May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr. Hurst, to serve under your chairmanship? I thank the Government business managers for having assisted us in securing an early Committee sitting.
Clause 1 sets out the terms of the offence of dealing in cultural objects that are deemed to have been tainted. The necessity for such an offence in English and Welsh law has been highlighted by the recent situation in Iraq, where we saw that cultural objects could easily be removed at times of instability. Most of those cultural objects were removed from museums, but far more dangerous is what happens next. Most of the objects removed from those museums are well known and well documented and it will be difficult to sell them on. Far more prevalent will be the looting of archaeological sites outside the mainstream and the public eye; that material can be sold on far more easily because it is not so well documented or catalogued.
The offence created under clause 1 is explicit. The prosecution must demonstrate that an individual has dealt dishonestly in a tainted cultural object. People are naturally concerned that they could be liable to prosecution for a new criminal offence and I praise those representing dealers in the art and antiquities trade who served on the Ministerial Panel on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects—known as ITAP, or the illicit trade advisory panel—for not trying to block the creation of the offence. Instead, they engaged constructively in shaping it. We may not be able to answer all of their concerns today, but I hope that we can go some way in response to the legitimate questions that they raised.
Part of our response lies in ensuring safeguards for people accused of the offence who have behaved reasonably. The safeguards in clause 1 are that the individual must know or believe that an object is tainted and that there must be an element of dishonesty in the offence. Anyone who takes reasonable steps to ensure that the object that they are buying is not tainted will have a reasonable defence. The Bill is squarely targeted at those who deal dishonestly in such material and not at the legitimate dealers, who work to codes of practice involving sensible checks on the provenance of material offered to them.
It is worth mentioning that the trade is demanding improvements to the databases that dealers use to check whether material is likely to have come from an
illegitimate source or to have been stolen. I entirely agree with the pressure for better systems of notification, not least because it is important to the operation of the clause. Better sources of information are clearly good for dealers who wish to trade honestly and legitimately, but they are good also for the authorities should they need to make a case against someone who has traded dishonestly. It would be easier to prove that a person knew or believed that an object was tainted if the databases that list the tainted material were more easily accessible.
Finally, Anthony Browne, chairman of the British Art Market Federation, has devoted a lot of time to highlighting a number of concerns and they merit a response. Some of them will be dealt with in later clauses, but one is relevant to clause 1. We need to clarify what would happen if an object turned out not to be tainted, even though it was believed to be so and a dealer had been caught. My understanding is that it would be treated similarly to the offence of handling stolen goods, where prosecutions are not proceeded with if an object that was thought to have been stolen turns out not to have been. I hope that the Minister can give us some guidance on that matter. I hope also that the Committee will agree to the clause standing part.