HL Deb 17 April 1986 vol 473 cc811-24

7.1 p.m.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The formal position, I suppose, is that having secured the Floor of the House for the Second Reading of the Bill, we can keep it until we have finished the Second Reading. But the convention is as my noble friend, the Chief Whip, has just described it, namely, that we are expected to vacate the Floor of the Chamber in respect of this Bill in an hour's time. With five speakers, beside myself, I intend, therefore, to leave the explanation of the Bill to the Explanatory Memorandum printed on the face of it and not to say anything about the Bill that can be found there. I assume, also, that Members present and taking part in the debate will have read not only the Explanatory Memorandum but also the Hansard of another place of 31st January, when the Bill was introduced there by my honourable friend Mr. Michael Mates. I adopt this approach for another reason, too. An issue has arisen since the Bill left another place to which most of those whose names appear on the list of speakers will wish to devote a fair amount of time, although we shall need to come back to it in detail at Committee stage.

All that I shall do by way of a preliminary is to remind your Lordships of the background against which this Bill is being discussed. This is a background extending over 30 years in which the development of the technology and of the popularity of sub-aqua amateur diving has increased so enormously that very large numbers of people are well able to dive on shipwrecks some of them no doubt containing human remains where the crews have been entombed. At the same time, there has been a tremendous development of deep-sea diving technology in the course of the commercial exploration for, and exploitation of, oil and gas below the bed of the North Sea. Those are the changes that have occurred in the last 30 years or so and that have made this Bill necessary.

I am concentrating upon shipwrecks and not upon wrecks of aircraft that have crashed on land, although the Bill covers them, because wrecks of aircraft constitute a minor part of the overall concern. These changes in professional diving technologies have put many more shipwrecks within the reach of divers and salvors and have provided scope, on the one hand, for a surgical salvage operation without the necessity to disturb human remains that have been entombed, but, on the other hand, they have also made possible unauthorised intrusions and removal of contents and of fittings that none of us would wish to countenance.

During this period of 30 years, there have been changes in Government policy towards shipwrecks and in the legislation to protect those containing human remains entombed within them. The last occasion prior to this Bill when the Admiralty established a new policy concerning the protection of shipwrecks in which crew members were entombed was 1955. Up to that time, it had been normal practice to sell naval shipwrecks for scrap, whether or not they contained human remains. That was changed at that time. In 1973, following the desecration of the shipwreck of the "Royal Oak" in Scapa Flow by amateur divers, local by-laws were introduced to control that particular activity. They are now enforced by Orkney council. A few years later, concern was expressed about possible threats to the sanctity of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse", which were sunk with heavy loss of life off the Malayan coast. It is important to make the point at this stage that this legislation can do nothing about the protection of our ships in that sort of situation in international waters except through the restraint of British companies. There is no sense in which this legislation can control or restrain the activities of foreign salvage and diving companies outside United Kingdom waters. It would be a great mistake if Parliament allowed any expectation to be raised that this legislation could do that.

In the 1980s, the whole issue was brought very much into the public arena, raising both public concern and public interest, by the authorised salvage of gold from the "Edinburgh" in very deep waters in the Arctic and the unauthorised intrusion into the sanctity of "HMS Hampshire" sunk back in 1916 off the Orkneys. That intrusion by a German consortium could not be restrained by the legislation then available. That is the background and those are the circumstances in which this legislation, fully explained on the face of the Bill, has come into being.

What we now have to concentrate upon, although there may be other aspects with which noble Lords want to deal, is a position that did not seem to me to emerge in another place, but that has emerged since—namely, the position of British companies seeking to dive on and salvage in international waters ships covered by this Bill. The position is that they can be controlled by this legislation but their foreign competitors cannot. We have to take care that this situation does not produce an unfair disadvantage to British firms. My noble friend, in the course of the last few weeks, while negotiations have been going on, has given me two assurances. I shall leave him to set them out in detail. Broadly speaking, however, they amount to an undertaking that there will be a schedule applying to certain named wrecks that will be issued and become effective at the same time as this Act, exempting from the Bill ships listed in it. With that list it will then be possible for the sub-aqua amateurs to dive on them. It will be possible for deep-sea salvage and diving operations to be conducted on them as well, without any danger of prosecution under this Bill.

