I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the National Railway Museum and ownership of national assets.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise a matter of serious concern relating to the National Railway Museum and ownership of national assets. The National Railway Museum has described itself as the greatest railway museum in the world. I am sure that is true. It is indeed a wonderful institution, housing many of the priceless treasures of our unequalled railway history. As a lifelong lover of railways and trains, I have of course visited the NRM. Beyond that, I have travelled on many of our great heritage railways and been hauled on classic steam railway train trips across the country, including on the majestic Settle and Carlisle line and over the Ribblehead viaduct.
Britain invented railways and steam engines and gave them to the world. It is right that we celebrate and remember our superb railway heritage. The National Railway Museum opened in 1975, 25 years after an official national collection of vested railway exhibits was established by the British Transport Commission to safeguard priceless and historic locomotives from the Rocket to the Mallard, as well as other railway artefacts. The museum is part of the Science Museum Group, run by a board of trustees under the National Heritage Act 1983 and with a chair appointed by the Prime Minister.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I also declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on industrial heritage. Does he agree that the time has come, when looking at the National Railway Museum and other assets, for a comprehensive strategy from the Government on preserving our industrial heritage and utilising it for the future?
I agree absolutely. Losing our heritage would be a disaster for our history. Some countries have had their histories almost destroyed and forgotten, and they have been lessened by that experience. We must preserve our great industrial heritage.
My concern—indeed, my alarm—has been raised by the giving away of three steam locomotives during the past 18 months without consultation and outside the terms of both the 1983 Act and the Museums Association guidelines. I ask Ministers today to intervene to ensure that that practice is stopped and, if possible, that the decisions affecting the three locomotives and other National Railway Museum-gifted possessions are reversed.
I will come to the specific detail about the particular engines.
The decisions were unprecedented and indeed set a dangerous precedent that could be followed by others unless abandoned now. Precious artefacts of all kinds must remain owned by us all, for us all, and be exhibited in our great museums and galleries of all kinds, showing to the world our rich national heritage in all its glory.
The first “gifted” locomotive, handed over in April last year, is a North Staffordshire Railway 0-6-2T No. 2, which was given without consultation or announcement to Foxfield Railway, which is not an official accredited museum under the terms of the 1983 Act. The engine is still listed on the NRM’s website, 18 months after its legal transfer. The previous custodian of that engine, the Churnet Valley Railway—the only surviving stretch of the former North Staffordshire Railway—has said:
“We certainly were not consulted by the NRM nor invited to make a bid for it.”
In March this year, a second locomotive, the London and South Western Railway T3 4-4-0 locomotive No. 563 was gifted, again without consultation, to Swanage Railway, a non-accredited museum. The engine made a six-figure sum for the Science Museum Group in theatre appearance fees immediately before disposal, with the museum group’s commercial arm having given the okay before the show ended. That locomotive is a unique survivor, selected for preservation by Southern Railway in the 1940s to represent its own history. National Railway Museum curator Andrew McLean said that the engine was
“one of the great examples of late-19th century locomotives.”
I am told it has been left outside in all weathers for the past six months and has deteriorated. In the last two days, however, I have been informed of plans for the engine to be refired and made to work some time in the future, but that is still uncertain.
The third engine, given to Swindon Borough Council’s Steam Museum, was saved for the nation as a perfect example of the work of the foremost steam locomotive engineer GM Churchwood—a brilliant designer, who introduced standardisation to British manufacturing. The engine in question is Great Western Railway 28xx 2-8-0 No. 2818, a design that revolutionised the transport of freight, increasing train weight and length fourfold. It had a vital role in supplying the first world war grand fleet at Scapa Flow. Railway expert David Ward has said that the 28xx is more important to the collection than the Flying Scotsman—some comparison indeed.
Each of those three locomotives is a unique and historic treasure that belongs—and should belong—to all of us, so that future generations can visit the NRM at York, wonder at the beauty of these machines and celebrate the genius of our forebears in creating them. If there were several identical locomotives, there could be a case for distributing them, but only on lease or loan while remaining in the ownership of the nation through the NRM.
Heritage steam rail services are one of the great joys of all railway enthusiasts. I have been on many such trips, including being drawn by the Flying Scotsman, the Duchess of Montrose and many others. Those services should continue, but our precious railway heritage must not be given away. The disposal of assets by our great museums is tightly governed by strict criteria in the 1983 Act.
