HL Deb 20 December 1983 vol 446 cc658-79

7.28 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

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

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AYLESTONE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Leasing of Somerset House for artistic, cultural or other purposes]:

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 6, after ("may") insert ("by statutory instrument")

The noble Lord said: Before I move this amendment, may I suggest that the usual channels should consider a different arrangement for business which is taken, as on this occasion, in the middle of the consideration of other business and when noble Lords repair to the dining room for supper. This is now being treated as second-class business, because it does not call for any great attendance by noble Lords in the Chamber, or it is not contentious, or it does not matter.

I have protested previously about this, and I shall go on doing it whenever business with which I am concerned is relegated to this position in our affairs. Moreover, if it is expected that your Lordships' Committee is going to adjourn some business for supper, it should do so at the appointed hour and not drag on, as it has done tonight. As for coming back at half past eight—

The Earl of Swinton

With due respect to the noble Lord, he can complain to the usual channels about this, but we could not have been much nearer half past seven than we are at present. Dinner on Tuesdays is at half past seven.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I may have misunderstood the time we arrived at this stage in our proceedings, but it is usually seven o'clock.

The Earl of Swinton

Not on Tuesdays.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

Then I hope those who are having supper will not hurry back, because we have business to do.

I think it would be better if I spoke to both Amendment No. 1 and Amendment No. 2 at once, because one is consequential upon the other. Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 7, leave out ("he thinks fit") and insert ("may be determined"). These amendments require the Secretary of State to submit to Parliament his judgment and proposals for any lease to be granted under this Bill. It maybe contemplated that a lease granted by the Secretary of State for any period that he thinks fit may be a long one. It may be a lease which would last for a whole generation. To lease a public building, or any part of it, of the importance of Somerset House for a period of a whole generation is no minor decision. The Secretary of State should be asked to come to Parliament for approval, otherwise this is an excess of delegated authority.

I know the noble Lord the Minister has said that anyone who rises to the dizzy heights of being Secretary of State for the Environment is unlikely to do anything wrong or foolish. But Ministers do not rise at all. At best they emerge, and usually they are put there in the complex process of finding horses for courses and room for a balance of wets and drys, of the Left and the Right, not to mention the Scots and the Welsh "Taffia". That is how Ministers get where they are. One cannot rely completely on their judgment. For example, I ask what blind faith one can put in a Minister when one looks across the river at the building erected in the 1930s on the south side of Lambeth Bridge by the Minister of Works for his own headquarters. It has been a blot on the landscape for years and years. That was doing something that some Minister "thought fit".

I ask again; are we to have an extension of the ugly facade of King's College that we have on the Strand now for as long as the Secretary of State "thinks fit"? The trouble with buildings today is that they are not designed by architects but by chartered accountants. That is why we have so much ugliness about all our cities at present.

Another reason given by the Minister for this delegated authority was that it would save valuable parliamentary time. I do not want to be cynical about wasting parliamentary time, but I have just been sitting in. I think that any Minister who studies the record will see that the value of parliamentary time is that which Members themselves put upon it. No subjective judgment about valuable parliamentary time is worth anything at all. In fact, I would say that one should never try to save parliamentary time on the ground that it may be wasted. That is not democracy. To use as much parliamentary time as possible, even though it may be wasted, is the foundation of our democratic system.

I do not think that this delegated authority can be justified on the ground that it will save valuable parliamentary time. If Parliament wants to save parliamentary time, it has means at its disposal so to do. I do not think it should do it by delegating authority to Ministers. It can do it by restraining its own enthusiasm and excitement on occasions; and in another place devices were created years ago known as "the closure", "the guillotine", "the kangaroo", and all the rest of it, all of which are devices to save wasting parliamentary time.

This is the end of what I want to say in moving this amendment. The words "he thinks fit"—there is always a note of arrogance in the use of the phrase, "as one thinks fit"—I want to remove it from the Bill anyway. It may be what a Minister thinks is appropriate, reasonable or within his discretion, but "as he thinks fit" is a peremptory notice of what the Minister may reply if one questions what he has done. He says, "I have thought fit", and that is the end of it.

The amendment is designed to bring the Minister to the House of Commons or to the House of Lords on the negative procedure for statutory instrument authority to do what he wants to do. I hope that the Government will feel that this is a reasonable thing to do, and that it will be some safeguard against the possibility of an outbreak of public opposition to what he does without a satisfactory parliamentary means of checking the plans that the Minister has it in mind to carry out. I beg to move.

Lord Mancroft

I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, on a splendid achievement with which I totally disagree. Only he could use the dinner interval, about which he has quite improperly complained, to deliver, on a very minor amendment on a very minor Bill, a major essay on constitutional behaviour and delegated legislation.

On the Second Reading of this Bill I ventured to address a few words to your Lordships on the difficulty we had had over the years in the arts, in our national museums and in the municipal and private museums, in lending and exchanging pictures owing to the tight way in which the trust deeds had been drawn. Now I am glad to find that there has been a considerable relaxation in these rules, and we can do it in a very much more liberal way.

I yield to none—certainly not the noble Lord—in my respect for Somerset House and my hope that it will be properly and decently administered. I am sure it will be. But what we are doing here, if we accept the noble Lord's amendment, is to go back to exactly what I was complaining about on Second Reading. We shall fetter the power of the curator, the executors and trustees of the museum, when it is constitutionally set up, and tie them down to a lot of pettifogging regulations which I am certain will creep in if we are not very careful.

