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National Media Museum

Volume 564: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

I am relieved, up to a point, that I do not have to come to the House this evening to savage the Minister as an enemy of the people, or to denounce him as a philistine and cultural vandal. I am relieved because I have always considered him rather an adornment to the Government of brutes with whom he sits—a civilised man; a kind of lipstick on the pig.

I am also relieved because, in a meeting the Minister graciously gave my colleagues and I just a day or two ago, up to a point, he rather shot my fox. There I was, with my parliamentary colleagues—four parties are represented in Parliament from the Bradford district—absolutely united and leading what looked like becoming a mass campaign of the entire city and district against a proposed act of cultural vandalism, but the Minister disarmed it in the first line of the meeting by telling us that the Bradford National Media museum would not close.

We are grateful to the Minister for that, although he will forgive us if we want to look the gift horse a little closer in the mouth, because there are, of course, more ways of closing somewhere than simply locking its doors. However, we are grateful that the Minister had the sense to listen to the public, led by the five parliamentarians from four parties, the city council, and the local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus. There was, as I have said, a crescendo of opposition to the proposed closure, and it is only right to commend a Minister who listens. I hope I do not spoil his chances in the forthcoming reshuffle—I wish him well, and am grateful to him up to this point, when I must part company from him.

The National Media museum is fundamental to Bradford. It is a national treasure, but it is fundamental to Bradford, a city with a sea of troubles, with mass unemployment, mass poverty, mass child poverty, record infant mortality rates, record deaths in hospitals and so on. Bradford has so many problems that it could not afford another. If the closure as leaked—I will come to that point in a minute—had gone ahead, it could have been a death blow to a great city, which in 1903 was the richest city per capita in England, but which now, in 2013, does not have its troubles to seek, particularly in the city centre, where we have a hole in the ground where Westfield was supposed to be. When I arrived there at least 15 months ago, the iconic Odeon building was crumbling and shrink-wrapped, looking like it was going to fall down. If the National Media museum had closed on the back of that desertification of the city centre, it could have been a death blow, so I am grateful that the Government have announced that it will not close.

In part, it will not close because the public expenditure cuts in this age of austerity, which the Government are imposing on the country, have turned out, in the case of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport at least, not to be as severe as planned. We are told in authoritative media briefings that 10% has been reduced to 5%, but, as the late and lamented trade union leader Alan Fisher once said, 5% of bugger all is bugger all. Five per cent. off our shrunken budget will be a serious blow none the less, so my first question to the Minister, which I hope he addresses, is this: the museum will not close, which is wonderful, but what will happen to the capital programme and capital expenditure on the building? Will the building be not closed, but allowed to crumble? Will the vital physical changes in the building not be possible? As my colleagues and I will advance, and as we advanced in our meeting with the Minister, many things about the National Media museum need to change. That is the first question.

To move on to my second question for the Minister, I have doubts as to whether the National Media museum belongs in the Science Museum Group at all. Media to me is an art rather than a science. The science of how film, radio and television get into the living room or the cinema is interesting, but not as interesting as the content of the film, radio and television. The National Media museum in Bradford is the repository of the national BBC archive, but who knows about it, who can access it and who can see it? The whole notion of the national Science Museum Group should be brought into question by this debate.

The Minister will know that there was a radio station supported by the BBC in the National Media museum. That station left in March of this year without any fight from the museum. That is why we all smelt a rat. My hon. Friend might want to comment on that. That surely had an impact on visitor numbers to the museum.

Undoubtedly; that was one of the most popular attractions. It was interactive: people could get behind a desk and conduct make-believe interviews. Future politicians were being groomed in that studio in Bradford. Now it is gone and no fight was put up for it.

To skip ahead in what I was going to say, I belong to the Deng Xiaoping school of socialists: I do not care whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. The state must of course be a major stakeholder in museums, and free admission must be defended at all costs. The National Media museum has half a million visitors. That is down from 1 million, but it is not nothing. The overwhelming majority of those half a million visitors are from Yorkshire and Humberside. Most of them, very unusually for a museum, are from lower socio-economic groups. Charging would be a death knell for us and the state must be there to guarantee that that does not happen.

