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In 2006, my Department issued a consultation paper entitled “Restitution of Objects Spoliated in the Nazi-Era”. The document considered the main question of whether the statutory restrictions on national museums should be removed and associated issues. The conclusion was that removing the statutory restrictions that stop museums from de-accessioning works of art lost during the Nazi era would be beneficial to all. They also felt that the legislation should include a sunset clause to provide clarity and certainty for everyone involved. I understand that my hon. Friend would like to see that extended to 10 years. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) made several very relevant points about the length of the sunset clause, which we would like to discuss in Committee.

The Government agree with the Select Committee that the case for special treatment of alleged wrongful taking during the period 1933 to 1945 has been more than convincingly established. The aim of the Bill is to enable specified national museums to remove items from their collections and to return them to claimants when the return is recommended by an advisory body established by the Secretary of State and when the Secretary of State accepts that body’s recommendation. Such an advisory body already exists in the shape of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. We would intend to specify the museums within the Bill, as we did in the Human Tissue Act 2004, which was drafted to allow nine named national museums to be able to return human remains in their collections in cases where they decided that it would appropriate to do so.

The power to de-accession objects would apply only to those cases in which the Spoliation Advisory Panel upheld the claim and recommended the return of the object, and in which the Secretary of State had accepted that recommendation. I repeat that because it defines the narrow measure that we are trying to introduce. I should also make it absolutely clear that museum trustees will continue to take the final decision; like the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, I defend the arm’s-length principle in this case. The measure is in keeping with that principle and recognises that trustees are responsible for the items vested in their care; it is not for the Government of the day to tell trustees what to do with them.

The Government have had discussions with the devolved Administrations on the Bill as it stands—and, as it stands, it applies to England and Wales. There is no need for the powers to apply in respect of any named institutions in Wales or Northern Ireland because the principal museums there can already de-accession works from their collections. The Government are in touch with the Scottish Executive about whether they want to be included in the Bill; if they do, we will take the issue forward in Committee. In Committee, we will also
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touch on the tax issues raised by the hon. Members for Faversham and Mid-Kent and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). There will need to be discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about these matters.

To summarise, I should say that the Government’s position is that the current arrangement whereby claims are referred to the Spoliation Advisory Panel works well. It is widely accepted by museums and claimants as a useful mechanism for resolving claims. The Government do not see any value in interfering with a system that is working so well. However, we believe that it is fundamentally wrong that the law should prevent museum trustees from returning cultural property when they, and the Secretary of State, accept the advice of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. The situation could be remedied simply—by amending the Government statutes of our national museums. My hon. Friend’s Bill provides a long-sought-after opportunity to do that. The Government therefore wish to support the Bill, subject to drafting changes in Committee. It is with enormous pleasure that I commend it to the House.

2.12 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I thank all three Front Benchers for their welcome for the Bill. Some important points have been raised. I think that we can address most of them relatively easily, and I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend the Minister’s suggestions for amendments to refine the text. As she knows, I have worked closely with her officials to keep them informed throughout the drafting process that led to the Bill; this is the fourth or fifth attempt, and no doubt a sixth and seventh version will emerge in Committee. I hope that we will be able to come forward with a Bill that will satisfy the House on Report and on Third Reading and that we can, at long last, address an injustice that goes back more than 70 years.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

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British Museum Act 1963 (Amendment) Bill

Second Reading

2.13 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I suspect that I will not get the same consensus on this Bill, which, by happy coincidence, is back to back with my previous one—I think it will be a case of “won one, lost one” for me today. I accept that this Bill is a little more contentious than the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill, but it is nevertheless a relatively modest measure and aims to work in very limited circumstances.

The Bill’s purpose is to change the British Museum Act 1963 so that the British Museum can transfer to another institution, for public exhibition, any object from its collections, in limited circumstances—where public access is guaranteed, where the object

where it

or because the object

That is a general power, but I can think of only one set of objects to which it could realistically relate: the Parthenon sculptures. The time has surely come for the Parthenon sculptures to be reunited in the brand new museum that has been built on the Acropolis in Athens and is due to open next month.

