HC Deb 05 May 1983 vol 42 cc462-70

' .—(1) The Secretary of State, the Commission and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England) shall consult together as to the desirability, or otherwise, of some or all of the responsibilities of the Royal Commission being assumed by the Commission and as to how best this should he done, if proceeded with. (2) The Secretary of State shall present a Report to each House of Parliament on these consultations and, if the Repon: so recommends, Her Majesty may by Order in Council provide for some or all of the Royal Commission's responsibilities to be assumed by the Commission and, where appropriate, for the Royal Commission to cease to exist. (3) An Order under this section may contain such incidental, consequential and supplementary provisions as may he necessary or expedient for the purpose of giving effect to the Order, including provision adapting section 30. (4) No Order shall be made under this section unless the draft of the Order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament. (5) The consultations referred to in subsection (1) shall be begun within two years from the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall lay his Report before both Houses of Parliament within twelve months of the commencement of those consultations and if his Report recommends in the affirmative the draft Order in Council referred to in subsection (4) shall be the subject of debate by, and resolution of, both Houses of Parliament within a further six months.'.—[Dr. David Clark.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. David Clark

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

This is the most contentious matter that we shall discuss today. It has excited a great deal of argument in the other place and in Committee. I have thought about it deeply as, I know, has the Minister and many other hon. Members. Indeed, many hon. Members have changed their minds about it. I echo what the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) said about there being a general welcome for the new commission. I have taken some flak from people who think that I have been too enthusiastic about the new commission. Nevertheless, the presentation and protection of our heritage has not been as it might have been and this is an appropriate time to make a positive step. I am sure that the Government are right to propose a new commission.

The Opposition believe that the commission will fire on all four cylinders only if it has the powers of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments. I know that the Government decided only at the ninth hour that the Royal Commission should not be subsumed in the new commission. I know that members of the Royal Commission who believe that it should be kept separate have lobbied the Government. I understand the reasons for that.

The Royal Commission is an old-established institution which has done a great deal of good work. The people who work in it are fine academics who produce much excellent research and many publications, but it is also felt that the Royal Commission is a rather sleepy backwater. If we are to produce a new image for the protection and presentation of our heritage, it is important that we increase and change the guidance without causing a loss of academic standards. We should move the Royal Commission from its rather Edwardian attitude at least into the second Elizabethan period.

I know that there are ruffled feathers and vested interests. Few people like change if they are personally involved but there comes a time when, for the general good, they must be persuaded to accept change. The new clause does not require that, as of tomorrow, the Royal Commission must be brought incorporated into the new commission. That is probably too hasty. We have tried to devise a formula whereby, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the commissioners, the House will be required to make a decision in about three years. We could iron out many of the difficulties in that time.

There is another argument why the Royal Commission should be brought under the aegis of the new commission. The National Monuments Record is a tool that the Historic Buildings Council and Ancient Monuments Board have had to use to do their excellent work. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to express my gratitude to those bodies for the excellent work that they have done. The National Monuments Record is the archive of those two bodies where records, plans and photographs are kept and research is done.

There will be difficulties if the Royal Commission and the National Monuments Record are not included in the new commission. The two bodies must remain in the same place. The Opposition have reservations about that which I shall not explore now. It is vital that the National Monuments Record should be part of the new commission so that people in its offices may freely avail themselves of the record.

I know that Ministers have said that my wish can be accommodated by modern technology, software, computers and the rest, but it is my experience, having examined heritage and countryside legislation, that we are always short of coppers. I do not believe that this or any other Government will be able to devote the necessary capital to equip a modern technological laboratory with the necessary copiers, software and so on. I am not alone in holding that view. In correspondence to The Times recently, Mr. Andrew Selkirk, the editor of Current Archaeology, said: The greatest virtue of the original proposals was that they would bring together the Ancient Monuments Inspectorate and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, two bodies with largely overlapping functions which already exist side by side in the same building. There is also a plea from Cecil Farthing, the former secretary of the National Monuments Record, who argues that the new commission must contain the Royal Commission and its records office.

