HC Deb 04 July 1958 vol 590 cc1799-808

3.0 p.m.

Mr. E. Fletcher

I beg to move, in page 8, line 3, to leave out from "includes" to "other" in line 4, and to insert: papers, documents, books, notes, rolls, instruments, letters, manuscripts, memoranda and records of every description whether in writing or produced by any mechanical or". The Amendment has been put down because of an undertaking given in Committee by the Solicitor-General that he would consider the matter after it had been raised in Committee. The Amendment seeks to insert into the interpretation Clause a definition of what is a record, or, at any rate, what is a public record. It seems to me that considerable point has been given to the importance of the Amendment by the discussions which have just taken place on the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes).

As the Bill stands, the only definition of a public record or of a record is contained in Clause 10, which reads: In this Act 'public records' has the meaning assigned to it by the First Schedule to this Act and 'records' includes not only written records but records conveying information by any other means whatsoever. There is no controversy about that provision, because it is intended to cover not only written documents but also gramophone records, records on tape, or records by any other mechanical means.

But what is a record? We turn to the First Schedule and we find: The provisions of this Schedule shall have effect for determining what are public records for the purposes of this Act. There is a list of Departmental records— records of, or held in, any department of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom …. There are provisions dealing with the bodies and establishments which are deemed to be Government Departments for the purposes of the Bill. There is also a list of the courts and tribunals whose records come within the scope of the Bill. But nowhere, as far as I can see, is there any indication of what is a record. That is why I thought it desirable that the Bill should provide that records should include papers documents, books, notes, rolls, instruments, letters, manuscripts, memoranda and records of every description whether in writing or produced by any mechanical means …. What all of us, including the Solicitor-General, I am sure, thought we were doing was providing that all documents in the hands of Government Departments should, after an agreed lapse of time, be turned over to the Public Record Office and then be made available for public inspection I have very grave doubt whether the word "record" is wide enough to include manuscripts, memoranda, letters, the Casement diaries, and other documents which will be of the same interest as, if not greater interest than, records in the strict sense.

The word "record" has a limiting application. It is obviously a word which is not nearly as wide as "document" or "paper". Historically, it is a mere accident that the Public Record Office, so-called, has come to house documents other than documents which are records in the strict sense—Chancery records, Exchequer records, records of law, which are records properly so-called. By a series of accidents we now find in the Public Record Office what are, in fact, State papers. The object of the Bill is to transfer to the Public Record Office all documents, memoranda, papers, and so on, in the hands of Government Departments. The Amendment seeks to ensure that that which is the declared object of the Bill should have effect.

I was looking at the definition of "record" in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which seems to corroborate my own impression of the strict meaning of a record. It gives two definitions of "record". The first is a record in the legal sense. Secondly, it refers to a record as the fact or condition of being preserved as knowledge, especially by being put into writing; knowledge or information preserved or handed down in this way That has considerable limitations. We are also interested in documents which record opinions, whether they are fact or knowledge or not.

I am more concerned about the Amendment because of the doubt which has now arisen as to whether documents like the Casement diaries are or are not records. That is only one illustration. There are in the hands of Government Departments a great many memoranda, a great many opinions, correspondence, correspondence written years ago between Ministers and notes made by Ministers and officials at various times. Those are not records in the strict or popular sense or in any ordinary sense. Therefore, unless the Solicitor-General can give a categorical assurance that documents, notes and memoranda of the type to which I have referred are effectively covered by the word "record", it seems to me essential that to avoid any misunderstanding arising in the future, it would be preferable to insert the definition in the Bill.

I therefore ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman, so that the House may know how he stands about this matter, to tell us whether the documents of the kind to which I have been referring are records. The Casement diaries have been referred to. Could they be excluded on the ground that they are not records? If so, it will come as a great surprise to my hon. Friends and myself.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I beg to second the Amendment.

The case for the Amendment is much stronger as a result of previous speeches, especially the speech made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde). What is a record? It might be argued by somebody who is against publishing the Casement diaries that they were not a record which was used in the trial of Sir Roger Casement, and that would be correct. The controversy which arose concerning those documents was not that they were used during the court proceedings, but because they were used afterwards to influence opinion in America and here against the granting of a reprieve. It might be quite logical for anyone to say that they were not a record at all. According to our Amendment they would be amply covered.

