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Dealing In Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill

Volume 402: debated on Friday 4 April 2003

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Order for Second Reading read.

1.13 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill creates a new criminal offence with the primary intention of achieving the positive effect of protecting our cultural heritage, as I hope will become clear as I set out the case for the measure. I shall speak about three areas. First, I shall describe who wants the Bill; secondly, I shall talk about what it will do; and thirdly, I shall explain why it is needed now.

I start by giving credit to those who put a huge amount of work into the issue of dealing with the trade in illicit antiquities, which the Bill aims to tackle. First among those is Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn. Professor Colin Renfrew has been working on the subject of illicit antiquities for many years, both as a professional archaeologist and as a Member of the House of Lords. He heads the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, which includes the illicit antiquities research centre as one of its projects. His CV makes fascinating reading for me, as he was a lecturer at the university of Sheffield in the year that I was born in Sheffield, and had become the Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge in the 1980s, when I arrived there to study the subject.

The other major influence in bringing the Bill into existence was the work of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The Committee's report, "Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade", which was published in July 2000, recommended the creation of an offence of trading in cultural property. The recommendation received all-party support. I commend the report and the Committee for the work that it did.

The recommendation was taken up by the Ministerial Panel on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects, ITAP, which was set up in May 2000 and reported in December 2000. Credit should go to the members of the panel under the chairmanship of Norman Palmer, Professor of commercial law at University College London, for their excellent work in bringing together all the major players on the subject.

The Bill has been drawn up by Government lawyers working with officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who have also provided excellent explanatory notes, for which I am extremely grateful.

I support the Bill which, as the hon. Gentleman points out, is founded on a report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. However, another report queried whether antiquities owned by the British Museum and other institutions, such as the Elgin marbles, ought to be returned. It was decided that they should not be returned. Can the hon. Gentleman assure me and the House that the Bill will not lead to further calls for the Elgin marbles and other such properties to be returned?

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that the Bill has nothing to do with anything that was taken from another country 200 years ago. That is a separate argument for another day. The Bill is about material that is being taken now, both in the United Kingdom and other countries, as I hope to show.

I welcome the Bill. For me, it is a matter of regret that it does not deal with matters such as the Parthenon sculptures. If the Bill had been in force 200 years ago, would Lord Elgin have been committing a criminal offence?

I shall set out the case in detail, referring to present-day examples. We need to consider countries such as Iraq, where in some senses similar circumstances pertain, in that there is uncertainty about who is in government, which creates the conditions for cultural objects to be removed. Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose, in the context of uncertainty of legal status and the removal of cultural objects. I shall come to that later, but for now I reiterate that the Bill has nothing to do with anything in museums that arrived there some years ago. It deals with the trade taking place now.

I thank the officers of the British Museum, who have given me invaluable assistance, as well as the all-party parliamentary archaeology group, which has almost 150 members in both Houses. The group backed the Bill with a recommendation in its recently published report, "The Current State of Archaeology in the United Kingdom".

My aim has been to keep the Bill narrowly focused, so that it can be properly considered in the time available to a private Member's Bill. I hope that the House will appreciate that it has been kept to six short clauses and that the temptation to expand its scope has been firmly resisted. The aim of the Bill, in short, is to make a contribution to the protection of archaeological sites and buildings of historical interest by drying up the market for objects taken from any such site, whether in the UK or elsewhere.

We have a framework of protection for our heritage in the UK that is established in law to protect listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments. The Bill seeks not to change the scope of that protection, but to complement it by dealing with those who sell objects that have been removed in contravention of those laws. That the Bill is necessary is a sad testament to the fact that there are some individuals who carry on flouting the protection laws and carry out illegal excavations on ancient monuments, or strip architectural elements from listed buildings. Recent cases that cause concern include the suspected removal of bronze artefacts from the Yeavering Bell hill fort in Northumbria and Roman coins from a site in Wiltshire, which are currently being dealt with by the British Museum. Both those cases were reported at the end of last year.

If there are problems in the UK, we should be aware that they can be far worse in other countries, especially where the authorities are hard-pressed with other security concerns. I worked in archaeology in Ecuador some years ago, where the illegal excavators were known as huaqueros. It was frequently a race against time for legitimate archaeologists to get to a newly discovered site before it was plundered. The name "huaquero" is local to South America and especially northern Peru. In preparing for the debate, I checked the origins of the word and my memory, and found that it comes from the Quechua word "huaca", which means a sacred place or temple and comes from Inca times. There is even a song about huaqueros, whose chorus goes:
"Huaquero, huaquero, let's go robbing graves.
Dig, dig until dawn.
Dig, dig until dusk."
One cannot get much plainer than that. Indeed, the prevalence of the trade is such that there are local words for the perpetrators in many countries. In Guatemala, they are known as huecheros, from the Maya word for armadillo, "huech". In Italy, they go by the name "tombaroli", and in the UK, they are generally referred to as nighthawks. However, those who loot archaeological sites will always remain huaqueros to me.

The UK has an interest in such activities because so much of the international art market is based here, especially in London. It is important to state that mainstream legitimate dealers in antiquities take great care not to handle illegal property. The main dealers' organisations such as the British Art Market Federation and the Antiquities Dealers Association have played an active part in the panel working on the matter. Legitimate dealers have an interest in seeing the Bill passed and have nothing to fear from it, as they will be protected from buying such tainted artefacts by the good practice that they follow. Their interest is in seeing those who are less scrupulous and work in the illegal market prevented from undercutting legitimate trade by buying in cheap artefacts of dubious provenance.

