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Oral evidence

Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday 8 July 2003

Members present:

Mr Gerald Kaufman, in the Chair
Mr Chris Bryant
Mr Frank Doran
Michael Fabricant
Alan Keen
Miss Julie Kirkbride
John Thurso
Derek Wyatt


Memorandum submitted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: RT HON TESSA JOWELL, a Member of the House, Secretary of State, MR NIGEL PITTMAN, Senior Adviser for the Iraq Project Team, and DR DAVID GAIMSTER, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, examined.

Q1  Chairman: Secretary of State, may I warmly welcome you and ask you to introduce your colleagues.

Tessa Jowell: Thank you very much, Chairman. On my left is Dr David Gaimster, who is our senior official working on this issue; and on my right is Mr Nigel Pittman who is leading our project team on Iraq.

Q2  Mr Doran: Reading through the submissions from the Department, it is quite clear a lot is happening inside DCMS but it seems that other government departments are not reacting quite as effectively as they might in this situation. Can you explain to us what level of commitment the Government as a whole has in relation to this problem of stolen artefacts and cultural objects?

Tessa Jowell: I think it is an issue which was recently thrown into very sharp relief as a result of the looting of the museum in Baghdad, and the looting of antiquities from the museum in Basra and damage to sacred sites. I would pay tribute to the support that has been provided in that context both by the Foreign Secretary and also by the Home Secretary, by the business managers, in securing the rapid passage of the Private Member's Bill which will create a new offence in dealing with illicit cultural objects. I think the recent situation in Iraq has produced a very high level of focus across government cooperation and has, in that specific area, enabled us to make very rapid progress. It is the progress we have been able to achieve in that area which I think will generalise to other areas of longer term benefit. In five years' time we will still have the new offence of dealing in cultural property and it closes a very significant existing loophole.

Q3  Mr Doran: There are a number of areas where I think the legislation you have referred to would apply, and it would not just be the articles from Iraq, which are obviously very much in the news at the moment. It struck me, when I was reading the proposed legislation, there might be one or two weaknesses. For example, there is virtually no regulation about auction houses, and there has been some press coverage recently of one of the auction houses which is alleged to have handled either artefacts which it might or should have known were stolen. Is that something that is put on the agenda?

Tessa Jowell: I am sorry, could you repeat the last part of your question.

Q4  Mr Doran: There were some press allegations recently, and I am not naming the auction house deliberately because I have no way of verifying the allegations, and there was a suggestion at the weekend that one particular auction house was alleged to have handled and sold stolen items; and the circumstances in which they acquired them suggested they might or should have known that they were stolen. That raises serious concerns about how our own institutions are functioning in relation to stolen artefacts.

Tessa Jowell: I think it is certainly the case that the London art market has acquired a reputation which I think the leaders of the various institutions have been making strenuous efforts to deal with. It is a reputation which derives principally from the sheer volume of art, antiquity and artefact traffic that comes through London. New York is in a similar position and has a similar reputation. It is for those reasons, for instance, that the recommendations the Committee made when they last conducted an inquiry into this we take seriously and have taken what steps we can to progress; and where we have not achieved sufficient progress I will tell you where we have not achieved sufficient progress. The establishment of a database will be of great value. The progress in establishing a database of stolen artefacts has really been impeded by what I think are strategic disagreements between the art market and the police about how this is best developed, and also what it is to be used for. Those arguments have not yet been properly resolved. That has been a cause for delay there. Specifically in relation to Iraq, we now have the construction of the Red List, the hundred most important stolen artefacts from Iraq, and we would expect if any of them found their way onto the London art market for immediate action to be taken to return them to Iraq. It is difficult to give you an absolute assurance that the claims in the press about stolen artefacts finding their way onto the London art market and somehow being accepted on to the London art market are true. What I can say is that the leaders of the various organisations that run the London art market are very sensitive to these charges and, I believe, act in good faith through their own authority to address these claims, but there will always be rogue dealers. It is pretty difficult to imagine a time when we will have been able to purge the London art market completely of crime. What we will do is to go on putting as many obstacles in the way of criminals as we possibly can. My colleague, Dr Gaimster, may wish to add to this.

Dr Gaimster: On the question of the London art market it is quite clear that there is a real willingness amongst auctioneers and dealers to clean up the London marketplace. Their representation on the ministerial advisory panel for illicit traders reflects that real desire to make sure that London no longer has this reputation of a marketplace for the global illicit trade in antiquities and art. They have been working with government very closely to develop a series of proposals which would make sure that London is no longer used in this fashion.

Q5  Mr Doran: Finally, there is clearly a balance to be made between the economic benefit of having a thriving art market and a world centre for art, and obviously making sure that it is a clean market. How are you dealing with that balance, and what are the main considerations in the Government's mind?

Tessa Jowell: The most important thing is that it is a clean market. I think we have made that position very clear most recently in the context of Iraq. Bringing forward the Private Member's Bill was a very specific move, through closing the loophole, to kill the potential for illicit trade. Yes, I would be prepared to see the London art market being less economically successful, having a smaller world share, if the trade for that was that it was free from crime.

Q6  Chairman: Could I ask a question to which, in a sense, there is no answer. When you dealt with the question of the art treasures in Iraq at your last question session you gave as much information as was available to you. It is clear that you and your Department did your very best to provide information that was as reliable as possible; but whenever we see an account of what is alleged to have taken place every single account is different from the one before. There was a half page in Friday's Daily Telegraph, for example, that there are some contentions that very little is missing and a lot was taken away for safekeeping but no-one knows where it is. There are other allegations that, although it may not have been a huge proportion of the treasures that were in the museum that went, nevertheless it was a very large number of objects in themselves. There are contentions that some of it was not just looting but theft by organised gangs. There is a whole different set of versions of what has taken place, let alone issues which have rightly been raised in the House not about Baghdad Museum but about the fate of some of the world's greatest archeological sites, and we are not clear what has happened about those either. I know the information you gave in the House was in good faith and was the best you could get, but it is clearly not a situation of any precision so we do not really accept the fact that things are missing. We do not really know what the problem is, do we?

