I inform the House that the Scottish Parliament has approved a legislative consent resolution relating to this Bill, which is available in the Vote Office.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Just over two weeks ago, Parliament held its annual debate in anticipation of Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we so often do in such debates, we saw the House of Commons at its best—recounting what happened, remembering the victims, commending the courage of survivors, and demanding that the lessons learned are never, ever forgotten. From across the House came stories of those who perished and those who survived, of the people who bravely stepped up and saved their Jewish neighbours, and of those who stood by and did not. And from across the House came the clear commitment that we must never let antisemitism and racism go unchallenged, because we have horrific proof in our history of where that can lead. I believe that that is an appropriate background against which to consider the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill today.
This two-clause Bill has a simple objective: to retain on the statute book the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009, which would otherwise lapse on 11 November this year. My Bill would remove the sunset clause that is section 4(7) of the Act, with the result that it stays in force.
The case to save the 2009 Act is strong. It empowers a list of our national museums and libraries specified in section 1 to return items lost, stolen, looted or seized during the holocaust to their rightful owners or heirs. Prior to 2009, certain institutions, such as the British Museum and the British Library, were unable to return works of art to the people from whom the Nazis stole them because legal restrictions forbade them from giving away their collections. This was a bar even in cases when the museum was convinced of the merits of the claim and wanted to return the disputed item. Even where the Spoliation Advisory Panel established by the Government to look into these cases concluded that a fair outcome was restoration to the heirs of the original owner, that still could not be done.
The panel was set up following the historic declaration at the Washington conference of 1998, where representatives of 44 Governments from around the world came together to make a commitment to increase their efforts to identify and return Nazi-looted art and objects to the families of the original owners. The declaration recognised that the holocaust was a unique case that required specific measures on restoration of stolen art and property.
As well as the horrors of state-run industrialised mass murder, the Nazi campaign against Europe’s Jewish community involved the widespread and systematic seizure of property. Seizure of material possessions was central to the Nazi project. Throughout the long history of antisemitism in Europe, toxic tropes and lies associated with wealth, property and greed have been used again and again. Sadly, as last year’s debate on antisemitism showed, venomous and hurtful slanders are still deployed against Jewish people by some individuals today.
I never fail to be moved by the commemoration event hosted by Barnet Council to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The theme for commemorations across the country this year was “Torn from home”. An emotional moment during Barnet’s commemoration came when a student from East Barnet School, Chloe Blott, read out a statement about her visit to Auschwitz, where she saw piles of front-door keys taken from new arrivals at the camp—keys that they no doubt hoped they might one day use to return to the homes from which they had been torn.
The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 was passed with cross-party support after extensive scrutiny, and a legislative consent motion has been secured for my Bill from the Scottish Parliament. Examples of art returned under the 2009 Act include the Beneventan Missal, which was looted during the bombing of southern Italy in 1943, a John Constable painting stolen when the German army invaded Budapest in 1944, and three Meissen figurines seized in 1937 after the death of Jewish German art collector Emma Budge. This legislation is targeted and limited in scope to a specific period in history, a specific set of circumstances and specific type of object. It therefore has no bearing on wider debates about the potential return of museum objects to their countries of origin. It has worked well in practice, and the museum community has widely welcomed proposals to retain it on the statute book.
The volume of objects looted during world war two sadly means that there is still uncertainty about the full provenance of some of the cultural treasures housed in our national museums. Extensive work has been done by those institutions to check the origins and history of everything in their collections, but the task can probably never be fully and finally completed. I want to highlight the 2016 case in which the British Library returned a book to the family of its owner Karl Mayländer, an Austrian Jewish art collector who was deported to the Łódź ghetto and subsequently murdered. For technical legal reasons, that specific case was not dependent on the operation of the 2009 Act, but it illustrates an important principle. The book was valued at just £20, but Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe said
“every time a family gets a book back it always means a huge amount to them because it is something their relatives held in their hands and read and cared about”.
