HL Deb 31 May 1962 vol 241 cc268-76

3.8 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which is a Private Member's Bill, introduced in another place by the Member for Circencester and Tewkesbury, Mr. Nicholas Ridley. In another place the Bill had the support of all political Parties: in fact, it was not debated on its Second Reading, the Committee stage took only 35 minutes, and its Third Reading was taken and the Bill was passed on May 18, having been supported by all Members on both sides of the House. To-day, I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill, which I think will be of particular interest to you, since the records of many families here represented go back into the earliest days of our history, and also as many of your Lordships are members of local authorities. The Bill gives opportunities not only to preserve the records for local authority interest, but to enable students to study them and examine them easily.

The Bill is permissive; nothing is compulsory; nor does it interfere with any previous Act allowing records to be kept. But it does encourage local authorities to keep records. Two previous Acts in connection with records are on the Statute Book: the Public Records Act, 1958, which deals with national records as opposed to local records, and the Local Government Act, 1933, which gives local authorities the right to keep and maintain their own records. This has already been done by some authorities but in a somewhat spasmodic way. Under this Bill we seek to provide a regular means of preserving such records, in places suitable for the purpose, accessible to students, archaeologists or other persons who, for one reason or another, want to look for and to search out accurate information from records of the past. We in this country are used to hundreds of years of recorded history and we sometimes, I think, take it all for granted. Whereas other and newer civilisations proudly record their development and their history, we treat it in a somewhat nonchalant way, and vital information may perhaps escape the historian of the future by the failure of the people of to-day to keep records.

The clauses of this Bill are quite simple. Under Clause 1 it is possible for local authorities to make records available to anyone wishing to study them; also to catalogue records, arrange exhibitions, lend documents, and in fact to make available to students or scholars or searchers documents and records in their possession. Clause 2 allows the major local authorities to do three things: to buy records which they think will be of value to their local historical collection; to accept gifts of records which individuals may wish to pass on to them for safe keeping and a wider use; and to provide safe keeping for records which may be lent or deposited with them by private people. Clause 3 deals with the formation of committees or sub-committees or joint committees to be responsible for the records in their keeping.

Clause 4 gives powers for financial assistance to be provided by local authorities to persons or organisations that might wish to keep records of their own. It is anticipated that it is the larger local authorities who will have muniment room facilities for keeping records, but it is possible that a library or other body might be the most appropriate body agreed upon by the locality, and this Bill gives power to local authorities to assist such an institution. Clause 5 gives a local authority powers to annul Private Acts, if private powers have been already taken and under the new Bill these private powers are no longer wanted. Clause 6 gives the Minister machinery to enable him to make such an annulment, if he is requested so to do under Clause 5. Clause 7 gives powers to the Master of the Rolls to deposit manorial and tithe documents with local authorities, which at present he has no power to do. He can say where such records must be deposited, but this Bill enables him to include local authorities and various other authorities as recipients of his records.

At this point I might perhaps read to your Lordships a letter which I received from the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, who, due to his legal duties, cannot be here this afternoon. After saying that he is sorry he cannot be here to-day, Lord Denning writes to me as follows: I should like to say how much the Historical Manuscripts Commission (of which I am Chairman) welcomes the Bill. If it is approved, the Bill will do a great deal to improve the preservation of the records of our old manors and our tithes. At the present moment the Master of the Rolls can only direct their transfer to the Public Record Office, the museums and the historical and antiquarian societies, and it would be of the greatest value if authority could be given for their deposit in the County Record Offices and other local Record Offices. Moreover there have been several restrictions on the way in which local authorities may spend their money on the care of records; hitherto they have only been allowed to spend it on their own records, but it would be most helpful if they could be allowed to help with the care of privately owned records: these are the special care of the Historical Manuscripts Commission which would greatly appreciate authority to be given for such help. Those, my Lords, are Lord Denning's views.

I can only say that I regret that, as a Private Member's Bill, it applies only to England and Wales. I could wish that similar powers were available for both Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Bill, as I said at the beginning, is permissive; there is, in fact, no compulsion about it. But I hope that full advantage will be taken of its provisions. There must be very many fascinating historical accounts lost to us because, in very early days, history was passed from one generation to another by word of mouth, and that is very often inaccurate. The late Sir Lewis Namier introduced new methods of writing the history of Parliament by recording the lives of Members, which shed new light on many historical events. The keeping of records is, I am sure, of vital importance to the recording of history, both now and in the future. We are making history every day, and I am certain we must care for the records that we make ourselves, as well as those that belong to the past. This Bill will help and encourage the keeping of these records, and I very much hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Elliot of Harwood.)