In particular, we can assist dealers by enhancing the databases that already exist for informing them what artefacts have been stolen. Those databases are run by a number of organisations such as Interpol, the main law enforcement agencies such as the Metropolitan police and the FBI and private organisations such as the Art Loss Register. In respect of archaeological material, which cannot be registered on a database because, by definition, we do not know what it is while it is still in the ground, we have evolved another system—the International Council of Museums or ICOM red list. That system has successfully covered west African artefacts by listing a range of types of artefacts that are known generally to be stolen, and it is now being extended to south America. It covers some very important material that is being looted from south America—something that originated from a recent conference between ICOM officials and officials of the Colombian Government. Some very important progress can be made in establishing risks and publishing that information widely to dealers.

We also need information on each other's heritage legislation so that dealers can understand whether something has been taken in contravention of the local heritage laws. Some work is being done at European level by the European heritage information or HEREIN network, which involves all the heritage departments in the Council of Europe. Its website contains important and helpful information allowing people to see what cultural laws apply in any particular country within the jurisdictions covered by Council of Europe members. That could be helpfully extended, particularly among signatories to the UNESCO convention on the prevention of trade in illicit cultural objects, so that a much wider range of legal information is available to people.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any moves in the European Union to harmonise laws protecting cultural objects such as those described in the Bill? As he says, one of the problems is the disparity between different countries. If everybody were to operate under the same regime, bearing in mind the international nature of the trade, it would make life an awful lot easier.

I am aware that conventions have been worked through quite successfully. In particular, the Granada convention on architectural heritage and the Valetta convention on archaeological heritage have been adopted by the United Kingdom. While those conventions do not have the legal implications of an EU mandate, in signing up to them we are necessarily signing up to certain responsibilities that will help to harmonise our common understanding of what we mean by protection of architectural and archaeological heritage. There are some very positive moves in that regard. I congratulate the Government on having made the UK a signatory to the UNESCO convention; again, we are committing ourselves to a path of common understanding of what kind of measures are necessary to protect heritage internationally. The Bill is intended to support the Department's work. Important harmonising work is taking place, but not through the scary, more politically contentious mechanism of directives.

As well as having databases of legislation and artefacts, we can assist dealers by working with the organisations that represent them on the codes of practice that they follow. Indeed, I have been impressed by the work, which has come through the panel, that shows the care that dealers take to ensure that they are not buying material with an illegal provenance.

I have set out the background to the Bill and the support for it and I should now like to describe as straightforwardly as possible its operation. It establishes the concept of a tainted "cultural object", which is
"an object of historical, architectural or archaeological interest"
that has been removed in circumstances that constitute an offence in the jurisdiction from which it has been taken. That means that the Bill covers objects from anywhere in the world. A dealer who knowingly trades in such an artefact will commit an offence under the measure and be liable for the penalties that it sets out.

The penalties have been designed to mirror those for offences of handling stolen goods. To obtain a conviction, the authorities must prove that an individual knowingly traded in tainted objects. That provides an adequate defence for dealers who follow good practice in checking the provenance of the material that they buy. The impact of the Bill on reputable dealers will be minimal; they recognise that in their support for the measure.

However, the Bill makes it clear that anyone in the illegitimate market who considers trading in illicit antiquities cannot do that without considerable legal risk. Inability to dispose of such material will act as a serious deterrent to those who would engage in looting archaeological sites or historic buildings.

Wearing my lawyer's hat, I am worried that the Bill does not define "object" per se. Would "object" include human remains? The Select Committee report refers specifically to them. Would the Bill cover human remains? Would it cover earth samples from a site? They are potentially important archaeologically, but may not be included in the common or garden definition of "object".

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention human remains. That is a contentious subject to which other legal considerations apply. If the Bill progresses, such detailed tests can be applied in Standing Committee. We have tried to make the definition of what constitutes a tainted object as broad as possible. Although the Bill does not try to create a broad legal liability—it is specific in the measure—we tried to devise a broad definition of the objects. Clause 2(6) refers to remains. However, we would need to have a further discussion on the breadth of the definition and its application to human remains, and time will not allow that today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can accept that response for the moment.

The Bill is urgently needed. This week, I received a visit from the police. It was most welcome because they were officers from SCD6—the art and antiquities unit of the Metropolitan police. Detective Chief Inspector Tristram Hicks and Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley provided helpful information on the scale of the trade that they are trying to tackle. They referred to the National Criminal Intelligence Service's threat assessment. In 2001, it identified art and antiques crime as a level 2 threat to national security because of the link between theft and transport of such items and organised crime. Terrorists do whatever organised crime does, and the lines between who carries out such theft are therefore blurred. However, it is clear from NCIS, special branch and FBI information that there is a link between the removal and transport of cultural objects and the funding of terrorism. The police gave examples of specific cases, which hon. Members may find informative.

In September 2001, the art and antiquities unit intercepted and seized £3 million of Bactrian art. We are not therefore talking about odd bits and pieces. The pieces are 3,000 years old and had been looted by members of the Northern Alliance and sold via Pakistan to fund the war effort against the Taliban regime. They are currently being held by New Scotland Yard, and are awaiting restoration when the Kabul museum has been rebuilt.

