HC Deb 26 June 1967 vol 749 cc25-35

Order for Second Reading read.

11.15 a.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

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

This Bill reduces the period from 50 years to 30 years for which public records, subject to certain exceptions, are closed to public inspection. It is a commendably short Bill of two Clauses.

Clause 1 effects the reduction in the period during which the records are closed to the public. This is subject to the Lord Chancellor's power, under Section 5(1) of the Public Records Act, 1958, to prescribe shorter or longer periods of closure in certain cases. Clause 2 provides that the Bill will come into operation on 1st January, 1968.

The first Public Record Office Act was passed in 1838. It provided for the establishment of a Public Record Office to provide proper accommodation for the public records and to facilitate their free use by the public. The present Public Record Office in Chancery Lane was begun in 1851 and in the following year an Order in Council was made bringing the records of Government Departments within the scope of the Act. These, the House will not be surprised to know, grew substantially over the years.

In 1877, the volume of Departmental records which had been transferred to the Public Record Office was such that it was necessary to pass an Act in order to prevent the Public Record Office from being encumbered with documents of not sufficient public value to justify their preservation in the Public Record Office. That Act prescribed a procedure for the destruction of valueless records.

Before 1958, transfers of Departmental records which were not destroyed as valueless depended upon the arrangements made with individual Departments and upon mutual convenience. Access was at the discretion of Departments who were asked to open all records for public inspection down to whatever date they thought suitable and as nearly as possible without reserve.

The House will know that no formal records of Cabinet meetings were kept before 1916 when the Cabinet Secretariat was created. The Committee on Imperial Defence had come into existence in 1904, but none of its records was available to the public. In 1954, the Grigg Committee on Departmental Records recommended that Cabinet papers and Departmental records should become available to the public 50 years from their creation. In making this recommendation on Cabinet papers the Committee drew attention to the need to provide adequate safeguards against two things: first, premature publication of confidential information which could handicap current administration; and, secondly, the impairment of collective responsibility of the Government, or the responsibility of individual Ministers to Parliament for their own Departments.

In recommending the 50-year period for Departmental records, the Committee had in mind what it called the quality of un-selfconsciousness, which is regarded as a quality in a civil servant, but not necessarily an outstanding virtue among Members of this House. The Committee feared that that might be impaired if an official knew that what he wrote would be made available for public inspection during his lifetime. The Public Records Act, 1958, gave effect to the recommendations of the Grigg Committee. Section 5 provided for access to public records and subsection (1) provided that in the case of records to which the public had previously not had access, they should not be available to it: … until they had been in existence for 50 years or such other period, either longer or shorter, as the Lord Chancellor may, with the approval, or at the request of the Minister or other person, if any, who appears to him to be primarily concerned, for the time being prescribe as respects any particular class of record. Subsection (2) dealt with records obtained under conditions where their being open to public inspection might constitute a breach of faith. These records are to be opened to inspection only in special circumstances or under special conditions.

Finally, where records were created at different dates, Section 10(2) provided that, if these were kept together for administrative purposes, they would be treated as being created at the date of the last record on the file.

Lord Chancellors have made use of the power to shorten the 50-year period and have made available considerable numbers of public records before the elapse of the 50-year period. The most notable example of this was the release on 10th February, 1966, of all the records of the First World War up to 31st December, 1922.

Although the effect of the 1958 Act was to release a great quantity of records for public inspection, there was growing criticism of the 50-year rule. The study of recent history had attained full academic recognition, and was attracting great interest from the universities, and from the world at large. Many scholars of standing and repute were said to feel seriously hindered by the 50-year rule, and to consider that the whole area of scholarship had suffered as a result. There was also room for the view that, as a result, partial and biased accounts of our affairs gained currency, in which the British case went by default and which British historians were handicapped in correcting.

This view was expressed in the famous words of Lord Acton, who said: To keep one's archives barred against historians is tantamount to leaving one's history to one's enemies. In 1954 the 50-year rule was accordingly considered again, and on that occasion by the Advisory Council of Public Records, chaired by the Master of the Rolls. The Council recommended that the closed period should be reduced to 40 years.

However, after careful consideration the Government have decided to reduce the period to 30 years. The Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party both agreed with the proposal, which was in turn welcomed by the Advisory Council. This Bill gives effect to the proposal. As a result, from 1st January next, about 150,000 additional files will become available to the public and to historians and researchers. No doubt they will contain much that is of interest.

There is one other matter to which I should refer. The Grigg Committee recognised that it would not be possible for all records to be released at 50 years. Its object was to ensure that all records which it is practicable to open to the public after 50 years are available at that time. This has been the policy of successive Lord Chancellors when considering whether to prescribe periods longer than 50 years for any particular class of records.

