Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
As I will set out, the Bill seeks to address one of the consequences of the holocaust, still felt some 70 years or so after the events in question. As we prepare to reflect in this debate on the horrors to which hatred, prejudice and extremism can lead, I join others in expressing my shock and revulsion at what happened in New Zealand overnight. There is something deeply evil about attacking people in their place of worship. That the individuals responsible apparently planned, organised and even filmed this atrocity shows a truly appalling and stomach-churning degree of barbarity and callousness. I extend my support, sympathy and solidarity to everyone who has been injured, bereaved or harmed as a result of this terrible crime. I send my sympathies to all who are anxious and afraid as a result of what has happened, perhaps even including some of my own constituents.
I say to the right hon. Lady, as the co-chair of both the all-party group on British Jews and the all-party group on British Muslims, that Islamophobia and antisemitism are fellow travellers. She spoke powerfully about the events in Christchurch, and everyone in the House will share those sentiments. I do not plan to speak in this debate because I am conscious that there are other private Members’ Bills to be considered, and I know how frustrating it is when we cannot get on to business on which there is consensus, but I wish warmly to congratulate the right hon. Lady, because the progress of this Bill, from where it started to where we are now, has been no mean feat. It would not have happened without her hard work, perseverance and determination, and without cross-party support, so on behalf of my constituents, I thank her most warmly and sincerely.
I warmly thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said. He is so right: today of all days is an opportunity for everyone in this House to stand up and condemn antisemitism, Islamophobia, and racism and prejudice in all their forms. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
As the hon. Gentleman just outlined, the Bill has enjoyed strong cross-party support at all stages in Parliament, including from the Government and the Opposition Front-Bench team. I thank them for that support, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members who took part in the debates on Second Reading and in Committee, and who supported the ten-minute rule Bill with which I started this process.
The objective of this two-clause Bill is to ensure that the 17 national museums listed in section 1 of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 are be able to return to its rightful owners property that was lost, seized, stolen or looted during the Nazi era. Clause 1 of the Bill will achieve that by removing section 4(7) of the 2009 Act. That provision is a sunset clause that will otherwise remove the 2009 legislation from the statute book on 11 November this year.
The 2009 Act is still needed. It started life as a ten-minute rule Bill introduced by Andrew Dismore, who was then the MP for Hendon. As colleagues will be aware, it is rare for the ten-minute rule Bill procedure to deliver a change in the law, but in that instance Andrew Dismore’s persistence prevailed. I very much hope that this Bill, which also started through the ten-minute rule process, will succeed in rescuing the legislation that Andrew managed to get through Parliament 10 years ago. Hopefully, this ten-minute rule Bill will come to the rescue of a previous one.
The 2009 Act addressed a problem that had arisen in relation to a number of our national museums such as the V&A, the National Maritime Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. As set out in its second and final clause, the Bill covers England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland. Some of the institutions specified in section 1 of the 2009 Act are located in Scotland so, as the House has been told, a legislative consent motion has been secured from the Scottish Parliament.
The governing statutes of the 17 institutions listed in the 2009 Act mean that they could not restore property seized by the Nazis to its owners or their heirs, because the legislation underpinning their rules forbade them from giving away items in their collection, except in limited and specific circumstances. This restriction operated even when the institution in question believed that the claim had merit and wished to return the item to the heirs of the original owner.
The problem is illustrated by a case considered in 2008 by the Spoliation Advisory Panel established by the Government to consider claims of this nature. It considered a dispute over two pieces of porcelain from a Viennese collection, one in Fitzwilliam Museum and one in the British Museum. The panel recommended the return of the one in the Fitzwilliam, but felt it could not do so in relation to the other because of legal restrictions in the British Museum Act 1963. A similar problem had arisen in 2006, when the British Museum was unable to return four old-master drawings to the heirs of Dr Arthur Feldman, from whose collection they had been looted by the Nazis in March 1939.
The 2009 Act resolved the problem and enabled property from national museums to be returned, if that was recommended by the Spoliation Advisory Panel and approved by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The 2009 legislation is supported by the museum community, which has warmly welcomed the intention to remove the sunset clause through this Bill.
A significant proportion of Europe’s cultural treasures went missing during the Nazi era. As time passes and memories fade, there are likely to be fewer claims, but there continues to be a strong moral case for keeping the 2009 Act on the statute book. At a major conference on spoliation in September 2017, the UK Government reaffirmed their determination to live up the commitments made 18 years previously at the Washington conference on looted art. At that historic conference, 44 countries pledged to work for the restoration of property seized during the Holocaust era.
As several Members said during debates on the Bill, the evil of what happened in the Holocaust is unique in human history. Millions of people had their lives cruelly cut short in the greatest crime in human history. Millions more lost friends and relatives; sometimes their whole family was wiped out. Sadly, there is nothing we can do to reverse those appalling losses, but we can at least keep open the hope of the return of lost treasures, when they are identified in our museums, galleries and libraries.