7.30 pm

There are two sides to the argument, but if the Government consider the matter in the way that the Opposition have tried to consider it—I know that the Government wish the new commission to work—they must question why the lobbying to keep the Royal Commission separate comes from a high level in another place. Lord Adeane, who is chairman of the Royal Commission, rightly feels strongly about the matter and could express his views forcefully in the other place. I do not try to push him too hard, but we have given a time limit and it would be natural for the chairman of the Royal Commission to be a commissioner in the new organisation.

I do not ask the Government to change their mind, but I hope that they will grant a stay of execution. The new clause will allow the House to make a decision within a set period of about three years, and during that time we could iron out the difficulties so that the new commission can work as effectively as possible.

Mr. Cormack

As the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) knows, when we started on this road I was on his side, but the more I considered the matter the more I became convinced that it would be wrong to force this merger. Shotgun marriages do not make for happy families. I hope that in due course the two bodies will wish to come together, but it should be no part of our function to force them together. I admire the eloquence and the persuasive passion with which the hon. Gentleman spoke, but, reluctantly, I cannot support him.

However, the hon. Gentleman made an important point when he mentioned the National Monuments Record. We did not discuss it at great length in Committee, and it was not mentioned in the other place, so it may be appropriate to refer to it now. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will use his best endeavours to ensure that both bodies come together to discuss the co-ordination of the National Monuments Record. Anyone who has studied, however perfunctorily, our architectural heritage must be grateful to the National Monuments Record. Anyone who has written about our heritage, including myself, should be even more grateful.

I quote from a letter that I received this week from one of Britain's most distinguished architectural historians, who must remain anonymous, but whose words should be noted carefully. He said: Though it seems churlish and out of context to write a letter whose sole purpose is to criticise a much-valued institution (and, of course, I have used it with gratitude for every book I have ever written), I think every architectural historian I know would agree that it has suffered lamentably from lack of forceful, imaginative direction from the top. As a result its photographic coverage of the buildings of England is bizarre, haphazard and unrepresentative. A typical file of a small village dominated by a handsome eighteenth-century country house and a parish church with fine neo-classical monuments in it will contain no photograph of the country house, three murky snapshots of the church taken by an amateur in the 1940s and 50 recent photographs of the back bedroom of a cruck cottage. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates a valid point. I hope that my hon. Friend will be glad that I have drawn that example to his attention, and I know that he will do what he can to ensure that the National Monuments Record becomes truly worthy and completely representative of our architectural heritage.

I do not support a forced merger. I hope that there will be the closest co-operation and co-ordination between the bodies. I hope that it will be encouraged from the top and that, from that co-operation, will come a comprehensive National Monuments Record of which we can be proud. I hope that at the end of the day the two bodies will become so confident of each other's abilities and so trusting of each other's values that they will wish to come to Parliament and ask, "Please may we become one body?"

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

For once I must disagree with the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack). His great love of ancient bodies and monuments persuades him to support the Royal Commission. I received an invitation to visit the Royal Commission that I have not yet taken up—I apologise to the commission for that—but, like the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the material supplied to me and the conversations that I have had convince me that we should move in the direction of a merger. The new clause would enable us to do that. Although we may not win this battle, I fear that we shall live to regret it. I am sure that if Lord Rayner were let loose on the bodies he would recommend an immediate merger.

In local government reorganisation, a great mistake was made in my constituency 10 years ago and we are still suffering from it. We may not get it right for another two or three years. The late Lord Mountbatten said to me, "Do you know how the Isle of Wight got its independence?" I said, "No, sir, I do not." He said, "It's all through the Rookley Women's Institute. They came to Romsey to give me a map depicting 'UDI for the Isle of Wight'. I took it to the Queen, who put it in Ted Heath's Dispatch Box. That was how you got your independence." Something similar has happened with regard to the pleading of the Royal Commission.