If they are thinking of setting up a three-ring circus in Somerset House, I shall he the first to join the noble Lord in complaining. But if we are going to restrict the powers of the authorities who run the place by a large number of regulations which are bound to creep in under the amendment, he is doing what he does not want to do. He will make the place unusable for what we all want to use it. It will then become a draftsman's nightmare or a draftsman's dream of pleasure by restricting it to its improper use. I see that several other amendments do the same thing. They tie the Secretary of State's hands quite unnecessarily. He is going to go mad, when we have the means of putting him sane again. I do not think this is the right way to do it. I hope that the Government will not give a very kindly reception to the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

I agree with my noble friend and I disagree with what the noble Lord opposite has just said. It seems to me that the Secretary of State's hands ought to be tied, considering the things they get up to when they are untied. So far as my noble friend's amendment is concerned, all that it seeks to do is something which is very customary; that is, give a general authority in the legislation and to seek that when a specific proposal is carried out it has to have the approval of Parliament before any detailed action is taken. That is a very customary and reasonable thing, I should have thought. It is applied in many Bills and I see no reason why it should not apply in this one.

However, the reason I rise to support my noble friend is not only for that alone but because the next amendment is mine and I wanted to tell the noble Lord the Minister that, if he felt able to accept my noble friend's amendment, then, so far as my amendment is concerned, I should be happy with an assurance from him and would not wish to press my amendment any further. To an extent, at any rate, all that I seek to do under this amendment I think could be achieved at the stage when the statutory instrument is brought forward. I thought it would be as well for me to give the noble Lord the Minister that assurance before he replies to my noble friend.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am always grateful for offers as beautifully presented as the offer just made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. Unfortunately, I cannot concede his wish because I do not intend to accept this amendment, for very good reasons. Before I start on what I want to say about this amendment, I am already confused. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in his eloquent although somewhat lengthy speech introducing his amendment, did not speak to Amendment No. 1 at all. I did not hear a single word fall from his lips on the subject of statutory instruments, whatever that might mean. We can hardly go backwards. If the noble Lord would be good enough to speak briefly to his first amendment, I will answer both of them together, if that is his wish.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I thought that this was almost common form. There are various ways whereby Ministers can lay proposals before Parliament. It can be done by regulation, it can be done by statutory instrument, in certain circumstances it can be done by orders-in-council. I did not think there was any difficulty about this. It was just that the Bill allows the Minister to do what he likes and this amendment asks the Minister to lay his proposals before the House in suitable parliamentary form. Perhaps I may now comment on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. It was not my intention that one should produce a schedule with his main proposals something like the charter of the BBC. Not at all. I had in mind that what would be laid before Parliament was the broad framework of what it was proposed to do with the whole, or part, or that part it was wanted to lease, of Somerset House; to whom it would go; what sort of lease was in mind, and what the general covenants would be regarding the purposes for which the building should be used. That seems to me to be the way of doing it. Of course, it may be that the Minister will adopt another alternative; perhaps a statement to the House when something could be commented upon.

I am merely seeking to get rid of these peremptory few words, "as he thinks fit". I do not think that any Minister should be allowed to do what "he thinks fit" with Somerset House, subject only to the very general restraints put on him later in the Bill, which are to have regard to the architectural importance of the building and the desirability of maintaining the right of access of the public to the quadrangle. That is all to which the Minister is required to pay regard in discharging his authority "as he thinks fit". Surely the Minister can put this in suitable parliamentary form. A statutory instrument, I understood, was a statutory instrument—especially if one has capital letters in it. The noble Lord may know better. He may have some alternative suggestion. Or he may say that there is no such thing. I should like to hear what the noble Lord has to say.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

At least I know where I stand. I fully understand the basic purpose of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in his two amendments, which is to express real concern behind the fears that he has expressed of what might happen to a somewhat mythical, I assume, Secretary of State in the future. But I do not believe that there is sufficient justification for the Bill to be amended in the way that he suggests. I say this for two reasons. First, the Bill already requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the architectural importance of the building and I believe that any Secretary of State, whether he comes from a dizzy height or whether he comes from the "Taffia", as the noble Lord suggested, will weigh this consideration most carefully when considering a lease.

Secondly, I believe that the practical problems will prevent any letting to an undesirable tenant. The remainder of Somerset House, other than the North Wing. is occupied by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Inland Revenue. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary has already assured Ministers of those two departments that no lettings other than that now proposed to the University of London will be granted in Somerset House without prior consultation with them. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have something to say about a proposed letting which was not in accordance with the spirit of the Bill.

Looked at from a legal point of view, the proposal to grant a lease by statutory instrument—which is the effect of the noble Lord's first amendment—is, to say the least, a curious one. First of all, a lease and a statutory instrument are mutually incompatible. A lease depends on agreement and has to be made in a particular form, a deed, and executed by the parties that enter into that lease. A statutory instrument, on the other hand, in the present case would have to be a unilateral act of the Secretary of State for the Environment. A statutory instrument could not be made jointly with the lessee: and. although the lessee might agree to the making of the instrument, the lessee's agreement would be irrelevant because nothing would depend upon it.

In other words, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is actually promoting the opposite effect to what he intends. The statutory instrument, if it were made, would give more power to the Secretary of State, rather than less. Moreover, a statutory instrument could not, I think, be made in the form of a deed. Thus, the notion of a lease granted by statutory instrument involves incompatible concepts and the proposed amendment is, if I may with great respect say so, rather pointless since it only provides for the form in which a lease is granted—that is, by statutory instrument—and is silent about the application of the instrument to any parliamentary procedure. No advantage can be gained from merely making a lease in the form of a statutory instrument which, at the end of the day, is a piece of paper which "gets laid on the Table".

So far as the second amendment goes, the Committee will realise that the incompatible natures of a lease and a statutory instrument, of which I have just spoken—the one requiring agreement between the parties and the other a unilateral act by the Secretary of State—do not make this amendment a necessary consequence of a change in line 6 of the Bill. The existing words, "as he thinks fit", to which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, takes such exception, merely empower the Secretary of State to grant a lease for such a period as, as we know, he thinks fit. They do not enable him to impose, for example, a particular period, a particular potential lessee, any more than he is enabled to impose a lease at the moment.

