HL Deb 09 March 2000 vol 610 cc1156-8

3.10 p.m.

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have made a decision about the future management of Apsley House and the Wellington Museum.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, a review of the management arrangements for Apsley House and the Wellington Museum is under way and we are considering the establishment of an independent charitable trust. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be asking an outside expert to confirm the viability of such a trust. Key criteria will be safeguards for the public interest with regard to both the collection and the building; enhancing the visitor experience and achieving value for money. This Answer has been cleared with the Wellesley family and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I have a letter which appeared in the Daily Telegraph this morning, signed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which says almost exactly the same thing as the Minister said in answering my Question. Is it in accordance with our conventions that the first statement of government policy should be made in correspondence with the press and not in Parliament? It seems to me rather odd.

I make no criticism of his Grace, the Duke of Wellington, or his family, but the public have a deep interest in this matter. Has not a great deal of public money been spent since 1947, when the 7th Duke gave Apsley House to the nation, on the house and the collection? Would it not be in accordance with the Government's policy of open government to replace press speculation by publishing details of the independent trust to which the Minister referred and the details of any other proposals put forward—for example, by the V&A and English Heritage—so that there could be public debate on this important matter?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord's two questions are in conflict with each other. First, he chides me that the Secretary of State responded to ill-informed press speculation with a letter in the Daily Telegraph this morning. I am relieved that he recognises that what the Secretary of State is saying is the same as what I am saying; I do not know whether that counts as "joined-up government". But then he goes on to say that it is right that that ill-informed press speculation should be counteracted by the Government.

We are being as transparent as we can. We are considering setting up an independent trust. We want to be sure that it will work in terms of its charitable status; in terms of protecting the building and the collection; improving value for money; and increasing access to Apsley House. We are bringing in somebody from outside, whom we will name as soon as it is agreed, to investigate whether or not that is possible. When we know that, we will make all the details public in relation to the charitable trust. There is no concealment other than on matters which have yet to be decided.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, while I welcome the setting up of this trust, which seems to be the best way out of the current impasse and difficulties, will my noble friend confirm that access to the house and its magnificent collection, so generously given to the nation by the late 7th Duke, will not be restricted in any way as it has from time to time in the recent past?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, existing access is not particularly marvellous. There have only been between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors a year over each of the past three years. The house is only open from 11 o'clock until four o'clock. And although a great deal of public money has been spent on the building and marvellous contributions have been made by the Victoria and Albert Museum to the collections in the building, it is not as well known and as valued as it should be. My noble friend is right. We need improvements.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, I should declare an interest as a former chairman of the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Will the Minister confirm that, as the Secretary of State made clear to my successor, the fact that he is considering the future management of the Wellington Museum in no way implies or reflects any dissatisfaction whatever on his part with the V&A's stewardship of it?

Further, is the Minister of State aware that, though the Duke of Wellington cares deeply about the wellbeing of the museum, it is perhaps inevitable that the interests of those members of the family who live in the house by virtue of the 1947 Act do not always coincide with the public interest of what has been for 50 years a publicly-funded and national museum? That is why, when I was chairman of the V&A, we set up a Wellington Committee in order to see whether those differences could be reconciled and resolved. The Duke of Wellington was the deputy chairman of that committee.

Is the Minister further aware that the present arrangements give the Wellington Museum unlimited free access to the V&A's curatorial, conservation and warning services? Will the Minister consider whether it is going to be easy for that to be provided under a new trust without additional public expenditure?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, nothing I have said could be nor should be interpreted as a criticism of the management of the Victoria and Albert Museum. But as the noble Lord knows, there has been conflict between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the family, who occupy part of the house. It is in order to avoid that conflict that we are proposing, by mutual agreement, to set up an independent trust which will neither be dominated by the Wellesley family nor by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Of course, curatorial standards will be part of the consideration in how to set up that trust. The role of the V&A in curatorial standards is not undervalued.