Report on topics for updated Protocol

Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 15 November 2016.

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‘Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall publish a report setting out the UK’s priorities for topics to be included in an updated protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention.’.—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Having made remarkable progress during the day, we have reached our final debate on the Bill and amendments to it. New clause 2, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, calls on the Government to set out what its priorities will be in the event that a third protocol to the convention becomes the subject of international discussion. Inevitably, this Bill does look back as we are ratifying The Hague convention of 1954, but as the first two protocols show there certainly is an appetite to ensure that the convention remains up to date, relevant and effective.

One could make many suggestions regarding what a third protocol could specify. During our discussions, two specific questions have been raised repeatedly and would benefit from being marked as UK priorities in the report proposed in the new clause. They are, first, the application of the convention to cultural property in digital form, and secondly, the applicability of the convention to conflicts such as the one in Syria. These are both areas where the age of the convention has started to show and which could be updated in a third protocol.

On Second Reading, I raised a question that many across the House have also asked about how the ratification of the convention would apply to conflicts such as those in Syria and Iraq. The Minister kindly circulated a note—actually, I think it was the Secretary of State rather than the Minister—using Syria as a case study and outlining how the convention and its protocols relate to conflicts not of an international character. I appreciate that, as it helped to clarify a few issues. I welcome the assurance that a UK national involved in the destruction of cultural property in a country that has signed the convention would be criminally liable. That is very important, not least in the light of recent developments. To be absolutely clear—I think we rehearsed this somewhat earlier on—I believe the Secretary of State’s note means the convention does apply during a civil war. The Minister also said earlier that it would apply to both parties in a civil war, even when one of them is not a recognised state. Clarity on that is important.

Ideally, we would need a ministerial note or clarification to explain whether or not and to what extent the convention applies to a certain type of conflict. A third protocol would be an opportunity to aim for a more standardised safeguarding strategy for cultural property worldwide where it is involved in any kind of armed conflict. I think this idea has some cross-party support. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate asked in Hansard in column 698—I am trying to remember whether it was on Second Reading or whether it was a question—

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I cannot remember the column, but it was on Second Reading.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage)

It was. The hon. Gentleman asked:

“are the Government supportive of looking at future conventions to try to make sure that Daesh comes within the provisions, although the Iraqi and Syrian sanction orders cover the gap?”—[Official Report, 31 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 698.]

That is a very good question. A third protocol could offer an opportunity to streamline the law. Instead of plugging the gaps with new legislation, there could be a consistent and indubitable catch-all that would assure the necessary protections for the property most valuable to nations and their identities.

The destruction of cultural property in the middle east has been mentioned many times as one of the motivations for the passage of this Bill, yet the Bill does not apply to so many of those situations. In the light of the work carried out involving the cultural protection fund in that same region, it seems that protecting artefacts in Syria and its surroundings is a priority for us all. The Government acknowledge that too. A report would not only provide a platform to express that, but it could kick-start action to bolster protections and provisions where they are currently most needed.

I and my hon. Friends have highlighted the matter of digital content falling within the definition of cultural property. The Government indicated there should be a certain level of consistency with regard to an internationally accepted interpretation of what cultural property means. They said at the same time that amending the Bill to specifically include digital content could jeopardise that consistency. It seems to me that formalising an internationally accepted interpretation of cultural property that includes things such as digital content would be a crucial component of a third protocol, bringing the legislation firmly into the digital age.

The more consistency there is in both the wording and the interpretation of our international laws, the greater the chance of holding those who violate them to account. Our support of current and developing technologies should be unambiguous and undeniable. Given the importance of our national and regional film archives and that of the precious cultural property currently being created, I hope the Government agree that the protection of digital property should be championed by the UK on the international stage.

We cannot as a country unilaterally decide on the priorities and the announcement of any third protocol to the 1954 convention, but a report on the topics the UK would like to focus on allows for a productive and constructive dialogue on key issues, potentially putting such a protocol on the agenda of the international community. It would also provide the UK with an opportunity to demonstrate its desire both for international co-operation and to show leadership in this area, which I think we should be doing.

Internationally, the UK is in a position in which we are choosing to leave the European Union rather than, as some of us would have hoped, to be a leading player. With the sorts of turmoil we see going on in the world, including on the other side of the Atlantic, this would indicate that the UK can and will continue to work productively and co-operatively with other nations. We may be late in ratifying the convention, after 62 years, but we can show that this is not due to a lack of commitment to its ideals and ambitions.

Does the Minister agree that the two topics we have just discussed, and perhaps others, would be among UK priorities for a third protocol? What other topics might she consider? Do the Government have any plans to work towards developing a third protocol?

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff West for raising the issue of updating the protocols to the convention to reflect the need to protect cultural property from destruction by, for example, terrorist groups such as Daesh. We covered Syria and digital cultural property in some detail earlier, and I am sure that we will return to those issues, so I do not intend to go over those arguments again. We are, however, absolutely united in our condemnation of the terrible damage to cultural heritage that Daesh has wrought at sites such as Palmyra and the destruction and looting of cultural heritage as a tactic of war and terror more generally.

