HC Deb 26 May 2004 vol 421 cc458-82WH

2 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about this subject, and I want to start by setting out the terms of the debate. There are different types of debate in Westminster Hall; those in which we slam the Government for an alleged outrage, whether or not they have committed it, and those in which we plead for the Government to do something that they cannot or will not do. This is neither a slamming nor pleading debate, but a prodding one, in which I will seek to prod the Government to commit to doing what they know they should be doing and probably want to do anyway.

I slightly confused myself in coming up with the title. I was not sure whether it should be a debate on the illicit trade in antiquities or on the trade in illicit antiquities. Either way, we are talking about cultural objects that are a little or decidedly dodgy. What I really mean is the buying and selling or importing and exporting of cultural objects that have been removed from heritage sites and buildings illegally in Britain and elsewhere. The Minister may recognise that phrasing as one that we considered in the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003.

The defining principle in this debate is that prevention is better than cure. Much of the damage done in heritage terms is done at the time of removal of objects rather than in what happens to them subsequently. From a heritage point of view, the agenda is about ensuring that removal never occurs in the first place, and my remarks will address that intention.

We want to remove the incentives for objects to be removed, tackle the trade and remove the market. If we kill the market, we take away some of the incentives from people who are engaged in the trade for financial advantage. That happens in the United Kingdom with people who are colloquially known as nighthawks— people, often with metal detectors, who go on to scheduled ancient monuments, typically at night, and remove objects that they then put into the dealing chain. Far more seriously, especially in scale of activity, are the people who operate in conflict zones.

Iraq obviously springs to mind as an example because of the Baghdad museum looting that was in the news. That country should be in the minds of everyone who is interested in heritage, because looting on a far greater scale is currently happening across the range of Iraq's unprotected archaeological sites. Material at those sites is being removed in such a way that the heritage value of those sites is utterly diminished. We have seen that occur in conflict zones such as south-east Asia—Cambodia in particular—and on an enormous scale in west Africa. Countries such as Sierra Leone are having their heritage systematically removed and put on to the world market.

My remarks will be aimed mainly at preventive measures, but I am also seeking a commitment by the Minister to enhanced enforcement of the measures that are already in place. I will set it out as a shopping list at the beginning of the debate so that she has time to consider it and, I hope, respond positively. I know that other hon. Members will flesh out elements of this list.

The list has been drawn up with support from experts in the field, and I want particularly to credit Roger Bland and Michael Lewis from the portable antiquities scheme. They are now based at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, having been at the British Museum, and they have done a huge amount on the subject. I want also to thank personally David Barwell from the National Council for Metal Detecting, who came here with a colleague to make an excellent presentation about the issues from the metal detectorists' point of view, which is an important perspective.

During the passage of my private Member's Bill last year, I also learned a lot from people within the dealing trade. For example, Anthony Browne, who represented the dealers on the illicit trade advisory panel, was of enormous use to me. I have also had many letters and e-mails about the subject, and it is one that attracts considerable public attention.

My list of items for the Minister falls into three parts; preventive measures, enforcement measures and policy development. I shall try to separate them out. My priorities for the preventive measures are: legislation, which is now mostly in place; the portable antiquities scheme in the UK context, which needs funding for its essential role in securing the UK's heritage; the development of a database to assist dealers in assessing whether they should be concerned about a particular object; and guidance to assist the public, especially non-experts, who are increasingly engaged in the field, for whom the advice is a little weak. I shall flesh those four issues out in some detail.

Unusually, I shall not call for additional legislation. We often come to this Chamber to ask for more legislation, but the Government have provided that through the UNESCO treaty accession, and the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, with which the Minister's civil servants assisted enormously last year. However, there is one specific gap in the export licensing regime, which was mentioned by the last Select Committee report, to which the Government have responded. It remains an important gap that we hope will be considered; there appears to be a conflict between agreements reached at EU level, and the ability of the UK's Department for Culture, Media and Sport to block the export of an object that should not be on the market. I hope that that gap in the legislation will be addressed, and that the Minister can offer a resolution to it.

The portable antiquities scheme has impressed all hon. Members with whom it has come into contact. The all-party parliamentary group on archaeology, in particular, has had much contact with the scheme, and has seen that it provides a tremendously valuable service in safeguarding the UK's heritage. It is important to the metal detectorists, who are carrying out, in most cases, a legal activity, so long as they are not on scheduled ancient monuments and have the landowner's permission. We want to offer metal detectorists a legal framework, and encourage them to work with finds liaison officers. That will create a virtuous circle whereby the metal detectorists become educated in how to perform their activity in an archaeological or heritage-friendly manner, and feel rewarded. Without the portable antiquities scheme we should be back to square one, and the incentive for metal detectorists to engage positively would be gone.

The resource prepared by the scheme, www.finds.org.uk, is a superb example of what can be done. One of the criticisms made of archaeology is that all kinds of materials are dug up, but that nobody can access the output from it;the public are interested in it but have no ability to access it. However, finds.org.uk is a wonderful example of how, with quite moderate resources, a huge amount of research material can be made available to the general public. It justifies the effort put into the scheme.

I am sure that the Minister will hear more, particularly from members of the all-party archaeology group, on the subject, as it is part of the Department's comprehensive spending review bid process. However, she should be aware that there is huge political support for the scheme to be funded for the long term. We are realistic about it being inappropriate to go back to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which funded the start-up costs and which had its arm twisted a little to keep the scheme going. The fund has made it clear that it will not fund the scheme in the long term, so I think that it is a core activity for DCMS.

The second new development in which we are interested is the database, which allows somebody who wishes to deal in portable antiquities to find out whether the object with which they are presented is one that they should consider. I understand that there has been some progress with that, hut it requires cross-departmental work, which is always challenging, particularly in this case with the Home Office. However, it remains concerning that more progress has not been made. I made commitments to dealers with whom I worked last year when taking through the legislation that I would continue to press the Government on the matter, because the dealers rightly said that they need progress. They co-operated effectively in introducing the legislation, but they have asked for the tools to allow them to comply with it. We have a duty to ensure that such tools are available.

I should like to see a database that deals not only with stolen objects but can give people general warnings, such as those issued by ICOM—the International Council of Museums' red list procedure—which can issue generic warnings saying that it is aware, for example, that looting of statues is taking place in Sierra Leone. That is important if we are to use the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, under which we must demonstrate that the dealers knew or believed that the objects were illicitly removed. In order for that knowledge or belief to be created, it is in our interest to spread the knowledge so that dealers have no reason not to be aware of specific problems. The database is important, so I hope that the Minister can indicate what progress has been made with it.