I think that the clearest definition which has ever been made of these documents is that by the Home Secretary in a Written Answer to me on 30th January, 1958, in which he referred to certain confidential documents relating to the case of Roger Casement which are among my Department's papers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th January, 1958; Vol. 581, c. 99.] From this definition it might easily be argued that this is not a record of any court proceeding, but if our Amendment were carried it would certainly be covered because our Amendment would define records as papers, documents, books, notes, instruments, letters, manuscripts, memoranda and records of every description whether in writing or produced by any mechanical aid. If this Amendment were carried there would be absolutely no doubt at all that the Casement documents would be available for future historians.

There is another aspect of this Amendment. We are passing into the time when mechanical records become more important. We are in the age of tape recorders; we are in the age of telephone tappings. It may be quite conceivable that in some historical setting conversations between certain officials and certain representatives of the Crown may be taken on a tape recorder.

Mr. Paget

The official record of the was crimes trials was a tape recording.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

That confirms my argument.

I conceive that in future even the records of this assembly may for the convenience of Members be taken down by a tape recorder.

Mr. Paget

Surely my hon. Friend would not wish to be heard twice?

Mr. Hughes

One would pay one's money and take one's choice.

However, certainly we ought not to rule out what improvements may be made in the future in the recording of human speech and opinion, and so I suggest that the formula contained in the Amendment is a reasonable one, especially in view of the fact that we are not likely to have another Bill of this kind, so we are told, for another fifty years.

The Solicitor-General

I can, perhaps, narrow the point we are discussing. After hearing the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) again I entertain no doubt whatsoever that a diary is a record. Plainly it is. It purports to be—it may be true or untrue, but it purports to be—a record of events. There is no doubt about that at all. I am not to be taken as expressing the slightest view whether any diary which may or may not be in the custody of the Home Office is a public record for the purposes of this Bill; but I am certain it is a record.

As to the other point, the mechanical devices, we have all much enjoyed the hon. Member's jokes from time to time, but I would suggest to him that he would be very unlikely to pay any money to hear his jokes repeated on a tape recorder, however good the jokes may have been in the first place.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman just clarify the first matter he was dealing with? He says that he has no doubt that a diary is a record, but he entertains some doubt whether a private diary in the hands of the Home Office is a public record. May I ask him whether he has considered the provisions of paragraph 2 (1, a) of the First Schedule, by which public records include records held in any Department of Her Majesty's Government?

Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us whether, in view of that, there can be any possible doubt that if a private diary is held in a Department of Her Majesty's Government it is a record and, therefore, under the provisions of the Bill a public record?

3.15 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I propose to deal fairly and squarely with this point, as far as I can. I know quite well that the hon. Member and the House will not expect me to commit myself to any view at all about some document of which, at the moment, I have no knowledge. I know neither what it is like, nor how it came into the possession of the Home Office. Hon. Members all know that if they want to know these facts, they must ask a representative of the Home Office, or must give me warning so that I can ascertain the facts and seek authority to divulge them. I did not express any doubt; I merely said that I was not to be taken as expressing any view at all, and to that position, without intending the slightest discourtesy to the House, I must adhere.

On the point of including mechanical recordings of events. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) will understand that there is no distinction between the proposed Amendment and what is in the Bill. Both contain words to cover that difficulty, namely, a more modern form of record which does include mechanical devices such as tapes and the like. We have fulfilled as far as we could the undertaking which I gave to look to the best of my ability into the point of what "record" means as a word, at the instigation of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher).

I know that the hon. Gentleman is very concise in the expression of his views, and would not wish to use more words than are necessary, but it is only fair to say that the definition in the Bill is a great deal less verbose than the one in the Amendment. So if we are right, and it is safe to use it, I have no doubt that he will prefer as we do, the definition in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has a big book, but I have a bigger one. This is not a public record. It is "A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1914".

Mr. Paget

May I have a look at it?

The Solicitor-General

That depends on whether the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has paid his subscription to the appropriate library, as to which I make no suggestion.

It starts by giving the word "record" a much narrower meaning and, of course, as all lawyers know, in a legal sense, it has a very restricted meaning. It drones on and on through columns of definition, and, after a page, we get a Roman II and a sub-paragraph 4 and go on to subparagraph 5—and I am still back in 1655, if necessary—we get this meaning, and I ask the House, from its own experience of language as used at the present day, to take the view that this is a perfectly sound and sensible meaning to attach to the word "record" at present: An account of some fact or event preserved in writing or other permanent form; A document, monument, etc., on which such an account is inscribed; also, transf."— and my translation of the word "transf." which is in italics, is "by transferred meaning", and I think it is right— any thing or person serving to indicate or give evidence of, or preserve the memory of a fact or event; a memorial. Freq, in pl., the collection of such accounts, documents etc. Also, in recent use, a tracing or series of marks, made by a recording instrument. In view of the last words of the definition, I think that we were gratuitously careful in putting the words dealing with mechanical devices in the Bill.