I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating the debate. I am concerned about Locomotion No. 1, the first passenger train steam engine. Built in 1825 by Timothy Hackworth in Shildon in my constituency, it ought to be in the NRM branch museum in Shildon; instead, it is in a small museum where people have to pay. It should be in the free, public museum that 200,000 people visit every year. I hope the Minister, with the Science Museum Group, will also address that point.
I feel moved to intervene, following the intervention from our hon. Friend Helen Goodman. Locomotion is in the Darlington Railway Museum, which she describes as a small museum where people have to pay. That is true. I am here today to make a plea that it should not be in a museum where people pay to get in because such important artefacts are held there. I hope they can continue to be at home in Darlington.
Of course, Darlington is one of the historic towns of our railway history, with the Stockton to Darlington Railway being the first effective steam railway in the world, let alone in Britain. I am therefore pleased that my hon. Friend is here.
There is also the matter of the Museums Association guidelines and the disregarding of safeguards specifically set up to ensure ethical disposal. I have the terms of those guidelines with me, but time constraints suggest that I should not spell them out in detail. The association has described the NRM as being in a “disposal controversy” —perhaps a euphemism or understatement.
The general case against the NRM’s actions can be summarised as follows. National collections are the result of decades of acquisitions and care at national expense. Exhibits of irreplaceable individual items together comprise a coherent whole. The National Railway Museum previously said that locomotives would not be disposed of. The NRM’s action constitutes privatisation without consultation or charge. National collections are for posterity, and private ownership is inherently insecure. The NRM has set a precedent for dismantling publicly owned collections, which must be prevented as a matter of urgency.
In conclusion, first, I suggest there should be an immediate ban on future locomotive disposals. Secondly, the three locomotives in question should, if possible, be restored urgently to the national collection. Thirdly, there should be an inquiry into disposals management at NRM and the Science Museum Group. It may be that the NRM has acted illegally as well as immorally. Finally, my personal suggestion is that all National Railway Museum locomotives should bear a welded brass plaque recording their NRM ownership on behalf of the nation, so that even if they are leased or loaned out, their ownership is clear for all to see.
I could say much more about my love of railways, locomotives and trains, but perhaps I have said enough. I hope that action will now follow and Britain’s wonderful railway heritage is saved by the nation for our future joy and wonder in all its exquisite detail. Many thousands—indeed millions—of children have been inspired to a love of engineering by these magnificent machines and have kept alive a culture of engineering and science in our nation. That culture must never be lost.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Chope. I can relate a railway story from when I was growing up in your constituency, when I spent a day on Hinton Admiral station waiting for the Flying Scotsman to come through—alas, it came by road. Thankfully, it is now restored to the rail.
This is an important debate. I am so fortunate that the National Railway Museum is in my constituency, with its incredible collection. It is a dynamic museum that is not preserved in aspic, and I will talk about some of the exciting developments there. I am sure everyone hearing the debate will want to embrace them and one day come to visit. In fact, I am sure everyone has been to the museum.
The museum has an incredible collection, and it is always a joy to go there to see new locomotives. The exhibitions change on a continuous basis to ensure that visitors are always treated to something new. Visitor numbers are rising, from three quarters of a million to nearer millions. I ask Members to please come to York to boost those numbers and enjoy a day at the museum. Everyone has their favourite engines; most people come to see wonders such as the Mallard or the Flying Scotsman. Personally, I like to see the Scotsman out on the line doing its work. There are many delights and hidden treasures in the museum.
Between 2010 and 2014, the museum undertook a complete review of its collection and how best it could share its assets and ensure they were all on display. Previously, about 2,000 objects would be on loan to different exhibitions and museums, around the country and beyond, but in reality, that was neither manageable for the museum nor in the best interest of the items. I have discussed that at length with the museum. Often, when objects were loaned by the National Railway Museum, identifying who was responsible for the upkeep of the objects, keeping them in a good state of repair and functioning, was of prime concern, to make sure that those assets were kept in the best condition. The previous model, with such a scale of distribution of different pieces of the collection, did not work. Sadly, as a result the upkeep of some pieces, including some of the engines, was not in the best state.
The museum wanted to address that and ensure that upkeep was maintained. It therefore looked at how it could have the best arrangements possible for care, which often meant passing pieces to another museum. The question was who was responsible for an item loaned to another museum or collection. If the museum was going to have it back, why would somebody invest in that particular artefact? Gifting the artefact—it is only gifting; we are not talking about selling the items and losing them from the public space—and having local interests upgrade, keep up, restore and, as we have heard about the gift to the Swanage Railway Trust, even bring the locomotive back into steam, would bring real improvement.
