Covid-19: Museums, Galleries and Historic Buildings

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Thursday 21st May 2020

(4 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Hansard Text
Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Cormack for securing this important and fascinating debate. It has highlighted the breadth and vibrancy of the UK’s museum and heritage sectors, and their diversity, referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Mandelson, Lord Janvrin, Lord Truscott and Lord Shutt, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, my noble friend Lord Holmes, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. These are areas of which we are all rightly proud, but your Lordships’ speeches also highlighted the complexity of this sector. Our cultural institutions, large and small, have played a critical part in conservation, education—as the noble Lord, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, highlighted—and, crucially, the well-being of our citizens, as put eloquently by the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port and Lord Low of Dalston.

Even though the physical sites have been closed, our great museum and heritage sectors have continued to play important community roles, bringing people together for learning, enjoyment and inspiration. During World War II the National Gallery was open for lunchtime concerts, even though the collection had been taken to Wales for safe keeping. Today it is providing lessons online for schoolchildren and giving us all the opportunity to study paintings from the collection. I say “all” although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and my noble friend Lady Eaton highlighted, it is of course not all for those who do not have access to the internet. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also highlighted the importance of this.

So whether it is the Royal Academy’s daily doodle, this week’s resources from English Heritage about Dunkirk, the #MuseumsUnlocked hashtag or the opportunity to curate one’s own collection through Art UK, the sector has shown extraordinary agility in responding to the unprecedented challenges of Covid-19, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for remarking on this. I am sure all noble Lords share my hope that this will encourage a new generation to feel interested and confident in exploring the arts in future.

I acknowledge the generosity of lenders and artists who have extended their loans so that at some point we can enjoy them all in person. However, as we have heard, although the opportunities that the digital world can create are extraordinary, they do not replace the physical world and the opportunity to visit our institutions in person.

We also know, as outlined by the noble Lords, Lord Liddle and Lord McNicol, my noble friend Lord Kirkham, the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of Cradley and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, and of course my noble friend Lord Cormack, that these sectors have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19 and some face immediate risks to their viability. Ironically, it is those that have been the most entrepreneurial in generating commercial income—whether through events, as highlighted by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, through expanding membership, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord German, or in other ways, as highlighted by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews—that are being hit particularly hard. So, while our immediate national priority is containing the spread of the virus, as soon as it is safe to do so we will be encouraging people to visit these attractions once again.

On 11 May the Government published the road map setting out how we expect organisations such as museums, galleries and historic sites to open back up and welcome visitors again. Noble Lords asked a number of detailed questions about the timing and process for this and how it will work in practice. I think those are best answered in writing, so I will send noble Lords a letter, which I will also place in the Library, and I will discuss the points that they have raised with colleagues in the department.

Supporting the cultural and heritage sector falls into three parts. First, Ministers and officials have been liaising closely with leaders and sector bodies to understand the full impact of the pandemic. My department always works closely with its arm’s-length bodies, both public-facing institutions and funding bodies, and we work closely with organisations that represent museums and heritage and the professionals who work in them.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, this engagement has been stepped up considerably to understand the impact of the pandemic and the measures that the Government have taken to fight it. While I hear the concerns of the National Trust, I stress that Ministers and officials are focused on this engagement and on understanding exactly what support museums and heritage organisations need, and how best to get it to them.

Beyond communication, the second plank of our approach is to offer financial support to the sector. DCMS itself directly sponsors 15 museums and galleries, as well as seven heritage organisations. We will continue to protect this cultural heritage in a wide range of ways. We have created sector-specific support. Arts Council England launched a £160 million emergency funding package, much of which is being or is about to be distributed as we speak. In response to a question from my noble friend Lady Hooper, this applies to regional national portfolio organisations, as well as those in London. Every effort is being made to get this funding out as quickly as possible.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund has launched the £50 million heritage emergency fund, and Historic England launched a £2 million emergency fund, which includes scope to support the expert crafts men and women to which noble Lords referred. That is over £200 million of emergency support especially for culture and heritage. This emergency short-term funding will help address pressures over the next three to six months for those organisations in most immediate need. Most recently, the National Lottery Heritage Fund also released a strategic interventions fund, with awards of up to £250,000 for the most important and at-risk institutions.

