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Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill

Volume 700: debated on Friday 10 September 2021

Second reading

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

May I make a declaration of interest? Many years ago, I qualified as a Blue Badge guide, which entitled me to guide in, among other important historic places, the British Museum. I pay tribute to all the Blue Badge guides who do such fabulous work in explaining our culture and history and, indeed, the cultures and histories of other countries, to those who visit the United Kingdom. This Bill seeks to amend part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, which provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects on loan from abroad in temporary exhibitions in public museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. The 2007 Act was introduced by the Ministry of Justice and part 6 was given over to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to introduce immunity from seizure. Under section 134 of the Act, cultural objects on loan from abroad to feature in exhibitions in the UK museums and galleries approved under the Act are protected from court-ordered seizures for a period of 12 months from the date the object enters the UK. The legislation was in response to concerns from a number of countries that their art treasures were in danger of being seized while abroad in response to claims by third parties that they were owed money by the foreign state or because of territorial disputes between countries.

Let me add some context to those concerns. In the early 1990s, Noga, a Swiss trading company, claimed that it was owed a substantial sum by the Russian Government and embarked on a series of high-profile claims against Russian property, including the attempted seizure of state-owned assets. In 2005, Noga turned its attention to art when it attempted to seize 54 French impressionist paintings from Russian museums that were on their way back to Russia and travelling through Switzerland. After some delay and concern for the care of the paintings, they were released, but the alarm bells had begun ringing. Understandably, Russia became increasingly nervous about sending its art treasures abroad and announced that it would not lend any works of art to any country without a guarantee of immunity from seizure. That unhelpfully coincided with the planned “From Russia” exhibition at the Royal Academy here in London, which was scheduled to open in January 2008—thankfully, those loans were secured when part 6 of the 2007 Act came into force.

Section 134 provides that an object will be protected against seizure if it is normally kept outside the UK, it is not owned by a UK resident and it is brought here for temporary public display by a museum or gallery approved under section 136 of the Act. For an object to be protected, the borrowing museum must also have complied with regulations made under the Act which relate to publishing information about the loan in advance of it coming into the country. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for approving institutions in England, and the devolved Administrations have similar powers for other parts of the UK. To gain approval under the Act, institutions must demonstrate that their procedures for establishing the provenance and ownership of objects are of a high standard. In 2007, it was considered that 12 months was an adequate period of time to allow objects to arrive in the UK and to be returned following their inclusion in a temporary exhibition. Section 134(4) provides therefore that the protection continues

“for not more than 12 months beginning with the day when the object enters the United Kingdom.”

The only exception to that, and when a period can be extended, is when an object suffers damage and repair work is required.

The legislation has been effective over the years and has enabled many exhibitions to be enriched by loans that the public might not otherwise have been able to see. There are now 38 institutions across the UK that have been approved for immunity from seizure and where objects have benefited from protection. In 2020, 14 institutions hosted exhibitions that included objects protected under the 2007 Act. This protection means that international museums are confident in lending some of their most significant cultural objects to appear in these exhibitions for the UK public to enjoy. Some examples of objects that have benefited from protection include the world-famous Terracotta Warriors, on loan from China to the National Museums Liverpool in 2018, and the baby mummified mammoth Lyuba, which was borrowed by the Natural History Museum from Russia in 2014. Indeed, the Egyptian Government made it clear that immunity from seizure was a requirement for the loan of its Tutankhamun treasures to the Saatchi Gallery in 2019 for the exhibition “Tutankhamun”, which was seen by no fewer than 580,000 people.

With their long experience in managing exhibitions, museum staff are incredibly versatile and adept at dealing with unexpected problems, including transportation delays. Thankfully, such delays are uncommon and can normally be managed to the satisfaction of the lending museum, but problems do occur. For example, we all remember the disruption to air travel caused by the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010.

Museums rely on international exhibitions as a major part of their income. When museums were required to close last year, many international loans were being held in the UK, having appeared in exhibitions. The restrictions and difficulties of international travel that we have all faced since last March meant that even where exhibitions had concluded, it was not always possible to return loaned items within the 12-month time limit.

