thePipeLine can exclusively reveal longstanding political links between a senior Conservative Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP and Lord Lingfield, formerly Sir Robert Balchin, Chair of the controversial charity the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which was given permission to begin recovery work on HMS Victory 1744 by Mr Fallon in October 2014. The links date back to at least as early as October 1995 with reports that Mr Fallon was present at a party given by the Conservative’s South East Region and hosted by the then Sir Robert Balchin, shortly before Mr Fallon was adopted as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the safe seat of Sevenoaks in Kent.
Such parties are often seen as a beauty parade for potential parliamentary candidates and at that time Sir Robert Balchin was not just a senior advisor on education policy to the then Conservative Prime Minister John Major, and heavily involved in Government funded Quangos, administering funds for Grant-Maintained Schools, he was also Chair of the South East Region of the Conservative Party, the organisation responsible for selecting candidates and fighting elections. In turn these links also reveal Lord Lingfield’s privileged access and as a minimum, working relationships with other senior Conservative Ministers thanks to his role in shaping often controversial education policy at the top of the Conservative Party which has lasted more than twenty years and open the question as to whether those links might have been used as a back channel in the HMS Victory 1744 controversy.
“Former right-wing darling and education junior minister Michael Fallon and current Minister of State Eric Forth both seemed delighted at their invitation to a bash hosted by potential peer, Sir Bob Balchin . . . who by coincidence is also chair of the South-east region of the Conservative party.”
When the Conservative Party gathered in Blackpool for its annual conference in October 1995 the Party was divided over Europe, minsters were blowing the dog whistle of immigration, and possible successors to the then Party Leader and Prime Minister John Major were jockeying for position. Meanwhile the headlines were drawn by Michael Portillo’s now infamous “SAS speech”, the defection to Labour of sitting Conservative MP Alan Howarth, and John Major ‘s invokation of Humphrey the Downing Street cat’s opinions on Labour economic policy; while the Party faithful celebrated the seventieth birthday of the Queen over the water Margaret Thatcher. But that was all smoke, mirrors and media spin, because as with most conferences the real deals were being done behind the scenes in the bars, meeting rooms, ballrooms and bedrooms, of Blackpool.
In a key sentence in his conference speech John Major said “I want to enable all schools to become grant-
“Two old friends were pressing the flesh with some vigour at the Conservatives’ Blackpool conference. Former right-wing darling and education junior minister Michael Fallon and current Minister of State Eric Forth both seemed delighted at their invitation to a bash hosted by potential peer, Sir Bob Balchin . . . who by coincidence is also chair of the South-east region of the Conservative party.
The apparent availability of safe seats in the South-east and the current craving for such seats experienced by Messrs Fallon and Forth cannot, surely, account for their presence at such a prestigious event.”
In October 1995 Michael Fallon, who had been a Junior Education Minister under John Major, was searching for a new, and preferably safe, Parliamentary seat because he had lost his previous seat in Darlington in the 1992 General Election. Obviously most safe Conservative seats are found in the south and south east of England and at that time the Chair of the South East Region of the Conservative Party was the then Sir Robert Balchin, now Lord Lingfield.
thePipeLine believes Lord Lingfield and Mr Fallon already knew each other because between 1990 and 1992 Mr Fallon had been Schools Minister in the Department for Education and Science at the time when Sir Robert Balchin was heavily involved in providing the theoretical and practical base for the Major Government’s controversial policy of Grant-Maintained Schools, the forerunner to the Cameron Government’s promotion of Academy and Free Schools outside of local authority control. At this time Mr Fallon is understood to have shared a number of views espoused by Sir Robert Balchin such as the potential for employing teachers who do not hold conventional teaching qualifications.
At this time, as well as his political role as a senior Conservative Party official, Sir Robert was also Chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation, which was in receipt of £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money. Then in February 1994 it was announced that Sir Robert Balchin would also become a member of the board of a new Quango [Quasi Governmental arms length organisation] the Funding Agency for Schools [FAS]. However the appointments to the new organisation were highly controversial.
In March 1995 Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, Don Foster, alleged in a debate in the House of Commons that there was a magic circle of politicised money and influence in the new Quango and Sir Robert Balchin was at the centre of it
“I give the example of the Funding Agency for Schools, whose membership was announced last week. The chairman is Sir Christopher Benson, who will be on a salary of £34,430 for two days a week. Sir Christopher is also the chairman of Sun Alliance, which has reportedly given £280,000 to Tory party funds over the past six years. That is bad enough—I suppose that we are getting used to the Tory party rewarding its friends—but I can also reveal that Sir Christopher’s company will benefit from the grant-maintained sector.