I must say that it is only in the last two days that I have heard about the possible promise to get the Swanage steam engine into steam again. I suspect that might be a reaction to today’s debate. Wonderful as small private railways are as a supplement to the NRM, they cannot have the resources to do the job properly and ensure that our national assets stay in good condition. I could go on, but perhaps I have said enough.
I can inform my hon. Friend that the Swanage Railway Trust is working with the National Railway Museum, using its expertise to look at how it can improve the condition of that piece of the collection. We are not talking about a divorce settlement; it is about working together on a national asset and looking at how it can be best cared for, and having the space to display it. Some of the locomotives to which my hon. Friend referred were kind of put in the back cupboard, but have now become the star of the show, because one thing that is really important to the NRM is for locomotives to be displayed where there is a geographical relevance. For example, an LSW or GWR train might be taken down to the south-west, as opposed to having it in a shed in the north-east.
The NRM has a clear desire to best exhibit its collection and to make sure it is accessible. I completely agree that we should be able to freely access the collection across the country and not have to pay for the privilege, but at the same time we must recognise that the collection’s upkeep costs money. We must therefore ensure that the collection is at least accessible, even if not everyone has the means to access it.
The Science Museum Group, of which the railway museum is a part, has in place a process for disposal that the museum assured me it follows, acting as other museums of global standing act on their collections. It wants to continue to refresh its collection, and there are gaps within its collection that it wants to fill to make sure it is telling the complete railway story. It looks at issues such as duplication, and as I say, geographical relevance. It first sends its items for disposal to be peer reviewed by the group’s board of survey. Recommendations then go on to the collection and research committee, and then, ultimately, to the full board of trustees before items can be disposed of. The museum said that it has gifted a significant number of items from the museum to ensure they are better cared for and looked after elsewhere.
As I have said, locomotives that were perhaps put in the back shed are now being upgraded to their former glory and, we trust, even restored back into use, which is an exciting development for the museum. However, there is oversight—this is not privatisation or selling, or the locomotives going into a private collection. If, for instance, Swanage Railway Trust or any other body goes into receivership, the NRM has the first option of taking that locomotive back if other museums want it. I talked it through with the NRM, and it is like a loan on the never-never, with the local interests upgrading and restoring the collection. We need to make sure, as time marches by on that incredible 200-year history, that the collection is kept in good order.
The NRM is changing. It is currently undertaking the greatest development in its history. As we heard, in 1975 it opened in the UK’s largest urban development site, York Central, with £50 million of investment. To me, this is what is really exciting: the museum has tasked itself to inspire the next generation of rail engineers by taking people through that incredible 200-year journey of the railway, moving from the past to the present and on to the future. We know that Britain did not just create the railways of the world—its railways changed the world.
The museum now has the ambition to capture the imagination of young people and to expose them to the opportunities of engineering and to take them on that new journey, looking through science, technology, engineering and maths in its new centre. The railway museum has an incredible future in York, and it wants girls as well as boys to come from the city and to the city to engage in the new hands-on gallery, so it can teach them about the opportunities that engineering brings and ignite their imaginations to bring forward a new era of engineering innovation on the railways.
These are exciting times for York and for the NRM, celebrating the past and looking to the future. I hope everybody gets behind this project, including funders, and that the NRM will not only be about an exhibition of the future and showing off the technological advances that our country is making today and tomorrow, but will ensure that its collection is displayed across the nation for all to enjoy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins on securing the debate. Unlike him, I am not an expert on trains and have not devoted much of my life to studying steam engines, but I can say that although many towns and communities around the country claim to be the birthplace of the railways, Darlington has the true right to that claim, for one very special reason. Yes, there were railways in mines and close to ports before 1825, but Darlington had a very special ingredient in its railways: passengers. It was the first place that was able to combine the transport of freight and passengers, on the Stockton and Darlington railway, and we are incredibly proud of that history. Darlington has the oldest passenger railway station, which is now used as our museum. Everyone in Darlington is taken to that site as a child—I remember going there when I was growing up—and it is a place where we then take our children.