Even if we do not accept the new clause, there must be provision in the Bill to enable a future merger. I fear that people will take up positions that will make such a merger much more difficult in the years ahead and that the new commission, which I warmly welcome, will not fulfil its role to the full. There will be no problems and disagreements, and the all-embracing role that we hope the commission will enjoy to enable it to add to our quality of life will be denied to it because of some silly disagreements between two bodies that cover much the same areas.

Mr. Neville Sandelson (Hayes and Harlington)

Most of the arguments that I support on this enabling clause have already been advanced by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). However, I wish to add my comments, because this is the most contentious issue that we shall discuss this evening. The Government appear to have dug in their heels, or even to have dug a trench, on this matter in the most adamant and irrational way. It is difficult, having attended debates in Committee and having read carefully again today the speeches in the House of Lords, to understand the motives behind such entrenched resistance by Ministers who otherwise — I hope that they appreciate that I am not given to flattery or sycophancy—enabled us to make good progress on an excellent measure that is greatly welcomed.

However, on this matter the Minister has been overawed, perhaps by representations from another place, to the extent that he has been prepared to adopt a thoroughly retrograde approach to the matter. I read again today the speech made by Lord Adeane. It was a good and attractive speech, but he does not pretend to be impartial, and nor could he. As we all know, he is the chairman of the Royal Commission and it is right that he should defend his wicket. One gets the impression that the noble Lord's main concern is to preserve the Royal Commission as a sort of ancient monument in its own right, and to protect it from the predatory designs of some modern legislative upstart of dubious antecedents.

Of course, that attitude and the Minister's present intransigence fly in the face of all reality and of the Government's purpose in creating the commission and bringing this measure to fruition. The Royal Commission should not be allowed to continue as a completely independent body outside the new parameters that the Government have rightly drawn. It would seriously detract from the authority and status of the new body—which we all agree should be invested with the maximum strength and reputation from the outset — if the Government refused to accept the new clause. The Government may undo much of the good that they seek to do if they ignore our argument.

As the hon. Member for South Shields said, we do not propose an immediate sentence of death on the commission in seeking to persuade the Government about the virtue of our proposals. We simply want to introduce machinery of an amiable character as a result of which the two bodies can work together and can agree on their respective futures. I hope that they will do so with a view, after a short but respectable liaison, to merging. At this stage it would amount to no more than an exchange of engagement rings, with all the hope and value of the ultimate permanent merger of the two bodies into a valuable, combined unit.

What could be more inefficient and illogical than a new commission responsible for the care and maintenance of monuments and an old commission responsible for cataloguing those same monuments pursuing their separate and independent paths? It is absurd that the new commission should need to have recourse to the National Monuments Record — the key files — because the cataloguing remains in the hands of the old body. It is foolish of the Minister to persist in arguing that the records can be duplicated and that a new set of records can be created by modern technology for the benefit of the new commission.

Why do we even have to contemplate such unnecessary and expensive duplication of records? The supreme importance and value of the new commission must be understood. It is the new commission that will have the immediate and urgent tasks to perform and decisions to make. It is the new commission — not the Royal Commission—that will have to decide what is to happen here and now to historic monuments and houses. The Royal Commission has been trundling along in its quiet and no doubt scholarly fashion for the past 75 years, producing valuable but somewhat dated academic material. Some of the distinguished academics and figures in the Royal Commission should become involved in the livelier work and responsibilities envisaged for the new commission.

Reference has been made to the possibility of Lord Adeane becoming a commissioner. Everyone would agree that he would add lustre and distinction to the new commission. Other members of the staff of the Royal Commission would welcome the opportunity to work for the new commission. By refusing to accept the arguments in support of the new clause, the Minister is failing to do justice to his Bill. Even at this late hour, I must ask him to reconsider his position and to prepare the ground now for a merger which will, in any event, be inevitable in due course. However, at present that merger may take place only after unhappy years of division and friction. We wish to avoid that.

