HL Deb 18 January 1996 vol 568 cc700-2

3.18 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is the case that, as reported in the Art Newspaper No. 34 of January 1994, the Foreign Office in the 1960s was in favour of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece despite opposition by the British Museum and whether they are now prepared to override any objection by the museum authorities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)

My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Lord that Foreign Office officials took the view during the 1960s that there were arguments in favour of returning the Parthenon sculptures to Greece. However, that view was not endorsed by Her Majesty's Government. As now, Her Majesty's Government could not order the British Museum to return the sculptures to Greece. The sculptures are vested in the trustees of the British Museum, who are prevented under their governing statute from disposing of objects in their collections unless they are duplicates or worthless.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that it was contemplated in the Foreign Office at one time that a one-clause Bill should be presented to Parliament which would enable the trustees to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. It was the opposition of the trustees rather than the Government which upset the matter. Can the noble Lord say why the decision to return the Marbles was rescinded? Was it a ministerial decision? If so, how did it come about?

Is the Minister aware also that since 1961 opinion generally in the world, and particularly in the museum world, has been in favour of returning rare objects of art which are of importance to the country of origin? We are now the pariahs of the world because we are unwilling to do so and uncertain about it. Finally, will the Minister take another look at the whole question?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I cannot speak for the exact reasoning of the Government in the early 1960s. However, I can confirm that it is the Government's wish and intention that the sculptures remain in the British Museum. They are the heart of the major museum in this country and part of our national heritage also.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, is it not true that if the sculptures had been left in the Parthenon they would no longer exist due to pollution, marauding and everything else that has happened in Greece in the interim? Therefore, in the interests of conservation and evolutionary scholarship—certainly developing scholarship—the British Museum is the best place for them to be maintained.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I can confirm that the whole world owes a great debt to Lord Elgin for having done what he did with the statues; he has undoubtedly saved them for posterity. I reiterate that it is the Government's intention that they remain where they are.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Elgin Marbles were legally acquired by Lord Elgin and, as the noble Baroness said, would have deteriorated if they had been left where they were? Is he aware also that, if the Government followed the advice of my old and noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney and returned all objects acquired from other countries, there would be very little left in our national museums?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for underscoring all the points that the Government consider to be so important.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, despite the Greeks having practically finished the museum at the Parthenon for the Marbles, it would still make a mockery to return them, as it would to return the Giaconda to Italy or the Pergamon to Turkey?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. If one builds a museum in anticipation of displaying objects that belong to somebody else, one does not need a great deal of foresight to see either that that particular part of the museum will remain empty or that it will have to be used for some other purpose.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will have been reassured to be reminded by my noble friend of how robustly, then as now, the Foreign Office defends British interests and assets. However, does the Minister not agree that, were any decision to be taken to return such treasures from any international museum, it would be far better for it to be taken under an international agreement by international arrangement? For example, it could be done through UNESCO; it should certainly not be done through any unilateral gesture.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for underscoring the commitment and role of the Conservative Government over the years to looking after our country's best interests. There has been considerable international debate in respect of the illegal export and acquisition of stolen works of art. I merely draw to your Lordships' attention the fact that the scope of the debates at no stage took into account items such as the Parthenon sculptures about which we are concerned today, which were legally exported from their country of origin. The title of the British Museum to the Marbles is unimpeachable.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that my noble friend Lord Donoughue is apparently ignorant of the fact that there is an existing agreement of an international character and that that agreement is being carried out? Countries throughout the world are restoring major objects—only major objects—of interest to their country of origin, and we are opting out of that agreement. We are a bunch of Scrooges and curmudgeons. The Government ought to be interested in our reputation in the world. They are sometimes interested in our reputation and trade for the wrong reasons; why cannot they be interested for the right reasons?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing attention to the divisions on the Front Bench on the opposite side of the House.