HL Deb 22 January 1998 vol 584 cc1680-97

7.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th November be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order is the culmination of a process begun in 1995 with the report, entitled A time for change…, by Alistair Wilson OBE, who was commissioned by the previous government to carry out a policy review of Northern Ireland's three major museums—the Ulster Museum, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the Ulster American Folk Park.

The key recommendation of Mr. Wilson's report was that the three museums should be brought together under a single management framework. Public consultation on the report confirmed a broad consensus in favour of the concept of merger. In particular, the three museums themselves confirmed their support for the proposal, any reservations mainly relating to the details of implementation rather than the concept. The Government wholly accept the case for merger and are convinced that Northern Ireland will be best served by a single substantial museum institution working within a coherent framework rather than separate entities in competition with each other. The Government have decided, therefore, to proceed with the necessary legislation and have introduced amendments to reflect comments received during the consultation process.

The purpose of the order is essentially threefold: it will establish a single museum institution for Northern Ireland; it will repeal the Museums (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which currently governs the two statutory bodies—the Ulster Museum and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum; and it will make provision to enable the Ulster American Folk Park, an independent charitable museum, to transfer to the new institution by separate arrangements.

I will now turn to the detail of the order, focusing on what are the most significant provisions. One of the main issues which emerged from consultation on the legislation was the model for governance of the new institution. At present each of the two statutory museums is governed by a board of 15 trustees, consisting of six members appointed by district councils, two university appointments and seven departmental appointees. The new merged institution will have a single tier of governance which will be known as the Board of Trustees of the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland, this title reflecting the status of the institution in terms of both the importance and breadth of its collections.

As to membership, the Government believe they are best placed to achieve a balance of membership which includes individuals with relevant interests and expertise and is in broad accord with the plurality of Northern Ireland. It has therefore been decided to adhere to the original proposal that there will be no rights of representation on the new board but that all members, including the chairman, will be appointed by the government following consultation with a range of persons and bodies, including the district councils and those which represent educational and heritage interests. While specific provision for consultation is included in the order, the appointments process will, of course, follow the guidelines laid down by the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

In response to comments received during consultation, the order specifies a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 15 members of the board and a term of appointment not exceeding five years. The provision enabling the chairman to be paid an annual honorarium has been retained but such provision for a vice-chairman has been removed. The honorarium has been set at £8,000, which is a modest figure taking account of the level of commitment required and the particularly challenging task of overseeing the reorganisation in the initial years. The detailed provisions are set out in Schedule 1.

This model of governance has worked well to date in other public bodies in Northern Ireland, having produced well balanced membership structures with a strong commitment to the development of the work of the bodies concerned. In reaching its decision on the governance issue, the Government have taken into account the concerns expressed by several district councils and some political parties that the influence of local government should not be diluted. This is a particular issue of broad significance in Northern Ireland. In response to these concerns, the Government have ensured that district councils will be consulted as part of the public appointments process.

The Government have also taken a further step in response to district councils' concerns by requiring, in Article 4(7), the board of the new institution to consult with district councils, education and library boards and other bodies on the exercise of its functions. This should allay any fears by the district councils that they will no longer be able to play an influencing role in the management and development of the new institution. The Government believe that this new body must form a relationship with district councils in order to be aware of the views of the community it serves and to encourage and support the district councils themselves with their local museum provision, which is much less developed than in the rest of the UK. The Government see this as complementary to, rather than duplicating, the role of the Northern Ireland Museums Council which provides services to local museums and advises on local museums and heritage development. The specific model for this consultation has not been worked out, but it is expected that the council would play a part.

I turn now to Article 5, which is probably the article that has caused most comment recently. Article 5 places more explicit controls than at present on the disposal of objects in the collections. These controls were introduced to meet the strongly expressed views of the three museums themselves. However, I am aware that reservations have been expressed about the powers accorded to the department to consent to the disposal of any object and to permit the overriding of any trusts or conditions prohibiting or restricting the disposal of any object, in that they bring into question the autonomy of the board. That is not the case.

I emphasise that these are enabling powers only and assure your Lordships that these provisions are intended to give the board greater flexibility and not to give the department an interventionist role. The powers would only ever be exercised at the behest of a proposal emanating from the board itself. I can assure noble Lords that it is envisaged that they would only be applied in exceptional and appropriate circumstances and for that reason we included a safeguarding provision requiring the department's approval.

None the less, I understand the concern of the museum professionals that this power of the board may make benefactors reluctant to donate artefacts to the new institution because they have no absolute assurance in the legislation that any condition attached to the donation will not be overturned in the future. I emphasise, however, that it would be the independent trustees who would have the authority to initiate the disposal of artefacts and the department in the public interest could override that decision in order to retain them.

