The Board's General Functions

National Heritage Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 5th May 1983.

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Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North 8:15 pm, 5th May 1983

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 8, at end insert— '(e) satisfy the national interest in the Victoria and Albert Museum's activities and in its provincial responsibilities'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 12, in page 6, line 18, at end insert— '(e) satisfy the national interest in the Science Museum's activities and in its provincial responsibilities.'.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your second thoughts in allowing this small but important amendment to be discussed on Report. I am also grateful to the Minister for circulating to me and to other members of the Committee the reply to the remaining outstanding recommendations of the Rayner report on the two national museums. We received it just before the Easter recess. I should have liked to receive it by the end of the Committee stage, but we have at least had the opportunity to consider it.

Here we are considering the national vis-a-vis the provincial role of the two museums in question. It is truly said that there are no solutions in politics; there is simply a continuing and changing number of problems. Having pressed hard, with some success, from both sides of the Committee for a transfer of the administration of the local purchase grants of the Museums and Galleries Commission, in consultation at all times with the expert authorities at the two national museums, we feel that there is now a need to set out, more clearly than the statute has done, the national role of the museums.

The Victoria and Albert museum and the science museum must maintain a role in fostering the expertise.—indeed, the confidence—of the smaller and provincial museums. That is crucial for the survival of those smaller museums, many of which are starved of resources and expertise. I am not necessarily making a party point; it will probably always be the case that the smaller museums in the provinces will look to and rely on the kind of expert advice that is, naturally, concentrated in the great national institutions. Those have in the past taken their responsibilities seriously in the provision of such expertise and the Minister, in his response to the Rayner recommendations, reminded them that they should be at the service not only of the public at all times—a point to which I shall come when we deal with amendment No. 4—but also of the provincial museums.

We believe that there should be a statutory obligation, and it would not cost anything; it would simply be an exhortation—a reminder underpinned in this legislation of the responsibilities of the national museums to the smaller and provincial museums. Now that the Minister has given a lead in the transfer of administration, which we welcomed and pressed for, so that it is no longer a direct role—the pastoral role in its old sense—exercised by those two museums, their indirect but nevertheless extremely important involvement should be stressed, and it must continue. Because of that, we hope that in future, as a result of a small amendment along these lines, we shall be able to indicate to future generations the importance we attach to the link between the national museums and the provincial institutions.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

I do not think that any hon. Member would disagree with the sentiments contained in the final words uttered by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). I agree with him about the importance of the provincial museums and the role that the V and A and science museum have played in helping, with their expertise and in many other ways, the provincial museums. It was right for him to draw attention to the national interest as well in those two great museums. Indeed, it is common ground that they have a world-wide reputation, and I hope that the general effect of the Bill will, over the years, be to consolidate that position, improve it if anything, but certainly not make it worse.

There was much discussion in Committee about the powers of the boards and the precise duties that should be laid on the new boards of trustees. It has been pointed out that at this stage of the Bill it is extremely difficult to accept amendments unless they are exactly correctly worded. Accordingly, I must say that the first part of the amendment remains unclear. However, the hon. Gentleman pointed out that he wants the boards to stimulate interest in their respective fields and continue to exercise their role in relation to the provinces, although, as he pointed out, in relation to local purchase grants, there may be some change when we see the result of the consultations.

The boards will continue to make available to provincial museums the services that are at present available. They are certainly able to do that and the Government have every intention and hope that that should be the case. The boards already have the duty in the Bill to promote the public's enjoyment and knowledge in their respective fields. This is not confined to those who visit the museums; it relates also to the wider public, including colleagues in other museums. The way in which subsection (1) is drafted makes that clear.

Offering a range of advice and services such as loans, travelling exhibitions and lectures is not a role confined to the V and A and science museums. Our other national museums and galleries also do that. To make a specific reference in the Bill in the form of a duty to meet provincial obligations by those two institutions would contain some risk in that it could be taken to imply that other institutions which do not have such a specific obligation on them do not have that duty. If that were to be the way in which the combined measures relating to museums were read, that would not be in the best interests of the provincial museums.

The Bill already empowers the trustees to undertake a wide range of activities of regional and provincial relevance. I therefore submit that there is no need, as a matter of statute, to include the amendment. The point is already covered in the Bill. However, I have already undertaken in Committee—and I give the undertaking again tonight — that I shall specifically draw the attention of the new trustees, when they come into operation, to our debates on these issues, and in particular to those issues where there has been complete agreement in all parts of the House, and I think that it would be fair to say that on the subject that we are now discussing there is unanimity of view. I am certain that the trustees, as they already have the power in the Bill, will wish to exercise it and, as I say, I shall make sure that their attention is drawn to the remarks of the hon. Member for Derby, North. I shall add, in talking to the trustees, that while, because of the lateness of the hour, not many hon. Members took part in the debate, I am sure that it was the unanimous view of the House. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will not feel it necessary to press the amendment.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

