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Sports (Discrimination) Bill [H.L.]

9 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—(The Earl of Swinton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—(Lord Astor of Hever.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

National Health Service (Amendment) Bill

The Earl of Dundonald: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, perhaps I may say that I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—(The Earl of Dundonald.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Land Registers (Scotland) Bill

The Earl of Dundonald: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—(The Earl of Dundonald.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

7 Jun 1995 : Column 1442

Insurance Companies (Reserves) Bill

Report received.

Treasure Trove

9.2 p.m.

The Earl of Perth rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they consider that there is a need for treasure trove and portable antiquities legislation to preserve the nation's heritage.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I note that, in asking this Question, I am expected to speak for only 10 minutes. I beg your Lordships' indulgence if I slightly exceed that time limit. I shall be as brief as possible. I shall divide the first part of my speech—perhaps all of it—into three parts: the past, the present and the future.

The past starts eight years ago when I asked the Government Questions about treasure trove and their attitude to that subject. I received a very encouraging reply. Indeed, it looked as though something was going to move. Since then, there have been three or four debates and Questions from Members in various parts of the House. Once, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked a Question, and the noble Lord, Lord Henley, replied, saying, "We have no intention to change the law."

The situation has changed since then. But I go back that far just to make clear that this subject is not new and indeed has become more and more important.

Starting with the past, I was encouraged on all sides last year to introduce my Private Member's Bill. It went very well and I received full support from all sides of the Chamber. Even better, the noble Baroness who will reply to the debate this evening—I owe her a deep debt of gratitude—announced in Committee that the Government would support the Bill. That was splendid news for us all. Indeed, the Government took over the Bill and, with the help of many of those present this evening, it went through this House. But then the story became less good.

Sir Patrick Cormack, to whom I give my thanks, tried four times to introduce the Bill in the other place. There were four objections to it. Extraordinarily enough, the first objection was from a Government Whip. After Sir Patrick Cormack had tried, Peter Brooke himself, who by then had retired from his post as Secretary of State for National Heritage, tried and had the same result; namely, the Bill was objected to. So the question arose of what to do next.

I was told to try the ballot. I lined up three potential sponsors who came rather high on the ballot list. The first one whom I saw said, "If you will promise that I shall be given the Bill to take, I shall take it." So I rang up the other two potential sponsors and said, "I don't want your help. I have a firm promise from a Member, who shall be nameless". The next day that Member went back on his word. There again, in some way, Government Whips were involved. None of that makes a very happy story. But there was one thing left to do: try to get the Bill into government legislation.

There was much lobbying to that purpose. I want to pay tribute to the Leader of the House and thank him because he tried extremely hard to achieve that end. I must say that

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during that battle I had the feeling that the Secretary of State himself was perhaps lukewarm about the Bill. I can illustrate that. I asked him three times if I could have a talk with him and three times he said that it was not necessary and that he was supportive. He left it at that and I shall leave it at that at this time.

I come now to the present. The other day there was a meeting at which the museums of England and Wales and all the archaeological societies passed a resolution urging that the treasure trove Bill should be passed because, as things stood now, the situation was "a shambles". Those were the words that were used, and how right they are.

Let me explain why the word "shambles" is right. A little while ago, there was a case at Heathrow Airport when the Customs and Excise—more credit to them—stopped a large number of coins from being exported. The exporter fought the case before a coroner and a jury. Sadly, the outcome was that the exporter was allowed to go ahead. The decision of the coroner and jury was that it was not treasure but rather votive offerings. They are not covered by the Treasure Bill. That means that the whole system, even that now in place, is unworkable. It is a charter for anybody who wants to acquire certain items and get rid of them, to do so. Indeed, it is a sort of "finders-keepers" game and must stop.

We must also remember that today metal detectors are much more efficient than they were. To that extent again we need action. In relation to metal detectors I must mention the metal detector council. My Bill of a year ago was in no way hostile to metal detector users, but there was a virulent and violent campaign against it by certain of the council members. Others in the council understood better what we were trying to do, and that was good. Now I learn that they are attempting to introduce one or two changes to the last Bill which will make them less worried about everything. I am all in favour of that negotiation so long as it does not interfere with the Government getting on with the job. In other words, it must not be used as an excuse for delaying a Bill.

