A Parliamentary written answer from Veterans Minister Anna Soubry has raised the question as to whether the Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon gave consent for the recovery of material from HMS Victory 1744 by controversial US based commercial treasure hunting salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration without the agreement or endorsement of members of the HMS Victory 1744 Advisory Group including English Heritage.

In answer to a written Parliamentary Question [PQ] from Shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones, which asked if English Heritage agreed with Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon’s decision to allow the Maritime Heritage Foundation to proceed with the next phase of the HMS Victory 1744 Project Design submitted by the Maritime Heritage Foundation/Odyssey Marine Exploration and with the granting of permission to recover “at-risk surface items” from the wreck site,  Ms Soubry first delayed replying, then eventually stated

“In accordance with the Deed of Gift for HMS Victory 1744, English Heritage, as a member of the Advisory Group, provided advice on the acceptability of the actions proposed by the Maritime Heritage Foundation (MHF). That advice was used to guide development of the Project Design and assurances received from the MHF, enabled my rt hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to give his consent to the next phase of the project.”

Political analysts point out that this is a very careful form of words which suggests that the Minister was unable to tell Parliament directly that English Heritage, the Government’s statutory advisor in archaeological matters, agreed with the Secretary of State’s decision.

Meanwhile, asked whether it supported the decision or had been consulted a spokesperson for English Heritage declined to comment, instead directing thePipeLine to the Ministry of Defence.

The HMS Victory 1744 Advisory Group and the companion Expert Panel, were put in place in early 2012 because of widespread fears in the heritage world that the Maritime Heritage Foundation lacked expertise and independent expert advice.  Thus the inevitable question this failure to be able to quote an endorsement from English Heritage raises is whether Secretary of State Fallon took the decision to Green Light, the HMS Victory 1744 project against the advice of English Heritage, and perhaps other members of the Advisory Group and Expert Panel.  It may even be the case that Mr Fallon chose not to include the members of the Advisory Group in his final decision making process for fear of the answer he would get, given the widespread fears that the Odyssey Marine Exploration/Maritime Heritage Foundation Project is designed to be funded through the sale of coins and other cultural items from the wreck site.

The HMS Victory 1744 AG and Expert Panel are known to be made up of subject experts who would be acutely aware of  the repeated claims of Odyssey Marine Exploration that the project would be funded from the sale cultural material and that, were this to be allowed, it would  be contrary to what was understood to be previously stated Government Policy under the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.  They would also almost certainly advise the Government that any commercial exploitation of the wreck would fly in the face of international archaeological and museum ethics and threaten the protection of historic wrecks, including sunken Royal Navy warships, worldwide.

thePipeLine understands that further Parliamentary Questions on the subject of the HMS Victory 1744 Project and its funding have been submitted which makes it highly likely that the civil servants at the Ministry of Defence and Department of Culture Media and Sport will soon face a lot more very careful drafting.  In addition any suggestion that Mr Fallon took a major decision, which could have international implications in the heritage world, without full information or real time advice from independent experts, particularly from a statutory advisor like English Heritage, could leave the Government open to various challenges, both within Parliament and outside.

Meanwhile on 13 November thePipeLine asked the Ministry of Defence  a series of questions relating to this matter, but thus far the Ministry has failed to reply.

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