HL Deb 24 November 1983 vol 445 cc352-69

3.29 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bellwin, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is a further illustration of this Government's concern to preserve the nation's heritage in the building field. Your Lordships have only to raise your eyes to the ceiling of this Chamber, or to examine the freshly revealed detail of the stonework of the West Front, to appreciate the commitment of successive Secretaries of State to this policy. Some of your Lordships will also have seen the exhibition mounted by the Property Services Agency in the Banqueting House in September; this showed some of the conservation work carried out by the agency in London in recent years. A register, published this summer, listed all the historic buildings in the department's care in London, and Somerset House, the subject of this Bill, is one of them.

Somerset House is a Grade I listed building, which was built in the 18th century on the site of the former Royal Palace of Somerset House. The latter had been built by Edward, Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector, and was forfeit to the Crown after his execution in 1552. In 1775 George III consented to the demolition of the palace to make way for the first purpose-built Government office building. Sir William Chambers was appointed architect, and construction took some 25 years. The present King's College was erected as an additional wing in the same style between 1829 and 1834, and the so-called New Wing was added in the 1850s on the flank facing Waterloo Bridge.

The Royal Academy had been allowed to use rooms in the old palace, and the new building made provision for the proper housing of the academy, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The rooms in the north block occupied by these bodies until a little over a century ago have become known as the Fine Rooms. In the last decade they have been restored to reveal much of the original decorative work that has survived. This includes fine plasterwork, mainly executed by Collins, and with painted decorations by Reynolds, Benjamin West, Angelica Kaufmann, Rigaud and Cipriani; elegant door furniture with medallion escutcheons, and two plaster casts, on loan from the Royal Academy, in the entrance hall.

The remainder of the building has interiors to the 18th century standard of office accommodation. Of particular note are the former Seamen's Hall, the Navy Board Room, the Navy Staircase and two rooms now occupied by the Board of the Inland Revenue. The courtyard to which the public have access is of course an important central feature of the whole architectural complex. These then are the architectural aspects of importance which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State wishes to protect; and which he wishes the public to be able to enjoy, through ready access, in so far as is consistent with the operational requirements of the Government departments which occupy wings other than the northern one.

The north block of Somerset House has not been fully used for many years, due to its unusual arrangement of space. Since it is generally easier to keep old buildings in good repair if they are in use, a suggestion by the University of London that they should lease this block for use by the Courtauld Institute was a welcome one. Not only should it ensure that the fabric of this block is properly maintained for many years to come, but it seems entirely appropriate that the Fine Rooms should be occupied once more by a body of this kind, and that fine pictures should again hang in these splendid rooms. Furthermore, this setting will do much, I am sure, to enchance the reputation of a collection of works of art that is perhaps less widely known than it deserves to be.

On 1stNovember my right honourable friend announced that agreement in principle had been reached on the terms of a lease to the University. Under this agreement the university would meet the cost of converting the block for their use, and would in return enjoy favourable terms in respect of the rent they would pay. The capital cost to the university is expected to be some £3 million which the university hopes to obtain by means of a public appeal to be launched in February next year. The only obstacle in the way of implementing this agreement is that my right honourable friend has no power to grant leases of any part of this building. The Crown Lands Act of 1775 contains no provision which would allow use of the building for purposes other than that of Government offices. The Bill therefore seeks to give the Secretary of State such powers, which are of course powers that he already enjoys in respect of most other Crown freeholds for which he is responsible, including many historic buildings, such as the old War Office.

These powers are of course enabling powers, and noble Lords will appreciate that they cover the whole of Somerset House. This would give my right honourable friend flexibility in the future should any further leases be considered. It would avoid the necessity of taking up valuable parliamentary time, as has happened in the past, by the need for legislation for any individual lease, no matter how small the area concerned.

Noble Lords may be aware of the proposal that, following its merger with Queen Elizabeth and Chelsea Colleges, King's College should expand into all or part of the areas currently occupied by Government departments. My right honourable friend has recently discussed this proposal with representatives of King's College, including my noble friend Lord Jellicoe and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cameron. Their vision of a new academic centre of excellence arising around Somerset House is both imaginative and inspiring. Rehousing of the existing occupants, from the Inland Revenue and the Lord Chancellor's department, would raise major practical and financial difficulties. I will not disguise from your Lordships that these difficulties would not be easy to surmount, but my right honourable friend has agreed that officials of the Property Services Agency should discuss the possibilities in more detail with King's College. This Bill should not be seen as prejudging, in any way, the outcome of that study.

This Bill seeks to enable my right honourable friend to conserve and to widen the public use and appreciation of a fine building which is an important element in our heritage. The Fine Rooms have for too long lain obscured. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

3.36 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, first, I should like to thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and for explaining it so clearly. He did not have to spend much time on it because it really is not much of a Bill—it is a very small enabling Bill. I should like to welcome the news that at last something is being done for Somerset House, which has had a long and chequered history and which in recent times has had a fate which it ill deserved.