Tessa Jowell: I will ask Nigel Pittman to comment on this. As you are probably aware, I have officials from my Department who are doing a really outstanding, sterling job in helping to provide answers to precisely some of your questions. If I can begin with a specific. When Tam Dalyell, about six weeks ago, raised the story that had been reported in The Observer the day before that the Ziggurat at Ur had been vandalised and violated, one of my officials who was there shortly after made a field trip in order to inspect it and found that it was untouched. What we can do is to follow-up and verify stories about damage. To go back to the first part of your question, the information I have used on the floor of the House was information that I was given by Donny George the director of the museum in Baghdad when he came to London now nearly two months ago. What he told me was this: there are 170,000 artefacts in the Baghdad Museum. There were some which had been removed at the time of the Gulf War and not returned subsequently; but before the military action there were 170,000 artefacts. About 90 per cent of those were taken away for safekeeping and, no, we do not know exactly where they are; although I am sure Nigel Pittman will describe the discovery of some with one of my officials in attendance in the vaults of one of the Baghdad banks. What appears to have been the case, according to Donny George's account, is that they removed a number of artefacts for safekeeping, and there was then also some removal of objects by the regime. There also appears to have been criminal theft of some of the artefacts. His evidence for that was the discovery of glass cutters by some of the cases. Then there was looting. It was not quite an amnesty that was declared after the looting, but certainly requests went out (particularly through the clerics) asking people if they had taken artefacts to return them. A couple of weeks' ago the Walker vase, which was the cause of great concern at its loss, was returned. It was returned damaged but capable of restoration. That appears to be the best evidence and information we currently have. One of the things that the staff of the museum are very concerned to do is to have the necessary time in order to conduct a detailed inventory, and that is still in progress. Nigel, you may wish to add to that since you have a specialist responsibility for overseeing this work from the Department.

Mr Pittman: Chairman, what I can tell you is more up-to-date information direct from the horse's mouth, as it were, because we have a number of the leading members of the Iraq Museum in London at this moment - they are at a conference at the British Museum all this week. Yesterday afternoon there was a specific session to do with the looting both of the museum and of the archeological sites. They were able to give us an update on just what their current assessment is of the size of the loss. We also heard from a member of a UNESCO mission which has been out in Iraq last week, which was able to visit a number of the major archeological sites. Indeed, we saw some photographs from those showing the extent of the looting of some of those sites. The latest position that the director of the museum gave us yesterday was that she estimates that approximately 13,000 objects may be missing. That is, as the Secretary of State has said, out of 170,000 catalogue entries in the museum register. The museum, as well as putting away most of the most important objects before the war and, in some cases, much earlier than that - and that applies to the Nineveh treasures which were only discovered in 1990 and which went into the bank vault in the National Bank almost immediately after that and were not seen in public - most of the major items were put in safe store in one place or another. The exceptions were some 40-odd objects which were on display in the main gallery of the Iraq Museum; they were not put away either because they were so large they could not be moved easily or because they were so fragile that it was feared they would be damaged if they were moved. I believe there were 47 objects which were subsequently stolen and, of those, seven have subsequently been returned, and one of those is the Walker vase which the Secretary of State referred to. The director estimates that there are approximately 13,000 items still missing; most of those are small items which came from the stores; they are obviously archeologically important but they are not items which would normally be on display to the public. The most important element which is missing, which has only come to light in the last week or two, is the collection of cylinder seals, which number between 4,000-5,000, and the whole of that collection appears to have been stolen. Those are very important objects for Iraq scholars. They contain a huge amount of information about the early civilisations in Iraq; but they were all catalogued and they are items which would have museum identification on them. Were they to come on the market they could be identified. Just to complete the picture in relation to other museums, there was some loss at the museum in Mosul. There were problems there again because items could not all be put into safe storage, and some of the items that were on display were lost. On the archeological sites we are still awaiting detailed information on many of them because, of course, many of them are quite remote and are very difficult to police, and are very difficult for people to actually visit because of the security situation. There has been significant looting at a number of the sites, particularly in southern Iraq in the area between Baghdad and Basra; but on many of the other sites there are American guards in place and the Americans have stepped up their over-flying and regular patrols. The Iraq culture ministry, which is being got back into place by the coalition provision authority, is hoping now to re-establish the system of guarding most of those sites, which is carried out by employees of the ministry, in the course of the next few weeks. That will not necessarily stop all the looting, but it will be a major step towards it.

Q7  Mr Bryant: You really asked all my questions, Chairman, but just to pursue this a little further. When some of us met with the director of the British Museum some few weeks ago now he maintained that the American forces were making it impossible for anybody to go and visit the Ziggurat at Ur and any of the other sites. From what you are saying, Secretary of State, presumably that is not the case?

Mr Pittman: At Ur the position, as I understand it, is that access is difficult because there is an American airfield adjacent. It is not actually on the site at Ur but it is right next door to it. It is an airfield which has been there for many years, which I think the Iraqis originally established but the Americans are using it, so access is restricted to Ur but it is not impossible. The UNESCO mission were certainly able to see part of the site.

Q8  Mr Bryant: Secretary of State, when you spoke to the Commons, as the Chairman has already pointed out, you referred to 90 per cent of the 170,000 items looking as if they have disappeared, which would obviously leave 17,000, and now we are talking about 13,000. That is a hell of a difference?

Tessa Jowell: I would really refer to the Chairman's explanation, which was that was the assessment given to me a couple of months ago in late April by the director of the museum, and obviously the picture is changing all the time. From the UK Government point of view, and in the long-term, we hope, for the benefit of the Iraqi people, the presence of the team which Nigel Pittman leads from London is precisely that this process of verification can continue to be updated.

Q9  Mr Bryant: I am just wondering about the 13,000 now. For instance, the 4,000 items which are the cylinder seals collection you referred to, why would somebody loot that; or why would somebody steal it to order from the West; or why would somebody steal it to order from within academic circles?

