Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009: repeal of sunset provision

Part of Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 27th February 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 2:30 pm, 27th February 2019

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? I thank all Members present for agreeing to serve on the Committee.

This is a simple two-clause Bill with a simple objective: to retain on the statute book the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009. Section 4(7) of that statute is a sunset clause, and means that the legislation will cease to apply after 11 November this year. Clause 1 of the Bill would repeal section 4(7) and thus leave the 2009 Act to continue in operation indefinitely. This private Member’s Bill enjoyed strong cross-party support when it was introduced as a ten-minute rule Bill and on Second Reading. No amendments have been tabled.

For the following reasons, I hope the Committee will feel able to support the passage of Bill to Report and Third Reading on Friday 15 March. The 2009 Act was introduced as a private Member’s Bill by Andrew Dismore, the then Member of Parliament for Hendon. Mr Dismore was noted for talking out many such Bills, but thankfully on that occasion he was strongly supportive. He was backed by both sides of the House, and by the other place. His legislation allows 17 UK national museums and other institutions listed in section 1 to return cultural property lost, seized or stolen during the Nazi era to its rightful owners. Those institutions include the British Museum, the British Library and the National Galleries of Scotland.

Property can be returned following a recommendation by the Spoliation Advisory Panel, with the agreement of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. That panel of experts was established in 2000 by the Government to advise on claims for cultural objects lost or stolen during the Nazi era. It formed part of the follow-up to the historic Washington conference, where 44 Governments pledged to redouble and renew their efforts to return cultural property removed during that era, defined as 1933 to 1945.

Until the 2009 Act became law, certain national institutions were unable to give effect to a recommendation to return an object, because their governing legislation prevented them from transferring ownership of items in their collection, except in very narrow, specified circumstances. An example of that kind of legal constraint can be found in section 5 of the British Museum Act 1963.

Clause 2 covers territorial scope and commencement. The 2009 Act and the Bill both extend to England, Wales and Scotland, but not to Northern Ireland. A number of the institutions specified in section 1 of the 2009 Act are located in Scotland. I am pleased to inform the Committee that a legislative consent motion has been passed by the Scottish Parliament in relation to the Bill, and I am very grateful to the devolved Government for their support. None of the institutions covered by the 2009 Act is located in Wales or Northern Ireland, so no legislative consent motion is necessary from those parts of the United Kingdom.

Although much information is available about the items held in our national art collections, research into the provenance of items that changed hands during the Nazi era is ongoing, and potential claimants may still be unaware of the location of objects that used to be in the possession of their families. I also emphasise that the narrow and specific nature of the 2009 Act means that it has not had a destabilising effect on collections held in our national museums, with only a modest number of cases being determined under its provisions, and nor has this narrowly drawn piece of legislation had an impact on wider debates about the potential return of cultural objects to their countries of origin. There is widespread acceptance that the horror of the holocaust and the systematic attempt to wipe out an entire race and its culture make it a unique case that justifies a unique response.

There is significant support for retention of the 2009 Act among the museum community. For example, Sir Nicholas Serota, the former director of the Tate Gallery, has said:

“In recent years, new claims have become less frequent, but there is a strong moral case to remove the ‘sunset’ clause that provides for a time limit on cases being considered. It is important that potential claimants should not feel that the door is being slammed in their face.”

The Government expressed support for keeping the legislation on the statute book at the London spoliation conference in September 2017, and that announcement was warmly received. The Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which does excellent work in this area, has also given its backing to the legislation that is under consideration today.

I hope I have been able to outline clearly how this two-clause Bill will operate and why it should be supported today. In closing, I reflect on Second Reading, when hon. Members spoke movingly about the important reasons they had for supporting the Bill. A number of them made the point that, in addition to the appalling mass murder that took place, the Nazi persecution of Jewish people involved a deliberate and systematic attempt to wipe out all trace of Jewish culture. As my hon. Friend Kevin Foster put it:

“We must remember that the goal of the Nazis was not just to murder their victims, but to annihilate all trace of them…They did not just murder those who were living; they demolished cemeteries, burned down synagogues and sought to erase the entire culture from Europe. That is why it is so important that where these artefacts are preserved and retained, they are returned, so that they can be exhibited and be shown by families again as a reminder of what once existed.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 562.]

I believe that provides a powerful summary of why this Bill is needed, and I close my remarks, as I did on Second Reading, by quoting a family involved in this type of case. One family seeking restoration of property told the Commission for Looted Art:

“Whether it’s a painting or a book or a porcelain jar, every object represents the life and lives that were lost. Their restitution restores a personal connection, a link with those lives so utterly transformed or destroyed by the Nazis. Hitler’s project was to erase the Jews from history. But by recovering objects and documenting their owners, restitution also returns those people to their families and to the historical record.”

There is no justification for applying an arbitrary time limit to the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009. That legislation has worked well and it is still needed, and I commend this Bill to the Committee.