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Museums, Libraries and Archives Council

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what role they played in the proposed move of the Export Licensing Unit of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to Birmingham.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as the remunerated president of the British Art Market Federation.

My Lords, following government reviews of public sector efficiency, including consideration of the benefits of relocating posts outside London and the south-east, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council agreed to reduce its posts in London to 25. The decision on which posts to relocate was taken by the MLA board.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Is he aware that the DCMS in 2005 wrote to interested parties to say that the Export Licensing Unit would co-locate with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council somewhere within the capital from 2006? Is this move to Birmingham consistent with that undertaking?

Secondly, why is this move to Birmingham happening before the DCMS and the MLA have fulfilled their agreed obligation to introduce an electronic licence application form?

My Lords, the agreement was from 2006, and that was, of course, honoured. This decision relates to this year and hereafter. The board processes within five days 95 per cent of all applications that it receives. It is quite confident that it can meet the same levels of efficiency with the relocation to Birmingham. The relocation is part of that broader strategy on which the board took its decision.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that Birmingham is, in fact, within the civilised world? Does he agree that the physical location of the unit would hardly matter if the processing of export licences for cultural objects could be transacted electronically? Is it still intended to pursue that possibility following the earlier pilot scheme? Meanwhile, can my noble friend assure the House that the officials responsible for the acceptance of the in lieu scheme, which is so important for the enhancement of our public collections, will be enabled to stay closely in touch with the art market in London?

My Lords, I can be quite categorical on the last point and of course that is the intention of the unit. On the earlier points, I can confirm that Birmingham is a short distance from London. Of course, things will be effected more efficiently if we moved into the electronic age. The cost is £750,000, which is not a negligible cost. The suggestion from the MLA is that those who benefit from the process could usefully make a contribution to that and the suggestion has been made that it might look at this matter. Those discussions will continue. The Government are not prepared—nor is the board prepared from its budget—to sustain the full costs of going electronic. Meanwhile, I emphasise that the turnaround on licences is very rapid and very efficient. Some licences will continue to be issued, and requests responded to, on the same day.

My Lords, on the question of turnaround, could the Minister comment on the fact that the art market seems to be so anxious? I understand that, at the moment, almost all of these documents are handled and turned around within five days—and a very high proportion of them within 24 hours. Is the Minister satisfied that that will continue to be achieved when the move to Birmingham is made?

My Lords, I can be absolutely categorical about that. I think the outstanding anxiety is where those licences are required within 24 hours—the same day—and this is the case in fewer than 1 per cent of cases. In those exceptional cases, it is anticipated that the office in Birmingham will be able to offer a service—while certainly a few hours longer than one based in London under any courier system—which will cope with same-day issuing.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the main reason why this move to the city of Birmingham was made is that it has one of the finest museums and art galleries in the country, and because it has more canals than Venice, which do not smell as bad?

My Lords, no, I cannot confirm that. The decision had nothing to do with the merits of Birmingham as the centre for the arts, although I am pleased, of course, to second the proposition that my noble friend has put forward about the glories of Birmingham. I recall that Birmingham art gallery was one of my earliest educational institutions.

My Lords, it will save money in due course, although I emphasise this: the move recommended by the Lyons report is not based on saving money but on a fairer sharing of the jobs in public employment.

My Lords, is it not good to send a message that London does not have—and should not have—a monopoly on all things cultural? Is it not even more important to ensure that money is spent on the service, rather than on a centralised quango, wherever it is located?

My Lords, as I have indicated, this decision is not really about culture or the arts in that sense; it is about a licensing system. Therefore, this is rather a straightforward bureaucratic exercise. Those have been the priorities and the criteria attached to it. However, I am happy, of course, to agree with the noble Baroness that we have a rich distribution of the arts in the United Kingdom, and we should value that.

My Lords, if the Minister is concerned about the cost of going electronic, why is the quango spending £400,000 on moving its centre away from where most of its activity takes place?

My Lords, that is because it meets other criteria, which I have identified. Also, costs will be reduced in the longer term. I have merely identified in the £750,000 the one obvious and straightforward way in which the service could be made even more efficient than it is—although it is highly efficient and is a source of very little in the way of criticism. It could be made more efficient with this extra deployment of resources, but the House might think it fair that the art industry and those concerned with this exercise, as well as the public purse, should make their contribution.