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Grand Committee

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2012

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Arrangement of Business


My Lords, I apologise for the late arrival of the Chair this afternoon. There was what is known as a mix-up.

That being said, if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes and then return.

Plant Health (Forestry) (Amendment) Order 2012

Motion to Take Note

Moved By

That the Grand Committee takes note of the Plant Health (Forestry) (Amendment) Order 2012 (SI 2012/2707).

My Lords, I have taken the perhaps slightly unusual step of a Take Note debate on a negative instrument not because I oppose it—otherwise it would not be a take note debate; I want to make it extremely clear that we do not oppose this order—but because, when I read the Explanatory Memorandum to the Plant Health (Forestry) (Amendment) Order 2012, it raised a series of questions. Given the high level of public interest in the spread of ash dieback disease—Chalara fraxinea—I felt it appropriate for me to take a bit of the Committee’s time to ask some questions that arise from the Explanatory Memorandum.

Since I initiated this debate, I see that we now also have an additional instrument undergoing its passage: the Plant Health (England) (Amendment) Order 2012. I note the 16th report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which was published yesterday and reports on that order. I may link the two slightly and I hope that the Minister can deal with that. No doubt, with the number of questions that I will ask, he will want to write to me. That is perfectly fine. There are questions I want to put on the record, and in time the answers can be on the record, too. That is entirely the purpose of this debate.

The first question is about this combination, now, of two orders. As the committee says, one order is in respect of the Forestry Commission as the competent authority while the other is for the Secretary of State to act as a competent authority in respect of specific emergency measures against Chalara fraxinea. In passing, it would be interesting if the Minister could confirm why this could not have all be dealt with in one piece of legislation for the ease of scrutiny and to help people understand what is going on. However, the principal questions I have probably focus around paragraph 3.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which is headed:

“Matters of special interest to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments”.

I start with the timings that are set out there in terms of the process and the sentence that,

“evidence that ash trees infected with Chalara fraxinea were supplied from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium during 2011 and 2012”.

That leapt out at me because previously my understanding was that the first evidence of the disease in this country was in a nursery in Buckinghamshire in February 2012. The starter for 10, if you like, is: when did the evidence about 2011 first emerge? My assumption is that it emerged relatively recently but I would be interested to know the timing on that.

The countries also interest me. The suppliers were from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium during 2011 and 2012. I gather from Forest Research that the first cases of this disease happened in Germany in 2002. The rapid risk assessment was, I believe, published by Forest Research on behalf of the department on 9 August 2012, and it shows that since 2002, we have imported 2.75 million ash trees from Germany alone in that time. The impact assessment elsewhere talks about half a million trees a year over 10 years, so 5 million imported in that 10-year period.

If a significant number were, as suggested, imported from countries that already had the infection, the significant question is raised as to why, when dealing with plant disease, we in this country have not learnt from dealing with animal disease. My understanding is that as soon as we know of an animal disease outbreak in a member state of the European Union, we would ban imports straightaway from that member state, without having to go through any kind of consultation. It would certainly be a matter of great public interest if the Minister could tell us why we have not been following that process in respect of plant diseases. Belgium suffered its first outbreak in 2009, the Netherlands in 2010 and, as I have said, Germany in 2002, and yet we continue to import from those countries. It appears to be probable that the disease found its way into this country as a result of that import activity. Were the sapling nursery trees that were imported kept indoors once the investigation started in February/March when the first case of the disease was found, so that the sporelation that takes place and which causes the disease to spread, was contained?

My second area of questioning is around the consultation period. Paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the order refers to a “shortened 8-week consultation”. In the circumstances of an emergency such as this, I have absolutely no problem with a shortened period of consultation, and indeed my question is: why was not an even shorter period for consultation set, given the scale of the threat to our ash tree population? Paragraph 4.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the November order states that:

“Article 16.2 of the Plant Health Directive provides for a Member State to take temporarily any additional measures which it deems necessary to prevent the introduction or spread of such harmful organisms in its territory, or the EU more generally”.

