Ivory Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 17th July 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative 6:30 pm, 17th July 2018

My Lords, I declare my interest as a former president of the British Antique Dealers’ Association. I am sure that your Lordships agree that we should all be extremely proud that the UK represents the largest art and antiques market in Europe and the second largest in the world. Through its specialist dealers and major auction houses, it offers a concentrated source of expertise and knowledge, unmatched anywhere in the world.

I warmly welcome the aims of the Bill and its desire to conserve elephant populations. The appalling slaughter of the African elephant in such large numbers in recent years is a matter of grave concern to us all. The Government should be proud of the action that they have already taken to tackle the illegal wildlife trade and protect elephants from being poached. This action includes expanded British military training in anti-poaching skills for African park rangers, a project with China to deliver training to African border forces, and additional funding for Interpol to increase its work with key nations in tracking shipments of ivory. As we have heard from many noble Lords this afternoon, we hosted the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference four years ago, and another is due here in the autumn. I therefore think that we are selling ourselves a little short when we say that we are lagging behind other countries in our fight against elephant poaching.

It is recognised that China is the world’s largest market for ivory, where it has been continuously imported as a raw material up until the end of last year. As recently as 2008, 62 tonnes of ivory tusks were released from Africa and sold to China. Hong Kong’s official stockpile of ivory in 2015 amounted to 78 tonnes. I mention these figures to provide context for the situation in the UK, where our market is not one of ivory as a commodity but of antiques, some of which happen to incorporate ivory.

It is on our cultural heritage that I really wish to reflect. I am fascinated by the evolution of mankind’s cultural and artistic development, as seen through the monuments, works of art and domestic items that earlier generations have left behind. We have access today to many objects from earlier times that were created under conditions of which we would not now approve. It is inevitable that items created in earlier centuries will reflect the social, economic and political norms of their era. The most obvious example is books. The views espoused in some printed matter from the past might now be abhorrent to many, but we do not ban its sale. The people who read those books today are well able to interpret the opinions they contain in the context of the period in which they were written. I believe that we should take the same approach with old artefacts that incorporate ivory.

We recognise that the ivory found today in antique objects came historically from thousands of dead elephants, some of which died from natural causes and others, sadly, were killed for their tusks. But I believe the British public are all intelligent enough to understand that buying an antique that incorporates old ivory does not mean they approve of objects made from modern, poached ivory.

This contrasts enormously with the attitude of some Asian buyers. As we have heard, they have a culture of acquiring ivory for its own sake, regardless of age, and they generally do so in the form of solid ivory carvings, many sold by weight. It should also be noted that Asian buyers buy fewer western antiques; attempts to interest them in doing so have largely proved unsuccessful. The British Antique Dealers’ Association has been trying for several years to garner more interest from Chinese buyers in items such as English antique furniture or silver, and it has proved an uphill struggle. In 2013, the European Fine Art Foundation, which runs the world’s most significant art fair, in Maastricht, gave up its plans for a fair in Beijing.

The vast majority of western antiques containing ivory are not therefore exported to the Far East. Consequently, despite claims to the contrary, they do not contribute to the vast market for ivory carvings that exists in China, Hong Kong and other countries in Asia, such as Vietnam. There is not even the danger of such items being mixed in with the carvings on sale in the ivory shops of Hong Kong. When did anyone last spot a 19th-century English silver teapot with carved ivory handle sharing shelf space with rows of modern, cellophane-wrapped carved Buddhas?

The structure of the Bill provides a framework for measures to prevent modern ivory trinkets being offered for sale. Such trinkets include solid ivory tourist carvings that may have been acquired legally in the 1940s or 1950s but hold no real cultural significance, either for the people who made them or for mankind in general. However, I urge your Lordships to be aware that, as presently worded, the Bill will have a significant impact on the future of many culturally or historically important objects that do not meet the extremely limited exemption criteria, particularly items containing 10% or more ivory that fall foul of the Clause 2 criteria.

I will explain my concerns more precisely. The Bill allows people to continue to own any ivory items that do not qualify for those exemptions. It also lets owners give them away or pass them on to their beneficiaries on death. I realise that some of your Lordships may imagine that this would be sufficient to protect these items for future generations. I cannot, however, agree that these items will be protected. When the owners of prohibited cultural property die, their objects will not necessarily be wanted or appreciated by their remaining family members. Museums will not automatically accept every gift offered to them; they have neither the storage space nor the funds to look after them. Furthermore, museums may well be unwilling to accept artefacts already represented in their collections.

If the objects have no financial value, there will be no incentive for an indifferent or busy executor or beneficiary to bother to find a new owner. As my noble friend Lord De Mauley said, many items will be abandoned or thrown away. Even if not discarded, because they lack a resale value, there will be no financial incentive to spend money on having them restored or conserved for posterity. I am concerned not only for the artefacts themselves but for the preservation of examples of our social history. We should all remember that antiques have a big following in Britain, as the viewing figures for “Antiques Roadshow” show.

Although the Government have published an estimated cost to businesses, they have not attempted to quantify the cost to individuals of rendering their treasured antique possessions worthless. Dealers and auction houses are merely the conduit between one permanent owner and the next. For every item currently in a dealer’s stock or being handled by an auction house, there will be many more similar items held privately. The potential losses must be considerably larger to citizens than to businesses. Can the Minister therefore inform me whether the Government have attempted to compute the loss to the Exchequer arising from this measure, as it will undoubtedly make a dent in the tax take from both inheritance tax and capital gains tax?

We should also consider the works of art that emanate from cultures in other parts of the world, many of which have ended up in this country. Ivory has been regularly used in religious artefacts, as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, mentioned, whether crucifixes or carvings of Hindu deities. If these religious objects end up discarded, would that not amount to a form of iconoclasm?

The use of ivory is prevalent, as we have heard, in Indian, Asian and African culture. Although we do not wish to encourage the purchase of modern-day ivory trinkets by people of the Far East, we cannot write off the figural carvings of high aesthetic appeal from the Ming dynasty, or the high-quality Guangzhou tribute pieces that were made for the Chinese imperial court. While introducing their ban on modern carving workshops, the Chinese themselves will continue to recognise their own cultural inheritance by permitting auction sales of cultural relics. Is it our place to dismiss the culture of such a great civilisation in such a way?

The same may be said of Japanese culture. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said in his eloquent speech, you have only to read Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes to appreciate the lure of those masterpieces of the carver’s art in boxwood, porcelain, lacquer or ivory: the netsuke. How many netsuke made from ivory will be rendered valueless, as my noble friend said, while their wooden counterparts of similar artistic merit will continue to be sold?

It is normal for this House to ponder matters in a less hurried way than is sometimes the case in the other place. After this fascinating debate this afternoon, with so many interesting and different views, I hope that your Lordships will give careful thought to these concerns. Essentially, this is a good Bill which has cross-party support, but it could be improved by making certain that it creates the correct balance between recognising our cultural heritage and providing the framework for prohibiting the sale of modern-day ivory in Britain—and of course protecting the elephant.

I started by stressing the importance of and need for change. It would be perfectly possible to introduce effective amendments without delaying the Bill’s passage or in any way watering down the important message it sends out to other countries about the serious attitude we take to elephant poaching. We might all agree that we surely do not want to live in an ivory tower.