HL Deb 16 March 1972 vol 329 cc558-82

5.27 p.m.

LORD TEVIOT rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they still intend that part of the contents of the Public Record Office should be removed to Kew; and whether every possible alternative site in Central London has been examined, and, if so, what sites. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I must disclose an interest, in that I am listed as a Public Record Office Record Agent and I accept fees from commissions gained. This naturally makes me a very frequent reader indeed. I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend who is going to answer this Question, and indeed to all noble Lords who have indicated their intention to speak and those who have been good enough to remain behind. The main points that I shall cover are, to begin with, a brief history of the Public Record Office as it affects the situation with which we are faced at the present day; the total impracticability of splitting or dispersal of the records; the gross inconvenience caused to the readers and the staff in having to travel out of Central London; and, finally, the viability of other London sites.

My Lords, we are all aware that we are as a nation justly proud of our heritage. The preservation of our rolls and records stands very high. In the Public Record Office there is the Domesday Book, followed by various types of rolls and all sorts of Chancery and Exchequer records. To-day it also contains the records of the Departments of State, the War Office, the Admiralty, the Atomic Energy Commission and, of course, the Cabinet. Until the 19th century records were kept in various repositories all over London, in many cases in very bad condition. As early as 1703 there was a Lords' Committee set up, to consider the Methods of Keeping Records in Offices, and how they are Kept, and to consider ways to remedy what shall be found to be amiss. From this Committee there followed a succession of Reports in 1719, 1725, 1732 and 1772. But only in 1800 did a full-scale inquiry produce a comprehensive Report. A Record Commission was then set up which, besides publishing some texts and investigating various repositories, finally reported in 1836 that the best solution was to bring all the records together into one place. There was a copy of this Report in the Library which contains no less than 931 pages.

This Report of 1836 was happily speedily adopted by the Legislature which, by the Public Records Act 1838, set up the Public Record Office under the Master of the Rolls, gave wide powers and allowed for amendments by Order in Council. The most important of these was one in 1852 which extended the type of records to include the modern departmental records. This was a great step for the historian and for the public, who could now see the records at their ease; but once the Departments had cleared their cellars, attics and corridors of these records, they lost interest.

The first stone of the present building in Chancery Lane was laid in 1851 on the old Rolls estate. The first block was opened in 1856, and at that time it was planned to build a very large office about four times the size of the present building. It would have stood on a great new thoroughfare running from Oxford Street to St. Paul's. That scheme of course was never realised, and instead there followed a series of expedients to meet the constantly expanding demand for space. A disused, gaol in Cambridge was used in 1920, followed by the old House of Correction in Canterbury and Ashridge Park, which is used to this day to store many records. Recently, part of the Land Registry building in Portugal Street has been given over to records: this is a two-minute walk from Chancery Lane. However, both this and Ashridge Park are only temporary measures. The Land Registry wants its building back, and the Ashridge lease expires in a few years.

The criterion, surely, is to find a site in Central London to accommodate all the records. The next best course would be to continue as at present and for the reader to continue to have access in one central place or, to split hairs, in two almost adjacent centres. The worst thing would be to split the records, and I would emphasise very strongly the total impracticability of splitting them. No matter how this is done, it cannot be done with any great degree of satisfaction. Here I must say that the greatest care has been taken to make the split as cut and dried as possible. The present proposals, as I understand them, are to keep the mediæval records—that is to say, the Chancery and Exchequer records and the State Papers, the nineteenth-century decennial Census returns and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills—at Chancery Lane. All the Departmental and Cabinet records will go to Kew. There will be a few cases of overlapping. In the first place, the naval and military records are analogous to the Census records for genealogical purposes. Secondly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer records are analogous to the Treasury as well as to the State Papers, the Treasury Papers, and some Board of Trade papers. This seems a great tragedy, especially as our forefathers, as I have explained, struggled in the 18th and 19th centuries to get all the records under one roof—a great achievement, when it is considered that it was even more difficult then to get things done than it is to-day. I have spoken to many distinguished architects on this subject and they all wring their hands and shake their heads at the very idea of fragmentation and dispersal.

In doing my homework I have also made various inquiries into the situations in other countries. I found that it was difficult to compare these, but practically all have dispersal problems. Those who have been forced to split archives have bitterly regretted doing so. Also it can very firmly be said with absolute truth that no repository in the world attracts so many readers. In 1970 there were 78,000 readers at the Public Record Office, which averages out at 350 a day. This figure increases yearly. Readers come from all over the world as a result of three centuries of Empire.

