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Police: Art and Antiquities Unit

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How they will maintain the independence of the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiquities Unit if it is to be funded by individual companies within the private sector.

My Lords, operational matters are the responsibility of the commissioner. Under Section 93 of the Police Act 1996, a police authority may accept gifts or loans, including commercial sponsorship, for any activity of the authority or of the police force it maintains. It is for the authority to determine the appropriate terms for the acceptance of such gifts or loans. The control and tasking of officers in sponsored posts remain with the chief officer of the force concerned.

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. The Minister will be aware of the very fine reputation enjoyed by the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiquities squad; the only specialist art squad in this country, which I believe numbers four officers, compared to 250 in Italy. But is the Minister confident that there is not the risk of a conflict of interest here? I am sure that the police would not invite drug barons to fund a drugs squad, but is there not the serious risk of a situation arising where he who pays the piper calls the tune?

My Lords, I do not believe that there is, because operational control remains with the commissioner, not the sponsors. Like all UK police forces, the Metropolitan Police is open to accept offers of sponsorship and support. So far as I am concerned, this arrangement works perfectly well.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiquities Unit consists of just four police officers and three civilians—hardly an unaffordable burden on the Home Office budget—and polices upwards of 37,000 people; the second-largest art market in the world? That market is easily made a conduit for fraud, money laundering and the funding of organised crime. Without casting any aspersion on the integrity and competence of the present staff, if it is to be a condition of the continuation of the unit that it raises half its costs in sponsorship, will not this be an open invitation to corruption and, in the real sense of the term, a cop-out?

My Lords, I am grateful for that last line but I do not believe that it will be a cop-out. So far as I understand it, there is no threat to the current staffing levels of the unit. I also understand that, because of the valuable work that is undertaken by special constables, there has already been expansion of the unit’s activities. I do not think that one should have any doubt about the competence of those working in the unit; it is very competent. The Metropolitan Police is in a sense seeking funding so that it can expand the unit’s range of activities.

My Lords, the Minister says that he is very happy with the competence of the unit. I would be surprised if a Minister was unhappy with four people managing the £100 million area of art theft. Will the Minister say whether the 14 special constables plus four full-time staff will be able to deal with the money laundering activities of those who use art for money laundering, and especially those who are importing artefacts from Iraq that have been looted and are being sold on the British market?

My Lords, it is obviously for the commissioner to determine operational priorities, and he believes that he has it about right. There is a desire to expand the unit, and seeking sponsorship to enable that to happen is very important. The unit gets very useful back-up and support from special constables, many of whom come from the sector that is most affected and have knowledge and experience. There is great confidence in this unit, which does a very valuable job.

My Lords, having heard my noble friend Lord Renfrew explain how many policemen are engaged in this activity in Italy, does it not seem absolutely self-evident that the case here should be for more personnel dealing with this extremely serious branch of illegal activity?

My Lords, I return to the point that I have made already. Clearly, the commissioner is very well aware of the problem; indeed, I am sure he could not fail to be otherwise. But this is a matter for his judgment on operational grounds, and that is the best way for us to leave it. I have little doubt that the commissioner will pay very close attention to what noble Lords have said today.

My Lords, is the noble Lord not concerned about the dispersal of police expertise in this area, following the experience of police officers who have been released from the stolen vehicles squad, with the resulting increase in crime in that area? Is he confident that this group of very expert and experienced police officers will remain in place and will be able to prevent the kind of escalation in crime that we are seeing in vehicle crime?

My Lords, I do not believe that this unit will be dispersed. It is the intention of the Metropolitan Police to try to find ways of expanding its range of activity. Although the unit is small in relative number terms, it can draw on, and is part of, the wider activities of the Metropolitan Police, and it works with other police forces using its knowledge and expertise.

My Lords, in the interests of joined-up government, and bearing in mind the Government’s accession in 2002 to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, bearing in mind the sacking of the Baghdad museum in 2003, which led to the passage of the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003, and bearing in mind the passage through this Parliament of the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act, does it not seem perverse for the Government at this moment to cut resources, particularly when the departments concerned are aiming to take more measures to stem the illicit trade in cultural objects?

My Lords, I thought that I had made this clear. There is no intention, as I understand it, in the Metropolitan Police service to cut the activity of this unit; far from it. The intention is to seek further support so that the activities of the unit can be expanded, no doubt for the very reasons that the noble Baroness and other noble Lords have given voice to this afternoon. It does a very valuable job, and it has a very good track record. It is greatly respected across the industry, and no doubt the continued support that it enjoys here and in other places will be much welcomed.

My Lords, would the Government be prepared to put in the Library an indication of all the police units whose work is dependent on acquiring additional private sponsorship to enlarge their activities, or is this a unique case?

My Lords, different forces have different sponsorship arrangements. I am quite happy to try to provide the information that the noble Lord seeks in a format that can be easily understood. That can be a matter of public record.