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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Contracting Out (Functions in relation to Apsley House) Order 2002

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 6 February 2002

Mr. John Cummings

Draft Contracting Out (Functions in relation to Apsley House) Order 2002

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Contracting Out (Functions in relation to Apsley House) Order 2002.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. I hope that we shall not detain you too long, although I have said that before and been proved wrong.

We are here to debate whether functions vested in the Secretary of State under certain sections of the Wellington Museum Act 1947 may be exercised on her behalf. The functions cover two issues, the first of which is the maintenance and use of part of Apsley house as a museum commemorating the first Duke of Wellington and his time. The museum may be used for Government entertainment or, with the consent of the Duke, for other public purposes. The second issue is the maintenance of the fabric of the house.

Apsley house was given to the Government by the seventh Duke of Wellington in 1947. Under the terms of the Wellington Museum Act, the Duke and his family retain rights to live in the private apartments, and he retains rights to give consent to events held in the public rooms. We do not propose that any of those rights should change. The functions that we propose to change have been carried out since 1947 by the Victoria and Albert museum, on the one hand, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and its predecessors, on the other.

Why change now, after 54 years? The fact is that that is a long time, even in museum terms. It is certainly a long time when it comes to considering the functions that should properly be undertaken by a Department. It makes no practical sense to have separate management arrangements for the functions vested in the Secretary of State. We have decided that the time has come for unification. Over the years, the Victoria and Albert has done an excellent job. Under its management, the Wellington museum won the small attraction of the year award in 2001. Between 1998 and 2001, the number of visitors increased by 37 per cent. to about 60,000 people a year.

The director of the Victoria and Albert museum, Mark Jones, has said that running an historic house is not a priority for his institution at this time. It has plenty of other priorities. A change in the management of the Wellington museum provides an opportunity for new focus and direction. The Department and its predecessors have been competent stewards of the historic fabric over the years. There has been

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considerable Government investment to make sure that that grade 1 listed building remains in good shape. In addition to the day-to-day maintenance, a considerable programme of capital works has been funded. Last year, more than £200,000 was spent on a thorough overhaul of the east wing roof. My Department has also programmed more than £700,000 for future works to the Waterloo and central roofs. Any new body will be funded to continue those works.

We see considerable advantage in market-testing ideas for unified management of the building and the museum. The order provides an opportunity to gauge that interest. We hope that it will be wide ranging. Interest may come from established heritage operations or other quarters. We expect to let a contract in the first instance for five years. The successful bidder will be funded initially by the Department at existing levels of involvement, but with the expectation that a new operation will generate other sources of support, perhaps via sponsorship and more corporate and other events in the museum.

The time is right for change on all fronts. Of course, change is unsettling for most of those directly involved. It is fundamental to our thinking that the position of existing staff in the museum should be protected, no matter what new management arrangements are put in place. Discussions have begun between the Department and the Victoria and Albert museum. If members of the Committee agree to our proposal, we shall consult the staff and the unions together with potential bidders. Where staff transfer to the new management, we will follow the Cabinet Office statement of practice on staff transfers in the public sector, so that the rights of those employed at the Wellington museum will be fully protected.

The proposal will lead to real gains all around: the Victoria and Albert will be relieved of a responsibility that no longer fits its primary business purpose; the Department will relinquish direct responsibility; and visitors will not suffer—indeed, they might have a richer experience. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.35 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Although I welcome the order, I wish to put several questions to the Minister. He mentioned the welcome increase in visitors between 1988 and 2001.

Dr. Howells: Between 1998 and 2001.

Miss McIntosh: That is even more impressive.

I imagine that the museum is of the sort that Americans in particular like to visit—and I should declare an interest as my husband works for an American airline, as the Minister will remember from our exchanges last week. Has there been a reduction in the number of particular groups of visitors, such as Americans, since 11 September? If the budget and financial provisions that the Minister has laid out had included a marketing programme, the museum might have attracted more visitors. The lack of such a programme is a weakness. Will a marketing role be established, which might increase visits still further?

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Dr. Howells: The hon. Lady has raised some valuable issues. Apsley house is a hidden gem. I admit that I have not visited it, and I was unaware that it housed, for example, a tremendous collection of Spanish paintings. More seriously, I did not know how to get to it, although I must have driven past it a thousand times. I did not realise that a tube entrance is nearby. I agree that we must ensure that there is a more imaginative marketing policy for Apsley house, so that its future is brighter than its past.

The hon. Lady asked about the drop in visitor numbers. I cannot give her that information, because we do not have that kind of a breakdown of the figures. In general terms, however, we have received about 20 per cent. fewer visitors from America since 11 September, and, because they are the biggest spenders, spending in London has probably fallen by more than that. That will have had serious consequences for all our major attractions, and I imagine that it has had a knock-on effect on Apsley house.

Miss McIntosh: I have had the good fortune to visit Apsley house, which has the wonderful address of No. 1 London; I am unsure how the Post Office finds it. The Minister said that it housed several gems that are not widely seen. The explanatory note—and, as he knows, I am very fond of explanatory notes—refers to it being used

    ''for the purpose of Government entertainment''.

I fervently wish that more members of the public should have access to Apsley house. How will that be made possible in the context of the order? It will be possible to loan—either temporarily or permanently—additional objects to the independent trusts that are imagined by the order. That would be one way for Apsley house to attract not only Government entertainment, but more visitors. Would the Minister's Department see fit to do that, and does he have any further ideas about how we could achieve our end?

Dr. Howells: As a result of discussions with the Wellesley family, it has been proposed that if the management were put on a different basis and arrangements for family members who live in the house were put on a proper basis, the family would consider moving several fascinating and extremely valuable objects from their country home into the museum at No. 1 London. That would allow the objects to be appreciated by a wider range of people. That is a good opportunity that we should not allow to slip by.

Miss McIntosh: May I take that as an assurance—the Minister may nod or shake his head—that there will be an emphasis on greater public attendance rather than Government entertaining, wonderful though that is?

Dr. Howells: I have not had the opportunity to visit Apsley house, so I assure the hon. Lady that I have not been wined or dined. I am not sure how many of the events that have been held there were sponsored by the Government.

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When the house was presented to the nation in 1947, an agreement was made, which is still in place, that the house's occupants should have a direct say in the numbers of events that are held. After all, the house is a place where people live, as well as a museum. We should keep that tension correct. The house should look like a home. Its great attraction as a museum is that people will be able to understand what it was like to live at the time of the Duke of Wellington and to understand the place that he held in contemporary British society.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister leads neatly into my next question. I understand that it is popular to criticise certain members of the royal family and certain aristocrats. Does the Minister agree that the people who best understand the collection, including the parts that have not yet been exhibited, are members of the family? Will the family be involved in the trust that I expect the order to result in?

Dr. Howells: I understand that at least one of the trusts that will bid for the contract will contain a member of the family. The hon. Lady will agree that decisions about the arrangement and exhibition of paintings, works of art and other objects should be taken between people from the Victoria and Albert museum, with the expertise that we are fortunate to have on offer there, and members of the family. I hope that such a partnership will continue.


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Prepared 6 February 2002