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Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I hope that the right hon. Lady will recognise, in pressing her powerful case, that in the view of the inhabitants of Holy Island, whence the gospels originated, the British Library has been helpful in making available a virtual version there and in supporting the presentation of information about the gospels on the island. I would not like the British Library simply to be criticised when it has given that help.

Joyce Quin: I appreciate that point and I know that people on the island value the help. The island is a tremendously important tourist asset for our region, attracting almost 1 million visitors each year. Since the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has intervened, I acknowledge the cross-party support for the issue. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has also been supportive.

When I recently revisited the British Library and looked at the Lindisfarne gospels in the John Riblat gallery there, I was interested to note that they are not highlighted in the way that I believe that they would be if they were permanently housed in the north-east. A leaflet about the John Riblatt gallery sets out its 10 highlights but the Lindisfarne gospels are not included. The British Library understandably views them as an important manuscript and in the context of the evolution of book production. However, the Lindisfarne gospels are much more to the people of the north-east of England.

Those who want to retain the originals in London argue that they can be kept in appropriate conditions for their conservation. However, the gospels were exhibited in the Laing art gallery without conservation problems. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be

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sympathetic to the point that, if we have a decentralised cultural policy for exhibitions, we should have such a policy for cultural skills and the ability to look after objects in the region where they are found. As a Gateshead Member, I know the expertise on conserving paintings that exists in the Shipley art gallery. I am therefore sure that skills can exist in the region. Sometimes, it can appear patronising when such doubts are raised.

I have mentioned the number of visitors on Holy Island. In Durham, there are half a million visitors a year. There was a huge turnout of support for the gospels when they were in the Laing art gallery. Therefore, I believe that the region is a very suitable location for exhibiting the gospels. Although many of our London museums are wonderful, there is often such a concentration of treasures that it is difficult to single out particular treasures in the way that the gospels when they were exhibited in the Laing art gallery so well illustrated.

Sometimes the objection is also raised that scholars tend to congregate in the capital and they need access to the gospels. Some scholars I am sure would be able to look at the facsimile versions, but others could be attracted to the north-east, not least because we have five very good universities. The rather amusing brief on this subject provided by the Northumbrian Association says that pioneers from the north-east thoughtfully provided the railways for people to get from London to the north-east, and, through Joseph Wilson Swan, provided the electric light so that the gospels could be well viewed when they got there.

I also note the content of parliamentary answers. For example, I have here an answer to a written question given by the former culture Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), who mentioned having more regular displays of the original gospels in the north-east than has so far occurred.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will understand that I want the permanent return of the gospels to the north-east. But at the same time it would be good if the Government could at least signify their willingness to have more regular displays of the original in the region, perhaps annually, or to facilitate a delegation of Members and representatives of organisations in the region to put their case to the board of the British Library.

In her 1981 book about the Lindisfarne gospels, Janet Backhouse, then assistant keeper in the department of manuscripts in the British Library, recognised that

We could now add "the twenty-first century". She also noted in that book that local awareness of the importance of the gospels remained very much alive.

I conclude by telling my right hon. Friend that this would be an ideal year to decide on the permanent return of the Lindisfarne gospels, because September marks the 900th anniversary of the arrival of the body of St. Cuthbert in its permanent home in Durham cathedral. Perhaps even better, the gospels could be returned before 20 March, which is St. Cuthbert's day.

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I believe, and I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends also believe, that the case for returning the Lindisfarne gospels to the north-east is overwhelming. Therefore, I urge the Government to respond positively to our campaign.

7.33 pm

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on securing this debate. As she said, we have stood shoulder to shoulder on the whole question of devolution, and I have no doubt that we shall do so later this year on the referendum for a "Yes" vote for further devolution to the north-east. There is no greater advocate for the north-east than my right hon. Friend, particularly with regard to devolution.

I come to the subject of the debate, the Lindisfarne gospels, an issue of particular resonance to the people of the north-east. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it more fully in the House tonight.

The Lindisfarne gospels are unique, unquestionably one of our greatest national treasures and a world heritage item. Now believed to have been created in the early part of the eighth century at the monastery of Lindisfarne, by a single author, they contain both the Latin text and the oldest surviving English example of a translation of the gospels. This remarkable work is a testament to the historic cultural diversity of the British Isles. They were created at a time when the monastery of Lindisfarne had a central role in fostering a spirit of collaboration and reconciliation during a period of great uncertainty and political change—history does keep repeating itself. To understand the spiritual and artistic roots of the great work is to understand much about its time.

It is both clear and right that the Lindisfarne gospels are a source of great pride to the north-east. They hold an iconic status and it is understandable why people want them to be displayed in the region. It is for that reason that my right hon. Friend views their return as important. However, I can equally appreciate the rationale behind the British Library's view.

We do not know the location of the gospels prior to the 17th century, but by 1702, they were in the possession of the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection was given to the nation. They were part of the founding collection of the British Museum, and were thus transferred to the British Library when it was created in 1972 as the National Library. The Lindisfarne gospels, as part of the British Library collection, are the property of the British Library Board, and they are held for the nation. The Government's view remains that the decision to return the gospels is rightly one for the British Library Board.

Mr. Stephen Byers (Tyneside, North) (Lab): My point is about the role of the board. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend could say whether there have been any discussions with the board with the purpose of achieving a meeting between the board and the delegation to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) referred, because that would demonstrate his good will toward the campaign. I know that my right hon. Friend answers

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in a ministerial capacity, but he will have a degree of personal sympathy toward the case that is being put for the Lindisfarne gospels. May I give him a word of warning? We feel that the Government have a responsibility in the matter, and there might come a time when they will have to indicate to the British Library Board the strength of feeling not only in the region, but in a broader area than the north-east—as we can see from the attendance in the Chamber—about the rightful place of the Lindisfarne gospels.

Mr. Caborn: As I have said, the matter is the responsibility of the board, not the Government. However, if my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West wants to lead a delegation to put points to the board, I understand that it would respond favourably to such a request. I shall tell the board and my officials tomorrow that I would welcome a meeting between a delegation led by my right hon. Friend and the board. Points about the feeling in the north-east could then be put forcefully to the board.

As I said, the decision is one for the British Library Board. As with all our national museums and galleries, the Government have an arm's-length relationship with the British Library, under which it can, and should, take decisions about its collections and future free from political intervention.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Is not the root cause of the problem the London-centric policies in this country? I doubt whether many of the individuals on the board represent anyone apart from an elitist group of individuals representing London. Is not the fact of the matter that whatever provocations I, as an elected north-east Member, or other hon. Members might make, unless we are in the London-centric clique, the board will frankly not listen to what we will say?

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