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These matters need to be explored in Committee and worked out. I accept that the intentions of other hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, are good, and that it is not the intention of the Government, or of the hon. Gentleman, that immunity should be a cloak to allow the putative owner to dispose of a work of art while the
possibly better claim of another potential owner is disregarded. We must clarify that, and ensure that the Bill does not inadvertently allow it to happen.
The United States legislation contains simple characteristics that make it much better than part 6. For example, immunity under US legislation applies only to civil claims, not to criminal claims. We must make that distinction in part 6. There is a longer notice period that allows potential claimants to identify and recognise works that might be theirs. Sales are not allowed in the United States. Those are simple and fairly uncontroversial amendments, which we should make to part 6 to get it right.
The immunity and the regulations need to be much more specific and need more teeth. The due diligence that we are correctly introducing as a result of deliberations in another place should be mandatory. There is no reason why it should not be, and we should make it so. Museums should be required to publish sufficient information to make it possible for a potential owner to establish whether the work of art is a work that they think was taken from their family in the past or illicitly traded.
That information should include details of the lender. Often lenders are not keen to identify themselves. Because museums and galleries are so dependent on the generosity of lenders they are very protective of them, but a lender who has nothing to fear and who is confident that they have proper title to the work of art that they are lending has nothing to lose by identifying themselves. The identity of the lender should be an essential part of the information that museums and galleries are required to publish.
There should be a longer time for owners to come forward. The system of due diligence should not be self-regulating. There is no reason why it should be. We need a committee based, for instance, on the acceptance in lieu committeea voluntary committee that would monitor and oversee due diligence and ensure that a proper procedure is followed for all claims to objects that have entered the country under immunity.
Those obligations would not be onerous on museums and galleries. They would allow them to have the immunity, but it would be a proper and balanced immunity which would recognise the possible rightful claims of other owners. Without such amendments we will, in effect, be derogating from the commitments that we made when we signed up to the 1998 Washington principles on Nazi-confiscated art. The Government were right to sign up to those principles, but if we enact the immunity in part 6 without the amendments that I have suggested, we will effectively derogate from that agreement, which would be a great sadness.
I should have declared a small interest earlier in my speech: I am a member of the National Museum Directors Conference committee on the spoliation of works of art, which advises the National Museum Directors Conference on such matters. In 1998, the committee put out a statement of principles on the spoliation of works of art, which is generally recognised to be sane and balanced. Both sides of the argument, owners and galleries, are represented on the
committeefor example, Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, and Anne Webber, the joint chair and chief executive of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, are both membersand the principles that it published in 1998 are sane and have not been criticised. Those principles pitch a balance, which we need to embed in this legislation.
We can still improve those sensible and necessary provisions in Committee, because it would be wrong if we were to allow the Bill to be enacted in its present state. The Bill understandably addresses the interests and needs of museums, but it does not address the rights of people who have had works of art looted or otherwise illicitly taken from them. We need to get the balance rightit can be struckand I hope that we can achieve that, in Committee or at a later stage.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of our museums and galleries. Indeed, he published an encyclopaedia on the subject a couple of years ago, which I warmly commend to all hon. MembersI am not on commission.
The hon. Gentleman has, however, over-egged the pudding tonight. He has spoken proudly and rightly about his membership of the National Museum Directors Conference, but I received a statement from the conference this morning that clearly indicates that it believes that the Government have got the balance right. It is, of course, entirely proper for the hon. Gentleman to express his concerns, which any civilised Member of this House, and even some of the uncivilised ones, share. He has made it plain that a work of art that is a misgotten gain should not be totally immune. We should obviously place an obligation on those who stage exhibitions to try to establish the provenance of the works that they are displaying.
