HC Deb 08 March 1996 vol 273 cc551-88

Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen's and Prince of Wales's consent signified.]

9.34 am
Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House will note that the Bill is supported by all parties, and that my distinguished sponsors come from the three major parties. I am especially pleased to see in his place as one of my sponsors the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke). I am grateful to him for his support.

It may surprise hon. Members to know that the Bill seeks to replace a law that goes back to the middle ages, and that the medieval law of treasure trove provides virtually the only legal protection that currently exists for antiquities that are found in the soil of England and Wales. An eminent legal authority, Professor Norman Palmer, has aptly described treasure trove as a mediaeval lottery.

The account of treasure trove to be found in a manual on English law written by a mediaeval lawyer called Bracton more than 700 years ago, pretty much describes the current position. I suppose that, historically, it was Richard Coeur de Lion, anxious to finance his crusades, who wanted to lay his hands on any gold and silver he could get, because we were on the gold standard in those days.

This is an historic occasion, because to my knowledge it is the first time that the subject of treasure trove has been debated in the Chamber. The subject, which is important for all those who have an interest in our nation's heritage, has been discussed in the other place a number of times. I am delighted to raise the issue in our House for the first time.

What is the law on treasure trove, what does it do, and why am I seeking to replace it? Only objects made of gold or silver which have been deliberately buried with the intention of recovery and of which the owner is unknown can be declared treasure trove. Someone who finds an object made of gold or silver has always had a legal duty to report it to the coroner without delay.

The coroner will decide whether to hold a treasure inquest, and the jury at the inquest is asked to decide whether the object in question was likely to have been buried with the intention of recovery, or whether it was more likely to have been lost or abandoned. I need hardly say that that is often an impossible question to answer.

If a find is a hoard of Roman gold coins in a pot, it might seem fairly obvious that its original owner did not lose it or abandon it, but buried it for safe keeping, hoping to come back to recover it. But what if the find is a single item of gold jewellery or a prehistoric gold bracelet? How can we possibly expect to know how an object came to be deposited in the ground 3,000 years ago? But that is the question that treasure inquest juries are regularly asked to decide. To make matters more complicated, a substantial sum of money can often depend on the outcome, because, if the object is treasure trove, the finder will get the reward, whereas, if it is not, the landowner may be able to claim it.

When a find has been declared treasure trove, in law it is the property of the Crown. In practice, that means that a museum has a right to acquire it, but the finder receives an ex gratia reward equivalent to its full market value. Any objects that are not required by a museum are returned, normally to the finder, and an independent committee has the job of determining the market value of such objects. That system of paying rewards to finders based on the full market value works well on the whole, but there are some problems.

Responsible finders will have made an agreement to split any reward equally with the landowner as a condition of being given permission to search on his land, but not all of them do so. Hon. Members will be surprised to learn that the finder will still receive a full reward even if he has been trespassing. Under present law, under no circumstances are landowners eligible for rewards. Only if the finder has behaved dishonestly or improperly—for example, if he has concealed his find—will the Secretary of State for National Heritage pay a reduced reward or none at all.

My Bill will, for the first time, make both landowners and occupiers eligible for rewards. That is one of the reasons why I am pleased that the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union support the Bill. Landowners and occupiers will receive rewards under certain limited circumstances—for example, if the finder had been trespassing. I want to stress, however, that in the majority of cases, where the finder has permission to be on the land, it is expected that he will continue to receive the full reward, as at present.

So what are the problems of treasure trove? As I have mentioned, the greatest weakness is the need to determine whether the original owner of the find concealed it with the intention of coming back to recover it later, or whether he simply lost or abandoned it. It is absurd and ludicrous to think that we can understand today the motives that led owners to bury objects such as gold torts several thousand years ago, yet that question regularly arises at inquests.

In any case, it is an irrelevant consideration when deciding whether antiquities should be preserved for the nation. My Bill would provide protection to all objects other than coins that are at least 300 years old and that have a precious metal content of at least 5 per cent., however they came to be placed in the ground. We have adopted a different definition for coins.

What is more, single objects, however important they might be, are seldom declared treasure trove, because it is generally considered that they are more likely to have been lost than deliberately buried. One good example is the Middleham jewel, discovered in Yorkshire with a metal detector in 1985, and the most important piece of mediaeval jewellery discovered in England this century. It was not treasure trove, as it could not be shown to have been deliberately buried with the intention of recovery, and it was lost to the nation.

Another such example is the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in East Anglia, the most important Anglo-Saxon find in this country. That too was not legally treasure trove, because it could not be shown to have been buried with the intention of recovery. As a result, it was possible for the British museum to acquire that unique find for the nation only through the generosity of the landowner, Mrs. Pretty. She would have been within her rights to sell the whole find on the market, where it would have been dispersed, but, to her credit, because of her public spirit, she did not do so.

The second problem with treasure trove is that it includes only objects that contain a substantial proportion of gold or silver, so it affords no protection to the great majority of archaeological finds, even though they may be of great historical or cultural value. Despite a recent Appeal Court judgment that objects had to contain "substantial" amounts of gold or silver to qualify for treasure trove, each find that has occurred since then has been dealt with differently.

Several hoards containing gold and silver objects of varying degrees of fineness have been split into parts that have been declared treasure trove, and parts that have not. What is more, many entire hoards of Roman coins are currently not treasure trove, because they are made of base silver or bronze. As there is no requirement to report them, many are legally sold and dispersed before they can be recorded, and so are gone for ever. Thus, the information they contain is lost for ever.

Let me give the House one example. In 1986, a hoard of about 1,500 Roman bronze coins was found at Amersham. It has come to light only because the finder's mother wrote an account of its discovery in Take A Break. No record of it was ever made, because its finder sold it on the market and it was broken up shortly afterwards, all legally under present law.

Under my Bill, all hoards of coins that are at least 300 years old will be treasure, except for those that consist just of bronze coins, in which case there will be a minimum number of 10. However—I stress this, because I heard some misleading remarks on television this morning—single coins, which are common finds, will not be treasure.

Another anomaly of the current system is that objects that are made of base metal or other material receive no legal protection, even if they are found in association with objects of treasure. Therefore, the pots in which coin hoards are found are not declared treasure trove, even though they may be of considerable archaeological importance.

The engraved gems from the Roman jeweller's hoard found at Snettisham in Norfolk in 1986 were not treasure trove, and that was an important find containing silver jewellery, silver and bronze coins and a fine group of more than 100 cornelian gems. The precious metal objects were duly declared treasure trove, but the gems, the bronze coins and the pot were excluded. That is illogical. Under my Bill, the objects found with treasure would also be protected.

I want to consider the problems of enforcement. In the past few years, a number of cases have shown all too clearly how weak the law is. At present, a person who is found guilty of concealing treasure trove can be prosecuted for theft of Crown property, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. In practice, however, there have been few, if any, successful prosecutions for such concealment, because it is virtually impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that an object must have been buried with the intention of recovery.

The prosecution of a man who was apprehended with coins from an important hoard found in 1984 in Wanborough in Surrey failed for that reason. The result is that only a small part of the hoard has been preserved, and no record has been made of the coins, many of which have ended up abroad and been dispersed.

Another case concerned a group of nearly 600 Celtic coins, all of the same type, seized by Customs and Excise at Heathrow. An inquest was held to decide whether they were treasure trove. Two days were spent discussing such arcane matters as the religious customs of the ancient Celts to decide whether the coins had been buried with the intention of recovery, or whether there was another more probable explanation.

The poor jury decided that the coins were not treasure trove. It is significant that even the solicitor acting on behalf of the dealer was frustrated by the subjective nature of the question that the inquest had to decide. He has since gone on record as saying: Treasure trove is an anachronistic law … I hope this important inquest leads to a radical revision of the treasure trove law. The lesson seems to be that it is virtually impossible to enforce treasure trove law, especially if objects had been removed from the soil and had entered the trade.

My Bill would have dealt with the problems thrown up by both those cases—first, by making the judgment whether a particular object was treasure a straightforward matter of fact; secondly, by making it an offence to fail to report treasure finds within 14 days without reasonable excuse.

At present, the law requires finders to report treasure trove promptly. If they fail to do so, they could, as I said, be prosecuted for theft of Crown property, but, in any case, it is likely that they will receive a reduced reward or none. If we are going to have a law that covers such finds—virtually every country does—we must ensure that it can be enforced. I am not saying that my Bill will deal with all the problems of illicit excavation—such as the nighthawks who steal objects from other people's land—but it will make a start by removing the most serious deficiencies of treasure trove law.

I have heard that some hon. Members are puzzled about why Scotland is excluded from my Bill. That is because it already has a far better arrangement, as one might expect. In Scotland, all newly discovered archaeological objects, whatever they are made of and however they came to be in the ground, belong to the Crown under the legal principle of bona vacantia.

Northern Ireland has the same treasure trove law as England and Wales, which is why it is included in the scope of the Bill, although there is a statutory duty to report all archaeological objects in the Province. In England and Wales, we provide less protection for our heritage of portable antiquities than virtually any other European country. Almost every other civilised country has passed laws to protect portable antiquities, and in all those countries, legal protection such as that proposed in the Bill is seen as completely normal.

The Bill is backed by the Surrey Archaeological Society and the British museum. It was first introduced, in a slightly different form, by Lord Perth in 1994 in the other place. His Bill obtained the backing of all those who took part in the debate, including representatives of all parties. However, it failed in this House, because it received no time for debate.

The Bill was drafted after consulting a wide range of interests and organisations, including representatives of the police, magistrates, coroners, landowners, district councils, county councils, museums, dealers and archaeological societies. All those organisations, including the Country Landowners Association, the National Farmers Union, the Council of British Archaeology, the Museums Association, the Museums and Galleries Commission and the main dealers' associations, have indicated their support for the reform of the archaic law of treasure trove.

I know that the National Council for Metal Detecting is still considering the Bill. I repeat firmly that the Bill is not hostile to metal detectorists. I know that, when the Bill's sponsors have been able to explain its provisions to detectorists, most of them appreciate that fact. The Bill contains no restriction on metal detecting, but simply clarifies what should and should not be reported.

Some metal detecting interests have, unfortunately, mounted a campaign against the Bill, totally misrepresenting it as a first step towards banning metal detecting. Nothing could be further from the truth. My noble Friend Lord Inglewood, the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, recently gave that assurance in the report of the treasury trove reviewing committee for 1994–95. He said: I want to emphasise that neither the Government, nor the European Union, has any plans to ban or restrict responsible metal detecting. I hope that we may hear a similar reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister today. I personally consider that responsible detectorists have an important role to play in bringing our national heritage to light for the benefit of us all. I believe that we can all work together in this respect.

