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22 Jan 2008 : Column 416WH—continued

The action programme includes measures that aim to control the on-farm use of nitrogen-containing materials, including slurries, and it suggests a minimum storage capacity, for example. We reviewed the effectiveness of the action programme and found that it was ineffective
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at improving farming practices. It reduced nitrate loss nationally by between just 2 and 7 per cent. overall. If we compare our action programme with those in other member states, it is clear that we lag behind on implementation and on achieving the beneficial environmental outcomes that we seek.

We therefore developed proposals for a revised action programme, and they are subject to consultation. The consultation document was published in August 2007. As I have said, the consultation was genuine and it involved a well-informed debate, so my point about the amount of correspondence that I have received from Members in all parts of the House and from farmers is important.

The proposals in the consultation reflect the best view available at the time. They would bring us into line with the action being taken in other members states, but as I said in the debate on 8 January and must put on the record again, in other countries more stringent measures have been put in place. Nevertheless, the consultation, having closed on 13 December 2007, is being carefully considered.

Mr. Heath: In the other debate, the Minister quoted Finland, but I hope that he will accept that it is not an area entirely comparable to south-west England.

Mr. Woolas: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his research and on his astuteness in noticing that I have missed out that paragraph of my brief. There were other examples, but in the interests of fair comparison and time, I have missed out Finland. However, I am making a general point, and I am speaking to the Commission as well as to the hon. Gentleman, if he will forgive me.

We are working with the Environment Agency to develop an integrated approach to regulation enforcement, recognising the point that the hon. Gentleman has made on behalf of his farming constituents. Aside from
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regulations, we are seeking other ways of encouraging the best use and management of slurries. For example, we are keen to promote innovative technologies, such as anaerobic digestion—the production of power from slurry. It is a renewable energy technology that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing methane from the decomposition of organic materials, such as manures, slurries and other matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the finances, and £98 million, known as voluntary modulation money under axis 1 of the rural development programme for England, is dedicated to the livestock sector. I also know his argument’s three criteria: the rationale, the practical consequences and the costs.

Finally, the long-standing codes of good agricultural practice for water, air and soil include advice on the management and application of slurry. They have been promoted by Governments since the early 1990s, and they form the basis of many policies and initiatives that I have mentioned. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government recently launched a consultation on revisions to the codes, including their consolidation in a single code, which I should have thought his constituents would greatly welcome.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has marshalled his arguments and he has clearly consulted his constituents on the measure’s practical impact. There is another side to the equation, with which I know he and his party agree: the need to clean our watercourses. I am trying to walk a delicate balancing act by considering the cost-benefit relationship in the context of the directive, which has been around since 1991, and by putting our arguments on behalf of him and his constituents to the European Commission about how best in this country we can move forward.

With that, and with the undertaking that I shall phone the producer of “Farming Today” this very afternoon to try to interest him or her in reporting this debate, I thank you, Miss Begg, for overseeing the debate, and the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject.

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Loftus Saxon Treasures

1.29 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): This is the first time that you have presided over a debate in which I have taken apart, Miss Begg, so it is an honour and a pleasure to serve under you. May I put on record my gratitude to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate? It is about a subject that is close to the hearts of my constituents in East Cleveland, especially those in Loftus.

I should like to discuss a set of archaeological finds that were uncovered in the countryside of Street Houses near to the market town of Loftus. I will stress the importance of keeping those treasures on Teesside for my constituents. That would be of great benefit to local people, particularly schoolchildren, as a reminder of the distant past of the area in which they live.

The find was an Anglo-Saxon cemetery near the coast, outside Loftus. The dig was conducted by local archaeologist Steve Sherlock with help from the Teesside Archaeology Society and local volunteers. The discovery is regarded by all the archaeologists who have seen it as one of the most important discoveries in the old kingdom of Northumbria. To set the find in its historical context, it dates from the era after the departure of the Romans from Britain, which left our shores and internal borders defenceless. By 450 AD, the Anglo-Saxons had begun their invasion of the north, colonising all the land north of the Humber in the area they called Deira, which was probably an adaptation of a Celtic tribal region or kingdom. The invasion was led by the Saxon warrior, King Ida the Flamebearer, and spread further north up to the valleys of Tyne, Wear and Tees. That was the early foundation of what was to become the great kingdom of Northumbria.

Spectacular gold jewellery, weapons and items of clothing found at 109 grave sites are believed to be from around the 7th century. The value of the artefacts suggests that they belonged to a member of the Northumbrian royal family. The team’s first clues to the site’s existence came from an aerial photograph showing evidence of iron age activity, but they did not expect to find a royal Anglo-Saxon site, as they are usually found only in the south of England. Steve Sherlock has long worked in the area, and realised the significance of the site from its size. Excavation began in 2005, when 30 graves were found. Another 13 were found in 2006, including the most northerly example in this country of a Saxon bed burial.