It is important to note that looting frequently takes place in conflict zones, and we clearly need to recognise that, in the context of what is currently happening in Mesopotamia, where a huge amount of cultural material will be looted. People from various unpleasant factions—I do not want to identify who they are now—will seek to market that material in places across Europe where they can command the best prices. The retrieval of that kind of material is essential to the nation-building exercises that have to take place in post-conflict zones, and I hope that the Bactrian art that is now being held by Scotland Yard will make its way back to the museum in Kabul. I know that the Ethiopians have been very keen to retrieve a lot of their material so as to have a network of museums of which they can be proud, and I think that there will be similar demands in the future from other countries that have suffered conflict.

In 2000, a valuable Indian stone frieze was seized from a London auction house by the art and antiquities unit. That piece was being sold by Sri Lankan terrorists to fund their war effort. In terms of the scale of what is going on, in the last two years 300 pieces have been seized from Egypt, many of which were fakes. There is an interesting mix between the fake trade and the genuine trade, in that people try to hide genuine pieces in boxes of fakes. Eight hundred pieces, with a value of between £3 million and £4 million, have been seized from Afghanistan, Pakistan and eastern Iran, and 20 pieces have been seized from India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. I am told that Cambodia is no longer one of the major sources because everything that can be taken from there has been taken. That is a crying shame, because Cambodia is a nation that desperately needs to regain a sense of its national identity, having lost a lot of its very important material.

Two pieces, valued at between £3 million and £5 million, have been seized from Iraq, and three hundred pieces were seized from Italy, including a shipwreck that was destroyed by UK suspects. There are questions about how shipwrecks will be dealt with, because they are also covered by certain conventions, but I hope that material taken from shipwrecks will fall within the scope of the Bill. That is something that I want to tease out in Committee.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. On the subject of shipwrecks, he will be aware that there have been a number of programmes on television recently about divers going in and retrieving objects. What would be the position under the Bill of those shipwrecks that occur outside territorial waters and do not therefore fall under the jurisdiction of any single country?

That is another matter that I would like to tease out. My understanding is that shipwrecks have the status of protected sites and, if an offence were committed by removing material from a shipwreck within territorial waters, those objects would become tainted under the Bill. If that were to happen in international waters, however, those responsible would not be subject to any national jurisdiction. In those circumstances, the objects would not necessarily fall within the scope of the Bill.

I also hope that we can put a stop to the nonsense that occurs at the moment when material is brought forward by people who claim to have recovered it in international waters, when that is not the case. Such cases would clearly be a matter for a police investigation, but I hope that we would be able to prove that the objects had been taken from national waters, that the national legislation had been breached, and that the objects had thereby become tainted.

To finish off my list, two pieces from Yemen were seized, and three from Morocco. On the urgency of the Bill, I am told that, in relation to all the objects that I have described that are suspected of having been looted, it has been possible to bring only one criminal prosecution to date. That is related to the difficulty of proving the offence of theft that took place in the first place. The Bill seeks to assist in such cases by allowing the prosecuting authorities to prove a breach of national heritage legislation, as opposed to having to prove theft. We hope that that will bring more objects within the scope of the legislation. I am told that there is one ongoing investigation in which the parties who had to be interviewed in order to demonstrate that theft had taken place were involved with the Iraqi authorities. That investigation has had to be put on hold for the time being.

I hope that the House accepts the case for this legislation. It will make an important contribution to the protection of cultural heritage at home and abroad. It is well targeted, and limited in scope. It also has widespread support both inside and outside Parliament, and I believe that it is timely and urgently needed to tackle a serious and growing problem. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.34 pm

Like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), I am a member of the all-party archaeology group, so I am more than happy to support this excellent Bill. He has already touched on the July 2000 Select Committee report, which I hope the Minister has read. There is also the excellent first report of our all-party group, which, apart from considering the state of archaeology in the UK, made specific recommendations on the trade in illicit cultural objects.

I want to clarify what is meant by "cultural object", as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) asked about that. For example, UNESCO says that such objects are
"broadly defined, and as well as works of art it includes mineral and palaeontological specimens as well as antiquities, objects of ethnographic interest and elements of historic buildings and moments which have been dismembered."
That gives an idea of what we are dealing with.

What the hon. Lady is saying is helpful, but, of course, "cultural object" is defined in clause 2(1) as

"an object of historical, architectural or archaeological interest."
Does she agree that human remains, particularly those of some antiquity, would probably be of archaeological interest and would therefore fall under that definition?

I do not think that that is necessarily the case, although we could argue about it, probably at length, in Committee. As far as I am concerned, certain palaeontological specimens would be covered by the Bill, such as rare fossils. The hon. Gentleman is talking about human remains, but where do those start to become palaeontological rather than purely archaeological? There is a question involving definitions and boundaries here.

Whether something is palaeontological is one thing, but an object would not have to be stone age to be covered by the Bill. For example, I and most archaeologists would argue that remains found under the city of York, or Jorvik, which is its Viking name, are of archaeological interest. Human remains may be much more recent, and that example relates to about 1,000 or perhaps 2,000 years ago, although I had better not go into Viking history.

I am advised that the figure is 1,200 years. Such remains would be a darn site more recent than those from the stone age.

Of course they would be a lot more recent. As my hon. Friends have just said to me, the hon. Gentleman should stop digging. That is my advice to him at this stage.

Some people think that the issue is minor, but I do not think that it is minor at all. It is fundamentally important. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam touched on the criminal activities involved in dealing in illicit cultural objects, but we must all consider the fact that by removing objects and selling them illegally people are stealing history. They are denying others knowledge that they could gain through studying archaeological artefacts in situ, which would give us the context.

For example, the discovery of Roman amphorae in Herculaneum would not raise any eyebrows, but finding some in Orkney or in India would create a lot of excitement, as it would be significant. However, if an object is taken away and out of its context, it becomes almost meaningless. We are talking about stealing history—stealing culture itself.