I assume that these are similar powers to those used in terms of animal health. They suggest that the UK had the powers, if it wanted to use them, to enforce an immediate ban on imports of ash trees if there was a fear that the disease would spread. Could the UK have imposed a ban straightaway, perhaps when the rapid risk assessment was published by Forest Research in August, and then consulted on how the ban was operating and what questions needed to be asked? Could we have had a four-week consultation, or perhaps even one for two weeks, after which the ban could have been put in place?

Paragraph 3.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that:

“Evidence from 2010 was that over 200,000 trees had been exported to the UK from other Member States during the 21 day period from 29 October to 19 November”.

What the department is arguing in the memorandum is that it did not need an earlier ban because a substantial amount of import activity takes place in the autumn. Does the Minister have any statistics on how many trees were imported during the preceding 21-day period in 2010 so that we can make a comparison? If the consultation had been shorter—of, say, four weeks’ duration—a similar amount of importation could have been stopped and perhaps some of the infection avoided.

My next series of questions are around surveillance. The process set out in paragraph 3 of the memorandum talks about,

“the investigation into the scale of the import trade … investigation into the level of infection in the nursery trade in Great Britain … investigation into the presence of the organism in the wider environment”

and a pest risk assessment, to which I have referred. So surveillance activity took place as part of the investigations and is continuing to take place. Is the Minister able to update us on whether there remain any clear, pest-free areas? Which are those pest-free areas? What is being done in terms of controls on those pest-free areas to try to prevent any further spread? It would be helpful to know that. To have some understanding of how many are sited at nurseries as opposed to trees infected in the wild would equally be helpful.

Any latest information he can give us on sporelation would also help us understand how this disease is spreading and how it arrived in this country. The rapid risk assessment from Forest Research states, in the second paragraph of section 8, that the best understanding it had in August was of,

“a potential dispersal rate of 20 to 30 km per year”.

Is that still the Government’s understanding as to the sort of distance spores will travel year by year? That would in turn give us an understanding as to how rapidly the disease will spread in this country. If it is understood that spores travel 20 to 30 kilometres per annum, is it still the Government’s view that they may have travelled over the Channel? The distance from Dover to Calais—about the shortest route—is 41 kilometres, which is clearly in excess of the 20 to 30 kilometres set out in the rapid risk assessment.

That risk assessment is mentioned in paragraph 3.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum. The risk assessment states at the end of section 5 that there is a high risk of infection. I also point noble Lords to section 16: the summary and conclusion. It says:

“This rapid assessment shows … Potential for entry is: Very high”—

those last two words are underlined—

“especially in association with plants for planting, with a moderate risk associated with movement of soil and timber … Potential for establishment is: Very high … Economic, environmental and social impacts are expected to be: Medium to large … Endangered area: All of the UK”.

This was known on 9 August this year. We therefore have to ask whether we acted quickly enough once we had that risk assessment to put the ban in place.

I note than in Section 3.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum the argument is made that if we had introduced legislation sooner, it would,

“have been based on poor technical evidence (in the absence of a risk assessment and surveillance data)”.

My Lords, there is a Division in the Chamber. I do not know how quickly the noble Lord can finish his remarks.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Thank you. When the Division Bell rang I had read out the end of the rapid risk assessment published by Forestry Research on 9 August 2012 and referred to paragraph 3.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which says,

“Such legislation would have been based on poor technical evidence (in the absence of a risk assessment and surveillance data) if introduced earlier and would have had little practical impact because there is little movement of ash for planting during spring and summer”.

The question clearly then arises: given the nature of the risk assessment that had been done in early August, what if there had been a rapid consultation through August, let us say, until mid-September, and a ban introduced then? We are always a little vague in Government and elsewhere about when these seasons begin and end, especially when we are asked to make decisions, but I would define autumn as starting in September or possibly October. We could have had a ban in place at the beginning of October, and would that not have been a good idea?