Excavations in the summer of 2007 revealed the full extent of this nationally significant royal cemetery. The team eventually uncovered an area the size of half a football pitch. No human remains were found because of the acidic soil, but a range of high-status jewellery survived, as well as glass beads, pottery, iron knives, chatelaines and belt buckles. Five of the graves contained gold and silver brooches, and one grave had a seax—a type of Anglo-Saxon sword. The site included a low burial mound, which is considered an indicator of high status, and an unparalleled arrangement of graves. The graves were laid out with measured accuracy in a square around the bed burial, which shows the planning and order involved in creating this marvellous cemetery. The cemetery also features a Saxon grubenhaus—a building with a sunken floor that is found rarely in cemeteries—which may have been used as a mortuary.

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Among the finds are three spectacular gold brooches, one of which has red garnet settings and is believed to be an unparalleled example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery. Its workmanship has been compared with finds in the Sutton Hoo royal cemetery. Steve Sherlock, who has extensive experience, believes that such an item must have been commissioned from the best craftsman in Anglo-Saxon England, and he firmly believes that it would have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon princess.

In addition to those spectacular finds, other items of particular interest and value were discovered, including a triangular gold pendant and two silver coins that would have been worn as pendants. The coins were from the iron age, from a tribe that was known to live in what is now Lincolnshire. Mr. Sherlock believes that there may be a connection between the grave and St. Hilda, the abbess who founded the famous abbey at Whitby in 675. He has dated the jewellery back to around that time, when most of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria had converted to Christianity. He speculates that the owner of the jewellery, the princess, and St. Hilda could have known each other.

Amazingly, the site became a double top for Steve Sherlock and the Tees archaeology team, as it was found also to have been a site of habitation in the iron age. Evidence of houses and flooring materials has been found, and a number of iron age artefacts were unearthed and recorded. The fact that both sites survived intact for nearly two millennia is unprecedented. It is amazing to think how much time has elapsed since the princess and other members of Northumbrian communities were buried in those graves. Over the centuries, the graves have survived great upheavals in the world. They provide us with a link to our history and tell us about the order of society in the dark ages. They also show us that those people, far from being remote from us, felt some of the same emotions that we do and had the same sense of curiosity about the world around them and their place in it.

Those are the reasons why my constituents want the discoveries to stay on Teesside, as close as possible to East Cleveland, especially Loftus. The objects are being kept by an independent organisation until their ownership can be determined by a court—in this case, a coroner’s inquest. After the inquest, the coroner will have to ask an independent panel of experts to place a value on the relevant objects. The people who decide such matters are usually academics, museum curators and antique dealers who buy and sell similar objects. I understand that the process is overseen by the British Museum, as an agent for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. When a price is set, the purchasing museums service, in this case Redcar and Cleveland, will have a set period of time to raise the money—usually about three months. The owner of the land on which the dig took place has said that he will make no claim on the artefacts, and that he would like them to be kept locally and safely.

The Kirkleatham museum, the nearest museum to the site, is more than suitable to house the collection. It has a fairly eclectic collection of approximately 100,000 objects with key themes including industrial heritage, rural life and social history. The museums service has worked closely with the Teesside Archaeology Society for many years. Together, they have found and collected many objects ranging from second world war aircraft
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remains to dinosaur fossils, and have made a great contribution to many fine exhibitions. They have skilled and dedicated curatorial and display staff, and I have every confidence that the artefacts would be safe if they were placed there.

Redcar and Cleveland borough council, which owns the museum, the Teesside Archaeology Society, Steve Sherlock and the landowner all support the artefacts being kept at Kirkleatham museum. They want the objects to be displayed locally for everyone to see, free of charge within a designated, secure exhibition area. The find has been described by the museum’s curator, Alan Pearce as potentially containing the most iconic objects the museum would have. He is already receiving inquiries from Germany, France, New Zealand and America about the finds. Their monetary value is currently unknown, but their acquisition, conservation, restoration, interpretation and exhibition may cost around £150,000 to £200,000.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Funding for all those aspects is important. One way that local museums gather treasure is by local people finding it literally in the ground. Since Devon appointed a finds liaison officer, reporting of finds has increased by 248 per cent. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the funding of such people were discontinued, treasure such as that that he is trying to keep in his community would be lost to the community?

Dr. Kumar: I certainly agree that the treasure is valuable, but I am sure that the Minister could respond more eloquently than me on the situation in Devon. I am making the case for my own area.

The exhibition would make a marvellous contribution to the attractions of the area and to its regeneration. It would obviously have to be done in partnership but, given the enthusiasm of the borough council in particular, I feel that the ambition could be realised. I hope that the DCMS will be sympathetic to the case for the retention of these artefacts at a local museum.

The bond between a specific area and the historical treasures that originate from it is strong in this case. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the controversy over what are called the Lindisfarne gospels. As she will know, there is currently a tussle between the British Museum and the people in Tyne and Wear over the siting of the manuscripts. I want to avoid such a tussle occurring on Teesside, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend would concur with me on that. With her backing and that of her colleagues in the DCMS, we can be confident that these mementoes of a bygone age, which are important to the people in the rural part of my constituency in East Cleveland and especially Loftus, remain in Teesside at least. That would allow a whole generation of local people from the area of Northumbria downwards to enjoy what we have. I hope that I have sympathetic support from my right hon. Friend, because this is an important issue for my patch.

