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Victoria And Albert Museum

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2001

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2.45 p.m.

Whether it was appropriate for the trustees of the Victoria and Albert museum to announce to the press the appointment of a new director without first informing the present director and before the appointment had been confirmed by the Prime Minister.

My Lords, the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum have acted wholly appropriately in this matter. At no time before receipt of the Prime Minister's approval did the trustees make an announcement about the new director. An error, not committed by the trustees, resulted in the name of the new director becoming known to museum staff and the press. The current director knew that, at the expiry of his five-year term, he would be succeeded at the end of an extended term running until his 60th birthday. The recruitment campaign for his successor was also public knowledge.

My Lords, I should first declare an interest, in that the present director, Dr Borg, is a friend of mine. I thank the Minister for that Answer, but I should like to press him as regards this error. Does he think that it is right that a public body—that is, the chairman and trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum—should send, without thought, an open fax to the museum giving the name of the new director before informing the present incumbent? He learned the name of his successor from his staff. Surely that is not the behaviour that we expect from a public body. The chairman and trustees should be censured. The matter demonstrates the height of discourtesy. To describe this as a mere error made at the end of a long professional career is not something that I have ever seen happen before.

My Lords, I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, has thought fit to ask that question. I shall answer it. The error occurred because a fax sent from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which concerned the subject of the press release and included the name of the new director, was sent to Dr Borg himself. It was sent to him in error instead of the person to whom it was intended to be sent. It was sent to no one else. Subsequent to that, the name of the new director became known to museum staff and the press.

My Lords, as someone who has worked very closely with the present director, Dr Borg, when he was director-general of the Imperial War Museum—I had the highest opinion of him—does the Minister agree that, whatever interpretation is put on this rather odd sequence of events, it reflects the extremely cavalier way in which this very distinguished public servant has been treated by the trustees and, to some extent, by the department?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble and gallant Lord on the distinguished service given by Dr Borg. During his time as the director of the V&A he has overseen a number of successes. Recent highlights include the development of new audiences through critically acclaimed exhibitions such as the art of the Sikh kingdom last year, the introduction of an experimental contemporary programme, the opening of the new Canon photography gallery, the £31 million refurbishment of the British galleries, which will be completed and the galleries reopened by November of this year, along with others. So far as concerns that point, I go along entirely with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. However, my answer has made it clear that Dr Borg has not been treated in a cavalier manner.

My Lords, is not the noble Lord in danger of defending the indefensible here? A great deal of ill feeling, disappointment and hurt have been generated by this series of events. Does the noble Lord agree that, in the circumstances, it would be sensible if Ministers, when appointing chairmen—in this case it was the Prime Minister—were to be careful and to advise the chairmen whom they appoint to behave towards those who serve them in a manner reflecting a high degree of courtesy and concern?

My Lords, I wholly reject both the implicit and the explicit criticisms made in the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us why it took so long to decide this appointment? Surely the little spat taking place in the Chamber this afternoon might not have taken place had it not been for the fact that it took eight months to reach a decision. Can the Minister confirm whether it was the decision itself or the approval of the decision which took so long?

My Lords, no delay occurred in the approval of the decision. The recruitment process was conducted entirely properly. Interviews for the post were held in two stages: the first interviews of seven candidates were conducted in December; second interviews of four of those candidates were conducted in January 2001. This process was carried out after public advertisement of the post and the appointment of recruitment consultants. This is not a quick process, but it is a correct process.

My Lords, I have taken an interest in the process since before the events just described by the Minister because I, too, am a friend of Dr Borg. May I ask how it was that the intention that his contract should not be renewed beyond his 60th birthday became public knowledge so very far in advance of that event? Has this not in fact reduced his ability to run the establishment even more effectively than the noble Lord has already rightly outlined?

My Lords, there was no question of Dr Borg's contract of appointment being renewed beyond his 60th birthday. His five-year contract expired in autumn 2000. At that time he was informed that his contract would be extended until January 2002, which would coincide with his 60th birthday. That had to become public knowledge because action had to be taken to recruit his successor.