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Renaissance in the Regions

Volume 463: debated on Monday 23 July 2007

Renaissance in the regions is transforming England’s regional museums. More than 13 million visits were made to renaissance hub museums last year, of which 3.7 million visits were made by children.

May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment to his new post, and add that I am sad that my good friend the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) is not on the Conservative Front Bench? Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the north east regional museums hub, which with Government support has generated record numbers of school visits to museums throughout the north-east, including Beamish open air museum in my constituency, which received 43,000 school visits last year? Will he take time out of his busy schedule to visit Beamish museum and the north-east museums hub to thank them for the tremendous work they are doing on behalf of the museum service in the north-east?

I would be delighted to visit Beamish with my hon. Friend and to see the work being done in the north-east. The £1.4 million that has been invested has enabled us to treble the number of visits by children, and Beamish is only one of the many world-class cultural attractions in the north-east. Thanks to the money that has been invested over the past 10 years, culture in Britain is truly world class, and my goal is to make sure that it stays that way.

May I welcome the Secretary of State to his post and say how much I am looking forward to him and his Ministers visiting Stonehenge? One element of the renaissance in the regions programme is to do with archives of museum and archaeological material. Will he look into the problem in the English Heritage and Department for Culture, Media and Sport project for archives in the regions, which has ground to a halt causing a crisis in access to archaeological and museum archives?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised that matter in previous questions. Funding for local archaeological services is primarily the responsibility of local authorities, but we are looking into the matter and I would be happy to meet him to discuss any specific concerns he might have.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. I am sure that he is as enthusiastic about access for his constituents to museums and libraries in Manchester and the north-west as I am about such access for mine. However, is he aware that the renaissance in the regions programme is successful not only because so many young people are visiting our museums and libraries but because many of them come from non-traditional museum and library-visiting homes? Can we ensure that money is in place in the future to enable the programme to continue?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are still in discussions on our spending review settlements and it would be brave to make a commitment before that is decided. However, I can say that I share his strong support for renaissance in the regions. It is not a one-off project; we intend it to be ongoing. It builds on our other great successes in museums policy, such as our free charging policy which is being imitated by the right-wing Government in France—although, it appears, not by the British Opposition Front-Bench team—and is being followed with interest around the world.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box, although I should add that I am also sad that the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) has departed from the post. He is a young man of great promise, and I am sure that he will do well. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of recent Culture, Media and Sport Committee warnings about rumoured cuts to renaissance in the regions funding. Will he assure the House that he will heed those warnings, particularly as we learn today that per capita lottery arts funding in England has fallen to its lowest level ever—a full £1 less than four years ago, and four times lower than in Scotland and eight times lower than in Wales?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, overall lottery revenue has been declining, which explains the situation he describes. We intend renaissance in the regions to be an ongoing programme. It is a successful project and the Select Committee said that it provided the Treasury with an example of an ideal programme to be funded. I am sure that such comments will be taken on board, but we cannot make any announcements before the spending review.

Last Saturday morning I visited Bolton museum and art gallery, where I met one of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s constituents, Frances McIntosh, who pointed out that the portable antiquities scheme will run out of funding at some time in the future. Will my right hon. Friend consider the funding of that scheme, because I saw on Saturday morning—part of national archaeology week—that it does excellent work in engaging children in archaeology?

That picks up on the point that was being made by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. I am committing myself to lots of meetings, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that.