We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who are taking part in this Second Reading debate. The Bill may be short and simple, but it is important because it deals with the legacy of that dark and uniquely evil period of European history in the last century—the Nazi era. Between 1933 and 1945, thousands upon thousands of works of art were stolen. At any time that would be shocking and scandalous, but it was far worse than that. This widespread seizure of cultural objects was part of a grotesque and systematic campaign by the Nazis to eliminate a whole race and culture.
Ten years ago, Parliament passed the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act, to allow national museums and galleries to return works of art and cultural objects confiscated during the Nazi era to those with a rightful claim to them. However, the original Act has a sunset clause and is due to expire this year. This Bill would remove the sunset clause so that the provisions of the Act can continue indefinitely. It does not introduce a new policy but seeks simply to remove a statutory barrier. The Bill has been passed by the House of Commons, and I pay tribute to my right honourable friend Theresa Villiers MP, who piloted it through the Commons so skilfully, smoothly and successfully.
It might be helpful if I explain what led to the passing of the original 2009 Act, and also how the current system operates. During the Nazi era, thousands of cultural objects, largely in Jewish ownership, were stolen. It is thought that as much as a fifth of Europe’s cultural treasures were lost. Many remain hidden. Some will have been destroyed. Some may never be found. Others have found their way into private collections, and some into public collections. The realisation that looted works of art might have been acquired by museums and galleries around the world led to the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998, which agreed: first, the need to identify art which had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently returned; secondly, the need to publicise this information; and, thirdly, the need for dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues.
It appears that very little looted art found its way to the United Kingdom during and after the war. Unlike mainland Europe, where many hundreds of works of art have been returned to claimants over the years, very few looted paintings and other cultural objects have been discovered in British museums. Nevertheless, and quite rightly, our national museums began detailed research of their collections to identify objects with uncertain provenance between 1933 and 1945. This information has been made available to the public. However, there was a problem. Several national galleries and museums, which are statutory bodies, were prevented by their governing legislation from returning such objects. This is why the original Act was passed in 2009.
The Act allows the 17 national institutions listed in it to return items lost during the Nazi era where there is a legitimate claim. Claims are assessed by the Spoliation Advisory Panel, established in 2000. The panel’s recommendations are not binding but the museum or gallery concerned has always complied with the recommendations. Unfortunately, the 2009 Act included a sunset clause which means that, unless we pass the Bill now before your Lordships’ House, that Act will expire in November this year and the national institutions named in it will no longer be able to return works of art lost during the Nazi era to successful claimants. To stop the clock would be terrible.
Many potential claimants may still be unaware of the location of objects which had been in the possession of their families. It takes time for people to come forward with claims, and for national museums and galleries to research the provenance of items with an incomplete history. For anyone who doubts this, the figures tell the story. During the whole of its life, the Spoliation Advisory Panel has advised on only 20 claims and only 13 cultural objects have been returned. So this whole process takes time, which is precisely what this Bill provides.
There are many people—heroes—who have played a major part in the restitution of looted cultural property in Europe. I want to highlight just two. One is the late Baroness Warnock, who was a powerful advocate for the 2009 Act and a distinguished member of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. The other person I want to mention is the co-founder and co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Anne Webber. It is because of Anne’s tireless dedication and tenacity that so much has been achieved.
Finally, this legislation deals with works of art but the motivation behind it—the driving force—is less about material objects as such and more about ameliorating, as best we can, the suffering endured by so many families in this terrible period. Returning to families objects of great sentimental value has a deeply emotional impact. It can touch the very heart of a family. I believe that this Bill, short and simple though it may be, gives us all the opportunity to send a strong and powerful signal: that anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms must be fought in every corner of society. It is in this spirit that I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, for introducing this Second Reading. Of course I support the Bill and its aim, which is, as he said, to remove the sunset clause. We should consider why that clause was inserted in the first place. The suggestion that it be time limited was because by November 2019 there would be no need for the legislation on the basis that, so it was said, it would become harder for claimants to amass sufficient evidence to decide on the validity of a claim. Clearly, this optimism was incorrect, as shown by the ongoing evidence that claims will continue, albeit at a snail’s pace. The original owners of paintings and sculptures may well have died but the claims can be continued by their descendants. The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, was doubtful about the volume within UK institutions, but who knows?
I find it hard to get my head around how these cultural objects landed up in museums around the world. A speech in the other place said that,
“there is still uncertainty about the full provenance of some of the cultural treasures”.—[
Surely before purchasing or accepting items as gifts, the worthy museums and galleries would have obtained detailed provenance for each item. This happens in the art world. If museums and galleries have such items, one gets the picture of a hole-in-the-corner deal, with conversations such as, “Are you in the market for a Botticelli?”. The answer is something like, “No, I can’t provide its history or provenance without including ‘looted by the Nazis in 1944’”. The legislation before us suggests that on display or in store, in museums and galleries, are items of stolen art gifted to the gallery, purchased from the thief or purchased by the vendor from the thief or his or her preowner.
This is a worldwide problem. Removing the sunset clause by the UK will serve as an example to other countries. France is considering the need for legal action to make possible deaccessioning—a dreadful word—of artworks looted by the Nazis that are in state museums. Deaccessioning is the process in which a work of art or other object is permanently removed from a museum’s collection. My question to the Minister is: should this further action be implemented or at least considered in the UK?
