Draft Treasure (Designations) Order 2002 and Revised Treasure Act 1996 Code of Practice (England and Wales)

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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cran. I follow the comments made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) by expressing my party's support for the change in the legislation and our hope that we will continue to look at the operation of schemes that protect the board's archaeological finds or seek to ensure that the public benefit from them. I hope that in time further extensions will be considered. In Scotland, for example, the category of artefact that has to be reported is much wider. Many kinds of artefacts that are of significant public importance, which should be gathered up by legislative means for the public good, still do not still fall within the definition of treasure even with the proposed extension.

The definition of ''prehistoric'' in the code of practice has been carefully defined as anything pre-Roman, which is usual. History continues to begin with the Romans, as has traditionally been the case, so we have a reasonably clear definition of what will fall within the scope of the revised code—and outside its scope, which is anything iron age or earlier. We hope that that will cover some finds that have gone missing—for example, hoards containing bronze-age axes, which would have been of enormous value. They could not be recovered as long as the terms of the code of practice covered only precious metals, as opposed to base metals.

The success of the Treasure Act 1996 has been considerable in securing the recovery of a greater number of hoards. The Minister will share my delight that in the past couple of years those hoards have included five finds from south Yorkshire, the region that we have the pleasure of representing. That may

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not have been possible without the additional publicity from the implementation of the Treasure Act and efforts, especially by fines liaison officers, to get out there and ensure that the metal-detecting community in particular is aware of the Act and turns in the objects that it finds.

Our principal concerns remain about the implementation of the order and the difficulties with the implementation of the Act, which could be greater as a result of the additional 50 cases a year brought under the terms of the extension. The Minister referred to several issues, the most significant of which is the question of the finds liaisons officers established under the portable antiquities scheme. The scheme has been under threat until very recently. There are still some major questions about the role of the DCMS and the funding of the scheme. The finds liaison officers appear to have been tremendously successful. I have some information that suggests that between 1997 and 2000, 73 cases of treasure were reported in Suffolk, where a finds liaison officer operates, while only 26 cases were reported in neighbouring Essex, where there is none. There is reason to suppose that the finds liaison officers are successful in ensuring that treasure is reported, even though they work under the umbrella of the portable antiquities scheme, which covers the vast range of other objects that do not fall within the definition of the Act.

The heritage lottery fund agreed to fund the scheme for another three years, but made it clear in a face-to-face discussion that I had with them under the auspices of the all-party archaeological group that it will not fund it after that. That leaves a hole, and I hope that the Minister can consider at some point making a commitment on behalf of his Department to fund what I believe is a core departmental service. The DCMS has responsibility for archaeology and should fund the portable antiquities scheme—a core DCMS function, if we take culture seriously. I hope that the Minister will indicate his intention to continue to fund the officers who will carry out the work that the orders will impose on the archaeological and museums community after the HLF funding has run out.

My second major question is what happens to the finds after they are reported. That gives rise to another question about the extent to which the Government can fund and implement the recommendations of the report on the renaissance in the regions, which suggested that we should have strong regional hubs. The Minister indicated that he believes that a key to making the gathering up of the artefacts successful is the development of strong regional museum hubs. There are concerns that museums do not have sufficient funds to buy the objects. The Act requires that one must present the objects for purchase, but museums must have adequate funding to purchase them. Even before that happens, they must have officers to evaluate the objects, make the necessary assessments and carry out any conservation work required. If the museums buy the objects, they must display them.

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Another major concern is the Government's funding plans for DCMS. It is hard to see how there can be a serious renaissance in the regions with the level of funding set out for them. Allied to that is the position of the British museum. It is well known that the British museum has serious financial difficulties and is laying off staff. It is rather like an iceberg. The bit at the front is the building that people see, but behind that is a huge research base that includes the officers who take in and evaluate most of the stuff that is presented under the Act. The Minister said that he was pleased that the British museum has an officer responsible for the register. Will he give any favourable indication of the Department's attitude to the funding of the British museum to keep that work going? As these financial crises hit—there is no suggestion that they are getting any easier, at least not in the near future—much of this ancillary work, which is of great benefit to the archaeological community, will be threatened by the museum's difficulties.

