The Government abandoned its plan of free admission for all to Britain's museums and galleries yesterday, and instead announced the introduction of a £1 flat fee for adults.
The changes come into effect from September next year, with no charges for children, people aged over 60 and those on benefit or with disabilities.
Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, wrote to the charging institutions yesterday to encourage them to implement the new fee. The Government is to make up the shortfall on what they would have received. "I want to see the best of our culture and heritage made available to the greatest possible number, regardless of their income," Mr Smith said.
He pointed out that from next year a typical family will be able to visit a museum "for less than the price of hiring a video. For the first time in 20 years, affordable access to the best of our cultural heritage really will be available for the many, not the few," he said.
But there were immediate calls for the Government to clarify the position of VAT for institutions, and claims that the new plans may be scuppered by existing VAT regulations.
Customs and Excise has warned that the recent decision to allow in the over-60s without paying may stop museums being able to reclaim VAT.
At some charging institutions, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, more than half the visitors are soon likely to be entering free. When that happened, the museum would no longer be considered a business and so could not reclaim VAT.
Sir Nicholas Goodison, chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, which has campaigned for free admission, said it welcomed the reduced charges "as one more step on the road towards universal free entry". But he added: "The non-charging museums urgently need to know whether the VAT problem they face is going to be solved. If not, they may be tempted to introduce a £1 entry fee in order to reclaim VAT."
The fund is proposing an amendment to VAT rules to allow free museums to recover the tax in the same way as the BBC, ITN and local authorities.
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