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General Committee Debates
Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill

Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Frank Cook
Bercow, John (Buckingham) (Con)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Dismore, Mr. Andrew (Hendon) (Lab)
Ellman, Mrs. Louise (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)
Follett, Barbara (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport)
Foster, Mr. Don (Bath) (LD)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Mann, John (Bassetlaw) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Scott, Mr. Lee (Ilford, North) (Con)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Vaizey, Mr. Edward (Wantage) (Con)
Whittingdale, Mr. John (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Wednesday 10 June 2009

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill

9.30 am
The Chairman: Before we begin, I have a few comments. Members may remove their outer garment and should ensure that mobile phones and pagers are rigged for silent running or switched off. I also remind Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. I do not intend to call starred amendments.

Clause 1

Powers of de-accession
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 1—Power to return victims’ property
‘(1) A body to which this Act applies may transfer an object from its collections if the following conditions are met.
(2) Condition 1 is that the Advisory Panel has recommended the transfer.
(3) Condition 2 is that the Secretary of State has approved the Advisory Panel’s recommendation.
(4) The Secretary of State may approve a recommendation for the transfer of an object from the collections of a Scottish body only with the consent of the Scottish Ministers.
(5) “Scottish body” means—
The Board of Trustees for the National Galleries of Scotland,
The Trustees of the National Library of Scotland,
The Board of Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland.
(6) The power conferred by subsection (1) does not affect any trust or condition subject to which any object is held.
(7) The power conferred by subsection (1) is an additional power.’.
This provides that a body listed in clause 2 may transfer objects from its collections where two conditions are satisfied. First, the transfer must be recommended by the Advisory Panel. Secondly, the Secretary of State must approve the recommendation (with the consent of the Scottish Ministers in some cases).
New clause 2—“Advisory Panel”
‘(1) For the purposes of this Act “Advisory Panel” means a panel for the time being designated by the Secretary of State for those purposes.
(2) The Secretary of State may designate a panel for the purposes of this Act only if the panel’s functions consist of the consideration of claims which—
(a) are made in respect of objects, and
(b) relate to events occurring during the Nazi era.
(3) “Nazi era” means the period—
(a) beginning with 1 January 1933, and
(b) ending with 31 December 1945.’.
This defines “Advisory Panel” for the purposes of the Act. The panel is to be designated by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State may only designate a panel whose functions consist of considering claims relating to events occurring during the Nazi era (1933 -1945).
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I welcome you to the Chair of this Committee, which I hope will not detain us long. The Bill has found favour throughout the House and we have been able to proceed with a friendly consensus on this important issue.
It will be apparent to Committee members that the amendments and new clauses constitute a major redrafting of the Bill, but the policy and sense of it remain unchanged. The amendments are parliamentary counsel’s redrafting of my original text. Parliamentary counsel’s text is in plain English and may be more precise than my own—though perhaps not as elegantly drafted. Legislation needs to be precise in order to work.
On Second Reading it was asked whether the Bill had any tax implications. There are not many tax implications, but the Treasury is looking at whether the tax rules need to be changed. If so, that will be done through the Finance Bill or tax rules changes rather than amendments to this Bill, which would be inappropriate.
New clauses 1 and 2 replace clause 1, and I invite the Committee, when the time comes, to vote against clause stand part and to vote for new clauses 1 and 2. New clause 1 provides for the power to transfer, as opposed to the original language of “de-accession”, so jargon is being replaced by plain English, but the substance of the power remains the same. It also makes provision for Scotland, as the Scottish Executive now wish Scotland to be included. There are also other, consequential amendments to that effect.
New clause 2 makes provision for the advisory panel and spells out in more detail the provisions in clause 1(2). Again, the substance is the same. I urge the Committee to vote against clause stand part, and for new clauses 1 and 2.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): The Government support the insertion of new clauses 1 and 2. New clause 1 sets out the two conditions that need to be met to trigger the power for the trustees of one of the named institutions to transfer an object from its collections. Those are, first, that the advisory panel recommends the transfer and, secondly, that the Secretary of State approves that recommendation.
To avoid any doubt, I clarify that museum trustees will continue to take decisions on whether or not to return an object. That is in keeping with the arm’s-length principle that recognises that trustees are responsible for the items in their care. It is not for the Government to tell them what to do with them. The current arrangement for the consideration of claims and the decision-making process, including the approval of the panel’s reports by the Secretary of State, works well. The two conditions that must be met to trigger the trustees’ power to return an object reflect the existing arrangements for handling the reports of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. It is right to include the requirement that the Secretary of State approve the panel’s recommendation because it reflects current practice and provides a safeguard in the unlikely event of an irrational recommendation by the panel. It is not, however, the Government’s intention to tell museum trustees what to do. This clause is about giving trustees the power to decide to return an object if the two conditions are met, in the same way that regional and local museums are able to support the return of an object in such circumstances.