It is worth restating that the legislation before us is limited in scope and continues to seek, in some small way, to put right the wrongs done during an industrialised slaughter by the Nazi regime. We are considering this Bill in a disturbing climate of anti-Semitism worldwide, and the UK is also experiencing such an upsurge. This Bill is not going to curb anti-Semitism, but it may just help to right some wrongs.
My Lords, it is an enormous pleasure to support my noble friend introducing this Bill and to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. I draw the House’s attention to my declaration of interest, which relates to various Holocaust remembrance organisations that I belong to.
It would be churlish of me at this time, given the announcement made this week, not to thank the Government and the Minister here today for the additional support for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, which is due to be built outside the Houses of Parliament. We are particularly pleased to receive the endorsement of the Prime Minister, and the former Prime Ministers David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major, in addition to the Leaders of the Houses of Lords and Commons, the all-party group, the Mayor of London, the London Assembly, the Chief Rabbi, the Dean of Westminster, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Association of Jewish Refugees, the Wiener Library, the National Holocaust Centre in Newark, the Imperial War Museum, the University of Huddersfield Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, the Anne Frank Trust, the ’45 Aid Society, the Learning from the Righteous, the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in Hendon, the University College London Centre for Holocaust Education and the nine synagogues in Westminster City Council. That additional help is well received. We are particularly proud that the Design Council chose to feature the design of the memorial and learning centre at its headquarters recently.
I know there are some who say that it is the right idea, but the wrong place. Some may even believe that, but they are wrong: the place is the point. Outside this building is the natural place for it to be. It is close to where all important decisions on Britain’s involvement in the Holocaust were made—the good ones, the bad ones and those of complete indifference. It is my hope that when the memorial and learning centre is built, visitors will leave there and look towards this building and recognise that it is a bastion against tyrants. I hope, too, that when we look out at that memorial we will remember that, as legislators, we always have a choice: we can either protect civil liberties or oppress our citizens.
I turn to the Bill. What we know about the Nazis is that they were many things: they were murderers; they were psychopaths; they were bigots; they were racists and they were anti-Semites. But, fundamentally, the Nazis were thieves. They looted and plundered throughout Europe. They stole from citizens; they stole from states, and, because there is no honour among thieves, they stole from one another. Elie Wiesel pointed this out far more elegantly than me, saying that this was a process:
“They stole your living, they stole your belongings, they stole your individuality. And they tried to wipe you out. To wipe out the fact that you ever existed”.
Do not think for a moment that this was confined to a bunch of Nazis. Their loot from Jewish people was an important part of the economy in the years of the Second World War. That was how people got their fur coat, their bit of jewellery, a nice mirror and the like. What was not looted by your neighbours was often taken by the state and sold outside your house or at special sales. The very clothes of the poor victims of Babi Yar, who were stripped and laid in pits, were sold close to the execution site. Do not let anyone say that nobody knew about this.
If we were to announce that, henceforth, property rights would be determined by the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws, people would rightly be outraged, but that is what we have effectively done in large parts of the world by putting so many obstacles in the way of restitution of stolen property. Around the world, thousands of artefacts, properties and belongings remain in the wrong hands—in the hands of national collections, local authorities, museums and private individuals. People and communities are often very proud of their collections and may even be well meaning, but stolen property in the most benign and cultured hands is still theft. It is shocking that, even today, thousands of injustices remain uncorrected.
My noble friend talked about the Washington principles. I shall not repeat those, but one important aspect of them fits very well with this Bill and is about information. It is about families being able to search websites and to locate the property. This country has a proud record in this regard. It is true that there were not many such artefacts, but we managed to get them on a public list and were helpful in enabling people to find them within three months of the Washington declaration. This process continues. The Spoliation Advisory Panel has worked extraordinarily well, with 75% of all those claims coming from information supplied by British museums.
In June, I take over as the chair of the International Tracing Service, with its extensive records from the Holocaust and its aftermath housed in Bad Arolsen in Germany. One of the aims of the UK chairmanship will be to make it simpler for families to view and search records, but without this Bill all the searching can be done but that restitution cannot take place. The Bill is an important part of this process.
Those who think that we are gently winding down discovery of new loot should think again. I was in Bern, Switzerland, in 2017 and visited an exhibition which showcased the art from the home of Cornelius Gurlitt. His father, an art dealer, had sold what Hitler dismissed as “degenerate” art. At the time of its discovery in a Munich flat in 2012, leading figures in the German and Austrian art worlds asked: “What is the problem? Everybody knew about Gurlitt’s collection”. Yes, everybody did know, except for the families that it was stolen from. My noble friend spoke so well about the work of Anne Webber and the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which has been on the side of these families seeking justice for a long time. Anne and her team have united families with their treasured items, from books to paintings which once had pride of place above the fireplaces of Jewish homes across Europe.
I will quote two short paragraphs from a selection of quotes on the meaning and importance of restitution written to the Commission for Looted Art in Europe by families for whom the commission has helped to recover Nazi-looted property. The first is:
“These books of our murdered grandmother which until now filled the shelves of that German library have seemingly turned from passive objects to be read into witnesses whose voice will be heard and treasured”.
“Of all the pictures in the collection we are particularly pleased that this one has been rediscovered. It was one of the favourites of our grandparents and our aunt remembers it hanging on the dining room wall of her childhood home. As a young child she always liked it so much and she is so happy that she has had the chance to see it hanging in the family home again”.
