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Return of Cultural Objects

7.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat) : I beg to move

That the draft Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 15th December, be approved. The statutory instrument is important. The regulations, a statutory instrument under the European Communities Act 1972, will implement the provisions of Council directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the terrority of a member state. This is an internal market measure providing an additional layer of protection for member states' national treasures.

Article 36 of the treaty of Rome allows member states to define and protect these national treasures, provided that the measures taken are not disproportionate to trade. It was feared by a number of states, particularly France and the southern states of the Community, that the removal of routine customs checks at the internal frontiers, following completion of the single market on 1 January 1993, would weaken national protection.

Important national treasures could be removed by their owners across internal borders without the permission of the member states from which they originated. One powerful motive for doing that would, it is maintained, be the drawing power of the international art market in London. It is fair to say that export controls on these countries are on the draconian side, with permission to export being the exception rather than the norm. As a result, the price that an owner can realise for his art object is largely a domestic market price as is it unlikely that a new owner would be able to export it lawfully.

It could well be argued--I have some sympathy with this view--that it should not be the business of the United Kingdom Government to police the export control systems of other member states. But we are a Community--a club where we should extend the hand of mutual co-operation and help. The United Kingdom argued that an informal agreement would achieve that, but the majority of states thought that the only effective way forward was a statutory system. They saw the problem as both an internal one, as I have described, and an external one at the external frontiers of the Community.

Member states decided that a consistent approach to both was essential. The result was a Council regulation, EEC 3911/92, which set up a system of Community export licensing based on categories and monetary thresholds set out in an annex. It is closely modelled on the United Kingdom's national system. Provision for national co-operation in identifying and returning national treasures was made in Council directive 93/7/EEC, again limiting the objects that could be subject to those provisions by the same annex.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Can the Minister clarify the question of monetary thresholds? Some of us think that the most urgent problem is the theft of religious and ecclesiastical art from Czechoslovakia and, even more, icons from Russia and elsewhere. The Minister knows that they can be sold for proverbial peanuts in eastern Europe. Where does the doctrine of monetary thresholds fit into this extremely difficult and thorny problem?

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Mr. Sproat : As so often, the hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. However, it is not a point which arises on the regulations that we are debating. I agree that countries in eastern Europe, especially Russia with its valuable icons, should find a way to prevent sales if the objects are unlawfully exported. But the matter does not arise in this debate. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write or talk to me about it, I should be glad to discuss it with him.

Mr. Dalyell : Following the all-party heritage group's visit to Czechoslovakia, some of us wrote to the Minister's Department--before his time--at considerable length and raised the matter with the Prime Minister, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) knows.

Mr. Sproat : I will certainly make a point of getting out the correspondence and seeing what can be done in a context other than the regulations that we are debating.

The House will recall that when the directive was debated in Standing Committee B in November 1992, hon. Members were critical of some of its provisions. The package of regulation and directives was due to be debated at the Internal Market Council the following week, and the Committee asked the Secretary of State to ensure that no common position was arrived at without several changes.

The United Kingdom was President of the Council at the time and that is always a delicate position in which to use a blocking vote. But in this case, our position was also influential. The United Kingdom's negotiators achieved all the improvements we sought. We shifted the burden of proof so that the courts of each member state could apply their own system and, most important, we removed the requirement for licences for thousands of minor archaeological and numismatic objects.

In the Government's view, we had arrived at the best compromise possible. The directive stirred up the nationalistic instincts of member states. The southern states wanted it to cover a much larger area of cultural goods. Some wanted no time limit at all for the period during which a member state could request the return of a cultural object removed unlawfully from a museum or religious institution. Greece passionately sought this, since to have it otherwise was contrary to its constitution. In the end, Greece voted against the directive, and Germany abstained.