My right hon. Friend is again making an incredibly powerful speech. I do not understand why a sunset clause was put into the original legislation. She is quite right that we must remove it with this Bill, which I hope will pass, but why was such a clause put into the legislation in the first place?
It is not entirely clear. The debates on the 2009 legislation did not seem to indicate a great problem of instability. I can only assume that there was concern that the legislation might have a destabilising effect on the collections in our national museums, but although a number of cases have been determined as a result of the operation of the 2009 Act, the reality has been that such cases have been relatively small in number. If there were fears about uncertainty, instability and provoking claims, they have not materialised in practice.
I commend the Commission for Looted Art for its excellent efforts in trying to secure fair outcomes in cases of this nature. The commission shared with me comments and thoughts from a number of families involved, some of which I read out in my speech on Second Reading. I found those comments deeply moving, and what came across clearly from them was the emotional value of being reunited with an object treasured by a loved one who died in the Holocaust, and that a lost relative had held in their hands and valued—for example, books owned by a much-loved grandmother; a painting given by a claimant’s grandparents to his parents; or a favourite painting that used to hang on the dining room wall of a family home. The Nazi regime engaged in systematic confiscation, looting and theft from Jewish people.
I am fascinated to hear my right hon. Friend’s argument and wonder what her response is to some of the opponents of this Bill who claim that the routes available are available only to the rich and that, sometimes, when objects are returned from museums, that deprives the general public of an opportunity to see these priceless works of art. I would be fascinated to hear her thoughts on that.
My response is that this legislation opens the way for all who have reason to believe that an object owned by their family member is in one of our national institutions. It is not confined to helping people from a particular family background. It really is important for people at all levels to have the chance—the opportunity—to retrieve an item of property that once belonged to one of their relatives. In response to those potential critics that my hon. Friend has mentioned, I think that I would continue to make the case that it is right and proper and fair that if an item was seized by the Nazis, it should be returned to its rightful owners or to their heirs.
May I ask my very good friend whether the Bill has any provision for the people who looted this treasure, took it away and then presumably sold it on, or possibly gave it away, because they were acting illegally? Personally, when I have come across looted churches and mosques, I have been involved in securing that property and making sure that treasures are kept there until someone responsible can take possession of them. I am concerned that these people seem to have got away with just stealing this stuff.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. No, I am afraid that the scope of this Bill is defined and narrow and relates to specific circumstances to enable our national museums to return looted property. However, there are provisions within the criminal justice system and the system of international law that are aimed at bringing to justice those responsible for crimes committed during the Nazi era.
The goal of those behind the holocaust went even beyond mass murder and mass killing. The evil men and women responsible also wanted to wipe out all traces of Jewish culture in Europe, and confiscation of property was a significant part of that repulsive project, so returning books and artworks covered by the legislation is not really about their monetary value. It is about restoring to people a tangible physical link with a lost loved one, and it is about the conservation of memories and culture that the Nazis wanted to eliminate.
My Chipping Barnet constituency is home to a number of holocaust survivors. I pay tribute to all of them for their courage and dignity and for the work that so many of them do to recount their stories to try to ensure that we never ever forget what happened. We owe it to them to enable this small recompense—the return of cultural property—to continue.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. This is a very, very good Bill. I was brought up in her constituency, and, like Mr Speaker, born in Edgware. Many of my friends and neighbours were of the Jewish faith. Some of them had been in concentration camps, or had family members who had perished there. Fundamentally, there should be no sunset clause on the memory that we keep permanently as a society of that terrible outrage, so that we never forget it and therefore repeat it.
I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
I would like to close my speech today, as I did on Second Reading, by reading out the thoughts of a family involved in one of these types of cases, not necessarily one directly determined under the 2009 Act, but one that expresses very clearly the underlying principle that we are considering today. Speaking of some paintings that were returned to them, one successful claimant told the Commission for Looted Art:
“They mean so much because these paintings symbolise that lost pre-war world and provide the last link with lives which were utterly destroyed or irrevocably transformed by the Nazis. The objects reflected the character and taste and personality of their owners. Stealing them was another form of taking the people themselves. It’s the meaning of these looted works of art that is central to why restitution is so important. In stealing property, the Nazis made no distinction between rich and poor. They took from both equally and they took everything. And by taking every part of people’s lives, the Nazis were also taking the evidence that people had once lived. So restitution is one way of restoring the dead to the living. That the restitution of looted artworks remains an issue almost 70 years after the war attests to that significance—and not to their financial value.”
Today’s horrific news from the other side of the world shows the horrors that hatred and extremism can lead to even in the modern world. At a time when antisemitic incidents are rising, it is more important than ever to stand up against all forms of hatred, racism and Islamophobia. This Bill is one way in which this House can do that.
Supporting this Bill provides a way to signal that we will not tolerate antisemitism or other forms of hatred, that we will always condemn it and that we will seek to root it out wherever we find it. Supporting this Bill is a way to demonstrate that we will never let the lessons learned from the holocaust to be overlooked or forgotten. Supporting this Bill is a way to show the respect that we bear for holocaust survivors who held on, suffered unimaginable trauma and survived against the odds, and I commend it to the House.
