HL Deb 22 February 1989 vol 504 cc649-51

2.53 p.m.

Lord Grimond asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make the sum which they were prepared to pay for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection available for the living arts and existing galleries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

My Lords, the proposal for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection was made in response to a challenging and unique opportunity. If public funds had been spent on the Thyssen collection, it would not have affected the agreed three-year arts budget; now that money will not be spent, that does not affect the budget either.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply so far as it goes, which is not very far. Does he not think it extraordinary that the Government were prepared to spend over £1 million to set up a gallery for the Thyssen collection and yet they are now not prepared to make that money, which has not been used for that purpose, available to assist the opera and obviate the need to rent Covent Garden, or to enable our galleries and museums to exhibit some of the innumerable works of art which at present they are forced to keep in their cellars and storehouses? Does he not agree that it is a scandal that that sort of offer should be made for Thyssen and yet so little is done, in what I believe is Museum Year, to enable our own native collections to be shown?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I believe that the Government's commitment to the arts is proved by the fact that we have moved to a three-year funding arrangement the result of which will be that by 1991–92 arts spending will be 31 per cent. higher than it was in 1987–88. The Government are committed to the arts and I do not believe that better proof than those figures can be produced.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, as the Government were prepared to make over £100 million available in order to acquire the Thyssen collection, will they consider giving an equivalent sum to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, where it will be put to very good use?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the National Heritage Memorial Fund was created in 1980 to protect our heritage. The total public spending to date has been just over £100 million at £105 million. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, will be aware of the important changes which we have made in the acceptance in lieu of tax arrangements announced in July 1985, which allow access to the contingency reserve for acceptances up to an average of £10 million per annum in addition to the annual £2 million vote provision.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, perhaps I may join in the bidding for this somewhat hypothetical sum. Is my noble friend aware of the project of the Royal Fine Art Commission called "Learning to See", which is intended to raise standards of visual appreciation and education in our schools, which is the only way to ensure good contemporary architecture? Since he is a generous and benevolent person himself with his own money, will he pass on those qualities to his governmental colleagues and see whether we can have some public money for an important project which is, at the moment, totally privately financed?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, there is a great need at every level in society to encourage aesthetic awareness and I welcome the initiatives taken by my noble friend as the chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission and through the Art and Architecture Education Trust. I shall bring this important matter to the attention of my right honourable friend the Minister.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, what is certainly clear from the Thyssen affair is that if the will is there, government money can be found for acquisitions. However, to protect the taxpayers' money, will the Government as a matter of urgency ask the Museums and Galleries Commission to look into the current extravagant valuations which lead to the loss of major masterpieces, such as the impending export of the late Lord Clarke's seascape "Folkestone" by Turner and then make recommendations?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the review committee's task is to advise on the heritage pre-eminence, as the noble Baroness pointed out, and its object is to recommend a deferral at a fair market price. In most cases that is the recent sale price. In the case of the Turner to which the noble Baroness referred, the expert adviser and the committee were satisfied that £20 million was an achievable price were the picture to be offered for sale now.

Lord Annan

My Lords, instead of trying to hijack this money for recurrent purposes, which of course goes against all Treasury practice, would it not be wiser to earmark it in our minds for such time as, in the fullness of time, certain famous collections come on to the market, as they are bound to do—collections which it is absolutely imperative that our national galleries should obtain?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, in answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, I am sure that he would not expect me to speculate, but I shall certainly bring his remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that none of these funds will be devoted to buying a mediaeval map of no artistic value whatever and whose information could equally and much more cheaply be confined to an appropriate photograph?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the National Heritage Memorial Fund has put proposals to the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral. The Dean is grateful for those proposals and is considering them before making any public response.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, is it not a good Conservative principle properly to look after the property one has before one acquires any more? If there is any money going, I believe that it should go to conserving, displaying and making accessible in new ways the treasures that we already have.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am of course interested in my noble friend's remarks. I take note of them.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, while existing museums and galleries are grateful for the three-year funding proposal, so far as it goes, it is strictly limited? Is he further aware that the purchase grant for at least some of these museums has been frozen at a cash figure at a time when market prices of objects we might wish to acquire are rising not by the year nor by the month but by the week? We have inherited responsibility for buildings, hitherto looked after by the Property Services Agency, with large arrears of maintenance and inadequate funds to make good those depredations. If there is any jam going, will the Government consider giving it today rather than tomorrow?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, perhaps I may point out that since 1979 the Government's grant to support the Victoria and Albert Museum has increased by 10 per cent. in real terms. I believe that the increased expenditures which have taken place and which are proposed are part of the commitment we show towards the arts and the culture of this nation.