Before I pass on to the inconveniences of the proposed move to Kew, I must say that there has been regrettably little publicity on this matter. The only official notification, other than in the Keeper's Annual Reports, was a Question asked in your Lordships' House by the noble Lord, Lord Caccia, in 1969, as to whether the Public Record Office would be moved to Kew: The then Lord Chancellor replied in the affirmative and said that this would be some time in the mid-1970s.

In 1970 the Ministry of Works commissioned Market Opinion Research International, Limited, to prepare a study of the Public Record Office readers and their requirements. The findings were printed in the Keeper of the Public Record Office's Annual Report in 1970, Appendix 1. I will not weary your Lordships by analysing this, line by line and figure by figure, but will pick out the most important points. Only 8 per cent. of the readers will have a shorter journey, and most will have a journey which is a good deal longer. In the year under review only a small percentage used their own transport to go to Chancery Lane, and therefore the great majority used public transport of one form or another. Practically all readers used one or more other research centre; for instance, 73 per cent. visited the British Museum; 25 per cent. the Guildhall Library; 30 per cent. the General Registry Office; and 25 per cent. the Principal Probate Registry. All these, as your Lordships know, are within a mile or two of each other, in perhaps the greatest concentration of information in the world.

Those using the General Registry Office and the Principal Probate Registry will be less affected, because their searches will probably be of a genealogical nature and they are likely to use the Census records which are to be housed at Chancery Lane. But it is the scholar—whether the undergraduate, the postgraduate or the university teacher—who will be most affected. The time taken in travelling between Chancery Lane, the British Museum and the Guildhall is roughly about 20 minutes. From either of those places to Ruskin Avenue, Kew, will take 70 minutes. There are many other smaller matters of convenience, such as getting Xerox copies, but I will not pursue these at the moment. People in this country do not mind temporary inconvenience, but we are dealing here with a building to contain the nation's archives which is to be built for posterity. Another point will be the extra expense involved in travelling to and fro, for many people who use the P.R.O. have to count every penny.

So far I have mentioned only the inconvenience to the readers, but the staff also are concerned in the proposed move. They will be inconvenienced, and are disturbed at the thought of it. Being a helpful and friendly sort of fellow, I have talked to many of them over a period and I must confess that I have yet to meet anyone who is looking forward to this proposed move. It will be bad enough for the higher grade staff, such as assistant keepers and executive officers: they will, in the main, have to travel some distance, or may have to move to an area which, though desirable, is very expensive. But it is the repository assistants and messengers for whom I am most concerned and who will be most affected. The P.R.O. can be justly proud of its staff, for whom I have the highest regard. I understand that many reside in North-East or East London and feel that it would be impossible for them to travel daily to Kew. Over the past few years the P.R.O. has been lucky enough to recruit many very able women to its staff—work to which they are eminently suited and which they enjoy. For obvious reasons the women are not so free to travel as men are. Being civil servants, they would not be out of a job, but it would be to the detriment of the establishment to have to recruit a new staff and in an area where recruitment would not be so easily forthcoming.

Finally, my Lords, I would earnestly ask my noble friend again to look closely into the matter and to consider all the implications. The decision to move to tion, I believe as part of a dispersal tion. I believe as part of a dispersal policy—a policy they have since regretted. I submit also that this could have been a panic decision: they feared that unless they moved very sharply to the first available site they would be swamped by paper. I understand that every year one mile of paper flows from Government Departments to the P.R.O. However, I will leave that for the moment.

This decision was taken, I believe, against the public and the national interest. I must remind your Lordships that it is the historians who use the Public Record Office; it is the historians who write our history, and it is they who reflect the age. There is no doubt in my mind that in the years to come, if we take this decision, the historians will take their revenge on those responsible for it. Before I sit down I should like, if your Lordships will forgive me, to refer very briefly to the question of alternative sites. I should like to ask my noble and learned friend a question (and I have given him private notice about this) about the possibility of using St. Katharine's Dock, or perhaps any other site in East London which would be more convenient, as an alternative site. I thank you, my Lords.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all most grateful to the noble Lord for raising this important subject of where the Public Record Office extension should be. As Master of the Rolls, historically I have a long connection with records—for nearly 600 years. My full title is still the Keeper or Master of the Rolls and Records of the Chancery of England, and I still have charge of those records. But at the present moment I am just Chairman of the Advisory Council on Public Records. It has been a part of the Council's duty, at the request of the then noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, to consider the questions which the noble Lord has raised. On this Council we have the historians and their societies well represented. We have most distinguished professors of history in the universities; we have Members of both Houses; we have my noble friend Lord Caccia—a very representative body.