Linked with the list there are the vessels that sank before 4th August, 1914, except any that are separately designated for protection. That is one assurance that I wanted to set out at the beginning of our debate which I am sure my noble friend will want to confirm and enlarge upon, and correct if I have not got it right, at the end of the debate.

The second and more important point relating to the discussions which we have been having over these past weeks is that my noble friend has given an assurance that general licences will be available in advance for reputable salvage and diving companies which have previously agreed to abide by a code of practice (which has yet to be worked out) authorising them without any further specific licencing to salvage cargo from the majority of vessels covered by this Bill.

I should like to speak briefly on that second point. It is necessary, in my view, to have a general advance licence available for reputable salvage and diving companies in order that British interests shall not be put at a disadvantage when operating over wrecks in international waters. Were that not there any British firm or British ship wishing to engage in a salvage operation in international waters would first have to seek a licence from the Ministry of Defence and will be put at considerable disadvantage in relation to, say, a Japanese, a French or an American company, which could get on to the same wreck and immediately, without further delay and under no constraint at all, start to conduct a salvage operation by whatever means they thought suitable including that of dynamiting the whole thing—as was the normal practice in earlier days. Once again I shall leave it to my noble friend to set out the precise terms in which he is ready to give that assurance.

When we come to the Committee stage we shall need to consider whether there is proper provision in the Bill on which to hang those assurances, because the British salvage companies concerned set a good deal of store by them.

There is one further advantage which flows from what I have just been outlining. I am most grateful to my noble friend for coming forward with it. That is that, given the way in which the British and other international companies co-operate, for example, in the North Sea, where, one has a Norwegian firm hiring a British ship or a Dutch firm hiring a Norwegian ship and operating together, it may well turn out that a willingness to conform with this code of practice and to use the advantages of this general licence may prove attractive to foreign firms as well as to British firms. If that were to happen we should have taken one small step towards an international convention. That is what we need in order that the sanctities of ships such as HMS "Prince of Wales" and HMS "Repulse" is protected in the way that the relatives of survivors would wish to see.

For all those reasons I commend not only this Bill but the assurance which my noble friend has given about the ways in which it will be applied and, if necessary, amended at Committee stage. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Sandford.)

7.15 p.m.

Lord Parry

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for his presentation of both his own view and of what is essentially the Government's attitude to this Bill. The Bill, rather unusually, in another place on a Friday afternoon went through its First and Second Reading. I was alerted to it by the officers of an organisation known as Seasalv Marine Limited which was using the facilities of the Milford Docks Company. The House will want to know that I am the chairman of that company; and that the chairman of Seasalv Marine Limited, Major General Desmond Smith, is present in the House this evening. All interests have therefore been declared.

We had the privilege of a meeting with the Minister who was ready to meet us as soon as the concerns expressed by us were made known to him. Not only did we go with him through the Bill, but we had present with us the representatives of his department who were responsible for its drafting, one assumes, and who were now seeing it through its various stages in the House.

I want to say at once that I have met no one who does not agree with the basic principle of this Bill which was originally to provide the sanctity about which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, spoke for the remains of those who had sacrificed themselves in the service of the country or who had been killed at sea. There has never been an attempt on anyone's part to question the basis of the Bill.

However, I think that the Minister may well say—he does not have to—that the way in which that wish cuts across the commercial interests of the British salvage companies that were involved in salvaging all kinds of wrecks and artefacts from under the sea was probably a surprise to him. It became obvious very early that this simple wish to give sanctity and protection to the military remains in wrecked ships and aircraft under the sea was threatening very real and special interests.

Having admitted that we wish to preserve the sanctity of those wrecks, it is absolutely essential that they should be properly identified and placed. I believe that there is evidence that the Admiralty charts are not absolutely certain as to where some of these remains are located. I understand that some are as much as 30 miles out in their assessment. A great deal of research has gone into the history and background, increasingly more effectively with better and better equipment, to place under the sea the exact position of these wrecks which are often said to contain human remains. I am also assured by divers who have been aboard such vessels that it is very unlikely indeed that human remains are to be found in these vessels. But the sanctity of them remains inviolate. There is no question of that.

I therefore ask the Minister—and he has had the privilege of seeing in advance all the points I wish to make in the House—whether he plans a total survey or a collation of the information that is available from commercial sources under commercial rates of the exact position of these wrecks so that he is more aware of them than his department seems to be at the moment. That is no reflection on the department. I also ask the Minister, when he comes to speak, whether he will give us the detail of the exact type of ship that is to be covered and the exact type of remains. We acknowledge that our conversations with him were immensely valuable to us. Can he tell us whether Her Majesty's Government will carry out such a survey and whether they will identify for us where these positions are so that we can ensure maximum control by Her Majesty's Government of any investigations and salvage operations that occur within British international waters.

Here I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, that the Bill can be enforced only within British territorial waters. If Her Majesty's Government are to have maximum control during salvage operations, along with other interested parties such as the survivors' societies which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has mentioned in passing, it is essential that such a survey should be promised and eventually carried out.

Although the Bill was put forward with the best of intentions, it was in danger of going badly wrong until the interests affected came to the Ministry. This often happens. It is no criticism of those who drafted it. It was carefully drafted so as to identify the problem, but, curiously enough, the Bill made no reference to human remains; it made reference to military remains but none to the sanctity of human remains. That clearly is odd.

People may wish to go down with the equipment available, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said; it is available even to lads off the beach and certainly to unscrupulous salvors. This has been dramatically illustrated in a television programme recently. I saw, and I am sure other Members of the House saw, pictures of South African divers using pneumatic drills on the wreck of HMS "Birkenhead" to recover the gold being carried as a payroll for the troops.

If there is a wreck that should be sanctified, it is the wreck of that ship in which 500 British soldiers stood to attention to establish the now famous law, women and children first, so that the women and children could escape while they surrendered their lives. Yet this vessel in international waters, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, indicated, has been plundered. I do not know whether there is any doubt about that. I see some doubt, but the noble Lord will have the right of reply. I am sorry. It is in South African waters. It is national, rather than international.

Salvage operations are carried out for financial gain. That is their purpose. They are carried out by a few British firms. I believe basically there are three major firms, and I am willing to be taught that there are others that have an interest in the field.

An interesting way of protecting these sites has been put to me. The House will know better than I did that there used to be a position of government salvor. A nominated company went out on behalf of the government to salvage those things which the government wished to salvage. It may be that this cuts across the general licensing that the Minister intends to bring in, and I am grateful to him for having told me in advance when we met today that he intends in his speech, as he has told the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, to say that he is prepared to agree to such a general licensing system. However, it could be of advantage to the Government to create this position of government official salvor and to offer it for competition among the interested British companies, so that British companies employing British divers could dive on British vessels and reclaim anything of value for Her Majesty's Government; and they could be paid a commercial fee to do that.

If there is vast bullion or whatever at the bottom of the sea in these wrecks and there is a danger that people can go aboard them and disturb the sanctity of those graves—because it does not matter whether the graves are empty of bodies, graves they are—it would be of use if a licensed, and specifically licensed, British company were to do that in British ships, within British waters and in national and international waters elsewhere if that could be arranged, and to do it by modern methods. This would mean that those ships could be entered without the use of explosives, without a desecration of the graves, and in the spirit of a British nation honouring British dead and at the same time recovering for the British purse money which fell out of it during the war in operations at sea.

There is a great deal of money, I am told, on the bottom of the sea. It is not for me from this side of the House to teach the Government how they should do something for their own Exchequer, but I understand that monetarists everywhere are interested in recouping money. The British marine heritage has ensured that possibly as much as 90 per cent. of the vessels that Her Majesty's Government would wish to protect will be outside United Kingdom territorial waters, and therefore available to anybody to work. Will the Minister assure me, perhaps even before the Committee stage, that salvage companies and the Government will talk together to ensure that the Bill takes account of all these points that I have made?

We met informally, but would it not be far better if the salvage companies were seen to be working with the Government and with those of us who in this House at any rate talk with the Government? Any unscrupulous British salvage company that wished to go after this money and ignore the basic principle of the legislation could move the basis of its operations to Switzerland or elsewhere. I should not be surprised if the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, were to concentrate on the international waters in his submissions.

I have taken 10 minutes, and the noble Lord took nine. The clock has now clicked up 11 and we still have 40 to go, so I am sure that there is plenty of time for us to do adequate duty to the Bill.

7.26 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I welcome this Bill. There are one or two things which need saying. First, oil has fallen in value from 30 dollars a barrel to 10 dollars a barrel, or thereabouts. This has immediately released onto the international market vast amounts of surplus diving capacity. The North Sea oil companies are cutting back on the use of their diving facilities.

