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Portable Antiquities Scheme

Volume 471: debated on Monday 28 January 2008

The portable antiquities scheme is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. In recognition of the scheme’s importance, the MLA intends to maintain current funding for the next financial year while it undertakes a review, with the British Council and other stakeholders.

I know that the Minister is aware of the excellent work of the portable antiquities scheme—it has recorded more than 314,000 finds on its database and its website received 82 million hits last year. It is probably one of the few successful Government databases to date. She will also be aware of the concerns expressed in my early-day motion, which has been signed by 161 Members, from all parties. Does she realise that the MLA’s proposal to freeze the funding will result in the loss of five front-line, important jobs? Is it not time to transfer the direct responsibility for the PAS to the British Museum, which has been running the scheme successfully and is best placed to promote and expand it in the best interests of promoting culture in this country? The British Museum has had such success in promoting culture through the PAS.

First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the success of the scheme—we all think it is an incredibly successful scheme. Of course, it is another mark-up for a Labour Government, because we introduced it in 1997. Secondly, rumours abound about a loss of staff, but that has not been approved by anybody and is a matter for the scheme itself. It has received not only a bit of inflationary funding from the MLA, but extra funding from the British Museum, so I am unsure why those running the scheme feel the need to make a cut.

In a tight fiscal environment, we want to see how we can best maintain and grow the scheme and where the best synergies lie. That could be with the British Museum, through the renaissance in the regions programme or by the scheme’s remaining in the MLA. Those are the options that will be examined by the British Museum and all other stakeholders during the review.

The House will be familiar with the reign of the late third century Roman emperor of Britain, Carausius, who was overthrown in a coup d’état by his finance Minister—no change there, then. Two very valuable golden coins from his reign were recently unearthed by an east midlands farmer and they have joined the 330,000 discoveries in the portable antiquities scheme collection. Will the Minister reassure the House that incentives will be given for future finds of that kind to go to the PAS, because otherwise for lack of finance such finds will not be interpreted and the British public will not be able to identify with their past of two millenniums ago?

I would love to see the coins to which my hon. Friend refers. I have been privileged to see a number of the finds for which the scheme has been responsible. We know how successful the scheme has been, because in 2006, the last year for which figures are available, 97 per cent. of the finds by members of the public came through funds liaison officers, who work on that scheme.

The scheme is in a good place. Confirmation of the continuation of the MLA’s funding of the scheme, at a time when its own funding has been quite severely constrained, demonstrates the general regard in which the scheme is held. I have no doubt that all those working on the review will try to ensure that the scheme is maintained over time.

I encourage the Minister, in her constant battle with the Treasury, to ensure that the scheme is expanded rather than frozen. It is one of the great success stories in the world of archaeology and my county archaeologist told me only this morning that in Wiltshire alone—which has the world heritage site of Stonehenge and Avebury—more than 20 Roman sites a year are being identified. Relations with metal detectorists, which have been bad for years, are suddenly coming good, and that is to the benefit of the whole of archaeology.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have very good relationships with the Treasury, not least because we have an ex-Chief Secretary as our Secretary of State. We achieved a good settlement in tight fiscal circumstances for the whole of the DCMS budget. I have no doubt that the scheme will continue in good health, but a review is sensible, to discover whether any good synergies will emerge from relocation. That could save money at the back end so that more can be spent on front-line services.

When something is working, is it not a good idea to leave it alone? Could the Secretary of State not be persuaded to understand that before this scheme was working efficiently, many archaeological finds were lost to the United Kingdom and even to museums in general? Would it not be more sensible simply to accept that far from putting the scheme into the freezer while we consider whether it is successful, we should give it more money and encouragement, especially as—for once—we have managed to get something working efficiently?

I have a great regard for my hon. Friend, but I do not agree that the best way to protect and promote good schemes is to leave them untouched. There is always room to see whether we can improve the effectiveness of the scheme or find efficiencies. The context in which we run schemes can change, and my hon. Friend will be aware, as I am, of the current fiscal constraints. We have to ensure that we get best value for every £1 we spend.

As we are discussing archaeology, I remind the Minister that the scheme was started in 1996 by the Conservative Government. How can she describe as a good settlement a 25 per cent. cut in the MLA’s funding, a £3 million cut in its budget and the loss of five posts from a scheme that she herself has said is incredibly successful?

The hon. Gentleman is being selective in his use of statistics. The MLA’s budget has not been cut: it has risen with inflation. However, we have chosen to prioritise within its budget the funding for the renaissance programme, which will ensure that we can conserve, and build on, the great advances that we have made in our regional museums. That is important for all sorts of reasons, not just because we want to conserve those very good collections. Regional museums can provide the first experience of museum visiting for those who cannot travel to the national museums. If children go to museums, they are much more likely to go as adults, so I do not apologise for making that a priority.

Within the remaining funding that is available to the MLA, we have to look for financial efficiencies, but I repeat that this particular scheme has not been cut. The cut of five posts is not justified in relation to the budget figures, although there may be management reasons for it—I do not know. I applaud the MLA, because all hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that it is a good scheme that should continue. However, it should still be reviewed, because that is the responsible thing to do.