While it is inherently difficult to anticipate the exceptional conditions in which the use of this power might be appropriate, it may none the less be helpful if I try to illustrate the circumstances in which the board of the museum might think it appropriate to consider the use of the power. In recent years there has been a welcome development of local authority museum provision across Northern Ireland, so that there are new opportunities to display artefacts in locations particularly relevant to their context. The new museum might wish to assign an artefact to one of the local museums to enhance its display and interpretation and its availability to the local community. This could be beneficial to the preservation and presentation of the heritage and would merit consideration by the department if the board were to propose it.

It may also be helpful if I illustrate the circumstances which could not be considered appropriate. The government would not expect the board to propose a disposal simply as a means of raising money. The overriding presumption would be in favour of the retention of artefacts and the museum would have to present a convincing case which satisfied the department that the action was in fact beneficial to the preservation and presentation of the heritage.

The concerns about these powers have been fully aired with representatives of the three museums, who have accepted the good intentions of the Government. It is their unanimous view and that of the Museums and Galleries Commission that this draft order must proceed and that the most appropriate way forward on the disposals issue is for the new board to draw up, in consultation with the commission, a disposals policy and code of practice that will conform with accepted guidelines. This code of practice would include provision about the use of moneys generated by the disposal of an object. I wish to stress that the Commission has confirmed that it is content with this approach. I can assure noble Lords that the Government's intentions are entirely positive and that exceptional disposals would have to be fully justified in accordance with a code of practice which was consistent with national standards. I can give a further categorical assurance that the Government will not permit the use of this power under Article 5(2)(e) until the code of practice has been drawn up and agreed. I hope that this will assure benefactors that their gifts are safe and that their wishes will be respected.

Lord Rees

My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to intervene in order to ask a question? Having looked as carefully as I can at Article 5, it seems to me that the board can make a proposal without explaining the reason and, provided the department consents, that proposal will become effective. The Minister has tried to reassure us by saying, "Yes, but there will be a code of practice". But that will not have any statutory force. A disposal that appeared to conflict with the broad principle that he is adumbrating could not be challenged in the courts. Is my reading of the order correct?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, perhaps I could return to that point. I think I could give an answer off the cuff, but I would rather consider the matter and return to it towards the end of the debate, if the noble Lord agrees. Article 5 is quite complicated and I spent a lot of time discussing with officials the specific meaning of it. Perhaps I may answer briefly and then come back to it later.

If the museum authorities under the new arrangements wish to dispose of an artefact in accordance with the trust under which it was established, then that would be an order. That is a constraint which would be similar to that which applies to museums generally. However, if they wish to dispose of an artefact against the original trust, then they would not be allowed to do so unless the department itself gave them permission. That is a double lock. It is an additional safeguard to ensure that a museum, if it wished to breach the trust under which it operates, could only do so with the department's consent. That is essentially the way the matter would operate, unless we are talking about damaged items and others which would have no intrinsic value, where such disposal would be permitted; but, in addition, there would be a code of practice guiding the overall approach to that. I do not know whether the noble Lord wishes to pursue the matter.

Lord Rees

My Lords, I apologise for taking up more of the Minister's time, but, as I read it, the department does not have to relate its consent to any particular set of criteria in this order, or indeed in any other statute. I am sure it would not be, but it might be entirely capricious. I do not know whether the action of the board could be impugned on that ground, but it does not seem that the department has to give any explanation of the reasons for giving the consent to the disposal. It may be that I have not understood the position correctly and perhaps the Minister can reassure me and the House.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord is unduly apprehensive. There would have to be a combination of the most unusual circumstances for the board of the museum to behave capriciously and for the department also to give its consent capriciously. What we have in the role of the department is an additional safeguard to ensure that all is handled properly but, essentially, the disposal of artefacts would be governed by the trusts covering the work of the museum and it would be only in cases, as I said earlier, where the museum wished to breach such a trust, that they would also have to get the department's approval, and the department's approval would normally not be forthcoming.

We therefore have two safeguards, whereas it is my understanding that in the case of most museums there is only one safeguard, so we are simply using the department as an additional safeguard. That is the basis of the assurance I am seeking to give. I will proceed, if I may. When I have reflected on what the noble Lord said, I may wish to add further comment when I wind up.

I now wish to turn to Article 6, which provides for the transfer of any body, by agreement, to the new institution and explain that the primary purpose of this article is to enable the board to enter into an agreement for the transfer and management of the Ulster American Folk Park on agreed terms and conditions approved by the department. I stress that the folk park will not be forced to transfer into the new institution. It will take place only on terms which are mutually agreed. I am confident that this is possible and will be in the best interests of the folk park and the new institution itself.