However, the BBC is a national institution that is deeply in need of a new lick of paint to renovate its tattered public reputation. Why does the BBC not help to pay for the National Media museum? Why can the BBC logo that used to be at White City not be up on that building? Its archive is there. The public pay for the BBC. Heaven knows, any money that it spends on the National Media museum might save us from hours of tripe that, I am sorry to say, would otherwise be included in its output.

Perhaps other media outlets could be involved. I am not arguing for the rehabilitation of Mr Rupert Murdoch, but I have written to His Highness Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, with his great media interests, and asked him to sponsor the museum. That is how desperate I was. Perhaps, I am glad to say, he did not reply.

I commend the hon. Gentleman, my parliamentary neighbour, not only for securing this debate, but for the way in which he has worked with all Bradford MPs to secure the future of the museum. Does he agree that this matter shows that although we may disagree wildly on lots of issues, we all have the best interests of the Bradford district at heart? It also shows what we can achieve when we work together. Will he join me in saying to the Minister and the Science Museum Group that Bradford MPs will continue to work as a united front not only to secure the short-term future of the museum, but to ensure that it has a viable long-term future?

I am grateful for that intervention. What the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely true. It is a rare species, the northern Tory MP, but our district has two of them and they have turned out both to be able and dedicated parliamentarians. They were ready, without qualification, to throw themselves into a more obvious popular front led by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe), the Liberal Democrats in the shape of hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and me. We all came together as one hand and we moved mountains. The leak of a closure at least gave us the opportunity to show what politics and public opinion can do, and how Governments can be influenced and made to listen.

Thinking along the lines I described earlier about the media paying something towards the National Media museum, this country gives a fortune to the privatised train operators, so why can we not force them to help my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) ensure that the future of the National Railway museum in York is secured?

The point we are keen to make is that these museums should not just be kept open, because keeping something and letting it crumble and die is no use. These are national treasures. If our country can strut around the world at the G8 and G20—when we are not bugging people; I am sorry, there is a D notice on that—saying what an important country we are, it can certainly pay for the upkeep of those national treasures.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, which I visited a week or so ago, is another national treasure. Imagine Manchester, the workshop of the workshop of the world, having its museum of industry closed. Why is industry not helping pay for that museum—it is, after all, a showcase of British industry? Indeed, why is it in the Minister’s Department at all? The museum in Manchester could more than satisfactorily fit into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—or as it used to be, the Department of Trade and Industry—thus relieving the pressure on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport by making the necessary investment in our museum.

Some may say, “What’s in a name?” but why is our museum called the National Media museum? Indeed, in the age of Leveson, the word “media” does not have immediately attractive connotations. Why should we not call it the national museum of film, radio and television? Then it would do what it says on the tin, and everybody loves film, radio and television. Moreover, with the archive already there, there is no reason why we could not fill that museum every afternoon by showing some of the jewels in the crown of the BBC national archive.

I, too, express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) for initiating this debate. A little earlier he referred to the leaking of the state of the group as a whole, and the media museum in particular, and I am annoyed that we should have to rely on a leak, rather than a more mature approach that would have involved MPs at a much earlier stage. The hon. Gentleman has made a number of suggestions tonight, but I believe that collectively we could have worked much harder, much sooner, and that the hysteria and huge anxiety created across the Bradford district could have been avoided.

Indeed, and the hon. Gentleman was right to be cross about that in our meeting, although being a glass-half-full man, I saw it as giving us an opportunity to shine. The hon. Gentleman is right, which brings me to the only discordant note I intend to make—the Minister must listen to this please.

The performance of the leadership of the Science Museum Group has been sadly lacking in this affair. Indeed, we had the spectacle of the leadership of the group rubbishing the performance of museums under their own purview, apparently oblivious to the obvious fact that if the museums were underperforming, they themselves were being paid rather a lot of public money to preside over that underperformance. I do not normally attack public servants because they have difficulty responding, but I was not impressed by the leadership of the museum’s group before our meeting this week, and I was less impressed after it.