Given that what is involved is a mere power—and I am not being derogatory to the noble Lord, I assure him—the period of any lease must necessarily be such period as is determined between the parties. Thus, on the assumption that the proposed amendment implies determination between the parties. although this does not necessarily appear from the wording of the noble Lord's amendment, the amendment achieves nothing that is not already achieved by the existing wording of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, mentioned the calling to account of Secretaries of State. With his long experience of the parliamentary process—much longer than mine—he knows full well how he can do this in the form of questions or debates or, if necessary. by real condemnation, which can be expressed slightly more lightly, I agree, in this House but much more strongly in another place. I should have thought that was a much more effective way of seeking to achieve what the noble Lord intends rather than what is suggested in these two amendments. In this connection I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Mancroft, who put the point rather more briefly than I have been able to do.

Baroness Birk

I think it is quite clear what my noble friend Lord Houghton was trying to do, although, as the Minister has said, it may well be that the draftsmanship is not perfect. But what I am concerned about here, as I believe my noble friend is too, is the question of how the lease will be finally worked out. I can see the problems that have been raised by the Minister; but listening to what has been said, I was struck by the fact that we have a unique situation with Somerset House. It is quite different, for example, from the British Museum, the National Gallery or the Tate. Here the Secretary of State will grant a lease and it is under the guardianship of the Department of the Environment, although in fact it is a public building which really belongs to the nation.

I am concerned about this. I do not say necessarily that the wording is correct, but what my noble friend and I have in common is that we should like to know that there is a procedure which, without jeopardising a lease which would be good for Somerset House, would enable it to be used in the way that we want it to be, which is the idea put forward at the moment by the Courtauld Institute—thatis, the idea behind this enabling Bill. At the same time, we do not want the Bill to become the means of allowing some other form of lease which we might find incompatible with the building, and the terms of which might be worrying. I am afraid I shall be repeating all this when I move my own amendment: namely, the question of what rent will be asked. It is not really a commercial proposition at all, and I am rather worried on that point. I see the Minister's argument about asking questions; but at what point do you know it is right to ask the question? Unless some statement is made that the lease has been negotiated, no one will be able to ask a question. I think we are in new territory here.

As to the second amendment, I think this may well be more a matter of semantics. I confess that I find the words "he thinks fit" rather a harsh and abrasive phrase, and although it may be argued that the words "as appropriate" may not have the same meaning, they come over as being rather better than the wording that is there.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. So far as the drafting goes. I am perfectly prepared to take this matter back and look at it again, because I can see that if the two sets of words do not mean anything different to the draftsman or—heaven forbid!—in future to a court, then perhaps the rather softer wording might be appropriate. I am prepared to look at that.

Regarding the noble Baroness's substantive point, I would say that it is not really appropriate for Parliament to get involved in the details of a lease. But I agree that it is absolutely appropriate for the Secretary of State, having entered into a lease on one side, to be questioned about what he has done. I do not think it is an appropriate way, as I said, for the Secretary of State to announce that he has entered into a lease by means of a statutory instrument: but I have absolutely no doubt that when a lease is arranged it will be quite possible, if that were to be the pressing desire of Parliament at the time, to have a debate or, as I said earlier, to address some pretty searching questions to Ministers in the Department. The noble Baroness—

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I think the point is: how is Parliament to know that this lease is going to be entered into?

Lord Skelmersdale

I was just coming to that: I saw the frown on the noble Baroness's face and I interpreted the signs. How is Parliament to know that this is going to happen? Quite honestly, I am not in a position to answer that at the moment, but I should have thought it was perfectly proper for a Secretary of State—as he does all the time—to announce such a decision to Parliament by means of Written Answer. I will certainly investigate that possibility.

Baroness Birk

How will one know when to ask the Question?

A noble Lord

You get tipped off.

Lord Skelmersdale

I do not think I am supposed to refer to that; but the noble Baroness, I am sure, knows perfectly well how the Secretary of State would deal with such a situation.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I hope noble Lords do not think that I am being unnecessarily concerned about this matter, but may I be permitted to read to the noble Lord the announcement that the Board of Inland Revenue have made to the staff? Then I think we shall see the full significance of it from their point of view. I read: Somerset House: Members of staff may be interested to know that the Government have introduced a Bill to enable any part of Somerset House to be leased for purposes other than that of Government offices. The Minister (Lord Skelmersdale) explained that the primary purpose of the Bill was to allow the Fine Rooms (formerly occupied by the Registrar General) to be leased to the Courtauld Institute. He also said that a proposal that King's College should expand into all or part of the areas currently occupied by Government departments was being discussed, that this raised major practical and financial difficulty, and that the Bill should not be seen as prejudging in any way the outcome of that study.". That is not of course different from the way in which the noble Lord the Minister explained it to the House on Second Reading, but it is a potted version of the whole proposition: and when you consider that it is clear that under the cover of this Bill what is being discussed with the university authorities—that is, to lease the whole of Somerset House at present occupied by Government offices to King's College—is no minor transfer of the occupation of one of the primary historic buildings of London. This is what I am after. I know that Sir Norman Price, in his history of Somerset House, says "There is everything wrong with Somerset House, but we would be very sorry to leave it". I am not really wedded to that sentimental view, but I am certainly concerned about who may occupy all or part of the considerable accommodation which is now occupied by Government offices, and I am trying to find some way of requiring the Minister to notice the importance of this in his relations with Parliament.