When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment from 1974 to 1978 it was a battle day after day, week after week, to try to get Somerset House used for the purposes for which it was intended—so that beautiful pictures could be shown in it. At one point I should like to have seen the Academy Great Room restored as it was from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, with pictures all up the walls. But, in fact, that did not happen. At first there was an idea that it should be a theatre museum, for which it was completely unsuitable, and, fortunately, that was withdrawn.

Then the great crunch came and many of us wanted to see the Turner collection housed in Somerset House. I still believe that it could have been housed there. It would have been well received and looked after there, but unfortunately a combination of the National Gallery, which has a great many Turners, and the British Museum, which has the drawings, made that impossible.

Lord Annan

My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Baroness for one moment, would she not agree that it was not the National Gallery which had so many Turners, but the Tate Gallery?

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon, yes, it was the Tate Gallery. The British Museum had the prints anddrawings—and I thought that the noble Lord was interrupting me on that—which they did not want shown in Somerset House. The opposition to this—and this is the main point—was so great that the matter was always left in limbo. In the early 1970s the rooms were done up; they were beautifully restored at great expense. It was heartbreaking to see the dust gather in those rooms in that wonderful building on a prime site on the river opposite the National Theatre, for people could have visited and enjoyed the building. As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, pointed out, Somerset House is part of our heritage and should be treated as such. During this period only the London and Thames Exhibition did this building any real justice.

We now have this Bill before us, but, in spite of the very fine, enthusiastic words uttered by the Minister, there are a great many questions to be asked about it. As the noble Lord pointed out, it is an enabling Bill. First, I must draw attention to Clause 1(1) which says: (1) Subject to the provisions of this section, the Secretary of State for the Environment may grant a lease of any part of Somerset House for such period as he thinks fit. We also know that the lease is now being negotiated between the University of London and the Department of the Environment through the PSA. As I understand it, it has reached the stage that for the first 20 years the Courtauld Institute would have the building at a peppercorn rent and then for the following 30 years at a reduced rent. Therefore, although it is not, and I am told cannot be, stated in the Bill at this stage, the lease is intended to be not less than 50 years.

In the circumstances, which I shall briefly outline, in which the Courtauld will find itself, it is quite impossible to have a lease of this ridiculously short length. I would also point out that the lease of the Hampton's site by the National Gallery was a lease to the developers of 125 years. If it cannot be put in an enabling Bill then this must be covered in the lease now being negotiated. If it is a question of a reduced rent for only 50 years which is the stumbling block, then all that has to be said is that a lease would be issued for 125 years: at the end of 50 years the lease would then be renegotiated and the question of what the rent should be could then be looked at once again. Hopefully the Government at that time would be in a position to be able to be generous in their terms, and not go for what is intended at the moment as a full market rent.

Why is this so important? It is important and essential because the Courtauld must have some security. It must have security for the galleries, and it must have security for the other part which follows on—that is, the other part of the North Wing—which it is hoping to use for teaching purposes and also for libraries. The design and construction will be the responsibility of the University of London. but the department would accept responsibility for major and unforeseen structural work. I should like the Minister when he replies to comment on that and tell me that that is correct, and I hope he will be able to expand further on the proposed terms of the lease.

The way this is intended to be carried out is that the Courtauld would have to raise the money involved, apart from anything that arises for major structural and unforeseen repairs. This, I understand, is only if something arises due to the fact that this is an old Grade I building, and therefore is something that would he considered to be beyond the responsibility of the Courtauld Institute itself. The financial responsibilities are enormous, and the money would have to be raised by a public appeal. The Courtauld is short of funds. Indeed, it had to send a collection of valuable paintings to Tokyo, with all the risks involved, in order to raise some money to keep itself going.

It is proposed that the move should take place in two stages. Stage 1 would be the Fine Rooms, including the Royal Academy Great Room—those that were restored in the 'seventies. However, the, need repainting; the lighting is not adequate, as I am sure all noble Lords who have visited them know; the humidity has to be controlled in order to safeguard the paintings; and smoke detectors would have to be installed, because the danger of fire has always been one of the problems there. A new lift would have to be put in, a bookshop, cafeteria, lavatories, and also other facilities.

The cost of all this is estimated at the moment to be at least –1 million. I should have thought that –1 million for this was certainly on the low side. When in fact the work comes to be done, I think it is more than likely that the cost will be higher. These rooms are intended to contain the Seilern Collection, which is a wonderful collection left to the state. I had hoped to have seen it in Somerset House years ago, but in fact it has been stored away. With the proper financing, it would be able to go into Somerset House together with the Courtauld collection of famous impressionist and post-impressionist paintings.

