HL Deb 26 October 1967 vol 285 cc1801-8

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement about the British Museum Library which has been made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science in another place. It is as follows:

"The plan to build a new library for the British Museum adjacent to the Museum buildings in Bloomsbury has been under examination by the Government. In September, 1964, the previous Government approved an outline plan for the building subject to consultation with the authorities concerned. The London Borough of Camden, who are the local planning authority, subsequently made formal objections, and these have been under consideration. The Government, having regard particularly to the housing situation in the borough, and to the need to preserve buildings of historic or architectural importance in Bloomsbury, have decided on balance that the borough's objections to the plan should be upheld.

"In reaching this decision the Government have also had in mind that the present pattern of national library services is a patchwork which has developed piecemeal over the years under different institutions. I have been considering whether the system provides a service which is efficient from the standpoint of users and gives good value for the large sums of public money spent on it. Attention has been drawn to some of the problems in this field in the recent Report of the University Grants Committee on Libraries, under the chairmanship of Dr. Thomas Parry.

"The Government have decided to set up a small independent Committee to examine the functions and organisation of the British Museum Library, the National Central Library, the National Lending Library for Science and Technology and the Science Museum Library in providing national library facilities, and to consider whether, in the interests of efficiency and economy, such facilities should be brought into a unified framework.

"One of the questions to which the Committee will have to give its attention is the way in which the needs for storage of library material should be met. This problem is particularly acute in Central London, and discussions are being opened with the local planning authorities concerned about alternative possibilities for a site in the Central London area, to meet whatever needs are determined in the light of the Committee's Report."

That is the end of the Statement.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, in the name of us all, may I thank the noble Baroness for her courtesy in repeating that Statement here and express our regret that she was kept so long before she had an opportunity to do so. But is she aware that in the past three years, while the present Government have been handling this urgent matter, its progress sounds from this Statement to have been backwards rather than forwards? While nobody is more aware than I of the difficulty of the housing problem of the Borough of Camden, is the noble Baroness aware that the needs of the British Museum for new library accommodation become more and more pressing every week? Can she give an assurance on behalf of the Government that this new Committee has been asked to present its Report as quickly as possible and that then the Government will reach their final decision as expeditiously as possible?


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his remarks. I hope that I can satisfy him by saying that the Committee is to be small, it is to be high-powered and with the distinct objective of completing its work speedily. It will be mainly looking at organisation and the handling of large resources. Therefore the people who will be manning this Committee may well be experts in this field, although the library interests will also be strongly represented. I think that we should remember that building operations were timed to begin in the early 1970's. Therefore the Government feel that there is no reason why this Committee should hold up the project any more than if we proceeded without a committee.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the sense of outrage that the Trustees of the British Museum feel, both in the manner and in the content of this Statement—outrage in the manner in view of the totally inadequate consultation with the Trustees, although they have been appointed by Act of Parliament to advise the Secretary of State on all matters to do with the British Museum, and outrage in the content in view of the fact that the Statement buries twenty years of planning of the new library for the British Museum?


My Lords, I feel the sincerity with which the noble Lord has expressed his point of view. Were I a Trustee of this institution, no doubt I would speak in the same terms. But I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue this rather strong line without having the benefit of a fuller debate. It is not necessary for me to remind your Lordships that the noble Viscount, Lord Radcliffe, was consulted in his capacity as Chairman of the Trustees by my right honourable friend and that he took back the results of this consultation to the Trustees before he was again told by my right honourable friend of the decision which was reached. I think it is fair to remind your Lordships that this could not have been an easy decision for Her Majesty's Government to reach, because the interests of several groups in the community have had to be taken into consideration.


My Lords, may I, as a Trustee of the British Museum, reappointed such by the Prime Minister a month ago for a further period of five years, and as Chairman of the Building Committee of the British Museum, warmly endorse all that my noble friend Lord Annan has said? May I ask the noble Baroness whether she is aware that the Trustees knew nothing whatever of what she was going to say in this House and of what her right honourable friend was going to say in another place until asked to the Department yesterday, and then we had only a very general indication of the decision that had been reached? There was no chance whatever of the Trustees commenting with any value on what we were told. There was no possibility of the Government decision being altered, we were informed.

The noble Baroness has referred to my noble friend, Lord Radcliffe. May I say that I have spoken to him to-day and twice yesterday, though he is ill at his home in Warwickshire—but I am glad to say he is improving. Both he and all his colleagues firmly understood that there would be proper consultation with the Trustees before a decision was finally reached. Finally, may I ask the noble Baroness whether this is not an extraordinary way in which to treat Trustees who have been charged with the governance of our greatest collection of national treasures and appointed as its custodians for the future?


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Viscount feels in this way. Naturally, I am in no position to enter into a discussion of what took place during the consultations. As I understand it, the noble Viscount, Lord Radcliffe, was consulted by the then Secretary of State before the end of the Recess and subsequently discussed this matter with his Trustees. As I said before, I sympathise with the feelings of the Trustees. I am sorry that they feel they have not been given due respect. I hope that we shall have an opportunity of discussing this subject more fully quite soon, but the noble Viscount will appreciate, from his own experience in another place, that it would be improper for me to comment on what has taken place during the consultations between my right honourable friend and the Chairman of the Trustees.