Another main issue which emerged from consultation was the degree of influence and control by the department over the new institution's procedures and activities. Many of the comments received stressed the importance of ensuring an arm's length relationship. The Government have carefully considered these comments and have also taken into account the need for it to be assured that the new institution is properly accountable for its actions. They have therefore relaxed some of the original provisions. For example, in Schedule 1, in relation to the membership of the board, the requirement that the vice-chairman should be appointed by the head of the department has been removed and substituted by provisions enabling the trustees to elect one of their number as vice-chairman. All provisions for the appointment to the board of a departmental nominee have been deleted.

Only two changes have been made to strengthen the provisions. Firstly, a trustee may be removed when he or she fails to comply with the terms of appointment; secondly, the department will approve the standing orders of the board and its committees and sub-committees.

Overall, the Government's intention is that the department's controls will focus on proper systems and accountability and not on interference in decision making and it is believed that the changes made will achieve the right balance between autonomy and accountability.

Inevitably, there will be a degree of reorganisation to facilitate the merger and smooth transfer will be essential to maintain stability as the museums move to a single management framework. The detailed transfer provisions are contained in Schedule 2 to the order. In particular, these provisions ensure that staff transferring to the new institution will do so on the basis of existing terms and conditions. This is in accordance with requirements relating to the transfer of undertakings. Any changes to those terms and conditions will be negotiable through the ordinary course of industrial relations.

I am aware that the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, the union which represents employees of the museums, has sought certain assurances relating to the position of staff transferring to the new institution, including their pension arrangements.

I can confirm that the new institution will continue the existing arrangements whereby the staff of the Ulster Museum and Ulster Folk and Transport Museum participate in the Northern Ireland Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme. Employees of the Ulster American Folk Park participate in the Local Government Officers' Scheme and a proposal that on transfer they would switch to the Civil Service Scheme is currently under consideration. My understanding is that the switch would not be to the detriment of these staff. Beyond that, the Government cannot be definitive, as the handling of the various issues will be for the board and management of the new institution to resolve. However, the Government will require the new institution to promote good industrial relations and to treat its staff fairly and with consideration.

Finally, I wish to turn to Articles 12 to 14 which are largely a continuation of the existing legislation empowering district councils to provide museums and galleries. However, the new order removes the need for the department to have an approval role in relation to district council expenditure. Instead, a modified control has been introduced, requiring district councils to consult the department, and any body that the department may determine, on museum provision. Government have in mind, for instance, that the district councils should consult the Northern Ireland Museums Council, a non-statutory body, part of whose remit, as I said, is to advise on local museum provision. I consider that this alternative arrangement will assist in promoting a more strategic approach to local museum provision.

In conclusion, I have dealt with the main provisions of the order. The remaining provisions are largely of an administrative nature in relation to such matters as by-laws and provision for annual reports, and accounts by the new merged institution. My Lords, I commend the order to the House.

8.6 p.m.

The Earl of Clancarty

My Lords, I am adding my voice to those who will express concern this evening about certain aspects of this draft order. I thank the Minister for his reassurances. No one to whom I have spoken is of the opinion that there is anything Machiavellian behind the wording of Articles 5(2)(d) and (e) and 5(4) of the order, which deal with the disposal of art objects. However, Picasso once said that the most interesting thing about paintings was their mistakes—and sometimes mistakes lead you down new roads, whether they are right or wrong ones.

The Museums and Galleries Commission, the National Art Collections Fund, the Ulster museums, Members of Parliament and others have all expressed concern over the powers seemingly given to DENI to dispose of artworks. I have these concerns, too, even after the reassurances carefully spelt out by the Minister. One of the major concerns is that, even if without intending to do so, this order sets a precedent within the UK, going against the accepted understanding of art works as "inalienable cultural assets" as defined in the Government review, Treasures in Trust. There are those who would be happier if the "or" at the end of Article 5(2)(d) of the order was changed to "and", so that the department has always to act in consultation with the hoard, and not capriciously or unilaterally. My view is that it would be safer if Article 5(2)(e) were to be entirely removed. Also, it is serious that Article 5(4) allows the breaking of trusts.

It has to be noted that the idea of departmental intervention as far as the UK is concerned is new, anyway. The Museums and Galleries Act 1992, on which the order is modelled in relation to the disposal of art objects, makes no provision at all for this kind of intervention. If that is so, how can the Minister describe the problematic articles as providing "enabling powers", if the 1992 legislation has operated without disablement, as one might say?

Another important point in relation to the order is a concern as to how moneys raised by disposal might be used. There is no clause, as appears in the 1992 legislation—Schedule 1 and Clause 4 (7)—which ensures that such moneys would be used for reacquisition.