Those for which longer periods have been prescribed fall into the following categories: firstly, those containing information about individuals whose disclosure would cause distress or embarrassment to living persons or their immediate descendants, such as criminal or prison records, records of courts-martial, records of suspected persons and certain police records; secondly, those containing information obtained with a pledge of confidence, for example, the census returns; thirdly, certain papers relating to Irish affairs; fourthly, certain exceptionally sensitive papers, which affect the security of the State.

Classes of records which have been closed for periods of longer than 50 years will remain closed for the period prescribed after the 30-year rule comes into force. In these matters the Lord Chancellor is advised by the Advisory Council on public records.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Could my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House why it is there is this special provision about Irish affairs? Why should there be a special protection in that instance?

The Attorney-General

There is a sensitive area in regard to Irish affairs which remains, and I do not think it would be prudent for me to pursue it on the Floor of the House. But there are papers which it would not be in the interests of this country to disclose.

My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has made clear that it is not the intention of the Government to countenance any evasion of the 30-year rule through the Lord Chancellor's exercise of his power to prescribe a longer closed period. The same principle will apply to prescribing periods longer than 30 years as have applied for the prescription periods longer than 50 years. The Lord Chancellor in another place has told us of the kind of cases that he has in mind—confidential correspondence with or about British firms abroad, the disclosure of which might be harmful to our trade; comments by Ministers and officials on officials and persons abroad which could be exploited by hostile propagandists or used to make trouble for us, and foreign rulers or statesmen whose public careers have spanned a 30-year period.

With regard to the Government's proposals to extend the range of official histories to peace time, which is an interesting development, it has been agreed that the selection of topics for publication shall be referred to an all-party group of Privy Councillors. It is intended to consider not only political topics, but other topics of general interest, although free from acute party controversy. It is gratifying that in this sphere the proposals have received the support of all sides of the House, and I accordingly commend this Bill to the House.

11.29 a.m.

Sir John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

The Attorney-General has said that this is an agreed Measure, and I am sure that it will have a general welcome, not only in the House but outside, and in particular from those who are interested in research into the history of recent times, particularly the history of Britain. I am glad that this is an agreed Measure, and that the Leaders of all parties have agreed on a topic such as this, when it is impossible to determine over long periods of time whose interests are affected when the door of the Record Office is more widely open.

I have no doubt whatever that when the files for the additional 20 years have been looked at and are beginning to be investigated there will be as equal a pressure against the closed doors of 30 years as there has recently been over 50 years. It is inevitable. Historians will always want the doors of the Record Office open as widely as possible. I am certain that not many years will pass before pressures to shorten the period of 30 years will be as great as they were against 50 years. While I accept that 30 years is a reasonable period, if we get very much below that, the arguments against allowing inspection of documents on very recent history become that much stronger. The expectation of life nowadays is such that 30 years will, I hope, cover the lives of members on both Front Benches. The vast majority of us will be alive 30 years from now.

There is, as the Attorney-General said, the discretionary power of the Lord Chancellor not only to lengthen but to shorten the statutory period during which records may be examined. In every field and for every Department there is obviously a different interest. The 30 years is only the average flat rate. For the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office, longer than the average period may be necessary on occasion. For other Departments, very much shorter periods may be possible. But the more one shortens the period, the greater the burden which will be put on the Lord Chancellor to consider with his Advisory Committee whether, in particular circumstances, there should be an extension of the statutory period.

I now raise a practical matter which is not the responsibility of the Attorney-General, but I hope that he will draw it to the attention of his Government colleagues who are responsible. I understand that when the Public Record Office is opened in the morning, there is a queue of people who wish to study the papers and that it is almost impossible for them to do any work. One has to be there by nine o'clock sharp in the morning to get a seat, and I understand that even then one is lucky to get a seat. With the 30-year period, there will be even greater pressure on the limited accommodation available for students and writers. I hope that the Attorney-General's colleagues will match the extension of the period either by providing a temporary alternative place of work or improving the existing facilities for researchers and students so that they may conveniently work. It is no good opening up an enormous number of additional files if people cannot work on them.

With that plea to the Government to add to the benefits of the Bill by taking practical measures in that direction, I welcome the Bill on behalf of the Opposition.

11.33 a.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

I support what has just been said by the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) in urging the Government to take practical steps to improve facilities for the increased number of students who are likely to wish to take advantage of the Bill. That is an extremely important proposal which I am sure the Government will note.

I welcome the Bill. The original statement by the Prime Minister proposing that the period should be reduced from 50 to 30 years was made in response to a Question of mine. Therefore, I am extremely gratified that the Government are following the advice which they get from this quarter. This is one of those Measures which we like to welcome when we get the opportunity. It would be most churlish of me not to thank the Government for accepting the suggestion which some of us have made for a considerable time that there should be a review of the 50-year period, which was much too long. The Government's proposal is fairly good. It is true that there will be pressure for a still further reduction in the period. We shall have to see for a short period how well this reform works, and then we can judge whether a further reduction should be made.