We all know that objects can provide a strong link to people we have lost. With that in mind, I want to read several comments from people involved in cases establishing the right to restore lost art and objects. Not all of these submissions to the Commission for Looted Art in Europe relate specifically to the provisions of the 2009 Act, but they all illustrate the crucial principle that underlies it. The first says:
“Please accept our sincere feelings of gratitude for your attempt to undo some of the enormous evil. These books of our murdered grandmother…have seemingly turned from passive objects to be read into witnesses whose voice will be heard and treasured”.
Another family told the commission:
“I have a need to get this painting back. It was a present from my grandparents to my parents. I remember visiting the artist in his studio with my grandfather. I lost my mother, I lost my father, they were both murdered, it all just gets stronger.”
A third family said:
“Of all the pictures in the collection we are particularly pleased that this one has been rediscovered. It was one of the favourites of our grandparents and our aunt remembers it hanging on the dining room wall of her childhood home. As a young child she always liked it so much and she is so happy that she has had the chance to see it hanging in the family home again.”
Another family said:
“In a real sense, my family has been waiting for this moment for eighty years, when they fled Vienna with their lives and little else, and left their beloved art collection to an uncertain fate. I hope that this will serve as an example to other institutions and individuals, which may have objects that came to their collections through similar circumstances, that it is never too late to grant a measure of justice and compassion.”
The last comment says:
“70 years after the end of the Second World War, there are still many thousands of people looking for their looted property, objects that mean so much. These are not just impersonal items from a lost collection, but objects that carry a huge symbolic and emotional value, to many, part of the landscape of a lost family, of a life destroyed.”
Although, sadly, there is nothing we can do to make up for the pain of losing family members in the holocaust, the return of a book or a cultural object could provide a unique connection to one of those 6 million souls whose lives were cut short by humanity’s greatest crime. Two week ago, we paid many tributes to holocaust survivors in a debate to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The respect we accord to these incredibly brave people should include restoring precious works of art stolen from them and from their families. I commend this Bill to the House.
I have no doubt that I speak with the approval of the entire House, and far beyond, in heartily paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for introducing this crucial legislation, particularly at this of all times. It is noteworthy that one of her Barnet predecessors—although not a previous Member for her constituency—Andrew Dismore, who was a regular attender on Friday mornings, also spoke with great passion about the return of the Parthenon marbles, and I have no doubt that he would have been here to support the Bill. It is also noteworthy that a legislative consent motion has been received from the Scottish Parliament, which shows the national support. We all feel the same.
The right hon. Lady spoke intensely powerfully about the emotional impact of objects. One of the things stolen from the victims of the holocaust that we can never return is their lives, or their hopes, their dreams, their culture, their community and their ambition. That can never be returned, and that stain on humanity will always be there, deep and dark, but what we can do is acknowledge the looting, the theft, and the appalling way in which these priceless objects—many of them of religious significance—were ripped from those households and, in some cases, exhibited in the homes of the temporary victors within the Nazi party.
Imagine the agony of someone seeing their own cultural artefacts, perhaps a menorah or some other item of great symbolic or religious significance, being exhibited as a spoil of what was perceived to be a war. The pain must have been almost unendurable, which is why we in this country have to do what we can, with the support of our museums and all the cultural community, to return these items from whence they should never have been taken. Is it not a shame that we cannot legislate beyond these shores? Throughout the world there are many, many countries that still hold these artefacts and objects, which should be returned.
As we see in the reports of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the ’50s and ’60s, which list the number of paintings, we are talking not just about famous ones—the Rembrandts, Kandinskys and Chagalls and the ones we know about—but about many smaller paintings, many of which are family portraits. What could be more cruel than to have the portrait of a deceased relative, someone who had died in Auschwitz-Birkenau or in another camp—that painting, that memory, that link with that life—taken away and somehow treated as a piece of art that has a monetary value, not its spiritual and emotional value?
I find myself agreeing very much with the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet on many occasions. She was a most distinguished Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and when I held a minor office on the other side, I never had anything less than utter respect for her. That respect has grown even more today, but if the word “respect” is to be used in the Chamber today, it must be extended to those of the Jewish community and those Jewish relatives—the relatives of the holocaust. It must be extended to those people who suffered so grievously. We must show them not just the emotional respect that they are entitled to demand, but tangible respect, where we say, “We will do all we can to return to your home, to your hearts, to your hearths these objects that should never, ever have been taken away.” These objects are not stone, canvas, metal or paint—they are culture. They are the cultural embodiment of that community. They are the atoms that go to create that community. They are the very indication of what that community was, is and shall forever be.
