This investigation by thePipeLine into the content of a letter from Lord Lingfield to Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon, reveals previously unknown details of the financing of the HMS Victory 1744 Project by Odyssey Marine Exploration and the Maritime Heritage Foundation which experts say may put the future of the project at risk.
A letter obtained by thePipeLine under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] shows that Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon acted correctly when he withdrew permission in March for the Maritime Heritage Foundation and its contractor, the Tampa based treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration, to recover at risk surface finds from the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744 because the project is in breach of several areas of UK policy for historic shipwrecks. However, the letter also calls into question the whole basis of the HMS Victory 1744 project because it makes clear that the only possibility of a financial reward for Odyssey’s participation in the venture is based on a speculative treasure hunt for the ship’s alleged “secret cargo” of gold specie. A cargo which Lord Lingfield says in the letter, that he does not believe exists. Using language which is sure to anger the independent experts of the Ministry of Defence HMS Victory 1744 Expert Panel and Advisory Group as well as the senior Conservative peer and archaeologist Lord Renfrew, Lord Lingfield also accuses opponents of the project of being a small group of ideologues with personal agendas and even a hatred of the United States.
Sent a mere ten days after Michael Fallon was appointed Secretary of State for Defence, the letter which was sent under Lord Lingfield’s personal letterhead is dated 20 July 2014 and appears here IN BLUE as sent with redactions by the Ministry of Defence Freedom of Information officers. Following each paragraph thePipeline then offers its deconstruction and analysis of what Lord Lingfield says using sources in the public domain.
[Written By Hand] My dear Michael
First of all so many congratulations on your new Cabinet post; it is so very well deserved and it is wholly right that the PM should reward your obvious merit by giving you such an important task.
I can only apologise for accompanying these words by asking you to read the following about which you will shortly be asked to make a decision. I should add that I was about to write the same letter to Philip. Giles Ahern, a first class official in the MOD, in fact Deputy Fleet Secretary, has been working with me for several years on a task which started under his equally impressive predecessor. This is a brief summary of it.
thePipeLine’s Analysis: As reported previously in thePipeLine Lord Lingfield and Michael Fallon have an association in the Conservative Party going back at least as far as the early 1990’s. Lord Lingfield was chair of the South East Region of the Party when Mr Fallon was selected to fight his seat of Sevenoaks, in that region, in 1997. Thus it would not be unusual for this kind of congratulatory personal greeting to be sent and received. What does appear to be unusual is the combining of the effusive greeting with the unrelated and outspoken lobbying on behalf of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, Odyssey Marine Exploration and the HMS Victory 1744 project which follows.
In 1744, HMS Victory, (the one before Nelson’s) sank with 1200 hands in a violent storm. It was the flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchin, from whose cousin I am descended (he had no Balchin descendents). It lay in the Channel undiscovered until 2008 when an American firm, Odyssey Marine Exploration, found it and eventually found me. There was a lengthy public consultation during which I offered to found a charity, The Maritime Heritage Foundation, which would attempt to ‘do a Mary-Rose’ on the remains. The largest ship in the world when it capsized, Victory contains a collection of unique Georgian huge bronze cannon, many of which are visible on the seabed, it is [REDACTED]. My offer was the only one, and was eagerly
accepted by the MOD, and it was transferred to the Foundation by deed of gift, with the proviso that any excavation would require the permission of the MOD Secretary of State,
‘that consent shall not be unreasonably withheld’. The redoubtable Dr Margaret Rule, the architect of the Mary-Rose excavation, is the chairman of my Foundation’s archaeological committee. I emphasise that we all work entirely voluntarily.