The Lord Chancellor at the time, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, asked the Council to inquire most closely into the ways in which we could provide for the records of the future. It was over 100 years ago that my predecessor, Lord Langdale, became responsible for the great cathedral-like building in Chancery Lane. The Master of the Rolls at that time used to own all the land between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane, and he had the great Rolls House in which he held his court. He had the Rolls Chapel; he was a well-to-do man. But Lord Langdale gave all this over so that the great building should be erected, as it was and is now in Chancery Lane, where we hope it will long remain. The Master of the Rolls at that time was given in compensation £7,000 free of tax, but that has all gone now; he has been shorn of his estates and of his remuneration.

But howsoever that may be, as Chairman of the Advisory Council I can say that the Council have closely considered the problem. First there was the urgent short-term problem of scholars and students from all over the world who could not get access for reading room facilities in Chancery Lane. The Public Record Office was swamped. The students used to queue up in mid-summer and still could not get in. Various projects for the short-term were considered, such as putting an extra floor on the building in Chancery Lane; but under the influence of the Lord Chancellor of that time, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, a good solution was found for the short-term. The old Land Registry building was becoming vacant and Lord Gardiner provided that excellent short-term accommodation which has immensely relieved the immediate problem.

But then for the long-term. The Advisory Council were most concerned and most insistent that it should, if possible, be kept in Central London with, as the noble Lord has said, the British Museum, the Guildhall Library and all the other such facilities in the City of London. We considered that possibility. We considered the building of a tower block in Chancery Lane. We considered using St. Dunstan's House which was hard by; these premises were acquired by the Ministry of Works and could become available. We asked: With all the mechanical equipment now available, could not the premises be made modern? The advisers said, "No". We went so far as Southwark to see what we could do there. Other proposals were suggested. We could not find available anything that was within a mile or two miles of our area. Then there was this alternative: at Kew there was a big estate owned by the Government ready to be made available for the public records, a site where work could be started quickly and with plenty of room for expansion. We not only must look forward to the year 2000; we must look further beyond. Records accumulate and are accumulating at a faster pace to-day.

After exploring all the possibilities the Advisory Council felt that Kew was the best available. There are criticisms: the historians and staff will realise the difficulties of access but we did the best we could. We visited St. Dunstan's House, and at Kew we tested out the distance and the time taken in travelling from the underground station and the like. Having weighed up all the alternatives we thought that the solution which offered least disadvantage was the great new purpose-built building at Kew. The Lord Chancellor at the time went into the matter, too, and accepted the recommendation.

Work on the Public Record Office at Kew has been going on exceedingly well. It will be a fine new building with electrical trolleys running through it to deal with the records, and so on. There may be some difficulties of access. I agree that access will be quite inferior to what we should have liked in Central London. But it will be a fine new building. Work is well advanced; it is in the preparatory stage. Planning approval has been given. All is well forward. I hope that noble Lords will realise that so far as the Council is concerned we have done all that we can to meet the problem.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, it would be very hard indeed to resist the arguments put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, but I do not feel particularly convinced by them. The paramount interest to be considered should be that of the user of these records and, more particularly, the students and the academics. I find it difficult to believe that with the benefit of more recent experience it is impossible to find an answer which would permit the retention of a central storage of these records in London. The noble Lord who introduced this short discussion referred to the difficulty of access for students (I use "students" in the general sense) who would have to travel to Kew. He did not say, but it was implict in his words, that the calculation has been made that it would add one hour in each direction in terms of travelling time for anybody who has to go out to Kew.

According to the 1970–71 figures, as I read them, the budget for maintaining the Public Records Office amounts to a total expenditure of £1,108,000, from which can be deducted the relatively small amount of £105,000 in respect of income to be derived from photo-copying, et cetera. It is my belief that the position ought to be reviewed in the light of what has been going on in research into the possibilities of computer-indexing, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, will know all about. The progress on this research seems to be slow. I do not say it is unreasonably slow, but it is slow, and other countries have used other systems such as the retrieval system to make the records more easily usable by the would-be student. I have not used the Public Record Office very much myself, though when I have been there I have always received the greatest courtesy and kindness from the staff. Some two years ago I was looking into the ships' manifests of the ships that took those sentenced to transportation following convictions for crimes against the game laws of this country and rick burning in the early 19th century, and I was amazed at the speed with which they could extract these original documents under a system which was, quite frankly, primitive and early Victorian. If we can introduce something much more up-to-date, more speedy, in the way of computer indexing, and if we can find an alternative site, how much more readily available these public records would be to students, who are increasing in number from year to year at a very substantial rate! I think the current rate of increase of attendances at the Public Record Office runs at approximately 40 per cent. per year.