Mr Pittman: It is a very good question, and it is not one I can give you any answer to - the question of why the cylinder seal collection and not, for instance, the coin collections? I suppose all one can say is that it appears from the reports that the initial looters who had some inside knowledge went for those things where they either knew where they were placed or could get at them easily. They were then, I think, subsequently disturbed. There was then some more general looting. I suspect if the situation of chaos, as it was in those few days in the early part of April, had gone on longer that more of the collections would have disappeared. Why the cylinder seal collection? I just cannot answer that one. I do not think any of us know. It is that element which largely accounts for the difference in the figures, because it was only within the last two or three weeks that it became apparent the whole of that collection was missing.

Q10  Mr Bryant: As I recall from when the first media reports came out about this, it seems as if they were jumping to an awful lot of assumptions very, very quickly?

Mr Pittman: Yes.

Q11  Mr Bryant: They were happy to tell a story which was, "American troops weren't interested; they knocked down the door and let everybody loot. Oh, by the way, lots of people from the West really wanted to get their hands on various pieces of great art and cultural significance". That story, which were sold quite heavily by nearly all the media in the UK and in the West, just seems not to have been true?

Mr Pittman: I think the media ran with certain things which they picked up and which were just not verifiable at the time. The other thing which is an element in this is that the curators in the Iraq Museum quite understandably at that point (and remember this was a few days after a degree of order had been restored in Baghdad) were very unwilling to tell anybody even that there were major items which had been put away somewhere, for fear that that would trigger off further looting. It was only as the situation stabilised a month or so afterwards they began to be open both with our own officials who were out there and, subsequently, with the media.

Tessa Jowell: I think the other point, which Nigel may wish to comment on, which has emerged subsequently, which is some explanation for the behaviour of the American troops outside the museum while the looting was going on, was it now appears that the museum itself was used as a defensive position through the discovery of both grenades and rifles in the museum. That was certainly not clear at the time - by which I mean when we attended the meeting and the press conference at the British Museum in mid April.

Q12  Mr Bryant: I am still struggling with this bit. I can see why some rich multi-millionaire sitting in their Beverley Hills mansion would want to order the theft of a Picasso which would never be seen by anybody but by that person, because that is what they wanted to do; but I still cannot see why you would want 4,000 cylinder seals. An academic organisation would never want to do that either. If one cannot see why that might happen then it is very difficult to put processes in place which would stop it happening again in another place.

Tessa Jowell: Dr Gaimster came to us from the British Museum - he will explain a bit more about the psychology of collection, I think.

Dr Gaimster: Only to say that the cylinder seal collection represented an easy target - easily transportable, small objects which can be dispersed easily in the marketplace across borders. That is the kind of thing that those people, who are part of a global criminal industry, would go for. Those objects can be sold individually for quite high prices on the Western market.

Q13  Mr Bryant: What sort of prices?

Dr Gaimster: I understand they range from something between 200-10,000. They are highly marketable objects individually and that appears to us to be quite a targeted group of material that was taken.

Q14  Mr Bryant: The psychology of looting is different obviously, because if you go into a museum to take a 3200 BC vase you are not doing that because you are intending to use it at home. What is the rationale? Why are you taking that? Unless you can understand the rationale for that, how do you stop it in any other situation?

Tessa Jowell: I think any one of us could give an explanation. I think there is no definitive explanation behind the motive for looting. Nigel, I do not know whether the staff we have there have given you their judgment on why the looting took place, and what motivated some people to loot and others not?

Mr Pittman: No, all they have said (and I think most people have run to this conclusion) is they feel there were two kinds of stealing involved: some very targeted stealing by people who clearly did want to traffic in the goods; and then not just looting but indiscriminate damage in the museum itself which involved, for instance, going through all the offices and emptying out every desk, every filing cabinet, throwing the stuff all over the floor and getting to the point where they were about to set fire to some of that material (which is what happened in the National Library and a number of the university libraries) but did not happen in the Museum presumably because they were disturbed. I think people were picking anything they could get in the hope that it might be of some use to them.

Q15  Mr Bryant: Do you think any Ba'athist official has walked off with anything? Is there any estimation, because presumably some of that must have happened?

Mr Pittman: There is no clear evidence is one way or another is all we can say. There is some suspicion of an element of an inside job because people seem to have known where to find some of the keys to get them into some of the stores. Whether that was because they were tipped off by somebody who was in the museum, or because there was somebody who worked there in the past and knew where they might be, we just do not know.

Tessa Jowell: It is my intention to go to Baghdad in early September, and I would be very happy to provide you with a supplementary memorandum for this inquiry on the basis of that visit if you would find it helpful.

Q16  Derek Wyatt: Good morning, Secretary of State. I am trying to remember but I think Oona King asked defence questions before we went to war and warned the Secretary of State for Defence that there were great treasures in Iraq. I think the answer was that the Secretary of State would in fact follow that very carefully. As I understand it a series of memos went up through our defence system across to the Pentagon and down to the cultural systems and defence systems in America. What I find hard, if in fact that trail is true, is what happened between the trail and the actual events? In order to help, if you have not traced it, I wonder whether you would trace it on our behalf so we can better understand why, when push came to shove, they did not defend the treasures as it was alleged they said they would in the memoranda?