We need to remember that, whether it is a painting or a book or a porcelain jar, every object represents the life and lives of those who were lost. Their restitution restores a personal connection, a link with those lives so utterly transformed or destroyed by the Nazis.
I conclude with a quote from Primo Levi. I was a guest on “Desert Island Discs” a few years ago. Besides the luxury and the various discs, you get to choose a book. My choice was Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. I have two editions, but it is the second one which I treasure most. It was a gift to me, signed by Holocaust survivors. Some of them have passed on, but I got to know many of them and to understand their bravery and determination. This book, and this quote, mean a lot to me. It starts:
“But consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body … the personification and evocation of our memories. Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself … It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so …They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains”.
My Lords, this short, very welcome and deceptively straightforward Bill raises a host of ethical questions. We are in the middle of worldwide discussions about compensation and restitution for past injustices and deprivations. Let me make it clear that this Bill in no way opens up the sort of difficult questions that have recently been raised in Cambridge about the slave trade, or about the Elgin marbles. Those issues were raised when the original Bill was introduced 10 years ago, and settled in favour of restitution, although the number of works of art that have been returned to their rightful owners in the last 10 years is fairly low. Sadly, the work is far from done, although the original sunset clause was understandable. There are survivors, and there are possibly hundreds of thousands of looted works of art in question.
The checking of the provenance of a work of art with a wartime question over it is now routine. The display of a looted work of art is not so much a work of beauty as a reflection of the pain and suffering surrounding its looting, for the Holocaust was not only genocide but the greatest theft in history. The Government should be praised for using its good offices to ensure justice. Klimt’s stolen portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, often known as “The Woman in Gold”, now on show in New York, has added lustre because it is shining legitimately. The restitution of these works of art is somewhat unusual, in that the restorer is not usually the wrongdoer but a museum that may have purchased the object in good faith—but it is symbolically important. The rightful owners or their near descendants are still alive, and it sends a message to this war-torn world that, if the enemy despoiler does his worst, nevertheless, in the end that wrong will be righted. Ancient treasures from Syria and Iraq are currently being sold: this is a warning.
My noble friend Lady O’Neill has written extensively on the topic of compensation and restitution. Although she wrote before the recent Cambridge exercise on slavery, she sensibly pointed out that it makes more sense to seek action to redress present disadvantage than to provide compensation for historic wrongs. This is different from restitution: restoring the situation that obtained before the wrong was done. It is important as a symbol, and, far from going back too far in time to what some might regard as a closed episode, the looting in the Middle East today reminds us of the importance attached to a people’s art works and the part they play in the pride and in the continuation of the history of a nation.
In another way, too, this is unfinished business. What about the real property looted during the Nazi era, most of which is situated and identifiable within EU countries—not here, of course? The Terezin declaration, to which this country is a party, called on those countries that have not yet made restitution to do so along the lines of the declaration. The most egregious offender is Poland, squatting on the property of 3 million victims of the Nazis—the only country in modern Europe to refuse to set up a scheme for compensation, presenting yet another example of Poland’s cavalier attitude to the rule of law and European obligations. The European Parliament, the American Congress and British parliamentarians have urged Poland to do justice—so far to no avail. Indeed, racism is rising across Europe and, sadly, to spend £105 million on a Holocaust memorial—something like the sixth in this country, in the wrong place, which does not speak to the heart—will not stop anti-Semitism. It is a sad state of affairs to see it politicised.
Democracy, as we have seen, does not stop genocide. Genocide is due more to religious and ethnic hatred—and that we see on the rise across Europe, where there is democracy and there are many memorials. The more memorials we build, it seems, the more anti-Semitism rises. We need to think afresh about the causes of this hatred. This Bill is the right way forward and a credit to the United Kingdom. I hope that it also serves, first, to encourage our Government to put pressure on Poland to restore stolen property; and, secondly, as a warning to those who are looting historical objects in war zones today.
My Lords, I too commend my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury for agreeing to steer this short but important Bill through your Lordships’ House.
I do not know about other noble Lords, but I have found that there tends to be an inverse relationship between the length of the Bills we have been asked to consider and their effects. Or is it simply that my perception of these matters has been influenced too much by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which, as noble Lords will recall, occupied this House for 160 hours and 44 minutes without, as far as I can tell, having any effect on our long-term relationship with the European Union?
This Bill, per contra, although it consists of only one short substantive clause, will, when it passes into law, as I hope it will do very soon, make an enormous difference to a large number of people, not only in the European Union but throughout the world. As my noble friend Lord Sherbourne has already pointed out in his excellent introduction, there are many ways in which this short Bill will make a difference; some of them are practical, while others are symbolic or presentational. We have already heard from my noble friend how the Bill will send a message to the whole world that this House, and indeed this country, believe strongly that there can never be a statute of limitation on Holocaust crimes—not 10 years, 20 years or 50 years. We will never forget or forgive those responsible for the Holocaust, and we will remember them not only by building memorials to their victims and learning centres to tell the story of their atrocities, but by ensuring that no one ever benefits from their activities, even when these benefits are enjoyed by the public at large through national and local galleries and museums around the world.