Let us give the right hon. Lady a fair following wind with her Bill and let us spread the message even further, beyond these shores, that what we do today should be emulated throughout the world, in recognition of, and in some pale, minor recompense for, the greatest and most appalling crime the 20th century saw.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who gave a wonderful and powerful speech. I think we would all agree with every word he said. It is also a pleasure to participate in this debate and to support the Bill put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who does so much to speak up for the Jewish community. As he says, it is particularly poignant to be discussing this, given that less than two weeks ago we were here marking Holocaust Memorial Day.
In my contribution to the Holocaust Memorial Day debate last month, I raised the story of Simon Gronowski, who survived the Holocaust and managed to escape the gas chambers of Auschwitz after being thrown by his mother from a moving transportation train in 1943. I had the honour of welcoming him to Parliament last week, where community groups from Chichester staged an opera that was based on his life story. Simon lost his mother and his sister in the gas chambers. He also lost his home and his possessions. He lived out the rest of the war in hiding, being cared for by another family.
Simon’s story is unique—it is as unique as it is inspirational, after he forgave the collaborator who put him on the train—but his experience of discrimination and loss is very common. The 1930s and 1940s were marked by Jewish people and minority groups having their property stolen and precious objects confiscated. In many countries occupied by the Nazis, special departments were set up to organise the stealing of Jewish property and items of value. Money, houses, jewellery and works of art were the most common items stolen. As recently as 2012, the state prosecutor in Augsburg, Germany, discovered and confiscated more than 1,400 framed and unframed paintings stolen by one of the Nazis war profiteers, Hildebrand Gurlitt. It is estimated that about 100,000 items still have not been repatriated to their original owners or families, having been looted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.
In my view, one that I am sure will be shared by every Member who participates in this debate, there should be no time limit on trying try to right the wrongs of the past by returning lost possessions to the families affected by these atrocious crimes. By scrapping the original expiry date, as clause 1 would do, we will be following the precedent of most other European countries, such as France and Germany, which do not have time limits on survivors and their heirs making claims.
It was absolutely right that in 2009 Parliament enacted legislation to allow our museums to return items looted during the Nazi era. Thanks to the work of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, 23 works of art have been successfully returned since it was set up in 2000. We have a moral duty to ensure that any other items held by our museums and galleries that were stolen in such awful circumstances are returned to their rightful owners. As has been argued before, many may simply be unaware that they are in possession of such pieces.
Although not many objects have been discovered in Britain, we should not treat that as a reason to shut the door on heirs and families making claims in future. After all, these objects were cruelly and illegally stolen from victims who were often left with nothing. That is why I am pleased to hear that the Government have given their full support to scrapping the so-called sunset clause of the 2009 Act. As I have said, there should be no time limit on our attempts to right the wrongs of the past. As the hon. Member for Ealing North said, we cannot undo the insidious crimes inflicted by the Nazis, but we can make sure that survivors and heirs have their rightful property returned to them. This is a moral duty as much as any other.
In 1998, 44 states committed themselves to the Washington principles, which sought to make sure that possessions ransacked by the Nazis were returned to their rightful owners and families. If we do not amend the 2009 Act to remove the sunset clause, we will do ourselves a great disservice in the upholding of our international and moral agreements, which is why I give my full support to the Bill.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) in praising the work of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) in introducing this timely Bill, which enjoys cross-party support.
I rise to speak about a curious personal story. Last year, I found out from my mum that her mum was Jewish—something that my sister and I did not know. As someone who prides themselves on being a massive gay, it has added an extra dimension when talking about rising hate. Not only would those evil Nazis not have liked me because I have fallen in love with someone of the same sex, but they would not have liked me because of the background of someone I never actually met. That is really timely, because the objects that we are talking about tell personal stories. They are not just the grand paintings that we can see in national galleries; they are the personal stories and personal objects of the people so cruelly killed by the Nazis. It was not just the Jewish community, but people from a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender background, trade unionists, socialists, Gypsies, Roma and the people with disabilities who were so inhumanely slaughtered in the pursuit of a corrupt and broken ideology. That is really important.