Stage 2, the rest of the North Block—that is the two wings and the extensive basement for the teaching activities of the institute and the libraries—would probably cost £3 million to £4 million. It should follow Stage 1 as soon as possible, although the institute itself is well aware that it cannot start on Stage 2 until it has sufficient money and Stage 1 has been completed. If the gap is too great it is going to make it more expensive. Also, as I think we are all aware, it is much more difficult to start something from scratch again than it is to continue when you have builders, architects and everybody else on the site.

The cost of the other part—the Stage 2—in rent would be around £100,000 a year, even when the capital for all this refurbishment has been raised by the Institute itself This means that altogether a figure of around £5 million is needed. This is a vast sum to find today, particularly by public appeal, even if attempts are made—as they will be—to try to get money from overseas as well.

Although I am sure they would be very welcome, this is not a question of getting small sums from individuals. It means enormous donations being given by a number of people, many of whom will have to be extremely wealthy business people or wealthy foundations. How are they going to view this when they have a prospectus put before them with no statement on the length of lease, and where as far as we know at the moment, although it is not in the Bill, the maximum appears to be 50 years? I do not think that anybody is going to buy that at all. They are not going to feel that the security of their investment—although it is in art and culture and not investment for themselves—is long enough, and they would be right to take that view.

The importance of the two stages being carried out one after the other is great, because it has always been the intention of the founders of the institute and the galleries that they should be housed under one roof. It is important because they are closely connected in their teaching and other activities. Therefore, a much more generous period is needed for the length of the lease. What is also needed is strong Government backing for the scheme. I have been told that the Minister for the Arts, the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, has already promised his moral hacking for the scheme. I am glad that this is so, but moral backing is not enough.

What is needed is financial backing, and financial backing from the Government and not just from individuals responding to an appeal. I am in favour of as much sponsorship as one can get, business and private, but, as the noble Lord pointed out in introducing the Bill, this is an important part of our national heritage and it is something which belongs to the state, to the Government. The Government must play their part in helping to produce the finance for it, otherwise Somerset House will go on being left stranded and neglected as it is at the present time.

The Government must be prepared to make funds available in order to help the institute, and also to repay in some small way the generosity of the late Samuel Courtauld, who, during the war and in the period before the war, did so much to help bring over here art historians who were suffering and would probably not have lived if they had remained in Nazi Germany and Austria. In this country—and unfortunately this applies to all Governments—we are inclined to accept with gratitude the beautiful objects which are left to us, or given to us, like the Courtauld Collection and the Seilern Collection, but we do not always use them properly or show our gratitude in the right way, which is to furnish enough funds to be able to use and show things which are absolutely priceless, and not just have them stored away as they are at the present time.

If the appeal fails, the Government will then have the problem of having to find another suitable tenant for the Fine Rooms all over again. In view of the history of Somerset House, of which we are all aware and which was outlined by the Minister, this would be tragic. It would mean that another decade will go by with this beautiful building not being used, being neglected, and running further and further into decay. However, if the appeal succeeds and the Government give the backing that they should in this case, when the Institute vacates No. 19 to 21 Portman Square (where the Institute now is situated) the Department of Education and Science will have been saved the rent of £140,000 a year which it is paying to Portman Estates at the moment until the lease comes to an end.

We cannot let Somerset House continue as it is. It is unsatisfactory to be able to accept only what is in the Bill, though it may just be an introduction to something very much more substantial that the Government intend to do. However, as it stands it would be wrong for us to exhibit too much enthusiasm without hearing, as I hope we shall later from the Minister, that some of the necessary work on finance and length of lease will be undertaken.

I should like the Minister, if possible, to comment on amending the present Bill. I would not have any difficulty in putting forward some amendments which I think would improve the Bill enormously. If the Bill is an enabling Bill and what has to be covered has to be covered within the lease, we must know that this is going on at the same time as the Bill is before us. Before the Bill leaves this House we should know exactly what is intended in the lease. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us, though I am sure he will not be able to give us all the details; but I should like to feel that we hear enough to encourage us so that we will, before the Bill leaves this House, have much more of an idea of the Government's intentions about the security of tenure and the financial terms. I have to reiterate that this marvellous building must not just be seen from the outside and be like an empty shell within. It should be seen and be used as the important part that it is of London's artistic and cultural life.

Lord Annan

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I wonder whether I heard her correctly when she said that the Count von Seilern gave his collection to the state? The Count von Seilern gave his collection, worth £30 million, to the Hume House Trustees, in whom also are vested the Courtauld paintings. That is why they are all ultimately under the University of London. When I was Vice-Chancellor I suggested to the Secretary of State that Somerset House would be a suitable place. May I also ask my noble friend another question? Has she the same impression as I have that Secretary of State after Secretary of State has been in favour of this proposal, that Minister after Minister has fought for this proposal, but that every time the question gets bogged down by the inter-service fighting between the civil servants in various departments?