If for no other reason but this symbolic one, I believe that the Bill deserves to be passed into law as quickly as possible. But there are also significant practical reasons why we must get it passed into law quickly, and I will discuss them briefly now. Before I do so, however, I must make it clear that before I began preparing for this debate, I knew very little about these matters. However, in the last few days, I have had the benefit of a tutorial from an old friend, Laurie Stein, who happens to be one of a handful of world experts in this field. It is the full-time job of these experts, who work for museums, galleries and private clients around the world, to research the provenance of pictures and other cultural objects which are the subject of claims that they were looted, stolen or otherwise illegitimately taken from their rightful owners during the Nazi regime. I am grateful to Ms Stein for helping me to understand why and how the Bill would make a very significant practical difference to the valuable work which she and others are doing to ensure that cultural objects which were taken illegitimately from innocent Jews and others during the Nazi regime are returned to their rightful owners.
First, although it may be difficult to believe, as some noble Lords have already mentioned, new claims concerning objects stolen and looted by the Nazis are emerging in various parts of the world even now, more than 70 years after the defeat of the Nazis. Even experts like Laurie Stein have been surprised by this. They thought that the flow of contested objects seized by the Nazis would have dried up years ago. But, as I now understand, there are many good reasons why new claims are still being filed. One of these is the fact that only recently have large collections of personal files about victims of the Nazis, held in restitution and compensation offices in Germany and elsewhere, been opened to the public. I understand that these files, which had previously been closed for privacy reasons, contain masses of invaluable information about property seized illegitimately from the victims.
In other cases, the disappearance of family treasures in the 1930s and 1940s was simply unknown to the present generation of family members. Such a situation was the subject of a very moving article in the Jewish Chronicle of
“10 years ago, when a US lawyer working on cases of Second World War spoliation contacted me saying that he keeps finding evidence of paintings stolen from my grandfather. After the war, the family wanted to move on and rebuild itself after the trauma. Like other Jews, they were advised to stop talking about what they’d lost if they wanted to become regular citizens again. I wasn’t even told I was Jewish”.
That is a moving story happening right now.
The other reason why an arbitrary cut-off date for filing claims is inappropriate is that judging claims about disputed objects is very difficult. Although there are many who would like to see these issues in black and white terms, I am assured by Ms Stein that 95% of the evidence adduced for supporting claims about objects seized or looted during the Nazi regime falls into the grey area between black and white and requires meticulous research and a good deal of international travel to ensure that both sides to any claim are treated fairly and justly. It should not surprise anyone to know that such research takes a great deal of time and cannot be rushed to meet arbitrary time limits.
It may be difficult for some people to accept, but the truth is that not every object which might have been in Jewish ownership in Germany, France, Austria or a number of other countries controlled by the Nazis was seized or looted or taken illegitimately. Some were disposed of by their owners for a variety of innocent reasons, reached their present homes entirely legitimately and should be allowed to remain there.
What we must not do is create fresh injustices in an effort to remedy old ones. That is why we must not set arbitrary limits on the time allowed to complete this research. Such limits are unnecessary and inimical to the search for justice. Although this is not relevant to the Bill before us, I want to put on record Ms Stein’s view that the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which adjudicates on disputed claims, is seen by the experts in this field as a model for how these matters should be handled.
I have gone on long enough. I hope that I have made my point that there are important practical and symbolic reasons why this small Bill should find its way on to the statute book as soon as possible. Although it consists of only one substantive clause, the implications of the Bill for those who seek justice for extraordinary wrongs are immense and will be welcomed as such around the world.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Sherbourne for his leadership and sponsorship of the Bill. In so doing, I also pay tribute to Theresa Villiers. I knew her as an MEP, an MP and a Secretary of State. She is my friend and did an immense job on the Bill. I read carefully the debate of
I would perhaps cite a different verse from Deuteronomy, where there is a specific biblical imperative of returning lost articles with no time limit. Putting a time limit on the delivery of justice because it may be difficult to provide relevant evidence to prove claims is not, I maintain, a good argument for maintaining the sunset clause. I therefore entirely agree with the essence of the Bill.
Last week was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Hebrew calendar. As it is every year, it was commemorated at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I noted the speech of Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. He spoke out about the heroism of the many people who saved others in that dark, dark time in history. However, he also spoke about the shooting in the Chabad synagogue in San Diego and the shameful anti-Semitic cartoon published two days earlier in the New York Times. Noble Lords who have visited Yad Vashem will no doubt recall displays in the early section of the museum of, sadly, very similar cartoons from the 1930s. We are in danger of watching history repeat itself, which is why we should not put time limits on the ability to seek justice.
That is why I am honoured to be a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Charitable Trust. I pay tribute to David Cameron and Theresa May for their outstanding leadership in ensuring that the UK finally has the national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre just next door—a project ably led by Ed Balls and my noble friend Lord Pickles. Clearly, it was not politicised. If the House will allow it, I want to put on public record that no one has done, continues to do and, I guess, will do in the future more for the issues that concern the Jewish community than my noble friend Lord Pickles. Again, for those who have been to Yad Vashem, there is nothing more powerful than the rows of trees in the Avenue of the Righteous, where each tree represents a righteous gentile who stood up to be counted and saved fellow human beings who were Jewish, at huge risk to themselves and their families. I cannot possibly begin to list the things my noble friend has done and continues to do but, today, I hope he will permit me to call him my noble and righteous friend.