Tessa Jowell: I will ask Nigel Pittman to come in on this question as well. First of all, I think there was some confusion in the traffic of correspondence in the run-up to military action beginning; letters that should have come to my Department went to the MoD instead or went to the Foreign Office. I think there was some confusion and I obviously regret that. The MoD did consult widely with the archeological community. I think both the University of Newcastle and University College London provided advice on the protocols and means by which sites of cultural and historic interest could be best protected. You will be aware of the provisions under Article 53 of the Geneva Convention which would prohibit any direct attack against cultural property, unless it was quite clear that that property was being used to support the military operation. The allied forces had very strict instructions not to fire on holy sites. For example, the mosque in Najaf, one of the most important shrines of Shi'ite Islam, was used by Iraqi troops to fire at allied forces but, because of that agreement and those instructions, the US troops did not return the fire. When the action was actually engaged, and we look in retrospect at the damage that was caused, we all will ask ourselves what might have been avoided. The fact is that operational decisions on the ground were taken to guard key sites, such as hospitals. Certainly there was effort taken to guard the museums, but these were decisions that had to be taken in the light of the specific circumstances at the time. I know that during the period of the most intense action, when my Department was in liaison and discussion with the MoD, one of the concerns was the safety of troops who would become targets for snipers protecting the museum. Very difficult judgments, that are certainly not for me to secondguess, were made about the operation during that time. There was a lot of controversy at the point at which American troops entered Baghdad, and in the days where the looting of the Baghdad Museum followed, about what appeared to be at the time the pacivity of the American troops positioned near to the Baghdad Museum in the face of looting. I think it will be some time before we really understand what happened on the ground. I think the discovery of armaments in the museum and the extent to which it appeared to be being used by the Iraqi military is an explanation that was not available to us then.

Q17  Derek Wyatt: Is it possible to put that paper trail into the public domain so we can see what the correspondence really was with the Pentagon and whether the brigadiers and the generals actually got the evidence out on the field and, if they did, what did they do with it?

Tessa Jowell: We can certainly do our best subject to the normal strictures. I have to be careful not to make a commitment on behalf of the MoD and the Foreign Office. Certainly I can ask for that and you too can ask for that.

Q18  Derek Wyatt: Can I come on to looted treasures per se. Over the last ten years the Nazi treasures, wherever they have been, eventually after an amazing campaign have been returned or, in the case of the Tate, we have made an ex gratia payment. I want to ask how you feel about the Ethiopian Maqdala treasures which Napier looted in 1868 and sold for 5,000 in Ethiopia, which are held here in the Queen's collection at the V&A and the British Museum, and over the last hundred years we have given scraps back. We gave a second-rate crown back but kept the gold crown here at the V&A. I visited Addis Ababa last year under my own volition and there is real deep resentment of how we have taken their religious treasures. They are kept under lock and key at the British Museum and no-one can see them. Is there some reason why they cannot go back?

Tessa Jowell: I will ask David Gaimster to deal with your specific point, but you are right this is an area where principle and pragmatism collide. There is only one claim which has so far been settled, as you rightly say, concerning the painting by Jan Griffier which was held at the Tate, and the Government was recommended by the Spoliation Advisory Panel to make an ex gratia payment of 125,000 to the family concerned. They had been forced to sell the painting during the Nazi era and this ex gratia payment was made immediately.

Dr Gaimster: I think it is important to try to distinguish between spoliation, which was recognised as a real and serious issue by the select committee during its deliberations in 2000 - artefacts and works of art that had been wrongfully take during the Nazi era - and other issues of restitution in the museum community and the example you quoted about Ethiopian treasures taken in the 19th Century. The restitution issue is another very large issue and one which was also addressed by the select committee to an extent, and is one that does concern the museum community. There are continuous debates on the issue. There any many more famous cases, perhaps, than the Ethiopian one you have just mentioned, and ones which concern government as well. In terms of looking at the question and longer term policy - how do you deal with claims, cultural claims particularly from cultures which still exist that have a claim on objects which may have been removed from these cultures previously, particularly in a colonial context - what I am saying is that those issues are very important to us too, and we are looking at them in terms of how we develop policy with colleagues in the museum community. We are looking at drafting new guidelines, new guidance, how museums acquire such objects today - and we can come on to that later perhaps because you might be interested in that area. We have so far tried to keep a distance between historical situations such as the Ethiopian cases you have mentioned and current acquisition issues, and also careful not to conflict, say, spoliation with those historical restitution cases. I am not saying they are not important, but I think what we are trying to do is work with colleagues in the museum community and with the National Board of Museum Directors to look at the question and look at future policy. That is not to say we do not take those questions very, very seriously.

Derek Wyatt: You will not be surprised that I find that a deeply unhelpful answer. We have taken the most religious parts of the church - the oldest Christian church in the world we looted in 1868 - and they are in a drawer and cannot be put on public display. The Archbishop and President of Ethiopia would like them back. It is not unreasonable, is it, for us to send them back? The Italians are negotiating sending an obelisk. Edinburgh has sent one of the tablets back. Why are we so sniffy? These are part of their whole religious history and we hold them in a drawer which no-one can see!

Q19  Chairman: Could I just intervene to say, not in any way contesting anything you have said but they cannot be sent back, the law does not allow them to be sent back.

Tessa Jowell: I was going to make exactly that point, Chairman. You will be aware that this is the point of issue also in relation to the Parthenon Marbles. I think, in principle, that this is an area of profound importance. It is an issue that will face us again in the autumn when the working group on human remains reports. The issue is this: to what extent should the collections which are currently in our museums be subject to review where a case for restitution is made, whether a claim is made, regardless of whether a claim has been made? In relation to museum policy generally I think this will be one of the most important issues of the next five years. It is a very hot and controversial debate within the museum community, as I am sure you know. At the moment, any progress along the lines you proposed is locked by the legislative responsibility of the trustees of the British Museum.

Q20  Derek Wyatt: Indeed, but a Private Member's Bill, as we have already seen with Richard Allan, could unlock some of that. Would I be right in thinking that the academics at the British Museum are nervous because, if they allow one collection to go, they then open themselves up? Is this not the burning issue with collections worldwide over the next ten or 20 years? Ethiopia happens to be the oldest civilisation in Africa and I understand that people would like to have these things back. It is not unreasonable, is it?

Tessa Jowell: The view you have described and the strength of feeling you have described is not unfair at all; but I think we have all got to be aware of the consequence that follows if we say, "Okay, where artefacts and treasures were acquired by whatever means, in some cases hundreds and hundreds of years ago, where there is a wish that they be returned they are returned", then the impact on our collections and the impact on the role of a museum like the British Museum, which sees itself very much as a museum for the world, will be enormous. One of the reasons I find this particular issue so difficult is that I am not clear about the extent one can rest on principle without finding in effect that most of our museums are denuded of many of their most important treasures and, therefore, denied to millions and millions of people who come to this country in order to see them.