I turn now to the future. As I have said more than once, we must get on with it. A Bill must be introduced in the next Session; but not, as has been suggested, a Private Member's Bill which will go through the same sort of process as my Bill went through. "Somebody was lucky in the ballot" is not the way to approach it. My experience was unfortunate and I would not recommend any other Member of either House to go that way.

What is the way to proceed? The Government must take this Bill on, ideally in this Session. They must certainly do it in the next Session. When I say "the Government" I refer particularly to the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Mr. Stephen Dorrell. He may find things like the arts, sport or even the lottery more glamorous, but none of them is nearly as important as this Bill. Indeed, it bears the name of his department. I beg him and his department to take it on. If it is to include portable antiquities, then that will be all to the good. I have nearly finished what I wanted to say.

Lord Stewartby: My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will allow me to intervene. I do not know whether it is in order, but I shall be happy to offer five minutes of my time to the noble Earl because he will use it far more effectively than I.

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The Earl of Perth: My Lords, that is a kind gesture, but I am glad to say that I have compressed much of what I intended to say. It may give the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, a chance to say a little more.

To conclude, the Government have dragged their feet for eight years on something which is of great significance to the country. I am quite clear that if the department undertook a publicity campaign to explain what is happening, they would receive all the backing necessary from the media. The media have been a great help to us up till now. They understand what is involved. England and Wales, and perhaps Northern Ireland—I am less clear about that—stand alone in having no laws to protect them. Southern Ireland and Scotland are wise, but our history is slipping away. I ask and beg that we have action now. If Mr. Dorrell goes ahead, then he will redeem his past record and that of his department. He will even earn the thanks and gratitude of our museums, archaeologists and all who care about our treasures and our past.

9.13 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, has done this country a considerable service by emphasising the inadequate, careless and shoddy way we deal with our cultural heritage, in particular with the portable antiquities, which, along with our ancient monuments, are often the only source of information about Britain's early past.

His Treasure Bill won the support not just of the Surrey Archaeological Society which helped him to draft it; it won the support of the entire archaeological community. It won the acceptance not only of the landowners, but also of the principal organisations representing those who use metal detectors to hunt for antiquities. I believe that that was a significant achievement of his Bill. It even won the support of the Department of National Heritage, although only at Report stage. I am afraid that the subsequent passage of the Bill, as we have heard, was less happy and it was actually torpedoed, I believe, by two junior members of Her Majesty's Government in another place. So I believe that nearly everyone in this House shares his regret that that is the position in relation to his Bill.

We regret also that it did not find a position in the current legislative programme, as announced last November in the gracious Speech. There was—I think I am right here—no single legislative proposal from the Department of National Heritage in that programme. If we are grateful to the noble Earl, we are fortunate also in the department's representatives in your Lordships' House. My noble friend Lord Astor, who has Stonehenge among his administrative responsibilities, has been unfailingly helpful in relation to the Treasure Bill. And it was my noble friend Lady Trumpington, who will be speaking this evening, who gave the Bill such a constructive reception in this House last time and who was able to announce at Report stage,

    "we have concluded that the Bill ... deserves the Government's support.—[Official Report, 20/4/94; col. 235.]

If only the Bill had been so well served in another place we would not be holding this melancholy autopsy here today.

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But there are positive indications in relation to the future. I was happy to receive last month a very helpful letter from my noble friend Lord Astor, who has kindly allowed me to quote the relevant paragraphs. He wrote to me:

    "Stephen Dorrell announced in March his intention to publish a Heritage Green Paper later in the year. We intend to take that opportunity to raise the issue of the adequacy of current arrangements for the reporting of portable antiquities generally—an issue which, of course, goes much wider than the Treasure Bill. We hope that the Council for British Archaeology's current working party will make a significant contribution to public discussion of the issues.

    Any proposals emerging from the Green Paper which require legislation would in the normal course have to wait until time could be found in the Parliamentary programme for a Heritage Bill. However, we would hope to proceed much faster with the Treasure Bill: the need for reform of Treasure Trove is already generally agreed, and we would not want to reopen that issue in the context of the Green Paper consultations. We shall therefore be looking for an opportunity to secure the Bill's reintroduction next session, either as a Private Member's Bill or as a non-controversial government Bill".

