HL Deb 22 September 1972 vol 335 cc1462-76

".—(1) Sheriffs appointed for a county or Greater London shall be known as high sheriffs, and any reference in any enactment or instrument to a sheriff shall be construed accordingly in relation to sheriffs for a county or Greater London.

(2) No persons shall be nominated in 1973 in pursuance of section 6(1) of the Sheriffs Act 1887 as persons fit to serve as high sheriff, but the lord-lieutenant of a new county or Greater London shall, as soon as may be after he has been appointed under section 211(1) above or has been specified in an Order in Council under section 211(4) above, nominate three persons as being fit to serve as high sheriff of that county or Greater London, as the case may be, and they shall be treated as having been nominated under the said section 6(1).

(3) The rights of Her Majesty in right of the Duchy of Lancaster in relation to the appointment of high sheriffs shall apply throughout the whole of the counties of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire ; and subsection (2) above shall not apply to those counties or to the county of Cornwall.

(4) The Lord Chancellor may by order prescribe the area for which each under-sheriff is to act.

(5) Where the area for which an under-sheriff acts is situated in two or more counties, the duty imposed by section 23 of the Sheriffs Act 1887 of appointing the under-sheriff for that area shall be discharged by the high sheriff of the county containing the greater part of that area, after consulting any other high sheriff concerned, and if any question arises as to which county contains the greater part of an under-sheriff's area, it shall be determined by the Lord Chancellor.

References in this subsection to a county include references both to Greater London and to the City (including the Temples).

(6) An under-sheriff shall as respects the area for which he acts be treated as the high sheriff's deputy for the purpose of all the high sheriff's functions, except his functions as returning officer at parliamentary elections.

(7) No privileges or duties of a sheriff shall be exercisable under section 34 of the Sheriffs Act 1887 or otherwise by the bailiff of a franchise.

(8) In this section "Greater London" does not include the City or the Temples."—(Viscount Colville of Culross.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clauses 212 and 213 agreed to.

Schedule 28 agreed to.

Clause 214 [Power of local authorities to prosecute or defend legal proceedings]:


This Amendment is consequential on Amendment 100G to Clause 134. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 171, line :23, at end insert— (" (2) In this section "local authority" includes the Common Council.").-(Lord Sandford.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 214, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 215 [Appearance of local authorities in legal proceedings]:


This Amendment is also consequential on Amendment 100G. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 171, line 32, leave out from ("section") to ("and") in line 36 and insert ("local authority includes the Common Council.")—(Lord Sandford.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 215, as amended agreed to.

Clause 216 [Arrangements by principal councils for custody of records, etc.]:

1.59 p.m.

LORD TEVIOT moved Amendment No. 125GG : Page 171, line 43, at end insert— (" (2) Such proper arrangements shall include the preparation by the Council of a code of practice, which shall govern the exercise by persons authorised by the Council of the powers to destroy documents conferred on the Council by any enactment including the retention of certain documents or classes or examples of documents on the grounds of the value which the documents have, or may reasonably he expected to have in the future for administrative or historical purposes, or for the purpose of sociological or other research.")

The noble Lord said: "I beg to move Amendment No. 125GG on behalf of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and myself. My noble friend is unfortunately unable to be here, owing to a longstanding engagement. This Amendment needs only a little explanation. The actual wording of it has been lifted out of the East Suffolk County Council Bill and has the backing of the Society of Archivists. It has also been used in more or less the same way in the Monmouthshire County Council Bill and the Surrey County Council Bill.

Clause 217 of the Bill states that a parish or community council shall make proper arrangements with respect to any document in its possession or custody. "Proper arrangements" is an imprecise phrase, which may mean many things to all men but is rather difficult to define. Despite the remarks in Standing Committee D of the other place on March 9 of this year by Mr. Heseltine, then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the Society feels most strongly that any precision that can be added to the Bill in regard to this matter would be highly desirable.