I add my voice to Lord Inglewood's in congratulating all finders who report their finds promptly to the proper authorities. Without the co-operation of those finders, a great deal of valuable information about our nation's past would be lost. In recent years, metal detectorists have discovered many objects of great importance to the nation's heritage.

One of the best examples is the great find of late Roman gold and silver coins and other objects made at Hoxne in Suffolk in 1992 by Mr. Eric Lawes. The find was sensibly reported by Mr. Lawes on the day of discovery, thus enabling the Suffolk archaeological unit to excavate the site the following day. As a result, much valuable information concerning the circumstances of the hoard's burial was recovered which would otherwise have been lost.

That is an example of co-operation between metal detectorists and archaeologists at its best. I hope that my Bill will encourage the process by bringing both parties together to work out how to operate the system for everyone's, and the nation's, benefit.

I understand that officials from the Department of National Heritage have had a series of meetings with the National Council for Metal Detecting to discuss the Bill. After receiving a critique of the Bill from the council, three significant amendments were made to it. At a subsequent meeting, the council requested one further amendment to the Bill and clarification on another point, both of which the Department was able to give.

I had hoped to have a meeting with the council a few weeks ago, but it was not ready for one then. However, I am always available. Our discussions with the national council are continuing, and I am ready to meet it at any time and to hear any suggestions it might have, so that we can take another look at them before the Committee stage. I do not think that I can be fairer than that.

Lord Perth's Bill failed in 1994, and it has taken until now before the Treasure Bill could be reintroduced. I know, however, that the time has not been wasted, because the Department of National Heritage has been able to carry out discussions on the Bill with a range of interested organisations. Those discussions have served to reaffirm support for the pragmatic approach we are adopting. The Department has also been able to develop its proposals on the wider issue of the recording of portable antiquities which have now been published.

A recent survey by the Council of British Archaeology estimated that about 400,000 archaeological objects are found each year. To put the matter in perspective, we believe that the Bill may increase the number of cases of treasure from about 25 a year at present to between 100 and 200, and some of the hoards may consist of many individual objects. I know that the Government recognise that the Bill deals with only part of the problem, and I welcome the fact that the Department of National Heritage has recently published a discussion document on portable antiquities, which contains proposals for a voluntary scheme for recording all finds, not just those covered by my Bill. I believe that the two initiatives complement each other well.

I know that many people have worked hard on the Bill over many years. First and foremost, the name of Lord Perth springs to mind. Without his determination, his persistence and his refusal to take no for an answer, the whole project would never have got off the ground. He has been ably aided and abetted by Lord Renton and Lord Renfrew in the other place—both, happily, from the county of Cambridgeshire.

David Graham, Stewart Lyon and Lady Hanworth of the Surrey Archaeological Society have worked tirelessly on treasure trove reform for many years, and they have been assisted by Professor Norman Palmer of University college, London, to whom I referred earlier, and Doctor Andrew Burnett of the British museum. I take this opportunity to express my thanks to them all. I am especially grateful to Dr. Roger Bland of the British museum, who has given me enormous help in the matter, in which he is an acknowledged expert.

My Bill has three aims. First, it will change the definition of treasure by removing the need to prove that objects must have been intentionally buried, by making it clear exactly how much gold or silver objects must contain to be defined as treasure, and by including objects found in clear archaeological association with finds of treasure. Secondly, it will streamline the system by making it much simpler to determine what is treasure. Thirdly, it will make the law enforceable by providing a new offence for the non-declaration of treasure.

For finders, the Bill places no restrictions on metal detecting, while it safeguards their rights to continue to receive full rewards for their finds, except where they have been trespassing. The Bill provides landowners with the right to be informed of finds of treasure that have been reported from their land—they do not have that right at present—and it makes them eligible for rewards if, for example, the finder has been trespassing. Again, they do not have that right at present.

The Bill will require minimal additional resources, and it will make an important improvement to the legal protection afforded to objects found in the soil of this country, which are, after all, our heritage. I stress that no one will lose under the Bill—neither landowners nor finders—except the criminal element. No one now argues that we should keep the status quo. The successful passage of the Bill will have a symbolic importance far beyond the significance of its individual provisions, as it will represent the first piece of antiquities legislation ever passed in England and Wales.

We desperately need to do something now about the situation before all antiquities have been removed from the ground. Antiquities are a non-renewable resource, and they will be gone for ever if we do not act now. The Bill represents the best chance for making progress in an area that has eluded others for 150 years. I warmly commend it to the House.

9.58 am
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

When my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) opened the debate, in his usual exemplary way, I wondered whether I was entirely alone in feeling a slight feeling of nostalgia and regret on hearing that a piece of legislation that had stood the test of time—for about 700 years—was to disappear. That may seem a strange thing for a legislator to say. However, I take the view that if a piece of legislation has lasted for a long time, it is not unreasonable to assume that it might still have some useful working life.

The idea that Members of Parliament, even those as distinguished as the gathering here today, will be able to produce a piece of legislation that is automatically better than something that has stood the test of time must be considered. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire will not take it amiss if I say that, as a Conservative, I at least start from the assumption that 700 years' worth of established history suggests a pretty good basis on which to work.

People have said to me over the years that there is something particularly arcane about treasure trove. I am not sure there is. However it may work in practice, the law on treasure trove makes a degree of sense, and fits perfectly well with established legal principles.

As I understand it, it simply amounts to the following. Under the law of intestacy—if no will is made willing away property that has been left—the Crown automatically inherits property. That principle would apply today if one of us died and did not leave provisions. Our assets, and in some cases our debts, would be left to the Crown. It is a straightforward process that valuables without any apparent ownership should go to the Crown, and perfectly fair that the law should operate in that way.

We live in a somewhat cynical age, however, and I am sure that somewhere some journalist is already sucking his pencil and saying to himself, "What on earth is Parliament doing spending a whole Friday debating such a subject?" That is a fair point.

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

A whole Friday?

Mr. Nicholls

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not being provocative. The question could apply to debating such a measure for just part of Friday.

The law relating to treasure trove in its apparent and even manifest inadequacies has not featured hugely in my life. I cannot say that my postbag is full of letters from aggrieved treasure seekers or treasure acquisitionists who are upset about the state of the law. Nor are my surgeries full of such complaints. Indeed, when I get back to my constituency—like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), I hope that it is sooner rather than later—I do not expect to be regaled with complaints about the law relating to treasure trove.

The complaints will be rather more mundane. I shall encounter the usual traffic that comes to Members of Parliament, plus this week especially, the law relating to fish rather than treasure. Such things concern people rather more. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire said, the Bill deals with our heritage, in a sense our own memories, and it is right that the House of Commons should take time to consider them. It says much for the subject that we have managed to assemble a representation of the quality of the House rather than its quantity.

When I realised that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire was introducing such legislation, I wondered who it was aimed at. I like his idea that there would be no losers apart from rascals and only winners, but I always feel slightly worried when I hear such proposals.

Indeed, I have received at least one series of representations from a friend of mine over the years who is a detectorist. He has told me that he feels that legislation is inevitable, that it would be aimed against detectorisation—if there is such a word—and that it was all rather sad. I must admit that I would not have thought that of my hon. Friend, and I was reassured when I discovered that he was the Bill's promoter. I had wondered, however, whether there was not some incipient intellectual snobbery at work against strange people who put on their shell suits, take the whippet out for a walk and take a metal detector with them; that something was not quite right about them.

It also occurred to me that the Bill might be a result of an over-emphasis on the idea that treasure should automatically go to museums. I sometimes have difficulty with that idea, too. Most of us can remember as children being taken around museums, which 20 or 30 years ago in no sense stimulated one's awareness of the past and desire to know more about it—so many dusty covers on wet days to walk around and look at. All that is changed and I accept that. Museums are now entertaining places. If the driving force behind the Bill had been to ensure that oiks were not going round finding things and keeping them, and that instead articles could be safely locked up in a museum, I would have had some difficulty with it.

A great many things go into museums that never see the light of day again, because there is simply not enough display space. I therefore find it slightly difficult to accept that an item is lost for ever to the national heritage because it is discovered, sold and retained in private hands, rather than filed, categorised, archivised and locked away in a vault for ever to safeguard the national heritage.

That point was also made by the discovery of a hoard in 1985 in Normanby in Lincolnshire of no fewer than 47,912 base silver coins, to which my hon. Friend referred in passing. The briefing that I have says that it took several members of the British museum staff well over a year to clean and study all the coins. While reading that, I wondered whether it was so terribly important that all those coins should be filed away in a museum for ever instead of, perhaps, being sold on the open market.

Having said that, one appreciates the problem at once of ensuring that all the information that can be gleaned from a hoard is gathered, although one has to think what precisely is the point of confining all the coins in a museum. It is legitimate to question precisely what is behind the Bill.

I am also concerned not only as a legislator but as a lawyer about the fact that, the moment we try to cure one set of anomalies, we usually create another set. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire is a lawyer, and I know that he will also have paid particular regard to that.

We might need to consider the fact that the law of treasure trove concerns composition and depends on the degree of silver and gold in any items acquired, which is almost approaching the matter from the wrong angle. Since we are talking about the preservation of the national heritage, an item—my hon. Friend implicitly referred to it—can be of the utmost significance and interest even if it is not valuable in scrap terms if it were melted down and sold. We therefore have to be careful in changing the law, so as not to latch on to the conventional value of an item, because anomalies will occur.

I notice that, even in a relatively straightforward Bill, clause 1(1)(d)(i) is quite complex, because it states that something is capable of being treasure providing that it is found in association with other treasure. That suggests right away a degree of anomaly because unless there is one conventionally valuable item at a site, everything else will not be deemed treasure.

That concerns me greatly, because other examples can be cited. For instance, I understand that bronze coins will not qualify as treasure unless at least one conventionally valuable item is found with them. That suggests problems. Perhaps the Minister will be able to explain why that should be so.

I am similarly concerned that, if only one item were found, it could not be treasure trove. That points to a practical difficulty. One might not always know whether one has found just one item. If one finds one item in one field and another in another field, are they associated finds? Presumably not—that is an easy point. The far harder point to resolve is what happens if one finds one item, and 20, 30 or 40 yd away one suddenly finds another. One of the problems of trying to cure anomalies with legislative weaponry is that it creates other anomalies. I not quite sure what the answer is, and I can imagine that such situations will cause problems.