As your Lordships are aware, the Government have also announced unprecedented support for business and workers to protect them against the current economic emergency. This includes the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and VAT payment deferrals. The Chancellor also announced the Bounce Back Loan Scheme to help small businesses access loans of up to £50,000, with 100% government backing for lenders. The Government continue to monitor the impact of these and other measures, including those relating to self-employed people, as raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bull and Lady Quin.

We know that the job retention scheme, in particular, has been a real lifeline for these sectors, with the majority of organisations taking advantage of it. As noble Lords are aware, last week the Chancellor announced that the scheme would be extended to take it through to October. But the Government recognise that the museums and heritage sectors have a particular business model, which includes fixed costs for security and maintenance as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and others. We are working hard to minimise the impact of this.

A number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Kirkhope and Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, mentioned the role of philanthropy and asked what work the Government are doing in liaising with the Treasury and philanthropists. I reassure them that my honourable friend the Minister for Culture recently held a round table with foundations and philanthropists. We are actively exploring this area, as well as all the fiscal measures around VAT mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, and my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Duncan—although I cannot reassure the latter that this relates specifically to dinosaurs, as it is possibly broader. All these things are being actively explored.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking talked about the risk of particular museums being in serious financial difficulty. As a department, we are keen to hear about this and would encourage any museum or gallery to come forward as early as possible to talk to the relevant sector body.

A number of noble Lords raised the important issue of churches. Your Lordships will be aware that the Taylor review published in December 2017 presented a new model to try to ensure the continued sustainability of our churches, which are such an important part of our national heritage. This is being tested through a pilot scheme, the outcome of which will be published this summer.

The third plank of our approach, which the Secretary of State announced yesterday, is the establishment of a cultural renewal task force led by Neil Mendoza, who has also been appointed as cultural commissioner. The noble Lords, Lord Faulkner and Lord Wood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, challenged the Government about the scale of our ambition and the speed of our response. I hope that this gives a sense of the scale of it, and of the importance that we place on these sectors. On timing, the first meeting of the group will be tomorrow and, thereafter, on a weekly basis. A number of sub-groups are supporting this work; I will raise the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, in relation to them. Obviously, in the early stages, the task force will focus on ensuring that Covid-19 secure guidelines for our sectors are developed in a way that works for these sectors. In the longer term, it will also play a crucial role in supporting museums, galleries and the heritage sectors to emerge from this crisis and thrive in the way that we would all wish.

A number of noble Lords—the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, my noble friends Lady Rawlings and Lord Crathorne and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton—raised the issue of gardens and their opening, particularly those attached to historic houses. We are working very closely with the sector on that. We are aware of the issue and trying to progress it as quickly as we can.

Noble Lords have raised many important challenges in this short debate. I fear that I have not had time to do justice to them all, but I will aim to do so through a letter to your Lordships. Your Lordships have absolutely demonstrated the importance of our cultural institutions in our national life. The Government remain deeply committed to supporting their re-emergence from the pandemic, physically and digitally. We want to ensure that everyone, no matter their background or geographic location, can experience and enjoy our brilliant collections; and benefit from all that our national and regional culture, in all their diversity, can bring. As the famous collector Gertrude Stein once said:

“When in a museum, walk slowly but keep walking.”


I am sure that your Lordships will join me in looking forward to being back, not just in our museums, but in our galleries, gardens and historic buildings, as soon as it is safe to do so.

Viscount Ullswater Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Viscount Ullswater) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, our Virtual Proceedings are now adjourned until a convenient point after 5.45 pm.