The final issue on the shopping list of preventive measures is that of guidance to assist the public. That emerged from fairly positive discussions that we had recently with eBay, the online auctioneers, which indicated a willingness to co-operate in trying to ensure that illicit material is not advertised on its site. We are trying to put together a tool kit to enable it to do so. It also said that it would point people towards guidance that would assist them in establishing whether an object was illegal, but as we examined that matter further, we realised that there was no definitive and authoritative set of guidance available.

The production of such guidance would require work by Government lawyers and civil servants, but would be well worth doing, particularly because many people who deal in that kind of material on eBay are not dealers in the traditional sense. If we are to require legal compliance from those people, we must offer them an easy and straightforward link to such guidance. I suggest that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is the obvious body to provide that guidance, so that people can find out easily what their responsibilities are with regard to export licences, the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, heritage legislation and the Treasure Act 1996. If people do not have that source of information, they can continue to plead ignorance. We should be proactive in offering them that kind of resource.

A single, definitive guide of that kind, accessible as a link on the internet to anyone who was offering material online, would also be a valuable resource for anyone who works in that area; for finds liaison officers, for example, who advise people, such as metal detectorists, on whether their material is saleable. It would be helpful for such information to be available and accessible.

The National Council for Metal Detecting has a strong view on enforcement measures. It knows that there are criminal elements—the kind of criminals who will engage in any activity that is perceived to be easy. The criminal approach is, "If I can make a fast buck, I'll do it, providing the risks of being caught and prosecuted are very low." The NCMD is clear that there should be prosecutions from time to time, to send a message out to the metal-detecting community that nighthawking is an activity that should not be engaged in.

In that context, the Crown Prosecution Service recently decided to drop the prosecution of a Mr. Robert Duquemin who was alleged to have removed a hoard of coins from a scheduled ancient monument in Wiltshire. That has caused an enormous amount of dismay because it sends out the signal that such activities are low risk. It should be made clear that, from a legal point of view, such activities are high risk and that prosecutions will take place. I hope that the Minister will examine that case, and will use her offices to press the prosecuting and law enforcement agencies to enforce heritage legislation. It would be helpful if the Department for Culture, Media and Sport sent out the message that such prosecutions are important.

There is particular concern that the heritage value of the items stolen is not properly considered when decisions about prosecutions are taken. The cash value of a hoard of Roman coins could be modest—£20 to £50—and would fall outwith the normal Crown Prosecution Service guidelines for prosecution. However, the heritage value could be far more significant, particularly if one considers the damage that might have been done to the archaeological site to recover those items, even if their intrinsic cash value is low.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

We have spent an unconscionable number of hours on relevant legislation such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I am dismayed that more has not been made of just a few prosecution cases "pour encourager les autres".

Mr. Allan

Absolutely. One of the models that we might examine—this was suggested to me by someone in an e-mail—is wildlife legislation. In that context, people occasionally have been prosecuted for offences such as the removal of birds' eggs. Although those prosecutions are only occasional, when they hit the headlines they have a significant impact on the collectors of birds' eggs. We need the equivalent prosecutions in the heritage field; we have not had sufficient cases "pour décourager les autres". I hope that the Minister will signal the importance of the prosecution side.

I understand that if one is in the police, Customs and Excise or other law enforcement agencies, one is constantly being set targets. In the midst of that, heritage can seem like a low priority item.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

There is another dimension to this problem. The police are perfectly keen to catch people removing archaeological finds illegally, but when such cases get to the Crown Prosecution Service, which is all about prioritising, the priority of heritage is very low. When the police get the call, therefore, they do not bother because they say it is a waste of time because the CPS will not proceed.

Mr. Allan

That was a helpful intervention. In the Wiltshire case, it was initiatives by the local police force that got the thing going, but they have felt pushed back, because, after doing all that work—they took forensic samples to prove that the soil around the coins came from the scheduled ancient monument and not another site—the case was sent back by the CPS. My suspicion is that it such cases are given low priority because of the low cash value of the items involved. CPS guidance should be clarified so that if significant heritage value is involved and somebody has committed a huge heritage crime by destroying an archaeological site, that is taken into consideration, and not the fact that the coins are worth £20 or £50. The role of the CPS is critical.

During our discussions with eBay, which have been interesting in terms of clarifying how things can and should work, the arts and antiquities squad at Scotland Yard has been helpful. The squad is willing to act as a conduit. If it is told with reasonable certainty by a competent authority that material on eBay appears to be an illegal antiquity, the squad will ask eBay to be involved in what it calls a notice and takedown procedure. It gives eBay a notice, and eBay in return agrees to take down the material of which it is notified. I hope that we make more progress on that, as it would be a helpful development.

As soon as one engages with the specialist crime squads at Scotland Yard, one realises how short of staff they are. If this is to be an area of priority for the DCMS, encouragement, support and resources for the squads that must police the legislation that we introduce would be enormously helpful. We should take any opportunity to call for additional support. I recognise that that is not directly a DCMS responsibility, but that Department sets the climate within which decisions on resources are taken.

I now turn to policy development and monitoring the effectiveness of the measures that we are taking. I make a direct plea to appoint a successor body to the illicit trade advisory panel—ITAP. I have no doubt that the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 was possible only because of the existence of ITAP. The panel brought together all the interested parties and created a climate in which constructive discussion could take place about how best to introduce legislation. That enabled the legislation to be introduced and proceed smoothly through Parliament. Had ITAP not existed, I have no doubt that we would have ended up in one of those awful battles, whereby the trade lobby would have resisted the archaeologists and the issue would have been seen as highly contentious and divisive. In the end, people worked together constructively.

ITAP proved its worth in Parliament and in several other recommendations that it made to Government, some of which have been taken up. ITAP was set up on an ad hoc basis in response to a Select Committee report some years ago. I urge the Minister to set up a more formal body, which brings together archaeologists, museums, dealers, metal detectorists and officials to keep the agenda fresh. There will be great disappointment if ITAP is disbanded without a successor body in place.

The Government would derive huge value for money from such a body. It is not an expensive undertaking to set it up, as the people who take part do so willingly; they want to be engaged with it. It is not a costly business, but the value to the Government would be enormous and would pass any cost-benefit analysis.

My next request relates to the internal operation of Government. We need a bit of the much-fabled joined-up government that we have been promised for the past seven years or so. When we consider archaeological matters, we look to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as the lead agency. However, on the enforcement of the legal measures, which we are talking about today, we need to look to the Home Office and Customs and Excise. The local archaeologists work for local authorities that answer to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

A lot of our concerns about planning, listing and scheduling monuments are to do with the ODPM, rather than the DCMS. We highlighted that in the all-party archaeological group report and said that that kind of "joined-upness" was essential in archaeology, because even people who work in that field are saying, "Who is taking responsibility for this?" The fear is that nobody takes responsibility and this issue falls through the cracks between the Departments. This is a complex matter and an interdepartmental working group on a structure for archaeology that crosses all Departments would be a major advance.