If he is given this authority under an Act of Parliament on a matter of this interest and concern to people, I suggest that some way should be found whereby he has to report to Parliament what he is doing or has done. The Order Paper contains a whole schedule of documents which are laid before Parliament in accordance with statutory requirements, and I should have thought that, at the very least, the Act, as it will be, could require the Minister to report to Parliament and to lay before Parliament a copy of the lease or any suitable summary of its conditions for parliamentary information.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, raised a vital point. How are we to know? Indeed, in sonic circumstances the Minister might say "It is confidential. I do not disclose the contents of leases, because the rent and other things are in them which might be a hit explosive and should not be disclosed." Anyhow, in view of what the Minister has said, and in view of the difficulty that we have in dealing with this matter further on our feet, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, and I express the hope that at a later stage of the Bill further thoughts on both sides might lead us to a suitable accommodation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

8.2 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney moved Amendment No. 3: Page line 7, at end insert ("but no lease shall be granted which would permit the Fine Rooms to be used as a Theatre Museum or for a permanent exhibition of the works of a single artist").

The noble Lord said: The noble Lord the Minister may well tell me that there is no intention at all of providing that such a use as I seek to prevent shall take place, in which case he will have no difficulty in accepting the amendment, because, if there is no intention to do what I seek to prevent, it does not matter whether it goes into the Bill. If, on the other hand, he feels that there is a possibility that at some stage the Fine Rooms may be used for one of these two purposes, then I should want to press my amendment, because I have some history in this matter which, if your Lordships will permit me, I shall recount, not in enormous detail but to explain to your Lordships why it is that I seek to prevent these two purposes from taking place.

When I became Minister for the Arts in the spring of 1974, I found that plans to use the Fine Rooms of Somerset House as a theatre museum were far advanced. As I have said in a book which I wrote, called The Culture Gap, a copy of which maybe found in the Library—I am not suggesting that your Lordships should buy it—I found the rooms truly splendid but quite unsuitable for any museum, and there was no accommodation for the proposed theatre museum or any other educational or academic development.

I therefore decided that, if I could do so and if the scheme was not too far advanced, I would prevent the use of Somerset House as a theatre museum. But, of course, I first had to find alternative accommodation for the theatre museum, because I was even more anxious that the theatre museum should be built. For that reason, I eventually discovered the possibility of Covent Garden, discussed that with the GLC, got an agreement on those lines and with tremendous co-operation from Tony Crosland, who was Secretary of State for the Environment at that time, and who was himself opposed to the idea of there being a theatre museum in Somerset House, the proposal was knocked on the head. The Covent Garden proposal, which, even when I wrote this book several years ago, I said was taking an unconscionable time in bringing forward a development, is still taking an unconscionable time. But the proposal for using Somerset House for the quite unsuitable purpose of a theatre museum was avoided.

The full story is rather like "Yes, Minister", because my own civil servants were passionately wanting to use it for a theatre museum, whereas the civil servants in the Department of the Environment were passionately against it. On that occasion, the comedy of the situation was in the fact that two groups of civil servants warred against one another. The only quarrel I have with "Yes, Minister" is that the differences of opinion are usually said to arise from personal advantage—the personal advantage of the Minister or the personal advantage of the civil servants. In fact, they usually arise from passionately held differences of opinion on how the public interest is best served. Those are the differences which arise and they are the result of quarrels between civil servants or quarrels between Ministers. This is the real nub and a series along those lines might be equally interesting, more accurate and possibly quite as funny. However, I must not allow myself to stray too far along that path in moving this amendment.

I have tried to make it clear to the noble Lord that, as I think he is already fully aware, there was at one time a proposal to use Somerset House as a theatre museum—a purpose for which the Fine Rooms are totally unsuited. The Fine Rooms are a work of art in themselves, and the purpose for which they would be best used is to display fine furniture appropriate to the rooms, and they should not be converted for a purpose for which they are entirely unsuited. Neither do I think, as was also proposed at one time, that it would be a good idea for these rooms to be used as a permanent exhibition of the works of any single artist, even if it be one as splendid as Turner. To my mind, this would again be an unsuitable use for the Fine Rooms.

For these resons, I seek in this amendment to prevent either of these two uses coming about. I am quite sure that there is no such immediate intention, and it may be that the noble Lord in replying will be able to give me such a firm assurance that it will not be necessary for me to press the matter further. Nevertheless, I think it is desirable that the subject should be aired, because there have been proposals at various times to use these great rooms for purposes which, as I have said, would not be suitable for them and it is my hope that the lease which is now currently proposed will have the effect of making sure that the rooms are used for a purpose which matches their own splendour. I beg to move.

Baroness Birk

May I say—?

Lord Mancroft

Will the noble Baroness allow someone on this side to get in a word for a brief moment? When I first saw this amendment on the Marshalled List, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, was getting dangerously near to a good point when he referred to an exhibition of the works of a single artist. I happen to share his point of view, though for a different reason. If you look at the Piper exhibition today, you find that after a while you become glutted, you become sated, with the works of one artist. So it was with the Constable exhibition and so it was with the Crome exhibition at the Tate a few years ago. I say that against my own interests, because three of my own pictures were on exhibition there.

When I saw those words on the Marshalled List, I thought that that was what the noble Lord was getting at, but now I do not think he is. What he is getting at is the same as what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, was getting at earlier. They are trying to put into this Bill minor details of administrative restriction on the Minister, which I believe are quite unsuitable for this Bill. The noble Lord may well be right; I am not arguing with him. All I am saying is that this Bill is not the right place to impose tiny administrative restrictions on the Minister, which would be quite unsuitable. I am not arguing about the merits of his points, only with what he is trying to do. I hope that the Minister will see fit to agree with me.

Baroness Birk

Again I imagine that the Minister will tell us that this amendment is unnecessary: that there is no question of the Fine Rooms being used as a theatre museum at any time in the foreseeable or even the unforeseeable future. That point was settled many years ago. To go down the road of nostalgia, perhaps I could remind my noble friend that in October 1974 I was the Minister at the Department of the Environment who was responsible for Somerset House. When it was suggested that Somerset House should house the Theatre Museum, it became clear immediately that it was totally unsuitable for such a project. All the Minister needs to do is to say that Somerset House could not be used for this purpose. In any case, we have found another site for the Theatre Museum.

