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His polite insistence that he could consider only effective and practical measures brought some comfort to trade representatives who fear the imposition of unworkable legislation.

The Minister faced intense questioning last Thursday as the Culture, Media and Sport Committee concluded its enquiry into the return of and illicit trade in cultural property.

Members of Gerald Kaufman’s committee, obviously piqued by the Minister’s decision to set up a panel of experts to re-examine many of the issues they themselves have covered over the last few months, attempted to force the Minister’s hand on a number of points, including the fate of the Elgin marbles, the adoption by the UK of the UNESCO and Unidroit conventions and the creation of compulsory registers and databases of cultural property.

The Culture Committee will publish their recommendations next month, but the Minister’s panel, which is made up of academic, trade and legal representatives (see Antiques Trade Gazette No. 1441, June 3) will not report until November.

Though he thanked the Culture Committee for their work, Mr Howarth was clearly uneasy about making decisions on these matters in the light of the evidence set before the Committee. He said there was still “hard and practical work to be done to establish the nature and extent of the problem”. In earlier sittings the Committee had heard that London was the centre of a vast illicit trade in antiquities and other cultural property, but no hard evidence was presented to support this.

On the question of adopting the UNESCO and Unidroit conventions (a move favoured by the majority of the Committee), Mr Howarth fell back to the position adopted by previous ministers in his position, namely that while he admired their objectives he was advised that there were “significant practical difficulties” in their integration with UK law.
However he said that he was prepared to look further at ways the good objectives of these conventions might be fulfilled.

He pointed out that the UNESCO Convention was a very loosely drafted document and that, though it was 30 years old and had been signed by 90 countries around the world, the illicit trade in cultural objects still existed.

The Minister was careful not to pre-empt the findings of his own panel on the degree to which it might prove practical to introduce legislation to cut down on illicit trade.

He did say that established dealers and auctioneers had to be assumed to be acting in good faith and already subscribed to codes of practice, but that any amount of legislation would not control rogue dealers. “Those who wish to pursue an illicit trade do not conform,” he said.
He pointed to the Treasure acts as an example of legislation where a more open approach had resulted in far greater public co-operation and emphasised that there was a distinct choice in the style of legislation: do you go with the grain of human nature or introduce systems that are totally restrictive and are therefore routinely abused?

The Minister’s panel, chaired by Professor Norman Palmer, now have the considerable responsibility of finding an effective and practical route through the highly emotive tangle of ethical, moral and legal issues which have dogged previous attempts to draft conventions.