HL Deb 16 May 1972 vol 330 cc1353-60

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Viscount Eccles.)

On Question, Bill read 3a.

The Schedule [The British Library Board and its Advisory Councils]:

VISCOUNT ECCLES moved as an Amendment to the Schedule: Page 8, line 16, at end insert— ("(6) Any movable property vested in the trustees of the British Museum (Natural History) may under section 9 of the British Museum Act 1963 be transferred by them to the Board, where the trustees and the Board are satisfied that it would be more appropriately held in the British Library.")

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the Amendment before the House is only a small addition to the Schedule at page 8, line 16. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook, who is sorry he cannot be here this afternoon, welcomed the new provision which we moved on Report, that the British Library should have power to transfer material to the Natural History Museum, but he asked why this power should not also be given in reverse, as it is in the British Museum Act 1963. Even with the Bill as it is now before us, it would be possible for the Natural History Museum, if they wished to hand material to the British Library, to do so via the Trustees of the British Museum; but we agreed with my noble friend that this roundabout method was not entirely satisfactory, and that it was better to write the reverse power into the Bill. This Amendment does that. I beg to move.


My Lords, I think we are indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for pointing out that omission from the Bill on Report. It is an important point, and I think it is only right that there should be transfers back from the Natural History Museum to the British Library, if such are required. We are very grateful to the Government for meeting this point and for moving this Amendment on Third Reading. I think it will be an improvement to the Bill.


My Lords, I beg to move the privilege Amendments.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Viscount Eccles.)


My Lords, I have no wish to detain your Lordships' House unduly, but this Bill is of immense importance to scholarship for so many years ahead that I think we want it to be as perfect as possible. I have either heard or read every word said in your Lordships' House, and I shall certainly follow with the closest interest the course of this Bill in another place. I do not want to be discourteous if I say that I think there are certain dangerous elements in the Bill as it leaves your Lordships' House. I am not saying that the dangers will be realised, but there is nothing in the Bill, as it now stands, which would prohibit the government of this vast enterprise resting with a small management committee of self-perpetuating salaried officials. We had certain assurances during the debates, but at the end of the day, of course, we have to remember that Governments change, Ministers change; and we have to go to the actual wording of our Acts of Parliament when we want to be precise about what may or may not be done.

My uneasiness is based on the Pay-master General's desire that the Board he intends to create should be a management committee and not a trustee structure. I would rather have the best of both worlds. Of course three or four members of the Board at least will be fully paid, fully employed—if you like, in the broadest sense, they will be civil servants, fully paid officials, properly remunerated and with pensions. My Lords, I cannot think of any project which is more in need of the refreshment of lively part-time members, and I am a little afraid—though my fears may be quite unjustified—that this Board may be too narrow, too bureaucratic.

Ministers and Governments, of course, often do not like trustees of independent mind. But we have a great tradition in this country of running museums, galleries, libraries, our Arts Council, theatres, and the rest of it with a combination of business management and also the refreshment of people of distinction and experience bringing in their various points of view. I entirely agree with the Paymaster General that we do not want a managing board of delegates—certainly not. But we want it to be representative; and if it is to be representative of our universities, our great libraries, the public interest (and the Open University is a rather special thing) we need to have those part-time members who have the vision of what this great service for the entire country is going to mean in the future.

I am also unhappy about the proposal to give salaries to the part-time members. I do not say that out of any spirit of meanness; I should like them to have adequate expenses paid. But this country has a wonderful tradition of most of us earning our living and then giving voluntary unpaid service. I repudiate the idea that it is only the well-to-do who can give unpaid service. We have built our political Parties, maintained our churches, our sports organisations; and there are the people who work very hard for the care of the old and for the sick. I believe that all this adds status to the individual; it enriches the individual's life, as well as that of the community. So I find it very hard to believe that while we can get citizens who find it an honour and take a pride in giving voluntary service in so many fields, yet when we come to our vice-chancellors, the leading librarians, and others, they cannot do it. I do not believe it.

I have been collecting voices from various sources—and this is in no sense a Party issue but is a matter of judgment. A professor with a salary is not going to have his salary docked if he comes to London or somewhere to attend meetings of trustees. There is much that is still uncertain about this Bill; for instance, how often the general body of trustees will be meeting, and what specifically will be their responsibilities. I am uneasy. If a wage-earner is appointed under this Bill and he loses his day's work carrying out his duties, of course he should be recompensed. Or there may be a professor who loses teaching time. I do not think that anybody should be out of pocket; it is right that the margin should be safely on their side. But I prefer the voluntary principle, with remuneration given for part-time members when they do attend, but not a salary which would be effective whether they attended or not.

The last point that I should like to make is that as the Bill is now worded, it is possible for this Board to be self-perpetuating. Of course we want the full-time members to be permanent, and the Minister assured me earlier in the course of our deliberations that it would be only a very exceptional part-time member who would be asked to serve for more than five years, or whatever term may be decided upon. I put before your Lordships the possibility of an Amendment which would mean that no part-time member would serve for more than seven years consecutively, but that was not accepted. So the basis of my fear is that we are legislating for the future, and as the Bill now stands it is literally possible for this Board to be self-perpetuating. I do not want it to develop like an in-growing toenail. I do not want it to be too rigid and bureaucratic. This is a scheme of such magnitude that it will require not only the best experts in our land to run it as full-time officials, but the refreshment of part-time members, serving for short periods, with others coming in possibly representing other parts of the country and so on.

