HC Deb 11 March 1970 vol 797 cc1362-77

Section 510 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 shall be amended by adding after subsection (2) a subsection as follows:—

'(3) The expression "historic wreck" includes any ship that was or appears likely to have been abandoned, wrecked or stranded one hundred years before the day upon which it is found in or on the shores of the sea or any tidal water and any cargo, equipment, machinery or other articles of whatsoever class or kind belonging to or separated from or which came from any such ship and includes any part of the hull of the ship.'—[Mr. Nott.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

I have suggested that with this Clause we can discuss New Clause 4—Wrecks found in the United Kingdom: The following section shall be substituted for section 518 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894:

  1. '(1) Subject to subsection (2) of this section, where any person finds or takes 1363 possession of any wreck within the limits of the United Kingdom he shall—
    1. (a) if he is the owner thereof, give notice to the receiver of the district stating that he has found or taken possession of the same, and describing the marks by which the same may be recognised;
    2. (b) if he is not the owner thereof, as soon as possible deliver the same to the receiver of the district.
  2. (2) Where any person finds any historic wreck within the limits of the United Kingdom he shall—
    1. (a) save as provided in subsection (3) of this section, not remove, damage, destroy, or interfere in any way whatsoever with the historic wreck or any part thereof; and
    2. (b) within forty-eight hours give notice in writing to the receiver of the district stating—
      1. (i) that he has found the historic wreck and the date of the finding,
      2. (ii) a concise description of the historic wreck, and
      3. (iii) the precise location where the historic wreck may be found.
  3. (3) (a) Where any person wishes to excavate or remove an historic wreck or any part thereof he shall make written application to the Board of Trade for authority so to do;
    1. (b) the President of the Board of Trade may in his absolute discretion authorise such a person to excavate the historic wreck on such conditions as he shall think fit provided that—
      1. (i) he is satisfied that such a person is a fit and proper person so to do; and
      2. (ii) such a person undertakes in writing to comply with any such conditions;
    2. (c) the President of the Board of Trade may in his absolute discretion revoke any authority granted under (b) of subsection (3) of this section on such grounds and for such reasons as he shall think fit.
  4. (4) If any person fails, without reasonable cause, to comply with this section, he shall, for each offence, be liable to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds, and shall in addition, if he is not the owner, forfeit any claim to salvage, and shall be liable to pay to the owner of the wreck if it is claimed, or, if it is unclaimed to the person entitled to the same, double the value thereof, to be recovered in the same way as a fine of a like amount under this Act.

New Clause 5—Amendment of section 521 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894: Section 521 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 shall be amended by adding after subsection (2) the following proviso:— Provided always that the owner of historic wreck shall not be entitled to have the same delivered up to him under the provisions of subsections (1) and (2) of this section unless the President of the Board of Trade certifies that it is not of national or historical interest or of scientific, archaeological, educational or other special interest and in that event, the receiver shall not deliver such historic wreck up to the owner until after the expiry of two years from the time at which the historic wreck came into the possession of the receiver".

New Clause 6—Amendment of section 522 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894: Section 522 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 shall be amended by adding after subsection (c) of this section the following proviso:— Provided always that this section shall not apply to historic wreck".

New Clause 7—Amendment of section 523 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894: The following section shall be substituted for section 523 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 and shall be amended by adding at the end the following subsection:— (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (1) of this section Her Majesty and Her Royal successors are entitled to all historic wreck found in any part of Her Majesty's dominions, whether claimed or unclaimed, which is certified by the President of the Board of Trade, in his absolute discretion, to be of national or historical interest or of scientific, archaeological, educational or other special interest ". and new Clause 8—Amendment of section 525 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894: Section 525 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 shall be amended by adding after subsection (2) of this section the following subsections:— (3) Subsections (1) and (2) of this section shall not apply to historic wreck which is certified by the President of the Board of Trade under section 523 of this part of this Act to be of national or historical interest or of scientific, archaeological, educational or other special interest. (4) If the wreck is historic wreck or of national or historical interest or of scientific, archaeological, education or other special interest the receiver shall take such steps to preserve, maintain, recover, display or dispose of the same as the President of the Board of Trade shall direct ".

Mr. John Nott (St. Ives)

I beg to move, That Clauses 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It will wreck the rules of order if the hon. Member seeks to move more than one new Clause at a time. He can move the first one and speak to the others.

Mr. Nott

Thank you for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. Is it possible to have a vote on the others?

Mr. Speaker

No. I have selected the first new Clause and there can be a Division on the first.

