HL Deb 03 July 2003 vol 650 cc1026-8

3.9 p.m.

Lord Faulkner

of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in light of the results of the current archaeological excavations on the Pilckem Ridge battlefield, they will encourage the Government of Belgium to revise their plans for the extension of the A19 motorway across the Ypres Salient.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government continue to take a close interest in these proposals. However, the Belgian authorities are experienced and sensitive in dealing with the issues raised by such a project, including both the selection of the route and the handling of any remains discovered during the course of civil engineering work. They also have a good record of co-operation with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in dealing with war graves. The commission is watching developments carefully and is confident that it will be consulted at each stage by the relevant authorities.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. He will recall that he answered a similar Question which I tabled on this subject on 2Ist January last year when plans for the proposed road first came to public attention. Is he aware that the excavations carried out by a joint Belgian-British team under the direction of the Flemish authorities have been extraordinarily successful? They have unearthed a wealth of artefacts which have produced a unique picture of what life in the World War One trenches was like. Taking that into account, and in view of the fact that two bodies of soldiers, one French and one British, have already been found as a result of those excavations—and it is certain that many thousands more lie in the path of the proposed Al9 road if it were built—will he do his best to persuade the Belgian authorities that they should re-route the road?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am aware that the archaeology in this area has been very successful. I pay warm tribute to the All-Party Parliamentary War Graves and Battlefield Heritage Group—of which my noble friend is chairman and the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, is vice-chairman—for the pressure it successfully applied to get the archaeology started and for the pressure it continues to apply to the relative authorities in this area. Any decision making will be for the Flemish regional government in consultation with the Belgian national government. The British Government will consider what role to play should it be necessary to do so.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his remarks about the all-party war graves body. Can he assure the House that he will take the same attitude with regard to France? We are talking about Belgium at the moment but there will be many instances of roadbuilding and other developments in France where we will need the same kind of assistance from the Government.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord that reassurance. I am happy to say that, as we understand it, the latest French proposal to build a third airport for Paris in the area of the Somme—an issue raised previously by my noble friend—is, I choose my words carefully, in abeyance.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, is the Minister considering a review of archaeological practices in regard to excavations on sites containing the remains of British service personnel? Further—although this may go a little wide of Belgium—is a review taking place in regard to HMS "Sussex" and whether proper practice has been followed? The remains of British service personnel will be recovered from that site if proper excavation techniques are undertaken. It is slightly worrying that a salvage operation is taking place in an area where lie the bodies of British service personnel.

Lord Bach

My Lords, some might say that the noble Lord's question goes slightly wide of the original Question. I shall not say that. I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that military historians will be hoping that important features on the Ypres battlefields can be preserved, as will the families of those who were engaged in the fierce fighting on this vital part of the British front in World War One?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise the issue of the historical importance of the dreadful amount of killing that occurred on this battlefield. In 1915, as I understand it, 200,000 men of Kitchener's volunteer army were killed within 14 days. With this patch of land continuing to lie between the two sides, in 1917 in an offensive lasting 100 days—the figures are staggering—400,000 to 450,000 British soldiers were killed. The noble Lord can rest assured that the historical aspects of the issue will be kept well in mind.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I declare an interest as honorary parliamentary adviser over many years to the Royal British Legion and as one, doubtless of a great many noble Lords, for whose kinsmen of an earlier generation the Pilckem Ridge battlefield was their final resting place. Is my noble friend aware that this issue is of considerable concern to the ex-service community as a whole? Is any ministerial visit to the excavations in prospect—I speak having recently been there—to see their scale of importance? And can the Government consider supporting efforts to make them a world heritage site?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I do not know whether a ministerial visit is forthcoming. If the noble Lord is inviting me, I shall of course accept. As to the second part of his question, we are aware that a proposal is currently being considered by the Flemish regional government to apply to UNESCO to have all the Great War battlefields in Belgium—not only this one—listed as world heritage sites. I cannot commit the British Government so far as the noble Lord's proposal is concerned, but I dare say that we will be sympathetic.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that understanding the topography of a battlefield can be essential to historians in understanding what took place there? Does he further agree that although that interest can never be paramount, neither is it negligible? To assess it, it is necessary to weigh it against any loss of money and time in preserving the record. Does he agree that t o outweigh the loss of 2,000 lives the saving would have to be considerable?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I agree with all the sentiments that I am asked to agree to by the noble Earl. He is absolutely right. As someone who lives between Market Bosworth battlefield and Naseby battlefield, I certainly agree with him.

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