HL Deb 19 January 1989 vol 503 cc389-98

7.5 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The main purpose of this short Bill is simple. It is to equip the board of trustees of the National Maritime Museum with the same kind of powers to hold land and property that are already enjoyed by the other national museums and galleries. The Bill achieves this by repealing a provision in the National Maritime Museum Act 1934 which vests the main property occupied by the museum at Greenwich in the Secretary of State for the Environment, and vests that property instead in the museum's own board of trustees. The Bill will therefore allow the National Maritime Museum to join the other English national museums and galleries in owning and managing the buildings they occupy. It may he helpful if I put these provisions in context and explain why we want to bring them forward now.

Until recently, building and maintenance work at the national museums and galleries was carried out on their behalf by the Property Services Agency. Although the programmes of work were of course discussed with the institutions concerned, they did not have direct managerial control over what was being done to the buildings in their name. The institutions found this unsatisfactory and pressed for change. The Government agreed that it was anomalous for these independent trustee bodies to have building and maintenance excluded from their responsibilities and in the hands of a separate central government agency.

As your Lordships may know, most of the national museums and galleries were therefore untied from the PSA from 1st April last year. Funds are now channelled direct to them, bypassing the PSA altogether. To complete the process, arrangements are in hand to transfer ownership of the National Museum and Gallery Estate from the Secretary of State for the Environment to the respective governing bodies. The new system is working well and has been greatly welcomed by the museums and galleries concerned. At that time it was not possible, however, to make the same change for the National Maritime Museum. This was because the necessary statutory powers are not available to the museum under its present governing legislation, the National Maritime Museum Act 1934.

Each national museum and gallery is subject to a governing document of some kind. In most cases this is an Act of Parliament. Although these Acts share a common framework, they are not identical in every respect. This is partly a reflection of the different nature of each institution, but as often as not is a reflection of the particular circumstances obtaining when the museum was set up. The National Maritime Museum was created in 1934 following an extraordinary and far-sighted act of generosity by Sir James Caird, who not only contributed substantially to the collection but paid for the conversion of the buildings at Greenwich to museum use. At that time it was natural and appropriate for the land and property concerned to be vested in what was then the Commissioners of Works. So far as concerns the National Maritime Museum, the new board of trustees therefore had no need of separate land holding powers and these were not included in the 1934 Act. The governing legislation for the other national museums andgalleries either included such powers from the outset or had them added in subsequent legislation.

That, my Lords, sets the background to the Bill. I would add that the Board of Trustees of the National Maritime Museum and the director, Mr. Richard Ormond, are fully in support of the Bill and have been involved in the discussions on its preparation. I see that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lewin, chairman of the trustees, is in his place and may perhaps wish to expand on that later.

Let me just say a brief word about the clauses. There are only three. Clause 1 transfers the property at Greenwich from the Secretary of State for the Environment to the National Maritime Museum Board of Trustees. It does this by replacing most of Section 1 of the 1934 Act by an equivalent set of provisions setting out the functions of the board in respect of that property and the terms and conditions on which it is to hold it. The property in question is specified in detail in Schedule 1 to the 1934 Act.

One provision perhaps requires a little explanation and that is Clause 1(5) which specifies what should happen to the property if, for any reason, the board ever ceased to use it for the purposes of the museum. The National Maritime Museum occupies buildings which were previously occupied by the Greenwich Hospital School. When the museum was set up, it was decided that the properties would be transferred to the Commissioners of Works, subject to an undertaking that, if the museum ever vacated them, they should revert to the Admiralty, as was, to be held for the benefit of Greenwich Hospital. That undertaking was given statutory force in the 1934 Act and is repeated here in equivalent terms. Again I would just add that the authorities of the Greenwich Hospital, which is of course still an active charitable institution, have been consulted on the preparation of the Bill and welcome this provision.