Be that as it may, have all the possibilities really been examined? We hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, supported by another noble Lord sitting by him, saying that they have looked at every possibility. What about Somerset House? In fact, I made this suggestion in this House some months ago. We know that in Somerset House there are certain offices which should not be moved: I am thinking of the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. But there are wings in that beautiful building which are occupied by people who, I should have thought, could be shifted elsewhere. Has a proper survey been done on this matter? This is a building within a few yards, almost, of Chancery Lane, and I should have thought that the matter ought to be reviewed to see whether we could not deal more satisfactorily with the whole question of retaining these centralised records. We do not want to repeat what has happened in the matter of the storage of old historical newspapers. If one wants to examine an 18th century newspaper one has to go out to Colindale, and it is very inconvenient indeed for people whose time is limited. That is especially so in the case of students who are limited not only by the time in which they have to do their research but, of course, by the opening hours of the P.R.O.

So, my Lords, my plea to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack is this. I accept that dispersal has appeared at times to be essential. I do not accept that we know all there is to know about alternative places, and I do not think the whole question can be settled until we have come to a decision covering computerised indexing, which should be adequately financed. That is in process of research and examination, which in my view could be speeded up.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, I have no particular qualifications to enter into this debate, but as soon as I heard that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, was going to raise this question I became so shocked with the idea that cur records of this country should be split up that I felt that I had to say a few words. A great majority of the records are, as the noble Lord has said, within a few miles of each other in a very historic part of London which contains the British Museum, the Inns of Court, Guildhall, Somerset House and so on. I was so horrified that there should be a move to split up these records that I felt I should say something in support of the noble Lord who has asked the Question. What can I say? I can only reiterate what has been so well said by the noble Lord himself and by the noble Lord, Lord Burntwood, and indeed by the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls, who quite clearly realises the seriousness of the problem. I know that he has had a strong advisory committee; but I may say that I know it now for the first time, because very little has been said about this move which is going to take place. Advisory committees composed of the most learned professors in the country do not always come to the right conclusions. My Lords, I will shorten my remarks, because I feel that everyone in this House really knows in his heart that these records should remain in this part of London, and it is only a question of how it can best be done.

I make two points. One is to support the noble Lord, Lord Burntwood, and perhaps go a little further and say that computer recording and storage and retrieval is only in its infancy. I should say that in ten years' time we may be told that the whole of these records, in one form or another, could be kept in this building—in this Chamber. So I think this is quite the wrong time to build some enormous place miles away from where anybody wants to travel to—unless one wants to see Kew Gardens or Hampton Court. That is a very good object, but not the object of scholars in history and genealogy. My other point is to ask a question. Is there not an enormous building at the corner of Tottenham Court Road which is completely unoccupied and which, I believe, is being kept empty in order that some vast profits may be made out of it? Could there not be a compulsory purchase order to buy a building such as that for public records before we start splitting them up? Another Department of Government has been split up, so far as I can see. At any rate, I seem to receive letters from Middlesbrough and Cardiff and occasionally from Worthing about the state of my taxes. I would say that none of them seems to know what the other is doing. Certainly none of them seems to know what income tax I ought to be paying. The great point is that they will soon be eight years out of date and then I think there is something called the Statute of Limitations which will save me from having to pay any income tax at all. I only put that remark in rather facetiously, as an example of what can happen when we start splitting up such things as records into various sections and putting them in different parts of the country. I hope that all the learned people who, I am sure, have given a great deal of their time and thought to this matter will go on giving their time and thought to it a little longer.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, may I make just one or two remarks to support what the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls has already said so ably about the work of his Advisory Council. As he has pointed out, it is there only to give advice, and the advice now goes to the Lord Chancellor and it is for him to dispose; only for us to propose. I myself greatly welcome this short debate, for it has given a further chance for more publicity on the decision and the reasons for it. Here I should say that, both so far as the Council is concerned, and certainly so far as the Keeper is concerned, it is fair to say that at every stage we have tried to see that facilities should be given to those concerned, and the Press in particular, to explain what is being proposed, and why, and how it should be carried out, so that the public who are interested will be able to follow this. The fact that the matter has not hit the headlines in the Press is not in any way to be imputed, I think, against the Keeper, who in this respect has done all that he can, and more; and he will, I know, continue to do so if this decision is upheld and a building is set up. Then, no doubt, the Press can be invited to see it, as well as the plans which have already been put forward.

The second thing I should like to say about the Advisory Council is that I am sure that all of us—the Master of the Rolls himself and all of us, whether historians or not—started with the same prejudices that have been put before us, very rightly, by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and other speakers to-day. This was the natural approach, and it was only after much heart-searching that we were forced to the conclusion that the best—that is, something alongside the existing Record Office—was not to be had, and it was only in those circumstances that the decision was taken to go to Kew.

