HL Deb 17 September 2003 vol 652 cc902-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will introduce statutory protection for historic British battlefield sites so that those using metal detectors are required to obtain licences under Section 42 of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 for the use of such instruments on these sites.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, at present, the Government have no powers to protect historic battlefields. We have commissioned a review designed to bring together listing, scheduling of ancient monuments and other regimes, such as the register of historic battlefields, into a unified system. The protection status for those historic sites will form part of the review. Public consultation on the proposals runs until 31st October, and we shall then publish our responses in a White Paper.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging and very positive reply. I am pleased that the consultation period is nearly over. I accept that metal detecting is generally a harmless and pleasurable activity that can sometimes be of great assistance to historians. However, does the Minister appreciate that the archaeological evidence of a battlefield generally consists of the artefacts lost during the conflict, and that if they are picked up in an uncontrolled way, such as happened, for example, at the metal detectorists' rally on Marston Moor battlefield last weekend, the archaeological integrity of those battlefields will be lost for ever? Can I impress on the Minister the importance of ensuring that battlefield sites are listed in the same way as other archaeological sites, and are not just treated as parts of historic landscape?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree entirely that metal detecting, unless done in accordance with proper standards and a proper code of practice, can be very damaging. We knew about the rally at Marston Moor. Liaison officers from the Portable Antiquities Scheme attended and assembled a mile and a half from the centre of the battlefield. I do not know whether that shows ignorance or good judgment. In the end, we recorded all the important objects found. Only nine objects related to the battle itself.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, although liaison officers from the Portable Antiquities Scheme were at the Marston Moor rally, they are not often invited to metal detectorists' rallies, which is a problem? Perhaps they could strengthen their hand if they looked further at batty sites. Furthermore, does the Minister not agree that, as the Battlefields Trust pointed out vociferously, the danger to battlefield sites and the historic environment is not through metal detectorists in their own right, but through uncontrolled development?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree with all that the noble Lord says. It is why we have a review that includes historic battlefield sites as part of the general subject of listing and scheduling. At present, it is entirely unsatisfactory that we can do nothing about battlefields, metal detectorists or anybody else, if they operate with the permission of the landowner and avoid scheduled sites. I hope that the noble Lord's parliamentary group will see fit to make appropriate representations to our consultation. It would be very welcome.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, does the late Lord Perth's Treasure Bill, which eventually became a government Bill, have no bearing? What is found today may be just a question of yesteryear, but it could be the treasure of future generations.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it does have a bearing. It is very helpful that we have the Treasure Act 1996. The definitions of what the Act covers are very difficult to understand. Coins—that is to say, two or more—must be from the same find and at least 300 years old. However, if the coins are less than 10 per cent gold or silver, there must be at least 10 of them. It is even more complicated for objects other than coins. We value the Treasure Act. In so far as it is helpful in our review, it will be taken into account.

Lord Luke

My Lords, we welcome the Government's initiative in bringing together these matters, and the forthcoming publication of a White Paper. On the other hand, does the Minister not accept that valuable work has been done by metal detector clubs, particularly in helping to delineate the boundaries of some sites, especially, in many cases, battlefields where documentation is extremely sparse? Does he not think that a sensible compromise could, and should, be reached that would benefit archaeology and provide scope for metal detecting enthusiasts to enjoy their activity?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Luke, will agree that I was careful not to condemn all metal detecting. Clearly, metal detecting carried out properly under an acceptable code of standards can contribute to knowledge—it can find things that nobody else can find. It is important that we have a proper definition of scheduled or listed sites, which should be the same for all purposes. It is important that, when we have done that, metal detectorists should work in an acceptable and agreed way. That is not to condemn all metal detecting.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, besides the battlefields in this country, do the Government possess the necessary authority in France and Belgium to protect effectively sites of battles from both World Wars in which British troops have been involved?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not know the answer, so I shall have to write to the noble Lord. From recent debates on driving roads in Belgium across battlefield sites, my impression is that we have no powers—in fact, I am sure that that must he the case. Where there are battlefields in which British troops were involved, we would express our views to those concerned.

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