Sir Robert Balchin, another member of the Funding Agency for Schools, as well as being the Tory party chairman for south-east England—clearly, he is fond of lost causes—is also the chairman of Grant Maintained Schools Mutual, an insurance scheme for grant-maintained schools. Who will provide the insurance for members of the mutual scheme? None other than Sun Alliance International. Clearly, Sun Alliance’s contributions to the Tory party have had the desired effect. The chairman of Sun Alliance has been given a lucrative part-time post on a new quango, and his company is set to make more money.”
Hansard 1 March 1995
However, while the opposition parties, especially Labour, clearly had Sir Christopher Benson, Sir Robert Balchin and the FAS in their sights, Sir Robert retained his political and Party influence. Shortly after the October 1995 Blackpool party took place Michael Fallon was adopted as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Sevenoaks in Kent and was duly elected to the House of Commons in the May 1st General Election of 1997.
As Mr Fallon resumed his Parliamentary career after the 1997 Election, Sir Robert Balchin’s career received a temporary setback with the abolition of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation and the Funding Agency for School, by Tony Blair’s Government. However, Sir Robert remained an influential presence behind the scenes, in the uppermost reaches of the Conservative Party. In 2003 he was appointed to Chair the Conservative Party Education Commission by then Party Leader and now Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith and in 2005 future Prime Minister David Cameron, appointed Sir Robert to Chair his own “Commission on Special Needs in Education”. Sir Robert was also a member of the advisory board of Reform, described by Patrick Wintour of the Guardian as ” a new thinktank with close links to key figures at [Conservative] Central Office.”
“the so-called godfather of the grant-maintained movement…Sir Bob has acted as a senior adviser to four successive education secretaries and two Tory opposition leaders.
In fact such was Sir Robert’s influence in the Conservative Party that in 2005 the Times Educational Supplement wrote that as a “central player” in the Conservatives Education strategy
“the so-called godfather of the grant-maintained movement…Sir Bob has acted as a senior adviser to four successive education secretaries and two Tory opposition leaders. Throughout he has remained true to the idea he first mooted in a paper for Sir Keith Joseph in the late 1980s called “Give schools their own cheque book”.”
In short, Sir Robert Balchin had become the embodiment of a Conservative Party operator. One of the famous men in grey suits who few outside of Westminster have ever heard of, but who thanks to their overt roles as advisors and their more subtle, behind the scenes influence as Party officers and mentors, mold both party policy and the MP’s who will carry it out.
As in the 1990’s with the Funding Agency for Schools Lord Lingfield’s business and professional lives also seemed to blend into each other to take legally sound advantage of the Government Policy he has helped shape at the highest level. According to Companies House Lord Lingfield is a director of the Centre for Education and Finance Management Ltd founded in 2000 [Company Registration Number: 04073121]. The company website states that “The Centre for Education & Finance Management has been assisting schools on financial, educational, personnel and legal matters since the inception of Local Management of Schools in 1990.” As a result it is able to “…provide expert advisory services led by solicitors, accountants, occupational health managers and educational practitioners.” The website adds “we invest time listening to our clients to ensure we provide the right mix of services at a competitive price.”
With the arrival of the Cameron Government in May 2010 both Mr Fallon and Sir Robert Balchin found fresh preferment. Mr Fallon has held a series of senior posts including Deputy Party Chairman and Minister of State for Business and Enterprise at the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, allegedly with a brief to put Liberal Democrat maverick Vince Cable back into his box, culminating with his appointment as Secretary of State for Defence in July 2014. Mr Fallon was also frequently deployed as a media firefighter; the “Minister for the Today programme.” Meanwhile Sir Robert Balchin was ennobled as a working Peer by David Cameron in October 2010 and shortly afterwards he was commissioned to produce the Government’s Review of Further Education. All the time he could watch the then Education Minister Michael Gove enacting the vision of Free Schools and Academy Schools which he had first designed and begun to put into practice under John Major in the early 1990’s. He had never been more influential.
