Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the world’s underwater cultural heritage is today at great risk. Improved deep-water recovery is leading to the discovery and sometimes, I am afraid, to the looting of historic shipwrecks on a wide scale, internationally. The fate of HMS “Victory”, sunk in 1744, then the finest warship in the world, is a test case. Its wreck was discovered in the English Channel in 2008 by an American salvage company. It is one of the first British deep-water wrecks which might now risk commercial exploitation, hence this Question for Short Debate. There are fears that the material recovered will be sold to pay off the salvage costs, with the apparent complicity of the British Government.
It is a significant test case because the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage makes clear that the excavation of historic wrecks should not be financed by selling off the finds recovered, but that may be just what is now being planned for HMS “Victory”. If the Government were to countenance such a practice, it would set a terrible example. It would give the wrong encouragement to other nations faced with similar responsibilities. It would be a tawdry thing to do with this great historic flagship of the Royal Navy.
After consultations in 2010, the Ministry of Defence took the unusual step of gifting the wreck of HMS “Victory” to a newly formed organisation, the Maritime Heritage Foundation. Its qualifications for receiving such a gift are not yet clear to me. How could it pay the salvage costs involved unless by selling the artefacts recovered, including coins and perhaps cannon, which would be in contravention of international standards?
Will the Minister confirm that this is the first time that the Government have ever “gifted” the wreck of a Royal Navy warship to an outside body? Will he indicate what steps the Government took to establish that this foundation had available to it the resources to finance recovery operations in a proper manner, without resorting to the sale of the coins and other artefacts recovered?
The Minister for Culture, Mr Ed Vaizey, when the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group queried this gift, kindly wrote to me on 7 November with encouraging words:
“The Maritime Heritage Foundation is charged with preserving the Victory site in accordance with the archaeological principles set out in the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage; and the Museum Code of Ethics will be applied to any artefacts that are recovered. I am very confident therefore that we have robust mechanisms in place to ensure the preservation of this important wreck and its artefacts”.
I wish I could share his confidence.
Odyssey Marine Exploration, an American salvage company, announced in February that it has entered into contract with the Maritime Heritage Foundation for the salvage of HMS “Victory”. The disquieting speech by Odyssey president Mark Gordon is available as a webcast at: http://wsw.com/webcast/ch2/omex/. He made the shocking statement that Odyssey’s contract with the Maritime Heritage Foundation would bring to Odyssey 80% of the value of coins and bullion recovered and, on “monetisation”, 50% of the value of cultural artefacts. Final authorisation, he said, was now expected since the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee had approved the archaeological project plan. He referred to an estimate in the New York Times that the values involved were of the order of $250 million.
I ask the Minister, are the Government aware of this contract? Surely the foundation should not be signing contracts without the knowledge of the Government? But if the Government are aware, how could this “monetisation” process possibly tally with the Minister’s assurances?
Perhaps significantly, the president of Odyssey also disclosed progress with two other ongoing salvage projects: the SS “Gairsoppa” and the SS “Montola”. These 20th century wrecks are not regarded as historic, and Odyssey Marine Exploration apparently already has contracts for their salvage with the UK Department for Transport. The “monetisation” of the silver recovered has already yielded $26 million in 2012. Will the Minister confirm that under the existing contract for SS “Gairsoppa”, Odyssey retains 90% of the cash received on “monetisation” and the Ministry of Transport just 10%? The “monetisation” process applied to these wrecks is highly interesting.
I fear that this commercial salvage recovery model has been applied by naval officers and officials in Portsmouth to the wreck of HMS “Victory”; by officials who deal with wrecks but who seem not be conversant either with the standards of modern ethical underwater archaeology or with the UNESCO convention. Will the Minister again confirm that the Royal Navy and the Government will apply the highest international ethical standards, as formulated by UNESCO, to this historic flagship of the Channel Fleet, in which Admiral Sir John Balchen and a thousand sailors of the Royal Navy lost their lives on 8 October 1744? Is it not now time that the responsibility for historic wrecks of vessels of the Royal Navy be transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, like other heritage concerns?
