Clause 1 - Offence of dealing in tainted cultural objects

Part of Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 14 May 2003.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 2:00, 14 May 2003

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam on introducing the Bill and all those who have had an input, the Ministerial Panel on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects in particular. I echo the words of Anthony Browne and his colleagues. I also congratulate the Government, not only on the measures that they are taking to expedite the Bill, which I hope will quickly pass through the House and come into law, but on having signed up to the 1970 UNESCO convention and on the help that they have given—through the British museum and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—to the authorities in Baghdad trying to track down looted treasures, which the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) mentioned and which make the measure all the more urgent.

I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key)—this is unfinished business, long overdue. He, more than many, knows the downside of the absence of such measures. He spoke of some sites in his constituency, but did not mention the threat of having yet more gargoyles knocked off his cathedral, which is of concern to all of us. The sale of illicit antiquities is big business, be it through looting to order—as might have happened in Baghdad—or otherwise. I spent some months doing a survey of Mayan burial sites in the jungle in Belize and found many sites that had not previously been catalogued or discovered but had certainly been looted. We shall never know the contents of those graves; they will go uncatalogued.

It is important that the prosecution should bear the balance of the burden of proof in demonstrating whether a person who is charged with handling tainted goods knew or believed that they were tainted. That burden of proof is much more difficult when one is dealing with experts and professionals in cultural artefacts, who will have a greater expectation of holding a reasonable doubt that the artefacts in question are tainted under the definitions in the Bill. I am therefore slightly concerned that the provisions need to be tested in the courts. It is important that we do not get the balance in relation to the burden of proof wrong. We do not want to legislate in haste only to build up problems later.

As a brief example, some years ago I was up the Khyber pass in Pakistan with a friend. We chanced upon a small curio shop, as one does, where, in contrast to all the gun shops that we had been urged to visit where we were offered AK47s at a knock-down sum and urged to try them round the back, we came across an 1870s Lee Enfield rifle propped up in the corner. It was a smart weapon and had had the locking mechanism removed, although that could easily have been restored. My friend thought, ''I'll have that,''

handed over a few dollars and took it. He then had a bit of a problem getting the rifle through Karachi airport security, but eventually he did. The officials there maintained that my friend could not take the rifle out of the country because it was more than 100 years old, whereas he maintained that it was British and that it was going home. In the end he won the argument, although he was not allowed to have the rifle personally on the plane and it was entrusted to the captain.

If the law were applied to that case, there is a strong suggestion that that gun would be tainted. It got into the possession of the curio shop owner, who would have bought it from local Pakistani or Afghani militia. They in turn could have come into possession of it only by stealing it from a British soldier who was out there during the second Afghan war—it is the property of the British Government—or doing a deal with that British soldier and buying it from him. That would also have been an offence, for which that soldier would have been court-martialled accordingly. It is therefore highly likely that that gun came into the possession of the curio shop owner as a tainted good under the definition of the Bill, unless the British military had presented it as a gift to the people of Afghanistan or Pakistan, which is unlikely. The story is an interesting aside that throws up some of the concerns of my friend, who is now living in Singapore and having more problems shrugging off SARS threats. He may be prosecuted under the Bill, although it is not retrospective, so he is okay for the moment—they might get him the next time.

The explanatory notes rightly set out stiff penalties for people who knowingly handle tainted goods. However, the regulatory impact assessment says, under explanatory note 37, that

''the level of prosecution is estimated at probably not more than one every two to three years'',

which is therefore of negligible cost to the Exchequer. If the authorities are not going to be serious about prosecuting such cases and think that they will come up only once in a blue moon, the provisions will not be much of a deterrent. Given the incidence of such trade in cultural objects, I would hope that there would be cases every one to two weeks, not once every two to three years. We must be serious about enacting the law and ensure both that it will deter people from carrying out such practices and that those who go ahead regardless are hauled before the courts. That is one marker I put down over why the penalties are so stiff if the regulatory impact assessment in the explanatory notes implies that we are not as keen to prosecute as fully as the Bill suggests.

Other than that, the Bill has the full support of Her Majesty's Opposition. I shall speak more briefly on subsequent clauses to ensure that it is passed in the time allotted today.