thePipeLine: In this section Lord Lingfield lays out the bare bones of the Maritime Heritage Foundation/Odyssey Marine Exploration version of the loss of HMS Victory 1744, her rediscovery by Odyssey Marine Exploration and the setting up of the Maritime Heritage Foundation to manage the wreck. What Lord Lingfield omits to tell Mr Fallon is that he was publicly associated with Odyssey from January 2009 when he was named in an Odyssey press release and took part in a press conference and media interviews at Canary Wharf announcing the discovery of the wreck. Neither does he mention the off the radar “Constituency Meeting” with the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt [who is not Lord Lingfield’s Constituency MP] which took place in early July 2010 shortly after the public consultation on the future management of the wreck closed. It is not known what was discussed at the meeting, but it is widely believed that Lord Lingfield broached the subject of founding a charity to manage the wreck site independently of Government. This conclusion is reached because both the Odyssey submission to the consultation and Lord Lingfield’s own submission, suggested going down the charitable route. What is certain is that the Maritime Heritage Foundation was formed in October 2010 as the Sir John Balchin Maritime Heritage Foundation.
- Lord Lingfield also points out that his offer to manage the wreck was “the only one”. Critics say that is because the other respondents to the consultation took the terms of the consultation at face value and discussed options for the future management of the wreck site. They did this because Department for Culture Media and Sport had not asked for offers to manage the site. As with the later case of the Garden Bridge in London where it is alleged a tender process was set up to deliver what the Mayor Boris Johnson had already decided he wanted, only Lord Lingfield and Odyssey could read the DCMS’s magic ink on the consultation document and deliver the private charitable solution to which Lord Lingfield knew Mr Hunt would give the green light.
- Here we also note that Lord Lingfield uses the now discredited BALCHIN spelling of Admiral Sir John Balchen’s name. A spelling adopted by Odyssey Marine Exploration and the Maritime Heritage Foundation between 2009 and the Summer of 2015 when both groups began to use the more historically correct BALCHEN spelling for some published documents. Critics of the MHF/Odyssey project maintain that the BALCHIN spelling was adopted to appear to give Lord Lingfield credibility as a close family member and descendent of the Admiral when in fact genealogical work strongly suggests his relationship is distant at best.
- The late Dr Margaret Rule was brought in as chairman of the MHF’s Scientific Committee in the Spring of 2012 after trenchant criticism of the lack of archaeological and heritage experience and capacity in the Maritime Heritage Foundation. Reservations which were expressed in private at the HMS Victory Advisory Group as revealed in FOIA releases and more widely in the archaeological media. Critics of Dr Rule’s appointment observed that she was known to be an opponent of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and its Annex as a regulatory base for maritime archaeology and had been a member of a similar scientific committee of another controversial commercial salvage company which claims to undertake archaeology funded by the sale of artefacts, Arqueonautas Worldwide. Dr Rule was in post with Arqueonautas when that company removed artefacts from the Sovereign Immune warship the USS Yorktown which sank off the Cape Verde islands in 1850 and auctioned them at Sotheby’s. An action which resulted in a complaint by the US Government and the return of the material.
Any British warship wreck is considered to be ‘Sovereign Immune’ and thus not subject to the normal international rules of salvage which allow the finders to declare it to the Receiver of Wreck in their countries and to keep a percentage, normally 80%, of the value. The minute that it was passed to the Foundation, however, ‘Sovereign Immunity’ was given up and it currently has the status of a merchant vessel, a legal prey, in fact, to any rogue salvor from any foreign port. One cannon has already been stolen by a Dutch pirate and only luck has made its recovery possible. Hence now a decision is urgent. The wooden parts of the ship have disintegrated beyond recovery, by the way.
thePipeLine: this section confirms something which critics of the Deed of Gift for HMS Victory 1744 have been saying since the ship was gifted to the Maritime Heritage Foundation in January 2012: the only legal defence available to the Ministry of Defence to protect the wreck site and its contents was that of Sovereign Immunity under International Law. The moment that was removed the wreck site became fair game.