The issue is not who owns the sculptures, although they ended up in the British Museum through a very dubious history, but where they are best kept and displayed. In Athens, they would be reunited with the other half of the sculptures—those not taken by Lord Elgin over 200 years ago. Indeed, some of the marbles are literally cut in two, with half the body in London and half in Athens. They would be seen in their correct context, aligned with the Parthenon and in the right Mediterranean light. The argument for their return is popular with the British people, and Greece deserves its heritage back.

The Parthenon sculptures—some people call them the Elgin marbles—are a matter of national identity to Greece. I have travelled in Greece over many years. If one asks anyone with any mental image of Athens or Greece to name the first thing that comes to mind, it will be the Parthenon. That is true for visitors, and even more so for Greeks worldwide. The Greek Government take a phlegmatic approach. They are not arguing about how the sculptures came to the British Museum, how they were obtained by Lord Elgin, or who should own them. The argument is simply about their location so far from their original home; Greece has waived all its other claims.

The archaeological case is a strong one. The sculptures would be reunified in their original topographical, historical and cultural context. Contrary to popular understanding, not all the sculptures are in the British Museum. The frieze originally consisted of 111 panels, of which about 97 survive. Fifty-six are in the British Museum, 40 are
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still in situ or in the Acropolis museum, one is in the Louvre, and there are fragments in Copenhagen, Vienna and elsewhere. Of the original metopes, 39 are in situ or in the Acropolis museum, and only 15 are in the British Museum. Some sculptures are broken, with heads and torsos split between Athens and London. In the case of the torso of Poseidon, the front—what one might call the Poseidon six-pack—is in Athens, while his rear, shoulders and back are in London; he is split straight down the middle. To view the sculpture, one would have to travel between Athens and London, as 98 per cent. of it is split between them.

The Parthenon is the most important symbol of Greek cultural heritage, yet the sculptures are not properly displayed in the British Museum. They not only fail to appear to form a whole, which they do not, but are exhibited on the inside of a wall rather than on the outside. The new Acropolis museum intends to correct all this. The museum, now complete, is ready to re-house the marbles and will make sure that these unique objects are seen at their greatest advantage and close to their original position. The British Museum has always claimed that the sculptures were well cared for, but that is not the case. In the 1930s, they were cleaned, more or less with a Brillo pad and a wire brush, in the mistaken belief that they were originally brilliant white, and in doing so some of the residual ancient paint was taken off, as was the honey-coloured patina of ages.

The Parthenon cannot come to London. Reunification would be voluntary, and it would not entail ceding legal titles of ownership and rights. The new museum on the Acropolis opens on 20 June. It is on the same alignment as the Parthenon, slightly below it on the foothills of the Acropolis. It contains a shell of the same dimensions to enable the marbles to be displayed on an outer wall, in their proper relationship, with windows out on to the Parthenon, lit by Mediterranean light reflected in through them. The Guardian recently published a review of the museum, which says:

What a gesture it would be if our country were at long last able to do the decent thing and return the Parthenon sculptures to their rightful home. Athens has been transformed over the past few years; as a regular visitor, I am astounded by how it has changed. The archaeological sites have been pedestrianised, linking them all together, including the new museum, and the restoration of the Acropolis and the Parthenon itself has gone extremely well.

Greece would not bring any other claims, but what is important is that the appalling block to a cultural exchange with Greece would end. We have seen objects and major collections lent to the UK from other places, but no major collections from Greece, and that is because of the dispute over the Parthenon sculptures. How wonderful it would be if, for example, we could see the Mycenaean treasures in the British museum, or some of the Macedonian objects from Philip the Great’s grave. How wonderful it would be if we could see some of the wonderful Minoan artefacts from Crete. We will never see any of those while the dispute continues.

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Greece has made it clear that it would not leave our art galleries empty, and the time has now come. The population believe that, all the opinion polls show it, and when we have tested it through early-day motions there has been a majority in the House as well. The Government say that, ultimately, it is a matter for the trustees of the British Museum. I cannot agree. The trustees’ refusal so far to deal with this issue is adversely affecting our relations with Greece and our reputation around the world.

Greece made major concessions under the previous PASOK Government of George Papandreou, with Mr. Venizelos as Culture Minister, and those concessions have been carried forward by the current Greek Government. Their offer to provide a new home for the Parthenon sculptures on the Acropolis site is one that we should not and cannot refuse. Our Government should give the British Museum an extremely powerful steer to stop its dog-in-a-manger approach and allow the return of the marbles to Athens. My Bill would provide a mechanism to do that, and I hope that the House will accept that it is a moral, if not legal, obligation to return stolen goods back to where they belong 200 years later.