Turning to the use of the Fine Rooms for the permanent exhibition of works by a single artist, that is a matter of subjective judgment. I did everything I could to get the Turner Bequest housed there. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, (although this is water under the bridge now) that the range of Turner's paintings is so wide that I do not believe he would have the same objection to the Turner Bequest being housed in Somerset House as he would to Piper's paintings.

Lord Mancroft

I agree with the noble Baroness.

Baroness Birk

I was deeply disappointed that the Turner Bequest did not go to Somerset House but, as I say, that is water under the bridge. There is now no possibility of either of those two things happening.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

I should like to apologise to the noble Baroness for the fact that in the interests of brevity I failed to pay tribute to the notable part she played in these proceedings a few years ago.

Lord Skelmersdale

For once, I am well briefed on this amendment. I am very well aware of the roles which both Members of the Committee played in this very lengthy but absorbing subject over a considerable period of years.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, and other Members of the Committee spoke about the satiation of the viewing public. I agree. But is that the only purpose for which people will go in the future, if the Bill becomes an Act, to Somerset House? I would suggest that people go many times to all kinds of important buildings in this country. For example, noble Lords may be members of the National Trust. They may have been to Chatsworthon many occasions. I can assure noble Lords that, although no great changes take place in most country houses, people visit them more than once.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, asked for two assurances, which I am delighted to give. The future location of the Theatre Museum, at present housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, has until recently been subject to uncertainty. It is now to be housed in the Old Flower Market beneath the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden. This area has been leased by the department from the Greater London Council for 42 years, with an agreed use as a theatre museum for the first 20 years and, during the remainder of the term, as a theatre museum or any other museum or art gallery. Before I am interrupted and asked what will be the effect if Parliament, in its wisdom, decides to pass the Bill on the restructuring of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan counties, let me say that that will make absolutely no difference to what I have just stated.

The Fine Rooms were, as we have heard, once suggested as a possible home for the Turner Collection. This is now to be housed in an additional wing of the Tate Gallery which is already under construction.

While I applaud the wish of noble Lords to ensure that the number of people who see Somerset House does not decline, I am not convinced that their fears are well founded. I do not believe that there is any firm evidence to show that a permanent exhibition causes the number of visitors to dwindle. If the noble Lord has any firm, scientific evidence, I should be delighted to look at it and probably to revise my opinion. But surely those whose prime interest is in the building rather than in the exhibition would come anyway.

The Government are not convinced that there are reasonable grounds for concern on either of these counts. Furthermore, any steps which would, as my noble friend Lord Mancroft suggested, restrict the options open to the Government at the end of a lease elsewhere could well have adverse consequential effects financially.

For these reasons, again I regret that I do not believe that these amendments are appropriate to this Bill.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, as I understand it, the noble Lord the Minister is not saying that he does not like the amendment because it seeks to prevent something happening which is going to happen. He does not like the amendment because it seeks to prevent something happening which is not going to happen anyway. Would I be correct in reading the Minister's view along those lines? If I am—and the Minister has nodded vigorously—I can take it as sufficient assurance to enable me to withdraw the amendment, which, without further ado, I now seek the leave of your Lordships to do.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.16 p.m.

Baroness Birk moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 7, at end insert— ("Provided that the lease for that part of Somerset House known as the North Block shall not be less than 125 years.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 4 I should also like to speak to Amendment No. 5: Page 1, line 7, at end insert— ("Provided that the lease for that part of Somerset House known as the North Block shall not be less than 99 years.").

During the Second Reading of the Bill we had a quite lengthy discussion about the terms of the lease. At that time we understood that the lease was going to be for a maximum of 50 or 60 years. The lease is being negotiated by the University of London and the Department of the Environment. I emphasised very strongly during Second Reading that it would be extremely difficult for the Courtauld Institute to raise the funds for which it is appealing if it had to go to potential benefactors, most of whom would be asked to give very large sums of money, if there could be no certainty about the future. Noble Lords will remember that about £1 million are needed for the Fine Rooms in order to make them viable and safe. An additional sum of £4 million is needed to deal with the rest of the North Block, if the institute is to use it as its school and for office and other purposes. At Second Reading the Minister acknowledged that to go with a prospectus like this to potential benefactors in order to raise this sum of money would be extremely difficult.

I am aware that this is an enabling Bill and that therefore the way in which the amendments are drafted would not fit very happily into it. However, I should like the Minister to confirm that a very much longer lease will receive the approval of the department. I put down the two amendments as alternatives—a lease of 125 years or a lease of 99 years. The 125 years lease is taken from the National Gallery's Hampton's site. A lease of 99 years is usually given. I wanted the lease to be for about that period. However, I have received a letter from the Minister, for which I am very grateful, which resolves that point. The suggestion is that there could be a lease of 100 years, with a mutual break point at mid-term. It would mean that either side could break the lease at mid term. This may be in the interests at that time of the Courtauld Institute, or in the interests of the department. It is essential that we should at this stage have confirmation well spelt out by the noble Lord, so that it is on record that there will be a lease given to the University of London, which will then go to the Courtauld Institute, for that length of time.

We have to remember that we are dealing with something that is not a commercial proposition. Somerset House really belongs to the state and it is within the guardianship of the Department of the Environment. When negotiating the lease and the rent for the lease—which I understand is being done at this time—that is a point which should be carefully remembered. Somerset House is part of our national heritage. It is an outrage that it has remained unused for so long. Not only is it visually and artistically an outrage, but there is the matter of expense: when places are left in that way, so the cost of repairs, alterations and decoration increases all the time. It will be very expensive for the Courtauld Institute to carry out the work that is needed, first in the Fine Rooms and then in the North Block.

