The previous Committee reported in June 2000 on the
illicit trade in cultural property and the possible return, to
the original owners or countries of origin, of items from the
collections of national museums and galleries. Our further inquiry
was prompted by reports of the looting of cultural property in
Iraq and the potential for its appearance on the London art market.
The latest position on Iraq is set out at the end of this Report
but the key findings unearthed as a result of our work relate
to a distinct lack of progress with vital elements of what it
was hoped was the Government's cultural property agenda.
In summary our predecessor recommended: a national
database of stolen and illegally removed cultural property; the
criminalisation of dealing in such property; accession to an appropriate
international convention; and whilst affirming the concept
of world class museums with global collections the early
introduction of legislation to permit national museums and galleries
to return objects, in response to valid claims, in two specific
categories: human remains and material illegally removed by the
Nazis during the period 1933 to 1945 (known as 'spoliation').
The Government accepted the majority of these recommendations
and there seemed to be general synergy between the Committee,
the Government and its expert advisory bodies, the art market
and the wider museum community on the relevant issues and way
forward. Despite this high degree of consensus, however, there
are few concrete achievements to point to after a period of more
than three years.
The UK has signed the UNESCO Convention on the Means
of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer
of Ownership of Cultural Property, and Government support for
a Private Member's Bill saw the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences)
Bill receive Royal Assent on 30 October 2003. These achievements
are important, but they will prove hollow if not backed up by
A national database of stolen and otherwise tainted
cultural objects described as the single most important
practical measure to give effect to both the Convention and the
new Act seems mired in a slow-motion wrangle between DCMS,
Home Office and the police. After more than two years of consideration
two fundamentally different options remain on the table: one being
pursued by the Home Office and one by the DCMS. It is claimed
as a defence that the project raises complex issues. We believe
the lack of progress stems from a complete failure of "joined-up
government" in an area where the policy priorities happen
to lie with one department and the means and resources with another.
Similarly worrying is the state of the overall strategy
or lack of one on tackling the illicit trade and
apparent confusion within Government over whether this black market
is linked in a significant way to organised crime. Despite the
signing of the UNESCO Convention and the criminalising of dishonest
dealing in tainted cultural objects, the systems, resources and
coordination across different agencies for checking both imports
and exports seem deeply unsatisfactory.
There are also mixed results to report on "return"
issues. The Working Group on Human Remains published a detailed
300 page report on 5 November 2003 during the course of this inquiry.
We heard that there was now the potential to establish a permissive
regime for national museums in this area, courtesy of a forthcoming
Department of Health Bill on human tissue announced in the Queen's
Speech on 26 November 2003. However, we foresee difficulties in
establishing a consensus over a practical system to handle claims,
even following legislative change, given the dissent set out in
the working group's report.
With regard to spoliation, the Secretary of State
for Culture, Media and Sport seems to have withdrawn from the
consensus for legislative change established following
our predecessor's Report saying that the expected tidal
wave of claims had not in fact arisen. She did say that the DCMS
would push for change to allow the return of relevant items if
advised to do so by the Spoliation Advisory Panel. However, the
difficulties of achieving the sort of focused legislative amendment
in question cannot, in the light of experience, be underestimated.
There is great uncertainty in the DCMS being able to repeat such
progress as has so far been achieved given the operation of chance
in arrangements for Private Members' Bills and other departments'
legislative programmes offering the opportunity for piggy-backing.
The DCMS should not wait for a valid spoliation claim to be made
(other than can be satisfied by compensation) to seek a change
in the law. It will be too late.
Our recommendations are therefore aimed at encouraging
real progress with what appear to be moribund aspects of the Government's
approach and tackling the apparent gaps in any strategy there