HC Deb 04 July 1958 vol 590 cc1774-83

1.26 p.m.

Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 9, at the end to insert: and provide proper and adequate accommodation and facilities for the inspection of the public records by the public". The House will observe that this part of Clause 1 refers to the general responsibility of the Lord Chancellor for the public records, and it purports to outline his specific responsibilities in relation to that. The Lord Chancellor is charged with the general responsibility for the execution of this Act and shall supervise the care and preservation of public records. In our opinion, a very important aspect of this problem has been completely left out of the Lord Chancellor's responsibility, and indeed, it is not covered in any part of this Bill, and that is the provision of adequate accommodation and facilities for inspection by the public of the public records. It is very difficult to see what useful purpose the Public Record Office could have unless its facilities were made wholly and completely available to the public. Indeed, that is its main purpose and its main function. We believe that the Lord Chancellor, who is responsible to Parliament for the operation of this Measure and the care of the Public Record Office, should have the specific responsibility for the provision of adequate accommodation and facilities for the public to consult the records which are there.

For more than a hundred years this problem of adequate accommodation and facilities for the public at the Public Record Office has existed. Indeed, the Grigg Committee, arising from whose findings this Bill is brought forward, makes a specific reference to this matter in paragraph 205 of its Report, and the concluding part of the paragraph reads: But we consider that the general effect of the implementation of our recommendations should be to put an end, once for all, to those recurrent accommodation crises which have been a feature of the administration of the public records ever since the first Public Record Office Act was passed in 1838. 1.30 p.m.

The specific recommendation is to be found on page 84 of the Committee's Report, in paragraphs 2 and 3. Paragraph 2 reads as follows: The site at Chancery Lane should be exploited to its maximum extent as a repository and a place where records may be consulted. The additional storage accommodation required should be provided at Ashridge Park and Hayes. Paragraph 3 reads: High priority in exploiting the site at Chancery Lane should be given to the provision of extra search room accommodation. Our complaint is that that recommendation is not implemented, as far as we can see, in any shape or form in this Bill, and we regard it as a very important omission. If the intention of the Bill is to be carried out, very considerable arrangements will have to be made to extend the accommodation for the storage of public records if the public are to have adequate facilities for studying and consulting these records.

One can gather to some extent the magnitude of the problem if we realise that, at the moment, the records which are housed in the Public Record Office, which cover a period of just over 1,000 years, are contained in 40 miles of shelving space, but there are, lying in Government Departments and awaiting transfer to the Public Record Office records occupying 120 miles of shelving space. These should have been at the Public Record Office, but through shortage of accommodation there and the inadequacy of the administration they still remain on the shelves of Government Departments, unable to be consulted, in the main, by any member of the public.

If the Bill is to be carried into effect, it means that the public records that now lie in Government Departments are to be transferred, quickly, I hope, to the Public Record Office. The House will realise, therefore, the acute problem which will face the Public Record Office in providing adequate accommodation for this additional quantity of public records in order to have them sorted and stored, and, what is of equal importance, so that adequate accommodation shall be provided for the public to consult and study this very much larger volume of records.

We think that it is the great weakness of this Bill that no attempt is made in it to place the responsibility for providing the accommodation and facilities necessary upon the only person who is capable of taking the responsibility; that is, the Lord Chancellor, who has to be responsible to Parliament for the operation of this Act. Therefore, we hope that the suggested Amendment to this Clause will be accepted by the Government, because we believe that the provision of accommodation and facilities is of top priority, and compares equally with, if indeed it is not greater than, any other responsibility which the Lord Chancellor is now to undertake.

There are two aspects of this problem of providing adequate accommodation and facilities which are embodied in the recommendations of the Grigg Committee in the two paragraphs which I quoted to the House earlier. The first is the provision of adequate storage accommodation at Ashridge Park and Hayes for the additional public records to be transferred from Government Departments to the care of the Public Record Office, and, in addition, the recommendation that the site adjoining the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane should be developed to provide, in the main, additional accommodation for the public to search and inspect those records. This is a responsibility which cannot be placed upon anybody except the Lord Chancellor. It definitely involves the expenditure of money, and it places a responsibility on the Lord Chancellor for doing something about it.

The most economical arrangement that could be effected would be for the Lord Chancellor, exercising any powers which he might have, to secure the implementation of the recommendation of the Grigg Committee to develop the vacant site alongside the Public Record Office. If he did so, that would provide much more accommodation in the Public Record Office itself, instead of having to disperse documents at Ashridge Park, Hayes and probably elsewhere. More of them could be concentrated at the Public Record Office itself, and it would provide much better facilities for the public to study and inspect the greater volume of documents there available. It would also avoid a lot of uneconomic administrative expenses in having to convey documents to and from Ashridge Park, Hayes and the Public Record Office, because most of them would be there, and that unnecessary transport would be cut out.

Therefore, I hope that the learned Solicitor-General will give us an encouraging reply to this Amendment, because this is a serious problem which needs some attention. My complaint has been that this aspect of it, particularly the provision of adequate acommodation for the public, has been well down the list of priorities for work at the Public Record Office. I am not blaming anybody for that. It just happens to be one of those things which have existed, to which the Grigg Committee has called attention, and I feel that now is the time to do something about it.

