Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State 1:59 pm, 10th September 2021

I thank my right hon. Friend Mel Stride not only for introducing this important Bill, but, with his Blue Badge guide status, for guiding us through it so beautifully.

As we have heard, the protection afforded to cultural objects on loan to our UK museums and galleries from abroad is of huge significance to many international lenders. Understandably, the owners of such objects expect and require a degree of certainty that, when agreeing to lend their most precious national treasures, they will be safeguarded from seizure or forfeiture while they remain in the UK. We have heard from Members across the House why this is so important—this is the lifeblood of some of our great cultural institutions—and why it really matters.

Immunity from seizure has provided that certainty since the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act was passed in 2007 and the first of our museums and galleries began to apply for and achieve approved immunity from seizure status. As a result, we have seen a great number of remarkable exhibitions featuring internationally owned objects that have benefited from immunity from seizure. Between 2015 and 2020, over 200 separate exhibitions in the UK benefited from this coverage, with hundreds of fascinating objects protected by the Act while on display for the public to enjoy and learn from.

The loan of objects allows museums across the UK and the world to stage exhibitions and displays that would not otherwise be possible and enables them to further contextualise their collections and attract more diverse audiences, as well as to contribute to the education, learning and wellbeing outcomes that museums are well known to provide. The Opposition spokesperson, Alison McGovern, spoke about how we have seen an experiment this year regarding what happens when such places are closed to us and how it really does impact on our everyday lives. We really need those cultural institutions in our lives for our general wellbeing.

All this demonstrates the effectiveness and the value of the legislation so far, but the proposal put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon is a real opportunity to address a small but important gap. It will ensure that immunity from seizure legislation continues to remain fit for purpose during these uncertain and changeable times. I am happy to say that the proposed measure is therefore very much welcomed and supported by the Government.

While this amendment is small, it is sensible and forward thinking, and it responds to real concerns expressed within the sector about what would happen should circumstances prevent objects being returned to their country of origin within the standard timeframe. The hon. Member for Wirral South asked me how we have worked with the devolved nations on this, and of course they have been consulted on the proposals and have welcomed them, as she would expect. We will of course continue to work with them on implementation and guidance.

The measure will clearly have a positive impact, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon set out in his opening words. It will help to reduce the risk of international cultural property being left unprotected while in the temporary care and custody of UK institutions. International exhibitions are such an important source of income for the sector, and they will be ever more important as museums and galleries recover from the challenges we have seen over the last year. The provisions of this Bill will have a very positive impact on our sector. They will allow museums and galleries to continue to co-ordinate and plan important loans with international partners for tourist-drawing exhibitions, safe in the knowledge that contingency against unpredictable events is available.

This will also help museums and galleries maintain the really strong relationship they have with counterparts in other parts of the world. We have heard about some of the really impressive outcomes produced by the exciting exhibitions our UK museums and galleries have been able to hold as a result of loans of international cultural objects. My right hon. Friend mentioned that a single exhibition, the Saatchi Tutankhamun exhibition, reached more than half a million members of the public. That underlines how valuable the immunity from seizure protection is. It just simply would not have been possible without it.

Another one that my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Wirral South mentioned as having an amazing benefit from this protection was the terracotta warriors exhibition in National Museums Liverpool, which are quite brilliant, in 2018. Some 36% of visitors to this exhibition were from outside the area. It generated about 200,000 staying visits to Liverpool throughout the exhibition’s run and contributed over £78 million to the local economy. Is that not incredible? These are really impressive examples showing how immunity from seizure contributes so positively to our culture sector and provides fantastic opportunities for the UK public to experience these incredible pieces of history—these cultural works of art—from across the world. That is why it is so important that the Bill underpins all this as practically as possible for our museums and galleries, and it is clear that it will help to do so.

In conclusion, I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this incredibly worthy Bill to the House and for setting out so articulately and clearly the benefits that it will bring. I confirm that the Government support the Bill.