HC Deb 28 July 1982 vol 28 cc565-6W

I am replying to your Committee's Fourth Report of the 1981–82 Session published on 3 March 1982, which recommended that immediate consultations should be held between the British Film Institute and the Office of Arts and Libraries to decide how best to raise the estimated £695,000 per annum needed to save the nitrate collection at the National Film Archive. My office is in regular contact with the BFI about this and other matters. I have, however, taken the opportunity of the further memorandum submitted by the BFI to the Committee to discuss personally with the Chairman of the Institute, Sir Richard Attenborough, the priority given to the nitrate conversion programme. I have also visited the film archive at Aston Clinton and Berkhamsted and had discussions there.

The conservation problems of the film archive are not of course unique. Other archive collections face similar difficulties over very high conservation costs at a time of high inflation. For example, the British Library has conservation and restoration needs which are in excess of its present resources. The British Institute of Recorded Sound has problems with the instability of wax cylinders which are not dissimilar from those of the Film Archive. While, however, the issues facing the BFI are therefore familiar to other bodies with archive functions, the difficulties of the Film Archive are more immediate because of the inherently self-destructive nature of nitrate film.

In view of the conservation and other needs of the BFI, successive governments have almost doubled the public funding of the Institute in real terms over the ten years from 1972–73. It is of course primarily the responsibility of the governors to determine the priorities of the Institute. They have decided over this period to expand in a large number of fields. The Committee said in its report that it feels that until recently the BFI has given insufficient priority to the archive. It is true, however, to say that over the same period the amount of nitrate film deposited with the archive has more than trebled, and the Institute has recently faced a massive increase in film stock prices following speculation in the silver market.

The Institute has now revised to £1 million p.a. (as against the figure of £0.7 million p.a. given to the Committee) its estimate of the extra sum needed to reach the target figure of 7 million feet a year for duplicating nitrate film on to acetate safety film. The increase would include provision for an estimated 17 additional staff to help with the preparation and restoration of old film, increased film stock purchases and extra storage. In addition the assumed rate of deterioration would require about 10 million feet to be copied in each of the four years from 1983–84 to 1986–87. The Institute's proposals therefore include provision for contracting out the copying programme for the additional 3 million feet in these years to a commercial laboratory at a further estimated cost of about £1 million p.a. for four years. The additional £1 million a year, rising to almost £2 million a year in four peak years, would be over and above the £1.9 million allocated for the nitrate programme within the Institute's 1982–83 budget.

These figures must be set against the existing level of grant. For 1982–83 the Office of Arts and Libraries has allocated £7.014 million to the Institute, which specifically includes an additional £0.1 million for extra revenue costs at the archive, and an additional £0.1 million for extra capital costs. In addition the National Heritage Memorial Fund have given a grant of £0.1 million in the current financial year and there is the prospect of additional help from other sources. Given the popular interest of much of the material in the archive, the possibilities for sponsorship are considerable; very commendably the Institute has already raised £0.25 million in the current financial year and will be continuing its effort vigorously.

The Government's public expenditure programme for the arts in 1983–84 shows a planned cash increase of around 4 per cent. Inevitably therefore the extra requirements for the National Film Archive could only be accommodated at the expense of a substantial reduction in the resources allocated elsewhere. I will most certainly keep the needs of the BFI, including those of the archive, very much in mind in determining the annual allocation of the arts programme. At the same time I have to give due weight to the claims of a variety of other pressing calls on limited resources, including the needs of other archives. I regret that it is not therefore possible for me to give assurances that, in present financial circumstances, the full additional sums estimated as necessary to complete the nitrate conversion programme within the original timescale can be made available.