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Robert Burns Heritage Projects

10.57 am

Sandra Osborne (Ayr) (Lab): I very much welcome the opportunity to raise the vital issues of the legacy of Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, and the urgent need for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I know that they are also close to your heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to hearing your "Immortal Memory" later in the week. I am sure that you will be very interested in my reply to the "Toast to the Lassies", and I had to be careful not to bring one of those speeches with me this morning. It might have been a wee bit more amusing than what I am about to say, but it would not have addressed the serious issues that, unfortunately, I have to raise.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. If the hon. Lady had done that, I might have been responding to the debate, rather than the Minister.

Sandra Osborne : Thank you.

Today, as I speak, Burns clubs all over the world are celebrating the birth of this great poet and song collector. No doubt all kinds of over-the-top sentimentality will be on display, but kailyard parochialism has little or nothing to do with the real Burns, who is a far more substantial figure than that. His place in the Scottish consciousness is unique; he has been described as Caledonia's bard, natural man, a many-sided genius, the heaven-taught ploughman, the noble savage, a man of the resistance, a national hero and even a national myth. His name has become synonymous with Scotland.

Life levels all men, but death reveals the eminent. Burns captured the soul of Scotland, and his name is entitled to the respect of posterity. He may have died a poor man, but he has immeasurably enriched the world. On this day, we do not remember a departed memory, but honour a living, life-enhancing presence. When Scotland forgets Burns, history will forget Scotland. It would be to our eternal shame if we ever allowed that to happen.

Among his faults and virtues, Burns had a common touch, warm humour, vigour, humanity, a universal message and profound common sense. I want to quote some famous words by him, although I hesitate to do so, because when the Deputy Prime Minister visited Burns cottage—we were very pleased to see him—and he was asked to read a poem by Robert Burns, he refrained from doing so because he said that it takes him all his time to master the English language, let alone lowland Scots. I do not know whether the Minister will treat us to a Burns poem later, but in the meantime, as I said, Burns's profound common sense is encapsulated in these famous words:

and in these:

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Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am sure that you will agree that those words are of great benefit to every Member of this House, both individually and collectively.

There could not have been a better time to secure this important debate because, as we meet in our convivial gatherings at this time of year to celebrate Burns's life and works and to toast his immortal memory, there are pressing matters that we should consider if we are properly to secure his physical legacy in the west of Scotland, specifically in the place of his birth—Alloway, just outside Ayr. Alloway is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who is disappointed that he is unable to attend today's debate. Hon. Members may be aware that his wife is ill. My right hon. Friend is a member of the Burns Trust. In my role as Member of Parliament for Ayr, I also declare an interest in the trust as a trustee.

The debate is timely, not only because it is taking place on Burns day but because his legacy has recently seemed to be under threat. I want to provide the House with some background to the issue before seeking some reassurances from the Minister on lottery funding. The problem is a long-term one that should have been sorted out decades ago, not just in the last couple of months, as some who have spied an opportunity to jump on a political bandwagon are making out. Some of those people have not taken one iota of interest in Burns, apart from attending the occasional supper. The local councillor for Alloway, Robin Reid, who has suddenly become vocal in complaining, is, like me, a trustee. However, to my recollection he has not attended any of the regular trustees' meetings since I joined in 1997. Burns would, I am sure, have looked with irony at much of the present hypocritical posturing. No doubt he would have written a poem about it.

I note that my predecessor, Phil Gallie, has acknowledged that efforts have been made during the years to preserve and develop the Burns national heritage park as a tourist attraction. I join him in paying tribute to people such as Douglas Hemming and our lord lieutenant, Major Richard Henderson, as well as to the local councils in Ayrshire. All have strived to preserve and develop the park but they have done so against the odds.

My opinion is that, instead of building the Tam O'Shanter experience, which is really just a café and gift shop, the money should have been invested directly in the historic buildings and artefacts and in preserving the physical heritage of Burns. Only a small proportion of the people who go to the café and visitor centre visit Burns cottage, so although it gains some income it is not succeeding in attracting tourists to Burns, nor is the income anything like enough to meet the needs of such an important national treasure.

However, hindsight is a wonderful thing. My point is that we should have had a properly funded and supported national strategy to preserve the legacy of one of our most important historical figures many years ago.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I agree entirely with the hon. Lady and with her sentiments about the importance of the legacy of Burns, not just to Scotland
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but around the world. She is right to talk about a national strategy, but why, with a Labour-run council, Labour-run Scottish Executive and Labour-run UK Government, do we not have one?

