26. At the end of 2003 we reported on the protection
of cultural objects (itself a follow-up Report on an inquiry conducted
in 1999-2000). On the basis of the evidence received we were scathing
about the pace of progress in developing the means to implement
the Government's policy objectives in this area; and in this we
were echoed by the Government's own advisory panel. During evidence,
and in response to the Report, Ministers from DCMS and the Home
Office were confident that the momentum was now in place for effective
progress to be made. One concrete measure under protracted consideration
was a national database of tainted cultural objects which the
chairman of the relevant Government advisory panel described as
"crucial" and "an essential building block, an
essential cog". The Government promised a decision between
existing options by March 2004 and a pilot project by October
of that year.
27. In October 2004 a joint memorandum was submitted
to us from the DCMS and the Home Office stating that the database
had been shelved as an option. The Government said: "
Appraisal demonstrated the complexity of the project and that,
whilst anecdotal opinion might have suggested a demand for such
a database, the practical reality has proved different. We have
therefore had to make a difficult decision about where taxpayers'
money should best be focussed to deliver the most beneficial outcomes.
Given the results of the consultants' work, it would not be good
value for money to embark on a national database of cultural objects."
28. We are dismayed not so much by the decision itselfalthough
it does seem to fly in the face of the evidence we received (not
least from the Government)but by the sheer amount of time
that it has taken to be made. This database was recommended by
our predecessor Committee, and the Government's own advisers,
in late 2000. The recommendation was accepted and the first meeting
of a Government working party on implementation was in January
2001 (the following month, commercial database operators offered
to pilot a scheme, free of charge, for two years). After four
years of spasmodic activity the scheme has been abandoned because,
apparently, nobody really wants it.
We regard this saga as a prime example of a failure of joint working
between departments where one has the policy priority; the other
has the means and resources; and neither applies sufficient energy
to achieve a definitive outcome one way or another.
29. On the strength of this we are concerned at the
fate of other initiatives on which the Government gave evidence,
and, in some cases, commitments. These relate to progress in enabling
the return, from the collections of national museums and galleries,
a) human remains (and the impact of the relevant
provision in the Human Tissue Act 2004);
b) "spoliation" (material looted by
the Nazis between 1936 and 1945) where the DCMS has already admitted
a brazen U-turn in not seeking legislative change; and
c) sacred objects, for example the Ethiopian
Maqdala Treasures, within existing legal provisions.