I would be interested to know in what period the investigation into the wider environment and the presence of the organism in Great Britain took place. The perception we now have is that as a result of the surveillance activity that is now taking place, and which has taken place since the ban, we have discovered the widespread infection of the disease across the wild trees of this country—widespread, that is, not necessarily in terms of volume but in terms of various locations. I would like to know during what period those investigations prior to the ban took place, and why we did not discover more infections at that point.

The penultimate question relates to paragraph 8 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Paragraph 8.2 says:

“There were three policy options proposed in the consultation which were conditional on the outcome of official surveillance”.

I am interested to know which of the three the Minister thinks we are now in, in terms of the situation. The first says that,

“if the disease was not found to be widely established then maintain Great Britain free of chalara through an eradication strategy, supported by legal restrictions on ash imports and movements”.

That would suggest, because we are discussing these orders, that we think we are probably in option 1 of these policy options, although some of the other facts would put that into question. The second says that,

“if established with limited distribution then a suppression strategy was proposed without the burden of legal restrictions on ash imports and movements”.

It seems that there is certainly limited distribution of the disease, in which case, why are we not pursuing that option, of a suppression strategy without the import ban, which I support? The third says that,

“in the event of widespread distribution no official measures would be taken”.

Are we close to that point of widespread distribution, in which case we just have to let nature take its course? I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s comments on those three policy options.

Finally, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised a question in its 16th report, published yesterday. Its final paragraph—paragraph 5—discussing the Plant Health (England) (Amendment) Order 2012, concluded with the sentence:

“We have been told by the Department that an updated estimate of the financial impact should be published in December, and is likely to be higher”.

December starts on Saturday. Has the Minister any kind of updated estimate, beyond the £0.25 million, of the financial impact of these measures? With that, and with gratitude to the Committee, I take my seat.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, for raising this topic, which is very pertinent and of much interest in the country as a whole. I declare my interest as an owner of sundry ash trees and bits of woodland in Scotland.

I have two questions in my mind. First, in the aftermath of the Phytophthora ramorum outbreak, an undertaking was given that phytosanitary measures for plants would be tightened. Is this the first time that there has been any change in the legislation since then? If not, how many changes have been made in terms of tightening up our regulations on looking after plant health?

Secondly, there is obviously a premium on the planting of native British trees. I gather that one of the practices that have been going on is that foresters in the UK collect seed from native British trees, send it to Holland, have it grown into small plants and then bring them back. If plants are to qualify as native trees, should they not have spent the whole of their lifetime in the UK and not been subject to export to other countries?

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for raising this issue. Given his extensive questions, I will limit mine to one and a half. Many of us in this Room did of course have the opportunity three weeks ago to debate the important issue of the future of the British ash tree and the impact of this disease, in the very timely debate initiated by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne.

My first question follows on from the final question from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, in relation to the final point made by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and the issue of the costs for this order. It highlighted, as he rightly said, that we are imminently expecting new figures, which are to be much higher. Can the Minister confirm who will undertake that work? It was the Forestry Commission in the first instance, and since the initial measures were laid out in October, where they referred principally to forestry trees, it has now moved to cover all trees, including those for amenity use and in garden centres. Therefore the remit covers a much broader field and I would like to be reassured. Although I have the highest regard for the Forestry Commission, if we are going to get a realistic figure on those costs, it has to be undertaken by an agency that has the competence to do so. As a supplementary to that question, what areas is it looking at? The Minister will know that I have previously raised with the Secretary of State my concern that we get an understanding as soon as possible of the full costs on the rural economy of the impacts of this disease. It strikes me that the outline in the Explanatory Memorandum that we have before us is quite a narrow definition of what those costs might be.