I also want to mention the fact that the Museums and Galleries Commission, the Ulster museums and the Museums Association among others have expressed concern at the lack of consultation on the order. The Ulster Museum tells me that it received the second draft of the order, containing the problematic articles on disposal, only two days before the Sixth Standing Committee on 10th December last. A government which profess a desire for open government should take note of that.

I understand that there would be considerable logistical difficulties if the order were to be withdrawn, and that the process of creating the new board is already well under way. Nevertheless the presence of the clauses may affect benefaction, purely through what is perceived in existing legislation. Also, another government, at a future date, may have quite different ideas as to how to interpret the articles, even with assurances and a code of practice in place. Ideally, the order should be reworded and I ask the Minister whether he intends to revisit the legislation at a future date.

8.11 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. First, I congratulate publicly the noble Lord. Lord Dubs, on his appointment. I have no direct interest to declare in Northern Ireland, but 20 years ago I had the privilege to spend 18 months there, wearing uniform. Unfortunately, time and pressure of work did not often enable me to visit museums. However, I am fully aware, having visited many private collections there, of the wealth of property, artifacts, art and culture. As we know, culture belongs to everyone—the rich, the poor. the mighty and the lowly. I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, on again revisiting this subject, which is dear to the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens.

Alarm bells are now sounding in the museum world. On 18th December we had a debate on free entrance to museums. I know that that is not the subject of today's debate, but I can assure the Minister that many of us, both inside the Chamber and outside and especially those of us who receive information from curators of museums, feel a great uncertainty. I hope that the Minister will today assure us that the Government's aim is to enable the widest access to museums.

I rise to express anxiety, as others will, in relation to Article 5 on the disposal of objects from museums and galleries. The order sets a dangerous precedent in that regard. Why does the Department of State require such wide powers to intervene in disposal decisions?

So far only the figure of £8,000 has been put forward. But what will be the cost of the new board? It will not be that of just one chairman's salary; there must be many administrative costs involved. Will it be more expensive? Will it mean that there is less money for museums and cultures in Northern Ireland? Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on that subject.

I do not like to use the word "quango"; I prefer the phrase, "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation". For a government that is prepared to decentralise, it does not look good when they accept something from a previous administration; that is, another board, another quango. I am also concerned about its composition. We know that two representatives from the universities were members of the old board. Why are they not to be appointed again, or will they be appointed?

Finally, I am concerned about benefactors; the families of those who have given objects from their possessions and those who will give them in the future. Once the subsection is accepted, future benefactors will not be encouraged to give of their possessions.

I look forward to hearing from other speakers hut, like the people of Northern Ireland, I have great misgivings about this article and will listen with care to what my noble friend Lord Alderdice has to say about the opinion of Northern Ireland on the order.

8.16 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, and, like him, I should like to say a few words about Article 5.

First, I greatly regret that the order has been tabled at such short notice. There may he good reasons for that; I do not know. But I have been asking for some while when it would appear, and it did not in fact appear on the Order Paper until yesterday.

Secondly, I welcome the statement by my noble friend about the reservations that noble Lords—the noble Earls, Lord Clancarty and Lord Carlisle, in particular—express in relation to Article 5. It is right that it should be raised in this House; after all, we are a revising Chamber. When the order came before another place, the Minister in reply did not refer to the same reservations expressed by honourable Members.

The defective wording caused considerable concern to the National Art Collections Fund which, as your Lordships know, has 83,000 subscribers and has done so much to preserve our heritage. The right to dispose of art treasures and artifacts from our museums by governments and to overrule the rights of trustees beyond the provisions of the 1992 Act, is a dangerous one. I accept of course the assurances given by my noble friend. I am glad that he made those and they will go into the record. But what will a future Minister or a future government do? At present the wording is defective.

I should have thought that if this kind of power had existed in the past, there would be hardly any Victorian paintings left in our museums. They were not fashionable between the two world wars and now they fetch large prices because tastes change. Certain museums in the United States have sold paintings, including some good impressionist paintings, in order to buy currently fashionable contemporary works which may not stay the course for long. I understand that that is called, "de-accessioning" and in my view it should not be countenanced over here.

I welcome my noble friend's assurances, but it would be much better if the article could be amended by the substitution of the word "and" for "or" in Article 5 (2)(d). I realise that the order cannot be amended, nor can it be rejected; but I hope that my noble friend will introduce an amending order to tidy up what is really very bad drafting and, if it is taken for what it is, a dangerous right to give. I hope that we shall see something done about it in the near future.

Lord Freyberg

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken this evening I agree that the real danger from which all other national museums and galleries in the UK must be protected is that of precedent. If in Ulster this amalgamation of institutions results in the de-accessioning by DENI of what are deemed duplicates, by whatever means, and without following the procedures normal in England, this will imply that all other galleries in England, and perhaps in Scotland—though other rules apply there—have a precedent that enables them to de-accession exhibits that are surplus or irrelevant to the collections.