The historians made their own case. The noble Lord, Lord Platt, has said that sometimes learned people are not the best advocates of their own cause, but I can assure him that the historians in this case were eloquent in this very sensible cause. But it was not a question of what was desirable or what was the optimum; it was the possible. And it was on these grounds that the Council finally made the recommendation that they did, and of course into that decision there came not only the question of space but the problem of time: when could this sort of thing be done? How urgently needed was it, and in the light of that what was the best practical thing to recommend to the Lord Chancellor? I dare say that the historians of the future will be as rude as everybody else about the historians on the Council for the recommendation we made, but if so I think we should console ourselves that many of us will have cause to get bad notices from historians on many other grounds than the decisions we took in the Council, and it is just too bad.

I say this only because I wish to emphasise what heart-searching went into the deliberations of the Council as to what they ought most properly to recommend in time and space, and on a small detail in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, I think it is a little hard to say that everybody's journey will be increased by an hour or more either way. This depends upon whether or not he starts from the old Record Office. Many of the historians, if they do not actually live in London, will come to London by train and we did the time and motion study between the various stations at which they would be most likely to arrive and Kew; so that point was not overlooked.

Also of course it is not only a question of storage; that is not the only problem which a new Record Office would have to face. As the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls has said, it is necessary to provide also for people to go there to study, space for searchers. Then there is the obvious question of the future. I do not know but I accept the fact that every year a mile is added to the length of documents provided by the State that have somehow or another to be filed. In that connection I think one can only remember Osbert Lancaster's cartoon, "Where we, of course, file our trash"! I hope it does not turn out like that.

My Lords, I hope that I have said enough to persuade you that we started with all the right prejudices and that on practical grounds we were forced to the conclusion that was put before the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor. Therefore, as I have said at the beginning, I welcome this debate on one condition; that is, that I hope we shall hear that the decision will be upheld so that work can proceed, and that in reasonable time the sort of further facilities which are so urgently required will be provided.

6.4 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to take up your Lordships' time, but I thought that as it was the Government of which I was a member which made the decision about Kew, and since there is, as your Lordships know, a limit to the extent to which an incoming Minister can see the papers of his predecessor, I ought perhaps to say something.

First, may I say how delighted I am at the great interest which the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has shown in the Public Record Office. I am grateful to him for having put down this Question, because it brings the position before the public. Perhaps I may make an awful confession to the noble Lord: all my working life I worked in the Temple, and nearly every day I passed the bottom of Chancery Lane to go to the Law Courts, and I have to confess that until I was Lord Chancellor I had never been in the Public Record Office in my life. I was not conscious of any public records that I wanted to see; I had no idea that there was a museum there, containing the Domesday Book, Shakespeare's Will and, as the noble Lord knows, many other fascinating documents. Of course as soon as I became Lord Chancellor and I went down there I was as fascinated by it as is the noble Lord. I used to go down there and ask people what they were doing, and I got some very odd answers. I remember one professor of American history who told me that there was a period of about three to four years in our history, I think about the time of the Commonwealth, as to which no history book explained what had happened. The whole country was under martial law at the time. So this professor had come to London to read all the reports of the courts martial which had taken place, in order to see what had been going on.

When I took office I found two great difficulties about the Public Record Office. There was an acute immediate problem because, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, will remember, there were days on which there were more would-be readers than there were readers' seats, and we were having to put up "House full" notices. This was intolerable, because men came from America, from South Africa and from Commonwealth countries to read the history of their own constitutions. They had allowed a certain amount of time for this, assuming that the Public Record Office would be open and that they could sit there reading; so something had to be done urgently. I was fortunate enough to be able to obtain sufficient accommodation in the Land Registry nearby to cure that problem. Then there was the long-term problem. It was obvious that there had to be a large extension to the Public Record Office, preferably a purpose-built building, because the Public Record Office, as the noble Lord knows, is rather sui generis. The idea that members of the public could see all the beauties of Somerset House if the Public Record Office were there is not, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Burnt-wood, realistic, because the Public Record Office as a whole is not open to the public. It is only the Reading Room that is open. There are miles and miles of shelves and a good deal of machinery, and so on. The public would not be able to see the glories of Somerset House and, with great respect, I do not think that that would be a particularly suitable building.