That is indeed a helpful statement, but I would remind the House that it was one of my noble friend's predecessors, my noble friend Lord Hesketh, who in reply to the Starred Question of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, on 25th January 1990—that is to say, more than five years ago—announced,

    "when we have a suitable opportunity for legislation we shall take advantage of it".—[Official Report, 25/1/90; col. 1162.]

So we have to conclude that suitable opportunities are rare indeed.

The world's cultural and historic heritage is being plundered at a devastating rate. From Italy to China; from Russia to Cambodia; from Mexico to East Anglia, illicit excavations are ripping antiquities from their contexts and devastating the past on an unfortunate scale and sending the loot on its lucrative path to the salerooms of Geneva, New York and, I am sorry to say, of London. Ultimately, it is less the transfer of ownership that is regrettable, but the destruction of context; the loss of information.

To give an example, a cemetery of Anglo-Saxon graves, properly excavated and published, can write a whole new page in our island history. Subject, however, to looting, it will yield a few handsome Anglo-Saxon brooches for the saleroom, but contribute nothing at all to our study of the past.

That is why England so badly needs not only intelligible and workable legislation on the finding of valuables of gold and silver—that is what the noble Earl's Treasure Bill would do, and, I hope, will do—but also a system for the reporting of finds of portable antiquities so that the information is not lost. In some counties such as Norfolk, a voluntary system is already in place and works well. There is, I believe, wide agreement that a voluntary system would work best. I hope that the forthcoming Heritage Green Paper will set up the options by which a voluntary system could be made to work with a minimum of fuss and with very limited expenditure, perhaps on the Norfolk model, which works well because it commands the support of just about everybody, including the responsible majority of the metal-detecting fraternity.

At the Society of Antiquaries last month, as the noble Earl has already mentioned, the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities at its first meeting, representing a

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wide range of archaeological interests, reached a unanimous agreement under the chairmanship of the president of the Council for British Archaeology. Its resolution of 24th May reads:

    "This Conference deplores the continuing loss to the nation's heritage which is a direct result of the failure on the part of successive Governments to introduce coherent statutory provision for the management of the UK's archaeological inheritance of portable antiquities; we

    1 affirm support for the Statement of Principles on portable antiquities, issued in April 1993 by the Society of Antiquaries"—

and other bodies. We,

    "2 welcome the Government's acceptance that the law of Treasure Trove is archaic and in need of reform, and in consequence

    3 urge the Government to proceed urgently with the passage of the Treasure Bill (Treasure Trove is currently in a shambles, and leading to the loss of many archaeological artefacts and consequently our knowledge of the history of England and Wales);

    4 also urge the introduction of a reporting scheme for archaeological artefacts where no reporting is currently obliged. We recognise that such a scheme, to be effective, must be accompanied by a sustained campaign of education".

Moreover, I hope that the UK will take a lead in supporting the draft Unidroit convention on the international return of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects. Perhaps I may ask my noble friend, who will be representing this country at the important discussions and negotiations on that theme which will be shortly under way? May I express the hope that we shall give those proposals our full support, for it is Britain's antiquities which are now being plundered—not just those of Greece and Rome, or of China and Peru.

We need that protection. My noble friend will not need to be reminded of the sad case of the Icklingham bronzes which I believe are currently in New York in the hands of collectors better known for their acquisitive zeal than for any scrupulous reticence when it comes to unprovenanced and therefore probably looted antiquities.

This country's natural heritage is at risk. It is not currently well protected, either by our legislation in regard to treasure trove or by any national system of voluntary reporting. We have a Department of National Heritage. Why does it not do something about it?

9.22 p.m.

Lord Templeman: My Lords, the debate gives the noble Baroness who will reply a remarkable opportunity to assure the House that the Government are persuaded, first, that legislation is needed to reform the law; secondly, that such legislation can only be carried out by the Government, and by no one else; and, thirdly, that action is urgently required.

