HL Deb 16 March 1992 vol 536 cc1619-26

2.47 p.m.

Brought from the Commons; and read a first time.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 12th March):

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The main purpose of the Bill is to put the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Wallace Collection on a proper statutory basis. The Bill is broadly similar in structure and provisions to the National Heritage Act 1983 which put the V&A and the Science Museum on a regular footing and which has stood the test of time. The Government have therefore chosen to follow a similar path on this occasion.

It has been recognised for some time that the present statutory basis of the four institutions is deficient. Their powers are often ill-defined, overly rigid in scope and lead to frustrating uncertainties about what may or may not be done by the trustees. The Bill is welcomed by the trustees of the four major galleries and I hope that it will be welcomed in all parts of the House.

The Bill falls into four main parts. The first part establishes new incorporated boards of trustees for the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Wallace Collection, and deals with their general functions, constitutions and powers, including those to form companies, and in three cases—not the Wallace—with powers to acquire and dispose of pictures and other objects and to lend and borrow such objects.

The Government take the view that the National Gallery should not be able to dispose of any work of art (other than by way of transfer to another specified collection) because the pictures in its collection are of established merit and significance. All the pictures are presently hung and it is logical to keep them together.

In keeping with the understanding entered into at the time of the Wallace Collection's passing to the nation the Government intend that the collection should not be able to acquire or dispose of works of art—that it should remain a closed collection—in the terms of the original bequest.

The Tate and National Portrait galleries are rather different in character and the Government intend that they should be given limited powers of disposal. That reflects the particular nature of their collections. The great majority of the Tate's collection (some 75 per cent.) cannot be hung at any one time. The Tate's function is to acquire modern and contemporary works, and, as the needs of the collection change over time, it may occasionally wish to dispose of works which overlap or are duplicated. It should have the right to do so. Any funds raised in that way would be used only to acquire further works of art for the collection. Any decision to dispose of objects will be a matter for the trustees, and the Government will play no part. That power does not signal a government wish to see a widespread disposal of the Tate's collections. It is a reserve power to be used occasionally and after full consideration by the trustees.

The Bill provides powers to the National Portrait Gallery to transfer objects and dispose of duplicates. The trustees have also been given, at their own request, a power to enable them to dispose of portraits when the board is satisfied that the identification of the person portrayed has been discredited. This is to assist it in the proper management of its collection. Again, any money from disposals could only be used by the board to acquire further objects for its collection.

The second part of the Bill empowers boards of trustees of specified museums, galleries and libraries to transfer objects from their collections to other similarly specified institutions. For the most part that sustains and expands the transfer provisions of the National and Tate Gallery Act 1954 which the Bill would repeal. It also provides for gifts of works of art to the nation or for the public benefit to be vested in specified institutions and enables Crown land and buildings occupied by specified national museums, galleries and libraries to be transferred to their governing bodies. The latter provision fulfils the policy of transferring ownership of their estates to trustees announced in this House in 1989 by my noble friend Lady Trumpington.

The third part of the Bill provides for the payment of grant-in-aid to certain national museums, galleries and libraries and the Museums and Galleries Commission by the appropriate Minister out of money provided by Parliament. It provides also for the keeping of proper records and accounts and the examination and certification of those accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor-General and for him to report on those accounts to Parliament.

Clause 10 makes improvements to the National Heritage Act 1980 in the matter of reporting indemnities and the need only to approve borrowers, and not lenders. Otherwise there is no change to the present indemnity scheme which, since its inception in 1980, has proved of inestimable benefit in encouraging museums and galleries to mount important exhibitions and to loan their own items throughout the country.

The fourth part of the Bill deals with minor and supplemental matters. They include giving company-forming powers to the board of trustees of the Armouries and to the board of trustees of the Imperial War Museum. The Bill gives those boards powers which are already enjoyed by similar bodies.

Other provisions of the Bill deal with particular Welsh institutions and certain provisions extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Viscount Astor.)

2.53 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is it not very nice that in the dying hours of this hard-worked Parliament we can welcome a totally non-controversial, sensible, reasonable Bill which tidies up some aspects of one of Britain's most successful industries —the museums and galleries of this country? Is it not marvellously appropriate that it should be with the Museums and Galleries Bill that we consign the activities, for good or ill, of this present Parliament to the glass case of history under optimum conditions of temperature and humidity for the education and entertainment of generations yet unborn?

We on this side of the House welcome the Bill, which has many good things in it. Perhaps I may mention briefly just four. First, it is good that we shall now have four bodies corporate instead of merely four boards of trustees. They will have the additional powers to do things, such as open restaurants at times when the galleries themselves are not open—something which several of them have wanted to do. I must declare an interest here in that I am a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, though receiving no financial reward therefor. I know that we shall welcome the opportunity to have a little money-spinning restaurant in the centre of London, off Trafalgar Square. Similarly, it will allow us and others to open the museum late at night for purposes other than exhibiting the collection. This again extends the trustees' power to generate income, and for this they will be truly grateful. It also allows them to create companies to market their products which, again, they will be anxious to do.