The removal of the sunset clause is a really important part of the Bill. I looked back at the debates in this place from 2009, when the sunset clause was described as
“on the one hand, sufficient time to facilitate claims and identify objects, and, on the other,”
enough time to give
“certainty for the public collections concerned.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 1045.]
Those were the words of Andrew Dismore. We should send the message from this House that although that sunset clause was deemed appropriate a decade ago, we should now remove it and allow the original legislation to continue in perpetuity, because the message that would send about those looted artefacts—be they worth millions, or if their value lies in a family’s personal connection to an object once held by a family who are no longer here—is incredibly powerful.
Just as we spoke about the need to remember those people who were lost in the holocaust with Holocaust Memorial Day only a few weeks ago, it is important that we tell the stories about why it is so important to continue to stand up against hate in all its forms. As the Member of Parliament for the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world, which is in Plymouth—a place not many people would expect to find it—I know how important it is that we tell the stories about the Jewish community and those communities that were attacked by the rise of the far right. Whether they are communities with a lot of people or, as in Plymouth, much smaller communities, we must tell the story of why we must stand up to rising hate, be it from those people we oppose or, importantly, when it comes from people who in many cases share similar values to ourselves. It is very important not to allow the creeping cancer of antisemitism into our politics and communities. I support the Bill strongly and wish it the best of luck as it goes through the parliamentary process.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), especially as he represents my birthplace and my home town. Sadly, as he will know, the Freedom Fields Hospital is no longer there; it is now a housing estate. There is something else that we share, which is support for this Bill, and it makes eminent sense to take it forward.
The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who has sat through one or two of my speeches on a Friday—they were slightly longer than this one will be—will be relieved to know that I have no intention of looking to beat one of my Friday records today. [Interruption.] I hear the disappointment from the Front Bench, but I certainly do not want to put this Bill in jeopardy by attempting to do that. It is absolutely right that, with this Bill, we look to remove the 10-year time limit and the sunset clause from the 2009 Act. I can understand why, perhaps a decade ago, Parliament thought that these matters may be resolved or that we should allow a period for review. It clearly makes sense to allow claims to be made; we should not just have a legal cut-off date that was picked a decade ago. There are not just practical reasons for that, but symbolic ones as well.
We must remember that the goal of the Nazis was not just to murder their victims, but to annihilate all trace of them, and to annihilate all trace of the Jewish people. They did not just murder those who were living; they demolished cemeteries, burned down synagogues and sought to erase the entire culture from Europe. That is why it is so important that where these artefacts are preserved and retained, they are returned, that they can be exhibited and be shown by families again as a reminder of what once existed.
Let us be clear: the Nazis had exactly the same plans for the United Kingdom had they managed to cross the channel and invade us in 1940. The SS had already drawn up a list of several thousand people to be executed almost immediately—they were literally going to work through it A to Z. The list comprised not just political or military opponents, but anyone involved in the cultural life of this nation, because they wanted to annihilate them and subjugate the culture to their own perverted ideology in which they replaced the Bible with “Mein Kampf”, and any other god in which people believed with a belief in Adolf Hitler. Thankfully, many of our forebears, including those whom we commemorate in this Chamber, stood firm against that regime, paying a terrible price for doing so, and actually brought to an end their dominance and their reign in Europe.
That means that it is now right that we continue to commemorate and remember those who suffered and who were murdered. As was touched on by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, it was not just the Jewish community who suffered and were annihilated, but homosexuals and anyone who defied the Nazis. None the less, they put great emphasis on the Jewish people. Even today, there is one European city that is paved in cobbles. When those cobbles are turned upside down, one can see that they are Jewish headstones that have been used to pave the streets. Again, that was all part of the Nazis’ mission to demolish the whole community and to remove any trace of it. For me, one of the greatest victories against National Socialism is the fact that the victims are remembered. While the Nazis are condemned in history for their actions, their brutality and their murderous crimes, their victims are remembered as the people they were, as the culture they represented, as the hopes, the dreams and the aspirations that they all had that were snuffed out in a bizarre, murderous craze that gripped the extremists of the National Socialist movement.