It is a huge pleasure and a privilege to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who has promoted this Bill. She has spoken movingly and with great authority and knowledge about this horrific act of barbarity that has affected her constituents, and, of course, the many people who suffered under the horrendous acts of the Nazis.
I fully support this Bill—this very simple Bill—and my right hon. Friend has outlined why it is needed. As she said, we can see that particularly on a day like today, when we have woken up to the awful news of what happened in Christchurch.
My hon. Friend talked about the Nazis, but we must also remember that a lot of stuff was taken from the national museum in Iraq and other places. This Bill, I hope, covers that sort of looting as well—I think that it does.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for his intervention. In fact, I was going to mention that as a theme in my speech, but I defer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, because I do not believe that that is in the scope of this Bill. Perhaps there is scope for future legislation in this House.
I will confine my comments to the importance of the Bill’s achievements, as well as paying tribute to the work of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. I understand that the panel has managed to return 23 objects to their rightful owners. My right hon. Friend kindly took my intervention earlier, which I made because I wanted to clarify some of the criticism that I have come across while doing my research ahead of today’s debate. I certainly do not share the opinion that it is wrong to restitute these articles to families who have lost them or have been deprived of them, but I wanted to ensure that we had properly scrutinised this legislation, because that is our role as Members of Parliament.
My right hon. Friend explained very well that losing an article that is so precious to the memories of a family means losing an object that underpins the memories that are passed down through generations. It is therefore absolutely right that descendants with living memory of these articles and artefacts, who have been deprived of them, are able to go to the panel and have their claims examined in a proportionate way, resulting in the restitution of those items to their rightful owners. We live in a free society that is underpinned by the rule of law and justice. It is extremely important that we uphold those principles, because they are the basis of a free society in which people can get rightful restitution when they have been wrongfully deprived of their own property, even if that happened in the past.
It is right to address the question of what happens if an article is in a museum and has a wide audience, but these are difficult decisions that have to be weighed up carefully. I am reassured that the panel is an expert one, and that it would of course take such matters into account. At the end of the day, I think all reasonable people would agree that it is absolutely right to return stolen property to its rightful owner. I am proud that the UK, which has been supporting the panel, has been an international leader in responding to the challenges associated with these kinds of claims.
So why is it right to revoke the sunset clause? When the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 was introduced, I think that it was initially felt that 10 years would be enough time as the evidence may have deteriorated after a longer period, making it too difficult to address claims. I am sure that the Government have reviewed this issue during the consultation and decided that it is right to allow this important Act to continue its work, because there are still descendants for whom these artefacts are in living memory.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this law would simply remove a statutory time bar so that the whole system does not fall? There will still be the need to prove a case and provide evidence, which may be more difficult as the years go on, and it is less likely that relatives will be found. Without this Bill, a claim would fail purely because this law had fallen after reaching its sunset date.
My hon. Friend makes the point that the Bill is, in a sense, a technicality. It is therefore right that we pass it today to allow this important work to continue.
It is important that we all take a little time today—when we have more time than normal, given the heated debates that we have in this place—to reflect on why it is so important again to raise the issue of the Holocaust. I am sure that many colleagues attended Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations just recently; I attend the event in Redditch. It was a fantastic day of commemoration not only of the holocaust, but of acts of hate that occur in all societies and cultures. In fact, my hon. Friend from—sorry, I forget his constituency.
Beckenham—the centre of the world. All roads lead to Beckenham.
I think they lead to Redditch; but from there to Beckenham. My hon. Friend reminded me that this problem is not just confined to the Nazi period. In fact, when one culture attacks another, it comes for the cultural artefacts first, because the most effective way of trying to wipe out a civilisation is to destroy memories and stories that people tell about a culture and its people. It is evil and barbarous, and we must turn our face against it.
The days of commemoration in our local communities are so important, because we have to continue to talk about the holocaust, including with young people. We may have seen off the Nazis, but we are now seeing how important it is to see off other forms of hate that target people because of their ethnicity, their race, who they worship, who they love and who they live with. We have to stand firm against that in our communities and schools. I am proud to pay tribute to a local school just over the border from my constituency that is attended by many young people. Studley High School is a beacon school for the Holocaust Educational Trust, and it was an absolute honour to be there and see the students performing a fantastic piece on Holocaust Memorial Day.
I am delighted to support this Bill and I very much hope to see it passed today. Thank you for allowing me to contribute to the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow such powerful speeches. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for the enormous amount of work that she has done. I was not able to speak on Second Reading, but she has made moving speeches on both occasions.
It is perhaps appropriate that on a Friday, we are talking about religion and its effect on our legal lives and our family lives. As I said in the previous debate, this is a very sad day for the world, as we have seen a horrific Islamophobic attack—it is a modern attack, and the unpleasantness of the filming as well as the planning really gets us where it hurts. It is good that occasionally we in this House can talk about religion and its effect on the way we live our lives, the way we love and the way we die. It is appropriate that we are talking about holocaust artefacts on such a day, though it is of course very sad.
