HL Deb 23 November 1992 vol 540 cc822-7

4.37 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement on the fire at Windsor Castle which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage. The Statement is as follows: Shortly before midday on Friday a fire started in or near the private chapel close to the state apartments. It took hold rapidly. The county fire service arrived within eight minutes and built up to 39 fire appliances and more than 200 fire fighters. By late afternoon the fire had been contained in the north east corner of the castle. The fire services continued fighting the fire throughout Friday night and by Saturday morning it had been largely extinguished. The fire has severely damaged several of the state rooms in the north east corner of the castle including St George's Hall and the Grand Reception Room. An extremely effective pre-planned salvage operation was carried out to remove pictures, furnishings, carpets and other valuables from threatened rooms. I visited the castle on Saturday and saw the extent of the damage. I am sure the house will wish to join me in saying to Her Majesty that we share with her the sadness of the devastation of what is, at one and the same time, her home, a major state building, and a unique asset and attraction of our national heritage. I would like to pay tribute to the county fire services, to the Windsor Castle auxiliary fire service and to all those who so quickly and efficiently helped to salvage so much from the burning buildings. In very difficult and dangerous circum-stances they performed with skill, courage and dedication. There was no loss of life and only limited damage to works of art. One picture, one sideboard and an antique carpet appear to have been lost. The fire was contained to one area and the contingency planning was put into effect most successfully. Investigations into the cause of the fire started almost immediately and I will receive a complete report in due course. Scaffolding is being erected to stabilise the structure, and temporary roofing will he provided. Surveys will then be carried out to identify what action is needed to restore the buildings, and a full report is expected within a month. Meanwhile the rubble will be carefully sifted by experts from English Heritage and elsewhere working in close co-operation with the Royal household to provide essential information for authentic restoration work. It will then be possible to estimate the scale and cost of the restoration work and to plan for it. Those state apartments that have not been damaged will be opened to the public as soon as possible. Windsor Castle is the property of the state, and it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that resources are provided to maintain it in a manner commensurate with its status and its role on occasions of state. I therefore have no hesitation in saying that resources will be provided to restore this most precious and well loved part of our national heritage. Once preliminary examinations of the circum-stances of the fire have been completed and considered, I will want to decide in consultation with the Royal household what further investigations are necessary. Windsor Castle is a world famous symbol of this country. I believe it is our duty to ensure that the damage is repaired as soon as possible. My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.41 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, we on this side of the House join with Ministers and the rest of the House in expressing sadness at the devastation of such a magnificent part of our heritage. We also pay our tribute to the fire fighters and all the rescuers who by their efforts reduced what could have been a very much worse disaster. We await the full report, which, according to the Statement, is expected in a month's time.

Having said that, I must say that I fear the Secretary of State was very quick off the mark with a definitive and almost wholesale statement about the whole dreadful incident. We accept, as he does, that the state is responsible for the fabric of the castle. But such a specific Statement was undoubtedly, we believe, premature.

There are a number of questions, I believe, that need to be asked. First, did the Secretary of State speak to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about the huge amount of money and how it would be forthcoming? How is the restoration to be paid for? Who actually owns the pictures, furniture and objects? This is a grey area. Has an assessment been made of what the actual cost will be? It seems impossible that the Secretary of State could have made that assessment so quickly. Will Her Majesty the Queen be making some contribution towards the repairs? Most of the popular papers today seem to think that she should pay something, and 90 per cent. of the 1,600 callers to a London phone-in are against the taxpayer footing the whole bill. This, I am afraid, exposes the Government's dilemma at a time when the question of royalty paying taxation is under public discussion. That was not so some years ago; it is quite a new thing.

The major problem is the confusion between public money—money from the Civil List—and private money, which is money belonging to the Royal family. Windsor Castle has both public and private features. I believe that the Civil List needs to be looked at by an ad hoc Select Committee. The question has been raised several times in the past but I do not believe that anything has been done about it.

English Heritage advises on the repair of the fabric. According to the Statement, its representatives are now sifting through the rubble to see what can be done and what can be saved. I would like to ask the Minister whether it is true that officials from English Heritage had been refused permission to record architectural features and that it is therefore difficult to discover what has in fact been lost. Will the huge amount involved have to come out of the English Heritage budget and the national heritage budget, or will it be new money? That is very important since we are short of money for the heritage and for the arts anyhow.

I hope that arising from this dreadful disaster a thorough examination of fire protection for our heritage, using the most up-to-date technology, will be made with no skimping on manpower, which in any case would not be very great. There has been a sea change in what is expected financially from royalty. The opportunity should be taken to examine the whole question of financing our monarchical system.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I too would like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. I associate these Benches with the condolences expressed to Her Majesty on the tragedy that has overtaken this national monument which is also her home and in which she spent many years of her youth, not least during the war. I associate myself also with the tribute paid to the county fire service for its very efficient and speedy response to the outbreak.

There are one or two points that I want to draw to the attention of the Minister. Major fires have broken out in recent years in three buildings of historical importance: Uppark, Hampton Court and, now, Windsor Castle. In each case the fire broke out during restoration. In any investigation of the cause of this latest fire we should look carefully at what steps need to be taken, when ancient buildings are being restored, to diminish the likelihood of fire breaking out. Clearly, restoration provides circumstances in which fires are more probable than otherwise.