Therefore we needed preferably a purpose-built building of, I think I am right in saying, about 325,000 square feet, and preferably as near to the Public Record Office as possible. Every sort of site was scoured. I remember the roof scheme, and the chief trouble was that what had been happening for years and years was that people had got out a scheme for the extended Public Record Office and just when it was arriving at fruition somebody else had some alternative plan, and so the whole thing was put into the melting pot again. Since the end of the First World War there had been at least eight entirely different schemes as to where the Public Record Office should go, and I found that by the time we got our plans and got planning permission from the local authority—and it shows how little I knew, because I had no idea that a Government had to get planning permission from the local authority—four years would have elapsed. Therefore the thing to do was to take a decision.

With every assistance from the Ministry of Public Building and Works, we scoured all the sites more central than Kew and could find none that was suitable. Kew had great advantages because it was already a Government site, there was sufficient room for a building that would last us certainly until the year 2,000, and additional space to provide for a period even after that. Just as I was concluding in my own mind and with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, that Kew was the place, I found there were colleagues of mine who thought—as indeed we all did—that in the case of a Government Department which was really a postal one, if it was not necessary for the civil servants to be in central London they ought to be elsewhere. Speaking for myself, I do not mind paying my income tax to a gentleman in Bootle, because this sort of thing is done by post. I was suddenly told, "Oh no; under the dispersal policy the Public Record Office ought to go to Milton Keynes". My noble friend Lord Campbell of Eskan was the king of Milton Keynes, and he was very anxious to welcome me and the Public Record Office to Milton Keynes. But it is one hour's journey from a London main-line railway station and about £1 return fare, and there were no student hostels or anything like that. I had a great battle through 1967 and 1968 to persuade my colleagues, as I did eventually, that it should go to Kew. This was decided in March, 1969, three years ago, and in November the decision was announced. The noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, will tell us what has happened since I left office. While greatly welcoming the interest the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has shown in this subject, I should personally regard it as an absolute disaster if, three years after the decision was taken, we were to put the whole matter back into the melting pot for somebody to start looking at different sites to see whether somewhere else would not be better.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, since 1958 the Record Office has been the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor, but I am in this case advised by a very powerful Advisory Council, two members of which have already addressed your Lordships as to the grounds for the decision which is now in question. I am also in the fortunate position of having been preceded by a lawyer of great eminence of the opposite Party, who took the decision which is under scrutiny by the House at the moment and who has given us the benefit of his opinion. Therefore what would have been a very highly complicated and lengthy task, to explain all the reasons for it to your Lordships, has become much easier as a result of their speeches.

I should like to begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Teviot, as have other noble Lords, for introducing the subject. The Public Record Office is not, unfortunately or fortunately, a matter which naturally provides headline material for the popular dailies, but I welcome such modest opportunities as we have to put one of our great national institutions on the map. My noble friend Lord Teviot has undoubtedly done what was possible to give the Government and others an opportunity of saying what a great national institution this is: because, as he and others have said, people come from all over the world to see this unique collection, probably the greatest collection of public documents, except perhaps that of the Vatican, which exists anywhere on the earth. It is, therefore, a great national asset. I say this for a reason which will emerge during the course of my speech, because some borough councillors, I think at Richmond, rather tended to regard the Public Record Office, when the news came that the noble and learned Lord was going to send it to Kew, as a dump for old pages. This is not quite true. The Public Record Office is a great national institution of which we should all be proud, and it is in fact a great asset to this country, both for its cultural life, and also even for its economic life because it attracts scholars from overseas.

But having thanked my noble friend Lord Teviot, I must add that I fear he is not going to get very much comfort from the rest of my Answer. I must apologise equally to the noble Lord, Lord Burntwood, and to the noble Lord, Lord Platt, who backed him up. I think I should be crazy, no less, to disregard the opinion of my Advisory Council on this matter. They are not just learned gentlemen, as the noble Lord, Lord Platt, put it. They include Members of Parliament; they include great administrators; they include Lord Caccia, who is not a bit learned—I can tell him that because I was at school with him. There is also the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, who has given us, for the second time to-day, the great privilege of listening to him in counsel in debate. I think I should be mad to disregard this body of men and women, and I think I should be extremely foolish not to pay very great respect to the considered decision of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, who preceded me, for which he has given his reasons.

