Power of Board of Trustees of Victoria and Albert Museum to Form Companies

National Heritage Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 5th May 1983.

Alert me about debates like this

(1) With the consent of the Secretary of State and subject to any conditions he may impose, the Board may form or take part in forming one or more bodies corporate which (or each of which) has as its main object or objects one or more of those mentioned in subsection (2).(2) The objects are—

  1. (a) the production and publication of books, films or other informative material relating to art, craft or design,
  2. (b) the commissioning of works of art, craft or design,
  3. (c) the production of replicas or reproductions of works of art, craft or design, or of souvenirs,
  4. (d) the sale of informative material relating to art, craft or design, of works of art, craft or design, of replicas or reproductions of such works, or of souvenirs, and
  5. (e) the provision of catering or car parking or other services or facilities for the public at any premises occupied or managed by the Board.
(3) The Board may hold interests in any such body, exercise rights conferred by the holding of interests in it, and provide financial or other assistance to or in respect of it (including assistance by way of guarantee of its obligations).(4) In this section references to works of design are to works illustrating the principles of design.(5) This section is without prejudice to any power of the Board to undertake anything mentioned in subsection (2) by virtue of section 2.—[Mr. Channon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West 6:48 pm, 5th May 1983

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Mr Ernest Armstrong Mr Ernest Armstrong , North West Durham

With this we may take Government new clauses 2, 3 and 6 and Government amendment No. 34.

Amendment No. 43, in schedule 1, page 21, line 20, at end insert— '(4) The Board shall have the power to organise and run subsidiary trading companies, the profits of which shall be covenanted to the Victoria and Albert Museum.'. Amendment No. 53, in page 24, line 32, at end insert— '(4) The Board shall have the power to organise and run subsidiary trading companies, the profits of which shall be covenanted to the Science Museum.'. Amendment No. 59, in page 27, line 40, at end insert— '(4) The Board shall have the power to organise and run subsidiary trading companies, the profits of which shall be covenanted to the Armouries.'. Amendment No. 67, in page 31, line 33, at end insert— '(4) The Board shall have the power to organise and run subsidiary trading companies, the profits of which shall be covenanted to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.'.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

New clause 1 and the amendments that are taken with it deal with a very small but important point raised in Committee. I hope that the Government have now fully honoured the commitment that I gave at that stage to see whether express permission was necessary to enable the boards of the Victoria and Albert and science museums and the royal botanic gardens to establish trading companies. The amendments empower the boards to set up such companies with the consent of the appropriate Minister of the Crown and subject to conditions which he may stipulate. There is a broadly similar provision to be tabled in respect of the commission, for which, of course, my hon. Friend is responsible. The companies' objectives, which are related to the respective functions of the institutions, are set out in subsection (2) and the boards are empowered to provide financial or other assistance to the companies.

I think that these proposals meet in full the anxieties which some hon. Members expressed in Committee. I think that we have met the points raised by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) in his amendment No. 43. I hope that the House will approve the new clause.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

The Opposition welcome the introduction of the new clause. We feel that it goes some way towards clearing up the real doubts expressed on both sides in Committee and by all parties there represented about the trading status of the museums. We accept that it is extremely important that the museums here designated should have the opportunity to commercialise some of their activities in a proper manner with appropriate legal standards and be able to keep such functions separate from their other activities.

The Minister's introduction of the new clause was somewhat laconic. I should like to hear rather more about how the trading companies will be established and the nature of their relationship with the board of trustees in each instance. There were extensive debates in another place on boards of trustees and whether, as Lord Annan and others suggested, they should contain within their ranks business expertise of a managerial variety. It was suggested that they should be composed of groups of what might be described as artistic Lord Sainsburys.

The phrasing of the new clause leaves the relationship between the board of trustees and the trading company somewhat unclear, and on that I shall welcome further information from the Minister. The nearest analogy to that which is being proposed for the national museums is the publications company of the British museum. The company is concerned with publishing books and catalogues. It seems clear that it was set up to subsidise other publishing activities, principally the more expensive catalogues which could not in themselves make money.

Later amendments relate to the covenanting of profits by the trading companies, or whatever other operation is undertaken, to the national museums. We said in Committee that it should he possible for money earned by one department or section of these important national institutions to be aggregated to the benefit of the institution as a whole without prejudice to the other aspects of the museum's work and activities, such as exposition, demonstration and research, which could not conceivably make money. Indeed, I do not think that any hon. Members would wish them to do so.