Of course, that means a commercial salvor like Odyssey can claim rights to the site as “salvor in possession” which means it can negotiate directly with the owner and effectively call the shots in any salvage attempt. This is precisely what has happened with Odyssey repeatedly claiming in its financial filings to be salvor in possession of the Victory wreck site even though the Ministry of Defence retains a veto on activity on the site.
What Lord Lingfield also fails to mention is the fact that timber elements of the ship’s structure were shown being excavated in the TV documentaries “Treasure Quest” and “Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt”. The latter, also appeared to show excavation work undertaken on the site in the late Summer of 2012 and the discovery of a human skull at a time when the Maritime Heritage Foundation did not have permission from the Ministry of Defence for an excavation, or a Marine Licence from the Marine Management Organisation. These were actions, which were they to be investigated and proven, would be a breach of the terms of the Deed of Gift for HMS Victory 1744.
One cannon was indeed seized by the Netherlands authorities from a Dutch salvage vessel and it is currently believed to be back in the UK undergoing conservation prior to display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. The precise time and circumstances of the actual theft are disputed although it is known that it took place while the wreck was still UK Crown property and Sovereign Immune.
I had taken care to negotiate a hard won deal from the American firm: they will underwrite the total costs of excavation, archaeology, research, reporting, a bond of [REDACTED] conservation and exhibition of the artefacts of the Victory, bringing them ashore 1n the UK, whence they will be offered to a UK museum. I have begun talks with several possible locations, including [REDACTED] and have offered them to the [REDACTED] The MOD has my trustees’ guarantee that no objects will be sold on the market and that the collection will, if humanly possible, stay as one assemblage; it will not leave Britain, being an important part of our maritime history.
thePipeLine: Far from being a hard won deal, the contract Lord Lingfield accepted from Odyssey is quite unlike the traditional “no cure no pay” contract of the marine salvage industry where the salvage company, in this case Odyssey, takes all the risk in the hope of a high reward. Instead, under the published terms of the contract between the Maritime Heritage Foundation and Odyssey, the Foundation effectively pays Odyssey twice. First full expenses and second 50% of the value of Crown artefacts and 80% of the value of non-Crown artefacts recovered.
Of course a traditional archaeological project would be far cheaper because it would be undertaken at a contract price and the value of artefacts would not enter into the calculation. E-mails seen by thePipeLine under FOIA requests suggest that members of the HMS Victory Advisory Group were concerned at the awarding of the salvage contract to Odyssey by MHF at a time in late 2011/early 2012, when the Maritime Heritage Foundation had no independent archaeological advice, or expertise.
thePipeLine also understands that discussions have actually taken place with the National Museum of the Royal Navy [NMRN] over housing the HMS Victory 1744 archive. However, if the project is not compliant with either UK policy for historic wrecks or the UNESCO Convention then the Museum could fall foul of the UK Museums Association [MA] Code of Ethics.
This problem would be particularly severe if it was not “humanly possible” to keep the HMS Victory collection together as would be the case if the MHF pays or part pays Odyssey in artefacts as per the salvage contract. The UNESCO Convention and Annex require that a project generates a single coherent archaeological archive and the MA Code requires Accredited Museums, which the NMRN is, to observe the terms of internationally accepted Conventions, even if the UK has not ratified them. Any failure to do so could result in the loss of accreditation and with it access to significant funding streams such as the Heritage Lottery Fund which require accreditation as a prerequisite. Disturbingly in this context, the newly published project design for the Victory 1744 project only undertakes to retain “certain artefacts” in the project archive and while this may relate to a standard “discard policy” common to all archaeological excavations, the fear is that this is a form of words to cover Odyssey taking possession of any non-Crown artefacts, such as the personal possessions of drowned sailors or even that elusive secret cargo of gold specie, as salvor in possession.