Q21  Derek Wyatt: I understand that debate. Has there been an analysis by the British Museum as to how much looted treasure there is?

Tessa Jowell: You may wish to request that information from the director of the British Museum if he has already given evidence to you in the context of this inquiry.

Q22  Alan Keen: I heard someone on the radio criticising the select committee that reported yesterday saying that MPs could not ask difficult questions. I thought they were really difficult questions!. The Chairman retaliated earlier on by asking a question to which he said there was no answer. You cannot beat that, can you! At least this Committee can ask questions.

Tessa Jowell: It is the thoughtful and reflective nature of this select committee!

Q23  Alan Keen: Can you comment on the progress on the database of stolen cultural artefacts?

Tessa Jowell: I do not think I have terribly satisfactory progress to report to you on the database. It is a very good question, and it is a question to which there is a pretty straight answer. I do not think that progress is very good. I would just as a sideline say that the fact that we have the Red List and the fact that UNESCO are collaborating on the development of a database will be very important in relation to maximising the protection for stolen treasures from Iraq. The problem we have, and you made this recommendation in your last Report, is the profound nature of the disagreement between the police, on the one hand, and the art market and the industry, on the other. In that, while both want a database, they want it for different purposes and neither want to pay for it. I have come fairly recently to this issue and I have to say became aware of it some months ago. Obviously negotiation with the police is a matter for the Home Office. The Home Office have made it quite clear in a letter I have had this morning, and the minister replies to me, that they are prepared to consider the case for Home Office contribution to the cost of establishing and running a metropolitan police database, providing that the Commissioner agrees; and providing also that the link between investment in such a database and dealing with money laundering, drug trafficking and the other criminal activities that is increasingly associated with crime in the art market is proven. As I say, on the other hand, you have the art market who do not want that kind of closed database which the police would maintain, which the police would control access to. You have the art market that actually wants an open database. I think we have got some difficult and, I hate to say it but I fear, time-consuming negotiations in order to reach some kind of common position.

Dr Gaimster: The database which the Metropolitan Police are developing - because they have had a database for several years and that is now being upgraded - it is used by the Metropolitan Art and Antiquities Squad based in London, London being the centre for the movement of such objects around the country. As the Secretary of State has already said, it is designed very much in terms of detection and law enforcement; it is a closed security, exclusive database to the police; and I think the tensions are beginning to emerge across the sector in terms that the art market itself, the museums, general public, magazines and so on in the sector wish to have an open database into which everybody has access but this would not be possible. One option is to expand the police database to make it national and be open, but I think that is going to be very difficult because the police have very, very different priorities. There I think the tensions are beginning to emerge. There are different ambitions for the database amongst the various stakeholders we are talking to about this particular issue.

Q24  Alan Keen: Who is going to take the initiative then? Whose duty is it?

Tessa Jowell: It is our job to take it forward. There is also the question of cost. The costs which have been quoted so far are high - about 12 million. I have no departmental provision for that. We will do our best to move forward. There are two proposals on the table. One is with UNESCO in the lead on compiling an international database, and they are moving ahead with support from my Department on that, and a meeting of the countries that are parties to the convention will take place in October which will provide a further opportunity for discussion about that. It is my Department's job.

Q25  Alan Keen: Is the 12 million the estimated cost of the database that the police want, the closed one?

Dr Gaimster: A national database.

Q26  Alan Keen: The value of the research base must be enormous. Could the stolen ones not be coded so that not everybody could have access to them? The museums and police could have access, but not the public themselves?

Tessa Jowell: It is very specifically intended as a database that will record stolen property. A more open database, which is what the industry prefers, has a number of important weaknesses: first, that many archeological objects do not register because of the low commercial value involved and dealers, because they are reluctant to search, would be unlikely to register items with a value of under 2,000; secondly, there is a risk on an open database that stolen property simply would not appear, and dealers would not register property that they believed might be stolen; and, thirdly, the multiplicity of databases does create a problem for those who are seeking to perform due diligence and to search comprehensively for stolen and illicitly imported objects.

Q27  Michael Fabricant: Just on the database, and it is not really an area I want to go into, when you talk about an "open database" do you mean something like a website? We visited the Natural History Museum and they are compiling a marvellous website of all their artefacts. It would seem that if it were universally available for everyone you could check against that on the internet that something is not stolen?

Tessa Jowell: Yes, that is the principle of an open database.

Michael Fabricant: I think your answer to my colleague, Derek Wyatt, was absolutely right on the question of the return of cultural objects. It is not only a question of the law and whether or not it is spoliation or not; but it is also a question of the care that is taken of these objects. These objects are really held in stewardship for the history of humanity. If they were returned to places where they were not then looked after, because the humidity would not be right, maybe they would not be cared for in the right way, or maybe (as in Iraq) they may get damaged, I do not think future generations would thank the British Governing in forcing the British Museum to return them.

Q28  Chairman: Could just intervene to say that the worst vandal of precious archeological sites in Iraq was Saddam Hussein who did irreparable damage to the site of Babylon rebuilding it in his own image. God help me, I went to see it while I was there, and basically Babylon is dedicated not to Nebuchadnezzar but to Saddam Hussein

Tessa Jowell: It is important never to forget that.

Q29  Michael Fabricant: Returning then to Iraq, I cannot remember whether it was Bismarck who said, "Not a single Pomeranian grenadier is worth the life of a French battalion". No doubt I will be corrected if I have that wrong! I have to say, while we should have done everything we could, of course, to defend cultural objects in Iraq, I do not think 13,000 cultural objects are worth the life of a single Royal Marine Commander. Having said that, Lord Renfrew, and I think this was raised earlier on, did raise this whole issue both with the Foreign Office, with yourself and with the United States' Department of Defence and said that what was going to happen was predictable. Earlier on we had this debate on what are the motives are looters? Of course there are different sorts of looters. You could equally as well ask what is the motivation of people who went into the Baghdad hospital, the Saddam Hospital, and looted incubators for no real motivation, other than people who find themselves suddenly free are able to acquire things of doubtful value. Are you truly convinced given the hindsight or, in Lord Renfrew's case, the foresight that nothing more could have been done to have ensured that looting would not take place?

