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House of Lords

Wednesday, 25th February 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before the commencement of business, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to make an official visit to Paris on the 26th and 27th February 1998, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Museums and Arts Centres: Funding

2.37 p.m.

The Earl of Clancarty asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their response to the announcements that the funding of the Buckinghamshire County Museum, Aylesbury, is to be reduced by about one-third, and that the community arts centres in Buckinghamshire are to be closed; and whether they will protect local authority museums and other cultural facilities from cuts in local authority funding.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we would like to see the best possible museum services provided everywhere. However, local authorities are not required by statute to fund museum services. It is therefore not for government to tell elected local representatives how to take detailed local decisions. Buckinghamshire County Council's spending priorities are a matter for it. Government funding of local authorities under the system of standard spending assessments is based on what each authority needs to spend to be able to give a standard level of service. This is calculated using demographic, geographical and other factors which have a bearing on revenue expenditure, and these are applied equally to all authorities.

The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he not agree that it is absurd that a museum which yesterday was nominated for the 1998 European Museum of the Year award is being forced to introduce admission charges from 1st April and is losing six posts, including a dynamic director who, according to the Bucks Herald, is sacking himself? What are the Government going to do about it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is clear from my first Answer that I agree with the noble Earl that this is very sad. I am happy to add tribute to the Buckinghamshire County Museum, which has not only been nominated for the 1998 European Museum of the

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Year award but actually won the 1996 Museum of the Year award. But it is, I am sorry to say, a matter for Buckinghamshire County Council.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, will the Minister advise local museums minded to lend works of art to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that rumour has it that his apartments are already becoming over full and that the time is already too late to hang any more pictures on the new wallpaper?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I think that is a deplorable question as well as an entirely irrelevant one.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, will my noble friend draw the subject of this Question to the notice of our right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and ask him to investigate the cause of this regrettable development?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I think my noble friend is coming back to the Question on the Order Paper, which concerns Buckinghamshire--at least I hope so. No, I do not think I will draw my right honourable friend's attention to it. It is a matter for Buckinghamshire County Council.

Baroness Brigstocke: My Lords, does the Minister agree that museums and galleries have a most valuable role to play in improving the educational standards of this country? I think particularly of the Aylesbury museum, which has a spectacular exhibition of Roald Dahl. I cannot think of a better way for young children to experience the excitement of reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, not to mention The Giant Peach. This is an enormously important aspect of museums. I would love to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Minister entirely agrees with what the noble Baroness said. I am a product of the Buckinghamshire state education system myself. I do not remember so much of the museums as I was educated in High Wycombe, but I certainly benefited from many of that authority's activities, notably in the visual and film arts. I also pay tribute to the Roald Dahl part of the museum, which I understand is a splendid success. But it is still a matter for Buckinghamshire County Council.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, can there be any sensible objection to museums with spare works of art hidden away in the cellars because they have not room to exhibit them lending those works of art to other museums or places where they can be seen by the public?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I think the noble Lady's question is wide of the Question on

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the Order Paper, as was the question of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, although I sympathise very much with what she says.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, in view of what my noble friend said, could there not be still a statutory requirement for local authorities to have a cultural policy? Many years ago I seem to remember that there was something about a penny on the rate to be spent on the arts. What has happened to that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I believe that the analogy to the point my noble friend makes is the statutory requirement on local authorities to provide a library service. That certainly has considerable value even though it does not enable central government to interfere in the details of the way in which that service is provided. To widen it in the way that my noble friend suggests may be attractive, but it would increase central intervention in local government autonomy.

Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the future of county museums and arts centres in Buckinghamshire and in other places would be much more secure if the Government were not determined to channel £1.2 billion of National Lottery money into their new good cause, large parts of which ought to be financed by taxes which they dare not raise?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords, there is no connection between the division of lottery money and the expenditure of local authorities. As the noble Lord well knows, local authority expenditure in total is allowed to increase in advance of inflation next year. The amount of money from the Museums and Galleries Commission for local authority museums and for smaller museums generally has been maintained for next year.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the whole House will be very glad that the central government revenue support grant to local authorities will be based on equality and fairness in total contradiction to the way in which the previous government gave enormous support totally unfairly to local authorities such as Westminster and Wandsworth? What plans do the Government have to publicise the fact that they are fair and that the previous regime was totally unfair?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I believe that I had better stick to my rule of not answering questions which are wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Lord, Lord Monskwell, is right to this extent: that the sooner local authorities are uncapped and allowed to spend and raise money locally so that local people can have their local services,

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including museums and art galleries, the better? Would not that be a good thing to do and do the Government have that in mind?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, no, I do not believe that that is the case. There is still capping which is being used with considerable discretion this year. Buckinghamshire County Council spent a very large part of its reserves last year--being the last Conservative county council in England--and is now having to pay the price of having reduced reserves.

MoD: Disposal of Redundant Sites

2.46 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will co-ordinate the policies of the Treasury, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Defence to change the present policy whereby the Ministry of Defence in disposing of urban properties is required to seek the highest market price, thus enabling supermarkets, office blocks and hotel developments to outbid potential housing developments on brownfield sites.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, we are all aware of the potential for the use of redundant MoD sites to provide housing. The MoD is closely involved in a research project with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which includes consideration of the issues raised by the noble Lord. Ultimately, however, it is for the planning process to determine the alternative use to which such sites are put.

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