Given the text that we had before us, the United Kingdom considered that to continue to block it would reopen issues that were not tolerable to the United Kingdom. But I will freely admit that the directive is far from perfect.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : Before my hon. Friend moves away from Greece, can he tell us whether there is anything in the regulations that would result in the Elgin marbles being returned to Greece? While he is talking about that part of the world, can he say whether anything can be done to prevent any further stripping of the valuable and historic items in the part of northern Cyprus that is now occupied by Turkey?

Mr. Sproat : I do not know about northern Cyprus. However, I can tell my hon. Friend, who asks an extremely important question, that nothing in the regulations would compel us to return the Elgin marbles. For the absolute avoidance of any doubt, we are not compelled by the directive to do so and we have no intention of doing so.

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One important commitment won by the United Kingdom was to a review in 1995-96 of the operation of both the EC regulation and the directive. We are already assembling a number of issues and notifying the Commission and other member states of them. The art trade has been co-operative in applying for EC licences, and has drawn the disadvantages to our attention. The licensing unit in my Department has taken on two additional staff to deal efficiently with the extra licences. Applicants are kept waiting no longer than before for their applications to be deal with. But there is an extra cost, which must be balanced against our obligations to lend mutual assistance to other member states.

Whether the regulations will involve extra costs will rest entirely on the extent to which they are used. They will provide a mechanism for another member state to request the return from the United Kingdom of a cultural object that has been unlawfully removed from that state in breach of its rules for the protection of national treasures. They will also apply where a national treasure has not been returned following a period of unlawful temporary removal. But I must stress that this applies only to cultural objects unlawfully removed on or after 1 January last year. That point will give comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), who asked an important question about the Elgin marbles.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate) : My hon. Friend will be aware that the regulations are retrospective ; they go back to 1 January 1993. My feeling is that we should not pass retrospective legislation. It is much better for legislation to go from the time that it is passed by the House. Can my hon. Friend tell us whether any requests have been received for the return of any cultural objects that have been removed within the period covered by the regulations?

Mr. Sproat : My hon. Friend asks a good question. I do not know the answer off the top of my head. Perhaps I can let him know later in the debate. As for retrospection generally, my hon. Friend is right--it is usually an objectionable principle. But in this case we had to deal with other member states of the EC which wished to go all the way back unprescriptively--that is, as far back as the object-- Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) rose

Mr. Sproat : I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment. We had some difficulty in stopping that. For instance, the constitution of Greece says that any object manufactured before 1832 belongs to the Greek Government. We had problems getting a date fixed, and we felt that 1 January 1993 was not a bad compromise to reach.

Mr. Cormack : Will my hon. Friend confirm that this country is a potential beneficiary? We have suffered greatly in the past few years from thefts from churches. Is not it true that objects stolen from an English country church in, say, June of last year would come under the regulations if they turned up in one of the other countries in the Community?

Mr. Sproat : My hon. Friend makes an important point. The great value of the London art market means that we tend to proceed in our arguments from the assumption that we are talking about cultural objects from other countries

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being sold here. As my hon. Friend rightly said, many valuable cultural objects from this country are found on the market in other parts of the EC. We could request that those countries co- operate with us to return British cultural objects. My hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable point.

Although the directive allows an optional provision for member states to apply the directive to objects that were unlawfully removed before January 1993, we do not intend to apply that provision. The answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point needs not to be qualified, but borne in mind. Although we will not apply that provision, other countries may do so, and we may continue to get pressure for the return of the Elgin marbles and other objects. We have not accepted that, and we do not intend to apply the directive in that manner. We believe that it would introduce unacceptable uncertainty for purchasers of cultural objects and for members of the art trade.

Hon. Members will have noticed that the regulations have adopted the same meaning for expressions as those used in the directive, and that there has been no attempt at interpretation. That was deliberate, because it is important to ensure that the directive is correctly implemented while avoiding the imposition of burdens other than those required. The best way to achieve that was to follow the wording of the directive.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke on Trent, Central) : Will the Minister explain how the definition of illegality is to be applied? Is it simply necessary for the member state applying to this country or to another for the return of a cultural object to assert that, in its view and by its law, the object has been exported illegally? Is there some objective test of illegality?