I have set out an extensive, but not expensive, shopping list containing quite modest measures that, together, would do much to tackle the illicit trade in antiquities. I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate positive support for those measures. I think that were she to do so, she would have significant support inside and outside the House.

2.21 pm
Alan Howarth (Newport, East) (Lab)

We should all be very grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) for securing this debate. I congratulate him on his speech, just as I congratulate him on the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, which he introduced and took through the House.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. Normally, I should not be speaking, because I have a rule that I do not interfere with my ministerial successors; they have enough problems without finding me under their feet. However, I am concerned about a number of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has called to our attention. I am particularly apprehensive that the Government may be about to divest themselves of an important resource in the illicit trade advisory panel.

The subject of our debate is important by any standard. It is important if criminal activity is persisting and if we are dealing with thieving, the desecration of sites and significant problems of money laundering through international organised crime, as I think we are in some aspects of the illicit trade in antiquities. It is even more important because we are contemplating the roots of our civilisation. We can, through good archaeological and museological practice, recognise, understand, conserve and honour the origins not only of our own civilisation in the west, but also of Islamic civilisation. The illicit trade dishonours and disgraces all who participate in it, whether they are in Baghdad or St. James's.

When I had the privilege to be Minister for the Arts, I became increasingly, and intensely, concerned that as a Government we were at that stage doing too little to tackle the illicit trade and that we lacked a coherent policy on archaeology, Let me record my admiration for officials in the cultural policy unit and the heritage department of the DCMS. It is always appropriate for Members of the House to press Ministers to raise their game and do better. but there have been occasions—although certainly not today—when hon. and right hon. Members have, if I may put it this way, slagged off Departments a little too broadly. I deplore that when it occurs.

If there is one individual who sharpened my awareness of the problem of the illicit trade in antiquities, it is Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn. I think that everybody here today would pay tribute to his enormous authority and concern to ensure that we get public policy right.

When I was Minister, successive Governments had been falling around over the UNESCO convention for some 30 years. The re was some obfuscatory advice coming from the Lord Chancellor's Department, for example, which I did not believe had looked seriously at the issue. It was advising my Department that accession to the UNESCO convention would, in some not very clearly specified senses, be inconsistent with the proper principles of English law. I was tempted to ignore that advice but it was, in practical terms, impossible for me to do so.

I also recognised that there were some genuine difficulties with the UNESCO convention, such as the vagueness of its terminology and the possibility that, if we took it seriously and literally—it is our custom in this country to take rather seriously and literally the international conventions and directives to which we subscribe—we might create a fairly oppressive, bureaucratic system.

There were doubts, for example, about what the meaning of the term "inventory" might be. It was with some relief that I was advised by Ms Lyndell Prott of UNESCO that, in the world of UNESCO, an inventory does not really mean an inventory, and that it would be okay; we would be able to handle that.

Equally, there would be a requirement to supervise archaeological explorations; one can imagine the practical considerations of that. There were obvious difficulties. There was also the requirement to ensure that the trade complied with all the stipulations of the convention, and that registers were kept. All that risked creating some impractical and rather oppressive situations.

My predecessor in office, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who I am glad to see here today, asked officials to consider whether, as a fallback position, it might be preferable to subscribe to UNIDROIT, and they had been carrying forward that work; but I came to the view that the whole process was going nowhere. We were also in considerable difficulty over export licensing, notwithstanding the extremely conscientious work of officials in the cultural property unit. However admirable their work might be, there was a problem, in that Customs and Excise did not regard the enforcement of export licences as high among its priorities.

I came to the view that we needed to form an expert panel that would advise the Government, enable us to achieve some definitions, map the extent of the problems that we needed to address, advise s about the nature and extent of them, make specific recommendations to us about policy, and—assuming that we were able to implement those policy recommendations—thereafter invigilate progress. I set up ITAP—the illicit trade advisory panel—which deals with illicit trade in cultural objects. Its terms of reference were

to consider the nature and extent of the illicit international trade in art and antiquities, and the extent to which the UK is involved in this


to consider how most effectively, both through legislative and non legislative means, the UK can play its part in preventing and prohibiting this illicit trade, and to ad vise the Government accordingly.

That was appropriate at that stage and, I think, still expresses a current and continuing reed.

We were fortunate that some immensely distinguished individuals were willing to serve on the panel. I pay particular tribute to Professor Norman Palmer, a professor of law at University college, London, who chaired the committee, and the experts from museums, academia, the art and antiquities market and the specialist press, who became members of the panel. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam suggested, it was not particularly easy to persuade people with those diverse interests to work together, but they were willing to do so. I believe that they did so very successfully, and were enormously helpful to us all.

At the same time, I instigated the formation of an interdepartmental official group. It was necessary then, just as it is necessary that there should be such a group now. A wide range of Departments apart from the DCMS should take a serious and responsible interest in the field of archaeology: among them the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Defence, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and also Customs and Excise. This issue, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, is a classic instance of both the importance and the difficulty of achieving well co-ordinated Government policy and practice.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was, if I may say so, incorrect historically when he said that the intention was to set up ITAP as an ad hoc body. I envisaged ITAP as being a permanent feature of the scene. It was on my initiative that we set it up. Indeed, the Select Committee was annoyed when it learned that we were setting it up because it found that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was doing its job and, in a way, we had shot its fox. All that was rather petty. We were working on a common agenda. The problems were obvious and important, and the recommendations of the Select Committee, which tied in closely with our thinking, were an important contribution to the evolution of policy during that period.

Neither the Select Committee nor the Department itself would have been able to muster the expertise that, fortunately, we had available to us on the panel. They could not have been a substitute for the panel. The panel was essential to us. It worked very quickly and reported with 16 recommendations in December 2000. I shall say a word or two about its principal recommendations, the first of which was that we should subscribe to the UNESCO convention. The panel's recommendation gave great power to my elbow and the Department was able to persuade the Government that that was the right action to take. It was an important step forward.

It was recommended that a criminal offence of dealing in illegally removed cultural objects should be created. It was an enormous disappointment to me that the Home Office, which never ceases to churn legislation through Parliament and had two or three Bills in the next Session, was unwilling to incorporate those rather modest provisions in one of its Bills. However, thank goodness, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam stepped into the breach and, with support from the Department and sufficient support from the Home Office, it has been possible for the offence to be put on the statute book.