Estimating the value of that market is particularly difficult, but we should consider insurance claims in the UK for stolen artworks, which amount to about £300 million. If only a small proportion of those stolen works found their way into the illegal market, a great volume of money would be involved. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam gave a few examples, and I want to add some of my own to the debate to show the scale of the problem that we are dealing with. In 1997, an arrest in Germany brought to light hundreds of icons that had been stolen from 46 to 50 churches in Cyprus.

It is interesting that my hon. Friend has referred to that incident. I suspect that there may not be time for me to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that was one of the issues to which I wanted to refer in particular. As my hon. Friend knows, I have an interest in Cyprus. I have seen the frescos that were looted from the occupied zone in northern Cyprus, and what happened is important. I pay tribute to the late Dino Leventis, who was one of the great movers behind attempts to deal with the illicit art trade, especially in Byzantine artefacts and remains. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but he played a great part in dealing with these problems.

That intervention shows the nature of the problem. Cyprus has been a particular difficulty, given the political set-up there. Political problems and instability can create an environment in which such thefts, plundering and looting can occur.

In 1998, a police raid on a villa in Sicily revealed antiquities stolen from just one site that were worth more than £20 million. I visited Sicily last year, and I was astonished by the lax attitude taken by the Italian authorities in some of their monuments. As I was going round Roman villas and Greek temples, people were picking at the edges of Roman mosaics and putting tiles in their pockets, but the guards did not bat an eyelid. At the Greek temples, people were picking up small stones and putting them in their backpacks. I was amazed that no one seemed to regard picking up a bit here and a bit there as a problem. Much art and artefacts are stolen from sites in Italy, and tend to find their way on to the illegal and illicit markets in London.

Mayan sites are a particular problem in South America. It is estimated that about 1,000 pieces of Mayan pottery and other artefacts go on to the markets in the USA every month. Many sites in South America are looted and plundered.

The illicit trade covers a wide variety of offences. It may just be a failure to get a proper export licence. That is at the lower level of crimes related to cultural objects. At the upper end, people steal valuable items to order. That is increasingly associated with organised crime. There are links with drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, links with terrorist groups have increasingly been established during investigations into stolen cultural objects.

Sometimes, the object itself, whether it is artwork or an artefact, is used as currency in drug deals. Instead of money changing hands, it is stolen artworks. There is a connection with money laundering and the laundering of artworks carried out in the illegal drugs trade.

The hon. Lady refers to the coincidence of the stolen art trade and the drugs trade. That reminded me of an incident that police officers told me about, which showed how things can sadly go wrong. A group of ancient heads were recovered at a port in the United Kingdom. The officers involved suspected that they contained drugs, and tried to ascertain whether that was the case with the aid of a Black & Decker. Given the state that the heads were left in, they had less value than when they arrived.

They would certainly be less valuable after being attacked by a Black & Decker!

There has been a great increase in this illicit trade over recent years, for a number of reasons. One is the opening up of areas in, for instance, Asia and Africa. New sites are constantly coming to light, and are being plundered. Moreover, the looters have better means of detection—better metal detectors, for example. I have heard that some are even beginning to use geophysical surveys to establish where objects are under the earth so that they can dig them up and get out quickly. The internet is providing many new ways of selling the objects, and the police are finding it difficult to track them down.

There has been phenomenal destruction of sites in Egypt. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam knows of the case of Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, but at the time of his arrest he had been smuggling antiquities out of Egypt since the early 1990s. In an attempt to disguise them, he would dip them in wax or plastic and then paint them to make them look like cheap souvenirs. Some of the stolen goods have been returned to Egypt, and those—let alone the ones that have not been found—demonstrate the sheer volume of the illicit trade in which he was involved.

I would have mentioned a lacuna in the Bill in my speech if I had had time. Clause 3 refers to the acquisition, disposal, import or export of an item, but not to the alteration of an item. What if someone acquires a piece legitimately, subsequently discovers it to be bogus—or rather tainted—and alters it, but does nothing to dispose of it? I think that that too should be an offence.

According to my recollection of the Bill, it is a question of knowingly purchasing antiquities—

I think we can discuss that in Committee.

Let me list some of the objects handled by the character I mentioned earlier. There were 25 papyrus texts dating from 300 BC, Coptic textiles, a sixth-dynasty limestone relief of a seated woman, terracotta statues, Graeco-Roman mummy masks, a bronze statue of the god Horus, a royal head carved in granite, coloured reliefs from Egyptian tombs and 35 items looted from the tomb of Hetep-Ka. Further items have subsequently been returned.

That was just one individual dealing with some sites in Egypt. It gives us an idea of the extent to which Egypt is being plundered to feed markets that are largely in the west.

I am also becoming increasingly concerned about looting in Mali, which has more archaeological sites in Africa than any other country except Egypt. A recent survey of just 125 sq m discovered that 45 per cent. of the 834 archaeological sites in the area had already been looted, 17 per cent. of them to a serious extent. Looting is spreading, and it is taking place before proper investigation is possible. We are losing history: history is being stolen. The percentage of sites looted in Mali represents a phenomenal theft of history. Our knowledge of human culture simply vanishes in such cases.

In 1997 and subsequently, the magazine British Archaeology has reported that looted objects are still pouring into the country. That is why the Bill is necessary. We must create a criminal offence: this loophole has been there for far too long.