Will the Minister reveal how the Maritime Heritage Foundation will pay for the proposed recovery operations? English Heritage has been unable to cast any light on these matters. The Scientific Advisory Committee’s advice is not made available, even after freedom of information requests. Can the Minister explain to this Grand Committee what on earth is going on? How do the Government imagine that the salvage of historic materials, including coins and bronze cannons, from the wreck of HMS “Victory” can be funded without their “monetisation”, in direct contravention of the assurances that Ministers have given? Can he also confirm the rumour that 17 cannons from HMS “Victory” have already been moved on the wreck site in preparation for recovery, in apparent contravention of the assurances that Ministers have given? It is my personal impression that the Government have not consulted the commissioners of English Heritage about these matters, and I wonder if the Minister can confirm this.
In conclusion, it is possible that in some circumstances a case can be made for selling bullion from an historic wreck, but it would be against the terms of the UNESCO annex to which the Government have announced their adherence. These matters should not be dealt with clandestinely on the basis of confidential and supposedly “scientific” advice to the Ministry of Defence. There are major ethical issues involved here, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that the Government are giving a poor and ill-informed lead internationally in their dealings with Britain’s underwater heritage and with this historic warship of the Royal Navy. I wish that my noble friend might give us some reassurance.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I am very grateful to the noble Lord for allowing us to debate a matter of such importance. I should declare an interest as the chair of English Heritage, and I should say that while I have been in the post, I have been become increasingly aware that, as an island nation with an extraordinary maritime history, the appropriate protection of our shipwreck heritage must be an issue of serious concern to us all. That concern should apply as much to wrecks, whether military or mercantile, situated outside our territorial waters as to those that lie close to our shores. Indeed, the fact that the remains of many historically important British ships lie in international waters, or in the waters of other countries, is in itself a graphic illustration of the history of our navy and the extent, intensity and influence of our national maritime inheritance. It is of global significance.
The safeguarding of this heritage outside the waters that the UK controls is complex, so I welcome this debate not only for the chance to consider the future of Admiral Sir John Balchen’s flagship, HMS “Victory”, so well described by the noble Lord, but also to address the wider role of the UK in the discovery and investigation of historic British wrecks which are situated in waters that we do not control. I must remind noble Lords that English Heritage has no remit to operate outside England’s territorial waters. In matters international, therefore, we can only advise Ministers.
In the case of HMS “Victory”, we have offered advice both to our parent ministry, the DCMS, and to the MoD, which is responsible for decision-taking on the future of HMS “Victory”. We understand that Ministers are still considering the way forward and we trust that our advice in this case will be given proper weight. I should say in response to a question: English Heritage commissioners have not been consulted. However, I will go on to explain that English Heritage has been very much a part of the process of advising the Government in different ways. English Heritage was not involved in the selection of the Maritime Heritage Foundation as a recipient for the wreck of HMS “Victory”. In February 2012, however, we accepted an invitation to join an MoD advisory group . The DCMS is also represented on that group, but as an observer. In addition, the MoD has set up an expert panel to support the work of the advisory group, but we are not members of that.
Our advice to the advisory group has not only confirmed the unique historical importance of HMS “Victory” but also consistently advocated the fundamental need in all such cases to adhere to national and international heritage management standards and guidance. Indeed, it goes without saying that we would recommend a consistent approach to the management of all heritage assets owned by government, wherever they are situated—on land or at sea.
However, since joining the advisory group, English Heritage has become concerned by a number of matters. Regrettably, we do not consider that the current arrangements set up to manage the site are fully aligned with the rules annexed to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. It is both government policy to follow these rules and a requirement for the disposal of the wreck to the Maritime Heritage Foundation.
We do not consider that arrangements for the advisory group and expert panel structures are working effectively and advice is not adequately reflected in subsequent discussions. In our view, the Maritime Heritage Foundation has not provided evidence of adequate policies, strategies and project designs to support the project, including proposed intrusive works and the recovery of historic material from the surface of the seabed.
We do not believe that the proposals for the wreck are based on an adequate and authoritative assessment of its historical significance, nor a full understanding of the threats to and vulnerabilities of the site. We are concerned that options to conserve the site undisturbed, in line with best practice, have not been fully assessed or considered, and that the case has not yet been made that any threats to the wreck are so extreme that they warrant the large-scale emergency recovery of historical material.
We are concerned that the lead in the management of this case is apparently being taken by the foundation's contractor, a United States-based international commercial company, rather than by the foundation itself or by the Government. Finally, we are bound to ask whether the funding basis for the new arrangements is sufficiently transparent.
