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Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2007

I am pleased to have secured the debate and to be able to speak about the Government’s policy on museums. I am also pleased to serve under your enlightened chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.

The Government’s policy on museums and their broader support for the cultural sector over the past 10 years have been a resounding success, particularly for the youngest in our society: more grants have been given, museums have modernised and attendance has accelerated. Our great national museums have reaped the rewards of the Government’s brave decision to introduce free admission, which has seen literally millions more Britons experience the wealth of shared experience, knowledge and heritage that those museums possess.

I know from work in my constituency that our regional museums have also undergone a transformation thanks to the renaissance in the regions programme and funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Without the Government’s financial support and cultural vision, such programmes would never have been put together. However, the real successes could never have been achieved without the tireless work and steadfast commitment of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

It is testimony to the leaps and bounds that have been made over the past decade that there is almost universal agreement about the pivotal role played by culture throughout society. As the Prime Minister has stated, culture plays a creative, economic and even diplomatic role in making Britain what it is today. Indeed, he went on to say that a return to boom-and-bust funding of the cultural sector would risk turning back the clock on the tremendous achievements that have been made so far, and I could not agree more. It is vital that we do not sit back and watch the paint dry, and I hope that a deal can be secured after the next spending round to ensure that that does not happen.

As hon. Members are well aware, I am extremely proud to represent Gateshead and Washington and, in doing so, the wider north-east. It gives me particular pleasure to say that the north-east continues to provide a strong example of how increased museum funding can be best used to make a real difference in the community. Renaissance North East is part of the wider renaissance in the regions programme that is transforming our museums and which has proved to be one the most beneficial projects ever run by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The statistics speak for themselves. Educational visits to north-east museums have almost doubled, increasing from 80,000 to 140,000 in just three years. Overall, visits are up by a fifth, and the number of children engaged by museums has risen by a phenomenal 6,500 per cent., with much of that increase made up of children from the poorest parts of our society. Polling data show that visitors to north-east museums are more satisfied with their experience than visitors anywhere else in the country. In addition, Tyne and Wear Museums has brought £70 million into the regional economy and created more than 5,000 new jobs as a result of the millions of new visitors to the region.

However, numbers alone cannot tell the story. Children are increasingly likely to return with their parents and, indeed, to return as parents, promoting a cultural cascade throughout the generations. History teachers have described Renaissance-funded museums as manna from heaven. The work of Renaissance North East and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has been crucial in using heritage to connect people to knowledge, information and inspiration. A renaissance could be defined as something with a clear beginning and an end, and I hope that we can discover a permanent revolutionary renaissance in all our regions by securing full funding for the future.

I was pleased to hear of a seminar that took place last week, which drew together specialists from across the cultural sector to look at the role that culture can play in fostering community cohesion and neighbourhood renewal. It is welcome that other Departments realise that there is a lot to learn from the various outreach activities for which museums can be responsible. I hope that the recognition of the role of culture in communities on the part of the Department for Communities and Local Government will lead to a recognition that culture can also play a role in promoting Government cohesion.

It is clear from talking to children in my constituency that they have found museum visits exciting, engaging and educational. It would therefore be good to see the Department for Education and Skills promoting closer links between the nation’s schools and museums.

So far, I have talked about the successes of regional and national museums and I would strongly argue that we should encourage a greater spirit of co-operation between them. By encouraging the sharing and rotating of stock, we can ensure that some of our greatest treasures are not hoarded away in London, but available across the regions, where they can be enjoyed in context by people who would not otherwise have the chance to appreciate them. I was encouraged to receive news yesterday that the British Library has set up an independent expert panel to review the condition of the Lindisfarne gospels, which other Members and I have campaigned to have returned to the north-east on loan.

There can be no argument that the pedigree is there in the north-east. It was fantastic that Tyne and Wear Museums scooped the national museum and heritage award for excellence. That would not have been possible without the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and there are undoubtedly concerns about the impact of the Olympics on the funds that are available. I have been working hard to ensure that Gateshead international stadium in my constituency can secure a training camp, which would see some of the undeniable benefits of the Olympics delivered to the north-east. All the predictions are of a tight spending round, but I implore anyone with a role in the decision making to look at the relatively small cost of continuing to fund the renaissance programme and to weigh up what it means for millions of lives across the country. Our museums should not lose out to sports—this is not a zero-sum game.

The majority of my speech has focused on the successes of the cultural sector under this Government. Before closing, however, I want to highlight one way in which we can do more to support our museums. Collections are the lifeblood of any museum, and we must do all we can to encourage people to contribute however they can. It is not the job of a Labour Government, or of any Government for that matter, to offer the richest in society tax breaks for no apparent reason. As things stand, tax relief is available to people who choose to donate pieces to museums as a part of their estate—but not while they are alive. In some cases, the social benefits of such donations outweigh the cost of granting tax relief to donors. If we want to encourage a society in which there is a social obligation on everyone to support each other in whatever way they can, we must ensure that philanthropy is encouraged—not at a cost to the public purse, but as a benefit to British people.

