HL Deb 04 February 1999 vol 596 cc1610-2

3.17 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will respond favourably to the Greek Government's request for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords we have no plans to reconsider the decision that the Parthenon sculptures should remain in the British Museum.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he is widely recognised as the Government's Pooh-Bah in this Chamber? Is he further aware that on this occasion he has been rather poorly briefed, perhaps through unawareness of the latest developments in this matter. Among those developments are polls which show that there is a substantial majority in favour of the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece; that 69 Members of another place have signed an Early Day Motion to that effect; that the Greek Government have issued from their embassy here an invitation to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to meet with their representatives for a friendly discussion? In all those circumstances, will he recommend to his right honourable friend that he should accept that invitation—a copy of which I shall now hand to him? Will my noble friend pass the invitation on to his right honourable friend and recommend to him that he at least accepts the offer of an open and friendly discussion?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend asked me the same question in the first week after the Government were formed. I can assure him that I have kept in close touch with all the debates that have taken place on this issue. If I and the Government have not changed our minds, it is for very good reasons. We are aware of all the matters to which my noble friend has referred; we remain of the view that to return the Parthenon sculptures to Greece would be a mistake. It would raise the issue of a worldwide return of works of art to their places of origin. If our museums and galleries contained only works of art from the cities or countries in which they are located it would be a disaster for world culture.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, I intervene as a former trustee and chairman of the British Museum. I make that declaration in the light of the exchanges to which we have just listened. Is the Minister aware that there will be broad general agreement with his Answer that the Government see no grounds for reconsidering their policy on the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens? Does he accept there is widespread support for the view that to do otherwise would open the door to claims from many other parts of the world for the restitution of countless valuable museum objects which are seen by huge numbers of people—6 million in the British Museum alone each year?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for the views I have expressed not only on my own behalf but on behalf of the Government.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the views of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney are not always those held by his colleagues on this side of the House? Is he further aware that I fully agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, said? Will he confirm that the announcement by the Secretary of State for Culture in the first week after the last election that the Elgin Marbles, which were accepted perfectly legally, would not be returned to Athens still holds?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I will of course confirm that that still holds. But just in case any noble Lords should be under the illusion that we have been hasty and lacking in consideration over this matter, I should say that my right honourable friend Chris Smith has been in correspondence with the Greek Minister of Culture over the past year and that, in terms of the recommendation of the UNESCO committee on cultural property, we certainly accept the resolution which requires the Director General of UNESCO to undertake further initiatives to promote bilateral negotiations. We have always been willing to take part in such bilateral negotiations.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, is it not perfectly respectable for a country or a region of a country to say, "We want things brought back to us to which, for historical and cultural reasons, we believe we have a claim"? On the other hand, is there not a perfectly good argument that it is paramount that these treasures should be kept in the best place possible and that the best access to those treasures should be provided? Is it not then a question of reaching a consensus? That is the nub of the question. How does one get consensus between the two views?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope I have never impugned the motives of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney. Nor have I ever suggested that his views were not shared by a very large number of people, including those who sign Early Day Motions in another place and a large number of members of the European Parliament. I fully recognise the sincerity of their views. I just happen to believe that they are wrong. I think that the wider considerations to which we have referred are more important.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, do the Government not agree that if Lord Elgin had not rescued the marbles in the 19th century it is very likely that they would have been destroyed or that they would have disintegrated by now? Therefore, we have saved them and we should keep them.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think that that would be sufficient reason for arguing for the retention of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. Yes, of course it is true that they have been better preserved because they have been preserved indoors in a cleaner atmosphere, but that argument alone would not be enough.

Lord Rea

My Lords, considering the very high symbolic value which the Greeks put on the Elgin Marbles and the fact that we have had them—indeed, we have taken quite good care of them—for more than a century and a half, is it not time that the Greeks were given a chance to house them in their own country? The objection raised by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, no longer applies. A new museum with proper air-conditioning is now ready to house them and the pollution level in Athens is, I understand, getting better.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is exactly why I did not accept the invitation of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, to argue that that was sufficient reason for them to be returned. I go back to the Government's previous argument that there are wider issues and that the return of works of art, from wherever they come, unless there are overwhelming reasons to the contrary, is an undesirable precedent.

The Earl of Drogheda

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is one overwhelming reason for the retention of the Marbles in London, which is that, because of its geographic location, it provides the best venue for the enjoyment of the Marbles both by the general public and by art and architecture students who come to London from all over the world?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords, I do not agree with the noble Earl although I know he wishes to be helpful. There are many works of art of outstanding international importance in the museum in Sao Paulo in Brazil which I would love to be able to see but I cannot go there. I do not say that that is an argument for them to be removed.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, as a general principle, is not this House in favour of the return of marbles?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

It depends on who has lost them, my Lords.