As my right hon. Friend said, the Nazis wanted to annihilate a whole race, and getting at their possessions was a particularly pernicious way of doing that. Obviously mass murder is the worst thing that can be done, but there are other means of annihilation, such as the non-registration of births.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, but I want to reinforce the fact that the Nazis stole from anyone they did not like. Although they took mainly Jewish property, they also took property from other people; it is not just Jewish people.
I accept what my hon. Friend says. One reason I became involved in the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism is my family’s Romany heritage. That is not something we talk about often, but it gives us a link in some small way to the horrors of what happened in Nazi Germany. I am also involved with the APPG for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. It is important to think about what is done to races as well as individuals. Today we are broadly talking about Jewish artefacts. The Nazis wanted to destroy the religion by destroying its possessions as well as its people. That is why it is important that, 70 years on, we are still thinking about this.
Possessions are very important to us. I have a ring that belonged to my granny, which she wore every day. I do not wear it every day, possibly because, as a jeweller once said to me, my lifestyle is slightly more hands-on than that of my granny. I do not think it would survive the wear and tear of the life of a Member of Parliament, but I enjoy wearing it, and it makes me feel close to her.
Even more precious personally, though certainly not in terms of money, is a coral necklace owned by my daughter that was passed down to her after being owned by seven generations of my husband’s family. We have a portrait of the lady to whom it first belonged. It is a rough and ready portrait, doubtless done by a jobbing painter, of a little girl wearing this very same coral necklace, with a cat. This is a lady whose name I do not even know, but I know that we feel close to her because of that artefact. Things mean a great deal to people, and that is moving for members of my family. The connection is very real, but it is so much more so when we know that that ancestor was murdered and that we can never meet their children—say, those of our great-aunt—because they never existed.
This Bill is on an issue that really gets us where it hurts. The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 is clearly still needed. These artefacts are all over the place. When a race or group of people are destroyed, so many papers and documents get destroyed, and the people who would have inherited many of those artefacts are not born, so it is very difficult to prove ownership. People alive today may not even be aware that they have ownership of these articles, but it matters, and it is important, so I commend this Bill.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who is respected and acknowledged throughout this House as a champion not just of her own constituency but of communities across the UK, and the Jewish community in particular.
There can be few if any constituencies in the whole of our country that are not affected by the shadow of the holocaust. In Solihull, we hold a remembrance service every year. Not too long ago, I was privileged enough to hear a holocaust survivor address pupils at Tudor Grange school in Solihull about what she and her family have gone through. I am sure that every other Member has had similar experiences and that they are aware, as I am, that we are increasingly among the last people who will have the opportunity to do so. Too soon, the last of those who lived through the camps will pass on, and the opportunity to hear their stories at first hand will pass with them.
As the atrocities of the Nazis start to depart from living memory, it is more important than ever that we renew and live up to our promise to the Jewish people, the Roma and the other victims of the holocaust: never again. This is especially true in the light of the growing plague of antisemitism running rampant in this country right now. I never thought in my lifetime in this great country that I would have to utter such words. It really is unimaginable, but it has come to pass once again. I am horrified to read online the testimonies of many Jewish people who are, for the first time, feeling apprehensive or even afraid about their future in this country. It is simply an absolute disgrace, and I believe that every single one of us has a duty to do everything we can to combat antisemitism and racism in all its forms and to make this country safe and welcoming to people of all communities. The horrors of the holocaust can never be undone, but that just makes it all the more important that we do everything we can to deliver justice and redress for the remaining survivors and their descendants. I am therefore very pleased that my right hon. Friend has introduced this Bill and that the Government are giving it their full support.
I understand why the drafters of the original Bill chose to insert a sunset clause. They were doubtless conscious of the important role the institutions named in the 2009 Act play in preserving cultural artefacts both for the nation and for humanity. They were right, too, to recognise that over time the evidence base for claims could only grow thinner, and they were acting in accordance with the views of a majority of respondents to the original 2006 consultation. However, it is clear that they were mistaken in their belief that a single decade would be enough to resolve any outstanding claims.
In fact, although the number of new claims is falling, I understand that there remains a huge amount of work yet to be done when it comes to tracing the origins of possibly looted artefacts. Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, has said that relatively little of the relevant provenance investigatory work has in fact yet been undertaken. Furthermore, any worries about the potential for our great museums and galleries to get bogged down by a succession of increasingly difficult to resolve claims must surely be assuaged by the fact that not only have new claims been less frequent in recent years, but the museum community itself is strongly supportive of my right hon. Friend’s campaign to lift the sunset clause.
It is only just that we continue to offer redress to the relatives and descendants of those whose treasures were plundered by the Nazis for as long as we are able to do so. There may in future come a time when as much has been done as can be done to verify the provenance of individual pieces and the window of opportunity for returning them to their rightful owners has finally closed, but it is clear from the testimony of Ms Webber that this time has not yet arrived and may not for many years to come. We ought, therefore, to hold the door open for just restitution for as long as we possibly can.