I know that it is difficult for any government to pluck up their courage to do something which is both popular and useful, but I hope that those inhibitions will be cast aside, and that the Government will embrace with enthusiasm the opportunity to repair the very real ravages to our culture to which the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, and the noble Earl, Lord Perth, referred. This is a case where we are losing ancient articles of outstanding, historical, archaeological and cultural importance. They can never be replaced, and irreparable damage is done if they are

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torn away and dissipated, either at home by private collectors or abroad. There must be some system which puts that right.

We are in a mess—in a shambles, as has been said—because, I am afraid, of the lawyers. I am bound to say that the lawyers to blame go right back to the 12th century at a time when the only interest in treasure trove was that of the Crown, which was short of money. Originally treasure trove was simply gold and silver coin which had been found and to which the King laid claim. In fact, in those days it was said:

    "Seeking for treasure is an offence and no one ought to seek for treasure with the help of serfs or dig the earth for treasure which is the property of our lord the king".

There are not many serfs looking for treasure these days. They have been replaced by metal detectors. That would not have been too bad, but the law then drew a distinction between treasure which had been hidden and treasure which had been lost. Treasure trove—that to which the Crown was then entitled and to which the nation is now entitled—was limited to treasure that had been hidden away with the object of retrieving it. It was not applied to treasure that had been lost by accident. That distinction was made in order to protect the serfs. In those days it was not only a crime to search for and to conceal treasure but it was a punishable crime. There were only two methods of punishment; one was hanging and the other was decapitation. That is not an attractive choice. It was partly for that reason that lawyers limited the scope of treasure so that it was narrowly confined.

Your Lordships have heard of two recent examples of coins pre-dating the Celts being held by the jury not to be a treasure trove because of the theory propounded by counsel that they might have been donated by the Celts as a votive offering and had not been intended to be hidden away from the king. The other case was of Saxon coins. The jury was persuaded that the coins were not treasure trove because they were not found in a container. Apparently, the absence of a Saxon money box was fatal to the claim of treasure trove. Clearly, those distinctions must go and they must go quickly. As the noble Earl said, in the absence of any rule to the contrary, they can be exported and they are then lost to the country.

As your Lordships will know, there is already a Bill afoot that has met with the approval of this House. I believe that the Bill would have met with the approval of another place had it been allowed to consider it. The only reason why it is a Bill and not an Act is because the other place was not allowed to consider it.

There are other necessary reforms in the Bill; for example, to expand the meaning of treasure trove to include artefacts subject to control. They must be two or three hundred years old and they must be artefacts of the time approved by the Secretary of State and both Houses of Parliament. There is no danger in the reform and a great body of good will urges reform.

I have come here tonight as a lawyer to confess that the law is in a mess. This is a great opportunity for a law-reforming Government to do something not only to improve the law but to improve our heritage and our

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culture. I know that the Minister is well disposed. I hope that she will prevail on the Government, as she often prevails on this House, to do that which is right and good.

9.27 p.m.

Lord Stewartby: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving us the opportunity of returning to this subject. I hope that the Government will give a commitment to allow the Bill which the noble Earl took through your Lordships' House last year to proceed.

Perhaps I may make one or two points in passing. First, I was most interested in the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, about the origins of treasure trove. I understand that it was originally introduced by the kings because they were worried about the diminution in the money supply. For that reason they thought that it was bad for a great deal of money in the realm to be unavailable for currency. That is why the Crown laid claim to it; it was not Royal avarice that lay behind the origin of the measure.

Secondly, I must make a confession; I am a collector. After all the wicked things that have been said about collectors by previous speakers, I am a little ashamed to admit that. Nevertheless, I believe that collectors play a valuable part in the process of archaeological discoveries. In the area in which I am interested—that is the medieval coinage of this country—it is fair to say that collectors who have been students of the series have contributed as much as anyone to the knowledge that now exists.

However, having got that confession off my chest, I can say that from the standpoint of a collector, I believe that the noble Earl's Bill should be revived and that it should not only receive government backing but that they should facilitate its passage through this House and another place.