Clause 2 equips the Board of Trustees with certain additional powers, essentially to allow the board to hold and manage land and property. The powers here are standard ones for the national museums and galleries and, for example, are very similar to those in the National Heritage Act 1983 for the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In particular, the power to acquire and dispose of land is not an unqualified one but requires ministerial consent in each case. This clause also gives the museum power to allow premises owned, occupied or managed by them to be used by others for non-museum purposes, provided—and this is the crucial point—that that does not conflict unduly with the board's statutory functions. Clause 3 simply deals in the standard way with the Short Title, the repeals of the relevant sections of the 1934 Act and arrangements for commencement.

As I said at the outset, this is a very short and straightforward Bill. It brings the National Maritime Museum's legislation up to date and more in line with the legislation for the other national museums and galleries. It does not itself introduce any points of principle that are not familiar from other museums legislation. It is nonetheless of considerable practical importance to the museum and I hope that your Lordships will give it your support.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time—(Baroness Trumpington.)

7.14 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by passing to the House the very real regrets of my noble friend Lady Birk, who in the normal course of events would have been standing at this Box. She was looking forward to doing so but she is not well. She is unable to be here this evening, and I am sorry that that is the position. She sends her apologies and regrets.

The Minister, both at the beginning and at the end of what she had to say, said fairly that this was an uncontroversial Bill. We from these Benches warmly commend all that the Minister has said concerning both the contents of the Bill and its raison d'être. We are privileged to have with us this evening the chairman of the trustees, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lewin. I am certain that when he speaks he will he able to anticipate what the Minister and her aides in the Box may be trying to do by giving some of the answers to the questions that I shall be asking.

So far as we on this side of the House are concerned we appreciate that the correction of the anomaly that has existed for some time was triggered not least by the redistribution of the functions and powers—in fact the life—of the Property Services Association. In that sense this is a consequence of the partial privatisation of that service. I think we need to have that on record.

In looking at things that might be relevant to the debate I had cause to look at one or two previous events —for instance, debates on the arts in another place last year. My honourable friend Mr. Mark Fisher not only spoke in a debate on the arts in May of last year but has written and has raised one or two interesting points. I note from the document, The National Museums, which is a document of the Museums and Galleries Commission, that the commission gives a simple and easily understood explanation of the situation at the National Maritime Museum.

We see for instance that the grant in aid for the current year is running in excess of £8 million. That certainly is no small sum. I wonder whether we might hear from the noble and gallant Lord whether the trustees consider that this is sufficient. When one looks at the breakdown one sees that the running costs are £5.5 million, the buildings cost £2.5 million, but the purchase grant is only £205,000. The sum of £205,000 out of a total of £8.25 million to purchase what are considered by the trustees to be worthy additions and ornaments to their current stock seems somewhat small. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us something about that.

The whole issue of charges for admission needs to be raised in this short debate. As the Minister knows, some museums impose charges and some do not. I see that the attendances at the Maritime Museum suffered a substantial drop in the early period when charges were made. The drop was almost 40 per cent. Although they have been modestly increasing, would the Minister care to say something about whether or not it is right, lithe books are not balanced, that costs should be brought down even at the expense of the number of people who visit the museum?

On this side of the House we are very concerned about this important part of our heritage. Certainly the curatorial staff who have looked after the museum must be pleased and impressed, but at the end of the day we are trying to encourage more and more people to enter our museums. I wonder whether the Minister, or the chairman of the trustees, has anything to say about how that might be achieved.

Can we also look at this in the context of the great renaissance that has taken place not least at Greenwich but in Docklands? It is certain that the interest in this part of the world must be a great source of initiative and pleasure for all those concerned. I am not talking about thwarted plans, but may we hear of any plans or ambitions of the trustees? The Minister fairly says that all that is happening is that the power to deal with the property and the land, which was previously wholly in the gift of the Minister, is now transferred so as to be wholly within the province, subject to safeguards, of the trustees. I wonder whether the trustees have some plans which they can now carry out which previously they may not have been able to carry out. Have they some plans for expanding, adding or extending the buildings? Have they some projects? I am not remotely raising the question of what is right and what is proper, but it may be that this is a good opportunity to tell the world that there are some things that can be done in the future which could not be done in the past.