The hon. Gentleman was with me and the all-party group at the wonderful Rodin exhibition just before Christmas, which was one of a series of marvellous exhibitionsHolbein, Velasquez, Rodin and Hockneythat brought grace and elegance to our capital. At the moment, hon. Members who want to escape the confines of this place can go to the Tate and see the Hogarth and to the National Gallery to see the Renoir landscapes. All those exhibitions are to some degreeI do not want to exaggerate, having accused the hon. Gentleman of slight exaggerationat risk, if those who lend were to feel vulnerable.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the problem of sale. On the face of it, that is a real problem, but in fact it is not, because the immunity is over and done with when the exhibition is over. If somebody then tries to sell something to which they are not entitled, the law can come into play, as it rightly should. However, I believe that proper care and discretion will be exercised, because I do not believe that scholars and directors of the eminence of Sir Nicholas Serota or Charles Saumarez Smith at the National Gallery and others would be anything other than very diligent. If such diligence is exercised, we do not face a real worry.
As the National Museum Directors Conference has recognised in its paper, we must recognise that this country is merely coming into line with many other countries in putting such legislation on the statute book. I welcome what the Government have done. In particular, I welcome the thorough debate in the other place, where the Bill was noticeably and properly improved in that regard and in others. Although it is entirely proper for the hon. Gentleman to introduce amendments in Committee, I think that the Government have got the balance about right; I therefore welcome the Bill.
I do not want to make a long speech, but I want to refer to one or two other aspects of the Bill and to the nature of the debate. All hon. Members are concerned about the plight of the vulnerable, of those people who have incurred debts with which they cannot cope and, in particular, of those people who are pursued for debts for which they are not responsiblethe hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) told us a very moving story about that. In response to my earlier intervention, the Minister said that she was minded to concede that I had a very good point, or words to that effect, in saying that we should wait until all bailiffs are properly accredited before implementing that part of the Bill. I think that the House is more or less united on that point, and I urge the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who will reply to the debate, to ensure it when this monumental and major Billit is bothcomes fully into force.
We should not give powers to people who have not been adequately and properly trained and accredited, bearing in mind the extreme sensitivity of the issues involved. I hope that the Government come up with an assurance on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, has made it plain that he would accept such a categorical assurance. I hope that we shall have it, perhaps buttressed by amendments in Committee.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that bailiffs should be recognisable. Earlier in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) muttered from a sedentary position that they always used to wear bowler hatsthey were occasionally mistaken for the man from the Pru, which led to some amusing incidents. Bowler hats are now reserved for the judging ring in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend, so they are not appropriate, but a uniform is. Whoever is calling on a house to discharge such a duty should be instantly recognisable. We expect our postmen to wear uniforms; we expect people who call from various statutory agencies to be readily identifiable by their clothes; we certainly expect our policemen, community support officers and others to be instantly recognisable; and I believe that bailiffs should wear a uniform. The very first thing that they do when they knock on the door should be to produce photo identity; then, and only then, should they be allowed admission. I hope that a suitable amendment will be tabled in Committee to toughen the Bill in that respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire made an admirable and succinct speech from the Front Benchhe spoke for 20 minutes, and I
congratulate him on that. He said that he was a little troubled abouthe did not put it in quite these terms, but I willthe promiscuous use of the word judge. To most of us, that word means something very special, and we should not scatter it around like confetti. Some words become devalued by overusewe devalued the word university when we were in governmentand we are in danger of doing so in this case. I hope that the Minister, who was exemplary in giving way so frequently and seemed to listen to the points that were made, will think about using another word such as adjudicator, because judge should not be so widely used.
Let me end with a general point. Here is a Bill of 297 pages, six parts, 144 clauses and 23 schedules. The debate in this House is unlikely to go until 10 oclock; I am trying to set a reasonable example by speaking fairly briefly myself. Nevertheless, this is a Bill of monumental importancea landmark Bill of the sort that needs the most detailed parliamentary scrutiny, discussion and debate. I do not want to anticipate the debates of the next two days, but all I would say to the House is this: we impoverish our parliamentary system and weaken the system of scrutiny if we inadvertently create a Parliament that does not have within it a House that can do what the other place did in relation to this Bill. Without guillotine or timetable, it was able to discuss it in detail and to improve it. Many of the people who took part in those debates were experienced, informed and expert. There are not many Members in this Chamber this evening. Whatever we think of the Bill, when it leaves us it will go into Committee next week and come out a fortnight later. We will agree to that because, for reasons of which I personally approve, the official Opposition have said that they will not vote against it. The timetable motion will go through, and then, on 27 March, consideration in this House will come to an end. As we heard earlier, Report and Third Reading will, as is so frequently the custom nowadays, be taken on one and the same day.