There was some de-accessioning a generation ago of a kind unlikely ever to happen again, lending strength to the argument that de-accessioning should always be avoided. The most notorious example is the Lady Lever Gallery at Port Sunlight in 1958, when many very considerable works of art were sold at auction at Christie's to the regret, 25 years later, of the new staff and trustees of the gallery. The V&A in 1960 could not even be bothered to sell its surplus drawings by Burne-Jones, and its youngest curator was instructed to burn them in a bonfire. Tastes change with the generations, as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has already mentioned, and we must guard against precedent for wanton dispersal.

Is there any way in which the Minister can ensure that what has happened in Ulster cannot be treated as a precedent in England?

Just as worrying, as the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, has already mentioned, is the lack of a clause defining the use to which moneys raised by the disposal may be put. For all other museums in Britain, Clause 4(7) of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 decrees that moneys resulting from disposals shall he applied by the Board in the acquisition of relevant objects to be added to their collection". Although the Minister has given us an assurance that moneys raised by disposal will be used in this way, without such a clause it is impossible to ensure that moneys so raised will not be syphoned off into the general funding requirement of the museum. That would be both contrary to the Museums Association's Ethical Guidelines and the Museums and Galleries Commission's Guidelines for Registered Museums, and might eventually force the museum to consider disposing of items for financial gain rather than curatorial reasons. Worse still, funds may not be protected for the use of the museum but may find their way into the general purse of DENT. Again, I hope the Minister is correct in what he says.

There have been suggestions that to counter these omissions—if they are omissions—a code of practice will later be introduced. A code of practice, easily abused and more easily forgotten, offers no long-term protection to the national museums.

8.24 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, I would like to say a few short words in the gap. From time to time Northern Ireland business is put on last thing on a Thursday when most Northern Ireland noble Lords have gone home. But on this occasion it is even worse. This order was only put on the Order Paper yesterday and we were given the absolute minimum of notice. I do not think that is a proper way in which to treat this House.

I wish to add to what some other noble Lords have said about Article 5. Reservations have been expressed about that in a letter from the Museums and Galleries Commission, which is the government advisory body for museums and galleries, and it should be given due weight.

I do not intend to go into other parts of the order simply because I have not been given time in which to consider them. But Article 5, as other noble Lords have said, provides that the board shall not dispose of any object the property in which is vested in it and which is comprised in its collections except in accordance with the provisions of the article. Paragraph (2)(e) says that this can be done when the department consents to the disposal. But an object may only be disposed of, as mentioned in paragraph (2)(a), (b) or (c) but not (d) or (e), where the disposal is not inconsistent with any trust or condition, express or implied, prohibiting or restricting the disposal of the object.

Paragraph (4) says: An object may be disposed of as mentioned in paragraph (2)(d) or (e) notwithstanding a trust or condition (express or implied) prohibiting or restricting the disposal of the object". That is a very wide power to give. Normally the variation of trust can only be done by the High Court but in this case it is proposed that it should be done at the say-so of the department.

The noble Lord said that many of the provisions in the order are unlikely to be used. In that case why put them in the order at all? He may give undertakings but he cannot bind his successors. He cannot say at no time in the future will these things ever be done.

It has been suggested, and I agree, that amendments should be made to the order. That, of course, is the difficulty. We, even though we are called a revising Chamber, are not allowed to alter the order. There should have been a proper Bill with both Houses able to propose amendments. The subject could even have been included in a Bill covering the whole of the United Kingdom.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, may I contribute also briefly in the gap to add some news from the front, as it were. By an extraordinary coincidence I was lecturing last night at the Ulster Museum. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, is not overstating the situation when he says there is colossal concern about the potential impact of Article 5.

I accept entirely what the Minister says. His assurances are generous and go as far as they possibly can. I ask him to remember, however, that future or potential benefactors of the museum will be entirely reliant on the text of those assurances. Unfortunately, the rather clumsy wording of the order fails to give them the reassurance that any benefactor has every entitlement to seek in making a gift.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I find myself unusually rising in the gap because of the very late notice in regard to the order which led to a degree of confusion in the usual channels. Messages do not appear to have been transmitted.

I speak as one who was a member of the board of the Ulster Museum from 1993 to 1997. I have no doubt that the Minister is transmitting entirely faithfully the briefs he has been given. I have to tell him of the considerable concern felt by myself, other board members and senior members of staff in the whole matter of the merger of the three museums. But the view was that the department was so determined to proceed down this route that any obstruction would simply be brushed to the side. Now, as mentioned by noble Lords, the matter has proceeded to the point where it is rather like planning blight into an old house. To not proceed now would be more disastrous than anything else. It is not because there is happiness about the proposition.

