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European Convention On Heritage And Culture

Volume 177: debated on Monday 23 July 1990

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To ask the Minister for the Arts what plans he has to bring into force a European convention on heritage and culture by the end of 1992.

I am not aware of the existence of a European convention on heritage and culture. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the discussions taking place about arrangements for our heritage after 1992. These are at an early stage, but I am in close touch with my European Community colleagues on these issues.

The Minister is right that there is not yet a European convention, but there is great concern that when the single European market comes into force at the end of 1992 there should be a convention to prevent the disappearance of works of particular merit through loopholes not only at national boundaries but at European boundaries. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to pursue with urgency a proposal for such a convention which would supplement European law and would be in force in good time before the end of 1992?

I appreciate the importance of the hon. Gentleman's question. There is no doubt that there is concern about stolen works of art and their illicit export. These matters are under discussion by European Community Ministers, but it will take a little more time before we reach conclusions. The hon. Gentleman was right to imply that one of the implications of 1992 is that there will be no full-scale customs control at frontiers. We therefore have to find an alternative way of dealing satisfactorily with the illicit export of works of art. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall give great attention to this matter in the months ahead.

Will my right hon. Friend, given his outstandingly successful work as Minister for the Arts in the United Kingdom, make it clear that the point of any international convention is to create duties and obligations? What on earth is the point of that in the arts? Is it not far better to run the arts from the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is right in the sense that article 36 of the treaty of Rome makes it clear that it is up to each individual state within the European Community to preserve its heritage in the way that it wishes. In this country, we have a liberal system in terms of free trade in works of art, but with some protection for the heritage. I believe that those principles should remain.

Would not one possible advantage of such a convention on heritage and culure be that we could get laws banning censorship written down in a way which cannot be challenged? With such a convention, we would not end up with a ridiculous decision such as that made by the British Board of Film Classification, which is seeking to impose censorship on the publication of a book which most of us in a liberal society agree should be freely available to be read. It is ridiculous that we are faced with an accusation of double standards. That could end if there were a European convention.

I am not sure what bearing that has on heritage within the European Community. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, it is important to stress that in this country we believe in freedom of expression, subject to the laws of the land. That is how it should be.