HC Deb 14 February 1994 vol 237 cc722-43 7.58 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat)

I beg to move, That the draft Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 15th December, be approved. The statutory instrument is important. The regulations, a statutory instrument under the European Communities Act 1972, will implement the provisions of Council directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the terrority of a member state. This is an internal market measure providing an additional layer of protection for member states' national treasures.

Article 36 of the treaty of Rome allows member states to define and protect these national treasures, provided that the measures taken are not disproportionate to trade. It was feared by a number of states, particularly France and the southern states of the Community, that the removal of routine customs checks at the internal frontiers, following completion of the single market on 1 January 1993, would weaken national protection.

Important national treasures could be removed by their owners across internal borders without the permission of the member states from which they originated. One powerful motive for doing that would, it is maintained, be the drawing power of the international art market in London. It is fair to say that export controls on these countries are on the draconian side, with permission to export being the exception rather than the norm. As a result, the price that an owner can realise for his art object is largely a domestic market price as is it unlikely that a new owner would be able to export it lawfully.

It could well be argued—I have some sympathy with this view—that it should not be the business of the United Kingdom Government to police the export control systems of other member states. But we are a Community—a club where we should extend the hand of mutual co-operation and help. The United Kingdom argued that an informal agreement would achieve that, but the majority of states thought that the only effective way forward was a statutory system. They saw the problem as both an internal one, as I have described, and an external one at the external frontiers of the Community.

Member states decided that a consistent approach to both was essential. The result was a Council regulation, EEC 3911/92, which set up a system of Community export licensing based on categories and monetary thresholds set out in an annex. It is closely modelled on the United Kingdom's national system. Provision for national co-operation in identifying and returning national treasures was made in Council directive 93/7/EEC, again limiting the objects that could be subject to those provisions by the same annex.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Can the Minister clarify the question of monetary thresholds? Some of us think that the most urgent problem is the theft of religious and ecclesiastical art from Czechoslovakia and, even more, icons from Russia and elsewhere. The Minister knows that they can be sold for proverbial peanuts in eastern Europe. Where does the doctrine of monetary thresholds fit into this extremely difficult and thorny problem?

Mr. Sproat

As so often, the hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. However, it is not a point which arises on the regulations that we are debating. I agree that countries in eastern Europe, especially Russia with its valuable icons, should find a way to prevent sales if the objects are unlawfully exported. But the matter does not arise in this debate. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write or talk to me about it, I should be glad to discuss it with him.

Mr. Dalyell

Following the all-party heritage group's visit to Czechoslovakia, some of us wrote to the Minister's Department—before his time—at considerable length and raised the matter with the Prime Minister, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) knows.

Mr. Sproat

I will certainly make a point of getting out the correspondence and seeing what can be done in a context other than the regulations that we are debating.

The House will recall that when the directive was debated in Standing Committee B in November 1992, hon. Members were critical of some of its provisions. The package of regulation and directives was due to be debated at the Internal Market Council the following week, and the Committee asked the Secretary of State to ensure that no common position was arrived at without several changes.

The United Kingdom was President of the Council at the time and that is always a delicate position in which to use a blocking vote. But in this case, our position was also influential. The United Kingdom's negotiators achieved all the improvements we sought. We shifted the burden of proof so that the courts of each member state could apply their own system and, most important, we removed the requirement for licences for thousands of minor archaeological and numismatic objects.

In the Government's view, we had arrived at the best compromise possible. The directive stirred up the nationalistic instincts of member states. The southern states wanted it to cover a much larger area of cultural goods. Some wanted no time limit at all for the period during which a member state could request the return of a cultural object removed unlawfully from a museum or religious institution. Greece passionately sought this, since to have it otherwise was contrary to its constitution. In the end, Greece voted against the directive, and Germany abstained.

Given the text that we had before us, the United Kingdom considered that to continue to block it would reopen issues that were not tolerable to the United Kingdom. But I will freely admit that the directive is far from perfect.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Before my hon. Friend moves away from Greece, can he tell us whether there is anything in the regulations that would result in the Elgin marbles being returned to Greece? While he is talking about that part of the world, can he say whether anything can be done to prevent any further stripping of the valuable and historic items in the part of northern Cyprus that is now occupied by Turkey?

Mr. Sproat

I do not know about northern Cyprus. However, I can tell my hon. Friend, who asks an extremely important question, that nothing in the regulations would compel us to return the Elgin marbles. For the absolute avoidance of any doubt, we are not compelled by the directive to do so and we have no intention of doing so.

One important commitment won by the United Kingdom was to a review in 1995–96 of the operation of both the EC regulation and the directive. We are already assembling a number of issues and notifying the Commission and other member states of them. The art trade has been co-operative in applying for EC licences, and has drawn the disadvantages to our attention. The licensing unit in my Department has taken on two additional staff to deal efficiently with the extra licences. Applicants are kept waiting no longer than before for their applications to be deal with. But there is an extra cost, which must be balanced against our obligations to lend mutual assistance to other member states.

Whether the regulations will involve extra costs will rest entirely on the extent to which they are used. They will provide a mechanism for another member state to request the return from the United Kingdom of a cultural object that has been unlawfully removed from that state in breach of its rules for the protection of national treasures. They will also apply where a national treasure has not been returned following a period of unlawful temporary removal. But I must stress that this applies only to cultural objects unlawfully removed on or after 1 January last year. That point will give comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), who asked an important question about the Elgin marbles.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the regulations are retrospective; they go back to 1 January 1993. My feeling is that we should not pass retrospective legislation. It is much better for legislation to go from the time that it is passed by the House. Can my hon. Friend tell us whether any requests have been received for the return of any cultural objects that have been removed within the period covered by the regulations?