Mr. Sproat : The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. Each EC member state has its own definition of a national treasure. In Italy, that covers a wide range of objects, and Germany--I think I am right in saying-- has specified 600 objects of national treasures. The hon. Gentleman would quickly see that if the manuscript of Beethoven's 10th symphony were discovered. It would not be included on the list, and therefore would not require an export licence.

The definition applies if an object that surfaces in London is defined as a national treasure by the home state, if I may put it that way, under article 36 of the treaty of Rome. For example, if an Italian national treasure surfaces in a catalogue at Sotheby's the Italian Government have to say within two months of the object appearing in the catalogue that they thought it had been unlawfully taken from Italy. The Italian Government must say that it is a national treasure which has been taken without an export licence. After that two months, they have no longer than 12 months to take the matter to court.

Mr. Fisher : Is the Minister saying that if objects categorised by a member state as a national treasure are exported, they have been per se illegally exported? Does that apply also to other artefacts or cultural objects which may be illegally exported--for example, objects which have been taken from an archaeological dig, illegally vandalised and taken into this country? A member state, say Greece, may say to our Government that those objects

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have been illegally exported. Do we accept Greece's word on that, or is there some objective test of what is an illegal export? Can any country--ourselves included--nominate an export as illegal?

Mr. Sproat : The export cannot be nominated as illegal after it has been taken, say from Greece to the United Kingdom. However, the object may be on the list of national treasures as defined by the Greek Government. The list is published and we all know what is on it.

If the object has been stolen, that is quite different. There are objects that can be transported from Greece to the United Kingdom legally if the Greek Government issues an export licence. The original regulation applied to objects that required an export licence. If an object is taken out of Greece and surfaces in the United Kingdom or in any part of the EC without an export licence having been issued, that is contrary to the directive and the regulations that we are debating. Theft is, of course, different and can be prosecuted through the courts in the normal way. Presumably, the object would not have been exported with an export licence because a thief would not wish to draw it to the attention of the authorities.

Hon. Members will see that regulation 3(1) provides for the Secretary of State to seek a cultural object where there has been a request from another member state. That goes into part of what the hon. Member for Stoke-on- Trent, Central just asked. That means that we would expect to check an object with the full co-operation of the person on whose property the object is believed to be located. Members of the art trade already co- operate in similar circumstances with the police, and I hope that that mutual co-operation will continue. In the few cases where it is considered necessary and appropriate for the Secretary of State to apply to the High Court in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or to the Court of Session in Scotland, for an order authorising entry and search, the official responsible for undertaking the search would normally expect to enter the premises at a reasonable hour of the day, unless it is anticipated that to do so would defeat the object of the exercise.

Mr. Dalyell : I do not doubt the impeccable taste of either the Secretary of State or the Minister. The hon. Gentleman says that the Secretary of State will check who carries that out, but presumably it will be transferred to someone in the British museum or a Scottish gallery. Will it be the appointee or the Secretary of State who carries out the check?

Mr. Sproat : The hon. Gentleman asks a complicated question to which I will attempt to give a lucid answer. "Seeking to check" is the wording which forms part of the European directive which I said we have used. It would apply if, for example, the Greek Government told us that a certain cultural object designated as a national treasure by them was thought to have been exported to London, and was likely to appear in the British markets.

The Secretary of State, through the officials of the cultural property unit in the Department, would place advertisements in the various appropriate antiques journals. Those would be circulated among the various houses in London where it was expected the object might be sold. The auction houses would be informed that they should look out for the objec

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where an object had appeared and we had no advance notice from the member state's Government that it was likely to appear. If the object appeared in a Sotheby's catalogue, we would be in touch with an appropriate expert at the British museum and ask him to go and check.