I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. Is it not even more remarkable that railways have become the transport mode of the future? Across the world, countries are building railways. When I was working in the TUC economic department and was responsible for transport policy, railways were being phased out through the Beeching cuts and so on. Now, we realise that that was a terrible mistake. Railways are the mode of the future, and it all started in Darlington.
Absolutely, and I shall be using that quote. We are excited that we are building the trains of the future, at Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe, and that we are still building steam trains in Darlington. I think the Tornado was the first steam train to be built for decades, and it was built in Darlington, next to the museum, where it ought to be built. We are very proud of it. [Interruption.] Is my hon. Friend Helen Goodman intervening on me?
I see that this local rivalry could get out of hand! We would love the Tornado, but we are proud that the Tornado, made in Darlington, is being used and enjoyed regularly by passengers around the country, although we are thrilled when it comes back to the north-east, too. My hon. Friend has now made her point twice. Shall we leave it there for today and perhaps pick it up again in The Northern Echo some other time?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North said, the growth of the railways changed this country. Without the railways, we would not have Middlesbrough or Saltburn; indeed, the whole shape of the north-east, and later the country, changed because of the railways, which were created, built, designed and invested in in the north-east of England. We take enormous pride in that, and we are concerned when assets are given away. There are serious questions for the National Railway Museum on this matter. I am sure that those questions can be answered, but to a town that struggles to support its own small railway museum—we struggle hard to keep it interesting and thriving—gifting an asset such as an engine seems rather odd.
We would like assurances on what a gift is. Is this more of a long-term loan? What safeguards are in place for the upkeep of the asset? How do we know that it will be cared for in the way we know it could be cared for? How do we know that it cannot be disposed of in future in a way that would be detrimental to our national heritage? It is pleasing that my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell was able to answer some of those problems, but there is still a question mark over the concept of gifting in these instances.
I wonder whether such a relaxed approach would be taken if the asset were not part of our industrial heritage. What if it were a piece of fine art or a piece of statuary? Rules need to be applied in every case. Industrial heritage is just as important to my constituents as—
As Italian art, for example.
The National Railway Museum is in a privileged position, in that it has all those assets in a wonderful location. Visiting it is an incredible experience, as is visiting the site at Shildon. I have enjoyed both, and families across the north-east enjoy them regularly. However, Head of Steam, which is the Darlington railway museum, is not as privileged, and as I have the Minister’s attention, I shall explain the situation that we are in.
The railway museum in Darlington is supported by the Friends of Darlington Railway Centre and Museum, by local residents and, principally, by Darlington council tax payers. We have benefited from Heritage Lottery Fund money for special projects, and we are very grateful for that, but we do not benefit from—my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North referred to this—any national strategic consideration of how these assets ought to be looked after and how they might be better promoted in the future.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland said, the railway museum in Darlington is not free. It is closed on Mondays; indeed, at this time of year it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. From Wednesday to Sunday, it is open only from 11 am to 3.30 pm. To get in, adults need to pay £4.95; for young people, a visit costs £3.00. That museum is therefore at a considerable disadvantage compared with the nearby Shildon and York railway museums, important to our heritage though it is. It is to the credit of local people that they have managed to support the museum for as long as they have. I understand that this week, it being half-term, entrance is free.
As my hon. Friend points out, the fundamental difference with museums such as Darlington and others that are essentially private or local authority is that they charge. Our party had a policy of free access to national museums in public ownership. That is a fundamental difference, and of course we then take responsibility for the upkeep of the museum, for investment in preserving the assets and so on, be it the National Gallery or, indeed, the National Railway Museum.
I take that point. At the time, I was a bit annoyed that our museum was not to be part of the national museum programme and that it would retain the status that it had, but there are some benefits, in the form of keeping control locally and keeping decision making locally for something that we feel belongs to us in Darlington. The problem is that a national organisation is, rightly, thinking very long term, and a very small organisation is really struggling, because decisions about the first passenger railway station in the world and the significant role that Darlington played in railway history are being made by an organisation that has competing priorities. Those priorities are not just about which engine to preserve, but about looked-after children, adult social care, support for older people locally and so on. We are demanding an awful lot of local authorities with the high standards that we hold them to in securing these assets, and without very much oversight or support from the Government. We need a strategy that looks much more widely at all these issues and that takes our industrial heritage as seriously as we do other areas of our heritage.
