Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-238)



Q220  Chairman: Please forgive me, Professor Palmer, but I do not believe I have, in my recent experience, come across responses so exquisitely phrased which, nevertheless, do not lead me to believe with confidence that anything whatever is going to happen. "Is achievable within the foreseeable future but whether it will be remains to be seen". I acknowledge entirely that you are not responsible for action or inaction, you can make recommendations, but taking into account all the years that have gone by ". . . achievable within the foreseeable future but if so remains to be seen" does not exactly strike me as a landmark in progress in this controversy.  

Professor Palmer: It is a little early to determine whether there is to be a landmark—

Q221  Chairman: Please stop me interrupting you. I am absolutely overwhelmed with admiration for you, Professor Palmer, and I am not being rude. "It is a little early to determine . . ."—that is brilliant.  

Professor Palmer: Surely you would agree with the proposition that, logically, we cannot say yet whether recommendations which have not been released until tomorrow are going to be accepted or not?[5]


Q222  Chairman: Absolutely. I am dazzled. I feel I am intruding on some arcane ritual in seeking to get this information. It is not your fault, I understand this completely; it is the fact that we have got three government departments not one of which seems actually to be able to bring itself to do anything. This is not what this Government was elected to do, but then, of course, that is not your responsibility. Could I ask you two other questions then? Please forgive my exasperation because it is not exasperation with you; if I had any hair I would tear it, but that is a different matter. I understand that Professor Chalmers provided a minority report. Is it possible for you to elucidate the differences between the main consensus and the NHM?  

Professor Palmer: I do not have Sir Neil Chalmers' permission to do so, I have no objection to doing so personally, but I think perhaps I should ask the officials whether this would be an appropriate course to take or not. [6]

Chairman: I do not know where to go from here actually. You have got me absolutely baffled and stymied, which I suppose is an achievement of a kind. Mr Flook, perhaps you can build on this.

Q223  Mr Flook: Professor Palmer, the Working Group came up with a number of recommendations. Have you costed those?  

Professor Palmer: No. We are waiting for the Department to cost those. We have some figures which have been given to us about the cost of a human remains advisory panel.

Q224  Mr Flook: Do you want to expand on that?  

Professor Palmer: We are told that if the parallel were adopted of the Spoliation Advisory Panel the cost would be about £4,000 per meeting.

Q225  Mr Flook: How many meetings would you expect in a year? They work on annual budgets, I am told.  

Professor Palmer: Yes, it is extremely difficult to tell. We do not know whether the existence of a human remains advisory panel would encourage people to settle claims without reference to it, or whether it would lead to a spate of claims at all. We do not know whether museums would accept references to this panel or not.

Q226  Mr Flook: What is your view?  

Professor Palmer: My view is that they would, in the main, yes, certainly.

Q227  Mr Flook: They would—?  

Professor Palmer: They would accept references to it.

Q228  Mr Flook: So in coming to your conclusions you have not had any detailed discussions as to the costs?  

Professor Palmer: No.

Q229  Mr Flook: It seems to me, from what people have been talking about up until now, including yourself, that one of the issues is that the Government are not doing whatever they are not doing because there may be cost implications. If cost implications are one of the biggest hurdles, have not any of you when looking at these things looked at how they could get over that hurdle and had a discussion about costs?  

Professor Palmer: It is not so much a question of cost as a question of proportionality. We have looked at the matter of proportionality—in other words, whether it is justifiable having regard to the gains and benefits that will be derived from it to set up such a committee.

Q230  Mr Flook: That does not seem to drive the Government in other areas, so I am surprised it necessarily drives it in this area.  

Professor Palmer: It is a little early to say whether it is driven or not but we do devote a section in our report to an analysis of this question of proportionality and we make it very plain that this is not simply a matter of economic benefit and disbenefit. Whatever atmosphere of frivolity it may have been appropriate to introduce on this Committee, we are dealing with extremely serious matters that touch the very heart and spirit of some people. We are dealing not only with matters of morality, ethics, spirituality and religion but the scientific mission of some museums to push back our knowledge about the dawn of humanity. These are the sorts of benefits and questions which we think a human remains advisory panel would be needing to consider. That, we submit, is not simply a question of economic gains and disbenefits.

Q231  Mr Flook: It is one as far as the Government is concerned, spending taxpayers' money to be able to match your aims.  

Professor Palmer: Yes, quite so.

Q232  Mr Flook: So whatever you may say and may advise, there will be a cold calculation done somewhere in a room as to whether or not your recommendations can be taken forward. To put it another way round: that cold calculating, civil servant, advising a minister, will have a view as to what you are advising—was there somewhere a meeting where you are going to be able to say "We can afford this"?  

Professor Palmer: Of course, yes. We are intelligent, practical people.

Q233  Mr Flook: What was the figure?  

Professor Palmer: We did not arrive at a final figure but we certainly were concerned throughout to come up with proposals that were economically practicable, realistic and viable. [7]After all, look at what we have proposed: that there should be legislation permitting museums to release their possession—ownership, if you like—of human remains. It is difficult to put a cost on that. What we did with the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel was to make proposals and then the Government, again, costed them. We did not think they were extravagant.