I should like to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Parry, that the "Birkenhead" is in South African territorial waters, and is not covered by the Bill anyway; so this makes life very difficult. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware how the system works, but you become something called a salvor in possession, which means you have to anchor your boat over the top of the wreck and then start working on it. In those circumstances, under international law nobody is allowed to come and interfere with the work.

If Her Majesty's Government issue a blanket licence, they have, to all intents and purposes, taken out international waters from the Bill except for this position: a British captain employed by a Singapore-based salvage company which has not bothered to apply under the Government's scheme for a blanket licence. The British captain is ordered by the Singapore company to go and salve the "Prince of Wales" or the "Repulse". Has that man then to resign his position and lose his job? What happens?

It is a serious problem. Either the blanket licence is made so loose that it has really no bearing or no effect, or it is made sufficiently tight so that it becomes very difficult for certain people to act, and it becomes against some parts of British interest. I believe that the "Trinidad", which was a sister ship to the "Edinburgh", also sank in Arctic waters; but she is in international waters. At the moment the technique exists to salve her.

It is worthwhile pointing out that there is something called GLORIA. That is not my noble friend on the Front Bench. It means geodetic, long-range inclined asdic. What that can do is to pick up very small nodules from the sea bed. It can go down to great depths. Incidentally, it is a British invention, and J. Marr and Co. use it on a trawler and are mapping a great chunk of the United States exclusive economic zone. The techniques are now so sophisticated that in my view the only way forward is to see whether we can get a binding international convention to stop the cowboys. Everybody would want to do that. Grave robbers—only they are now called archaeologists—are sometimes given knighthoods.

What we should like to do is to change from the methods of Belzoni, who used to dynamite and blow up Egyptian monuments to get at the inside, and come to the scientific and sensitive methods of dealing with graves at sea.

I do not think that there is anything more for me to say on this matter. I think I have covered the points I want to cover. All one hopes is that Her Majesty's Government will be their normal, intelligent, sensitive selves, listening to the arguments that we have put forward with patience and restraint.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, "Normal, sensitive souls" is a description at which I boggle. I hope that this evening we shall indicate to the Minister that there is a great deal of good will and appreciation for the fact that, although Private Member's Bills are not entirely the gift of an individual, to make progress they need to have government departments and Ministers, such as the one here tonight, with sympathy and understanding for the purposes of the Bill.

First, I want to say how much I appreciate the careful and helpful explanation of the raison d'étre of the Bill that we had from the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. He pointed out how the Bill came to us. Having been in another place I smiled at the galloping speed with which the Bill went through all its stages in another place on a Friday afternoon. I was what was called the Friday Whip, and have had a little more experience of Friday procedure. I did not say to myself, "I know there is something wrong", but I knew that it was an extraordinary procedure which was clearly called into account. Although we have the benefit of what happened there, we are starting completely afresh. What we do here will produce a modified Bill—I am anticipating some amendments—which will go to another place, and they will deal with it there.

Those speaking at Second Reading (and perhaps there are others) show that the Committee will be well served. The noble Lord, Lord Parry, in a frank declaration of interests, not only did the proper thing but indicated that he has access to the experience of other people. He has experience himself and can hying other people's experience to the Committee. I know that the Minister and his advisers will welcome the fact that people at the sharp end of any legislation can see snags that even with experience the Government may not be able to perceive.

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, knows what he is talking about. He indicated that simply and quickly. He convinced me, even though he may not have convinced the Minister, that he knows what he is talking about. I shall rely heavily upon the advice that he brings to the Comittee stage so that we can see that we get it as near right as possible.

The purposes of the Bill are simple, compelling and humane. We have already seen that it is not a Bill of one dimension. There are other interests. I am sure that when the public hear about the Bill, through the media of television, radio and the press, they will appreciate what the promoter is attempting to do. At the same time they will want to ensure that other interests are not badly affected. The Bill seeks to make it an offence to interfere with the remains of crashed, sunken and stranded military aircraft and vessels without authority. That phrase "without authority" is very important. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that we might be moving towards some form of binding international convention—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. It is sad that in a situation which can be fraught with so much distress and grief an individual cannnot feel that there is not some legislation to form a framework upon which the Government can attempt to impose some authority and restriction. The main purpose of the Bill is to protect the sanctity of wrecks that contain human remains.

