Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)



Q200  Michael Fabricant: That has been a very helpful and important answer, actually, because you have not only pointed out the importance regarding the provenance of the art in question but also the importance of a register with regard to there being sufficient evidence to either prove guilt or, somewhat unusually in our legal system, to prove innocence, which is a complete departure, I think, from the principle of English law. I wonder if you might just clarify, for me at least and perhaps the rest of the Committee, whether I am right in thinking that the register, as you have referred to it, would be a database available on the internet; that anyone could just log on to and look through pictures of art. How would one actually use it in practice?  

Professor Palmer: When we produced our report in December 2000 we did refer to an open, public and freely accessible database, whilst recognising, of course, there will have to be levels of access, with certain levels of material accessible only to the police, some to the trade and some to ordinary individuals. That said, we are awaiting and will look very carefully—and I hope objectively—at any proposal which comes forward. I certainly have listened very carefully to suggestions that this should be a public/private partnership. I do appreciate, of course, the funding implications and there is certainly no proposal of which I am aware at the moment of which it can be said that we have ruled it out anticipatorily without actually examining it more closely. We are due to hear presentations, I believe, tomorrow on this; there is a meeting of the Illicit Trade Panel tomorrow and we hope to take this further. So our thinking on this is not ossified, save only in this: that we have an immutable conviction that something must be done.

Q201  Michael Fabricant: As you know, the police reckon that it would cost £12 million to operate a wholly publicly funded database of this type, which may or may not be accurate. Are you aware of the offer that was made by Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register in his letter to the Home Office back in May 2001 to provide the same database totally free of charge for two years?  

Professor Palmer: Yes, I was aware of that offer at the time and I was aware that I think it was approached with a certain circumspection—I cannot remember the detail of it. We have been awaiting for some time the evolution of further private initiatives on this and it is certainly something that we would not rule out. I ought to add that in my view this is not just a question of economics, and I believe that that is the view of the Department as well; it is also a question of techniques and methods and perhaps even cultures and policies. In any event, I do not want this matter to become one of the value of property which is stolen. We talk about the size of the illicit art market and so on and we tend to talk about it in terms of figures, not even numbers of items stolen but values. We were not able to put a higher figure, and we did not try to falsify it of course, on the outflow from the United Kingdom than £200 million worth of art a year. That is not, by law enforcement standards, an enormous criminal market. Even so, we think that, first of all, any illicit removal pollutes the market and is a bad thing; it affects its credibility. Secondly, these are often matters of great sentimental or emotional value—or heritage value, come to that. Thirdly, we owe a duty under the UNESCO Convention to safeguard our own heritage and, finally, we have to protect not only the art market, in terms of buyers and sellers, but also borrowing markets. The United Kingdom museums and galleries borrow a vast amount of art, so we need provenance checks there as well. Nothing can be more embarrassing than when an art exhibition is taking place and a claim is brought by a third party against that museum or gallery. So there are reasons, other than the buying and selling trade, why we have to be very circumspect about this, and it is very hard to put a money value on it.

Q202  Michael Fabricant: We all recognise the cultural value of these things and these things cannot always be quantified in terms of material and financial value. I still want to take you back, if I may, to this offer (I thought your answer skirted about the subject, shall we say) of the two-year database. You said it was treated with some circumspection. Would you personally have welcomed the provision back in 2001 of a two-year, trial database which would have gone live, been freely available and actually not cost the taxpayer anything for those two years?  

Professor Palmer: I would have needed to look at it more closely than I was advised I should look at it at the time.

Q203  Michael Fabricant: Who advised you not to look at it at the time?  

Professor Palmer: I cannot remember, and perhaps I should not mention names, but I gather there was a view within the Department that this was premature—

Q204  Michael Fabricant: "Department" being Culture Media and Sport or the Home Office?  

Professor Palmer: No, the Department for Culture. And that the matter was being considered by Charles Clarke's Committee in any event. It was before or around the time that the Illicit Trade Panel was set up and we had not actually committed ourselves in any event to a database at that time. We did not report until December. So although I became aware of the offer some time between May and Christmas of 2001 I think it is fair to say that we were not encouraged to look at that in any detail.

Q205  Michael Fabricant: If you had not been discouraged to look at this, would you have actually looked at it?  