Baroness Birk

My Lords, if I may have the indulgence of the House, I should like to answer my noble friend's first question. I seem to be getting nil today in exams on accuracy. He is absolutely right—I am sorry that I shorthanded it—but the collection was left to he used to the advantage of the country. That is what I meant. He is quite right, and I had the pleasure of being shown the von Seilern collection by him.

My noble friend's second point is absolutely true, but he has left out one important aspect, though perhaps he meant that when he mentioned the interdepartmental problem. This is the awful dead hand of the Treasury which slaps itself down on everything whichever Government is in power. It is the Treasury that we are also having to press all the time as well as the departments concerned. He is right that we have all been for it, but up to now nothing of any substance has been done. This is why, with the Bill before us, we must not let this opportunity pass of getting something really substantial off the ground.

3.55 p.m.

Lord Mancroft

My Lords, I am not certain whether this is a private fight, or a public fight, but whichever it is, I should like to join in. I wish to begin by offering my support to the Minister for the able way in which he put this important matter before us. If I can offer only moral backing, I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me, but I am not in a position to offer anything more. Indeed, even my moral backing is not entirely disinterested. I shall explain why to your Lordships in about two or three minutes.

If your Lordships cast your minds back about 25 years, you may recall that we had a debate in this House on the subject of the private and domestic affairs of the Diplomatic Service—affairs abroad in the consulates and embassies in the far-flung corners of the world. One point that was frequently raised was the point which affects our debate today. It was that the pictures displayed in the British embassies and British consulates did not reflect the way of life, or our artistic heritage, as well as they should. That was so for different reasons. First, there was the niggardly behaviour of the Ministry of Works, as it then was, and the Treasury, which occasionally gave a very small grant for certain pictures to be hung in embassies. If they did not do so, the ambassador had to find the money out of his own pocket, and neither his pocket, nor his taste, might always have been up to public consideration.

The third way of providing pictures was to rely on skulduggery. This was by far and away the best way. One only has to look at the splendid picture of Byron in the British Embassy in Athens, or the picture of Dr. Johnson, by Joshua Reynolds, in the British Embassy in Washington, where a fine Constable also hangs in the drawing room. I say this with diffidence in the presence of so many ex-embassadors who have occupied both those posts, but I believe that those pictures were all acquired by the nimble wit, as well as the nimble fingers, of the ambassadors concerned, in the face of considerable opposition from the Ministry of Works, but with some support from the Foreign Office, which on that occasion was prepared to do wrong things for the right reasons, instead of, as usual, the other way round.

The debate on the subject was wound up by the Minister in charge (sitting in the place presently occupied by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale), in a most cogent, lucid and farseeing speech. But unfortunately in the course of that speech I went too far. As Minister in charge, apart from agreeing with everything that people had said about pictures in the embassies, I suggested, rather rashly—this was 25 years ago—that we should find in London and elsewhere other buildings in which to hang pictures which were not hung at that moment. Although the cellars and attics of our national, provincial and municipal museums were crowded with pictures which could not be hung because there was not space on the walls, pictures could not be provided for the embassies abroad. One reason for that was that we were not allowed by law, or by the trust regulations governing the pictures, to export them to embassies abroad. That has now almost wholly been put right, and we can now do so.

I then went on to suggest that because we were so short of space we should look around, and, I asked, what was wrong with Somerset House? However, that was not in my brief. I was shot down from a very great height by those advising me, and those of your Lordships who have seen "Yes, Minister" will know just how far a Minister who goes beyond his brief can be shot down by those civil servants who desire to shoot him down.

Nevertheless, 25 years have passed, and we are now discussing this matter. I am glad to say that we have arranged for pictures to be put on embassy walls in greater profusion. Now we hear my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale explaining to us exactly how Somerset House can be put to very much better use.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has raised a certain technical question, which must be properly dealt with. I had always understood that the building was destined to house the Seilern collection which I have myself had the privilege of seeing. Those of your Lordships who have not seen this collection have missed a very great treat, and I hope that it will soon come your way.

If your Lordships also doubt whether I am correct in saying that we do not have enough accommodation to hang the pictures which are available to us, I invite you to take one look tomorrow at the queues of people forming outside Burlington House to look at the magnificent collection of pictures from the Venetian Exhibition and also to go, in a month's time, to look at the queues or to join the queues—unless you are an old-age pensioner, as I am, and go to the top of them—outside the Tate Gallery and you will see the people waiting to look at John Piper's retrospective exhibition. We keep on talking about mugging and rioting in Luxembourg after football matches and other things which show what a dissolute and uncivilised country we are; but. on the other hand, look at queues outside the Tate, look at the queues outside Burlington House; and there is another side to the coin.

