Mel Stride – 2022 Speech on Cultural Objects Protection from Seizure Bill

The speech made by Mel Stride, the Conservative MP for Central Devon, in the House of Commons on 28 January 2022.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is a short, two-clause Bill that extends the period of protection against court-ordered seizure for cultural objects on loan from abroad. The Bill amends part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, which provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects on loan from abroad in temporary exhibitions in public museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. Under section 134 of the Act, cultural objects that are on loan from abroad to feature in exhibitions held in UK museums and galleries approved under the Act are protected from court-ordered seizure for a period of 12 months from the date when the object enters the United Kingdom.

The legislation was prompted by events in 2005, when 54 paintings, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne, were seized by customs officers in Switzerland. The paintings, from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Russia, were impounded after they had left the town of Martigny in Switzerland. The Swiss authorities acted on a court order obtained by a Swiss import-export firm, Noga SA, which claimed that the Russian Government owed it several million dollars in unpaid debts relating to an oil-for-food deal signed in the early 1990s and which sought to enforce a Stockholm arbitration award in its favour.

The impounding of the paintings was just one of several attempts by Noga to recover its purported debt by seizing assets abroad. In 2000, Noga instituted proceedings to seize a Russian sailing ship that was due to take part in a regatta in France; it then sought to freeze the accounts of the Russian embassy in Paris. Both actions were dismissed by court rulings in favour of Russia. In 2001, it tried to appropriate two Russian military jets during the prestigious Le Bourget air show in France; that attempt also failed.

But it was Noga’s seizure of the Pushkin paintings that sparked the most outrage of all. The director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg said that

“works of art are now being used as hostages in trade disputes”.

Although the seizure order was quickly cancelled by Switzerland’s Federal Council, the Hermitage warned that no Russian museum would be able to send objects on loan to any overseas venue unless it received concrete legal guarantees that its artworks would not be seized during the loan period.

John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (Con)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his Bill. Does he agree that the relatively minor change in it will give great reassurance to overseas lenders about their capacity and confidence to lend assets to the United Kingdom? In the Scottish Borders, across Scotland and across the UK, all our constituents will now benefit from being able to enjoy those assets, and the lenders will have the comfort of knowing that they are safe here.

Mel Stride

My hon. Friend precisely pinpoints the advantage of the Bill, which is very narrowly defined but will provide extra certainty to those who lend artworks to England and Scotland and the museums therein that those artworks will be returned in due course. That comfort will drive further loans in future, which will be to the benefit of the people in this country, our tourism industry and our cultural offering in general.

The measures in the 2007 Act enable the UK Government, the Governments of Scotland and Wales and the Northern Ireland Executive to give guarantees for such loans in the United Kingdom. Since the Act’s introduction, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has been responsible for approving institutions in England for immunity from seizure, and the devolved Administrations have similar powers for other parts of the United Kingdom. To gain approval under the Act, institutions must demonstrate that their procedures for establishing the provenance and ownership of objects are of a high standard.

In 2007, it was considered that 12 months was an adequate period to allow objects to arrive in the UK and to be returned following their inclusion in a temporary exhibition. Section 134(4) of the Act therefore provides:

“The protection continues…for not more than 12 months beginning with the day when the object enters the United Kingdom.”

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting this far with his Bill. Has he received any letters of objection from anyone, anywhere, to what he proposes?

Mel Stride

The Bill has widely been received very positively. There have been very positive discussions with the devolved Governments, as I outlined in the debate on amendment 1 and my other amendments. There have been some changes in relation to Wales and Scotland, but the Bill has received support across the House; it went through Committee without Division, and my amendments on Report have been agreed to without Division. It is an important and widely supported set of measures.

The only exception in which the 12-month period can be extended is where an object suffers damage and repair work is needed. The legislation has been effective over the years and has enabled many exhibitions to be enriched by loans that the public might not otherwise have been able to see. There are now 38 institutions across the United Kingdom that have been approved for immunity from seizure and where objects have benefited from protection. Those 38 institutions are in England and Scotland; there are currently no approved museums in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)

For many of our regional museums, galleries and historic houses, temporary exhibitions are made up with a relatively small number of items from abroad. Does the right hon. Gentleman think we will expand on that number of 38 institutions, to allow many more of our regional museums and galleries to have immunity from seizure?

Mel Stride

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My understanding is that the application process to become an approved institution or museum is relatively straightforward. It is rigorous in the sense that, clearly, a number of important aspects have to be met. I would defer to the Minister, who might tell us a little more in his concluding remarks about the guidance that is appropriate and how it operates in those circumstances.

As I was saying, my Bill was drafted to allow the period of protection to be extended beyond 12 months, at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for institutions in England or the relevant approving authority in the devolved nations. That was to ensure that the protection remains fit for purpose and can adequately respond to unforeseen circumstances, and to provide increased confidence in the UK system for those who generously share their cultural objects with UK audiences. The new power to extend would apply following an application from an approved museum or gallery, and extensions would be granted for a further three months initially, with a possibility of a further extension if that is considered necessary. The circumstances in which an extension may be considered will be set out in guidance.

Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)

I commend my right hon. Friend for getting the Bill before the House. It is clearly an important measure and it is important to support the tourism industry, which generates so many jobs. In what sort of circumstances might an institution want to apply for the extension? Have those circumstances happened in the past or is this just a precaution to deal with situations that might arise in the future?