In some, perhaps many, cases, court proceedings might not be needed if the bona fide owner can agree appropriate compensation with the requesting member state, but in other cases, court proceedings might be needed to establish the good faith of the owner. The requesting state will have to satisfy the court that the object that is the subject of the proceedings for return is, in fact, the one that is sought and that it was unlawfully removed from the territory of the requesting state during the relevant limitation period. The court must also be satisfied that the proceedings were brought less than 12 months after the requesting state became aware of the location of the object and the identity of its possessor or holder. That is the point that I made to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher).

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) : Is that the only way in which artefacts could be returned to their country of origin after the regulations are agreed? Could they be returned by normal negotiations and so on? For example, do the Elgin marbles have to fit into the categories that the hon. Gentleman stated?

Mr. Sproat : The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. It is perfectly possible that an object will be returned by mutual agreement. Let us say that the hon. Gentleman bought an antique statue, believing, perfectly properly, that it had been exported from Greece with an export licence, and that he believed himself to be the bona fide owner. Let us say also that the Greek Government prove to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction that, unknown to him, it had been unlawfully exported from Greece.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman, as the bona fide owner--there is not the slightest besmirching of his name--would say, "Of course it should not have been taken ; I gladly give it back," in which case the requesting Government would pay him compensation. It might be what he paid for the object, or a similarly negotiated price. That is how it would work. I imagine that, very often, it will work that way, because people will be bona fide owners of objects that turn out to be unlawfully exported.

I want to emphasise the modest nature of the provisions. We should not view the powers of entry and search and of seizure as striking at the innocent owner's right to enjoy his property. Perhaps the powers, which will require an order from the High Court, will never be used. We have carefully not created a new criminal offence. Contempt of the High Court or of the Court of Session is a serious matter, with stiff penalties. The regulations should be sufficient should a member of the public obstruct the competent authority in the exercise of searching for a requested national treasure of another member state. But it is innovative legislation in the sense that, for the first time, we are prepared to act on a statutory basis to provide a mechanism for the return of the national treasures of other member states.

We shall watch carefully how use is made of the measure. It is a developing aspect of international property law, and the United Kingdom Government and the art trade wish to influence it positively. We have vital economic as well as cultural concerns in the United Kingdom. They come together in the strong, open and legitimate art market

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in London which, in its own code of practice, wants nothing to do with goods that have an unlawful provenance.

The problem of unlawful circulation of national treasures is worth tackling, just as we are tackling trafficking in stolen art and objects. I therefore commend the regulations to the House.

8.22 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : The Opposition welcome the regulations. Any piece of legislation which polices and regulates the growing market in illegal works of art and antiquities is to be applauded and supported. That illegal market is said to be second only to the illegal trafficking of drugs. Quite how that figure is arrived at, I am not sure, but nobody has refuted it. Indeed, it has been quoted several times recently, not least by Lord Renfrew. If the scale of illegal trafficking is as large as that, it is a very large part of international crime and one which, at least in the European context, it is a good thing that we are tackling. The Opposition commend the Government on adopting the regulations.

In accepting, I hope, the support of the whole House for the regulations, the Government need to answer more questions than the Minister has addressed, especially as I detected, particularly in his opening remarks, some slight personal scepticism or reluctance when he referred to acting as policemen for the imperfections of other countries' policies. He referred to "a view with which I have some sympathy." If the Minister is a little sceptical about the regulations, we need to probe the Government's view of them and their commitment to implementing them.

How big is the problem for the United Kingdom and what research has the Department done to establish the scale of the problem for the United Kingdom? What percentage of the art market will be affected? The Minister said that the art market did not wish to traffic in goods which do not have good provenance, but he knows very well that many objects that are sold on the art market have doubtful provenance or no provenance at all and that, without those objects, the art market would be severely damaged. It would be very interesting to know what the scale of the problem is and what percentage of the market will be affected.

Also, in other matters, the Government rightly stress that they should set themselves targets so that their performance can be evaluated. What number of successful search and finds and, therefore, prosecutions will the Government consider adequate? Will the Minister give some targets about the performance of the regulations? The Minister needs to tell us more about the steps and the mechanisms that the Government will take. Will his Department need to take on new staff and train them? If so, how many, and what expertise will they have and what training will he provide for them?