I too would like to know whether, as the noble Baroness said, no proper architectural survey of Windsor Castle took place. The absence of such a survey makes it more difficult to restore the fabric to the condition in which it was. If that is the case, would it not be wise for other buildings of comparable importance to have such surveys put in hand at once so that such evidence would be available in the face of disasters of this nature.

I read in the press that English Heritage experts had been sent to Windsor Castle not only to sift but to advise on restoration. I should be interested to know whether those heritage experts are among the 380 skilled tradesmen who will be declared redundant in the next three years. If so, it would seem rather an unfortunate conjunction of events. I hope that we can have the assurance that English Heritage will now reconsider whether it is wise to get rid of 80 of its skilled craftsmen by February and over 300 craftsmen in the next three years.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sure all noble Lords concur in the condolences that both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness offered to Her Majesty and join in the tribute paid to the fire fighters and all those who played some part in tackling the fire at Windsor Castle and rescuing the pictures and treasures.

The noble Baroness asked where responsibility lies for funding. The Secretary of State made it very clear at the weekend. Windsor Castle is a state property and has long been recognised as such. The Government have a longstanding responsibility going back to before the great Reform Bill to provide funds for the fabric of the building. The Royal collections and furnishings are the responsibility of Her Majesty the Queen and not the Government. In 1831 Parliament transferred such expenditure to Votes in return for a reduction in the Civil List. That is why Parliament provided the money to repair another Royal residence—Hampton Court—when it was destroyed by fire. It is too early to offer any useful estimate of the cost. However, the Civil List is provided specifically for Her Majesty's household and expenses and not for the repair and maintenance of palaces such as Windsor Castle.

The noble Baroness asked about funding. That will depend partly on the level of requirement but we do not expect the likely amount to be easily absorbable within the department's budget. The Secretary of State will be discussing that matter with my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There was confusion about the English Heritage survey, which was discussed in the press. English Heritage was not involved in the rewiring survey. There were no structural changes—only rewiring was involved—and English Heritage accepted that view. However, it was closely involved with the work carried out on the round tower and other structural work that has taken place at the castle. A survey was carried out by the Royal household. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, English Heritage advised on the restoration of Hampton Court and it is advising on Windsor Castle. Its direct labour force did not carry out any work. English Heritage experts are at Windsor; they are the architectural conservation specialists and not the direct labour force.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that until we have the exact cost of refurbishment and so forth it is academic to talk about who will pay? Would it not be better to wait for the report to discover the cost? We can then discuss whether there should be a contribution from Her Majesty; whether the taxpayer should bear the whole expenditure; or whether there should be a national appeal.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend is right; it is impossible to know at this stage what the costs may be. There are substantial structural costs but luckily, as a result of the building works taking place at Windsor Castle, most of the contents were not in those rooms at the time.

Lord Annan

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that were Sandringham or Balmoral to suffer such a disaster it would be the responsibility of Her Majesty to find the funds to repair the damage but that that is not so in the case of Windsor Castle? Will he bring that fact to the attention of the editor of what is becoming our leading republican newspaper; that is the Independent?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and hope that the editor of that newspaper takes note. The Department of National Heritage is responsible for Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, St James's Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, the Banqueting House and the Tower of London. Those are the state responsibilities.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, are the Government satisfied with the safety of the objects and artefacts which were taken from Windsor Castle? Will they be safe from damage or theft while in transit or in the place where they are deposited? Indeed, are they insured and have all possible steps been taken to ensure that criminals do not have an easy job in obtaining any of them while they are outside Windsor Castle?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, some of the objects were hurriedly evacuated from Windsor Castle at the weekend. The pictures, objects and works of art are now in more secure places. I understand the paintings are insured by the Royal household against damage but not against loss because most are irreplaceable. Luckily, only two objects were lost; namely, a portrait and a sideboard which were too large to move from the rooms during the restoration work.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, in planning the restoration of the rooms which were tragically damaged by fire, will full account be taken of the lessons learnt at Hampton Court where rooms damaged by fire were brilliantly restored?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, absolutely. A substantial sum of money was spent on rewiring and fire prevention at Windsor Castle as a result of the lessons learnt from the fire at Hampton Court, which were pointed out in the report that followed.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, as it appears that the Windsor Castle fire and the Hampton Court fire occurred during renovations, is the contractor liable? If it were discovered that the fire occurred as a result of the renovations, surely the contractor, who has some insurance, could make a contribution. One can understand that he could not meet the whole cost.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not believe that the fire at Hampton Court occurred as a result of restoration; it resulted from a burning candle. The noble Baroness may be thinking of a fire at Uppark which was due to some form of restoration. Of course, that is a National Trust house. We do not know the cause of the Windsor Castle fire and it is too early to speculate. The Government do not insure such major buildings, taking the view that that is not worthwhile.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I understand the Minister's comments but I believe that contractors carry insurance for such events.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not know whether the contractor has such insurance; it is pure speculation. We do not know the cause of the fire but if that were found to be the case I am sure that the Royal household would look into it.

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