Footnote by witness: A concern to avoid the duplication of costs was one of the factors informing the Working Group's proposal that its recommendations regarding a new regulatory authority to oversee museum holdings of human remains be assimilated within the more general regulatory authority proposed in regard to medical institutions by the Department of Health.

Q234  Mr Flook: If the Government has costed them, what are the costs?  

Professor Palmer: If the Government has costed them I am not aware of the costings at which it has arrived. [8]

Q235  Mr Bryant: A very quick question. Bearing in mind what you have just said about the significance—and I think all of us on the Committee would accept the spiritual and religious aspects of this are very important to many communities around the world—Mr Flook seems to be suggesting you are asking for a blank cheque, but it is not a very big cheque, is it, really? If there were 20 meetings in a year it is £80,000.  

Professor Palmer: If there were 20 meetings in a year, yes. There have been, I think, four meetings of the Spoliation Advisory Panel in two-and-a-half years, and I do not expect that the number of meetings of the human remains advisory panel would be substantially in advance of that. We are, incidentally, I should say, dependent on the evidence which we are given and that is the only figure which we have—£4,000 a meeting. I understand a fairly substantial part of that is legal advice as well because it has been considered necessary for the Spoliation Advisory Panel to have an independent legal adviser outside the Treasury solicitors.

Q236  Mr Bryant: If I am not reading between too many lines here, you seem to be therefore suggesting that, in answer to your own question of proportionality, if we were talking about £20,000 or even £40,000 then that would be money extremely well-spent.  

Professor Palmer: Yes, I would certainly think so. I think that would show respect towards the issues and towards the people whose concerns are involved.

Q237  Derek Wyatt: Can I move on to the second area, which is spoliation? I have had some interest for a while now in Ethiopia and the Maqdala treasures which were looted in 1868. Do you not feel that if you are going to have a national committee for looking at human evidence there should be an equal one for looking at stolen treasures which are categorically stolen? There is no doubt or fuss, they have definitely been stolen, they were definitely looted and they went to the highest bidder (it is well-documented) and the Ethiopian church would like them back.  

Professor Palmer: I would need to consider the arguments on that. My job has been to consider human remains, spoliation as such, as a member of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, and the contemporary illicit trade. I have however heard it said, and I can see the force of the logic behind it, that the time might be coming when it might make sense to have a national repatriation panel, whatever it might be called—national claims advisory body—which might consider all of these matters in the round, perhaps even look at them comparatively and relatively. However, I emphasise I have not reached a settled view on this, this is a matter I have heard suggested and it might be a matter of resources. If it were to be the case that we were going to have separate panels on spoliation, human remains, sacred objects (which is another possibility) then there might come a time eventually when all the strings might be drawn together and it would be effective and intelligent to have a single body.

Q238  Derek Wyatt: It does not seem to me that there is much of a momentum if you have only had four meetings in two-and-a-half years on your first one; it seems to me that that is just being cynical at the outset, that there should be many more meetings. In this instance, the Ethiopian church has been to see the British Museum—they are hidden, they are not even on show, they cannot be on show and they are not allowed to be on show. What is the purpose of having them in a drawer that no one can access? You can say that there is this thinking and so on, but who is driving this in the Government?  

Professor Palmer: Let me, first of all, say that the number of meetings to which I referred of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, which is there to deal with claims, is a sufficient number of meetings to deal with those claims. [9] There has been an increase in the number of claims which have come forward recently and we might, therefore, see an increase in the number of meetings. Nevertheless, I do not think there has been any suggestion that it has not met often enough to deal satisfactorily with claims. I am by no means suggesting that if there were a national claims advisory panel it would meet on any particular number of occasions a year or not; that is entirely a matter for dealing with the flow of claims. I must say, this is a long way down the track and it is not something on which I have, certainly as far as the Department is concerned, any authority to speak. What I am giving you is purely my personal opinion.  

Chairman: Professor Palmer, it has been a treat having you here. You have certainly given us a number of issues on which we can question the members of the Government who are going to come before us next week. We are grateful to you indeed. I see from your CV that you have an enormous number of activities to which you devote yourself. I would suggest, if you can find the time, you conduct master classes in how to deal with select committees. Thank you very much.

5   Footnote by witness: At this point Mr Bryant made observations which suggested that he agreed with Professor Palmer on this point. Back

6   Footnote by witness: At this point Mr James Dowling, DCMS, indicated [to the Committee] that it would be appropriate for Professor Palmer to comment on the minority and majority positions. Back

7    Back

8   Footnote by witness: The Chairman of the Working Group advised officials of DCMS in 2002 and 2003 that, if DCMS wished the Working Group to refer to specific resource implications, the Working Group would look to DCMS to provide relevant data. Back

9   Footnote by Witness: The figure of four meetings in the first two-and-a-half years referred to the period during which the Spoliation Advisory Panel considered its own constitution and procedure and resolved the claim relating to the Griffer painting (see above), following which there was a considerable lapse of time before any further claim emerged for consideration by the Panel. Back

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