The Bill will allow the period of protection to be extended beyond 12 months at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for institutions in England, and of the relevant authorities for the devolved nations. That will ensure that this protection remains fit for purpose and can adequately respond to unforeseen circumstances and increase confidence in the UK’s system for those that generously share their cultural objects with UK audiences.

The new power to extend would apply following an application from a UK museum or gallery, and extensions would be granted for a further three months initially, with a possibility of a further extension if considered necessary. The circumstances under which an extension may be considered will be set out in guidance to be developed in discussion with the devolved nations. The measure is strongly supported by the museums sector and Arts Council England, the Government’s development agency for museums.

I hope that Members will agree that this is a worthy measure that will benefit our museums and galleries and ensure that the very best cultural objects from around the world can continue to be seen by a UK audience, safe in the knowledge that, should there be delays in returning works, those objects may continue to be protected from seizure while they remain in the UK. I commend the Bill to the House.

I commend the right hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) for bringing this Bill to the House. It might be easy to think of it as somewhat narrow and potentially even niche, but we often underestimate the role that public collections in this country play in communicating our history, our story and our identity to the world, and, similarly, the great role that is played, as the right hon. Member well described just a moment ago, by those same institutions receiving works from abroad so that interchange of histories and stories can occur and they can be told to the British public. What might seem a slightly technical point about protecting those institutions’ ability to do that actually underpins a huge and important role that we as a nation play in the world. I can see the Minister nodding, and I hope that that view is shared broadly across the House.

I have experienced several of the shows and exhibitions that the right hon. Member for Central Devon just spoke of; one in particular was part of a very important year in the life of the city of Liverpool. Being able to receive important, globally relevant works of art from around the world allows cities and institutions in our country to do their job. That has a huge impact not just on tourism and the visitor economy, but on the learning that younger generations are able to participate in. Frankly, what might appear to be a narrow and niche interest is actually profoundly important, not just for institutions such as the British Museum but for galleries and art institutions up and down the country.

With that said, I have just a couple of points to make about the Bill, and some questions that I hope the Minister or the right hon. Member for Central Devon may be able to cover. The Bill takes particular account of what has been a very bumpy year for cultural institutions. The Minister and I have exchanged remarks on many occasions across the Dispatch Boxes about the position that cultural institutions have been in. With some reservations about the scope and the manner in which the Government’s programmes of support through the pandemic have reached cultural institutions, the Opposition share the Government’s view that the Government ought to respond to what has been a very difficult year with support and help to facilitate the things that institutions need to get them through this difficult time. The Bill is one of those things.

The covid pandemic has demonstrated to me how important arts and culture are in this country. It used to be an interesting thought experiment to imagine what would happen if we shut every museum and gallery up and down the land. We did not have a thought experiment in the past 18 months; we had it in reality, and it was horrendous. The Bill shows that if we can make some small changes and facilitations to make things easier, we can see better continuity of our culture, and I think that is a good thing. As I said, it is important, yes for tourism and the visitor economy, but almost more important for learning. Our young people deserve access to the best museums and galleries that our country has to offer, and brilliant works of art from all around the world. People of all ages deserve the comfort and calming influence in their life of cultural institutions. We know about the positive impact that they have on mental health. In order to do that, we have to ensure that the UK protects its leading role. It has an incredible place in the world in demonstrating the very best of global culture. We need to make sure that, despite any turbulence now or in the future, those institutions will still be able to do that.

We have highly experienced and expert curators in the UK. Perhaps in this place we do not recognise enough the diplomatic role that those curators play. As a former chair of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, I have seen at first hand the work that the UK’s brilliant curators do. They reach out to their equivalent institutions around the world and facilitate the exchange of knowledge, works and expertise. Often, it is those informal connections—institution to institution—that, when the world is a turbulent and difficult place, can really make a difference.

I remind Members of our recent debates on Afghanistan. Hon. Members from all parties mentioned the work of the British Council. I think of the terrible events in Syria and other parts of the middle east and the work that the British artistic and cultural institutions did to try to protect cultural assets and the important heritage of the world. Whichever country you are from, that interchange is extraordinarily important. I hope that, if that is sometimes an issue that does not get the political attention that it deserves, we are going some small way to rectify that this afternoon.