Mr. Sproat

My hon. Friend asks a good question. I do not know the answer off the top of my head. Perhaps I can let him know later in the debate. As for retrospection generally, my hon. Friend is right—it is usually an objectionable principle. But in this case we had to deal with other member states of the EC which wished to go all the way back unprescriptively—that is, as far back as the object—

Mr.Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)


Mr. Sproat

I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.

We had some difficulty in stopping that. For instance, the constitution of Greece says that any object manufactured before 1832 belongs to the Greek Government. We had problems getting a date fixed, and we felt that 1 January 1993 was not a bad compromise to reach.

Mr. Cormack

Will my hon. Friend confirm that this country is a potential beneficiary? We have suffered greatly in the past few years from thefts from churches. Is not it true that objects stolen from an English country church in, say, June of last year would come under the regulations if they turned up in one of the other countries in the Community?

Mr. Sproat

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The great value of the London art market means that we tend to proceed in our arguments from the assumption that we are talking about cultural objects from other countries being sold here. As my hon. Friend rightly said, many valuable cultural objects from this country are found on the market in other parts of the EC. We could request that those countries co-operate with us to return British cultural objects. My hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable point.

Although the directive allows an optional provision for member states to apply the directive to objects that were unlawfully removed before January 1993, we do not intend to apply that provision. The answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point needs not to be qualified, but borne in mind. Although we will not apply that provision, other countries may do so, and we may continue to get pressure for the return of the Elgin marbles and other objects. We have not accepted that, and we do not intend to apply the directive in that manner. We believe that it would introduce unacceptable uncertainty for purchasers of cultural objects and for members of the art trade.

Hon. Members will have noticed that the regulations have adopted the same meaning for expressions as those used in the directive, and that there has been no attempt at interpretation. That was deliberate, because it is important to ensure that the directive is correctly implemented while avoiding the imposition of burdens other than those required. The best way to achieve that was to follow the wording of the directive.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke on Trent, Central)

Will the Minister explain how the definition of illegality is to be applied? Is it simply necessary for the member state applying to this country or to another for the return of a cultural object to assert that, in its view and by its law, the object has been exported illegally? Is there some objective test of illegality?

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. Each EC member state has its own definition of a national treasure. In Italy, that covers a wide range of objects, and Germany—I think I am right in saying—has specified 600 objects of national treasures. The hon. Gentleman would quickly see that if the manuscript of Beethoven's 10th symphony were discovered. It would not be included on the list, and therefore would not require an export licence.

The definition applies if an object that surfaces in London is defined as a national treasure by the home state, if I may put it that way, under article 36 of the treaty of Rome. For example, if an Italian national treasure surfaces in a catalogue at Sotheby's the Italian Government have to say within two months of the object appearing in the catalogue that they thought it had been unlawfully taken from Italy. The Italian Government must say that it is a national treasure which has been taken without an export licence. After that two months, they have no longer than 12 months to take the matter to court.

Mr. Fisher

Is the Minister saying that if objects categorised by a member state as a national treasure are exported, they have been per se illegally exported? Does that apply also to other artefacts or cultural objects which may be illegally exported—for example, objects which have been taken from an archaeological dig, illegally vandalised and taken into this country? A member state, say Greece, may say to our Government that those objects have been illegally exported. Do we accept Greece's word on that, or is there some objective test of what is an illegal export? Can any country—ourselves included—nominate an export as illegal?

Mr. Sproat

The export cannot be nominated as illegal after it has been taken, say from Greece to the United Kingdom. However, the object may be on the list of national treasures as defined by the Greek Government. The list is published and we all know what is on it.

If the object has been stolen, that is quite different. There are objects that can be transported from Greece to the United Kingdom legally if the Greek Government issues an export licence. The original regulation applied to objects that required an export licence. If an object is taken out of Greece and surfaces in the United Kingdom or in any part of the EC without an export licence having been issued, that is contrary to the directive and the regulations that we are debating. Theft is, of course, different and can be prosecuted through the courts in the normal way. Presumably, the object would not have been exported with an export licence because a thief would not wish to draw it to the attention of the authorities.

Hon. Members will see that regulation 3(1) provides for the Secretary of State to seek a cultural object where there has been a request from another member state. That goes into part of what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central just asked. That means that we would expect to check an object with the full co-operation of the person on whose property the object is believed to be located.

Members of the art trade already co-operate in similar circumstances with the police, and I hope that that mutual co-operation will continue. In the few cases where it is considered necessary and appropriate for the Secretary of State to apply to the High Court in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or to the Court of Session in Scotland, for an order authorising entry and search, the official responsible for undertaking the search would normally expect to enter the premises at a reasonable hour of the day, unless it is anticipated that to do so would defeat the object of the exercise.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not doubt the impeccable taste of either the Secretary of State or the Minister. The hon. Gentleman says that the Secretary of State will check who carries that out, but presumably it will be transferred to someone in the British museum or a Scottish gallery. Will it be the appointee or the Secretary of State who carries out the check?

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Gentleman asks a complicated question to which I will attempt to give a lucid answer. "Seeking to check" is the wording which forms part of the European directive which I said we have used. It would apply if, for example, the Greek Government told us that a certain cultural object designated as a national treasure by them was thought to have been exported to London, and was likely to appear in the British markets.

The Secretary of State, through the officials of the cultural property unit in the Department, would place advertisements in the various appropriate antiques journals. Those would be circulated among the various houses in London where it was expected the object might be sold. The auction houses would be informed that they should look out for the object, which the Greek Government had reason to believe was to be unlawfully sold in London. "Seeking to check" would apply in cases where an object had appeared and we had no advance notice from the member state's Government that it was likely to appear. If the object appeared in a Sotheby's catalogue, we would be in touch with an appropriate expert at the British museum and ask him to go and check.