I raise these grave questions in light of the fact that the UK has over 40 years of experience in managing historic shipwrecks, with close involvement by its heritage agencies and well developed academic, consultancy and contracting institutions for maritime archaeology. This is backed up by agreed principles and guidance. Our expertise and practice within territorial waters, without modesty, is the envy of the world. We see no reason why an historically important wreck outside territorial waters but in the ownership of the UK Government should not be treated in accordance with these standards and approaches.
We would like to see the treatment of HMS “Victory” reappraised and we would recommend that the DCMS, as the lead government department in the management of cultural heritage, assume the chairmanship of the advisory group rather than acting solely as an observer; that the expert panel and advisory group be amalgamated to ensure that advice to the Government is the best, most consistent and fully co-ordinated; and that the foundation develop a clear management plan which meets UK standards of best practice, keeps options for the future under review, involves a staged investigation and is realistic about the foundation's future capacity in terms of funding, archiving, object curation and public presentation.
Of equal or greater importance to us is that lessons are now learnt about the future protection of British wrecks outside UK waters. We believe there is a good case for the DCMS becoming the lead UK government department for the future management of historically important wrecks outside the UK territorial sea. In the future, such wreck sites should be the subject of an agreed cross-government policy, based on accepted principles of heritage management, led by DCMS, with appropriate support from its statutory professional advisers drawn from across the devolved Administrations. We urge the Government to think hard about this, to recognise that our maritime heritage is an exceptional national asset, not an overseas commodity, and to act with resolve.
My Lords, I first declare an interest that I never thought I would have to make. Apparently I am a descendant of Admiral Balchen. This was news to me about a year ago. I am afraid that the rumour mill had started to grind; there was gold buried treasure to be had and everybody would be rich. I did not believe it at the time; I am not that lucky. My lottery numbers have not come up. I believed it even less when I discovered that this was not some fast-raiding frigate that would hunt down big prizes but a great big slab of a battleship designed for blowing holes in other battleships, and sitting in front and blockading places, as was done in 18th-century warfare.
My history on this is quite good but I am always aware that CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian have got in there and distorted the picture slightly, but that is what it was. It was a warship famous for not sailing very well—in some of the stuff I read, that is probably why it sank. Apparently it had a drift to leeward—I am still not quite sure what that means. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, is in the Room and he will probably correct me on it later. It was famously one of the last ships to have bronze cannon. I suspect that those bronze cannon are the bits that everybody is mainly interested in. There is a real market in old artillery pieces. Bronze guns of that cut-off period would have real collectors’ value. Whether there were large stores of money onboard, I do not know; as a flagship it may well have carried money onboard. If it went down with all hands as everybody seems to suspect, 11,000 serving men are down there with it.
We need some guidance about what to do about this situation and why we should disturb the last resting place of that number of servicemen. There was some talk about gathering up the bodies and bringing them home but I am pretty sure that it was normal at that time to bury at sea. Why are we doing it? Is it for historical reasons? If we are doing something for knowledge and history, there might be a case but it is a fairly well documented ship. The Royal Navy at this time was one of the world’s best record keepers. I am sure that we could find out from Admiralty House exactly who was on that ship. Also, if we are taking up those guns, the incidental archaeology will be damaged, which may be of greater interest. I should like some assurances that if any guns or any other artefacts of high value are removed, an archaeological study of absolutely the highest level is the cost that we must extract from that. Is this the number one target for that type of expenditure? It is not the “Mary Rose”, which is a well documented case that we know something about, so we must justify the expenditure.
I shall leave my comments there. The big society was mentioned in the briefing but I do not think that this is a good example of the big society. That has been taken out of context. If we are to allow commercial exploitation, the academic, scholarly knowledge and the payback must be very big. It may be that that academic, scholarly prize on this vessel is simply not there.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman for the past 10 years of the World Ship Trust, an organisation given over to encouraging the preservation of old vessels around the world. What we are discussing today is slightly different because we do not normally get involved in wrecks. I am delighted to add an independent voice in support of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew.
The area where HMS “Victory” sank is a particularly deep part of the channel. It is subject to very strong tides. The wreck, as such, no longer exists, and the contents of the ships are dispersed over a fairly wide area. I believe that an element of haste came into this because the area is heavily fished and there was a danger of the artefacts being damaged by bottom-trawling.
