HC Deb 01 February 1978 vol 943 cc583-9

9.15 p.m.

Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrewshire, East)

I beg to move Amendment No. 447, in page 79, line 7, after 'record)' insert 'transmitted under subsection (1) of this section'. Perhaps—[Interruption.]

The Second Deputy Chairman (Sir Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. I think that it would be convenient if we were allowed to hear what the right hon. Lady has to say.

Miss Harvie Anderson

I was about to say, by way of explanation, that Section 5 of the Public Records (Scotland) Act 1937 provides that

"It shall be lawful for any Government Department, board of trustees, or any other body or person having the custody of any records belonging to His Majesty and relating exclusively or mainly to Scotland…to transmit such records to the Keeper."

The proposed new subsection seems to me to go a great deal wider than was originally intended.

I do not pretend to be an expert on this matter but, as a background, I think that we should remember that through the 1937 Act, as the Secretary of State will confirm, there were gathered together under a particularly distinguished Keeper of the Records in Scotland—the late Sir James Fergusson—many records of the past history of Scotland which had previously been widely dispersed in the hands of the various bodies or persons described. These records constitute much of our history. What I seek to do now, by way of an exploratory amendment, is to find out whether we have the same safeguards for them as were intended by the 1937 Act.

As I read Schedule 16 in page 79, it seems to me that it stretches a good deal more widely. The proposed new subsection seems to permit a Minister of the Crown to withdraw from the custody of the Keeper of the Records of Scotland any records whatever that he at present holds, irrespective of date, character and origin, although of course it clearly excludes those of courts and justices of the peace and private records specified in the new subsection. If I am right, and the new subsection goes as widely as I read it, it means that there would be an enormous category which would include, in theory, the records of the old Kingdom of Scotland and of the old Scottish Parliament.

The amendment proposes to reduce Crown responsibility to the category presumably intended. I should like the Secretary of State to reassure us tonight that there is no need for the amendment, because the Bill as drafted does not extend further than the section of the 1937 Act to which I have referred. The amendment reduces Crown responsibility to the 1937 category and reduces the possibility of removal of such sensitive records as have been deposited since the Public Records (Scotland) Act took effect.

I do not wish to detain the Committee, but this is an important point, particularly because of the distinguished work done by the late Keeper of the Records, which is being carried on. I should like an assurance that we are not, perhaps inadvertently, damaging provisions that have been made.

Mr. Sproat

I agree about the background to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) has said. Hon. Members will wish to pay tribute to the distinguished work of the late Keeper of the Records, but I am not sure that the amendment, which I intended to support originally, does what my right hon. Friend wants it to do.

She seeks to provide that documents that might be politically sensitive and might normally fall within, say, some sort of 30-year rule should still be able to be withdrawn by Government Departments, but that other documents should remain in Scotland. If the amendment achieved that aim, I would support it, but I fear that it does not do that. It seems to provide that no documents that have been deposited with the Keeper until the Bill becomes operational could be summoned by a Minister. That would be quite wrong since the ultimate Parliament is the British Parliament not any Scottish Assembly and Ministers here must have the right, if they wish, to have access to those documents.

There is no question of a British Minister taking the Declaration of Arbroath out of Scotland and housing it here like a latter-day Stone of Scone. I do not believe that the words on the Order Paper achieve the objective that my right hon. Friend is seeking. We should seek a Government assurance that no Government would seek to take historic documents from Scotland and house them in London. That is surely outside the bounds of possibility. I hope that the Minister will give us that assurance and that we can get on to discuss forestry and tourism.

Mr. Rhodes James

I support the amendment, though I share some of the doubts of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat). The amendment is exploratory and, although I am not a Scottish Member, I have an interest in it becuse I played a part in ensuring that the Rosebery papers were retained in Scotland and did not join the unwelcome trend of all historic papers being placed in London.