That would be a terrible scandal had the Bill not been properly considered at the other end of the Corridor. That illustrates the wisdom of a Government introducing a Bill of this naturecomplex and somewhat controversial, but not in a party political sensein the House of Lords. That was the right thing to do. It also demonstrates the value of having what one might call an unencumbered Chamber that has no ultimate power over this one but has both the expertise and the time to give such a Bill the treatment that it so richly deserves.
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), whose speech to the House tonight, as on so many occasions, exemplifies why he should be here for at least another two decades, if not more. I agree with much of what he said. He, as like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), has a reputation in this place for his interest and experience in the arts; we would all bow to their judgment and sensitivities in that field. My remarks are more concerned with what may be a less civilised area of human activitywhat bailiffs have to do in securing debts.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, the Minister was generous in giving way during her opening remarks. Having served on many Committees with her, I know that she is a very sane and sensible person. I am reassured that in her hands and in those of her colleagues, and with the pressure that will come from my own Front Benchers, the Bill will be better when it comes back to this Chamber
The Bill has been welcomed on both sides of the House, by my own party and by the Liberal Democrats; it is not one that the House will get overheated about. That is why what my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said about scrutiny is so importantalthough we old dogs may go on about it a bit. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) mentioned the 250-odd hours that we spent considering a criminal justice Bill in Committee. Perhaps rightly, those days are long behind us. The upper House has been praised for its consideration of the Bill. Indeed, it scrutinised it very well, but only for two sittings, so it has not been slaving away on it. Members should not think that it has already been given a huge amount of parliamentary scrutiny and should therefore float gently through the Commons. We will discuss it tonight, for whatever length of timeit is noticeable that not many Labour Back Benchers are hereand it will spend perhaps 12 hours in Standing Committee; it might run into a second week, but I suspect not.
Because of agreements between the Front Benches, such party politically non-controversial Bills now have a habit of not spending much time under consideration. This Bill was considered as a draft Bill, but the response to the draft is not widely known, so the House would find it difficult to judge what progress the Government made on that. Such non-partisan Bills are classic examples of Bills that should be considered through the evidence-taking procedure that the House adopted on the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee, whereby people who have to implement them are given the opportunity to present evidence to hon. Members. In this case, those with vested interests have communicated with Members. We have read in todays media several representations from Citizens Advice, which all of us as Members of Parliament find an extraordinarily useful organisation. In Bexley, the volunteers at the citizens advice bureau do a remarkable job in helping people, and they are understandably worried about the changes that will come about in bailiffs practices.
A constituent of mine, Philip Evans, who is chairman of the Enforcement Law Reform Group, has made his views known to me in relation to part 3, which deals with enforcement by taking control of goods. Earlier, I suggested to the Minister that about 400 years of judicial opinion is being overturned. It is a serious matter, as this Government have tended to change longstanding matters of procedure and habit, not always taking full account of the consequences. The old phrase An Englishmans home is his castle came about in a 1604 ruling. As Lord Gresford QC said:
The law that protects domestic premises from forcible entry by bailiffs is an extremely ancient and settled law.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 14 December 2006; Vol. 687, c. GC91.]
Concerns have rightly been expressed in another place and here today about the new powers that bailiffs will have, particularly the change that will come about as regards commercial property and residential properly. Most of us would have fewer concerns about how bailiffs behave when chasing a large corporation for a debt than how they behave when intimidating somebody in their home. That is why the point about uniforms has been aptly made, and I hope that the Minister will seriously consider itif not today, then in Committee. The way in which one identifies someone who is trying forcibly to enter ones house against ones wishes is important.
