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Museums/Galleries (Admission Charges)

Volume 462: debated on Monday 25 June 2007

7. What assessment she has made of the effect of the removal of admission charges for museums and galleries on visitor numbers. (144650)

The free admission policy has been enormously successful and popular with people up and down the country. Let me give the hon. Gentleman the figures. There has been an 87 per cent. increase in visits since December 2001 when this Government introduced universal free access to museums that formerly charged. That represents an extra 6 million visits a year, or 29 million more visits over the five years since entry charges were abolished. I am delighted to announce today that last year was the best year ever for our sponsored museums and galleries, with a record-breaking 39 million visits. The policy has support up and down the country. It is a policy that the Conservative party would put—

Too keen to get on to the loyalists, Mr. Speaker.

Although the Secretary of State is undoubtedly right to say that the policy has been successful in attracting new visitors, is it not the case that her Department’s surveys show that there has been an almost complete failure to attract low-income visitors? What is the Department doing to change that?

It is not the case that there has been a failure to attract low-income visitors. One particular success has been the outreach work of several of the “renaissance in the regions”-funded museums, which have made a point of going out into local communities to attract visitors from such areas as deprived estates into those museums. There is an expectation that every museum will make efforts to attract people who have never visited before. The figures for the free entry programme demonstrate that that has been a great success. Almost half the visits to museums in both London and throughout the country were made by people who had not visited a museum in the previous 12 months.

Is not the free admission to museums and galleries that has been provided by the Government one of the greatest acts of democratising access to the arts that any Government have ever achieved? If my right hon. Friend were to decide to put the Conservative party in a museum, as would be appropriate, considering the exhibition that it has made of itself, would not such admission be essential, because no one would pay to go to see it?

My right hon. Friend is, as ever, entirely right, and such a move might well be a deterrent. The important point about the policy is that it is a practical way of giving expression to many of the big promises of politics—improving quality of life, giving people a better sense of their identity and a sense of place, and providing access to national treasures that belong to the people of this country. It is a policy of which we are proud, and we will maintain it with the unequivocal support of the people of this country.

We recognise that free admissions have led, as the Secretary of State said, to a record increase in the number of visits to our national museums and galleries. That is why we are fully committed to the continuation of that policy. It was, of course, introduced by her predecessor, Lord Smith of Finsbury, who said last month that it was

“difficult to overestimate the impact”

that her raids on the lottery

“had on the cultural sector.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 May 2007; Vol. 692, c. 342.]

He called them a “serious error of judgment” and a “tragedy”, and called on the Government to admit their mistake. Free admissions was his legacy, but is not her legacy for the arts the siphoning-off of hundreds of millions of pounds from the arts and heritage sectors to pay for her mistakes on the Olympics budget?

If we are talking about errors of judgment, we should refer to the hon. Gentleman’s little foray into thinking aloud about what would happen if museums were allowed to charge again, and to the agonising spectacle of his U-turn, which took place all of six or nine hours afterwards. I am proud of the legacy of free entry to the museums of this country, and that is a commitment with which the Government will continue. The people of this country will realise that that popular policy is put at risk by the Opposition.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that free entry has been a major factor in the growing importance of Liverpool’s museums? Will she continue to give her full support to the museums’ trail-blazing projects, such as the new slavery museum and the new museum of Liverpool life?

Yes, and that is an important and good example of the success in Liverpool of the policy of free entry. All the initiatives relating to the new slavery museum will be a central part of what Liverpool will offer, not just to the people of Liverpool or the people of the country, but to the people of the world when Liverpool is the European capital of culture next year. I commend my hon. Friend for the support that she has given to that initiative.