HL Deb 04 November 2004 vol 666 cc428-30

11.23 a.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will provide new funding to safeguard the waterways museums at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester Docks and Stoke Bruerne.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, alas, no. We are supporting the development of museums across the country through the Renaissance in the Regions programme. We have limited resources, and DCMS is unable to offer the sort of long-term funding that the Waterways Trust is looking for. We have, however, approached the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and asked it to take on a brokerage role for the Waterways Trust in an effort to help it to widen the funding resources available to it.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for that Answer, I wonder whether he would acknowledge the sharp fall of 11 per cent in visitor numbers in these museums following the introduction of the otherwise very welcome policy of free access to national museums, including those in Wales and Merseyside. That came after a period of a 24 per cent rise in visitor numbers. Therefore, the £1 million is needed to make up the shortfall in income; for the conservation required, on which there is a huge backlog; and, finally, for the cataloguing of the hugely important archival material which these museums retain, which retell the story of the industrial revolution. There is much technological innovation to be found in those museums.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not dispute the attendance figures which the noble Lord quotes. It is certainly the case that the number of visitors to the waterways museums have fallen. But it is not right to claim that that is a result of the free admission to national museums policy. Only one of the three waterways museums—that at Ellesmere Port—is close to any national museum. I suppose that one could just about say, with a bit of exaggeration, that the Gloucester Docks were close to museums in Wales, but I doubt whether the visitor base is the same.

On the other hand, the noble Lord makes a valuable point about the conservation aspect. We have contributed more than £300,000 over the past five years to the waterways museums as designated collections.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, is it not the case that for the principle of free admission to work properly, there needs to be a much closer relationship between government funding and actual visitor figures, rather than forecast visitor figures? It is a case, if I may suggest, of the Government needing to do some fine tuning. Unless that happens, one will get a shortage of funding, which will result in suffering among museums such as those in the noble Lord's Question. That will mean that collections will suffer and will result in visitor figures in free fall.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is a bit of an exaggeration to say that, because we have a limited number of museums which now have free entry, that causes disaster to the many hundreds—even thousands—of other museums in this country. We have recognised that regional museums in this country have been underfunded.

We have piloted the Renaissance in the Regions programme, which, in the two hub areas where it started, has been enormously successful. There have been increases of some 28 per cent in the number of children visiting museums there, and of 52 per cent in the number of children using the outreach facilities. Because it is so successful, we have decided to make the programme nationwide. So there is no neglect of museums outside the national museums in this country. There are always indefinite demands for funds which cannot be met, but we have been tackling the problem very seriously.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, until recently, canals were not regarded as an important part of our history? When I was first elected in 1964, if somebody asked me what was the worst part of the constituency, I should have taken them to the Ashton Canal, a quarter of a mile from the centre, where there were rats, sewage and dereliction. If, today, someone were to ask me what was the best part of the area, I would take them to exactly the same place. The council has spent some money on it, which has produced enormously successful results. Will my noble friend see what can be done to encourage other councils to do the same?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree with all of that. It is certainly true that the revival of canals for recreational purposes, both for boating and because they are attractive both as landscapes and for development, is a wonderful thing that has happened in recent years. A great deal of money, from the Government, donors and collections from local people, has gone into that scheme. But it is a slightly different question from the question of the three waterways museums.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I declare a hereditary interest in that my 18th century Anglo-Irish forebear, Henry Brooke, wrote an important pamphlet on the Irish canal system in 1759. Can the Minister say whether the decline in numbers, which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, reported in the context of the waterways museums, has been paralleled over the same period in similar small, regional museums?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is far too difficult a question to generalise about. Some have been going up and some have been going down.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman designate of the Railway Heritage Committee. As the canals occupy a central part in our nation's transport history, would not my noble friend agree that one of the answers to the funding of the canal museums is for them to come under the responsibility of the National Museum for Science and Industry? It does such an excellent job in looking after the National Railway Museum at York and, indeed, the new Railway Museum at Shildon, opened by the Prime Minister last Friday.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion. I shall ask the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to take it into account. The implication of some of these questions is that there is no government funding for the waterways museums. That is not the case. The British Waterways Board gives the museums £750,000 a year, which comes from its Defra funding. Unlike many museums, they get national money.