National Heritage Bill [Lords]

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Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this is probably the first major discussion on archaeology in the House for about 10 years? Clearly, the Bill will have an important function, as will the newly formed all-party group of which I am a member.

10.45 am

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We are starting a trend by ensuring that archaeological considerations are taken more seriously and have a higher profile in the House. We have many discussions about things that happen underground, such as pollution and how we tax aggregates—let alone the tube—and we discuss factors about the seashore such as the movement of shingle and pollution controls, but there is little legislation that addresses features underground with archaeological significance. They require protection, and many have been lost while insufficient has been done to save them.

There is an awful lot of legislation that addresses worries about the environment and environmental protection above ground, but little that addresses archaeology. The Bill will be one of the few pieces of legislation that promotes and protects archaeological sites that are important to the heritage of the country. Let us not forget that archaeology makes a major contribution to Britain's tourist industry, whether the sites are above water, below land or above land. The underwater archaeological aspect of the Bill is probably the last great unexplored frontier of archaeological investigation throughout the world.

Archaeologists and ancient historians are reassessing the timings of the ice age and the extent

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of civilisation before the middle eastern civilisations with which we are all too familiar, which may push back the dating of our forefathers by thousands of years. That will be achieved by underwater archaeological investigation of lands that may have been inhabited thousands of years before the middle eastern civilisations. Through that, we will find out more about our past.

Our nation has always been a maritime nation that was linked to the continent. There may be archaeological evidence of earlier civilisation below our waters, and it is vital that we have a body that is responsible for archaeology under the water and as serious and committed to the preservation of our heritage as English Heritage. Therefore, I warmly welcome the Bill.

Labour Members mentioned wrecks. I represent a coastal constituency in Sussex, and I was surprised to be approached by local divers with maps that showed some of the wrecks off our coast. There are an enormous number of wrecks, and many are used as training dive sites for divers. That is a growing business that involves more people than I anticipated. Most divers are legitimate and responsible, but I fear that a lot of people do not treat our wrecks, especially war graves, with the respect that they should. I hope that the Bill will give English Heritage the power to ensure that divers who wish to explore wrecks for legitimate leisure may do so, and that such divers will respect what English Heritage tells them they can and cannot do. People who refuse to respect that should have the full weight of the law brought down on them. I hope that that will solve some problems that are associated with the grey area of diving on wrecks.

It is odd that underwater archaeology has such a low profile in a nation with such maritime heritage. If the man in the street were asked to give two examples of underwater archaeology, he would, if hard pressed, mention the Mary Rose and, perhaps, the Armada. However, there are hundreds of thousands of other examples of underwater archaeology that we have begun to explore, and many more examples still lie there, which we have not come near exploring. There may be not only the high profile wrecks of warships, but prehistoric craft. Depending on our interpretation of the ice age, there may be various henge sites and walkways well out in the sea between England and the continent. There is a lot of archaeology that is still to be investigated, and we need the rigorous guardianship that English Heritage will bring to archaeology under the sea. Although for many of us the Bill does not go far enough in giving protection to archaeological sites, it is a good start. I hope that it is part of a process in which Parliament and the constituents whom we represent will take more seriously the archaeology, history and heritage that is so important. Such subjects should have a higher profile and be treated on a par with the other environmental concerns that we have rightly spent much of our time and resources considering. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill so efficiently, and I wish it well.

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The Chairman: Thank you for that helpful and thoughtful contribution.

Shona McIsaac: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hancock, and praise the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet for getting the Bill to Committee. He would probably agree that we were not expecting to discuss the Bill on Second Reading, because it was the fourth item on the agenda that day, but, with great delight, we had a short but interesting debate on Second Reading.

