The Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on 31 October 2016 and was introduced by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Karen Bradley) as follows:
“The need for this Bill is paramount. In recent months, we have seen the wanton destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa. These tragic events are a reminder of how vital it is that the UK ratifies this convention and makes a strong statement about the importance we place on protecting cultural heritage.“
To recap, the bill will ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of cultural property and will accede to its two Protocols. This has been hailed as an important step towards the UK taking responsibility to protect the derogation and destruction of cultural property from conflict zones. In the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, it is noted the UK already complies with the Convention during military operations and respects the Blue Shield emblem used to mark cultural property, but the Bill will create primary legislation which will put a formal legal framework in place.
The legislation will make it a criminal offence to deal in cultural property unlawfully exported from an occupied territory. On our doorstep, the London art market should be wary. There have been concerns that the drafting may be onerous for art dealers, who could be caught out “if they knew or had reason to suspect” that property was cultural property “exported from an occupied territory”. Under the legislation as currently drafted, the export will be deemed unlawful if it breaks the law of the territory in question or falls foul of international law (which includes the Convention). Any cultural property exported after 1956, when the First Protocol to the Convention took effect, will be caught by these provisions. Dealers will need to be alive to the risk of prosecution and the confiscation of the goods, if they are found to have known or had reason to suspect that the goods in question were exported from an occupied territory post-1956.
This point was, however, discussed at the Lords Committee stage. It was emphasised that the intention of the legislation is for dealers not to become burdened by these provisions any more than they currently are. Dealers are already bound by existing codes of conduct that require due diligence checks up to a certain standard. If adhered to, this standard is sufficient to avoid breaking the law. During the House of Lords Committee stage, Baroness Neville-Rolfe said that dealers would not be required to do “anything that they do not already do” provided these industry standards were followed.
The Bill completed its Public Bill Committee stage on 15 November 2016 and will now be reworked to incorporate amendments deemed necessary. The Bill only has to pass through the Report Stage, where the reworked Bill will be presented to the House, and the Third reading, before being recommended for Royal Assent. Currently no date has been set for the next stages.
Fred Clark is a Trainee Solicitor at Boodle Hatfield.