Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport First Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Government's reply to the Committee in March 2001 referred to a Home Office working party being given the proposed national database of stolen cultural objects to consider "urgently" in January of that year. We do not consider those terms of reference to have been implemented in any way. (Paragraph 27)[117]

2.  Illicit Trade Advisory Panel (ITAP), reporting on progress in 2002, stated that: "Information retrieval [i.e. a national database] is perhaps the field in which progress has been least satisfactory and in which the reasons for delay are least persuasive." (Paragraph 32)

3.  The British Art Market told us that its reaction to absence of progress on a national database was "to sum it up in a word … frustration". Mr Browne said that "I think it is lost in discussion somewhere in departments, but it is to be regretted." (Paragraph 32)

4.  We would draw attention to a target set for a reduction in vehicle crime by the Prime Minister and recommend that he gives consideration to a similar performance objective for the theft of cultural objects. (Paragraph 36)

5.  We regard the lack of progress made on a national database of illegally removed cultural objects to be lamentable. This is especially true given the existence of analogous systems in the commercial sector, and elsewhere, as well as precedents for public/private cooperation in other areas where law enforcement is working alongside legitimate commerce to suffocate illicit markets. We welcome the Home Office's recognition of the unsatisfactory progress made to date and the new commitment to ensuring that the project now comes to fruition along the lines, and within the timetable, set out by Ministers. We will return to assess the implementation of the Government's latest undertakings in March 2004. (Paragraph 40)

6.  We welcome indications of progress by UNESCO on a database of relevant international legislative provisions, past and present, but we regard this as of secondary importance compared to a national database of stolen and illegally removed objects. (Paragraph 42)

7.  We regard the inability of DCMS to refuse export licences for tainted objects as a serious weakness in arrangements and are very concerned at this further potential for the UK's accession to the UNESCO Convention and the Dealing in Cultural Objects Act 2003 to be undermined by gaps in practical arrangements. It hardly matters whether the UK accedes to multilateral instruments in this area if our import system is not strengthened and our export arrangements are open to abuse confounding the very purposes of international agreement. (Paragraph 45)

8.  The Secretary of State said that if the Government wished to take comprehensive action on the import of illicit cultural objects it should form part of government legislation. We agree whole-heartedly and recommend that, after an appropriate period, ITAP review the impact of the new Act (achieved via a Private Member's Bill) and the extent to which it has contributed to the UK's fulfilment of its obligations under the UNESCO Convention. However, the Government should commit itself now to introducing remedial legislation — backed up by adequate and appropriate resources — if this is found to be necessary. (Paragraph 46)

9.  The Government does at last seem to have elements of a strategy in place, or under consideration, with regard to tackling the illicit trade in cultural objects. However, the differential pace at which these elements are developing, and apparent weaknesses in the practical arrangements on the ground, detracts from a sense of a coordinated, robust and effective approach. (Paragraph 47)

10.  We recommend that the DCMS liaise with the Attorney-General on the relationship between the statutes covering museum governance and charitable status respectively. It should include a definitive answer; in any reply to this Report to the British Museum's query over its ability to respond to moral claims for the return of objects. (Paragraph 52)

11.  We welcome the prospective change to the absolute ban on national museums returning human remains in response to claims validated by, as yet unknown, systems and principles. The potential to respond at all is the first, and vital, step. We look forward to considering the results of the DCMS' consultation on the principles and methodology that will underlie this new permissive regime. As we have said above, the results of the Attorney-General's consideration of the British Museum's query over the potential effect of charity law in this field are also relevant. It would be ideal if the Attorney-General's conclusions were made part of the consultation, if at all possible, to avoid different strands of this debate confusing the issue and damaging the prospects for genuine progress. (Paragraph 55)

12.  It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of a moral claim to which a charity's trustees might wish to give effect than that of Ethiopia for the return of its most sacred artefacts. (Paragraph 58)

13.  The DCMS should not wait for a valid spoliation claim to be made (that cannot be satisfied by compensation) to start to seek a change in the law. The lead-in time is simply too long. (Paragraph 61)

  1. We regard the Government's position on spoliation as a regrettable retreat from the consensus achieved amongst the museums and galleries community following our predecessor's Report. We urge the Department to reconsider. We note the potential for an alternative route to be found via the British Museum's consultation of the Attorney-General over the effect of charity law. However, while we commend this initiative by the Museum, we regret that the Government has not had clarification of this point on its own agenda. We recommend that the DCMS makes efforts to encourage a speedy and positive outcome to the British Museum's query. (Paragraph 62)

117   This list has been amended to ensure the conclusions and recommendations are self-standing Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 16 December 2003