We do not have a Bill of this kind brought before the House every day. The last occasion when this matter was looked into by the House was in 1910 when a Royal Commission was set up. That was forty-eight years ago, and I hesitate to say whether we shall have another Bill of this character in the lifetime of anybody present here today. This, therefore, is the occasion on which these matters should be raised because they are not likely to be raised again for a long time. They are important matters on which the Government ought to give some assurance to the House.

The Grigg Committee specifically referred to the inadequate accommodation for the public in paragraph 198 of its Report which says: We would, however, draw attention to the need to provide extra accommodation at Chancery Lane for consulting the records. The present search rooms are inadequate, and we recommend that if it is not possible in the immediate future to exploit the whole of the available site, high priority should be given to the provision of extra search room accommodation—if necessary by adapting the existing premises. I hope that the Solicitor-General will take note of what has been said, and particularly of what has been recommended by the Committee which most exhaustively considered this problem. I hope that he will give the House some assurance that this question of providing adequate facilities for the public at the Public Record Office is one which the Government are taking seriously and will look into as quickly as possible. In addition, I hope that he will make it the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor, so that he will be responsible to the House for carrying out the recommendations of the Grigg Committee, on this subject.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to second the Amendment.

We feel that there is a real defect in the Bill in that no specific duty is laid on the Lord Chancellor to provide proper and adequate accommodation and facilities for the inspection of public records by the public. We had some discussion on this subject in Committee, but I am afraid that we did not have any very satisfactory answer from the Solicitor-General. We are moving the Amendment because at any rate it will remove one of the objections which the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised on that occasion when we debated a somewhat similar Amendment to a later Clause in the Bill. He then pointed out that this was not a matter which ought to be placed as a duty upon the Keeper of Public Records. It was essentially something over which the Minister responsible must take charge. He added that … we shall need the co-operation of the Minister of Works of the day, and some titillation of the palate of the Treasury.…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E. 14th May, 1958; c. 40.] The fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made those observations seemed to me an additional reason why we should ask that a specific duty should be placed on the Lord Chancellor in this Clause, because if it is thus placed on him it will, at any rate, make it easier for him to secure such co-operation of the Minister of Works and of the Treasury as may be necessary. It is not necessary for me to repeat the case that was made out so fully by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks). The Grigg Committee, in more than one paragraph of its admirable Report, has stressed the urgency of providing better facilities in the Reading Room at Chancery Lane for the benefit and convenience of those students and research workers for whom, of course, the preservation of the public records has a special interest and a special value, and for whose benefit it is largely provided.

It is common ground that, in so far as the Bill implements the major recommendations of the Grigg Committee, we shall be seeing in the immediate future a very great flow of documents to the Public Record Office from the Departments. One of the chief objects of the Bill is to deal with the heavy backlog of records and other documents which have accumulated in the Departments and have not been transferred to the Public Record Office. If, therefore, this work is to be adequately discharged it will be essential that additional accommodation is made available.

1.45 p.m.

Secondly, the increased flow of documents that will result from the Bill will no doubt stimulate the enthusiasm of students and others to look at the documents thus released, and the difficult conditions which exist at present in the Reading Room at the Public Record Office will be increased. We feel that it would be very unsatisfactory if, in the course of discussion of the Bill, we do not have some assurance from the Government about their intentions in the matter of providing more accommodation for those who will wish to search these documents.

As the Grigg Committee pointed out, it is a fortunate circumstance that the Crown owns land adjoining the Public Record Office buildings in Chancery Lane which could be used for an extension to the existing building. We are not, therefore, faced with the difficulty, which might have been an excuse, of having to find accommodation elsewhere. The land appropriately situated is available, is vacant and is in the hands of the Crown. All we ask is that it should be used. As the Grigg Committee says, plans for providing an extension to the existing buildings has been considered from time to time. The plans exist, but I imagine that they have been shelved for one reason or another.

The Grigg Committee says that they have been shelved because of economic stringency. That reason, of course, could be given at almost any time, but they should not always be given. We feel that it has been given for long enough and that this is an appropriate moment for taking a decision to build on the site of the Public Record Office between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane an additional wing which should form a compact, harmonious architectural whole and which would provide the facilities for search that are required and would enable much fuller and very badly needed additions to the research rooms for students to be made.

I hope, therefore, that the remarks on this subject which were made in Committee by hon Members on both sides, and which this Amendment enables us to repeat, will not be lost on those responsible for this matter, and that we shall have a much more satisfactory assurance on the subject than we had during the Committee stage.

Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)

As a user of the Public Record Office for the past twenty-five years or more, I find myself in considerable sympathy with the principle behind this Amendment. The search room accommodation in Chancery Lane is really pitifully inadequate at present for the demands made upon it.

I do not propose to cover the ground which was thoroughly traversed during the Committee stage of the Bill, but I must say that at the time of the publication of the valuable Report of the Grigg Committee, four years ago, emphasis was placed on the inadequacy of the search room accommodation for students. If anything, the situation has deteriorated since that time. Students come from all over the world—from the Commonwealth, from the United States of America and from foreign countries—to study in this unique storehouse of historical treasures and records.