1.42 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Like him, I am excited by the excavations near Loftus in his constituency and what we are finding through them. I
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believe that it was somebody in his constituency who rightly described the objects as iconic, and those that have been discovered at the site are fascinating and beautiful. They certainly play a key role in helping us understand and link ourselves to our identity, history and culture.

The fact that this site is the first royal burial ground from the period to have been discovered in the north of England is particularly exciting, and, as my hon. Friend said, the excavations give us an unprecedented insight into the lives of the Anglo-Saxons who ruled that part of the country in the 7th and 8th centuries.

I congratulate Mr. Steve Sherlock, whom my hon. Friend mentioned in his contribution. Mr. Sherlock is the archaeologist leading the excavations at Loftus with the support of the Tees archaeology team and local volunteers. They are doing a superb job in helping us better to know and understand a key part of our history. Mr. Sherlock and his team have been digging at the Loftus site for the past three summers, and I look forward with great anticipation to what they will find when they start unearthing the next phase in excavations this year. Who knows what they will find?

My understanding is that the reports that the archaeologists have compiled about their finds at the site so far have been verified by experts at the British Museum and, as my hon. Friend said, are now with the local coroner. The coroner’s inquest will make the formal ruling on whether the objects from Loftus are treasure, although there seems to be little doubt as to what the ruling is likely to be. Assuming that the objects are determined to be treasure, they will then go to the Treasure Valuation Committee, which is an independent panel of experts who will recommend a value for them to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Once a value has been determined, museums will be given the chance to acquire the objects.

Like my hon. Friend, I look forward to seeing the objects from this burial site in a museum. I am thrilled by the thought of members of the public, young and old, being able to enjoy the beauty of the objects and learn about their history from them. I believe we all agree that a museum is the best home for objects such as these. A museum with the necessary facilities and expertise is the right place to ensure that objects are appropriately displayed and interpreted for the enjoyment of the public and for the education of our children, that they are preserved for future generations and that they are made accessible for any future academic research.

When the Treasure Act code of practice was originally drafted in 1996, the usual practice was to offer treasure finds to the appropriate national museum for acquisition before offering them to regional and local museums. Today, a much more collaborative approach is taken, and the national museums always act in close consultation with relevant local museums over acquisitions of treasure. Indeed, the British Museum, which, as my hon. Friend suggested, would be the most appropriate national museum to acquire the objects in this case, makes its position on acquisition absolutely clear. If he would like to see it, it is available on its website. The policy states:

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My hon. Friend will see that the British Museum has confirmed that it has always been its understanding that the objects from the Loftus excavations would be acquired by a local museum, so I can assure him that the path will be entirely clear for a museum in Cleveland to acquire the objects.

I agree with my hon. Friend that Kirkleatham museum, which has already had some involvement in the excavation project at Loftus, would make an excellent home for the objects. The artefacts would be a notable addition to its extensive and diverse collections. They will help to show the significant part that the Anglo-Saxons played in the area’s rich history. As he will remember, the Treasure Act code of practice states that ex gratia rewards for treasure finds are not payable to archaeologists. In the case of the Loftus treasures, therefore, the acquiring museum will have to pay only the landowner’s reward. I note what my hon. Friend said about the landowner not seeking a monetary financial reward for the finds on his land, but, even were he to do so, the code of practice means that the acquiring museum has to pay only half the market value of the objects.

There is further good news for my hon. Friend about the sources of potential funding available should local museums have to find money to acquire the objects. For smaller items of treasure, grants are available from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and Victoria and Albert purchase grant funds, and from the Headley Trust. For the purchase of larger items of treasure, both the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund will consider applications for funding.

I hope that all that illustrates how well the UK’s treasure system works. Indeed, it is a system that is highly regarded internationally, as my hon. Friend will know. Our approach of encouraging finders to report items of treasure, having them independently valued and then paying both the finder and the landowner an equal reward means that more and more items of treasure are being declared each year. If I may give my hon. Friend some statistics, in the period from 1988 to 1997, under the old treasure trove system, 256 items of treasure trove were reported in total. Since 1997, and probably thanks to some of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) when he held my post, and with the introduction of the Treasure Act 1996, from 1997 to 2007 a total of 4,180 items of treasure have been reported. In crude statistical terms, that is an increase of 1,500 per cent., so there has been a massive improvement.

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): I am interested in what the Minister says and I think that she is absolutely right to say it. When she comes to consider the future of the portable antiquities scheme, which I have no doubt she will be doing in the next few weeks, will she bear in mind this very interesting and important find? Although it was not found under the PAS but by a professional archaeologist, her statistics prove the PAS has done an enormous amount, so to limit the scheme in any way would be a very sad blow and make finds such as this much more difficult and much rarer.

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