Objects are being removed from sites in the United Kingdom, too. It is an offence to remove an object from a scheduled ancient monument but not all ancient monuments in the UK are scheduled. I believe that about 20,000 sites are not scheduled, which means that there is phenomenal potential for those sites to be looted.

Even from the scheduled monuments there is looting. The Roman site of Corbridge at Hadrian's wall has been looted on many occasions. One night, about 55 holes were dug into that Roman fort by night-hawks trying to find coins and other objects to sell.

The other site in the UK that caused great concern was Wanborough near Guildford. The horde of coins that was plundered there was worth about £2 million. Again, we have lost the context: we do not know how that find relates to the religious buildings that were on that site.

Although it is not touched on by the Bill, I hope that English and Welsh law can be changed to mirror Scottish law. In Scotland all new finds are property of the Crown and that can help to deal with looting, whereas in England and Wales, new finds are not property of the Crown unless they are deemed treasure, and treasure is determined by the metal content of that find. That is a great loophole in the law. Making all new finds in archaeological sites property of the Crown could help to stop some of the looting of our ancient monuments.

There is another problem with the definition of monument in the Bill. It would not catch, for example, people who were simply using a metal detector in an open field if there were no building nearby. My hon. Friend is right when she talks about treasure and metal content but other objects may be found through field-walking in an area that is of general interest but does not contain an excavation or any other site that is defined as a monument in the Bill. Would she like to comment on that?

Someone who is metal-detecting or field-walking may find something and remove what they find without proper excavation. While there are good metal detectors who work with archaeologists on sites, if some people detect something and dig through, they can destroy the archaeology and that is a worry.

If anyone wants to appreciate the sheer volume of the problems relating to stealing culture, they should read a book that was published by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge about three years ago called "Stealing History", the phrase I used earlier—people are stealing our history. That book details many of the most serious cases of plundering and looting of archaeological sites in the UK. It also details cases involving Khmer temples, mosaics from Kanakariá, Cyprus, which may be the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon alluded, Lydian treasure from Turkey, the Moche tombs of Sipán in Peru, the Wanborough Romano-British temple and many others, including those in Mali that I mentioned.

It is a phenomenal problem. We have not taken it seriously until now. The Bill goes some way to dealing with that problem. I hope that every hon. Member in the House today will support the Bill and that it clears all its stages as soon as possible, because we cannot allow our history and heritage to be stolen at such an alarming rate any longer.

1.54 pm

I rise to support the Bill. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said, its genesis lies in the report produced by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, on which I have the honour to serve, although I was not serving on it when the report was issued in July 2000. I had decided to take a brief break from that Committee and sit on the Home Affairs Committee instead. After a year and a half, I decided to rejoin the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Apart from anything else, the Ministers in that Department are much more interesting than Home Office Ministers.

I was relieved to hear that the Bill will not cover cultural objects that have been in the possession of British museums—I consciously use the plural—for several years. The Elgin marbles are a rather controversial group of objects that the Greek Government would like to obtain. As I said, I am delighted that they would not fall within the ambit of the Bill, because the Elgin marbles have been better cared for in the United Kingdom than they would have been if they had been kept in Greece. Over the past 50 years, cultural objects kept in Greece have suffered huge corrosion.

Although we have been reassured by its promoter that the Bill would have no effect on, for example, the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, does my hon. Friend share my worry that the Bill would strengthen the argument for returning the Elgin marbles, because it would alter the atmosphere and environment in which the debate takes place?

I share my right hon. Friend's concern, which is why I intervened on the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam at the outset to ask about that specific point. I was greatly reassured and I know that people both inside and outside the House will note his response. When the Minister makes his winding-up speech, I hope that he will emphasise that this important Bill does not cover objects such as the Elgin marbles.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) made an important point when she said that once an object is removed from its original place, without detailed records kept of where, how and in what condition it was found, it becomes almost worthless, certainly so far as archaeologists are concerned. She was right that it is vital to keep records of where objects are found.

I come from a seaside town and often saw people walking around with metal detectors. I hope that whenever such people find something—whether treasure trove or not—they record where they found it and, preferably, do not move it until archaeologists and other experts are brought to the site. It is worth noting that Israel has a separate police force, the architectural police, to deal with the problem. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes has witnessed, as I have, people picking up objects in the area of the Parthenon, and in Herculaneum and Pompeii, for example. Remarkably, the guards simply stand there, and seem to do nothing but watch as objects are picked up and put into rucksacks. Sometimes objects are even broken off buildings and put into rucksacks, which is truly extraordinary.

In places such as Herculaneum, Pompeii and Villa Imperiale in Sicily, I saw people breaking bits off: they were not loose bits lying in the soil nearby; people were actually chipping away at the edge of mosaics.

That is a crime in every sense of the word. It is not only Europe that is affected. I am a keen walker and I have been to Inca sites in Peru, Mayan sites in Belize and the Yucatan peninsula, where there are no guards at all. It is worth noting, although it does not fall within the ambit of the Bill, that they have the problem not only of people breaking off objects for sale or for souvenirs, but of people clambering all over sites—I must confess that to some degree I, too, have committed that crime—and presumably damaging those objects of antiquity. That has to be wrong. Such objects tell us about our whole heritage. That is true not only of the nation of Britain, but of the nations that existed in the old Mayan and Inca civilisations. They, too, represent the heritage of our planet and the human race.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam raised an interesting point about shipwrecks. Time and again, we hear about objects that are retrieved from shipwrecks. Incidentally, huge sums of money are generated by people sponsoring those archaeological investigations into shipwrecks and selling the objects that are pulled out. That gives rise to the question of whether those objects were retrieved from shipwrecks in territorial waters or outside territorial waters on the high seas. The provenance of such objects is unknown. It is imperative that when the Bill passes through Committee—on the assumption that it will, as I hope, receive its Second Reading—it includes a clear definition to ensure that it covers even objects that are found on the high seas: otherwise, that would be a major lacuna.