There have been greater difficulties about export licences and export control. In its progress report in 2001, ITAP recorded what it thought it would be appropriate to do, including, importantly, that the export licensing unit should take account of any evidence of unlawful removal, including illicit excavation of an object from a third country in which the object was located before the country of its last location. That was endorsed by Baroness Blackstone, as the Minister. ITAP had recommended that there should be spot checks. We learned three and a half years later from the European Commission that there was a legal difficulty with mounting spot checks. It was disappointing that it took so long for the European Commission to furnish us with that advice. It demonstrates that stamina is essential in such proceedings. We continue to need to mobilise our forces—intellectual, administrative and diplomatic—to achieve the results that we want.

There have been problems in establishing the databases that were recommended in the original ITAP report. Let us remember that, even if we are successful in establishing a database of tainted items, it will not cover those items that are in the ground and may yet be dug up, looted and put on the market improperly and illicitly.

Some of the work that ITAP and the Department envisaged in the year 2000 is complete, but some policy is unclear, and implementation has proved difficult.

The combination of the Treasure Act 1996 and the portable antiquities scheme provides an excellent model. It goes with the grain of human nature because it recognises the enthusiasm of amateur archaeologists and metal detectorists and their desire to be able to keep the objects that they find. Because it recognises and, to as great an extent as is proper, accommodates their energies and enthusiasms, it is workable, in contrast to the absolute and comprehensive prohibitions that other countries in Europe and elsewhere seek to impose. However, its success depends on the services of the finds liaison officers. Without them, I dread to think what will happen in our country. We will revert to a situation in which people wander around finding things and digging things up, and archaeological finds are not recorded. That would be a tragic setback. It would be popular with archaeologists and the wider public, who care very much about archaeology and this part of our heritage, if the Government were able to find the resources to ensure the continuation of the portable antiquities scheme.

We always knew that there would be a problem, because when we managed to persuade the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance the first phase of the scheme that we have had in recent years, we knew that in the end it would depend upon a more permanent source of governmental funding. I fear that we shall still be in difficulties if that is left to local authorities on their own, unless it is made a mandatory requirement, which seems improbable. I hope that the Department will be able to find resources for a scheme of grants to allow the portable antiquities scheme to be maintained.

Internationally, we now have the archaeological catastrophe in Mesopotamia. I congratulate the DCMS and the British Museum on the energy with which they responded to the crisis as it broke. The Institute of Field Archaeologists has recently advised us, however, of how dire the situation is. Only some one third of the objects looted from the national museum in Baghdad have been recovered. The institute asked whether we could provide funds for training to match the funds that are being provided by the Americans, the French and the Germans. It also asked us to provide further support for the British Museum and the British School for Antiquities in Iraq. It would be wonderful if the Department found the resources to do those things.

Against that background, I was therefore surprised when in February the Government announced that they expected ITAP to produce its final report towards the end of the year and that the panel would be dismantled. I assumed that that was because the Department did not have the staff to enable it to service the panel. That is a real consideration; the Department is leanly staffed, and nobody would suggest that it is extravagantly resourced, so one has to recognise that choices need to be made. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell us whether the problem is that the DCMS lacks the resources both to service a continuing policy review by ITAP and its monitoring role, and to support the administrative effort of implementing and enforcing existing policy and the interdepartmental coordination that we all want to see.

I know that this is an anxious spending review for the Department and that my right hon. Friend the Minister wants to do the best that she can for museums, heritage and archaeology. I would note only that the money that it would cost to provide support for a better effort in Iraq, for the portable antiquities scheme and to sustain ITAP would be a fraction of the money that is being spent to support the coalition in Iraq. It would be so tiny as to be indiscernible in the national accounts, and yet it would make a significant contribution to the reestablishment of a peaceful and humane order in Iraq.

Policy is not complete and needs to evolve. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam drew attention to the eBay issue—the problem of trading on the internet. I should have thought that invigilation was part of implementation. It is desirable to keep ITAP. Is there a problem with the Nolan rules? ITAP would have its fifth birthday in May 2005. I do not think that the Nolan rules should be regarded as the law of the Medes and Persians. I also think that I recollect not only that it is in order to renew members of the body for a second term of office but that there is specific reference to highly specialised advisory functions, where the Government cannot just fish another member of the great and the good from the public appointments unit pool. I hope that there would not be an insuperable difficulty in ensuring that ITAP continues beyond the end of this year.

Its members are prodigiously distinguished. They work pro bono. They are not expensive to support, but without them both the DCMS and the Government's interdepartmental effort will be less able to achieve what they need to do. That expert and independent help is needed. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts is always, in her ministerial dealings, courteous and positive. She will certainly be courteous and positive to the members of the panel and I hope that she will be able to tell us that she is willing to reconsider the decision that was announced in February.

2.40 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on securing the debate. It is an important opportunity to discuss the subject in hand.

I am sure that we are deeply grateful to the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) for recalling the wonderful things that he achieved as a Minister. I am bound to say that I was a founding Minister at the Department of National Heritage and that as I established the new Department and went from capital to capital negotiating with culture Ministers who had had large Departments for a century or more, it did not feel like faffing around. However, he saw it as faffing around and we were all pleased to be put right and to be put in our places.

I will simply record my thanks to Mr. David Mellor, who was my Secretary of State for some time, to Lord Brooke, who was a most distinguished Secretary of State, and to that most civilised of permanent secretaries, Sir Hayden Phillips, who gave a new opportunity to archaeology in the establishing of the Department of National Heritage which is now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

It would be a surprise if the Member of Parliament for Salisbury did not have something to say about this matter. More recently, the Salisbury hoard has been a subject of much debate. Anyone who has the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for the constituency that includes Stonehenge, who celebrated their 10th birthday on top of a barrow on Cranborne Chase and who is guardian of the Pitt Rivers collection in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire museum, will have something to say about it.

Mr. Allan

This may be a cheeky question to ask the hon. Gentleman. However, is he a long tunneller or a short tunneller?

Mr. Key

I would love to have been a long tunneller. We are talking about the controversy over a tunnel under Stonehenge, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At the public inquiry, the long tunnel was the one thing that united everybody—from the druids to the Department. However, the Treasury said no, and that was it. We are now in the middle of a public inquiry about the short tunnel. That, at least, was a development.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might point out the relevance of that to the subject of antiquities.

Mr. Key

The tunnel will go underneath one, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I will row return to the subject of the debate, and you are quite right to reprimand me.

This morning, I clicked on to the eBay website, typed in "artefacts" and discovered a number of items for sale. One listing read:

"Anglo-Saxon Bronze Artefacts measuring up to 37mm in length. Good luck with the bidding."

It cost £7.99. I discovered an "impressive medieval iron spur". The winning bid for it was £19.99 and its description was:

Complete medieval iron spur as found And yet to be cleaned. It is complete with rowel and measures 150mm in length. Good luck with the bidding.

