HL Deb 08 May 2003 vol 647 cc1229-31

3.9 p.m.

Lord Rea asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps are being taken to recover the antiquities looted from Iraq's museums after they came under coalition control.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, we deplore the looting of Iraq's museums and have taken steps to ensure that looted items are apprehended and returned. The UK is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO convention, and the Government are supporting a Private Members' Bill which will strengthen UK law in respect of trade in illicit antiquities. We have also secured the help of the UK art trade in identifying looted material, and are working with international bodies to establish a database for stolen items. We have alerted Customs to the need to enforce the current embargo.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Blackstone is answering the Question. In fact, we have heard only in the past day or two that a substantial cache of items has been recovered in Iraq, but very much more remains to be found.

Are the Government taking steps, together with the United States, to strengthen the search for items within Iraq, before they are exported on to the international market? Is consideration being given to a reward system? I am aware that that would be difficult, because some items have already been returned freely, and the people who returned them would have to be considered in any compensation. An amnesty has been announced, but that might be an additional incentive.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, in response to my noble friend's final question, I am not sure that consideration has been given to providing rewards for people who return looted material. However, an amnesty is in place, and that is probably the right route to take at present.

Some good news is coming out of Iraq. Some of the goods that were stolen or looted from the museum in Baghdad appear to be in safe hands. However, the picture is still very unclear. It is not known exactly what has been taken. Donny George, the head of research in the museum in Baghdad, was in London last week. He estimates that probably around 10 per cent of the museum's collections have been stolen, looted and vandalised in some way. As there were 170,000 items in that museum, that amounts to some 17,000 items.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the repeated attempts made by my noble friend Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn to forewarn her Majesty's Government as early as February this year of the potential risks to archaeological sites and antiquities in Iraq in the aftermath of military intervention? Those attempts were entirely frustrated by the Government's failure to provide an adequate reply.

Does the Minister agree with the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge University that it would make sense to establish a UNESCO-approved repository for Iraqi material, which could be kept in safe storage and returned to Iraq when the situation there has stabilised?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government welcome any attempts to provide a repository of that sort. We are working closely with international organisations, such as UNESCO, Interpol and ICOM—the International Council of Museums—to secure as best we can any items that have disappeared and eventually to return them to Iraq.

I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, was concerned about what might happen in the event of military conflict. I am sorry if he believes that his attempts to warn the Government were frustrated; I do not believe that they were. Our military in Iraq were given clear information about those possibilities and did their best to ensure that, in the southern part of Iraq, where the UK military were based, the kind of looting that occurred in Baghdad did not take place.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, we welcome the Government's support for the Private Members' Bill being put forward in another place by my honourable friend Richard Allan and the response of the DCMS in sending members of the department to Baghdad. However, will the Minister ask our Armed Forces whether they will supply transportation to members of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities in the Basra sector, and ask the Americans to do the same? Not only artefacts were looted in Baghdad; the entire fleet of vehicles that the Department of Antiquities used to get round in to monitor all the other sites was also taken.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, coalition forces obviously have an enormous number of demands on their transport fleets, so I could not possibly give a guarantee as to the availability of vehicles of any kind for work of that sort. I am willing to pass on that request, but it will be a matter of establishing what the priorities are for transport.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, while welcoming the initiative of my noble friend, will she comment on the outcome of a valuable initiative by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum? He got together a consortium of international museums and alerted them to the problems that we now face.

Will the Minister also comment on the surprising indifference to the protection of museums, as well as banks and government offices, in the closing stages of the conflict?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, like all noble Lords, I am enormously grateful to the intervention of Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. He has been stalwart in the work that he has already undertaken to try to support his colleagues in the museum in Baghdad. I am sure that that will apply to other museums where that might be helpful at a later time. He has put together a consortium of archaeologists from museums in France, Germany and from the Hermitage in Russia, as well as from the United States, under the auspices of UNESCO. Their work over the next months will be of enormous importance.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I am afraid that we are out of time.