Although ownership is not a major shortcoming of the Bill, it needs to be addressed. My initial reaction to the Bill and the work that has been done on it was that, if we were going to take a fairly radical approach—if we were no longer to work on the basis that treasure deliberately hidden with retrieval in mind belonged to the Crown, and that, if it had merely been abandoned, the finder would be entitled to it—such an approach should reflect modern reality and common sense. That would surely mean dealing with the question of ownership. If an item or piece is found on land, the assumption should be that the person on whose land it is is the owner. That was the position from which I was originally coming.

To be fair, however, it can be seen there are difficulties with that approach. If the underlying intent or purpose of the Bill is to preserve examples of the national heritage, there may be a case for saying that the rights of property and ownership must be overridden so that the national heritage is to benefit. If we have to go that far, however, the assumption should still be that the person who would derive the advantage—the reward, perhaps—should be the owner of the land.

There have been extraordinary cases in which the owner of the land has not benefited. I think that my hon. Friend referred in passing to a case at Donhead St. Mary. A hoard of iron age gold coins was declared to be treasure trove. It was discovered by metal detection. The hoard was valued at £5,210. The Treasury decided to reduce the reward to £2,000 because the finder had been convicted for searching on a scheduled monument.

The person who received the ultimate reward had acted, by any stretch of the imagination, in a thoroughly meretricious way. Apparently, the landowner was aggrieved that he was not entitled to any reward. We can imagine that he might well have felt aggrieved. It surely defies any sense of justice and common sense that, if something is found, it is not the owner of the land who is rewarded but the trespasser as well.

An even more shocking case took place at Burton Overy, where 282 silver coins of the 17th century were found by an electrician while working in the loft of a house. The coins were declared treasure trove. In due course, it was the electrician who received the reward and not the owner of the house. That may appeal to some people's ideas of egalitarianism. It is the marvellous story of an electrician—a humble working man—who changes a plug and walks off with treasure trove worth £9,700.

That is slightly troubling. I would like to think—I hope that the issue will be clarified in due course—that the person who would benefit under the Bill in those circumstances would be the owner of the land, not the person who simply comes upon treasure trove.

These are matters that might be of interest, or almost of reassurance, to honest and reputable detectorists as against those who are not. There is no injustice in saying that it is the owner of the land who should benefit, not the finder. The relationship between owner and finder should be straightforward enough.

If someone goes on to someone else's land with metal detection equipment, he must ask permission to do so. If he does not request that permission, he is a trespasser, and should not be entitled to benefit from the fruits of his trespass. If someone wants to go on someone else's land with a metal detector, presumably he would say to the owner of the land, "I have a certain expertise in the handling of this detection equipment and I know where to look. If I come on to your land and I find something, can we split any reward that might be offered?" If the answer is "Push off', "No", "I want the lot", or "I shall not split it with you in that way", no bargain has been reached. In those circumstances the owner is not prepared to share the fruits of the other person's expertise, there is no contract, there is no problem and no injustice.

In any normal case, the assumption should surely be that the owner will derive the advantage, not the finder. The situation is entirely different, however, if no one knows where the owner of the land is to be found. I would have great difficulty if the only claim that someone had for reward was the mere fact of having found treasure trove, even though there was an owner.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does my hon. Friend think that the enactment of the Bill might lead to some rogue metal detectorists going on to land without seeking permission, in the hope that they will retrieve some treasure and be able to make off with it, as opposed to going through the legitimate process of making a bargain with the owner of the land?

Mr. Nicholls

That depends on the person. I have no reason to think that detectorists belonging to a properly constituted and properly set up organisation will not try now to make a bargain or to arrive at some accommodation. If someone has no interest in the heritage and in doing things properly, or in recognising the rights of ownership, he is likely to go on to other people's land. That will be the position whether or not the Bill is enacted. I am troubled that, under current law, and conceivably under the Bill if enacted, someone who is trespassing—someone who is not present under the terms of any arrangement—will still be in a position to derive some advantage having found treasure trove.

What will be the balance of reward between the owner and the finder? The Bill does not make that entirely clear. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire said that there would be an obligation under the Bill for reasonable efforts to be made to find the owner of the land. I am not sure how significant that is in reality. In most instances, the identity of the owner of the land would be obvious. If there is an obligation to make some rudimentary inquiries, what would be the purpose of so doing? What is the balance to be between ownership and occupation?

It is clear that a great deal of work has been done in putting the Bill together. There is no doubt that the motives behind it are entirely lawful. The measure is designed to try to preserve the national heritage. Given that a detectorist has told me of his concern that Parliament would introduce legislation that would weigh heavily against detectorists' interests, I am heartened by what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire has said.

I have read the Bill carefully to discover whether it could be used against responsible detectorists. I have found nothing in my reading of it that should give concern to those people. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying, in effect, that he would make himself available to them at any time, anywhere, to meet their concerns.

At the same time, I have two abiding concerns. First, in linking the nature of treasure trove to things that are valuable per se or where there is a range of items including one that is valuable, it seems that we are creating an artificial barrier that may stop us protecting particular finds, hoards or acquisitions that could be of great interest to archaeologists, and have an interest far greater than their face value.

Secondly, if we, as Conservatives, are to overturn 600 or 700 years' worth of established law, and even if we are to stop country lawyers such as myself having an occasional day out to attend an inquest at which we can ask ourselves thoroughly obscure questions on treasure trove and recite our various Latin tags—in other words, if we are to upset arrangements that have stood the test of time—we should ensure that those who benefit are the national heritage and property owners.

There should be no more cases of people trespassing on other people's land and deriving an advantage from so doing. If I ever find that I have employed an electrician who once used to practise at Burton Overy, and that he ferreted in my house trying to find where my predecessors had buried their goods, I think that I shall be prepared to reach an accommodation with him. The idea that, having fitted a plug, he can go off with treasure and instruct a country lawyer to oppose me at a local inquest, claiming that he has a better right to the treasure than I have, offends my sense of natural justice. I think that it would appal my bank manager as well.

10.18 am
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

The Bill raises a subject of considerable interest to my constituents. Dover has the great advantage that we are always making new discoveries in the form of rare coins or rare pieces of Roman antiquity. In Dover recently, we discovered a bronze age ship that extends Dover's history back through some 4,000 years. When the House contemplates the millennium celebrations for the year 2000, we in Dover feel that the House has not got a true perspective. Dover has a much longer historical perspective.

There have been many local finds in Dover, especially those that go back to Roman times. Julius Caesar tried to land at Dover, but its fortifications, though built well before Dover castle, were such that he could not, and he had to scuttle up the coast to Walmer. We have commemorated the fact that he managed to get ashore there in difficult circumstances despite it being well defended by my former constituents. The defence was so good that many Roman soldiers lost possessions. Detectorists and others take great pleasure in discovering rare Roman coins and other artefacts on the beaches and around Dover and Walmer.

Excellent artefacts, coins and other antiquities that we have been able to secure locally can be found in the Dover museum. I hope that the House will not object to a small advertisement for Dover museum. Anybody interested in rare Roman coins and antiquities would do well to spend a weekend enjoying what is on offer at our excellent museum. It is situated by the White Cliffs Experience, which runs through the history of life in Dover over some 2,500 years. Many Roman coins and other local artefacts have been placed there for tourists to enjoy. I am sure that my colleagues will want, on their holiday trips that use our excellent ferries, to stop off briefly in Dover for a good visit to the museum.

Our national heritage is of unquestionable importance, and the Bill must be considered in that light. There will be concern about whether the rights of individuals will be limited and genuine freedoms that have been secured over many hundreds of years unfairly dealt with.

We must be conscious of those freedoms, to ensure that we do not discourage a legitimate leisure industry. Many people get much enjoyment from using metal detectors or other methods to discover the nation's antiquities and coins of Roman and other periods. It would be tragic if we passed a Bill that acted as a disincentive to such people, many of whom have served the nation well in discovering rare coins and other pieces that have ended up in our museums.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) on making a powerful argument. We certainly need better arrangements. Britain does not have codified law, and it is good that we do not. Most hon. Members find judge-made law much more satisfactory. Occasionally, Parliament must tackle situations such as this, which for hundreds of years have had no real statutory framework, and lay down some principles. There is a strong argument that the time has arrived to lay down those principles, especially if we can achieve a fairer balance between landowner, discoverer, owner—if he is still around—and the national interest.

Considerable concern was expressed about the previous Bill on this subject, which was introduced by Lord Perth. I received letters from detectorists in my constituency saying that it was too restrictive of legitimate private interests. That is why I was pleased to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire has tried to work with the National Council for Metal Detecting, and that efforts are being made to accommodate its concerns and fears. Provided that the landowner agrees and has been consulted, it a respectable pursuit to go out and look for our antiquities and rare coins. I do not see why we should pass anything in Parliament that would discourage that.

However, we also have a responsibility to try to reconcile that freedom with the national interest, so that future generations can get the enormous pleasure that the many people who visit Dover museum and the White Cliffs Experience get from the rare finds on display, and so that we can increase the number of those finds.

I find nothing more intriguing than taking my young son, who at six is perhaps a little young fully to appreciate the Roman finds, to the museum and the White Cliffs Experience so that he can learn about the nation's heritage and the history of Europe. Such discoveries are one way through which we can teach young people about our history. He has been fascinated by Roman times, and we must do everything possible to ensure that there is a never-ending series of discoveries.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire said, many discoveries are made each year, and a considerable number of them, appropriately, end up in museums. I hope that all the principles that I have enunciated will be taken on board, and that the National Council for Metal Detecting and other organisations or individuals with legitimate concerns can be accommodated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on clause 1, which is one of the clearest to come before Parliament in some time. It is clear that we are not talking about one or two minor finds, but that there would have to be at least 10 non-precious metal coins in a find before the legislation would apply. That is a good safeguard for people who make casual finds.

Clause 2 deals with the powers of the Secretary of State. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that, because considerable powers would be given to the Secretary of State by the Bill. I am pleased that clause 11 provides for a code of practice about the how the Secretary of State should exercise those powers. It is important that Parliament should have a clear understanding of the matter.

I hope that the Minister will be able, during the Bill's passage, to set the record straight in Hansard, so that everyone can be clear about how the powers will operate. We do not want them to change rapidly or become too onerous, based on a bit of advice about which Parliament might not have been informed. We should not always tie Select Committees by legislation into the operation of an Act of Parliament, but it would be helpful if the Minister could say that reference would be made to Parliament, perhaps through the Select Committee, before changes to the code of practice were made.

In clause 6, the Secretary of State has the right of disclaimer. That is an important provision that needs to be amplified. I hope that it will be covered by the code of practice.