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we should all like to thank the noble Lady for having introduced this Bill, and for having done it in so interesting and clear a manner. We all heartily approve of the purpose of this Bill, and I can promise her that we shall not be behind the other place in the expedition with which we shall pass it. I rise in order to raise two small points on the Bill, on which I hope we can obtain some satisfaction from the noble Lord who is going to reply for the Government. The first is that the Bill is not very clear as to which particular local authority in any area will carry out these functions. It is either the county borough, the county council or the district councils, and there may well be some discussion as to which of them will carry out the particular functions.

I would ask the noble Lord who is going to reply whether, if there is any argument about it, there will be an obligation on the part of the county council to discuss the matter with the other local authorities so that it should not be left entirely for the county council to make a decision. I think that that is eminently reasonable and need not involve an amendment of the Bill. I was not proposing to move any Amendment to that purpose, if the noble Lord can give an assurance that that will be the view of the Government, and that he will circularise the county councils and local authorities accordingly. So far as I am concerned, that would be quite satisfactory.

The other point is that this will be of interest to, among others, the legal profession. Solicitors constantly have to make searches in connection with conveyances of property and for other purposes, and it is important that the places where records are kept should be convenient for them. It is also important that, whereas in some cases it is obligatory on the part of the local authorities to permit searches and inspections of documents to be made, in other cases it is quite optional. What the legal profession is concerned about is that it should not be an arbitrary act on the part of local authorities as to whether or not they refuse to permit inspection. Again, it is not a matter which is susceptible to amendment of the Bill, and if the noble Lord can give an assurance that the local authorities will be asked to be reasonable in the exercise of their powers and their discretion, then I think that would satisfy the legal pro- fession. I can assure the noble Lady that, so far as we on this side are concerned, we shall not seek to amend this Bill in any way. We are perfectly happy with it, and we congratulate her on having had the opportunity of introducing so interesting and so useful a Bill.

3.21 p.m.


My Lords, if I may, I should like to join in the general welcome given to this most excellent little Bill, and again to thank the noble Lady for her very clear speech which, if I may say so, was of exactly the right length. The only criticism I have of this Bill, and it is quite unimportant, is that, on the face of it, it seems to be far too late, and we should have had it a long time ago. The only question I should like to ask the Minister, if he is able to reply, is this. Although I know it is usual, a clause says: This Act shall not extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland. I am sure he would agree that it would be very useful if it could. Is there any prospect of further legislation in that respect?

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, I rise principally because I was the first Chairman, and am presently ex-Chairman, of the Lewisham Archives Committee, where we have sought to gather historical material about the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham—not only while it was a borough but before it was a borough. We have had a certain amount of success, but we have had some difficulties, because local authorities have various ways and, according to who runs them, they may do a thing or they may not. But we had full cooperation from the Council of the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham. Therefore, I think that this is a useful Bill and it is desirable that it should pass, with or without amendment. I must sympathise with the noble Lady in the fact that, although she is prominently associated with Scotland, she has not been able to bring Scotland into this Bill, and it is doubtful whether she will be able to do so. That is rough luck. However, what England thinks today, Scotland may or may not think the day after to-morrow; and Northern Ireland as well, although it is more likely in the case of Northern Ireland.

I think it is a good and useful Bill. As the noble Lady said, it is permissive: it does not seek to coerce local authorities, and I think that that is right. There is one point which worried me for a moment, and that is the power of the Minister, on the application of the local authority, to amend or repeal existing legislation which is not consistent with the provisions of this Bill. However, when I consulted my noble friend Lord Silkin he told me that there is a precedent, and that he, at any rate, made one precedent in the Town and Country Planning Act to exactly the same effect. So I decided I would drop that potato and not pursue it. As I have said, I think this is quite a useful Bill, and the noble Lady has expounded it very well. She has done better on this occasion than she could possibly have done with the Local Authorities (Admission of the Press) Bill on which I had some controversy with her earlier. I agree with my noble friend Lord Silkin that it is a Bill to which we can certainly give general support.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, while congratulating the noble Lady on introducing the Bill, I observe that it does not say anything specific about the physical preservation of the records, and I was wondering whether the noble Lady was quite satisfied that that was not necessary. I am speaking from experience. Twelve years ago I opened up my family muniments room which was underground, unventilated, and a most pokey and unpleasant place in every respect. The first thing that happened was that I fell through the stairs, Which were rotten with dry rot. I then opened up the japanned deed boxes in which the records were kept, and the most appalling smell of fungus greeted my nostrils. I found that some of my records, the paper ones, were irretrievably decayed; and the records on parchment had to be specially treated.