I have a few quick questions for the Minister and the Member promoting the Bill. The Bill provides some powers for the devolved institutions. It is important that in this place we have cognisance of liaison with the devolved institutions. I would be grateful if the Minister said on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Transport how she believes that that will happen now and in the future.

Clearly, covid is not the only global event that could cause interruption to the transport of cultural objects. We know that previous incidents have caused international transport to grind to a halt, which is not much fun for anybody. How does DCMS plan to liaise with the Department for Transport and other relevant Departments, including the Home Office, to make sure we have a smooth transition? Finally, what steps do the Government see themselves taking to prevent future disruption and to make sure that any disruption is handled as smoothly as possible?

I would be grateful to the Minister for those answers. I thank the right hon. Member for Central Devon for introducing this Bill, which hopefully will go some small way towards making sure we keep our place as one of the most important nations in the world for preserving our culture, history and heritage.

In rising to support the Bill, I declare my interest, which predates my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. For a number of years, I was a trustee and director of a small but wonderful local museum, the Helena Thompson Museum. It probably will not be affected by this Bill, which seeks to protect international artefacts alone, but it wonderfully tells the story of Workington and the surrounding area.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost every area of our lives, and it is entirely appropriate that we take time to revisit existing legislation to take account of such unprecedented events that have a major impact on international air travel, which has created significant problems for loaned objects that are due to be returned to their country of origin and have been unexpectedly delayed here.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) referenced the example of the Icelandic volcano—I will not try to repeat its name—in 2010, when 100,000 flights were grounded, causing major international air travel disruption and posing a risk to the timely return of cultural objects.

I have studied the Bill closely, and it addresses the issue clearly and comprehensively. In giving my support, I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing it to the House. As he has outlined, the Bill amends the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 to allow the period of protection from seizure and forfeiture to be extended from 12 months to a further period of up to three months. I hope Members on both sides of the House can see how this puts museums and international lenders on a much firmer legal footing, creating the higher level of certainty that these international exchanges require and implementing the safeguards they need. I am sure the custodians of these treasures will breathe a collective sigh of relief as the Bill progresses.

Although the risk of seizure is extremely small, a number of countries place great emphasis on having this added layer of protection. Providing this greater degree of certainty on the protection available, with the knowledge that it can be extended at the discretion of the relevant authority, will increase the confidence of owners of loaned objects, providing a boost to our exhibition sector, which after the past 18 months certainly needs it. Providing a power to extend the period of protection helps to mitigate the impact of major unforeseen disruptions, and not just to international travel, which might otherwise leave these objects at risk.

The extension is fully justified as a contingency to mitigate unexpected and unprecedented events beyond anyone’s control. I commend my right hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for the fervour with which he does so. The Bill has my full support.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) on introducing this Bill. He made an excellent, informative speech, in which I learned some new things.

My constituents in Guildford, Cranleigh and our villages take an enormous interest in cultural issues. We have the wonderful Watts Gallery and, of course, our much-loved museum. Any measure that militates against collections not coming to this country is very worth while, so I am happy to support the Bill today.

My right hon. Friend referred to unforeseen environmental factors such as the eruption of the Icelandic volcano. I was in New Zealand visiting my family when that volcano erupted, and although I am not a cultural object, I am sure that my parents would have liked to seize me and keep me in New Zealand. My onward flight from Singapore back to the UK was grounded for 11 days. Such disruptions do come along, and of course we have had this horrible time of covid, which has caused much disruption to international travel.

I hope that, as well as looking at this Bill, the Government are looking at and potentially auditing any other bits of legislation whereby a significant disruption to international travel could have unintended consequences, which may also need to be amended. This, however, is a sensible Bill and anything that gives confidence is important. I hope that the Bill moves through the House swiftly and I am very happy to support it.

Museums and galleries play an important role in our national life, our heritage, our education and our understanding of who we are and of the world around us, but also, of course, in our enjoyment. That is true of world-renowned venues such as the National Gallery and the British Museum, and also of smaller ones such as the White House Cone Museum of Glass, which is opening in my constituency next summer, and the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, which I understand is now the most popular museum worldwide on TikTok. I think that “1920s Grandpa” was viewed about two and a half million times during the lockdown.