Clause 7 talks about doing away with the jury. I notice that there are some 40 to 60 inquests a year by coroners. It would be interesting to know the Minister's thoughts on the way in which juries might operate in future. It would appear that a jury can be convened by the coroner if he or she feels that it is appropriate, but it is important that the coroner has a clear understanding of the circumstances which the Minister or the Secretary of State might consider required the convening of a jury.

I notice that clause 8 establishes a fine of £5,000 or up to three months' imprisonment for contravention of the legislation. Parliament tends to establish fines which are supposed to last 20, 30 or 40 years. Even at the low rate of inflation that we have now, £5,000 might not be high enough to act as a disincentive to people to breach the clauses of the Bill.

I suggest that it might be worth legislating for the future and perhaps considering allowing the fine to be raised to a more realistic figure. We must especially bear it in mind that people might contravene the legislation because they have made a very valuable find and do not want to go through the procedures. It is important that the fine should act as a disincentive. It clearly will not do so if someone decides to breach the legislation because his find is worth perhaps £100,000 and the fine is only £5,000.

I see that, under clause 10, the Secretary of State will be able to determine rewards based on a market value to be determined by the Secretary of State, as he or she thinks fit. I hope that that means that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will set up some form of procedure under which experts are involved.

I think that our Secretaries of State are wonderful—of course I do, coming from this side of the House—but they might have some difficulties based on their previous experience in life in precisely determining a market value. I therefore hope that some experts will be involved who will understand how the right balance can be determined between the finder, the owner and the occupier of the land.

I look forward to reading the annual report that clause 12 requires. I am glad that legislation is now beginning to require annual reports. As an accountant, I have been used in business to seeing annual reports produced every year. Indeed, many companies produce quarterly or six-monthly reports.

One of the discoveries one make on entering Parliament is that the annual reports that Governments have produced over the years have not been so sophisticated or open in terms of providing information as one would have liked. It is good news that the Government have improved all the annual reports for all Government Departments and that those reports are in much better shape than previously. I hope that, when this annual report is produced, it will be a worthwhile one that will give a lot of information about some of the treasure finds over the previous year.

Perhaps at this stage, without straying off the subject, I might make a plea. The other day I went to the Vote Office and asked for the annual reports of each Government Department that are normally published in February. They are still not available. Those of us who like to get at the figures of Government make a particular plea that the reports do not become antiquities or treasure trove, and are not vastly out of date by the time they are published. I hope that Ministers in various Departments will take note of that request.

In conclusion, the Treasure Bill should, on balance, be advantageous and beneficial to the country. It should be seen as good news by pretty well all the interested parties here. I am sure that it could be improved still further with minor amendments, to make sure that the concerns of the National Council for Metal Detecting are taken on board. In that way, we can be certain that this Bill will adopt fairness between the discoverer, the landowner and possibly the owner, if he or she is still alive, of the property that has been discovered and, of course, the national interest. I welcome the Bill, with the proviso that we should try to maximise the number of people whose concerns have been taken on board.

10.34 am
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a small contribution to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) on his success in introducing the Bill, which is long overdue—perhaps several hundred years overdue. The Bill will clarify some of the problems that have arisen, particularly in recent years. Unfortunately, I have no personal interest to declare in relation to the Bill.

It is important to ensure that we preserve our heritage. Tourism is the fastest-growing industry in the world, and Britain has more than its fair share of visitors—a number which is increasing at a massive rate. One of the greatest attractions of Britain to people who come from abroad is our history and the artefacts that have been gathered over a long period.

Britain does that awfully well. Museums are littered throughout the country—north, south, east and west. They attract people from all over the world to come and see some of Britain's real history. I hope that the Bill will lead to the discovery of more artefacts, and will enable people who use metal detectors to go out with more knowledge about what the law sayd, and without the uncertainty which has been the problem to date.

One of the main purposes of the Bill is to designate what is treasure trove and what is not. The Bill is right to make it clear that objects which contain at least 5 per cent. by weight of gold or silver and are at least 300 years old are treasure trove. Up to now, treasure trove has been defined as objects which contained "substantial amounts" of gold and silver. For goodness' sake, the position is problematic enough as it is. Who is to state what is substantial and what is not? The specific declaration in the Bill of what is and what is not treasure will be beneficial.

Then there is the problem of coins that do not contain 5 per cent. of gold or silver, but are discovered in hoards. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) said that there would be difficulties in defining a hoard. How close together would the coins have to be before they were so designated? If someone with a metal detector discovers a coin one day, goes back another day and finds a coin not too far from the first, and then on a third day finds another, will that be considered a hoard? There may be a problem there. I hope that, in Committee, the definition of a hoard can be examined again, so that everyone can be clear about it.

The magazine British Archaeology said: The Bill's main aims are to remove the obligation for coroners' juries to read dead minds". That is right. It is problematic for a jury to work out whether someone buried something so that it would be discovered at a later date. It is right to remove that problem, and regard anything that is found as treasure.

The previous loophole has led to the loss of some treasure, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire said, the Middleham jewel, which was worth £2.5 million. Other finds, perhaps not of such great value but of great archaeological interest, may also have been lost.

The Bill also clarifies what would happen with items found in association with treasure trove. As has been said, a number of coins could be discovered in a pot that is of great archaeological interest; the coins have to be designated as treasure, whereas the pot does not. In such cases, the find associated with the coins would be classed as treasure.

Mr. Nicholls

Has my hon. Friend thought of another problem? If one coin cannot be treasure trove, what will happen if there is a massively important find of artefacts with only one coin? The whole find would disappear from the ambit of the Bill, whereas one extra coin would have made all the difference. That is obviously nonsense, but nonsenses can arise. Is that the sort of thing that my hon. Friend wants clarified in Committee?

Mr. Nigel Evans

Yes. The Secretary of State will have flexibility to designate additional classes of object as treasure". Let us take the case of one coin being found in association with a number of important archaeological artifacts. I am not certain whether the Secretary of State will be able to say, after the find has been made public, "I am going to reclassify all that as treasure."

I am not sure whether the powers will be retrospective and whether something that has already been found can be drawn within the ambit of the Bill. I hope that we will deal with that in Committee. However unlikely it is that a number of artefacts will be found in association with only one coin, it is possible, and the last thing we want is for such artefacts to be lost to the nation, or even taken abroad, which could be a problem. That needs to be sorted out.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) said, we need as much clarity as possible about the powers that the Secretary of State would have, so that everyone knows in what cases they would be used. We are delighted with our present Secretary of State, but one cannot judge who will hold that position in 20 or 30 years, so I hope that those powers will be clearly defined, and that we will know the constraints placed on that person.

Another main point of the Bill is that finds that are likely to be treasure must be reported to the coroner within two weeks, which is extremely useful. The maximum penalty for deliberately concealing the finds will be three months imprisonment, or a fine of £5,000, or both. That might sound severe, but it is absolutely right.

We are talking about preserving Britain's heritage. It is important for finds to be reported because there could be additional treasure in the area. I assume that people will know that archaeological experts in universities and museums will be notified of the finds. They might be attracted to the spot to find out whether anything else is there.

I have nothing against people who use metal detectors, but if the find is notified to the coroner and made public, experts who know a little more about the subject matter can become involved and perhaps even supervise more digs in the area to find out whether anything else is to be found. That could enhance the heritage and the archaeological finds in the area. I am pleased, therefore, that that provision has been included in the Bill. The more finds we can discover, the better it will be for everyone.

I am also delighted that the coroner will be able to make reasonable efforts to ensure that occupiers and landowners are informed of any reported find of treasure on their land. That brings me back to the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge mentioned—the electrician who found coins in a loft. Any electricians who want to come to my house are welcome to do so—they would be lucky to find anything.

There are vast tracts of farmland in my constituency, as in many others, and some of the villages there are well known to archaeologists. In Ribchester, for example, if one wants to do anything to one's house, such as adding a porch or a garage, one has to notify the planning department, which notifies archaeologists at the neighbouring university, who have to decide whether they want to do a dig before any building takes place. That shows how problematic the situation is, but that is the right course of action.

It is therefore right that landowners should be informed of reported finds of treasure on their land. We have talked of trespassing, and it would be appalling if someone discovered treasure on someone else's land and was able to make off with it and be given its full value. That is absurd.

Even after the Bill is enacted—as I am sure it will be—we will not be able to rectify the problems caused by the rogue. People will still go on someone's land, find treasure and make off with it, and we will never be able to stop that, but at least we will know what the law is. I am sure that people involved in metal detection will want to ensure that any rogues in their midst are brought to book as quickly as possible, because they give all metal detectorists a bad name. That problem must be sorted out as quickly as possible.

Clause 7 would give the coroner the discretion to summon a jury to a treasure inquest, thus speeding up the process considerably. I believe that it might also reduce the cost of working out whether something is treasure. The Bill also clarifies the coroner's duties, thus making them somewhat easier.

The Bill requires that a code of practice be prepared to deal with rewards, after consultation with interested parties. Will those include metal detectorists and those in the archaeological community? It is right to draw up a code of practice, and the Bill will not become fully operational until that code is known. I hope that a number of associations and interested parties will be consulted.

People will want to know what the rewards are going to be. For example, if metal detectorists find something on someone else's land, they will know that they will get half the value of the find and the landowner will get half, or they might even reach some sort of deal whereby the landowner gets 75 per cent. and the finder 25 per cent.

Mr. Nicholls

That is the point. It is a question of reaching an arrangement. If one cannot come to terms—if the landowner would not allow someone to wander over his land with a metal detector if he does not get a big enough share—a deal will not be done. It would be wrong if no attempt were made to reach a deal, or if someone tried to rat on a deal and hang on to what they had found. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a question of making an arrangement with the owner of the land and adhering to it?

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that the position will become far clearer with the passage of the Bill. I suspect that, because of the publicity that will result from its passage, many more landowners will be far more conscious of what they might have and be keen—one never knows—to invite metal detectorists on to the land to try to find something, but under the arrangement that, if they do find anything, the landowner gets half and the finder gets half. That will become far more transparent.

We have heard about some of the reservations of metal detectorists about the Bill, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire made it clear that it is not anti-metal detectorist, but quite the reverse. We often see them operating in our constituencies—I find it slightly bemusing, but there they are, either alone or with the whole family, traipsing over fields and looking hopefully for some find.

I do not know whether they are lucky every time. I suspect that it is like fishing and one does not catch something every time. I have caught something on only one occasion when I have been out fishing. Metal detectorists probably have to make a massive investment of their time and, even after years, might find little, if anything at all. The Bill might encourage them to go out knowing clearly what is treasure, and the procedures for reporting treasure trove to the coroner and the landowner.

