Yesterday in the House of Lords, the Coroners and Justice Bill received its second reading and it contained some important discussions about the role of the Coroner with regard to the Treasure Act. The full transcript can be read on the theyworkforyou website. The important parts are displayed below:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach):
…Aside from their heavy responsibilities for the investigation of certain deaths, coroners retain one residual function dating back to their 12th century origins; namely, the investigation of treasure finds. Following the debates in the other place, we are persuaded of the case for establishing a national coroner for treasure so that in future local coroners can devote all their time to their core responsibilities. I hope this decision will be particularly welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport and other noble Lords who have played an important role in this field and by their colleagues on the All-Party Group on Archaeology…
…However, I want to start off on a positive note. The Minister announced that the Government have had second thoughts about the position of the treasure coroner and have decided to restore it. That was the position when the draft Bill was considered. I say on behalf of the Opposition that we welcome that move, as, I am sure, do many Members of your Lordships’ House…
Lord Howarth of Newport:
My Lords, the Bill raises momentous constitutional, judicial and ethical issues which are being debated with your Lordships’ customary incisiveness. I shall just consider one item from the extensive menu that the Bill presents, and that is the issue of treasure. The Minister reminded the House earlier that, since the 12th century, coroners have had responsibility in relation to treasure. It is therefore perhaps not unreasonable that, in the 21st century, we should update the legislation. We should not be impetuous in these matters, but we should not be dilatory either.
It was a mystery why the provisions on treasure in the 2006 draft Bill were omitted from the Bill which we have before us, but happily we no longer need to inquire into that mystery, because today my noble friend told the House that the Government would reinstate in the legislation the provision for a single national coroner for treasure for England and Wales. I am very grateful to him for that. I declare an interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
The draft provisions on treasure were widely supported when they were presented, as certainly will be the Government’s change of heart announced today. Already, it has been generously welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, from the opposition Benches. It will be very much welcomed by the all-party group and the Society of Antiquaries, and by the British Museum, which has statutory responsibilities for administration on behalf of the DCMS of the regime created by the Treasure Act 1996. It will be welcomed as well by the National Council for Metal Detecting, which represents the vast majority of people who actually make finds of treasure.
The definition of treasure is complex and derives from the 1996 Act but, in summary, it means any gold or silver finds that are over 300 years old; groups of coins in certain circumstances; and, where they are prehistoric, base metal groups or hoards of items.
The provisions in the draft Bill were retabled in Committee in another place, and debated on 24 February. Mr Henry Bellingham set out the case for them admirably and in doing so acknowledged then, as I do today, an indebtedness to the British Museum for its advice on these issues. Ministers listened to what was said in that debate, and, in due course, accepted its conclusions. That seems to me, on a miniature scale, a very good instance of how parliamentary democracy ought to work-a point I think worth making, given that today it is unfashionable to suppose there is any good whatsoever in parliamentary democracy in this country.
Why is it right to establish a single coroner to deal with all cases of treasure? Coroners in many areas, facing a multitude of pressures-a number of which have been described by noble Lords earlier-have been failing to meet the target set for them in the Treasure Act’s code of practice to resolve treasure issues within three months. The average time taken is about twice that. There is much variability: in some areas-Durham and Leicester, for example-it has been taking a year to deal with these cases. In Bridgend, it took nearly three and a half years for the coroner to hold an inquest in a particular case of treasure. I of course make no complaint or criticism of the Bridgend coroner. As was movingly described to us in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, the Bridgend coroner was under the most extraordinary pressure in the exceptionally tragic circumstances in that community. Indeed, any coroner being aware of the urgent desire of bereaved families for inquests to be completed could readily be excused for not making the consideration of treasure cases his top priority. But evils have arisen out of these delays. People who have reported finds have been prevented from receiving their due rewards, which is unfair on them, and the prevalence of delays has made it likely that others will be deterred from reporting finds that they may make. That tends to take us back towards the state of affairs that prevailed before the 1996 Act and before the creation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. That was chaos: items of treasure simply disappeared, important information about our archaeology and history was not recorded, and lucrative opportunities were provided for criminals operating in the antiquities market-a matter which the Government solemnly committed themselves to tackle seriously when they subscribed to the UNESCO convention.
Not only will the system of having a single national coroner be more efficient and speedier, we can expect that a dedicated coroner will be more expert in this field, and it will be cheaper to have a single treasure coroner-never a negligible consideration. The BM has computed that the saving will be of the order of £320,000 to £400,000 a year. So the decision that the Minister has announced today will be good for everyone: good for the finders of treasure, good for the landowners on whose land the treasure is found, good for the museums where these items of treasure should be consigned, good for scholars, and good for the public who appreciate items of treasure and learn from them.