Some three years ago the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government informed the Secretary of the Society that there was some doubt as to the exact nature of the powers of local authorities to destroy documents, implied from Section 279 of the Local Government Act 1933. As Clause 217 of this Bill effectively replaces that Section 279 there would seem to be every reason to ensure that the opportunity be now taken to remove any possible doubts and also to ensure that local authorities have undoubted powers to destroy documents that are not of lasting significance and to do so on a well-founded common pattern. By the enactment of a provision such as this Amendment proposes local authorities will be both empowered and implicitly encouraged to deal with their record problems in an ordinary, regular, professional and economical manner, thus ensuring that records of permanent value are permanently preserved and that records of no enduring long-term administrative or research value are destroyed once their usefulness for administrative and legal purposes is at an end. I can give your Lordships an example. In the last nine months there came to light a case about some records of a personal nature being found on a rubbish dump. This find caused undue harm.

This brings me to the next point I wish to put before the House, which is the code of practice which this Amendment is about. The elaboration of a code of practice which would, it is anticipated, be the outcome of deliberations between all interested parties and would provide a common basis and pattern of action, would represent a proper recognition of the archivist's place in the matter of records management which is now a major element in a properly constituted archive service. The enactment of provisions giving local authorities the undoubted power to operate records management programmes would place local government on the same footing in this matter as central Government by virtue of the Public Records Act 1958.

It seems strange that central Government should have the necessary statutory sanction and framework for the operation of a highly efficient and effective records management operation while local government still has no such sanction or framework. Because in many areas the records of central and local government are complementary, it would seem sensible to take the chance to put them on the same footing. The provision of a code of practice would provide yardsticks for action with positive bite in them—this is so far lacking—and would ensure continuity in practice and preservation which would otherwise be lacking. I appreciate that I have put these details before your Lordships with considerable haste. I hope nevertheless that due consideration will be given to the Amendment. I beg to move.


I can certainly give my noble friend the assurance that this matter has been considered, though I fear that at the end of the day I shall be unable to recommend the Committee to accept the Amendment. It is proposed to circulate to the local authority associations and other interested bodies, such as the Society of Archivists and the British Records Association, a consultation paper about the principles which should govern the transfer of records and documents. In our view, such a paper—and a circular subsequent to it if one should prove desirable—would be a better way to draw the attention of the new local authorities to matters such as those my noble friend has raised.

This is a Bill primarily about local government reorganisation and on many points, several of which have been mentioned, we have had to resist an attempt to introduce entirely new material. I last did this on the suggestion that we should have a large number of clauses dealing with district heating. We are reluctant to make local authorities conform to a rigid set of rules such as is proposed in the Amendment. I hope that with that explanation and assurance that the matter is receiving attention, though in a rather different way, my noble friend will not feel it necessary to press the Amendment.


I am not absolutely clear on one point, though I thank my noble friend for that reply. May I ask him to tell me why what he referred to as a rigid set of proposals could be agreed by central Government but not by local government when, as I explained, they are both similar? My noble friend did not seem to explain this point.


The Amendment seeks to spell out in statutory form that a code of practice should be prepared by the council. We do not think this is necessarily the right way of doing it and we are proposing to set about it in the manner I have indicated.


On the assurance that the Government are looking into this matter and that consultation is taking place—I suppose that if it is proved necessary, as a result of those consultations, a small Bill could be introduced to cover this point—I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 216 agreed to.

Clause 217 agreed to.

Clause 218 [Custody of parish or community documents]:

2.7 p.m.

LORD TEVIOT moved Amendment No. 125HH. Page 172, line 35, at end insert ("and all documents and resters in the custody of the incumbent and churchwardens and which he and they have the responsiblity to make and keep").

