HL Deb 17 March 1998 vol 587 cc567-9

2.46 p.m.

Lord Freyberg asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the potential de-accessioning of works of art from the Bowes Museum, what steps they are taking to give statutory protection to publicly funded museum collections.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, despite recent press reports, I understand that the Bowes Museum, and Durham County Council which administers it, have no intention or wish to sell items from the collections. However, the Bowes is facing financial difficulties and I can announce today that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked Richard Foster, the director of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, to carry out a review of the present position and future prospects of the Bowes Museum. The aim will be to identify a stable, long-term financial base for the museum which would avoid the need to restrict access in order to cut costs.

Museums that are registered with the Museums and Galleries Commission, which includes most local authority museums, can dispose of items only in accordance with the guidelines of the registration scheme. My department is currently considering recommendations made by the MGC for strengthening the legal status of museum collections.

Lord Freyberg

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Do the Government still believe in the guiding principles as set out in Treasures in Trust which was published by the previous government to review museum policy, and in particular with paragraph 3.2 of that review which states: a museum's collections are to be held on behalf of the public as inalienable cultural assets"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords. We have confirmed that we agree with that part of the review. The Museums and Galleries Commission has reported to us on how to implement that and we are considering its report.

Lord Renton

My Lords, if my ignorance may be forgiven, may I ask the noble Lord to tell us what "de-accessioning" is?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Sale, my Lords.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, while welcoming the news that my noble friend has given us about the inquiry, may I ask him whether it will take into account the fact that the local authority is proposing to cut the grant to the Bowes by £30,000 a year and is telling the museum that it should close between the months of November and March? Will those matters be taken into account by the inquiry?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords. My noble friend may be glad to hear that Durham County Council's intention of requiring the museum to close for five months has been postponed in the hope that we can receive a report from Mr. Foster before any final decision is taken.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the reply he has given today will give great pleasure to many people in the north of England? Is he also aware that this is a most excellent and beautiful little museum in a marvellous building and in an attractive part of the country? Will the Government do all that they can to ensure that it has a future?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's comments. Our determination to ensure that the Bowes Museum has a future is evidenced by the invitation to Mr. Foster to conduct a very full inquiry.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara. Will the Government's commitment to the Bowes Museum include putting their hands into their pocket if that was called for by Mr. Foster?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we shall face that when we come to it. I confirm that the draft terms of reference for Mr. Foster, which have not yet been agreed, include the possibility of national status for the museum.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, Labour Party policy used to be to place a statutory responsibility on local authorities to develop an arts and museums policy so that as a result local expenditure on museums would be eligible for revenue support grant. Now that the Labour Party clearly will not help financially either the Bowes Museum or other regional museums, unless we hear something else in the Budget this afternoon, how will the Government help collections so that they will not have to sell treasured works of art?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the answer to the first part of the noble Baroness's question is that Labour Party policy has not changed. Dealing with the second part of the question, the noble Baroness cannot expect me to anticipate the Budget. I am afraid that I have forgotten the third part of the question—and I am not obliged to answer it anyway.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the fact that the possibility of this museum having national status is not excluded will give great satisfaction to many noble Lords who wondered how the situation would be overcome?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hedged my earlier answers with considerable qualifications. Mr. Foster has not yet formally agreed to conduct the inquiry and the terms of reference have not yet been agreed. But I am grateful for my noble friend's thoughts.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, is not the Bowes Museum a prime example of the need to divert money from National Lottery heritage funds if the Foster report so recommends it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, substantial sums have been diverted—I use the noble Earl's word—from the National Lottery to museums and galleries. I do not believe that that process is at an end.