The way in which the noble Earl has phrased his Question goes a little wider than his Bill in that it refers to portable antiquities and the preservation of the national heritage. That could cover a rather wider area than he set out to do in his Bill, which dealt with treasure. I hope that the Government do not take that widening of the discussion as an indication that there should be a delay with regard to the noble Earl's Bill in order to find some much broader form of legislation which would cover all those other areas. One consequence of that would be infinite delay because most of the other areas involve a great range of issues which have not been discussed by your Lordships' House and which might be very much more contentious to take through this House and another place.

Of course, there are a number of problems in relation to treasure trove which will remain if the noble Earl's Bill is enacted. One of those problems which worries me greatly is the unwillingness of those who discover hoards to provide information as to what has been found and where, because, as my noble friend Lord Renfrew emphasised, context and association are absolutely decisive in the interpretation of such evidence. Without context and association, a very high proportion of the information which the discovery is capable of providing is inevitably lost.

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The two areas where that is most likely to arise are where searchers or detectors have been looking for treasure on private land without landowners' permission and therefore they do not wish to acknowledge that they have been trespassing in that way; and secondly, when they have been on scheduled archaeological sites where they should not have been carrying out the activity in the first place but where there is inevitably, statistically, because of the historical associations, a higher probability of finding articles of interest and value.

I do not say that it is a deficiency in the noble Earl's proposed legislation that it does not provide a solution to those problems, but they need to be addressed in some way or other. I was particularly interested in what my noble friend Lord Renfrew said about records and encouragement to keep them on a county or local basis. I do not know how that could be extended to deal with cases of illicit discovery, but that is clearly an area with which we need to deal.

As the noble Earl said, the current arrangements for treasure trove are chaotic because they are subject to capricious decisions by coroners about the motives of those who deposited valuable objects in the ground centuries ago. The idea that because treasure was not contained in a purse or container it would not have been deliberately buried is absurd because, probably, it was originally wrapped in cloth or some other perishable material which has disappeared. Equally the idea that the number of discoveries of gold or other valuable objects and coins from the iron age period can all be taken as votive offerings is in my view a complete fantasy. It is not inconceivable that a discovery could fall into that category but most of them demonstrably could not. The issue is frequently raised as a red herring in relation to those discoveries.

Please let us have the noble Earl's Bill. If there are any practical obstacles, I hope that my noble friend in responding to the debate will spell them out plainly. If it is purely a matter of parliamentary time, perhaps I may plead with her to do her best to ensure that the Government find a gap in the parliamentary timetable when legislation of this kind could be included. On that basis the legislation could go through your Lordships' House with very little consideration because it had been thoroughly dealt with last time.

9.36 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth: My Lords, the law of treasure trove was initiated to preserve the Crown's interest in Saxon times. Today, after nearly 1,000 years, it is utterly anomalous both in its effect and because it has become a legal nonsense.

Most people in this country had hoped that in the latter years of the Government's office they would concentrate on improving existing law and procedure, which the proposed Bill, for example, sets out to achieve. Instead, they are still embarking on so many new and unthought-out pieces of legislation that they claim they have no time for simple reform. The Bill is simple and after much discussion it has been, broadly speaking, agreed by almost all of those concerned,

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including the Government. It is of considerable importance to the preservation of the nation's heritage and yet we seem unable to bring it to fruition. It should be a first step towards more comprehensive legislation in the future. It should not prevent the Bill going forward now. I press the Government to take the Bill on now rather than much later when even more of our heritage will have been lost to the nation.

9.37 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, I rise as a new boy to this subject but with great enthusiasm. It is always a pleasure to make new friends. I do not exaggerate because so far everybody has been in agreement that behind Lord Perth's moderate and carefully argued case, there is a real gap in our country's legislation in regard to the protection of the nation's heritage.

Anybody who reads the broadsheet newspapers will realise that losses of treasure throughout the world are enormous. There are great profits for well organised and unscrupulous gangs of criminals who, sadly, often do not understand the damage that they do for the short-term monetary gain that they seek. The huge losses in this island alone can amount to several hundred thousand individual finds a year, and a very small proportion of those find their way onto the records through a museum. That is a disaster.

The technology that is most favoured as a subject in the debates has been that of metal detectors, but I read the other day that there is a capability from satellite to detect areas where probable finds can be made. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that well-organised and well-financed groups of treasure seekers will be using that technology at an increasing pace.