My Lords, is the noble Lady aware that the sense of outrage at this decision is not at all confined to the Trustees? Is it not a fact that the Government are making an important decision on the future of perhaps the greatest library in the world, against the wishes of the Trustees legally responsible for it and without adequate consultation of those Trustees, and without any prior consent of Parliament? Is she aware that for those reasons the sense of outrage felt by the Trustees is shared, I believe, by every educated man?


My Lords, may I put two questions to the noble Lady? If I may declare my interest, may I say that I am a Trustee of the British Museum. My first question is this: does the noble Lady realise that the Trustees of the British Museum for years have been working on the concept of what a national library really ought to be? Now we are told that a Commission is to be set up to advise the Government on the policy of the National Library, and on the very same day the Government have excluded from the purview of that Commission the view of the Trustees themselves that the best place for a national library would be adjacent to the collections.

My second question is this. I wonder whether the Ministers have really taken into consideration that in this matter we happen to have an opportunity that the United States of America and France have not got. They cannot have their collections of works of art, of prints and manuscripts and of other precious objects alongside their National Library. It is not possible for them. We have this unique possibility, that we can keep the whole conspectus of our culture on one site: something that no other country in the world can do. May I ask the noble Lady whether she will again carry this message back to the Secretary of State, because it appears to the British Museum Trustees that this great opportunity is being thrown away on housing grounds. We admit that housing is very important, but we can have houses elsewhere. You cannot have a national collection and a national library on the same site anywhere else in the United Kingdom.


My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister two questions. First, is she aware that we on these Benches share entirely the sentiments that have been expressed? I cannot remember any single case where a matter of this importance has been pushed through in this way without proper consultation with the responsible Trustees. We suggest that at a very early date a full explanation should be given of this whole matter, because at the present moment we are left in a most unsatisfactory position. The second question I wish to ask is this. Will the Committee which it is proposed to set up have any concern with the National Library of Wales, which, as the Minister knows, has a very friendly and warm relationship with the British Museum Library.


My Lords, I cannot, of course, accept the statement that there has not been proper consultation with the Trustees. Noble Lords have stated this fact in all sincerity, but we should require a much fuller debate before we could come to such a definite conclusion. I must accept the statement that I have received, that my right honourable friend has been in consultation with the noble Viscount, Lord Radcliffe. May I remind the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, that this is not a Commission, but a Committee, and, as I understand it, one of the reasons particularly for setting up this Committee is to look into the wider issue of the national library service. Naturally, the work which has already been done will be utilised and taken fully into account.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, I am afraid I cannot give a reply immediately about the National Library of Wales, but I will see that he is given that information. I can do no more than convey these messages to my right honourable friend, without, of course, in any way giving any commitment that there is more that I can do as a very junior Minister.


My Lords, could I ask the noble Baroness one question? She has spoken of the necessity for a much fuller debate, and on that I think we all agree with her. Are we to take her reply as meaning that no decision will be taken until a fuller debate has taken place in Parliament?


No, my Lords, I am afraid the noble Marquess cannot take that as being the case. The decision has been taken.


My Lords, I am not a Trustee of the British Museum, but having listened to this discussion I must say that I am rather shocked at the idea, not only that the Trustees have not been consulted—and we have three responsible Trustees here who all say they have not been consulted—but also by the fact that the noble Lady is talking of a debate hereafter when the matter is closed and a debate could serve no useful purpose. Will she go back to her Minister and tell him that there is strong feeling in this House that at least the decision ought not to be finalised until there has been discussion, and particularly the opportunity of discussion with the Trustees?


My Lords, I feel that noble Lords sitting on all sides of the House are pressing me in a way which some of them who have been Ministers will perhaps recognise. There is little I can add to what I have already said. I will naturally take back—I have always done this—any statements or messages which have been made here today. The Committee will be meeting to discuss the wider provision of a national library service and I must admit that this is what I meant when I referred to a debate. I think we must bear in mind when dicussing this matter that, though the Trustees are strongly represented in your Lordships' House, it may well be that the other interests concerned are not represented, and if they were other views might be heard.


My Lords, while I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that there are other interests which are concerned in this case, such as the Borough of Camden in their housing difficulties, could I ask her to take back this message to the Secretary of State: that the Trustees have never been unmindful of the difficulties of the Borough of Camden in their housing problems, but that they themselves have housing problems, mainly the disgraceful conditions in which the staff of the British Museum, and particularly the library staff, work owing to the fact that so little has been done on this matter for so long. That is not entirely the responsibility of this Government, of course—it is the responsibility of Governments over the past twenty years—but we have our duty towards our staff in respect of living conditions and working conditions.


My Lords, I do not wish to add to the troubles of the noble Baroness in this matter—and I think we all appreciate the difficulty she is in—but when she goes back to her right honourable friend I should like her to represent to him the very strong views that have been expressed from all quarters in your Lordships' House, and not least the view that a decision on the narrower issue may be held open until we have had time to debate this matter fully; and I hope it will be debated in both Houses of Parliament. I ask the noble Baroness at least to have this possibility in mind in her representations to her right honourable friend.


My Lords, I can give my solemn assurance that I will make representations to my right honourable friend, and this I will do immediately.