Mr. Nott

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

This new Clause and the new Clauses grouped with it are an attempt to amend the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, to provide some protection for wrecks over 100 years of age deemed to be of national and/or historic importance. I do not intend to go into the background of these Clauses, because I did so in the introduction of my Ten-Minute Rule Bill last Wednesday.

I would like, however, to draw attention to the news which appeared in many of to-day's newspapers about the "Amsterdam", a Dutch East Indiaman which sank off Hastings in 1748. Yesterday, many students, historians and archaeologists were surveying the "Amsterdam" to discover whether a salvage operation would be worth while. What is required is that the "Amsterdam" and historic ships of that sort should be scheduled as of national and historic importance so that they continue to he available for study and research over the coming years.

Unfortunately, the law is of great complexity. The complications of amending it are also very great indeed. I have not had the assistance of parliamentary draftsmen nor of salvage experts in the Board of Trade. However, with the assistance of salvage lawyers and counsel specialising in marine law I have attempted a series of changes which, I believe, go most of the way to achieving the desired result. If the Government believe that the objectives are worth while—and I think they will—I hope that they will take the opportunity of accepting them and perhaps making any amendments to improve the Clauses in another place.

I should feel rather disappointed and somewhat aggrieved if, when the National Maritime Museum, the Committee for Nautical Archaeology, archaeologists, divers and historians generally, have been clamouring for a change in the law in this respect for many years, the Government did not take the opportunity of including these Clauses in the Bill now before the House.

I am well aware that the Bill may not be considered by the Government to be the ideal form of legislation to contain these changes. However, all the existing laws of salvage are contained in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. In this Bill, the Government have included some items which do not derive directly from the Pearson Report. As the Government have included some extraneous items, I ask only that they might consider, here or in another place, including my Clauses and putting them in legislative form so that they can be of service in the future.

I shall not weary the House with the law, except to say that it stems from the 1894 Act, which was amended in 1906, and again in 1938 and 1968, to bring in sea fisheries, aircraft and other matters; salvage problems in connection with fishing vessels and aircraft having arisen since the passing of the 1894 Act.

It is the date which indicates why the law needs amending now. In 1894, diving was a difficult, if not an extremely hazardous, occupation. Those responsible for that Act could not have foreseen the huge advances in diving techniques which have occurred since the Act became law and which now frequently lead to the discovery of many fascinating relics of the past.

There is nothing in the law stemming from the 1894 Act to prevent anyone from removing any object from an historic wreck or causing serious damage to items of great historical and archaeological interest, as long as the person reports his finds to the local receiver of wrecks. Buildings are protected under the law. I own an historic building in Cornwall. I cannot make changes to it without obtaining the relevant permission. All that I seek is that ships of equal archaeological and historic interest should be able to be scheduled in a similar way to buildings.

Anyone who has seen the "Vasa", in Stockholm Harbour knows how tragic it would have been if this ship had not been excavated and restored. The sad fact is that under our law there is no way in which the "Vasa" and similar ships could have been protected. Britain is one of the few countries with historic wrecks around its coast which does not have legislation to provide the protection which I seek. The most recent country to have introduced legislation is Australia. I have the Australian legislation here. It is to some extent on the model of the Australian legislation that these Clauses have been framed. All the Mediterranean countries have very detailed legislation to protect historic wrecks. I seek a similar arrangement for Britain.

I stress that from an archaeological and historical point of view it is the context of a find which is often vital, because a few scraps of wood, the handle of a knife, some canvass, by themselves, if delivered up one by one to the receiver of wrecks, do not have any intrinsic or real value. The context of them may be of great archaeological and historical importance. They may form the contents of a seaman's chest and tell a real story. I am referring not only to the vessel, but also to the objects which may be discovered with it.

In my part of the country—West Cornwall—it is most unusual to find an historic wreck intact, because the tides and the sands are so strong that wrecks tend to disintegrate very quickly. Nevertheless, there is the case now of the "Amsterdam" at Hastings; the wreck is under the mud; it can be preserved. It is that type of case, as well as the case of the "Association" which I mentioned in my Ten-Minute Rule Bill, that I have in mind.

Fundamentally, the law is deficient in two respects. First, the black market sale of recovered material at an immediate 100 per cent. of value is much more attractive to the diver than the official declaration for a normal maximum of 30 per cent. of its value after protracted and lengthy negotiations. In other words, the present rewards are too low for the diver.

Second, as I said earlier, the destruction of property is not prevented, as there is not a law of under-water trespass in Britain, nor has the receiver any instructions to do other than accept material, irrespective of its intrinsic or historic worth and irrespective of its ownership or contract.