I certainly share the concerns of all those who have spoken. The American company Odyssey, which discovered the wreck in international waters, leaves us with a bit of a conundrum here. It was a British ship but, as the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, says, we have to treat this as a test case, because there are many other wrecks. If you look at a chart of the English Channel between where the remains of this vessel lie and, say, the Scilly Isles, you will see that there are dozens and dozens of wrecks. We do not want to set a precedent for this sort of action. I am also slightly worried because we have a lot of technical expertise in undersea work, a lot of it coming out of North Sea oil exploration. I recall, only a few years ago, when the Russians were having trouble with a sunken submarine in the Pacific, it was a British submarine that was flown out there and managed to rescue the sailors from under the sea. We do not lack this technology. Why could this not have been done by a British company? That would have been so much better, in my opinion, in this instance.
By pure chance, I was lunching today with the director of what used to be the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which is now part of Royal Museums Greenwich. He, like me, was absolutely appalled with what was going on, as was a former First Sea Lord, who was also lunching. Before lunch, I had another meeting with the director of National Historic Ships UK, who was equally appalled. We could not think what the Ministry of Defence was up to in the first instance here.
I add my support and will be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say. However, before I sit down, I will answer the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who asked me what “leeward” means. When a ship drifts to leeward, it basically drifts downwind. On that note, I will sit down.
My Lords, I must at once declare an interest as the chairman of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, the owners of the wreck of HMS “Victory”. I hasten to add that neither I, nor any of the charity’s trustees or their families, have any pecuniary interest in HMS “Victory” or in Odyssey Marine Exploration, which, as we have heard, discovered the wreck site in 2008.
As a result of a lengthy government consultation ending in 2010, the MoD gifted the wreck to the foundation. The foundation’s was the only offer made archaeologically to recover the artefacts. It is important to realise that the MoD could gift only such items on the site that clearly belonged to the state in 1744; any private goods there could not be so gifted, and should any be found they must be by law declared to the Receiver of Wreck.
I first heard of this ship—the HMS “Victory” before Nelson’s—when I was a small boy and my grandfather took me to Westminster Abbey to see the large memorial to Admiral Sir John Balchen, who we have heard went down with her. Sir John had no Balchen descendants, and I am delighted to meet today my noble kinsman, undiscovered previously. As the head of the remaining branch of the family, I paid personally for the considerable repair needed to his monument, which features HMS “Victory”, in the 1970s.
Odyssey has, without doubt, the world’s most experienced deep-ocean archaeology team and an exceptional record of research publications. My foundation had no hesitation in contracting with it for archaeological services for the HMS “Victory” site. Indeed, I made it clear in my submission to the government consultation that we were minded to do so. Odyssey is an entirely reputable company, which is currently contracted, after due diligence, with the Department for Transport to remove silver from two merchant ships that were sunk by enemy action in the two world wars. Odyssey is likely to pay some £10 million to the department, of which a quarter has already been passed over, within the next 12 months, and is likely to make a profit itself of approaching £100 million, so I am told. However, it has undertaken to do HMS “Victory” work ultimately at its own risk. The wreck was gifted to the Maritime Heritage Foundation by the MoD on the strict condition that no artefacts that have been state property would be deaccessioned without the permission of the Secretary of State for Defence—that permission not to be unreasonably denied.
The foundation has been fortunate to appoint as chairman of its scientific advisory committee perhaps the greatest of UK marine archaeologists, Dr Margaret Rule CBE, who supervised the recovery of the “Mary Rose” and who approves, with a group of eminent marine archaeologists, our every step. We and our contractors, Odyssey, can take no action without the permission of the MoD, which—as we have heard—has its own advisory panel.
There are three other important aspects to this. First, as we have heard, at only 300 feet down, the wreck is not preserved in some watery aspic. It is constantly shifting with the tides and changing daily. Secondly, this is one of the most trawled over sites in the English Channel and artefacts on the site show the most clear drag damage from heavy trawler bottom gear, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, said. Thirdly, and most worrying of all, is theft. Clearly visible on the site are dozens of bronze cannon bearing the arms of King George II. The 42-pounders are quite unique. Already, at least one cannon has been confirmed as stolen and is in the hands of the Dutch police. It has already suffered damage from lack of any preservation care. Another is missing, probably lifted with a simple crane.
While we are speaking of inappropriate exploitation, I have no need to remind your Lordships that hundreds of this country’s bronze war memorials have been stolen for melting recently. A Tudor bell in the church of St Lawrence, Faversham, was stolen last week. On the wreck are hundreds of tonnes of bronze, there for the taking. The wreck is no longer sovereign immune. As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, pointed out, being in international waters there is no legal mechanism by which it can now be protected. Only Odyssey’s regular presence on and monitoring of the site, at its own expense, has so far protected it.