If the legislation leads to more artefacts being found, metal detectorists will be providing us with a great social and historical service, and we should encourage them to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire said that he anticipated greater finds of treasure after the Bill's passage, which should be welcomed.

What about after the treasure has been found? Will museums have the ability to say, "We are very interested in this—it should be put on display so that the nation can enjoy this artifact or treasure"? I am concerned that, if there is a substantial increase in the amount of treasure found, museums may not be able to buy it. I am worried that the treasure will go on to the open market, be bought by someone abroad and lost to this country for ever.

If it is likely that there will be more treasure on the market, museums should be in a position to buy it. I ask the Minister to examine that issue, because I do not want to see the treasure leaving this country. Will museums be able to get funding or assistance from other bodies?

No one else has mentioned the national lottery. If museums were able to get access to some of the substantial sums that have been made available through the successes of the lottery, the country would benefit. I hope that that idea can be examined, although there may obviously be problems with capital and revenue purchases.

I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge: that we do not want to see the treasure going into museums and then being locked away. If that were to happen, it might as well have been left in the ground. I hope that museums will be imaginative with the type of treasure and artefacts they obtain. We want to see treasure put into museums as part of the living history of the United Kingdom, to show our youngsters how important history is and how we have developed. If museums can afford to buy the treasure, it will enhance everyone's life.

I have two questions on the Bill. The first is whether it will be a graverobbers charter. From what I can make out—perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire would like to say something if I have it wrong—the current position is that graves are fully protected by law and licences are needed to open them, but gold and silver objects discovered at an unknown burial site might qualify as treasure. I hope that the position will be made absolutely clear. The last thing any hon. Member wants is for people to think that they can start digging away at known and designated cemeteries and burial sites; that would be dreadful.

My second question is whether the Bill will criminalise innocent people who fail to report finds because they did not know that they should have done so. That may always be a problem, but I understand that the Bill specifically states that any person who has a reasonable excuse shall have a defence against a possible prosecution for failing to report treasure. Obviously we need clarity in the system, but also some flexibility. We should ensure that there is understanding for a young person, for example, who is given a metal detection kit for Christmas, starts wandering around and finds something of great value, unbeknownst to him or her, fails to report it and is in breach of the law.

Once this Bill becomes an Act, perhaps metal detection kits should contain the code of practice as part of their packaging. As with electronic products, the instructions should be read before "plugging in". People could read the instructions before they go on to the land, and start to enjoy discovering some of Britain's hidden treasures.

10.53 am
Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

I apologise to the House for not being present at the start of the debate, but I have been trying to follow it. I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) on introducing the Bill. If it is successful, it will represent the first change to legislation on treasure trove since Richard the Lionheart first ruled that gold or silver that had been hidden with the intention of recovery by the owner belonged to the Crown.

King Richard's original purpose for that legislation was to line the Crown's pockets to make ready for battle. I can understand the Treasury's wish to boost revenue going into the Exchequer by any possible means, but I do not think that that is the reason why the current legislation remains on the statute book. Our currency is no longer gold-based—which some people may regret—and the legislation has now become a means by which we are able to afford at least some protection to our heritage, by ensuring that historic finds can be purchased by the Crown for cataloguing and display.

As some hon. Members have already said, the current law is substantially flawed and riddled with anomalies, with the result that much of our heritage is being lost as more and more relics are dug out and kept or sold without first being reported. That is happening, in part, because of the actions of unscrupulous individuals, but also quite frequently because people do not understand or are not aware of the current law.

We are exceptionally fortunate in this country because of the wealth of history and antiquity that forms our heritage, but much is still not known. The existing records and objects of the past have been studied and analysed, and they may still have some new surprises to bring forward, although it is much less likely now. To find out more about our history, we will have to depend on new discoveries, and the vast majority of those are likely to be found buried in the ground.

Some objects, when discovered, will immediately tell us more about their provenance and about our history. They may come from a certain period or have a marking on them that indicates their age, but many more will be something of a mystery. Crucial in interpreting the significance of those objects will be the location in which they were buried and their depth in the ground. Anyone who has been on an archaeological dig will know of the painstaking, enormously slow process that is involved in uncovering objects. The precise position in the ground of every revealed object and its proximity to other finds is carefully recorded.

When people come along who are not experts or who are not necessarily interested in the history of an object, but whose main motivation is simply to try to uncover a pot of gold, and they root around without paying much attention to the archaeological importance of their finds, the archaeological information is lost. All too often, they simply chuck aside anything that does not immediately appear to have a monetary value.

In recent years, there have been a number of attempts to change the law to deal with that problem. In particular, an enormous amount of work was done by the Earl of Perth in 1994, and by Lord Abinger in 1981. I can understand the frustration they must have felt, having devoted so much effort to updating the law, only to find that their efforts were unsuccessful, not because of opposition in either House but because of a lack of parliamentary time. I hope that they will feel that the work they undertook was not wasted, because it is of immense value today as we debate this bill.

As has already been said, the law currently covers only gold and silver objects that can be proved to have been stored for safekeeping and subsequently not recovered, and it does not necessarily take into account their historic worth. There is no proper penalty in law for those who do not report finds of treasure trove to the relevant authority, and landowners have no rights over those who make finds on their land. The Bill will deal with the inadequacies of existing legislation in three ways.

First, as we have heard, the Bill will apply to all objects which are found to contain at least 5 per cent.—or less for hoards of more than 10 coins—by weight of gold or silver, and which are at least 300 years old. Any items found in the same hoard will also be covered, regardless of the material from which they are made. For example, the pottery container holding the coins may often be of greater historical significance than the coins themselves, and it should, of course, be afforded the same protection in law.

Secondly, the need to prove that objects have been stored rather than lost is to be removed. Hoarding through burial was in times past a common event—anyone who has dipped into Samuel Pepys's diary will know that he and his father were unable to recover all their hoarded coins from the garden, because the coins had been dispersed in the soil—but it is often almost impossible to prove that objects have been stored rather than lost unless the find is too large to have been accidentally lost by the former owner.

Museums should have the opportunity to acquire any find considered to be historically important, regardless of how it came to be buried. It is the absence of legislation such as this that has allowed much of our heritage to pass into the hands of private collectors, many from abroad, without our museums having the opportunity to examine or catalogue the objects prior to their sale. Of course, that is not the case in Scotland, where all objects whose original owners cannot be traced are the property of the Crown, not the finder or landowner.

Furthermore, I understand that the Bill does not mean that our museums will suddenly be cluttered with all sorts of undesired objects. Finds will be passed to museums only if the museums wish to acquire them for their collection, and if they have the necessary funds to make the purchase at a market price. I am advised that no central fund for the acquisition of such articles will be established, and, should a museum not be interested in securing the article, or should the funds not be available, the item will be returned to the finder.

Thirdly, the Bill introduces for the first time a requirement that anyone who finds what he suspects to be treasure must report the find within 14 days. I understand that that is already the position in Northern Ireland. Failure to notify the authorities within that period will become a criminal offence. Thus, for the first time since the middle ages, the law on treasure trove will have teeth.

I understand that the Bill has received great support from the police, magistrates, coroners, landowners, councils, museums and archaeological societies, but I am aware that there is still some opposition to it, mainly from metal detectorists. I believe that many of the people who pursue metal detecting as a hobby are honourable people who wish to behave responsibly. Indeed, many of them make a valuable contribution by uncovering items that would not otherwise have been found.

The code of conduct laid down by the National Council for Metal Detecting is exemplary. It states that those who pursue metal detecting should not trespass, should ask permission before venturing on to private land, should report unusual historic finds, and should be aware of the law relating to archaeology. Such provisions are very welcome, but the difficulty has been that they have not always been followed by less scrupulous people. That is something that the Bill will at last deal with.

One or two other concerns have been expressed, and it would be wrong of me not to mention my constituent, Mr. Fearnley of Maldon, who wrote to me this week outlining his worries about the Bill. He suggests that the Bill would deprive landowners of what is at present their property. My understanding is that that is not entirely correct, that the Bill in fact respects the right of property and has, as a result, attracted the support of the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union.

Mr. Nicholls

My hon. Friend is touching on an important point, which has especially concerned me. Does he agree that the assumption should be that the landowner rather than the finder should receive any reward, especially if the finder was not on the land with the owner's permission? Does he accept that it would be very welcome if the Bill made that very clear?

Mr. Whittingdale

I agree. I think thet it is because the Bill covers that point that it has attracted the support of organisations such as the Country Landowners Association.

Although I welcome the Bill and the provisions that will clarify and extend existing protection considerably, I believe that there is a need to go still further. The Bill refers only to treasure, and treasure is very strictly defined. It must have at least some gold or silver content, and the Bill will clearly be a major improvement in respect of the protection of such items, but there is a need for a much more wide-ranging measure to cover all portable antiquities.

Some protection already exists in legislation covering ancient sites and monuments, but not all ancient sites and monuments have yet been discovered. By the time we have agreed that something is an ancient site that should be afforded protection, we may be too late and many of the artefacts there may have been lost. I hope that, in due course, we shall re-examine the law in this respect.

This issue is one in which I take a particular interest, like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire, and, indeed, the Minister, who is a close neighbour of mine. We represent areas rich in history. Maldon is, of course, famous as the site of one of the first battles, just over 1,000 years ago, but finds in my constituency go much further back. Recently, there has been a major discovery at Elms Farm of an iron age settlement that is around 2,000 years old.

English Heritage has given a grant of £1 million for the excavation of the site—the biggest grant that it has ever awarded. There has already been an enormous wealth of discoveries which have told us much about iron age Britain and, subsequently, about Roman Britain, because the Romans settled there later. About 20,000 artefacts have been uncovered, but the vast majority—indeed, practically all—are not made of gold or silver but of wood, pottery or stone. Unless one is fortunate enough to discover gold or silver objects, and thus be covered by the Bill, finds are still not adequately protected.

Only a few months ago, there was a find at the other end of my constituency of one of the biggest early Roman settlements. I understand that it is one of the very few places that Claudius visited when he came to this country. A temple and theatre have been uncovered there.

That site needs protection, and I hope that there may come a time when we can consider how best to protect our archaeological heritage, so that all artefacts that may have some significance are saved and it is not possible for those people who simply want to make a quick buck by uncovering some gold to trample all over such a site, do irreparable damage and destroy much of what could have been of enormous value in our attempt to uncover our history.

The Bill will extend existing protection, and will be enormously valuable in protecting some of our heritage. In due course, I hope that we can go further still and re-examine ways in which we can best protect that heritage and learn more about it for our children and grandchildren.