In some, perhaps many, cases, court proceedings might not be needed if the bona fide owner can agree appropriate compensation with the requesting member state, but in other cases, court proceedings might be needed to establish the good faith of the owner. The requesting state will have to satisfy the court that the object that is the subject of the proceedings for return is, in fact, the one that is sought and that it was unlawfully removed from the territory of the requesting state during the relevant limitation period. The court must also be satisfied that the proceedings were brought less than 12 months after the requesting state became aware of the location of the object and the identity of its possessor or holder. That is the point that I made to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher).

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

Is that the only way in which artefacts could be returned to their country of origin after the regulations are agreed? Could they be returned by normal negotiations and so on? For example, do the Elgin marbles have to fit into the categories that the hon. Gentleman stated?

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. It is perfectly possible that an object will be returned by mutual agreement. Let us say that the hon. Gentleman bought an antique statue, believing, perfectly properly, that it had been exported from Greece with an export licence, and that he believed himself to be the bona fide owner. Let us say also that the Greek Government prove to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction that, unknown to him, it had been unlawfully exported from Greece.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman, as the bona fide owner—there is not the slightest besmirching of his name—would say, "Of course it should not have been taken; I gladly give it back," in which case the requesting Government would pay him compensation. It might be what he paid for the object, or a similarly negotiated price.That is how it would work. I imagine that, very often, it will work that way, because people will be bona fide owners of objects that turn out to be unlawfully exported.

I want to emphasise the modest nature of the provisions. We should not view the powers of entry and search and of seizure as striking at the innocent owner's right to enjoy his property. Perhaps the powers, which will require an order from the High Court, will never be used. We have carefully not created a new criminal offence. Contempt of the High Court or of the Court of Session is a serious matter, with stiff penalties. The regulations should be sufficient should a member of the public obstruct the competent authority in the exercise of searching for a requested national treasure of another member state. But it is innovative legislation in the sense that, for the first time, we are prepared to act on a statutory basis to provide a mechanism for the return of the national treasures of other member states.

We shall watch carefully how use is made of the measure. It is a developing aspect of international property law, and the United Kingdom Government and the art trade wish to influence it positively. We have vital economic as well as cultural concerns in the United Kingdom. They come together in the strong, open and legitimate art market in London which, in its own code of practice, wants nothing to do with goods that have an unlawful provenance.

The problem of unlawful circulation of national treasures is worth tackling, just as we are tackling trafficking in stolen art and objects. I therefore commend the regulations to the House.

8.22 pm
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

The Opposition welcome the regulations. Any piece of legislation which polices and regulates the growing market in illegal works of art and antiquities is to be applauded and supported. That illegal market is said to be second only to the illegal trafficking of drugs. Quite how that figure is arrived at, I am not sure, but nobody has refuted it. Indeed, it has been quoted several times recently, not least by Lord Renfrew. If the scale of illegal trafficking is as large as that, it is a very large part of international crime and one which, at least in the European context, it is a good thing that we are tackling. The Opposition commend the Government on adopting the regulations.

In accepting, I hope, the support of the whole House for the regulations, the Government need to answer more questions than the Minister has addressed, especially as I detected, particularly in his opening remarks, some slight personal scepticism or reluctance when he referred to acting as policemen for the imperfections of other countries' policies. He referred to "a view with which I have some sympathy." If the Minister is a little sceptical about the regulations, we need to probe the Government's view of them and their commitment to implementing them.

How big is the problem for the United Kingdom and what research has the Department done to establish the scale of the problem for the United Kingdom? What percentage of the art market will be affected? The Minister said that the art market did not wish to traffic in goods which do not have good provenance, but he knows very well that many objects that are sold on the art market have doubtful provenance or no provenance at all and that, without those objects, the art market would be severely damaged. It would be very interesting to know what the scale of the problem is and what percentage of the market will be affected.

Also, in other matters, the Government rightly stress that they should set themselves targets so that their performance can be evaluated. What number of successful search and finds and, therefore, prosecutions will the Government consider adequate? Will the Minister give some targets about the performance of the regulations? The Minister needs to tell us more about the steps and the mechanisms that the Government will take. Will his Department need to take on new staff and train them? If so, how many, and what expertise will they have and what training will he provide for them?

Presumably, the Minister will need help from the Inland Revenue and the police in implementing the regulations. What training will there be for police forces? If, say, Italy asks us to search for a work of art that it suspects is in Glasgow or Liverpool, it will be no good if the number of police officers in this country is so limited that we cannot meet the request from the member state and therefore cannot implement the regulations.

I was slightly worried by the Minister's response to how a check will be made. He seemed to say, "We will leave it to advertising in the art press that an illegal object is loose or is suspected of being loose in the London market." Is he saying that his Department would not be responsible if there is a request from, say, Greece because it believes that there is such an object here? Will it be sufficient for the Government to ensure that an advertisement is placed in Apollo or elsewhere? Is it not his Department's responsibility to ensure that either the Inland Revenue or the police search out that object? An advertisement would not fulfil the spirit of the regulations.

In particular, the Minister must say something more about the definitions. We understand that the regulations apply only to national treasures and the inventories of public collections or ecclesiastical institutions. The example that I gave when he kindly gave way to me was the pillaging of archaeological sites. It is unlikely that a new archaeological site or a site that has not been excavated before will be on an inventory of national treasures. It will certainly not be part of a national public collection.

If something is ripped from an archaeological site—this is exactly what Lord Renfrew is rightly concerned about, and the implications for international archaeology and our understanding of our cultural heritage in Europe—and it is not designated a national treasure, will it be covered by the regulations? That could leave a huge hole in the regulations.

What protection to the regulations give us? Many works of art are undoubtedly extremely important to the culture and cultural heritage of this country. We do not have a designated list of national treasures, but we have public collections and ecclesiastical institutions. We have many important works of art which are absolutely central to the way we see our heritage, tradition and view of our culture but which are not in public institutions, public collections or ecclesiastical institutions. Will they not be covered?

