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Lisbon: Lapa Palace

Volume 764: debated on Monday 20 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what information they have on the whereabouts of the historic Portuguese tiles from the British Residence in Lisbon after its former premises were sold in 2003.

My Lords, the former British ambassador’s residence known as Lapa Palace, which was sold in 2008, contains fine examples of traditional Portuguese azulejos tiles. These were included in the sale and are still in place in the house.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend the Minister for all the trouble he has taken to find these historic tiles and for his satisfactory Answer. These tiles are important. They are part of our heritage, having been installed for Her Majesty the Queen’s state visit in 1957 to commemorate the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373. This is the oldest active treaty in the world today. Will the Minister see whether the Foreign Office will ask the present owner’s permission for these very special tiles to be officially documented and, in the future, to be viewed on request?

My Lords, the tiles have been documented at pages 75 to 78 of Appendix B of The Residence of the British Ambassador at Lisbon by TA Bull, published by the British Historical Society of Portugal in 1995, plus there is a selection of photographs by former Ambassador Stephen Wall. I can tell my noble friend that in December 2014 the British ambassador visited the property and was able to view the tiles, which she found to be in good repair and condition.

My Lords, the Treasury, which has an institutional blind spot about the value of soft power and culture, has for decades been bullying the Foreign Office to get rid of its fine buildings around the world. Can we have an assurance that the Chancellor will not, in his obsessive and indiscriminate cheese-paring, flog off our embassy in Paris, the residence in Vienna and indeed the Government Art Collection?

My Lords, as the noble Lord is no doubt aware, there are 38 designated residences that require the permission of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary before they can possibly be sold. The Lapa Palace was the last one to be sold. Two others are under consideration—Geneva and Cape Town, the latter because it is occupied for only two months of the year and Geneva because it is not best positioned.

My Lords, will the noble Earl give us an assurance that in future when this type of event occurs, the Government will publish what has happened so that there is no confusion?

My Lords, our heads of mission must certify annually that all Government Art Collection artwork, as well as antiques and other art, are present, in good order and properly recorded on an internal database. I recommend to the noble Lord the Government Art Collection website, where he will be able to pinpoint exactly where all the works of art are.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that civil servants appear to have a list of things to place on new Ministers’ desks as soon as they arrive, which reflects their own enthusiasm. Indeed, when I first arrived at the Treasury, I immediately got a proposal to sell off the French, American and Italian embassies, which I turned down.

I do not think so. My noble friend, with his great experience, informs the House of what happened a number of years ago. I assure him that, as I said earlier, any decisions or requests to sell any of these designated residences would have to go over the desk of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that during my time as head of the Diplomatic Service there was a proposal from the Treasury that we should sell the British ambassador’s residence in Tokyo? We were able to persuade the Treasury that this would not be a sensible idea, since it had been a gift from the former Emperor of Japan in exchange for a peppercorn rent.

In the year in which we are celebrating our great victory at Waterloo, my attention has been drawn to the fact that we also have a responsibility to ensure that the extraordinary campaign waged by Lord Wellington in Portugal in the preceding years to that also should be celebrated. Yet when I visited Portugal only a couple of years ago I discovered that all the work that has been done there and all the activities in support of commemorating our great joint venture to defeat the French is actually being funded by the EU and small countries outside the normal range. I wonder whether Her Majesty’s Government might consider putting more money into celebrating these great victories.

Last week there was an event in the Royal Gallery in your Lordships’ House concerning the Waterloo victory and at which the present Duke of Wellington was present. However, I take note of what the noble Lord said.

My Lords, when I became Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1979, this was one of my delegated responsibilities under Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, and I thought that it was absolutely ridiculous to waste all this time on all this nonsense. I am glad to say that I was successful in persuading the present Lord Howe that this system should be changed and we should just cut the Foreign Office budget and leave it to decide how it is going to meet it.

Will my noble friend ensure that the Government are a little careful in taking that precedent? Would he not agree with me that a British embassy and its contents should represent the best of what is British?

The noble Lord is quite right. It is very important that these residences reflect the importance of the British ambassador in these various countries.