Tessa Jowell: I find that an impossible question to answer.

Q30  Michael Fabricant: Another one!

Tessa Jowell: I do find it an impossible question to answer. The easiest answer is to say, no, nothing could have been done. There is a complacency about that which I do not like. I think we will all live with a question for a very, very long time as to whether or not more could have been done to protect these treasures. One of the things I think is going to be important - and Nigel Pittman may wish to comment further on this - is to look at what more can be done to prompt people who have taken things home with them, or removed them from a museum, to return them. I was very struck and moved by just how important this was. All the reports of Iraqis in Baghdad, who were facing turmoil, faced with the prospect of liberation, cared passionately that liberation should be accompanied by the existence of their cultural heritage - the evidence of their cultural heritage. Lots has been said about the importance of the contents of the Baghdad Museum for culture and civilisation generally, but none of us should under-estimate its importance in defining identity and creating security in the continuation of identity before Saddam and after Saddam for the Iraqi people themselves. That is why I am not prepared simply to dismiss your question.

Q31  Michael Fabricant: You mentioned about encouraging people to return objects which are stolen. You will know that Iraq is potentially a country of huge wealth with oil reserves and so on. You also know that the United States government has now put a great deal of money on the head of Saddam Hussein and his sons. Have you considered either unilaterally as the United Kingdom government or in a bilateral agreement with the United States setting up rewards for the return of these artefacts?

Tessa Jowell: No.

Q32  Michael Fabricant: Why not?

Tessa Jowell: There are two reasons. In Bazra, which was under the control of our troops, we did declare an amnesty and things were returned, but it was not an amnesty which offered reward for return because it was felt that that could act as a perverse inducement for people to take more and bring it back for the reward. That is the argument as to why you do not provide a reward. Other steps have been taken in order to safeguard these artefacts from leaving Iraq and also making it very difficult for them to be sold on the international market. One is the incorporation of a continued sanctions provision under resolution 1483 which has established the role of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The second is tightening of border controls, particularly with Jordan, and there have been instances where people have been found leaving with artefacts that have been taken off them and returned. I have already referred to the Red List, our domestic legislation, the action that is being taken through UNESCO and also the work that has been led under the auspices of UNESCO across a coalition of international museums to support the reparation, repair and restitution for the collection in the Baghdad Museum and other museums around Baghdad.

Q33  Michael Fabricant: You made a very strong and very good point about the amnesty. We saw the return of property through that. You made the point that if you were to set up a reward scheme now it could encourage people to perversely burgle or loot once again. Can I ask you at least to consider this: once the situation in Iraq becomes more stable, once museums are being properly guarded again -- and they are not yet; I accept that -- and things settle down, if there are still large numbers of artefacts missing, might you then consider again implementing a reward system?

Tessa Jowell: With great respect, I do not think it is a decision for me, sitting here in Westminster. This is a decision which will belong to the Iraqi leadership of whichever museum. If they judge it to be right, no doubt they will put something in place, but it is not a decision for me as the UK Secretary of State.

Q34  Michael Fabricant: There is an EDM down which I notice I have not signed for 12.45, "Iraq and the 1954 Hague Convention on Cultural Property." This EDM notes the huge destruction wrought on Iraq's cultural heritage. It then goes on to note that the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict has yet to be ratified by the United Kingdom government. They believe of course that it ought to be. Why has it not been?

Tessa Jowell: This was a position considered by the UK government and the UK government was not satisfied that it was an effective regime. You remember that the Committee in its last report made recommendations in relation to the Unidroit Convention. We took those recommendations very seriously indeed and considered the balance of merit as between becoming a signatory to the Unidroit Convention or UNESCO and concluded that UNESCO, because of its greater reach and scope not requiring primary legislation, was the best protective route to take. That is why we have arrived at the position that we are now at.

Mr Pittman: From information which we were given yesterday, apparently almost daily there are still items being returned. These are things which are coming in, it seems, unbidden. People either say, "We had this in safe keeping and now we are bringing it back" or, for whatever reason, they are returning items. What they told us yesterday that they were thinking about as a possible longer term measure was not to offer rewards for return of items but that the museum would be provided with some funds through the Coalition Provisional Authority to acquire items which might appear on the open market in Iraq.

Q35  Michael Fabricant: The equivalent of a car boot sale?

Mr Pittman: That sort of thing. What we did hear about yesterday too was the case of a hotel owner in the north of Iraq who found there was somebody staying on his premises who was trading material which appeared to have come from the museum. He took the initiative to buy that material himself and donate it back to the museum, which he has done. There are clearly disinterested or very interested Iraqis who are prepared to take that kind of action themselves.

Q36  Michael Fabricant: They should be commended and maybe possibly compensated.

Tessa Jowell: For clarity, can I go back to the point about the Hague Convention? The UK reached a conclusion about the ineffectiveness of the protocol. UNESCO then recognised that a second protocol was required to improve the shortcomings in the original Convention, particularly to establish a more effective system of protection for specially designated cultural property, and negotiations on this protocol in which the UK played a leading part were completed in 1999. In the light of that, UK ministers -- and my department will take the lead in relation to this -- have agreed that we should negotiate with a view to ratifying both the Convention and the second protocol. Notwithstanding that, although we were not party to the Hague Convention, we did ratify the Geneva Convention. Therefore, the strictures that were placed on any kind of damage to cultural property during the course of action were established by that framework.

Q37  Miss Kirkbride: I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that I very much agree with my colleague, Michael Fabricant. I was a bit concerned by your warm words on the return of cultural property because I think I quote you correctly in saying that over the next five or ten years this is going to be a very hot topic. I wonder if you could absolutely clarify for the Committee that there are no plans by the British government to change the law that would allow the British Museum to return some of it.

Tessa Jowell: There are no plans. The government has no plans and has received no request from the British Museum for an amendment in the law in order that the British Museum can return any of the artefacts that are currently part of its collection.