Presumably, the Minister will need help from the Inland Revenue and the police in implementing the regulations. What training will there be for police forces? If, say, Italy asks us to search for a work of art that it suspects is in Glasgow or Liverpool, it will be no good if the number of police officers in this country is so limited that we cannot meet the request from the member state and therefore cannot implement the regulations.

I was slightly worried by the Minister's response to how a check will be made. He seemed to say, "We will leave it

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to advertising in the art press that an illegal object is loose or is suspected of being loose in the London market." Is he saying that his Department would not be responsible if there is a request from, say, Greece because it believes that there is such an object here? Will it be sufficient for the Government to ensure that an advertisement is placed in Apollo or elsewhere? Is it not his Department's responsibility to ensure that either the Inland Revenue or the police search out that object? An advertisement would not fulfil the spirit of the regulations.

In particular, the Minister must say something more about the definitions. We understand that the regulations apply only to national treasures and the inventories of public collections or ecclesiastical institutions. The example that I gave when he kindly gave way to me was the pillaging of archaeological sites. It is unlikely that a new archaeological site or a site that has not been excavated before will be on an inventory of national treasures. It will certainly not be part of a national public collection. If something is ripped from an archaeological site--this is exactly what Lord Renfrew is rightly concerned about, and the implications for international archaeology and our understanding of our cultural heritage in Europe--and it is not designated a national treasure, will it be covered by the regulations? That could leave a huge hole in the regulations.

What protection to the regulations give us? Many works of art are undoubtedly extremely important to the culture and cultural heritage of this country. We do not have a designated list of national treasures, but we have public collections and ecclesiastical institutions. We have many important works of art which are absolutely central to the way we see our heritage, tradition and view of our culture but which are not in public institutions, public collections or ecclesiastical institutions. Will they not be covered?

For instance, if they are stolen from a private collection or a national trust and they turn up--or we believe that they have turned up--in Rome, will we be unable to apply to the Italian Government for the return of those objects even though we know that they have been stolen from a private collection in Britain and are important works of art or artefacts? If so, there is another huge loophole, which the Government should seek to close. I am sorry, if that is the loophole, that they have not closed it in advance.

Can the Minister give some more assurances to the House about the way in which the regulations will be effective in helping us to gain possession of objects in the way that I have described, and will he especially give some consideration to the effect that that will have on the London art market? He referred to that subject briefly in his concluding remarks, but will he tell us what co-operation the Government had had from the art market and from museums and academics in their negotiations?

I understand that a committee has been set up to advise the Government, but in the debate recently in the other place the noble Lord Gowrie said that it had met only three times and he seemed at that stage to be extremely critical of the way in which we were proceeding to the regulations. Have those fears been assuaged? What has changed? Are the Government happy with the regulations that they are putting before the House?

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Those questions need to be asked because the House needs to be reassured, not only that the regulations in their present form will be on the statute book, but that the Government have a real commitment to making them work. Though the Minister's remarks were very interesting and helpful to the House, I think that they were a trifle cautious or lukewarm in their enthusiasm. That causes--in my mind at least- -some worry about the Government's commitment. The Government's record in that sector over recent years fuels that doubt and fear about commitment.

The problem has been around for many years, although it has grown enormously recently, and it has caused worry to everyone in academic circles, in museums and in the art world generally. A great deal of work has been done on regulations of that type in a European and an international context. Internationally, those date back to the 1950s, with The Hague protocol on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict 1954 and the New Delhi recommendations on international principles applicable to archaeological excavations 1956--both of which were drawn up by UNESCO.

Mr. Bernie Grant : Is the Labour party still committed to the return of the Elgin marbles?

