I am grateful to you, Mr. Benton, and to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to address this issue in this short debate.
Over the past 10 years, the field of antiquities in England and Wales has been transformed—there is no other word for it—by the Treasure Act 1996 and by the portable antiquities scheme. After years of campaigning and lobbying, pressure and private Member's Bills, led by number of people, particularly Lord Poole in the other place and Sir Anthony Grant in the House—and, in a small way, myself—the Treasure Act came into force in 1997. The portable antiquities scheme was started in the same year and it effectively animated and augmented the 1996 Act, which requires a small proportion of archaeological finds that qualify as treasure to be reported and offered to museums.
The portable antiquities scheme, which is a voluntary scheme, complements the 1996 Act by encouraging anyone who finds an archaeological object to report it to a finds liaison officer at a local museum. There are 49 such finds officers throughout England and Wales, from Cornwall to Durham and from Bristol to Suffolk. The scheme is administered by the British Museum on behalf of the Museums, Libraries, and Archive Council.
The effect of the scheme has been extraordinary. In 2007, 77,500 objects were recorded on the online database that now contains, after 10 years, 320,000 objects and 160,000 images. That is the largest database of its kind in the world, and it hugely extends our understanding of our post-iron age world. I say "post-iron age" because almost all the finds have been discovered by metal detectors, so we do not discover quite as many pre-iron age objects, which are discovered by chance or other means. In such areas of archaeology, which account for a great deal of our past, the effect has been extraordinary.
The centre for the scheme in Staffordshire, in and around my constituency, is the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent in the middle of my constituency. North Staffordshire is an interesting area, archaeologically. A gentleman called Mr. Tony Rhodes, a metal detectorist, found a bronze age sword that was 2,500 years old a couple of years before the scheme came into effect, unfortunately. However, that sword sits proudly in our local museum. Recently, a unique copper alloy Roman bowl, now known as the Staffordshire moorlands pan, was discovered. The names of four of the forts on Hadrian's wall are written on it. It is of considerable archaeological importance and was acquired jointly by the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, Tullie House, the excellent museum in Carlisle, and the British Museum. With such finds, the scheme is redrawing the archaeological map of England and Wales. In the last three years, its data has revealed 24 new Roman settlements in Wiltshire alone, which is an increase of 15 per cent. Suddenly, the Roman-Britannic map of Wiltshire is being changed because of finds under the scheme, so hon. Members can see how important the scheme is.
If the portable antiquities scheme is such a great success, why do we need this debate and what is the problem? This year, thanks to good lobbying by my hon. Friend the Minister and the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, there was a good comprehensive spending review settlement. Everybody who is interested in this area has probably already congratulated both my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, neatly, the subsequent Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, his successor, who was at the time Chief Secretary to the Treasury and happened to provide this good settlement. Everybody was happy and all the national museums, including the British Museum, received inflation-proof increases. The important Renaissance programme in the regions, for example, was ring-fenced and was similarly well treated, but, bafflingly, the portable antiquities scheme was not.
The portable antiquities scheme is administered by the MLA and it was not ring-fenced. The core budget of the MLA will be cut by 25 per cent. over the next three years. The implication is that the scheme will suffer in the same way. The MLA has proposed that the scheme's budget for 2008-09 be frozen at its present level of £1.3 million.
Staffordshire is interesting in this sense and so is Leicestershire, which is why I tabled written questions in November, February and March and oral questions in January. My hon. Friend mentioned the £1.3 million, but does he think that the Minister should tell the House that, even at that level, redundancies are still likely to take place, including some valuable education officers who are crucial to the success of the scheme in future? That is why I am seeing the local finds liaison officer in my constituency office on Friday. The PAS may be secure in the short term, but it is still short of funds because of its success.
My hon. Friend is right. If the budget is frozen at its present level of £1.3 million, that will in effect be a cut in real terms, because to stand still and not expand the scheme at all would require £1.49 million. If that £690,000 is not found, three posts in the PAS will be lost.
