British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:09 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk 1:09 pm, 13th March 2020

I will be extremely brief, but first, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend Bim Afolami for a brilliant speech, and for presenting this worthwhile Bill.

On the principle itself, as has been said, the 1972 Act did not permit the British Library to borrow, hence the reason for this Bill, whereas other famous British institutions got those powers back in 2013. It is important to refer to the letter from the former Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary of State, now Minister for Media and Data, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale. He wrote to the then chair of the Natural History Museum, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, about the change in the museum’s borrowing powers. It is important to note that he specifically said this in the letter:

“I encourage you to make the most of these flexibilities, including through considering ways in which capital projects can create income-generating opportunities, making them suitable for loan financing.”

That is really important. I have four children and we take them to the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Although it is free to get into those museums, they do have specific paid-for exhibitions, which can be absolutely brilliant. I recognise that we should preserve free access, but it is perfectly right to have very attractive features within the museum that are optional and chargeable. It is interesting to understand that that is where the Secretary of State saw this borrowing power being spent—on new income-generating sources. In my view, the purpose of this legislation is to give new gross value added to the sector, so that a museum can create wonderful new creative things around the country, which is part of that agenda that we call—let us have a drum roll—levelling up. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] We are not going to stop. We are going to keep levelling up. This is a very good Bill. It takes a great British asset and makes it even stronger. It is part of our soft power, and it adds to our economy.

I will just finish by referring to an experience in my constituency in Suffolk, which, I hope, will be part of the levelling up agenda—east as well as north, and so on. We have a very prestigious artistic heritage in South Suffolk. We could not move any of it, as it exists permanently. We have the tree, which is technically just outside the boundary, in front of which Mr and Mrs Andrews were painted by Gainsborough in Sudbury itself. We have Gainsborough’s House, where he lived, which has now become a museum, and just up the Stour, we have Flatford mill, which is the living site of the Hay Wain, the most famous English painting, so we have huge heritage. I spoke to Mark Bills, the director of Gainsborough’s House, and asked him whether he had borrowing powers—that is the principle of the Bill. He needs them because there is to be a major refurbishment of Gainsborough’s House. Money comes from the national lottery, but 10% is held back on projects, so it needs to have the ability to borrow, even if it is, in the parlance of a library, on a short-loan basis.

I very much commend the Bill. We should all support it because it adds to a great British institution. I look forward to hearing from my old friend the Minister about what more we can do.