I am glad therefore that the Government have put forward this additional scheme for providing more space for pictures. There are technicalities of course that have to be settled. The noble Lord will probably give us an answer and the noble Baroness will put down amendments in due course. But on a matter of principle I should like to support this Bill strongly, only adding a small, perilous footnote. Time after time we hear people say that there is far too much legislation in this country—not just bad legislation, not just good legislation, but just too much legislation. The hereditary and traditional visitor from Mars might very well look down upon us this afternoon and say, "Is it not really possible to put this matter right after 25 years of wrangling (which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has described to us) between civil servants, Government departments and other Government departments, without an Act of Parliament?" I will not add to the legislative burden by speaking any further save to ask your Lordships to support the noble Lord in his excellent Bill, particularly as it has such excellent antecedents.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am sorry that I cannot congratulate the noble Lord the Minister on the way that he introduced this Bill. With great respect to him, I thought that he sounded like an enlightened estate agent reading particulars delivered of a prime property coming on the market for letting if only the landlord could get rid of the legal entanglements in the way of doing what he wished to do. I wish that the Minister had been more specific about what lies behind this Bill. For myself, if I thought that the Government were bent on evil—which lots of people think—I should say that it is a sinister little Bill. If I wanted to arouse prejudice on these Benches, I should say that this is the beginning of the privatisation of Somerset House. But I am not very clear what the Minister has in mind apart from freeing the hands of the Secretary of State for the Environment to do something with Somerset House that he cannot do at the present time.

This is part of our inheritance. I think that sometimes noble Lords are much more careful about their own inheritance than they are of the inheritance of the nation at large. This is part of our history. I have more than a passing interest in Somerset House. My noble friend Lord Plant and myself between us have trod the stones of Somerset House for the past 60 years trying to get better conditions, more satisfactory careers and more pay for the staff that work in it—a noble enterprise which we conducted with our customary dignity and cheerful spirit. My first contact with Somerset House was when I joined the Army in the First World War and then I saw the basement, the drill hall of the Civil Service Rifles, when two boys, aged just over 18, went to join the Army. One was named Henry Moore and the other was me. We joined together, strangely enough, the Civil Service Rifles. That was the first that I knew of Somerset House but I was to learn a great deal more about it later.

The noble Lord the Minister is telling us something of the history. Somerset House is a romantic place. If it were not associated with the Inland Revenue, it would he regarded as one of the tourist attractions of London. When I see that in this Bill the Minister is to "have regard … to the desirability"—the desirability, my Lords!—of the public having access to the quandrangle, well, the tourists would pour into it if they knew that Cromwell lay in state there and that Inigo Jones lived there and died there. And some strange doings took place in the Strand. Pepys said, "This day two soldiers were hanged in the Strand for their late meeting at Somerset House". I am not clear whether they were hanged because their meeting was late or whether they were late for the meeting. I have been late for meetings at Somerset House but, fortunately, by that time the death penalty had been removed for being late at meetings at Somerset House.

It is a romantic place. I have no objection to the Fine Rooms—so fine that they are so described with capital initials in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill. I have no objection to the Fine Rooms being returned to purposes similar to those that these rooms had many years ago. It was only when the Royal Academy and the Royal Society moved out that the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths moved into these Fine Rooms and was there for a very long time. The public sector was being enlarged then. Registration became compulsory in 1837 and they had to have an office where there could take place all this clerical work which previously had been confined to parish registers. So one sees how bureaucracy creeps in so as to have better order and government of the people. The Admiralty were there for a long time. But it has been almost wholly occupied by the Inland Revenue for over 100 years.

Not a word has been said about the possibility of commercial lettings. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, spoke as if the idea behind this Bill was for the glory of God, and art and pictures, the nation's treasures, culture and so on. That is the attraction of the Bill. But notice the words "other purposes" in the rubric to Clause 1. Clause 1(3) says, have regard to the architectural importance … and to the desirability of preserving public access to the courtyard. Those are the only two conditions laid upon the Secretary of State in letting part of the building—or the whole of it, possibly—for "other purposes".

What other purposes? Are we going to have Cheatem and Twistem and Partners, consultants on tax avoidance and tax planning, given the address, "Somerset House"? My Goodness! What a rent they would pay to occupy part of Somerset House to carry on their trade as rivals to the other occupants of the building, to rub shoulders with the custodians of the nation's revenue, to go in the canteen and discuss the possibility of tax avoidance without being caught out. What a wonderful possibility it opens up by discriminating commercial lettings that the Secretary of State might feel disposed to make.