2.21 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I start, as I did on the previous Bill, by congratulating the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on introducing the Bill. I congratulate him also on his success with the previous Bill. As he correctly surmised, I suspect that I shall not be able to be quite as helpful on this occasion.

It might inform the debate if we considered for a moment the background details that affect the British Museum. It is one of the most visited attractions anywhere in the UK. Last year it had more than 6 million visits, which far exceeded the Department for Culture, Media and Sport target of 4.5 million. The year before there were a record 5 million visits. It is one of 22 museums and galleries that are sponsored by the Department and receive grant in aid. Of those, 14 are described as nationals because they were founded by Acts of Parliament. The British Museum received just over £41.5 million in revenue last year and just over £3 million in capital grant in aid from the Department. The Department has just confirmed the level of funding that it will provide the museum with for the next three years.

As the Bill suggests, the British Museum was set up by Act of Parliament, back in 1753. It was the first national museum in the world. The collection that it houses spans 2 million years of human history and contains art and antiques from ancient and living cultures. Its aim is to hold, for the benefit and education of humanity, a collection representative of world cultures, and to ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved properly, curated, researched and exhibited.

The relationship between the Department and the British Museum is underpinned by a crucial arm’s length principle whereby Ministers set the financial, administrative, legal and overall policy framework for public bodies, but those bodies have a considerable and proper measure of independence in individual decision making. When asked about the matter in Parliament, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge),
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the predecessor of the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), stated:

That is a principle with which we would wish to concur.

Under the British Museum Act 1963, which the Bill would amend, the trustees of the British Museum are the corporate body with the legal duty to hold the museum’s collection and make it available to a worldwide audience. The museum is, of course, governed by a board of 25 trustees who are non-executive and unpaid.

On the disposal of artefacts from the British Museum, the trustees’ general powers are limited to the disposal of objects that are duplicates, that are unfit to be retained, that have become useless for the museum’s purposes and that are pre-1850 printed matter of which it holds photographic or other copies. Special new powers of disposal have been added to cater for special situations when those limitations have stood in the way of returning objects in response to acknowledged moral claims by former owners or their successors. One example of such a power, which the Human Tissue Act 2004 introduced, enables the trustees of the museum to de-accession human remains if it appears to them to be appropriate.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), noted in the Committee’s report, “Caring for our Collections”:

as we discussed during the previous Bill’s debate—

However, the British Museum has a lending policy to allow its objects to be used in exhibitions elsewhere. Its trustees are able to make loans for the following reasons: first, to further knowledge, understanding and scholarship relating to the works in its care; secondly, to make the collections more widely accessible within the UK and throughout the world; thirdly, to increase national and international co-operation by the exchange of material and exhibitions; and, finally, to enhance the reputation of the British Museum and its good standing nationally and internationally.

The trustees of the British Museum make loans under powers conferred by section 4 of the 1963 Act, which is up for amendment today. The Act states that

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Those points cover the background to the matter. However, five particular issues are worthy of consideration. First, we are concerned that if the Bill is passed, it will breach the arm’s length principle ensuring that Ministers of any party are not able to interfere with the day-to-day running of our national museums and galleries. Secondly, we believe that the British Museum is unique among world museums, in that its collection is able to tell the whole history of human civilisation under one roof. It therefore seems wrong to remove the Parthenon sculptures and put at risk that vital collection and that history.

Thirdly, it is important that the Parthenon sculptures stay at a museum where they are properly preserved and available to a world public for free, seven days a week. Indeed, by chance, I went to see them myself last Sunday. Fourthly, the British Museum trustees already have a power to loan the sculptures for a period in response to an appropriate request. I am not aware of any ongoing discussions along those lines with the trustees, but, indeed, that power already exists. Finally, a key part of encouraging people to visit museums is ensuring that our museums, particularly nationally, have high-quality exhibits.

For all those reasons, I have grave reservations about the Bill. I know that the Minister wants a couple of minutes to give her winding-up speech, so I shall sit down, but before I do it would be wrong of me not to say that I am afraid that my party too has grave reservations about the Bill.

2.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order.

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