HL Deb 12 November 1997 vol 583 cc147-50

2.55 p.m.

The Earl of Clancartyasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will intervene to ensure that the National Museums of Scotland do not introduce the admission charge to their sites which is planned to take effect on 5th January 1998.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

My Lords, the Board of Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland has powers under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985 to impose charges for admission to its premises. It is entirely a matter for the trustees; they do not require the approval of the Secretary of State. The Government are already reviewing their position on access to the national collections, including the implications of admission charges, and expect to announce the outcome of the review early in December.

The Earl of Clancarty

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Will he acknowledge that the National Museums of Scotland will be able to claim back almost £3 million in VAT in the current tax year only if, completely against their will, they take the option of introducing admission charges? Will the Minister review the situation and change the VAT rules so that all national museums are not penalised in such a manner?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am aware that the VAT issue is one of the driving concerns in the trustees' decision to introduce charges. It is true that the issue will be taken up in the review.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, taking into account the noble Earl's interesting Question, is the Minister aware that for some years during the late 1980s I was a trustee of the National Museums of Scotland and that I argued long and hard, but unsuccessfully, for limited flexible entrance fees? Does the Minister agree with me that, if people pay, curators and other staff feel more answerable to the public they serve? Would it not be better if the museum in Chambers Street had proper turnstiles, rather than manual clickers, so that it could properly ascertain the popularity of its offering?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am indeed aware of the noble Baroness's contribution to this issue. She may have advocated charges for nearly 20 years and is only now seeing them materialise, but I have been advocating a Scottish Parliament for more than 20 years and that is just coming about, too. I am not sure that I can go down the precise road suggested by the noble Baroness as regards the value of charges and the worth that it gives to curating staff. However, the whole issue of charges, the contribution that they can make and their impact on access is properly being examined in the context of the review.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that on two occasions the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport has publicly committed himself to the principle of universal access, and therefore opposition to charging in all national museums, or is that merely a restatement of the well known principle that justice is open to all, as is the Ritz Hotel?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I believe that on this occasion the noble Lord has not accurately represented the comments of my right honourable friend in another place. However, I fully accept that access is an important issue which is recognised on all sides of the House and which is currently engaging active interest and concern.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, with regard to VAT, would my noble friend, in the government review, consider anomalies whereby free national museums have to pay VAT while local free museums and charging national museums do not pay it? Would it not be better to free the lot?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am aware of a number of anomalies in the VAT area. I had to deal with one on a different subject a few months ago. That taught me the lesson that it is incredibly difficult to sort out even what appear on the surface to be glaring anomalies.

Lord Freyberg

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that there has been a considerable drop in visitor numbers when admission charges have been introduced in some of our national museums?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I must draw the attention of the noble Lord to a piece of research at which I happened to glance this morning in one of the public prints to the effect that there is no consistent evidence that admission levels fall when charges are introduced. To give authority to that research, I should point out that it was carried out by Glasgow Caledonian University.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that that piece of research is nonsense? All experience shows that admission charges are an absolute disaster and the sooner they are abolished for good the better.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I shall not tangle with the noble Lord on that particular matter. I advise him to look at the research and weigh it on the basis of its quality.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that he will not follow the Government's racist policy of allowing Scotsmen in free and charging the English?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, that is a little bit naughty.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, will the Minister remind the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that you do not assess research as good only if it agrees with your predetermined conclusions? Will the Minister accept from me that the research from Glasgow Caledonian University is very interesting? It suggests that people are not deterred by charges. Will he further agree that, if trustees of galleries and so on believe that charges would add to their income, that must be to the benefit of the galleries and to those who genuinely wish to visit them?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, as usual, the noble Lord makes a good and strong point. The issue really boils down to the need to generate income in difficult circumstances and in a tight public expenditure context on the one side and the need to ensure access for all groups within society on the other. That is very much a balancing act, and that is what the review will address.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, will my noble friend pay a visit to Glasgow some day, particularly on a Sunday, and visit the art gallery, the Museum of Transport and the Burrell Collection? If he does so, he will see the families who visit those establishments. I hope that we shall never extend the possibility of charges to municipal museums because those families with a number of children who are obviously very interested in what they are seeing could never afford to visit them.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point. The difficulty is that from the particular part of Scotland where I live it is not a matter of wishing to go to Glasgow; it is always a matter of needing to go there. The substantive point which my noble friend makes is a strong one. Indeed, it is at the heart of the nature of the review: to try to resolve the issue of access for all groups while at least enabling the galleries to generate as much income as is reasonably possible.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, is it not the case that the trustees of those museums will not help their case if they do not encourage people to leave the contents of their collections as they intend? If they do not do that, that will merely diminish the increase in the museums' accretion of goodies which would otherwise come to them.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, indeed, but I believe that the noble Lord is almost tempting me to make reference to another item of interest which has been before us from time to time.