I think I should have refused to reverse it even if I had thought it was wrong, for the very reason that he gave at the end of his speech. I have been through this in one way and another, man and boy, I should think twenty or thirty times in my life, where a decision is taken and then, at the moment when something is going to happen, somebody says "Have you not thought of Somerset House, or St. Katharine's Dock, or the empty building at Tottenham Court Road?", and everything starts all over again. If you want an example of what happens if you listen to such advice, you need only look at the British Museum, which is still without a site for its new building after many years of this sort of thing happening again and again. I would not reverse the decision if I thought the noble and learned Lord had made a mistake. But, my Lords, I do not think he has made a mistake. I believe that the country owes him a great debt of gratitude in many respects, and particularly because he insisted on regarding this not merely as an important question but as an urgent one, and because he came to the right decision about it. I will now proceed to say in my own words why in general I think it is the right decision, taking rather less time than I otherwise would, because some of my work has been done for me, and so much better than I could do it myself, by the three noble Lords who have addressed the House.

I do not think anyone would have gathered from the three speeches of noble Lords who wanted the decision reversed—and certainly the noble Lord, Lord Platt, did not gather it from my noble friend Lord Teviot—that so far from it being a national disaster if we split the Public Records, they are hopelessly split at the moment.


My Lords, may I be allowed to intervene? I know they are dispersed at the moment, but readers can read them in one place, which is the most important point.


My Lords, even that is not quite true, and it is not, according to the Advisory Council, the most important point, as I will explain to my noble friend. They have carried out market research, and they consider, as a result of taking out market research from the users, as I emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Burntwood, that centralisation of search is not the most important point. What they want is speed of availability. Perhaps I may proceed to show how it is split. I think I have got my figures something like right.

There are about 128,000 linear feet of shelves in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. They will, of course, stay there, subject to the possibility of turning some of the accommodation into search rooms. That is 128,000 feet. In the Portugal Street extension, as it were, provided as a result of the decision of my noble and learned predecessor of which he told us, there are about 28,000 feet more. But even that is only half of what there is at the moment, because at the depository at Ashridge (wherever Ashridge is, in Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire, or somewhere like that), there are about 162,000 feet. How many miles that is I am not quite sure, but one can do the sum. There is capacity for about 174,000 feet; that is about another 10,000 feet or so. That will be exhausted by 1975, and then there will be no more room at all. It is not a question of the lease running out. The lease does not run out until 1984—a date of doom. The space will be miles and miles short by the end of 1975, and, with the greatest respect to noble Lords who have suggested alternative sites, I must tell them that not one of the sites they suggested could be ready in time, apart from any other difficulty; and all of them, as I shall show, were totally unsuitable for different reasons.

The situation is that every year records increase by 6,000 linear feet; that is 1 mile 240 yards. Therefore, not only must I provide an alternative site to cover what there will be in 1975, there being no more room for anything else, but I must also provide an expanding site, because I do not know how long this country will remain before it is utterly polluted or blown up. At any rate, I must provide sufficient room for the public records to expand. So far as I know, Somerset House is not capable of expansion. I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Burntwood, that I am not the only candidate for Somerset House. I have two candidates already, one of which is the sitting tenant, the Divorce Registry. There is a queue a mile long for Somerset House. St. Katherine's Dock, apart from the fact that it could not be made available by anything like the right date, is only marginally nearer to the Chancery Lane site—I forget the exact figures—than Kew, and no other site is within miles of Kew's accessibility. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Platt, that I am looking out for a purpose-designed building. It is no good talking about modern things such as computers and retrieval, and electrics trolleys, until you have a modern, purpose-designed building. I do not want to take over an empty block of offices, designed as offices, for the public records. It would be totally unsuitable both from the point of view of retrieval and from the point of view of security, which has a certain relevance to this whole issue. So none of those will do.

We then get the situation that the Ashridge site will be completely chock-a-block by 1975. Working at the greatest speed that we can work, we can only get the Kew site ready to begin to receive it by 1975. It will be a photo finish. Now I am asked to try and find somewhere else instead, and I could not do it. In addition to Ashridge, Portugal Street and Chancery Lane there is Hayes, which is not a public record office depository proper; it is an office operated by the Public Record Office in which 46 departments are the users, customers, and where the public records are stored before they go to the Public Record Office. Before the Kew site comes into operation, this year I shall be taking over, in addition, the control of the British Transport Historical Records at 66 Porchester Road, and Portugal Street, Ashridge and Porchester Road will close when Kew comes into operation. The result will be that when Kew comes into operation the records will be less split than they necessarily are now.

