Orders of the Day — Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd May 1976.

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Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West 12:00 am, 3rd May 1976

The financial problems which assail the national heritage are as important as any other issue raised here today. It is historic Britain that attracts tourism, earning more than £2,000 million a year in foreign exchange. Yet in this century we have lost hundreds of major historic buildings and landscapes and seen the dispersal of priceless treasures overseas. It is to our historic places that our constituents flock on their day out, and we must think, too, of them.

A year ago, Heritage Year 1975 aroused widespread interest. This is to be carried through into Heritage Education Year 1977, warmly supported by the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Let us hope that neither of these proves to be a hollow sham. I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not unmindful of the problems of the heritage. I hope that he will find time to translate his genuine interest into effective action.

I seek to highlight the problem and to propose a solution. This will involve, inevitably, certain strictures on the Government's capital taxation proposals, but I hope that the Government will accept that my strictures are made in a helpful spirit.

The largely man-made landscape provides a setting for a wealth and variety of buildings unequalled anywhere else in the world. Many of these buildings still contain collections of works of art far richer than those in most public galleries. Practically every major house is open to the public. All of this is threatened by alarm and uncertainty stemming from recent capital taxation, both enacted and prospective.

Over the weekend, many of us will have read of the imminent sales of some of the finest pictures remaining in private hands. We all recall the Radnor Velasquez, which went to America for £2·3 million, and the Harewood Titian, which was eventually saved, after months of agony and hectic public subscription, for getting on for £2 million. It is a sobering thought that a pair of Titians of the same series as Lord Harewood's—"Death of Actaeon", regarded by some as being finer than Lord Harewood's—which are in a private collection, are threatened by the Government's new taxation policy. This pair of Titians could well fetch £10 million by public auction. For years they have been on loan to a public collection and have been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people.

There are, of course, many more pictures and works of art of incalculable value on view in privately-owned historic houses, and all these are under threat. It has been suggested by certain national experts that some 25 paintings of major national importance are still in private hands. How can these experts know that? There must be many as yet undiscovered—they are being discovered all the time—and there are also those which are as yet unappreciated. I am thinking here of works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The problem is enormous.

Why is it all happening? Both the capital transfer tax and the wealth tax are, in this context, designed as social engineering and not as revenue raisers. But there will be an actual cost to the community because of the vast amounts of public money needed to replace private owners and their remaining resources—and where, in any case, are we to put all the displaced objects? Today we have a cri de coeur from the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries. It is about the university museums on this occasion, but national institutions and local museums are all in the same boat. The only result of this social engineering so far as the heritage is concerned is that a spanner has all but destroyed the delicate mechanism, the hitherto happy and satisfactory relationship between private owners, public collections and the public interest.

There has been a positive acceleration of the dispersal which we all seek to avoid. The floodgates are opening. They will be irresistibly jammed wide open before the Bill becomes law unless immediate action is taken. Last year's agony served to clear our minds. The mass of evidence which came out of the wealth tax hearings and the accompanying public debate was traumatic to live through, but—to use the Chancellor's favourite phrase—it resulted in a far wider parliamentary and public appreciation of the scale and nature of the problem.

I welcome what emerged from last year's debates—the amended capital transfer tax provisions—although in their new form in this Bill they may well prove to be counter-productive. The Chancellor's toughening up may prove too daunting, if only because a taxpayer could be liable for the actions of others over which he has no control. I draw the Chief Secretary's attention to the article by Mr. Wintersgill in The Guardian today. He has probably already seen it. I want to explore all this if possible at a later stage. The toughening up may be over-tough. I hope that there will be good-humoured exchanges in Committee on this and all the other aspects of the problem, because surely it should not be a matter of political controversy.

From the capital transfer tax, we now have conditional exemption for outstanding historic houses, their precincts and their outstanding contents, but a heavy extra responsibility is placed upon the owners, all in exchange for reasonable public access. They are tough rules, and I suggest that a new tax case will be required to deal with this aspect because neither Case I nor Case VI of Schedule D will suffice. I note a flicker of recognition from the Chief Secretary, sitting not so impassively on the Government Front Bench.

All this is progress of a kind, but no provision has been made for any income-producing privately-owned assets, whether in the shape of land or other things, for the support of the heritage. This is crucial to the whole matter, because without the supporting resources in the form of stringently-supervised maintenance funds we shall see land sold to pay taxes, contents dispersed to pay taxes and empty houses left as public liabilities in derelict landscapes.

Much skilful work has been done on the subject of maintenance funds—that is, privately-owned income-producing assets, land or otherwise, set aside under strict Treasury supervision to provide financial support for the heritage. The Government have themselves been engaged upon this as part of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster's arts finance remit. It has been raised with him and with other Ministers over many months. The Government must by now have found that workable schemes are a practical possibility, and an amendment of only a few simple words is all that is required—"conditional exemption for maintenance funds." The detailed rules can safely be supplied and applied by the Treasury, aided as it is already by the Government-nominated Historic Buildings Council, somewhat strengthened to deal with wider responsibilities.

Let us dispense once and for all with another old argument—namely, that we advocate a special privileged class of taxpayer. That is not so. It is the heritage that we seek to protect. The owners and their possesions are already hedged in by restrictions and loaded with responsibilities. Any further curtailment of the freedom of action of owners of the heritage will undoubtedly cause further sales and dispersals.

Another idea has been canvassed—namely, that of forcing owners to hand over to trustees all that they possess. That has nowhere found a welcome. No public body concerned with the heritage either advocates that approach or is anxious to collaborate with it. The few private trusts that have been set up have not found it easy to find suitable trustees. I reflect that there is no great building or landscape that was ever created by a committee or board of trustees.

It is recognised by the Government in their Green Paper and elsewhere that private owners can do the best job. I am not suggesting that they should not be closely scrutinised by the Treasury while they are doing it. That scrutiny has always been part of my submission to the House on this matter. It is a central and crucial matter.

I believe that the question of resources is very much a Second Reading point that deserves more than just a nod from the Treasury Bench. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something useful.