HL Deb 13 June 1995 vol 564 cc1637-9

3 p.m.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that war graves such as the warships "Repulse" and "Prince of Wales" are preserved, with the White Ensign flying, on the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the White Ensign on Her Majesty's ships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" is maintained as and when the opportunity arises, bearing in mind that both lie in international waters. I assure the noble Lord that this will continue to be the case.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he assure the House that Royal Naval divers have recently checked that the White Ensign in position on the propeller of HMS "Repulse" in 1975 is not only still there but is intact, out of respect? Will he assure the House that the non-ferrous metals and the metals which make up the armour plating around the two battleships are kept in position and are not tampered with in the slightest bit, again, out of respect; and that they are not used as a form of salvage bonanza? Is the Minister aware that where money is concerned, respect is very often buried? This nation is quite prepared to forgive but never to forget.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the importance of those two ships as recognised war graves. However, I cannot give the noble Lord the precise assurances which he seeks. There is no set procedure for regular examinations of those two ships. As and when ships from the Royal Navy or various Commonwealth navies are in the area and there are diving teams available, they will be inspected and we shall see whether we can replace the White Ensigns on them. We do not believe that it would warrant a regular visit from Her Majesty's ships nor, because we no longer have bases in that area, would it be feasible so to do.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, this year is the 50th anniversary of a particular event. Would not this be a good year to check?

Lord Henley

My Lords, it is right to check as and when a ship from Her Majesty's Navy or a ship from a Commonwealth navy happens to be in the area. I am not sure when the White Ensign was last replaced on those two ships but it will be done as and when it is necessary.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I ask purely as a matter of information, will the noble Lord tell the House which other war graves may be affected by the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997? Are there war graves in Hong Kong itself, on the islands, on the mainland? If there are, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that those are kept properly?

Lord Henley

My Lords, there are no complete records of ships lost in action in Hong Kong waters. It is known that HMMTB26 was lost with all hands but that was a tiny wooden vessel and it was thought that nothing would remain of it. It is not known whether there are any other war graves in Hong Kong waters.

As regards cemeteries on land, there are two which are both managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is not part of the Ministry of Defence but obviously it has close ties with it. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission believes that it has residual rights in relation to the future care of those cemeteries. The question of how best to discuss the matter with the Chinese has been raised with the Governor. I assure the noble Lord that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has considerable experience of looking after war graves not only in this country but in a large number of foreign countries throughout the world.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, will my noble friend give the House an assurance that all ships of the merchant navy and Royal Navy sunk in war will be preserved as war graves and that permission will not be given for them to be disturbed by diving or in any other way?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I can give an assurance that all ships sunk since 1914 will be treated as war graves. Where it is possible, we shall not grant permission for them to be disturbed by divers, but where those ships are in international waters, that will be somewhat difficult to enforce.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is almost impossible for the Government to protect those ships from being looted? There have been reports from responsible sources that HMS "Prince of Wales" and HMS "Repulse" have already suffered large-scale looting by salvage people in the area?

Lord Henley

My Lords, there may be such reports. It is very much to be regretted if those ships are being so looted. I tried to make clear that we recognise them as war graves as well as a great many other ships lost in both world wars. Obviously, in view of the large number of war graves scattered throughout the oceans, it is extremely difficult to enforce our desires in that respect. However, we view most seriously any looting of them.

Lord Moore of Wolvercote

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not very difficult to check the condition of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" as, in fine conditions, they can be seen very clearly from the air lying on the sea bed, as I have seen them myself. I welcome the Minister's assurance that when Royal Navy ships are in the area, they will be inspected.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for passing on that information to the House. As and when ships are in the area, wherever possible and if a diving team is available, the ships will be examined and, where possible, the battle ensigns replaced.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, do not the ships remain the property of Her Majesty's Government and in addition to their importance as war graves, surely the Government should be protecting that which they own?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a legal point, but I presume that he is right that they remain the property of Her Majesty's Government. Whether or not we can protect them is another matter. Whether our defence resources should be devoted to protecting a very large number of war graves scattered throughout the world is debatable.