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Points of Order

5.39 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to raise a delicate point of order of which I gave Mr. Speaker notice this morning. On 29 January, I went to the Table Office and tabled a question that was accepted. It asks:

That was accepted by the Table Office for a named day, Friday 1 February. Normally, I give Departments 14 days notice for written questions, but this one was rather urgent. There was no reply on Friday, and on Monday there was neither a reply nor anything in Hansard. By some alchemy, however, on coming into the Chamber this afternoon, I received a reply—not from the Home Office but from the Lord Chancellor's Department—from the Solicitor-General. My question was very precise, and the Solicitor-General answered:

incidentally, "trial" was mis-spelled "trisl". I do not want to make too much of that, but this answer was clearly hurriedly put together—

That did not answer the question that I asked, which was on a substantial matter about which I have a question to put to Mr. Speaker: what on earth is going on at the trial at Camp Zeist, in relation to Lockerbie? I am aware of the sub judice rules, but my question is not sub judice. It concerns something else. Mr. Speaker will know from his constituency Sunday press that there have been stories in Scotland for 10 days now asking why the Strathclyde police provided salmon fishing holidays and other treats for a witness in a forthcoming murder trial. The police have taken the key witness in the biggest murder trial in British history, namely Tony Gauchi, on salmon fishing expeditions. This is far from—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman is now widening his original point of order somewhat. Mr. Speaker has informed me that the hon. Gentleman advised him in advance of his question. I am in no position to comment on the substantive part of the answer to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I can say, however, that Standing Order No. 22(4) states:

When a Department is unable to give a substantive answer to a named day question on the date on which it is required, the House expects the Member to be given an answer that should give some indication of when the Minister expects to give a full reply.

Mr. Dalyell: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Very briefly, and without intruding on the sub judice rule, may I ask Mr. Speaker to reflect on

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the fact that I have had 16 Adjournment debates on Lockerbie, but am now being told that that is all a matter for the Scottish Parliament? This is a very grey area. Are Members of the House of Commons not to be allowed to ask questions on subjects that they have been considering for many years? Where is the dividing line between the Members on the Mound and those in the House of Commons? I do not ask for an answer now, but I honestly think that the Speaker should reflect on this.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's comments have been heard, but I repeat that they go much wider than his original point of order.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I protest and ask for your support, and that of Mr. Speaker, for Members' interests? In the past couple of hours, a report, apparently from a Home Office official, has announced Government policy in relation to what might be called identity cards or entitlement cards. That is clearly a highly controversial and highly important matter. The Home Secretary was in the House yesterday, answering questions for an hour, and he stayed for an Opposition home affairs debate. We understand that he is to be in the House again on Thursday to introduce the asylum and immigration White Paper.

Mr. Speaker and his colleagues have made it absolutely clear that matters of policy should be announced to this place and they certainly should be announced by Ministers. They certainly should not be announced by departmental spokespeople without, it appears, any press release or other information. Will you, Madam Deputy Speaker, make inquiries? If, as it appears, there has been no proper announcement, will you ensure that the relevant Ministers come here to make one so that Members on both sides of the House can find out what the policy is and ask appropriate questions?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am certainly not aware of the announcement to which the hon. Gentleman refers or, indeed, of how accurate it may or may not be, but he is quite right that Ministers are expected to come to the House to make statements on matters of policy.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, about a matter of which I gave Mr. Speaker notice this morning. Yesterday, I received a two-line answer to my written question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking what will be his policy at ECOFIN on 12 February regarding Germany's budget deficit: the process is as set out in the treaty and the regulations regarding the operation of the stability and growth pact. That is it—a totally inadequate answer, particularly given The Sunday Times article at the weekend in which a senior Treasury official is quoted at length and the Government's approach to the stability pact and the German deficit is spelled out in great detail.

Why are the Government able to answer the question when it is put by a journalist, David Smith, but unable to answer when it is put by a Member of Parliament? Can you use your position to request that the Treasury answer my question properly? If it is too busy to do so, could it not simply copy out The Sunday Times article?

Madam Deputy Speaker: On behalf of Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his point

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of order. As Mr. Speaker has frequently made clear to the House, the content of answers is a matter for Ministers. Mr. Speaker has no powers to direct Ministers as to how they answer questions. However, I understand that the Procedure Committee is conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into all aspects of parliamentary questions. The hon. Gentleman may want to pass his concerns to the Chairman, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton).

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5.48 pm

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): I beg to move,

The Bill is modest, but it would be enormously beneficial to those who want great cultural objects to be displayed to best purpose and best effect. It would clarify the responsibilities of museum trustees and the Secretary of State in terms of international co-operation and the exchange of cultural objects between museums. I take the situation of the trustees of the British museum regarding the Elgin marbles collection, which largely consists of sculptures hacked from the Parthenon in Athens.

The Parthenon is a UNESCO world heritage site, and rightly so, for it has unique symbolic importance in the history of western civilisation. Most marbles in the Elgin collection are integral components of the structural and artistic unity of the building. The Parthenon and its sculptures can be fully appreciated only in conjunction. Without the sculptures, the Parthenon is incomplete. As Neil Kinnock once so memorably put it, without the marbles the Parthenon has a gap-toothed smile. Without the Parthenon the sculptures lack important context.

A new Acropolis museum is to be built opposite the south slope of the Acropolis, in the one location in the world where the Parthenon and its sculptures can be viewed simultaneously, in a single visual experience. My Bill would allow the trustees, if they wished and if the Secretary of State agreed, to transfer the marbles to Athens to make that remarkable experience possible.