I then discovered the pages of thanks, and in relation to the medieval spur the buyer had e-mailed and written:

Medieval Spur is superb—I wonder who originally wore it? Great eBayer thanks!"

That was just one of 239 pages of thanks that had been sent to one website that sells artefacts.

Therefore, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for telling us what he has been talking to eBay about. That is an issue that we must address and I hope that the Minister will tell us where the DCMS has reached in its discussions with eBay. It is making lots of money. I daresay that it is technically correct, but I believe that it has a moral responsibility and I hope that it will acknowledge that.

The illicit trade, including unreported treasure finds, is sometimes news. That was the case on the BBC's 6 o'clock news on 19 May. However, eBay is now the largest marketplace for antiquities in the UK. I believe that the DCMS must be more proactive on that matter.

I shall concentrate on the lack of co-ordination across Government in tackling archaeological problems such as that. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for local government, and some areas of local governments, notably county councils and unitary authorities, have responsibility for our heritage and for funding museums. I say in parenthesis that most of those local authorities, sadly, are cutting their budgets for museums; mine is, and I regret that very much.

The Department for Education and Skills clearly has a locus, as does the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for agri-environment schemes. As I know well from its activities in Salisbury, on Salisbury plain in particular, the Ministry of Defence has a great deal to be proud of in its support for archaeology and for the maintenance of the archaeological environment.

Then there is the Department for Transport. When I transferred from being Minister at the Department of National Heritage to being Minister for Roads and Traffic, I was appalled at the desecration of many archaeological sites over many years.

I hope that there can be more co-ordination. The all-party parliamentary group on archaeology, in its excellent report that I am delighted to endorse, recommended that there should be far more joined-up government and that the DCMS should establish an interdepartmental committee on archaeology at ministerial level, which would include the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Education and Skills and DEFRA.

The report suggested that the departmental representatives should meet and maintain a small, strong team to provide policy advice to the DCMS, at least one member of which should be an expert on archaeology seconded to the Department.

The DCMS should also ensure closer co-ordination on archaeology issues among its architecture and historic environment divisions, its museums, libraries and archives division and the cultural property unit. The Department should play an enabling role in bringing together representatives from the sponsor bodies.

Finally, we need a single, non-governmental organisation to lobby for archaeologists. The Council for British Archaeology, the Institute of Field Archaeologists and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, and possibly other organisations, should have a review under an independent chairman to ascertain how they could better lobby for archaeology in general.

As a lifelong advocate of archaeology, I regret to say that it is much neglected in this country. The state of archaeology is not too bad, but catalogued today have been some of the consequences of not having a tight enough grip upon that world. Resourcing is a major issue, of course; it always is. The quality of graduate entrants into archaeology is a problem too.

However, there is no doubt that planning policy guidance 16 has resulted in a phenomenal increase in funding for archaeological work, much to the advantage of the constituents of mine who work for Wessex Archaeology, the biggest and best of the contracting archaeologists, including those in the field of marine archaeology. Its headquarters are, needless to say, in Salisbury. The consequences of PPG16 have been tremendous, but there is a problem with the capacity of museums to take and store material, and that has to be addressed with resources.

Above all, the wider context of the debate should be seen in the role of archaeology in the life of our nation. There is a lack of knowledge of history, heritage and archaeology in the curriculum. The Minister knows all about that; I am glad that she is responding to the debate, because she may wish to comment. The lack of archaeology in the curriculum probably contributes to a low sense of identity, of pride of place and of social identity in our wider communities, and that is regrettable.

However, the more of these debates that we have, to raise the issue gradually up the agenda—we may be talking about small items for sale on the internet or the great issues of the archaeological damage done in Iraq and Mesopotamia—the better, because people will realise the importance of looking backwards if we are to understand how to move forwards.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps I should remind all right hon. and hon. Members that I am required to call the first of the three winding-up speeches at 3 o'clock, 30 minutes before the conclusion of the debate.

2.50 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

I thank the Minister for her optimistic answer to Question 2 on Monday on portable antiquities. I raise the question of reciprocity and incentives, a subject covered under item 12 of the brief given to us by the British Museum. I will not go into the brief in detail for the sake of time, but it is important because it raises the question of whether items that were taken, possibly as long as 150 years ago, should be repatriated. I am chairman of the court of the university of Edinburgh, and we are under intense pressure to return to Ethiopia religious artefacts of great importance that were taken by British forces in the 1860s. What does the Minister's Department think about the return of valuable objects?

There is a review of treasure trove in Scotland and it has been recommended that Scotland needs a team of finds liaison officers similar to those in England and Wales. Does the Minister agree that that would be helpful in ensuring the reporting of treasure in Scotland, and that the role could not be satisfactorily undertaken by museum development officers as the Scottish Executive suggested? Does she also agree that that demonstrates what a great success the portable antiquities scheme has been in England and Wales? The Government should ensure its long-term funding, and that funding should be ring-fenced to ensure continued delivery of the project's aims.

2.52 pm
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab)

York is an important place for history and archaeology. It is a centre for the application of science and technology to archaeology, as carried out at the environmental archaeology unit at York university and the conservation work of York Archaeological Trust.

The Council for British Archaeology is based in York. The council's portable antiquities working group met yesterday. It is the executive arm of the standing conference on portable antiquities, which includes some 30 archaeological organisations. I agree with the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) that there should be greater co-ordination of the voice of archaeology in Britain for lobbying purposes, but the council plays an important role as an umbrella body.

The council has asked me to raise two questions. The first relates to the replacement for the illicit trade advisory panel, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) established when he was the Minister for the Arts. It has done important work; I pay tribute particularly to the contribution of Peter Addyman, the director of the York Archaeological Trust. It set out a detailed agenda that called for, among other things, the creation of a database for stolen cultural objects. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee last November that the Home Office would provide start-up funding to establish such a database. A report was due to be published earlier this year setting out the plan for establishing a database. What progress has been made on that?

I realise that creating a full database would be costly; the estimate is about £15 million, but why cannot it be funded in the long term by the trade in cultural objects? The arts market in Britain has a turnover of some £4 to £4.5 billion a year, so one third of 1 per cent. of the turnover would pay for a database to be constructed and maintained in perpetuity. London is an important centre for the art market and it would add to its prestige and importance if it were seen to be taking a lead in supporting such a database.

The Council for British Archaeology asked me to ask the Minister about the interdepartmental body being established to oversee the enforcement of legislation. It is clear that interdepartmental co-operation is needed when one considers the respective roles of the Minister's Department and the Home Office in relation to the database. How will the interdepartmental body work and how will it obtain advice from the archaeologists—the experts in the field—on the work that it is doing? Now that the illicit trade advisory panel has been wound up, it is important that professional archaeologists have a continuing input in discussions with the Government about the implementation of their policies.

