Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who gave a wonderful and powerful speech. I think we would all agree with every word he said. It is also a pleasure to participate in this debate and to support the Bill put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who does so much to speak up for the Jewish community. As he says, it is particularly poignant to be discussing this, given that less than two weeks ago we were here marking Holocaust Memorial Day.

In my contribution to the Holocaust Memorial Day debate last month, I raised the story of Simon Gronowski, who survived the Holocaust and managed to escape the gas chambers of Auschwitz after being thrown by his mother from a moving transportation train in 1943. I had the honour of welcoming him to Parliament last week, where community groups from Chichester staged an opera that was based on his life story. Simon lost his ​mother and his sister in the gas chambers. He also lost his home and his possessions. He lived out the rest of the war in hiding, being cared for by another family.

Simon’s story is unique—it is as unique as it is inspirational, after he forgave the collaborator who put him on the train—but his experience of discrimination and loss is very common. The 1930s and 1940s were marked by Jewish people and minority groups having their property stolen and precious objects confiscated. In many countries occupied by the Nazis, special departments were set up to organise the stealing of Jewish property and items of value. Money, houses, jewellery and works of art were the most common items stolen. As recently as 2012, the state prosecutor in Augsburg, Germany, discovered and confiscated more than 1,400 framed and unframed paintings stolen by one of the Nazis war profiteers, Hildebrand Gurlitt. It is estimated that about 100,000 items still have not been repatriated to their original owners or families, having been looted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

In my view, one that I am sure will be shared by every Member who participates in this debate, there should be no time limit on trying try to right the wrongs of the past by returning lost possessions to the families affected by these atrocious crimes. By scrapping the original expiry date, as clause 1 would do, we will be following the precedent of most other European countries, such as France and Germany, which do not have time limits on survivors and their heirs making claims.

It was absolutely right that in 2009 Parliament enacted legislation to allow our museums to return items looted during the Nazi era. Thanks to the work of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, 23 works of art have been successfully returned since it was set up in 2000. We have a moral duty to ensure that any other items held by our museums and galleries that were stolen in such awful circumstances are returned to their rightful owners. As has been argued before, many may simply be unaware that they are in possession of such pieces.

Although not many objects have been discovered in Britain, we should not treat that as a reason to shut the door on heirs and families making claims in future. After all, these objects were cruelly and illegally stolen from victims who were often left with nothing. That is why I am pleased to hear that the Government have given their full support to scrapping the so-called sunset clause of the 2009 Act. As I have said, there should be no time limit on our attempts to right the wrongs of the past. As the hon. Member for Ealing North said, we cannot undo the insidious crimes inflicted by the Nazis, but we can make sure that survivors and heirs have their rightful property returned to them. This is a moral duty as much as any other.

In 1998, 44 states committed themselves to the Washington principles, which sought to make sure that possessions ransacked by the Nazis were returned to their rightful owners and families. If we do not amend the 2009 Act to remove the sunset clause, we will do ourselves a great disservice in the upholding of our international and moral agreements, which is why I give my full support to the Bill.