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Wedgwood Museum

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will take steps to ensure that the Wedgwood Museum and its collection will be protected for future generations.

My Lords, over the past 12 months the Government have provided expertise, advice and funding to support the Wedgwood museum through a challenging time. The Charity Commission has now given consent to allow court proceedings to determine whether the Wedgwood collection should be available to an administrator. The Government will await the court’s decision before considering further steps.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that it is entirely wrong, and not a little crazy, that the future of the magnificent and historic Wedgwood collection—a true national treasure—is threatened by the possibility of a massive debt not to a private company but to a non-departmental government body, the Pension Protection Fund? Have the Government plans to safeguard the collection so that it can remain in its award-winning museum in the heart of the Potteries? Will the Government take steps to ensure that, whatever the outcome of next year’s court case, no other collection can be so threatened?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, who has tirelessly campaigned on this issue. We hope that museums will learn from this case and make certain that collections held in trust have legal protection to safeguard their objects. The court will determine whether the collection is available to an administrator and is put up for sale. DCMS will attempt to secure the collection for the nation. As the noble Earl said, clearly this is an extraordinary case. DCMS has helped all along, but it cannot provide further funding.

I declare an interest as a previous Bishop of Stafford with responsibility for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Does the Minister recognise that the museum is not only one of the finest ceramic collections in the world—begun by the great, farsighted and humane Josiah himself—but a repository and a monument to the craftsmanship and the labour of Potteries people over two-and-a-half centuries and vital for the self-respect of people in those parts? Can she give an assurance that, if by any chance the court’s judgment in January goes against the trustees and in favour of the PPF, her department will do everything possible to ensure a stay of execution, so that there is no rapid dismemberment and selling off, in order that a means can be found to hold the collection as a single entity in north Staffordshire?

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester is absolutely right that the collection is outstanding. DCMS has been in conversations and has provided money—and is continuing to do so—because the collection is for the whole of the area of Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries. We realise that this is an extraordinary situation that has unfortunately come about—under the new Act of, I think, 2008—because of the pension fund.

Would it not be grotesque if the Wedgwood archive, which is so extraordinarily important for our country’s industrial heritage, were broken up, destroyed and sold to raise no more than a small fraction of the deficit in the Waterford Wedgwood pension scheme? While we hope that the court will rule in this case that the collection is inviolate and thus enable the collection to remain as and where it is in the Potteries, will the Minister please say what the Government will do to put in place a regime that will ensure that there is reliable protection in the future for nationally designated museum collections?

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has been involved with this for a long time. We have discussed this and he is absolutely right that the Government cannot influence what the court will take into account. The administrator is currently in control of the museum’s operations and will present the case to the court with evidence from the trustees. We hope that the trustees will be able to put their view to the court as part of the evidence. Timings are difficult, but the noble Lord is right that the museum trust is currently liable under the new pension law for the pension debts of around £60,000. That is tiny compared to the liability of £134 million.

On a slightly wider point, can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the £1.3 million of funding that is going directly to the British Museum to run the portable antiquities scheme will be ring-fenced?

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter. It will be ring-fenced. The £1.3 million given to the British Museum is very important. I thank her for that question.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge the overarching responsibility of the department to preserve for the nation not only the important collection at the Wedgwood museum but those of a number of other specialist and iconic museums, such as the Geffrye museum, the Horniman museum and the Design Museum, which are currently under threat from cuts in her department?