Schedule 12 details provisions for power of entry on page 211. As hon. Members know, many of the powers will be made by subsequent regulation, so it will not be possible for my hon. Friends on the Front Bench or Liberal Democrat Front Benchers, who are giving the Bill a fair wind, to scrutinise the Governments exact intentions, because we simply do not know them. We are being asked to place much trust in the Minister and people are understandably concerned about that. That applies not least to bailiffs. They are worried that some of the powers that they are to receive will be impractical and that the provisions will increase the violence against them. That may change if the Government take on board the points about ease of identification, which could allay bailiffs concerns.
On Report in the House of Lords, the Minister claimed that High Court enforcement officers wanted power of entry. I am surprised that that statement was not challenged, because they already have such a power, which was restated in the Courts Act 2003. However, the current proposal is to extend the power to a further group. I was a bit confused, because when the Minister described the way in which the new forcible activity would take place at a lower level than that of court enforcement officers, she said that homes would be visited only at certain times. Will it happen by letter of appointment?
We have all dealt with constituents who have sailed a bit close to the wind, and in some cases we think that they deserve a visit from the bailiffs. Not all the people who come to our surgeries are angels who have fallen on hard times. Some of them know exactly what they are about. I cannot imagine that those who understand the system will wait for a letter from the bailiff or the Minister saying, Will next Tuesday be convenient? If you could be there at 10 oclock, well come for a chat. That simply will not happen. We look forward to hearing, by Report, how the Government envisage such visits happening in practice, given the nature of bailiffs work.
Schedule 12(14) deals with forced entry to premises. Hon. Members of all parties have criticised it and the Ministers response was unconvincing. I remain confused about the way in which bailiffs will get access to houses when they are unwelcome. Perhaps some of the powers are not unlike those to which Parliament agreed in 2004 in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act. However, many involved in implementing the Act are not convinced that it works well and there
are anxieties about it. Yet we propose to extend such powers to bailiffs. We are concerned about the way in which that will work.
I am not so worried about whether bailiffs will be heavy men in bowler hats, forcing their way in against the will of unsuspecting people. Doubtless, the odd one will go too farI suspect that that is the nature of the game. However, there is a concern that people who may not be terribly well educated, are vulnerable and find difficulty coping with our legal system and their debt, will be made more vulnerable because of the Bill. The provisions for taking control of goods in schedule 12 are very prescriptive.
Bailiffs are worried that the powers that the measure gives them are so immediate that they make first-call seizure more likely. Earlier, the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) mentioned a case in which a grandmother paid £200 to help a grandchild who was being pursued by bailiffs. The bailiffs view is that that will not happen in future but that seizure will happen in the first instance. I therefore believe that much heartache will accompany the new proposals and hon. Members should know that.
Everyone will welcome the new certification process. I doubt whether anyone will oppose it. However, is it necessary? Does not the existing process work? There is little evidence of that. Bailiffs who go too far appear to be swiftly removed. I know of no examples of action not being taken. We must also bear it in mind that the majority of bailiff work is to do with Government and local government fines, for, for example, non-payment of council tax. We must therefore be cautious that we do not extend powers considerably and change centuries of tradition in this country for a process that is mainly about enforcing the recovery of Government debt.
Although I am happy that Conservative Front Benchers have been positive about the matter, and with the tenor of the debate, questions remain that Ministers must address in Committee. Although the proceedings will be brief, I hope that the Minister realises that we are watching for some movement on Report to ensure that bailiffs powers have not gone too far and that constituents who have the misfortune to encounter them are protected.
Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend will appreciate that, at this stage, we are considering the general principle of the Bill. Of course, there are opportunities later for a stiffening of resolve if all our arguments fall on deaf ears.
Derek Conway: My hon. Friend, who has spent hundreds of hours in Committee going through legislation, issues an apposite warning. The Minister must take it seriously. I am glad that the House will not, by all accounts, divide on the Bill today. It is a sign of maturity when the Opposition do not vote for the sake of it all the time, and when the Government understand that the process will be positive. Those who observe our proceedings and those who are affected by them should take encouragement from the non-partisan tenor of the debate. Hon. Members of all parties have raised some serious concerns and we look forward to some movement from the Minister on them in his response and in Committee.
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