The noble Lord said: This Amendment is completely different from the previous one I moved. This has the approval of the College of Arms and the Institute of Genealogical and Heraldic Research. I am seeking here that all parish records, which at the moment are in the custody of the encumbent of the parish or his church wardens—which is virtually the encumbent himself—should come under the supervision of the county council. I will not detain your Lordships for long on this matter because I had an interesting debate on the subject of parish registers a year ago last April. I must however again explain, if only briefly, what these records comprise. They are mainly the parish registers, which in some cases date back to 1538, recording all baptisms, marriages and burials. They are priceless and unique records and should therefore be guarded and looked after. The situation as it stands is based on the Parish Church Council Measure of 1929 which orders these records to be kept in the custody of the encumbent and to be locked up in the safe of the church, or they can be deposited in a local county records office under the custodianship of the county archivist. If the bishop considers that the registers are not being kept in proper conditions, he can order the documents to be deposited.

Adequate machinery for their preservation is in force whenever it is put into effect, but I suggest that it is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. First, many church safes are inadequate and are kept in vestries where the temperature is low, whereas these documents need to be kept in very much the right temperature. The registers and records are open to damp, rot, fire, flood and theft—theft in the sense that people probably do not go to pinch the register but the plate, though they take the whole contents, and many months later one probably finds the register in a marsh and completely illegible. Secondly, parish priests are nowadays of a very different kind. I trust that your Lordships will not get me wrong over this. They are very different from their Victorian counterparts. The Victorian priest was generally a scholar with a love of history and antiquity. Perhaps he was not so busy because there were more churches and the populations were smaller, or in very busy churches there were vestry clerks to look after the records properly. Now the priest is a different type. In many ways one can say that he has changed for the better ; perhaps he is more in touch, more alive and more down to earth. He does not have time to look after his records. I am of course speaking to a Minister who is himself a priest. The parish priest of to-day does not always have time to look after these records or be bothered with people who want to come to look at them. I appreciate the inconvenience to which he can be put, and for reasons best known to himself he keeps them in the church and does not deposit them.

Archdeacons and bishops are also very busy men and have little time to supervise their upkeep properly—and why should they? Every county and every diocese has record offices manned by expert staffs, archivists who have had a long and detailed training and whose main function is to preserve records. This Amendment is only seeking to have the supervision of county councils, and does not wish to take away the records from the custody of the parish priest if the parish so wishes it. One can understand the feelings of people wishing to keep their records, but they would be much more accessible in county council record offices. I am not in any way trying to perpetrate a war between Church and State, but I feel most strongly that these treasures must be kept in the best possible way and accessible for people to see, for they are the heritage of our country, are much admired by the world and indeed contribute to our invisible exports for people from all over the New World wishing to trace their ancestry. Therefore I hope that this Amendment will be given the fullest consideration.


I do not want to stand between your Lordships and the next clause for more than one minute. There may be very good arguments against this Amendment. A few years ago, my son started tracking down the family history of the Leatherlands and made the marvellous discovery that one of my ancestors was supposed to be a monk—but I said that that could not possibly be true. In the course of these inquiries my son had reason to go to the Northamptonshire County Record Office and found there a mine of information. There is probably something to be said for moving these records from the parishes into the county record offices.


I thought that the responsibility for the keeping of records such as births, deaths and marriages was basically at Somerset House. I wonder whether it should in fact be the responsibility of county councils—I ask this as a question, because I know that in Scotland almost all our parish records are now being kept at Register House in Edinburgh. I think they are in the right place where they are properly looked after and open for inspection by anyone interested. They have a marvellous staff there to help people to get any information they wish.


I must interrupt at this point to explain to my noble friend that we are talking of baptisms, marriages and burials. Since 1837 we have had to deal with births and deaths and that is done in the General Registration Act. In Scotland it is very different, because all parish registers prior to 1837 have been deposited and can all be seen in St. Andrew's House.


