HL Deb 26 January 1987 vol 483 cc1113-5
The Earl of Perth

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will set up a body to inquire into the working of the rules of treasure trove and the use of metal detectors, with special reference to archaeology.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, there is concern that the use of metal detectors has transformed the activities of treasure hunters, and that the present arrangements—including the treasure trove rules—provide an inadequate basis for ensuring that valuable archaeological finds are properly reported and recorded. This warrants a thorough investigation, and the Government therefore intend to invite views from interested parties on the best way of tackling the problem, including the case for an independent review. I will inform the House of my conclusions in due course.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his reply will give great pleasure to English Heritage, the British Archaeological Society, the British Museum, to me and to many others? Is he further aware that in view of happenings such as the saga of the Middleham Jewel, which was discovered a short while ago and whose fate is unknown (we do not know whether it will stay in this country), the inquiry is a matter of great urgency and public interest?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I accept the noble Earl's view that this matter is of great public interest. Many bodies are involved in this problem and they will find that they have conflicting interests. I should expect major contributions from the Council of British Archaeology, the Museums and Galleries Commission, the Museums Association and English Heritage and from several different government departments.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, does the Minister agree—I think that he does—that the existing old law, which I believe dates from the 16th century, is ridiculous and hedged around by a great many completely arbitrary assumptions? Is he aware that in Surrey recently coin hoards on private property, thought to be valued at some £750,000, were taken out of the ground largely at night and appeared in Europe, and that some of the prosecutions brought against the few offenders who were found did not succeed because the law is so unsatisfactory in that respect? Finally—

Lord Denham

My Lords, no. That is three questions. One question only!

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I should expect the review to discover anomalies in the present arrangements, and it is those that we have sought to investigate.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his statement will give great pleasure to this side of the House? Is he also aware that, apart from the treasure trove aspect, the indiscriminate use of metal detectors by untrained people is doing irreparable damage to many important archaeological sites? Will he be concerned for that aspect also in the deliberations that take place?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am aware that that is a widespread view. But, of course, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 makes it an offence to use a metal detector on scheduled monument sites or areas of archaeological importance without the Secretary of State's consent. Reputable operators of metal detectors are well aware of that, but I accept that there are others who are not so well informed.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, has the Treasury exhibited any interest in this matter? Does it have it in mind to seek to benefit from any change that may conceivably take place on purely environmental grounds?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, when I was being briefed on the noble Earl's Question, I was also advised by the Treasury. I hope that that answers the noble Lord's question.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that although I was pleased to hear what he said to the noble Earl, Lord Perth, I seem to remember answering in the same way, saying that the matter would be looked at soon? Does that really mean that it will happen?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, God, your Lordships, and the electorate willing, I hope to be doing it myself.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, are the users of metal detectors required to have licences? If so, what sort of information or advice are they given when they apply for the licences?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, no. To the best of my knowledge and belief, they do not have to have licences.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a good Bill amending this legislation went through all its stages in this House and was lost in another place purely fortuitously?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am well aware of the Bill on this subject promoted in 1982 by the noble Lord, Lord Abinger. That, of course, will be one of the starting points for the review.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that metal detectors are very valuable in finding rings or other items which may be lost in woods?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, yes, and I understand also on beaches.

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