11.8 am

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this interesting debate and to explain why the Labour party is happy to support the reasonable and constructive Bill introduced by the hon. Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant). I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the several people whose work has preceded the debate and the Bill's formation, particularly Lord Perth. I also join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Dr. Roger Bland, without whose expert guidance and notes I suspect we should all be a lot less well informed than we are today.

As many hon. Members have said in the debate, the existing law dates back to 1195 and was introduced for totally different reasons. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the law in respect of treasure is in a chaotic and illogical state. Many people feel that it is the worst and weakest framework in Europe—perhaps with the exception of the system in Belgium. If someone is digging in his garden, it matters in law whether that garden is in Scotland, or England or Wales. If someone discovers something, he owns it as long as it is not gold or silver. He need not tell anybody about it or bring it to a scholar's attention. He can put it on his mantelpiece, shove it in his garage, break it up and dispose of it although it may be of enormous archaeological, historic and cultural significance.

At present, there is no requirement for that person to respect the importance of his find or to do anything with it, which cannot be right. Equally, if the find contains gold, the position changes, which is illogical. The hon. Gentleman's Bill sensibly clarifies and reforms crucial elements of legislation.

I particularly welcome the clarification on the issue of intentionality. It is clearly impossible to say what somebody was intending 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. The intention is sometimes clear—for example, if the find is discovered in a burial chamber, where it was likely to have been recovered at a later date. But it is often impossible to judge intent: the intentions are buried underground—buried in time. It is impossible for us to detect the intent; it is unfair to ask a coroner's jury—of all the unlikely sets of men and women—to try, retrospectively, to judge the intent.

As a result of such difficulties, there have been idiotic cases such as that involving the Middleham jewel—the late 15th-century reliquary which was found in a Yorkshire field in 1986. The jury could not decide on the intent, so the find was not covered by treasure trove and was sold at Sotheby's for £1.43 million. The case was brought to a happy conclusion in terms of our cultural heritage only because the Yorkshire museum was able to acquire the find—all credit to it for doing so.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's point about clarifying the precious metal content. In 1990, an amazing iron age hoard was found at Snettisham, but because it was a mixture of torcs, bracelets, ingots, coins and scrap metal—which had no huge value, but was important architecturally—it was not covered by treasure trove. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the important find at Hoxne which, because it included tableware, was in a different category.

Mr. Nicholls

Is there not a problem because, even under the present excellent Bill, a hoard that is immensely important in terms of our national heritage, will be beyond protection if it does not include the appropriate silver and gold content? Is that not the sort of issue that might be clarified in Committee?

Mr. Fisher

I am sure that the subject will be discussed in Committee, although we have had an interesting near-Committee-stage debate today, with observant points being raised by Conservative Members. The issue needs to be clarified, although I suspect that some aspects will be covered by the Government's forthcoming code of practice.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for South-West Cambridgeshire recognises the problem of hoards that do not have gold content. Many hon. Members will remember the long saga of the Icklingham bronzes of Mr. Browning in Suffolk throughout the 1980s—the bronzes were stolen and eventually appeared in New York. Unfortunately, they were not covered by treasure trove because they were bronze, although they were important Roman bronzes.

The Bill's scope is important; reference has been made to the excellent work of the treasure trove reviewing committee and its very good annual report. An enormous range of finds come under the treasure trove, including bronze-age torts found in interesting circumstances when erecting a farm fence. A set of bronze age bracelets were found by two women called Mrs. Beatrice and Mrs. Ferguson while they were gardening—an interesting way of enlivening a Saturday afternoon's gardening.

I commend the interesting report to hon. Members; it mentions an extraordinary scattering of Roman coins all over the country. Silver denarii, radiates and brass sestertii have been found all over—in Suffolk, Gwynedd, Manchester, Leicestershire, Essex, Dorset, Lincolnshire, river banks, woods, moors, marshes and fields. Clearly, the Romans were careless about spreading gold and silver over their realm. The report is an amazing piece of work by the treasure trove reviewing committee: it shows how important the subject is; why we should improve the law and why the hon. Gentleman should be commended on introducing this sensible and constructive measure.

Hon. Members recognise that there has to be reform, but the question is: what sort? In his interesting contribution, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) took what can best be described as the small "c" conservative approach. He seemed to say, "It is working quite well, so we should leave well alone." We have not heard quite so much this morning from the libertarian wing about repealing all laws and leaving it to the finder-takes-all principle. I was surprised by that, but I wondered whether the hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) might be beginning to take that approach.

It would be an extremely dangerous approach to adopt, which would focus attention on the Sutton Hoo burial ship, which was not treasure trove. If we had a policy of finder takes all, the Sutton Hoo find could have been—were it not for the extreme responsibility of the woman involved—kept in a garage, broken up or sold off. Anything could have happened to something that was perhaps the most important Anglo-Saxon find of our generation.

The reformist wing includes the extreme radical position of those who believe that all the current measures should be scrapped because they are not working and we should introduce a new, comprehensive piece of legislation. That was the position adopted by the Museums Association at its 1994 conference. The approach was articulately and intelligently argued by Mr. Tim Schadla-Hall, the museums director in Leicestershire. It is a coherent approach which, to some extent, the hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon seemed to adopt; it can be intellectually justified.

It is arguable whether any Government would have the time and the ability to get it right from the outset. It is an intellectually respectable, interesting and logical position, but it would be difficult to get such a law right. When other countries such as Turkey and Italy have introduced such legislation, they have encountered enormous problems in enforcing it. Many people feel that, because such legislation is unenforceable, it drives more of the stuff underground in those countries. Therefore, although the policy is logical, there are genuine problems with it—but I do not dismiss it.

The hon. Member for South-West Cambridgeshire has taken a sensible, pragmatic, reformist position. He has recognised the cultural public interest and balanced it against private interest. Crucially, he realises that the measure needs to be workable and enforceable, and needs to balance criminality against good practice. I was a little surprised and confused by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) who, in an interesting contribution, at one stage seemed to say that we should criminalise the fellows committing such action, but then to say that it would be terrible to criminalise them. I was a little confused about his position on criminality in relation to some of the issues, but his contribution was interesting.

The Bill should command general support on both sides of the House—it has support outside the House. The Labour party wants to associate itself very strongly with this position. The Bill is not hostile to metal detectorists. Indeed, the National Art Collection Fund's 1994 report paid tribute to the work of metal detectorists and said that 10 times as many important brooches have been found since 1988 because of such work than had been found before then—but it did not quite say that that period saw the rise of the metal detector in this area, the new technology working for archaeology.

Most metal detectorists are extremely responsible people and do it not out of gain but out of genuine interest. The Bill does not threaten them in any way whatsoever. The annual report of the treasure trove reviewing committee states that all but five of the 27 cases reviewed by it in 1994–95 were found by metal detectorists. It is recognised that most metal detectorists play an important role. The National Metal Detecting Association is only too aware that this debate was provoked because of the looting of Wanborough, and that, if it had not occurred, we would not be where we are today. That was an irresponsible, and damaging act—Celtic coins were looted. Not all people who work in this area act with good sense or with a constructive attitude.

I look forward to the Minister's speech. I hope that the Government will endorse the Bill. I hope that he will tell us a little bit more about the code of practice, which I understand is forthcoming. Will he tell us when the code of practice is likely to be put into effect and what areas it will cover? For example, will it cover guidelines on registration of a wider range of portable antiques or the obligation to report all finds? Will the code of practice go so far as to license all excavations, as occurs in Northern Ireland? Will the state have the right to claim any find of archaeological importance, as occurs in Scotland? Will the Minister, under a code of practice, encourage a network of designated museums and centres for reporting finds? We already have a network in Leicestershire, Norfolk and the museum of London. If that were extended, it would be helpful and constructive, and fit very well with the hon. Gentleman's Bill.

I hope that the Minister will also say something about the problems of enforcement. How will the Government react to that? How will they encourage people to act responsibly? Counties such as Norfolk issue leaflets, and there is clear and public guidance to people on how to react when they discover a find. That sort of constructive attitude, if supported by a voluntary code that the Government introduce, would be welcomed by the Labour party.

Will the Minister also put it into a slightly wider context and say something about the international context and whether, if ever, the Government will ratify the 1970 UNESCO treaty to put an international context on all this work? I hope that the Government publish a good code of practice as a codicil almost to the Bill. The Labour party congratulates the hon. Gentleman on his Bill, and hopes that it gets speedy passage through Committee.

11.23 am
The Minister of State, Department of National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat)

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) for bringing forward the Bill. He has done a tremendous amount of hard work—he has dug up detailed, esoteric and recondite work and presented it to us. I expect that he will have a hard and detailed time in the Committee stage. There has been a long, and not always satisfactory, history to this measure. A number of hon. Members have paid tribute to the work—which was frustrated—that was done in another place during previous attempts to get provisions of this nature turned into an Act. While it was frustrating at the time for noble Lords, their hard work has helped my hon. Friend prepare the Bill and it will shortly see fruition in an Act.

Secondly, I shall refer briefly to some of the comments that have been raised by my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who spoke for the Opposition. Thirdly, I shall say something about the Government's position and take up the words of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and put it in a wider context so that, on Report, we will have in our minds the Government's discussion document on portable antiquities, the treasure trove reports and the consultations which will take place about the guidance that will fill in any detailed aspects of the Act.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire will want to comment in more detail, as this is his Bill. He made an extremely thoughtful contribution. There are a number of sides to this Bill: the interests of the finders, the interests of the landowners and the interests of the nation—which can be subdivided into museums, individuals and individual displays where the public may see the objects that were discovered. The objects should be recorded and their provenance should be ascertained and set down for future generations so that they know the importance of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) said that it was right that not everything should necessarily go into museums when they are discovered, and it is the Government's intention that not everything should go into museums. As my hon. Friend's Bill makes clear, there will be times when museums are offered objects but do not want them. They will then be returned to the finder, who can do with them as he or she wishes. My hon. Friend also said that he did not want objects mouldering in the cellars of museums and never seen by the general public. However, he also said that museums have changed in the last few years.

Hon. Members will know that I am currently looking at a museums review, which the Government have not held since 1928. What my hon. Friend's Bill says about treasure and the consequences of the consultation document on portable antiquities will be fitted in with what we are hoping to do about museums. It will be put into a wide context.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge referred to the difficulties of defining when an object is found in association and when it is not. He asked whether an object found near where others were previously found—perhaps a field away—will be associated with the previous objects. These matters will be discussed in Committee, and they will be the subject of consultation. There are doubts and uncertainties about these matters. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central asked me to say something about a code of practice. We will ask the detectorists, the police, the Country Landowners Association, the National Farmers Union and landowners for their representations and about exactly how they think such matters should be best decided.

My hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge and for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale)—or perhaps I should say the battle of Maldon—made an important point about striking a balance between the rights of the detectorist or the finder and those of the landowner. It is a difficult one to strike. A problem arises under natural justice. If someone is trespassing on someone else's land and finds something on it, does it not belong to the person who owns that land, even if he never knew of the find's existence and never knew that he owned it? Those are difficult questions and we must direct our minds to their solution. We shall do so the guidance.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, the Opposition spokesman, and my hon. Friends have said about the Bill not being directed against detectorists. It should help the responsible detectorist. My wife is quite obsessive about detectors and I have more piles of rusty nails and old horseshoes than any man would wish to shake a stick at, but I certainly do not want to see her obsession in any way calmed down—within reason, at any rate. Let me add the Government's assurance that the Bill is not anti-detectorist. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has said, the increase in the number of important finds in the past few years is in large measure due to detectorists. We should encourage responsible detectorists, and the Bill will do so.

Mr. Nicholls

Will my hon. Friend clarify one point? If an item of what used to be termed treasure trove is found on land, who will be able to claim compensation for it under the Bill? How will that be decided? I am sorry to be obtuse, but I simply do not understand it.

Mr. Sproat

I do not think that my hon. Friend is obtuse at all. One cannot be obtuse about something which is not set down clearly. The matter has not been set down clearly in the Bill because it will be considered in the code of practice and the guidance. The matter will be clarified thereby; it is not intended to clarify it in the Bill, only to indicate that it will be clarified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) courteously apologised to the House for his absence now. He had a previous engagement arranged for later this morning, but he was keen to take part in the debate. I am sure that we are all glad that he did so. I welcome his welcome of the Bill and the fact that he agrees that we must not discourage responsible detectorists. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge, he asked how the Secretary of State's powers will be decided. I repeat that that will be a matter for us to consult fully on when the Bill has passed through the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover also made an interesting point, to which no doubt we shall return in Committee, about whether a fine of £5,000 is too small. Common sense tells us that, if a man reckons he has his paws on £100,000-worth of Roman coins, he will not care very much about a fine of £5,000 or even a possible prison sentence of three months. We shall want to reconsider that matter and the necessity or otherwise of index-linking the value of the fine in later years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made an extremely interesting speech, in which he also referred to the Secretary of State's powers. I have already said that the extent of those powers will be a matter for consultation, but of equal interest to the House is that what the guidance then determines should be the way in which the Secretary of State behaves will be subject to affirmative resolution in the House. We shall therefore have a chance to return to that matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge also asked what might happen about any changes that are necessary. It is rather like the discussion about television sports rights and what is or is not a listed event. Similarly, decisions will have to be made on what is or is not treasure. If it appears to us that things have been left out which ought to have been put in, the Secretary of State will consider the matter and proposals will be put before the House and will be subject to affirmative resolution. We are not just building flexibility into the Bill, but building into it a flexibility about which the House will have the chance to say, "Yes, we agree," or "No, we do not agree." That element of choice should be included in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley and others expressed concern about a graverobber's charter and about whether the Bill will criminalise innocent finders. Those are extremely important points and I should like to make it clear to the House that there is no question whatsoever of detectorists being able to break into graves to inspect them. Graves are protected by other laws and they will remain so protected. I can give a total guarantee that the concerns that my hon. Friends have rightly expressed have been taken care of.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley expressed natural concern that we must not criminalise innocent finders. That is so and why the Bill provides that if a discoverer has a reasonable excuse, it will be taken properly into account. For example, someone may dig a trench and happen to find a tort lying there. He may not realise what it is, put it aside and forget about it. Given that that person was just digging a trench and not looking for antiquities, he would have the type of reasonable excuse that would prevent him from being challenged for not reporting the find under the Bill. I am sure that the House may want to return to that in Committee, but I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire has dealt with the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley suggested that detector kits should include a short statement on people's responsibilities when they find something. That was an extremely good idea and a good example of how such debates raise points about which no one had thought. Certainly I had never thought about that and I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire had thought about it, either. No doubt manufacturers will want to take account of my hon. Friend's very good suggestion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon spoke about the hard work done in the Lords. It is worth while to emphasise how grateful we are for that. I hope that their frustrations are now sublimated in the warmth they feel now that their hard work is about to produce something that looks as though it will get through the House. My hon. Friend also raised the important point of considering the Bill in the widest possible context, and I will come to that when I express the more general Government attitude to the Bill.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central gave a general welcome to the Bill, and we very much welcome that. I am always impressed by the amount of extremely arcane information that he has to hand. He quoted that a find worth £1.43 million had been sold at Sotheby's. I do not know how he finds all that information, let alone remembers it. It is nice to have his support.

The hon. Member spoke about the illogicality of the Coroners Act 1988 and the fact that it related only to gold and silver. Not only that, but following a ruling from that splendid lawyer, Lord Denning, the Act relates to a "substantial" amount of gold and silver. When we are considering matters of law, we should always be careful about trying to pin down provisions to such and such a per cent. The exercise of common sense and judgment is something that lawyers should never subtract from their ability to shine upon any particular problem. However, possibly in this case saying that finds relate to 5 per cent. of gold or 5 per cent. of silver makes matters clearer.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his invention of the word "intentionality". I am not sure that I do congratulate him on that, but perhaps I should say I congratulate him on his ingenuiality on thinking up such a word. It is ridiculous to expect a coroner's court in 1996 to be able to say whether Ethelred the Unready meant to put a pot with 10 gold coins in the earth.

I thank the hon. Gentleman greatly for his general welcome of the Bill. I will cover in more tedious detail, starting right now, some of the points that he made about what other European countries do or do not do.

The Government very much welcome the Bill. It is a much-needed piece of legislation and I was greatly encouraged to hear the general support it received from all sides of the House. I noted, too, the particular welcome the Bill received from the Opposition. I hope that that means that it will have an easy passage in the sense of well wishing, but perhaps not quite such an easy passage. There are many details which I am sure the House will quite properly wish to look at more closely.

My Department has had responsibility for treasure trove for nearly three years and has been able to place it firmly within its overall responsibilities for archaeological and cultural property. We have made extra resources available for that responsibility, and the Department certainly accepts the need to reform this antiquated law.

If someone finds an object of gold or silver, he should report it to a coroner who will then decide whether to hold a treasure inquest. The coroner will take expert advice, usually from the British museum or the National museums and galleries of Wales or the Ulster museum. If it is declared treasure trove, the find is the property of the Crown. In practice, this means that a museum has a right to acquire it, but the finder is rewarded with its full market value. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon will be especially keen to hear that. He will know that in other countries in Europe, to which sometimes he has a slightly ambivalent attitude, do not always give full market value. However, under the Bill we shall continue to do so.

On average, about 25 finds a year are declared treasure trove, 90 per cent. of these being coin hoards, although there are also occasional finds of prehistoric gold torcs and Roman and mediaeval jewellery or plate. During the year April 1994 to April 1995, there were 27 cases of treasure trove. Of those, 25 were coin hoards, the other two being finds of gold torcs, and 16 of the finds were acquired by museums intact. In another five cases, all coin hoards, museums acquired a selection of coins, while in another six cases, once again all coin hoards, the complete finds were returned to their finders. Those statistics, tedious as they may seem, demonstrate to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley that sometimes museums get them and sometimes they do not. There is proper machinery to judge exactly what should be done

In 1977 the treasure trove reviewing committee was set up with the responsibility of advising the Secretary of State on valuations. The committee was established to provide independent scrutiny of treasure trove valuations and it currently contains four members drawn from universities, the trade and collectors. The committee's current terms of reference are to determine valuations for items brought before it which correspond as closely as possible, taking account of all the relevant factors, to what might be paid for the object(s) in a sale on the open market between a willing seller and a willing buyer; and to submit an annual report to Treasury ministers". The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has already expressed his admiration for those reports and I concur with him.

Two changes have recently been made to the committee's procedures to instil the greatest possible public confidence in its working. First, finders are invited to submit valuation evidence of their own—they can thus commission their own valuations from experts—and secondly, the committee has established a panel of expert advisers drawn from the trade to whom it can turn in cases of difficulty.

We are in full agreement with the committee, the British museum and the National museums and galleries of Wales that the best way to encourage finders to report their finds is to ensure that the committee's valuations should not only reflect the market value of the finds in question but should be seen to do so.

A recent valuation case demonstrates how we aim to achieve that. In September 1993 the great find of Roman gold and silver coins and other objects from Hoxne in Suffolk was declared treasure trove and in the following November the committee agreed a total valuation of £1.75 million for it. The British museum's valuation report was some 50 pages long and the committee also obtained three independent valuations, which were all within 7 per cent. of each other.

There was some initial criticism of the valuation in the metal-detecting press. One tabloid newspaper put a £10 million price tag on the find before it was known what it contained, thus raising expectations unreasonably high. To allay those criticisms and to promote open government, the valuation papers were released publicly and they have received favourable comment in coin collecting and metal detecting magazines. We think that this method of determining the amount of rewards works very well, and it is not our intention to change it should the Bill be successful.

The Government believe that the treasure trove system performs a vital service in safeguarding for the nation some of the most significant finds from the soil of England and Wales, but the law is limited in scope in an irrational way. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire has said, it relates only to objects with a substantial gold or silver content, reflecting its origins as a means of raising revenue for the Crown, rather than of preserving the most important archaeological finds for the nation. The objects are treasure trove only if the jury decides that they were probably buried with the intention of later recovery—a fact which may be virtually impossible to decide after 2,000 years or more.

Clearly, the current law cannot protect our archaeological heritage to the extent that we would like, and we support this effort to introduce a more appropriate system.

One of the most curious features of treasure trove is that the English law does not apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. I do not know why my brief states that that is curious, because the same pertains in hundreds of other matters. In Scotland, all newly discovered archaeological objects, irrespective of whether they are precious metal or regardless of whether they were hidden or lost, belong to the Crown under the legal principle of bona vacantia. I pronounce it slightly differently from my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire, who I am sure got it right.

Although the Crown chooses to exercise its claim only in certain cases, this means that in Scotland all archaeological objects must be reported, and the Crown can claim those which it believes to be sufficiently important. The system works well and enjoys general acceptance.

Northern Ireland has the same treasure trove law as England and Wales, which is why it is included within the scope of the Bill, but there is also has a statutory duty to report all archaeological objects in the Province, and the Northern Irish law also states that one needs a licence to search for archaeological objects with a metal detector.

