Museum plans threatened by political uncertainty

Concern that tax relief and museums review could be delayed
Jonathan Knott
The political uncertainty resulting from the recent general election has raised concerns that government work impacting the museum sector could be delayed or even dropped altogether.

Alistair Brown, the policy officer for the Museums Association (MA), said that being forced to rule with a minority of MPs would lead to a more cautious approach from the Conservative government.

“We’re concerned that this might slow down the introduction of the Museums and Galleries Tax Relief and the Review of Museums in England,” said Brown.

The Finance Bill 2017 included provisions to allow tax relief for museums and galleries across the UK on new permanent, temporary and touring exhibitions. But the relevant clause was removed from the bill in May so it could be pushed through before the election.

At the time, the Treasury indicated that there had been no policy change and the government would legislate for the provisions at the earliest opportunity in the next parliament.

But Neil Adleman, a partner at Harbottle and Lewis LLP, which advises cultural organisations, said there was a chance the tax relief legislation could now be dropped.

“Given that the tax relief was an uncontentious element of the previous government’s legislative agenda and had already made it into a Finance Bill being considered by Parliament, hopefully it will now be legislated for,” said Adleman.

“However, we are in relatively uncharted waters and it may be that with a minority administration what are seen to be peripheral items such as this get dropped.”

It is understood that it is too soon after the election for the Treasury to provide any further update on the policy.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) took evidence for its Review of Museums in England last year, receiving 1600 online survey responses and 30 written submissions. DCMS did not respond to a request for comment on when it planned to publish the review.

Adleman said that the Queen’s speech should give us a first indication of the legislative agenda of the new government. The speech was due to take place on Monday 19 June, but it has been delayed for a few days, according to the BBC.

The Conservative Party is currently negotiating with the Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to gain support for its minority government. A widely reported Downing Street statement said that the DUP had agreed in principle to a “confidence and supply” arrangement that would see the DUP supporting key legislation like the budget, rather than joining a coalition.

The potential arrangement has sparked controversy, in part because of the DUP’s hardline social conservatism. In 2010, Nelson McCausland, then Northern Ireland’s minister for culture and a DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly, called on Ulster Museum to recognise creationism as an alternative view of the origin of the universe. His demands were branded “unacceptable” by the MA’s then director, Mark Taylor.

Theresa May’s weak position means that she has made few changes to her previous cabinet. Karen Bradley has been reappointed as the Culture Secretary.

Culture is a devolved policy area in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the election results will still impact the cultural sector in these nations by changing their political situation.

Jonathan Powell, the Labour government’s chief negotiator on Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, has expressed concerns that the planned Conservative and DUP alliance could destabilise the power sharing arrangement between unionists and nationalists in the country by compromising the UK government’s role as an impartial mediator. The devolved government in Stormont has been suspended since January following a financial scandal, and the nation’s political leaders have not yet reached an agreement on forming an executive following elections in March.

In Scotland the SNP lost 21 seats while Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all made gains. The SNP remains the largest party in the country, with 35 constituencies. Following the result Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, called for a second independence referendum to be taken “off the table”. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that she would “reflect carefully” on the result.

In Wales, Labour strengthened its already dominant position, gaining three seats while the Conservatives lost three. Labour also leads the devolved Welsh administration, which recently refused to rule out a merger between Amgueddfa Cymru and the historic environment body Cadw – an option opposed by the MA and other organisations.

Many believe that the election result is also likely to lead to a softer Brexit than the version previously promoted by the government – an outcome that would please the cultural sector.

Alistair Brown said that the government’s failure to gain a majority of MPs meant that there was more uncertainty about its ability to deliver controversial legislation.

“Hopefully this will mean that the government takes a more consensual approach to Brexit, taking into account the concerns that we and many other sectors have raised about freedom of movement and regulatory change,” said Brown.

John Kampfner, the chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation, said that the election result made clear that there was no mandate for a hard Brexit, and that his organisation would argue for a rethink.

“Federation members were 96% in favour of remaining in the EU when surveyed before the referendum,” said Kampfner. “They saw Brexit is a threat to the continued success of the creative industries, damaging growth and the UK’s global outlook. This general election vote now offers the opportunity to look at the issue again.

“The Federation will push for the UK to remain in the single market and the customs union and against undue restrictions on free movement, which we know will damage the capacity of the creative industries to deliver. Non-UK EU nationals are an important part of the creative economy.”

Kampfner added: “It remains vital we secure the best possible deal for the sector during what will be a turbulent period of political and constitutional change.”