HL Deb 29 February 2000 vol 610 cc448-50

2.52 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why there has been a delay in their consideration of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on 9th February, we announced in another place that we will not sign the convention. However, following representations from the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, we are willing to look again at the difficulties of implementing the convention which had been identified. We shall also be looking at a range of options which might form the basis of an alternative approach.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those well-intentioned words. Will he confirm that, while the world archaeological sites from Italy to Cambodia are being looted, it has taken the Government more than two years to decide to do nothing and to turn their back on the UNESCO Convention? Will he also confirm that the United States Government have found it possible within the framework of the UNESCO Convention to prevent the import of looted antiquities from, for instance, Cambodia? Therefore, is it really so difficult for the United Kingdom Government to take a similar measure?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I acknowledge and apologise for the time that it is taking to consider these matters, but they are extremely difficult. Perhaps I may give one example of the problems with the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Under British property law, a seller who does not have a title means a sale to which the buyer has no title. However, under the convention, the true owner would have to pay compensation. That would require a shift in primary legislation which would be difficult to achieve and might not be desirable.

As I understand the position, the US Government have not adopted one part of the convention because that would be difficult. Within the context of their own law, they have adopted parallel measures to achieve as much as they can from the convention. That is the alternative approach at which we are now looking.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as a result of the Government not having ratified the convention, this country is losing to other countries important artefacts from the bronze age and other early periods as a result of illicit exports and smuggling, notably to the United States? What do they propose to do to stop the flow?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend is right to complement the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, on the pillaging of sites in countries such as Cambodia and Italy, by drawing attention to the pillaging of sites in this country. We take the view that our export licensing conditions are perhaps not perfect but better than many others and would conform to the convention. However, if we are to achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, wants, we would need a new criminal offence on importing stolen goods or goods which had been illegally exported.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the point raised by my noble friend is important but difficult? Is not the answer to set up a committee to investigate the matter, as did the Waverley Committee on the export of works of art? It is of world importance and Britain might be able to give a lead in getting a sensible solution to a crucial question for the future of world heritage.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the difficulty and goes some way towards excusing the Government from the accusation of delay by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, which we acknowledge. Whether it would be right to set up a committee rather than to have the work done by government departments—and more than one department would be concerned—is another matter. The problems raised by the Waverley Committee still exist in the sense that one of the implications of adopting the UNESCO Convention would be that there would have to be an inventory of nationally important cultural objects and that might be difficult to achieve.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the 1995 Unidroit Convention, which is closely related to this convention and which we also have not signed? It deals specifically with stolen and illegally exported cultural objects—crimes which are growing apace in the world.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on 7th February, two days before the announcement to which I referred in my Answer, the Government announced that they had decided not to sign the Unidroit Convention. It has fewer difficulties than the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but there are still major problems with reconciling it with British law. That is why we are looking to an alternative approach which might not involve signing either the 1970 convention or the Unidroit Convention, but might still provide the protection that is quite properly demanded by noble Lords.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, for as long as I remember, I have fully supported my noble friend Lord Renfrew in pursuing this important question. When many countries have signed and ratified the convention, what does "look again" mean? Is it, as my noble friend Lady Trumpington said years ago when answering the Question as a Minister, that the scope is too wide?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear that we, too, support the objectives of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, and are grateful to him for pursuing the matter. One of the problems is that the definition of "cultural property" which would be involved in the conventions is dangerously wide and might have unintended consequences. However, the difficulties to which the noble Baroness draws attention are very real and I do not believe that there will be an easy or quick solution to them.