The relative suddenness with which the order has appeared before your Lordships' House appears to be consistent with what has happened before in respect of the order. When the redrafted order came to the Ulster Museum it was again with only a day or two's notice and there was no possibility of proper consideration. We need to ask why. There is one common feature covering a whole series of issues. The very doubtful article on the disposal of materials has already been mentioned. I shall not revisit it because of the problems of time. Another issue is the appointment of chairman and of board members, not as representatives coming from the community but top down from the department.

The Minister says there is a guarantee of consultation. That means consultation with the district councillors and the education and library boards. There are 26 district councils and five education and library boards. Proper consultation of one meeting a week would take almost a whole year. Is that the kind of consultation one would have with proper representatives who had right of being on the board? I say that that is not so. All the way through the order one finds that the Department of Education is insisting on controlling what is going on.

In another place the Minister with responsibility indicated that in the contentious and sectarian atmosphere of Northern Ireland there had been difficulties in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and that therefore the Department of Education needed to have its fatherly hand in to make sure that there was not misbehaviour. I would be rather more convinced of that if it were not the case that this was the department that presided over the apartheid in education and proved so obstructive to the development of integrated education.

I have profound concerns about the order. I am clear that certain of the provisions give good reason for concern. I am clear that many of those involved as staff and board members in the various organisations have deep concerns about the matter. I hope that we shall have an assurance from the Minister that there will be words in the record or even regulations and that the Government will seriously consider revisiting the whole matter with some amendments in legislation which will give due protection and not establish a precedent not only for Northern Ireland but elsewhere.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, as has emerged in the debate, this order has been sprung on the House. We have known it was coming since November, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, indicated, it was put down on the Order Paper only yesterday. That might not have mattered much if the order was uncontentious or if the timing of the debate had been a little more convenient. But neither of those things is true. The contentious nature of the order has come out clearly in the course of this short debate, and this time of the week is not a convenient one for Northern Ireland Lords in particular and for those who have to travel long distances.

There was no great urgency for this debate which might have excused the timing. It was debated in another place on 10th December and it was a sharp debate then which left many unanswered questions. As the debate in your Lordships' House was so delayed, I thought it possible that the order might be withdrawn and amended on the lines that had already become clear both from the debate itself and from representations sent in by museum interests on both sides of the water. Indeed, that is what should have happened. It could perfectly well have happened.

Instead of that the Government have taken some weeks considering the points made in the representations and in the debate in the other place and have then decided to press ahead with the order unchanged, despite the criticism, and give out instead a series of ministerial assurances saying that they do not really mean what is in the order and that they are not going to use the powers which they are asking Parliament to give them. The Minister read out assurances this evening in precisely the same terms. I was following them in the correspondence and they have also been sent out in the past few days to the Museums Association and to my honourable friend in another place who spoke in the debate. Those ministerial assurances are not anything like as good as rewording the order, which is what should have happened here.

We do not disagree with the main purpose of the order and we support the proposed merging of the museums. It is the more detailed provisions that are contentious, as has emerged in the debate. Article 5 concerns the sale of objects from national collections. The 1992 Act, as far as concerns England and Wales, took the view that disposals from national collections should never be of objects accepted on condition that they are not sold, that they should in other cases be subject to strict conditions, that they should be the decision of the relevant trustees themselves, and that the proceeds of any sales should be used solely to acquire new objects for the collection in question.

That seems to me, and, much more importantly, to many in the museums and galleries world and to noble Lords who have spoken, to be a satisfactory policy. But it is not the policy embodied in the order. Logically, it seems to me either that the new Government have a different national policy about disposals—one which anticipates greater disposals by museums—or else that there are some special features of Northern Ireland museums which lead to the possibility—or, I suppose, the desirability—of extra disposals. It does not seem to me that there are special features of Northern Ireland museums which should lead to a greater or different disposal policy from the national disposal policy. Nor do I think it desirable to change the national disposal policy in the way the order does for Northern Ireland.

Concern has already been expressed about the position of donors. Article 5(4) is the most difficult and dangerous part of the whole order. It provides that any stipulation of a donor or the terms of a trust—perhaps a deed of gift or a will—which is intended to limit the ability of the museum to sell something can be completely over-ruled and made legally void by the stroke of a departmental pen. However, when an owner gives a valuable object of whatever kind to a museum, he does so because he wants people to be able to see it in the museum and not to have it sold. If he wanted to make the museum rich he need not bother to give it the artifact. He would give the museum money instead which the museum could spend.

