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Museum Charges

Volume 113: debated on Monday 30 March 1987

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asked the Minister for the Arts when he last met the Civil Service trade unions and associations to discuss the effects of the introduction of museum charges on attendance.

On 20 February 1986 I met representatives of the First Division Association, the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, the Civil and Public Services Association and the Civil Service Union to discuss a number of questions. The subject of admission charges was raised.

I do not suppose that any of those unions were in favour of museum charges. Is the Minister not being disingenuous in saying that this is a matter for the trustees, as the trustees are charging only because of the low level of Government grant to museums? The Minister must have seen the statements issued by the British museum about the inadequacy of its grant, and no doubt charges will soon be introduced there. How can he defend a situation in which the Natural History museum trustees are about to introduce charges, and estimate that that will reduce the number of visitors by 40 per cent.? Where is the social or economic sense in that? Is it not symptomatic of the Government's seedy, street corner shop mentality towards museums and all other matters?

The resources that are made available to national museums and galleries have gone up by 13 per cent. in real terms since 1979–80. That is not the issue here. It is a matter of whether the trustees want to seek new ways of raising extra revenue. There are thousands, if not millions, of people around the country who are prepared to go to a variety of museums—not only the out-stations of national museums, but the many independent museums, country houses and subsidised theatres where there are charges. That is the choice of the people, and if it helps to improve facilities, so be it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important single factor in determining the number of people who visit a local museum is not the level of charges but the perceived relevance of what is on offer at that museum? I wish to extend to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to the hon. Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) an invitation to come to Eastleigh and see the new museum, which is both relevant and popular.

I hope that the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) will take up that generous offer, particularly during the general election campaign. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the fact that it is the standards of the museum and what it has to offer people that matter, and that they are prepared to pay if they think that the services that are offered are excellent.

Will the Minister confirm that he feels it his duty to preserve the heritage rather than to leave it reliant on tourism or the good sense of trustees?

Our heritage is of the greatest importance. In that connection, I was extremely glad that the week before last, through the acceptance in lieu scheme, we acquired a Constable, which is available from this morning at the National gallery and which will be of great benefit to the nation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be quite inappropriate to give too much weight to the opinion of the Civil Service unions about museums? Most museums are independent, people and their families visit independent museums, and the business is flourishing and growing. For example, next month the Wessex horse centre at Teffont is due to open.

My hon. Friend is right. One has only to travel around the country to see what is happening in the museum world. One new museum is opened every fortnight because of the growing public demand for all types of museum. The evidence of public attendance at museums shows that that demand is being met.

The Minister knows that the charges that are being introduced at the Natural History museum on Wednesday and at three other museums are not, as he has tried to imply, to develop services but to protect basic services for the public. It is because the Government are not providing adequate resources that those trustees are being forced to do that.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that the 40 per cent. drop in attendance at the Natural History museum that the trustees anticipate, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred, represents 1 million people next year? That is the scale of the Government's neglect—1 million fewer people will visit the Natural History museum next year.

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. There is evidence that, as was the case at the National Maritime museum, there is a drop in attendances for the first few months after the introduction of charges, but that attendances pick up as people get used to the idea of paying. That is the evidence of experience and the hon. Gentleman cannot get away from it. To suggest that we are not increasing resources for museums and galleries is pure nonsense. There has been a real increase of 13 per cent. since 1979–80, and the hon. Gentleman ought to have the grace to accept that fact.