Finally, I refer again to the hole in the spending plans if we are to implement the recommendations and make the Act work. I looked through the plans for some reference to the support of the DCMS for the important archaeological side to its work that brings it here today. However, that support was noticeable by its absence, certainly in its plans. The only thing that I could find in its public service agreements that related to cultural performance was an objective that it would

    ''Improve significantly the value for money of the Department's sponsored bodies measured by a matrix of NDPB indicators'',

which did not make much sense to me. I saw little reference to anything that suggests that it will ensure that the regional museum bases take off and that we can implement the sort of enlightened and positive measures that have been introduced today. The Government deserve two cheers for introducing this proposal; the third cheer must be held in reserve until the resources are in place to make it work.

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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cran. I think that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.

Although not nominally a member of the Committee, I should like to ask the Minister a few questions and echo some of the comments from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) about the state of British archaeology and the preparedness of the Department and the museums that it partly funds to take on board the amendments to the Treasure Act 1996. That said, I very much welcome the success of that Act over the past five years and the proposed changes. From an archaeological perspective, they are sensible, but they will be sensible only if the resources and means are in place to assimilate the objects that are likely to be found now that they have been classified as treasure.

The Minister mentioned the position of the treasure registrar, which is funded by the British museum. Other hon. Members mentioned the financial problems being experienced by that museum, which

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is having to lay off many researchers and conservators. What measures is the Department taking to ensure that the British museum is adequately funded, in future at least, to use its services to process the workings of the amended Treasure Act? In addition, why is the heritage lottery fund such a poor supporter of archaeology generally? Why does that have a low priority among the projects that it has funded?

The Minister may be aware that the all-party archaeology group has recently been holding a series of hearings in the Upper House with a panoply of experts in British archaeology. When officers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport appeared before that group, it was noticeable that archaeology has a very low priority in that Department and that it employs very few expert archaeologists.

Perhaps the Minister will comment on that and on his Department's interaction with others that are relevant to the world of archaeology and to ensuring that the Treasure Act operates properly. That involves the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because of environmental concerns, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, because local councils employ field archaeologists. That involves the Minister through his Department's museum works and a plethora of others, but we are far from satisfied that his Department is overseeing a joined-up approach to archaeology.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): On the point about the heritage lottery fund's attitude to funding archaeological projects, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that fund might consider a number of substantial projects? An example is the Victoria county history project. All those projects have archaeology as a key element of their work, so archaeology is not easily put into a box for the grant-giving purposes that we are discussing.

Tim Loughton: Indeed. For the reasons that I have given, archaeology traverses a great range of Departments and other interests. However, hardly any archaeologists are directly employed by the Minister's Department. How archaeology is to be overseen, for which his is the lead Department, is a worry when it does not even have professionals in any quantity to advise Ministers on policy on the Treasure Act and various other aspects of archaeological research, excavation and conservation.

Will the Minister comment on the state of sites and monuments records? Again, we found from our investigations that these were exceedingly patchy throughout different authorities in England, and very much more patchy north and west of the border. It is essential that we have properly maintained records to know the worth of items that may be classified as treasure as a result of the order.

I was particularly pleased by the way in which the Minister enthused about the portable antiquities scheme. Can we therefore take it as read that his Department will have no trouble funding the scheme in full after the lottery funding runs out? I assume that the lottery funding will not recur. As the Minister admitted, the scheme has been tremendously valuable, and it would be an enormous loss to British

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archaeology if it did not carry on. I hope that his Department realises that it will have to put its money where its mouth is.

Will the Minister also give us some details about the steps that his Department has taken to encourage more responsible behaviour and conduct by metal detectorists? They are obviously relevant to the Treasure Act, and many have come on board and are responsible and useful additions to archaeological research and excavations. However, many are not. They wait for nightfall and for the professional archaeologist to leave a site before they come in and rake over to see what treasure they can plunder. That does not even consider the sites that are plundered before they have been properly discovered and records are taken. Will the Minister comment on the measures that his Department has taken?

I have one specific query about the order. Paragraph 3(a), which designates classes of objects pursuant to section 2(1), refers to

    ''any object . . . any part of which is base metal, which, when found, is one of at least two base metal objects in the same find which are of prehistoric date''.

Would that apply to slag metal that is composed of an alloy or various metals and indicates iron age metalworking, for example? It is difficult to quantify an item of metal slag as an object, and the definition would be open to different interpretations. How would the Minister define an object that is not necessarily a nice little metal statuette?

I have raised several points, but I would welcome especially the Minister's comments on how the portable antiquities scheme will carry on in future. We all welcome the changes to the Treasure Act 1996, but they will be effective only if his Department's full weight is behind them and it provides the resources to enable some of the treasures to be discovered, handed over, properly researched and put on display by the relevant museums.

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Prepared 16 July 2002