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British Museum Library

Volume 751: debated on Saturday 26 August 1967

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the British Museum Library.

The plan to build a new library for the British Museum adjacent to the Museum buildings in Bloomsbury has been under examination by the Government. In September, 1964, the previous Government approved an outline plan for the building subject to consultation with the authorities concerned.

The London Borough of Camden, which is the local planning authority, subsequently made formal objections, and these have been under consideration. The Government, having regard particularly to the housing situation in the borough, and to the need to preserve buildings of historic or architectuaral importance in Bloomsbury, have decided on balance that the borough's obejctions to the plan should be upheld.

In reaching this decision, the Government have also had in mind that the present pattern of national library services is a patchwork which has developed piecemeal over the years under different institutions. I have been considering whether the system provides a service which is efficient from the standpoint of users, and gives good value for the large sums of public money spent on it. Attention has been drawn to some of the problems in this field in the recent Report of the U.G.C. Committee on Libraries under the chairmanship of Dr. Thomas Parry.

The Government have decided to set up a small independent committee to examine the functions and organisation of the British Museum Library, the National Central Library, the National Lending Library for Science and Technology and the Science Museum Library in providing national library facilities and to consider whether, in the interests of efficiency and economy, such facilities should be brought into a unified framework.

One of the questions to which the Committee will have to give its attention is the way in which the needs for storage of library material should be met. This problem is particularly acute in Central London, and discussions are being opened with the local planning authorities concerned about alternative possibilities for a site in the Central London area, to meet whatever needs are determined in the light of the committee's report.

This is a very surprising announcement, which we shall certainly wish to discuss during the debate on the Address. Meanwhile, I should like to ask just three questions. First, will not this announcement inevitably mean a further long delay in the construction of the new British Museum Library, with serious consequences for readers, for Museum staff—and, indeed, for the antiquities departments, which are very short of space?

Secondly, will it not entail very considerable additional expenditure for the enlargement of individual departmental libraries?

Thirdly, and most important, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the British Museum trustees feel that there has been quite inadequate consultation over this matter? Is it not highly regrettable that the right hon. Gentleman—who, after all, has only recently been convicted in another connection of acting in a manner 'plainly unreasonable'—should now be so cavalier in his treatment of what is a statutory body with statutory responsibilities to this House?

I can understand the right hon. Gentleman's being surprised, because during almost the whole of the previous Conservative Administration this business was wobbling on without a clear decision. It must be very surprising to him that someone is prepared to take a decision at last which was never taken when right hon. Gentlemen of the Opposition were in charge of affairs.

There will not, I think, be any delay in the building of a library, because even if the previous scheme, which I have now rejected, had gone ahead, it could not have been started until the early'seventies in any case. I think that there will be no delay. The right hon. Gentleman's second point, therefore, is not well founded.

I hope that the Committee will make suggestions for some kind of unified structure for the four national libraries that will save a great deal of expenditure there now is due to overlapping, duplicating of services and failure to fit things into one another. I hope that there will be not an increase, but a saving, in expenditure.

On the question of consultation, I know what the trustees think about this, because they have said it to me—but they are wrong. There was consultation. My predcessor saw Lord Radcliffe on 14th June and made it clear how his mind was moving. He asked Lord Radcliffe, after consulting the trustees, to put in his representations and views. This Lord Radcliffe did on 25th July, in strong terms. These were considered, first, by my predecessor, and then by myself, and we paid very careful attention to them. There was nothing to be added—their views were absolutely clear, and were forcibly put before us. We bore them in mind and, with other considerations, came to this conclusion.

Is the Minister aware that anybody can come to the wrong decision, and that this is the wrong decision? Is he aware that there will be widespread disappointment, for whatever reasons he has reached this decision? Is he further aware that for 20 years the nation's priceless treasures have been housed in scandalous and disgraceful conditions? Does he not think that after 20 years he could have produced a better resolution than merely another committee?

It is because the conditions are appalling that one has to take a decision one way or the other clearly. Of course, there must be another library built with proper conditions for working—that is common ground. The question is where it will be built. There will be no delay, because it takes a lot of time to acquire property, dig the foundations, build, and the rest. The hon. Gentleman's criticisms are based on entirely false premises.

On behalf of some hundreds of my constituents who live in this fascinating and tormented part of London, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his courage and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government for his co-operation in considering the objections of the Borough of Camden to the scheme? May I ask how many of these people in this traditionally domestic area of Bloomsbury will now be able to feel a little more secure in their homes, and how many historic buildings, important 18th century buildings, may now stand a chance of preservation?

May I assure my right hon. Friend that those of us who seem mainly concerned with the social and historic aspects of this problem are not insensitive—

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker I was just finishing by saying that we are not insensitive to the needs of a national library, and will happily co-operate in any way we can.

Social and historic factors have been taken into account in coming to this conclusion. As for the figures for which my hon. Friend asked, had the original scheme gone ahead housing accommodating 900 people would have been destroyed. After some years 350 would have been rehoused, leaving 550 permanently removed from their present dwellings in an area where housing is a very great problem.

I hope that hon. Members will also bear in mind that one result of the Government's decision is that a very beautiful and important square—Bloomsbury Square—and many historic buildings in the area, will now be preserved instead of being destroyed.

Order. I remind the House that we have an important debate on Aberfan coming next. Sir Edward Boyle.

Is the Minister aware that Lord Radcliffe, after his meeting with the former Secretary of State, had no reason to suppose that his next communication from the Government would be an announcement of their decision without any preliminary discussion with the trustees upon it? Is he further aware that a firm decision was announced by the previous Government on 24th September, 1964? And is he seriously suggesting that this decision will not lead to further delay in the start of building operations to a date later than the previously expected date?

I cannot, of course, say what Lord Radcliffe thought or expected. All I can say is that he wrote, after great consideration, a careful and strong memorandum which I assumed, and which my predecessor assumed, stated as fully, clearly and lucidly as could be done the views of the trustees. I do not think that any more could have been added.

I do not think that there will be delay —as a result of the decision—although it is always difficult to know exactly how long building will take.

The then Government did not take a clear decision in 1964: they took a decision subject to consultation. In other words, they took a decision and took it away with the other hand. That has been one of the troubles throughout: ever since 1955 there has been dillying and dallying and failure to come to a decision. This time a decision has been taken.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It was the custom in the old days that not more than two statements should be made by Ministers from the Front Bench. Today, we have had taken away one hour of the time that backbenchers should have had to discuss a very important matter. Is there any means by which you can protect the rights of hon. Members from abuse of their position by the Front Bench?

I cannot express any opinion on actions that the Government have taken. I sympathise with the Welsh Members, who are anxious to discuss what was to them especially a terrible tragedy. I hope that we can move on now.