I am conscious that others wish to speak and that we are pressed for time. This Bill is very worthwhile. I welcome it and look forward to it achieving its Second Reading today.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on her stewardship of this small but important piece of legislation to remove the sunset clause contained within the original Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009.
As a Parliament, as other Members have said, we recently came together to mark Holocaust Memorial Day with a Backbench Business debate during which we remembered the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime. Although this dark episode in global history may grow more distant with every year that passes, these horrific crimes against humanity must not, and will not, be forgotten. The history of what happened on the continent of Europe during this period is often viewed through the prism of what we know happened at Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz.
To understand the full extent of the holocaust and its lasting effect on victims and their relatives, we must also understand the events that led up to the final solution. From Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the passing of the Nuremberg laws in 1935 and Kristallnacht in 1938, the Nazis first marginalised and then set about eradicating the Jewish population with increasing speed and intensity. One major element of the programme was the looting and pillaging of around 20% of Europe’s cultural treasures, including hundreds of thousands of pieces of artwork owned by the Jewish community, and it is estimated that some 100,000 cultural objects remain hidden.
It should be recognised that since the war, UK institutions have been at the forefront of efforts to identify objects with uncertain provenance. Since it was established in 2000, the Spoliation Advisory Panel has advised on 20 claims concerning looted artwork. In the case of 23 cultural objects, either they have been returned to their rightful owners or compensation has been paid out.
The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 has been instrumental in facilitating this process, which had been hindered by rules governing the disposal of such items from UK collections. Although I have no doubt that the consultation conducted prior to the introduction of the legislation was sincere in its conclusion regarding the need for a time limit, it has become increasingly clear that we have a moral obligation to the last remaining survivors and their families to continue to allow UK institutions to reunite them with looted objects beyond the 11 November deadline, which is fast approaching. Therefore, I offer this Bill my full support. Although we will never be able to make right the atrocities of the past, we can and should right this small injustice. I again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet on her work on breaking down these barriers, and I look forward to the success of the Bill.
I echo Members from across the House in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on her stewardship of this extraordinarily important Bill. Other Members have reflected on the power of physical objects, and that was brought home to me about 18 months ago when my mother passed away in the summer of 2017 and I became the custodian of a small box of family heirlooms. To my shame and regret, I had never really looked at them in the 54 years in which I could have done so, and I was perhaps not aware of their significance. Inside the box were some war medals, which had been awarded to my paternal and maternal grandfathers. I only met one of them; my mum’s dad was known to me, but my dad’s father died when my dad was only a very young boy, in 1930.
I had never seen those medals before, and, clearly, I never had the opportunity to meet my grandfather, but the physical act of holding the medals in my hands demonstrated the strong emotional power of physical objects and the connection that they can provide to the past. I can only imagine that that is multiplied 10 times, 100 times or 1,000 times in the case of Jewish communities in which families suffered so awfully in the holocaust. That is why it is so important that the physical objects in question are returned to the families, as my right hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to do.
The holocaust is an horrific stain on human history. The murder of more than 6 million individuals cruelly cut short their lives and potential. It is worth remembering the full horror of it, with whole villages being taken into the forests and killed, and millions being deported from their homes. As my fellow Devon MP the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) reminded us so well, it extended beyond the Jewish community to encompass Gypsies, the Romany and the gay community. It was an utterly shameful part of history.
Those horrific crimes can never be remedied. As well as taking those people’s lives, the Nazis stripped them of their possessions and property. Indeed, it is estimated that 20% of what we regard as Europe’s cultural treasures are in fact the rightful property of the Jewish families who suffered in the holocaust. We must therefore do everything in our power to ensure that Nazi-looted works of art are returned to their rightful owners.
Knowing that my right hon. Friend’s Bill was being debated today, I did a bit of research as to why the sunset clause was introduced in the 2009 Act. It is intriguing that one would ever have believed it was right to say that there is an arbitrary cut-off point of 10 years beyond which it would no longer be appropriate or possible to return such objects. When one looks into the history, one can see, to some extent, the thought process that was in force at the time. In 2006, prior even to the introduction of the original legislation, there was a consultation in which the majority of respondents agreed that as time passed it would become more and more difficult to determine the rightful ownership of some of these objects and some of this property.