I am not sure whether the wording of this Amendment is the proper wording because I am not competent to judge, but your Lordships should be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for bringing up these important matters about records. I have lately been concerned in two genealogical researches—I will not bore your Lordships with any details of them—and I know how terribly difficult it can be to get access to records before the Somerset House period and how important it is in this country, with traditions going back hundreds of years, to preserve these records. I cannot accept, if we are going to have a reply that some general instruction of good intent to county councils would fulfil the same purpose, that that is the same as something written into the law of the land, and subject to any possible difference of opinion as to the wording of the Amendment I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, very strongly.

2.15 p.m.


I will not follow my noble friend into the fascinating business of the character of priests, ancient and modern, but I am glad that he has proposed this Amendment because the matter, as every speaker has said, is important. But I must say that in reading the noble Lord's Amendment I thought that what he was seeking to do was, broadly speaking, to preserve the arrangements that were first put on the Statute Book in the Local Government Act 1894 and continued in the Local Government Act 1933 which, as it were, divided up the relative responsibilities of the ecclesiastical parish bodies and civil parish bodies in respect of records. If that is what he was seeking to do, apart from some faulty drafting, his Amendment would certainly be acceptable in principle.

However, from the tone of what he has said in support of his Amendment I am afraid that he is going considerably further, and I suggest that it is indeed necessary to tread delicately in this field of Church and State. However, I should like to give the Committee an assurance that if the noble Lord will not press his Amendment now we will look at the matter he has raised and make quite sure that at any rate the safety and safe keeping of these records is not in any way jeopardised by the transitional arrangements that local government reform will bring about. How much further it will be proper to go without consultation I shall need time to consider. But I hope that what I have said will be sufficient for the noble Lord to be assured to the extent of not needing to press his Amendment now.


May I ask a question of the noble Lord? When he speaks of "further consultation" does he mean immediately among colleagues in his department, or does he mean in due course, a year or two after the Act has been passed?


There are two aspects here. One is to make sure that this process of local government reform, with which the Bill is chiefly concerned, does not bring about any worsening in the situation of these records, their safe keeping and so on. That is the thing on which Ministers need to have immediate consultation, with a view to producing possibly a Government Amendment at the next stage. If it is my noble friend's wish and the view of the Committee that we should go further into it than carrying forward the arrangements for the division of responsibility between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, that is a matter for wider consultation and will take longer.


The noble Lord will remember that some months ago we had a fascinating debate on this question and it was brought to the notice of the House that many of these valuable records are being lost. Depending on the Amendment moved by the noble Lord opposite, I think the Government are approaching this matter constructively. I wanted to add my voice only because many of us are fascinated by and interested in the preservation of these old documents, and I want to impress (if that is not too pompous) upon the Government that I think it is an important area of local and British history, one that it is well worth having a second look at to preserve, and even to subsidise a little to keep the documents fresh and alive.


I am grateful for that point. My noble friend Lord Teviot will know the action that my noble friend Lord Aberdare took as a result of our earlier debate and of the progress made in that respect. But at the moment I would suggest that we must keep our eye on the ball, which is local government reform.


In thanking noble Lords who have spoken on this Amendment, may I say that I entirely agree with my noble friend, who has gone much further than I thought he would. I shall greatly welcome the Amendment the Government will draft because at this stage I agree that I do not wish to go very far with this matter between Church and State. I wanted an Amendment which was within the terms of this Bill and which I thought was entirely proper. But I must make one comment here: I do not know whether my noble friend is representing his other hat, but the Bishops' Bench is completely empty. I should have thought they could well have been represented. Be that as it may, I look forward to what my noble friend has in store and I therefore beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 218 agreed to.

Clauses 219 and 220 agreed to.

Clause 221 [Photographic copies of documents]:

2.21 p.m.

