HL Deb 03 June 1997 vol 580 cc563-5

2.40 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are content with the position that it is not an offence to import into the United Kingdom antiquities which have been illegally excavated in, and exported from, their countries of origin.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government are concerned about the problem of antiquities which have been illegally excavated and exported from their countries of origin. This a highly complex issue. To have complete control it would need to be an offence to import such material and an offence to have stolen, illegally excavated or illegally exported it. We will be considering this over the coming months, alongside consideration of whether we should sign the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that constructive and thoughtful Answer. Is he aware that France has recently decided to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the illegal traffic of cultural property; that the United States did so some time ago; and that that appears to offer a legal framework of the kind to which he alludes? I hope that, as he indicated, the Government will give very serious consideration to ratification in particular of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which will be apposite in view of the Government's recent decision to rejoin UNESCO.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his approval of the Government's decision to rejoin UNESCO, which was resisted by his own government for such a long time. He is right in saying that there has been some progress towards signing the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The trouble is that none of these international conventions covers all of the ground adequately. In some ways, the EC directive would be better because it is more precise about the definition of antiquities and works of art. That is one of the particular difficulties with the UNESCO Convention and the UNIDROIT Convention, which is perhaps more immediately relevant than the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, does not my noble friend's question, in his mention of France, beg the question that the first Napoleon possibly brought back to France more than any other country has brought back? Even the great Duke of Wellington, trying to be diplomatic after 1814 and 1815, failed to have more than a fraction restored to the original countries.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, none of the international conventions to which we have referred today would be retrospective in its action and therefore none would solve the problem to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will the Government bear in mind that many great treasures have survived solely by reason of being exported from their country of origin? Will the Government be very careful not to sabotage that process along the lines suggested in my noble friend's Question?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the answer is the same as I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton: none of these conventions would be retrospective in its action. The noble Lord is correct in saying that in certain circumstances there is more chance of conservation in a museum than on site.

Lord Rea

My Lords, is the Minister completely sure about the legality of the export of the Parthenon Marbles by Lord Elgin?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we are not referring forwards but back to a discussion that we had two weeks ago. It is not correctly the subject of the present Question. Whatever decision we take about the UNESCO Convention, the UNIDROIT Convention or further enforcement of the EC directive, none would affect the position of the Parthenon statues.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, bearing in mind the substance of this Question, will the Minister agree that unless something is done and that one of those directives is followed, infinite damage will be caused to our art dealers, who enjoy a worldwide reputation for good business practice?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government are certainly concerned about the reputation of the UK art market. The problem is that there is a criminal element which is often outside the official organisation of the UK art market. If those criminals are allowed to get away with it, that causes damage to the art market as a whole.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what is the broad scope of the conventions which he suggested the Government may be signing in the near future?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that that is a tall order, especially if one considers that the UNIDROIT Convention itself is probably half an inch thick. But in principle the UNIDROIT Convention in particular is concerned with control over illegal excavation, theft and illegal export of antiquities. Those are the important considerations to which I referred in my first Answer.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, without derogation from the good name of the art dealers, will the Minister consider the introduction of a period of perhaps three or four weeks between the publication of the catalogue and the sale? That then provides an opportunity for the countries from which goods have been stolen—I do not say "exported"—to make their claim. Will the Minister also consider the circumstances of the recent failed prosecution in the Knightsbridge Crown Court?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting suggestion; but I think that normally there are at least three or four weeks between the publication of the catalogue and the date of the sale. Therefore, if the noble Lord's objective is to be achieved, that time may need to be extended. Effective action on the second matter which the noble Lord raised, which I believe refers to the Bullrush case concerning antiquities from Egypt and China, would require implementation of certain sections of Part I of the Criminal Justice Act 1993. The Government are considering that matter and my department is in discussion with officials of the Home Office.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Scotland Yard's view is that to introduce the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 would be of considerable advantage in helping to end the abuses which we are discussing? Does he agree that it would be in everybody's best interest to get on with that as quickly as possible?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as I indicated in my previous answer, we agree that it is desirable that criminal elements, which are responsible in the case to which reference was made, should not be allowed to damage the reputation of the UK art market. For that reason, officials from my department are in discussion with officials from the Home Office. The Secretary of State for National Heritage will be in contact with the Home Secretary on that matter.

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