For instance, if they are stolen from a private collection or a national trust and they turn up—or we believe that they have turned up—in Rome, will we be unable to apply to the Italian Government for the return of those objects even though we know that they have been stolen from a private collection in Britain and are important works of art or artefacts? If so, there is another huge loophole, which the Government should seek to close. I am sorry, if that is the loophole, that they have not closed it in advance.

Can the Minister give some more assurances to the House about the way in which the regulations will be effective in helping us to gain possession of objects in the way that I have described, and will he especially give some consideration to the effect that that will have on the London art market? He referred to that subject briefly in his concluding remarks, but will he tell us what co-operation the Government had had from the art market and from museums and academics in their negotiations?

I understand that a committee has been set up to advise the Government, but in the debate recently in the other place the noble Lord Gowrie said that it had met only three times and he seemed at that stage to be extremely critical of the way in which we were proceeding to the regulations. Have those fears been assuaged? What has changed? Are the Government happy with the regulations that they are putting before the House?

Those questions need to be asked because the House needs to be reassured, not only that the regulations in their present form will be on the statute book, but that the Government have a real commitment to making them work. Though the Minister's remarks were very interesting and helpful to the House, I think that they were a trifle cautious or lukewarm in their enthusiasm. That causes—in my mind at least—some worry about the Government's commitment. The Government's record in that sector over recent years fuels that doubt and fear about commitment.

The problem has been around for many years, although it has grown enormously recently, and it has caused worry to everyone in academic circles, in museums and in the art world generally. A great deal of work has been done on regulations of that type in a European and an international context. Internationally, those date back to the 1950s, with The Hague protocol on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict 1954 and the New Delhi recommendations on international principles applicable to archaeological excavations 1956—both of which were drawn up by UNESCO.

Mr. Bernie Grant

Is the Labour party still committed to the return of the Elgin marbles?

Mr. Fisher

The Labour party views that subject in the context that I am describing now—the Elgin marbles should be multinational agreement. That is is why the Labour party, unlike the Government, is committed to ratifying and being an active signatory to the UNESCO convention of 1970. If we were—Greece is a party to the UNESCO convention—we would be able to work out the orderly return, not only of the Elgin marbles, but of the Benin bronzes and many other cultural treasures. We should not handle it as a one-off bilateral agreement with Greece on an individual artefact or set of artefacts, but as part of an international agreement.

The problem is not only between ourselves and the Greek Government; it is a major international problem. The Government should say tonight why they will not ratify and be an active signatory to the UNESCO Convention 1970. They ought to do that. They should be serious about tackling the problem.

The Government ought also to be active in the European dimension because the regulation that we are debating is not sufficient. The Minister knows very well that work is going on at this minute on UNIDROIT, the convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects, which was basically concluded in 1992 and will be submitted to a diplomatic conference this year. Why do the Government not actively support UNIDROIT? The Attorney-General has said that he does not close the door on the Government signing UNIDROIT. What is the problem with UNIDROIT? It would greatly strengthen the regulations before us tonight. If the Government expect to be taken seriously in connection with the regulations, they should give a commitment to be active in their support for UNIDROIT at the conference next year.

The Government also need to explain why they are not supporting the Commonwealth convention which has recently been concluded. Every other Commonwealth country has been active in that. A decade of campaigning by New Zealand has brought the Commonwealth Mauritius protocol to completion. Eleven countries contributed to that working party; they have been drafting it for seven years and Australia has now offered to draft legislation for other Commonwealth countries. Why are the Government dragging their feet on the Commonwealth initiative? Will they go further, as the Attorney-General said last year, and not just not close the door but open the door and be an active supporter?

The Minister must explain the Government's problems about the wider international context for the regulations that we are debating tonight—the UNESCO treaty, the Mauritius Commonwealth protocol and UNIDROIT. Taken together, those three agreements and the regulations would provide some context in which to tackle illegal trafficking in art artefacts, which no Member of the House can support.

The Government have taken the first step, and we welcome it, but there are three other steps waiting to be taken if the Government are serious about tackling that illegal traffic. The Minister must address himself to that.

What is the problem? Is it that the Minister fears that legislation will hurt London's art trade? If so, he should be open about that and discuss it. That was the burden of the debate on 3 November 1992 in the other place, when the noble Lords Gowrie and Carrington—the latter a former Member of this House, and both of them chairmen of major art auctioneers and art houses—mentioned severe fears and worries about the regulations and this action. Those Members of the House who, like me, are not experts on the subject, do not know whether the worries that those noble Lords expressed are well founded.

The Government have to answer that. Lord Gowrie said that it would threaten our position in the art trade; that it would be a smugglers' charter, and that we shall be acting as customs, civil servants, tax gatherers and policemen for other countries which will not police their own laws. He went on to say that the Government were under pressure to complete the legislation by January last year, that it was too quick, that there was too little consultation and that the consultative organisation met only three times. That was 15 months ago, so perhaps it met several times last year. We ought to hear about that. The noble Lord Carrington said that those things would be damaging and unworkable and would increase bureaucracy.

Those are charges by two people who have worked in that sector and who know about it. The Minister ought to respond. Are they right in having those fears? Have things been changed? Have the Government managed to secure negotiations and change the regulations in a way that would satisfy those fears? He said tonight that, basically, we were adopting the regulations as they were in the European directive. Is so, are the fears of the art trade still justified? Are the regulations likely to damage the art trade in this country? That is an important part of our cultural industries and a profitable area for this country.

We therefore have two different problems. It is good that the Government are doing something, even if it is rather cautious and tackles only part of the problem, but are they committed to it and have they got it right and achieved what, I accept, is a difficult balance between not damaging an important industry in the United Kingdom and doing right by the international market and protecting our national treasures? The Minister will say that, because he is being criticised from both sides, perhaps he has got it right, but when one is criticised from both sides one may equally have got it wrong from both points of view. There is no security in that argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) has suggested a way of squaring that circle. We should opt for a wider international agenda which does not simply protect European artefacts and the relationships between member states. Lords Gowrie and Carrington were concerned that as the regulations are purely European the art market would go elsewhere to areas not covered by UNESCO or other international agreements.

