Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill

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Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. Once again, I welcome the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam on promoting it.

I do not have a specific constituency interest, although as the hon. Member for Salisbury said,

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there are important constituency concerns as we all have heritage sites in our constituencies. An example that springs to my mind is Merton priory, which is a 12th-century monastery that was dissolved and looted under Henry VIII. In modern times, it was concreted over and it now lies underneath one of the largest supermarkets in Europe. Looting of cultural objects is a problem that has been with us for a long time and it affects each of our constituency interests.

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I wish to address a matter related not to my constituency but to my work as chairman of the all-party British-Italian group. Italy has about 60 per cent. of the world's heritage cultural objects, and there was some debate on Second Reading about the looting of objects from Italian archaeological sites. Italy has been at the forefront of international efforts to combat the trade in illicit cultural objects, and it quickly signed up to the 1998 UN convention on the matter, and to subsequent European conventions. Four years ago, I had the privilege to lead a delegation from our Parliament to the Italian Parliament, where we looked at issues related to the fight against organised crime and, in particular, at the steps taken by the Italian Government to counter money laundering.

One image that we may have is of the petty criminal or tourist picking something up and putting it into their bag at an archaeological or artistic site. That happens, it is wrong, and we must try to stop it. However, I understand that the Bill aims to deal with the far greater racket that is linked to organised international criminals. Proceeds from the looting of artistic and cultural objects are second only to the proceeds from the trade in drugs. When we examine the sources of funds that are laundered through banks and the international money system, we see that this is a very lucrative trade. It is increasingly being used to finance other illicit activities, including the drugs trade, and to finance the activities of international criminal gangs. It has also been linked to terrorist activities, a matter that was raised on Second Reading.

I am making those points during our discussion on clause 1 because it is the point in the Bill where the focus moves from the illicitly traded cultural object to the person who is trading in such objects. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, who is promoting the Bill, said that he did not think that it would be difficult to ascertain whether a person who was trading in those objects had malicious intent. We do not want to catch bona fide art dealers or others who have been unwittingly trading in looted objects. We must make sure that we catch the big fish—the people who are doing it with malicious intent. We must not only ask whether they knew that an object was looted but look at what other activities they are involved in.

We must consider the Government's recent legislation to expropriate the proceeds of illicit crime. We must seek the opportunity to override some of the banking secrecy laws, and we must consider whether the person is not only trading in illicit goods but using the proceeds from that trade, perhaps by illicitly laundering the money and using it to finance other

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illicit activities. When confiscating the cultural object from that person we must consider also confiscating some of the proceeds of the illicit trade.

In conclusion, I believe that organised criminals carry out an increasing amount of the trade in illicit and looted cultural objects in a cold-blooded and systematic way. I do not believe that we will have any difficulty retrieving the objects, and, in many cases, it will not be difficult to establish the criminal intent of somebody who is in the frame for this offence. I support the clause.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Like other hon. Members, I support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam. It is necessary, and it is exceptionally well and cleverly drafted. That is not something that I often have the opportunity to say in a Committee Room.

This debate seems to have been something of an archaeological travelogue, so I may as well place on record the fact that I represent Skara Brae, Maes Howe and more chambered cairns and brochs than the average archaeologist could shake a towel at. We also have our 12th-century cathedral. Slowly, over time, we have learned to live with its modernity. I am aware that the Bill extends to England and Wales but not to Scotland, so I speak with some hesitation. I hope that once it has found its way on to the statute book, as I sincerely hope it does, Scottish Ministers will find an opportunity to enact a similar provision north of the border.

I listened with some interest to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). May I offer him a word or two of reassurance regarding his colleague's rifle? It seems to me unless it had been excavated at some stage or had formed part of a building, it would not be a tainted cultural object. Although I always think that any admission of lawlessness from the party of law and order—as the Conservatives would have us believe they are—is interesting, I think that the hon. Gentleman and his friend can sleep easy on this occasion.

