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Wedgwood Museum

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 14 February 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to legislate, in the light of the Wedgwood Museum case, to prevent the “last man standing” rule applying to the assets of charitable museums and other charities.

My Lords, the Government have reviewed this case carefully and believe that it would be inappropriate not to apply this rule to charities. Charities should have the freedom to choose pension schemes that suit their needs. These arrangements can be a useful way of managing liabilities and we would not want to restrict this option for charities. We welcome this opportunity to emphasise that charities should seek appropriate advice before making pension arrangements.

My Lords, when the Wedgwood collection has been shortlisted as one of the top 20 cultural assets in the UK, I suggest that it is inconceivable that it should be left to be sold off. What proposals do the Government have for rescuing the collection? Secondly, with regard to charities, the DWP had a consultation last year that recognised the problems with both Section 25 and the “last man standing” rule. A further consultation was promised for this year. When will it start?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Flight that one hopes that the Wedgwood collection would not be sold off. I assure him that the Government have had several meetings with the honourable Member for Stoke, Mr Tristram Hunt, and several other people concerned to find the most effective way to save this very valuable collection, which has been nominated by UNESCO as one of the 20 most valuable sites in the UK. Regarding the final meeting, meetings are taking place at the moment, and I will update your Lordships’ House as they go on.

My Lords, should we not be cautious about reaching conclusions until we have seen the full written judgment? We will then know whether the predicament of the Wedgwood Museum has arisen because pensions legislation was poorly drafted and scrutinised or, perhaps, because the trustees of the museum were poorly advised when they could have placed the collection securely in trust and beyond the reach of the Pension Protection Fund. Meanwhile, I express unreserved appreciation for the way in which the Minister, Ed Vaizey, has kept watch over the whole situation in regard to the Wedgwood Museum, and helped to bring people together so that they can develop plans for the museum’s archive and collection to be properly preserved for the benefit of the nation. Finally, will the noble Baroness, who is playing such a valuable role in this, ensure that the Minton Archive is not overlooked?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has touched on very important points. One is right to be cautious until we get the written judgment, which should come through soon. A difficult situation applied when the trustees were advised. I totally agree with the noble Lord that the Minister, Ed Vaizey, has held several meetings on this matter and has become very involved. The Government have good will in all this and will do all that they possibly can. The Minton archive is very important and is arguably the greatest industrial archive of its kind. I can assure the noble Lord that it has certainly not been forgotten. It is now the property of WWRD UK, the new owners of the Wedgwood Group. The Minister for Culture has spoken to them about this matter. The archive is still safely in storage in Bonhams, which is awaiting a resolution on the future of the Wedgwood collection and the museum before taking any decision about its future.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that it is time that the Government took more control of the Wedgwood situation and, indeed, bought the collection? Appeal is in this sense irrelevant. It could be called the National Wedgwood Museum. As such, it would be a huge asset to Britain and a tremendous boost to Stoke-on-Trent. Surely for £14 million or thereabouts, this ought to be a no-brainer.

As the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, mentioned, this museum is terribly important for the Stoke area and the Potteries. As regards the valuation that he mentioned, DCMS is working on that with the protection fund but we still do not know what it will be. We hope that there will be a fundraising campaign and the collection will be saved sooner rather than later.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that besides the unique ceramics collections there is also a data archive dating back 250 years of the Wedgwood and Darwin letters, which have great scientific significance? Does she not agree that it is something of a quirk that a quirk of law relating to the financial sector should require us to sacrifice this icon of our industrial heritage?

My noble friend makes a very good point. The archives and the whole collection constitute a most remarkable collection that has been donated by the family over many years. It would be a disaster should it be sold. The protection fund is a very complicated fund which the Government are looking at in great detail. I will not go into all the details of the pension scheme now but I will write to her with those details.

My Lords, may I pursue the whole issue of the “last man standing” legislation with the noble Baroness? I understand that, following the DWP’s review of this policy, it was agreed that there would be a further review. However, I gathered from what the noble Baroness was saying just now that this is not the case. Will she confirm whether this matter is under review, because it seems to noble Lords around the House that it is being used and implemented in a way that was never foreseen, is causing charities—not just the Wedgwood Museum but other charities—considerable concern and disquiet, and has consequences for unemployment in the area as well? Therefore, will the noble Baroness clarify the status of the “last man standing” legislation?

With pleasure, my Lords. We understand that the Wedgwood pension scheme operated on the basis that if any participating employers became insolvent or otherwise stopped sponsoring the scheme, responsibility for the pension scheme fell to the remaining employers. This is what is meant by the “last man standing” rule. As a result, the company of the Wedgwood pension scheme—the museum—became liable for its pensions shortfall. We are awaiting the judgment from the Attorney-General. Then it will be decided where we go to from there.