I am mindful of what the Minister has said— that anything respecting the non-continuing use of buildings has a reversion clause. In other words, nothing can be done without the approval of other bodies not least the Minister. However, at the end of the day this Minister will acknowledge, as will the trustees, that the Minister for the Arts is the supreme person who not only controls the purse strings but also acts in many other ways. So I wonder whether the Minister or the chairman can tell us not necessarily something helpful, but something of interest, in respect of what they see as their raison d'être.

My final point is about the trustees themselves. The document I used for research states on page 17: The spectrum from which trustees are appointed should be kept broad. And it is important that they should be appointed as individuals. for the personal contribution they can make, and not as mandated representatives of particulr interests. I say amen to that. But the list of trustees is headed by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and then there is the Admiral of the Fleet, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lewin, and at the bottom, I see, Sir Nigel Broackes. I am bound to say that of the names listed between those of the noble and gallant Lord and Sir Nigel Broackes—although the noble and gallant Lord must know them all—I do not know any.

I wonder whether the Minister or the chairman can tell us how strong a trawl is made to ensure that those who serve as trustees of the National Maritime Museum reflect as broad a spectrum as possible. I see from the document that they are all appointed by the Prime Minister. Perhaps that has some relevance to the point I have just raised. I am very pleased indeed to say from these Benches that we shall give the Bill all possible speed and that we wish it well.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Graham, in welcoming the Bill. I should like to say that I regret the sad absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, whom we miss in this sort of debate.

The National Maritime Museum is housed in what is certainly the finest group of 17th century buildings in the British Isles and perhaps in Europe, including Inigo Jones's Queen's House and Christopher Wren's old Royal Observatory. Its treasures include everything to do with man's use of the sea and ships and the history of man's efforts to regulate time and to map the world through the stars. Its collection is unique and unrivalled.

Usually, when one speaks from this side of the House about museums it is to complain that the central funding is so low, that the collections are suffering and that the staff are so preoccupied trying to raise money that they have no time to do their proper job which is to look after and effectively display their treasures to the public. This is not at all the case with the National Maritime Museum. I was greatly pleased to discover on my brief visit there last week that it is earning lots of money. I leave the noble and gallant Lord who is to follow me to tell your Lordships how that is being done.

Now that the museum is able, blessed release, to withhold its earnings from the rapacious claws of the Treasury, it is in clover and those responsible are confident that they can earn all they need to make the most of their marvellous collections. But of course this cannot cover the enormous cost of upkeep and renewal for their wonderful 17th century buildings, already severely in arrears. This is, and must be, a national liability and the Government have agreed to be responsible for funding through the arts and libraries department as soon as the PSA finishes the handover.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lewin, told me—and this is typical of his whole training, it seems to me—that they made jolly sure to agree with the PSA the outstanding backlog of liabilities before they agreed to anything. I think we will see that they were quite right to do so. This includes the necessary money to complete the fifth year of the five-year plan to restore the Queen's House and to begin to carry through a similar programme for wholesale restoration and maintenance of the old Royal Observatory. The future upkeep of all the historic buildings under its care will be the responsibility of the museum itself and the necessary money will be supplied through the Office of Arts and Libraries.

All this sounds very good. I have a nagging feeling that it may be too good to be true. I must confess that I do not trust the Treasury one inch in such cases. If the latest exhibition earns £1 million worldwide but happens to coincide with, say, a serious subsidence of the observatory which will cost £2 million to put right, I visualise the Treasury saying, "Well, we cannot give you any more this year, but you have got money in hand so go ahead and do the work and we will see what we can do later". Later, things are even worse and the museum ends by providing the money itself.

I want to be jolly sure that this will not happen. I want the noble Baroness who is to reply to give us two cast-iron assurances: first, that the Government pledge unconditional responsibility for the cost of upkeep of the buildings; and, secondly, that the Government pledge that the spending of every penny that the museum succeeds in earning is at the disposal of the museum for the benefit of its collection, and cannot be appropriated for building upkeep however large the figures may be. I am sure that the noble and gallant Lord will demand the same assurances.

