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10 Mar 2010 : Column 126WH—continued

Nearly 220,000 people visited my islands last year, and, with the introduction of the road equivalent tariff, it has never been easier to get to the Outer Hebrides. If you have any spare time this summer, Mr. Benton, I suggest that a visit to the Isle of Lewis might be well worth while. It could then be continued downwards
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through the Isle of Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Who knows, perhaps if you do that in a few years' time, you will be able to see the Lewis chessmen.

The chessmen would be a great draw. Perhaps there are more historical artefacts to be found. Perhaps in future we might see grandmasters playing chess with the Lewis chess pieces in Stornoway, or certainly have them placed in the vicinity of such a match.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): As ever, my hon. Friend makes his case persuasively, which contrasts with the somewhat intransigent attitude hitherto of the British Museum. However, there is a general principle at stake, which is that artefacts that have a particular significance to a place, either culturally or historically, need to be returned to their place of origin. I cite the example of the so-called Lichfield gospels, which are currently in Lichfield cathedral. They are actually the Llandeilo gospels, which were produced in Wales in the eighth century and contain the earliest example of written Welsh. It is absolutely scandalous that the only gospels to have survived from Wales should be in an English cathedral. They should be taken home to my constituency.

Mr. MacNeil: As I have learned after being in this House for five years, the word of Plaid Cymru can often be taken as gospel. This time, a case is being made for the gospel.

My point is that we are willing to work hard to bring some, if not all, these historical artefacts back to their place of origin-the place where they were found. We are not an impediment to change. Perhaps in some ways we need a knight in shining ivory to help us, the underdogs, against the impediments of the British Museum.

As I am sure the Minister knows, when the Staffordshire hoard was on display in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, over 80,000 people queued for upwards of three hours to view it in those two different places. Put simply, the economic boon that such historical objects could generate is vast. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) said, we are asking for the opportunity to allow people to experience the chessmen in the place that they came from.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Hon. Members have mentioned the Staffordshire hoard and Lichfield cathedral, and both of those are close to my Staffordshire constituency. I have considerable sympathy with the idea that there should be some return, perhaps on the basis of a loan. In the enlightened view taken by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), there could be a re-siting under the auspices of the British Museum itself. The situation seems extraordinary, and there should be some recognition and an opportunity for people who come from a specific area to have access to artefacts in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. There are similar arguments across Europe. However, I am not quite sure how to get that into the framework of the British Museum Act 1963.

Mr. MacNeil: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his sympathy, and I am glad that we are building consensus across several parties this afternoon. As I said, we are asking for people to have the opportunity
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to experience the chessmen in the place where they came from. Therefore, I reiterate my request to move the chessmen permanently-under whatever label is chosen to describe that movement-back to the Outer Hebrides.

Historical objects are not just pieces of art, gold or jewellery, but gateways to the past. Such gateways are accentuated by the landscape, scenery and the society that created them. Perhaps such a move will help people connect in a better way with the chessmen and the civilisation that produced them if they are viewed in Lewis, rather than in a glass case in the middle of London.

4.14 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) on securing this opportunity for us to debate the repatriation of historical objects yet again. He knows my views, because I have expressed them a number of times in the Scottish press.

I will start by saying something about the objects in our museums, the importance of national collections, and the pleasure and knowledge that they bring to us all. Museums collect and display the greatest achievements of humankind. However, they are not just a visual record of our past. Modern museums are now worldwide centres of learning and interpretation, enabling us to make sense of what our ancestors experienced, challenging our perceptions and changing the way we look at the world.

Our national museums are centres of excellence and scholarship and part of a wider international web of information sharing-a great collection in most of our great museums. It is not about promoting nationalism; the focus is on promoting an understanding of our shared past so that we can better deal with the present and tackle the problems of the future.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I profoundly disagree with the underlying premise of his argument that culture is to be enjoyed only by the nation most closely identified with it. Indeed, it is through understanding each other's cultures and sharing the fine artefacts, great literature and important works of art that are produced by individuals in countries across the world, that we start building a shared identity, tolerant understanding, and all those things that are so essential for peace and cohesion throughout the world.

Furthermore, if beautiful artefacts are created, they should be enjoyed as widely as possible, not just in one nation. They do not enhance the lives of just one community, but of all of us in all our communities. The advent of digitisation enables us to share more widely the wonderful treasures that we are privileged to enjoy in our great national museums.