As has been said, the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre next door will act as a constant reminder of the unique responsibilities of politicians. Some argue that the structure could encourage more anti-Semitism, but it is precisely that argument that proves we need it urgently. Does the Minister agree that the Bill is timely as it sets no time limit for the rectification of wrong? In the same way, does he agree that it is timely for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre to be a focal point at the heart of our democracy and, to quote the Prime Minister, to be a memorial that,
“will stand to preserve the truth forever”?
My Lords, I also thank the sponsors of the Bill, as well as those of the original Act.
In addressing the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets just over 20 years ago, the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, thanked the then British Foreign Secretary, the sadly late Robin Cook, and the British Government for having convened the landmark 1997 London Conference on Nazi Gold. The UK can take some pride in its leading role in Holocaust restitution and its recognition of the need to maintain that lead. In 1998, Madeleine Albright talked about the “overarching imperatives” driving the work of Holocaust restitution: justice, openness and that,
“the obligation to seek truth and act on it is not the burden of some, but of all; it is universal”.
That is why I am speaking in this debate, having no material or family interest in the subject but a strong interest in the universal upholding of truth, justice and respect.
At the second London conference in 2017, organised by DCMS and sponsored by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, the very welcome aim of extending the timeframe for the 2009 Act was announced. As the then director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, said,
“there is a strong moral case to remove the ‘sunset’ clause … It is important that potential claimants should not feel that the door is being slammed in their face”.
I join other noble Lords who are somewhat puzzled by the original justification for the sunset clause because it is pretty thin. My noble friend Lord Palmer cited the problem of evidence deteriorating over the years. While that is true, it is not a terribly good reason. I therefore agree with other noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Polak and Lord Wasserman.
I also strongly agree with David Lewis who, as co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said in 2017:
“It is, in our view, totally unacceptable that such matters as statutes of limitation and other legal restraints continue to impede restitution”.
Hence, I strongly support this Bill.
Mention has been made of Anne Webber, another co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. She told the 2017 London conference:
“Although many of the Holocaust survivors are now passing away, their children and heirs still urgently seek the transparency, accountability and justice that was promised”.
Of course, the word “justice” crops up frequently.
I got a little involved in the topic of Holocaust restitution by other EU countries when I was an MEP for London, trying to assist constituents in dealing with Governments and institutions in other EU countries. In my case it largely involved dealing with the countries of central and eastern Europe, which around 2004 were newly acceding to the EU. There the issue was somewhat complicated by the post-war communist nationalisation and reallocation of property but, even so, a considerable smokescreen and lack of will was unfortunately evident.
Mr David Lewis, whom I have just quoted, after noting that he was often asked why it had taken so many decades for this matter to be addressed, said that,
“it is a sombre fact that in a high proportion of those countries”,
which attended the 1998 Washington conference,
“little progress has been made since”.
Some effort has been made by the EU to advance matters, but not enough. In 2009, some 47 countries, including all 28 EU member states, came together to support the Terezin Declaration to accelerate restitution, and the following year 43 countries endorsed a set of guidelines and best practices. However, many countries are not on track. One could cite Croatia and Latvia, where the relevant legislation has been delayed, while in Romania the processing of claims and payments has been extremely slow. In Hungary the discussions continue and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, Poland sadly has one of the worst records on the restitution of private property and has even backtracked on some of the commitments made at the 2009 Terezin conference. In 2009 I wrote in response to a constituent saying:
“The European Union has done little to push this matter on the grounds that property issues are a national responsibility, but personally I feel that it is a human rights matter which merits EU action”.
A few months ago a European Parliament resolution noted how litigants continue to encounter legal problems owing inter alia to expiration of post-war restitution laws, the non-retroactivity of conventional norms—I guess that means laws—the lack of any definition of “looted art”, statute of limitations provisions on claims or the provisions on adverse possession and good faith; that is, good faith on the part of the new owner. However, as my noble friend Lord Palmer mentioned, that can be assessed. The Parliament urged the European Commission to create a comprehensive database of looted art, including Holocaust objects, and the status of existing claims, and to support provenance research, including financially.
Perhaps in conclusion the Minister could tell us about the scope for better pan-European co-operation in encouraging the location of looted property and the unblocking of delays and obstacles. If we stay in the EU, no doubt the UK will be better placed to urge a greater sense of action and responsibility throughout the EU.
I conclude with another quote from Madeleine Albright, all too relevant today as we see examples of hate and hostility, including anti-Semitism, worryingly on the rise:
“I think of the blood that is in my family veins. Does it matter what kind of blood it is? It shouldn’t; it is just blood that does its job. But it mattered to Hitler and that matters to us all; because that is why 6 million Jews died”.
As the Holocaust cries out to us, we must never allow distinctions among the peoples of the world to obscure the common humanity that binds us all as people. Restitution of Holocaust-era assets is about much more than gold, art and insurance. It is about remembering that no one’s blood is less or more precious than our own.
My Lords, I am privileged to speak in this debate and grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, for making it possible for us to have it. I have listened carefully to all the contributions and have sensed the reasoning and the passion that, combined, make such a strong case to move this Bill forward.