There are two points I should like to make here. First, on the question of rent, I understand that only a peppercorn rent is to be charged for the first 20 years, with a reduced rent thereafter up to 50 years. We do not know what the market rent is meant to be and we do not know what the reduced rent is likely to be. If the noble Lord can help us with that aspect tonight, it will be extremely useful. I certainly hope that it will be a nominal rent, because the place will be used as a gallery. Like any of the museums, the Courtauld Institute will be putting in costly work and therefore the value of the property will be increased. There is no point in fixing a rent which makes it impossible for the institute to operate there or to carry out the work it has to do.

If all this falls through, we shall be back to the awful stage about which my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney and myself feel so strongly; that Somerset House—a beautiful place in a prime position—will not be used for the purposes for which it could so happily be used, as a gallery for furniture and pictures. If the institute was not able to put the Seilern Collection in there, as well as its own impressionists and post impressionists, it would be a terrible waste for everyone.

Secondly, I believe that the institute will find it very hard in these times to raise even the first £ I million for the Fine Rooms. That will require help from the Government. We are all aware of the problems in public expenditure and of the squeeze that is going on with the economic situation, but I would press the noble Lord to take up with his honourable and right honourable friends the suggestion that the Government should help on a £1 for £1 basis.

When, some years ago, the British Museum wanted to open the Egyptian sculpture gallery, it was at the time when I was the Minister responsible at the Department of the Environment. I was able to arrange a £1 for £1 scheme, which worked extremely well. For every £1 that was put in by private donors or public benefactors, the Government put in £1. So for many years we have had a beautiful gallery which either would not be there or which could have taken so much longer to build and refurbish that the cost would have increased enormously. I do not see how this project can come to fruition unless there is some input of Government money. It seems to me that the fairest, best and most productive way is through a £1 for £1 scheme.

I hope that when the noble Lord replies, he will confirm that which I have quoted him as saying about the lease, and that he will also undertake to put forward the views I have expressed about the rent for parts of the building. I hope he will undertake also to press very hard indeed for a Government contribution; either in the form of a straight contribution or what I think is a better arrangement—something on the lines of £1 for £1 basis. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

The noble Baroness spoke eloquently at Second Reading about the need for a longer lease to the University of London of the North Block of Somerset House for use by the Courtauld Institute. The answer I gave at the time—and I do not want to repeat it now—bore almost immediate fruit. A letter came whistling into the department from the University of London taking up my suggestion that if they wanted it we could, of course, have discussions about the matter. I confirm that readily this evening. But it should be remembered, when considering leases for parts of Somerset House, that we are dealing with a building that is already old. It cannot be considered in the same light as, say, the Hampton's site to which the noble Baroness referred, where a lease of 125 years has been agreed—but for the erection of a new building. That is quite a different kettle of fish from Somerset House which, as we all know, is a building that is already venerable.

In the case of such a building, many factors have to be weighed in the balance, based on the professional advice that is available to both sides. It would be wrong, therefore, to transfer those negotiations to the Chamber or to prejudice them in any way. Further to the negotiations which have now started on the possibility of a longer lease, I have absolutely no doubt that agreement will be reached—but not, I regret, before the Bill leaves this House. If for no other reason, that is because until we have the Bill on the statute book, my right honourable friend will not be able to sign any lease at all for any part of the building—let alone the North Block.

As far as rents are concerned, I can confirm that the rent in the lease will reflect the original state of the building as it stands today before any money is spent upon it. As far as a £1 for £1 scheme goes—and, as the noble Baroness knows, life has moved on since the heady days when she was speaking from this Dispatch Box for the Department for which I now speak—I am afraid that such a scheme would not be possible in the current climate. However, I should be somewhat surprised if pump priming money was not readily forthcoming from the Government; although, as I expect I said on Second Reading—although I cannot recall it immediately—I do not see that as being an enormous sum of money.

As the Committee will acknowledge, I have taken note of the view so forcibly expressed by the noble Baroness, and of others to which I have just referred. Negotiations on this point will continue and I am quite confident that agreement not only can be reached but will be reached on a longer term which will satisfy the requirements of both parties and the potential donors with which I know the noble Baroness is concerned. I hope that in view of the assurances I have been able to give, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley—who, so far, has been silent on this point—will feel able to withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Birk

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for his reply. I have just two points. The noble Lord kept repeating that it would all work out and that everybody will be happy all round. But he was very careful not to mention any figure at all. I wanted to hear him confirm—and I do not see why he should not, because it is written down—that a lease in the region of 100 years will be acceptable. I think that is what I needed and I wanted to have that on record because this is what the whole discussion was about on Second Reading and what the noble Lord took back; he has been extremely helpful about the whole matter and done a great deal of work behind the scenes since then. I think it is important for the institute, certainly so far as its appeal is concerned, because it feels very strongly that a lease of 100 years or over is going to be of great benefit. If that is what is in mind, as I understand it is, I cannot see any reason why the noble Lord should not say that.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Yes, 100 years is in mind, but I cannot say at this point in time what will be actually incorporated in the lease. One thing we cannot do across the Dispatch Box is to negotiate a lease which is still only at heads of agreement stage.

Baroness Birk

That is perfectly acceptable. I under stand, of course, that we cannot negotiate across Dispatch Boxes. The noble Lord has said, as I hoped he would, that in the region of 100 years would be acceptable.

On the point of £1 for £1, the noble Lord said it is not the heady days. Let me assure him, as he is younger and much newer to this, that he does not realise that the days are never heady when you are fighting for money for the arts; it does not matter which Government are in power, you are always fighting very hard all the time. It was not an easy thing, as my noble friend and I both know from our different experiences, to get this through, and times were hard then. Times are always hard when you want money for the arts—always, always.

