With the exception of the limited power available under the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997, there is no specific legislation for the protection of merchant vessels lost during hostilities, and as such, the Secretary of State for Transport has no legislative powers to protect these vessels. Section 24 of the 1997 Act enables the Secretary of State to make an order relating to the protection of wrecks outside UK waters for the purpose of giving effect to an international agreement.
The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 deals with military remains of both aircraft and ships and is administered by the Ministry of Defence. All military aircraft are automatically designated under this legislation. The Act allows the Ministry of Defence to protect from unauthorised interference the remains of aircraft and ships lost while in military service. Whether or not an individual merchant vessel is eligible for designation under the Act depends on whether it can be said to have been in “military service”.
The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 is designed to protect wrecks which are of historic, archaeological or artistic importance and is administered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
It is the Department for Transport's present policy to refrain from selling the hull of any merchant vessel, owned by the Department and lost to enemy action, where there has been a recorded loss of life.