The Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill is a private member’s bill sponsored in the House of Lords by Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Conservative). The bill started in the House of Commons, where it was sponsored by Mel Stride (Conservative MP for Central Devon).
The bill’s explanatory notes have been prepared by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the bill is supported by the Government.
The bill had its first reading in the House of Lords on 31 January 2022. Its second reading is scheduled for 18 March 2022.
At present, cultural objects on loan to approved UK museums and galleries are protected from seizure or forfeiture for 12 months from the date they entered the UK, subject to certain requirements. This is provided for under sections 134–38 in part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (the 2007 act). The 12-month period can be extended under section 134(5) if the object has been damaged whilst under protection and is undergoing repair, or if it is leaving the UK “following repair, conservation or restoration because of the damage”.
Speaking at the bill’s second reading in the House of Commons, Mel Stride explained that the provisions in the 2007 act had been introduced in response to concerns expressed by countries about the risk of objects being seized as a result of financial or other disputes:
The legislation was in response to concerns from a number of countries that their art treasures were in danger of being seized while abroad in response to claims by third parties that they were owed money by the foreign state or because of territorial disputes between countries.
Mr Stride cited an example of a Swiss trading company which he said had “attempted to seize 54 French impressionist paintings from Russian museums that were on their way back to Russia and travelling through Switzerland”. This was in relation to a debt the company claimed that it was owed by the Russian Government. Although the items were released, Mr Stride said that “the alarm bells had begun ringing”.
Section 134 of the 2007 act requires certain conditions to be met for an object to be protected under section 135. These include that the object is normally kept outside of the UK; it is not owned by a person resident in the UK; and it was brought into the UK for public display in a temporary exhibition in a museum or gallery.
Museums and galleries borrowing objects on loan must comply with requirements set out in regulations made by the secretary of state. Section 136 requires museums and galleries to be approved by the ‘appropriate authority’. The appropriate authority means the secretary of state in relation to an institution in England; Welsh or Scottish ministers in relation to institutions in those countries; and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland (since replaced by the Department for Communities). The decision by the appropriate authority must take into account:
(a) the institution’s procedures for establishing the provenance and ownership of objects, and
(b) in particular, compliance by the institution with guidance about such procedures published by the secretary of state from time to time.
Approval may be withdrawn from an institution under provisions in section 136(3).
Overview of the bill
The bill would amend the 2007 act, by inserting new subsections (4A) to (4E) into section 134. New subsection (4A) would allow the maximum period of protection to be extended by three months by the relevant authority. Relevant authority is defined under new subsection (4B) and would mean the secretary of state in relation to an object that is “in the United Kingdom for the purpose of public display in a temporary exhibition at a museum or gallery in England”, or in England for any of the following purposes under section 134(7)(b) to (e) of the 2007 act:
(b) going to or returning from public display in a temporary exhibition at a museum or gallery;
(c) related repair, conservation or restoration;
(d) going to or returning from related repair, conservation or restoration;
(e) leaving the United Kingdom.
Scottish ministers would be the relevant authority for instances relating to Scotland. However, due to amendments at report stage in the House of Commons (see the final section of this briefing), the bill would not grant the same power to relevant authorities in Wales or Northern Ireland.
Under new subsection (4C), the relevant authority could extend the period of protection more than once for a given object. The bill’s explanatory notes state that the circumstances in which this power might need to be used would be set out in guidance. The power would also be exercisable concurrently by relevant authorities if it was exercisable by both relevant authorities at a particular time. The explanatory notes explain:
This will, among other things, ensure that an extended period of protection can be provided for an object which is in the UK for the purpose of more than one exhibition in either England or Scotland.
The explanatory notes also state that new subsection (4D) defines the maximum period as 12 months, plus any periods for repair:
New subsection (4D) clarifies that any extension granted under subsection (4A) is in addition to the ‘maximum protection period’, which comprises the initial 12-month period under subsection (4)(b) together with any additional period of protection arising under subsection (5) where the object has suffered damage, and any period of extension already granted under subsection (4A).
The bill’s provisions would come into force at the end of a period of two months following the day on which the bill received royal assent.
Purpose of the bill
The bill’s explanatory notes cite recent disruption to international travel as one reason for the proposed change:
[T]he disruptions to international travel during 2020 created problems when loaned objects due to be returned to their country of origin were unexpectedly delayed in the UK. Unable to travel out of the UK, these objects were left at risk of being unprotected should the 12-month limit expire before the borrowing institutions could arrange for their return.
The notes also said there was a risk from “unforeseen environmental factors” that could disrupt international air travel, such as the 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull.
They added that allowing the protection of objects to be extended would “help alleviate concerns from museums and international lenders that cultural objects may be left unprotected should the protection expire before the objects can be returned”.
Proceedings in the House of Commons
Speaking at second reading in the House of Commons on 10 September 2021, Mel Stride explained the provisions of the bill and said that it would help ensure people in the UK would continue to have the opportunity to see cultural objects from abroad:
I hope that members will agree that this is a worthy measure that will benefit our museums and galleries and ensure that the very best cultural objects from around the world can continue to be seen by a UK audience, safe in the knowledge that, should there be delays in returning works, those objects may continue to be protected from seizure while they remain in the UK.
The bill received support from the Labour Party. Alison McGovern, then Shadow Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, commended Mel Stride for introducing the bill. She said that the bill’s provisions were important in supporting museums that had been impacted by the pandemic:
With some reservations about the scope and the manner in which the Government’s programmes of support through the pandemic have reached cultural institutions, the Opposition share the Government’s view that the Government ought to respond to what has been a very difficult year with support and help to facilitate the things that institutions need to get them through this difficult time. The bill is one of those things.
Caroline Dinenage, then Minister for Digital and Culture, said the bill was “a real opportunity to address a small but important gap” and that she was “happy to say that the proposed measure is therefore very much welcomed and supported by the Government”.
The bill passed second reading without division. It was not amended at committee stage.
Report stage and third reading
The bill was amended at report stage on 28 January 2022. The amendments removed previous references in the bill to Welsh ministers and the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland as relevant authorities. Mel Stride explained that this was because the bill required legislative consent from Senedd Cymru and the Northern Ireland Assembly but neither had been in a position to grant it:
[T]he 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 […] 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.
The Scottish Government had lodged a legislative consent motion with the Scottish Parliament on 1 December 2021, recommending that consent be granted.
Mr Stride said that neither Northern Ireland nor Wales had an approved museum and therefore the changes would have limited practical impact “at present”. At third reading, Nigel Huddleston, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said it was regrettable that the bill would not have effect in Northern Ireland and Wales. However, he explained that this did not stop museums in Northern Ireland and Wales for applying for approved status in the future:
There are currently no museums in Wales and Northern Ireland approved under the 2007 act, but the bill does not change their ability to apply for approved status in the future, and of course any objects loaned by approved museums in Northern Ireland and Wales will be covered by the standard 12-month period available to all approved museums.
The minister said that policy guidance for museums on how to apply for extensions, and in what circumstances, was under development “at an official level”. He said this would be a “collaborative effort” with the Scottish Government.
The bill passed third reading without division.
Cover image by Engin Akyurt on Pixabay.