The treasure trove limitations are well known. Indeed, noble Lords argued about them during debate on the 1994 Bill introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Perth. Moreover, the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, described the treasure trove legislation as a nonsense. It is certainly a nonsense today, but it may not have been a nonsense when it was a means of providing income from treasure finds for the treasury of monarchs. However, today it is certain—and I apologise for reiterating what other noble Lords have said, and probably not as well—that it is the understanding of our heritage which is important, not the monetary value of the items which may be the major concern for those who go out with metal detectors. I do not wish to label all such people as being ignorant, greedy and self-seeking enthusiasts; but it is certainly the understanding of our heritage which is important.

For example, a piece of armour, a piece of clothing, a piece of pottery, or whatever, need not have been there for 200 or 300 years; indeed, it could have been there for only 150 years. However, when such an item is taken out of the ground without being recorded, the exact location, the time and the conditions in which it was found are soon forgotten. That leaves a sad gap in our knowledge and in the total picture that we have which was so well described to us by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, both today and, as I read the Hansard report, in the 1994 debate.

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I do not wish to speak for too long because so much has already been said by other speakers and I personally agree with most of it. However, should the Minister in her response tonight give us further encouragement, I would say to her that not only my colleagues on these Benches here would support her to the man—and I believe that I can say that quite safely; and it is rare that I can say such a thing from these Benches without first confirming the thoughts of certain people—but also all Members of another place who sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches would support legislation of a kind which the noble Earl, Lord Perth, sought to bring forward last year when he was so sadly and miserably let down.

On the latter point, I must say that I believe that it is an extraordinary argument—and it was one of the reasons for opposition in the other place; and there were echoes of it in this House if I read the Hansard report correctly—when people say that any interference with the current position is an attack on the rights of owners of land. In other words, that they should in some way be liable to hand over for examination, and possibly hand over title to, articles found on their land. It is felt that that is some kind of enormous attack on their ownership of property. I find that strange. Sadly, although my family has had some antiquity, I do not have land which contains any of those treasures. However, if I did, I would look upon it in the same way that I look upon my title: I am a lessee of that title and I hold it for future generations, whether or not I sit in this Chamber and argue as I have the privilege to do this evening. I feel that those who have the privilege of sitting on discovered treasure that adds further value to their land owe it to posterity to bring it forth and have it registered and properly inscribed in reports of finds of articles, whether they be of porcelain, bronze, silver or gold.

I very much look forward to the reply of the noble Baroness. As I read the report in Hansard in 1994, her response was extremely encouraging. If I were the noble Earl, Lord Perth, I would be extremely exasperated. I thought that his speech tonight was moderate and good tempered and was a good example to us all. I hope that the noble Baroness will not take that remark as a relaxing of the pace. I believe that the views expressed tonight in your Lordships' House show how fervent is the wish that this problem is dealt with quickly. Time is running short. We shall have nothing left.

9.46 p.m.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Perth, for putting this question again before the House. I had hoped that that would not be necessary. His patience with the ducking and diving of a weak government is remarkable. What has been said on all sides has made clear that the existing law of treasure trove is inadequate. The vast majority of the growing flood of antiquities that are being found fall outside its scope. The Bill of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, was quite modest, but it dealt with the worst anomalies. It passed through this House with support from all sides, but was lost in the Commons. It was introduced five times by two distinguished Conservative Members but

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opposed by four miserable Conservative Members, one a government Whip and three who are now junior Ministers. I hope that it was not their appalling behaviour that qualified them for office. There has been no success in the search for a Conservative to reintroduce this matter in the Commons. What is lacking is serious government support and initiative.

All events since and before have demonstrated the need for action. Expert assessments suggest that hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects of great value to the history and the collective memory of our nation are taken each year. Only a few are reported to museums. The current law has proved to be virtually unenforceable and irrelevant to the problem. Since the passing of the noble Earl's Bill this huge loss to the national heritage is the direct result of the Government's inertia and refusal to follow the express will of this House. I say that despite the excellent support of the noble Baroness who will close the debate tonight. A great responsibility rests on her ample but beautiful shoulders.