I make these comments not in a spirit of any criticism at all—this is not a new problem—but out of concern. We are approaching 200 years of the railways, in 2025. The whole nation should be aware of, enjoy and celebrate that. It should be a platform for our international profile. My fear is that an opportunity could be missed. I am sure that York will do a great job celebrating what it has and does, but there is much more to this story than just the National Railway Museum. We need to think about important local sites such as Darlington too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. May I begin by congratulating Kelvin Hopkins on raising this incredibly important matter? He has not only highlighted the specifics of the National Railway Museum’s decision to dispose of these three locomotives to private companies but given the House the opportunity to debate the principle of who has the power to do what with important national assets. Unlike some of the previous speakers, I cannot claim to be an enthusiast. I cannot possibly display the passion of the hon. Members for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), but I can claim to have been born a platform’s length—albeit a long one—from the legendary St Rollox works in Springburn in Glasgow many years ago.
I thank the hon. Lady for that, but I think we are dancing on the head of a pin. They have been taken out of public ownership and removed from public control.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of clarification.
I am not at all surprised that a locomotive engine was the motivation behind today’s debate because I well remember, just before the summer recess, being caught between Chris Law as they indulged in a deeply passionate, highly technical and absolutely bewildering debate on every aspect of every vehicle ever invented that had wheels and an engine. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s passion for and knowledge of the subject.
This debate goes much further than the deaccession of the three locomotives in question. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—it raises the question of who has the right to deaccession, flog off, privatise or sell these national assets and treasures that the public believe are being held securely for future generations to enjoy and appreciate. Let me be absolutely clear: I am making no criticism whatsoever of the Foxfield Railway company, the Swanage Railway Trust or any other recipient of these locomotives.
As I said in my speech, I am an absolute admirer of all the heritage railways and have been on many of them myself. They do a fabulous job supplementing the national collection.
The hon. Gentleman is right. This is not about the companies involved; it is about questioning the decision of the National Railway Museum to dispose of its assets to organisations that, however reputable, are steam railway services and not accredited railway museums.
As we have heard on a number of occasions, this is not a loan of an asset to another organisation. It is the disposal of an asset. Deaccessioning is defined as the process by which a work of art or object is permanently removed from a museum’s collection. As it stands, a national museum seems unilaterally to have decided to dispose out of public ownership a number of its assets into private hands. That sets an extremely dangerous precedent. Today we are talking about three locomotive engines being passed on, but where could that lead? Will the cuts affecting the arts and culture budget in England in particular lead to other museums and collections disposing of assets similarly?
I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for York Central and have no doubt that a transfer to enthusiasts may seem like an attractive option. However, I fear that it is not a long-term solution for how we deal with our industrial heritage. These are national assets, and they should remain within the ownership and care of the National Railway Museum. The hon. Member for Darlington asked a number of very pertinent questions about the whole idea of gifting these assets from our national museum collection.
There are a number of questions to be answered. Why were these locomotives allowed to be given to the companies they were given to? Why did the National Railway Museum feel unable to look after this important part of our industrial heritage? What did the museum mean when it said that the T3 in particular was causing an “imbalance” in its collection? Given this precedent, how can the Government guarantee that other museums will not deaccession some of their collection in order to ease financial worries? As the hon. Member for Luton North said, where is the strategy for preserving this country’s cultural heritage?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is about more than just the fate of these three locomotives, important as they are. It sets a dangerous precedent for who has the right to deaccession, flog off or privatise these national assets, which should be held for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
Scottish National party Members believe that culture and heritage make an invaluable contribution to our social and economic wellbeing. Everyone, no matter their background, should be able to experience, enjoy and access these cultural activities and pleasures. Despite this Government’s swingeing cuts, I am pleased to say that the SNP Scottish Government are doing their utmost to preserve the culture budget in Scotland, and national museums in Scotland are still free to access for everyone, regardless of where they come from.
In conclusion, I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and agree with what he said. We are entering dangerous territory if national assets can be disposed of without public consultation. That is something we have to be very wary of and guard against.
This has been a very interesting debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins on securing it and will go on to talk about the issues he raised.
There were interesting contributions from other Members. My hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds, who is not in his place, rightly called on the Minister to emphasise the importance of—and ensure there is a Government strategy for—developing policies around our industrial heritage. That did not surprise me, as he and I attended the same school, St Alban’s RC comprehensive in Pontypool, which was located around the house of the Hanbury-Tenison family, who were the iron masters in Pontypool. It is a constituency with a great industrial heritage.
