Skip to main content

Holocaust Assets

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the United Kingdom will be represented at the Holocaust Era Assets Conference to be hosted by the Czech Republic in Prague.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare a possible interest, in that there might be a claim by members of my family.

My Lords, I can confirm that the United Kingdom will be represented at the Holocaust Era Assets Conference which will be hosted by the Czech Republic in Prague on 26-30 June this year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that assurance. Is he aware that there are some elderly British Holocaust survivors who have tried in vain to recover some part of the property that they once owned in Poland? Will he ensure that our delegation focuses on the failure of the Polish Government, alone among European nations, to enact any restitution law relating to property seized by Nazis and communists despite repeated undertakings and obligations owed under European and international law—this after 20 years of democracy?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that Poland lags behind other countries in this regard. We have been regularly lobbying the Polish Government on this point. We understand that a draft law on restitution is under discussion by the Polish Council of Ministers, which is expected to go to their parliament later this year. I assure the noble Baroness that we will continue to lobby for its implementation.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Foundation for International Cultural Diplomacy. Is it the Government’s intention to work towards the establishment of a regime of international law that would enable the resolution of cross-border disputes about cultural property on a consistent and effective basis as an improvement on the present hodgepodge of national jurisdictions which so often renders a just solution impossible?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an interesting point; if it is not our intention, I suspect that it should be. I would like to look into this further, but he is quite right that there are currently a lot of different jurisdictions through which people must work to try to achieve restitution. The system does not offer even, transparent justice for these claims.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that we on this side of the House strongly support the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech? Does he agree that it may not be fully appreciated that this conference is not just about Jewish, but also non-Jewish, claimants? It is not just about property seized by the Nazis and their German supporters in the Second World War without restitution, but also property seized or held by the communists and not returned to the original claimants. Will the Minister ensure that our strong delegation is instructed to press Poland hard, and to press the general point that the most ghastly event of the 20th century—maybe of all time—is never forgotten?

My Lords, I completely endorse what the noble Lord has said. This is an important conference and we are sending a large delegation. It is the latest in a series of conferences, the first of which was held here in London and which was followed by an important one in Washington in 1998. We must keep the momentum moving forward and, as the noble Lord rightly says, we must not forget that what spurred this was that most horrific of events, the Holocaust.

My Lords, thinking of our own obligations here, with all-party support, Andrew Dismore’s Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill has reached Public Bill Committee stage. I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, members of which include virtually all the museums and galleries named in the Bill.

The Bill only covers England and Wales. Can the noble Lord tell us how discussions with the Scottish Executive are proceeding?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the UK Government support the Bill. To be honest, I am not aware of where it stands with the Scottish Executive, and I will get back to him on that.

My Lords, Britain has led the way and made great efforts to achieve the implementation of the 11 Washington conference principles formulated in 1998. We should not forget that the late Robin Cook, who was then our Foreign Secretary, was hugely instrumental in building the initial 1997 restitution conference in London, which I attended. What steps will Her Majesty’s Government now take at this month’s Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague to encourage other countries to follow Britain’s lead in implementing these principles? Does my noble friend consider that these should be achieved by the conference and, if so, how?

My Lords, we hope that the force of the delegation we send, which may even include my noble friend, will ensure that we are able to carry this agenda forward. As he indicated, its roots lie in the original conference organised here in London in 1997. A number of issues have been tabled for the meeting, which I think everyone involved agrees is a watershed meeting. We have to get closure, because a number of claimants are very elderly, and this may be the last chance for some to make a successful claim.

My Lords, as I served on the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland, which was very successful in finding the rightful owners of the assets, may I suggest that the experience of that tribunal may be relevant if progress is made in this case?

My Lords, in view of the importance of the conference, will the Minister attend it? If not, which Minister will?

My Lords, we are watching with interest to see at what level delegations will be led. I have other commitments on those dates. If we need to send a Minister, we will, but at the moment it appears that most delegations will be led at the senior official level.

My Lords, as somebody who has benefited indirectly from compensation paid by Germany to my mother, who was a refugee, I know that it made an enormous difference to how she felt about the land of her birth, although she was a very proud British citizen. Will the Minister assure the House that today, which is the 20th anniversary of democracy in Poland, he will make representations to the Polish Government, as we have heard that there will be legislation next year or later this year—we have heard that before—that this Government hope to see the relevant legislation passed in Poland?

My Lords, as I said, we are making representations but, given that 20th anniversary, I take this opportunity to say for the record that we hope the Polish Government will finally do the right thing on this.