HL Deb 21 October 1991 vol 531 cc1315-7

3.4 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they have decided to abandon plans to contribute to the purchase fund for works of art for the new British Library.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the overall priority for the British Library at present is to complete the new building at St. Pancras on time and within budget. Against that background, the Government are unable to authorise at this stage the allocation of public funds for the purchase of new works of art.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that Answer. Is he aware that important art commissions were planned by the architect as an integral part of the new library building? Is he also aware that a clear undertaking was given by the Government that Treasury funds would be available towards the cost of those commissions? Is it the Government's intention that the new national library should open without any artistic enrichment?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, no. The Government undertook to consider some public funding. It was hoped that the British Library would also obtain some sponsorship. I believe that it has been unable to do so. The British Library has many important paintings and sculptures which will be used in the building. It will continue to seek sponsorship for new works of art. It is also investigating the possibility of loans from other institutions. The library has many objects of its own. In fact it will be unable to exhibit all its own works of art even in the much larger space that will be available.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that in this case the Government have their priorities right, and that the first thing that must be done is to complete the programme for the building of the library? While great sympathy may be expressed for the concern felt over this matter by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, surely the embellishment of the library could come second? Should we not consider that neither Rome nor the British Library was built in a day?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I must agree with the noble Lord. The new British Library is the largest civil public sector project commissioned in Britain this century. It will cost £450 million. It is within budget and within target. Phase I will be completed in 1993 and the final phase in 1996. Future government funding for works of art is not ruled out. We shall consider the point in the future.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that we on this side of the House find the situation currently facing the British Library little short of scandalous in that the latest problem is part only of a long history of mismanagement by the Treasury and the Office of Arts and Libraries in the funding of what is possibly one of the largest civil projects undertaken in the past 100 years? Is he further aware that we view with incredulity this latest example of penny-pinching parsimony? If any of those works of art have already been commissioned, who will pay for them?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, many noble Lords on both sides of the House view the British Library as a major project of great importance. It will bring together most of the British Library's books under one roof, which will be a huge advantage to the public. The British Library accumulates some five miles of additional books each year. Space is needed. The project is a fine one, and we look forward to it opening.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said, but does my noble friend agree that the Government gave some indication to those on the committee that they would receive some money? While I am not in favour of decorating a new building all at once, with art of one period, there should be a statue in the forecourt, which is what the plan intended that it should have.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I said that we undertook to consider some public funding. I can only repeat that we have not ruled out funding in the future.

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