HL Deb 22 May 1997 vol 580 cc493-5

The Earl of Clancarty asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will intervene to prevent the introduction of an admission charge to galleries run by National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, planned to take effect from 1st July 1997.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside already charge for admission at some of their collections. It is for the board of trustees to decide whether or not to introduce admission charges at other NMGM museums and galleries. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be meeting the chairman of the trustees shortly to discuss this issue.

The Earl of Clancarty

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Will the Government consider taking steps to stop all further introductions of admission charges by public museums and galleries within the UK? Will they consider abolishing charges currently operated by public museums; for example, at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery where attendances have fallen drastically since charges were introduced in 1992?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the formal position is that the Government have no power to decide whether or not museum trustees impose admission charges. However, as noble Lords will be aware, the Secretary of State, Chris Smith, has declared that he is against admission charges, and will seek to find ways of maximising access to our museums and galleries. At the same time, it must be said that that statement should not be taken as an indication to museums and galleries to come to government with a begging bowl to make up the deficit in their budgets. Ways must be found of maximising access to our museums and galleries and of course it is desirable for that to be done without admission charges.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the Minister be kind enough to explain the alternative for museums and galleries other than to go to the Government with a begging howl if they take away the discretion to make charges?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I was not suggesting that the Government were going to take away the discretion to make charges. As the noble Lord will well know, the power to make charges was introduced by the Museums and Galleries Admission Charges Act 1972 under the Heath government. When we had the Wilson government in 1974 it was possible, by persuasion, to get the museums and galleries to remove their charge. It is only by persuasion that we can get our museums and galleries to maximise access, unless we were to change the law which we have no present intention of doing.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the proposal by Merseyside may have an adverse effect on bequests, including the important bequest by Sir Denis Mahon which will be cancelled if the charges are introduced?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Sir Denis Mahon is of course a generous contributor to our museums and galleries. He has three pictures on loan in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. If my noble friend is right when he says that the effect of charges would be that he would withdraw all his pictures on loan in our museums and galleries that would be sad, and we should have to consider it.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest in that my wife is a trustee. Is the noble Lord aware that the charge of £3 for a season ticket, admitting to all six museums, will not yield a huge amount of income? What will yield income is the ability to reclaim VAT, once their charitable status is altered. Will the noble Lord tell me the Labour policy on VAT, and whether there is any chance of the Government abolishing VAT on charities?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I can confirm, as the noble Viscount said, that one of the advantages to museums of making charges is that they can reclaim the VAT. I can also confirm that the proposed annual charge of £3 and £1.50 for concessions for all of the Merseyside museums is not, as he says, onerous. The issue of VAT on charities is rather wide of the Question, and I do not think that I can answer it at present.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, in his first supplementary, the noble Earl made a comment—if I heard him correctly—about the drastic fall in the number of attendees. Does the noble Lord have any statistics as to what extent attendances have fallen since the introduction of charges?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is true that in general introducing admission charges causes a severe reduction in attendances, although the evidence is that attendances tend to rise after a certain time. The problem with obtaining the statistics has been that before the introduction of charges there was not necessarily a good count of the number of people entering museums and galleries. However the Government have commissioned the Glasgow Caledonian University to carry out research into the whole question of the economics of admission charges. We are expecting its report in November. We are looking to see whether that deadline can be advanced.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Mahon bequest will be cancelled only if the actual museum introduces charges, unlike my noble friend's implication that it will be withdrawn from all galleries? For example, the bulk of the collection will go to the National Gallery which, happily, does not charge and does not intend to do so.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that correction. It seems to me highly desirable that the Secretary of State should meet Sir Denis Mahon and talk about it, although I have no control over my right honourable friend's diary.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while it is a good idea to have free days for schoolchildren and old age pensioners who are finding payment difficult, many of us really want to pay to go into museums so that they can invest that money in making their exhibitions more exciting?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I confirm that from my personal experience. I certainly have found no difficulty—indeed, I have found pleasure—in making a voluntary contribution when I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. I am sad that last November the Victoria and Albert Museum found it necessary to move from voluntary charges to a compulsory charge.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that it is the Government's view that the decision about whether charges shall be made for admission to national museums and galleries should be for the trustees and not for central government?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I confirmed that in my first supplementary answer. It is a matter legally for the trustees and not for the Government.

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