Apart from that, this is a wonderful Bill and we all support it. When it goes to the other place, it will again be fully supported in its general principles. But I hope that before it finally becomes an Act of Parliament we shall look carefully at whether we can incorporate this delight, this pride in voluntary service, which has meant so much to so many of our institutions and, above all, that we shall take great care that we do not find ourselves entrusting such an enterprise to too narrow, too bureaucratic, too rigid a governing body. With those qualifications, I add my congratulations to those of so many others to the Minister, for all the hard labour and great care which he has displayed.

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I also should like to congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill to this stage, and to thank him as well for his great interest and co-operation in answering the various points which we have raised. I think it is generally agreed that the Bill has been greatly improved during its passage through your Lordships' House. Six Amendments have been accepted, which is not bad for a fairly short Bill. Important Amendments have been moved by the Government, by the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, and by myself on behalf of the Opposition, and others which have arisen from the important suggestions of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, and other noble Lords. Those Amendments have covered such subjects as loans, disposals and transfers, staff conditions and now, to-day, transfers back to the main Board from the Natural History Museum Library. We have also had the great benefit of the views of my noble friend Lady Lee of Asheridge, which she has given us again to-day, and it has been very important and useful to hear them. It is also important that we should have had this preliminary discussion in this House before the Bill goes to another place. I am sure that the report of what my noble friend has said will be read with the greatest interest by everybody concerned in these matters. The Bill, therefore, is now in much better shape than it was when it first came before the House. I wish it well and I look forward with other noble Lords, and with all of us who love books and learning, to the realisation of this great project, so that the British Library can rise like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the former controversy.

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to reply, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debates on the White Paper and on the Bill, and, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge, and the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, on the Front Bench opposite. I have had the impression throughout our debates that the House fully realises the importance of what we are doing: we are writing the birth certificate of a child who has been long desired by the British Museum and by all who care for books and scholarship. I do not take the view that those who come after us will discard reading books in favour of some electronic devices. Of course they will want to acquire information by the most effective method, but they will also want to enjoy themselves as individuals and to withdraw from the hurly-burly of a world which looks like becoming more crowded, more restless and more noisy. For that reason I think that for as long as any of us can look forward our library system will be a real asset in the quality of life of this country; and at the top of that system we are now creating the British Library.

The Bill itself is designed to establish an institution which can anticipate change in library techniques and in the needs of users. Only those who are immersed in library administration can fully appreciate how formidable that task will be, and of course it is the conception of that task which has dictated the structure of the Board to which the noble Baroness referred. Our immediate difficulty will be to find those who are fit and willing and enthusiastic to fill the key posts. I can assure your Lordships that we shall leave nothing undone in the search for the talents required. The noble Baroness had two criticisms of the structure, both of which we argued upon on previous occasions, but I think she is wrong in saying—and I believe she used the word three times in her speech—that this could be a "self-perpetuating" Board. A "self-perpetuating" Board means a Board which can elect itself. Nothing of the kind can be done, with either the full-time or the part-time members. It is always the Secretary of State who appoints a member to the Board, and when the term of that member's office—which I think runs for a maximum of seven years—expires, it is the Secretary of State who decides whether or not to give him a second term. We do not all anticipate that the same Secretary of State will be there for ever. This is exactly what happens in regard to boards of other national institutions, and I cannot see that the adjective "self-perpetuating" can possibly be applied in this case.


My Lords, I am perfectly well aware that it is the Secretary of State who will invite a part-time member either to terminate his service or to continue it. But we know that Secretaries of State do not work in a vacuum, and I do not want to see a situation where the part-time members are rather limited in number, where they begin to regard themselves as salaried officials with too permanent an interest, and where the Minister—whoever he is—is taking the advice of this closely-knit group. What I am pleading for is full-time officials, and then a pretty wide change of different personalities, with different points of view, coming in from time to time to serve.


My Lords, I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, but it is not self-perpetuating. "Self-perpetuating" means that the Board can keep itself going with the same members. It is always the Secretary of State who decides. We have given some guide-lines to the Secretary of State about the kind of person to whom he should give preference in making the selection. Of course we want a lively Board. It is precisely for that reason that we will not have a representative Board. If the noble Baroness had had as much experience as some of your Lordships of boards which are made up of representatives from outside, she would know that, over and over again, a person who is admirable in his own field is not always the person you want in a complex administrative machine like this. I entirely agree that it is of the greatest difficulty to get the right people, but we have put the power in the hands of the Secretary of State, we have made clear what are the duties of the Board, and we must now do our best to recruit the right people.

My Lords, on a previous occasion the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked me to take particular care in our relations with the staff of the constituent bodies which are to form the British Library. I should like to assure him and the House that the Government, and without question the Board of the British Library when it is constituted, will attach great importance to establishing good relations with the staff of the Library. The representatives of the staff of the constituent institutions would like a scheme of consultation based on Whitley Council practice, and I should like to say now that it is our intention that arrangements of this kind should be introduced. My Lords, I wish once again to thank all noble Lords who have improved this Bill and have assisted its passage.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.