I approached this exercise thinking that, as a garrulous Welshman, this was going to be the shortest speech I would ever make. After all, a Bill became an Act in 2009. It has proven itself over 10 years and has shown that the sunset clause was a mistake. I attribute no ill will to those who included it. This was a new Bill going in a new direction, and now we are looking at it and seeing if we cannot make it go in that direction for a long time more, so we should not attribute bad thinking to those who inserted the sunset clause and we should be delighted to see it removed. Indeed, since it was during a Labour Administration that this Bill came on to the statue book and Andrew Dismore was a sitting Member of Parliament at that time, and in view of recent controversies and anxieties, I say with all the energy and depth of passion I can that if getting this Bill on to the statute book contributes in even the smallest way towards healing wounds and reminding us all of our responsibilities to each other, I want it to happen for that reason alone—however minute that contribution might be.
So here we are with a very short Bill that has worked, alongside which these ways of evaluating claims have been inserted. Yes, it is a small number of cases—there may well be more—but it makes sense that what has worked and is seen to be morally right should be given the go-ahead, the green light, to continue into the hereafter.
My house was burgled once; somebody came in and stole stuff. He took money, and we could not give tuppence about that, but he also took my wife’s engagement ring, which had been a gift from her grandmother, and her grandmother’s brooch, within which there were two little cameo pictures of her and her husband when they were young—irreplaceable. Alongside the stories of the great works of art and treasures, which command their own logic and evidence, we must not forget that what particularly violates those from whom objects are taken is the loss of the personal items, the things that matter for everyday living, family memories and things like that. It is the great and the small. It is the mere act of violation that we need to do whatever we can to offer restitution to.
I said that this should have been the shortest speech, and perhaps that is where I should finish, but there is one thing that I feel I must say. I buy into the thinking of the noble Lords, Lord Polak and Lord Pickles, about the monument. But in the name of frankness, I have to say that it is the right idea in the wrong place. I could not sit through the debate and not say that. I will offer some words of explanation.
Pretty much exactly 50 years ago, I left these shores to travel and spend the first of my 10 years in Haiti. My experience there changed my life and my understanding of life in its entirety. I became aware of the evils of the slave trade. I am so pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, mentioned that. Millions of people taken from the western shores of Africa to end up in what was called the New World lost their lives, were forced into slavery and had no possessions that could be stolen, except their liberty and energy. It was this building that fathered the debates that led to the end of slavery in the British Empire. If the University of Cambridge is looking at the sources of its wealth, let anyone do an inventory of the wealth of this nation that depended on the deprivation of liberty of those slaves.
The plight of people shipped against their will— 150 years’ worth—tearing them from their families and leaving them to die in foreign territory has remained on my mind. Is the argument that the right place for the atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s is alongside the building within which those debates took place? I see a questioning look from the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, but I thought I heard him say that it should be alongside Parliament.
The noble Lord is most generous and I was enjoying and have a lot of sympathy with what he was saying. That is why I said that people within this building—the legislatures—have a choice. They can either oppress or protect. During the 19th century, they chose to oppress. That is why it is important because we must always be vigilant. It was, after all, a compliant legislature that introduced the Nuremberg laws. That is why I deliberately said that there was a choice.
I am grateful for that. Choices were made within this Parliament about the plight of slaves. Therefore, a monument could possibly be built to talk about the deprivations, destitution and suffering of slaves, but there is not room for two such monuments in the same place. That is all I am saying. I really do not want to be heard as having one iota of opposition to the idea, but I felt it incumbent on me, since I feel it in my deepest heart, to say that I suspect that I would side with those who feel that this is not the right place.
As far as the Bill is concerned, we must pass it and do so with good will, and hope that it has some of the outcomes and effects that have been hinted at from the speeches we have heard from the Floor of this House today.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, I have listened with great interest to the discussion on this important Bill, introduced by my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, and I speak on behalf of the Government in support of it today. Yes, it is a short Bill, but I have a bit to say about it.
I join my noble friend and other noble Lords in congratulating my right honourable friend Theresa Villiers and many others in the other place on enabling the Bill to reach this point. It enjoyed strong cross-party support in that place. I trust that your Lordships will agree that, as my noble friend Lord Polak said, the issue that the Bill seeks to address cuts across all political and other divides and unites us in our determination to bring justice to the families of those who suffered persecution and loss.
The widespread and systematic seizure of cultural property in territories occupied by, or under the control of, the Nazis and their allies has, for over half a century, been recognised in international declarations as warranting particular recognition and deserving special treatment. The scale of forced transfer of cultural property under the Nazi regime was unprecedented. Figures regarding the scale of the loss can be only speculative. However, it has been estimated that between 1933 and 1945 some 650,000 works of art were stolen from their rightful owners. Although the majority of these were not of museum quality, a small number found their way into national collections across Europe.
Most of what was taken were paintings of the type owned by successful, but perhaps not extremely wealthy, families, domestic silver and household artefacts, and books and religious items. We hear a lot about Old Masters and similar prized works of art seized from the wealthiest collectors or most successful dealers, but in fact they make up only a fraction of the numerically more significant theft.
Such was the scale of the looting that took place that, as early as 1943, 16 countries, including the UK, signed a declaration committing them to do everything in their power to halt the theft of cultural objects in territory under enemy occupation or control. In that same year, the allies established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme to help protect cultural property in war areas during and after World War II. A group of approximately 400 service members and civilians, mostly from the US and the UK, came to be known as the Monuments Men, as your Lordships will remember, and they were based at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. They worked with military forces to safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage and, as the conflict came to a close, to find and return works of art and other items of cultural importance that had been stolen by the Nazis or hidden for safekeeping. My noble friend Lord Pickles emphasised that, in addition to their terrible crimes, the Nazis were involved in systematic theft, or perhaps we should call it systemic theft. He is right.