To calm those fears, we should not run away from or be soft on the issue. Instead, we should sign up to UNESCO and pressure the United States Government to ensure that there is effective international regulation. The Government have done that reluctantly in the past in respect of issues such as copyright, patents and designs with the Berne convention. If the Government are serious about tackling international crime, they have an opportunity to take the lead in respect of international regulations.

The Government are in a dilemma. They want to talk tough on crime, but I do not believe that they are certain that what they are doing will be effective. I am not sure whether they know the effect their actions will have on the art trade. The Government must decide whose side they are on and how best to protect our art treasures and our art trade and also how to tackle international crime.

The Opposition support the regulations. We are pleased to do that and we congratulate the Government on them. However, the crucial point is what the Government do next. Will they police the regulations with real rigour and determination? Will they go further in respect of an international perspective? If they will not do either of those things, when we next debate the issue at Question Time or in Adjournment debates in a year's time, if the regulations have not been effective it will be clear that the Government have been prepared to go through the motions but not to back the legislation with action or to seek an international solution.

If that happens, the aim behind the regulations to get to grips with a culturally dangerous and unpleasant form of illegal international trafficking will not have been observed. We will not have done right by that problem. The Government must convince the House that they are really committed on this and that they intend to do something about it.

8.42 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister about the Elgin marbles. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) put a similar question to his hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher).

With regard to the Elgin marbles, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say to his opposite number in Greece, Mrs. Melina Mercouri, "Never on Sunday, nor on any other day of the week." I am happy to remind the House that those words were first spoken by our former colleague Sir David Price, and never have truer words been spoken. He was absolutely right.

Nations, like individuals, cannot always have what they want. I hope that we will never accept that we should be told what to do by UNESCO, the European Union or any other international organisation. I remind the House that the Elgin marbles are not owned by the British Government; they are owned by the British museum which is an independent charitable foundation run by trustees. That should be understood in countries like Greece. Such countries should not be distracted by the word "British" in the title into imagining that the British museum is run by the Government. Returning the Elgin marbles would, in effect, involve confiscation of the trustees' private property.

My hon. Friend the Minister introduced the debate with admirable lucidity. However, I should like him to enlarge on what happens in respect of a country that has not yet joined the European Union but might join it in future. In that respect, I think of Norway.

Let us suppose that Munch's "The Scream", which was pinched from the Oslo museum over the weekend, were to turn up in four or five years' time in Bermondsey market or in the market in the Portobello road. Although I think that it is unlikely, suppose Norway joined the European Union in four or five years' time. What would be the legal position under the regulations with regard to returning the picture to Norway? Criminal law could be invoked and the picture could be returned as stolen property. However, I should like to know the position in respect of the draft regulations.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the scope of the regulations is limited. I am not sure how much good they will do. Are they permanent? If they are approved, how effective will the review be? My hon. Friend said that we must carefully monitor the way in which the regulations work.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said that he would welcome the control of illegal traffic. However, much of the trade in objects is perfectly legal at present. I am not sure whether we want to place a stop on that.

The spread of cultural treasures is good. If the regulations had been passed 50, 100 or 200 years ago, we would not be able to view any of the great foreign paintings that are on view today in the national gallery, the British museum or the Victoria and Albert museum. We would not see French impressionists or Dutch, Italian, German and Spanish paintings. Foreigners on the continent would not be able to see paintings by Turner, Reynolds or Gainsborough.

There seems to be a doctrine that any great work of art should remain permanently in the country in which it was created. That is nonsense. Are we really saying that the national gallery in Washington should return all its Rembrandts to Holland or that the French should whisk the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and send it back to Italy?

A great international collection in any country enables visitors to that collection, whether they are old or young, to compare and contrast paintings, furniture or other objects of different countries and different civilisations. The regulations could stop the international movement of fine works of art.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central wondered whether the regulations would affect the art trade. Obviously, they would if the movement of great works of art were stopped. London and New York are pre-eminent in the art trade and the art market. The world's greatest auctions for art objects are held mainly in London and New York.

My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has just succeeded in negotiating an agreement with the European Union which will help to preserve the art auction market in London. There has been a threat that the market will move from the European Union to New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and other places outside the European Union.

It would be a great pity to stop the movement of all important works of art within the European Union. That would damage the auction trade in London. We are prominent in that trade, which helps to pull into this country overseas visitors who visit the auctions or make use of them by telephone. When those people come to London, they spend money in hotels and restaurants, on shopping and on internal travel. All that helps to generate trade and employment in the United Kingdom and to improve the tax return to the Government. We should be crazy if we were to knock the international art market in London.

It seems to me that these regulations give any country within the European Union the power to state unilaterally that any object—any painting or piece of furniture, for example—is a national treasure. There appears to be no obligation to produce any evidence or to make any kind of case. It seems that the process is purely arbitrary.

We shall have to wait a few years to see how the regulations work. My reading of them is that a state can simply claim that something is a national treasure, thereby preventing its movement. Other states do not stick to the rules as the United Kingdom does. The British tend to follow to the letter the European Union's rules in respect of trading matters. We are all aware that many continental countries are not equally conscientious. That could place us at a disadvantage. I hope for an assurance that the operation of the regulations will be subject to a thorough review.

8.50 pm
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), I support the regulations, so far as they go, as a step in the right direction. I shall cite in a little detail—although not at length, I promise—a particular case to illustrate what can happen. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) referred to the looting of churches, particularly in northern Cyprus.

A cause celebre is the Panayia Kanakaria mosaics from the church of Panayia, Kanakaria in Lythrangomi, which was overrun in the northern Cyprus invasion of 1974. These were still being used for religious observance until 1976, but then abandonment was necessary. It was reported in 1979 that the church was being used as stable and that some rather precious glass mosaics dating from the 5th century BC had been stolen. They depicted Jesus in the lap of Mary with the 12 apostles. They had been located in the apse, but they were lost.