I hope the noble Lord is not going to give up as readily as he unfortunately appears to be doing. The £1 for £l is a very good incentive and a way of getting the sort of money the Government are always preaching about and proposing, getting private and business sponsorship. It is one of the best ways of doing it. I can recall The Times through Sir Denis Hamilton playing such a big part in helping to promote this on the British Museum side when I was doing it from the Government side. So I do not think it should be dismissed in that way. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

8.33 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby moved Amendment No. 6: Page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (3) and insert: (" ( ) Any lease granted under this section of any part of Somerset House shall be restricted to bodies or institutions not engaged in commercial enterprise for profit, and shall have regard to

  1. (i) the architectural and historical importance of the building;
  2. (ii) the need to preserve public access to its courtyard; and
  3. (iii) the retention on its present site in the courtyard of the War Memorial to Officers and other ranks of the Civil Service Rifles (15 London Regiment). ").

The noble Lord said: I do not think that in a matter of this importance it is reasonable for the Minister to go from having his hands completely tied to a completely free hand. I think that some conditions should be laid down so that he can be guided in what he does by the wish of Parliament. The Bill itself stipulates that the Minister must have regard to the architectural importance of the building and the desirability of preserving public access to its courtyard. Amendment No. 6 proposes to tighten those conditions up a little.

The first thing I propose to do is to exclude the possibility of leasing any part of Somerset House on a commercial lease, or (shall I say?) a lease to commercial enterprises run for profit. On the Second Reading the noble Lord the Minister and I had a few exchanges about the possible partnerships which might find their way into Somerset House if the Minister had a free hand to let all comers seek accommodation there, at no doubt a suitable rent.

As a matter of fact, the Inland Revenue itself has had some curious partnerships in its time without going outside for them. We had for example, the Canny and Spry partnership, the chairman of the board, Sir Gerald Canny, and the deputy, Mr. Gordon Spry. That was a constant source of amusement in Punch for a very long time. Then we had Gregg and Grigg, Sir James Grigg and Sir Cornelius Gregg, another partnership which excited considerable amusement. I do not want to see commercial or professional partnerships in Somerset House.

In paragraph (i) we still have to have regard to the architectural importance of the building but I suggest the Minister should have regard to the historical importance too. It may be somewhat redundant to talk about the historical importance when you have to have regard to the architectural importance, but there is a history to Somerset House quite apart from its architecture.

The second thing is the need to preserve—not the desirability: the need to preserve—public access to its courtyard. Thirdly, I come to the war memorial. The noble Lord, Lord Holderness, as honorary colonel of the Royal Greenjackets took over responsibility for the Civil Service Rifles, and he has expressed agreement with what I was proposing and sadness that he was not here to support me. If there is to he freedom to move the war memorial, that means that something very drastic and dramatic is to be done with the courtyard; and that. I think, would raise considerations of considerable public interest.

As a member of the Civil Service Rifles myself in the First World War and a colleague of many young men of my generation who died and whose names are there, I feel deeply that nobody within the period of future memory and recollection should move that war memorial from its present site. It is an annual pilgrimage for those who remember and those who share the sorrow of those who cannot forget. So I hope that this condition will be agreed to.

If the Minister feels unable to do it. then I shall beg leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment, and reintroduce it and test the feeling of the whole House on another occasion, when I hope we shall not be inhibited by the conditions under which we are discussing this Bill in Committee at this moment. I am quite adamant about this, and I propose, if need be, on a more suitable occasion to make an issue of it. I think I am being reasonable about this. I think also that I am right in saying that Somerset House is not just another Government office; it never has been. It has produced in its time a special and exceptional breed of civil servants known as "the Revenue men", and many of our notable figures in politics and in public life served there.

It may be thought that this is sentiment in modern times where one can bulldoze buildings and put up an iron framework building that is filled with glass in its place, or anything that you like. But I think there is still room in the rat race for some regard to the history and the sentiment in our lives and experience. What else is there to live for, unless some respect can be paid to those who have come through life and endured much for the nation, not only in war but in peace?

Therefore, I feel that it is not tying the hands of the Minister unnecessarily. He is not being tied down to detail by what I propose. He is asked to "have regard to". If he is answerable at any time to Parliament on what he does he must satisfy Parliament that he has had "regard to". If he is emphatic about that, it is very difficult for Parliament to say that he has not had "regard to". It is difficult for Parliament to call a Minister liar and one must accept it in good faith if he says so. But at least he must "have regard" to certain considerations. If any Minister is to tell me that these considerations are unreasonable. I must strongly deny it. I sincerely hope, therefore, that the Minister will accept these additions to the conditions already in the Bill and leave the Secretary of State, in exercising his discretion, to have due regard to the items included in my amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Mancroft

I am a little worried about the noble Lord's strictures against commercial enterprise. Of course we do not want Somerset House used for any length of time for unsuitable commercial enterprises. I mentioned the three-ring circus a few moments ago. Obviously, that would be totally obnoxious to all of us. However, the Venetian exhibition at Burlington House which we are all now admiring so much is commercially sponsored. The Banqueting Hall is one of the finest and the first Palladian buildings built in this country. It is used for social and, occasionally, for commercial purposes. So are the City Halls, and I believe, the Guildhall and even the Mansion House. With proper control and for proper commercial purposes, and very well looked after, I do not see any harm in this at all. I am not certain whether the noble Lord is restricting the use of Somerset House to exclude long leases or whether he is objecting to Somerset House being used from time to time for commercial purposes. In the case of the latter, I should be unhappy.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I was dealing with long leases, not the use of the building on occasions, of the kind the noble Lord just mentioned with other buildings. I am concerned with long leases and, as I said earlier, a lease that would run for a generation.

Lord Mancroft

I am glad to have the noble Lord's reassurance. That was my point.

