HL Deb 21 January 1993 vol 541 cc958-62

3.7 p.m.

Baroness Brigstocke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider the intention of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College to sell paintings bequeathed by the founder of the Royal Holloway College poses a threat to the Government's policy of encouraging private charitable bequests.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

No, my Lords.

Baroness Brigstocke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that brief reply. I must confess to being somewhat puzzled that the Department of National Heritage is not answering for itself. Does the Minister agree that, by appearing to condone the sale of Royal Holloway and Bedford New Colleges' magnificent Constable, Gainsborough and Turner paintings, probably overseas, the Government are setting a dangerous precedent which could have a most damaging effect not only on university collections—I understand Edinburgh is next in line—but also on other museums enjoyed by the general public which do not happen to be nationally funded? Will Her Majesty's Government please, as a matter of urgency, set out and adopt a national policy on museums?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sorry to have disappointed my noble friend by both the brevity and content of the reply and the fact that it was not a colleague from the Department of National Heritage who answered the Question. Of course, the Question deals with charities and charity law.

The building, which is called The Founder's Building, was built in 1886. Thomas Holloway made an endowment and made three deeds: one was a deed on the land and buildings; one was a deed on the paintings, furniture and other chattels for decoration; and the other deed was a substantial endowment. The college has run out of money and it applied to the Charity Commission to set up a scheme so that it could sell the pictures, the proceeds of which would enable it to continue the work of the original benefactor; namely, the education of children. This scheme was considered by the Charity Commission, which approved it. Now the trustees have the right to sell the paintings should they wish to do so.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I must declare a non-financial interest as I was chairman of the council at the college until quite recently and I am now the visitor. Does the Minister agree that these pictures were not strictly speaking a bequest, as the Question implies, but were, as he explained, purchased by Thomas Holloway by auction to decorate the walls of the ladies' college which he was then building? Does the Minister also agree that the college cannot look for public funds to maintain this extremely elaborate Grade 1 building, which was Thomas Holloway's prime concern? Millions of pounds have to be found from somewhere and no one has suggested any way of finding the money other than by the decision of the council to sell three of the 77 pictures and set up a trust fund with limited purposes which are strictly defined and approved by the Charity Commission.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the House will be grateful for the exposition which the noble Lord has given. He is quite correct. The paintings were given for decoration. It is true there are no public funds available and certainly the maintenance of the Founders Building does not qualify for a grant from the Universities Funding Council. As the college had run out of money, not only was the original endowment in danger but the pictures were also in danger not only as regards a place to hang them but also as regards the wherewithal to insure them. That is why this scheme was proposed.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, are the Government aware that in addition to these sales other universities have sold items from bequests because they suffer from underfunding, notably Manchester University and Edinburgh University? Are the Government prepared to consider further finance before these sales become a flood?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if the noble Lord wishes to table a Question about Manchester and Edinburgh Universities I shall ensure that it is answered, but the Question we are discussing refers to the peculiar circumstances of this particular college.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my question to the Government is: why am I here? In other words why, as a spokesman on the Home Department, am I here rather than my noble friends who deal with national heritage or education? Is it not the case that this Question has been shifted around from one department to another? Is it not the case that the Department of Education was not willing to reply to it because it is ashamed of the underfunding of the college and the Department of National Heritage was unwilling to reply to it because it is ashamed of its policy as regards the disposal of our heritage?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a curious question in asking why he is here. I cannot tell him why he is here. I can only tell him why I am here. The Question refers to something which comes within the realm of charities. This is not a matter of education: it is a straightforward question of charities. The items we are discussing, valuable, delightful and good though they are, were established under a certain deed and the Charity Commission has to establish a scheme to alter the deed so that the principal purpose of the original foundation is continued.

Lord Rippon of Hexham

My Lords, I also declare a personal interest, albeit not a financial one, as chairman of the Court of London University. I thank my noble friend the Minister for the clear way in which he has expressed the position. Is he aware that this matter has been widely discussed for some time within the university? This college is not a museum or a library and the Charity Commissioners are perfectly well satisfied that the way in which the proceeds of the sale will be utilised is entirely in accordance with the wishes of the benefactor, who primarily had in mind the establishment and maintenance of what is a fine educational college.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his explanation. I know perfectly well that this matter concerns a great many people and that much anxiety has been expressed within the university and within the art world. However, sometimes we have to face up to horrible realities.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, apart from the special circumstances of this bequest, is there not a general principle at stake here which is that universities and other such establishments should not in future accept gifts when they intend simply to get rid of them and apply the proceeds for other purposes? There is also the case of the Torrey Bequest in Edinburgh. Edinburgh University intends to get rid of two of the finest of the Torrey pictures, one of which has been in the National Gallery of Scotland for over 100 years. The university does not intend to use the money for any purpose dreamt of by Sir James Erskine, who gave the pictures, nor for any purpose in accordance with his wishes. The university also intends to remove two of the trustees from the Erskine Fund. Is there not a public interest in this matter? Can we be told what remedy the public have if such institutions and universities sell off valuable pictures and other items and apply the money for other purposes?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord has also referred to Edinburgh University. I should tell him with the greatest of respect that that is a different matter. He asked whether universities should accept gifts. The college we are discussing was established with three deeds: one deed for the land and the buildings, another for hanging pictures and another for money. However, the money has run out. If nothing is done with the pictures, not only will they not be housed properly but also the whole of the original foundation will come to an end. That is a different matter to the position of Edinburgh University.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not possible, recognising the particular circumstances of this case, for the noble Earl to express the view that this should he an isolated case and should not be taken as an example for other organisations and institutions to follow?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is quite inappropriate for a Minister to pontificate on what the Charity Commission should do. The commission will consider each case on its merits.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I, too, must declare an interest as a former member of Bedford College, to which Royal Holloway and Bedford New College is a successor state, and as one to whose intercollegiate classes members of the merged college make an indispensable contribution. Is the noble Earl aware that it is recognised by the Department of Education that mergers of colleges carry considerable capital costs? Is he further aware that the merger of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College took place before those capital costs were recognised and therefore without the kind of financial assistance now available? Does he accept, and if not will he take steps to verify, that the standard of education in a really excellent college is under severe financial threat unless it can lift from its back the burden of looking after its listed buildings and transfer it to another account? Does he also accept that education was the primary purpose of Thomas Holloway's bequest?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Earl is quite correct. That was the original purpose of Thomas Holloway's bequest. It is also to be desired that the college should escape from its financial difficulties, and that is precisely what it is doing. We must remember that it is still left with about 74 paintings and that is not bad going.