Eventually—in 1988—they surfaced on the international market. They were on offer at $3 million, I understand, and were eventually acquired by an American art dealer. I understand that $1.2 million, cut various ways, changed hands. The American art dealer, as one would expect, attempted to market the mosaics. That was reported to the Getty museum and, to her credit, Dr. Marion True informed the Cyprus Department of Antiquities that they had surfaced on the black market in art works. Their return was requested, but the request was refused. The matter was taken to court and was eventually settled in the south district of Indiana in October 1990. The mosaics are now being restored for display in a museum in Cyprus. That is just one example of desecration and systematic looting in northern Cyprus.

I stress that, in citing this case, I do not make any political point in connection with the invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. I accept that the administration there does much to control the situation. Self-evidently, however, it is not doing enough, as that kind of thing is still going on.

I am not attacking the Turks as Muslims desecrating Christian churches and artefacts. Indeed, I have great respect for what the Turkish Government have done to preserve a cultural heritage that predates their arrival in that part of the near east. I think of the Ayix Sophia, and, in the case of modern times, the first world war cemeteries of Gallipoli. The authorities deserve much credit for that. Indeed, they themselves have much at stake, as they have their own rich heritage of unexcavated or undeveloped archaeological sites. In fact, some of the richest sites of classical archaeology are in mainland Turkey. The country has an embarrassment of riches and a vested interest in protecting them, and it takes rigorous steps to achieve that end.

We are dealing not just with northern Cyprus and Turkey. Hon. Members have mentioned churches in this country from which valuable artefacts have been taken. There are also the churches in rural Italy, and the hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned Czechoslovakia and icons that are systematically looted from churches in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. All of us have an interest in this matter.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this debate is restricted inasmuch as it relates to the countries of the European Union.

Mr. O'Hara

Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, I am grateful to you for allowing me to depart from the debate to such an extent. I was about to return to it.

This is not a matter of narrow national interests. It transcends national interest. It is a matter also of international scholarship. I should like to highlight an aspect of the subject that has not been mentioned so far. There has been mention of looted objects without provenance that appear on the art market. "Without provenance" is not just a term used in a catalogue. Archaeologically, it is a very important term; it means without associations in space, time or cultural and artistic affinity. When a professional archaeologist discovers an object, he or she notes its location, its level, what other objects have been found with it and where similar objects have been found.

I use this opportunity to take up a general observation by several hon. Members about the respect that nations in general owe to each other with regard to their cultural heritage. I shall try to stay within the European Union. I hope that, in the course of time, former imperial powers, such as the United Kingdom, will be more willing to return to their rightful homes artefacts that may, in their present locations, be objects of curiosity, as well as of love and appreciation. I am thinking, for example, of items in the British museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Louvre, the Glyptothek, the New York Metropolitan and even the Getty, which would be of immeasurable cultural significance in their places of origin.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) suggested that there should be the mass emptying of museums and the return of every object to its place of origin. That is neither necessary nor desirable. If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, let me say that there was an element of reductio ad absurdum in the case that he put.

Mr. Jessel

Does the hon. Gentleman think that every important art object ought to be returned to its country of origin? If not, how would he distinguish between important and not so important objects?

Mr. O'Hara

I was about to say that that would not be necessary or even desirable. Cross-cultural exchange is important, for it makes for cross-cultural understanding. However, some artifacts transcend such considerations. Mention was made of the Elgin marbles—or the Parthenon marbles, as I prefer to call them. They are symbolic of the triumph of Greece over Persian aggression, of the triumph of freedom of thought, artistic expression and political institutions and of that classical tradition which we may take for granted now but without which we would not be as we are. Inferior as we are, we would be measurably worse off without that tradition.

The Elgin marbles should be with the Parthenon and the other great monuments dating from the third quarter of the 5th century BC. It is grotesque that we should be able to see the originals in the British museum while visitors to the Acropolis museum must make do with plaster copies. The British Government would do a great service internationally if they made the gesture of offering to return the Elgin marbles to Athens.

I ask those who bang a jingoistic drum to consider hypothetically what would be their reaction if Nelson's column had been removed from London by an invader and was displayed elsewhere—and I wonder how the Americans would feel if the statue of liberty had been similarly removed.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

Would the hon. Gentleman return only the Elgin marbles?

Mr. O'Hara

I used them as a specific example, in response to the remarks of the hon. Member for Twickenham. I referred to objects that transcend normal considerations, and the Elgin marbles fall into that category.

I welcome the regulations as far as they go. I mentioned the damage done to scholarship if objects are looted and sold on the black market without provenance. Collectors share in that damage to scholarship.

The House will be aware of the controversy surrounding the Ortiz collection on display in the royal academy. I know, from what has been broadcast and published, that that exhibition presents many beautiful objects—but many shown in the catalogue are without provenance. They may speak to us directly with their beauty, but there is so much that they do not tell because they are displayed in relative isolation from their historical and cultural context. The more they say directly to the practised artistic or archaeological eye, the greater the frustration at what they could say, if only their provenance were known.

We should welcome the regulations in that they go some way towards protecting the cultural heritage of member states and international scholarship. They rightly include compensation where it is due, and rightly also offer a salutary deterrent to wanton looting and collection—without which the looters' market fails. I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central the hope that the Government will go further down that road, but we can applaud the first faltering steps that the regulations take.

9.3 pm

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) made a thoughtful speech, and I can associate myself with many of his remarks. We all agree that the proposals are modest, but they put down a marker in more ways than one.

There is universal condemnation of those who, without regard to context and true ownership, rob, pillage and sell cultural objects and view them merely as money. That is deeply to be deplored. Commercialism has done great damage in many walks of life and certainly has not over the years enhanced many people's artistic appreciation. There cannot be a single hon. Member who would not wish to deal vigorously with those who rob ancient sites, English churches or any other historic setting of its objects.