My second question relates to paragraph 12 of the Explanatory Memorandum on monitoring and review, which of course will be extremely important. It leads to the priority that the Government give to plant health. I would like to raise the point that yesterday, at the launch of the Nature Check report by the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which analysed the Government’s environmental commitments over the last 18 months, the Secretary of State referred to a radical reprioritisation within his department, which included a major new focus on animal and plant health. I believe that we would all welcome that, given the significant number of challenges that plants are facing, which we have recently seen and debated in this House.

Will the Minister give us any information about when there might be further clarity on what those plans might be, and when they will come forward? Will we get a chance to look at this radical reprioritisation of budgets within Defra to ensure that the focus on plant health is given the priority that this House believes it is due?

My Lords, I would like to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that I was not here for the first few minutes of his opening remarks. I also declare an interest in that I am yet another woodland owner from Scotland. I would like to ask two questions. First, what is the advice likely to be about the use of infected and possibly infected timber, and what is to happen to the 80 million ash trees in Great Britain? I am certain that noble Lords will be familiar with the fact that ash is used in furniture, framing, in coach building, and by Morgan cars, among others. It certainly bends well in the steam box, and it is, of course, premium firewood. As a supplier of firewood, that is probably my real interest. Have the Government come up with advice on what we are to do with all these trees?

My second point is, with my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, to wonder why British tree nurseries have not been growing saplings. Why has it been uneconomic to do so, and why has it been economic to take them to Europe, to grow them further and then export them back? Finally, before we get too suicidal about this; I understand that there were 20 million elms. We do not have many elms in Scotland, but I noticed that I seem to have a lot of elm coppice, which seems to be working very well.

I thank my noble friend for initiating a debate on this order. He has made an expansive analysis of the situation. I also praise the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology on its very interesting exposition yesterday in the other place about the disease. Two points came out of that which I thought would be worth bringing to the attention of the Minister. The first is that it seems as if there is not yet a properly thought through control plan, which I would have thought was one of the first things we need to be on top of. Following on from that, we need a comprehensive communication plan of what the control plan means, including making clear the dos and don’ts to people up and down the land.

I should declare my interest as a farmer in Cheshire, and I want to add to the excellent exposition by my noble friend only a word on his first point, which concerned what I perceive to be the striking difference between the handling of animal disease threat and plant disease threat. I would not wish the point to be lost among all the other excellent points he made. It appears that we have not applied the lessons learnt from animal diseases to plant diseases. I think I am right in saying that when a dangerous animal disease is present or breaks out overseas, the importation of animals from the region in question is immediately banned. For example, we still ban imports from South America because of foot and mouth disease, imports from Canada out of the dormant fly season and so on. Imports have not been allowed to continue up to the point when disease is recognised as being present in the UK.

In regard to plant health issues, it seems that the same regime does not apply. Perhaps the Minister can say whether the import of ash trees has already been banned from countries such as Denmark, where the impact of Chalara fraxinea has been devastating. I ask this because the order before us seems to be the first reaction to the disease, which has only been to ban the importation after its presence in the UK has been detected. Had a regime similar to that which applies to animals been followed from the outset, not only could it have delayed the presence of Chalara fraxinea in the UK, it would have allowed this country to exploit its position as a disease-free area, in which cases exports could well have been made from this country back into Europe. However, there now seems to be no possibility of this sort of trade being undertaken.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. Like others, I should declare an interest as a grower of ash trees. On 15 November, I had the opportunity to see for myself the effects of Chalara fraxinea in Wayland Wood in Norfolk and to meet Forestry Commission staff working on the ground there to identify the disease. I am enormously grateful to those in the plant health authorities, the industry more widely and, indeed, the public, who have all contributed to the response to this harmful disease, including the many volunteers who have given of their time to help.