I have to conclude by saying that not all museums are anything like as happy, which is why I am so suspicious of the position with which we are presented. I spoke to the British Museum this morning. It is in a state of the greatest worry over upkeep. The director's hair is visibly greying. The museum has had to keep unfilled over 150 staff places because it cannot afford to pay for the chaps. The V & A with which I have also had contact is very worried about the whole question of upkeep. This is not the moment to go through all the museums, but the story is very much the same.

The dangerous gap—and I want to warn the noble and gallant Lord to look after this—is between what the occupiers think is the right figure for upkeep as opposed to what the Treasury thinks is the right figure for upkeep. You simply cannot be too careful about that. Having said that, if we can secure the assurances I have sought I think the Bill is a very good one indeed. I have the very greatest pleasure in supporting it.

7.29 p.m.

Lord Lewin

My Lords, I am indeed fortunate to be chairman of the trustees of the National Maritime Museum and part of my good fortune is to enjoy the support of trustees who represent a very broad spectrum indeed, ranging as they do from an Admiral of the Fleet who is 25 years senior to me in the Navy List. through a distinguished astronomer and scientist, a distinguished retired Permanent Under-Secretary from Whitehall and a distinguished solo circumnavigator, to our last trustee, whose name has already been mentioned, Sir Nigel Broackes, who is chairman of the company which owns Cunard. So I enjoy support from a broad spectrum. My colleagues and I, and indeed the director and the staff at the museum, welcome the Bill. We are very ready to accept our responsibility for the buildings; but we have some matters of concern which have been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson.

I am sure your Lordships will he familiar with the architectural magnificence and the beautiful setting of our museum. It includes, as the noble Lord has already said, the Queen's House, Inigo Jones's first palladian building in this country, and the old Royal Observatory built by Christopher Wren for Charles II. But I regret that under the previous regime these buildings were not maintained in the best condition, and certainly not one which satisfies the trustees.

We inherit a backlog of important maintenance: the reroofing of practically all the buildings, the rewiring, the installation of modern climate-control systems, and so on. All that requires a five-year programme which has been costed at £19.5 million at 1988 prices. That figure was arrived at by a comprehensive independent survey and it has been agreed as correct with the Property Services Agency. Included in that is the last year of the five-year restoration project of the Queen's House. Then we had to tackle the old Royal Observatory, and I am sure that your Lordships are very familiar with the problems of restoring buildings of that age and with the horrors encountered as soon as you start. We are very worried about the old Royal Observatory. Wren, like many of his successors, was pressed for money when it was built. He built it from secondhand materials on the foundations of Duke Humphreys' 15th century castle; so your Lordships can imagine what is likely to happen when we start getting to grips with the maintenance of that. Faced with that programme, we seek to be reassured that the trustees will be allocated adequate resources to enable them to meet their responsibilities.

We have also another matter of concern, which is our income. Your Lordships will be well aware that national museums and galleries have been encouraged to generate their own income to pay for improvements in the development of their displays and exhibitions. The annual grant from Her Majesty's Government is barely adequate to cover the day-to-day running expenses. I am glad to say that the National Maritime Museum is being particularly successful in its commercial enterprises. We were the first to introduce admission charges. Perhaps here I may tell the noble Lord, Lord Graham. that far from discouraging visitors, numbers have risen steadily every year since we introduced charges. I am afraid that he has been misled by the figures in the report from the Museums and Galleries Commission, of which I used to be a commissioner, because they date back historically to the days before admission was charged, when the counting of visitors was notoriously inaccurate. However, I can assure him that since we introduced charges, our admissions have risen by roughly between 10 per cent. to 12 per cent. a year until last year, when, thanks to the Armada exhibition, our attendance figures went up by 70 per cent. That is, from 400,000-plus to 700,000-plus.