Rightly, Madam Deputy Speaker, you called the hon. Member for Knowsley, South to task when he strayed a little beyond the bounds of the European Union. Briefly, if I may, I shall make a couple of comments. I was indeed with the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in Czechoslovakia with the all-party heritage group a few years ago. We were deeply dismayed at the way in which churches especially, but many other historic buildings, had been robbed and desecrated by those who had regard only for the monetary value that the objects could obtain.

In a European Union context, we were told that most of those objects were finding their way on to the international market through Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom. Anything that can curtail that must be good. We all want to congratulate the Minister and Her Majesty's Government on recognising in legislative form that that must be tackled.

Of course, that is only a small beginning. Later in the parliamentary Session I shall present a Bill on market ouvert that has now completed all its stages in the House of Lords. There are a number of markets in the country, of which Bermondsey is one, where, when an object is bought, the title automatically passes to the purchaser.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

It depends on the hour.

Mr. Cormack

Most people who go there to buy—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

It depends on the hour.

Mr. Cormack

Would the hon. Lady contain herself? I know that it is difficult—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Not all day—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that I deplore seated interventions.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Cormack

Oh, all right.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I was simply making the legal point that it is crucial that the transaction is done between the hours of daylight and sunset. Otherwise it does not transfer the title. I was not seeking to criticise the hon. Member, but simply trying to make the point absolutely clear.

Mr. Cormack

Of course, that is an extremely helpful intervention. For most of most days, when whatever object is sold at Bermondsey or at a number of other markets in the country which benefit from the same medieval exceptions, the title passes to the purchaser. However innocent the purchaser may be—like a lot of innocent purchasers, I bought a number of my Christmas presents there in the past year—and however honourable the people are who go to such markets, it is nevertheless clear that they are a channel for stolen goods from the United Kingdom and beyond.

If the Government are determined to build on the foundation stone of the motion, they must pass as quickly as possible the Bill introduced by the noble Lord Renton in another place. The Bill is necessary to deal not with the market, which is a most delightful institution where I am sure every hon. Member would like to go, but with the loophole to which I have referred.

I wish to be brief because other hon. Members want to speak, and will pass to the other subject which has cropped up in almost every speech—great national treasures. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South said that he would not wish to empty the great museums of the world, if I may paraphrase him. We would all agree, because art is universal and its message is universal. Anyone in France who does not have the opportunity to learn about the art of Flanders or Italy, or to see African sculpture at its best, or to be able to consider some of the extraordinary creations from Polynesia is impoverished. The same applies to people in this country who do not have similar opportunities.

I agree that some objects are so tremendously important, so integral to the context in which they were created, that they fall into a different category. I confess that in the past, whenever the Elgin, or Parthenon, marbles were mentioned, I fell back on the orthodox defence. Repatriating the Elgin marbles would open the floodgates: what would happen to all the treasures in Apsley house that were gathered by the Duke of Wellington, and all the pictures in the national gallery that were obtained by various means? I have rehearsed my arguments parrot fashion—and, indeed, believed them; but I have begun to have second thoughts.

Politicians must be prepared to examine long-held beliefs critically, and—sometimes—to admit that they may have been wrong. I am not attacking Lord Elgin: it is clear that he acquired the marbles legitimately, and paid for them. It is equally clear that they are beautifully displayed and magnificently cared for in the British museum, and that they are seen by millions of people. It would be cussed and contrary to send them back to Greece without a guarantee that they would be seen in equally advantageous conditions, conserved in the same manner and looked after properly.

Times change, however. It is beyond doubt that even to have contemplated the return of the Elgin marbles before or during the 1960s would have been entirely wrong, but I now believe—I say this with some hesitation—that perhaps the matter should be reconsidered. I certainly think that the marbles fall into the supreme category referred to by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South. I also think that there is a strong case for saying that such magnificent—no, that word is not sufficient to describe them; these supreme—objects of European culture, which really set the tone for civilisation in our continent, should perhaps be where the ruined but noble Parthenon still stands.

I had the great good fortune to take a party of colleagues to Greece last year, in the company of the hon. Member for Linlithgow. We were not lobbied on the subject of the marbles—no one sought to make any case to us—but, looking at the Parthenon and being bowled over by it, I could not help wondering whether the time had come for us to consider returning them. I am not being dogmatic; I am not saying that we should not keep them in any cirumstances. Certainly no one in this country has any reason to be other than proud of the way in which they are conserved and displayed by the British museum.

Mr. Jessel

I am sure that I do not need to remind my hon. Friend that the Greeks would have no intention of putting the Elgin marbles back on top of the Parthenon where they originally belonged but would instead put them in a museum in another part of Athens.

Mr. Cormack

Not in another part of Athens but hard by the Parthenon. I do not dispute that, but if the west front of Wells cathedral were in a museum in Malibu, or if the west front of Lincoln cathedral were in a museum in Germany, we might suggest that it would be better if those great carvings were brought back and displayed close to their original setting. That is all that I am saying. If one has second thoughts, I believe that one should express them to the House.

I have been slightly led astray by interventions, but I conclude as I began, by saying that this is a modest proposal and one that I warmly welcome. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on the way in which he introduced it, and I am delighted to learn that the Opposition will not press the motion to a Division.

9.15 pm
Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

I had not intended to speak, but the comments of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) aroused my anger. He said that, if artefacts were returned to their country of origin, the number of visitors and the income that they bring to this country would disappear. Perhaps the countries from which the artefacts came should receive that income instead of us.

He also said that some countries are not as conscientious as we are in the preservation of some works of art. I do not know much about European artefacts, but I know that a number of African objects currently in the British museum and elsewhere were made to fade away. They are religious artefacts and were supposed to turn to dust. By preserving them we are acting against the religious convictions of the people who created them, a matter that should be taken into account.