Mel Stride

I will come on to these points imminently, but let me immediately address the question my hon. Friend has posed. The circumstances have not arisen in the past in the UK, and the 12-month period has always been adequate. However, things such as the covid problems and the grounding of air flights—a volcanic eruption happened in Iceland some years ago and grounded flights—are causes for concern. The most important thing is that although we have not had a situation where we would have needed an extension in the past, there is no doubt that this comfort is required for those lenders who generously lend their cultural artefacts to our museums and galleries.

The devolved Administrations have all shown strong support for the purpose of the Bill. However , the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland has decided at this time that it is unable to prioritise a legislative consent motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly and that Northern Ireland must, regrettably, be removed from the Bill. That is unfortunate, although in practical terms it has little impact at present, as there are currently no approved museums in Northern Ireland, as I have said. Furthermore, following discussions between the UK and Welsh Governments it has not been possible to reach agreement on how the concurrent power to extend the 12-month period of protection will apply across the two nations, the Welsh Government have declined to table a legislative consent motion for the Bill as it stands. Therefore, the Bill has been amended to remove its application in Wales. As with Northern Ireland, there are currently no Welsh institutions approved for immunity from seizure, so in practical terms that has no direct impact at the moment. I am informed that a legislative consent motion has been successfully lodged in the Scottish Parliament so that the measures in the Bill can and will have effect in Scotland. Given the decisions taken in relation to Wales and Northern Ireland, the Bill has been amended so that the power in proposed new subsection (4A) to extend the protection period for three months applies only in relation to objects that are either in the UK for the purpose of a temporary exhibition in England or Scotland, or in England or Scotland for one

“of the purposes mentioned in subsection 7(b) to (e)”.

I know all hon. Members will be very familiar with them. That will limit the effect of any extension of the maximum protection period to England and Scotland. I emphasise that the 12-month protection period under the 2007 Act will continue to apply across the United Kingdom as it currently does.

Our museums have shown, particularly during the anxious times of the past two years, that they are incredibly good at managing unforeseen events. Where it has been possible, exhibitions have gone ahead and works returned to lenders on time. However, that has not always been the case and the restrictions and difficulties with international travel that we have all faced mean it has not always been possible to return loaned items as rapidly as desired once exhibitions have concluded.

As restrictions in the UK continue to be eased, museums will be able to plan with greater confidence. A number of exciting exhibitions are already planned for this year, including the Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, Van Gogh’s self-portraits at the Courtauld Gallery and “Surrealism Beyond Borders” at Tate Modern. We can expect all those exhibitions to be popular with the public.

We may feel safer in going about our daily lives, but we should not forget mother nature’s ability to surprise us. On Second Reading, I raised the disruption to air travel caused by the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010; the eruption earlier this month of the Tongan volcano, which threw out a huge cloud of volcanic ash, is further evidence that we can be taken unawares and forced to change our plans, sometimes at very short notice.

Anthony Browne

I thank my right hon. Friend for his detailed exposition of the legislation, which I strongly support. He mentioned in his introduction the various circumstances in which it is deemed necessary for there to be protection against action taken overseas—in Switzerland, France and so on; is he aware of any UK cases of the court-ordered seizure of artworks that have come here for exhibitions? In what sort of circumstances might that happen in future? Would it be when law enforcement authorities are worried about, for example, the breaking of anti-money-laundering rules, which we have talked about? Or would it be families trying to get back goods that they think belong to them rather than to foreign galleries?

Mel Stride

My hon. Friend is, of course, very familiar with the issue of economic crime as he serves with me on the Treasury Committee and we are currently looking into these very matters in great detail. I believe there probably have been instances in which there has been a need within our country’s borders to seize objects and cultural artefacts. I cannot give my hon. Friend specific examples, but there will have been such seizures and the capacity for them will remain—for example, under proceeds of crime legislation if artefacts are used to conceal drugs or similar or for something associated with money laundering. Seizures could still occur under certain circumstances, but those circumstances are narrowly defined and will not be changed in any way by this legislation.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that the Bill is an important and worthy measure that will give our museums and galleries, and those who lend to them, greater comfort in knowing that the protection afforded under the 2007 Act can be extended if travel plans are disrupted and it is not possible to return loaned objects within the current 12-month period.

Sir Greg Knight

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way again; he is being generous. I notice that the power to extend by three months can be repeated again and again—there is no limit on how many times the relevant authority can extend the period for three months. Why has my right hon. Friend phrased the legislation in that way? Would it not have been better to give the relevant authority the power to extend for a longer period?

Mel Stride

I believe the three-month period came out of the consultation process. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has been conducting an informal consultation with museums and the rest of the sector and it was felt that, in the context of the existing 12-month protection, three months was a reasonable and proportionate further extension. It is relatively straightforward for the Secretary of State, or for Scottish Ministers when the question relates to Scotland, to bring forward further extensions—it is not a lengthy or onerous process—so three months seemed a reasonable period of time. We have to put forward some kind of period for extension because that has to be addressed.

The Bill will ensure that our national museums and galleries can continue to host major exhibitions, which provide so much enjoyment for the many millions of people who visit them every year and which are vital as we continue to rebuild our economy. I commend the Bill to the House.