For almost 50 years after World War II, as people focused on rebuilding their lives, the implications of the loss of cultural assets received little attention from the international community. Little research was done and claimants were left to continue their search alone. However, with the end of the Cold War, new archival sources became available and the subject of Nazi-looted art was given new attention. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked about co-operation and I will say a little about that.
In more recent times, international awareness has continued to grow. The 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets saw a consensus reached on a number of non-binding principles with respect to Nazi-confiscated art. These principles highlighted the need to identify art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, to publicise this information and to encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership disputes. The conference recognised the need to reach a fair and just solution in such cases.
Compared with other European countries, very little looted art found its way to the UK during and after the end of World War II. Of course, that is no excuse for complacency, and since then our national museums have undertaken detailed research of their respective collections to identify any objects with an uncertain history dating back to the years 1933 to 1945. This research is held on a recently upgraded online database, which is actively maintained by editors from the 47 contributing UK museums, and it is co-ordinated by the Collections Trust.
National museum directors also established a working group in 1998 to examine the issues surrounding the spoliation of art during the Nazi era and to draw up a statement of principles and proposed actions for member institutions. That has recently been updated. In 2000, the Government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel to provide advice to claimants and institutions on what might be a fair and reasonable outcome in response to a claim. Since its establishment, the panel has advised on 20 claims, and 13 cultural objects have been returned. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, that is indeed a low figure. The resolving of a dispute is never an easy matter and, by its nature, the process invariably leaves one of the parties disappointed. Despite that, the Spoliation Advisory Panel’s advice and method of operation is widely respected here and internationally, and I would like to thank the members of the panel for their excellent work.
As we have heard, in its early years, the Spoliation Advisory Panel was unable to recommend the return of a cultural object, even where it found that the family had a strong moral claim to it. This was because of statutory restrictions preventing national museums from removing items from their collections except in a very small number of instances. In such cases, the panel’s only available option at that time was to recommend compensation or an ex-gratia payment.
The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 allows 17 national institutions in the UK to return items lost during the Nazi era where this follows a recommendation by the panel and the Secretary of State agrees. The legislation recognised the fact that the Nazi era is unique in the scale and nature of the loss and the fact that it represented a systematic campaign to eradicate a whole people and their culture. The 2009 legislation was subject to exacting scrutiny and was significantly amended and clarified during its passage through Parliament. It is compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998.
Since the Act was introduced, five cultural objects have been returned under the legislation. It represents a major change in the way that claims for items in national collections are resolved, and allows the families of those who were unfairly deprived of their property to have it returned. It is not difficult to imagine how important that can be for the families; the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, spoke about this. There is no comfort that can be given for the loss of family members and the knowledge of their suffering, but the return of personal possessions, of which artwork is just one form, can offer some small connection and personal bond with those who perished.
I listened with care to the short anecdotes from my noble friend Lord Pickles. I would like to offer a quote from a family who successfully recovered some paintings lost during the war. It is not, by the way, related to a case considered by the Spoliation Advisory Panel, but it illustrates the point well:
“The return of our family’s paintings continues to fascinate, shock, elate, sadden, enrich and change our lives. It is hard to express how much this means to us”.
It may also be helpful if I provide a short case study on how the 2009 Act has been used in one of the five cases that I mentioned. In 2014, the Spoliation Advisory Panel considered a claim for the return of an oil painting, “Beaching a Boat, Brighton”, by no less a man than John Constable, in the possession of the Tate. The panel concluded that the painting was owned by a Hungarian art collector in 1944 and was most likely looted when the German army invaded Budapest in March of that year. In their statement of case to the panel, the claimants described how the painting was of particular significance to their family from a sentimental and emotional point of view. It was reported that the original owner and his family had,
“suffered grievously during the German and Soviet occupations of Hungary; they lost all their possessions, while several members of the family were subjected to acts of violence because of their Jewish ancestry. Some family members were murdered in Hungary by antisemites or murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau … The restitution of the Painting would thus constitute a significant act of symbolic reparation to the family for the sufferings it was forced to endure during the war because of its Jewish origin”.
The panel recommended that the painting should be returned to the claimants in accordance with the provisions of the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009. The return of the painting was delayed to allow the carrying out of further research following the discovery of an export licence for the work from 1946. However, in 2015, the panel issued a further report, updating its earlier advice and confirming that the work should be returned. The painting has since been returned to the claimants.
The problem that the Bill seeks to correct is that the 2009 Act contains a sunset clause, which means that the legal powers are due to expire on
At the time of the 2009 Act, the Government considered that a time limit of 10 years would be a reasonable one for people to come forward with claims and for museums to have made significant progress in carrying out provenance research on works with gaps in their history during the Nazi era. It was described in Parliament as a safeguard allowing for a re-examination of the case. The Government made it clear at an international spoliation conference held in London in September 2017 that it remains an absolute imperative to correct the wrongs that took place during the Nazi era when it comes to cultural objects lost in such circumstances. This principle is not affected by the passage of time; arguably, the need is strengthened as memories start to fade.