My hon. Friend probably knows the answer to this, but I do not. The question is: how are we going to be absolutely clear which people are the rightful owners? Is there a system to work that out—is it the legal system or what is it?
That is an interesting question, and there are people in the museum communities much more qualified to answer it than me.
Let me provide reassurance on this issue. Establishing ownership obviously involves looking at the facts of the case. The 2009 Act provides for that to happen with the oversight of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, and its recommendation to return property is sent to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. That is the process—the facts are considered, the panel assesses them, and the Secretary of State decides whether to approve the recommendation to return the property.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that clear explanation, and I am delighted to have been an interlocutor between her and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).
And will that recommendation have legal force?
I give way to my right hon. Friend to answer that.
Yes it has legal force when establishing the ownership of property, and the 2009 Act removes the legal barrier to recognising correct legal ownership.
I shall move on.
This Bill should not be seen as a rebuke to those who drafted and passed the original Act 10 years ago. The whole point of sunset clauses is that they make us revisit previous pieces of legislation, test their underlying assumptions, and decide in the light of new evidence and experience whether and how to update the law. That is good legislative practice.
In this instance, after a decade in operation it is clear that the work of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 is far from done. We do not know how many more items may yet prove traceable to legitimate owners once proper provenance work has been done, and it would be perverse to make it impossible for institutions to return such items in future in order to uphold what has proved to be an arbitrary deadline. The Bill provides us with an opportunity once again to renew our covenant with the Jewish people and all the victims of the holocaust, reflect on the crimes of national socialism, and reiterate our commitment to pursuing justice for its victims. I am therefore proud to offer the Bill my full support, and I hope that Members across the House will do the same.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on this important Bill, and I express my strong support to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and congratulate her on her work. This Bill is refreshingly brief but hugely symbolic, and it is right that works of art and other cultural items be returned to their rightful owners. These were unthinkably horrific crimes. It is sad that today we witness other religious crimes in Christchurch, and our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the victims there.
We recently commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport when 10,000 children were brought to the UK from Germany. I took my children to see the statue by Frank Meisler that was installed in 2006 at Liverpool Street station, and I recommend that everybody go to see that statue, and take their children if they have them. It is an important, if traumatic, thing to explain to children. I tried to explain to my 11-year-old child what happened, and some of the children depicted in that statue were probably around her age. We also went to the Imperial War Museum, and its fifth floor contains important evidence and tributes to the 6 million people who died in the holocaust. Although those reminders of the atrocities are shocking, it is important to continue to remember and acknowledge those terrible acts.
As my right hon. Friend said, this is not just about the property itself but about the lives erased and the symbolic nature of those artworks taken from Jewish people at that terrible time. It is important continually to remind ourselves of those acts, but also to remind racists, peddlers of hate, and antisemites that we will never tolerate their positions, and their actions will never win out.
When we read about what happened and what my right hon. Friend is trying to put right, we see that the scale of it is quite frightening. I think there are still 100,000 items that have not been returned and are still lost—some 20% of Europe’s treasures. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who is no longer in his place, made the point that it is not just about returning the treasures but holding to account the people who took them. Regardless of the time that has passed, it is hugely important that we take these great strides and return works of art and cultural items to their rightful owners. Clearly, there is much more to do, and my right hon. Friend’s Bill aims to ensure that we continue to return works of art to their rightful owners.
In the debates on the original legislation, which started in 2006 and was brought into effect in 2009, it was anticipated that a 10-year sunset clause would be long enough. It expires on 11 November 2019, which is of course Remembrance Day. At that point, institutions would no longer be able to return works of art to their rightful owners. It is therefore absolutely right that my hon. Friend is taking the Bill forward. It is symbolically very important. The UK is a world leader in these matters. I am very grateful to her and to the Government for their support. She can be assured of my support as the Bill passes through the House.
I am very pleased to be able to be here today to support the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). It is an incredibly important piece of proposed legislation.
The Spoliation Advisory Panel was established after a conference in 1998, the same year that I visited Auschwitz for the first time. Anyone who visits will never forget seeing the now sagging barbed wire that held people in to be contained until their deaths; the small, dark claustrophobic gas chambers; and, from the piles of hair and teeth, how people were literally pulled apart.
I have recently been reading Tony Judt’s book “Postwar”, a magisterial history of post-war Europe. It tells the story of how Europe was put together after the war: how the new institutional architecture that has brought peace to the continent was built; and how the successful new states, none more so than the Federal Republic of Germany, were built up and resisted anti-democratic forces for decades. It covers the big symbolic moments, such as Willy Brandt kneeling in Warsaw, and, most joyously of all, the fall of the Berlin wall, a big moment in reuniting our continent.
It is no exaggeration to say that my right hon. Friend’s Bill, even though it is only about 100 words long, is another little piece in that story: the huge vase that was smashed into a million pieces gradually being put back together, the righting of wrongs and the building up of peace. The Bill is another piece in that story. She is quite right to make the argument that spoliation—taking from families their works of art and their precious belongings—was part of the attempt to dehumanise a whole group of people.