That might have seemed sensible and measured at the time, but, as my right hon. Friend has so powerfully demonstrated in her speech today and in others that she has made on this subject, we have learned as we have gone on that actually what was right then—what was rightly achieved by the 2009 Act—is just as right now. There is still plenty of opportunity and plenty of work to be done to identify the rightful owners of some of these objects and to return them in the same way. That is why I am very pleased to be supporting this Bill today. It is absolutely right that we amend the 2009 Act to remove the sunset clause due to take effect on 11 November this year and thereby extend these provisions indefinitely so that we can try to right some of the wrongs of the past.
During my research, I was very struck by some of the comments that my right hon. Friend made when introducing this Bill, when she said better than I certainly could why this is important:
“Surely, it would be heartless and wrong to deprive the last survivors of their right to recover treasured works of art.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 754.]
That is exactly the essence of this Bill. It removes the sunset clause. It allows items stolen during the holocaust to be returned to their rightful owners indefinitely. It is an important piece of legislation and I am pleased to support it wholeheartedly.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for bringing this important Bill to the House today. I am glad to say that it has the support of both the Government and the Opposition. She spoke with her customary dignity and authority on an issue on which she has not only served her constituents well but served the British Jewish community well—and, indeed, the Jewish community throughout the world. That is perhaps why the Bill has enjoyed so much support across the House today. I was particularly impressed with the speech by the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and his allusion to the idea of the Nazi Kulturkampf, because we know that if we eradicate culture, we are halfway towards eradicating humanity.
Devon has been well represented in the Chamber today. The hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) spoke movingly of his parents, and of his grandparents who served their country with great valour. I am sure that they would have been proud of his speech. I could not help but be moved by the short contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who found out last year that he was actually Jewish. He is part of a richer cultural heritage for that, and he should be very proud that he has that heritage in his family.
I was also moved, as ever, by the contribution by my hon. Friend—my very old friend—the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who spoke very movingly about the power of physical objects and paid tribute to the work done on this Bill by Andrew Dismore, the former Member of Parliament for Hendon and current London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden.
As a former Friday Whip, I remember him well. Once, after he had spoken for three hours, he said, “Mr Speaker, as I begin to conclude,” and everyone cheered. But then he added, “my opening remarks,” and everyone let out a breath of dismay. He was a great Friday Chamber Member.
However, Andrew Dismore also worked tirelessly to get the Act through the House back in 2009—even rolling out his sleeping bag and sleeping on the floor of the Public Bill Office overnight to make sure he had a high enough slot to get it heard, and how proud we are of him for doing that. He was the driving force behind Holocaust Memorial Day, introducing the private Member’s Bill that established it in 2001. He was always, and has always been, outspoken against antisemitism, and helped to highlight the work of the great Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Let me use this opportunity to also praise the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust—an institution dear to my heart and, I am sure, to all of us in the Chamber—which is ably led by the wonderful Karen Pollock.
The holocaust was one of the worst events in human history. I do not need to rehearse the facts about the millions of lives extinguished and the millions more changed forever. The horror of the Shoah will never be forgotten, and we must pay thanks to the important work of all the organisations that make sure the world will never forget.
The Bill addresses a very important subject: the return of cultural objects looted by the Nazis. During the Nazi reign of terror, millions of precious cultural objects were stolen from the Jewish community. Some have been recovered, but many thousands remain missing. As the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) so ably noted, around 100,000 objects stolen by the Nazis are still missing today. It is estimated that 20% of Europe’s cultural treasures were lost during world war two.
Nothing can undo the horror of that period, but we should do everything we can now to reunite cultural objects that surface with their rightful owners. More than 70 years on from world war two, there are still families who have not been reunited with heirlooms that rightly belong to them. As many survivors of the holocaust are passing away, it is vital that their descendants have confidence that this Parliament and this Government are committed to ensuring that they get back what is rightfully theirs, and I hope this debate will assure them that we are.