To some extent the needs of Commonwealth and foreign university students are met by the provision of microfilm and photostat copies of documents, but, naturally, many students, particularly those on scholarship or fellowship grants, desire to come here and inspect the documents themselves. The surroundings in which they are obliged to work are really most undignified.

Hitherto, by reason of priorities, there have been financial difficulties in the way of extensions being made, but our national archives are in a sense a part of our shop window, so that there is an obligation on Her Majesty's Government, as the Grigg Report has underlined, to provide extra accommodation. I hope, therefore, that in the spirit of this Amendment we shall in the not too distant future see the needed extension at Chancery Lane.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster)

I am most grateful to hon. Members who have raised this topic once more. One of the most agreeable things about the passage of the Bill all the way through has been that we have had the assistance of hon. Members who make much use of the Public Record Office. In particular, we have had the benefit of the experience and observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) and the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) on its day-to-day operation, what happens when one goes there, and the inadequacy of the existing accommodation.

I confess I am glad that the question should be raised here once again to provide the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) with the opportunity of repeating what he said before, as he so modestly put it. No one will doubt that the substance of this Amendment was thoroughly discussed in Committee, and I do not propose to repeat what was then said. Perhaps, however, in defence of the Government, I might point out that in Committee we ourselves drew attention to the paragraph of the Grigg Report, cited by the hon. Member for Acton. Unhappily, in drawing attention to it, in addition to what is there contained about the inadequacy of the accommodation, we drew attention to the fact that the Grigg Committee felt obliged to say: Whether it would be justified under present economic circumstances raises issues of social and economic priorities which it would be outside our competence to pronounce upon. Unhappily, that is always the position under every Government of every conceivable political complexion. No doubt it is of the greatest possible value to raise these matters here and to discuss them, and I am confident that every word that has been said here on this topic will be carefully taken into account by those who will be responsible for administering the Bill when it becomes law.

However, to raise these topics now is not necessarily to mean that the adoption of this Amendment would be desirable. It does not, of course, fall against the objection to the Amendment that was put down in Committee, namely, that it would be charging a mere civil servant with a duty which he could not discharge except in combination with powers much more exalted than he is in the hierarchy. But we take the view that it would be unwise, even if we desired to fulfil the purposes desired by hon. Members, to put this Amendment into the Bill. I think that I can explain why quite quickly.

We amended Clause 5 (3) to meet the views of hon. Members opposite and the result is that there is now an obligation under the Bill on the Keeper of Public Records to arrange that reasonable facilities are available to the public for inspecting and obtaining copies of public records. So there is already an obligation upon him to arrange reasonable facilities for inspecting. I agree that "reasonable" may not be quite so tough a standard as "proper and adequate", but there seems a good reason for keeping "reasonable".

Mr. Sparks

What is the difference between "facilities" and "accommodation"? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman say that "reasonable facilities" mean the provision of reasonable and adequate accommodation? If he can say that is the meaning of these words, it will go quite a bit in our direction.

The Solicitor-General

I say without hesitation that a part of "facilities" is "accommodation", but I cannot say that "reasonable", whether applied to facilities or accommodation, is the equivalent of "adequate", and I will say why in a moment.

Let us suppose there was a fire, at the Public Record Office, owing to some highly-inspired person, who did not like the idea of the hon. Member for Acton being able to look at his secrets, burning down a wing of the building. Instantly, there would cease to be proper or adequate accommodation in the circumstances; but there would remain reasonable accommodation because it would be unreasonable to require more than existed, and it would not be wise, in our belief, to put a statutory obligation into the Bill which would not allow an emergency to be dealt with under the duty imposed.

There is also another consideration. Let us suppose, for instance, that the Public Record Office become full as regards the accommodation provided for the inspection of records put there. Also let us suppose—I hope greatly that I shall not be alive at the time, whatever the complexion of the Government of the day—that the circumstances are ones of extreme financial stringency. It would be a little too much to put a statutory obligation into the Bill which would compel the responsible Minister, willy-nilly, to give priority, just for this one purpose, over all other kinds of expenditure.

2.0 p.m.

For that reason, we hope that it will be seen that, as the Bill stands, Clause 1 places a statutory obligation on the Lord Chancellor to be generally responsible for the execution of the Measure, and the Measure will impose an obligation upon the Lord Chancellor's civil servant for this purpose to arrange that reasonable facilities are available for the public. We hope that the need, such as it is, for statutory provision is adequately covered by those provisions.

For those reasons, I could not recommend the House to accept the Amendment, but I would say that no one is running away from what the Committee has found to be the conditions as regards accommodation available in the Public Record Office at the moment, and I am very sure that everything that has been said here today will be taken fully into account by those who are to operate the Measure.

Mr. Sparks

If the words of the Solicitor-General can be noted by those who are responsible for this Measure in future, that will go a long way towards meeting what we have in mind. In view of what the Solicitor-General has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.