In May this year, the MoD’s advisory panel, on which sits an English Heritage representative, unanimously agreed that there was a serious threat to many of the artefacts and requested that the foundation produce an urgent archaeological project design to lift those items that are visibly in danger of theft or damage. After consultation with Dr Margaret Rule and her team, the foundation submitted that design in June and pledged itself to do this work using the highest quality archaeological techniques, recording, and research.
The foundation’s aim is to recover, conserve and exhibit all cultural artefacts from the site in UK museums, if that proves possible. The foundation has a deaccession protocol similar to that of the British Museum but I repeat that no items may be deaccessioned without the permission of the Defence Secretary. No trenching has begun and no artefacts have so far been removed from the sea’s bottom, nor will be until the project design is approved. These are the protections that my foundation and the MoD have built in and I trust that your Lordships will be reassured by them. These important and highly valuable artefacts have much to tell us about HMS “Victory” and why it sank, and the history of the Royal Navy in the mid-18th century. This is why we shall recover and conserve them as soon as possible.
My Lords, with the leave of the Committee, I will speak briefly in the gap. I had not expected to be here as I was taking part in a parliamentary visit to Bedfordshire earlier today, but we were back early and I was pleased to be able to come in and listen to this interesting debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew.
I speak as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on War Heritage. I will refer in my three minutes to an issue that was brought to my attention earlier this year: the looting of three Royal Navy cruisers that were sunk in the North Sea off the coast of the Netherlands in September 1914. HMS “Hogue”, HMS “Cressy” and HMS “Aboukir” were torpedoed by the Imperial German submarine “U-9” while on active service and lie at a depth of 33 metres. The majority of the crew of the three ships, around 1,500 naval personnel, lost their lives in the action; therefore, the wrecks are their war graves.
I wrote on behalf of the group to express our concern to the Dutch ambassador, Mr Pim Waldeck, and got a very sensible and helpful reply from him—but it contained a bit of alarming information. First, he reassured us that the Dutch Government take seriously the issue of illegal salvage or theft from shipwrecks around the Dutch coast. He said that approximately 1,500 shipwrecks were reviewable by the Netherlands alone; not all of them are warships or war graves, but obviously a significant number are. In the case of these three particular ships, he was unable to be too helpful because it was his impression that they had been sold by the British Government at some point in the 1950s. I sent his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, with details of my concern and that of the group, and what he said indeed turned out to be the case. The noble Lord said that they were sold to a salvage company in 1954. The consequence of that was that all the protection that they would have had as war graves and heritage items was lost.
The purpose of my brief intervention is to draw the Committee’s attention to this disturbing situation that, where a wreck is sold for salvage, all protection for it is lost and, obviously, to express the hope that nothing similar happens in future.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, for securing this debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed. It is hard not to feel very uncomfortable about what is happening here. Most of what we have heard has focused on fears about how decisions have been made about the future of one of the most important 18th century shipwrecks discovered in recent years, and it all raises serious concerns as to how the UK Government will manage the protection of historic wreck sites, whether or not in international waters, in the future.
I will start with two of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. First, on archaeological merit, is this site of sufficient merit and historical value to justify the work which is being considered? As we have heard, at the time of her loss, HMS “Victory” was the most powerful ship in the world, and her loss had far-reaching consequences on the war, the Royal Navy and the public. It will also answer questions of why she foundered, whose fault it was, how she was constructed and also, I suspect, let us examine properly the fine cannons she was carrying when she went down.
Are the Government really convinced that a full-scale excavation is appropriate for this wreck, given that, as we have also heard, HMS “Victory” was carrying perhaps 1,000 men when she went down and there is photographic evidence of human remains? So there is the important question of how to treat the remains, and the memory of those who gave their lives. What steps will the Government be taking in this respect?
The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, suggested that the DCMS should be taking the lead for historic wrecks. Can the Minister comment on that suggestion? The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, confirmed when he spoke that any deaccessioning had to be approved by the Secretary of State for Defence. What role does this leave for the DCMS?