Another purpose of the Bill is to give sanctity to the graves of members of the armed forces whose remains are not interred in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries or national cemeteries, but are located at the site of a crashed aircraft or shipwreck. Those are first-class credentials for the House wanting to pass the legislation as quickly as possible. As we know from our experience, it is far better to do it correctly than to do it quickly. We have the opportunity and possibility with the Minister and his advisers, who will listen with care and sympathy and with those outside the House, to get it right. If we do not get it right the first time, there will be others in another place who will be happy to assist us.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said that in recent years we have needed protection of this kind, and that reason is well based. The interests of aircraft archaeology and the searchings by groups and individuals may be for fun, sport or excavation—I have nothing against any of those, for it is not cheap; they are spending their money to get enjoyment, thrill and satisfaction—but we need to consider two or three matters, not least their safety and perhaps damage and distress to others.

Those of us who served in the last war, as I did in the Royal Marines, will know that the relations of former comrades will have assumed that the bodies of their nearest and dearest have been left undisturbed somewhere. They will want to make sure, if it is within the remit of a piece of legislation, that we are doing the right thing by their memories.

Not only are we concerned for the relatives, but we know that there are a great number of members of ex-service organisations who are not relatives but who are entitled, rightly, to be concerned. I was glad to read, possibly in the Hansard of another place, that the Bill has the general support of the Royal Air Force Association, the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's families Association, the RAF Benevolent Fund and War Widows of Great Britain. That is a piece of information that is well founded, and the organisations appreciate what this Bill is trying to do.

However, I think the Minister anticipates one of the main burdens of concern, even at this early stage. While it is perhaps within the gift of Government to exercise authority and control within British waters, a problem arises in international waters and from what appears to be an inhibition as regards British companies and British interests which seem to be less well served than their international competitors. It is in this field that we want the Minister to say something. He may be able to respond as he will appreciate this matter, but if he can not answer he will be faced with amendments in this place and possibly in another place which will help him to face up to it. None of us wants to act to the detriment of the companies which have invested large sums of money, or of the seamen, whose jobs are involved. We do not want to find that in properly trying to protect the military remains, as they are called, we are doing damage to existing businesses and companies.

The Opposition welcome the intention of the legislation, which is not just a framework but a deterrent. We are attempting to frighten off people who may feel that they do not need a licence, in both senses of the word, to do what they want to do. We want those who have lost their loved ones and those who care for them to know that we are concerned to protect them. I was deeply moved by the illustration given by my noble friend Lord Parry. As he said quite fairly, salvage is about money and those who do not pay attention to the other matters could cause an outrage and an outcry which would not do them or their businesses any good. The Government will have to tell us whether in fact some of the fears and worries are true.

In another place, my honourable friend Dr. Godman, who is the Member for Greenock, raised the question of whether the interests of British fishermen, who sometimes are specially concerned with the kind of fishing that takes place in areas of sunken wrecks, would be involved; whether there was anything in the view that, by virtue of carrying out their craft and their trade, they would be running foul of some of the legislation. In another place, the Minister gave a categorical assurance that there was no intention, no words in the Bill, which would affect them in that way.

In effect, we are starting from scratch in this House, and although we know what has happened in another place it is not part of the record. I should like the Minister to confirm what was said in the other place on that point. I also like the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Parry about consulting on the widest possible front. There cannot be many organisations that have a direct interest in this matter.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, there is a danger about too much consulting. The salvage world is an extremely cut-throat one. If you do too much of that kind of thing, you side-track the competition with the research that somebody else is doing and you can give away commercial secrets. There is a difficulty about that.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I appreciate that. We are not in the business of procrastinating or delaying; we are in the business of getting this piece of legislation on the statute book during the current Session. If there were a choice between the long and wrangled way of getting it though, I am simply saying that there are some short interests that I hope the Minister will take into account. I have no more to say except that quiet clearly we are going to be interested in the Committee stage to seek to improve the Bill, and as more than one noble Lord has said perhaps the Minister has something to say to us that will reassure those outside. On this Bill, for my part, I rely very heavily upon the expertise of those who have already spoken and interests outside who may yet approach me. We certainly fully support the Motion that this Bill be given a Second Reading.

7.42 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Support (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset that the Government warmly welcome this Bill which has been so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Sandford—none better than he, if I may say so, to take this matter under his wing. Not only is he an ordained member of the Church of England, he also had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy including one occasion, I understand, where his ship was mined. The Bill deals with a problem which in recent years has aroused strong feelings not only in this House but also among the general public. The desecration of the graves of sailors who went down with their ships and airmen who crashed with their aircraft has been a matter of real public concern ever since the Second World War.