Sandra Osborne : As I shall explain later, successive councils, both Tory and Labour, have tried hard with limited resources to support the legacy of Robert Burns. Also, the Scottish Executive have supported the funding for the last three years. I do not accept that they have not been proactive in the situation, and they are about to be much more proactive. Where I do agree with the hon. Gentleman is that Westminster has failed the legacy of Burns for many decades. As I suggested, it is a long-term problem. It did not just spring up last week. It should not fall to individual local authorities, trusts or Burns organisations to work in isolation to preserve the heritage, but that is the somewhat casual approach that has characterised the situation for far too long.

I am no nationalist, as the House will be aware, but without, I hope, sounding too paranoid, I do not think that anyone in the House could foresee a situation in which Shakespeare's birthplace and places associated with his legacy would be neglected or would fail to be recognised as of national importance. To be even more parochial, if I am honest I think that if Burns had been born in Edinburgh instead of Ayrshire, it would also have been a totally different story.

In many ways, it gives me great pleasure to say that it is with the Scottish Executive that we are seeing not only a quick response to the current problems, but a long-term commitment to evolving a coherent strategy for the future, which has been sorely needed for so long. My task today is to ensure that the Heritage Lottery Fund is recognised as a potential source of funding and that it operates in a way that can proactively protect our heritage, along with Historic Scotland and other Government bodies.

The Burns national heritage park is made up of the cottage where he was born, the museum, the monument and gardens, the manuscripts and memorabilia, the Tam O'Shanter experience, which once exhibited a recreation of that famous poem, Alloway kirkyard and the Brig O'Doon. It is all contained in a beautiful setting in the village of Alloway. It is vital that that setting is preserved.

The heritage park is managed by a joint board on which three partners—South Ayrshire council, the Burns monument trustees, of whom I am one, and Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire—are represented. Based on previous consultancy reports, the original commercial aim was that the heritage park would be financially self-sufficient after its first few years of operation. That never happened.

I think that it would be of benefit if I outlined briefly where we are at the moment and how our problems came about. The Tam O'Shanter experience is owned by the council and for some time it has been its intention to lease it to a commercial operator. In so doing, it was responding to a request from the joint board. It was thought that that could provide an opportunity for capital investment and for an ongoing revenue stream. The council planned to reinvest the income from the lease in the upkeep of the park as part of a service-level agreement. That is not new and has been in the public domain for at least the past couple of years, if not longer.
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In so doing, the council was treating the trust in the same manner as it does every other voluntary organisation. The purpose of such agreements, as hon. Members will know, is to determine the level of service delivered in return for financial support from the taxpayer, and to ensure that outcomes can be measured and acceptable standards maintained. That will be familiar to hon. Members as part of the best value regime and is all within the thrust of Government policy to follow the public pound. Councils are measured in terms of how they spend public money and the quality of services that they deliver. Service-level agreements are an extension of that, in that councils are charged with the responsibility of following the public pound to ensure that external organisations give value for public money and are measured as stringently as councils themselves. That is as important for preserving our heritage as it is for providing services to people.

However, that is a tall order for many organisations and the problem is that the trust is a very different entity from most other voluntary organisations. Its constitution is a complicated and aged document, drawn up at a time when it was seen as appropriate to set up bodies that were basically made up of the local gentry—the great and the good, such as the lord lieutenant, the sheriff principal and elected representatives—whether or not they had the time, expertise or interest required. In recent years the trust managed to recruit some more appropriate volunteers, but the constitution meant that the trustees would be held jointly and severally liable for financial problems. That became a major problem when a multi-million pound project was involved, so advice was sought about dissolving the trust and setting up a new management structure.

It is my understanding that at that time the National Trust for Scotland was not interested in taking over, although it was clear that a national body was required. At the same time, there was an increasing problem with preserving precious artefacts. A report produced last April by the national Burns collections project showed that 35 per cent. of the existing Burns collection is stored in the Burns cottage museum in an uncontrolled environment. I am sorry to inform the Chamber that the original manuscript of "Auld Lang Syne" is currently held in Edinburgh for that reason. I am sure that the Chamber will realise not only the financial importance of the document, but its importance as Burns's legacy.

Artefacts have been held in an uncontrolled environment for many years. That cannot be allowed to continue. Little or no support was provided over the years by any national body until the Executive stepped in three years ago with short-term funding. That cannot be allowed to continue either.