As we have heard, the UK has not yet signed up in full to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Will the Minister explain exactly why that is the case, whether discussions are ongoing on these concerns, and whether there is a timetable for the UK to sign up to? We also understand that the Government have agreed that all work must comply with Annex A to the UNESCO convention. Given that rule 17 of the annex makes it clear that adequate funding must be in place before work starts, what steps have the Government taken to establish that the Maritime Heritage Foundation has adequate independent funding in place in order to finance the work that it proposes to carry out? Does the Minister agree that by entering into what is effectively a commercial salvage contract with Odyssey Marine Exploration, the Maritime Heritage Foundation lays the Government open to the charge that they have not fulfilled their proper obligations to ensure that this internationally important cultural site is protected from commercial exploitation?
If, as we have heard, Odyssey has offered to excavate the wreck at its own risk, and if it is true that the Maritime Heritage Foundation has no substantial funds, it must follow that the £20 million or so that will have to be found must come from somewhere. According to the Odyssey website, their agreement with the MHF calls for,
“Odyssey’s project costs to be reimbursed and for Odyssey to be paid a percentage of the recovered artefacts’ fair value”.
There is provision for the payment to be made either in cash or in deaccessioned artefacts. The agreement goes on to say:
“Odyssey will receive the equivalent of 80% of the fair value of artefacts which were primarily used in trade or commerce … and 50% of the fair value of all other objects”,
including objects associated,
“with the construction, crewing and sailing of ships”—
which to my mind includes the cannons.
At present, the only known items of potential value are the bronze cannons, but even at the most inflated prices that would cover a small proportion of the cost. There are absolutely no guarantees that there will be gold coins or bullion on board, and most people take the view that there will not be.
Put simply, the sums do not add up. What assessment have the Government made of the Maritime Heritage Foundation’s plan, and what is the current state of play? What plans have the Government or the Maritime Heritage Foundation to display the excavated materials, and can the Minister explain where and at whose cost this would happen? What about the cost of preparation for display, and where will the ongoing revenue costs come from?
In a recent article in the Sunday Times, Greg Stemm, the CEO of Odyssey, was quoted as saying:
“On this shipwreck a model has been proposed that will see great archaeological resources utilised to bring it back to life at no cost to taxpayers. Shouldn’t we allow that model to play out and see how it works?”
This seems a rather unsafe way to treat our heritage, and I suggest that the answer to that question is no.
As I said earlier, this whole issue does not seem right. The Government have not followed their own stated policy guidelines, and there is so much doubt about what is happening on the site, that I invite the Minister to consider whether he thinks that there is now sufficient concern to warrant suspending work on the wreck site until all this is sorted out.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Renfrew for raising this important matter. We all recognise his considerable experience and passionate interest in archaeology and maritime heritage.
Both the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have recognised for some time that the wreck of HMS “Victory”, which sank in 1744, and which was found in 2008, raises a number of important policy questions. HMS “Victory” was a hundred-gun first-rate ship of the line, launched in 1738, and was the fifth ship to carry the name. Her successor, launched in 1765, which was to be Nelson’s flagship, which we know so well, was the final ship to carry the name, and she remains a commissioned warship to this day. Therefore, the wreck of the ship with which we are concerned this evening has an important pedigree.
HMS “Victory” was the flagship of the Channel Fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir John Balchen, who led a strong force to relieve a French blockade of the River Tagus in Portugal, where a British convoy with stores for Gibraltar had been incarcerated. The blockade was lifted, the French retreated to Cadiz, and Admiral Balchen escorted the convoy to Gibraltar. On the fleet’s return journey it was caught in a terrible storm and HMS “Victory” was separated from the rest of the fleet. The ship, with her crew of over 1,000, was never seen again. I note at this stage the comment that my noble friend Lord Addington made about his claim to the Balchen line, which I am sure is genuine; I presume that the list of claimants will increase in direct proportion to the presumed treasures that lie on the sea bed. Given the importance of the wreck—
I thank my noble friend for that confirmation.
Given the importance of the wreck and the grave site, the previous Government initiated a public consultation on the options available. We received a good response to the consultation exercise and the Government announced their response in May 2011. As part of that, we made clear that we intended to adopt a phased approach to the management of the site. In line with the provisions of the annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, in situ management would be adopted as a first option pending further study of the site and before deciding on any further physical intervention. In addition, in the absence of public funds being available for work on the wreck site, we decided to explore the option of transferring responsibility for the management of the site to a charitable trust.