On the Sunday following our discussion of the Bill on Second Reading, the excellent television programme ''Time Team'' devoted a whole programme to underwater archaeology. It featured a wreck off the Scottish coast and demonstrated the wealth of heritage lying beneath our waters. I feel a wreck this morning because I am addicted to the repeats of ''Time Team'' that are shown on the Discovery channel at 12.30 am. The programme in the early hours of this morning was about the Roman crossing of the Thames—obviously now submerged—from St. Thomas' hospital to Thorney island, on which the House was built. Although that was about a river, it was an interesting example of what lies beneath the waters.

Like other hon. Members, I represent a coastal constituency. Many of my constituents fish out of the great port of Grimsby. During both wars, the men of Grimsby and Cleethorpes contributed massively to the war effort and many trawler men lost their lives at sea. There were also many air force bases in Lincolnshire and aircraft wrecks under the water. We have mentioned ships, but should not forget aircraft wrecks.

In representing a coastal community, I know that a lot of emotion surrounds the disturbing of what people regard as graves in the fishing and military vessels lost at sea. Constituents have raised concerns about people removing artefacts from the wrecks, which my constituents consider to be the desecration of graves. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the laws currently in place, such as the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994 and the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, give sufficient protection to the graves lying under our waters? I spoke about that matter on Second Reading.

I give the Bill my wholehearted support. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has already articulated that the boundaries of our knowledge about archaeology are being challenged—on the end of the ice age and sea level changes for example. We are beginning to realise that there is far more underwater archaeology than we suspected. There are likely to be prehistoric towns and urban settlements around the shores of the United Kingdom.

Cities have been found off the coast of India, which suggests that the urbanisation of society may have occurred much earlier than previously thought, although that is a contentious point with some archaeologists. There is a lot of archaeology to be discovered and investigated that will contribute to our knowledge of the history of not just these islands but

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mankind itself. Increasing the protection of that archaeology is an absolute necessity. I wish the Bill well and give it my wholehearted support.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Dr. Kim Howells): I, too, would like to say what a great pleasure it is to serve on the Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I have not had that pleasure before. I have always held the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet in high regard, and congratulate him on this excellent Bill, which has the Government's full support. Unlike many hon. Members, I cannot quote examples of local wrecks; I have a land-locked constituency. There are many ex-rugby players who would probably describe themselves as wrecks, but I do not think that we would like to explore them.

The Bill clearly has all-party support, so I shall refer briefly to some of the points raised. The mileage is 12 miles. It is important to remember that maritime military graves and military wrecks from 20th century conflicts remain the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. I am aware of the concerns of naval veterans' associations and relatives of those lost at sea about the activities taking place on some military wrecks. I am also aware that some maritime archaeologists suggest that all maritime heritage should be administered by the same body. I know that the hon. Gentleman has considered that.

The MOD undertook a review of the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and published a report on it last November. It is preparing a statutory instrument that will designate 16 vessels in UK waters and 7 in international waters that meet its criteria. I know from conversations that there have been worries about funding. That is an issue; English Heritage has a huge list of properties that have to be considered. The other day I learned that it grants about £100 million a year in aid, but about £400 million is probably needed for the maintenance of buildings that could do with a great deal of protection. English Heritage is taking on a very important new function, as hon. Members have informed us.

It may be useful to mention that English Heritage's grant in aid will be increased by £5 million in 2002–03 and by £11 million in 2003–04. Those levels of grant in aid reflect the fact that we intend to transfer responsibility for underwater archaeology to English Heritage for that period. English Heritage has been advised that the Government expect it to devote at least £200,000 per annum from that increase to underwater archaeology. The £340,000 per annum that is currently the DCMS baseline for underwater archaeology will also be transferred to English Heritage.

Underwater archaeology projects will be able to compete on equal terms with land archaeological projects for English Heritage grants, which are an important source of funding. When we have transferred the responsibilities, it will be up to English Heritage management to decide on the allocation of its budget. We have heard some strong arguments in this short debate in favour of paying much more attention to underwater archaeology than we have done until now.

 
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Prepared 13 March 2002