Debate: The Illicit Trade in Antiquities

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about this subject, and I want to start by setting out the terms of the debate. There are different types of debate in Westminster Hall; those in which we slam the Government for an alleged outrage, whether or not they have committed it, and those in which we plead for the Government to do something that they cannot or will not do. This is neither a slamming nor pleading debate, but a prodding one, in which I will seek to prod the Government to commit to doing what they know they should be doing and probably want to do anyway.

I slightly confused myself in coming up with the title. I was not sure whether it should be a debate on the illicit trade in antiquities or on the trade in illicit antiquities. Either way, we are talking about cultural objects that are a little or decidedly dodgy. What I really mean is the buying and selling or importing and exporting of cultural objects that have been removed from heritage sites and buildings illegally in Britain and elsewhere. The Minister may recognise that phrasing as one that we considered in the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003.

The defining principle in this debate is that prevention is better than cure. Much of the damage done in heritage terms is done at the time of removal of objects rather than in what happens to them subsequently. From a heritage point of view, the agenda is about ensuring that removal never occurs in the first place, and my remarks will address that intention.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on securing this important debate on a subject about which I am passionate. All hon. Members who have spoken so far have alluded to Iraq, which, of course, is very much on our minds at present. Despite all the horrifying images of present-day Iraq, matters might improve eventually in that country. If and when life returns to something like normality there, Iraq will need one thing, above all; tourism. People like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I should go there.

I am not saying that there should be an organisation called “Simply Mesopotamia”, but it would be wonderful if people were attracted by the cradle of civilisation, the ziggurats at Ur and the hanging gardens of Babylon, such as are left after the depredations of Saddam. In their present post-Saddam incarnation, fascinating they remain. That was why those of us who supported the war were so dismayed to see the looting of the museum in Baghdad at the moment of liberation.

Read the full transcript of this debate at Hansard