7.45 pm
Mr. Macfarlane

We have had a useful discussion on this problem and I am grateful to those hon. Members who have paid tribute to the work of the Royal Commission. I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), and I note the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) and others about the National Monuments Record.

However, I must express surprise at some of the phrases chosen by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson). He talked about intransigence, heels being dug in and entrenched positions. I though that my right hon. Friend the Minister and I had provided perhaps the most malleable combination of Ministers both in Committee and on Second Reading that had been seen for a very long time. I was grateful for contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, because we wanted to construct a thoroughly workable and effective measure.

I should like to repeat an important point about the role of the Royal Commission and its historical value. It certainly is an Edwardian creation, because it was set up during that part of the century. However, it is not a sleepy backwater, as has been suggested. It has done much valuable work and the hon. Member for South Shields paid eloquent tribute to that. As hon. Members will acknowledge, we have not found this problem easy, and we had a full debate on it in Committee. The former Secretary of State for the Environment, now Secretary of State for Defence, and his successor had long and detailed discussions both last year and this year before Second Reading. We discussed the issue fully with many people.

On the one hand, there is need for continued scholarly independence, not least in order to enlist the trust of those who are potential providers of vital information. On the other hand, there are the benefits of combining all the major bodies into a coherent unit, using a single data base — that provided by the National Monuments Record. We have thought very carefully about these matters and we do not dismiss any of the comments that have been made, contrary to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. We found the discussions on this clause in the other place most helpful, and we listened to the contributions made by Lord Adeane. They were also constructive. It is fair to say that the balance of opinion expressed in the other place was that the Royal Commission should continue in existence, although there was concern about the relationship between the Royal Commission and the new commission when the latter was set up. I believe that the balance of opinion in Standing Committee was the same.

The Government's decision which Lord Avon announced in another place on Third Reading was that we had firmly decided not to incorporate the Royal Commission in the new commission. That seemed to be the right decision in all the circumstances and, judging by the general tenor of comment after that decision, most people agreed with that view.

The future relationship between the Royal Commission and the new commission will be important.

Mr. Cormack

My hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend were responsible for appointing Sir Arthur Drew, the chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board, to the Historic Buildings Council. That was before merger took place. There is nothing to preclude such cross-membership, even if there is no merger.

Mr. Macfarlane

That is an essential ingredient for all those who have to work together in all the important bodies. I was delighted to make that appointment because it brought integration well to the front.

I am confident that there will be a dialogue between the two bodies about relationships and working methods as soon as people are appointed who can speak for the commission. There are frequent exchanges of ideas and information now between my Department and the Royal Commission. That will have to continue. The Government have noted the Royal Commission's very constructive approach to this, as stated by Lord Adeane, and in the light of that they do not see the need for statutory provision on the lines of the new clause. We hope that working arrangements will be made generally known to all concerned when they are sorted out.

Although it would not make sense, as the new clause may imply, to move the RCHM's database by transferring the National Monuments Record away from it to the new commission, concern has properly been expressed about the continued accessibility of that database to the public, and to specialists who need to refer to it. Lord Adeane's comments in another place are highly relevant to this issue, since he made clear the way in which modern information technology could be used to lessen many of the problems of accessibility. Of course, many of those problems are hypothetical, and would become real only if the new commission were to move its location. That is a matter for the new body to consider when established. For the present, the NMR is there and publicly accessible, and can be used by the staff of the commission, or the staff of the Department of the Environment, or anyone else. Modern technology, using microfilm and computerised techniques, should progressively make access to NMR material more straightforward, with greater facility, speed and quality of reproduction, and, if need be, transmission of material. At the same time, the valuable original material will be safeguarded. Those are points which the two bodies will have to discuss.

Dr. David Clark

Is the Minister prepared to give the House a commitment that the necessary finance will be available for the technological innovations to which Lord Adeane referred in another place?

Mr. Macfarlane

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that assurance here and now. However, his important comments will be well noted by my right hon. Friend and myself. Indeed, many people who represent the important bodies have come forward and made that specific point, and it is very much taken on board.