We also had interventions from my hon. Friend Helen Goodman, who managed to get into quite a nasty spat with my hon. Friend Jenny Chapman. No doubt the rivalry between the two will be played out in the pages of their local newspapers, probably to the benefit of the popularity of both with their constituents.
There was also a very knowledgeable contribution from my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, who told us about the wonderful National Railway Museum in her constituency. I confess that I have not visited it, but I will put that right as soon as I can. She tried to assuage the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North.
Sadly, I have to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, who is a good friend. The first steam-powered rail journey took place on
Well, it was hauling coal at the time; I do not think it would have been a very pleasant journey among the high-quality south Wales anthracite coal. It was the first steam-powered rail journey in the world, and it took place in south Wales, not Darlington, but I will not labour the point. My hon. Friend made a good point about the lack of parity of “esteam”—excuse the pun—between fine art and our industrial heritage sometimes. The Minister should bear that in mind in his response.
I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North for securing the debate, not least because it gives us the opportunity to talk about steam trains. Who would not want to do that? It has been a really interesting debate. I well remember as a young boy growing up in south Wales often visiting Barry Island on a day trip. Hon. Members may be aware that at the time Barry Island was known not for the television programme “Gavin & Stacey”, as it is now, but because it had a great elephants’ graveyard of locomotives.
In the late 1950s, a scrap merchant from Barry Island called Dai Woodham began procuring steam locomotives that were being taken out of service as part of the 1955 railway modernisation plan. In 1959, he visited the Swindon works, where he was shown how to scrap a steam engine—a completely new process for the family’s scrap business. Fortunately, it was a difficult process; it was much easier to scrap the carriages, so that is what they did for the first few years. By the late 1960s, when the great revival of interest in steam engines and heritage railways really took off, hundreds of steam engines—I think there were 217—were left in Barry Island in Dai Woodham’s scrap yard. They had not been scrapped because it was easier to cut up the carriages than the steam locomotives. Barry became a great source for steam engine preservation when the heritage railway movement gathered pace in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I have visited Barry Island, which is also a seaside resort. My late mother-in-law came from Penrhiwceiber in south Wales; we went to stay with her relatives, naturally. The Barry railway preservation graveyard has saved hundreds of superb engines for the future. We must be grateful for that, even though it was a matter of accident. Many of the artefacts at heritage railways and the NRM originally came from Barry, and we must also be grateful for that. What would have happened had we not had railways to transport coal, which was the major industry of south Wales?
Indeed. My mother’s brothers and my grandfather were coalminers who were part of that whole process. Further, one of the first jobs I had as a young man was working over the summer as a platelayer in the British steelworks at Llanwern. I had some real hands-on experience of working on the railway, and can tell the House that lifting lines and packing ballast under the tracks and sleepers quickly convinced me that politics was a much better profession to go into. It is an easier occupation than working on the railways, which is a tremendously skilled but very labour intensive job.
Later, as a skills Minister, I had the great opportunity to visit Pete Waterman’s site at Crewe—he of “The X Factor” fame—where lots of young people are trained as apprentices to work on the wonderful heritage railway lines and schemes we have around the country. As the older engineers were all dying off, that skill and knowledge had to be passed on to the next generation. I commend the work that Pete Waterman, as a railway enthusiast, has done over many years to ensure that those skills are indeed passed on.
This country’s heritage railway industry is extraordinary. I looked earlier at the list and thought I might read out a few, but I am not going to because there are countless wonderful heritage railway lines around the country. It is appropriate that we are debating that today. This debate is very important. We have heard about the National Railway Museum in York, where visitors can enjoy two centuries of railway history. As we heard, it was opened in 1975; it nearly doubled in size during its expansion in 1990, and in 2004, along with the local authority, it opened the museum in Shildon, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned earlier—the first national museum in the north-east.
It would be helpful if, when the Minister replies, he answers the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North and some questions that I would like to add. We have rightly focused on the National Railway Museum today but, as hon. Members may know, the Government are currently carrying out a museums review. Will the Minister give us a steer as to when he expects the review to surface? I understand it is very close to completion—perhaps the write-around is going on among Ministers at the moment—but it would be helpful to the House to know. That is reasonable; this should not be a state secret.
Will the Minister also tell us what impact cuts to local authority budgets are having on local museums—in particular, on opening hours? Has he undertaken any kind of survey of local museums to try to estimate that? My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington mentioned the fact that her local railway museum is generally closed on Mondays and sometimes, at this time of year, on Tuesdays as well. Is that something that the Minister is worried about and is it getting worse?