I am going into some detail about how we got to where we are now partly because there have been deliberate misrepresentations, particularly about South Ayrshire council, but also because I believe that there are important lessons to be learned. Local bodies cannot in isolation take responsibility for sites and collections of such national significance as the heritage of Robert Burns. I might add that his birthplace is by no means the only important Burns legacy in south-west Scotland. A proper strategy is required for them all.
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As I have said, work has already been done to establish a new Burns museum at Alloway that would preserve the Burns collection to modern standards and greatly enhance tourist potential. One application has been made for lottery funding, which was rejected, and a second was withdrawn with a view to resubmission when a new management structure was established.

Given the scenario, I would contend that it was perfectly clear to all that that structure was needed if the project was to succeed. It could not possibly have escaped the notice of our national heritage bodies, but they did not see it as their role at either a civil service or quango level to intervene in a proactive manner that could address the problem. I do not suggest that anything other than good professional advice was given about the merits of the designs or the business plans, but only latterly were there discussions about the structure of the management, which appeared to be caused by the council not being prepared to underwrite the costs. That was never a feasible proposition. Councils today are simply not in a position to take on multi-million pound projects in such a way. In any case, as I have tried to make clear, there should be a national input.

The Minister may be about to tell me that it is not the role of the lottery heritage board to intervene and suggest that the project is of national significance and should be run on a national basis. The Heritage Lottery Fund, not local councils, largely funds our national historic assets today and, along with bodies such as Historic Scotland, is charged with the responsibility of preserving our heritage. I suggest that a more proactive approach, with powers if necessary, is required at some level. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that.

I pay tribute to the Scottish Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Patricia Ferguson, not only because she was instrumental in organising the campaign that got me elected in 1997, but because she has provided the political will—lacking for so long at a national level—to give Robert Burns the recognition that he deserves. She has backed that up by speedy action. When I met her before Christmas, along with my colleague Cathy Jamieson, the MSP who represents Alloway, Patricia Ferguson immediately informed us of her determination that the homecoming of the Scottish diaspora, planned for the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth in 2009, will centre around the Burns national heritage park in Ayrshire. That has not always been the case; in the past, it would have been far more likely to be centred in Edinburgh. I was delighted to hear it, and I hope that hon. Members who are Scottish but represent seats elsewhere—such as yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker—will join us in the celebrations.

Plans are already under way and have pointed up the need for a national strategy. The Executive will fund the work needed, but it is clear that a firm central direction is needed. Patricia Ferguson has made £50,000 available in the short term; yesterday I met her, South Ayrshire council and Scottish Enterprise to begin planning the future, which includes the possibility that the whole park will be taken over by the National Trust for Scotland. It is a solution favoured by most, and South Ayrshire council yesterday indicated its willingness to go along with that solution. It is likely to include a submission to the lottery fund for a museum to be ready in plenty of time for 2009.
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At last we are moving in the right direction to secure the Burns legacy, which is so richly deserved. On Burns day, in celebration of his immortal memory, I ask that we all—not just in Scotland, but in the UK and throughout the world—pay tribute to Scotland's national bard, not just with words but with action.

11.17 am

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris) : May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) more than usual on securing the debate on the most appropriate day for it? As one of the few non-Scots in the Chamber, I also wish everyone a happy Burns day and pay tribute to Robert Burns. My hon. Friend naturally talked about his Scottish heritage and contribution to Scottish culture and history. I want to recognise that his work went way beyond the country boundaries. Although the Scots own him in the best sense of the word, his contribution has been felt throughout all continents. As we approach the celebration of 250 years of his birth in 2009, I think that above all things he has certainly stood the test of time.

Indeed Burns's words of wisdom, particularly about poverty and disadvantage—and the emotions which he had the ability to portray in anger at those things—have not lost their relevance, although I suppose the geography of where those feelings are more apt changes with time. So, although we talk of celebrating his history, of a memorial and of paying tribute to the past, one main reason for needing to do all that is the wisdom of his words in the present—wisdom which I am sure will continue into the future.

This is a difficult debate for me in some ways. There are areas over which I have responsibility, and areas over which I do not. Of course I want to acknowledge that the Heritage Lottery Fund has a role to play. That will be the main comment I want to make. Before that, however, I welcome the contribution that the Scottish Executive have now made; only last week, they announced a grant of £50,000, which my hon. Friend rightly said was short-term funding. From what I have read, it will not survive in that form; it will be covering the ongoing year-on-year costs. It is not a real investment to keep the park steady and there must, I suspect, be a joining together of financial forces to bring into reality the dream to which she referred.

I shall therefore talk briefly about the Heritage Lottery Fund, because hon. Members will know that it is a national UK body. Although our Department has no responsibility for culture in Scotland—nor should it—we do have an overseeing purpose regarding the HLF. To make matters even more complicated, the HLF is itself independent of Government—so in some ways I feel twice removed from the issue about which we are talking. None the less, I accept a responsibility to keep a careful eye on what is going on.