What is in It for Odyssey, apart from good publicity for undertaking such a noble task? It was rumoured at the time of sinking that there was gold on board, belonging not to the British state, but being carried from the bankers of Lisbon, where it had last called, to their banker colleagues in the UK. During the consultation the government, in 2009, commissioned research which suggests that this is not true. Should, however, it be found, being not the property of the state (and thus not passed over by the MOD to my foundation}, it would be bound by the normal rules of salvage and the salvors could eventually expect to receive some 80% agreed by the Receiver of Wreck. Thus Odyssey are betting on the odds and I hope that they win, though it is, in my view, unlikely. In any event these historic artefacts will be saved for the nation. I ought to add that Odyssey is the only firm in the world capable of this work; and are under contract to the Department of Transport to lift the silver from two merchant ships which sank in wartime carrying bullion to India. They are already providing the British taxpayer with many millions, at no cost or risk, from the work so far.
thePipeLine: Various legal and maritime archaeology experts consulted by thePipeLine all agree that this paragraph kills the HMS Victory 1744 project as far as compliance with current UK policy for historic shipwrecks is concerned. At the most basic level, by suggesting that Odyssey’s reward will be derived from an 80% share of the value cargo of specie which the Government signed away rights to manage under the Deed of Gift, the project breaches Rule 2 of the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage which requires that
“The commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage for trade or speculation or its irretrievable dispersal is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and proper management of underwater cultural heritage. Underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods.”
- This assertion also begs the question where will MHF get the money to pay Odyssey the 80%. If it cannot raise the cash to pay Odyssey, and the MHF is not known to have made any public attempt to raise any finance at all, the contract allows for the MHF to pay Odyssey in the form of artefacts, i.e. Odyssey will be given coins and specie in lieu of payment which it can then dispose of, thus dispersing the archaeological archive. This represent a further breach of Rule 2.
However, there is a yet more fundamental problem with this statement. The issue of funding and the potential use of any finds of coin or specie by Odyssey to “reward” their involvement in the project does not appear in either the published HMS Victory 1744 Project Design or its Addendum. Effectively this funding mechanism sits outside the HMS Victory 1744 Project books like Volkswagen’s “defeat technology” in the computer software, hidden from scrutiny until it is needed, or until accidentally revealed in public, as it is in this letter. The failure to address the issue of finance in the Project Design renders the consultation on the Marine Licence Application to the MMO potentially as void as the rigged emissions tests on various products of Volkswagen. It also puts into question the Ministry of Defence’s conduct and competence in the process. The existence of this letter shows the MoD certainly knew about this funding model from at least July 2014 and officials should have known it was a project killer because of the clear non-compliance with the Rules of the UNESCO Annex. Yet the Secretary of State was first allowed to grant permission for the recovery and then humiliated by being forced to rescind that same permission. This breaks one of the unofficial rules of Whitehall. Protect the Minister and the Government, particularly from accusations of incompetence.
- By confirming that any non-governmental specie would be given up to Odyssey under the normal rules of salvage also opens up the possibility that the similarly privately owned personal possessions of the 1100 officers and men who were lost on HMS Victory could either be sold back to the Maritime Heritage Foundation at commercial prices, or disposed of by Odyssey through its own shop or on the antiquities auction circuit. This would represent a dangerous precedent threatening the exploitation of the personal possessions of British Military Personnel lost anywhere in the world and particularly at sea.
- It is now also clear that far from providing the UK taxpayer with “many millions” at no cost or risk as Lord Lingfield claims, the salvage by Odyssey of the two merchant ships SS Gairsoppa and SS Mantola have cost UK Taxpayers over fifteen million pounds in legal costs and compensation to an unsuccessful bidder who threatened legal action after the terms of the tender for the Gairsoppa appeared to have been changed after the contract between Odyssey and the Department for Transport after the contract was awarded, rendering the tender process unfair.
