HL Deb 29 October 2001 vol 627 cc1173-6

3.7 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice; namely:

Whether Her Majesty's Government still intend to sell by auction tomorrow, 30th October, through Bonhams & Brooks, certain items of Privy Council silver.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government adhere to the principle that they should hold assets only where the costs of doing so are outweighed by the benefits. As a result of resource accounting and budgeting, a number of departments, including Her Majesty's Treasury, are reducing their asset holdings. That wider programme will continue.

So far as concerns the four lots of silver items originally made for the Privy Council, the Government remain of the view that the Treasury is not the right owner. However, we recognise the case that has been made for ensuring that they are available to be seen by the UK public. I am glad to say that the representations that we have received suggest a number of ways in which this could be achieved. These would, I am sure, address the concerns which noble Lords and others have raised. We are making further inquiries about those alternatives. To allow those inquiries to proceed, while the other items will continue to be sold and the programme of asset sales will go ahead, the items originally made for the Privy Council have been withdrawn from tomorrow's sale.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for giving me leave to ask my timid and deferential Question. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for revealing just how pig-headed a government department can be. Is he aware that the description in the Bonhams & Brooks catalogue—itself extensive—underlies and supports the proposition that these are articles of strong historic importance?

Is the noble Lord aware that his invitation created concern over the weekend? Will he tell the House who responded to the Treasury invitation? I know that my Inn of Court, the Middle Temple, did so, concerned to see whether the silver would add sensibly to its collection.

Finally, why has it taken so long to reach this conclusion? I was in touch with the Chief Secretary's private office over the weekend and earlier today, shortly before asking this Question. It said that it could not give me the slightest indication of which way the cat was going to jump.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on the noble and learned Lord's last point, surely it is proper that any decision should be announced to Parliament rather than to anyone else. I am sure that my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House is grateful for the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. I should immediately say that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was the first to respond, expressing—correctly, I believe—the view of the House that the items should be withdrawn from sale. No list of representations has been compiled and the information may not necessarily become public, because some of those who made representations may not wish their intervention to be made public.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is greatly to the credit of noble Lords on all sides of the House, including the Minister and the Leader of the House, that this deplorable decision has, at the last moment, finally been reversed. Is it not clear that the Treasury cannot be trusted to look after such assets of great beauty and historical integrity? Will the Minister now publish a list of national heritage items in the Treasury's keeping, spelling out which are still regarded as open for sale?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Treasury has done a great deal more than that. As a result of government resource accounting, the Treasury has published a National Assets Register, which covers items of historical and artistic importance and all other government assets held not just by the Treasury, but by all other departments.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, when were the objects in question last on display to the public—or, indeed, to members of the Treasury?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the items were last displayed in 1957 in an exhibition by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which travelled to a number of countries.

Lord Acton

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the excellent decision that he has relayed to the House. How much was the Treasury expecting to raise from the auction? I do not think that we were told last Thursday.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if we add up the estimates for the four lots, it comes to something over £100,000, but of course the estimates are in ranges, as auctioneers are always cautious about these matters.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, we on these Benches also congratulate the Minister on the work that he has clearly done behind the scenes. The outcome is very satisfactory. Surely one of the worrying aspects of the affair is that it was sprung on so many people as a surprise. I do not know whether the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was aware of what was likely to happen—probably not. After the salutary lesson that has been given to the Treasury on this occasion, will procedures be laid down to ensure that whenever a body intends to divest itself of such heritage items, all those concerned, including primarily the department of state itself—in this case the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—are informed and the public are made aware of the issue without having to wait to hear of it as a result of a Question in your Lordships' House on a Thursday afternoon?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if the Government do anything wrong it is the fault of the Minister, but if the Government do anything right the credit has to go to the department and the Government as a whole rather than to any individual. It is fair to say that we did not consult as widely as we should have done on the items. We ought to take that lesson and see that we have procedures for consultation in the future. One of the ways of finding out how much things are worth and who is interested is to put them up for auction. We have taken seriously the concerns expressed in the House last Thursday that there was a risk of the items going to private buyers and therefore not being available to the public. That has resulted in the decision that I have announced today.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, on what basis was it decided that the Chancellor could dispose of the silver? Is it said that all silver in the hands of every other department can be sold by the Chancellor if he says that it is desirable to do so?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I answered that question last Thursday. I said that six or seven years ago, under a Conservative administration, assets of that sort were assigned to individual departments rather than being held by Property Holdings. That is the basis on which they are the property of the Treasury.

Lord Peston

My Lords, did I mishear my noble friend? Did he say that the stuff has not been seen by the public for 40 or so years, or did he add something that I missed'? I assume that it must have been seen by the civil servants who have checked that it is still there and we have not lost any of it. What is the flow of benefit if it is not available to be seen by the public? Have we become misers who are happy because we know that it is there, even though no one else does?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that for most of the time the silver has been held in a locked cupboard, or a series of locked cupboards. Of course, it has been available to be seen at Bonhams & Brooks since last Friday.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, the Minister has generously conceded that his department may not have consulted as widely as it should have done. As a matter of interest, who was consulted?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have attempted to answer that question. We do not have a list of those who were consulted. Some of those who were consulted take it to have been done in private, so it is not necessarily the case that we would be able to release a list.

Forward to