New Clause 3 attempts to define "historic wreck": the phrase covers only wrecks and objects in or near them which are 100 years old or more and which may be subsequently found in or on the shores of the sea or any tidal water The wording excludes any historic wrecks or related articles which are already in someone's personal possession.

New Clause 4 describes the procedure to be followed on the discovery of an historic wreck. It must be reported. All wrecks must be reported now, but this Clause would provide that an historic wreck must be reported and may be excavated, or articles removed there from, only with the permission of the Board of Trade.

The "Association", off the Isle of Scilly, is an old naval vessel and, therefore, belongs to the Crown. During the exploration of the "Association", it was the Ministry of Defence which was giving permission to dive on and excavate the "Association". I am seeking to bring this within one Department, because the Board of Trade will remember that I went from one Department to another trying to bring some order into the situation when the "Association" site was being blown apart with dynamite. It was absolutely hopeless. There was no one Minister or Ministry responsible.

New Clause 4 thus describes the procedure to be followed on the discovery of an historic wreck.

New Clause 5 indicates that, if an historic wreck is not deemed to be of historic interest, it will revert to the owner if he can be traced within a period of time, whereas new Clause 7 provides that, if an historic wreck is deemed to be of historical and archaeological interest, it shall be the property of the Crown.

Finally, new Clause 8 gives the President of the Board of Trade discretion as to how historic wrecks of national importance shall be preserved or disposed of.

I have two misgivings about these Clauses. First, as a Conservative, I do not like giving the President of the Board of Trade these extensive discretionary powers; but I am advised by the National Maritime Museum, divers, salvage experts, and so on, that probably there is no other body, either private or governmental, which could exercise this discretion so well as the President of the Board of Trade. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I refer, not to the person, but to the office.

Second, I have sought some other means whereby historic wrecks which are deemed to be of national importance might not revert to the Crown, but, instead, remain, where rights are proved which practically never occurs, in private ownership. However. I have decided that my worries in this respect are of no practical consequence, simply because nearly all historic wrecks are naval vessels or probably belonged to private trading companies of which the Crown is now the successor. So, in practical terms, nearly all of them belong to the Crown, anyhow.

Those which do not belong to the Crown and where ownership is established probably belong to underwriters. All the evidence shows that, when underwriters find to their astonishment that an historic wreck is delivered up to them, they are so overwhelmed with amazement, the ship having been written off their books more than 100 years ago, that they are prepared to sell the wreck to the divers or whoever is exploring it for a few pounds.

I suggest that the President of the Board of Trade, if he deems an historic wreck to be of national and archaeological importance, should pay compensation to the underwriters. I believe that that would be necessary. The amounts are very tiny. I find it impossible to frame provisions as to compensation. Perhaps the parliamentary draftsman will be able to do this.

I hope that the Minister will regard these attempts with some favour. If this opportunity is passed, with the pressure upon parliamentary time I can see no likelihood of any legislation on this subject being brought before the House for another three or four years. What other Bill will come forward which will provide as good an opportunity for the Government to amend this law? The legislation stems from the old Merchant Shipping Act and we now have a Merchant Shipping Bill.

This is an urgent matter and many people feel very strongly about it and there is a need to revise the law. I hope that the Minister of State will think about this and perhaps agree to insert these new Clauses, or something like them, into the Bill when it comes before another place.

4.35 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

As one who supported the Ten-Minute Rule Bill introduced recently by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), I should like to give what support I can to his new Clauses.

I have read with great interest the history of the salvage works on the "Association", on the Gilstone Ledge off the Scillies, as reported by one of the best known Cornish wreckers—with all respect to my hon. Friend—and I have also met some of those who took part in salvage on the same wreck on behalf of the Fleet Air Arm at Culrose, who had an operating unit of divers who were working not simultaneously with, but certainly in close succession to, the others on this wreck.

It is inescapable that the rivalry and somewhat competitive efforts of these two salvage groups on this particularly valuable wreck from which so much of intrinsic value and so much knowledge has been derived, did a good deal of harm to the cause of the recovery of the material and the synthesis or resynthesis of the history.

Therefore, I feel that it is most advantageous that it should be known quite clearly who has the right to salvage a wreck when it is of such value and that this legislation seems the most appropriate, most ready and the only convenient way to establish some rights on this subject.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

It is significant that when the Opposition discover that there is an industry, or something akin to an industry, which produces no profit they are ready to hand it over to the State.

I must say that these are strange speeches coming from the Tory Party. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) suggested, in an excellent speech—and he always makes excellent speeches—that there should be created a monopoly by the State in the discovery and preservation of historic wrecks.

Mr. Nott


Mr. Shinwell

That is what I understood from the hon. Gentleman's speech, but if he did not mean that perhaps he will tell us what he did mean.