- It is also alleged that Odyssey has underpaid the UK Government over its share of the silver recovered from SS Gairsoppa by at least $4 million. The financial settlement and management of the contract is currently understood to be under investigation at the Department for Transport. Odyssey also took part as a service provider in a legal tax avoidance scheme operated by Robert Fraser Marine until it was exposed in the Times newspaper and reportedly shut down by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
It is also interesting to speculate what the long suffering investors in Odyssey Marine Exploration will make of Lord Lingfield’s assertion that he feels it is unlikely the bullion cargo is even present.
However, to my honest and obviously naive amazement, the gifting of the wreck to the Foundation caused a storm of protest from a [REDACTED]. They, of course, wanted the government to give it to them (although they made no offer at the time and have not done so since) and they wanted a government grant of the £6/ 7 million that the work will cost. They (and Labour MPs) attacked me personally in the press: a ‘treasure hunter who will sell our heritage to wealthy American collectors’, (it is a charity), a ‘war grave robber’ (the War Graves Act applies to ships wrecked only after 1913, and, as Dr Rule has stated, most bones will have disappeared (unlike the Mary-Rose). These people have a deep ideological hated of commercial archaeology, especially a hat[r]ed of the USA. I have never replied to anything, wanting to avoid any adverse publicity for the government and played everything by the book, and a long book it has been … The DCMS Secretary of State last year stated clearly that charitable/commercial projects of this nature are a valuable way forward for the arts in our current economic climate.
thePipeLine: This paragraph appears to be born of frustration rather than knowledge. No archaeological body is known to have asked to take on HMS Victory 1744, and thus no archaeological body has asked the Government for £6/7 million to undertake work on the site. A figure which is itself unsourced.
- Lord Lingfield also appears to have no concept of the implications of the fact that Odyssey located human remains on the HMS Victory wreck site at least twice, in 2008 and again, if “Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt” is to be believed, in the apparently unauthorised intrusive work in the late Summer of 2012.
- Equally the suggestion that opposition to Odyssey and the HMS Victory project is ideological and based on a hatred of commercial archaeology and the USA is more a case of Right wing paranoia than any objective reality. Indeed, many of the most vocal opponents of Odyssey and its business model and practices are based in the USA and by no means are all of them archaeologists. One of the most effective recent critics, Ryan Morris, is in fact, an activist fund manager.
- In the final section of this paragraph Lord Lingfield seems to imply that the Government somehow owes him a favourable decision because he is carrying out Government Policy.
The MOD is bound by custom to consult DCMS, and there the trouble started. Every project plan we submitted at the MOD’s request was picked apart by [REDACTED] who in fact, have little experience of wrecks and have no purview outside our waters (Victory is in international waters) and the only wreck they have attempted has been a major cock-up. They have no VETO but act as if they have and Giles Ahern has been valiantly trying to get them to agree. We have met every objection, given in to many demands, and our archaeologists have re-written our project plans many times. Earlier this year I met with Ed Vaizey in the Commons; he, to his credit, held two meetings with my people and English Heritage etc and told them to get their act together. However, there has been little progress.
thePipeLine: Although the identity of precisely who Lord Lingfield accuses of having picked apart the MHF project plans is redacted, the context suggests that Lord Lingfield is referring to English Heritage [now Historic England], the Government’s statutory advisor on heritage matters.
It is also regarded as significant that Lord Lingfield refers to two meetings between “my people” and Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey, another well connected Conservative politician who was handling the day to day running of the HMS Victory Project for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. thePipeLine understands that both the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have turned down requests for meetings between Ministers and other Expert Groups to discuss HMS Victory 1744.
It is also believed that Mr Fallon did not call a meeting of either the HMS Victory 1744 Advisory Group or the Expert Panel between his coming to office as defence Secretary on 15 July 2014 and his granting permission to the Maritime Heritage Foundation to undertake work on the wreck which came on 6 September 2014. A Parliamentary written answer by Defence Minister Anna Soubry in December 2014 also suggests he did not consult English Heritage [now Historic England] either as Ms Soubry was unable to tell Parliament that English Heritage had been consulted and supported Mr Fallon’s decision to grant permission for the recovery of at risk surface items. If this interpretation is correct it appears that Mr Fallon did as Lord Lingfield was clearly asking and bypassed the very mechanisms which were put in place to ensure that he and Lord Lingfield, received the most up to date technical and legal advice regarding the project and its compliance with UK policy.