Mr. Fisher : The Labour party views that subject in the context that I am describing now--the Elgin marbles should be multinational agreement. That is is why the Labour party, unlike the Government, is committed to ratifying and being an active signatory to the UNESCO convention of 1970. If we were--Greece is a party to the UNESCO convention--we would be able to work out the orderly return, not only of the Elgin marbles, but of the Benin bronzes and many other cultural treasures. We should not handle it as a one-off bilateral agreement with Greece on an individual artefact or set of artefacts, but as part of an international agreement.

The problem is not only between ourselves and the Greek Government ; it is a major international problem. The Government should say tonight why they will not ratify and be an active signatory to the UNESCO Convention 1970. They ought to do that. They should be serious about tackling the problem.

The Government ought also to be active in the European dimension because the regulation that we are debating is not sufficient. The Minister knows very well that work is going on at this minute on UNIDROIT, the convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects, which was basically concluded in 1992 and will be submitted to a diplomatic conference this year. Why do the Government not actively support UNIDROIT? The Attorney- General has said that he does not close the door on the Government signing UNIDROIT. What is the problem with UNIDROIT? It would greatly strengthen the regulations before us tonight. If the Government expect to be taken seriously in connection with the regulations, they should give a commitment to be active in their support for UNIDROIT at the conference next year. The Government also need to explain why they are not supporting the Commonwealth convention which has recently been concluded. Every other Commonwealth country has been active in that. A decade of campaigning by New Zealand has brought the Commonwealth Mauritius protocol to completion. Eleven countries contributed to that working party ; they have been drafting it for seven years and Australia has now offered to draft

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legislation for other Commonwealth countries. Why are the Government dragging their feet on the Commonwealth initiative? Will they go further, as the Attorney-General said last year, and not just not close the door but open the door and be an active supporter? The Minister must explain the Government's problems about the wider international context for the regulations that we are debating tonight the UNESCO treaty, the Mauritius Commonwealth protocol and UNIDROIT. Taken together, those three agreements and the regulations would provide some context in which to tackle illegal trafficking in art artefacts, which no Member of the House can support.

The Government have taken the first step, and we welcome it, but there are three other steps waiting to be taken if the Government are serious about tackling that illegal traffic. The Minister must address himself to that.

What is the problem? Is it that the Minister fears that legislation will hurt London's art trade? If so, he should be open about that and discuss it. That was the burden of the debate on 3 November 1992 in the other place, when the noble Lords Gowrie and Carrington--the latter a former Member of this House, and both of them chairmen of major art auctioneers and art houses--mentioned severe fears and worries about the regulations and this action. Those Members of the House who, like me, are not experts on the subject, do not know whether the worries that those noble Lords expressed are well founded.

The Government have to answer that. Lord Gowrie said that it would threaten our position in the art trade ; that it would be a smugglers' charter, and that we shall be acting as customs, civil servants, tax gatherers and policemen for other countries which will not police their own laws. He went on to say that the Government were under pressure to complete the legislation by January last year, that it was too quick, that there was too little consultation and that the consultative organisation met only three times. That was 15 months ago, so perhaps it met several times last year. We ought to hear about that. The noble Lord Carrington said that those things would be damaging and unworkable and would increase bureaucracy.

Those are charges by two people who have worked in that sector and who know about it. The Minister ought to respond. Are they right in having those fears? Have things been changed? Have the Government managed to secure negotiations and change the regulations in a way that would satisfy those fears? He said tonight that, basically, we were adopting the regulations as they were in the European directive. Is so, are the fears of the art trade still justified? Are the regulations likely to damage the art trade in this country? That is an important part of our cultural industries and a profitable area for this country.

We therefore have two different problems. It is good that the Government are doing something, even if it is rather cautious and tackles only part of the problem, but are they committed to it and have they got it right and achieved what, I accept, is a difficult balance between not damaging an important industry in the United Kingdom and doing right by the international market and protecting our national treasures? The Minister will say that, because he is being criticised from both sides, perhaps he has got it right, but when one is criticised from both sides one may equally have got it wrong from both points of view. There is no security in that argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) has suggested a way of squaring that circle. We should opt

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for a wider international agenda which does not simply protect European artefacts and the relationships between member states. Lords Gowrie and Carrington were concerned that as the regulations are purely European the art market would go elsewhere to areas not covered by UNESCO or other international agreements.