The fact that the provision is in the order in respect of Northern Ireland museums means that a similar provision could be put in place for England, for Wales or for Scotland. thus destroying the donor's ability to attach any conditions to a gift in those jurisdictions as well as in Northern Ireland. That is why there is great concern in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland about this provision. It is believed—I think correctly—that it will deter donors even in England, because it has been inserted retrospectively, as it were, so far as the donor is concerned, in Northern Ireland legislation.

There is no provision for limiting what the money raised by the sale of artefacts can be spent on. There is a natural suspicion that at some point the department might press the Ulster museums to sell objects in order to finance their day to day expenditure. Whatever reassurances we are given by Ministers at this time, that, as I understand it, could happen in law as the order stands. It is therefore important that the Minister is very specific in the undertakings he gives in this respect in regard to Northern Ireland. I hope that he will also give us assurances that it is not the intention to apply provisions of this character in the other parts of the United Kingdom.

There are other concerns arising from the order, some of which have been put by the Museums and Galleries Commission, the Government's own advisory body, which are covered by the general phrase that the Government, in the person of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, are taking greater powers unto themselves and limiting the independence of the trustees.

The Museums and Galleries Commission said in its submission on the order. The degree to which the order gives the Department of Education of Northern Ireland control over the new institution goes beyond that in force for any of the other national museums and galleries in the United Kingdom". That was discussed in the debates in the other place. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, the Minister explained that it was because of problems that there had been at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. I accept that there is a reason for particular care over the choice of trustees arising from the nature of the Northern Ireland community, but stringent powers over the actions of the trustees, once appointed, goes much further still and is provided for in this order. Again, I hope that this will not be a precedent for the other parts of the United Kingdom.

Concern has also been expressed at the diminution in the powers of the local authorities. They are being stopped from direct intervention. They are also to be consulted by the board, for what that is worth. They are also to be consulted on the appointment of trustees, but not until the board has been in existence for 12 months. The initial appointment of trustees can be done under the order without consulting local government or anybody else. That provision only comes into force after the order has been in place for 12 months. In any case, it runs counter to the general wish of giving more powers to local authorities in Northern Ireland.

There was clearly, as it emerged in the debate, a lack of effective consultation before the order was laid. There are errors in it which have not been corrected since they have been pointed out and since publication. That has led Ministers to say that they will not use the powers given by the order. But the correct course, as has been said by several noble Lords this evening, is to withdraw the order and table a corrected version. I believe that this has been a reflection of the arrogance of the department in particular and of the Government in general. It has been a mismanaged episode and a bad piece of legislation. We should pass it tonight in order to avoid the confusion that would otherwise result, but I hope that the Minister will be able to say that the order will be replaced by one with more satisfactory wording at the earliest convenient opportunity, following adequate consultation.

8.43 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I fear that I have three and a half minutes to deal with many important issues—

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord so soon. I took advice on the matter. If the debate continues after the time stated, that is not material. The Minister has as long as he likes to reply.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for that help from the noble Lord, Lord Cope. In that case, to do justice to the many important points that have been made, noble Lords will forgive me if I take more than just two or three minutes to answer the debate. Many of the points made were covered by several noble Lords. In the interests of time, if I do not mention them all by name, I hope 1 shall be forgiven.

I shall deal first with the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lords, Lord Freyberg, Lord Cope and Lord Alderdice, about the use of money that will be obtained from the disposal of objects. These, and many other matters, will be addressed in the code of practice. Although it will not have statutory force, nevertheless there are many examples where codes of practice play an important part in governing the proceedings of public bodies. I have no reason to believe that a code of practice applied in this case, and in consultation with the appropriate museum bodies, will not be faithfully adhered to by the new museum body when it is established. We have to have some confidence that a code of practice which is the result of proper consultation would be adhered to and would deal with many of the concerns to which noble Lords have referred today.

Much concern was expressed about the department's position. I say emphatically that it cannot, will not and has no powers to act unilaterally. Apart from the appointment of members of the committee, the department's powers only come into play when the board has itself made certain proposals. The department has, in certain limited cases under Article 5, the power not to consent to a particular disposal. But there is no question of the department being given such wide powers, they only come into action when the board itself has initiated a course of action.

A number of noble Lords asked whether there could be future revisions of the legislation. Of course, nothing is fixed forever. But it would be misleading of the Government to suggest that an early revision of legislation—which will not yet, as it were, receive full parliamentary approval until later on this evening, I trust—is likely or that the legislative timetable would permit it. It is not an assurance that I could give with any honesty and therefore I do not intend to give it.