To be frank, I would never have been so stupidly altruistic as to take this on, had I known of the aggro that I would get. Unless I get MOD permission soon, : [REDACTED] and the wreck will be a prey to any maritime thief with a grab and crane. I could not stop them, nor, of course, could you send a naval vessel to protect the wreck, even if the funds were available. I do not have to tell you that the bronze alone in these 100 cannon is worth many millions today for melting and I don’t want them to disappear as have many war memorials of late. My lawyers, experts in maritime law, believe that, after two and a half years of prevarication, consent Is being ‘ unreasonably refused’, and, either we should just go ahead anyway, or seek judicial review. Odyssey, now with a billion pound deal on deep sea mineral deposit recovery, have plenty of money to fund this. I don’t want to be pushed into either choice; I have done nothing ever to embarrass the government and do not want to start now.
thePipeLine: Even to seasoned observers of the whole HMS Victory 1744 controversy, this paragraph is extraordinary. Having laid the legal and contractual elephant traps two years earlier, Lord Lingfield, a member of the House of Lords, and a senior member of the Conservative Party, who is the architect of the Government’s flagship Free Schools policy and who has written major reports for Michael Gove and even Prime Minister David Cameron himself, now threatens a Conservative Secretary of State with legal action funded by a US based Treasure Hunting company to enable that company to override the stated policy of the British Government.
Lord Lingfield also appears to suggest that Odyssey and MHF had received legal advice that they could just “go ahead anyway”. As is now well known, it appears the two organisations did “go ahead anyway” and deposit material on the seabed without a Marine Licence in 2012. An action which in November 2014 resulted in an official written warning letter from the Marine Management Organisation in lieu of Court proceedings. There are also allegations, backed up by an e-mail sent by Lord Lingfield to Simon Routh of the MoD in July 2012, that Odyssey prepared some cannon for lifting and excavated parts of the HMS Victory site, also without permission of the Secretary of State and thus in breach of the Deed of Gift and again without a marine licence. Activity which was confirmed by Mr George Eustace MP on 17 March 2015 on behalf of the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] in another Parliamentary Written Answer.
Taken together Lord Lingfield’s words and the actions of Odyssey in knowingly breaching the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, they were told the activities required a licence in early 2012, calls into question the quality of management and managerial oversight available to both organisations. They could also suggest that Odyssey and the MHF hold the UK Government’s advisors and regulators in something close to contempt.
As to Lord Lingfield’s reference to a “billion pound deal on deep sea mineral deposit recovery” which would bankroll the threatened Judicial Review, that is either bluff or fantasy. At the time the letter was written the takeover of Odyssey by Mexican mining giant Minera del Norte S.A. de c.v. (MINOSA) lay eight months in the future and the only project actually underway was contract work on the wreck site of the paddle steamer Central America on behalf of a Court appointed Receiver in the United States. Of course, cynics might argue that bluff and fantasy have been Odyssey’s trademark style for years.
Finally the question is begged, if Lord Lingfield knew he could not protect the wreck site of HMS Victory as he says here, why would he even take the site on and why would the MoD even consider gifting it to him? Such a scheme should fail even the most cursory risk assessment by Whitehall officials.
However, the artifacts are at grave risk of theft or destruction, and the project at risk of failure because of a small band of vociferous ideologues with their own agendas and I am determined not to be beaten by them. It is worth noting by the way that if these artifacts were under my land, instead of being under the sea, the Portable Antiquities Scheme would allow me to dig them up and sell them on the market, or, if Treasure Trove, be paid the commercial value by the State!