This led the Admiralty in 1955 to review its policy on the disposal of its wrecks. It decided that wrecks known to contain human remains should be left undisturbed unless there were special circumstances. These special circumstances came to be defined as cases where there was a danger to navigation, or the presence of explosives; where there was a strong risk of unauthorised access which might be reduced by a controlled salvage operation to remove attractive items; and where reputable groups wanted to undertake valuable historical research. The Admiralty was prepared to allow some access to war graves in these circumstances, but only if it was satisfied that the remains of those who died in them would be treated with due respect.

The policy for crashed aircraft has also been that human remains should not be disturbed. This policy was endorsed in 1981 by representatives of aircraft archaeology groups and organisations such as the War Widows' Association. I am sure your Lordships will understand the distress that is felt by people when they discover that the remains of their relatives have been unearthed. Some of course are pleased to know exactly where their relatives fell, but since we can seldom be absolutely certain of the identity of the remains, the Government feel that on balance it is much better that the sites are left undisturbed. If an aircraft containing human remains is unearthed, however, then of course we ensure that the remains are given a proper burial.

Most of those who are interested in the wrecks of military aircraft and vessels, for pleasure or profit, are willing to be guided by this policy. But, there are a few who pursue their interest or business with little respect for the dead or regard for the feelings of others. Their activities have been the cause of public and parliamentary concern, and the department's inability to protect its war graves has been much criticised.

There have been a number of recent instances of problems in this area. My noble friend recited several recent incidents. It was the last incident to which my noble friend referred, that of the unauthorised salvage of items from HMS "Edinburgh" by a German consortium, which really drew attention to the fact that the Government had been almost powerless to prevent the desecration of these graves. As a matter of fact, I was in the Ministry of Defence at that time. It was I who was consulted as to whether access should be allowed. I decided that it should not but even my decision went disregarded.

The Government welcome this Bill as a means of remedying this weakness. At the same time, we have no wish to see the activities of responsible individuals and groups who have a legitimate interest in the remains of military vessels and aircraft unnecessarily hindered. Aviation archaeology groups will normally be able to obtain a licence to excavate a crashed aircraft site which does not contain human remains or unexploded ordnance. We know that the majority of groups respect the desire to leave untouched crashed aircraft sites in these circumstances.

Moreover, I hope we have been able to reassure sub-aqua clubs that, in general, it is not an offence under the Bill to dive down to and swim round any military wreck. It would only be an offence to interfere with it in some way. Diving may be restricted in the vicinity of a small number of wrecks where there are particularly strong reasons for protection: these we would designate as controlled sites. This would be broadly similar to the restrictions already applied under harbour byelaws to the wrecks of Her Majesty's ships in the Orkney Harbour areas. But, for the vast majority of military wrecks, the Bill as it stands would place no restrictions whatsoever on divers who want to look but not touch.

Your Lordships may be interested to know that we intend in Committee to propose the removal of the offence of "boarding" in Clause 2(2)(b) of the Bill. In this context, it is worth mentioning that it is not, after all, an offence to stand on a formal grave. The Government are also considering whether it is possible to define the offence of "entering" more clearly. We would certainly wish to deter people from meddling inside an aircraft or vessel which contains the bodies of its crew, but not to prevent a diver from simply standing amid the scattered wreckage of a vessel on the seabed.

We have also been looking closely at Clause 1, which applies the Bill to certain types of aircraft and vessels. The Bill automatically protects all aircraft and vessels in these categories. This approach, rather than the specific designation of individual aircraft and vessels for protection, was adopted mainly because we do not know the present location of many of the aircraft that we would wish to protect. These are the British and foreign aircraft that crashed somewhere in this country in World War 2 and whose wreckage has still to be discovered.

There is a similar problem with vessels that sank in the two world wars. The noble Lord, Lord Parry, referred to this. But automatic protection for military vessels itself creates certain problems. The clause, as presently drafted, does not define the category of vessel in a way that can readily be applied in individual cases. The Government will therefore be suggesting an amendment at Committtee stage which will require all vessels to be individually designated for protection. A further amendment would deal with the problem of vessels in unknown locations. These amendments would remove any uncertainty about the identity of the vessels covered by the Bill. I am sure that this approach will be particularly welcomed by salvage companies and sub-aqua clubs.