John Mason: I completely agree with the point of sharing culture widely and seeing artefacts and so on. However, does the Minister accept that historically, the sharing has not been very even? Perhaps those countries that used to have an empire, or were powerful for whatever reason, have tended to suck-in worldwide artefacts and such things. I accept that in Glasgow that was the case. We felt that the shirt that was mentioned
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earlier should go back to North America, as that is where it would be better placed, and I give respect to Glasgow city council for that.

Margaret Hodge: If the hon. Gentleman is arguing about how we came to have historical connections in one place, I have sympathy with his argument. However, things are where they are, and if we wish them to be shared, the British Museum has an excellent, first-class record in both collaboration and giving out loans. The British Museum is a worldwide brand in the way that it shows its artefacts online. There are ways of sharing that do not necessarily reside in ownership. I think that the British Museum excels in its record of trying to ensure that it shares its wonders with as wide an audience as possible.

The British Museum was one of the first institutions in this country to be named "British", but its objective is to have collections representing the whole world under its roof, so as to enable everyone to enjoy its experiences which, of course, are free of charge. The museum is what so many people come to London to see. The First Emperor exhibition was the biggest exhibition mounted by the British Museum since that of Tutankhamun in 1972 and it enjoyed 850,000 visitors. The British Museum is now more popular than Blackpool pleasure beach in attracting people to come here. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may not think so, but Blackpool is still an iconic and important attraction. Despite the difficulties it faces, Blackpool is still one of the most popular tourist destinations. The resources put into Blackpool by the Government have helped to restore it to its previous great strength as a tourist destination.

Mr. Llwyd: May I go back to what the Minister said about the successful Chinese exhibition? It was successful because the Chinese Government saw fit to provide those artefacts on a lengthy loan, which is exactly what is being asked for now.

Margaret Hodge: The British Museum has made just such loan arrangements with a number of Scottish museums and institutions-I want to come to that, so I had better move on-so that exhibits can form a coherent part of the story that the British Museum tells of the history of the world and yet be enjoyed by the residents of Scotland. I shall give way, although I might not get to the point of my speech.

Bob Spink: May I take the Minister back to her digitisation argument, which works in both directions? If the British Museum, for instance, were to move a third of the artefacts back to Lewis, digitisation would mean that there was no impediment to the scholarship of the museum and would increase world knowledge and access to those wonderful objects.

Margaret Hodge: Although I respect the hon. Gentleman's views, he perhaps does not appreciate my argument, which is that a coherent story about the history of the world is being told within the British Museum.

As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar knows, a long-standing principle in the UK supported by successive Governments is that politicians do not interfere in the management of museum collections. I hope that all
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hon. Members participating in today's debate continue to support the arm's length principle, which means that museum trustees are responsible for managing the collections in their care. The Government have great faith in their ability. Changing that principle would be a dangerous and retrograde move, allowing cultural and artistic decisions to be determined by political views and prejudices.

Museum trustees have a statutory duty to protect the nation's collections. Section 3 of the British Museum Act 1963 imposes a duty on the trustees of the British Museum:

The trustees of our national collections are thus legally responsible for their collections. Leaving the question of whether an object should be de-accessioned to the trustees' discretion is consistent with those legal principles.

A further issue is that the legal position on restitution is that the British Museum Act prevents the museum from removing objects from its collections. Other national museums have similar statutory restrictions. We have looked at whether it would be appropriate to lift those statutory restrictions and under what circumstances. As hon. Members probably know, we have done so in two instances: the law was changed in 2005 to allow nine named national museums to de-accession human remains if they considered it appropriate to do so; and we had the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009, which allows 17 national collections to return items lost or stolen during the Nazi era following a recommendation by the Spoliation Advisory Panel. The latter was a private Member's Bill, but the Government considered that allowing restitution to take place in those specific circumstances was supported by a strong moral case.

I now want to deal with the particular issues raised by the Lewis chessmen. As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar knows, my views are clear. However, as my officials always remind me, decisions relating to the Lewis chessmen and other objects in the collection of the British Museum are a matter for the British Museum trustees and not for me as a politician.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider my next point. Nowadays, most scholars who have examined the chessmen generally agree that the most likely place of manufacture was Trondheim in Norway. The closest stylistic links for the decoration of the chessmen are to be found in the art and architecture of 12th century Trondheim and Scandinavia. In the 19th century, part of a queen, similar in style to the Lewis pieces, was discovered in Trondheim. Dr. David Caldwell, who is the keeper of Scotland and Europe at the National Museum of Scotland, visited Lewis recently with a team of researchers in preparation for the touring exhibition of the chessmen in 2011. He said publicly:

Mr. Cash: On that analogy, the Minister might be arguing that the Bayeux tapestry should be returned to the United Kingdom on the grounds that it was made by nuns in England-so we are told. Does she realise that there is a certain inconsistency in enlarging the issue into a European or even a global dimension?