2.56 pm
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on securing the debate and in helping him to prod the Minister and the Government on the issue. I am optimistic in that respect, as a debate in Westminster Hall last week prompted the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons to say that the debate had triggered the Government into taking action. I hope that a precedent has been established that will be followed today and that my hon. Friend will receive supportive answers to his probing questions.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the export licence regime and the need to tighten it up. The Government's reply to the Select Committee's report in paragraph 18 states:

Since the meeting in early 2003, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been considering this issue in detail, undertaking research and consulting others in order to move the issue forward. In particular, the Department is exploring the position with the European Commission.

It would be helpful if the Minister updated the House on the progress of those explorations and said whether the point was being reached when there would be some concrete developments. Without an efficient export licence regime, a key barrier to the illicit trade, and a weapon in preventing it, is missing.

What my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam said about prevention is important; permanent damage is done to a heritage site if artefacts are removed without care and attention and traded round the world. Connections with the original heritage and the chance of our having the maximum understanding of where we come from and the cultures that went before us are lost for ever. If we can do more to tackle the illicit trade, we can do more to prevent the loss of our heritage and the despoiling of our history.

My hon. Friend praised the portable antiquities scheme. If it is to continue, we need to identify how it will be funded and I hope for positive news from the Minister on the subject. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked what was happening in Scotland, which is a matter for the Scottish Executive, but it will be interesting to know what contacts there are between the Minister's Department and the Scottish Executive to co-ordinate best practice, and about joined-up government within UK-reserved areas. When something that is seen to be successful is established here, what information is passed on to the Scottish Executive?

Mr. Dalyell

The Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, which tries to curb dealing in tainted cultural objects, is not law in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Sir Robert Smith

I did indeed know that. He reminds me to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam on all his hard work on that Bill. As the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), said, it was amazing that, given the conveyer belt of legislation coming out of the Home Office, it was only through a private Member's Bill that the legislation was introduced. I congratulate my hon. Friend on successfully seeing it on to the statute book.

The other challenge is the establishment of a database. Again, that seems to be drifting, but perhaps the Minister has good news for us. At the third bullet point of paragraph 5 of the Government's response, they made the point that the second phase in the database's development was due for completion in April, and that they would produce a detailed strategy for the development of a pilot project. Now we are into May. I hope that today's debate is a chance to hear what stage that database has reached.

The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) talked about the potential for funding that database through the private sector. The database will be dealing with several low-value artefacts, which are not necessarily part of the private sector mainstream, so for it to be successful it may require the public sector to take a lead role in its establishment. If we are to encourage organisations to behave responsibly—if we are to put public pressure on organisations such as eBay to recognise the important role that they can play—a public database that can be consulted seems an important part of making that pressure almost irresistible from the point of view of the trade.

Similarly, clear and effective guidance for the public will help people police themselves. There is a dangerous misunderstanding; any one individual may feel that they are not doing much wrong, although they may be aware at the back of their mind that what they are doing is not quite right. They do not realise that they are not the only individual involved. The sum activity of lots of individuals doing a little bit wrong can do so much collective damage over time. As I have said before, things can be irreplaceable once the damage is done, and good education and public information will help to get that message across.

As has been said, effective, high-profile prosecutions get into the media. For example, prosecutions involving birds' eggs have been effective, and most people now realise how important sensible behaviour is in that field. The dropping of prosecutions sends a dangerous signal if it is done just because of the value of an item. It is not the value alone, but the effect on heritage that is at stake. The message must be sent to the CPS that that is this House's concern.

Mr. Allan

In the run-up to this debate, I was told that all police forces have wildlife liaison officers to deal with specialist wildlife crime, but only a couple have a heritage liaison officer. There is clearly a disparity.

Sir Robert Smith

Yes, that sends out a clear signal. As the hon. Member for Salisbury said, if police are slogging away with finite resources and do not expect the CPS to take things forward, a signal is being sent there, too. In the Government's response, they reject the idea of targets for this crime by saying in the third bullet point of paragraph 8:

We are looking to minimise the number of targets on forces to allow them more flexibility to focus on their own local problems and priorities.

If the Government genuinely want to minimise targets, the distortion will be less if this specific crime does not have targets. However, I worry that the police still have a lot of targets. Certainly, when I speak to police forces, I am told that their concern is how targets drive priorities. Although the police try to cover all crimes, if something is being measured, they will try to meet that Government target. If the Government do minimise all targets, however, forces will be free to concentrate on the problems in their areas, and that may remove some concern.

I have looked at the briefing notes for this debate and have heard what has been said today. Much of what has happened appears to have been galvanised by the setting up of ITAP. There is concern that with its winding up, there is no longer an external input to keep the Government's mind focused on these issues. Some of the recommendations have been implemented while others are still very much in the pipeline. It is important to maintain the ability to bring outside voices into the Government.

Clearly, joined-up government and internal co-ordination is important, but the focus of an external voice making the concerns outside clear to the Government and maintaining that dialogue has certainly proved valuable in other sectors. My constituency experience of the oil and gas industry has made a huge difference to my understanding of the Department of Trade and Industry. It might be less so in respect of the Treasury, but I support bringing the industry and the Government together in a permanent way so that feedback can always be achieved. Again, I hope that the Government will reconsider their position.

I do not regard the hon. Member for Salisbury as a faffing-about sort of person. To be fair, he deserves to defend himself from that accusation. He, too, emphasised the importance of joined-up government and cited practical examples of how we need to develop, with the internet, new means of tackling illicit trade that is carried out without people realising it. We want to put more moral pressure on eBay so that it recognises that if it wants public acceptance, it has to work effectively and have the moral authority of playing its part in not promoting an illicit trade.

The understanding of our origins is something we can do only one time round, when artefacts are found. It is crucial that we tackle the illicit trade. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam said in his opening remarks, it is a matter of prevention rather than cure. We need to prevent the crime from happening in the first place. We can play an important role. If this country can break the cycle of the trade and ensure that no illegal trade is passing through here, it will play a major part in removing the pressure that causes the crime in the first place. If the Government can stop the illicit trade, they will be taking a major step forward in protecting our heritage and that of other countries whose artefacts are traded through our nation.

3.7 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on securing this important debate on a subject about which I am passionate. All hon. Members who have spoken so far have alluded to Iraq, which, of course, is very much on our minds at present. Despite all the horrifying images of present-day Iraq, matters might improve eventually in that country. If and when life returns to something like normality there, Iraq will need one thing, above all; tourism. People like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I should go there.