It is not a question of ownership of the marbles. The manner in which Lord Elgin obtained them is disputable, and it would be possible to argue about it inconclusively and for ever, but the marbles belong neither to the British museum nor to the British Government, nor even to the Greek government. I can imagine Socrates, who described himself as not Athenian or Greek but universal, looking up at the Acropolis as he said that. In truth, in belonging to the Parthenon the marbles belong to the whole of humanity.

The Parthenon cannot come to the marbles. They, therefore, should go back to the Parthenon. It is a potent argument. The arguments traditionally ranged against the return of the Parthenon marbles are now hackneyed and long since discredited. It is said that they were rescued by Lord Elgin. Okay, but rescue does not justify keeping them for ever. It is said that they have been in safe-keeping in the British museum. Does that include abrading the surfaces with carborundum, or holding buffet receptions in the Duveen gallery?

It is said that the Greeks could not look after the marbles properly. That is an unsustainable slur on the professional expertise of the Greek Archaeological Service. It is said that more people see the marbles in the British museum than would see them in Athens. The figures cited refer to all visitors to the British museum, not all of whom visit the Duveen gallery. Hardly any of the millions of visitors to the Acropolis would miss the marbles if they were there.

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It is said that there is not a museum to put the marbles in. As I have said, the Greek Government have commissioned a grand new Acropolis museum with a glass-walled gallery, facing the Parthenon, reserved for the display of the marbles. I repeat that that is the only place on earth where the marbles and the Parthenon can be viewed together in a single visual experience.

It is said that returning the marbles to Athens would open the floodgates, and lead to the emptying of the great museums of the world. That is a serious argument that must be addressed, but it is exaggerated. We are talking about integral components hacked off a great immovable monument. How many of those are there in the museums of the world? We should imagine the sculptures being hacked off the Arc de Triomphe, the chariots being taken from the Brandenburg gate, Nelson's statue being removed from its column in Trafalgar square, several pillars being removed from Stonehenge, or the torch being hacked off the Statue of Liberty. Come to think of it, the latter would probably result not in an Act of Congress—or the presentation of a museums Bill to Congress—but in a coalition against the evil of cultural vandalism.

In fact there are not many such examples in the world's museums, and where there are, perhaps the case for their return should be carefully examined. The German Government provided a good example last year. Their museums contained several pieces of the Philippeion at Olympia. They have returned them, and are undertaking to reconstruct the building at their expense.

It is said that the Elgin marbles are part of the encyclopaedic collection of the British museum. That is a serious argument: perhaps they are—but they are not indispensable to it. They are exemplars of Greek culture. The Greek Government would readily supply an even more comprehensive set of exemplars of Greek culture to replace the marbles. It is said that the marbles have been here for so long that they are now part of our heritage. That argument takes my breath away, and does not merit a response.

Refuting those arguments one by one, however, is to no avail. The trustees of the British museum are forbidden by law to transfer the Parthenon marbles to Athens. So what? They do not want to anyway. The director made that clear in a recent article in The Times. But directors and trustees come and go, and in future a director and trustees may find the legal restriction irksome. My Bill would remove it. Then, at the very least, the trustees would not be in the unedifying position of hiding behind the hackneyed arguments I have just refuted, or falling back on the logical stopper of the law.

I am not talking about ceding legal title to the ownership of the marbles. The argument has moved on from that: it is now about where they should be. There is strong and increasing support in the country and in Parliament for their being reunited with the Parthenon. A 1996 Channel 4 viewers poll by William J. Stewart, with a return of 100,000, showed a majority of 90 per cent. in favour. A 1998 MORI poll and a 1999 BBC internet poll returned majorities of eight to three. A 2000 poll of MPs by The Economist, to which 200 MPs responded, showed 66 per cent. overall and 84 per cent. of Labour Members to be in favour.

The results of the parliamentary poll are consistent with successive early-day motions attracting more than 100 signatures. Early-day motion 336 has already

5 Feb 2002 : Column 776

attracted 107, to which we could add the names of Ministers, Whips and Parliamentary Private Secretaries who have registered their support in the past but are barred from doing so now.

As I have said, my Bill is not about ceding ownership of cultural objects by the British museum or any other museum to which this might apply. Such objects could be sent on renewable loan, the lending museum sharing with the borrowing museum responsibility for their display, study and conservation. That is not a new idea; it accords with modern museum practice. In January 2000, the Museums and Galleries Commission published "Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for Good Practice". The guidelines were commended by the Government, by a House of Commons Select Committee and by the Museums Association. Any reasonable application of them would result in a return of the Parthenon marbles.

Great museums in America, Europe and Australia have followed this practice. Even the British museum trustees, according to their submission to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport,

They also told the Committee:

involving the Parthenon marbles. Robert Anderson himself said:

What is there for the British museum in such a change in legal practice? Plenty. The museum would gain enormous credit for its enlightened approach to the display of such important cultural objects. Furthermore, the Greek Government are committed to replacing the Parthenon marbles in the British museum with a rotating exhibition of treasures of Greek civilisation that would otherwise rarely be seen outside Greece.

What is in it for Britain? Again, plenty. If the marbles are not returned, when the new Acropolis museum opens in 2004 the glass-walled gallery reserved for them will stand empty in living reproach to Britain in the eyes of millions of visitors to Athens from around the world. If they are returned, in the eyes of all those millions it will redound to Britain's credit that we have shown our commitment to the ideals of UNESCO by making whole again arguably the most powerful symbol of western civilisation, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. My Bill seeks to make that possible—

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