This decision was then followed through with negotiations with my noble friend Lord Lingfield as chairman of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, and the deed of gift for the transfer of the wreck to the foundation was signed in January this year. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and my noble friend Lord Renfrew questioned whether the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should lead government decisions on the management of wreck sites such as that of HMS “Victory” which lie outside the UK territorial limit. Perhaps I may say first to the noble Baroness that the Government welcome the constructive and active engagement of English Heritage in support of their decision-making in the case, and I am pleased that she has acknowledged the role that English Heritage has played.
There is a specific legal point in respect of military wrecks. The noble Baroness will understand that they are owned by the Secretary of State for Defence and thus formally it is for that department to decide what action should be taken in respect of a wreck. This is why the deed of gift was in the name of the Secretary of State for Defence, as was the deed of gift in respect, for example, of the “Mary Rose” when she was transferred to a charitable trust in 1983. So the answer to one of the questions posed by my noble friend Lord Renfrew is that this is not the first time that we have gifted the wreck of a Royal Navy warship to a charitable trust established for that purpose. But I can assure the noble Baroness that the Government accept that there are important issues of heritage policy involved in this case, and that such decisions are a matter for collective government decision-making and are not driven by one department or another.
The Government remain of the view we reached in response to the consultation exercise. Management of the wreck site is not something to which we can allocate government resources, and thus we welcome the commitment by the Maritime Heritage Foundation to work closely with government in the management of the wreck site. The deed of gift imposes important and significant conditions on the actions that the foundation can take, requiring it to seek the agreement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence should it wish to undertake any work on the wreck site. I have to say to noble Lords that it would be wrong for the Government to dictate which contractor the foundation chooses to use, as long as it follows the principles and conditions set by the Government.
The current position is that my noble friend Lord Lingfield, as chairman of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, has put forward a couple of proposals for works to be undertaken on the wreck site. These are currently being considered collectively by ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This consideration has been informed by advice from an independent advisory group which includes a representative of the National Museum of the Royal Navy and, indeed, English Heritage. I can confirm that no decisions have yet been taken on the proposals put forward by the Maritime Heritage Foundation, although I hope that we will be in a position to report shortly. The Committee will understand, therefore, that I am not in a position to provide substantive responses to the questions that have been posed or the assurances that I know noble Lords would have liked. However, I can assure noble Lords that the Government well understand the concerns that have been expressed, and in reaching a decision on the way forward with the wreck site, we will seek to ensure that the actions agreed are consistent with the principles in the annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
Specifically, I would like to reassure my noble friend Lord Renfrew—and I hope that this goes some way towards answering some of his questions—that the Government agree that the commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage for trade or speculation, or its irretrievable dispersal, is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and proper management of underwater cultural heritage, to which the Government are committed. I hope, therefore, that when the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, sees the Government’s decision in this matter she will have greater confidence that we have taken account of the advice that English Heritage has provided.
My noble friend Lord Renfrew asked whether I can confirm a rumour that 17 cannon from the ship have been moved in preparation for recovery. There have been a number of rumours in respect of this wreck, many of them contradictory. However, there is no evidence that cannon or other artefacts from the wreck site have been recovered or moved by the foundation or on its behalf since two cannon were recovered, with our agreement, for identification purposes in 2009—although it is true that one has been taken from the site and has turned up in the Netherlands, as my noble friend Lord Lingfield mentioned today.
The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, highlighted a concern, quite rightly, over the accidental recovery of cannon—for example, by trawlers. As was pointed out today, this is an area where trawlers trawl.
Before I conclude, I wish to pick up on two issues. My noble friend Lord Addington and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, raised the important question of the disturbance of human remains. I can reassure them both that in all the discussions that we have had with the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which I am sure my noble friend Lord Lingfield will confirm, we have been clear of the importance of avoiding the disturbance of human remains as far as possible and they will be treated with due respect.
I was delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, rise to speak in the gap. He raised the issue of lessons learnt from sale for salvage in the past. As I have made clear, the decisions we have taken and are considering in this case are very different from the examples that the noble Lord gave relating back to the 1950s. We are not talking here about sale for salvage, although I was interested to hear what he had to say.
In conclusion, I recognise that there are some concerns about the proposed arrangements for this important military wreck. The Government recognise these concerns and will, I am sure, take full account of the points that have been made this evening in reaching a decision on the proposals brought forward by the Maritime Heritage Foundation. I ask your Lordships to wait for that decision. I note the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who asked for a timetable, but I am confident that news should arrive early in the new year, which I hope will give some comfort. This will address the substance of the concerns that have been raised once the news comes out.
Committee adjourned at 5.38 pm.