I was particularly reminded on my visit to Norfolk of the long-term nature of forestry. The foresters were already planning their felling for 2071, hoping that they had selected the right trees that will thrive over the coming 60 years, whatever those years might bring in terms of climate, pestilence and environmental change. In recognition of the scientific advice that it will not be possible to eradicate Chalara fraxinea and on the basis of the experience in Europe that there is no effective treatment, we are now focusing our efforts on minimising the impact of the disease on our economy, our environment and our society. The next step will be the publication of a control plan which will set out our approach to four key objectives. Those are: slowing the rate of spread; developing resistance in the United Kingdom ash population; encouraging citizen, landowner and industry engagement; and building resilience in UK woodland and associated industries. At the same time, the independent expert task force, convened by Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, will examine further ways to prevent pests and pathogens from entering the country and will publish an interim report. The work of the task force has been to look at the similarities and differences in dealing with animal and plant disease outbreaks and what each can learn from the other. The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to this, and I think he made a very important point.

What is the situation on the ground now? As your Lordships know, we carried out an unprecedented, rapid survey of ash trees across the country during the first week in November. More than 500 Forestry Commission staff worked with Fera and other organisations, including the CLA, the Woodland Trust, Natural England, the National Trust, and a number of others. In passing, I should say how grateful I am to all those who carried out this important work. More than 10,000 sites were visited. As of today, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, there are 257 cases of ash dieback caused by Chalara confirmed across Great Britain; 17 of these are in nursery stock, 105 are in recently planted sites and 135 are in the wider environment. Further suspect cases remain under investigation and we will continue to provide updates on confirmed cases through the maps on the Forestry Commission website.

To take a quick reminder of the history, ash dieback caused by the fungal pathogen Chalara fraxinea has been present in Europe since 1992, and since then it has spread to much of central and northern Europe. Before 2010, the European scientific evidence indicated that the organism responsible for ash dieback was native and not causing harm in Great Britain. This belief meant that it would not have been appropriate to use import restrictions to control the organism responsible for the disease. The Forestry Commission explained this in a response to the Horticultural Trade Association in 2009, and also recommended that the industry should take care in sourcing stock and check for ill health in ash plants and trees.

In 2010, new scientific evidence correctly identified the pathogen that caused the disease, which was not known to be present in the UK. This meant that it was identified as a potential threat, alongside many other potentially harmful organisms. In the light of that evidence, the Forestry Commission inspected more than 15,000 ash trees located in 8,310 groups across Great Britain under the National Forest Inventory. Only 103 cases of dieback were identified, and none of these was identified as caused by Chalara. On the basis of the NFI inspections, the ash appeared to be one of the healthiest broadleaf trees in the country. However, our plant health authorities first discovered Chalara in the United Kingdom during a routine check at a nursery in Buckinghamshire in February 2012. This finding was confirmed by laboratory testing on 7 March. There followed an extensive tracing operation of ash trees known to have been supplied from infected nurseries and, over the summer, 100,000 young ash trees were traced and destroyed.

In parallel to the extensive tracing operation over the summer, plant health authorities developed a pest risk analysis which formed the basis of a fast-track consultation to strengthen the evidence and seek views on options for action. This consultation strongly supported protective measures against the disease and, as a result, we enacted the Plant Health (Forestry) (Amendment) Order 2012 on 29 October. That order prohibits the introduction and spread of Chalara in Great Britain by requiring that imports and movement of ash-planting material must be from designated pest-free areas. Official confirmation of compliance with these requirements must be provided if ash planting material is to be moved, which for imports from outside the EU would be through a phytosanitary certificate, while for movements from within the EU would be through a plant passport. There are no pest-free areas in place at present and they could only be established by plant health authorities in accordance with the relevant standard of the International Plant Protection Convention. So the order acts as a complete ban on movement and import. The order also permits the licensing of scientific work on organisms such as Chalara which are not listed in European plant health legislation.

In light of the consultation outcome, it was important to introduce these requirements quickly before the main planting season for ash, with measures applying across the country as a whole. This has been achieved. The HTA had also asked members to observe a voluntary moratorium on imports of ash-planting material prior to the order coming into effect, which was well observed.

During the consultation period, on 24 October Chalara was confirmed in the wider environment in East Anglia, in trees with no apparent connection to nurseries. Consequently, the Government undertook a rapid survey which has given us an initial picture of the distribution and extent of ash dieback caused by Chalara. The vast majority of cases of Chalara currently confirmed in mature trees in the wider environment are clustered in the east and south-east of England, in Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent, with a few cases further west and extending north up the east coast.

Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, has examined different hypotheses and concluded that the likelihood is that Chalara infected mature, native ash trees in Britain through spores blown on the wind from continental Europe and that it has been here for some time—at least two years. These conclusions are based on known sources of infection in France and Belgium, existing knowledge of how the spores are dispersed by wind, the distribution of the wider environment findings and modelling evidence which suggests that weather conditions in 2010 were appropriate for spores to have been transported by air to England. As we know, Chalara has also been imported on young ash trees. Professor Boyd’s expert science group has reviewed the evidence about Chalara to help us understand how it is spread, its impact on our ash trees and how we might tackle it. A summary of the group’s conclusions was published on 9 November. We have continued to build on this evidence and have adopted a risk-based approach to predict the spread of Chalara within the UK.

The Secretary of State set out in a Written Ministerial Statement on 9 November that the advice from the scientists is that it will not be possible to eradicate Chalara. However, that does not mean we should abandon hope for the British ash. While young trees usually succumb to the disease fairly quickly, mature trees with the infection can live for many years and are valuable to wildlife. We also know that the genetic diversity of ash offers good prospects of resistance being developed, with some evidence of this being seen in Denmark and elsewhere.

So what can be done? In recognition that government alone cannot tackle this threat, we convened a summit on 7 November which brought together over 100 representatives of the forestry and horticulture industries and environmental groups to advise us. There was broad consensus around the evidence and the nature of the action that should go into the control plan. The overarching message was that we should not panic or take drastic action which would be futile or counterproductive. The winter is a window of opportunity to develop the right approaches as the main pathways for the disease are not in operation. The fruiting spores are only produced in the summer and we have banned movement of ash plants.

Based on the advice of the summit and the endorsement of key organisations such as the Woodland Trust and National Trust, the Secretary of State set in train an immediate plan of action which is being taken now, while the longer-term control plan is developed and implemented. Newly planted diseased trees and diseased trees in nurseries are being traced and destroyed. Mature trees are not currently being removed, which can help us learn more about genetic strains that might be resistant to the disease. The search for the disease includes trees in towns and cities as well as the countryside, building partnerships with a range of organisations beyond government. Advice is provided to foresters, land managers, environmental groups and the public about how to identify diseased trees and those likely to be resistant to the disease, and what to do with that information. That is on the Forestry Commission website. There is no restriction on access to the countryside, so that rural businesses can continue to operate and the public are able to enjoy rural amenities.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked a number of questions. Let me see how many of those I can answer. He asked, essentially, why there were two orders. The Forestry Commission legislation allowed the GB-wide measures to be introduced quickly and consistently across all territories. The amendment to the Plant Health (England) Order is a tidying-up exercise. Fera inspectors have been using general plant health powers but specific powers were considered helpful in response to the ongoing activity. The noble Lord asked about the reference in the Explanatory Memorandum to 2011. The import took place late in 2011 but the interception was made during a routine national inspection in February 2012.

In answer to another question—I cannot remember what the question was but will tell the noble Lord the answer—the international scientific advice before 2010 was clear. There was no indication then that any action was appropriate or justified. This was viewed as a largely technical issue. The noble Lord may remember the sequence of events rather better than me. Scientists in the plant health authorities did not seek a policy decision from Ministers. However, the Forestry Commission advised the horticultural industry at that time that they should consider the risk of Chalara when importing planting materials.

Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked essentially whether one should treat this like an animal disease. They had a good point. That is why the Secretary of State asked Professor Ian Boyd to convene an expert, independent taskforce to review our strategic approach to plant health. This group met on 13 and 14 November and will publish its interim report shortly. Therefore, we are treating this with the same urgency as we would an animal disease outbreak.