I watched the French documentary film “The Sorrow and the Pity”, which shows some of the Nazi propaganda of the time. What is striking is how sophisticated it was. It is not crude propaganda; it is quite effective propaganda that aims to dehumanise people. The looting of their possessions was a part of that to make them seem like a ragged group who were inhuman and fit only for death. Today, of course, we have new types of racist propaganda. We have the videoing for consumption on the internet of the barbaric killings in New Zealand. We have new antisemitic memes flooding the internet every day. This kind of propaganda always goes on. It is important that, on every level and every day, we continue to fight it.
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend drew attention to a number of cases and read out the testimony of people who had been reunited with their belongings. There was the family who remembered a particular painting hanging on the wall. One person said that it had become more and more important to get back a piece of art because they had visited the artist’s studio with a grandparent. Her parents were both dead and it had become very important to have this piece of art back again. That was a very powerful testimony.
I can only imagine the frustration of families before the original piece of legislation, to which we are today hopefully going to end the sunset clause. Families have been in situations where they have identified property that is theirs in a museum somewhere else. It had been looted from them. A convention says that it should be returned to them and the museum wants it to be returned to them, but they are unable to be reunited with their possessions because of an absurd quirk of the law. It would be even more absurd for us not to remedy the quirk that a sunset clause has, for no particularly good reason, been put in the original legislation. Hopefully, we will get rid of that today.
I finish by saying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet that I am proud that our country has been a leader in pushing forward the convention and the advisory panel. It was staggering to see, as part of the background to the debate, how much art and how many possessions have been scattered around the continent, with 100,000 pieces of art still missing and the vast destruction of the cultural heritage of the continent. The UK has been a leader in this area. We have talked about the 23 works of art that have been returned to their rightful owners through this process. My right hon. and very hard-working Friend has played her part. She has done a lot of work and has been a tireless champion for this very important cause. It is a pleasure to support her important work today.
I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for the work that she has done to bring the Bill to this stage. I know that for many years, she has cared deeply about and has worked actively on this issue. Nobody who has listened to the testimony of holocaust survivors can fail to be moved by their message and by the tragedy of the impact and the barbarism of this most evil of period in European history.
In Dudley’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations in January, which were organised by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), we heard about the experiences of Zigi Shipper—his life in pre-war Poland, his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration and extermination camps, and the impact that this had on his life and that of his family. So many of his family members were lost. Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which started the process of uncovering the full horrors of the holocaust, it is more important than ever that we do everything that we can not only to remember what happened and to learn the lessons of the past but, where we can, to right the wrongs of that period of history.
Holocaust survivors and their families lost so much. In many cases, they lost their childhood and their family. These are things that neither we nor any Government can ever hope to restore, but what we can do is help to return some of the property and some of the family heirlooms that mean so much to survivors’ families. For that reason, the Bill is absolutely vital. As has been said, it is a simple Bill that seeks to remove the sunset clause that was inserted into the 2009 Act. It was inserted for perfectly good reasons, but it is now clear that it would be a great injustice to allow it to stand. The Bill will enable trustees to continue to return cultural objects back to their rightful owners indefinitely where it is shown that they were looted by the Nazis. Quite rightly, the safeguards that were built into the original Act remain intact, so that the rights and responsibilities of trustees and directors to look after cultural objects under their supervision and control is protected.
It would have been quite easy for the House to do nothing in 2009, but Members rightly decided that ensuring that some of the estimated 100,000 missing works of art could be returned to their rightful owners was the correct and moral thing to do. Many of those objects were stolen nearly 80 years ago. It would be completely contrary to our country’s values to pass up a clear opportunity to act to right these wrongs and correct these injustices, even though they were perpetrated so long ago. That is not what we stand for. However, there is a clear and present danger that if the Bill is not enacted, the sunset clause that is due to strike in November this year will undo the work done by the Act, and it will no longer be possible to correct those wrongs in the future.
We as a nation have been at the forefront of repatriating the items looted by the Nazis, leading the way not only in Europe but in the rest of the world. The Spoliation Advisory Panel takes an approach that is both revolutionary and fundamentally common-sense, without the need for costly legal proceedings and lawyers. I mean no offence to any legally trained Members who are present. Had the panel appeared earlier, other countries could not have used our delay as an excuse for their own inaction. Now that it is in place, however, it is able—in a dignified and trusting manner—to make decisions based on the evidence to which my right hon. Friend has referred, without involving costly adversarial arguments and instead relying on the good sense and discretion of its members.
As my right hon. Friend said, the panel has worked hard and conscientiously for many years, and I too place on record my thanks for its ongoing work. I hope that by passing the Bill, we can allow it to continue that work, and to bring at least some comfort to holocaust survivors and the families of victims.