Lord Skelmersdale

I believe there is a Noel Coward song in which there is the line: He opened up the caviar and said, 'Good God, Alice is at it again.' The speech we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby reminded me of that.

He seeks to limit prospective lessees to non commercial bodies. However, the line between non commercial and commercial is very fine. As drafted. his amendment would prohibit a lease to a body or institution that engaged in any kind of commercial activity for profit, regardless of whether that body or institution is, as a whole, commercial in character and conducted with a view to profit. This restriction could therefore, exclude leasing the North Wing to the Courtauld Institute if it sells, for example, guidebooks at a price which ensures a profit on the cost of the books, I am sure that is not the noble Lord's intention.

Only last month, your Lordships debated the subject of the arts. That debate illustrated the many and various ways in which our major artistic institutions are funded. As my noble friend Lord Mancroft just said, there is an increasing rôle in which commercial activity is involved in the search for funds for our various artistic organisations.

The noble Lord also wants the Secretary of State to have regard to the historical importance of the building. While the building clearly is historic, and no one doubts that, many of the connections which he mentioned on Second Reading—for example, Cromwell's lying in state—relate to the site and the previous building on it rather than to the present building. In my view, the historic interest of the present building is identical to its architectural interest: it is an example of a late 18th century public building, and more especially of the work of Sir William Chambers, its architect. It follows that the insertion of the word "historical" is unnecessary.

Moreover, this word could cause trouble in the future. Indeed, had it been there in the past it would also have caused trouble. Would the noble Lord have us do nothing to the building because of its historical importance? I am sure that in his capacity of representative of the staff who worked there in days past he was active in seeking improvements to the physical conditions in which they worked. Would he stop the clock now, leaving many of the staff in the old-fashioned quarters that I have recently seen for myself? Surely not.

Finally, the noble Lord seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State should pay specific regard to the war memorial to the Civil Service Rifles. This regiment had a distinguished record of service in the Great War and it is entirely fitting that the memorial should be situated in the courtyard of the first purpose-built Government office building. I can assure the House that there has been no thought of moving it, nor will there be. It is now a well-established feature of the courtyard. Since the Government are committed to the preservation of Somerset House, including its courtyards, in its entirety, it seems unnecessary to single out this or any other feature for special mention in the Bill. In my view, and in the view of the department, the war memorial is as much a part of Somerset House as are the Fine Rooms.

The noble Lord started his speech with the most amazing suggestion that 1, as a part of the usual channels and as a representative from time to time of my noble friend the Leader of the House, was treating the House discourteously in the way that I have been conducting the Bill and the way that the usual channels have arranged for its insertion in the Parliamentary timetable. I can assure the noble Lord that if he is unhappy with the remarks I have just made on his amendment he is at perfect liberty to divide the Committee, if that is his intention.

Baroness Birk

May I say a word before we come to dividing the Committee and other drastic steps? It seems to me that my noble friend has some points in his amendment. He has made it quite clear in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that he is referring to long leases for commercial purpose. I feel that he is right about that, unless it got to the point where it was impossible to find another lessee. For example, the Government Bill does protect the Fine Rooms and requires their use for artistic or cultural purposes. But when it goes on: In determining whether, and on what terms, to lease any part of Somerset House", that seems much more open and I should not like to feel that the Courtauld Institute, which is itself far from being a commercial organisation and is trying its hardest to raise money to move into the place, even when it has the lease, was in competition with commercial bodies which would find it much easier to pay a higher rent. That is a worry.

Moreover, I like the addition of the words "and historical importance". I can see no reason why those words should not go in if we all feel happier. I prefer the word "need" to the "desirability" of preserving public access. The word "need" is much more positive and leaves the Bill less open to query than the word "desirability".

The Minister said that it was quite clear that there will be a further stage on this Bill. He has already said that he will take back the words "he thinks fit" to see whether he can deal with those. If he can take back these other points to see what can be done, probably my noble friend and the rest of us will be satisfied for the moment.

Lord Skelmersdale

There was a sting in the tail of that remark. The noble Baroness refers to desirability. What is desirable at the present time—in other words, concerning the lease that we are discussing; or, rather, that we are trying hard not to discuss but have ended up discussing—may very well not be desirable in 50 or 100 years' time. As the noble Baroness knows full well, this is an enabling Bill. I remind her that on another Bill we discussed recently she became fairly irate, practically thumped the Dispatch Box—it was certainly in her mind, even if the action did not flow from her hand—and said, "My Lords, we are discussing the Bill that is before us tonight". Noble Lords will remember that that was the Bill of my noble friend Lord Vaizey.

Even the Courtauld Institute has commercial aspects. For example, very naturally it would want to sell catalogues of a particular exhibition that it was putting on, or perhaps a coffee-table book on one of the artists in the collection that it was exhibiting. In that case it would automatically be competing with a neighbouring bookshop which may be selling the same thing. The argument seems to run that we cannot have a commercial organisation obtaining a long lease. If an organisation, however desirable and worthy, has commercial adjuncts, whether currently or possibly in the future, I do not see that that is any good reason to restrict the lease in the way proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

Baroness Birk

It is not a question of a commercial adjunct. I think we cleared that point. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, raised it, and my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby answered the point. We are concerned about the whole thing being handed over as a commercial enterprise. That was the point. My noble friend never suggested for one moment that the organisation should not be able to sell catalogues or anything else. That goes without saying for any type of museum or gallery. The proposal is really a safeguard.

There was no sting in my tail. I was trying to save the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, from himself. I thought that he was pressing my noble friend into calling a Division. I was merely trying to save him from that.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I apologise for being in such ill temper. I had better draw my contributions to the discussion to a close. I think that it would be better to postpone consideration of this amendment until a later stage of the Bill. We can then probably consider some of the semantics of the situation a little more pleasantly than at present. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 not moved.]

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.