Your Lordships may say that this is a lot of rubbish and that he would not do anything of the kind. But the Government are trying to sell everything that they have; they are trying to turn everything into money. Quite frankly, I do not trust them not to turn Somerset House into money if they get the chance. I think that if there are purposes for which the Government wish to use Somerset House, they should come to the House and get sanction specifically for what they are proposing and not ask for "other purposes" to be brought into a Bill which excites the approval, the emotions and the romance of all of us for the better use of the "Fine Rooms."

Certainly those Fine Rooms can be used for much better purposes than those for which they were used for so long. The registration of births, marriages and deaths is no sort of vocation to take place inside the Fine Rooms of Somerset House. Then when they had to go and put a lot of their statistical work on to computers they cleared out and the Churchill Exhibition was held, and other uses have been found for the Fine Rooms. I distinguish between the provisions dealing with the Fine Rooms and the rest of the Bill. I shall certainly have amendments to put down to that part of the Bill which could open the door to the Secretary of State doing almost anything, within his own judgment, with Somerset House.

I ask for an express assurance that commercial lettings are not in any circumstances contemplated under this Bill. Let us have it clear and straight. I think that other Government offices might well be used for commercial purposes in due time or in certain circumstances. Perhaps no one would complain unduly if the old War Office was let to CND, or something: nobody would believe for a moment that anybody was going to take a letting in the old War Office in order to make war. But Somerset House has a connection with the Inland Revenue, and its activities and its place in the minds and hearts of the people is one which no other tenants should be allowed to usurp or to set aside.

That is it. This is a little Bill, but it has a very undesirable potential. I would conclude by saying this. I ask the Minister not to be afraid of troubling the House on important matters. We get troubled a great deal on very minor matters which nevertheless have an importance in the general pattern of parliamentary government. But when part of the heritage—a building like Somerset House—is made available for disposal, even for the most beneficent and desirable purposes, let us have it so that we know what is being done; otherwise, the Minister will come along and ask for freedom to let parts of this place. He will say that they are not being fully used, or that we could show pictures. After all, pictures would look very nice in your Lordships' House. And what about Buckingham Palace? Nothing is barred if the Minister gets freedom to do what he likes.

I am against Secretaries of State having discretion to do things of this kind without, presumably, a statutory instrument which would require approval of either House. So I am sorry; I cannot welcome the Bill. However much I would welcome the use of the Fine Rooms for the purposes indicated, I think they must be clearly differentiated from the other parts, which are covered in such broad terms and with so few conditions in the specifications of this Bill. There is trouble brewing, Minister—I warn you!

4.13 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, I shall be very brief. I very much welcome this Bill, and I must thank my noble friend for allowing us to be emotional, sentimental and reminiscent, which is just what I am going to be. I am going to join the club, because I spent many happy hours, if sometimes frustrating ones, clambering up the stairs or in the galleries pulling out the indexes of the births, marriages and deaths. I disagree that that was the wrong place for them to be, because to people all over the world Somerset House conjured up a picture of a place where pedigrees—births, marriages and deaths of their forebears—were lodged. That office was there for 137 years, from July 1837 to 1974, when it was moved to what is, I suppose, a perfectly functional building not very far away; and that building was a very expensive one.

I would ask my noble friend two small questions. First, what is the planned use of the old search rooms in the North Wing of Somerset House? Secondly, could there possibly be a small permanent exhibition at Somerset House depicting the history of the General Registry Office? I think that could be very important. I am delighted by the thought that at the end of 10 years of misery and decay in this noble building people will be thronging to it.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am sorry to speak without having put my name on the list. This was due to a fault between me and my chief which we have not yet resolved. I thought this Bill would go through in two minutes. Everybody must agree with the enabling power in this Bill. The one thing we want the Government to do is to let Somerset House for the purposes very clearly and, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, very restrictively described in Clause 1. I am not quite clear what he is worrying about, but we shall come back to that.

However, it has been an opportunity for some splendidly cultivated speeches which I have enjoyed enormously. I will not imitate them, but would only say that I think we should pay tribute to the way we got this marvellous collection, which I and many other noble Lords have seen. It is perfectly splendid. It was Professor Johannes Wilde, of the Courtauld Institute, who was the acquaintance of the donor; and I must say here—because honour is due where it is due, particularly in places where it is not often given—that I was approached on this when I was a Minister by the late, lamented and unhappy Anthony Blunt, who was part of the Wilde team trying to get this out of the donor, because the donor wished to do something, as a condition of letting us have this collection, to which I could not possibly agree. It was not possible at all, and I was terribly afraid we might have lost it. However, we did not, and all is well.

