By Lord Flight - 14th February 2012
Lord Flight calls on the government to rescue the Wedgwood Museum Collection and to review the 'last man standing' rule which forces charities to sell off these treasured collections.
As a result of the “last man standing” rule, the recent High Court judgement has confirmed that the Pension Protection Fund must sell off the Wedgwood Museum collection to help pay off the £134 million Waterford Wedgwood Pension Scheme deficit. The point being that the Museum had employed a couple of people who were members of the Company Pension Scheme.
First of all, I believe it inconceivable that the government could allow the Wedgwood Museum Collection to be thus broken up and sold off when UNESCO has short-listed it as one of the world’s Top 20 Cultural Assets. The Government should not presume that the public or a wealthy benefactor will come to the rescue when the cause of the problem is unintended results of Government legislation. The Attorney General could appeal the High Court’s decision but I think this unlikely – as the High Court Judge commented, it was unfortunate that his judgement was the correct interpretation of the law. I will, therefore, be asking in Question Time at the Lords on 14th February, what proposals the Government have to rescue the collection. The Earl of Clancarty has also tabled a Written Question asking the Government what action they are taking to ensure the Wedgwood Collection and Museum are protected.
The “last man standing” issue, and other aspects of Section 75, have become a huge issue for charities more widely. The PPF have advised me that there are a number of charities which have gone into administration already as a result of the “last man standing” rule. “Orphan debt” has increased threefold and is having a domino effect on charities and their pension funds. At the time of the relevant legislation I believe it was neither intended nor foreseen that the “last man standing” rule would have such an effect on both museum collections held in Trust and charities generally.
I raised this problem with the DWP last Spring and the DWP held a Consultation on Section 75 in mid-2011, with the results published in mid-December. While they did not provide any solutions they recognised the issues and proposed further consultation. I will, therefore, be asking as well when the further DWP consultation promised is going to be carried out.
The Government has been well aware of both the specific Wedgwood case and the growing problems for charities more generally as a result of the “last man standing” rule, but chose to wait for the High Court judgement rather than to consider issuing policy guidance to the effect that Parliament had not intended that it should apply to charities or charitable museums – albeit that the High Court decision was widely anticipated. Time is now running short, in particular, to save the Wedgwood Museum Collection.
Lord Flight was raised to the peerage as Baron Flight of Worcester in the County of Worcestershire in 2011.