The facts show that the Government have done a good job in opening up the cultural sector, but the real heroes of this renaissance have been those who work day in, day out in museums and on other cultural projects. We owe them a commitment of continued support, which we can deliver by providing funding, working together across the Government and listening to curators, creators and innovators everywhere.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on securing the debate. I am extremely pleased to be here as a substitute for the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who usually deals with the arts. It is probably quite a shock to a lot of people to see what Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport, is debating today, but I am pleased to be here, because much of what has been said this morning has a strong resonance with what we are doing in sport and with the whole renaissance agenda.

Regional museums are a vital part of the country’s cultural make-up and play an important role in so many things that we value, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West indicated. They also help people to learn, and my hon. Friend homed in on that. They build strong communities, improve people’s health, contribute to the visitor economy and provide a focus for the regeneration of our towns and cities.

I pay tribute also to the role of the north-east—my hon. Friend’s region—in developing the museum hub that includes the Beamish museum, the Bowes museum, Tyne and Wear museums and the museum of Hartlepool. I have three grandchildren, aged one, four and five. My wife and I took the four and five-year-olds to the Beamish museum earlier this year. It was a beautiful day and it was fantastic for both me and the youngsters to go into the old Co-op shop and look at the things in there. I must admit that when the youngster turned round and asked, “Do you remember them, Grandad?”, I said, “Unfortunately I do,” and he said, “That’s how old you are.”

The trip brought home to me how important such visitor centres and museums are. Sometimes we use the word museum in the wrong context. We are talking more about learning centres, which deal with knowledge and our history, and are a living and interactive experience for young people. Seeing the faces of my two grandchildren as we got on the tram to go round Beamish was a fantastic experience, which I know many other people have shared.

In my city of Sheffield, which I am proud to represent in Parliament, we have also been putting major investment into our museums. The Weston Park museum now takes visitors from the ice age all the way through history, and uses old Sheffield, through its various decades, to bring them up to modern times. It is amazing that on the first day of opening this year there were 5,000 visitors. In the first 15 days, 55,000 people went through the museum, and within three months the first year’s visitor target had been reached. There has been a reaction of amazement in the region at the transformation of a museum that I remember visiting as a kid, when everything was behind glass panels and we looked at swords, steel and jewellery. It is not like that now. It is all interactive. Education centres for youngsters add a lot of value.

As my hon. Friend said, Tyne and Wear museums well deserved their recent success in the Museums and Heritage awards for excellence. I shall give a brief snapshot of the achievements of the north-east museums because, although my hon. Friend has already spoken about them, they are worth repeating. In 2005-06, 115,000 schoolchildren visited museums in the north-east regional hub—an increase of 41 per cent. since 2002-03. In 2005-06, 2.1 million visits were made to north-east hub museums. An additional £16.5 million has been directly invested in museums in the north-east between 2002 and 2008, thanks to the renaissance in the regions programme.

Central Government will have invested £150 million in the renaissance programme by 2008. That money is critical to the modernisation of museum collections, the broadening of access to new audiences and the provision of a comprehensive service to schools, which was central to my hon. Friend’s remarks. Renaissance is vital and helps to tackle regeneration, deprivation, community cohesion and the creative economy. It also raises expectations and has changed the museum landscape. No one doubts the educational role of many of our museums. It encourages learning outside the classroom and encourages museums to be centres of excellence and knowledge.

Museums promote learning, most notably through support for the national curriculum. Schools across the country increasingly look to museums for help in enriching and supporting the national curriculum. Lifelong learning is also incredibly important. Early- years education, further and higher education and adult, family and lifelong learning have all been boosted by renaissance. Museums provide physical and intellectual access to collections, helping to illuminate history, the natural world, and the great artistic and scientific achievements of our great nation.

Museums can also reach across social and economic barriers and help to sustain and regenerate communities. Renaissance has helped to foster a culture of collaboration, including joint working with local youth offending teams, mental health services and regeneration bodies. Once, no one would have envisaged museums playing a role in those areas of life. We have a fantastic diversity of museums, which are cultural institutions second to none. Several of our national museums are now recognised as world leaders in their field. Renaissance also benefits those outside the network of the hubs through financing the work of museum development officers and the creation of subject specialist networks that strengthen the capacity of the museums sector.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport wants this country’s heritage to be maintained and enhanced in the best way possible. I therefore fully subscribe to the belief that increased philanthropy can play an important part in helping our museums and galleries to refresh their collections—a point that my hon. Friend made very clearly. As you know, Mr. Bercow, tax policy is a matter for the Treasury, but we continue to work together to examine ways in which to support philanthropy in the arts. There are already a number of successful tax concessions such as acceptance in lieu, conditional exemption and the douceur on private treaty sales. There is also a variety of tax concessions available to encourage private and corporate giving including, of course, the recent changes to gift aid announced in the last Budget. However—this is a serious point, which I am sure my hon. Friend will take on board—it seems that those concessions are not well understood by the private sector and are not widely taken up. People may think that such tax concessions can be had only when they have passed on to another world, but in this living world there are tax concessions and we need to ensure that they are made known more widely.