Let me begin by joining colleagues in sending thoughts and prayers to all those affected by the abhorrent attack that took place in Christchurch today. I know that the whole House joins me in condemning that barbaric act.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her tireless work. She initially secured Government support for a private Member’s Bill which then became an Act, and she is now ensuring that a sunset clause in that Act will not block a person’s right, or the right of that person’s family, to the justice that they so deserve. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who on Second Reading described the Bill as a carefully targeted, specific piece of legislation that worked well. The Labour party is proud to support it.
I also pay tribute to all who have spoken today. The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) spoke movingly about seeing off hatred, and I am sure that I speak for the whole Chamber when I commend what was said by the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who spoke of her own heritage.
I know that every Member of the House is all too well aware of the impact of the holocaust, but Members may not know that my own family were personally affected. My grandma was pregnant with my uncle while hiding in the sewers in Warsaw during the second world war. My family were in the Warsaw ghettos. My grandmother’s brother, my great-uncle, died valiantly fighting for freedom in Poland. My mother is Polish, and I know full well that no one grows up in a Polish family without hearing stories of the holocaust almost every week. I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau three times, and I can tell you that the holocaust changed the lives of entire generations, with millions of people murdered on a scale that is as horrifying as it was massive. So as a second generation Pole, I can tell the House that the pain indeed lives on today.
As we know, however, the Nazi commitment to their ideal of erasing an entire people did not simply end at eradicating lives. The Nazi authorities set about looting priceless works of art that had been passed down through generations of families; by setting out to destroy an entire people’s culture, the Nazis were trying to destroy any record of existence—to wipe them off the planet.
As I have said, my mother is Polish so I naturally feel a personal connection to the Nazi attempt to exterminate my mother’s and my own culture. Current estimates state that at least 516,000 individual works of art were lost in Poland in world war two. We would need 220 National Galleries to host that many paintings, and this only covers those objects registered in the post-war years as being lost, which mainly focused on works of old art.
As far as libraries and home collections are concerned, losses are estimated, staggeringly, at over 22 million volumes from almost 40,000 libraries. By the end of 1942 German officials estimated that over 90% of art previously in Poland was in their possession. This is robbery and looting on an unimaginable scale. Imagine every printed item in Oxford university’s libraries and then double it; all of that was stolen. It is truly incomprehensible. The original owners of these cultural items have a right to have them returned to them. This is why this Bill is so important.
While the Nazis were, thankfully, stopped from destroying an entire people’s culture, the works of art they stole are still found in museum collections across the globe. The UK, by playing its part in returning them to their rightful owners, demonstrates our commitment to live up to the ideals that were fought for over 70 years ago. The Act that this Bill amends has helped the Spoliation Advisory Panel to do its vital work, and its assistance in the return of 23 cultural objects to families or satisfactory compensation in lieu of return is an important illustration of our collective remembrance of the victims of the holocaust.
It is not of course the only way in which we remember the victims of the Shoah. International Holocaust Memorial Day and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust do excellent work each and every year, and I pay tribute to them for their work. With the rise of the far-right and increasing numbers of hate crimes, it is now more important than ever to remember—to remember what can happen when the toxic fascist ideologies are left unchallenged; to remember that we as a society are weaker when we are focused on the differences between us, instead of the common goals we share; and to remember, most importantly, that it is the duty of every Member in this House to ensure that a holocaust never happens again.
It would be remiss of me to stand at this Dispatch Box and speak of the holocaust without talking about antisemitism. As far-right parties gain momentum across Europe and countries like Germany and France report sharp rises in antisemitism, now is the time to redouble our efforts to pay our respects to the victims of the holocaust; by doing so, we can all stamp out this repulsive ideology.
It was vile antisemitism that fed into the Nazi desire to eradicate an entire people and rob them of their culture, and I am proud to say that the Opposition are supporting this Bill today, to continue returning stolen items to rightful owners, where they belong. It is not right to put a timeframe on justice, and if a family are still searching for an artefact that was stolen, as many unfortunately are, we should not add to their distress by enforcing an arbitrary deadline.
There is an old Hebrew proverb—I hope I am pronouncing this correctly—that goes: “Na’eh doresh—na’eh meqayem”. It translates literally as “He who demands well should fulfil his demands well”. Our equivalent would be “Practice what you preach”. We all talk about our commitment to moving our country towards greater equality and reducing discrimination, but words are significantly devalued without the actions to back them up. The Bill provides an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing to fulfil our demands well, and I hope that we will redouble our efforts today.
I would like to start by associating myself with the comments, the tributes and the sense of outrage and shock expressed by so many Members of the House and by Mr Speaker following the truly dreadful events in Christchurch. I send my deepest condolences to the people of Christchurch and of New Zealand, and to Muslim people the world over.
I am pleased to speak in support of the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and I pay tribute to her determination in pushing this important private Member’s Bill to this stage. This is never an easy route, and it is one in which many more Bills fail than succeed. Setting to rights the terrible crimes committed during the second world war is just as important for us today as it was following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The widespread and systematic seizure of cultural property in territories occupied by or under the control of the Nazis and their allies has been recognised in international declarations as warranting particular recognition and deserving of special treatment.