Q38  Miss Kirkbride: It is your view that we should not do that. You, as Secretary of State for the department, believe that we should leave this kind of cultural property in the hands of the museums that have it in the UK, despite the emotional appeals by other countries for its return?

Tessa Jowell: I think these are judgments which are best made by the trustees of the museums who have a statutory responsibility to safeguard their collections.

Q39  Miss Kirkbride: You are in charge of the law and, at the end of the day, stakeholders are told by politicians what the framework of the law is going to be. You are the one who decides this, not the trustees of the British Museum.

Tessa Jowell: This is one of these almost impossible questions, with great respect. I am not signalling in what I hope are my reflective answers to you any intention by the government to change policy. Categorically, there is no intention to legislate in this area. However, I think it will be very important that the government is open to what I expect to be a very significant debate over the next five or ten years about the relationship between major international museums, the collections they have and the countries which in many cases, hundreds or thousands of years ago, those collections were derived from.

Q40  Miss Kirkbride: Is not that just a green light for many of these countries to come and knock on your door?

Tessa Jowell: No. I really ask you to be more sophisticated than that. There is no headline that anyone can draw from what I have said that the government intends to enter into legislation that would open the doors of our museums and see collections walking out to countries around the world. That is not what I am saying. I hope that you accept that and that nobody will seek to misrepresent that. I am being absolutely clear that there are no plans. The government has no plans; I have no plans as the Secretary of State to amend the law. I am reflecting however that I expect that there will be a major debate which may take however long in this area. I think it will focus on a number of different aspects of the collection at the British Museum and museums in other parts of the world. That is the point I am making.

Q41  Miss Kirkbride: I am obviously very pleased by your answers. On the other hand I do think it does give some hope to countries who feel that we have despoiled their collections by removing them and not giving them back and that they might come and bang on your door. I would be grateful if you could clarify for me what the difference is between "spoliation" and "restitution". What is the department's definition of the difference between the two?

Dr Gaimster: Spoliation was one particular theme picked up in the original select committee report. It deals with objects wrongfully taken during the Nazi era. The issue involves museums today which have objects, works of art, in their collections that they have acquired that may have been removed originally during that period from their original owners. In our memorandum we explained the kind of programme we are taking forward to look at individual cases of objects that may have been spoliated during that period that are now in British collections. In the last few years, we have had something like four cases which we are dealing with and an advisory panel to the government is dealing with, case by case. That seems to be progressing in terms of dealing with that issue reasonably well and quite successfully.

Q42  Miss Kirkbride: What is the difference? It happened in living memory. I completely sympathise with the people it happened to but it was an act of war in the same way as other collections might have been seen as acts of war but they did not happen to happen in living memory. What is the difference? People are here to complain about it?

Tessa Jowell: It is by now convention that spoliation is a term which is applied to cultural property that was removed during the Nazi period. It is the technical term that has that very specific application. Restitution has a broader application.

Q43  Miss Kirkbride: It is a special case?

Tessa Jowell: Yes. Spoliation is a special case.

Q44  Miss Kirkbride: It is interesting that it should not apply to other areas.

Tessa Jowell: No, because restitution does.

Q45  Miss Kirkbride: Yes, but the door is closed to restitution, whereas it is open to spoliation. As a politician I can see why but as a practical argument I find it quite hard to sustain. On the issue of human remains, I think that is quite worrying and very important. We are all mankind. It seems to me that my DNA material, irrespective of where it was found, is still my, our, the people of the world's DNA material and it could be extremely important in the future. I am not desperately keen to see it buried or burnt.

Tessa Jowell: We have at the moment a panel which is sitting under the chairmanship of Professor Palmer considering the whole issue of claims for restitution of human remains. You will be aware of some of the most widely publicised cases. This was a group that was set up in early 2001 and it had four key terms of reference: to establish the current legal status of human remains within the publicly funded collections of the UK; to look at the powers that museums and galleries have in relation to de-accession, releasing these from their possession; to look at the circumstances in which material other than human remains might be included in any legislation to change the law of governance in relation to human remains; and also to consider whether clarity might be provided by a statement of principles in order to guide decisions to be taken by museums in this respect. That is the framework to which Professor Palmer's working group is addressing itself. They will be reporting in the autumn and it may well be that if your inquiry is continuing then you will be able to receive their report and to include that in your deliberations.

Q46  Miss Kirkbride: Why is the department open minded about human remains when it is not open minded about cultural ones?

Tessa Jowell: There is a debate in the academic and museum world which is trying to address or identify the distinction between ownership of cultural artefacts, cultural heritage, and human remains. It is a hotly debated issue. There are protagonists on both sides of the argument. The main fault line is those who would argue that some how human remains are a different status to cultural objects; that the sense of the being, the sense of the person, potentially offers a clearer case for return of human remains to the country of their origin than do cultural artefacts where culture has become increasingly globalised and internationalised. That is the argument and it is within that framework that the panel under Professor Palmer will be reaching its conclusions. You are absolutely right. If you put together the legislative lock on cultural objects leaving museums that have them in their trusteeship, spoliation and the work of the Spoliation Panel and the committees that are currently meeting on human remains, it gives you a flavour of the controversy that I referred to and the controversy which this Committee will no doubt want to embrace over the next few years.

Q47  Miss Kirkbride: It seems to me that the logic between all three issues is quite hard to understand. I cannot quite grasp where it is okay and where it is not okay. Equally, when it comes to human remains, I do not think the human remains that came from Egypt, Ethiopia or anywhere else are any less different than the cultural remains that came from a period of time in that same country. I equally would accept that 2,000 or however many years later it is now something which really belongs to the people of the world because perhaps we all came from Mesopotamia in the beginning. I do not know; I am not good on ancient history. It is partly our culture and our DNA that is at stake and it gets sent back very often not for it to be kept and preserved for future generations. I am surprised that the department is open to this debate because it may well push you down a road that requires its restitution.

