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Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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If she will make a statement about cultural objects recently stolen from Iraq. [113826]

The Government deplore the criminal looting and theft of Iraq's cultural heritage. The treasures belong to the Iraqi people and form a vital part of their democratic future. With other countries, we are engaged in a range of measures to safeguard against further theft, to see the return of stolen artefacts and to develop an international database of stolen items. We also support domestic legislation, introduced by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), to create a new criminal offence of dealing in stolen treasure.

I welcome that response, but the Secretary of State will be aware that the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, wrote in the New Statesman this week that he frantically telephoned No. 10, the Secretary of State for Defence and herself before the war to say that measures should be in place to protect Iraq's cultural heritage. He said that the response was nothing in particular and his calls did not lead to any action. Will the Secretary of State give the House an account of the response? Can we now have a co-ordinated worldwide effort to recover the artefacts? Has she spoken to her US counterpart about US citizens, including soldiers, who may have stolen these items? Could they be prosecuted under UK law?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing interest in this important issue. Having read the director's interview, rather than the authored piece in the New Statesman, I simply do not recognise the attributed comments from the many conversations that I have had with him, or from the collaboration with the Government that he has so fulsomely praised. Yes, there is an international effort to achieve the restitution of stolen artefacts, to repair the destroyed treasures and to support the Iraqi teams in Baghdad and other parts of the country to restore the cultural heritage. We are wholly committed to that purpose and we will do everything necessary to achieve it. As part of that effort, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for undertaking to ensure that a new draft resolution under discussion includes proper protection, in the event of sanctions being lifted, for stolen and looted treasure.

In view of the heavy lobbying before the war by powerful organisations representing American collectors for what was euphemistically called a "less retentionist" policy towards treasures in Iraq—and given the vital importance of the treasures in rebuilding the Iraqi tourist industry after the war—what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that we have a policy of 100 per cent. retention of Iraq's treasures, whether stolen or not?

I hope that the House can unite in affirming that artefacts from the Baghdad, Basra or Mosul museums are the property of the Iraqi people. Where, by whatever route, they have been removed from Iraq—either before or since the conflict—they should be returned. At the international level, action is being taken, particularly through UNESCO, to secure that outcome. Measures are being taken to produce a database of stolen artefacts, and we shall soon have in place domestic legislation that closes an outstanding loophole and makes dealing in stolen or looted artefacts a criminal offence.

What protest has the Secretary of State made to the US Administration about the way in which American troops burst into the great museum in Baghdad, making its contents a prey for looters, organised art thieves and—if precedents following the second world war and the invasion of Grenada are anything to go by—American troops? If that is George Bush's new world order, what hope is there for civilised values?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. In fact, the account of the events that led up to the looting of the Baghdad museum is slightly different from the account that he provides. The account by Donny George, the director of the Baghdad museum, sets out three material facts. First—it is worth recording this—something like 90 per cent. of the 170 artefacts taken from the museum were removed for safekeeping before the action started. Secondly, there was clear evidence of theft by organised criminal gangs of a number of the remaining treasures. Thirdly, of course, there was the despicable looting, and it will be for history to judge whether sufficient steps were taken to protect the museum during those critical days. We are now where we are, though, and I hope that the House will accept the assurances that I have given and the undertakings, given through UNESCO, that the world is united in its determination to repatriate stolen artefacts and to support the Iraqis in the restoration of their cultural heritage—a crucial part of a free Iraq in the future.

I welcome the steps that the Government have taken, and in particular the positive response to the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), but will the Secretary of State pursue further her dialogue with the Treasury about our Customs precautions? In particular, will she urge officials to contrast the steps being taken in America, where a lot of information is coming from the Government about the import or smuggling of cultural artefacts, with our own precautions, as it seems to be assumed that passengers are responsible for acquainting themselves with the regulations? More vigilance is needed.

We will pursue the case for vigilance in any areas where it is shown that loopholes still exist, and I have written to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to raise precisely the importance of vigilance by Customs and Excise in the event of attempts to import stolen artefacts into this country. Similarly, the British Art Market Foundation and the trade organisations have promised their unstinting collaboration, but where loopholes exist we will seek to close them.

What is the truth or otherwise of reports that the 6,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur has been sprayed with paint? Is not the uncomfortable truth that, whereas British forces have been very disciplined, American forces have often behaved like yobs?

We are in the process of securing reports and feedback from those on the ground about what has happened, not only to Baghdad museum but to other museums and sacred sites. An official from my Department is already based in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to help to ensure that that co-operative assessment is undertaken. This is a matter of great concern to many in the House, and I will take all the steps that I can to ensure that, as more information becomes available, I keep the House informed.

I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members' Interests. The Secretary of State has talked about establishing a database. Given the fact that the ministerial advisory panel on illicit trade recommended, back in December 2000, that there should be such a database and given the fact that, in March 2001, that was accepted by the then Minister of State, does she not feel that her Department could have done something more between then and now? Can she assure the House that she has sufficient resources and the determination to see this through? Does she not believe that if she had done something earlier we could have done something to avoid this cultural catastrophe in the aftermath in Baghdad?

No, I do not think that the action that the hon. Gentleman outlines would have prevented what Neil MacGregor describes as a catastrophe in Baghdad. Yes, I think that more progress should have been made in establishing the domestic database to which he refers, but we are in negotiation with UNESCO and the other countries represented in UNESCO to secure the establishment of an international database. I simply reiterate that we have moved very fast, both domestically and with other countries, to take the necessary measures to safeguard the Iraqi treasures leaving Iraq and to ensure that we have the necessary mechanisms in place to maximise the chances of their being returned if they turn up here or in any other country that is a member of UNESCO.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a cross-party group of Back Benchers recently visited the British Museum to see some of the Iraqi treasures that it acquired at a period when the policy may have been less retentionist and that, during that visit, the director of the museum expressed particular concern about the lack of co-operation with UNESCO from the Americans in Iraq, especially their refusal to allow access to the site at Ur? Is UNESCO now being granted full access to all cultural sites in Iraq?

I am not aware of any obstacles to UNESCO's access, but as I said earlier, the situation is constantly developing as more facts become clear. I shall ensure that I keep the House informed of both problems and progress, as they occur.