The hon. Gentleman has eloquently described how the scheme has transformed the archaeological map of Britain, nationally. Is not the real fear that, unless the scheme is properly funded, we will end up simply with a series of regional schemes that are not properly co-ordinated?
Absolutely. The regional element is important and feeds into Renaissance in the regions. My hon. Friend David Taylor will know about a wonderful museum in Leicester that is directed by a Mrs. Sarah Levitt, who, by a curious coincidence, is the sister of my hon. Friend Tom Levitt. Mrs. Levitt does an extremely good job in a distinguished, important museum.
If the scheme's budget is frozen at its present level, there would be a real cut. These are small sums in Government terms but big sums for the scheme. Mr. Fallon is right: a national scheme could be reduced to a local scheme. The local element is crucial in all of this, of course, but it needs context. The custodianship of the British Museum, under the directorship of Mr. Neil MacGregor, is crucial and gives credibility, stability and good international, scholarly expertise and contacts for the scheme to operate. We need both detailed local work on finds and the umbrella of the British Museum, with its scholars, to make sense of the individual finds and put them into a much wider archaeological map.
Already, even at the present time, we have too few finds liaison officers, although the scheme operates well. There is only one finds liaison officer for the whole of the north-east—from Teeside up to the Scottish border—which is an area of incredible archeological importance and includes Hadrian's wall and many other important sites. There is just one officer for that whole area.
The hon. Gentleman who wishes to intervene may talk about his own area, but in Berkshire and Oxfordshire—he will correct me in a moment if I am wrong—I do not think that there is anyone in post. Again, that is a most important archaeological area.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is correct: at the moment Oxfordshire does not have a finds liaison officer because of uncertainty over the budget. Is he also aware that even when a finds liaison officer is appointed, they will not be able to cover Berkshire any more, so that area will also be without an officer?
I did not know that. Berkshire is an extremely important area, which covers the Thames valley and a lot of settlements, so it should not have only one officer. We need to expand the scheme and it seems tragic not to do so when it is such a success. If the scheme is frozen and cut over the next year, it will be a tragedy.
Generally, there is much concern in the House about this matter. It is interesting to note that such a number of people have attended this debate as they are sometimes not very well attended occasions. That reflects the concern about this issue. Almost everybody in the Chamber has signed the early-day motion from last year, which now has almost 280 signatures. That is an extraordinarily large number of signatures for a matter of cultural significance. When the budget settlement for the scheme was mooted last year, I visited Mr. Roy Clare of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council with a number of other former arts Ministers—Lord Inglewood, Baroness Morris, Lord Howarth and Robert Key, who sadly is not here, but who takes a great interest in these matters. In addition, we all formally and informally talked to the Minister and received a sympathetic hearing on all sides—I hope that it will also be an effective hearing.
There is concern in the House about the matter and that is reflected by what has been taking place. It is a wonderful scheme and it would be terribly sad if it was cut and held back. The scheme needs to be sustained and to do so requires very modest sums of money. It also needs to have a secure future. We need to know that there will be a three-year settlement at the very least, so that the British Museum, the MLA and everybody else can plan for the future of the scheme.
The scheme is too good to be cut, and there are solutions to hand that I shall briefly mention. The British Museum has been responsible for administering the scheme and has done so very well and therefore understands the importance of the scheme. Unlike the MLA, the British Museum has scholars rooted in the scheme and therefore it seems to be the ideal repository for it. If responsibility for the scheme could be transferred from the MLA to the British Museum—I gather from Mr. MacGregor that the British Museum is happy for that to happen—a real understanding and ownership of the scheme could develop. That would not only give the scheme security and continuity, but would send out the message to professional people and, crucially, amateurs and metal detector users around the country that the scheme is safe, is in good hands and will be secure.