Tessa Jowell: As we do regularly with difficult issues like this, what we have done is to commission independent experts to provide us with advice. I have not yet seen their report. It will be a report to me. We will get it in the autumn and I will then consider its recommendations, not just in the context of the claims for restitution of human remains but also in the wider context. We will respond accordingly.

Q48  Chairman: On the issues Julie Kirkbride has been discussing with you, there has been a retreat by your department from the position they took three years ago.

Tessa Jowell: Can I ask you why you say that?

Q49  Chairman: When we issued our report almost exactly three years on 18 July 2000, Alan Howarth then speaking for the government said, on page 43 of our report, "I think we should be willing to look sympathetically and constructively at whether it is possible to ease the law so that if the trustees so wish they can make amends and they can return human remains." We made a fairly cautious recommendation. In three years, nothing whatever has been done. In the same way, we made a recommendation and we dealt with the issue of the very, very specific subject of material looted from the Jews and others during the period of the Nazi regime, 1933 to 1945. Far from the British Museum not wanting to give those things up, Graham Green speaking as chairman of the trustees of the British Museum to this Committee -- page 49 of the report -- said, "There is no doubt we would wish to return anything we found in those circumstances." We made a recommendation on that. The government accepted the recommendation. We have a second special report dated March 2001 saying there has been general agreement from those consulted that the removal of legislative barriers to restitution should be sought. Not a thing has been done. I realise that archaeology is a very long subject but I would have thought several years in which absolutely nothing of any kind whatsoever has been achieved by your department and the promised possibility of legislation has not been brought forward, frankly, is just not good enough.

Tessa Jowell: Of course I understand and accept your impatience. The way in which the department decided to proceed on the specific issue of human remains was by setting up the working group to which I have referred. That was established early in 2001 so shortly after your report was published. That working group is due to report imminently, as I have made clear. To say the department has done nothing is not fair. What we have done is to intercede another stage between the recommendation of your report and moving to a decision. The stage that we interceded was to seek expert advice and guidance on what I think this discussion this morning has made very clear is an immensely complex subject.

Q50  Chairman: It is perfectly clear to me. I do not know what we are going to recommend at the end of this but if it is going to take three years simply to tell us what you have just told us now I really do not see what point there is in this select committee issuing reports and making recommendations. We have your second reply, March 2001, which is nearly two and a half years ago now. "There has been general agreement from those consulted that the removal of legislative barriers to restitution should be sought." We are now in July 2003. In 2000, representing this Committee, I went to a conference on these issues at Vilnius and I was able to hold up a letter from Alan Howarth accepting our recommendations, saying, "We are doing something." There was great pleasure. I do not particularly want to go back to Vilnius but I do not think I would be very welcome there if I did.

Tessa Jowell: Professor Palmer is an eminent academic in this area. I believe he will provide us with sound advice and we will then move forward. I do not think it is fair and it is not accurate in fact to say that absolutely nothing has happened. My department takes this Committee's reports very seriously indeed but you make recommendations to Parliament. They are also recommendations to us. We then have to consider how best to implement them. A decision was taken early in 2001, before I was Secretary of State, that the best way to proceed was by the establishment of a group working to the terms of reference that I have outlined. I do not know when you expect to conclude your inquiry but it sounds to me possible that this group will have reported before you conclude your inquiry, in which case you can incorporate their report into your consideration of evidence, if you so wish.

Q51  John Thurso: I want to ask you about the Portable Antiquities Scheme but I think it is absolutely right that the government is wary. There must be some occasions where objects of cultural or particularly religious significance should merit going back. After all, we in Scotland benefited from the return of the Stone of Destiny which was much appreciated. I am sure other countries would appreciate the same. At paragraph 121 of the last report, there was a recommendation that the department conduct a review of the circumstances in which it is appropriate for museums in England and Wales to act as repositories of last resort of antiquities likely to have originated within those countries. What progress has been made on that?

Dr Gaimster: The Illicit Trade Advisory Panel has been looking at that question in some detail and it has been addressed in terms of an issue in its report of December 2000 and also in its progress report. This is a question that the panel is taking forward with the Museums Association in terms of looking at the whole climate and the practice of acquiring objects. Also, museums acting in this role. At this stage in 2000 the term was "repositories of last resort" and Professor Renfrew has some concern about that term. The term that we are now looking at is one of temporary safety, particularly for objects that have been removed during times of armed conflict. The plan is to organise quite a large conference for museum directors on this issue. We were going to have it this July. The work on the Bill took precedence, I am afraid, so we are going to be hosting this in the early autumn. The Museums Association over the last few years has refined its codes of practice and ethical statements, but those are rather theorised statements. They do not offer concrete guidance for museums where they are dealing with objects that have been removed in these circumstances or objects over which there may be some question mark in terms of ownership. We are hoping to work with the Museums Association, the department and the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel together to develop through a process of meetings with museum directors new, more concrete guidance on how objects such as these can be acquired and what are the protocols for establishing museums of temporary safety.

Q52  John Thurso: With regard to the scheme itself, I think something like 100,000 objects since 1997 have been dealt with which would probably have otherwise gone unrecorded. Firstly, what is the department's attitude towards the scheme? I hope it will be supportive. Secondly, given that it is currently funded by a variety of bodies, particularly Lottery funding that will run out in 2006, and given that the cost of the scheme is a very modest 1.2 million a year, would the department be prepared, given its success, to take on board that funding to ensure that the scheme can go forward in the future?

Tessa Jowell: This has been a successful scheme. The early piloting showed that quite quickly. We have Lottery funding for the next three years, as you say. Putting the Portable Antiquities Scheme on a permanent footing will obviously be a decision for the next spending round, but yes, it has proved to be successful and we ought to try to ensure that we can fund it in the long term.

Q53  John Thurso: I think that is a very hopeful answer.

Tessa Jowell: I think it is as hopeful an answer as you can give if you are Secretary of State facing the next spending round but not having yet negotiated the next spending round.

John Thurso: I wish you well.

Chairman: Secretary of State, we are within a minute of the time at which you need to go so thank you very much indeed.