“…it is now clear from Freedom of Information Act requests that Lord Lingfield also lobbied on behalf of Odyssey Marine Exploration and allowed his “Scientific Committee” to authorise unlicensed work on the wreck site…”
Curiously, because his earlier career showed no indication that he was interested in heritage projects, in 2010 Sir Robert Balchin also found time to set up the Sir John Balchin Maritime Heritage Foundation. However, he is closely associated with developing the Balchin name as a brand through his role as Chair of the “Balchin Family Society” and it is thought he first came into contact with Odyssey Marine Exploration and the HMS Victory 1744 Project through the TV reality documentaries made by JWM productions with the cooperation of Odyssey Marine Exploration. The TV and Odyssey researchers will have been attracted to Sir Robert by the prominence Admiral Sir John Balchen is given on the Balchin Family Society website. Indeed, although Sir Robert is not a direct descendant of Admiral Balchen of the Victory and even his family name is spelled differently, Sir Robert described the Admiral as a “forbear” in both correspondence with the Government and in a TV interview with Fox Business in 2009. As Dominic Kennedy of the Times showed, the attempt to meld Admiral Balchen’s heritage into that of the modern day Sir Robert Balchin even extended to the changing of the historically correct BALCHEN spelling of the Admiral’s name on the Balchin Family Society website to Sir Robert’s “BALCHIN” spelling. The result of this close collaboration was that, when Odyssey suggested to the Government consultation on the future management of HMS Victory 1744 that they would be prepared to work with a charitable foundation set up to manage the site, Sir Robert told the same consultation that he was prepared to form such a body and that Odyssey were best suited to undertake the work. This marriage made in Private Sector unregulated and unaccountable heaven was designed to be music to the new Secretary of State at the DCMS and another Surrey MP from Sir Robert Balchin’s back yard, Jeremy Hunt.
Labour MP Kevan Jones has now requested that Mr Hunt be placed under investigation by the Cabinet Secretary over a meeting with Lord Lingfield in early July 2010 where it is admitted HMS Victory was discussed although no records were made and which, it is alleged, may have breached the Ministerial Code. Not least because it was described by the DCMS to the media and Parliament as a constituency meeting when Mr Hunt is not actually Lord Lingfield’s constituency MP.
Whatever the result of the investigation into Mr Hunt’s conduct, it is now clear from Freedom of Information Act requests that Lord Lingfield also lobbied on behalf of Odyssey Marine Exploration and allowed his “Scientific Committee” to authorise unlicensed work on the wreck site throughout the two year process between the Government finally Gifting the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744 to the Maritime Heritage Foundation in January 2012 and the granting of permission to recover objects in October 2014. In 2012 he even asked for clarifications of the definition of personal items which might be found on the wreck, including any gold specie which might be present, which would ensure his own charity would pay unnecessarily high salvage fees to Odyssey of 80% of value rather than the 50% of value payable on Crown items, or the 0% of value payable if the MHF had chosen contract and conduct the work as a regular archaeological project rather than commercial salvage.
All this might have remained a footnote in the long running discussions involving the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, English Heritage and an Advisory Group and Expert Panel trying to get Odyssey Marine Exploration/Wreck Watch International/the Maritime Heritage Foundation, to submit an adequate project design for the HMS Victory Project which was fully compliant with Government Policy for military shipwreck sites and did not leave legal wriggle room enabling Odyssey to sell artifacts from the site contrary to internationally accepted ethical standards. However, in July 2014 Prime Minister David Cameron was forced into a re-shuffle. In that re-shuffle not only was Sam Gymiah, who is Lord Lingfield’s Constituency MP, appointed an under Secretary of State at the Department of Education, Michael Fallon, perhaps unexpectedly, was appointed as Secretary of State for Defence as his predecessor Philip Hammond was moved to the Foreign Office. Political strategists pointed out this put two Eurosceptics from the right of the Party in two of the most senior offices of state. It was also suggested that the Prime Ministers wanted trusted “operators” in post less than a year out from the General Election.
the perception that the decision to allow the recovery of at risk surface items…happened remarkably soon after Mr Fallon took office as Secretary of State and without final due diligence on the part of the Ministry of Defence is inescapable.
It now appears this was also seen as an opportunity for the Odyssey Marine Exploration/Wreck Watch International/Maritime Heritage Foundation axis to make one last push for the project to be authorised by that new Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Lingfield’s old Party colleague Michael Fallon. In this new approach Mr Fallon was assisted by the tough plain speaking former TV presenter Anna Soubry who had taken over as Defence Minister with day to day responsibility for the issue in Parliament. thePipeLine understands that the arrival of the new Ministerial team more or less coincided with a similar toughening of the approach to the discussions by Odyssey/Wreck Watch/MHF and the sidelining by the Ministry of Defence of the independent expert voices of the Ministry of Defence’s own HMS Victory 1744 Advisory Group, and the Expert Panel as well as English Heritage, the Government’s statutory advisor. From now on all there would be no balancing and expert peer review of whatever information and documentation came from Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation.
In that context, while there is currently no evidence that either Mr Fallon or Lord Lingfield have behaved in any way which is inappropriate, the perception that the decision to allow the recovery of at risk surface items from HMS Victory 1744 by the Maritime Heritage Foundation and its contractor Odyssey Marine Exploration happened remarkably soon after Mr Fallon took office as Secretary of State and without final due diligence on the part of the Ministry of Defence is inescapable.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told thePipeLine that within weeks of Mr Fallon becoming Secretary of State on 17 July Mr Fallon had written to Lord Lingfield twice, first on 13 August and again on 6 September. The MOD has not so far released the content of the letters, nor any letters or other communications sent by Lord Lingfield during this period. However, the tone of the correspondence may be revealed in a letter sent by the consultant which the Maritime Heritage Foundation shares with Odyssey Marine Exploration, Dr Sean Kingsley of Wreck Watch International. On 31 July 2014 Dr Kingsley wrote to Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey at the Department of Culture Media and Sport, accusing English Heritage of a politically motivated obstruction of the HMS Victory 1744 Project and demanding that the road blocks on the project be removed.
Dr Kingsley wrote
“My understanding is that the only residual opposition is coming from English Heritage. May I ask that DCMS investigate as a matter of urgency this lack of collaboration, which is blocking a sincere attempt to save vital UK underwater cultural heritage?… It is unclear on whose authority they have subsequently felt empowered to stop the project and ignore your instructions.”
In fact thePipeLine believes that opposition may also have come from other members of the HMS Victory Advisory Group and Expert Panel because we understand neither expert group was consulted before Mr Fallon took the final decision. Mr Fallon’s media talents may also be on display in the instruction to English Heritage that all media questions regarding HMS Victory 1744 be directed to the Ministry of Defence.
Dr Kingsley’s letter was copied to Mr Fallon and it now appears that this may have been a coordinated pincer movement designed to force through a positive decision on the HMS Victory Project in spite of the fact that Odyssey Marine Exploration was still under investigation for breaches of the Marine and Coastal Access Act on the HMS Victory wreck site in 2012. Breaches which an e-mail released under the Freedom of Information Act and written by Lord Lingfield, show were authorised by the Scientific Committee of the Maritime Heritage Foundation although they had been told that a licence was required for the work and none had even been asked for, let alone granted. The American company finally received an official written warning letter in lieu of formal criminal prosecution, on 7 November 2014, two weeks after Mr Fallon announced he had granted permission to the MHF for the recovery. The Maritime Heritage Foundation was not sanctioned, although the episode left major unanswered questions about the quality of its oversight and governance.
There is a pressing reason for Lord Lingfield and Dr Kingsley wishing to force the issue of permission. If the current state of the UK Political parties in the opinion polls is reflected in the results of the forthcoming General Election it is highly unlikely that David Cameron and the Conservatives will remain in Government after May 2015. In those circumstance Lord Lingfield would lose his inside track to the top of Government and given the series of sceptical questions asked about the HMS Victory 1744 Project by various Labour MP’s, culminating in the recent Adjournment Debate led by Shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones MP which used Parliamentary Privilege to make a series of major accusations as to Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation’s competence and conduct, it is highly unlikely that any Labour Government, or Labour led coalition, would look kindly on the Maritime Heritage Foundation’s plans. In other words, this could be the last chance for the Maritime Heritage Foundation and Odyssey to undertake the HMS Victory 1744 Project. In such circumstances it is easy to believe that Lord Lingfield might pull every lever available to him in his Conservative Party network to try to get the HMS Victory 1744 Project the green light.
“If he says ‘Everything is going swimmingly,’ he means, ‘it’s a fucking disaster’.”
thePipeLine e-mailed the Ministry of Defence a series of questions related to the political links between Mr Fallon and Lord Lingfield, including asking if Mr Fallon make these links clear to officials before becoming involved in the final decision to grant permission for the Maritime Heritage Foundation to initiate a recovery from the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744. However the Ministry of Defence told us that because there was a prospective Judicial Review of the HMS Victory permission process they could not comment on the matter. We also emailed a series of questions to Mr Fallon’s private office including a request that he clarify his relationship with Lord Lingfield and where and when they have discussed the issue of HMS Victory 1744. We have received no response from Mr Fallon either.
All this leads thePipeLIne to the following thought.
It is suggested that in his time as a junior in the Whip’s office under Margaret Thatcher Mr Fallon developed acutely tuned political antennae and a fellow Conservative MP has been quoted as saying it is easy to spot Mr Fallon’s warning sign to colleagues.
“If he says ‘Everything is going swimmingly,’ he means, ‘it’s a fucking disaster’.”
As the Odyssey Marine Exploration share price threatens to pass its ten year low and with the Ministry of Defence facing the Judicial Review, simultaneously with a series of major Whitehall and Charity Commission investigations requested by Mr Jones, including an investigation by the powerful National Audit Office into the possible undervaluing of Government assets on HMS Victory 1744 by the MOD and underpayments to the Government by Odyssey, the question for today must be: Is Mr Fallon telling colleagues the HMS Victory 1744 Project is all going swimmingly?