THE BLOG

We Are Haemorrhaging Britain's National Treasures

14/08/2013 17:32 BST | Updated 14/10/2013 10:12 BST

What do a ring belonging to Jane Austen, a Rembrandt painting, and a Bentley Blower racing car have in common? Well, all of them are part of our national historic cultural inheritance that are at risk of being sold overseas. Britain is facing a worrying trend. Art exports rose to £2bn last year and unfortunately that included some important items of historic significance. Art owners are selling off treasures which matter to us all and these objects often disappear into collections overseas. Once our heritage is exported, whether to the west coast of America or to China, it is almost impossible to get back, and as a result, the British public lose access to our nation's history.

The system in place that is meant to keep these national treasures in the country is failing. Under the Export of Objects of Cultural Interest scheme, valuable items (paintings, books, sculptures, correspondence, furniture and so forth) are placed under a temporary export ban to give British buyers time to raise money to save them for the nation. When Ed Vaizey says he is putting a ban on an export he is merely pressing the pause button for six months. However, according to the Government's own statistics, 60% of the value of these objects could not be raised in 2012, leading to the loss of three exceptional items. In 2010, only 5% of the value of the export-deferred items could be raised and we lost a Turner painting. So while at last we have Jane Austen's picture on the £10 note, we may be about to lose one of her very few possessions remaining today.

The period of austerity means that unless we change the rules, this trend will accelerate. Museums are already facing heavy government cuts and are in no position to find millions to save these objects. When the Zurbaran paintings at Auckland Castle in my constituency were under threat, we were fortunate that Jonathan Ruffer, a philanthropist, stepped in to save them. However, this was highly unusual , with individuals generally unable to contribute large sums of money- London benefits from philanthropic contributions amounting to £59.52 per head, but philanthropic giving in other regions of the country amounts to between only £1.83 and £4.66 per head.

The Government's policy is failing abysmally: the six month bar placed on export is inadequate compared to the 30 month ban France imposes under a similar scheme. We desperately need a rethink of our exports scheme and one that doesn't involve the spending of millions of taxpayer funds at this critical time. When I picture Mr Darcy wandering around Pemberley, it is full of paintings and sculptures and great books. Our heritage is so vital a part of our national identity that it weaves its way into our fiction and imaginations. If we don't save it, future writers will be noting the dusty, bare wallpaper where the Old Masters once hung.

Helen Goodman is Shadow Minister for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport