HL Deb 20 November 1997 vol 583 cc652-4

3.27 p.m.

The Earl of Clancarty

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they consider it appropriate to decide their policy on access to public museums and galleries in advance of the publication in full of their research into the matter.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is carrying out a review of access to national museums and galleries in England and the Secretary of State will announce his conclusions within the next few weeks.

This should not be confused with the research which has been separately and independently commissioned by the Museums and Galleries Commission and whose main conclusions were presented at a seminar organised by the commission last week. This research has been only one element of the wider picture which the department has been considering.

The Earl of Clancarty

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he acknowledge that, after seven months of the Government doing absolutely nothing to support museums, the bottom line is that if they do not give a firm financial commitment, then in two weeks' time the British Museum will certainly introduce admission charges?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not accept that the Government have done absolutely nothing in the past seven months. Within the budgets available—which have not yet been reviewed—the department has continued its substantial support for the national museums in the country. The review which the Secretary of State for Culture is carrying out is evidence of our determination to continue and improve the provision by museums in this country.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend to confirm that, should entrance charges be introduced, if a gallery such as the National Gallery does not wish to charge and does not need to do so, it will not be obliged to introduce charges?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, admission charges, which are only part of the issue of access, are a matter for the trustees of the individual museums. The Government have no power to influence trustees in either imposing or not imposing charges.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware how reluctant the trustees of the British Museum would be—I must declare an interest—to impose admission charges? However, that decision seems to be inescapable, as the noble Earl pointed out, unless the cuts suffered by the annual budget of the museum are restored. Is the noble Lord aware, further, that unless there is some initiative from his right honourable friend, the trustees of the British Museum, by force majeure, may well find themselves obliged to impose admission charges very soon?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am aware—not only from the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew—that the trustees of the British Museum are reluctant to impose admission charges. Of course, the details of their finances are better known to him than to me.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the wish of the British Museum not to charge is well based? The experience of charging was utterly disastrous in the case of several other museums. The idea that the Government have no influence in the matter is entirely untrue. The Government can release the museums from their obligations to charge or they can make clear that they require them to charge. It is my hope that this Government will make absolutely clear that museum charges are out and, if necessary, they will make it financially possible for any museum to avoid charging if it does not wish to do so.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I stick by what I said earlier: the Government do not have the power to command museums either to charge or not to charge. Any influence the Government have may be applied in a number of ways; in particular, if unlimited financing was available for museums it would be possible for governments to help museums avoid charging.

In relation to my noble friend's first question and what he called the "disastrous" experience of charging, the evidence is nothing like as clear cut as he indicated. We do not know that museums lose a lot of customers through introducing charges. For example, there is evidence in Merseyside that customers have not been deterred by the charges that were introduced in July.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, following on from what the Minister said, is he aware that certain museums are forced to close some of their galleries because they cannot afford to pay for guards to supervise them? Does he not agree that it is better to introduce reasonable charges so that the general public may see all of a museum rather than just part of it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, those are difficult decisions which the trustees of museums have to take. As I said, given unlimited resources, it would be possible for access to be improved not only by having low or no charges but also by opening for longer hours. There are various other ways of attracting visitors to museums. I know that some museums have succeeded, by the way in which they deploy their guards—I believe the correct term is "custodians"—in maintaining opening hours with a smaller staff.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, can the noble Lord assure me that the Government will not support the idea in future of voluntary charges, which surely has been the most unfruitful path to be followed in recent years? If people are asked to give a voluntary sum, it is inhibiting on those who visit and difficult for the staff, who are inevitably encouraged to stop people and urge them to give a contribution.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is one of the considerations which will be taken into account in the review that is taking place. I am not sure that I agree with the noble Viscount. If one visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one is encouraged to give a fixed sum. In return one receives a small metal tag to show that one has donated.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, as a trustee of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, I am grateful to the Minister for his comments on our experience. Will he be kind enough to confirm or clarify the timetable for the publication of the Government's review and for the research commissioned by the National Museums and Galleries Commission? There have been so many changes that there is now some confusion in that regard.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in my original Answer I said that the review would be published in the next few weeks. I understand that the full tabulation of the results from the two research projects which were the subject of the original Question will be released in the new year. The projects are those of the Central Office of Information and Glasgow Caledonian University. The main conclusions of both projects were presented at the Museums and Galleries Commission's seminar last week, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, knows.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, is it not against the principles of New Labour to charge VAT on museums that do not charge for entrance? Only last week the Secretary of State said that quality should be for all and not just for the few.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as I have already said, access charges are only part of the review which is taking place. The law under which VAT is recoverable by those museums which become businesses by dint of their charging for entrance is laid down by the sixth VAT directive of the European Union. It is not within our power to change that. I suspect that, if it were within our power, we would be inclined to seek to do so.