The regulations are to be welcomed. I hope that they set a precedent in terms of international co-operation. Some artefacts have been stolen or acquired in very strange ways by British collectors, the British museum and other institutions. Some were stolen from Africa during the period of enslavement and colonisation. For example, the Ghanaians had to hide the sacred Ashanti stool from the invaders in case it was stolen and brought to this country; several obelisks are being kept here against the will of their owners in Africa; and the ivory mask of the Ino of Ife, which is a sacred object from Nigeria, is being held by the British museum which refuses to return it. I was once told that the nose of the Sphinx was in the British museum, so I contacted the curator who said that the museum did not have the nose but had part of the beard. I am sure that the Egyptians would like to display it and benefit from the revenue from students and those wishing to study it.

Dr. Spink

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the British museum has been a party to any illegality.

Mr. Grant

Far be it from me to suggest such an appalling thing, but there are those who will say that the ways in which certain articles have been acquired leave a lot to be desired. The House would do a great service to people around the world if it were to investigate the ways in which some artefacts were gathered and came to be displayed in the British museum. I also mention in passing the Crown jewels—you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be pleased to know that I do not intend to dwell on them today—and some of my favourite pieces, such as the Cullinan diamonds or the Stars of Africa, which should be returned to that country.

What is meant by "British territory" in the regulations? Would an artefact that had been taken away from a Caribbean dependent territory such an Anguilla qualify to be returned? This is an important subject and it creates a lot of anger and emotion, certainly among people of African origin. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to have a wider debate on the issue which is not restricted only to Europe.

I thoroughly support the right of the Secretary of State to intervene and to be able to enter people's houses to chase up stolen objects. I hope that that right will apply to international objects. I hope that the regulations are merely the beginning.

9.20 pm
Mr. Fisher

With the leave of the House, I wish to make one or two remarks.

This interesting debate has tested the scope, the implementation and the likely effectiveness of the regulations. The Government have received congratulations from hon. Members on both sides of the House on introducing the regulations, but the debate has been rather like going to the dentist because it has tested the regulations, which have winced at certain points.

Will the Minister comment on how the scope of the regulations will affect British cultural treasures? The regulations may not cover much of our heritage that is in private collections or in archaeological sites because the Government do not have a designated list of national treasures. If we are to benefit from the regulations, will the Minister confirm that his Department will now set about the task of drawing up a list of national treasures? Without it, we shall not benefit and much of our heritage will not be protected by the regulations.

Will the Minister comment on how his Department will implement the regulations? He will know that only nine of the 52 police forces have antique liaison units. Without trained staff and officers, how will be fulfil the obligations that the regulations place on the Government?

Will the Minister comment on the effectiveness of art smuggling? He will know of press reports that works of art have been stolen from this country and have gone, via Switzerland, to France and are now on France's list of designated national treasures. That smuggling must be tackled, but it will not be unless there is much more commitment from the Government.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have paid tribute to the Government for introducing the regulations and have agreed, in the words of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, East (Mr. Cormack), that they are only a marker. Criticisms have been voiced about the Government's commitment to make them effective.

As I said earlier, the Government must implement the UNESCO treaty, UNIDROIT and the Mauritius Commonwealth convention. If they do so, they will give teeth to the regulations, which have the support of hon. Members. Severe doubts have been raised, however, about the Government's commitment to them.

9.23 pm
Mr. Sproat

Many interesting points have been made in the debate. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr.O'Hara) was pulled up for straying a bit wide of the subject, but I hope that we shall be able to return to the important points that he and the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) made, which do not fall within my competence in this debate. So many important points were raised that I doubt whether I shall be able to do justice to all of them in the few moments remaining. I shall go through them in chronological order and if hon. Members wish to raise matters for me to deal with in correspondence I shall gladly do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) asked me how many requests had been made for the return of objects that had been here since 1993. I can tell him that no such requests have been made so far.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) launched an attack on the Government's case—rather, he said that, if there was a weakness in it, it was that we did not have any commitment to the measure. I can certainly assure him that we have a very real commitment to it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned various other bodies, which I cannot really go into in great detail here. They included UNESCO, UNIDROIT and others. At some stage, we may have a debate on the whole question of cultural objects from around the world and what we should do about an object that unlawfully finds its way on to the New York market, but such matters are unfortunately not within the competence of this debate.

We do not agree with a number of central aspects of what UNESCO has suggested and do not therefore seek to incorporate them into the regime that we propose to establish. For example, UNESCO would like a specific certificate for every single cultural object. We believe that that would create an appalling bureaucractic nightmare and thus render the whole exercise totally impracticable.

Of course we are dedicated to ensuring that only lawfully exported goods find their way out of the country where they lawfully are into another, but there are ways and ways of doing that, and we believe that the regulations represent the best practical way and certainly the best compromise that we could find. It is entirely wrong to think that we are sceptical about the regulations. That is truly not so. We are extremely keen to make them succeed. We shall review their success in 1995–96. We will return to all these matters and see whether the regulations have done what we want them to do and, if not, how they can be improved.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central asked me a straightforward and fair question about whether we would take on any new staff. The answer is that we do not think that we shall have to. We have taken on two new staff already so that applications for export licences can be dealt with as quickly in the future as they have in the past. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question really depends on the amount of work arising from the regulations. Clearly, if we receive an absolute flood of requests from other EC member states saying, "Please follow up what we believe is an unlawfully exported object," more staff may be required, but our present view is that extra staff will not be needed.

Let me make it clear that we are not talking about objects that have been stolen, which rightly have to be dealt with and already can be dealt with through the courts. We are talking about objects that are unlawfully exported because they do not carry an export licence. An hon. Member might own an object perfectly legally and want to sell it in Rome. If he did not get an export licence—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of them, pursuant to order [11 February].

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 15th December, be approved.