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Unesco Cultural Property Convention

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2001

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When they propose to accede to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Means of Preventing the Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property, and to implement the other recommendations made last December by the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Illicit Trade, chaired by Professor Norman Palmer.

My Lords, I am pleased to confirm my Answer to the Written Question of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, on 13th March. The Government have taken the decision to accede to this convention once the normal parliamentary and other formalities have been completed. We are giving active consideration to the other recommendations of the report of the ministerial advisory panel, particularly the criminal offence, and we will announce progress on these in due course.

My Lords, will the Minister accept my congratulations and, no doubt, those of other noble Lords on this very welcome, if perhaps long-awaited, announcement in relation to the UNESCO convention? Will he confirm that it will be possible to complete the formalities to which he referred before the Summer Recess? The noble Lord will be aware that one of the recommendations of Professor Palmer's working party was that there should be four new members of staff in the export licensing unit to facilitate its work. Can the noble Lord say how soon we can expect the appointment of these new staff members in order that London will no longer be a bazaar for unprovenanced antiquities?

My Lords, in accepting the noble Lord's congratulations, may I return them. The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, was a distinguished member of the panel, the recommendations of which we have accepted.

The formalities involve preparing the convention and an explanatory memorandum as a White Paper, which would then have to be presented to Parliament for at least 21 sitting days. I am not sure that I can promise that this will be done by the Summer Recess, but it can certainly be done this year. As to the issue of four additional staff, we do not think that quite as many will be needed. We are working on the numbers and on the costs involved quite actively.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in welcoming the recent publication by the British art dealers' federation of a new code of practice in this area? What are the Government's plans for monitoring its progress?

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in welcoming the new code of practice of the British Art Market Federation, which seems to cover the necessary ground very effectively. I think self-regulation—in the first instance, at any rate—is probably the wiser course of action.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister on his reference to the creation of a criminal offence in connection with archaeological finds. Can he give any kind of timescale as to when that criminal offence will be introduced in this country?

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, we are giving active consideration to the recommendation of making this a criminal offence, but first we have to establish how far it needs to be a new criminal offence and how far the offence is covered by the existing law. The panel also made a recommendation that there should be an international database of legislation, which is a very valuable recommendation. When we have completed the review of whether the existing law is adequate for the purpose, if there are any gaps we will then consider how they should be filled. That would probably be by means of an insertion in a criminal justice Bill. As we seem to have criminal justice Bills every year, that may not mean too long a delay.

My Lords, can the Minister give any indication of the Government's thinking on the proposed Home Office database of stolen and looted antiquities and antiques?

My Lords, we support the recommendation and we are discussing it actively with the Home Office. Incidentally, in view of an article which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph last Sunday which suggested that there should be a log book for all items of cultural property, I should say that this is not something which is being discussed between the Department for Culture and the Home Office. That idea was specifically rejected by the Palmer panel. It seems to us to be an unnecessarily bureaucratic and intrusive burden on the trade. A database of stolen and illegally removed property is a much more sensible idea.