Secondly, the Bill clarifies the acquisitions and disposals business, although for many of the galleries, acquisitions remain rather a theoretical matter when purchase grants have been frozen for so many years that many of us have forgotten how long it is.

Thirdly, it is good to find that in the present version of the Bill, the matter of indemnities has been cleared up. The Bill does not now include any sinister section in which indemnities might be related to institutions' annual grants.

Fourthly, it is good to know that the Natural History Museum has been recognised now as having come of age and it can go its own way. It is a remarkable institution, a national museum of the first rank plus, behind it, an international—nay, a world class—research centre which needs every bit of assistance and help that it can get.

I have only three or four brief questions on which I should like clarification from the noble Viscount, if he can provide it. First, I was pleased to hear that he feels that the Bill now deals adequately with disposal powers. I should like to hear him say, if he can, that this Government's policy for the next hour or so will never be to use disposal powers to justify cutting or freezing any museum's purchase grant. That has been a matter of anxiety to many of the museums and I am sure that they would welcome any reassurance the noble Viscount can give.

Secondly, there has been some puzzlement about why the Government felt it necessary to dig in their heels over the question of trustees being appointed for only five years. In the past it has been seven years and the directors of at least two of the galleries that I know personally have advocated that the period of seven years is most useful. The Government have heard these representations but have decided to hold the period at five years. Many people are a little puzzled and would like to know why.

Thirdly, the provision on duplicates under Clause 4(5) (b) would benefit from clarification. If, for example, the National Portrait Gallery were sufficiently fortunate to have five portraits of Shakespeare, could four of them be described as "duplicates" or is the provision meant to apply only to pulls from the same engraving? If one has two or three of those, could one dispose of one or two? Any clarification would be useful.

Finally, if the status of the National Galleries of Scotland could be clarified a little more, it would be a great help. I read in the newspaper this morning that the most talked of artistic statement of the year in Edinburgh is the huge graffito on the wall of the National Galleries of Scotland. "Go home, English!", it advises. Underneath, it adds: "That means you, Timothy Clifford". Mr. Timothy Clifford is the director of the National Galleries of Scotland and in my opinion and that of many another he is the best thing that has happened to the National Galleries of Scotland in recent years. I am sure that the Government would not want anyone or anything in Scotland to feel disturbed in any way at this delicate moment. If the Minister could clarify the question of the status of the National Galleries of Scotland under the Bill, it would be to the benefit of us all.

We welcome the Bill and propose no amendments whatever to it.

3 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris I am grateful to the noble Viscount for explaining the purposes of this Bill. This is the first Museums and Galleries Bill that we have had since 1954, nearly 40 years ago. I took some part in the previous Bill so I really begin to feel sometimes that this is where I came in.

The previous Bill was subjected to long scrutiny in this House. It was considerably improved in Committee. Unfortunately we were only told late on Friday afternoon that this Bill was going to be taken through all its stages today. However, as my noble friend has said, it is a good Bill and we do not want to lose it. The National Gallery and Tate Gallery Act 1954 will be repealed by this Bill.

As has been said, this Bill contains limited powers of disposal which are restricted only to the National Portrait Gallery and to the Tate. The National Gallery trustees do not want those powers. The Wallace Collection with its generous bequest is a closed collection and should remain so. The Tate can probably justify the right to dispose of some works which overlap or are duplicated. I understand that the proceeds are to be used to buy other works and not to repair the fabric of the gallery. I emphasise the fact that the proceeds are to be used to buy other works. I hope that that process will not occur at the expense of grants. I hope that the Treasury will not say to a gallery, "If you want to buy this particular work—particularly if it is an expensive Picasso or similar work—you must sell something to raise the proceeds".

However, I welcome the limited powers of the Bill which are much better than the original sweeping powers of disposal which were to be given carte blanche to all the museums and galleries in the kingdom. Those powers were widely criticised throughout the art world. Clause 10 concerns indemnities. The original clause was most unsatisfactory as it placed the responsibility for that matter onto a gallery and not onto the Treasury or the Government. That clause was changed in Committee in another place.

Clause 6 deals with transfers between the institutions which are listed in Schedule 5. There is one matter there that is still causing concern as regards the National Galleries of Scotland. Like my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris I, too, wish to pay a tribute to Mr. Timothy Clifford who is the distinguished director of those galleries.