We intend to go on from this new high level of attendance by increasing the attractions of the museum in its permanent displays and by staging a major exhibition every year on the lines of Armada. This year Armada will be succeeded by Mutiny on the Bounty which will be even more dramatic than the exhibition which I hope everyone enjoyed seeing last year. In addition, we plan a series of major international touring exhibitions. The first of these, a magnificent exhibition on Captain Cook, has already attracted three-quarters of a million visitors during six months at Expo '88 in Brisbane. There were more visitors to the Captain Cook exhibition in Brisbane than to the National Maritime Museum during the whole of last year.

The Captain Cook exhibition is about to set off on a tour of seven major cities in Australia and New Zealand. In fact, I am going out to Perth in about a fortnight's time to open its first solo venue. This is a joint enterprise with Australian business partners, with whom we shall share the profit. That profit will come to the museum as engendered income. Our aim with all these and other marketing enterprises is to build up an endowment fund from which we shall be able to finance a continual improvement and development programme for the museum at Greenwich.

It would he quite wrong if our success in engendering income were to he penalised by a reduction in our funding for building maintenance so that we had to use our income to maintain the fabric of our buildings; and it is on that point that I seek reassurance. We have of course discussed these points with the Minister for the Arts. I am glad to say that we enjoy his strong support, and we are much encouraged by the great interest he takes in our affairs. In supporting this Bill, I thought it right to record those matters of concern.

7.35 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, this has been a useful debate and perhaps I may quickly try to answer some of the questions that have been raised. Nearly all of them concerned finance. I can say that although the Bill will allow the method of funding to he altered, it is neutral on the question of the level of that funding. The funds which the Government provide will he channelled direct to the museum rather than to the PSA. I would add that the National Maritime Museum has been allocated its share of the substantial increases in building programme funds which we have been able to make available to the national museums and galleries. Provision for the current year 1988–89 stands at £2.37 million. This will rise next year to £3.45 million. In addition to these public funds, as I think your Lordhships are aware, the National Maritime Museum raises its own funds from its trading activities and from private sector donations. As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, the development appeal has been a notable success.

I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, seriously expects me to answer his categoric question. Indeed. I think he would believe me to be very naive if I committed any government of any colour to an open-ended commitment of the kind he had in mind. However, he also asked me about the successful fundraising being offset against grant-in-aid. My right honourable friend in another place has given a commitment that successful fund-raising by the national museums and galleries will not affect the level of grant-in-aid. The funds they raise can be used in addition. The museum can retain these, without any offset, to improve the museum's facilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked about admission charges. The decision to introduce charges and the level of such charges is one for the trustees to take. They are best placed to decide what is in the best interests of the museum. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, also mentioned the drop in attendances after charging had been introduced; but the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lewin, will confirm that attendances have in fact increased after that initial drop.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Baroness, I must apologise, but the dilemma is that the noble and gallant Lord said that in fact there never was an initial drop. I was misled by the statistics, because they showed me that something like a drop of 36 or 39 per cent. occurred in the first year, 1985. Subsequently they appeared to have been rising at the level of about 16 per cent. All I wished to say was that if that was as a result of the charges—I am referring to the initial drop—the trustees appeared to be more concerned with getting more people in than perhaps saving money.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, that is a very interesting explanation.

As regards the alterations, the Bill is subject to normal planning consents and, where appropriate, to the more stringent arrangements for listed buildings and ancient monuments in Clause 1(4). Further, the Bill retains the provision contained in the 1934 Act which rules out absolutely the demolition of Queen's House and the colonnades, and that is a totally implausible thought anyway. However, the statutory protection is there.

I think that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lewin, has more than replied to the rather curious question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, concerning trustees. I do not think that I need say any more on that score. In the interests of those who are here, and those who are waiting. I hope that I have at least clarified some of the points raised by your Lordships. However, if any noble Lord would like me to write to him, I shall be delighted to do so. In conclusion, I should like to thank your Lordships for the broad support which has been given to the Bill.

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