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Margaret Hodge: I do not agree at all, but I was dealing with a separate argument about a particular historical link based on where the Lewis chessmen were made. All I am saying is that most of those with a much greater knowledge than I have on the origins of the chessmen think that the pieces did not originate in Lewis but in Norway. I hold by my main argument that the British Museum contains, in its artefacts, the history of Britain and the world. As such, it is important that the whole collection should be held together and not pulled apart.

Mr. MacNeil: I asserted what the chessmen were made of, where they were found and where they were most likely buried for hundreds of years previously-we know nothing else. I note caveats of "most likely" and "believe", but the Lewis chessmen were found in Lewis and we know nothing else for certain.

Margaret Hodge: With the greatest respect, such caveats are usually put in because establishing such details is difficult. However, those with much better archaeological knowledge than either of us believe that the chessmen were Scandinavian in origin.

Mr. Pelling: Is such displacement of chessmen recognition, in many ways, of the decline of the economy of Trondheim in that part of the middle ages? After all, that part of Scotland has Scandinavian connections. Most importantly, would the Minister accept the rationality of arguing for the exceptional support for the local economy if people were travelling to see the chessmen? Leaving aside issues of origin and nationality, would that not be a strong argument for at least some of the pieces to be placed in Lewis?

Margaret Hodge: The chessmen legally came into the possession of the British Museum. That is an important point. They form a key part of the British Museum collection-hence they were used recently in the radio programme "A History of the World in 100 Objects". The chessmen are important. Would they be a tourist attraction if relocated? Probably, yes, but that is dealt with sensitively by the British Museum through its loans policy.

In the minute that I have left, I emphasise that the British Museum has close relations with National Museums Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland, frequently lending material to Edinburgh. I am delighted that, in 2010 and 2011, the British Museum will be partnering National Museums Scotland in a Scotland-wide tour of the chessmen, supported by the Scottish Government. Twenty-four pieces from the British Museum will join six from the Edinburgh collections to be seen in four venues in Scotland.

I hope that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar will continue to work with the British Museum in the interests of the people in his constituency, to ensure co-operation between the British Museum and museums in Scotland, so that the wonderful Lewis chessmen can be enjoyed by all.

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International Financial Transactions (Tax)

4.30 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): This debate is on a subject that most of us know as the Robin Hood tax, but as we have to use parliamentary language it has been called something else. I have some news hot off the press that even you, Mr. Benton, may not be aware of. Less than an hour ago, the European Parliament voted 536 to 80 in support of a Robin Hood tax-an international finance tax. I think that we would all welcome that.

I am particularly pleased to open this debate because, being born and bred in Nottingham and being one of the city's representatives in Parliament, I have a particular connection to a Robin Hood tax. The consensus building for such a tax is so remarkable that it even has the active support of the sheriff of Nottingham. I hope that the Government will be a little more sympathetic today to everything to do with Robin Hood than was the case in the days of King John, but the omens are good. At last year's G20 summit in Pittsburgh, the Prime Minister called for serious consideration to be given to a financial transaction tax. Momentum is gathering around the world. From Europe to Japan, Finance Ministers from the world's leading economies have started to back such a tax.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): My hon. Friend said that there is consensus. I quickly checked the early-day motion in support of a Robin Hood tax before coming to the Chamber, and I noted that of the 97 signatories only two were Conservative Members. Does my hon. Friend agree that that may have something to do with the fact that the Electoral Commission's register of donations shows that so much comes from investment bankers and venture capitalists, including £50,000 to my opponents? Who does he think Conservative candidates and MPs will represent-the people supporting the tax or those supporting the bankers?

Mr. Allen: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He made the point in his inimitable way. Colleagues from all parties supported the Robin Hood tax when it was launched in the House a week or so ago. I, for one, want it to be done on a non-partisan, all-party basis, so that we have something lasting.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Allen: I give way to my hon. Friend, who masterminded the early-day motion referred to earlier.

Mr. Hoyle: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As he pointed out, it is important that it remains a cross-party subject. Does he agree that we want to see even more names on the early-day motion, and that that is a good way to ensure that the public know that we are on their side and are challenging the world's banks?

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