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6. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): If he will make a statement on his policy on free entry to publicly funded museums. [144784]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): Our policy is to encourage all museums to offer the widest possible access to their collections. We have enabled those national museums funded by my Department which already offer free admission to continue to offer it, and we have scrapped entry charges for children and the over-60s at those that charge. We have also provided funds to enable their trustees to introduce a standard admission charge of £1 for adults from September 2001, and to allow free admission to all people who are in receipt of the major benefits, including people with disabilities.

Mr. Loughton: Will the Secretary of State confirm that his press release of 24 July 1998, which committed his

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Government to universal free entry to our national museums, was a sham, and that the pledge will now be broken? Is this not another example of the failure of the Government's ill-conceived cultural imperialism, which would have disadvantaged museums reclaiming VAT? Should not the matter be left to these important institutions themselves--along with the Government's cackhanded attempts to politicise the appointments of directors of our museums?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): What a load of crap!

Mr. Smith: Well, I would put it rather more delicately than my hon. Friend.

In our 1998 comprehensive spending review document, we said:

That is precisely what we are doing.

I am delighted that our programme of free admission for children has resulted in a 20 per cent. increase in the numbers of children visiting our national museums and galleries, and that the programme of free admission for those who are 60 and over has resulted in a 40 per cent. increase in visits by them to our national museums and galleries. I am pleased also that the free admission to Tate Modern that we put in place has resulted in 3 million visitors in seven months visiting it. Those are major successes, and we intend to build further on them. Incidentally, I might remind the hon. Gentleman that he comes from a party that forced those charges on to museums and galleries in the first place.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that the language that he used is not parliamentary, even as an aside.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Noting with resentment the dextrist remarks against left-handed people made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) in his supplementary question, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that the barmiest way of financing free admissions to museums and galleries would be by privatising Channel 4, as is being been proposed by Conservative Members? Does he recall that it was William Whitelaw, as Home Secretary, in the days when the Conservative party was led by sensible and serious people, who created Channel 4 as a public service corporation with a statutory public service remit? Is it not typical of that lot opposite to back down on what was done by a fine Home Secretary? Will my right hon. Friend also reaffirm that, in the many years in which this Government will be in office, Channel 4 will remain a public corporation?

Mr. Smith: I can indeed give my right hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. This Government will not privatise Channel 4, nor will the next Labour Government. The Tory proposals on privatisation and funding which they seem to have announced today are both incompetent and alarming. First, Conservative Members would privatise Channel 4, doing immense damage to the quality and diversity of programmes and to

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investment in British films and, in the process, to the future of public service broadcasting. On top of that, they say that they will spend £1 billion that simply does not exist.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the Minister, but he is not really before the House to talk about the Opposition's policy. That is not his purpose here.

Mr. Smith: I of course accept that, Mr. Speaker. However, in identifying how best we as a Government can ensure support for our museums and galleries, I think it is important to examine various alternatives that have been suggested by various groups. That is what I am seeking to do, and what my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was seeking to ask me in his question.

If I may simply finish very briefly the point about the £1 billion that Conservative Members--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think it best that the Minister finish.

Mr. Smith: Mr. Speaker, of course I accept your ruling. However, the answer to my right hon. Friend, and to ensuring free access to museums and galleries, is to put in investment from the Exchequer. That is precisely what we are doing. As a Government, we are spending £229 million on that in the current year. In three years, the figure will be £275 million.

The figures that the Opposition have come up with, in contradistinction to ours, simply do not add up. Even if one accepted their figures, they would be £65 million short of our current support for museums and galleries. So, not only would they do great damage to Channel 4, but they would do enormous damage to our museums and galleries in the process.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The Secretary of State is still floundering, and I am tempted to use the unparliamentary language used recently by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner); the right hon. Gentleman was talking complete and utter rubbish. He has indicated clearly that it is the Government's intention to make museums, galleries and cultural organisations more, rather than less, dependent on the Treasury. That is not the right way forward for museums and not the best way to promote access.

Having broken their promise on universal free admission, the Government have resorted to an admissions policy for national museums that poses serious questions about their ability to invest in their future development. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that as a result of the Government's inelegantly named "quids in" policy, national museums could be landed with a multi-million pound VAT bill? What guarantee can he offer them this afternoon that Customs and Excise will continue to turn a blind eye to the VAT liability after next year?

Mr. Smith: On VAT, the answer is simple; yes, Customs and Excise has indicated clearly that the introduction of a £1 charge by a museum qualifies that museum as operating as a business and that that £1 charge

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will not render the museum liable for VAT. That is the simple position, which has been restated on a number of occasions. The hon. Gentleman and his party want to fund our museums according to the fluctuations of the market and on the back of serious damage to the broadcasting environment and culture of this country. That is not the way to provide funds for the museums and galleries that we all treasure.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): May I thank my right hon. Friend for his continuing support for the mining museum in west Yorkshire? I also thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his support in the past. Can I appeal to my right hon. Friend to join with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to ensure that schoolchildren visit the museum so that we do not lose the culture of mining in the Yorkshire area?

Mr. Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important issue. When it comes to serious issues about museums and galleries in this country, Labour Members, and not Conservatives, have the interests of the country at heart. It is thanks to this Government's decision to support the National Coalmining Museum of England that the museum has not only been able to survive, but will be able to thrive in the future. Together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, I will ensure that children have every possible opportunity to visit it.

Millennium Dome

7. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If he will make a statement on the disposal of the contents of the millennium dome. [144785]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): The disposal of the content of the dome is an integral part of the New Millennium Experience Company's programme to achieve a solvent liquidation. Work is currently under way to return those assets owned by third parties. Assets owned by NMEC will be subject to private treaty sale or public auction which is scheduled to take place at the dome site from 27 February to 2 March 2001. The sale will be handled by Henry Butcher, international auctioneers.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply, but I am afraid that it really will not do. Why cannot he see the absurdity of selling off the contents of the dome when a number of would-be bidders for the site might wish to retain those contents? Will he confirm that Legacy was named as the preferred bidder only weeks after its £33,000 donation to the Labour party? Is not the Government's frantic handling of this sorry saga further proof that, rather than maximising the return to the public, they care only to minimise the damage to themselves?

Mr. Smith: No. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have not been involved personally in any of the negotiations with Legacy plc. However, I understand that negotiations are proceeding with Legacy as the preferred bidder and

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are due to be concluded by 14 February. If so, any sale of the contents of the dome will proceed subsequent to that date.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): While the Secretary of State is overseeing the disposal of the contents of the dome, will he also take the opportunity to investigate the circumstances surrounding the sponsorship of the faith zone by the Hinduja brothers to the tune of £1 million? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, according to a parliamentary answer that I received on Friday, the Minister then responsible for the dome, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), made inquiries on behalf of the brothers and intervened in a matter that was neither his departmental nor his constituency responsibility, before the £1 million was made available? This seems to be a case of two people buying a very expensive entry ticket to the dome and getting nationality in return.

Mr. Smith: No. I understand that Mr. Hinduja's passport application was dealt with in the normal way, by the normal people, under the normal terms. My right hon. Friend's then Parliamentary private secretary told Mr. Hinduja that that would be the case. That was my right hon. Friend's sole involvement. He had no involvement in endorsing or supporting the application at any stage.

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