I did not hear the Minister say earlier whether it was the Government’s intention also to reinstate in the Bill the provisions that were in Schedule 3 to the draft Bill. That schedule would have brought forward three amendments to the Treasure Act, all uncontroversial and all recommended in the 2002 review. The first provision would widen the obligation to report finds of treasure to anyone who comes into possession of it, not just finders. That would put pressure on dealers and others such as people operating internet sites, notably eBay. The second alteration would provide a power for the coroner to require anyone reporting a find of treasure also to deliver that treasure-if it was in their possession-to the coroner. The third reform would extend the limitation period for prosecutions, which is currently six months. If coroners take a year to establish the evidence, it is very difficult indeed for the police to proceed.
The system created by the Treasure Act is a success. The number of finds reported has risen from some 25 a year before 1997 to more than 800 in 2008, but the delays which have infested the system have tended to bring it into disrepute and to undermine its effectiveness. Parliament would, therefore, do well to legislate the solution that the Government themselves originally proposed.
My Lords, many noble Lords have complained that this is a ragtag Bill or a dog’s breakfast, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, just said, but for some of us this is a fantastic thing. Those involved in legislation to do with heritage or archaeology always find their issues tagged on the end of something else, so to find them in this Bill is a wonderful feeling. Before I thank the Minister for accepting the amendment on the coroner for treasure, I should say that I am almost disappointed because I have with me a briefing with coloured tags for an incisive and decisive argument. I have never been so well prepared for an amendment, but he has shot the fox, as the expression goes. However, I thank the Minister for accepting the arguments and for the work done by other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, and all those in the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group.
However, I think that the Minister would be upset if I said that I would leave it at that and that I was going to sit down, so there are a few points that I want to make. I thank the Minister for putting something back that had been in the draft Bill, so these are almost government points. Three other small points that would be of incredible value to those of us in the heritage community were contained in Schedule 3 to the 2006 draft Bill. If they were included, life would be a great deal simpler for those in the heritage sector. They all concern aspects of treasure. Some noble Lords may not be aware of the growing number of finds due to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is now looking at much stronger funding due to the Government’s work. Treasures are being brought to light by metal detectorists in areas the majority of which would have been destroyed by the actions of industrialised farming. Noble Lords can go to the British Museum to see the treasure exhibition or catch it on tour to appreciate the value of the finds that are coming up through the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
The first of the three amendments that I ask the Minister to replace in the Bill, because they would make life a great deal easier, is to widen the obligation to report finds of treasure to anyone who comes into possession of treasure. At present, the duty to report treasure in the Treasure Act 1996 rests solely with those who find treasure. The British Museum has an agreement with eBay to monitor its site for potential treasure, although it is thought that many items of treasure are sold by third parties without applying the appropriate due diligence tests. The amendment would encourage best practice.
I have had a number of meetings with eBay on this after the passing of the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill, a Private Member’s Bill that I had the joy of taking through your Lordships’ House. When I found the legal representative for eBay and said that I would like to talk to him about this, his first answer was: “How the hell did you get this number?”. It is not the easiest thing tracking down eBay. I am not saying anything about the quality of the company, but there is a major problem with the fact that a market could be created in finds. We know from the English Heritage report on nighthawking that the illicit selling of finds is a major problem. If this market is created on eBay and takes hold, we will see a large number of our sites raided. Of course eBay has made agreements with other European countries on this. We asked it why it had not signed an agreement in this country and it said that it was because our legislation is not as strong as legislation in other European countries, which I believe says something about how we prioritise our heritage. This is an extremely important amendment and I hope that the Minister will look at it kindly, because there are a large number of APPAG members who are going to enjoy a few discussions on this. If he just accepted what of course was a government amendment, against which it is going to be very difficult to argue, that would shorten the course of the Bill.
The second point is to give the coroner powers to require anybody who reports the discovery of found treasure to deliver it to the coroner. We know of a case where Bronze Age axes were reported to the coroner but some of the best of them were kept out of the report, which meant that there was a real problem in finding out about their existence.
The third point, which I think is extremely important in making sense of the Treasure Act at all, is to allow more time for prosecution to be brought under the Act. The case that I just mentioned took a long time and, even though the police were prepared to prosecute, the statute of limitations, which at present is at six months, is not long enough to deal with the process. If a coroner’s report is taking a year-or in some cases two years-the statute of limitations kicks in and the whole system is made a farce.
These would be three small but valuable changes. They would not be very costly but would make the job of the coroner for treasure announced by the Minister far more relevant. I believe that they would make our heritage far safer from that small minority of people among the metal-detecting community who use metal detecting for profit rather than for extending the knowledge of our heritage.