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee and especially to be part of the proceedings on such an excellent Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam on securing Committee time for this important measure.

I said on Second Reading last month that I was delighted that we had had such a wide-ranging debate on the Bill, because it is one that concerns many people. Since then there has been considerable publicity and concern about the looting of archaeological sites, monuments and collections in the aftermath of the war against Saddam Hussein, and about the attempts to smuggle stolen items across the Iraqi frontiers and on to the international black market. That very unfortunate outcome of the war highlights the Bill's importance.

Although the Bill is not retrospective, it will make it an offence dishonestly to deal in and unlawfully to remove cultural property. It will act as a disincentive to those involved in damaging and looting sites for commercial gain. It will reduce the risk that this

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country will become a marketplace for looted antiquities from anywhere in the world. The Government recognise the Bill's importance as a cornerstone of their programme of measures designed to help to conserve and protect the cultural heritage of all countries, especially Iraq.

All those who have spoken—led by the hon. Member for Salisbury, who is a real expert in the field—have noted that their constituency contains archaeological treasures; indeed, there is hardly one that does not. I was going to make a flippant remark about the fact that I have an archaeological treasure that is very precious to my constituency—the ruins of Welsh rugby. For that matter, I probably have more burial mounds in my constituency than one could shake a towel at, but I shall not go into detail.

I enjoyed the story by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about the Khyber pass. It was a good way of testing our knowledge of the Bill. However, I must agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that the rifle would not be a tainted cultural object—unless some structure had been built on the Khyber pass, and the rifle had been used as a lintel for holding up a doorway, but we shall not go into that now.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made clear, the core of the Bill is subsection (1), which makes it an offence for a person to deal in a cultural object if he knows or believes it to be tainted. The requirement for the prosecution to prove that the person is acting dishonestly when dealing in the cultural object provides an important safeguard, and I know from this afternoon's contributions that there are worries about the issue. Including a dishonesty element in the Bill ensures that an offence is committed only where a person has acted in a way that is dishonest according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people, and where he realised that his actions would be regarded as dishonest.

A second important safeguard is the requirement that, to be guilty of the offence, a person must know or believe the cultural object to be tainted. A person who, for example, produced evidence showing that, before dealing, he had made reasonable inquiries that indicated that the object was not tainted will not have committed the offence. That would be the case even if it transpired after the dealing had taken place that the cultural object was in fact tainted. The fact that a person would be guilty of an offence if he believed the cultural object to be tainted follows the original recommendation of the illicit trade advisory panel.

That does not mean that an offence would be committed where a person believed an object to be tainted when it was not. That is an important point to bear in mind. There is a parallel with the offence of handling stolen goods. An element of that offence is that the person concerned knew or believed the goods to be stolen. It is clear that no offence of handling stolen goods can be committed unless the goods were stolen. In other words, the offender must know or correctly believe the goods to be stolen. Similarly, under the Bill, there will be no offence unless the

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person concerned knew or correctly believed the object to be tainted.

Under subsection (2), the prosecution will not need to prove that a person knows or believes an object to be a cultural object. It would place an unduly heavy burden on the prosecution to require proof that the alleged offender knew that the object was a cultural object. Knowledge or belief that an object has been illegally excavated or removed must in itself imply a degree of knowledge in respect of its cultural significance. Why else would such an object be protected by local law?

The offence is triable either way. Under subsection (3)(a), a person who is found guilty of an offence under the Bill is liable on conviction in the Crown court to a prison term

    ''not exceeding seven years or a fine (or both)''.

Under subsection (3)(b), a person is liable on conviction in a magistrates court to a prison term

    ''not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum''—

currently £5,000—''or both''.

Those penalties are not insignificant, but they correspond to the seriousness of the crime. They are greater than those for offences under listed buildings legislation and under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, but offences under that legislation do not require proof of dishonesty. The penalties imposed by the Bill are analogous to those imposed for dealing in goods that are subject to an import or export restriction under section 170 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. I hope that my explanations have made it clear why I support clause 1.

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