To calm those fears, we should not run away from or be soft on the issue. Instead, we should sign up to UNESCO and pressure the United States Government to ensure that there is effective international regulation. The Government have done that reluctantly in the past in respect of issues such as copyright, patents and designs with the Berne convention. If the Government are serious about tackling international crime, they have an opportunity to take the lead in respect of international regulations.

The Government are in a dilemma. They want to talk tough on crime, but I do not believe that they are certain that what they are doing will be effective. I am not sure whether they know the effect their actions will have on the art trade. The Government must decide whose side they are on and how best to protect our art treasures and our art trade and also how to tackle international crime.

The Opposition support the regulations. We are pleased to do that and we congratulate the Government on them. However, the crucial point is what the Government do next. Will they police the regulations with real rigour and determination? Will they go further in respect of an international perspective? If they will not do either of those things, when we next debate the issue at Question Time or in Adjournment debates in a year's time, if the regulations have not been effective it will be clear that the Government have been prepared to go through the motions but not to back the legislation with action or to seek an international solution. If that happens, the aim behind the regulations to get to grips with a culturally dangerous and unpleasant form of illegal international trafficking will not have been observed. We will not have done right by that problem. The Government must convince the House that they are really committed on this and that they intend to do something about it.

8.42 pm

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister about the Elgin marbles. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) put a similar question to his hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher).

With regard to the Elgin marbles, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say to his opposite number in Greece, Mrs. Melina Mercouri, "Never on Sunday, nor on any other day of the week." I am happy to remind the House that those words were first spoken by our former colleague Sir David Price, and never have truer words been spoken. He was absolutely right.

Nations, like individuals, cannot always have what they want. I hope that we will never accept that we should be told what to do by UNESCO, the European Union or any other international organisation. I remind the House that the Elgin marbles are not owned by the British Government ; they are owned by the British museum which is an independent charitable foundation run by trustees. That should be understood in countries like Greece. Such countries should not be distracted by the word "British" in

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the title into imagining that the British museum is run by the Government. Returning the Elgin marbles would, in effect, involve confiscation of the trustees' private property.

My hon. Friend the Minister introduced the debate with admirable lucidity. However, I should like him to enlarge on what happens in respect of a country that has not yet joined the European Union but might join it in future. In that respect, I think of Norway. Let us suppose that Munch's "The Scream", which was pinched from the Oslo museum over the weekend, were to turn up in four or five years' time in Bermondsey market or in the market in the Portobello road. Although I think that it is unlikely, suppose Norway joined the European Union in four or five years' time. What would be the legal position under the regulations with regard to returning the picture to Norway ? Criminal law could be invoked and the picture could be returned as stolen property. However, I should like to know the position in respect of the draft regulations.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the scope of the regulations is limited. I am not sure how much good they will do. Are they permanent? If they are approved, how effective will the review be? My hon. Friend said that we must carefully monitor the way in which the regulations work.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said that he would welcome the control of illegal traffic. However, much of the trade in objects is perfectly legal at present. I am not sure whether we want to place a stop on that.

The spread of cultural treasures is good. If the regulations had been passed 50, 100 or 200 years ago, we would not be able to view any of the great foreign paintings that are on view today in the national gallery, the British museum or the Victoria and Albert museum. We would not see French impressionists or Dutch, Italian, German and Spanish paintings. Foreigners on the continent would not be able to see paintings by Turner, Reynolds or Gainsborough. There seems to be a doctrine that any great work of art should remain permanently in the country in which it was created. That is nonsense. Are we really saying that the national gallery in Washington should return all its Rembrandts to Holland or that the French should whisk the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and send it back to Italy?

