HL Deb 06 June 1995 vol 564 cc1339-41

8.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th May be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the above order is to repeal and re-enact with modern provisions the Armagh Observatory and Museum Act 1791 (as extended by the University and Collegiate and Scientific Institutions Act (Northern Ireland) 1938), while preserving the observatory's historical origins and its mainly ecclesiastical and independent corporation.

The observatory was originally founded and endowed by the Church of Ireland Archbishop Robinson of Armagh in 1790 and established by the 1791 Act, a public Act of the former Irish Parliament. The governors find many of its provisions to be restrictive and archaic. It is for that reason that the draft order is being promoted by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland at the request and with the agreement of the governors of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium. Consultation on the original proposal has not resulted in any changes to the draft order.

It may be helpful to give your Lordships a brief background to the role and activities of the observatory and the planetarium. The observatory was part of Archbishop Robinson's plan for a university of Armagh, a plan which is now approaching fruition with the establisment of the Queen's University of Belfast outreach centre in Armagh. The observatory is the second oldest in the British Commonwealth.

Armagh has remained at the forefront of observational astronomy and is an important centre of research and advanced education in astronomy and astrophysics undertaken in collaboration with Queen's University Belfast. While astronomical observations are no longer carried out at the Armagh site, its research work involves widespread international collaboration and the use of observing facilities far from Armagh, such as Australia, Hawaii and South Africa, as well as satellite-based telescopes.

The Armagh Planetarium officially opened in 1968. Over the past 27 years the planetarium has gained a worldwide reputation for innovation and achievement in the field of astronomy education. The past three years in particular have seen some dramatic improvements in the facilities, including: a 25-acre astropark designed to give visitors a chance to walk through a scale model of the universe; an eartharium, a 2,000 square metre hands-on exhibition hall devoted to the understanding of the earth and its place in the universe; a hall of astronomy, a 500 square metre hands-on astronomical exhibition area; and a star theatre, equipped with the first digistar virtual reality star projector in the United Kingdom, and interactive response system.

The planetarium's aim is to enhance the public understanding of science, and it is actively involved in science education in Northern Ireland. Over 30,000 school children are expected to visit the planetarium this year. The observatory and planetarium, as well as providing valuable educational and research facilities, provide an exciting tourist attraction, and play an active role in encouraging people to visit Armagh. Tourist numbers have increased from 17,331 in 1991 to over 32,000 in eight months in 1994. Because of the ceasefire the demand for tourism is increasing rapidly, and we can expect to see those figures increase by something like a further three-quarters.

The draft order provides for the continuation of the independent corporation created by the 1791 Act, with its existing powers and responsibilities updated to take account of modern day conditions, and encompasses both existing and possible future functions in regard to research and education. The order will, for example, enable the governors to charge for their services. One of the main changes will be to remove the benefits (lodgings and tax-free income from the observatory lands) applicable to the office, formerly referred to in the 1791 Act as astronomer and keeper, and instead place these at the disposal of the governors for the support of the observatory and planetarium.

Those are the main provisions of the order. The remaining provisions are largely of an administrative nature and are set out in a supporting schedule, the main elements of which cover memberships, staffing and procedures of the governors. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th May be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, since this order regularises and puts in proper order the affairs of the observatory and planetarium and is supported by the governors and staff, we on this side similarly support it. We are happy to endorse the tributes that have been paid to the excellent reputation that the observatory and planetarium have enjoyed.

I noticed with interest that the Minister described an astropark that was able to define the earth and its place in the universe. I conclude from that that the astropark is not sufficiently ambitious to seek to describe the present Government and their place in the universe since they both seem to be rather vestigial.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her introduction to this order. If one were able to ignore a sense of history in this House, which would be difficult, it would be impossible to do so faced with a handful of your Lordships sitting here amending an Act of 1791. It is very interesting to think of a scientific foundation and a wonderful centre of research, which this certainly is, governed by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, the Dean of Armagh Cathedral, other members of the chapter of Armagh Cathedral and one or two token laymen in the shape of a representative of the Department of Education and an appointee from Queen's University. It makes one realise that in 1791 there must have been considerable anxiety on the part of those eminent ecclesiastics to keep control of the heavens and not let them pass into alien hands.

It is not just a first-class research facility; it is an important unifying influence in Armagh itself. I believe that it plays a constructive role. It attracts 50,000 visitors a year as well as 20,000 schoolchildren. It is nice to have the chance to pay tribute to the useful work that it does. I have only one question to put to the Minister. When one looks at Schedule 2, paragraph 2(1), of the order, one sees that the governors of Armagh Observatory and Planetarium retain their ecclesiastical presence on the board. I should like to have her assurance that the other nominees of the Department of Education and Queen's will be able to represent the wider traditions, and the other religious traditions, of Northern Ireland. With that question from these Benches, I have pleasure in supporting the order.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their support for this order. It is indeed an outstanding establishment. I hope that those who have not visited it will find time to do so. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that the answer to his question is most definitely yes. One of our major tasks in Northern Ireland is to make sure that the benefits that peace can bring are shared by everybody. That applies to every establishment there. I am delighted to tell the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that I now spend my time persuading everybody that Northern Ireland is the centre of the universe. I shall extend that activity to the Government.

On Question, Motion agreed to.