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Protecting the European Communities' Financial Interests

Question agreed to.

25 Feb 2004 : Column 385



7.15 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I have pleasure in presenting a petition initiated by my constituents Mrs. Jess Southerton and Mrs. Susan Stewart and signed by more than 750 of my constituents, mostly from the village of Hartley. My constituents welcome recent legislation restricting the sale and availability of fireworks to the general public, but feel that further legislation banning the over-the-counter sale of fireworks to the public is necessary in view of the large number of domestic accidents and injuries caused by the inappropriate use of fireworks by untrained members of the public that continue to occur to residents and animals in communities such as Hartley.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

25 Feb 2004 : Column 386

Lindisfarne Gospels

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

7.17 pm

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I am very pleased to be given this opportunity to urge the Government to take steps to ensure the permanent return of the Lindisfarne gospels to the north-east of England. I am also pleased to see in the Chamber several of my right hon. and hon. Friends who take a great interest in this issue, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) and for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who, although he does not represent the north-east, comes from my part of the north-east in Gateshead. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is here, because I am aware that the issue crosses the party divide. I pay tribute to other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp), who has taken a long-standing interest in the subject.

I had a vivid realisation of just how dear the Lindisfarne gospels are to the hearts of people in the north-east some three years ago, when the originals were displayed in the Laing art gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne for three months. The number of visitors was very considerable—approaching 200,000, which, I understand, is double the number of visitors to the British Library in the same period. Having been one of the people who stood in line to view the gospels on that occasion, I well remember the excitement and exhilaration felt by those queueing.

It is important to stress to people from outside the north-east that the gospels, more than any other work of art, encapsulate the cultural achievement of what is described as the golden age of Northumbria—the age of Cuthbert, Aidan and the Venerable Bede. As such, the gospels are a huge and powerful symbol of the region's proud past, but I should like to argue that they can be something more—an inspiration for the region's future. The campaign to secure the return of the gospels has existed for a long time, and will, I am sure, continue until success is achieved. I pay tribute in particular to the work of the Northumbrian Association, which has led an active campaign in recent years. I also acknowledge the efforts of previous Bishops of Durham and the current bishop in support of the campaign. Five years ago, the previous Bishop of Durham inaugurated a debate in the other place about the return of the gospels. Interestingly, he won the firm support of the Earl of Carlisle, whose family were connected with Sir Robert Cotton, who acquired the gospels 100 years or so after they were looted from the region at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. It was good that someone connected to the person who bequeathed the gospels to the British Museum was calling for their return to the north-east.

I am pleased that the press in the north-east, including The Journal in Newcastle this week, have supported the campaign to return the gospels. Indeed, a number of

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well-known north-east personalities, including this week Brendan Foster, who is well known to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism, have spoken out in favour of their return. In any debate about the relocation of national treasures, worries are expressed about the setting of dangerous precedents and the fact that many more demands for relocation may follow. However, having visited the British Library and seen the works on display, I know that there are many works, manuscripts and books from different parts of the United Kingdom, including a fair number from the north-east of England. However, I do not know of any campaigns, and do not expect any, in favour of the relocation of those objects, which do not have the special significance or iconic status of the gospels. A helpful precedent would be an event that took place a few years ago, when the stone of Scone was returned to Scotland. It was a special object with iconic status, and its return has similarities to the case for the return of the gospels.

I stress very strongly that the issue is not related in any way to that of the Elgin marbles, and should not be confused with it—they are completely different. The reason is obvious: the north-east is a part of the United Kingdom, and we are talking about the relocation of an item of our national heritage within our nation. Indeed, north-eastern taxpayers pay taxes towards the upkeep of the British Library just as much as taxpayers in London or anywhere else in the country do. National treasures do not lose their status as national treasures by being located outside the capital. Indeed, if the Lindisfarne gospels came back to the north-east, their status as a national treasure would be enhanced, not diminished.

It is appropriate that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism will respond to our debate, as he and I have worked together enthusiastically to promote policies of decentralisation and devolution. I therefore hope that he agrees that the Government's record in promoting decentralisation in a range of policy areas including culture is laudable. Returning the Lindisfarne gospels would work with the grain of the Government policy of ensuring active regional and decentralisation policies in the cultural sector. Moreover, returning the gospels would boost the already important tourism industry in the north-east, and thereby boost the wider north-eastern economy.

As a Member representing part of Gateshead, I am conscious of the important link between culture and economic regeneration, which has been given dramatic emphasis in cultural developments such as the renaissance of the Gateshead quays and the important boost to the region's image provided by cultural innovations and attractions such as the angel of the north. Returning the gospels would be a significant further step in the economic regeneration of the region and the enhancement of its image, the importance of which should not be underestimated when attracting investment to the region and portraying it as an attractive region in which to work and live.

So far, the British Library and the Government have resisted the permanent return of the gospels to the north-east and I should therefore like to attempt to forestall some of their arguments against our campaign.

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First, the library points to the fact that, recently, high-quality facsimiles have been available. That is true; they usefully contribute to making the gospels visible in several different locations.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows about the connection between the gospels and St. Mary and St. Cuthbert's church in Chester-le-Street. Its fight to have a facsimile on permanent display is obviously commendable but it would add to the history trail in the north-east if the gospels were on permanent display somewhere in the north-east. That would recognise the cultural and historical significance of the north-east to the development of Christendom in this country.

Joyce Quin: I greatly appreciate my hon. Friend's point. The importance of Chester-le-Street in the story of St. Cuthbert and in that of the gospels should be commemorated in the way he suggests. However, what appeared to be a special deal between the British Library and the region on the availability of a limited number of facsimiles has been somewhat undermined by the fact that the firm responsible has produced approximately 980. They are now viewed as a commercial venture rather than a sensitive response to the region's case. Nevertheless, their existence suggests a strong case for the British Library to have a high-quality facsimile and for the originals to be located permanently in the north-east.

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