That said, the new clause seems to assume that an updated protocol is inevitable. We are not aware that UNESCO is considering that. It is not included in the organisation’s medium-term strategy, which sets outs its priorities until 2021. We are also unaware of calls from other state parties for the protocols to be reconsidered at this time. Indeed, I understand that the process to reopen discussion on protocols or propose a new one is not as easy as the Opposition might believe. I am told that it would take a minimum of eight years to agree a new text or protocol.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

If the hon. Gentleman will hold his horses for a second, given the delay in the UK’s ratification, publishing a list of our future demands within a year of Royal Assent may not be the wisest way to win support for that. Once the UK has ratified the convention and current protocols, we will be closely involved in the related UNESCO discussions, and that will be the best way to influence any future work.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Before the Divisions, we were talking about a third protocol, in the light of the Opposition’s new clause 2. We do not feel that it would be appropriate to include that new clause in the Bill. Rather than focusing on how an additional protocol might better address the specific issue, our priority must be ratifying the convention and acceding to its two protocols. That will be a significant milestone for the UK that has not been achieved by other permanent members of the UN Security Council. It will send the strongest message about the UK’s commitment to protecting the world’s cultural property and signal our condemnation of the recent abhorrent cultural destruction. Although I recognise the good intention behind the new clause, I hope that the hon. Member for Cardiff West will appreciate that it is beyond the scope of the Bill and therefore withdraw it.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage)

It is not beyond the scope of the Bill, as I have pointed out already, but I will not labour the point—although that is my wont. We have discussed the third protocol, which is not the title of the latest book by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, although it would be a very good title for a parliamentary thriller, if that is what he has been composing during our deliberations—that might explain his uncharacteristic reticence.

It is difficult to say on the one hand that we should pat ourselves on the back for being the first in the Security Council to ratify both protocols, and on the other hand that we should not pat ourselves on the back by suggesting a third protocol, because it has taken us 62 years to ratify the convention. There might be a slight circularity to that argument.

The purpose of new clause 2 is to encourage the Government to take the lead in this area, which we should do internationally, and to think about how we can update our international agreements on the protection of cultural property in armed conflicts to ensure that they move with the times and cover the new types of cultural property being developed as a result of the digital revolution and the new types of threat, warfare and armed conflict we face with the rise of entities such as Daesh. Having said that, in the interests of us completing our proceedings, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

On a point of order, Mr Turner. I am grateful to you for allowing me this opportunity to thank everyone for participating in the Committee. This is the first piece of legislation that I have taken through the House, and I believe that it is your first chairing of a Committee in this House, so it is a first for both of us. Hopefully we have managed to muddle our way through it correctly and in order.

I want to pay tribute to all those who have helped to make the Committee happen. I am grateful that my first piece of legislation is, by and large, full of consensus. Although there are issues that I am sure many will raise on Report and seek further clarification on, it is a tribute to what we are discussing that we have managed to get through the Bill in the way we have. I would like to thank you, Mr Turner, and Ms Buck for chairing the Committee, as well as the Clerks, the Hansard reporters and the Doorkeepers.

I would like to thank my excellent Bill team of officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and other Departments, including the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, all of whom not only have been brilliant advisers to myself as Minister, but have been open and accessible to other Members, including Opposition Members, for discussion.

I would like to thank those who have submitted written evidence and participated in the development of the Bill over a number of years. The hon. Member for Cardiff West pointed out in his opening remarks that the Bill has been a long time coming, since the second protocol in 1999. We should pay tribute to those in the previous Labour Government who started this process. I am pleased that it was this Government—under the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)—who managed to introduce the Bill in Government time during this Session.

Finally, I would like to thank all members of the Committee. I thank the Opposition for their amendments, which allowed us to have a full debate on many aspects of the Bill. Despite gentle probing from many directions, the record will show that we have managed to discuss a great many issues that people both inside and outside this place really do care about.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage)

Further to that point of order, Mr Turner. May I echo everything the Minister has said? She is quite right that it is important to probe Government legislation from every direction, and that is what we have sought to do in the course of our proceedings. Thank you, Mr Turner, for chairing our proceedings and keeping us in order—including on new clause 5, which of course was in order all along. I also thank Ms Buck for chairing our proceedings so ably this morning; perhaps you could pass that on, Mr Turner, on our behalf.

I would like to thank all members of the Committee. I know that for a number of Members it was their first time serving on a Bill Committee. It is not always this consensual when we discuss legislation. Nevertheless, this has been a useful example of the importance of Committee stage in teasing out and putting on the record the Government’s intentions and so on. I would also like to thank the Whips for keeping us in order and enabling us to get through proceedings in an expeditious fashion.

I also thank the Clerks, the Hansard reporters, all those from the sector who have made submissions, the civil servants, the Doorkeepers, the police and everyone else, including my researcher, Haf Davies, who has been very helpful in preparing for today. It may have taken us 62 years, but we are engaged in an extremely important process. We can all take some pride in the fact that finally, after Report and once the Bill gets Royal Assent, we will have ratified The Hague convention, albeit 62 years after it was originally brought about.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.