HL Deb 23 May 1996 vol 572 cc975-8

11.20 a.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Who are the members of the Stamp Advisory Committee, when and by whom they were appointed and what is their role in the selection of commemorative stamps.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the Post Office appoints the members. The Post Office also decides the stamp subject and the committee then assists in choosing the best designs. The names of the external members of the committee, the interest that they represent and their joining date are: Dr. Jean Alexander, philately, 1980; Ms. Floella Benjamin, media and youth, 1993; Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, MP, 1993; Ms. Mary Lewis, designer, 1993; Professor Alan Livingston, designer, 1993; Mr. John McConnell, designer, 1984; Mr. Richard Negus, designer, 1977; Mrs. Elisabeth Santry, DTI, 1994; and Mr. Jean Varga, philately, 1989. In addition, there are six Post Office representatives on the committee.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Is it the fact that the Stamp Advisory Committee has decided not to issue a stamp commemorating the centenary of the internationally renowned artist, designer, poet and socialist, William Morris, but to issue one on Muffin the Mule instead? Does the Minister agree with me in deploring that philistine decision, which is all the more remarkable when we are approaching the millennium celebrations, in which we are to pay tribute to our great achievements in the field of arts and crafts? Would the Minister please intervene to call the Post Office to account and get it to reverse that absurd preference?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I do not disagree with the noble Baroness's description of William Morris in any detail. If she had listened to my original Answer, she would know that the Post Office decides the subjects of stamps and not the advisory committee, whose remit is restricted to choosing the best design. It is true that it rejected the idea of a William Morris stamp. I understand that it receives something like 300 suggestions a year and issues only nine special sets.

I do not believe that it was a direct decision to reject William Morris and have Muffin the Mule. In fact, I understand that it decided that five decades of children's television should be celebrated. It has chosen not just Muffin the Mule but Sooty, as well; also Stingray, the Clangers and, doubtless, the noble Baroness's favourite, Danger Mouse, to represent the 1980s. The reasoning behind the choice is that, in part, it is keen to encourage children to begin stamp collecting, which is a dying hobby. It is hoped by that action to promote it. But it is entirely a commercial decision for the Post Office and not for me.

Lord Alport

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that when the late Lord Hill of Luton was Postmaster General it was decided to include pictorial stamps in the British issue? The objects were twofold: first, to continue the patronage that the Post Office has always given to the arts in the past; and, secondly, to produce for this country the most beautiful stamps that exist in the world.

Does my noble and learned friend realise that over recent years there has been a flood of stamps produced by the Post Office which are increasingly vulgar and ugly? Will he try to encourage the Post Office, so far as it is within his power, to return to the objects which originally motivated those who started the pictorial stamps and developed them 20 years ago?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords that is a criticism which should be properly directed to the advisory committee. To that committee is entrusted the task of determining the best designs. Obviously, my noble friend has strong views about some of the pictorial stamps that have been issued. I feel that some very good ones have been issued recently. I suggest that the stamps on Robert Burns issued this year were particularly fine.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I do not wish to quarrel at all with the Minister about Muffin the Mule and the ideas behind that decision. I know that the committee is only an advisory committee and the final authority is the Post Office itself. We have no jurisdiction at all over the Post Office. But will the Minister be prepared to use his good offices to ask the Post Office to look again at the situation—no more than that—in view of the concern raised by my noble friend Lady Castle of Blackburn?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the stance that has been adopted by successive Ministers is, I believe, the right one. It is a matter for the Post Office to determine the subjects. It has a set of criteria which it uses in making its choice.

So far as concerns its conventions, I believe it is publicly known that it has decided never to have on a stamp a living person other than royalty and it will not select a topic which might cause offence, particularly if it is political. It does follow 50th anniversaries or multiples thereof. I should think it appropriate to suggest to the Post Office that it should rethink the matter if it offends against its openly declared conventions.

Lord Peston

My Lords, it is almost piquant that the Post Office should choose not to have William Morris. He set a standard in the aesthetic domain for which this country was and is renowned. I think we agreed the last time we discussed this matter that one of the criteria—perhaps the main one—was simply making money. Is the Post Office under growing pressure from the Treasury simply to choose money-making as its main criterion in this area rather than aesthetics and rather than producing stamps of which we can all feel rather proud?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

No, my Lords. I congratulate the noble Lord on the way in which he managed to return to the EFLs that are imposed on the Post Office. No, it is not under any new or renewed pressure. The criteria that it uses to choose the stamps are important anniversaries, events of national or international importance, British contributions to world affairs, varied aspects of the British way of life and the development of minuscule art. They must also fit in with the Post Office's commercial targets. All that seems to me to be appropriate.

I recognise the contribution of William Morris and indeed so has the Post Office. In the 1980s it issued a stamp which commemorated some of his designs.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Is the Minister aware that the Victoria and Albert Museum has thought the centenary of William Morris sufficiently important to organise a special exhibition to commemorate it? Will he, therefore, as the Post Office is supposed to be nationalised, exert his influence on it to reverse the decision?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I have no doubt that the views expressed in this House will be noted by the Post Office. As I indicated, the basis on which I feel it would be appropriate to intervene is limited. I join the noble Baroness in approving of the action that the Victoria and Albert Museum has taken.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that it is just because of the policy that he repeated of non-interference by government departments and Ministers in the working of the Post Office that the Post Office has been such an enormous success over recent years?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

Yes, my Lords, I have no doubt that that has been an important feature. As I indicated, interference should be restricted to that very small area where political offence might be caused if a particular stamp were to be issued. Undoubtedly, the Post Office has been extremely successful in recent years.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, giving preference to Muffin the Mule over William Morris is close to making this country look ridiculous. Is the Minister aware that millions of British stamps go all over the world? We, as a country, are partly judged by the quality of our stamps and I for one do not want this country to look silly.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I can only repeat that the idea that the choice lay between Muffin the Mule and William Morris is wrong. There were around 500 designs from which to select a choice. It was a commercial decision that children's television should be commemorated after 50 years. We shall have to wait to see whether or not that issue of stamps will be successful.