Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-91)


28 OCTOBER 2003

  Q80  Chairman: It has to be on a case by case basis, has it not?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: On individual cases, absolutely. Absolutely. That is why I would argue all the time for considering in each case, in a balanced way: What is the benefit to humanity? How strong is the claim for return? You then come to your decision on that case. In my case, I would almost always—I have to say this very clearly—come down on the side of the benefits to humanity from holding items for research.

  Q81  Michael Fabricant: I personally have huge sympathy with the scientific argument that you have presented today. But perhaps I may ask you this: while I assume that the storage of human remains will be done in such a way to preserve them in the best way possible, is there any code of conduct regarding the way they are stored?—really relating that, I guess, to the ethical dilemma that Frank Doran spoke about. If someone came to you and said, "We would like a ritual performed on a regular basis," would you be open to that? Has anyone come to you and said, "There are particular rituals that we would like performed"?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: Yes, we have had good discussions with some communities, in which we have asked them and they have put to us what it is about the way in which we hold collections that they want to see. I do not know if we have had any cases of people wanting to perform rituals. It may be that I am going to get an example right now. (Information received) Yes, rituals are possible but none has yet taken place. We have certainly heard strong statements from some communities saying, "We would like our community to have access to our ancestors but no other community at all." They feel that it is that exclusivity which is important as part of their claim.

  Q82  Michael Fabricant: How do you treat such requests?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: We have respected them. We do say though that we must and will allow validated scientific researchers to have access to the collection because that is the whole point of having them. So we cannot concede to that request but, I think where we can reasonably accede to the request of a claimant community about the conditions under which we store objects, of course we are more than pleased to discuss that with them.

  Q83  Chairman: Could I ask a follow-up question. I think it ought to emerge clearly from these hearings that we do have a very, very respectable record in this country. There have been reports in the press over the years that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is absolutely full of stolen objects, and the same has been said of the Museum of Natural History in New York, even in these categories. Therefore, although obviously these are universal questions, I think it is very important to get on the record that British museums have a very good, clean record on these issues. When we had the British Museum in on the last inquiry, they made it very clear that if they had any stolen objects, for example, they would very much like permission to be able to return them. That did not refer to the Parthenon Marbles, which they denied were stolen, and indeed which the record of the select committee in the nineteenth century demonstrated were indeed not stolen.

  Sir Neil Chalmers: I would be delighted if that statement did go on record, Chairman, because I think it is absolutely right.

  Q84  Michael Fabricant: Earlier on you told me that you had had meetings or a meeting with Estelle Morris in connection with the working group. How many meetings have you actually had?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: This was not a working group meeting, this was a telephone conversation I had with her.

  Q85  Michael Fabricant: In that case, how many meetings has the working group had with DCMS in its aim to get the law changed?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: The working group overall has met a large number of times. I honestly cannot answer that question. I believe it is in the report somewhere. It is a large number of times over three years. Without wanting to anticipate what I am sure the Chairman will say to you, and the Minister, I think there was very little disagreement about the need for the law to be changed. There was some discussion about the exact legal devices that were the best to bring about such change, but I think everybody on the group favoured, as I understood it, a relaxation to enable, at the very least, the kind of changes for which I have been arguing.

  Q86  Michael Fabricant: Given that there is this happy consensus, have you detected any movement at all in the legislative process?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: I have not been privy to the legislative process. I have been told that this is something that the Minister favours but beyond that . . . or that she is looking at, I am sorry. I am trying to remember the detail of the telephone conversation. She asked my opinion, as to whether I felt the law should be changed to allow relaxation. I said yes, in the way I have described to you.

  Q87  Michael Fabricant: Because you will be dealing with civil servants, officials, as well as ministers—I suppose I can ask you this—have you detected that there has been any delay because of the change in the ministerial structure within DCMS? Or has the natural progression, if there is a natural progression, continued unabated?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: I think it has continued. I think that the change in ministers has not actually slowed things down. That is my own impression, just talking to others.

  Q88  Chairman: If nothing is happening you cannot actually put a stop to it, can you?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: I can only talk about what has been happening at my level, if you like, and not what has been happening at ministerial level.

  Q89  Michael Fabricant: Has DCMS given you any indication as to when they think the law might have changed, given that they seem to agree that there is a need for this?

  Sir Neil Chalmers: I think they are hoping that their Minister will be able to make a statement or contribute to a statement that will be part of the Queen's Speech, as I understand it. But I know no more than that.

  Chairman: They made a statement in response to our previous report saying they would legislate. I went to a conference and proclaimed it as the "great achievement" of the British Government, this Select Committee, international effort, etcetera. The only legislation that I know about is the private members bill by an opposition member.

  Q90  Michael Fabricant: There will be an opportunity in November to question the Secretary of State herself and Caroline Flint regarding this matter.

  Sir Neil Chalmers: I can only report to you what I have heard in a telephone conversation and had in a conversation with Vince, as I have said.

  Q91  Chairman: We are grateful to you, Sir Neil. What we have had from you is what we might have expected, a decent, civilised, constructive approach. Thank you very much.

  Sir Neil Chalmers: May I say something? It is about a totally different issue, if I may. It is just to say how much I appreciated the report which you did on free admission the last time I appeared before you, I think in this very room. The recommendations were extremely helpful and I would just ask you to keep pressing those recommendations. That would be very much appreciated.

  Chairman: Much appreciated. Thank you. I hope that next time Greg Dyke comes before us he will speak in that tone!

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