Some of your Lordships have expressed the concern felt by some salvage companies that the Bill would place British companies at a severe disadvantage in relation to their foreign competitors in international waters. I say "some of your Lordships"; but I think that it was each and every one of your Lordships. This would only happen, I believe, in those exceptional cases where a company discovered a wreck unexpectedly and needed to take possession immediately. In most cases, it should be possible to seek a licence under the Bill well in advance of any operation. Nevertheless, if a protected vessel contains cargo worth recovering, the Government would obviously prefer it to be recovered by a reputable company that would take care not to disturb any human remains, rather than to leave it to attract the attention and possibly not-so-tender mercies of some other enterprise.

To meet these concerns, I can give an assurance that the Government will be prepared to grant a licence to reputable companies which will enable them in an emergency to remove cargo from a protected vessel without committing an offence. The licence would contain strict conditions and a clearly defined code of practice designed to minimuse any disturbance of human remains. If the company failed to honour those conditions the licence would be withdrawn. Such a licence will, I hope, meet the legitimate concerns of reputable salvage companies and also help to guarantee that the vessels concerned will thereafter be left in peace.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, would the Minister give way? I am most grateful. Prima facie, this sounds like an important and significant statement. Could the Minister tell us whether the operation of the procedure he has outlined has been discussed, even informally, with some of those who are involved in the business? They have said that in their view this would meet the position.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes, indeed it has been discussed—by me in fact—with at least one of the companies concerned. Also, perhaps more importantly, it has been discussed with the trade association: the Association of Offshore Diving Contractors, as I think they are called.

Perhaps I may turn now to some of the points that have been raised during the course of our discussions. The noble Lord, Lord Parry, asked a number of questions. He asked, first, whether the protection under the Bill would be limited to White Ensign vessels, to British vessels. The answer to that is, no. The main purpose of the Bill is to protect the last resting-place of servicemen who went down with their aircraft and vessels; and they of course include support vessels such as Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and merchant vessels taken over for military purposes.

The noble Lord also asked whether licences for salvage operations would be issued to British companies only, or, rather, I am not sure whether he actually asked that specifically, but I know that is a matter which has been in his mind. I do not think it would be possible to confine the issue of licences to British companies alone, because almost certainly that would be contrary to our obligations in respect of the European Community. Nor would it be desirable, I think, because of course the purpose of the procedure is to ensure orderly entry (if that is what is required) of the wrecks of ships and aircraft, and therefore it may be better to issue a licence when one is sought and the necessary undertakings are given.

Some reference was also made to whether the Bill had not been rather rushed through another place. I can assure your Lordships that there was no premeditated intention to do that. However, the Bill did enjoy a wide measure of support in the other place and I dare say that is why it got through so quickly and easily—something which perhaps your Lordships will wish to take note of (or perhaps not!).

The noble Lord, Lord Parry, also asked whether we should resurrect the position of the government salvor. It is the case that during and after the Second World War the Government contracted a number of private salvage companies to undertake a large amount of salvage work which was necessary at that time. The Government do not see a need at the moment to enter into a general contractual relationship with one or more private companies, but of course I cannot predict what our future requirements in this area might be. I am not sure, in any event, that the term "government salvor" was ever an official one, but I believe it did come into common usage.

I believe I have covered all the main points which have been raised tonight in the course of this debate, but I shall be happy to deal with others either by correspondence or at a later stage, if that is thought helpful. There is no doubt that the main thrust of this Bill has widespread public support. Existing legislation does not adequately protect the remains of those who died in the service of their country and the Government believe strongly that this Bill meets a real need in a sensible way. At the same time, as I have indicated, we are prepared to do what is necessary in order to ensure that there will be the minimum interference with the activities of responsible divers, archaeologists and others.

Her Majesty's Government fully support the principle of this Bill and I invite your Lordships to do likewise, so that effective action may in future be taken against the minority who offend public sensitivities by their wanton disregard for the sanctity of war graves.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, and particularly to my noble friend for his contribution and the assurances he gave towards the end of his speech about his willingness to join with us in making sure that, in legislating for the sanctity of those ships in which many of the crew lie entombed, we do not put the British interests of the salvage companies, the divers and others at a disadvantage in international waters. That is a matter we shall need to return to at Committee stage: meanwhile, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8 o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.56 p.m. to 8 p.m.]