The Bill repeals the sunset clause in the Act brought in by the Labour Government in 2009, which gives our national museums and galleries the power to return these special cultural objects on the recommendation of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. Since the panel was established in 2000, 23 cultural objects taken by the Nazis have been returned to their rightful owners, and we must ensure that the panel can continue its vital work. Some of those treasures have been referred to already. The right hon. Lady mentioned the John Constable painting that was stolen by the Nazis after the invasion of Budapest, which was returned by the Tate in 2015. The 800-year-old manuscript the Beneventan Missal has also been returned.
The panel has carried out its work fairly and delivered justice to the families of those whose precious possessions were stolen. It works in co-operation with our national museums and galleries, which support its work and are in agreement on the urgency and necessity of returning stolen objects to their owners.
As the right hon. Lady said, this is carefully targeted, specific legislation that works well. Once the Bill has passed, which I hope it will soon, the panel will be able to continue its important work. It is particularly important for those whose stolen possessions have, sadly, still not been found that, once they are, the Bill will give them the power to get back what is theirs. Also, for those who may not even know about this process, and may not even harbour a hope of getting back what their families once treasured, the Bill should give them that hope.
It is important that we support this cause and the moral beliefs underpinning it when the spectre of antisemitism is on the rise once again. I was horrified to read in the news just days ago that antisemitic hate crimes hit a record number in 2018. That is something that should scare and anger us all, and we must do everything in our power to stamp it out.
Before I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing in this important Bill, let me just reflect on what the hon. Member for Torbay said about the wider symbolism beyond this Bill that unites this House. Such unity is borne out of a commitment to oppose antisemitism in all its forms, wherever it exists and in every institution, and it requires a zero tolerance response.
As we unify and commit to supporting this Bill, let us not forget our honourable colleagues on both sides of the House who have been the subject of death threats, the subject of racist abuse, the subject of misogynistic abuse and the subject of bullying and antisemitism. As the deputy leader of my party, let me say to my friend and comrade, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), as I do to honourable colleagues facing that abuse, that she has our solidarity and she has our support as she battles the bullying hatred from members of her own local party. They bring disgrace to the party that I love.
I would like to end by thanking the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet once again for her work on this vital Bill, which delivers a small amount of justice to those who have suffered so greatly.
Before I call the Minister, I want to add on behalf of the whole House that I am sure every Member of this place would echo what the hon. Gentleman has just said about the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). She has the support of all of us, and we must all stand together to stand up for her and defend her in every way possible. We must root out the sort of behaviour that is going on, which has no place in our free democracy.
It is an honour to speak at the Dispatch Box on this important Bill, and to follow the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson). In the poignant words at the end of his speech, he spoke about a loss of culture being equated with the loss of humanity. The last time I spoke at this Dispatch Box it was on discrimination in sports, and on the fact that ugly acts of hatred are not welcome in sport. Such acts are not welcome in any part of our society or any of our political processes. The Government absolutely recognise that and will stand up for people subjected to such vile hatred.
There is therefore good reason to come together to support the very thoughtful words in the introduction from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). With moving passion, she made a thoughtful speech, and I would like to recognise the broader work that she does. She mentioned that 6 million souls were lost to families and communities in the holocaust, and that stark reminder was echoed by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) spoke about a constituent of hers saying that there was no time limit on righting these wrongs. We also heard the personal story of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard).
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for his, as ever, very thoughtful words. He spoke about remembering the impact of the aim to annihilate and subjugate, how culture was not to be supported and how families’ precious items were part of the murderous demolition. There was another thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) in support of this important Bill, and we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) about the physical connections and preciousness of family objects. That is why the Government support this Bill, and we see it as an absolute imperative to do so. The Government’s view remains that it is correct to right the wrongs that took place in the Nazi era, and when it comes to cultural objects lost in such circumstances we must provide fair and just solutions for families who suffered persecution.
As we have heard, an estimated 20% of Europe’s cultural treasures were stolen or plundered by Nazi Germany, mostly from Jewish families, and more than 100,000 works remain lost and are presumed to be in private collections. Despite their valiant efforts, the Monuments Men—a band of art historians, museum curators, professors and other unsung soldiers and sailors in the allied armies’ monuments fine arts and archives sections—could not bring everything home to those who wanted it. A massive volume of cultural artworks was lost, including works by Vermeer, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Raphael, Leonardo, Botticelli and many other artists.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister who, as ever, speaks powerfully and from a well-informed position. Given her comments about the immensity of the task, does she recognise that today we are able to send out a message to victims of the other genocides? I think particularly of the Armenian genocide of 1915, when an entire community was treated just as foully and appallingly. Does she agree that we could send out a signal to the wider world that we are finally seeking some recompense for those sins and crimes of the past?
