Treasure

Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 6:34 pm on 18th March 1997.

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Photo of Mr Iain Sproat Mr Iain Sproat , Harwich 6:34 pm, 18th March 1997

I beg to move, That the Treasure Act 1996 draft Code of Practice (England and Wales), which was laid before this House on 13th March, be approved.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following: That the Treasure Act 1996 Northern Ireland draft Code of Practice, which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.

Photo of Mr Iain Sproat Mr Iain Sproat , Harwich

I apologise to the House for the fact that, because the statutory instruments are complex, I may have to take slightly longer than has been taken on the previous measures. The instruments seek the approval of the House for two draft codes of practice on the Treasure Act 1996.

It may be useful if I briefly remind the House of the scope and purpose of the Treasure Act 1996. The Act was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant), to whom the House is deeply indebted, as a private Member's Bill, and it received Royal Assent last July. It was debated at some length both in the House and in another place, and it received all-party support.

The Act replaces the common law of treasure trove in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Treasure trove hitherto provided effectively the only legal protection afforded to antiquities found in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under the old law of treasure trove, all finds of objects made of gold or silver had to be reported to the coroner. However, before an object could be declared treasure trove and be the property of the Crown, it had to pass three tests: it had to be made substantially of gold or silver; it had to have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery; and its owner or his heirs had to be unknown. Finds of treasure trove were offered to museums, which had to pay the full market value for them, and that was passed on to the finder as a reward: if no museum wished to acquire the find, it was returned, usually to the finder.

The Treasure Act 1996 reforms that ancient law. It removes the need to establish that objects were hidden with the intention of being recovered, except in a very few cases; it sets out the precious metal content required for a find to qualify as treasure; and it extends the definition of treasure to include other objects found in archaeological association with finds of treasure. The Act confirms that treasure vests in the Crown or the franchisee if there is one, subject to prior interests and rights. It simplifies the task of coroners in determining whether a find is treasure, and it includes a new offence of non-declaration of treasure. Lastly, it states that occupiers and landowners will have the right to be informed of finds of treasure their land on, and that they will be eligible for rewards.

A recent survey suggested that perhaps 400,000 archaeological objects are found each year with metal detectors. Over the past 10 years, 22 finds a year on average have been declared treasure trove. Those finds comprise on average 6,000 individual objects, so they amount to about 1.5 per cent. of the total number of objects found. We believe that the Act may double the number of cases of treasure, but that would increase the proportion covered from 1.5 per cent. to only 3 per cent. of objects found.

Section 11 of the Act requires my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to prepare a code of practice relating to treasure, to keep it under review, and to revise it when appropriate. The code has to set out the guidelines to be followed by my right hon. Friend when considering whether treasure should be offered to a museum, or to the finder, or to any other person, when determining a reward and when deciding whether to disclaim the Crown's title to treasure. The code may—and does—also provide guidance for finders, museums, coroners and others who are concerned with treasure.

Before preparing the code, my right hon. Friend was required to consult such interested parties as appeared to her to be appropriate and the code, or any revision of it, will not come into force until it has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. My right hon. Friend is required to publish the code in such a way as will bring it to the attention of all interested parties, and she may publish separate codes for England and Wales, for Northern Ireland, and for different parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland if deemed appropriate.

When the Treasure Bill was passing through Parliament, I gave a commitment that it would not come into force until the codes of practice had been approved by both Houses. I should explain why two codes have been drafted, the first to take effect in England and Wales, and the second in Northern Ireland. It was necessary to have two separate codes because of the different legislative regimes that exist in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales.

In the Province, under the terms of the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, there is a statutory duty for finders to report all archaeological objects, and anyone excavating on any land for the purpose of searching for archaeological objects requires a licence. Neither of those provisions exists in England and Wales. The Northern Ireland code therefore follows the policy laid down in the code for England and Wales, but has been adapted to take account of the different statutory regime in the Province.

It may be helpful if I summarise what the codes do, and then describe the consultation process that we have gone through. As I have said, the codes have three main purposes. They describe the requirements of the Act, they provide guidance to finders of treasure, and they set out the guidelines on the payment of rewards.

First, the codes set out what objects should be reported, and where. Importantly, the English and Welsh code proposes that the Department will draw up local agreements for each coroner's district, setting out arrangements for the delivery of finds of treasure. Secondly, the codes give clear guidelines on which objects qualify because they are found in association with treasure. In addition, they urge metal detectorists to seek advice from archaeologists as soon as they come across any large or unusual finds, and state that they will not lose out if they do.

The codes urge archaeologists to involve finders in any archaeological investigation resulting from their finds, and confirm that objects that no museum wishes to acquire can be disclaimed without the need to hold an inquest, thus streamlining the system.

One issue that proved controversial when the Treasure Bill was debated in Standing Committee concerns the position of the bodies that held franchises. However, I am glad to tell the House that all the regular exercisers of franchises—there are only four of them—have agreed to abide by the principles of the code.

The codes set out revised guidelines on the valuation of finds of treasure that museums wish to acquire. At present, the independent treasure trove reviewing committee advises my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on such valuations, its role being to determine the full market value of the objects discovered. Under the old system, the national museums—that is, the British museum for England, and the national museums and galleries of Wales in the case of finds in Wales—used to submit valuations to the committee, which would then take further advice if it thought that necessary.

The codes propose that the national museums will no longer submit valuation reports. Instead, in all cases the committee will issue reports from independent experts drawn from the trade. Finders and museums will be able to comment on the valuations before the committee makes its recommendation, and finders will continue to be able to commission their own reports, as they can at present.

On the payment of rewards, the codes set out for the first time a comprehensive policy. The aim is to strike a balance between the interests of finder, occupier and landowner. The responses that we received from the consultation exercise suggest that we have done so.

To summarise, the codes state that, where the finder has permission to be on the land, rewards should continue to be paid in full to him or her. The burden of proof as to whether he has permission will rest with the finder, and if the finder has made an agreement with the occupier or landowner to share a reward, the Secretary of State will be prepared to follow the terms of the agreement.

Where the finder has been trespassing, he or she may expect a reduced reward, or none at all. For the first time, landowners or occupiers will be eligible for rewards in such cases. Lastly, the codes define the respective interests of the landowner and the occupier in cases in which they are eligible for rewards. The Act requires my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consult such persons as appear to her to be appropriate.

The first draft of the code was therefore issued for consultation on 17 December, with a request for comments to be made by 14 February. About 1,500 copies of the English and Welsh codes were sent out, and all the main interested parties were given an opportunity to comment. Those included all metal-detecting clubs, leading archaeological societies and museum bodies, selected museums, antiquarians, coin dealers and landowners' groups.

Although we had already fulfilled our legal obligations to consult to secure the widest possible consensus, on 28 February we circulated the revised draft of the English and Welsh versions of the code to the 50 or so organisations and individuals most closely interested in it.

Provided that the House and another place agree to approve those codes, we need a period during which the final version will be circulated as widely as possible before the Act comes into force. That is why we propose that the commencement date of the Act should be 24 September. We expect to print up to 30,000 copies of the codes, and we shall also produce a leaflet or leaflets summarising the main points, which will be distributed even more widely. I commend the codes of practice to the House.

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Cambridge South West 6:43 pm, 18th March 1997

Over 32 years I have despairingly endeavoured to introduce private Members' Bills of one sort or another, so I am especially gratified that one of them—the Treasure Act 1996, as it now is—reached the statute book successfully.

The motion before the House is the final act and deed to put that excellent measure into effect. I hope that the House will pass it. I believe that if it does, we shall have put on to the statute book a measure that will contribute greatly to the heritage of our nation, and in which everybody can participate, whether they be detectorists, archaeologists or anyone else.

The measure brings common sense to a law that has been in need of reform since mediaeval times. I should like to say how grateful I am to the Department of National Heritage for all that it has done. I am especially grateful to Dr. Roger Bland, and, if I may say so, for the splendid co-operation that I have always had from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). I wish the measure well.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher , Stoke-on-Trent Central 6:44 pm, 18th March 1997

We welcome the code of practice, and I am grateful to the Minister for laying out the detail. Many people have battled for years, both inside and outside the House, to bring the measure about, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant) on his perseverance, and also Lord Perth on his work in another place.

I hear what the Minister says—that it makes sense to wait until September for the instrument to come into force. Indeed, we have been patient so long that I suspect that all the interested parties outside the House will understand that argument. They will also understand the part of the code that says that, because we shall be in new territory, in spite of the availability of the best expert advice—I might mention Dr. Roger Bland and others—nobody quite knows how the legislation will work in practice.

We appreciate the Government's caution in scheduling a review to take place in three years' time, so that we can see how the Act and the code are working. We welcome that, and I congratulate the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Cambridgeshire on the new legislation. We look forward to its contributing to our cultural life and to a more orderly organisation of such matters.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Treasure Act 1996 draft Code of Practice (England and Wales), which was laid before this House on 13th March, be approved.

Resolved, That the Treasure Act 1996 Northern Ireland draft Code of Practice, which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.—[Mr. Sproat.]