I hope that the Minister will say that things will be worked out and that the British Museum will either be responsible for the scheme in future or will be more involved. I also hope that she will inform us that the funding will be secure and inflation proof, particularly over the next few years. That is crucial. After the budget settlement, I know that it might be quite difficult for the Minister to do, but these are relatively small sums and I hope, with her great skill, she will find something in a side-drawer of her Department that will enable her to make up the balance. The scheme is of real importance and is admired throughout the world. I understand that somebody from the British Museum who is involved with the scheme talked to Congress in Washington last year because there is such widespread national interest. We are pioneering the world of archaeology with the scheme as it incorporates and involves non-professionals and professional scholars in a quite remarkable way. The scheme touches the bases of scholarship and of widening access. We, in the House of Commons, cannot afford to let the scheme stall or flounder.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Fisher on securing the debate. I would like to acknowledge formally his huge contribution to getting us where we are today. We have a scheme of which everybody is rightly proud. The information he has given us supports the importance of the scheme in the ecology of what we have in relation to archaeology in this country. Congratulations to my hon. Friend on that. I also acknowledge that there has been considerable concern about the funding of the scheme from a number of hon. Members who are present.
For the record, I shall say a little about the scheme itself. My hon. Friend was right to say that the scheme was first set up as a pilot—probably when he was Minister with responsibilities for these matters—to complement the treasure system put in place to administer the Treasure Act 1996. The interesting thing about the 1996 Act is that it obliges those who find objects that fall under the definition of treasure to report them to their local coroner within 14 days so that we as a society can have the security of knowing that such objects will be held.
In a way, the scheme celebrates local history. What I have seen of the scheme during my time as Minister is that it is a powerful way in which to engage local people, particularly those who use metal detectors. It allows people to understand, celebrate and commemorate local history and it is great to see that happening. People do find some absolutely wonderful things. I have seen some really exciting and interesting objects. Those who use metal detectors are a bit like fishermen fishing on the land or on dry territory. It is a very lonely experience for those who use metal detectors, but it is incredibly rewarding to uncover something that helps us to better understand our past.
My hon. Friend was right to say that the scheme has been a huge success. The way in which we have run the scheme has been a win-win for everybody. The finder and the landowner are rewarded for their efforts in bringing the treasure into the public domain and the public benefit by being able to see and learn from the important relics of their community's past. The other joy of the scheme is that it is pretty accessible. Everyone, whether a post-graduate researcher at one of our top universities or a young person entering secondary school, can access the information provided by the scheme on the website. Some 320,000 separate objects are catalogued on the website and are accessible to us all. In 2006, which is the last year for which we have figures, 250,000 individual users accessed the data, which are incredibly important for students and currently being used for a number of PhD theses and other dissertations.
On the funding of the scheme, which is what I think hon. Members want to discuss, although we had a good settlement—I am grateful for the kind comments of my hon. Friend—it was nevertheless a tight fiscal settlement. We have tried to ensure that the money went into priorities right across the Department for Culture, Media and Sport family. My hon. Friend will know that we ring-fenced some money for the renaissance programme. That was the right thing to do. The renaissance programme has been hugely effective in improving the quality and the environment of many of our regional museums. If we consider the figures on who accesses the treasures, as a result of the renaissance programme and regional infrastructure developments, people who in the past would probably never have gone into a museum now take the first step across the threshold and enjoy the benefits that that can bring them. That was a very good way of determining how to use a budget which, although better than many other budgets, was not as much as we would have needed to carry on all the programmes and expansions of programmes that we would have liked. We took a priority decision.
The portable antiquities scheme sits as part of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council family. My hon. Friend is right to say that the MLA has had a considerable cut in its financial settlement and must look for considerable savings. Even with the best will in the world, we could not have protected entirely the portable antiquities scheme from the fiscal constraints that we all face. Getting a flat cash settlement for 2008-09, which is what it has, is not bad in relation to many other organisations that we fund, which are having to look to the future. Every organisation should constantly examine how it functions and how it can renew itself, to see whether it can eke out efficiencies. We should not protect any organisation from that endeavour.