As we have had a discussion of this kind, which I was not expecting. I must say that I agree with everything that my old colleague the noble Baroness has said. What matters here is that once you have done the first job, which is to get the Government to lease this marvellous building for the proper purposes, you have to see how it is going to be maintained. I took the trouble early last week to write to the Government to ask for information about this. Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that I have not so far had an answer. The noble Lord on the Front Bench has given us some indication of the kind of expense involved, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has given us an even bigger indication of the kind of expense involved. No one has suggested who is going to pay for it. This is what really matters. It did not occur to me that this was going to be the occasion for such a discussion. The occasion for that kind of dicussion is when a lease is granted and the University of London wants money to do the job properly. That is when we have got to weigh in and help them.

I do not think I can agree with the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, that it is better to have people coming to see a beautiful building for an unbeautiful purpose than for a beautiful one. I think it is far better that they should come in and look at wonderful pictures rather than at registers of births and deaths; but that is a matter of opinion. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is the least right in his fears. It is perfectly clear that under Clause 1 no part of this building can be let for any purpose other than that described in Clause 1, which includes the provision, shall have regard to the architectural importance of the building and to the desirability of preserving public access to its courtyard. The thing that is really serious is that it is not enough simply to give this permission to lease, which we have all wanted to see happen, without any provision, or any discussion of the provision, which will be very high and is very important at a time when the Arts Council is asking for 110 million and is probably going to be offered £90 million. I do not know who is going to pay for this (whether it will be the Department of Education and Science, Environment or the Arts) but one of the Government departments must put up money to pay for the administration and the maintenance—and the maintenance is very difficult. Somerset House is so built that if you have two large crowds going up the stairs at the same time you are going to do damage. There must be people limiting the crowds all the way through. It will be an expensive and awkward job. But having joined in the cultivated discussion because it is irresistible, I should like to support the Bill.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Annan

My Lords, 1 hope that I may intervene for one moment—even though I have not put my name down to speak—to say how much I welcome this Bill. I should like to say that if in an intervention I made some faint criticism of the operations of the Civil Service in some respects, I want to pay tribute to the way in which the Treasury handled the whole question of Count von Seilern's will, which was a most difficult affair. We could have lost the painting to this country, had not enlightened Treasury officials cut through masses of red tape and settled the matter on entirely sensible terms, which were acceptable both to the Seilern family in Austria and to the Hume trustees, the University of London and the Courtauld Institute. That is an admirable example of how good civil servants can he when they put their minds to it.

I shall certainly join other noble Lords, when we reach the Committee stage of this Bill, in examining a little further what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said about the financial arrangements between the University of London and the Government on this matter. But I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on having brought this Bill to the House and I wish it well.

4.22 p.m.

Earl Jellicoe

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, will excuse me if I, like the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and the noble Lord, Lord Annan, tip-toe unannounced into this brief discussion. I do so for two reasons. First, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, will excuse me if I make a slight correction to his admirable remarks, on which I, too, congratulate him. He referred to my noble friend and colleague the Principal of King's College as the "noble and learned Lord". My noble colleague at King's is indeed immensely learned, but technically speaking he is more gallant than learned. There was, I think, a slight confusion between Lord Cameron and the other Lord Cameron, a distinguished Scottish judge, who is indeed technically learned as well as being immensely learned.

Secondly, I should like to say at this stage how grateful I am to the Government for the way in which this Bill has been drafted, and also for the way in which they have received the representations which have been made to them on behalf of King's College by the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Randolph Quirk, by my noble and gallant friend and by myself, as chairman of the Council of King's.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in an admirably witty and trenchant intervention referred with dark suspicion to "other purposes". One other purpose, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, remarked, would be the occupation of part of Somerset House by a new creation. That creation would be as part of a reorganised, modernised and streamlined University of London—a new college embracing the existing King's College, Queen Elizabeth College and Chelsea College, constituting, in effect, something like a new university in the heart of London.

I know that there are difficulties. There are difficulties of accommodation—the noble Lord referred to them; the difficulty of finding suitable alternative accommodation for some, at least, of the present admirable occupants of the building. There, as always, are difficulties of finance. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, also referred to difficulties of romance. I do not think that there would be difficulties of romance in this imaginative idea. After all, the main sponsor of King's College over 150 years ago was the Duke of Wellington. He fought a duel with the then Marquess of Winchilsea over King's. I think that his spirit would lie down very amicably in Somerset House with Oliver Cromwell, with Inigo Jones and with those other admirable civil servants—and I speak with respect of the Civil Service—to whom the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, referred in those remarks which I greatly enjoyed.

Therefore, I welcome very warmly the Bill. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has said. I believe that it opens another opportunity, apart from housing the Courtauld Institute which deserves to be housed in these particular Fine Rooms, and I would say that the new King's would cohabit very amicably, very productively, and very legitimately with the Courtauld, if that were to come about.

