HC Deb 22 October 1942 vol 383 cc2155-60

Ordered, That the Second Report of the Select Committee be now considered."—[Sir Percy Harris.]

Report considered accordingly.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Report."

I owe the House an apology for moving this Motion on a day which is essentially a Private Members' day, but I feel that the recommendations of the Report are extremely urgent. My one regret is that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means is prevented by indisposition from being here. He is rarely absent, and I am sure I am expressing the feeling of the House in saying that we hope to hear of his speedy recovery. He has put in on this question of the disposal and custody of documents an immense amount of time and labour. He has shaken up the dust of ages, and we owe it to him and to his personal interest and industry, that both the Report now before the House and the previous one have come to fruition. There is a vital difference between the Report to which I am asking the House to agree and the previous one, which latter contained proposals to destroy documents, whereas this particular Report contains recommendations to preserve documents. If it is agreed to in its present form, it does not mean, as some of my hon. Friends are rather afraid, that no more papers will be handed over to salvage, but in the course of our explorations we found that in the Victoria Tower, which has always been a building allocated to the preservation of valuable documents, there was insufficient safeguard against fire. Much of the provision that is made is now unsatisfactory, and that is the reason why it is so important that this Report should be passed to-day. The matter is a little complicated, because these documents and these buildings are under the general control of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons as well as the Lord Great Chamberlain.

The danger of air raids is obvious to the House, and if by mischance the Victoria Tower was bit, we should, unless we had adequate arrangements against fire, be deprived of most valuable historic documents. The building was designed to be fireproof, but, to quote one example, it will be found from the Report that many hinges of the doors are rusty and require oiling and many of the windows of various rooms have been broken and only temporarily repaired, and it is urgent that these necessary safeguards should be provided without delay to make the building safe against fire. I would point out that official reference is made in the Appendix to the great importance of preserving a number of maps and plans which are now not merely of historic importance but are likely to be valuable when we come to re-plan and re-design many of our great towns and cities that have suffered from the blitz. An hon. Member behind me wanted to know whether the election petitions are likely to be pulped. This is an era when we do not often hear of election petitions. These, my Committee feel, are of real historic interest, and I think I can give him an undertaking that before they are handed over to salvage we shall come for authority again to this House.

Major Milner (Leeds, South-East)

I am sure we all associate ourselves with what the right hon. Baronet has said with regard to the regretted absence of the Chairman of the Committee. He has obviously as indeed has the whole Com- mittee, done an excellent job of work in this Report. I imagine that the House will at once agree with the proposals made by the Committee, but there are one or two questions which ought to be addressed to them, or at any rate which they ought to consider at some future date if and when they are set up again. While the Report deals in considerable detail with precautions against fire, I have been unable to see that any consideration whatever has been given to the question of precautions against bombing. I do not know the position in this respect of the Victoria Tower or what protection it affords, but that would appear to be a matter which should be taken into serious consideration. It may be that some concrete and steel or other protection might be desirable, and although I do not know, certainly from the Second Report of the Committee, apparently that matter has not so far been taken into consideration, although there may be some answer to that proposition. I suggest that the Committee take into consideration the sprinkler system which is now adopted in so many factories, whereby, if there is excessive heat in any part of the building, water fountains and so forth are so arranged that they automatically spray water on the heated part of the building and thereby prevent what might otherwise be a serious conflagration. That is a matter which the Committee might also perhaps take into account and which they do not appear to have considered.

One observes—and this is really perhaps the most serious point I have to make—that the Committee draw the attention of the Fire Committee of the House to certain points. That Fire Committee, as hon. Members know, is really set up under the jurisdiction of the Lord Great Chamberlain and Mr. Speaker, who have authority over these buildings. Although many duties are added to that Committee, it has no spokesman in this House. It is not set up by the House, and hence questions cannot be addressed to it. I would suggest that consideration might be given by those responsible to having perhaps behind that Committee—I would myself prefer to set up another form of committee which I have had long in mind and which I am surprised was not set up too years ago in this House—something in the nature of a House Committee to which representations could be made by Members and who would consider such representations, and, if thought desirable, make the wishes of the Members known to those in authority. It may be that such a committee can only be set up with the agreement of the Lord Great Chamberlain and Mr. Speaker, but its usefulness is so apparent that there would be no difficulty with regard to that. Such a committee would be a very valuable help, not only to Members, but to the authorities of the House. Perhaps between now and the re-assembly of Parliament such a proposal might be given consideration by those in authority, and unless the Lord Privy Seal would like to make further proposals to those already specified, I commend the recommendations of the Committee to the House and express agreement with the Report.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