I am not saying that there should be an organisation called "Simply Mesopotamia", but it would be wonderful if people were attracted by the cradle of civilisation, the ziggurats at Ur and the hanging gardens of Babylon, such as are left after the depredations of Saddam. In their present post-Saddam incarnation, fascinating they remain. That was why those of us who supported the war w ere so dismayed to see the looting of the museum in Baghdad at the moment of liberation.

I wrote a very angry piece denouncing the disappearance of the Warka vase, the squatting Arcadian king of 2500 BC and the golden bull's head harp of Ur. It later turned that some of our anger was a little overdone, because those objects were found not to have been stolen. A great many objects were finally recovered. I was in Baghdad a few days after its fall. I was standing in the grounds of the museum when people kept coming with great cardboard boxes full of cuneiform seals and returning them to the curators, who were overjoyed to recover them.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the all-party group heard evidence last week from the British School in Baghdad? Of the 40 most prized objects that were initially looted, only 20 have been returned.

Mr. Johnson

That is exactly the point that I was about to make. We have to take back some of the more wounding things that we said about the Pentagon and how it guarded the museum, and perhaps we have to withdraw some of the allegations, which we saw in some of the newspapers, about a conspiracy between the Pentagon and the American Council for Cultural Policy. That may have been exaggerated. However, many wonderful things were lost and there is still considerable looting. It is only right that the current policy of the people of Iraq should be retentionist in the extreme, to use the jargon. They should hang on to their patrimony.

Mr. Allan

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the real disgraces is that there are ongoing police investigations, as I understand it, into dealers in the United Kingdom who are dealing in material taken from Iraq in contravention of all the sanctions and selling it to buyers in the United States? After all the publicity, that is disgraceful.

Mr. Johnson

That makes it all the more important that we should listen to everybody who has spoken so far and supported the work of ITAP, which insists that there should be a database of all these things.

We should consider the most terrible thing about the loss of antiquities of this kind; 1 do not just mean the vacant case in the museum, or the empty plinth, because people know what has been lost. If we analogise cultural assets with the human mind, people may not be able to remember the first 100 lines of "Lycidas", but they know what they cannot remember and there is a blank spot somewhere in their mental catalogue.

The most unsettling things are the "unknown unknowns", to use Donald Rumsfeld's immortal phrase in his brilliant summary of all the epistemological possibilities in world. The terror of Alzheimer's is not only forgetting things, but not even knowing the things that have been forgotten or lost. That is why we need the records and the database of objects—tainted items as they are called—that may have been stolen. Only if we have that do we have the hope of restitution. It would be a good thing if the database included generic descriptions of things that might have come from Iraq, because the Iraqis do not even know that they have lost many of the things that are currently being traded.

I have to make a confession. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam spoke eloquently and said that we must all be careful to avoid falling into the trap. I have a slightly guilty conscience, because I have in my pocket a cultural artefact of potential cultural and historical importance, which I shall produce for the benefit of hon. Members. It is Tariq Aziz's cigar case, which I liberated from the house of the former Iraqi Foreign Minister a few days after the war. That object was at one time as close to the former Foreign M mister's bosom as Saddam Hussein himself. I do not believe that I was wrong. Had I not taken it, a hidden hand would have removed it. The important fact is that I faithfully and openly recorded the date and location of the discovery in a daily newspaper, together with it s exact provenance. If any democratic successor Government in Iraq—as I hope there will be—decides in the normal way to apply for the restitution of this cigar case I should be happy to give it to them. If they think that Tariq Aziz deserves to be reunited with it, that is fine.

I adduce that point trivially and frivolously to make a point, although I hope that it is not entirely trivial. The key element is transparency, and knowing where things come from and how they fit.

Sir Robert Smith

It is dangerous to say that looting is acceptable as long as it is transparent. People's behaviour in a war zone, especially that of legislators, should be a bit more cautious.

Mr. Johnson

I count myself as chastised by the hon. Gentleman. I think that I have preserved this artefact for the greater edification of others, and I am willing to restore it to its rightful owner if and when he is acquitted or convicted of his various crimes. That is why I approve so strongly of the portable antiquities scheme, not only in registering objects that have been discovered but in trying to invigilate the trade in them.

I salute the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in setting up the portable antiquities scheme, under which 150,000 objects, some of them very stunning, have been notified to the public since 1997. The rich earth of this country is constantly bringing forth new treasures. Like my hon. Friend, I spent this morning looking at some of the extraordinary things that are for sale on eBay. A Celtic silver coin was going for £4, and a half-groat from the time of Henry VIII was going for only £5.50. There are some amazing bargains. It would be wonderful if the origins of these things were clearer and we could he sure that we were not being invited to buy something that was stolen.

We must face the fact that there will be a great deal more excavation in this country in the coming years. There are plans to build many more houses in south-east England. Gravel pits are being imposed in south Oxfordshire by regional government. During the digging up of the beautiful area around Dorchester and Sandford, who knows what things will be found? It would be very sad if that archaeological site were destroyed. It would be even sadder if the things that were discovered were lost, and disappeared into the great magnetic maw of eBay.

That is why it is vital that we keep track of them. We do not want to stop all the trade in such antiquities. Far from it; we want to encourage people to value these objects. The things on eBay are grossly under-priced and some are under-priced because they are dodgy. We should stop that. It would be great if the Minister did what she could to stop this cultural memory loss and the terrible sense not only that we have mislaid something and cannot remember where we put it, but that we are not quite sure what it is that we may have mislaid.

ITAP and the portable antiquities scheme provide important ways of stopping this haemorrhage without stopping the legitimate trade in art and antiquities. That is why I hope that the Minister will feel able to give them the support that is shared by everyone in this Chamber.

3.17 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on securing the debate. I find myself surrounded by experts, either by training or through a constituency interest. I think that this is the most expert group of MPs that has ever met to discuss an issue, and I have an awful feeling that Members know most of the answers that I am about to give. Nevertheless, I shall try to respond to the issues raised.

I also want to take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on his appointment to the Opposition Front Bench. I did not have the chance to do so during Question Time because he chose to major on sport, but he might return to home base at the next Question Time. I hope that he enjoys his time speaking on behalf of his party. I also hope that the hon. Gentleman does not repeat too many tricks like the one he just produced. I thought that he was about to announce that he had purchased something from the eBay site, but perhaps one possible crime in an Adjournment debate is as far as we should take things. I must say that some of the excuses he gave for having the cigar case are ones that I have heard from many people who have objects that should not be in their possession. However, I have no doubt that somebody will read the record of what was said, and in the interests of access we all ought to get a look at the case.