I think that hon. Members will have considerable sympathy with what the Minister is saying, but she knows very well, being extremely experienced, that a standstill budget is much easier for a large organisation to handle than it is for a small organisation, although it is difficult for anybody. There is no leeway in something tiny such as the portable antiquities scheme. As I said in my speech, a standstill budget for that scheme, stuck at £1.3 million, will mean a cut in real terms—a cut in field officers, who are already very thin on the ground.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that although some of our budgets may look larger in their totality, they are, of course, distributed to many relatively small organisations. We could say the same of the renaissance programme. We could have taken a bit more money off the renaissance programme and put a bit more money into the MLA, but the impact of that on a programme that is just beginning to blossom and yield results could have been deeply damaging. We could say the same of most of the non-departmental public bodies that are responsible for distributing the resources that we give them. I am not sure that the portable antiquities scheme can be protected any more than any of our other bodies.
However, I have listened very hard, as the MLA and others have, to the representations that we have had from all hon. Members here today and others who have written to me or made representations either to me or directly to the MLA. I am pleased to say that an agreement in principle has now been reached between the British Museum and the MLA to ensure that the British Museum takes the lead and controls and runs the scheme in the future.
However—there are always provisos and these things will have to be negotiated—the British Museum and the MLA will undertake jointly a review of the way in which the portable antiquities scheme is run. That is right and proper to ensure that we maximise value for money. Then a financial negotiation will have to take place between the two organisations to determine what the diary should be after the review has taken place, so that we are clearer as to where we are.
I applaud the Minister's enthusiasm for the scheme, which many of us feel very strongly about. I am delighted to hear the news and we have heard that things are going on in the background, but will she clarify a couple of matters? I understand that the transfer from the MLA to the British Museum may not happen until 2009-10, rather than this year, as had been anticipated. There is also a particular problem about the scheme issuing new three-year contracts to the 39 finance liaison officers, which it needs to do from
May I deal with the first point first? The MLA, I and others have all stated that we want to secure the future of the scheme over this three-year period. The issue in question is the level of funding that goes with that. That must be subject to the review that is taking place to see whether there is an opportunity to eke out further efficiencies or different ways of doing things. Then it has to be subject to financial negotiations between the British Museum and the MLA. The agreement is there in principle, so on the assumption that the organisation does transfer to the British Museum, the British Museum may well be able to attract other resources for this purpose, with the freedoms that it has to raise finance externally.
I cannot in this Chamber today define the precise financial parameters of the budget in year 2 and year 3, because there will be a change. Were the organisation to stay with the MLA, that would be easier. Because there will be change, it has to be subject to the detailed negotiations for which we do not have responsibility, and then to any joy that Neil MacGregor has, if and when it transfers to the British Museum, in trying to raise additional resources. The MLA has been a much maligned partner in this endeavour over time. It recognises as much as everyone else how valued and valuable the scheme is, but it, too, must face financial constraints that we have imposed on it to ensure that we get best value for money from the resources available.
I know from discussions that I have had with both parent organisations—the MLA and the British Museum—that there really is a will now to undertake the review together. It will be jointly commissioned, jointly led and jointly supervised, which is an important step forward. There is an agreement in principle for the transfer, but we have to leave it to them, subject to the review, to sort out the details of the funding.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying in effect that nothing is quite clear about the future of the portable antiquities scheme. People want the scheme to be transferred from
The portable antiquities scheme is not under threat. Its future has been secured. I repeat that there is an agreement in principle for the scheme to be transferred to the British Museum. That must be subject, quite properly, to two things. The first is the review, which I think all hon. Members accept is a sensible way to go. Secondly, detailed—
The hon. Gentleman may disagree. I think that every organisation should constantly—
No, I disagree with that. Every organisation that enjoys any benefits in the form of resources from the public purse should be consistently reviewing its processes and how it operates, and can, every year, eke out some savings. Having been involved in the running of organisations over many years, I think that that is possible. Then there will have to be detailed negotiations. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of whether some of the renaissance moneys could be used for that. They could. We have to ensure that that does not in any way undermine the renaissance programme, and that is the responsibility of the MLA. We have to see what the review brings out and whether, when the organisation is transferred to the British Museum, that does not facilitate and open up the opportunity for attracting resources from other sources and therefore providing greater stability.
The portable antiquities scheme is very highly valued, but it has to go through a process at a difficult time, as others do—
It being Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.