22 May 1997 : Column 493

House of Lords

Thursday, 22nd May 1997.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

Lord Parry--Took the Oath.

Merseyside Museums and Galleries: Admission Charges

The Earl of Clancarty asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will intervene to prevent the introduction of an admission charge to galleries run by National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, planned to take effect from 1st July 1997.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside already charge for admission at some of their collections. It is for the board of trustees to decide whether or not to introduce admission charges at other NMGM museums and galleries. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be meeting the chairman of the trustees shortly to discuss this issue.

The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Will the Government consider taking steps to stop all further introductions of admission charges by public museums and galleries within the UK? Will they consider abolishing charges currently operated by public museums; for example, at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery where attendances have fallen drastically since charges were introduced in 1992?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the formal position is that the Government have no power to decide whether or not museum trustees impose admission charges. However, as noble Lords will be aware, the Secretary of State, Chris Smith, has declared that he is against admission charges, and will seek to find ways of maximising access to our museums and galleries. At the same time, it must be said that that statement should not be taken as an indication to museums and galleries to come to government with a begging bowl to make up the deficit in their budgets. Ways must be found of maximising access to our museums and galleries and of course it is desirable for that to be done without admission charges.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, will the Minister be kind enough to explain the alternative for museums and galleries other than to go to the Government with a begging bowl if they take away the discretion to make charges?

22 May 1997 : Column 494

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was not suggesting that the Government were going to take away the discretion to make charges. As the noble Lord will well know, the power to make charges was introduced by the Museums and Galleries Admission Charges Act 1972 under the Heath government. When we had the Wilson government in 1974 it was possible, by persuasion, to get the museums and galleries to remove their charges. It is only by persuasion that we can get our museums and galleries to maximise access, unless we were to change the law which we have no present intention of doing.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the proposal by Merseyside may have an adverse effect on bequests, including the important bequest by Sir Denis Mahon which will be cancelled if the charges are introduced?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Sir Denis Mahon is of course a generous contributor to our museums and galleries. He has three pictures on loan in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. If my noble friend is right when he says that the effect of charges would be that he would withdraw all his pictures on loan in our museums and galleries that would be sad, and we should have to consider it.

Viscount Mersey: My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest in that my wife is a trustee. Is the noble Lord aware that the charge of £3 for a season ticket, admitting to all six museums, will not yield a huge amount of income? What will yield income is the ability to reclaim VAT, once their charitable status is altered. Will the noble Lord tell me the Labour policy on VAT, and whether there is any chance of the Government abolishing VAT on charities?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I can confirm, as the noble Viscount said, that one of the advantages to museums of making charges is that they can reclaim the VAT. I can also confirm that the proposed annual charge of £3 and £1.50 for concessions for all of the Merseyside museums is not, as he says, onerous. The issue of VAT on charities is rather wide of the Question, and I do not think that I can answer it at present.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, in his first supplementary, the noble Earl made a comment--if I heard him correctly--about the drastic fall in the number of attendees. Does the noble Lord have any statistics as to what extent attendances have fallen since the introduction of charges?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is true that in general introducing admission charges causes a severe reduction in attendances, although the evidence is that attendances tend to rise after a certain time. The problem with obtaining the statistics has been that before the introduction of charges there was not necessarily a good count of the number of people entering museums and galleries. However the

22 May 1997 : Column 495

Government have commissioned the Glasgow Caledonian University to carry out research into the whole question of the economics of admission charges. We are expecting its report in November. We are looking to see whether that deadline can be advanced.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Mahon bequest will be cancelled only if the actual museum introduces charges, unlike my noble friend's implication that it will be withdrawn from all galleries? For example, the bulk of the collection will go to the National Gallery which, happily, does not charge and does not intend to do so.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that correction. It seems to me highly desirable that the Secretary of State should meet Sir Denis Mahon and talk about it, although I have no control over my right honourable friend's diary.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, does the Minister agree that while it is a good idea to have free days for schoolchildren and old age pensioners who are finding payment difficult, many of us really want to pay to go into museums so that they can invest that money in making their exhibitions more exciting?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I confirm that from my personal experience. I certainly have found no difficulty--indeed, I have found pleasure--in making a voluntary contribution when I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. I am sad that last November the Victoria and Albert Museum found it necessary to move from voluntary charges to a compulsory charge.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that it is the Government's view that the decision about whether charges shall be made for admission to national museums and galleries should be for the trustees and not for central government?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I confirmed that in my first supplementary answer. It is a matter legally for the trustees and not for the Government.

The French Embassy

11.15 a.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have had any discussions with the Government of France about the external condition of the French Embassy in Knightsbridge, SW1.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, officials have been in contact with the French Embassy since October 1996 and have relayed the concern of Westminster City Council and the Knightsbridge Association. I hope that

22 May 1997 : Column 496

the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, will be pleased to learn that the French Ambassador recently informed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that restoration work, estimated to cost £530,000, will commence in June and take several months to complete.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I am delighted with that Answer and I thank the noble Baroness very much for it. I hope that all her replies from the Dispatch Box will be as encouraging as that. Will the Minister agree that in its present condition, with the paint peeling off the walls and filthy dirty, it is a disgrace both to France, which is of course their business, and to London, which is ours?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am pleased with the noble Lord's delight. I cannot promise always to delight him quite that much. The condition of the French Embassy has obviously caused widespread concern, as he remarked, and we are all very pleased to learn that the French Embassy will be taking steps to ameliorate it as quickly as possible.

Lord St. John of Fawsley: My Lords, will the Minister accept that her announcement will be warmly welcomed by many people, including the Royal Fine Art Commission which has been concerned with this problem for even longer than the Government? As the site is a premier part of London, can the noble Baroness obtain assurances from the French Ambassador, who is a good friend to this country and understands the situation well, that this work is carried out regularly in future so that the listed building will be as fine in appearance as its twin, the Kuwaiti Embassy, which is just opposite?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page