Professor Palmer: Yes, we did consider the question of whether it should be wholly privately run and we inclined at the time to the view that it should be free and it should be the responsibility of the Department. I think we were echoing this as late as the progress report which was delivered last year. There are, I think it is fair to say, those on the Illicit Trade Panel who are not instinctively attracted to an initiative of this kind which makes money for somebody and would prefer to see it as a public service, so it did not feature particularly prominently in our observations, particularly, as I say, as I think it arose before the Illicit Trade Panel—certainly before it started sitting.

Q206  Michael Fabricant: Do you believe the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has been driving it sufficiently hard with the Home Office?  

Professor Palmer: There is a view amongst certain members of the Illicit Trade Panel that if it is a question of money then whoever finds the money is a secondary question; that if there is a responsibility there then the money must be found, full stop. In my experience the Department of Culture has been trying hard to take this forward and I have sympathy with their attempts to penetrate what appears to be the Home Office's impenetrability on this matter. That being said, there comes a point when you cannot listen to excuses any more. A point I cannot emphasise too strongly is that the purpose of the Illicit Trade Panel is to get all sections of the arts community together, speaking to one another. We have succeeded in doing this for three years but there is an emerging sentiment in some quarters that, for example, the trade has accepted the burdens without gaining the benefits. There is a feeling that if this does not progress soon the committee will, perhaps, begin to fall apart—not to put too fine a point on it—in which event a lot of the effort will have been wasted.

Q207  Michael Fabricant: Do you think we have reached the point where you cannot listen to excuses any more?  

Professor Palmer: We expect tomorrow to look at serious and credible proposals with a realistic time-frame for showing us the way in which this goes ahead. I think there are members of the panel, and I would share this view, who would find it embarrassing to have the criminal offence without the database backing it up. I think the time has come to show that progress will be made.

Q208  Michael Fabricant: One final question: do you think it is purely coincidental that you are having this meeting tomorrow when the Minister from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is coming before this Committee next week?  

Professor Palmer: Frankly, I think it is entirely coincidental.  

Michael Fabricant: You are a generous man. Thank you, Chairman.

Q209  Derek Wyatt: Can we just go back to human remains, for a moment? There is a report that has been made but it has not been made public. Are you able to tell us what the recommendations are if we cannot see this report?  

Professor Palmer: Yes, I am. I have checked that about half-an-hour ago. I understand that I can and that it will be released officially at lunchtime tomorrow.

Q210  Derek Wyatt: That is a result. I am going to guess little bits then. Has an audit been done of the major museums that hold human remains?  

Professor Palmer: Yes.

Q211  Derek Wyatt: So that we know exactly, in the report tomorrow it will say "This museum in Liverpool or that museum in Edinburgh has this, and these are the issues that it raises"?  

Professor Palmer: Yes, that is quite right. Resource put up the sum of £10,000 for the performance of what we call our scoping survey, which does give a picture of the location and distribution of human remains in English museums.

Q212  Derek Wyatt: Apart from tissue problems, which I understand the Department of Health has raised, what are the other issues, do you think, that need to be resolved before the remains are actually given back?  

Professor Palmer: This is a matter on which, as I am sure you are aware, there is a sharp divergence of argument. In many cases the distance—

Q213  Derek Wyatt: Between who and who?  

Professor Palmer: Between, on the whole, those museums which wish to retain human remains in order to pursue scientific research and to achieve what, it has to be said, are most extraordinary and fascinating results, often of practical benefit to medicine and science, and those claimants from overseas—almost invariably from overseas—who are normally representatives of the indigenous communities who feel that it is an insult to them and, worse than that, that it tends to the disquiet of their ancestors, to suffering, to lack of tranquillity and quiescence that these are still in museums.

Q214  Derek Wyatt: So there are no recommendations in the report? I am guessing now, because unless you can tell us some highlights we are struggling.  

Professor Palmer: Yes. I am very happy to tell you  

the highlights and there are indeed recommendations.

Q215  Derek Wyatt: Could you give us a little flavour, for the Committee's sake?  

Professor Palmer: Yes, certainly. Firstly, we are of the view that it would appropriate for the arguments for and against the retention of human remains to be capable of being submitted to a national human remains advisory panel. This is a matter which has to be approached on a case-by-case basis. The arguments are weighty and deserve the highest respect. Our committee could not say of any specific remain "That shall go back" or not, that was not within our terms of reference; what we have decided is that there is a compelling case for an open, public, objective, transparent and consistent resolution mechanism by which claims can be heard and, hopefully, resolved.

