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National Gallery: Visitor Services

Volume 759: debated on Thursday 5 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the National Gallery’s decision to privatise their visitor services.

My Lords, the National Gallery is considering plans intended to preserve, enhance and extend the services it provides while enabling improved pay and conditions. The Government recognise that it is for the gallery, as an arm’s-length body, to decide on its staffing arrangements.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that another national museum said this week that it privatised its visitor services simply to save money? Is not the National Gallery’s intended privatisation to be of all gallery services—400 out of its 600 staff—with the loss in the long run of all the expertise that permanent staff bring? Is this not in fact a deep privatisation from the inside, enforced by the cuts and wholly against the public interest?

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Earl is right. This is designed precisely to ensure that the National Gallery is able to extend its opening times and enhance its revenue. The discussions that have been had under TUPE—the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations —are precisely to ensure that, on the transfer of staff, their terms and conditions are retained. There will be no redundancies.

My Lords, a few years ago the British Museum faced similar protests over plans to privatise support services. I declare an interest as a trustee of the museum. Would my noble friend the Minister agree that, far from damaging the museum, that seems to have enhanced what we do, as the visitor numbers and customer satisfaction surveys imply?

My Lords, this is precisely why almost all the senior and large museums and galleries in this country have gone along this path. There are no demons in this. It is all about enhancing the staff’s arrangements, including in part of the arrangement for the National Gallery to pay above the London living wage.

My Lords, if even the National Gallery, which is strongly placed to raise money from non-governmental sources, is driven to such last-resort cost-cutting and unable to maintain its planned programme of opening—and yesterday galleries were extensively closed because of industrial action—does the Minister, who cares about the arts, worry that his Government’s onslaught on the culture budget if it continues will usher in, literally, a new dark age?

The noble Lord knows very well that the creative industries across this land are in a very vibrant state and contribute hugely to our national economy. They are to be congratulated. I repeat: the National Gallery is one of the last galleries to undertake this process. I discussed this matter with other museums. This is a success story—and a success story for the staff concerned.

Are the Government considering allowing these changes to be made because they are dissatisfied in some way with the visitor service being provided at the moment, or is it done for ideological reasons?

My Lords, this is a matter for the National Gallery. It is not about an ideology but about securing a better future for the National Gallery and for more people to be able to visit this great institution at weekends and evenings. Yes, the gallery wants to increase its revenue stream. That should be applauded by everyone. However, this is about a success story and building upon it.

Is the Minister aware that in the past few years cuts to museums, according to the Museums Association, have been about 20%? They are being asked for more cuts in future. Will he follow the example of the Government of Wales in setting up a review to look at the impact of cuts on museums, particularly local museums, which face a perfect storm because of cuts in local authorities? In Wales, they are looking at how solutions can be found through raising additional money, but also they are aware of the substantial contribution museums make to the economic and social well-being of the community. Will the Minister not follow that example?

The noble Baroness spoke about finding other income streams; that is precisely what opening the galleries for longer and enabling more people to come is all about. Under this Government, £2 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the 15 sponsored museums and the British Library, and the Arts Council has funded, in grant in aid, £200 million towards the best of England’s regional museums. These are good stories in a very difficult economic climate. We have the highest growth rate in the G7. This is to be applauded and it needed to be done.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the directors and trustees of publicly funded museums for the very difficult work that they have to do, bearing in mind the current financial situation?

My Lords, I congratulate both those who run the museums and those who work in the museums. They are a key part of the partnership that makes those great institutions so vibrant, and we need to support them in trying to do the best for the institutions and their future.

My Lords, surely the point here is that organisations, regardless of whether they are public or private, need to pay the living wage and not use exploitative zero-hours contracts for their employees. Can the Minister assure the House that that is not the case with the proposals for the National Gallery? What else are the Government doing to outlaw exploitative zero-hours contracts and ensure that firms pay the living wage?

I can tell the noble Baroness that, under the National Gallery’s proposals, it was to pay above the London living wage and that there was no zero-hours contract arrangement.

My Lords, given that the staff at the National Gallery voted nine to one against the proposed changes on a 62% turnout, and given the concerns that have been raised about not paying the living wage in that institution, should not the staff’s grievances be listened to with the utmost seriousness?

My Lords, I think that all members of staff should have their concerns and grievances considered. I know that the National Gallery has been seeking to engage with ACAS and the union to ensure that sense prevails. Only 22% of all staff at the gallery voted in the strike ballot. Out of the 603 members of staff, 204 are members of the union.