The HLF has had a relationship with the Burns national heritage park over the years. I reviewed it for the debate and it was clear that it had been an up-and-down relationship. There have been seven applications for HLF funding since February 1997, and the pattern is that small ones were granted and large ones were turned down. It is good news that in 1996 just over £65,000 was
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granted for repairs; in 2000 just over £98,000 was granted for a curator to help with preparation of a bid; and in 2003 just over £49,000 was granted for project planning for the redevelopment of the cottage museum.

However, the applications that were turned down were of far greater monetary value. There were applications for £1 million in June 1998, for £1.25 million in December 2002, and for more than £5    million in December 2004, although that was withdrawn. Those big bids tended to be withdrawn rather than turned down. That told me, as I looked through the HLF applications, that the HLF was not unwilling to engage with the Scottish authorities and the trustees. It looked to me as if when the big bids came in, something was not right with the applications. I suspect—although I can only guess at this—that they have fallen on advice from the HLF about the likelihood of securing approval and a suggestion that the applicant should get its house in order before proceeding further.

Sandra Osborne : The Minister makes a very good point. I believe that we are pushing at an open door with the Heritage Lottery Fund. There have been several applications, and there has been no mechanism to enable anyone to ask, "What is the problem? We cannot allow the drift to continue." Do the relevant agencies have a role to play in being a bit more proactive?

Estelle Morris : My hon. Friend makes the point exactly about the way forward. An organisation is needed to do as she describes. It cannot be the HLF; it cannot say, "Let's get our act in order. We will take on leadership, co-ordinate the funders and the trustees and see whether we can arrange things." However, the HLF will equally not conduct the equivalent of an Ofsted inspection, sitting quiet until the bid is made and then passing it or failing it. It does not have that sort of relationship with an applicant, but something in between.

A bid as large as the one that we are discussing should never get to the point of being submitted without a fair understanding on the part of the applicants of the likelihood of success. To proceed otherwise is a waste of time and resources. I see it as the duty of the HLF—it is an obligation that it accepts and fulfils for many major projects—to work with the applicant, advise on where there are shortfalls and help with putting the bid in good order.

All that that will mean is that when the bid is made, it will be in good order and eligible, and can compete with others for what are inevitably limited funds. The relationship with the HLF cannot guarantee the funding, because one cannot know how many bids, or of what value, will be made. However, the Burns heritage park needs someone other than the HLF to play the leadership role, and be the point of contact.

The light on the horizon, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is that the National Trust for Scotland has expressed an interest in that role. I do not suggest that it should put in more money than anyone else; that is not for me to do, but the equivalent of a lead body is needed. My hon. Friend alluded to the history, and we all know about such things from our constituency experiences—I can almost imagine what has gone on, without needing to be a Scottish Member. There have been many interested parties and people willing to help, but no one with an agreed lead role.
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As an outsider, my reading of the situation is that we could be most optimistic if the trustees and other parties would unite around a lead partner. Choosing the National Trust for Scotland for that role would give the HLF a better chance of doing the negotiation before the bid was put in. The reasons given for the project being turned down in the past were things like value for money, long-term sustainability and management—we are talking about a multi-million pound project. The HLF will advise on each of those things, but cannot do them for the bidder and cannot take an ongoing lead role. Perhaps there is a time for all of these things.

For Scottish Members of Parliament, and for Scottish Members representing English seats as well—certainly with the pressure of 2009 upon us all—I agree with my hon. Friend that nobody would want the Scots from throughout the world returning to see that the memory of Robert Burns, the greatest of all the national poets, has not been honoured in a way in which they would expect. If 2009 gives us incentive to ensure that that has happened by then, that is good. If the National Trust for Scotland can provide that lead role, all the better. All I can do today is to say to my hon. Friend that the HLF is a source of income to which an application would be in order, but no promises can be given, as it will need to be considered alongside other applications. The HLF is willing to talk and make sure that as the bid is being developed it stands the best possible chance of being ruled in order and being competitive. Maybe those issues are beginning to come together—perhaps for the first time in a while.

I know that with the leadership that my hon. Friend has shown in her constituency all those concerned will not let this opportunity slip away. I congratulate her on having a most historic constituency and on having the foresight to allow us all at Westminster to celebrate Burns day today. Celebrating it in Westminster is apt—although I suspect that they are having greater celebrations north of the border—and I wish her every success in the project that she has taken on.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I thank the hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) for her kind invitation in 2009. Since I shall not be a Member of this House, I will be able to accept it.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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