Pre-1947 items with low ivory content

Ivory Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 14 June 2018.

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Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Opposition are quite happy with clause 7, which relates to pre-1947 items with low ivory content. Concerns were raised in evidence, both written and oral, by some members of the art world that the 10% volume could be problematic. We saw a silver teapot with quite a large ivory handle, and there were concerns that that could fall foul of that exemption and that removing the handle would cause irreparable damage to the artefact. My understanding is that the measure encompasses most items that fall into this category, but it would be interesting to hear from the Minister any comments that were made following the oral evidence we heard on Tuesday from art experts.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

I want to make a few remarks about clause 7, and I do so having in mind the views of some small-scale auction houses that have raised concerns with me. The concerns are intended to be constructive, and I recognise that there are important competing arguments, but the question is whether it is really necessary to require the registration of pre-1947 items with low ivory content. The concern has been raised that that could lead, however unintentionally, to the law of unintended consequences such that a clause that was designed to preserve and exempt could inadvertently lead to damage and destruction, and I will explain why.

The first thing to note is, of course, that clause 7 is designed to catch items with a low ivory content of below 10%. I am advised that 10% is in fact the lowest or equal lowest figure in similar jurisdictions and that ordinarily 20% tends to be the threshold.

What sort of items are we talking about? We might be talking about an oak chest that has ivory escutcheons—the small amount of ivory that might be around a keyhole—or a teapot, which the hon. Member for Workington referred to, that has an ivory spacer. In other words, there is a small sliver of ivory between the teapot and the handle that is designed to insulate the handle and ensure that the heat is not conducted along it. We are talking about very small amounts of ivory. Such items cannot sensibly be referred to as an ivory object, because the volume of ivory is so tiny.

The auction houses make the point that these items do not really contribute to the ivory trade. I will explain their concern. Let us suppose that items come to light in the course of the sale of a deceased relation’s property and it emerges that one item contains a vanishingly small amount of ivory. Their concern is that there could be a perverse incentive on the part of the owner to say, “Oh, for goodness’ sake, registering this is going to be onerous and difficult. Either we should simply try to prise out the piece of ivory, thereby damaging the item itself, or we should destroy it altogether.” I am also advised that some of the items that we could be considering are brown wood furniture, which is not as desirable as it once was, and therefore there is a risk that the items could end up in a skip, which is clearly not want anyone wants to achieve.

I absolutely recognise that there is a powerful counter-argument, which is that if we want the whole exemption regime to be coherent, it is important that every single ivory content item that is exempt is properly registered, and there is a risk, therefore, that we could create inconsistency. I entirely acknowledge that powerful argument, but it seems to me that the auction houses have a point, so I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on the issue of registration.

It is key that we ensure that the registration process is quick, affordable and not too bureaucratic, so that when an item is discovered in the course of a furniture sale, instead of being told that it will cost a huge amount of money and time to defer the process, an individual can be advised that it will be a matter of a short, proportionate pause and a small, proportionate outlay to ensure that the item becomes legal. The undesirable incentives that I have referred to would, therefore, be avoided.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and thank you for keeping me in order. Like other hon. Members, I was keen to get to my feet to talk about this important Bill.

A few points have been raised. I am grateful for the broad support for the de minimis category. The hon. Member for Workington asked whether we had heard from any art galleries and so on about the 10% threshold. In general, we monitor their feedback following our Tuesday evidence sessions. So far, interestingly, there has been very broad support for what we are doing. In the spirit of being collaborative, as we have been today, we will share any further information with her.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham raised several important points about the registration process. It is important that we are trying to establish a prohibition and that only small exemptions would be available. Sometimes, when we start to think about those exemptions, there is a tendency to want to try to open them up, but actually, we are trying to narrow them down. That means that we need to have a consistent approach and to be able to monitor the application of the exemptions using the electronic database that we are setting up. It will not be burdensome on resources; it can obviously absorb large amounts of data. Those resources will be needed to carry out spot checks and compliance checks.

The Government want to ensure that we have as limited a burden as possible on the application, so it will be easy to do online, but it is critical—my hon. Friend caught the balance in his contribution—to ensure that data is available to enforcement authorities and potential purchasers of the item to ensure that they act in compliance as well.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

I appreciate that the details may have to be settled in due course, but can the Minister give an indication of the approximate cost of an application and the approximate length of time it will take to complete?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It will be a relatively speedy process. On the cost, we have said that small fees will be involved. That will become clear as we carry out the work. The aim is to recover the costs involved in establishing the IT system and the compliance arrangements, rather than to create surplus funds. The fees will be small and the process will be as simple as possible, but it is there to create a consistent approach.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have a small comment about the points made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. In relation to the fairness and openness of what we are trying to achieve, keeping the exemptions as small and as tight as possible is important, and we would support that. The enforcement officers we heard from on Tuesday made it clear that they would want as few exemptions as possible in order to do their job successfully.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Lady and, once again, we strongly agree on the same point. We are saying that the exemptions need to be robust, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham is saying that they also need to be proportionate. I think we have the balance right.

It is also important to reiterate to my hon. Friend that although people may want to sell some of those items, and we are putting a ban in place to make that more difficult, they can be gifted or donated to other people who might appreciate or have space for them. Certain charities might benefit, but the items would not be for resale. Gifts and donations are fine. We just have to look again at the way we treat ivory. This involves a cultural change for some people. We are all on a journey and the measure will help in that regard.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8