Orders of the Day — The Arts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:17 pm on 13th March 1989.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire 8:17 pm, 13th March 1989

The trouble is that we have reached a stage at which we must put the fun aside and try to solve the problem. It will not help to solve it if we give vent to spleen in the Chamber tonight, amusing as it may be—and I occasionally enjoy jousting in invective with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West.

I have received numerous letters—marked "confidential", so I should not dream of naming the authors—from people serving in the V and A who feel deeply disturbed. They are not troublemakers but people who have devoted years, in some cases decades, of their lives to scholarship and to that institution in particular. I am not referring to the eight who have reluctantly accepted redundancy. I refer to others who are still there and are still anxious that the museum should succeed; who are concerned that visitor figures have plunged from 2 million to 1 million over a relatively short time; who recognise that there is indeed a managerial problem, and that the time has come when many solutions that might not have been contemplated a few years ago will have to be contemplated. They are not narrow-minded bigots, nor do they refuse to move with the times. They are genuinely troubled servants of a great institution.

Those people are troubled, not because someone has proposed a radical solution to their difficulties, but because of the manner in which that solution has been proposed. I hope that nothing that I say this evening will make the position worse, because I hope to do exactly the opposite. I shall make no comment on the trustees, many of whom I know and all whom I know I like and respect. I believe the chairman to be a man of great distinction who has shown—for example, in the selfless service that he has given the Royal Opera House for many years—that his heart is in the right place. Let me nevertheless say to him and to his fellow trustees that, whether they have got the solution right or wrong, they have certainly got the methods wrong.

There has been a lack of consideration—or apparent consideration—a lack of sensitivity and, certainly, a lack of consultation. A group of people, many of whom have given years, if not their whole working lives, to the institution, feel that their expertise has been set at naught, their experience ignored, their contribution discounted and a theoretical solution imposed on them without any chance to discuss it. That is how they see it. As hon. Members know, appearances and how things are perceived are terribly important. It is sometimes said that perceptions are more important than realities in politics, and we all have to bear that in mind.

I am not accusing Lord Armstrong or his trustees of anything. I am not suggesting that they have anything other than the future of the museum close to their hearts. I am not suggesting that they are doing anything other than what they consider to be right. But I am telling them as gently and as firmly as I can that their approach is wrong.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts has always demonstrated a genuine belief in the arms length principle. He has always taken the line that one appoints trustees and lets them get on with the job, that the trustees appoint a director and let him get on with the job and that it is important that the relationship between the trustees and the director should be right. So far, so good—I do not quarrel with that—but an even more important ingredient for a successful institution is that staff should have confidence in the director and the trustees. The staff of the Victoria and Albert museum, or a great many of them, do not have confidence in their director or the trustees. It may be due to misunderstandings, misinterpretations or over-hasty reactions—I am certainly not suggesting that all is right on the one side and all wrong on the other—but the staff do not have that confidence and we would be doing them, the nation, and one of its greatest institutions a disservice if we pretended otherwise.

There comes a time when the Minister has a role to play. I know that my right hon. Friend would be reluctant to acknowledge that. If I were in his position—and I sometimes wish that I were—I should have an equal reluctance, so I do not criticise him. But when a crisis of confidence has reached such proportions, someone has to step in, and the obvious person is the Minister. At the very least he should try to initiate some proper discussions conducted with equal respect on each side. The trustees, or a group of them, and the senior employees, or a group of them, should sit down together and discuss where they are going with the Victoria and Albert.

It is important that those who want to make far-reaching changes explain precisely how and why, and answer and argue, in a way that we seek to answer and argue when debate in the House is at its best. It is important that the trustees listen most carefully to the misgivings—they may be misapprehensions—of those over whom they have been set in trust. The Minister must intervene in the gentlest way to get that process going, as that is absolutely essential if the problem is to be resolved. I hope that he will.

I shall not be so presumptiously pompous as to suggest precisely how he should do that, as every Minister has his own approach. My right hon. Friend has shown that he is good at winning people's trust and confidence. He has made a lot of friends and he has no enemies, and he knows many of the people concerned. My suggestion is not a prelude to the sacking of the director. I knew the last director of the Victoria and Albert, Sir Roy Strong, very well indeed. I do not know the present director. I have met her but I have never had a proper conversation with her, so I make no comment about her competence. But if the museum is to take its rightful place in the artistic life of the nation in future, as it has in the past, the director has to enjoy the confidence of the staff, which she does not at the moment.

I am told that the director has not gone around from department to department and discussed in detail how they are run. If that is so, and I hope that she will forgive me for saying so, she has been mistaken, but mistakes can be rectified and the situation is not beyond recall. The talks and correspondence that I have had make it plain that all those people want is for the institution to flourish in future, as it has done in the past. They recognise that there are difficulties, and, as all-party Committees of this House have recognised, they see that things have to be put right. It is not a perfectly run institution and all the objects within it have not been properly displayed or, in some cases, conserved. Some things have to be changed, and tighter management may well be needed. But nothing can be achieved until confidence has been restored.

My right hon. Friend did not have a good reputation in the Foreign Office for nothing. I hope that he will use his considerable diplomatic abilities to get the people who matter together and to tell them that the stakes are far too high to allow personal vendettas or petty squabbles to ruin the future of a great institution. The trustees, the director and the staff all have roles to play and they should play them together. If, as a result of tonight's debate, so splendidly initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, there is the beginning of a solution at the Victoria and Albert, we shall not have forgone our parties and our suppers in vain.