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Mr. O'Hara: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Estelle Morris: I will give way, but possibly only once unless my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon wants to intervene once as well.

Both sides speak with passion and conviction. I acknowledge that both of them are sincere.

Mr. O'Hara: Does my right hon. Friend recognise that to the British Museum collection the Parthenon sculptures are exemplars of high Greek culture—supreme examples, yes, but exemplars, whereas in Athens they are regarded as absolutely essential exhibits in the wider archaeological context that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) described? The Greeks are prepared to give numerous other exemplars, which would encyclopaedically fulfil the same purpose in the British Museum collection.

Estelle Morris: In a way, my hon. Friend makes the case for me, but it is because they are so important, and such important exemplars, that the British Museum trustees think that the sculptures are such a fundamental part of their collection. There are artefacts, there are

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individual items and there are collections, and when it comes to the point of collections and how things are presented as a collection, it is the trustees' decision to keep them together, and keep them in the British Museum. In terms of interpreting world history, the museum feels that all the artefacts that it has from all the continents are important to the collection. If they were not there, an important part of that collection would be missing.

The director of the British Museum has said that he sees the aim of the museum to

In that sense, it is a universal museum.

Mr. Dismore rose—

Estelle Morris: I shall give way, but only once, otherwise I will not do justice to the many important matters that my hon. Friend raised.

Mr. Dismore: This is a brief point, which I made in my speech. How can the Parthenon sculptures be looked at properly when half are in one place and half in the other? Surely that is the judgment of Solomon, which is against the interests of any true academic.

Estelle Morris: As my hon. Friend pointed out in his speech, the sculptures are not complete. Some parts have been lost and those that remain are not all in the same place. The notion of bringing them together so that the sculpture looks as it did all those years ago is not an option.

I understand my hon. Friend's argument. His judgment and, clearly, that in parts of Greece is that the sculpture holds greater cultural and historical significance there than in the British Museum. That is the case that is put forward. The British Museum case is that the sculpture is an important part of a world collection that has a clear message about world development. Therein lies the huge difference of opinion, which has been argued over for many years.

The Government's view remains that this is a decision for the British Museum and the trustees. Our relationship with the museum, as with all our national museums and galleries, is one of arm's length. In other circumstances, hon. Members would be standing here welcoming that and saying that it is right—that we do not want Governments to run national museums and galleries, and that there should be an arm's-length relationship with them under which they can take decisions about the collections and the future free from political interference. In this case, hon. Members ask for political direction, but that would be counter to the relationship that this Government and our predecessor Governments have built up with museums.

There is a general acknowledgement that, because of the deeds under which it was set up, the museum is not able to dispose of any of the artefacts to other countries or collections. That is because it rightly has an obligation to secure those artefacts and items for successive generations. I accept that museums in general can put exhibits on loan. I was at the British Museum

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recently and I heard of items that had been on loan to other museums in the United Kingdom. I accept that, in legal terms, museums can loan items, but they cannot dispose of them.

I cannot go into detail here, but I have had advice from lawyers in the Department. My hon. Friend quoted certain laws and although primary legislation might not be necessary, the House would certainly have to consider statutory instruments; but those laws cover only the United Kingdom. Lawyers tell us that under both the legislation on repositories and that to which he referred, the artefacts could not go beyond the UK. A statutory instrument could be used to extend the number of places in the UK that could act as repositories, but it would not be legally possible for such places to be outside the UK.

The position is not as clear cut as my hon. Friend would have us believe. There is not an easy way for legislation to be put before the House to allow the sculptures to be loaned abroad.

Mr. O'Hara : Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Estelle Morris: No, I will come back to the matter if I find that I have time before 7.30 pm.

Even if the law allowed the sculptures to be loaned abroad, that decision is one for the British Museum. With any loan, it must take certain things into account. This is not a reflection on the work that Greece would do or the way that it would handle any artefacts on loan, and it ought not to be interpreted in that way, but the British Museum and any other institution would have to consider where the artefacts were going, who would have access to them, whether they would be curated properly, whether they would be safe and whether they would be returned. That is the proper process through which museums and galleries would need to go. That is not a slight on the Greek authorities. They have lovely institutions, given their history, and their plans for the Acropolis will be greatly admired. However, it is a matter for the British Museum and its trustees. By law they cannot dispose of items, but they can loan them.

The subject gets huge publicity in this country and in Greece. I understand its importance, but it sometimes hides the very good working relationship between the British Museum and its professional colleagues in Greece on other matters. Indeed, the British Museum is

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lending items and artefacts to be shown at the cultural Olympiad as part of the Olympic games in Athens. There are channels of communication; people do speak to each other. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, the debate is different now from 10 years ago. It has moved on from ownership, with the Greek authorities accepting loans in return for other artefacts. As a Minister, I will not comment on the nature of that relationship because it is a matter for the museum. We can all note, however, that the debate is moving on and taking place beyond the Chamber, among professional colleagues.

I suspect that this is not the last time the subject will be debated in the House. The nature of the debate is changing as the dialogue between our two countries changes. I am interested in that as a Minister and a citizen, and I am pleased that it takes place, but our position will remain as set out in statute. I do not want any Minister to be in the position of telling our museums and galleries what to do with their collections. They are precious and valuable. It is right that museums and galleries are guided by legislation and given direction by the Government of the day, but the arm's-length relationship is important.

Mr. O'Hara: I refer my right hon. Friend to the Museums and Galleries Bill, which I presented in February 2002. It provides an instrument for tidying up the problem encountered by museum trustees.

Estelle Morris: I shall pursue that as soon as the debate finishes and drop my hon. Friend a note because I have not perused his Bill. I suspect that if it did provide the solution, my officials would have told me about it. As I am not sure that I am giving a robust answer, I shall certainly look at it.

I understand the passions on both sides of the argument, and I applaud people who argue their case, but it is not as easy and straightforward as my hon. Friends intimate. I suspect, however, that the debate will continue. It is not the same debate as we had 10 years ago. No doubt the future debate will be different from tonight's debate. The Government's position is as I laid it out. I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions and rest my case.

Question put and agreed to.

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