The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill received Royal Assent on 12 November 2009 and the powers in the Act were brought into force shortly thereafter by a commencement Order made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw.
The law gives the trustees of named national institutions in Britain the power to de-accession any artefacts or cultural objects currently held in their collections which were stolen by or on behalf of the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945, so that these artefacts can be returned to the lawful owners or their heirs. The law provides that this power can only be exercised where the return is recommended by an advisory body established by the Secretary of State (that is, the Spoliation Advisory Panel) and where the Secretary of State accepts that body’s recommendation.
To read the Act, click here.
As a result of the law, all museums and cultural bodies in the UK now have the power to restitute Nazi-looted objects to their rightful owners where a claim is successful. Previously, university museum and non national bodies were able to restitute whereas national museums and other national institutions were statute-barred from being able to return. National institutions in Wales and Northern Ireland are not included in the law as museums there are already able to restitute.
The government's commitment to bring in a law was secured in December 2007 by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Lord Janner from the then Minister, Margaret Hodge.
Because of constraints on the government's legislative programme, it was agreed the bill would be introduced into Parliament on 26 January 2009 as a Private Member's Bill by Andrew Dismore MP. It passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords with the assistance and guidance of ministers and officials in the government and support from all three main political parties. The Commission for Looted Art in Europe advised throughout on wording, scope and historical background.
Below is the detail of the bill's parliamentary passage and, first, the text of the UK's Department of Culture, Media and Sport press release of 12 November 2009.
Celebration as Holocaust Bill is given Royal Assent
The Government have warmly welcomed the giving of Royal Assent to the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Private Member’s Bill, as proposed by Andrew Dismore MP.
The Bill, introduced on 26th January this year, will give the governing bodies of national institutions named in the Bill the power to return an object from their collection to its rightful owner, as assessed by the Spoliation Advisory Panel.
Andrew Dismore, proposer of the Bill, and MP for Hendon, said:
“I was delighted to have the opportunity of introducing this Bill in the Commons and with all-party support seeing it through, even though it had no procedural priority whatsoever.
“It shows what could be achieved by a determined backbencher: by rolling out my sleeping bag and sleeping on the floor of the Public Bill Office overnight, I was able to become the first in the queue to apply for Second Readings after the balloted Bills, and this tactic paid off.
“Once it becomes an Act, the Bill will right a long-standing injustice by giving powers to museums and galleries to return pieces of art and cultural objects taken from their rightful owners during the period of the Nazi regime.
“Whilst I do not envisage the Act having to be used very frequently, this is an important moral step, to ensure that we can close yet a further chapter on the appalling crimes of the Holocaust.”
Before the passing of the bill, the Spoliation Panel could recommend an object from a local institution be returned to the claimant, if they were satisfied that the item had been stolen during the Nazi era (1933-1945). However, national institutions are forbidden by legislation from deaccessioning items, even if they too have been investigated and judged to have been stolen. Up until now a valuation of the object has been carried out and an ex-gratia payment made in lieu of the return of the item. Due to the success of this Bill, national institutions will now be able to return treasures to claimants if the panel so recommends and Ministers agree.
Culture Minister Margaret Hodge, said:
“This is a wonderful day, both for Andrew and those who will benefit from this change in legislation. For too long, families who had heirlooms stolen from them by the Nazis were unable to reclaim them, although they were the rightful owners. This new Act will restore the possibility for families who suffered so terribly during the Nazi era, to get some justice by getting back their heirlooms.”
Lord Janner of Braunstone Q.C., who supported this Bill through the Lords, said:
“The issue of restitution is of vital importance to me. My entire family in Lithuania and Latvia were murdered by the Nazis, the killers stole all of their property. This bill will at least give families of some holocaust victims the power to reclaim some of their family property, which is in Britain.
“I am delighted that this bill has been supported by all political parties, in both houses of parliament and I give special thanks to Andrew Dismore for bringing this Bill through the Commons.”
Jon Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said:
“We are extremely grateful for the invaluable assistance of officials and politicians at DCMS, and in Parliament, in bringing about this piece of legislation and would like particularly to acknowledge Andrew Dismore’s role in the Commons and Lord Janner’s in the Lords.
“The Act corrects an anomaly that most people would be surprised existed, and means that common sense prevails in the case of the rightful heirs of looted artefacts being able to recover them. In some small way, it helps to ease the pain of the enormous hurt of the Holocaust by at least allowing items of sentimental and emotional value to be restored the victims or their families.”
Anne Webber, Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said:
“This is a great step forward and confirms Britain’s commitment to providing justice even at this late stage. Objects taken by the Nazis have immense meaning to the families concerned and returning them provides some small measure of justice and consolation for the lives that were destroyed. We greatly appreciate the role of ministers and officials at the DCMS and particularly of Andrew Dismore MP who introduced and spearheaded this bill, and hope other countries which have not yet made restitution possible will follow Britain’s lead.”
Scottish Government Culture Minister Michael Russell said:
“The Royal Assent to the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill is a significant moment and demonstrates the importance the Scottish Government and the UK Government place on this issue.
“Introducing this legislation alongside the rest of the UK, ensures that should any instances arise, Scotland’s National Institutions will have the ability to return cultural objects that were looted during the Holocaust era to their rightful owners. I firmly believe this is the right thing to do.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 26 January and was given Royal Asset on 12 November. It is a Private Member’s Bill which has been supported by the Government. The Bill gives the governing bodies of the national institutions named in the Bill a power to transfer an object from their collection and return it to the claimant, provided that the Spoliation Advisory Panel recommends return and Ministers agree, thus putting them on the same footing as other museums which can make such returns. The Bill will expire on 12 November 2019. The power is not needed in Wales and Northern Ireland, where museums can return such items.
2. The powers in the Act, will be brought into force shortly by a commencement Order made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw.
3. The then Arts Minister Alan Howarth announced the setting up of a Panel to help resolve claims on art looted during the Nazi era on 17 February 2000 and the full membership of the Panel on 13 April 2000.
4. The Declaration of Principles agreed at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets of December 1998 states, among the other principles, that:
a. pre-War owners and their heirs should be encouraged to come forward and make known their claims to art confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted;
b. if the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognising this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case.
House of Commons: Cross party support was secured for the Private Members Bill which was introduced by Andrew Dismore MP and had its first reading in January 2009. See explanatory notes here. The bill's second reading was on 15 May 2009 and a transcript of the session is available here. On 10 June 2009 the UK's Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill 2008-09 passed the committee stage in the House of Commons with unopposed amendments. A transcript of the committee hearing is available here. See explanatory notes of the bill here. On 26 June 2009 the UK's Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill 2008-09 successfully passed its third and final reading in the House of Commons. A transcript of the session is available here. Barbara Follett MP, Minister, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, endorsed the bill on behalf of the UK government, as did Shadow Minister Ed Vaizey MP for the Conservatives and Lembit Opik MP for the Liberal Democrats.
House of Lords: The Bill received its first reading in the House of Lords on 29 June. On 10 July the UK's Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill 2008-09 had its second reading in the House of Lords, supported by Lord Janner. A transcript of the session is available here. On 19 October 2009 the bill passed unamended through the Committee Stage and passed unopposed through the third and final reading in the House of Lords on 27 October 2009.