The Washington conference on Holocaust-era assets in 1998 reached consensus on how to deal with the issue of Nazi-looted art. It was partly in response to this that the Government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2000. The panel’s report on the Beneventan Missal in 2005 recommended to the Government that the law should be changed to allow national museums to return Nazi-looted art. I would like to join Members across the House in thanking the panel for its excellent advice over the years, which has allowed justice to prevail in the circumstances we are discussing here.
I should like to place on record my tribute to the people known as the monuments men. There was a film about them, based on a true story. Those 345 experts spent until 1951 searching for artefacts, pictures and other objects so that they could be returned to their rightful owners. They located 5 million pieces, but they reckon a lot were never seen again. Their work was crucial to our efforts to get stuff back to the people who own it.
My hon. Friend’s important intervention draws our attention to the painstaking work that has been done over the years, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, without which we would not expect this legislation to have any effect.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet has done so much to speak up for the Jewish community, and it is tragic that the community now needs so much support. She spoke of the emotional value of the return of cultural artefacts and works of art and the fact that so many of them are priceless to the owners or their heirs. She eloquently described how the restitution of such works of art can provide a powerful link with the past for the families and heirs of holocaust victims, representing the most tangible connection that they may have with their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, so of many of whom were lost during those dark and awful years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) reminded us of the common theme of the appropriation of cultural artefacts, talking about the destruction of the cultural history of a whole people by an oppressive regime or invading power seeking to wipe out the traces of the civilisation that it is attempting to destroy. It is testament to the Jewish people that the Nazis did not succeed in that endeavour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) shared his horror at the growing tide of antisemitism, and I identify with his revulsion at this deeply retrograde phenomenon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) struck a more optimistic note, talking about the education of children. He referred to the section devoted to the holocaust at the Imperial War Museum, which I have not yet visited and must do so. Exhibitions like that around the country share that cultural history, which is so important for the education of younger and future generations. It is by keeping that remembrance alive that we protect against the potential horrors of the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) has just been reading Professor Judt’s “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” and talked about the effectiveness and sophistication of the Nazi regime’s propaganda. He also drew my attention to the effectiveness of its modern-day equivalent. The internet has regrettably enabled the swifter spreading of propaganda, exposing so many more people to it, which is one of the biggest challenges to address as we seek to ensure that online standards better reflect the standards that we demand and expect offline.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), whose constituency neighbours mine, talked about the annual Dudley holocaust memorial event that is arranged with energy, passion and commitment by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin). My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South mentioned the privilege of hearing Zigi Shipper talk at this year’s event, 74 years after the closure of Auschwitz-Birkenau, about his family’s experience of the evil concentration camps.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan). She is a second-generation Pole and spoke movingly about her family’s direct experience of the terrible events that we are discussing today. She really brought home to me the scale of the Nazis’ attempts to destroy all evidence of the Jewish population when she alluded to the destruction of more documents than those contained in the University of Oxford’s libraries and of much more besides. As she said, there was robbery and looting on an unimaginable scale.
The extension of this legislation is important. It is no wonder that it has enjoyed such strong cross-party support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet gave a powerful description of the importance of artefacts and cultural items, with which I can identify in a small way because, as a child, I had a fascination with old coins. When I was growing up, I could still get Victorian coins, pennies, in my change from the sweet shop. I used to collect those coins. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) says that he still has such a collection, which is a joy to hear. My collection, alas, disappeared. My old aunt had a shilling in a little case preserved from the reign of William IV, and I treasured it—that went, too. The return of those things would be priceless to me, and they are not even associated with these dreadful crimes. I recall a whole collection from my childhood, and such collections are denied to the people we are here to try to compensate with this Bill.
Despite the excellent work of our national museums to research the provenance of the items in their collections, we have heard that that work needs to continue. Such is the scale of the task that it would be wrong to begin to suggest when it can be completed. I am sure it will be timeless, which is why the powers in the 2009 Act should be extended indefinitely so we can continue to consider claims from those who were so cruelly robbed of their property.
To use the words of Sir Nicholas Serota, the former director of the Tate Gallery, it is vital that potential claimants should not feel that the door is being shut in their face. We cannot change the past, but we can continue to bring some measure of justice to the families of the dispossessed. This Bill plays a vital role in allowing us to do that, and I hope it can now proceed.
I close by echoing the tribute paid by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet to the holocaust survivors, and their heirs, in her constituency and the world over.
With the leave of the House, I rise to give my profound thanks to everyone who has taken part in the debate today and those who participated on Second Reading and in Committee, including the Front Benchers. Like the Minister, I found the contribution of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), very moving in talking about the experiences of her family.
I thank officials in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, particularly Mark Caldon, for their help and briefings on this legislation. I thank Andrew Dismore for his advice and, of course, for his work on the original 2009 Act that we are here to save. Lastly, I thank the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for her invaluable assistance in enabling me to navigate the Friday process.
I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.