In our debates on the noble Earl's Bill Government Ministers accepted the case put, recognised the problem and accepted his remedy. They accepted that the existing law of treasure trove is quite archaic and that there is need for urgent reform. That was the ministerial position put before us. The Treasure Bill, as passed, offers some of that reform. No one pretended it was a solution to the vast scale of the problem. It was a modest Bill that offered a remedy to some of the worst abuses. It has the support, as we have seen tonight, of all sides of this House. In another place there need be no problem, if only the Government will take action.

I have stated before, and I repeat, that Her Majesty's Opposition in the Commons will give official formal support to this Bill if it is put by the Government to them. Therefore the Government have no excuse. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, has said the same for his party in the Commons. Therefore the Government have no political excuse. We can guarantee that there will be support on all sides in the Commons, as there has been in this House, if only the Government have the guts to act. Those Tories who opposed the measure before are now, sadly we may feel, in the Government ranks and will presumably toe the line. Sir James Kilfedder, who opposed by proxy, has sadly passed on, so there is no further problem there. He has joined the antiquities which we all respect.

There should be no problem in this House. This House is united in favour of what the noble Earl, Lord Perth, has proposed. Another place will be supportive as the Opposition are committed to support the measure. The Government must initiate this reform. There will be no political problems. The Bill has been refined; the support has been arranged and guaranteed and the measure will require little parliamentary time. The result would be legislation which goes some but not all the way to resolve this terrible problem of the haemorrhage of our heritage. It would be a rare and almost unique success for the Secretary of State and for his supporters, although there are not many of them. Only indolence and cowardice would explain a failure to act. I look forward to hearing a positive statement from the

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Minister. Only a commitment by the Government to introduce this measure as a non-controversial Government Bill is acceptable.

9.53 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, this serf, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, would say, would first like to pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Perth, and his principal supporters, my noble friends Lord Renton, who I am sorry to see is not in his place this evening, and the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, for their untiring advocacy of a reform of the law of treasure trove.

As I said just over a year ago at the time of the Second Reading debate of Lord Perth's Bill, archaeology is indeed fortunate to have such untiring champions in this House. As on that occasion, I wish to express my great admiration for the energy and determination which the noble Earl and his colleagues have shown in pursuing this matter. It was certainly refreshing to hear the support given to a future Bill by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, on behalf of his entire party. I must rise above some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, but it was also good to hear of his party's total support. I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Perth, that it is up to him and not the Government to get publicity. I would add that the noble Earl has not done too badly up to now.

Perhaps I may explain why we are in the position in which we find ourselves. When the Department of National Heritage took over responsibility for treasure trove just two years ago it was for the first time possible to bring together in a single government department policy on treasure trove, together with the wider responsibility for archaeological policy in general. I believe that this has been a real gain and I can assure your Lordships that we have not been idle. We quickly appointed an official to work on policy on portable antiquities in general and on treasure trove reform in particular and to liaise closely with the noble Earl, Lord Perth's, team. I believe that the noble Earl and his supporters will agree that this arrangement has worked well, and I mention it to underline the Government's real commitment to making progress in this area.

As it turned out, the Bill which the noble Earl introduced into this House in the last Session was not successful, and that is a matter for regret. We had hoped that it would be possible for the Bill to be reintroduced this Session. However, none of the honourable Members with a place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills chose to take it up. Then, because of other pressures on Parliamentary time, it proved impossible for the Government to find a place for the Bill in its own programme. Nevertheless, I think that some good will come from this, because the extra time has enabled us both to consider further amendments to the Bill which would help to resolve objections from the metal-detectorists and also to give more thought as to how the Bill could fit in with measures to deal with the wider question of portable antiquities.

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Following the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, I would also like to take this opportunity to stress that my department has actively been pursuing a number of other initiatives to improve the current administration of treasure trove which do not require legislation. We have, I believe, demonstrated that we take the responsibility very seriously. First, my noble friend Lord Astor agreed that we should release the valuation evidence for the Hoxne hoard. That demonstration of open government helped to show finders that the system is indeed fair and it has received favourable comment in the metal-detecting press.