Q216  Derek Wyatt: Would that discussion—if it was an Aborigine or Maori or an Indian from America—be held in public so it was truly transparent?  

Professor Palmer: That would need to be decided. We have taken to a large degree our parallel from the Spoliation Advisory Panel, which as I am sure you are aware deals with very sensitive matters relating to family and property and the horrible events that people suffered in the past. I think that might have to be a matter on which individual claimants are consulted, as to whether there should be public attendance at hearings, for example. That has not been the case hitherto with the Spoliation Advisory Panel, which I may say, in my view, is a very successful institution. On the other hand, of course, the Spoliation Advisory Panel does publish and has in the case of the Griffier claim published a full report,[3] and we anticipate that would equally be the case with a claim for the return of indigenous human remains.

Q217  Chairman: It strikes me more and more, Professor Palmer, without any disrespect to you or your colleagues, that we are in an episode of Yes, Minister here, in which an appearance of activity conceals no activity. One had the feeling, I remember it when we were conducting our previous inquiry, that this working party was set up at the time to stymie the work of this Select Committee. [4]OK, I would not have minded about that if any result whatever had emerged from all of this, but what we are in is a position in which we conducted an inquiry, we made certain recommendations, and one actually was accepted by the Government who have done nothing whatever to implement it. Everybody is having a lovely time dealing with matters of great fascination but nothing is actually happening. You said in a reply earlier on that you had permission to give us your conclusions. Can you give us them?

Professor Palmer: I not only can but had begun to do so and would be happy to continue doing so. The first, as I say, is the recommendation that there should be a national human remains and advisory panel, an independent, government-appointed forum before which claims and controversies relating to the retention of human remains by English museums can be heard. Reference to the panel will not be compulsory; as in the case of spoliation it will be consensual. The recommendations of the panel will be advisory, it will be up to the parties whether to adopt them or not. Again, that follows the parallel of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. We expect that the panel would be able to make recommendations not only about the specific case but also to the Department of Culture about what should happen in given instances—for example, whether there should be legislative change or not. That, again, follows the provisions of the Spoliation Advisory Panel which was set up in, I think, May 2000. That is the first of our recommendations, but there are others. Secondly, it is quite clear that the law relating to human remains, both within and beyond English museums, is in an unsatisfactory state. This unsatisfactory state is exacerbated by the constraints that are limiting—or in the view of national museums are limiting—them from releasing human remains even when they want to do so. So we have also recommended that there should be a relaxation of national museum governing statutes in order to permit them, at their election, to release human remains in those cases where they consider it appropriate.

Q218  Chairman: Have you any idea whatsoever as to whether any of this will be (a) accepted and (b) implemented? Otherwise you will have been wasting your time and we, once again, will have been wasting our time (which we are quite used to doing).  

Professor Palmer: It is for the minister to consider whether the arguments which we advance in favour of these two reforms are persuasive or not. We are firmly of the view that they are and we would be interested to hear any counter-arguments. My view is that they are so serious and realistic and credible that there must logically be a serious prospect of their being recognised and accepted. I appreciate, however, that those more experienced in political matters than me might be sceptical on this point. However, that is what we propose. We also propose that museum holdings of human remains should be subject to a licensing authority, akin to and possibly assimilated with the licensing authority, the human tissue authority, that is proposed in relation to medical institutions, and that such licensing should be dependent inter alia upon subscription to a code of practice by which the museum will demonstrate that it has proper standards, ethical and professional standards, for the care and safe-keeping of human remains and that it has access to a proper claims resolution process.

Q219  Chairman: Can you suggest to us any time-scale in which anything will actually be done?  

Professor Palmer: I entertain a confident expectation that the relaxation of national museum statutes in order to allow the discretionary release of human remains is achievable within the foreseeable future—I would say, and this is a figure grabbed from the air, within six months. Whether that is the case, of course, remains to be seen, but we have had discussions about this and we do know that in the case of one national museum, the Natural History Museum, it is regarded by that institution as the most important recommendation and indeed as the sine qua non to anything else. It seems quite clear to us that there is not a great deal else that can be achieved if museums consider themselves debarred from returning material even if they want to.

3   Footnote by witness: Report of the Spoliation Advisory Panel in respect of a painting now in the Tate Gallery, 18 January 2001. Back

4   Footnote by witness: The Select Committee published its Seventh Report on 18 July 2000. The Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections was established in May 2001. Back

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