The Government also support new clause 2, which defines an advisory panel for the purposes of this Act. The panel is to be designated by the Secretary of State, and he may only designate a panel whose functions consist of considering claims relating to events occurring during the Nazi era; in other words, between 1933 and 1945. That reflects the terms of reference of the Spoliation Advisory Panel because, as I have explained, the purpose of the Bill is straightforward: to give trustees of the named institutions a power to return an object where the trustees decide to do so, in response to a recommendation by the designated panel which has been approved by the Secretary of State. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, tax issues can, if necessary, be dealt with separately by the Treasury.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Cook.
Conservative Members accept that the new clauses are necessary as technical amendments. I only wish to put two points to the Minister, or, perhaps, to the Member promoting the Bill, to whom I offer my hearty congratulations. First, I note that there is no definition of a cultural object in the new clauses, whereas there is in the clauses so elegantly drafted by the hon. Member for Hendon. I wonder whether he or the Minister will comment on whether that is a significant change. Secondly, I note that there is nothing in the new clauses that defines how the advisory panel is to be made up. Will the Minister comment on what progress has been made in defining the terms of reference for any new advisory panel, or whether they will simply be transferred from the existing Spoliation Advisory Committee?
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am sorry I am late, Mr. Cook—Mr. Crow was doing all he could to prevent me from arriving this morning.
My only question on these issues is one of definition, and the hon. Member for Wantage has raised the same issue. I seek the Minister’s guidance on whether the latitude given by the absence of a specific definition is detrimental to the efficacy of the Bill. The one circumstance in which I can see that being a problem is if there were a legal case, or proceedings in court, where individuals who were unwilling to give up artefacts claimed they were not covered by the Bill because there was no definition to say that they were. It would be useful for the record, and thus for courts in future, if some determination could be given about that point in these proceedings.
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): As I said on Second Reading, I welcome the Bill. Indeed, the Select Committee that I chair has in the past pressed the Government to introduce such a Bill. I do, however, want to explore, and perhaps press the hon. Member for Hendon about, the practical consequences of the Bill. The panel has met only nine times and, as far as I am aware, there are not a great many objects currently sitting in our national institutions which are under dispute. Does he have any idea when, or if, the measures in his Bill will actually be used? Is it not the case that the only item whose return is still under some dispute—the Benevento missal—would not actually be covered by the Bill?
Barbara Follett: To respond to the query by the hon. Member for Wantage about cultural objects, we did not feel it necessary to give a definition of a cultural object because, in referring to an object, the Bill is using the definition in the legislation that already governs museums. That, I hope, will also deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.
On the advisory panel—[Interruption.] Hon. Members must forgive me; I have no Parliamentary Private Secretary today. I think that Mr. Crow has delayed her, too. The panel to be designated will be the Spoliation Advisory Panel. We feel that that is the best way of going ahead because it has experience in this area even though, as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, it has met only nine times.
Mr. Dismore: I cannot envisage the circumstances in which a legal case is likely to arise. The whole purpose of the Bill is to operate consensually, and ultimately the power rests with the trustees. If they do not want to return an object, they do not have to, so I do not think that that is a problem.
I turn now to the practical consequences. I discussed the Benevento missal with the British Library this morning. It wanted the Bill to make specific provision for that object, but that would have made the Bill hybrid so we could not do that. Nobody really knows the circumstances in which the Benevento missal went missing, but it would have been during the period in question, so I suppose that it would be possible for the Spoliation Advisory Panel to make a new recommendation. That would mean that we had a recommendation that was not retrospective—obviously, the Bill will not have retrospective application. The particular problem is that the British Library wanted specific provision which we could not make without making the Bill hybrid.
It is not Mr. Crow who has kidnapped my hon. Friend’s PPS, but the Chief Whip, as she has been promoted to the Whips Office.
Question put and negatived.
Clause 1 accordingly disagreed to.

Clause 2

Mr. Dismore: I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 2, at end insert—
‘The Board of Trustees for the National Galleries of Scotland,’.
This amendment adds the Board of Trustees for the National Galleries of Scotland to the list of bodies to which the Bill applies.
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