There is a serious question mark and I am not confident about leaving the fate of the National Media museum in Bradford in the hands of the leadership of that group, and that is in part because of the point raised by the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward). It is obvious that it leaked the potential closure of one or more of these three museums, which makes its position now—negotiating in public—much more difficult. When the Minister said, in that first sentence, that the museum in Bradford would not close, I could sense that sinking feeling on the part of the officials, as he shot their fox—just as, in a way, he shot mine, given that I had already applied for this debate. I believe the Minister. I agree with Nick, as they used to say—or, in this case, Ed. It is all very well these panjandrums of the culture industry sitting in London, in the Victoria and Albert, deciding which of their northern chess pieces they can dispose of, but it is Ministers who must decide, and it is Parliament, to whom Ministers are accountable, and democracy, to which we are all accountable, that really count.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) on securing it. I thank him for his kind comments about me at the beginning of the debate—I am sure they were very career-enhancing for me.

I have not worked closely with the hon. Member for Bradford West in the past, but I would echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said: I was expecting a potentially difficult meeting with the hon. Gentleman and I knew from his reputation that being savaged by him would not be akin to being savaged by a dead sheep, but something somewhat worse. I must say, however, that he has behaved in an entirely constructive fashion on this issue—and that, of course, goes for all the other hon. Members in the area. The hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) has been exceptionally helpful. I should also mention the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. It is also good to see in their places the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who represent one of the science museums in York.

It is clear that the hon. Member for Bradford West spoke for all his colleagues in the area, but they also made it clear, in their own interventions, that they believed passionately in the value of our museums and cared deeply about the museums that have their homes in the regions they represent. They spoke eloquently of the relationship between the national museum in Bradford and the people of that city. They paid tribute to the work of the museum in educating and engaging and contributing to the economies of the regions where they are based and in creating a focal point for inquiry and enjoyment. I share the concern expressed in recent weeks that any of these museums—in York, Manchester or Bradford—might be in danger, and I understand the strong feeling it has caused among all those who care about and benefit from everything that these museums do for us.

Ironically, the hon. Member for Bradford West called this debate the week after the national museum celebrated its 30th birthday, and it is worth reminding the House that the museum holds collections ranging from the earliest surviving photographic negative to John Logie Baird’s original television apparatus and the camera used to create the first moving images. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Bradford South said that he was sad that BBC Radio had left the museum, but it is also worth noting that the BBC recently gifted its collections of almost 1,000 historical objects to the museum as part of the BBC’s 90th anniversary celebrations. As Members have said, the media museum also hosts the Bradford international film festival, as well as animation and science festivals, and the BAFTA young designer event, which was streamed live over the web and marked 100 years of Indian cinema with a series of events, including appearances by Bollywood stars. These are good news stories and show the impact that the museum continues to have on the region, particularly Bradford.

As the hon. Member for Bradford West said, however, things have to change. I am not sure I necessarily agreed with his diagnosis. I would not change the leadership of the Science Museum Group. I have complete confidence in Ian Blatchford, its director, who took over about one year ago, and let us not forget that the leadership took over the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, which has seen visitor numbers increase by 30%. What I recognise, and what we must all recognise, is that attendances have fallen from a peak of nearly 1 million between 2000 and 2001 to just under half a million now. Educational visits are also declining while investment from the Science Museum Group has continued to rise.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the director of the Science Museum Group and I met the hon. Members who are in the Chamber tonight. It was clear from that meeting that there is huge support for the National Media museum, as well as the branches of the Science museum in Manchester and York. We agreed that further study was needed, and that a working group representing the Science Museum Group, MPs and Bradford city councillors should come together to look at supporting a sustainable future for the museum in Bradford. As the hon. Member for Bradford East so eloquently put it, this campaign has shown—we in this House know this, but it is worth saying—that MPs can be valuable. They can make a difference and bring constructive and useful ideas to the table. Above all, they can bring their communities together to look for constructive solutions. Again, I must emphasise how constructive everyone has been in this debate on what I think has been an unnecessary cause of concern for their communities.

These are challenging times. The only silver lining that I can think of from the past few weeks is that this has brought people together. It is important that the local council comes to the table and makes an important contribution to the future of the National Media museum. It was said at the meeting that the local council has its own strategy to promote science and technology to young people in Bradford. There, sitting in the middle of Bradford, is the National Media museum. It is part of the Science Museum Group, and has an opportunity and a remit to promote science and technology. I hold my hand up, too. As a Government who are promoting science and technology, we should recognise the huge opportunity that the presence of the National Media museum in Bradford offers us to further our agenda to promote science and technology among young people.