In the Republic of Ireland, for example, a law was passed in 1993 which made all archaeological objects the property of the state. It is an offence to own or trade in archaeological objects from the soil of the Republic and the law contained retrospective provisions requiring all privately owned antiquities found in the Republic to be reported within three months of the enactment of the law. Metal detecting is outlawed and metal detecting magazines are banned. Those measures might seem draconian to us, and they are certainly a long way from the Bill's proposals, but they enjoy widespread support in the Republic, where it is thought to be entirely right that the nation's archaeological heritage should be protected in this way.

Hon. Members have mentioned what happens in other countries, and it is interesting to know the geographical and historical background to the legislation. A survey of legislation in 17 other European countries shows that the legal protection afforded to portable antiquities in England and Wales is more limited in scope, more permissive and also more liberal in its treatment of finders than in virtually any other country in Europe. Only Belgium, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, has a weaker legal requirement to report finds and provides legal protection to a smaller range of objects than England and Wales.

In most countries, all archaeological excavation is controlled and metal detectors can be used only under licence, and those are not normally given to treasure hunters, the only exceptions being the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium and some of the Scandinavian countries. We have no controls on the use of metal detectors in this country—except on scheduled sites—and the Bill contains no restrictions on their use.

Lastly, as regards rewards, the practice in England and Wales of paying the finder the full market value as assessed by an independent committee, is more liberal than in most countries, in many of which the reward bears little relation to the market value. All these countries have passed laws to protect their heritage of moveable archaeological objects this century. They see that as a completely natural and proper thing to do.

When viewed against that background, the Bill will make only a modest change to our current law. It will make only a very minor adjustment to the current requirement to report finds; it will extend the rights of the Crown only in a very modest way; it will not impose any restrictions on the use of metal detectors, and it will not change the practice of paying rewards assessed at the full market value.

The Government view treasure trove reform, important though it is, as just one part of the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire said, the great majority of archaeological objects will still fall outside the scope of the Bill. A recent survey undertaken by the Council for British Archaeology on behalf of English Heritage has estimated that, every year in England and Wales, as many as 400,000 objects of archaeological interest are discovered. That is in addition to finds discovered during professional archaeological investigations. Such finds include not only coins and other metal objects, but fragments of pottery and other artefacts. Occasionally, those finds—known as "portable antiquities"—may have great monetary value, but, on the whole, their importance lies principally in their archaeological interest.

The Government believe that it is important to distinguish between the two aspects of the problem: the public acquisition of finds and the recording of them. Treasure trove provides a mechanism whereby the national and local museums have, in effect, the right of first refusal to certain finds, providing that they can find the money to pay full rewards for them to the finders.

On the subject of recording, there is widespread agreement that the reporting of finds, so that they can be properly recorded, is of key importance, more important often than public acquisition, but the Bill will make only limited adjustments to the classes of objects that are legally required to be reported—for example, hoards of base-metal coins—and there would continue to be no legal requirement to report other important categories of finds.

For that reason, last month, my Department published—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central properly asked me about this—a discussion document on portable antiquities. It seeks views on possible measures to improve the recording of all archaeological objects, not just those covered by treasure trove law or its proposed replacement, in the belief that current arrangements are, except in one or two sectors, not working well.

The Government accept that there is an urgent need for action to record those objects as they are irreplaceable and of great importance for the nation's heritage. The discussion document considers the relative merits of voluntary and compulsory systems for the recording of finds. Under a voluntary system, the Government would draw up, in consultation with representatives of museums, archaeological organisations and metal detectorists, a voluntary code of practice for the recording of archaeological objects found in England and Wales. We believe that, if it is to be effective, the code would need to be accompanied by a campaign of education to encourage finders to report their finds.

One of the advantages of such an approach is that it would not require primary legislation and, thus, providing general agreement for it can be obtained, it could be introduced with minimum delay. There is evidence that a voluntary code of practice is the option most likely to receive the widest support. In the Government's view, in their way, those proposals are as important as my hon. Friend's Bill.

I would like to stress that the Bill places no restrictions on the use of metal detectors and the Government have repeatedly stressed that any detectorist behaving in a law-abiding manner will have nothing to fear if the Bill becomes law. I think that all hon. Members have said that that is the wish. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear me repeat the assurance that he asked for recently given by my noble Friend Lord Inglewood in his foreword to the report of the treasure trove reviewing committee for 1994–95. Neither the Government nor the European Union has any plans to ban or otherwise restrict responsible metal detecting.

In that same foreword, my noble Friend noted that all but five of the 27 cases of treasure trove recorded in the report were found with the use of metal detectors and he congratulated all those finders who reported their finds promptly to the proper authorities. The report for the first time named the finders. Without their ready co-operation, a great deal of valuable information about our nation's past would be lost. The Government willingly acknowledge that, in recent years, metal detectorists have discovered many objects of great importance for the nation's heritage.

My hon. Friend has described the meetings that officials from my Department have had with the National Council for Metal Detecting to discuss the Bill. He has made a generous offer that he will discuss at any time or place, within reason, any point that it wants to make. I hope that we will have the benefit of that discussion in Committee so that no one will say afterwards that they did have a chance to say what they believed.

The Government view the Bill as a modest measure to extend the protection currently afforded to certain finds of gold and silver coins and objects to a slightly wider range of archaeological finds, and to iron out some of the anomalies of this mediaeval law. We are not aware of any reasoned case for the retention of the law of treasure trove, and none has been suggested during the discussions that have taken place on the Bill with the many organisations that have an interest in it, including the National Council for Metal Detecting—although we are still in discussion with it—and landowners. Under current law, it is necessary to prove the motive of an individual. As hon. Members have said, it is unreasonable to expect a coroners jury to decide that in every circumstance.

The Bill's main aim, therefore, is to clarify exactly what type of find should be reported and will be treasure. At present, that is unclear; my hon. Friend's Bill makes it clearer. The Bill strikes a fair compromise between the interests of finders and landowners, but we shall consider that further in the consultation paper.

Detailed guidelines on how the Secretary of State for National Heritage is to pay rewards will be set out in the code of practice provided in clause 11. That code will be drawn up in consultation with interested parties. As a further safeguard, the code will have to approved by each House of Parliament before the Bill can take effect. As I have made clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, the Bill will not allow people to look for treasure in graves. Innocent finders will also be protected.

At the same time, the Bill has great flexibility because it contains a provision that gives the Secretary of State the power to add or to remove categories of object from the Bill. I hope that we are building in fairness, flexibility and an opportunity for the House to return to the matter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire again, and I look forward to the consideration of the Bill in Committee.

11.55 pm
Sir Anthony Grant

With the leave of the House, I will make a brief response because my hon. Friend the Minister has dealt with nearly everything that had been asked about. I am grateful for the support from both Front Benches and to all hon. Members who have spoken because they have all made sensible and helpful speeches, all of which will be extremely helpful in Committee. Nearly all the points have, I believe, been matters of detail and I assure my hon. Friends that I shall take them carefully on board.

Because of the warm response to the Bill, I hope that it will have a speedy journey through the labyrinth of procedure and will reach the statute book in the not too distant future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) rightly asked about what the definition of a hoard is and about how scattered it would have to be. We shall have to satisfy him about that in or before the Committee. He dealt with ownership. I emphasise again that the Bill is a change in the law. For the first time, landowners—whom he was concerned about—will have certain rights. Again, we shall consider whether they are adequate.

We should not forget someone else: the owner. My hon. Friend feared an electrician coming to his house and finding something of benefit. If my hon. Friend had a predecessor in title who said, "Hey, just a minute— all those coins are mine: I left them by mistake when I sold the house," his claim as the true owner, which he could prove, is established. That is covered by clause 4. The problem is that, in most cases, the original owners lived possibly 1,000 or 2,000 years ago.

Mr. Nicholls

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for pressing him on this point. I do not understand how a code of practice or guidance can clarify what seems to be a fundamental point. It would have to be sorted out by statute. Where there is no predecessor in title, in the sense that the possibility is remote, it is wrong that a finder should have rights over and above the owner of the property in which that hoard was found. That should be clarified. It is a policy decision about whether the finder or property owner should have the right. I do not understand how such a fundamental point can be dealt with in guidance.

Sir Anthony Grant

We will consider that matter carefully, but four factors are involved: first, the original owner, who can usually rarely traced in these cases; secondly, the rights of the finder; thirdly, the rights of the landowner or occupier; and fourthly, the rights of the nation. All those must be reconciled. To some extent, my Bill provides the framework for getting this right for the first time. The law has not been satisfactory for a long time. We shall consider closely what my hon. Friend says.

My hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), and my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the enforcement provisions. I was rather surprised because I had feared that someone would say that we were being too draconian. It seems as though we are being too lenient and wishy-washy. We will look at that point. However, I advise my hon. Friends that the issue of penalties gets entangled in Home Office regulations and standards, and in comparisons with other provisions.

Many years ago, I introduced a Bill on oil in navigable waters. We had a great struggle with the Home Office to get what we thought was an enormous penalty for people who discharged oil in navigable waters. We then discovered that it was totally inadequate and we trebled the fine. We shall have to see how we get on here; I was interested that people were concerned about the fines.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley that there will be no question of being ferocious or savage towards people who have genuine reasons for not reporting a find. Clearly, our famous word in law, "reasonable", can be interpreted perfectly reasonably in such a case.

I am so glad that every hon. Member who has spoken has emphasised, as I sought to do, that the Bill is not an attack on the excellent activity of metal detecting. I point out the concessions that we have made to the national council since Lord Perth's Bill was considered in the House of Lords. I mention four items that the council raised on which we have made concessions. One is the number of coins with a precious metal content of less than 5 per cent.; we have raised the figure to 10 under clause 1.

The Crown will now have the power to disclaim objects that have been submitted as potential treasure under clause 6; that change is in response to the national council's request. Coroners will now have discretion on whether to summon a jury to a treasure inquest under clause 7. Coroners—this was the final request that the council raised—will now be required to inform finders if a treasure inquest is to be held and to ensure that they are given the opportunity to examine witnesses under clause 9.

All four concessions were made at the request of the national council and are changes made since the introduction of Lord Perth's Bill. It therefore cannot be said that we have been unreasonable in the way in which we have responded. If the council wants to make any other points, it has only to let us know. If the council lets me know, I shall meet members of it. If the requests are sensible and reasonable, we shall accommodate them in Committee.

I repeat that responsible metal detectorists have a great contribution to make in the future recovery of our heritage. In that spirit and because of the warm support given by the House to the Bill, I can say that this is a moment of history. If the House gives a Second Reading to the Bill, it will preserve our history for the benefit of present and future generations.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).