Secondly, a recent case from Northern Ireland highlighted the anomaly that rewards for treasure troves found in the Province are not valued independently. We are most grateful to the Treasure Trove Reviewing Committee for agreeing to consider that find, and for its recommendation which will result in a substantial increase in the reward. We now hope to place that arrangement on a regular footing.

To return to the Treasure Bill, at the end of March we received a detailed critique of the Bill from the National Council for Metal-Detecting. The NCMD had been the one interested organisation to oppose the Bill when it was introduced into Parliament last year and we have looked at what it had to say very carefully. With the co-operation of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, and his supporters, we are considering whether it is possible to frame amendments to address the concerns that the metal-detectorists have raised. We are progressing as rapidly as we can. Given that there are other government departments which need to be consulted, such as the Home Office and the Treasury, it is a bit too early to say exactly what proposals will emerge. However, we do believe that the Bill will be improved and that as a result it will command even wider support. I am sure that the noble Earl will agree that this is a good thing.

In addition to that, there have been developments on the wider issue of portable antiquities. In March, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced his intention to publish a heritage Green Paper later in the year. As my noble friend Lord Renfrew mentioned when quoting from the letter of my noble friend Lord Astor, we intend to take that opportunity to raise the issue of the adequacy of current arrangements for the reporting of portable antiquities generally. It is worth remembering that, although we believe that it does offer some very significant improvements over the current law of treasure trove, the Treasure Bill is limited in scope to coin hoards and other objects of gold and silver, together with associated finds. Therefore it will not include the great majority of objects of archaeological significance, which are not made of gold or silver. I know that archaeologists will agree that such objects, although often of little commercial value, form just as significant a part of the national heritage as much more glamorous precious-metal finds. My department is taking an active role in a working party which has been established by the Council for British Archaeology, with the support of my noble friend Lord Renfrew, to examine those issues. We shall look with interest at the results of its deliberations.

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The noble Earl, Lord Perth, raised the case of the inquest which was held in November 1994 on three groups of Iron Age coins which were seized by Customs at Heathrow Airport. As he said, the jury found that they were not treasure trove, partly, I understand, because the jury felt that they might have been a votive deposit and thus would not have been buried deliberately with the intention of being recovered. We are aware of the facts of the case. I can assure him that we are currently discussing some aspects of the case with the British Museum and our legal adviser.

My noble friend Lord Renfrew raised the question of the UNIDROIT Convention. It might be useful if I were to explain to your Lordships what that is. The draft UNIDROIT Convention aims to provide a mechanism for signatory countries to request the return of cultural objects which have been stolen or illegally exported. There is a forthcoming conference in Rome to finalise the draft of the convention at which the UK will be represented by the head of the cultural property unit and our legal adviser. I understand that that is not a ministerial conference, but it is at official level at this stage. There is still much work to be done on the draft convention and a final text has yet to emerge from the conference in Rome. Therefore I cannot anticipate whether the UK will become a signatory, although we shall certainly be actively engaged in the process of discussion.

My noble friend Lord Renfrew also asked whether it would be beneficial if the UK benefited from the return of objects which originated in the UK. I am grateful to him for giving advance notice of both those questions. We already have in place an EU directive which provides the opportunity for us to request the return of nationally important objects. By that I mean those of Waverley standard where they have been illegally exported from the UK and are located in another member state.

In addition, there is, of course, a mechanism via Interpol to recover stolen objects. The objectives behind the draft UNIDROIT Convention are laudable and we shall continue to work constructively with other countries participating in the forthcoming conference to achieve a convention which could be a mutually acceptable compromise to as many states as possible, both importing and exporting.

Perhaps I may return to treasure trove. Of course any proposals emerging from the Green Paper which require legislation would in the normal course of events have

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to wait until time could be found in the parliamentary programme for a Heritage Bill. However, I can assure the House, and the noble Earl, Lord Perth, in particular, that we would hope to proceed much more quickly with the Treasure Bill. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, said, the need for the reform of treasure trove is generally agreed. The provisions of the Bill have wide support and we do not believe it necessary to reopen this issue—as distinct from the wider issue of the reporting of antiquities—in the context of the Green Paper consultations. I can assure my noble friend Lord Stewartby that we shall therefore be looking for an opportunity to secure the Bill's reintroduction in the next Session.

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