Clause 1 - Offence of dealing in tainted cultural objects

Part of Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 14th May 2003.

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Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 2:15 pm, 14th May 2003

It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee and especially to be part of the proceedings on such an excellent Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam on securing Committee time for this important measure.

I said on Second Reading last month that I was delighted that we had had such a wide-ranging debate on the Bill, because it is one that concerns many people. Since then there has been considerable publicity and concern about the looting of archaeological sites, monuments and collections in the aftermath of the war against Saddam Hussein, and about the attempts to smuggle stolen items across the Iraqi frontiers and on to the international black market. That very unfortunate outcome of the war highlights the Bill's importance.

Although the Bill is not retrospective, it will make it an offence dishonestly to deal in and unlawfully to remove cultural property. It will act as a disincentive to those involved in damaging and looting sites for commercial gain. It will reduce the risk that this

country will become a marketplace for looted antiquities from anywhere in the world. The Government recognise the Bill's importance as a cornerstone of their programme of measures designed to help to conserve and protect the cultural heritage of all countries, especially Iraq.

All those who have spoken—led by the hon. Member for Salisbury, who is a real expert in the field—have noted that their constituency contains archaeological treasures; indeed, there is hardly one that does not. I was going to make a flippant remark about the fact that I have an archaeological treasure that is very precious to my constituency—the ruins of Welsh rugby. For that matter, I probably have more burial mounds in my constituency than one could shake a towel at, but I shall not go into detail.

I enjoyed the story by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about the Khyber pass. It was a good way of testing our knowledge of the Bill. However, I must agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that the rifle would not be a tainted cultural object—unless some structure had been built on the Khyber pass, and the rifle had been used as a lintel for holding up a doorway, but we shall not go into that now.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made clear, the core of the Bill is subsection (1), which makes it an offence for a person to deal in a cultural object if he knows or believes it to be tainted. The requirement for the prosecution to prove that the person is acting dishonestly when dealing in the cultural object provides an important safeguard, and I know from this afternoon's contributions that there are worries about the issue. Including a dishonesty element in the Bill ensures that an offence is committed only where a person has acted in a way that is dishonest according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people, and where he realised that his actions would be regarded as dishonest.

A second important safeguard is the requirement that, to be guilty of the offence, a person must know or believe the cultural object to be tainted. A person who, for example, produced evidence showing that, before dealing, he had made reasonable inquiries that indicated that the object was not tainted will not have committed the offence. That would be the case even if it transpired after the dealing had taken place that the cultural object was in fact tainted. The fact that a person would be guilty of an offence if he believed the cultural object to be tainted follows the original recommendation of the illicit trade advisory panel.

That does not mean that an offence would be committed where a person believed an object to be tainted when it was not. That is an important point to bear in mind. There is a parallel with the offence of handling stolen goods. An element of that offence is that the person concerned knew or believed the goods to be stolen. It is clear that no offence of handling stolen goods can be committed unless the goods were stolen. In other words, the offender must know or correctly believe the goods to be stolen. Similarly, under the Bill, there will be no offence unless the

person concerned knew or correctly believed the object to be tainted.

Under subsection (2), the prosecution will not need to prove that a person knows or believes an object to be a cultural object. It would place an unduly heavy burden on the prosecution to require proof that the alleged offender knew that the object was a cultural object. Knowledge or belief that an object has been illegally excavated or removed must in itself imply a degree of knowledge in respect of its cultural significance. Why else would such an object be protected by local law?

The offence is triable either way. Under subsection (3)(a), a person who is found guilty of an offence under the Bill is liable on conviction in the Crown court to a prison term

''not exceeding seven years or a fine (or both)''.

Under subsection (3)(b), a person is liable on conviction in a magistrates court to a prison term

''not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum''—

currently £5,000—''or both''.

Those penalties are not insignificant, but they correspond to the seriousness of the crime. They are greater than those for offences under listed buildings legislation and under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, but offences under that legislation do not require proof of dishonesty. The penalties imposed by the Bill are analogous to those imposed for dealing in goods that are subject to an import or export restriction under section 170 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. I hope that my explanations have made it clear why I support clause 1.