The National Galleries of Scotland have had powers of disposal since 1985. I am not talking about transfers but powers of disposal. Unless the position is changed, that provision may have an effect on direct bequests and on transfers from other institutions listed in Schedule 5 of the Bill. There is a further cause for concern because it is proposed to make additions to the list in Schedule 5 by statutory instrument under Clause 6(6) and (7). Some of those future institutions may have even wider powers. Therefore we are going into unknown territory. There are dangers that the intentions of those making bequests may be overturned in the years ahead. We have only to consider what happened at the Rylands Library in Manchester where many rare and extremely important books were sold at auction in London. That action aroused public protest.

Sir Denis Mahon, the distinguished art historian and collector, has reservations as he is proposing to make a bequest of some of his paintings to the National Galleries of Scotland. He wishes, before doing that, to be assured that this matter will be tied up. I appreciate there are hybridity problems and that is why we do not wish to hold up the passage of this Bill. Frankly, it would have been much better if the Scottish National Gallery and the other galleries in Scotland had been dealt with in a separate Bill concerned with Scotland rather than being added to a schedule of this Bill. However, I am glad to say that the Government have given an undertaking in Standing Committee in another place. I shall not quote from Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, at length but in Standing Committee A on 25th February he gave a definite undertaking that the matter would be put right in the next Parliament, either by government legislation or a Private Member's Bill.

This Bill had all-party support in another place, although the Labour shadow spokesman was concerned about the National Galleries of Scotland loophole to which I have referred. We understand the hybridity problem, although I think that that should have been foreseen by the Government. However, undertakings have been given in writing by Ministers to the Opposition and to Sir Denis Mahon that should the present Government be returned the matter would be put right in the next Parliament, and the shadow Minister for the Arts, speaking also on behalf of the shadow Scottish Minister, has also assured me today that a future Labour government would attend to the matter. It is on the understanding that the matter will be rectified that the Opposition in both Houses have co-operated and agreed to let the Bill through in all its stages on this, the final day of this Parliament. I wish it all success.

3.5 p.m.

Lord Kinnaird

My Lords, I do not intend to discuss the Bill. I wish merely to add my support to what the noble Lords, Lord Morris and Lord Strabolgi, said. I know Mr. Tim Clifford well and I cannot think of a better director. He has great imagination, great drive and a great love of his subject and he has done tremendous work for the National Galleries of Scotland.

3.6 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful for the support which noble Lords have given to the Bill today. I should like to answer some of the points raised.

The noble Lords, Lord Morris and Lord Strabolgi, asked whether I could give an assurance that purchase grants would not be used to reduce proceeds. The purpose of Clause 4(7) is to enable the boards of the National Portrait Gallery or the Tate Gallery to channel any funds arising from a disposal carried out in the restricted circumstances described in the Bill towards the purchase of alternative items for their collections. The Government want to encourage sensible use of those limited disposal powers in circumstances in which the boards concerned consider them applicable. It would hardly encourage such use if the Government were then to reduce purchase grants in line with the proceeds derived from disposal. I can assure both noble Lords that the Government have no plans to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, also asked me about the duration of trustees' appointments. Before I address that point, I pay tribute to all those who are trustees of those bodies. They do an extremely good job with a great deal of dedication. This is a matter of judgment. It has been put to us that five years was the right balance. We felt that it was likely that a trustee would be appointed for two terms amounting to 10 years, whereas if the duration were seven years it would be unlikely that trustees would be appointed for 14 years, which is a rather long period. We have not received any representations suggesting that there is anything wrong with that approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, also asked me about duplicates, and he gave an interesting example. That is not a matter for the judgment of the Government; it is for the judgment of the boards themselves. They must decide. It is not for us to decide what may or may not be a duplicate. I am sure that trustees know rather better than we do what would be a duplicate and what would not.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, raised the question of the National Galleries of Scotland. As the noble Lords said, there are powers of disposal for the National Galleries of Scotland. That is a matter for my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. However, we considered very closely whether we could restrict those powers of disposal by this Bill. For the reasons which noble Lords mentioned in relation to hybridisation of the Bill that was not possible. However, I can repeat the assurances which my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary gave in another place that we shall be considering the problem further in order to resolve it, possibly with future legislation. We shall also look closely into the possibility of a Private Member's Bill. My right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has written to day to Sir Denis Mahon to give him assurances and explain that fact.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked me about indemnities. We put those into the Bill originally because we understood that the directors of the national museums and galleries asked the Government to enable them to issue indemnities through legislation. However, I understand that on reflection and in the light of the excellent service provided by the Office of Arts and Libraries, they recently came to the view that they preferred the current arrangements to continue. The Government were content to amend the Bill in another place for that to happen.

The noble Lord also asked me about transferees and the fact that other institutions may be added to the list in Schedule 5. That would be subject to consideration in your Lordships' House and another place. The Government would consider very carefully any relevant powers that another body may have before they decide to add anything to that list. I hope that I have answered all the questions on the Bill that have been raised.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived; read a third time, and passed.

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