The hon. Gentleman may be comforted to know that work is being undertaken on that in relation to the UNESCO convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage of 2001, so there is a multi-front push aimed at dealing with the problem. The hon. Gentleman is right that some situations at sea require specific international agreement.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reassurance.

I hope that the Bill will receive considerable support in the House, given that it is welcomed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and that it will protect not only the heritage of other nations, but that of our own. The Bill is rather like the previous Bill that we debated, which dealt with dog's mess and will help to control the activities of people who look after dogs, in that it will control the activities of people who go around with metal detectors—a perfectly reasonable activity—by ensuring that they do not knowingly, or unknowingly, because they simply cannot be bothered to find out about it, remove objects of archaeological interest. Let us never forget that those objects tell a story about our past, and by knowing about our past we can perhaps learn something about our future.

2.2 pm

I want to make a few brief remarks to put on record my support for this important Bill. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on promoting it. In many ways, it is unique, because it will affect the work of three Departments—the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is represented in the Chamber today by the Minister.

Those who think that looting and pilfering from archaeological and artistic sites is an activity that is engaged in by petty criminals on the margins need a wake-up call, and the Bill provides that. Such activities are increasingly linked to the world of organised international crime—not only drug trafficking, but terrorism. It is no surprise to learn that organisations such as the Taliban that show such disdain for human life have a similar disregard for our cultural heritage and are willing to trade in, and on, it.

Of course, nobody wants to restrict the legitimate art trade. It is a great joy to be able to enjoy exhibits from other countries in our own country. I do not want to trespass too far into the debate about the British museum, which is so full of objects from abroad that some people—not me—refer to it as the British swag bag. We like to be able to enjoy those objects. I am sure that many hon. Members have had the opportunity of visiting the wonderful Aztec exhibition, but Mexico, traditionally, does not allow artistic objects out of the country.

While we want opportunities to see artistic objects from abroad in our own country and there is also a legitimate art trade, we must clamp down on looting and the illicit trade in objects pilfered from artistic sites. We want to improve access to sites of our own cultural heritage, as well as stamping down on international terrorism and drug running, where there are so many financial links to the trade in illicit objects. We need the Bill.

As has been said, many artistic objects from Italy are traded through London. Members of the all-party group on Italy, of which I am chairman, have been in touch with the Italian Government about that trade. The group supports the Bill and would be pleased to work with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and the Government, if they support the measure, on strengthening bilateral co-operation to clamp down on the illicit trade in artistic objects from Italy.

2.5 pm

It is a pleasure to speak on the Bill, which was so clearly presented by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). The Bill has supporters on both sides of the House, including the all-party group on archaeology, ably represented by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) who made a well-informed contribution to the debate—as did the promoter of the Bill.

The Bill can trace its own cultural heritage back to the previous Parliament, when the then Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport conducted an inquiry into all aspects of the illicit trade in cultural property. The Committee's report, published in July 2000, recommended creating an offence of trading in certain categories of stolen or illegally excavated cultural property.

The Committee's work was complemented by the establishment, in May 2000, by the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, of a ministerial advisory panel on the illicit trade in cultural objects, otherwise known as ITAP. As we have heard, the panel was chaired by an eminent barrister and, in December 2000, it recommended a similar criminal offence. ITAP defined the offence as to
"dishonestly import, deal in, or be in possession of any cultural object, knowing or believing that the object was stolen, illegally excavated, or removed from any monument or wreck contrary to local law".

Does my hon. Friend think that the locus of the Bill would cover icons stolen, or given away illegally, from the Soviet Union as its Government were collapsing and needed hard currency? Does he consider that the Bill could cover works of art stolen during the second world war, where there is no acknowledged owner but where the object originated in a state occupied by German forces?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I understand that the provisions will apply only to items stolen after the Bill comes into force; it would not be retrospective in the way that he suggests. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend has recorded an important point to which the Standing Committee will doubtless return.

We understand that, like us, the Government are broadly sympathetic to such a measure, but that constraints on parliamentary time have meant that it has not been possible to enact it. The Bill would remedy that.

The Bill makes it an offence for a person or corporate body knowingly to acquire or dispose of, import or export a
"tainted cultural object … of historical, architectural or archaeological interest".
Such an object would be tainted, as defined in clause 2, if
"it is removed from a building or structure of historical, architectural or archaeological interest where the object has at any time formed part of the building or structure, or … it is removed from a monument of such interest".
That means that the Bill is wide in its geographical scope and in the type of situation for which it provides protection. Geographically, it applies to
"the United Kingdom or elsewhere,"
thus avoiding a prescriptive list of countries or specific jurisdictions that are to be covered by its conditions. The Bill would make it an offence to trade knowingly in tainted cultural objects from whichever country around the globe they happen to originate.

The Bill also encompasses a variety of types of location for which it provides protection. It potentially covers theft from situations as diverse as ancient monuments, archaeological digs, iron age hill forts, maritime shipwrecks and military battlefields. As someone with a strong interest in military history, I am especially pleased to see the latter two categories covered. I happen to believe that naval shipwrecks and battlefields, as places that recall the ultimate sacrifice, are worthy of particular respect.