I am keen for organisations to make the best use of existing tax breaks and the DCMS is working with Arts and Business to encourage wider take-up of existing reliefs. That is true of both the arts and sports: what we have been doing for community amateur sports clubs has not had the take-up that we wanted. We need to improve communication in the relevant area of the arts and in sport. There are great benefits to be had, and I am sure that contributions would be forthcoming if more people knew about them. Funding has also been given to the Maecenas initiative of Arts and Business, which provides training for fundraisers on raising money from individuals, research and issue identification. Of course, acceptance in lieu continues to enhance our national collections, and in 2006 38 objects were accepted. Those were valued at more than £25 million, which represents more than £13 million in tax.

The wider picture for museums is impressive. Grant in aid funding has risen by 29 per cent. in real terms since 1997. Free admission has brought about an 87 per cent. increase in visits to formerly charging museums since 2001, representing an extra 29 million visits, or nearly half the population of the United Kingdom visiting museums.

My hon. Friend alluded to the Olympic and Paralympic games and their effect on cultural programmes and funding, and I want briefly to tackle some of the myths that have arisen. The total lottery contribution to the games will be £2.175 billion. The Government make no apology for that. The Olympic and Paralympic Games are exactly the type of national event that the lottery was designed to support and Governments have been clear from the start that the lottery would support the overall funding package. However, £2.175 billion represents just 19 per cent. of the lottery’s income from the time that we won the bid to the time of the games. The overall lottery contribution will make up just 11 per cent. of the total cost of the games.

To weigh that against what will happen in the next period for arts, heritage and culture, the cultural Olympiad will start next year, and it will be a huge success. Obviously projects are still in the planning stages, but they include an international exhibitions programme—a planned collaboration between museums and galleries around the UK; a world cultural festival; and a world festival of youth culture. In addition a UK-wide festival is planned to build up to and run alongside the games. The aim is that projects involved in the festival should be drawn from grass-roots community projects and should engage local communities and increase participation. We have an opportunity. Beijing will hand over the torch next year, and it will come here in 2012. That gives us five years; we are now in the planning stages.

Order. I am sure that the Minister’s words are in reference to, and will be tied up with, Government policy on museums. I know that he will not want to dilate at any length on matters outwith the topic.

Absolutely not, Mr. Bercow. That is the furthest thing from my mind. Our great museums are but part of our cultural heritage and part of what we will project to the world as we move towards 2012, using the platform of the Olympic games. More than anybody in the House, you understand that the Olympics originated as a cultural event as well as a sporting one, Mr. Bercow. That was the case in the time of the great Greeks and the ancient games, and I am sure that their museums played a significant role in the thinking of the Olympians of that day. We have inherited the great history of the Olympic movement, which provides a great platform for the renaissance of the museums in this country. It shows the diversity of our nation that we are able to use the platform of 2012 and the origins of the Olympics, and put our museums at the centre of that platform. We can be proud of that.

I shall now conclude, having been reminded by you that I might have been straying slightly from the funding of museums, Mr. Bercow. The Prime Minister spoke recently about the renaissance of British culture, in which the renaissance of museums plays a major role. Nowhere is that more apparent that in our great regional museums. I saw at first hand a sample of their wonderful collections when they were brought to a northern exhibition at the House of Commons a few weeks ago; I had the privilege of visiting it, and many people were able to view some of the great treasures of the north. As I have said, in my own constituency there is the wonderful Weston Park museum, which is now a jewel in the crown of Sheffield. We are very proud of it indeed.

The way in which we have been able to reach out to the wider public, including young people, has been an incredibly important part of the renaissance. I am pleased about the investment that we are putting into learning. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West referred to links between schools and museums. We have created 167 new learning posts to develop new learning opportunities in the hub museums, and 69 access posts to take collections out of the museums and into the schools themselves. There is clear interaction there, which is important. Last year, 7,000 museum staff from across the museum spectrum benefited from some form of renaissance-funded training. Those steps have built up not only the museums’ real estate, but their human capital.

By 2008, there will be 188 new renaissance curator’s posts to underpin the increased access and educational activities, and 58 placements for ethnic minority training. My hon. Friend raised the issue of continued funding of the renaissance; as she knows, we are awaiting the outcome of the next comprehensive spending review. We hope that sustained funding for the programme will be made available. The renaissance of the nation’s museums is extremely positive, and we can be proud of it. I have no doubt that it will be play a significant role in the launch of the 2012 Olympics, on to which I might have strayed a little.

Some of the issues addressed by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and by the Minister will no doubt be raised in this afternoon’s first debate, which is on the impact on arts and heritage of the diversion of lottery funding to the 2012 London Olympic games.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.