In view of my right hon. Friend's final comments, it is important to stress that the feelings to which he referred are strongly held in all parts of the House. I found his brief speech welcome and encouraging and I suggest to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) that there is no point in seeking to press the matter further. To have the Minister's assurance on the record is helpful, particularly his emphatic declaration that there is strong and unanimous feeling in the House on this subject.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

Now that the Minister has given those assurances, which I welcome, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Whithead:

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in line 20, after 'services', insert `other than professional advice to the general public.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

It will be convenient to discuss at the same time amendment No. 15, in clause 9, page 6, line 30, after 'services', insert 'other than professional advice to the general public'.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

The amendments deal with an issue related to the provision of services to the community by the national museums. The Minister, in his thoughtful reply when this matter was first raised in Committee, said he thought that our attempt then to exclude the giving of professional advice was too widely drafted and restrictive because it would mean, for example, that a museum could not charge for services to Sothebys or whatever other institution might approach it for expert consideration.

We have looked again at the matter and we accept the point that was made. However, we have redrafted the amendment—I am glad that it has been thought in order to have it discussed again—so that it now reads that the services shall be other than professional advice to the general public". It is an obligation on the museums which we believe they should carry through. The museums are important not merely for the service that they give to the great art houses and wealthy collectors but to individual members of the public who come into them literally off the street with small items on which they require an opinion.

I believe that the national role, in its widest and most generous sense, should embrace the responsibility of the curatorial staff of the museum to give consultations and the best advice that they can to people who come in for advice without feeling that a going rate has to be charged. We do not want a sum to be levied which might be a disincentive to members of the public without means who are seeking advice about objects which they possess or with which they have some connection.

I am extremely anxious to hear what the Minister says about an amendment which has been drafted in a way which is mindful of the reservations expressed when we discussed this matter in Committee.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West 8:30 pm, 5th May 1983

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) makes a valid point. This gives us the opportunity to say how much we welcome the wise decision of the Secretary of State for Trade to refer the future of Sotheby's to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I hope that that remark will not be ruled out of order.

Even with the new and skillful drafting of the hon. Member for Derby, North, it is possible that advice which is of enormous commercial benefit could be given. There should be a facility for some small recompense to be made to the museum if, as a result of the advice, enormous benefit is derived. I associate myself with the general sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will give us the assurance that we seek.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) has just said. I do not believe that anyone disagrees with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). In Committee there were some discussions about this point and about a recommendation in the Rayner scrutiny, which did not meet with total favour, about a related point.

I understand the view that people who come in, and have traditionally always done so, to have their objects examined, should not be charged for advice. The Government do not wish that to happen and they do not seek to make the boards charge for such advice. It would be possible for each board to decide not to charge, and I see no reason why they should make such a charge. It has never been done. We are drafting for a long time, and throughout the Bill I have tried to ensure that we draft as flexibly as possible, because we do not know what changes may arise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West is right when he says that the amendment is skilfully drafted, but it is not drafted skilfully enough. I believe that it is probably impossible to draft it skilfully enough because, even under the terms of the amendment, it would be possible for members of a specialist firm, whether they be dealers, auctioneers or whatever, to seek advice in their private capacity which they intend to use for their own or their firm's benefit later. If the hon. Gentleman's amendment were accepted, there would be no way in which the museum could charge for that advice which might conceivably be of great commercial benefit to the individual or the firm with which he was connected. I do not believe that it is likely, but it could happen. It would be a great mistake if such a loophole were to develop.

The amendment would have another unfortunate effect. At times of economic stringency, particularly if this type of action was going on, the board might well discontinue giving advice to the public, and that would be most unfortunate.

The clause as drafted does not instruct boards to charge, and does not express the wish that they should charge. I do not believe that there is any desire that they should charge. When we are legislating for many years ahead, however, we should not preclude the possibility for all time. Although the hon. Gentleman's amendment is an improvement upon what we discussed in Committee, I do not believe that it deals with the possible loophole. I believe that it would be unwise to accept the amendment.

The amendment might lead to boards deciding to discontnue giving advice and I believe that that would be a great pity. Having thought about what the hon. Gentleman has said and the amendment that he has tabled, I believe that the powers should be given to the board, but I do not believe that there is any intention to seek or need for a change in the present practice of not charging members of the public who have an opinion expressed about their objects, as has happened for many years.

Mr. Whithead:

With leave of the House, I should like to say that I accept that there might be limiting cases such as those that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) and the Minister have mentioned where a person is not a bona fide member of the public but is operating as the agent or runner for a commercial concern. We take note of what the Minister has said in his response to the amendment and what he said in the seventh paragraph of his final response to the Rayner recommendations about giving individual members of the public the benefit of the expertise of the staff'. The museum staff may he in a stage of uncertainty as a result of the doubts that have been cast by hon. Members on the authenticity of members of the public, but where there is an element of doubt we hope that the benefit of the doubt will be given to the person seeking advice. We do not want a means test to be levied on any member of the public seeking consultation on an object or problem. If that were so, the educational role of the museums would be gravely diminished. I hope that the Minister's assurance on amendment No. 4 will be taken in a positive way by the museum staff. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.