I want to provide some practical examples of how the Bill might operate. During the second world war, my father, Reginald Francois, served for a time at Scapa Flow, the great natural harbour in the Orkneys, which was the principal base of the then home fleet of the Royal Navy. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed by a German submarine. She still lies at the bottom of the harbour as a war grave. Moreover, in 1919, shortly after the conclusion of the first world war, a number of capital ships of the German high seas fleet were deliberately scuttled. They still lie on the sea bed at Scapa Flow. Official diving expeditions regularly visit those ships, as is right and proper. However, there are sometimes unofficial expeditions, when attempts are made to remove artefacts, some of which might ultimately come up for sale to less-than-scrupulous private collectors.

I can give a land-based example from the heart of my constituency—Rayleigh castle, the oldest castle in Essex. On occasion, individuals have attempted to remove small items from what is left of that fortification. I am therefore pleased to welcome this measure this afternoon—both as the Opposition spokesman and as an hon. Member with constituency interests. The Bill will help to protect sites in my constituency.

Importantly, the Bill does not seek to impose a restriction on the trade, import and export of cultural objects per se. To seek to create a much wider restriction would prove unworkable and, in any case, would be likely to fall foul of international law. The United Kingdom enjoys a specialised, yet very important, trade in legitimate cultural objects. That trade should not be put at risk by overly restrictive legislation. In that regard, the Bill requires a relatively high burden of proof. I think that it was deliberately designed to do so. In order to gain a conviction under this legislation, the police—or, in certain circumstances, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise—working with the Crown Prosecution Service, would need to prove that the accused knew or believed that the object was tainted and acted dishonestly in the acquisition, disposal, import or export of the object. It would therefore be difficult, for example, to convict a person who had purchased a tainted cultural object but had done so in all good faith that it had been acquired legitimately. Nevertheless, where such tests are met, the Bill—which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years—would, we hope, have sufficient deterrent effect to reduce the number of incidents of such cultural crimes occurring in future. That sentence means that the measure is by no means toothless.

The regulatory impact assessment relating to the Bill suggests that its provisions would not be overly burdensome. As the explanatory notes that have helpfully been prepared by officials in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport point out, the impact of this legislation on charities or voluntary organisations is likely to be minimal. The businesses primarily affected will be those operating in the areas of art, fine architecture and the antiquities trade—including dealers and auctioneers. However, importantly, the Bill should help to regulate that trade for legitimate businesses, thus providing protection for them to carry on their lawful business, while making it more difficult for unscrupulous and illegal traders to operate. That must be welcome.

Does my hon. Friend accept, too, that legitimate businesses and traders in those objects always check their provenance and, therefore, because they would not knowingly trade in objects that come within ambit of the Bill, they will not be affected by it?

That is exactly my understanding of how the Bill is designed to operate, and it must be good that it seeks to uphold the integrity of those who act within the law and to punish those who work outside it.

Taking account of all those factors and in wanting to reiterate the important point that a number of my hon. Friends made about the Elgin marbles, I wish to say that, overall, this is a worthy and relatively non-contentious Bill. Her Majesty's Opposition are therefore pleased that the Bill is being given a proper Second Reading on the Floor of the House. Finally, as this represents my debut at the Dispatch Box, I am doubly glad to wish the Bill well as it passes towards its consideration in Committee.

2.15 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) on a very fine debut at the Dispatch Box. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on securing time for this important Bill and, indeed, on the manner in which he introduced it. I am also grateful to hon. Members for the fact that we have had a wide-ranging debate, in a relatively short time, on an absorbing subject that concerns so many across the political spectrum.

I should like to draw the House's attention to the background to the Bill and to the Government's most recent statement on protecting and sustaining the historic environment. In "The Historic Environment: A Force for Our Future", the Government express our commitment to protecting both the international heritage and the cultural legacy of this nation. Of particular concern to us in recent years is the well-documented rise in the international illicit traffic in art and antiquities. Apart from threatening the integrity and commercial stability of the United Kingdom's art market—a point made a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Rayleigh—that activity contributes, through plundering monuments and sites, to the wholesale destruction of the world's archaeological and architectural heritage.

The increasing number of private culture consumers and the rise of culture tourism on a global scale have combined to open up new markets and stimulate demand. New technology has also revolutionised the means of detection and destruction. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) wanted to say more about that, and she certainly could have talked about the fact that the bulldozer, sticks of dynamite, power tools and metal detectors, which have been mentioned, have replaced the pick and the shovel—sometimes with disastrous results.

Far from injecting hard currency into hard-pressed local economies, local people usually receive very little in return for destroying their own cultural heritage. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes listed places that are poor by any standard but have great cultural treasures that ought to benefit the people of those areas, and we must do everything that we can to help them.

Asset-stripping that finite resource is, by definition, economically unsustainable. Not only are we concerned about the violent separation of major archaeological finds from their geographical and social context, but we are now more aware of the link between trafficking in antiquities and other illegal and, indeed, organised criminal activities—notably, of course, drug smuggling, money laundering and the corruption of impoverished bureaucracies overseas.

Meanwhile, London, by virtue of its long-established commercial function, has become known as a centre of the global supply network in stolen and unlawfully removed cultural property. The pattern of movement and dispersal through a chain of dealers is a regular practice and details of provenance—as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) told us—can become lost in the process, and it is very important that we address that. Licit and illicit antiquities become hopelessly mixed, and looted artefacts acquire a patina of legitimacy, as dealers and auction houses can ultimately sell them without provenance.