We also heard the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North about how museums manage their collections. Will the museum review deal with questions regarding ethical disposal and collection management? Is that going to be part of the review? Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to keep Labour’s policy of free admission to our national museums, which the previous Labour Government introduced, including the National Railway Museum at York? My hon. Friend also raised specific concerns about the disposal of three locomotives. He did not quite accuse the Minister or the National Railway Museum of the great train robbery, but he did raise questions that the Minister needs to answer about consultation, transparency, tendering and fairness, as well as compliance with the National Heritage Act 1983.
In conclusion, Britain has a remarkable museums sector. We welcome the museums review that the Government are undertaking and that Neil Mendoza is doing for them. We are concerned that, unlike with previous reviews under Labour, no new resources will be made available to support museums, which are under severe financial pressure as a result of those cuts at the local level. That will inevitably lead to further issues around the disposal of museum collections. I hope the Minister will give the House reassurances on those issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank Kelvin Hopkins for proposing this debate about the National Railway Museum and the ownership of national assets. I am grateful to the large number of hon. Members who have contributed. In my response I will seek to address the specific points made.
As we have heard, the collections of our national and regional museums are of profound importance. We can be extremely proud of the local, regional and global significance and diversity of many of those items. It is right to ensure that the collections are managed well.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the National Railway Museum has disposed of assets that should be retained within the national collection. However, I do not agree with his proposal that the National Railway Museum reopens this question. The museum is bound by the National Heritage Act 1983, but is not required by that to consult the public before disposing of items. Those are curatorial decisions and are therefore independent from Government—and I believe rightly so. I will go into some detail on how the process works.
While the 1983 Act sets out some restrictions on the museum’s disposal powers, the Science Museum Group, of which the National Railway Museum is a part, has a rigorous process in place to ensure that disposals are consistent with those restrictions. Having spoken to Andrew McLean, the assistant director and head curator at the museum, yesterday afternoon, I am confident that the decision to transfer the engines, particularly the engine to Swanage railway, was the right decision in this circumstance. It does not set any precedents, as I think Brendan O’Hara suggested, but follows accepted museum practice. It has been undertaken in this way in other situations for many years. It would not be appropriate for me to intervene, even if I desired to do so.
Since I took on this ministerial role, I have had the opportunity to visit many museums and heritage sites all over the country. I have not been to York or Darlington yet, but there is always a new opportunity.
Perhaps we could—I welcome that.
I have been deeply impressed by the passion that staff and visitors have for their museums and how seriously museums take their duty to preserve and care for their collections, which in many cases, including the national collection, are specifically held in trusts for the public now and for the future.
Jenny Chapman gave a passionate defence of and was an advocate for her museum. I point out to her that Arts Council England is investing £118 million in museums in the current period, up to next year, and from 2018 many more museums will be part of the national portfolio. Museums will be able to apply for grants from the Arts Council, so there are more opportunities. I recognise the funding constraints and urge her to liaise with her local museum on how that could happen.
The National Railway Museum sites at York and Shildon are among the most popular museums in the UK. Visitor numbers are around 750,000 a year and were boosted in 2015-16 by the exciting arrival of the Flying Scotsman. The collection there includes more than 250 locomotives and rolling stock, 628 coins and medals, and nearly 5,000 pieces of railway uniform, equipment, documents, records, artwork and photographs. Such a fantastic and popular array of objects—especially including large locomotives—naturally requires a lot of management. The curators and museum in York need to be given full credit for the role they have played, not only within their own precincts but in the regeneration of York. They must decide what to display to the public, how best to construct an interesting and informative narrative around the collection, and take into account the historical and physical quality of the objects. With locomotives, a large amount of storage space is also required.
It is clear from what we have heard that the hon. Member for Luton North holds the National Railway Museum collections in great esteem, as we all do, and naturally is concerned to ensure that they are being well managed. That is of great importance to me too, particularly as the assets of our national museums are, in essence, owned by the public and their upkeep and display contributed to by taxpayers. It is only right and proper that national museums are run at arm’s length from Government. We expect, however, that collections are reviewed regularly to ensure that they remain relevant, appropriate and accessible to the widest possible audiences. The collections management policy of the Science Museum Group, including its disposal guidelines, is publicly available. For clarity, I will set out how such decisions are made.