I should like to hear from the Minister whether it is possible for the profits that are made—assuming that profits will be made—by the trading companies to be ploughed back into the museum service as a whole, or whether they will have to be kept within the accounts of the museum company. If the latter, the Government will still not have met the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack), myself and others in Committee to the effect that we wish the trading operations to subsidise all the activities of the national museums concerned.

Those are my main reservations about the new clause. I hope that it is clear to the House that I have a sneaking suspicion that we would be better placed if the new clause had as a codicil the substance of what the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West and I were trying to achieve, rather than the relationship of the trading companies with the parent board of trustees and with the general economic activities of the museums being left in a vague and inexact form. Those economic activities will require substantial financial support each year. We do not want that to be imperilled if a particular trading company is successful. We want the trading companies to be successful but we do not want that to lead to any financial penalty — a reduction of grant-in-aid—in subsequent years.

Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Beeston

Itis true that we learn something every day, and today I learnt something about the way in which the House operates.

I shall try to make a speech within the rules of order on new clause 1 which will embrace the principles set out in amendment No. 44, which I tabled, which has not been selected because it has been misprined. Apparently an amendment that has been misprinted cannot be selected on Report. I ave learnt today to check everything that is printed in my name. I shall try to learn how to make a speech within the rules of order on an amendment that has not been selected by elating it to the new clause.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minsiter for the Arts recognises that, in giving tothe board the powers set out in the clause, the board will thereafter hold and be allowed to hold interests. I am sure that he will acknowledge that it should hold interests in the constitutent bodies which have played a great part in establishing the Victoria and Albert museum, the staff of which are anxious to retain the present connections.

As names go forward to the Prime Minster for selection for the board that will exercise the powers wset out in the new clause, I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that those who work at the V and A, who are concerned about the future and desire to see a straightforward transfer and continuation of tradition, will understand tha those who go forward tothe board to exercise the powers that are proposed will have the links that so concerned us in Committee, where we were trying to establish a balance between the powers of nominationm the patronage of the Prime Minister's office, and the review and alteration of the constituent elements of the V and A.

When my right hon. Friend replies to this brief debate, i hope that he will give the reassurance that we might hve obtained more directly if we had been able to debate amendment No. 44. This is not a game. There was a serious debate on this issue in Committee— a debate that lasted for more than on hour. We were trying to redraft a provision in a way that would be accpetable to both sides. That attempt, for technical reasons, has not been successful.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand the deep feeling and genuine anxiety of those who will be advising on and implementing the responsibilities inherent in the new clause. I hope also that he will do everything in his power to allay that genuine anxiety.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

It seems that congratulations on three counts are in order. First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts on bringing forward the new clause. Secondly, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) on the ingenious interpretation that he was able to place upon it. Thirdly, I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your charitable indulgence in allowing my hon. Friend to place such an interpretation upon the clause. However, I think that he raised an extremely important issue. It was one which exercised the minds of members of the Committee on the Government and Opposition Benches. I am sure that it has not been lost on my right hon. Friend, in spite of the unfortunate technical deficiency that has prevented us from having the debate we all wished to have.

I welcome the new clause, which goes a long way to meeting the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), myself and others in Committee. I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Gentleman. I should have liked the new clause to be a little firmer. We are concerned that there should be total freedom for the board to trade. The museums should be able to capitalise their assets in every way and should not be penalised for so doing. We do not want to hear again the sort of remarks I have heard from the Imperial war museum and other bodies that they have been magnificently successful in their trading and as a result have been penalised when grants were being voted. I am sure that under the enlightened administration of my right hon. Friend that will not happen. He showed sympathy in Committee and I welcome his assurance to the House that it is his intention that it should not happen. I welcome the new clause, which adds materially to an excellent Bill.

7 pm

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I understand that we are discussing a series of amendments with new clause 1, including new clause 6. I should like to relate my remarks entirely to new clause 6. I was interested in the ingenious speech of the hon. Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester). It was apposite that he talked about learning. The proceedings on the Bill have been a learning exercise for the Government. When it was introduced in the House of Lords it was a ragbag. The other place improved it beyond recognition and in Committee here there were further improvements.

New clause 6 is an example of the improvements. It shows that the Government recognise that public enterprise has a role in initiatives in the presentation of our heritage. It is pleasing that this Government, of all Governments, should establish publicly owned bodies which will also be manufacturing bodies. I am glad that in Committee we managed to persuade the Government of the wisdom of that step.