Despite the many positive steps in this country, particularly in London, towards self-regulation, it is widely acknowledged that many antiquities surface on the London market without any declared previous history or archaeological context. The British antiquities market depends for its continuing success on the standards and perceived integrity of its participants. Indeed, the auction houses and established galleries, have a strong business interest in the elimination of the illicit market. Dealers' associations affiliated to the British Art Market Federation maintain that their members have made considerable efforts in the past decade to distance themselves from such traffic, including, for example, by adopting voluntary codes of conduct under which participants undertake to the best of their ability not to import, export or transfer the ownership where they have "reasonable cause to believe" that an imported object has been stolen, illegally exported or illegally removed or excavated.

In July 2000, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), conducted an inquiry and published a report, "Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade". The inquiry brought together the opinions of national Governments, archaeological bodies, the antiquities trade, journalists, cultural groups, police and other law enforcement agencies. The Government welcomed the Committee's recommendations on proactive measures to prevent the UK from being used as a haven for illicit traffic in cultural property. Following the recommendation to introduce a criminal offence of
"dealing in cultural property in designated categories from designated countries which has been stolen or illicitly excavated in or illegally exported from those counties after the entry into force of the legislation, with a defence in law based on the exercise of due diligence as defined in that legislation",
my Department appointed an expert advisory panel to review legislative and non-legislative options for action. The panel's membership, as we have heard, was drawn from the worlds of archaeology, museums and the art trade, and its report, published in December 2000, was a significant landmark in the development of public policy in this area, not least because it represented for the first time a consensus between all groups interested in the trade in cultural objects on practical measures to improve the current situation.

The panel recommended that
"to the extent it is not covered by existing criminal law, it be a criminal offence dishonestly to import, deal in, or be in possession of any cultural object, knowing or believing that the object was stolen, illegally excavated, or removed from any monument or wreck contrary to local law".
The provisions in the Bill before the House have arisen as a result of that recommendation, which the Government accepted in "The Historic Environment: A Force for Our Future". The Bill is not party political, but has arisen from a need in the heritage and trade sectors. The policy has Government support, but essentially it has been driven and informed, under the aegis of the Select Committee and the illicit trade advisory panel, by those who will be most affected by the measure.

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving way and for his kind remarks earlier. He is right that the Bill is not party political, but may I press him on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the Elgin marbles? As the legislation is not retrospective, will he confirm for the record that it will not in any way affect the status of the Elgin marbles, and that that remains the position of Her Majesty's Government?

I can confirm that the Parthenon sculptures, as my hon. Friend refers to them, would certainly not be covered by the legislation.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam stressed the importance of international co-operation. Certainly, the more co-operation and co-ordination that we can get, the easier the task will be and, hopefully, the fewer the number of prosecutions under the Bill when it comes into force.

Among the other key recommendations of the ministerial advisory panel was accession to the 1970 UNESCO convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. The convention makes provision to secure the protection of the cultural heritage of the United Kingdom and other signatory countries. People should remember that the convention protects our cultural heritage as well as that of other countries. The convention is not retroactive; it is applicable only to cultural objects stolen or illicitly exported from one state party to another state party after the date of entry into force of the convention for both states concerned. The UNESCO convention has been adopted by 93 countries to date, including in recent months Albania and Rwanda. Such widespread adoption enhances its value as a means of protecting cultural heritage in the UK and other signatory countries.

On the subject of states, can my hon. Friend clarify the applicability of the Bill to the Crown? Many of the bodies that may be dealing in art objects may be Crown bodies in one form or another. Some of the museums, for example, may be Crown bodies.

I do not know, but I shall try to find out for my hon. Friend. I am sure that he will have hours of play with that in Committee.

In completing the formalities of acceptance on 31 October 2002, the UK Government sent out a powerful signal both to those who do so much damage to the world's cultural heritage and to the international community that the UK is serious about playing its full part in the international effort to stamp out the illicit trafficking in cultural objects.

The need for a criminal offence is at the heart of the Bill. Action on the matter was considered too important to be left to the vagaries of private law, and a do-nothing option is not viable, nor is a mere amendment to the existing offences under the Theft Act 1968. Given the continued and continuing growth of the illicit traffic in cultural objects, experience shows that voluntary codes of due diligence are limited in their effect on the criminal element of the trade, which ignores them. The panel has advised, and the Government agree, that a pre-emptive measure such as the creation of a new criminal offence to counter the illicit traffic in unlawfully removed cultural objects is the best solution.

It is worth remembering that until recently, the UK was branded as an internationally renowned centre of illicit trade in antiquities. It is true that for the previous 30 years or so, the UK stood on the sidelines of decisive international action against illicit traffic in art and antiquities. However, today the British art and antiquities market is operating in a very different climate. Since publication of the recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2000 and of the ministerial advisory panel in December of the same year, there has been dramatic progress on measures to combat the looting of archaeological sites and the unlawful trafficking in cultural property. The Government have recently become a state party to the UNESCO convention and are working to introduce a package of measures designed to strengthen their treaty obligations, central to which is the creation of a new criminal offence of dealing unlawfully in cultural objects.

The Government acknowledge the wide-ranging support for the Bill across the House. That support cuts across party interests and across the often mutually exclusive worlds of archaeology and the antiquities trade. I am pleased to see that the Bill is endorsed by the all-party parliamentary archaeology group in its recent report on the current state of archaeology in the United Kingdom. Once again, let me say how pleased I am to offer the support of the Government for the measure. I commend the Bill to the House.

With the leave of the House, I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this interesting debate and commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No.63 ( Committal of Bills).