The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and others, talked about precedence. The legislation covers only Northern Ireland. Any changes to legislation governing museums in England, Wales or Scotland would have to be brought forward and considered in the usual way. So unless one is saying that anything that happens anywhere is a precedent for anything elsewhere—I hope that noble Lords are not saying that—then we are not establishing a precedent. This is legislation intended to cover the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland.

A number of noble Lords said that there had been a lack of consultation. Perhaps I may explain the procedure. The draft order received full consultation over a lengthy period. As a result of that consultation, certain changes were made. It is not the usual practice to consult again on those changes, but in this particular instance further consultation was entered into. It is that second phase of consultation that did not have the full time period attached to it that some noble Lords would have wished. I understand the point, but we have gone in for more consultation in this particular instance than is normally the case with Northern Ireland legislation. I give noble Lords an assurance that the Ulster museum played a full part in this consultative process prior to the publication of the draft order.

A question was asked about more information on the code of practice. That will be for determination by the museum and by the Museums and Galleries Commission. It will be in accordance with national guidelines. I do not believe that it will be possible to give more information on the code of practice until such consultations and discussions have been embarked on.

I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, asked about the cost of the new institution. I cannot give a full answer to that. The new body is not expected to cost more than the three existing bodies which will be included in it, although there will be some transitional costs associated with the changes that will have to take place. I believe that ultimately the new body will be more economic than the three bodies, but that is speculation on my part. If I am able to get more detailed information on that, I shall write to the noble Earl.

He also asked why there were not two university appointments on the new body. The underlying principle is that there were to be no rights of representation on the new board, but that the department will consult a wide range of bodies, including the universities, about appointments. They will be made on individual merit as regards the new procedures for public appointments. We believe that that will result in the best board that can be achieved for the new body.

My noble friend Lord Strabolgi asked about taking the order at short notice. It was laid on 25th November, which is nearly two months ago. It was considered in the other place on 10th December. But I regret that noble Lords did not have as much notice as they would have wished. I do not know why that is the case. I am sorry if noble Lords had notice only yesterday that the order was to be taken today.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, referred to the desirability of introducing a further amending order. I have already replied to that. That is not an undertaking that the Government can possibly give as we only now have the new legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, spoke about the use of moneys for the general requirement of museums. That will definitely be covered in the code of practice to which the new board will have to adhere.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke about the control to be exercised by the department. The control by the department relates to proper procedures and safeguards. I believe that the right balance has been achieved between the responsibilities and powers of the department and those of the board. I believe that the department's control has been reduced compared with the original proposal which went out for consultation. I appreciate that in relation to an issue as difficult as this the accusation can always be made that insufficient time for consultation has been allowed. However, I believe that in this case reasonable time has been allowed and that has been accepted by the bodies consulted.

I turn to the nub of the issue: Article 5. At the risk of repeating myself, any initiative on disposals—I understand that noble Lords are concerned mainly with Article 5(4)—must come from the board itself. There is no question of the department saying to the board that it must dispose of something in order to obtain money or for any other reason. The department's part in this is to be able to exercise safeguards lest the board goes too far in seeking to achieve a disposal.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, perhaps I may put the question back to the noble Lord. He has made much of the protection that exists. He has said that the board must initiate matters and that the department does not intervene. The whole point is that the department has taken over control of the business of the appointment of the chair and the board. It is no longer in the hands of those who make representations. The board can be hired and fired by the department and yet we are supposed to believe that it is an arm's length arrangement. That is the problem, and the attempts by the noble Lord to reassure the House must fall and break on that particular rock.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord goes a little further than the facts justify. Many public appointments are made by departments in Northern Ireland. I am not aware that that gives the particular appointing department those powers or that those powers are exercised in the way suggested by the noble Lord. In my experience, boards and committees are appointed by departments. I make some of those appointments myself. From that point onwards the persons appointed under the public appointments procedures are appointed on merit and exercise their powers without the department breathing down their necks. I believe that it is beyond reasonable expectation that the department would exercise a tyrannical hold on this new board in the way that the noble Lord suggests. I do not believe that is how it will be or that the people appointed will allow the department to behave in that way.

I believe the real safeguard is that only the board can initiate some of these matters and that the department can then say "No" to the board. I have indicated the very limited circumstances in which the department would allow an original trust or condition to be breached. I remind noble Lords of the example that I gave. If the board of a museum felt that a particular artefact or exhibit could more properly be displayed perhaps in a local museum run by a district council where it would be more relevant to the local community, in such a case the department might allow the original trust or condition to be breached.

I understand the concerns but I believe that there is very little scope for the realisation of them. I believe that the safeguards in the order are pretty good ones. I do not believe that we can talk about new legislation. I believe that when tested the safeguards will prove adequate and that when noble Lords see how the safeguards operate, they will be satisfied that there is no need for further legislation in the foreseeable future. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.