I join with my hon. and gallant Friend and with the right hon. Baronet who has moved this Motion in expressing regret at the absence of the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means, whose most interesting speech on the occasion of the First Report will be within the recollection of Members who were present on that occasion. We are all greatly indebted to him for the very great interest he has taken and the devoted labour he has given to this very important subject. The whole House will be in agreement that the Second Report proposes most valuable measures of conservation and that we owe a great deal to the Committee. I hope that we shall have an assurance from the Government that the appropriate Government office will at once take in hand the carrying-out of these recommendations, as soon as the House has agreed to the Motion. It is a case in which no day should be lost.

There is, however, one point referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) which I would like to deal with a little more fully. His assurance is most welcome, because it does convey clearly the intention of the Committee, but, unfortunately, the First Report of the Committee, which is referred to in this Report, leaves two important classes of documents—which can never be replaced—to be pulped at any time in the future if the Ministry of Supply considers it necessary to have the paper. During the Debate on the First Report I put in a plea for these two classes of documents to be preserved, and I especially asked that the Public Records Office should be consulted before any final decision. The Chairman of Ways and Means relieved my mind very much by an assurance that the Committee did intend to consult that Office and had, in fact, already sent an invitation. I was quite sure from his expressions then that the Committee would keep in mind the recommendations that the experts of the Public Records Office made. We have in this Report a definite recommendation of the Keeper of Public Records, but, unfortunately, although the Report quotes his recommendation, it does not give any decision of the Committee on that recommendation. This recommendation would involve, in effect, a modification of the First Report and the reservation of these two classes of documents from pulping.

In the First Report, to which the Keeper of Public Records refers, the two classes of documents are specified; they are the transcripts and proceedings before Private Bill Committees from 1835 to 1903, of which no printed copies are available, and verbatim transcripts of proceedings in court on election petitions. These can be disposed of eventually if required by the Ministry of Supply, and, unfortunately, there is an ominous sentence that follows that portion of this recommendation on the part of the Committee. It states: In both these cases the papers in question are the only existing records, but any reasons for preserving them are probably only based on their possible interest to historians. That is an ominous sentence. A similar remark might have been made to the citizens of Alexandria when the great library of Alexandria was destroyed—that a large part of that library was only of value because of its possible interest to historians. These two classes of documents are unique, and the Keeper of Public Records has expressed in this Second Report his view that they ought to be preserved.

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Gentleman is dealing rather too much with the First Report which concerned documents that ought to be scrapped. This Report deals with the preservation of documents.

Mr. Harvey

That is true, Sir, but this Second Report quotes a note by the Keeper of the Public Records Office in which he says: I am very grateful to you for letting me see the First Report of your Select Committee containing proposals for the disposal of documents under three heads:

  1. (1) documents for immediate disposal,
  2. (2) modifications of the present practice of disposal, and
  3. (3) documents for disposal in event of more urgent need.
He goes on to say: We found nothing to criticise in the reasons given for these proposals, except perhaps in the case of the two classes of papers, named in Section 9 of the Report, which are among those only to be released for pulping if the need for waste paper should become more urgent. I was consulted in November last in connection with the 'verbatim transcripts of proceedings in Court on Election Petitions,' and expressed the opinion that, as the only record of the proceedings, they ought to be kept. The same consideration would seem to apply to 'transcripts of proceedings before Private Bill committees from 1835 to 1903,' of which no printed copies are available.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think discussion on the First Report would be in Order on this occasion. We have finished with the First Report.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

Is it not permissible for us when these matters are before us to make representations to those who have put this Report before us in order that further consideration may be given to such a question as this?

Mr. Speaker

That is going back to the First Report.

Mr. Mathers

But it is included in this one.

Mr. Speaker

The First Report has already been agreed to by the House, and it is no good going back on it now. We can only deal with questions raised in the Second Report.

Mr. Harvey

I would not for a moment wish to dispute your Ruling on this point, Mr. Speaker, so I will only add how grateful I am for my right hon. Friend's assurance and say how much I hope that if another Committee is appointed later to carry on the work of this Committee, it will, in the course of its deliberations, be able to include in a further Report a formal confirmation of that assurance.

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Report," put, and agreed to.