Mims Davies contributions to the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Act 2019

Fri 8th February 2019 Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
5 interactions (1,311 words)

Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Mims Davies Excerpts
Friday 8th February 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard
8 Feb 2019, 1:21 p.m.

Before I call the Minister, I want to add on behalf of the whole House that I am sure every Member of this place would echo what the hon. Gentleman has just said about the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). She has the support of all of us, and we must all stand together to stand up for her and defend her in every way possible. We must root out the sort of behaviour that is going on, which has no place in our free democracy.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Mims Davies) - Parliament Live - Hansard
8 Feb 2019, 1:22 p.m.

It is an honour to speak at the Dispatch Box on this important Bill, and to follow the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson). In the poignant words at the end of his speech, he spoke about a loss of culture being equated with the loss of humanity. The last time I spoke at this Dispatch Box it was on discrimination in sports, and on the fact that ugly acts of hatred are not welcome in sport. Such acts are not welcome in any part of our society or any of our political processes. The Government absolutely recognise that and will stand up for people subjected to such vile hatred.

There is therefore good reason to come together to support the very thoughtful words in the introduction from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). With moving passion, she made a thoughtful speech, and I would like to recognise the broader work that she does. She mentioned that 6 million souls were lost to families and communities in the holocaust, and that stark reminder was echoed by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) spoke about a constituent of hers saying that there was no time limit on righting these wrongs. We also heard the personal story of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard).

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for his, as ever, very thoughtful words. He spoke about remembering the impact of the aim to annihilate and subjugate, how culture was not to be supported and how families’ precious items were part of the murderous demolition. There was another thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) in support of this important Bill, and we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) about the physical connections and preciousness of family objects. That is why the Government support this Bill, and we see it as an absolute imperative to do so. The Government’s view remains that it is correct to right the wrongs that took place in the Nazi era, and when it comes to cultural objects lost in such circumstances we must provide fair and just solutions for families who suffered persecution.

As we have heard, an estimated 20% of Europe’s cultural treasures were stolen or plundered by Nazi Germany, mostly from Jewish families, and more than 100,000 works remain lost and are presumed to be in private collections. Despite their valiant efforts, the Monuments Men—a band of art historians, museum curators, professors and other unsung soldiers and sailors in the allied armies’ monuments fine arts and archives sections—could not bring everything home to those who wanted it. A massive volume of cultural artworks was lost, including works by Vermeer, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Raphael, Leonardo, Botticelli and many other artists.

Stephen Pound Hansard
8 Feb 2019, 1:26 p.m.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister who, as ever, speaks powerfully and from a well-informed position. Given her comments about the immensity of the task, does she recognise that today we are able to send out a message to victims of the other genocides? I think particularly of the Armenian genocide of 1915, when an entire community was treated just as foully and appallingly. Does she agree that we could send out a signal to the wider world that we are finally seeking some recompense for those sins and crimes of the past?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies - Parliament Live - Hansard

Today we are focused on a particular issue, but we are speaking about an extremely solemn area. I sat on the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill, which rightly became an Act. We must look more broadly, because throughout history so much culture has been lost on a truly astronomical scale, and we must send a message that there is no time limit when people have suffered injustices. It is right to continue on our mission of returning looted art, which is no less important now than it was then. As we have heard, there is a clear consensus across the House that we want to do the right thing, and we in the UK are sending out a message because we have a perfect piece of legislation that enables us to do that.

The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 allows 17 cultural institutions in the UK to return objects lost between 1933 and 1945, and it enables them to do that effectively, by using the appropriate advisory panel. Today we heard about the importance of having a fair and just way of returning to people those cultural objects lost during the Nazi era. The institutions covered by the 2009 Act are statutory bodies that would otherwise be prevented from doing that by Government legislation, and therefore returning those objects would be too difficult. The Act from 10 years ago ensures that we can continue to reunite objects with their claimants, alongside the advisory panel, and supported by the Secretary of State.

We heard about the Beneventan missal, which was the first item to be returned under the 2009 Act. That fine example of a 12th-century manuscript was in the possession of the British Library, and a claim was first considered by the Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2005. The panel concluded that the manuscript was looted and should be returned to its rightful owner, and for that to be possible, it recommended the introduction of legislation to permit the restitution of such objects. In the absence of such legislation at the time, the British Library sought to agree a long-term loan of the missal to Italy. Only after the introduction of the 2009 Act was the claim referred back to the panel, and the missal was finally returned to the place where it had been lost after the allied bombing in September 1943. The return of the missal became highly symbolic for the city of Benevento and its cathedral, and they were delighted to have it back. It is now kept in the chapter library, attached to the cathedral, which was rebuilt after damage sustained during the war.

The principle of correcting past injustices, as exemplified in this case, has not been affected by the passage of time. In fact, arguably that principle is strengthened as memories start to fade, as we have heard today. It is not necessarily easy to make sense of what happened more than 70 years ago. With fewer survivors among us, we must rely increasingly on written testimony and second-hand accounts.

On Holocaust Memorial Day this year, my Department was incredibly fortunate to hear the personal testimony of Harry Bibring, a holocaust survivor who told us how his parents sent him and his sister, who were both in their early teens at the time, on the Kindertransport to England, along with 10,000 other children aged from nine months to 16 years. Sadly, they never saw their parents again. There are many such stories still to be told. We must continue to listen and seek redress where we can. The Bill is the right legislation to allow that process.

Today, Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate from 1988 to 2017, and the National Museum Directors’ Council’s lead on spoliation from 1998 to 2017, issued the following statement:

“The UK has been an international leader in responding to the challenges associated with Spoliation claims. The creation of the Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2000 established a model and a procedure that has been adopted by other countries. 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.”

It is worth noting that claimants are unlikely to be able to pursue a legal claim for the return of their property through the courts. Referral to the Spoliation Advisory Panel is, in nearly all cases, the sole remaining route for pursuing the return of cultural objects lost in these circumstances. Just last week, the Government announced that the UK has joined four other European countries—Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands —to form a new network for increasing international co-operation on the return of works of art looted during the Nazi era. The UK has always sought to lead by example, so it is absolutely right that we all support the Bill.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers - Hansard

I would like to express my gratitude to all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate and expressed support for this important Bill, particularly both Front Benchers, and to Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport officials, who provided me with a helpful briefing and support on this important matter. I associate myself with all comments in which Members have, once again, made a commitment that we will not tolerate antisemitism in any form whatsoever. I very much hope that the House will support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).