The UK Government has deferred the introduction of legal provisions that would enable national museums in England and Wales to deaccession items from their collections on moral grounds for the first time.
The undersecretary of state for civil society, Syed Kamall, confirmed the decision during a debate at the House of Lords last week.
He said the government needed more time to consider the implications of Sections 15 and 16 of the new Charities Act 2022, which is due to be passed imminently.
The provisions would enable the trustees of national museums to apply to the Charity Commission to make ex-gratia payments, a voluntary gesture of goodwill whereby charitable property can be transferred on moral grounds – something they have been unable to do up to now due to existing statutes.
Kamall told the house that “no such intent was considered, nor agreed on” when the bill was debated in the House of Commons.
He said: “Given this, the government are deferring the commencement of the sections of the act, which we initially expected to be part of the first tranche of commencements in the autumn, until we fully understand the implications for national museums and other charities.”
Kamall added: “Whatever one thinks of the debate, it is important that we understand the legal implications for that.”
Kamall said the government would not be changing its position on restitution cases, which is that “claims should be considered on a case-by-case basis”, and that trustees rather than government are responsible for decisions.
Kamall said the government had “no plans to amend” law that protects objects in national museums. Various statutes including the British Museum Act 1963 prevent the deaccessioning of objects from national institutions, with few exceptions.
The House of Lords debate was called by lords member Ed Vaizey, who served as culture minister between 2010 and 2016.
Vaizey has been appointed chair of a new non-governmental advisory group that has been set up with the goal of returning the British Museum’s Parthenon sculptures to Greece.
The Parthenon Project was formed by Greek businessman and chemical magnate John Lefas, who is reported to have committed £1.1m of his own money to the commission.
The sculptures are the subject of one of the UK's longest-running repatriation disputes. Vaizey has described the prospect of a partnership with Greece – also supported by British Museum chair George Osborne – as a “win-win” deal.
He said: “Seeing the Acropolis Museum and understanding more about the other unique artefacts that could come to London as part of the cultural exchange has already strengthened my view that a deal is within reach.”