Furthermore, although much information is available on the internet about the provenance of items in national collections, the completion of reports by national institutions into items with incomplete provenance during the relevant period is an ongoing task. As such, potential claimants may still be unaware of the location of any objects that used to be in the possession of their families. This was a strong and moving theme raised in the speech by my noble friend Lord Wasserman.
It is also worth bearing in mind that, owing to limitation laws, claimants are unlikely to be able to pursue a legal claim for the return of their property through the courts. That is because the Limitation Act 1939 extinguishes the title of the person from whom an object was unlawfully taken after six years. Referral to the Spoliation Advisory Panel is, in nearly all cases, the sole remaining route for pursuing the return of objects lost during the Nazi era. So I think we can be clear that while the approach taken at the time to the duration of the powers was reasonable, there are now very good reasons for applying an indefinite extension, and I reassure my noble friend Lord Polak that “indefinite” means just that.
The 2009 Act has worked well during its nine years on the statute book, resolving cases in a fair and balanced way, but, as we have heard, there is still much work to do. Earlier this year the Government announced that they had joined four European countries in forming a new network to increase international co-operation on identifying and returning works of art looted during the Nazi era, a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, might take note of. Those countries—Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands—have not set an end date for the consideration of claims, and I hope this House will agree that there are very good reasons why we should do the same.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, asked what due diligence procedures museums normally follow. He may know that museums are required to undertake due diligence into the provenance of items that they acquire or borrow. DCMS’s guidelines, Combating Illicit Trade: Due Diligence Guidelines for Museums, Libraries and Archives on Collecting and Borrowing Cultural Material, which I think is a pamphlet, set out guidance on procedures that should be followed in relation to loans and acquisitions. Due diligence undertaken by museums may include visits to the lender to discuss the objects concerned, taking expert advice on any items that have a potentially uncertain ethical status, checks with the Art Loss Register and obtaining warranties from lenders regarding their ownership of the items concerned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked why the decision was taken in 2009 to undertake a sunset clause. I have probably answered that but I will say that at the time, the 10-year limit was considered to be right, bearing in mind the time of its coming into force—that is, 69 to 70 years from the end of the war in Europe. It was thought that that would be a reasonable time for people to come forward with claims. Clearly, that was not the case, and I am pleased again to emphasise that we have made the time period indefinite.
I conclude by making a few comments about the Holocaust Memorial, as it was mentioned by my noble friends Lord Polak and Lord Pickles and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. As the House will know, the UK Holocaust Memorial will be dedicated to the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust, and all other victims of the Nazis and their collaborators. It will honour and remember all victims and survivors of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, and educate future generations on the importance of fighting prejudice and persecution in all its forms.
To give just a little bit of background, the designs were first unveiled in October 2017 and have since undergone further development through much discussion with Holocaust experts, survivors and other victims groups, local residents, Westminster City Council, Historic England, Royal Parks and other statutory consultees. The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation has also worked closely with other organisations and experts on the contents and approach. I believe that the proposals have been developed with great sensitivity to the existing context and character of Victoria Tower Gardens. The vast majority of the park’s green space will be retained and enhanced. Views over Parliament and the River Thames will be improved, with a range of accessible seating and a new boardwalk along the Embankment. I realise that this particular news is not in favour with everybody, but I wanted to give a little bit of information and detail.
That is really all I want to say. I therefore urge the House to support the Bill.
My Lords, this has been a remarkable debate. The Bill is very timely. The debate has been relatively short, but it has brought forward remarkable speeches of knowledge, expertise and, above all, passion. Every speech has made the same point: although the Bill’s title is about objects, its purpose is about people. That is the Bill’s driving force.
This has also been a very heartening debate, because in these political times the whole House has been united. We have had the same view across all parts of the House. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend the Minister for giving such a comprehensive response and for assuring us of the Government’s support. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, quite rightly reminded us that the original Act and the Bill have had all-party support, backed by the Labour Government 10 years ago and by the present Conservative Government. It is a very heartening experience to have this uniformity and consensus.
I am very grateful to all speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, was extremely helpful in reminding us of the importance of museums and galleries, and their responsibility to determine and assess the provenance of the objects in their possession. My noble friend Lord Pickles, in a very powerful and emotional speech—I know how heavily involved he is in so many ways—gave some vivid and powerful examples of the impact that the return of property has for the descendants of families who suffered so much. This is again a reminder of what the Bill is really all about. He reminded us how much objects mean to families.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised some wide issues, especially regarding the international arena. She reminded us of Poland’s woeful record and how it is completely out of step with the international community in dealing with the challenges of restitution. My noble friend Lord Polak typically graced his speech with some apposite quotations from the Bible. He again dealt with the emotional impact of the Bill’s effects. My noble friend Lord Wasserman told us how important it is to have the time the Bill provides for, because it does take time for families to come forward with claims, for claims to be assessed and for museums to determine the provenance.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, who made a characteristically detailed and clear speech; I particularly liked her quotes from Madeleine Albright, which I thought were extremely well made. I am grateful to everyone who spoke in the debate, and now just want to make an appeal to my noble friend the Chief Whip. The Bill has to be passed this Session, or the legislation falls. It is very important that we have time. I am very encouraged by the widespread support for the Bill, and hope this means that it will get through smoothly and speedily. It is in that spirit that I ask the House to support this Bill by giving it a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.