I notice that under Clause 4 (1) (b), the local authority may authorise expenditure on records Which are kept not under the local authority's own control. I was wondering Whether the noble Lady, or Her Majesty's Government, saw some need for an Amendment to ensure that it was a condition of any expenditure of public money that proper physical conditions were maintained for the preservation of records in those places.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to put in one word on this Bill, on behalf of the parish councils, because it would appear from the form of Clause 2 (4) that they are not to come within its scope. This is, however, not so. Parish councils have for some time had the power to deposit their records, and so their inclusion in this Bill is not necessary. However, all I would say is that, they have been urged for some time by the National Association of Parish Councils to deposit their records with the county archivist; and this has proved to be most valuable, in that some extremely interesting records have emerged. I therefore welcome the extension of this principle to other councils in the local government circle, and I welcome the Bill.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government welcome this Bill. It is purely permissive in its operation, in that it gives local authorities some useful new powers but no compulsory powers, and it lays on them no new duties. My noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood has explained the provisions of the Bill, and so I will not detain your Lordships by again going into the details, except to answer one or two specific questions that have been put to me.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, raised a point about consultation under Clause 2 (6). The question that the noble Lord asked me was whether an undertaking could be given that county councils would consult with other authorities before coming to any decision. As I understand it, the county councils do not come to a decision but the Minister does, and I know there is a certain amount of unease, which has been expressed by the County Councils Association, because the Minister might exercise his power conferred by Clause 2 (6) to give a county district power to buy records or accept them as a gift or on deposit without reference to the county council of the county in which that district lies. The County Councils Association were anxious that a requirement to this effect should be written into the Bill. But my right honourable friend was a little reluctant to do this, on the ground that this was not the only consultation which would be made. But I will give this undertaking, that the Minister would never exercise his power to confer the additional functions on a county district without first consulting the county council and taking their views into account in reaching his decision.


My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for intervening? May I ask him whether this means that the Minister can give a direction on particular pieces of work or records? Or is it a power that he proposes to exercise, to give a direction that a county council or, on the other hand, an urban district council or a non-county borough shall be excluded from exercising any powers under this Bill?—because it seems to me to be rather high power for a Minister of the Crown to take on a matter which might be better dealt with by friendly consultation between the various authorities concerned.


No, my Lords. As I understand it, the Minister's direction does not refer to any particular document or series of documents, but to the particular local authority which should have power to keep them under this Bill. That is where the Minister's direction comes.

The second point about which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was concerned is a point that has been raised by the Law Society, who are worried about Clause 1 (1) (a), which enables a local authority to make provision for enabling persons, with or without charge and subject to such conditions as the authority may determine, to inspect the records and to make or obtain copies thereof. I should like to make it clear that this Bill does not in fact change the existing law at all. Any records kept by a local authority which, before this Bill, they were required to show must still be shown. Any records which, before this Bill, they could show if they wished to and in respect of which they could make conditions, they can still show if they wish to and they can still make those conditions. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, asked me about Scotland being covered by this Bill. I shall pass on his views to my noble friend who speaks for Scotland. I think those are all the points specifically on Government policy that have been raised on this Bill. The Bill has been welcomed by all interests concerned, and Her Majesty's Government commend it to your Lordships and hope you will give it a Second Reading.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, may I answer the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, about private records? One of the good things about this Bill, I think, is that it makes it possible for assistance to be given through local authorities to records kept in private families, and I do not think that the unfortunate conditions that the noble Earl has described, in which his own family records are kept, need apply again if this Bill becomes law. The object of the Bill is to make the best possible use of all these records, and to keep them in the best possible way. I think the reason why it has been suggested that the larger local authorities should be the prime keepers of these records is that they will have greater facilities for organising and keeping muniment rooms, and so on. But there may be other places for keeping them which will prove to have facilities better than, or at any rate, just as good as, those of the local authority—I am thinking, for instance, of a university or a great central library—and in that case they will also be included. I hope very much that this will mark a step forward in the keeping of records in our country.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.