As an historian, I also have an interest in supporting the amendment. I hope that we shall have an assurance from the Secretary of State that, with the exception of certain recent and sensitive documents, the general principle will be that all records relating to the history of Scotland should be retained in Scotland to expand the collection of papers and resources there.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

Given the intentions of the right hon. Member for Renfrewshire. East (Miss Harvie Anderson), the amendment is probably misconceived, but if there is a feeling that we have got it wrong in the Bill I am willing to consider the matter again. The important point to note is that the keeping of public records are a devolved function under Schedule 10 and that this includes any records in the custody of the Keeper of the Records of Scotland on the coming into force of the Bill. All the records that the right hon. Lady is concerned about will remain in the custody of the Keeper. Any functions of government relating to them will be devolved functions.

The amendment of the Public Records (Scotland) Act 1937 in Schedule 16 of the Bill is to safeguard the position of the Government and Government Departments at Westminster. The records are not only the records of the Scottish Office; they can be records of other Government Departments relating to Scotland that are under the custody of the Keeper of the Records at this minute.

It seems from what has been said that it is the feeling of the Committee that that is where they should remain. However, it must be possible for Ministers and Departments in Westminster to have access to them. As I have said, the purpose of the amendment to the 1937 Act is to safeguard that access. It is not our purpose to remove records from Scotland and bring them to London; it is to allow ourselves access if there is any difficulty on that score. I hope that in practice there will be no such difficulty.

Access is needed in the ordinary course of Government business, and that must be retained. We are dealing specifically with pre-devolution records, to which we must be able to have access. That is why we seek to amend the 1973 Act. The schedule refers to removing records from the Keeper's custody either temporarily or permanently". That is for the purpose of access. It is not intended to remove the records from Scotland.

The unfortunate effect of the amendment is that by introducing the words: transmitted under subsection (1) of this section the right hon. Lady removes the protection of records transmitted under subsection (2), namely, local authority records. If there were a difficulty of access, or any other difficulty, about the records relating to local authorities, the right hon. Lady's amendment, if accepted, would prove even more devolutionary in removing a right that is now contained in the schedule. It would have the opposite effect from what she has in mind.

I hope that the right hon. Lady will agree to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but following this short discussion I shall check to ensure that we have the matter right. It is a rather complicated method of doing what is intended. We have devolution under the Schedule 10, and then there is this small protection in Schedule 16.

I am willing to reconsider the matter to ensure that we have it right, in view of what has been said. If the right hon. Lady is willing to accept that assurance, I shall write to her. If I find that we do not have it completely right, the Government will table an amendment. However, I believe that we have it right.

Miss Harvie Anderson

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his assurances, especially the assurance that he will consider the matter again with particular reference to the word "withdrawn". It is that word that concerns us as much as anything else. However with the right hon. Gentleman's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. John Smith

I beg to move amendment No. 615, in Schedule 16, page 80, line 38, leave out 'sections 5A and 6A' and insert 'section SA'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this we may take Amendment No. 616, in page 80, line 40, leave out 'or' and insert and the provisions of that section and section 4 of this Act shall not apply'.

Mr. John Smith

In essence, these are drafting amendments. A Scottish Secretary will, in future, make Statutory Instruments under the Westminster Statutory Instruments code, under powers derived from Westminster legislation. He may also make Statutory Instruments under powers conferred by Assembly legislation if the Assembly is content to apply or adopt the Westminster code as established by and under the Statutory Instruments Act 1946. That Act has to be extended to relate to instruments made by a Scottish Secretary. That is the purpose of paragraphs 2 to 8 of Schedule 16.

Paragraph 7(c) of Schedule 16 deals with a web of consequential amendments by adding a new subsection to Section 7 of the Act, but it does not at present get the detail quite right. The amendments are designed to clear up a point of detail. As the Bill stands, it is substantially correct but there is an infelicitous expression that we seek to correct.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 616, in page 80, line 40, leave out 'or' and insert: 'and the provisions of that section and section 4 of this Act shall not apply ".—[Mr. John Smith.]

9.30 p.m.

Mr. John Smith

I beg to move Amendment No. 638, in page 81, line 8, at end insert: