Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:28 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Chair, Treasury Committee, Chair, Treasury Committee 1:28 pm, 10th September 2021

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I make a declaration of interest? Many years ago, I qualified as a Blue Badge guide, which entitled me to guide in, among other important historic places, the British Museum. I pay tribute to all the Blue Badge guides who do such fabulous work in explaining our culture and history and, indeed, the cultures and histories of other countries, to those who visit the United Kingdom. This Bill seeks to amend part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, which provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects on loan from abroad in temporary exhibitions in public museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. The 2007 Act was introduced by the Ministry of Justice and part 6 was given over to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to introduce immunity from seizure. Under section 134 of the Act, cultural objects on loan from abroad to feature in exhibitions in the UK museums and galleries approved under the Act are protected from court-ordered seizures for a period of 12 months from the date the object enters the UK. The legislation was in response to concerns from a number of countries that their art treasures were in danger of being seized while abroad in response to claims by third parties that they were owed money by the foreign state or because of territorial disputes between countries.

Let me add some context to those concerns. In the early 1990s, Noga, a Swiss trading company, claimed that it was owed a substantial sum by the Russian Government and embarked on a series of high-profile claims against Russian property, including the attempted seizure of state-owned assets. In 2005, Noga turned its attention to art when it attempted to seize 54 French impressionist paintings from Russian museums that were on their way back to Russia and travelling through Switzerland. After some delay and concern for the care of the paintings, they were released, but the alarm bells had begun ringing. Understandably, Russia became increasingly nervous about sending its art treasures abroad and announced that it would not lend any works of art to any country without a guarantee of immunity from seizure. That unhelpfully coincided with the planned “From Russia” exhibition at the Royal Academy here in London, which was scheduled to open in January 2008—thankfully, those loans were secured when part 6 of the 2007 Act came into force.

Section 134 provides that an object will be protected against seizure if it is normally kept outside the UK, it is not owned by a UK resident and it is brought here for temporary public display by a museum or gallery approved under section 136 of the Act. For an object to be protected, the borrowing museum must also have complied with regulations made under the Act which relate to publishing information about the loan in advance of it coming into the country. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for approving institutions in England, and the devolved Administrations have similar powers for other parts of the UK. To gain approval under the Act, institutions must demonstrate that their procedures for establishing the provenance and ownership of objects are of a high standard. In 2007, it was considered that 12 months was an adequate period of time to allow objects to arrive in the UK and to be returned following their inclusion in a temporary exhibition. Section 134(4) provides therefore that the protection continues

“for not more than 12 months beginning with the day when the object enters the United Kingdom.”

The only exception to that, and when a period can be extended, is when an object suffers damage and repair work is required.

The legislation has been effective over the years and has enabled many exhibitions to be enriched by loans that the public might not otherwise have been able to see. There are now 38 institutions across the UK that have been approved for immunity from seizure and where objects have benefited from protection. In 2020, 14 institutions hosted exhibitions that included objects protected under the 2007 Act. This protection means that international museums are confident in lending some of their most significant cultural objects to appear in these exhibitions for the UK public to enjoy. Some examples of objects that have benefited from protection include the world-famous Terracotta Warriors, on loan from China to the National Museums Liverpool in 2018, and the baby mummified mammoth Lyuba, which was borrowed by the Natural History Museum from Russia in 2014. Indeed, the Egyptian Government made it clear that immunity from seizure was a requirement for the loan of its Tutankhamun treasures to the Saatchi Gallery in 2019 for the exhibition “Tutankhamun”, which was seen by no fewer than 580,000 people.

With their long experience in managing exhibitions, museum staff are incredibly versatile and adept at dealing with unexpected problems, including transportation delays. Thankfully, such delays are uncommon and can normally be managed to the satisfaction of the lending museum, but problems do occur. For example, we all remember the disruption to air travel caused by the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010.

Museums rely on international exhibitions as a major part of their income. When museums were required to close last year, many international loans were being held in the UK, having appeared in exhibitions. The restrictions and difficulties of international travel that we have all faced since last March meant that even where exhibitions had concluded, it was not always possible to return loaned items within the 12-month time limit.

The Bill will allow the period of protection to be extended beyond 12 months at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for institutions in England, and of the relevant authorities for the devolved nations. That will ensure that this protection remains fit for purpose and can adequately respond to unforeseen circumstances and increase confidence in the UK’s system for those that generously share their cultural objects with UK audiences.

The new power to extend would apply following an application from a UK museum or gallery, and extensions would be granted for a further three months initially, with a possibility of a further extension if considered necessary. The circumstances under which an extension may be considered will be set out in guidance to be developed in discussion with the devolved nations. The measure is strongly supported by the museums sector and Arts Council England, the Government’s development agency for museums.

I hope that Members will agree that this is a worthy measure that will benefit our museums and galleries and ensure that the very best cultural objects from around the world can continue to be seen by a UK audience, safe in the knowledge that, should there be delays in returning works, those objects may continue to be protected from seizure while they remain in the UK. I commend the Bill to the House.