If I may deal with the special point which the hon. Member put to me, obviously memoranda fall within that dictionary definition, and all comments on and recordings of experiences. The hon. Member put the case of opinions. It sounds embarrassing to say this, if one is a Law Officer, but I suppose that our opinions in the face of history will be regarded as records of events, in that they are the records of the event that we so advised, unhappily, whether right or wrong. They are liable to bound back at our heads, if wrong.

I ask the House to take the view that the definition we have given is supported by this very large and extremely authoritative book. I have taken such advice as is available to me for the purpose and I think that the definition of the word "records", as it stands in the Bill, safely meets the wishes of the House.

Mr. Lipton

Some of the doubts which I had in my mind when I was listening to the speeches of my hon. Friends have been removed by the first really explicit statement that the Solicitor-General has made today on any subject which has come up for our consideration on Report.

We now have it, not only on the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary but of the Solicitor-General himself, that "records" include recordings and that recordings would include recordings whether on tape, on a cylindrical wax record, a flat wax record, a long-playing record, a short-playing record, or any of these modern improvements which have been effected in recent years. They will all be records within the meaning of the Clause.

I do not know whether, for example, the telephone conversations between the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) and Mr. Franklin Roosevelt, during the war, were recorded or not. I hope that they were for the purposes of historical record. If a recording was made of these conversations, I hope that, in the terms of the Clause, they will be made available to the public at some future date. Nothing could be a more dramatic addition to our historical records than a recording of that kind.

I hope, also, that where, for example, historic cases of telephone tapping have occurred they will be preserved for the information of posterity. We can find very little about them now, of course. They presumably involve questions of security and therefore are not available. I hope that those who are in charge of the Government's telephone tapping arrangements may also bear in mind that their work may be of interest to future generations and that telephone tapping recordings will not be thrown away when they have served the immediate purposes of the parties concerned, but will be preserved for the delectation of future generations.

Mr. Paget

I find it a little difficult to see why the Amendment cannot be accepted when, at any rate, it considerably clarifies what the Government say they wish to do. I am not certain whether the Solicitor-General told us or not, but my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) thought that he said that tape recordings came within the meaning of "records" for this purpose. It certainly is made clearer in the Amendment. Fifty years hence somebody might have another view.

I raise the question of tape recordings because I am particularly interested in it from the point of view of the war crimes trials, where the tape recording was the official record. I took part in one of these trials and at the end of it I received a demand that I should return my manuscript. I told those demanding it to chase themselves. They chased me for about two years, threatening all sorts of things but eventually dropped the demand. There is obviously an attitude that the records of war crimes trials should not be allowed to get about. I can understand that, because they were very disgraceful proceedings, but I hope that, as matters of historical interest, the records of those disgraceful proceedings will not be permanently buried.

Amendment negatived.

3.25 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill has gone on its way propelled by much eloquence. I am sure that it requires no Third Reading speech to receive the blessing of the House, because it has had support from all quarters. I rise only to express my thanks to those hon. Members who have taken a special interest and have helped us to make it as useful a Measure as possible, and, in particular, to those hon. Members on both sides of the House who had no special interest in the subject matter of the Bill, but none the less, to further its progress, were content to bear the tedium of rather prolonged Committee proceedings upstairs.

3.26 p.m.

Mr. E. Fletcher

As the House knows, we have had certain misgivings on some points of detail in the Bill, some of which have not been entirely removed. However the Opposition, like the Government, welcome the Bill and are glad to know that as a result of the careful examination it has had here, as well as in another place, it will now reach the Statute Book.

Perhaps I should express the hope that once it is on the Statute Book the Bill will carry out the intentions of those who have framed it. That will depend to some extent on the amount of money which the Treasury makes available for the purposes of this Department. We hope that the Government will accept the view to which common opinion has been given throughout our discussions that, in the words of the Grigg Committee, … the making of adequate arrangements for the preservation of its records is an inescapable duty of the Government of a civilised state.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.