the constitutional point only by way of analogy: I was not suggesting that this is in any way a constitutional Statute. I was just indicating that this was the sort of argument with which we were frequently fobbed off in respect of other Bills; and here we have it again.

We know the eminence of the noble Earl, Lord Ilchester, however; it may be that he will be chairman of the particular sub-committee who will handle this particular matter. So long as these points are within the vivid recollection of the Trustees, I am sure they will see to it that they are properly attended to. This Bill will lay down the law for a long period of time ahead. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Strabolgi for what he said. I think it might help if, in some way or other, we could limit the duration of the time over which these loans are made. If the period was quite short, the argument that visiting scientists would not find in our museums what they had every reason to expect would, to some extent at any rate, be met. On the basis that the noble and learned Viscount will look into the matter and will try to deal with it in one way or another, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.


Before the noble Lord sits down, may I say that the last thing in the world I want to do is to mislead in any way any noble Lord? I referred to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. I was hoping, because this is a very much delayed matter, that we should take all the stages of the Bill to-day. So what I hoped to do was to deal with the matter by regulation and to communicate with the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, as to the way in which I deal with it. I hope that he will be satisfied with that.


I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount for his reply, and I look forward to hearing from him. In view of what he says, I shall not press the matter at this stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

Then, Standing Order No. 41 having been suspended (pursuant to the Resolution of April 20), Bill read 3a, and passed.