A great international collection in any country enables visitors to that collection, whether they are old or young, to compare and contrast paintings, furniture or other objects of different countries and different civilisations. The regulations could stop the international movement of fine works of art.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central wondered whether the regulations would affect the art trade. Obviously, they would if the movement of great works of art were stopped. London and New York are pre- eminent in the art trade and the art market. The world's greatest auctions for art objects are held mainly in London and New York. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has just succeeded in negotiating an agreement with the European Union which will help to preserve the art auction market in

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London. There has been a threat that the market will move from the European Union to New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and other places outside the European Union.

It would be a great pity to stop the movement of all important works of art within the European Union. That would damage the auction trade in London. We are prominent in that trade, which helps to pull into this country overseas visitors who visit the auctions or make use of them by telephone. When those people come to London, they spend money in hotels and restaurants, on shopping and on internal travel. All that helps to generate trade and employment in the United Kingdom and to improve the tax return to the Government. We should be crazy if we were to knock the international art market in London. It seems to me that these regulations give any country within the European Union the power to state unilaterally that any object--any painting or piece of furniture, for example--is a national treasure. There appears to be no obligation to produce any evidence or to make any kind of case. It seems that the process is purely arbitrary. We shall have to wait a few years to see how the regulations work. My reading of them is that a state can simply claim that something is a national treasure, thereby preventing its movement. Other states do not stick to the rules as the United Kingdom does. The British tend to follow to the letter the European Union's rules in respect of trading matters. We are all aware that many continental countries are not equally conscientious. That could place us at a disadvantage. I hope for an assurance that the operation of the regulations will be subject to a thorough review.

8.50 pm

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South) : Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), I support the regulations, so far as they go, as a step in the right direction. I shall cite in a little detail--although not at length, I promise--a particular case to illustrate what can happen. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) referred to the looting of churches, particularly in northern Cyprus.

A cause celebre is the Panayia Kanakaria mosaics from the church of Panayia, Kanakaria in Lythrangomi, which was overrun in the northern Cyprus invasion of 1974. These were still being used for religious observance until 1976, but then abandonment was necessary. It was reported in 1979 that the church was being used as stable and that some rather precious glass mosaics dating from the 5th century BC had been stolen. They depicted Jesus in the lap of Mary with the 12 apostles. They had been located in the apse, but they were lost. Eventually--in 1988--they surfaced on the international market. They were on offer at $3 million, I understand, and were eventually acquired by an American art dealer. I understand that $1.2 million, cut various ways, changed hands. The American art dealer, as one would expect, attempted to market the mosaics. That was reported to the Getty museum and, to her credit, Dr. Marion True informed the Cyprus Department of Antiquities that they had surfaced on the black market in art works. Their return was requested, but the request was refused. The matter was taken to court and was eventually settled in the south district of Indiana in

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October 1990. The mosaics are now being restored for display in a museum in Cyprus. That is just one example of desecration and systematic looting in northern Cyprus.

I stress that, in citing this case, I do not make any political point in connection with the invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. I accept that the administration there does much to control the situation. Self- evidently, however, it is not doing enough, as that kind of thing is still going on.

I am not attacking the Turks as Muslims desecrating Christian churches and artefacts. Indeed, I have great respect for what the Turkish Government have done to preserve a cultural heritage that predates their arrival in that part of the near east. I think of the Ayix Sophia, and, in the case of modern times, the first world war cemeteries of Gallipoli. The authorities deserve much credit for that. Indeed, they themselves have much at stake, as they have their own rich heritage of unexcavated or undeveloped archaeological sites. In fact, some of the richest sites of classical archaeology are in mainland Turkey. The country has an embarrassment of riches and a vested interest in protecting them, and it takes rigorous steps to achieve that end.

We are dealing not just with northern Cyprus and Turkey. Hon. Members have mentioned churches in this country from which valuable artefacts have been taken. There are also the churches in rural Italy, and the hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned Czechoslovakia and icons that are systematically looted from churches in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. All of us have an interest in this matter.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this debate is restricted inasmuch as it relates to the countries of the European Union.

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