I turn to the serious issues in this discussion. I want to address several matters in the ten or so minutes that I have. I was going to talk about the achievements that have come out of the ITAP report since it was published because there are many of them, but I will not; I would be giving a list of things that people knew about and I would not have the time to address the important issues that have been raised. However, I want to put on the record that I think that it was an exceptionally high quality report and I congratulate the former Ministers who are responsible for that. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), without whose initiative we would not be discussing the report today, to the work of Professor Palmer and his team, and to my officials in the DCMS who have moved forward rapidly, given the slow way government sometimes works.

I am proud of and pleased with the progress that has been made in signing the UNESCO convention and, in conjunction with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, in helping to guide the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 through Parliament. However, as hon. Members have said, a number of matters have not yet been fully implemented, and I think that the most appropriate thing to do is to give a progress report on them.

I will start with the portable antiquities scheme. I have been hugely impressed by that scheme and I am determined to ensure that it continues. I should point out for the record that the DCMS has invested £1.5 million to ensure that it survives. It is true that the Heritage Lottery Fund cannot continue to fund it, as that is not in its nature, even for small projects. I accept that if the scheme is to continue, the DCMS core budget must pick it up.

All that I can say is that as an advocate of this sector of the DCMS's responsibilities, I have done whatever I could to ensure that the scheme is included, in big letters, in the bid. When we know how much money we have been allocated from the Treasury, I will do all that I can to ensure that the scheme continues. I cannot say anything beyond those assurances. However, any change would not be for a lack of wonderment on my part at the scheme, those who run it or the museums.

I have had the opportunity to speak to some metal detectorists, whose hobby has become far more than that; it has changed their lives. We talk about the importance of such work because it helps us understand where we have come from as a nation and race and where we might be going. It had a great effect on those men and women, who have dug up from the earth things that have helped to inform the rest of civilisation about itself, and I am great advocate of that.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), I dare not tread into the matters of the Scottish Parliament, but if Scottish Ministers were interested in talking about the portable antiquities scheme or anything like that, I would be more than delighted to respond.

Let us turn to the trickier issue of the stolen objects database. There is no doubt that work on it has been too slow. Having traced back what has happened, I believe that the Select Committee was right to criticise both Departments for the slow pace at which they have worked. Why that has happened is irrelevant—it has happened and the work has been slow—so I shall talk about where we are now.

I have had meetings with Home Office Ministers, and we have jointly funded the second phase of the work, which reported in April and May this year. Let me be honest; the consultants' report has not meant that we can immediately begin work on implementation. That has been the problem and is why this is a tricky area for debate. I cannot say in all honesty that, having received the report, we can now go at full speed ahead. We now have to return to some other issues, and given what the consultants have said, I have two important concerns to pick up on.

The first question is about who pays. We envisage that the database could and should be self-financing, which would mean, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) said, members of the trade paying for its use. Their willingness to do that is now less certain than before, and mention was made of the value of the goods on the database being part of the reason for that. The second question is about how helpful the database will be for enforcement through the criminal justice system.

Our plan now is to commission further work. Although the first report is completed, I cannot say that its recommendations will be acted on as soon as I had hoped even this time last week. I am more than happy to keep the all-party group and the House fully informed on that. Given how ashamed I was about previous slow progress, I will personally do what I can to ensure that progress is made as quickly as possible.

On public guidance, we have two guidance notes on the website, including information on the Treasure Act 1996. The UNESCO legislation database is also being prepared, although it is not an easy task. Some 26 pieces of legislation have already been identified, but there have been problems when nations have provided that information electronically. Six sets of information supplied by nations were not in a form that UNESCO could use. The legislation database is on its way, but more slowly than We thought.

There is better news on the export licensing regime. Hon. Members were right that the difficulties have been in the wording of the regulation to carry out spot checks on objects of non-EU origin. They were also right that we need an amendment, and we have submitted a paper to the Commission requesting an update of the legislation. That should be discussed at the next meeting of the advisory committee on cultural goods in November; I hope that that will be the way forward.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for City of York that the cross-Whitehall group met for the first time this week. Whether the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam wishes to claim that as an example of an Adjournment debate again doing great things I leave to him. However, the group is meeting now and will, I hope, go on meeting.

Everyone has mentioned ITAP. I am, coincidentally, meeting Professor Palmer tomorrow; that date was in my diary before this debate was. I have an open mind on this subject, and I have no wish to avoid doing what I can to implement the report. The reason why we suggested that the panel no longer meet was not because officials could not service it; we are a pretty lean Department, but not that lean. In fact, the reason was the one to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East—and perhaps others—referred. The panel has been in place for four years now, and a committee set up outside the Nolan regulations would not normally continue beyond that.

Mr. Fisher

Does my right hon. Friend not accept that the work of the panel should continue? If it will not meet again, it is her responsibility to establish something that will take its work forward.

Estelle Morris

Absolutely, and that may well be what I decide tomorrow, if the establishment of such a body needs to happen and I am persuaded by the arguments that I have heard. If someone is looking over one's shoulder, it is much better if their sole reason for doing so is because they are passionate, and not because they have other interests. I am very happy for a body to be established; I can see no disadvantages to that. I was nervous about allowing a committee that was outside the Nolan regulations to continue, because the advice that I was getting from officials was that that was not quite the way to do things. It was not quite proper, and there could be criticisms.

I will meet Professor Palmer tomorrow; that might be a way forward. It may be appropriate to then write to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and copy the letter to Opposition spokesmen to let them know what I decide. If the case is made, there is no disadvantage to what hon. Members propose. I am happy to take on board all the representations that have been made. Quite honestly, the establishment of such a body would give power to the Department's elbow in terms of enforcing and enacting provisions. I would sooner finish my time at the Department having implemented the ITAP report than having failed to do so, and if there is anything that I can do to assist that, I will.

On the eBay point—I refer also to the Wiltshire case and the issue of implementation—the eBay website clearly needs attention. I thank the portable antiquities scheme and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for the conversations that they have had so far. I think that the takedown route is the right way forward. We are continuing to talk to the British Museum, eBay and others.

I do not think that this has been mentioned by anyone: we think that eBay should display information on export licensing and regulations on the website, so that the person who gets to the website genuinely not knowing that they might be about to engage in illegal activity will at least have that brought to their attention. We have been talking to eBay about that.

I take the point that has been made about working across Whitehall. I am not one for setting up groups just for the sake of it. There is a real danger in Government of setting up a cross-party group so that one can say that that has been done, even if it does not actually change anything. I would rather look to the heritage protection review paper, the response to which will be published in June, to see what is said.

We have had a gallop through most of the issues raised by hon. Members. If there is any point that hon. Members feel particularly strongly about to which I have not responded, I will happily do so in a letter, but I do not think that there is anything I have left out. I finish by thanking hon. Members for pushing the DCMS, so that we can take action on this important area of national activity. I know that they will continue to do so, and I promise to work closely with them.

Forward to