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Shipping: Naval Wrecks

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to protect the wrecks of HMS “Prince of Wales” and HMS “Repulse” from the activities of foreign nationals undertaking penetration dives and disturbing the human remains which lie there.

My Lords, the wrecks of HMS “Prince of Wales” and HMS “Repulse”, which lie in international waters off the coast of Malaysia, are designated as protected places under the United Kingdom’s Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, the Act applies only to British citizens and British flagged vessels. Her Majesty’s Government therefore continue to work closely with regional Governments, diving groups and others to prevent inappropriate activity on the wreck sites by foreign nationals.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. These two ships were sunk 65 years ago this week and the wrecks are the final resting place of 840 officers and men. Is my noble friend aware of the activities of foreign-owned diving companies, such as Rec ‘N’ Tec and White Manta, which have promoted themselves by placing pictures of human remains on their websites and, in one case, producing for sale a DVD of a full penetration dive on HMS “Repulse” carried out by a US citizen? Does my noble friend agree that the survivors and the relatives of the deceased deserve rather better than that?

Yes, my Lords, I agree absolutely. I have seen stills from the DVD and they are extremely distressing and must be extremely painful for the families and the survivors. The British Government, via the British High Commission in Malaysia, have asked the company to remove the video from its website. It has done so and apologised for the distress caused. The Ministry has also made its concerns known to a number of Malaysian government agencies and to the navies of the region, and of course the Royal Navy itself makes several trips to the site.

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome anything that the Government can do to protect these war grave sites. Those tragic sinkings taught us the importance of air cover. In the light of that, can the noble Baroness confirm that there will be no further delays to the new carriers?

A good try, my Lords, but it is slightly outwith the brief in front of me. I will, with all due respect to the noble Lord, write to him on his question.

My Lords, what plans do the Government have for more proactive management of historic wreck sites so that they are physically assessed by people with relevant expertise, and management plans are drawn up which would be sensitive to them both as war graves, if that is what they are, and as archaeological sites?

My Lords, we are signatories to several international conventions, most notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and have therefore signed up to the responsibilities under them. We have also begun to designate sites. I was astonished to learn in my brief that there are 15,000 naval and merchant wrecks from the two world wars. Not all of those will be designated, but the most significant wrecks are being designated as protected sites or controlled sites, with all the management that that involves.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that international bodies such as the Commonwealth will be made aware of the situation? An international approach is probably what is required; indeed, that is what the Minister has suggested in her earlier answers.

My Lords, there is good communication between those responsible in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and those responsible for the shipwrecks which have become maritime graves.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has not referred to the interests of the New Zealand Government in the “Prince of Wales” and the “Repulse”. There is a very active interest in New Zealand in the fates of the ships and of the bodies of those who were drowned. Are the Government, as I trust they are, in close contact with the Government of New Zealand and listening sympathetically to their interests?

Baroness Crawley: Yes, my Lords. I will write to the noble Lord about the detail of our contact, but, as I understand it, we are in contact with the regional Governments, the Australian Navy and the New Zealand agencies.

My Lords, will the Minister consider contacting the various dive centres which operate in that area? Most SCUBA divers—recreational divers, of which I am one—would operate from such sites.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention. The diving companies in the region are contacted and we are in close co-operation with them. But in the end, however many international or national laws we sign up to, we need to educate the diving companies and the individual divers. We are therefore in constant contact with them.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain why, if the American Government can protect their wrecks, we cannot?

My Lords, I would say that we do protect our wrecks with the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Although it has limitations in applying only to British nationals and to British vessels, we certainly use it as fully as we can.

My Lords, have the Government made a formal approach to the Malaysian and Singaporean Governments to ask them to co-operate informally in restricting activities from their ports?

Yes, my Lords; we are in constant contact with the Governments through the high commissions. However, after our short debate today, I will certainly ensure that we once again underline our concerns with both Governments.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in addition to the dreadful personal tragedies referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, this is a site of particular historical significance? It proved once and for all that capital ships—as my noble friend Lord Astor made clear in his “outwith” question—could no longer operate without adequate air defences. As such, it is the place where the course of naval warfare changed for ever.

Absolutely, my Lords; that was a very significant event on 10 December 1941. Naval historians consider it a turning point in history.