Mr. Nott

Anyone can excavate an historic wreck as long as he has the permission of the President of the Board of Trade, and certainly there is no question of any ancient wrecks reverting to the Crown which are not of great national importance.

Mr. Shinwell

The hon. Gentleman would impose responsibility on the Board of Trade to spend a lot of money to discover these wrecks and preserve them, and then somebody comes along to claim private ownership and he gets off with the swag. This is Tory philosophy, of course. It is going a little too far and, in any event, I do not think that it has anything to do with this Bill. If the hon. Member for St. Ives or any of his colleagues wish to introduce a Bill for this purpose, or raise the matter on a Supply day, we could have an excellent debate on the subject, because it is associated with public ownership and private enterprise. We could divide the House on the issue, but surely not on this proposal.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

How singularly appropriate it was that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) should have leapt to his feet because of a sudden apprehension—

Mr. Shinwell

I know what the hon. Member is about to say, so he need not bother.

Mr. Onslow

—that he was threatened with new Clause 4. That is what woke him, but I hope that we can now be serious again.

I hope that the Minister of State will have listened with care to the arguments which were so, persuasively advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott). I support my hon. Friend in a capacity which a great many other hon. Members could also claim—that of an armchair archaelogist. [An HON. MEMBER: "And an armchair politician, too."] Let the hon. Member speak for the armchair politician. I am not concerned with them at the moment.

I wish to cut across the party lines and remind the House that those of us who watch, as most of us do when we can, the television programmes of Jacques Cousteau showing him discovering wrecks in the Caribbean, of wrecks which have been uncovered off Ceylon, off Florida, in the Mediterranean, and off the shores of these islands, must have seen the enormous advances which have been made in the techniques available to archeologists in this field over the last 10 years and the way in which their work can now be brought into our own homes. No one should be in any doubt about the extent of public interest in this country: here we have something unique—a time capsule which we have only just begun to know how to open, the past locked up underwater round our shores.

And the law to protect it is deficient. There is no certainty even as to who owns the "Amsterdam". I have seen it stated in the Press that it is probably owned by the Dutch Government as the legal heirs of the Dutch East India Company. How ridiculous that there should be a piece of Holland buried in the sands off Bulverhythe. You might as well say that the Italian Government own that Roman barge that was found in the Thames, or that the Spanish Government are the legal possessors of the Armada galleons wrecked around our own coast.

These are some of the jewels of Western civilisation. It is up to us to see that they are protected and properly cared for and the opportunity now occurs for us to do so. I hope that we can devote a minute or two even amidst matters which other hon. Members may find more serious or important to thinking about the best solution and trying to do something to protect these historic wrecks.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts

I am sure that we have all enjoyed the miniature debate which has taken place on this fascinating and important subject. My reaction to the most attractive speech of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), I am sure that he will not misunderstand me if I say it was the second most attractive speech that we heard in the debate—was this. I could not disagree with the argument he advanced about providing for the proper recovery and maintainance, and the making available to the public, of those wrecks which are valuable in a historical and archælogical sense. The question of ownership opens up a separate debate, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) said in a teasing but very percipient speech.

This immediately takes me to my second point on the hon. Gentleman's proposals. I agree that there is a need to review, consolidate and clarify the area of law covered by the new Clauses, but how are we to do it? I cannot accept that within the next few days—for it is only a few days between now and the time when the other place considers the Bill—we should somehow produce the right Amendment or Amendments to solve all these complex problems of interpretation and administration. Though I have much sympathy with his objectives, I would urge upon the hon. Gentleman that we should press for a proper study of the issues involved.

We are addressing ourselves to the inadequacy of Part IX of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. It is deficient. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, since those days, there has been the development of modern diving and other techniques which make it possible to locate and investigate wrecks which have lain on the sea bed for many years. The purpose of Part IX of that Act was to ensure the protection of ships, and their equipment and cargoes, which either were in immediate distress or were the subject of recent shipwreck. Although it was intended to codify the law as to entitlement to wreck, I would concede that there are difficulties in applying its provision to the type of wreck which the new Clauses are intended to protect.

I could discuss the matter at length. Several important aspects have been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington. But we cannot hope to put the matter right by assembling a piecemeal provision in the form of new Clauses or Amendments between now and the next stage—which is really the final stage—of the Bill.

I think that the whole House agrees that Part IX of the 1894 Act should be taken up and examined in detail as regards its maritime, legal and other deficiencies and that a thorough job should be done. Thereafter, at the appropriate time, which need not be unduly delayed, for the House usually has its way if there is sufficient sentiment in favour of a certain course, the House could proceed to enact the right provisions.

