HC Deb 30 June 2003 vol 408 cc1-4
1. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

What assessment she has made of the likely effect on London's Olympic bid of the UK's not returning the Parthenon sculptures to Greece in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics.␣[122076]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell)

I know that the House will want to welcome my new ministerial colleague, the Minister for the Arts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), and the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) has directed his energy to an increased portfolio, taking on tourism as well.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

And licensing.

Tessa Jowell

And licensing. How could I forget? [Interruption.] Freudian. With reference to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), I have made no such assessment.

Mr. Dismore

Bearing in mind the fact that the new Acropolis museum is under construction, with a completion date in 2004, is it not about time, after 200 years, that the Parthenon sculptures were returned to their rightful home, to put the icing on the cake for the Athens Olympics in 2004? Would it not create a great deal of good will towards our own Olympic bid if we were seen to be supporting the Athens Olympic games in such a generous way?

Tessa Jowell

I know that my hon. Friend has been a long-term advocate of the position set out in his question. However, it is important that we keep quite separate the issue of the Parthenon marbles and the issue of the lobbying, in due course, in support of bringing the Olympics to London in 2012. The two issues are unconnected. As my hon. Friend knows, the responsibility in law for the Parthenon marbles lies with the British Museum and the British Museum trustees.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley)

Is the Secretary of State worried that Britain's position as the custodian of the Parthenon marbles may be undermined by the surprising remark from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that he would not mind if there was a falling away in the study of ancient Greek and other languages? Was that not a philistine and a surprising thing to say?

Tessa Jowell

I have plenty else to worry about and do not need to add that to my list.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that it would be an enormous act of vision, generosity and cultural co-operation to return the Parthenon marbles to Athens for the Olympics in 2004, but that if those millions of visitors go to Athens in 2004 and see an accusing empty gallery where the Parthenon sculptures should be, great opprobrium will be earned by the British Government if they have not made some move before then to return the marbles to Athens?

Tessa Jowell

The museum, although planned, is not yet built, and although the site has been cleared, the foundation stone has not yet been laid. My hon. Friend is aware that the chairman of the trustees of the British Museum and the director of the British Museum have had discussions with their Greek counterparts about this matter. The position in law remains clear: the custodianship of the 30 per cent. or so of the marbles that are in the British Museum sits with the trustees of the British Museum, and they have no intention of returning them to Greece on a permanent basis or on loan.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

As the Member of Parliament whose main constituency county town is, sadly, associated with the misappropriated Parthenon marbles—Elgin is the town to which I refer—may I impress on the Minister the need to return those artefacts? Is she not aware of the statement by the Greek Minister of Culture, Mr. Evangelos Venizelos, that ownership of the marbles is no longer the key issue, and that he proposes that the marbles be returned to Athens on loan? Is it not now the right time to do the right thing and return the Parthenon marbles to Greece?

Tessa Jowell

I, too, have had discussions with the Greek Culture Minister. The hon. Gentleman must accept what I have already said: this is not a matter for Government. The statutory responsibility for the marbles resides with the British Museum and the trustees of the British Museum. They have made the position clear.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Given that the Tate now has four different museums and the Imperial War Museum has three, the globalisation of museums and art galleries already exists. Why could we not have a British Museum in Athens that would hold some of the sculptures, to resolve the tensions between us?

Tessa Jowell

As my hon. Friend knows, that proposition has already been put on the table and in due course will no doubt be considered. He will also know that the British Museum is proposing an investment of about £2 million in what it describes as a virtual display of the Parthenon marbles, ensuring that wherever fragments are located in the world, they are available to see. The British Museum sees its position in international culture in a particular way; as the global museum offering free access to visitors not only from the United Kingdom, but from around the world. That is an important element of its conclusion that the Parthenon marbles, legally acquired, should remain there.