I recognise that there are strong arguments for preventing the adoption of the American system. I do not think that it is a good idea that every discussion in the Cabinet should be open to immediate or very early investigation by the Press and students, because that would make the processes of government almost impossible. Therefore, there have to be limitations, but they must be exercised with great care. That is why I give warning that, although we accept the Bill and are grateful for it, we must consider some of the restrictions very carefully.

I asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, during his speech, about the restriction on Irish affairs. His reply was more cryptic than I expected. I do not know whether he was fully apprised of the restrictions which apply especially to Irish affairs, but what he said will arouse suspicions on the other side of the Irish Channel. I cannot understand why a special restriction should apply presumably to discussions on Irish affairs which went on in the Foreign Office and other quarters of the Government in the 1920s and 1930s. I should have thought that exactly the same principle should apply to any decisions made on important matters in Ireland as would apply to affairs in this country. Therefore, that is one of the restrictions which should be examined in Committee. It struck me as most odd that there should be special provision in the Bill guarding against the revelation of Irish affairs which took place 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

I hope that the Bill will have a very speedy passage and that the fullest advantage of it will be taken by students and others. I am particularly attracted by this Measure because in a very short time students will have available, for example, all the dealings of the Cabinet and the Foreign Office which have not been destroyed concerning Munich and the events leading up to it. All the documents referring to 1938 will soon become available. It is of great advantage that we shall be able to discover the truth about those events, even if we have to wait a little longer for the truth about such events as the Suez expedition of 1956 and other matters.

This is a move in the right direction. I therefore greatly welcome the support which the Government, and particularly, I believe, the Prime Minister, have given to this Measure.

11.38 a.m.

Mr. Maurice Orbach (Stockport, South)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) has already dealt with the matters which I wished to raise, but I should like to take up his last point. He said that soon students will have available the documents from the Cabinet Office and elsewhere relating to the events which led up to Munich and those which came after Munich. I wonder whether that is correct. If I heard my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General aright, he said that there might be restrictions on documents affecting leading personalities in other States which might have some effect on our relationship with those States. This seems to me as annoying as the restriction on documents concerning Irish affairs. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will assure us that there will not be any restrictions on documents relating to Munich. We certainly do not want there to be any restriction on documents about the Suez collusion for those who follow us.

I support what the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) said about the Public Record Office. This leads to a lot of clandestine activity which we should abhor. A close relative of mine recently got his doctorate as a result of having available certain Cabinet documents which were not previously available. Because of the hours which would have to be spent waiting to get in the place, he had to make clandestine use of a mini-camera to get pictures of the relevant documents. I hope that this will not now be necessary.

More facilities should be made available in the Public Record Office and greater room should be provided. We should encourage students who are helping not only history but politicians by the work that they do for the future.

11.40 a.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I support the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) about what is likely to happen to the Irish documents. The Attorney-General said that there was an unduly sensitive feeling in this connection, but I suggest that that sensitiveness applies to one section of the Irish community as at present constituted—perhaps to 11 hon. Members who sit on the benches opposite.

I would like to ask the Attorney-General whether, in future deliberations, he will regard it as of paramount importance that every consideration should be given to the publication of all the facts and circumstances relating to the arrest, imprisonment and subsequent execution of Sir Roger Casement. It is most important that the Irish people should be made aware, after such a lapse of time, of all the circumstances affecting that case.

11.41 a.m.

The Attorney-General

I am grateful for the welcome which the Bill has had from the House and I am glad to acknowledge the contribution to the debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot). We look forward with excitement to the emergence from the pen of my hon. Friend and of other distinguished writers and historians of the fruits of their labours from the study of these recent documents.

My reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. Orbach) is that although a complete review of the Munich records has not yet been made the Foreign Office does not expect that there is anything specifically connected with the events of Munich which it would desire to withhold. I am sure that my hon. Friend will find this reassuring.

I should explain that documents relating to Irish affairs are not generally restricted. The only ones which are restricted are certain records dealing with what are commonly called "the troubles". Apart from that, there will be the disclosures of the kind which I have mentioned.

I entirely share the anxieties which have been expressed about the accommodation difficulties in the Record Office. Had it not been for our economic difficulties, we had hoped to be able to start an additional building last summer, but for the moment it has had to be postponed. I am, however, glad to tell the House that arrangements will be made, which, I think, will take effect shortly, for further places to be provided for 40 readers. That will give assistance in coping with the problem. It is vital that our history should be studied and should be known, and I am happy to be associated with the Bill to make more of it available.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. McBride.]

Committee Tomorrow.