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22 Jan 2008 : Column 423WH—continued

Margaret Hodge: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which was similar to that from the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross). I will refer to the PAS later, but I think that we would all
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concur that it has been an extremely successful scheme and wish to retain the best elements of it.

By giving museums and, in particular, local museums the first opportunity to purchase items of treasure for their collections, we are also helping to ensure that the best of what is found locally is available for study and enjoyment locally. This really is a win-win situation. The finder and the landowner get rewarded for their efforts in bringing the treasure into the public domain, and the public benefit by being able to see and inspect these important relics from their community’s past.

Some people are concerned, however, that our past is a finite resource and that allowing metal detecting to continue unlicensed and unregulated will result in the unsustainable removal of our heritage. Indeed, I know that Channel 4’s “Time Team” website contains a rather gloomy prognosis—I do not know whether hon. Members have seen it on the website—that

However, that assertion is not borne out by the facts. In 2006-07, the last financial year for which we have figures, the number of reported treasure items was 744, which was the highest figure for a single year ever. Indeed, it was up from 673 in the previous year, which again was a record figure at the time. Therefore, the data shows that, year on year since 1997, the number of reported finds has grown steadily. That does not give a picture of a resource that would appear in any way to be in terminal decline.

There is a vast amount that the objects buried beneath us can reveal about our past. In fact, I describe it as modern day fishing—without the water—to see all the individuals using their metal detectors in that way. However, we think that people should carry out metal detecting responsibly. That is why we have a code of practice for responsible metal detecting, which has been endorsed by all the stakeholders, including the museums, English Heritage, landowners’ associations and metal detecting groups.

If I may, I would like to commend David and Andrew Whelan, the father and son pair of metal detectorists who discovered the Harrogate hoard early last year. Those of us who are aware of that Viking hoard of coins and other treasures will know that it is the most significant find of its type to have been made in more than 150 years.

I cannot conclude a speech on the treasure system without also paying tribute to the excellent role that is played by the PAS. This scheme runs parallel to the treasure system and provides a network, as hon. Members have suggested, through which non-treasure material discovered by amateur archaeologists and other enthusiasts can be identified and recorded. The finder gets to find out more about her or his discovery; a bank of information is built up for the benefit of everyone through the publicly accessible database, and the finds can be displayed and interpreted for the benefit of the public.

The database that we now have covers more than 300,000 objects. It is available for everybody to use, free of charge, and anyone who wants to research the archaeology of their local area—or anyone else’s local area—can do just that. It does not matter whether someone is doing a postgraduate research degree at one of our top universities or a new entrant to secondary
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school in year 7 struggling with their homework; everyone has access to the same information. That is a really wonderful thing and represents a marvellous step forward in the democratisation of the study of our past.

Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister paints a very rosy picture of the PAS. However, the reality is that funding for the scheme is likely to be frozen, which, in effect, is a cut. Considering the success of the scheme, will she make a very strong case to the Treasury for funding to be continued to the scheme at the rate of inflation, so that it can continue its good work?

Margaret Hodge: I am proud of the settlement that we achieved within the DCMS in a very tight fiscal environment, when many other Departments faced rather swingeing cuts. Within that tight settlement, we must give flexibility to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to dispense its money in the way that it wants. We have ring-fenced the money for the renaissance in the regions budget and I believe that all hon. Members here think that that programme has done a fantastic job in building the capacity of our regional museums. If one looks at the data, it is those regional museums that have really opened up access to museums for people who, in the past, would probably never have gone over the threshold of a museum. Conserving and building on that hugely successful programme is very important.

The PAS does a good job. However, in the current environment, I suggest to the hon. Member that to pick out growth for this particular area is a little naive. We have done very well to get where we are. As with all other parts of Government, the PAS has to seek its efficiency savings. There is no organisation in the public voluntary sector that is funded by Government that does not have to go through that task, particularly making backroom savings out of their administrative budgets.

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As I said, the PAS is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which recognises its national significance and it is committed, as the Government are, to seeing it thrive and evolve. Indeed, the council has said that, for 2008-09, it will commit to maintaining the current levels of support for the PAS. Given the position that the MLA itself is in, that is a very powerful recognition of the importance of the PAS in the MLA’s view, as indeed it is in the view of all of us.

The MLA has now announced that it will review the PAS over the coming months to look at how best the programme’s objectives—they are what we are interested in—can be delivered in the future and explore whether there are any potential synergies with the renaissance in the regions programme. We need to see whether that process can save some money and ensure that we can keep the scheme, as it operates on the ground at the front level, going. I think that that is good. I support the review—we will see what it comes out with—and I am extremely pleased that the British Museum has agreed to carry out this review in partnership with the MLA.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that the treasure system and the PAS are in rude good health. The Government believe that our policies of encouraging the voluntary reporting of archaeological finds, encouraging responsible metal detecting through a mixture of advice and inducement in the form of rewards and sanctions and penalties for irresponsible or inappropriate metal detecting strike the right balance between protecting our national heritage and allowing people’s legitimate interest and passion for our past to continue to flourish.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland on what is happening in his constituency and I wish him and his constituents well in enjoying the fruits of that particular archaeological excavation.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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