The extensive collections in these museums are supplemented by temporary exhibitions which are enriched by the ability to borrow culturally valuable, significant and relevant pieces from around the world. Clearly most of those exhibitions will be comfortably covered by the 12-month period in the existing legislation, but, as we have seen over the past 18 months, the unexpected happens rather more frequently than people might imagine, whether it is a global pandemic or a catastrophic environmental issue. Events that can stop international travel can, perhaps, disrupt, delay or postpone those exhibitions.

Our country and our cultural life would be very much poorer without access to displays and exhibits that is made possible by the protections in existing legislation. If by allowing for those protections to be extended by a further three months we can secure the ability of our world-class museums and galleries to borrow these exhibits from their partners around the world, that has to be an extremely important thing for us to strive to do. I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) on an important Bill, which I look forward to supporting during its passage through the House, and wish him all luck.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) on a Bill that will enhance our cultural offering. I am fortunate enough to represent a constituency that contains the Ilkley Toy Museum alongside the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and I think that the ability to bring to such places small exhibitions with the potential to feature objects of huge importance from other parts of the world is incredibly important.

One of the key things that have been highlighted in this debate is the flexibility that the Bill brings in being able to provide an extended three-month period for unforeseen circumstances. I stress the flexibility that the Bill offers with the power for the Secretary of State or the equivalent in the devolved Administrations to consider the period of protection on a case-by-case basis. Flexibility when dealing with objects coming from across the world and being able to transfer them between one museum setting and another is incredibly important.

The current 12-month period of protection typically provides a sufficient length of protection for popular museum exhibitions to take place before an object must be returned, but we have noted that issues such as the pandemic have caused many problems with getting artefacts transferred between one country and another. We can have unforeseen circumstances, such as the eruption of the volcano in Iceland. By extending the period of protection from seizure, owners of these artefacts will have much more confidence in lending them to UK museums. This Bill will provide a much-needed boost to the United Kingdom’s exhibitions sector. The UK is home to a wealth of museums benefiting from the ability to transfer artefacts from one lender to another across the globe. I very much welcome the Bill and will be wholeheartedly supporting its passage through this place.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) and to stand in support of this Bill, brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride). This is a practical Bill that serves a straightforward purpose, but it will I hope have positive consequences for many people across the country. The closure of so many cultural venues over the past 18 months has highlighted to us all how lucky we are in this country to have access to some of the world’s greatest museums and exhibitions. Thanks to our world-leading vaccination programme, we are now at the point where these places are once again welcoming visitors, and I am keen to provide support in any way that I can, including via this Bill.

While our national institutions own many of the artefacts that are displayed or restored, many pieces here for a short time travel from overseas. The provisions within the Bill, as we have heard, will reassure the lenders of those objects and in turn safeguard the ongoing exchange of cultural artefacts between the UK and partners throughout the world.

Under section 134 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, cultural objects on loan from abroad to British museums and galleries approved under the Act are protected from seizure or forfeiture for 12 months from the date the object enters the UK. Disruptions caused to international travel during the pandemic created problems whereby loaned objects due to be returned to their country of origin were unexpectedly delayed in Britain. These objects were left at risk of being unprotected, should the 12-month limit have expired before the borrowing institutions could arrange for their return. Similarly, we have seen environmental factors such as the eruption of unpronounceable volcanos.

Very well done. Hansard now needs to type it up, of course. Such environmental factors can pose a risk to the timely return of cultural objects on loan from international lenders. While the risk of seizure and forfeiture is extremely small, a number of countries place significant importance on the security of such protection. The Bill will provide greater certainty over the protection available, with the knowledge that it can be extended by up to three months at the discretion of the relevant Minister. It is hoped that, as a result, the confidence of owners of loaned objects will increase, providing a boost to the UK’s exhibitions sector and ensuring that this country continues to be recognised as a leader for the display of culturally significant artefacts. I support the Bill.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) not only for introducing this important Bill, but, with his Blue Badge guide status, for guiding us through it so beautifully.

As we have heard, the protection afforded to cultural objects on loan to our UK museums and galleries from abroad is of huge significance to many international lenders. Understandably, the owners of such objects expect and require a degree of certainty that, when agreeing to lend their most precious national treasures, they will be safeguarded from seizure or forfeiture while they remain in the UK. We have heard from Members across the House why this is so important—this is the lifeblood of some of our great cultural institutions—and why it really matters.

