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National Trust Acts

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020


Asked by

My Lords, the National Trust is independent of the Government. Its activities are overseen by its board, the Charity Commission is the regulator and the scope of its work is set out in legislation. While it would be possible for the Government to review the National Trust Acts, we do not believe that it would be a proportionate approach at this time. In the first instance, the trust should be accountable for its activities to the Charity Commission as the trust’s regulator.

My Lords, the trust’s director of volunteering recently declared:

“At the National Trust we have a duty to play a part in creating a fairer, more equitable society”.

Is that compatible with the statutes under which the trust operates? Was it not an act of folly for the trust to rush out a tendentious report on slavery and colonialism —insulting the memory of Sir Winston Churchill in the process—in order to demonstrate its good will to a movement that is interested not in securing a deeper, more accurate understanding of colonialism and the past, but only in advancing an extremist political agenda in the present? Unless it changes course, is there not a danger that this important institution, admired by so many for so long, will forfeit the nation’s trust?

I agree with my noble friend that the National Trust plays a unique part in our society, with over 5.5 million members. Our position on all charities, including the National Trust, is that they must pursue their primary charitable purpose, which, in the case of the National Trust, is to protect and preserve our heritage for the nation.

It is to that last point that I draw noble friend’s attention. This is a much-loved institution, of which many of my close family and my parents have been members—I confess that I have not, but I have visited endless historic house and walked innumerable miles over the coastland and moorland that the trust looks after so well. Indeed, I contributed to Project Neptune half a century ago. I applaud Hilary McGrady, who opened up Divis Mountain, where I watched birds many years ago, looking down on the drab housing estates of west Belfast, but something has gone badly wrong. Why are curators of real expertise being sacked? Yet we now have a curator of repurposing historic houses; it is an infantilisation of going round these houses. Will the Minister let us have a look at the Acts, which have allowed the director-general to be paid nearly £200,000 a year while pursuing an agenda that seems out of tune with the fundamental purpose?

As I said in my opening remarks, the National Trust is an independent charity, and rightly so. It is therefore the responsibility of its trustees and council to oversee some of the points that my noble friend raised.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in order to approach equality—it is not just Black Lives Matter that is of importance—we should keep some of the small venues open; after all, we are not just a nation of mansions. I take the Minister’s initial point, but I know that the finances have meant that some of these smaller places are threatened. On Black Lives Matter, I feel completely that it is a question of presenting the facts and letting visitors decide for themselves. There should be no opinion or political aspect to that whatever.

On the noble Lord’s last point, the Government agree. Our position has been to retain and explain houses, statues and other artefacts that represent our history. If I understood the earlier part of his question correctly, in relation to smaller properties, my understanding is that the National Trust currently has no plans to permanently close any properties or to reduce its commitment to the houses within its care.

Will the Minister acknowledge that the report commissioned by the National Trust that has been referred to simply sought to audit its collections in a non-judgmental way, so that it can better provide contextual information to those viewing the collections? Will she confirm that she is aware that the National Trust has lost in excess of £200 million in income this year as a result of Covid? The National Trust is the backbone of the tourism industry, which will be important in national post-Covid recovery. What will the Government do to support heritage charities, large and small, to do that important job as part of the national recovery?

That may well have been the intention: I do not doubt for a second that the National Trust was intending to audit its houses, but our view is that the way in which it was done was unfortunate. While the trust may not have intended to cause offence, the feedback from members and parliamentarians suggests that it did.

My Lords, the National Trust has fulfilled its charitable objectives over many decades. The country has benefited both from the preservation of cultural heritage and from the nature and beauty of its open spaces. Two of the greatest challenges of our age are tackling climate change and dementia. Will the Minister confirm that the National Trust agreement with the Alzheimer’s Society to make its places dementia-friendly and its zero-emissions target of 2030 are great steps forward?

I was not aware of the specific initiative with the Alzheimer’s Society to which the noble Baroness refers, but I am happy to share her positive remarks in relation to both things.

I am an enthusiastic member of the National Trust and I was delighted that it spent £7 million at Chartwell on the legacy of Churchill. Surely the Minister will agree that a mature debate on our nation’s history that recognises the complex backgrounds of our lands, our country houses and our statues can only be good for understanding the real history of the whole of our country.

Those views were set out clearly by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State when he wrote to all arm’s-length bodies earlier this year and talked about history being “ridden with moral complexity” and the need to understand that. The question in this case is about the primary charitable purpose that the National Trust is pursuing.

My Lords, the National Trust has become something of a national monopoly, at least in the country house market, largely due to the very large endowment of properties to it by the state over the years in lieu of tax. Will my noble friend agree to undertake an assessment of the benefits that might accrue from splitting it into two or more organisations, with a view to encouraging competition and increasing the variety of visitor experience, which I think I can fairly say has become rather samey?

I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend, but we have no plans currently to do such a review. The National Trust conducts its own governance review every 10 years and any external review of its activities should be left to the Charity Commission.

I shall take a different angle on the National Trust. I have been approached by people who live in National Trust properties and I know that there are all sorts of plans to modernise the relationships between staff and the tied cottages. In places, these relationships are medieval—very much like the buildings —Victorian or Edwardian. I would like to see a change to the Acts so that we can make sure that the trust is carrying out its social duty for social justice and we do not allow a situation where the tenants are living in the past while the big landlord, the National Trust, is riding high on the hog.

The noble Lord makes an interesting point. I hope that the trustees of the National Trust will read Hansard and pick up on his remarks.