Such provisions will not necessarily be conclusive. My Ministerial caution holds back my personal enthusiasm. I have myself, from time to time, felt that there was a need to reform the position on the preservation of historic wrecks. However, my studies have shown that we cannot hope to do anything meaningful without a thorough-going examination of all the issues involved and the provision of something better than Part IX of the 1894 Act—and because of the complexities, even that may not be the perfect answer.

While, therefore, I have the utmost sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has suggested, subject to the points raised by my right hon. Friend, I must tell the House that I see no practical way of adopting the course which he proposes in the very late stages of the Bill. In any case, the subject requires searching and careful examination so that what is produced is a substantial improvement on what we have in Part IX of the 1894 Act.

I understand that more than one university and the interested professional and cultural associations are now working on this matter, or certain aspects of it. There is a strong case for bringing these efforts together in a more co-ordinated attempt to produce a comprehensive study leading to a truly meaningful solution.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

The whole House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) for his repeated efforts during recent months to bring to the attention of the House and the country a question which the Minister of State has acknowledged to be important. I am sure that all those who outside the House have an interest in archaeological matters will recognise the hard work which my hon. Friend has done.

I wish to correct what I take to be the effect of the mutterings from the benches opposite during this short debate. I am not referring here to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), who burst into articulate speech, but to the view held, apparently, on the benches opposite that this is not an appropriate occasion to raise the matter. I could not agree less.

For the first time for many years, we are here legislating comprehensively for the matters dealt with in Merchant Shipping Acts. Each one of the new Clauses spoken to by my hon. Friend is designed to amend Sections of the Merchant Shipping Act. This is, therefore, an entirely proper occasion for the matter to be aired, and I entirely reject the idea that, somehow, it is not right to do so.

I take the Minister of State's point that a great deal more investigation may well be necessary before the House is in a position to pass legislation to deal with the matter—indeed, my hon. Friend's new Clauses may be taken as a valuable starting point—butI noted the right hon. Gentleman's observation that this is a question which needs to be taken up and examined in detail. What does he mean by that? Are the Government prepared to set up a committee of inquiry, a Departmental Committee perhaps, or to make arrangements to finance research in an outside institution? What will they do about it? It is not enough that Ministers say that the law is defective, that the question needs to be taken up and examined in detail, unless, at the same time, they are prepared to tell the House what they propose to do.

Perhaps the Minister could have the leave of the House to speak again and explain more specifically what he would recommend, or what Ministers are prepared to suggest, as positive proposals for action. In that event, my hon. Friend's purpose will have been well served. What did the right hon. Gentleman mean when he used the phrase "taken up and examined in detail"? This is a Government responsibility. No other single body could deal with it in the same way. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be a little more specific than he has been so far.

Mr. Nott rose

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

Nothing to do with the Bill.

Mr. Nott

I hope that the Minister will respond briefly to the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin). I was delighted with the short speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). This debate gave him a great opportunity, and I am glad that he took it. He was not present when I moved recently under the Ten-Minute Rule for leave to bring in my Private Member's Bill, but I sought at that time to assure right hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway opposite that I was not referring, by the term "historic wreck", to any Privy Councillors.

This is a serious matter. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is the question of ownership, and I do not see how that can be resolved now. It is a difficult question. I think that, in the end, ownership of historic wrecks of great national importance will probably have to be deemed to be held by the Crown, since I see no other solution. However, I recognise that there are theoretical problems in this respect.

I do not wish to divide the House on the Clause, but I very much hope that the Minister will say a little more about the possibility of a Departmental inquiry. In 1967, when this matter first came up in its most flagrant form with the discovery of the "Association", the Board of Trade said that it was looking into this area of the law. The Minister now says that it is time for this area to be examined. What has been happening during the past three years? Has not something been prepared since this type of difficulty first arose?

Mr. Goronwy Roberts

I thought that I gave a helpful and sympathetic reply. I am being pressed to make an off-the-cuff statement of Government policy. Indeed. I am asked to go further; into the whole question of financing such a project. This I cannot do. What I can do is tell hon. Members that in recent days, as well as today, the House has heard enough on this issue for me to take away from this debate an intention to see how we can move in this matter. Hon. Members will not expect me to go beyond that.

I remind the House that other Departments are concerned with this matter. I will be discussing with my colleagues the issues that have been raised today and in recent days. I am sure that tomorrow's OFFICIAL REPORT will be read with interest by many people inside and outside the House. In that way, things may move forward. I cannot give undertakings now. I can only express my willingness to consider how best, and how soon, this matter can be tackled.

Mr. Nott

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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