Today we are focused on a particular issue, but we are speaking about an extremely solemn area. I sat on the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill, which rightly became an Act. We must look more broadly, because throughout history so much culture has been lost on a truly astronomical scale, and we must send a message that there is no time limit when people have suffered injustices. It is right to continue on our mission of returning looted art, which is no less important now than it was then. As we have heard, there is a clear consensus across the House that we want to do the right thing, and we in the UK are sending out a message because we have a perfect piece of legislation that enables us to do that.
The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 allows 17 cultural institutions in the UK to return objects lost between 1933 and 1945, and it enables them to do that effectively, by using the appropriate advisory panel. Today we heard about the importance of having a fair and just way of returning to people those cultural objects lost during the Nazi era. The institutions covered by the 2009 Act are statutory bodies that would otherwise be prevented from doing that by Government legislation, and therefore returning those objects would be too difficult. The Act from 10 years ago ensures that we can continue to reunite objects with their claimants, alongside the advisory panel, and supported by the Secretary of State.
We heard about the Beneventan missal, which was the first item to be returned under the 2009 Act. That fine example of a 12th-century manuscript was in the possession of the British Library, and a claim was first considered by the Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2005. The panel concluded that the manuscript was looted and should be returned to its rightful owner, and for that to be possible, it recommended the introduction of legislation to permit the restitution of such objects. In the absence of such legislation at the time, the British Library sought to agree a long-term loan of the missal to Italy. Only after the introduction of the 2009 Act was the claim referred back to the panel, and the missal was finally returned to the place where it had been lost after the allied bombing in September 1943. The return of the missal became highly symbolic for the city of Benevento and its cathedral, and they were delighted to have it back. It is now kept in the chapter library, attached to the cathedral, which was rebuilt after damage sustained during the war.
The principle of correcting past injustices, as exemplified in this case, has not been affected by the passage of time. In fact, arguably that principle is strengthened as memories start to fade, as we have heard today. It is not necessarily easy to make sense of what happened more than 70 years ago. With fewer survivors among us, we must rely increasingly on written testimony and second-hand accounts.
On Holocaust Memorial Day this year, my Department was incredibly fortunate to hear the personal testimony of Harry Bibring, a holocaust survivor who told us how his parents sent him and his sister, who were both in their early teens at the time, on the Kindertransport to England, along with 10,000 other children aged from nine months to 16 years. Sadly, they never saw their parents again. There are many such stories still to be told. We must continue to listen and seek redress where we can. The Bill is the right legislation to allow that process.
Today, Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate from 1988 to 2017, and the National Museum Directors’ Council’s lead on spoliation from 1998 to 2017, issued the following statement:
“The UK has been an international leader in responding to the challenges associated with Spoliation claims. The creation of the Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2000 established a model and a procedure that has been adopted by other countries. In recent years, new claims have become less frequent, but there is a strong moral case to remove the ‘sunset’ clause that provides for a time limit on cases being considered. It is important that potential claimants should not feel that the door is being slammed in their face.”
It is worth noting that claimants are unlikely to be able to pursue a legal claim for the return of their property through the courts. Referral to the Spoliation Advisory Panel is, in nearly all cases, the sole remaining route for pursuing the return of cultural objects lost in these circumstances. Just last week, the Government announced that the UK has joined four other European countries—Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands —to form a new network for increasing international co-operation on the return of works of art looted during the Nazi era. The UK has always sought to lead by example, so it is absolutely right that we all support the Bill.
I would like to express my gratitude to all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate and expressed support for this important Bill, particularly both Front Benchers, and to Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport officials, who provided me with a helpful briefing and support on this important matter. I associate myself with all comments in which Members have, once again, made a commitment that we will not tolerate antisemitism in any form whatsoever. I very much hope that the House will support my Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).