I know that there are difficulties. But I believe that those difficulties can be overcome with will, goodwill and imagination, and I hope that the discussions on which we are engaged—and I am very grateful that this possibility has been opened by the Department of the Environment—will lead to those difficulties being surmounted and, I believe, a unique opportunity being seized.

4.26 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I feel that I am about to make another mistake on which my noble friend, before he leaves the Chamber, is prepared to correct me. Is there not a quotation from the Old Testament which goes along the lines, I slew a lion and brought forth a mouse"? I am beginning to feel that it is the other way round this afternoon.

This is a short Bill and many of the points which have been raised this afternoon are, with respect, mostly Committee points, but I must in all fairness answer one or two of them. The first thing I should like to do is to look at the Bill in front of us, because the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for example, and, by implication, although she did not actually express it, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, were worried about certain words. But it is a very simple Bill, it has only one clause and each subsection depends on each other subsection.

I think that the words which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, should have had particularly in mind before he concocted the very interesting and amusing speech which we heard this afternoon, are in subsection (3). They are: the Secretary of State shall have regard to the architectural importance of the building". So can your Lordships imagine any responsible adult, let alone any responsible adult who has risen to the dizzy heights of Secretary of State, allowing Messrs. Grabbit, Grabbit and Twitch in such surroundings? I am simply horrified that the noble Lord should have had such an idea.

The other thing which the Bill does not do is to refer to leases, and the whole tenor of the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, was about the proposed lease of the University of London and Courtauld Institute. But, at present, the lease would be for at least 50 years. The Fine Rooms would be rent free for 20 years and at a reduced rental thereafter. The university would pay a market rent for the remainder of the North Block and would be responsible for maintenance costs, except, as she said, that the department would bear any exceptional costs arising from the age of the building. But the cost of refurbishment of the North Block beyond the Fine Rooms, which, as I said, are in a reasonable state of repair, although not in a suitable state for hanging fine pictures and displaying busts or anything else that might be desirable, is to be borne by the university and, as I said in my opening speech, they are intending to raise this by public subscription.

I am unable to stand at this Dispatch Box, especially here in your Lordships' House, and commit the Government to vast sums of money, or indeed any sums of money, but I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Gowrie, to whose attention I shall draw this debate, will be extremely interested and will do his best to see what he can do to help in the appeal. In this connection, it might be interesting if I were to tell the House that even before the appeal has opened I understand that there have been promises of £½million. I do not believe, therefore, that the picture is quite so black as the noble Baroness has painted it.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, when the noble Lord spoke about the lease he confirmed what I put forward that a lease of not less than 50 years is now being spoken of. But I was arguing that a 50-year lease was far too short to enable the Courtauld Institute to move in, try to obtain the money and have security of tenure. I should like to hear from the Minister whether a lease of 125 years, similar to that granted for the Hampton's site, will be discussed, because that is not in the Bill.

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, it is not in the Bill, for the simple reason that the word "lease" is not in the Bill in the context of what we are discussing. Not for the first time, the noble Baroness has pre-empted me. I was about to answer her question.

Baroness Birk

I apologise to the noble Lord.

Lord Skelmersdale

The lease is only at the heads of agreement stage. Discussions are still taking place. If the Courtauld Institute agree with the noble Baroness that 50 or 60 years is not long enough, I have no doubt that they will have the opportunity to press for 100 or 125 years, or whatever might seem to them to be appropriate.

My Lords, the other point to which I ought to draw attention was made by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. The fact is that it was the university who came to the Government. The Government were not trying to sell like mad this building which the noble Lord, one infers from his speech, regards as a Whitehall white elephant, or something of that character. So again the picture is not quite so black as it has been painted. The basic purpose of the Bill is to give to the Secretary of State powers in line with those he already enjoys in respect of many other listed buildings on the Crown estate. He is not constrained in any way in any of those cases, so I shall have to read very carefully what the noble Lord said before I am prepared to agree that the Secretary of State should be constrained in this particular case. His powers over Government-owned buildings are wide, particularly so in respect of the office estate. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State recognises the particular importance of Somerset House. For this reason, the Bill contains qualifications, some of which I have mentioned, as to the powers he would have in respect of this building.

It will not be until the Committee stage that I discover whether your Lordships are satisfied, but I have no doubt that we shall then have a very interesting debate upon the subject. My right honourable friend would also like the public to have a greater opportunity to enjoy the architectural splendour of this work of the 18th century. I am not trying to sound like an estate agent again, but I really do believe that this is a most glorious building, very attractively sited at the back of the Aldwych. In the case of the Fine Rooms and the courtyard there would seem to be scope to widen the limited facilities which the public already enjoy.

This is a small but by no means unimportant Bill and it is a step along this particular route. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken with great knowledge and eloquence upon it and I am sure that eventually it will very happily reach the statute book.

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