It was suggested in Committee that the improvement in accessibility through these means would be very expensive and that the necessary resources would not be available. I cannot accept that. The Government have all along accepted and underlined the importance of the NMR to the work of anyone in this area, especially the commission, and to the extent that resources are required to ensure that the new commission will have adequate, efficient and proper access the Government will provide them. My right hon. Friend is, of course, the source of funds for the Royal Commission as well as the new commission and it would make no sense to give a good start to the latter without considering the impact on the former. None of that is to say that I believe that there will be great resource needs for this purpose or problems of access. I simply wish to record the fact that the Government are fully seized of the issue and willing to stand by its possible implication.

The Government believe that much of what has been said in debate has been based on uncertainties about the Royal Commission's role, and on hypothetical assumptions about what might happen in the future. The statements made both by the Government and by the chairman of the Royal Commission should have done much to allay concern. The advantages of a separate scholarly body are self-evident and acknowledged by many. We think it right to leave matters to be developed in discussion and close collaboration between those concerned rather than to seek to enshrine unnecessary material in legislation.

I hope that the House will feel that we are not being intransigent. We have listened to the points of view of many people inside and outside both Houses. They may not necessarily accord with the views of the Opposition, but I believe that the balance is absolutely right. Dialogue and collaboration between the two bodies are of the essence.

Mr. Sandelson

I listened to the Minister with great interest, but I am not persuaded that he has established any philosophic justification for keeping the two bodies separate. He said that there is a body of opinion, both inside and outside the two Houses, which supports his case. Will he explain the philosophic basis for maintaining two separate bodies concerned essentially with the same task? I recognise that the Royal Commission has its academic limb, but would not it be sensible and administratively appropriate in this day and age for that limb to be incorporated into the main body—that being the new commission?

Mr. Macfarlane

The whole House and those who attended the Committee when we debated these matters fully were seized of the argument that we put forward. The hon. Gentleman was engaged in a conversation when I was advancing some of my concerns. The whole House will recognise the need to understand the importance of the Royal Commission. Those who have followed the Bill closely will fully acknowledge the role of the new commission. I hope that the Opposition will feel that we have noted what is contained in the new clause and will, on reflection, withdraw it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time::—

The House divided: Ayes 8, Noes 61.

Division No. 144] [7.57 pm
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David Sandelson, Neville
Parker, John
Penhaligon, David Tellers for the Ayes:
Pitt, William Henry Mr. Phillip Whitehead and
Price, C. (Lewisham W) Dr. David Clark.
Ancram, Michael Le Marchant, Spencer
Atkinson, David (B'm'th,E) Lester, Jim (Beeston)
Berry, Hon Anthony Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Lyell, Nicholas
Boscawen, Hon Robert Macfarlane, Neil
Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W) MacKay, John (Argyll)
Braine, Sir Bernard Major, John
Brooke, Hon Peter Mather, Carol
Channon, Rt. Hon. Paul Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Chapman, Sydney Murphy, Christopher
Churchill, W. S. Neubert, Michael
Cope, John Onslow, Cranley
Cormack, Patrick Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Costain, Sir Albert Rossi, Hugh
Cranborne, Viscount Rumbold, Mrs A. C. R.
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Dykes, Hugh Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Fletcher-Cooke, Sir Charles Steen, Anthony
Fookes, Miss Janet Stewart, A.(E Renfrewshire)
Glyn, Dr Alan Stradling Thomas, J.
Goodlad, Alastair Thompson, Donald
Gorst, John Waddington, David
Gray, Rt Hon Hamish Wakeham, John
Greenway, Harry Wells, John (Maidstone)
Grylls, Michael Wickenden, Keith
Hamilton, Hon A. Wolfson, Mark
Heddle, John Young, Sir George (Acton)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Tellers for the Noes;
Jessel, Toby Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Mr. Ian Lang.
Kilfedder, James A.

Question accordingly negatived.

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