This is a crazy situation where bureaucratic systems have been exploited by a [REDACTED] and I hope that it will be resolved so that Odyssey’s ship can take its equipment to the site before Winter sets in.
thePipeLine: Lord Lingfield restates a borderline defamatory description of the experts from Historic England, the Expert Panel and Advisory Group and the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee suggesting they are “vociferous ideologues with their own agendas.” To this band of vociferous idealogues we can add Lord Renfrew, former Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, one of the UK’s most eminent and respected living archaeologists and a fellow Conservative Peer.
The reference to the Portable Antiquities Scheme [PAS] is also completely disingenuous. Before it was stripped of Sovereign Immunity HMS Victory actually had a similar level of protection to a scheduled site on land which would be off limits to metal detectorists who are the main users of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, unless they had written consent to work the site. Neither does Lord Lingfield mention that many archaeologists are distinctly uncomfortable with the PAS in any case, precisely because it seems to legitimise treasure hunting for personal profit.
I know that Giles will give you a clear and balanced view of the arguments to assist you in making a decision.
Once again, sincerest apologies for disturbing your first few days in once with an impatient letter; do by all means ask me to come in if you wish [REDACTED]
[Written By Hand]
A further FOIA release shows that Mr Fallon replied to this letter on 12 August 2014 stating that any decision must be compliant with the UK policy for historic shipwrecks under the Annex to the UNESCO Convention. However, he reassured Lord Lingfield that
“Officials are continuing to work on this issue and I am assured that comprehensive advice will be available in early September, at which point I hope to be able to write to you with positive news about this interesting project.”
This may be taken to suggest that Mr Fallon had given his officials until September to sort the problem out and as Ms Soubry’s written answer suggests, they did it by apparently keeping the decision making away from the Advisory Group, the Expert Panel and English Heritage.
Sure enough on 6 September 2014 Mr Fallon wrote again to Lord Lingfield
…Consent is therefore given, consistent with the Deed of Gift, for MHF (or its agent) to recover at risk surface artefacts, as described in Stage 3 of the February 2014 Project Design, with the following conditions:
- that the necessary Maritime Management Organisation (MMO) licence is obtained; and
- that while the MMO licence application is being processed, and before work on site can commence, MHF provides more information to the MOD about the UK conservation facility and museum that it intends to use.
At this time consent is only given for Stage 3 work and consideration of further phases will be made in light of reported progress and continued funding assurances. As per the Deed of Gift, such consent shall not be unreasonably withheld.”
The decision was announced in a statement to Parliament six weeks later on 24 October 2014.
However, on 5 March 2015, Mr Fallon was forced to withdraw permission for the recovery in the face of the threat of a Judicial Review instigated by Mr Robert Yorke, the Chair of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, acting in a personal capacity. Experts consulted by thePipeLine suggest that the confirmation in Lord Lingfield’s letter of 25 July 2014 that Odyssey’s funding was based on finding and exploiting commercially, a probably non-existent treasure, was a slam dunk breach of the UNESCO Annex which meant that, from the Government’s point of view, the Judicial Review could not be defended successfully. To that we can now add the fact that the recently published Project Design and Addendum do not discuss funding which is instead carried off the books, with the consequence that it too does not comply with the UNESCO Annex and thus Government Policy.
At the time of writing the HMS Victory 1744 Project remains in Limbo and with the Lingfield letter apparently confirming that the Odyssey’s involvement in the project is effectively funded by a treasure hunt, it is likely to remain there for some time to come, because in those circumstances there is no possibility the project can be compliant with current UK Government Policy under the UNESCO Annex.
Of course there is one clear and present fact about this letter which goes beyond any detail of interpretation. The letter clearly demonstrates that Lord Lingfield used his influence and access to Westminster to meet and lobby Ministers of the Crown across at least two departments; an influence and access which was denied to others; even those, which, like Historic England, are charged with protecting the public interest and with protecting Secretaries of State from themselves and sometimes even from their friends.