Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for the work that she has done to bring the Bill to this stage. I know that for many years, she has cared deeply about and has worked actively on this issue. Nobody who has listened to the testimony of holocaust survivors can fail to be moved by their message and by the tragedy of the impact and the barbarism of this most evil of period in European history.

In Dudley’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations in January, which were organised by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), we heard about the experiences of Zigi Shipper—his life in pre-war Poland, his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration and extermination camps, and the impact that this had on his life and that of his family. So many of his family members were lost. Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which started the process of uncovering the full horrors of the holocaust, it is more important than ever that we do everything that we can not only to remember what happened and to learn the lessons of the past but, where we can, to right the wrongs of that period of history.

Holocaust survivors and their families lost so much. In many cases, they lost their childhood and their family. These are things that neither we nor any Government can ever hope to restore, but what we can do is help to return some of the property and some of the family heirlooms that mean so much to survivors’ families. For that reason, the Bill is absolutely vital. As has been said, it is a simple Bill that seeks to remove the sunset clause that was inserted into the 2009 Act. It was inserted for perfectly good reasons, but it is now clear that it would be a great injustice to allow it to stand. The Bill will enable trustees to continue to return cultural objects back to their rightful owners indefinitely where it is shown that they were looted by the Nazis. Quite rightly, the safeguards that were built into the original Act remain intact, so that the rights and responsibilities of trustees and directors to look after cultural objects under their supervision and control is protected.

It would have been quite easy for the House to do nothing in 2009, but Members rightly decided that ensuring that some of the estimated 100,000 missing works of art could be returned to their rightful owners was the correct and moral thing to do. Many of those objects were stolen nearly 80 years ago. It would be completely contrary to our country’s values to pass up a clear opportunity to act to right these wrongs and correct these injustices, even though they were perpetrated so long ago. That is not what we stand for. However, there is a clear and present danger that if the Bill is not enacted, the sunset clause that is due to strike in November this year will undo the work done by the Act, and it will no longer be possible to correct those wrongs in the future.

We as a nation have been at the forefront of repatriating the items looted by the Nazis, leading the way not only in Europe but in the rest of the world. The Spoliation Advisory Panel takes an approach that is both revolutionary and fundamentally common-sense, without the need for costly legal proceedings and lawyers. I mean no offence to any legally trained Members who are present. Had the panel appeared earlier, other countries could not have used our delay as an excuse for their own inaction. Now that it is in place, however, it is able—in a dignified and trusting manner—to make decisions based on the evidence to which my right hon. Friend has referred, without involving costly adversarial arguments and instead relying on the good sense and discretion of its members.

As my right hon. Friend said, the panel has worked hard and conscientiously for many years, and I too place on record my thanks for its ongoing work. I hope that by passing the Bill, we can allow it to continue that work, and to bring at least some comfort to holocaust survivors and the families of victims.