The only other option which is a viable option would be to send everything to Kew. That was very carefully considered by the Advisory Committee, who positively thought that some of the older and more historical documents had better be in proximity to the British Museum. This is a matter of judgment; judgment in the interests of the user and of disposition, but this seems to me to be a very powerful argument. I should also like to point out that they also thought that it is not considered reasonable to provide for search rooms in a central place—and here I come back to a point which was made by my noble friend—and bring the documents in for inspection. Ashridge made sense in the context of the 50-year rule. One of the reasons for the increase in the use of the Public Record Office was the successive decisions of, I think, two Governments; one introducing the 50-year rule, and the other introducing the 30-year rule. The combined effect of this has not merely been to make public records available at a much earlier time than they would otherwise be, but the adventitious effect has been to introduce public records of the Second World War, which naturally enough have attracted a great deal of attention. Ashridge made sense in the terms of the 50-year rule when records were not open to inspection and could be housed there, although even then there was a heavy rate of requisitions by the Department. Under the 30-year rule which now operates, it has become necessary to redeploy the total repository space so that the records in least demand are kept out of London. Even so, 8 per cent. of all records produced in the public search rooms have to be brought in from Ashridge, so that they are, in general, available 48 hours after a reader has first requested them.

I am told that few of to-day's readers would support the old dictum of the Advisory Council which turned out to be a heresy, that convenience of venue is of much more significance for the average reader than delay in the production of documents. The market survey of 1970 laid great emphasis on speedy production, the majority being prepared to wait no more than 30 minutes. For the user departments speedy service is not the only problem. If we were dealing with a Domesday Book, or things of that kind, nobody could altogether overlook the security hazard. Not only could there be theft—and I think that there are people who would steal our national records—but there is also a danger of road accidents and fire; and loading and unloading involves repeated handling, with the consequent risk of damage and misplacement.


My Lords, I apologise for intervening at all and for not intervening in the right place, but I am afraid that the noble and learned Lord has gone on further than the time when I meant to intervene. He is speaking of miles of records. This is bound to be an out-of-date conception of record keeping in a few years' time. A professor of physics calculated that by the year 2000 there would be so many papers on physics alone that there would not be room for anyone to live on the earth. Therefore, if we are going on collecting records by the old methods and not by computer systems, there just will be no room, and I quite agree with that. I do not think that the noble and learned Lord dealt adequately with the question of that concept being out-of-date.


My Lords, I was about to come to that, but I shall probably not be Lord Chancellor in the year 2000—at any rate, if I am I shall be 93. What I am concerned about is 1975 and, whatever may be true by the year 2000 we shall, so far as I know, continue to be accumulating one mile 240 yards of records every year till 1975. It may be, for all I know, that by the year 2000 there will not be any more historians. They may have discovered something else. But I can tell the noble Lord that I raised this quite obvious point when I went around the Public Record Office at the beginning of my term of office, as did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, at the beginning of his term of office, and of course computerisation, miniature photography and other things have a part to play. But over a very wide range of subjects the original document is absolutely essential, and scholars will not be satisfied with the various devices in the white heat of the technological revolution. They want Domesday Book, they want the King's Bench Rolls, they want the records of the Chancery Court in the Middle Ages, they want the courts-martial records at the time of the Commonwealth and so on. The idea that you can substitute some kind of mechanical device for public records may be true by the year 2000, but it will certainly not be true at any time that I can foresee in my useful life on earth. Therefore, I have to face the situation as it is.

I now come to the staff, of whom my noble friend quite rightly took account. Of course we consulted the staff very carefully, and the fact is that two-thirds of the staff would be prepared to move out. This is an encouraging feature of the matter. Obviously, some will be transferred when Ashridge is complete; then there will be some movement out. Kew is a very convenient place from the point of view of access compared with any other point to which access can be obtained. The ground at Hayes could have been used for the new building, but the access was nothing like so good there. I could go on explaining why we had rejected particular plans and particular sites in the past—when I say "we" I refer to the Advisory Council of that day—and why the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, found a crisis on his hands in 1969.

But the pattern of events is the one to avoid. The pattern of events is that which the noble and learned Lord described: that, first of all, they tried a high building in St. Dunstan's and that approach broke down, I think owing to planning; then they tried a low building in St. Dunstan's and found that it was not big enough; then they thought of putting a new storey on to the Pennethorne Building, and that was too small even before they had drawn the plans; then they tried I forget how many others. They tried every conceivable site in Central London which is in Crown ownership. Certainly, at the time when this debate is taking place, one could not possibly get a new building built by 1975. We should be stuck with Kew, I am pretty confident, even if the Advisory Council was wrong and even if the noble and learned Lord had not taken its advice in 1969.

But I am quite satisfied that it was right, and I am quite sure that the nation owes a very great debt of gratitude to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner. Therefore, although I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for bringing this matter to the public attention—and I could give him a great deal more detail if he wanted it, because I was provided with a draft speech of 24 pages of foolscap to deliver, which was full of interesting material and which I am perfectly prepared to recite—the fact is that I am going to stick to my decision as of now, and I am afraid that I cannot yield to his persuasion.