The House of Lords is currently considering the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, which includes a measure to provide immunity from seizure for works of art on temporary loan from abroad. This measure is intended to address the reluctance of some foreign museums to lend works of art in case they are seized in pursuance of a civil debt as has happened on occasion in the past.
However the proposals have the side-effect of preventing Holocaust survivors and their heirs from raising a case in the UK courts if they recognise the borrowed artwork as having been stolen from them by the Nazis.
Cultural policy is a devolved area, so the Scottish Parliament could have addressed the issue by means of separate legislation, but the Scottish Executive decided instead to deal with the matter by means of a “Legislative Consent Motion” to enable the UK Bill to apply in Scotland.
SCoJeC made representations to the Scottish Parliament Justice 2 Committee which considered the issue in December 2006, but the Committee was satisfied by assurances from the Deputy Justice Minister. (Click here to read SCoJeC's evidence to the Committee and here to read SCoJeC's supplementary evidence.)
Nonetheless SCoJeC pressed the case with the Parliamentary authorities, and, unusually for a Legislative Consent Motion, the Parliamentary Bureau agreed to timetable a short debate. SCoJec then briefed key MSPs, all of whom, including the Convener of the Justice 2 Committee, agreed with our concerns and agreed to speak about them in the debate.
The debate took place on 31 January 2007 and MSPs from each of the SNP, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour parties in turn emphasised that the Bill should, but does not, oblige museums and galleries to research and publish provenance, and stressed that it would prevent the owners of looted art on temporary display in the this country from pursuing a claim in the UK courts. MSPs also emphasised the moral case and urged Scottish Ministers to press for appropriate amendments at Westminster.
After the debate, Deputy Justice Minister, Johann Lamont, acknowledged the strength of feeling amongst MSPs in what she described as a “significant debate” and she made a commitment that Scottish Ministers will pursue the matter at Westminster and will ensure that UK Ministers are fully aware of the expressed view of the Scottish Parliament.
Leah Granat, Public Affairs Officer of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities said: “Given the very limited procedural possibilities of a Legislative Consent Motion, and the fact that most such motions are passed ‘on the nod’, we could not have asked for a more positive result, and we are confident that this will assist in achieving a good outcome at Westminster.”
What MSPs said during the debate:
Ken Macintosh (Labour Party): I do not believe that any member here or at Westminster would promote or elevate the exchange or sharing of cultural items above the restoration of property that was looted during one of the most horrific and grotesque periods of recent history. Frankly, I do not believe that any member of the public would want to view, on public display in Scotland, works of art that were robbed from families who were stripped of their rights, humiliated as individuals and systematically murdered under the Nazi regime.
Donald Gorrie (LibDem): we certainly do not want to prevent our museums from having good exhibitions but there should be a thorough system of vetting the items before they come in so that we know that our hands are clean.
Chris Ballance (Green Party): People who have had artworks stolen from them in traumatic circumstances, such as the Holocaust, have a right to have access to justice. However, the bill changes the situation, so that they will be actively prevented from doing that in certain circumstances in which artworks are temporarily on loan ... I ask the minister to report to Westminster in the strongest terms the concerns that have been raised in the Scottish Parliament.
Johann Lamont (Deputy Justice Minister): This is a significant debate ... We are aware of and understand the concerns of those who have expressed reservations about the consequences of the bill ... The comments that were made in the chamber and in committee will, of course, form part of our commentary to the UK Government. I assure the Parliament that all the points that have been made will be brought to Westminster's attention ... We do not understate the strong concerns that Ken Macintosh highlighted and we will ensure that they are expressed ... I assure Parliament that the issues that have been raised will be pursued with Westminster.