There is another answer where I cannot remember what the question was. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, as the previous planting season was over and the risk was therefore low, we wanted to get views on the best measures and ways to implement them. This led to a well observed, voluntary and industry-led moratorium prior to the introduction of a statutory ban, which was widely implemented. It is important that industry is consulted on any decisions that will have implications for it.

The noble Lord asked if there are any pest-free areas. The answer is no. Essentially, the ban is a ban. He asked, given that he had read that the disease moves at about 20 to 30 kilometres per year, how it could have come across the channel. The 20 to 30 kilometres is an illustrative figure, based on the movement of a broad front. Scientific modelling suggests that individual spores can travel a great deal further than that.

He asked why a ban could not be put in place earlier. The consultation was launched to establish the scale of the problem and to ensure that we sought the views of and information from those in the forestry and horticultural industries before we took any final decisions. This was done outside the planting season and finished well before the planting season would have got under way. The consultation closed on 26 October but the Government acted immediately once it became clear that a ban on ash imports was necessary. We simply could not have imposed a ban without speaking to those involved and assessing the current situation. However, as I said, they put in place a voluntary moratorium prior to that.

He asked about the impacts referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum. These were based on an initial assessment by the Forestry Commission of the costs of authorising nurseries to issue plant passports. There are £100,000 of inspection costs and £50,000 of administration costs, with an estimate of the loss of trade of £100,000. Ongoing general surveillance of the environment will also be needed at an estimated cost of about £40,000. These costs were very much based on a provisional assessment at the time and do not account for all activities such as ongoing tracing of diseased plants or wider socioeconomic impacts. They also need to be revised to take account of subsequent developments as regards the disease situation. More detailed work is being carried out in this area as a contribution to the control strategy to be finalised shortly.

My noble friend the Duke of Montrose said that a couple of years ago Defra undertook to tighten up on plant pathology regulations and asked whether this is the first time since then that legislation has been amended. Plant health legislation is reviewed constantly in response to new and emerging threats. The legislation is updated on a regular basis where new risks are identified and many of these changes are introduced in the context of EU plant health legislation. We are actively pursuing improvements to that regime.

My noble friend Lady Parminter asked about the assessing of costs. Defra will calculate costs incurred by all government agencies and is looking at impacts including on rural growth.

My noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie asked why we are sending ash seedlings to the Continent to be grown then bringing them back again. That is indeed a good question. That was not a prohibited practice while ash was unregulated but all movements have now been banned unless they come from a pest-free area. As I said, there is no such designated pest-free area at the moment. He also asked about firewood. My advice is that the burning of ash firewood is safe. However, it will not be possible to move logs from affected areas in the United Kingdom where a notice has been served.

As we prepare our control plan and consider future approaches to tree health and plant biosecurity, informed by the work of the expert taskforce, I am reminded of the foresters in Wayland Wood. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in expressing the hope that in the near future they will once again plant ash that will prove resistant to Chalara and other pests, and live long for successive generations to enjoy.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for contributing to a useful debate. I join the Minister in showing gratitude to those who are working, including volunteers, to battle this disease. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for his updates, which I am sure will be examined carefully. He was, as ever, assiduous in trying to answer my many questions. I know that he is equally assiduous in reviewing the debate and writing with answers to questions that he was not able to cover; I am grateful to him, in advance, for that.

I see noble Lords queuing up for the interesting debate being introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn. We are all looking forward to that.

Motion agreed.

HMS “Victory”

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure that the wreck of HMS “Victory”, sunk in 1744, is not subjected to inappropriate commercial exploitation.

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: 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.

How does the Maritime Heritage Foundation propose to pay for the recovery of artefacts without selling them?

The Maritime Heritage Foundation is a charity and it will make an appropriate report about its finances to the Charity Commission at the end of its financial year and then, presumably, such things will be revealed.

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.