HL Deb 18 May 1995 vol 564 cc680-3

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd April be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I must start with an apology to the House for not being present to commence this business at 4.10 p.m. I apologise, and I hope that I will be forgiven if I say that I was pitching for investment for Northern Ireland.

This order would introduce provisions broadly in line with those already in force in Great Britain by the enactment of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Northern Ireland has a quite different history of historic monuments legislation from Great Britain. The first historic monuments legislation in Northern Ireland dates from an Act of 1926, subsequently amended in 1937. Current legislation, the Historic Monuments (Northern Ireland) Act 1971, has maintained this distinction, but the enactment of the 1979 Act in Great Britain stimulated a review of provisions, from which this draft order springs.

The proposed draft order provides for the protection of scheduled historic monuments by the introduction of scheduled monument consent procedures, obliging persons to seek the consent of the Department of the Environment for any works which might affect a scheduled monument. There are approximately 1,080 scheduled monuments, equivalent to some 8 per cent. of the 13,000 recognised sites and monuments in the Province. Scheduled monuments, and monuments in the department's care, would be further protected by restrictions on the use and possession of detecting devices on those sites.

Secondly, the draft order provides for the possibility of management agreements concerning historic monuments in private ownership. The provisions give scope for a partnership between owners and the department towards the long-term protection and management of monuments, particularly in a rural context.

Thirdly, the draft order deals with the acquisition and guardianship of historic monuments and lands in their vicinity. There are 181 historic monuments in the care of the Department of the Environment, and the provisions reflect demands for improved public access and facilities for visitors.

Fourthly, the draft order provides for the continuation of the Historic Monuments Council. This body, which advises the department on its functions under historic monuments legislation, was first established in 1926 as the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee.

Fifthly, the draft order maintains provisions for the reporting of the discovery of archaeological objects and restrictions on searching for them.

In reviewing the application of the 1979 Act to Northern Ireland, consideration was given to the inclusion of provisions to enable the designation of areas of archaeological importance similar to those set out in Part II of that Act. However, given the limited success of those provisions and developments in archaeology and planning policy, it was decided that such provisions should not form part of the draft order.

The draft order was issued for public consultation in July 1993 and was well received by most of those consulted, especially those concerned with the archaeological heritage in Northern Ireland. Objections were raised by metal detectorists against those provisions which they felt would limit their activities on historic monuments.

Three significant amendments have been made to the proposals following public consultation. These amendments widen the advisory role of the Historic Monuments Council, particularly in relation to the new provisions for scheduled monuments. They provide for a role for the Northern Ireland Planning Appeals Commission in hearing appeals concerning scheduled monument consent. They delete reference to restrictions on detecting devices in searching for archaeological objects except where such searching is carried out on protected monuments.

The draft order is the product of several years of internal review, taking into account both the experience of those who have implemented the 1979 Act in Great Britain, and wide public consultation. The draft order brings together the results of those processes, introducing measures broadly paralleling the 1979 Act while retaining the long-held strengths of Northern Ireland historic monuments legislation. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 3rd April be approved—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we entirely accept the Minister's apology. I think that I speak on behalf of all your Lordships when I say that there is no other Minister by whom we would prefer to be kept waiting. In any event, it is quite inappropriate to blame the Minister. Most people would join me in blaming the Government, and I think that that is what we should do.

We welcome the thrust of the order and its purpose. In the 10 minutes or so that we had to pass before beginning this business I turned my eye to Article 42 which makes it a criminal offence for any person who finds an archaeological object not to report it to the relevant authorities, and a separate and distinct criminal offence to be in possession of, or retain possession of, such an object. All agog, I wished to satisfy myself as to the definition of an "archaeological object". Article 2(2) states that archaeological object, includes any object, being a chattel … manufactured or unmanufactured … which is, or appears to be, of archaeological or historical interest and which has, by reason of such interest, a value greater than its intrinsic value". As a lawyer I am happy to say that that will cause endless problems in court in the future.

I considered a possible example. In, say, five years' time, after the next election, the Minister, alas, will no longer be occupying her present situation. If in the next year or so she goes, as she regularly does, to Ballymena, Craigavon or Dungannon and happens to discard a pair of ministerial Wellington boots which happen thereafter to be ploughed over and if, subsequently, I happen to discover those ministerial, monogrammed Wellington boots, they will have an intrinsic value of about 75p, I suppose, while the value of the materials of which they are composed will be about 50p. However, their historic value (by virtue of their connection with the revered Minister) will be significantly greater than either 75p or 50p. It will probably be in the region of £2.50 plus VAT. According to the definition I have quoted, that would make them—absurdly, but perhaps understandably—an archaeological object, the possession, or non-reporting of possession, of which would render me liable to prosecution and condign punishment in the magistrates' court or equivalent. Can that be right? Other than that helpful question, I have nothing further to add.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, after that deeply politically controversial but extremely amusing speech, I am glad to say that these Benches wholeheartedly support the order. It is difficult to choose between whether we would rather have the Minister here discussing this very important order or trying to raise money for investment in Northern Ireland. Ideally we would have both, so I shall be brief and allow the Minister to get back to her other duties.

This is an important order. As the troubles recede—we must all pray that they have receded for ever—many people in these islands are able to discover the extreme beauty of the countryside of Northern Ireland as well as its man-made beauties. For instance, there are the splendid ring forts which all too often enthusiastic farmers seem to bulldoze. Perhaps they will be slightly better protected once the order is passed.

It is not only British and Irish tourists who will be visiting Northern Ireland. It is estimated that over 600,000 extra visitors may travel to Northern Ireland this year and it is essential that we have the best possible protection for the heritage of Northern Ireland. I welcome the integrationist approach that is possible in Northern Ireland because it is the Department of the Environment which deals with it. There is a putting together of the countryside and of the buildings. In a way, the regime envisaged in Northern Ireland has much to teach the rest of the United Kingdom. Interestingly, as the noble Baroness said, some of the elements maintained in the order from earlier legislation actually came from the devolved administration in its period at Stormont. This is therefore an area for bipartisanship not only in Northern Ireland, but also in this House. In that spirit I am happy to support the order.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, perhaps I might rise for a moment to refer to the point made by my noble friend on the Front Bench regarding the Minister's boots. As I understand it, the regulations only apply to. objects of archaeological interest. Though I feel sure that such boots may be objects of sentimental interest, particularly to the noble Baroness, can they truly be said to be of archaeological interest?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend. In fact the order refers to articles not only of archaeological interest, but also of historical interest. It was the latter adjective upon which I was focusing my attention.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, first, I thank the House for its forgiveness for my lateness. I have just heard possibly the most political speech from the Front Bench opposite on the subject of Northern Ireland and I fully appreciate the spirit in which it was made. This Minister is very much a part of this Government.

I would add that Ireland is full of history. I can think of no other area in the world where the past plays such a great part in the present. In designing a brighter future for Northern Ireland we must be careful to protect the past and the tremendous culture that exists there. The aim is to ensure that we should not lose that by accident. The order therefore is written in rather wider terms than may appeal to a lawyer. But it is written to make sure that people take anything that they discover to the Ulster Museum to be examined, which may reveal that they are on the brink of discovering a significant new part of the history of Northern Ireland.

I should point out that, as the Scots say, I do not think that I shall be "outwith" my Wellington boots; nor do I believe that, should I be on my second pair, the first pair would be of too much interest; and nor do I believe that it would be a possible case from which lawyers could earn money. I thank noble Lords for their support for the order and commend it to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.