Recommendations for disposal must be approved by a board of survey—as Rachael Maskell mentioned—held at the individual museum site, where they are peer-reviewed by colleagues. Recommendations then go to the collections and research trustee sub-committee, followed by the Science Museum board of trustees. It is in the nature of the heritage transport sector that some charitable institutions with heritage rail collections do not necessarily operate as accredited museums. As such, when disposal to a national or accredited museum is not possible, the aim is to keep objects in the public domain. The Science Museum Group also gives priority to transferring items to museums or heritage organisations with a local or regional connection. That decision-making process is not random, but clear and well considered, with a number of checks.
The National Railway Museum’s decision to deaccession this particular locomotive was based on three factors: first, duplication of this type of locomotive within its collection; secondly, the vehicle being in particularly poor condition; and finally, the vehicle being more suited to a museum telling local and regional stories. I am confident that due processes were followed and that the museum made the right decision for the object.
Swanage Railway Trust is a well respected heritage railway organisation, which has the knowledge, skills and storage facilities to care for the engine in a way that will let future generations enjoy it. Indeed, only yesterday we found out that it had received a generous private donation that will allow it to strip down and examine the T3 to establish whether it can be restored to full working order. Swanage Railway believes that the engine can tell its story most effectively by hauling trains on a branch line railway that it was built to run on more than 120 years ago, and I am inclined to agree.
I speak both as a railway enthusiast and an officer of the all-party group on heritage rail, which is particularly interested in ensuring that locomotives are in steam and that people see them running. I have visited York on many occasions and the days on which the locomotives are in steam draw the real crowds. Will the Minister assure us that if locomotives are transferred, whether to Swanage or wherever, they can be seen operating on the many preserved lines we have up and down the country?
The principle behind decisions on disposal and dispersal of assets are designed to maximise public exposure to fully functioning assets, so that as many interested people as possible are brought into the country’s museums. I cannot give categorical assurances on exactly how the assets will be displayed and used, but I imagine that is the aspiration in every case.
That recent development in Swanage demonstrates that the move there was in the best interests of the engine and the public who want to see it. Swanage Railway has a long historical association with the T3 and receives more than 200,000 visitors a year. In the long term, it hopes to fully restore the engine to steam and increase its accessibility to the public. Those goals may not have been possible for the National Railway Museum, given the range of issues that it has to deal with. For those reasons, the National Railway Museum and trustees of the Science Museum felt that Swanage Railway would be extremely well placed to look after and display the engine to a wider audience.
The news of the transfer was generally well received, both locally and with the descendants of the locomotive’s designer, William Adams. Indeed, only Steam Railway magazine, to which the hon. Member for Luton North contributed, raised any concerns. No other organisations have come forward to say that they wanted to acquire the T3. The museum abides by the Museums Association’s code of ethics on disposals and best practice. That includes advertising objects for disposal in some circumstances. The museum has committed to going above and beyond that and will advertise every rail vehicle disposal to ensure that the best home can be found for these important objects.
More broadly, the question of how to make disposals sensibly and ethically is taken very seriously by the museums sector. Kevin Brennan asked about the Mendoza review of museums in England. That will report soon and will look at collections management, including disposals. On funding, some proposals are being examined for how we can encourage better collaboration between big national museums and regional and local museums. I hope that that will provide more opportunities in due course.
In conclusion, although I understand and appreciate the sincere concern of the hon. Member for Luton North that the national collections are well managed, I do not agree that the disposal of the T3 engine should be re-examined. I understand that the National Railway Museum has invited him to visit the museum to discuss the matter in person. I encourage him to take up that offer, because I think that such a meeting would allay many of his fears. I have every confidence that the museum has managed, and will continue to manage, its collections to ensure that it can inspire its visitors, but I will continue to observe the sector closely in my role as Minister.
I thank the Minister and all hon. Members for their contributions. I am pleased that I raised this important issue, because the debate has shone a light on a subject that may not have been illuminated before.
I would perhaps demur from some of the Minister’s points. The rules under the National Heritage Act are fairly strict, including the criteria by which assets can be disposed of, and I do not think that they have been observed properly in this case. However, we have heard some interesting contributions. I do not have time to go into them in great detail, but I thank everybody for them. I hope that in future we will guard all our national assets, in every kind of museum or gallery, with great reverence and ensure that the public interest is protected at all times, so that we keep our wonderful heritage accessible to all, free of charge, throughout the country, both nationally and locally.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the National Railway Museum and ownership of national assets.