The handicap in the original clause, which new clause 6 will replace, is that it restricted the sale of guide books and literature relating to ancient monuments and historic buildings situated in England. Only guide books and other associate handbooks relating to English monuments could be sold in any of the trading concerns of the commission. We pointed out to the Government in Committee that there should be clarification that on Hadrian's wall, for example, it will be possible for the shop at Housteads to sell guide books and maps relating to Scotland. It is important that that should be possible because many foreign visitors who sail into the great port on the Tyne tour the north of England before going to Wales or Scotland. I should like clarification from the Government that my interpretation is correct.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

I sympathise deeply with my hon. Friend the Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) for the fact that there were technical difficulties about debating his amendment which no doubt we would have come to later. Anyone who tries to draft amendments knows the difficulties. The Government will bear in mind what he and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) said about the necessity to have suitable trustees who will enjoy the confidence of the staff, with their long traditions in the museums and their deep concern about the future, and the confidence of the public. Obviously, it will be for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make the decisions, but I shall ensure that she is aware of the concern of the staff and the need for the appointment of people of sufficient calibre and expertise.

As to the points raised by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) about the commission and new clause 6, which is similar to new clauses 1 and 2, my hon. Friend has authorised me to say that these powers are wide enough. It will be all right for the commission to have a company that will sell maps covering historic sites in England and Scotland or books dealing with monuments or historic buildings throughout Great Britain. It will not be limited to material dealing with England. The points raised by the hon. Gentleman are well taken and have been covered.

I should point out to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) that there was doubt when the Bill was introduced whether it was necessary to have such powers. Indeed, I am not sure that it is necessary. The powers might have existed even without the new clause. However, he will recall that the Comptroller and Auditor General, in a report some years ago, suggested that Parliament should be informed of proposals of this kind, and in 1967–68 the Public Accounts Committee took the view that statutory authority should be obtained for arrangements of the kind to which we are referring. The Government thought it better to take specific powers so that no one could later criticise the trustees for misusing their powers.

The hon. Gentleman will note that the trustees have to obtain the consent of the Secretary of State and will be subject to any conditions that he may impose. Many of the details will be the subject of negotiation between the trustees and the Secretary of State. There is no intention of laying down detailed blueprints as to how many trustees shall serve on a company and how they shall run it. Presumably the trustees will put forward a proposal to the Secretary of State and, if it is at all reasonable, he will approve it. The Government have not gone into this in sufficient detail to have firm views on how the companies should be set up. It is not appropriate that they should. This will be a matter for the trustees. After all, we have the experience of British Museum Publications Ltd., an organisation which can develop a commercial approach to pricing, staffing, marketing and management. British Museum Publications Ltd. has been in business for 10 years, and a subsidiary company, British Museum Periodicals Ltd., was formed a few years later. The Government are determined to allow the trustees maximum freedom to trade, as hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish. The hon. Gentleman need not have any fears about this.

The board will be given the necessary powers to control the company and provide financial assistance, including assistance to meet any liabilities. Of course, it is the clear intention that the profits can go to the board. I do not think that any general point of difficulty could arise. The detailed arrangements for the working of the companies will be a matter for negotiation between the trustees and the Secretary of State at the time. We are determined that they should have as much freedom as necessary to carry out their proper commercial functions. I believe that is the wish of hon. Members on both sides of the House. We shall bear it in mind when trustees come forward with proposals.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

With the leave of the House, I wish to press the Minister on a further point. We are anxious that the profits earned by the trading companies shall be allowed to accrue to the benefit of the museums as a whole. The Minister has confirmed that. Can he also confirm that any sums earned will be without prejudice to the amounts voted out of public funds in ensuing years?

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

With respect, that is a meaningless assurance to give. If a company were to make a profit of £1 million and I were to say that it would have no effect on the grant a year later, no one would be any the wiser. What grants the boards get at the end of the day is the subject of negotiation at the time between my Department and the Treasury. It will always be that way. Any assurances to the contrary are not worth the paper that they are written on.

It is my intention that the museum should have maximum freedom, and not be penalised for trading successfully. However, as I explained in Committee, there is a special situation with regard to revotes. I hope not to have to explain it at length to the House. It is a difficult question. The rules of the House and of Government accounting make it difficult to move forward, but there is a report on revotes which the Government will have to consider. No doubt the House will be able to take it further.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.