Immunity from seizure has provided that certainty since the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act was passed in 2007 and the first of our museums and galleries began to apply for and achieve approved immunity from seizure status. As a result, we have seen a great number of remarkable exhibitions featuring internationally owned objects that have benefited from immunity from seizure. Between 2015 and 2020, over 200 separate exhibitions in the UK benefited from this coverage, with hundreds of fascinating objects protected by the Act while on display for the public to enjoy and learn from.

The loan of objects allows museums across the UK and the world to stage exhibitions and displays that would not otherwise be possible and enables them to further contextualise their collections and attract more diverse audiences, as well as to contribute to the education, learning and wellbeing outcomes that museums are well known to provide. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), spoke about how we have seen an experiment this year regarding what happens when such places are closed to us and how it really does impact on our everyday lives. We really need those cultural institutions in our lives for our general wellbeing.

All this demonstrates the effectiveness and the value of the legislation so far, but the proposal put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon is a real opportunity to address a small but important gap. It will ensure that immunity from seizure legislation continues to remain fit for purpose during these uncertain and changeable times. I am happy to say that the proposed measure is therefore very much welcomed and supported by the Government.

While this amendment is small, it is sensible and forward thinking, and it responds to real concerns expressed within the sector about what would happen should circumstances prevent objects being returned to their country of origin within the standard timeframe. The hon. Member for Wirral South asked me how we have worked with the devolved nations on this, and of course they have been consulted on the proposals and have welcomed them, as she would expect. We will of course continue to work with them on implementation and guidance.

The measure will clearly have a positive impact, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon set out in his opening words. It will help to reduce the risk of international cultural property being left unprotected while in the temporary care and custody of UK institutions. International exhibitions are such an important source of income for the sector, and they will be ever more important as museums and galleries recover from the challenges we have seen over the last year. The provisions of this Bill will have a very positive impact on our sector. They will allow museums and galleries to continue to co-ordinate and plan important loans with international partners for tourist-drawing exhibitions, safe in the knowledge that contingency against unpredictable events is available.

This will also help museums and galleries maintain the really strong relationship they have with counterparts in other parts of the world. We have heard about some of the really impressive outcomes produced by the exciting exhibitions our UK museums and galleries have been able to hold as a result of loans of international cultural objects. My right hon. Friend mentioned that a single exhibition, the Saatchi Tutankhamun exhibition, reached more than half a million members of the public. That underlines how valuable the immunity from seizure protection is. It just simply would not have been possible without it.

Another one that my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Wirral South mentioned as having an amazing benefit from this protection was the terracotta warriors exhibition in National Museums Liverpool, which are quite brilliant, in 2018. Some 36% of visitors to this exhibition were from outside the area. It generated about 200,000 staying visits to Liverpool throughout the exhibition’s run and contributed over £78 million to the local economy. Is that not incredible? These are really impressive examples showing how immunity from seizure contributes so positively to our culture sector and provides fantastic opportunities for the UK public to experience these incredible pieces of history—these cultural works of art—from across the world. That is why it is so important that the Bill underpins all this as practically as possible for our museums and galleries, and it is clear that it will help to do so.

In conclusion, I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this incredibly worthy Bill to the House and for setting out so articulately and clearly the benefits that it will bring. I confirm that the Government support the Bill.

With the leave of the House, I thank all those who have participated in this debate to support what I think is a very important Bill. The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), managed to convey far more eloquently than I did the importance of this narrow Bill to the broader issues at stake. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson) for sharing his experiences and knowledge of this sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) told us about the time that the volcano erupted and informed us that she was not a cultural object. Perhaps one day she will be a cultural icon—who knows?

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) shared his experience of many museums, particularly those in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) raised the issue of the Ilkley Toy Museum, which sounds absolutely fascinating and I look forward to visiting that at some point in the future. Through my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), by way of an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), we finally got the pronunciation correctly delivered of the volcano in Iceland, so I thank him for that contribution. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for all her support and her very hard-working officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who were very patient in answering the many questions I had of them in pursuing the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).