We have to consider a range of options. In the meeting, the idea of a five-year plan was discussed, which perhaps echoes the earlier reference to the brand of socialism favoured by the hon. Member for Bradford West. A five-year plan to turn around the National Media museum would be a brand of socialism that I would potentially sign up to. I think that is a point on which we are all agreed. I again echo the words of the hon. Gentleman: it is simply not good enough to have a sticking-plaster solution that keeps the doors open, saves face and gets people off our back. We must use this concern to look at all the opportunities that could present themselves for the National Media museum. For example, in November it will have an exhibition on the large hadron collider. The group continues to attract income through corporate activity and is looking to stage a range of live theatre-style events across all branches, including in Bradford.

It is important to talk about the spending review. In the last spending review, the Government protected our national museums so that they could continue to deliver free access to their important collections. The cut was limited to 15% in real terms over four years. Indeed, the grant in aid provided by the Government is conditional on the national museums providing free admission to their permanent collections. This has been a spectacularly successful policy. In my closing remarks in the entertaining debate that we have just had on the importance of the arts, I made the point that it is important to recognise the previous Government’s achievements, just as I hope the current Opposition will recognise this Government’s achievements.

There have been some further reductions to the original settlement of 2010, but taken overall they do not amount to the 25% cut that I have been hearing about recently. There has also been speculation that the outcome of the spending review for 2015-16 will deliver deep cuts to museums. We now know that in the overall settlement for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport the national museums will see resource grant funding reductions of just 5% in 2015-16. In the context of this spending round, that is a significant success story. There is absolutely no reason for any of the museums in the Science Museum Group to close because of funding levels.

Will the Minister now address my point about the capital programme? We are very worried about it. He has acknowledged that keeping the museum’s doors open but allowing it to crumble would be no use. Will he now put his money where his mouth is in that regard?

I am not yet in a position to say what the capital spend will be, following the spending review announcement that the Chancellor is due to make at the end of this month. At the risk of getting a savaging, I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but whatever the capital settlement might be, there are other opportunities, particularly through the Heritage Lottery Fund, which makes huge grants to our museums regularly. There are also opportunities to work with corporate partners, as the hon. Gentleman said earlier. It was made clear at the meeting that it is not simply a question of keeping the roof on the museum; it is also a question of reconfiguring the building in order to take in exciting touring exhibitions.

There was some talk of the group being transferred to the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Whether it transfers or not, will there be a possibility to access some of the BIS funding that exists for the promotion of science?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Science Museum Group will certainly stay within the DCMS family as part of the 13 national museums that we fund directly. His intervention gives me the opportunity to elaborate on a point that I made earlier. The Science museum is the most formidable organisation in this country for promoting science and technology in exciting ways to young people, so we must use it not only as a repository for a science collection that is unparalleled almost anywhere in the world, but as an opportunity to excite young people and the wider population and engage them with science. On the basis of that intervention and others, I will certainly undertake to sit down with the Science museum. There was a lot of talk earlier about joined-up government, and I take that point on board. I will sit down and discuss how my Department and others can work together to make use of the Science museum’s fantastic resources.

I pay tribute to the way in which all our national museums have coped with the difficulties that they have had with ongoing funding. We have done the best we can to limit the cuts in these difficult financial circumstances, and they have risen to the challenge. We have not been remiss in coming up with innovative ideas such as catalyst match funding with Arts Council England to support the creation of endowments and to help promote philanthropy.

On the point about capital funding, it is important to say that the regional branches of the Science Museum Group have received more than £1 million of support from the joint Wolfson Foundation-DCMS fund. Indeed, the National Railway museum recently received £100,000 for its station hall project. The joint Wolfson Foundation-DCMS capital fund will be getting a further £4 million for this funding programme in 2014. It is also important to note that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently said that he will grant our national museums the freedom to borrow and to set pay scales.

I shall conclude by thanking yet again the hon. Member for Bradford West, all his colleagues and my hon. Friends for their constructive approach to what has been a difficult two weeks for their communities. They have been concerned about the loss of a much-loved institution. Let us take what has happened and turn it to our advantage. Let us work together to transform the National Media museum into what it could and should be.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.