LORD SANDFORD moved Amendments Nos. 125Q and 125R: Page 174, line 20, at end insert— (" (3A) In legal proceedings a photographic copy of a document in the custody of a local authority, or of a document which has been destroyed while in the custody of a local authority, or of any part of any such document, shall, subject to subsection (3C) below, be admissible in evidence to the like extent as the original. (3B) A certificate purporting to be signed by the proper officer of the local authority concerned that a document is such a photographic copy as is mentioned in subsection (3A) above, shall, subject to subsection (4) below, be evidence to that effect. (3C) The court before which a photographic copy is tendered in evidence in pursuance of subsection (3A) above may, if the original is in existence, require its production and thereupon that subsection shall not apply to the copy.")line 25, at end add— (" (5) In this section "court" and "legal proceedings" have the same meanings as in the Civil Evidence Act 1968.")

The noble Lord said : I beg to move Amendment No. 125Q which is to do with photographic records. I think I can do this quite shortly and I will couple this Amendment with Amendment No. 125R. Amendment No. 125Q enables the local authority documents to be simply proved in legal proceedings by means of properly authenticated photographic copies. Amendment No. 125R defines the terms "court" and "legal proceedings" which appear in the preceding Amendment by attracting definitions contained in Section 18(2) of the Civil Evidence Act 1968. I beg to move.

On Question, Amendments agreed to.

Clause 221, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 222 to 233 agreed to.

Clause 234 [Freemen]:


I beg to move that we omit Clause 234 from the Bill. This would pave the way to the substitution of a new clause on the same subject of freemen. That is Amendment No. 125VV, which will be found at the bottom of page 10 and the top of page 11 of the latest Marshalled list. Other linked Amendments with that one are Amendments Nos. 125MM and 131J, but the substantive one is Amendment No. 125VV. This might be a convenient moment to discuss the whole matter.

The new clause is to be included somewhat later in the Bill as the draftsman has taken the opportunity to group together a series of new and existing clauses all dealing with ancient historical and ceremonial aspects of local government—and that is the subject to which we now come. The group as a whole will consist of: new Clause 125RR on the status of certain districts; new Clause 125TT on the preservation of powers and privileges of existing cities and boroughs; new Clause 125UU on ceremonial bearings; 125VV which is, as I said, on freemen and the inhabitants of existing boroughs; and the existing Clause 235 on honorary aldermen and freemen which will be transposed by Amendment No. 125QQ. The main Amendment on the subject of freemen is Amendment No. 125VV. This deals with "real" freemen, the successors to the original members of the ancient municipal corporations, and is not to be confused with honorary freemen who are dealt with separately in the Bill and upon whom freedom is conferred as a type of local honour.

The three traditional qualifications for freedom of a town which still survive are: birth, being the son a freeman; servitude, by being appointed to a freeman; or marriage to a daughter or widow of a freeman. Freemen's roles and the official admission of freemen are maintained in about 50 towns. In these places the ancient institution is regarded with considerable pride and although freedom nowadays carries no local government significance it may carry property rights. It had always been the Government's intention to preserve the institution and the rights of freemen in these places. The present clause, Clause 234, permits orders to be made for this purpose but at the urgent wish of the nationwide body known as the "Freemen of England" the Government now propose that these matters should be dealt with in the Bill itself instead of by subsequent order. The new clause moved in by Amendment 125VV and supplemented by Amendments 125MM and 131J achieves that. There is more to be said on the subject if the Committee wish me to do so but I think the Committee may feel it will be content with that. I beg to move.


Perhaps I should declare an interest as a freeman with no rights or privileges whatever.


May I ask does that extend to Wales? Do we have the freemen of Wales as well? The noble Lord referred only to the freemen of England.


In Wales they are not free; that is one of their grievances. Mine is a very short interjection. We are allowed to confer upon prominent citizens in our boroughs and cities the title of "Freeman". We are not allowed to do that in the case of counties, although there may be people who have served their county very well indeed over a long period of years and it has always struck me as being a gap in these nice, pretty honorary decorations that we give to people from time to time. I know it will be suggested in a later clause in the Bill that we are going to make it possible for people to become honorary aldermen of a county, but I can see that particular decoration being conferred merely upon people who have served the county council itself. That would leave out of consideration quite a large number of people who may have served the county in a less prominent and ornamental manner. It is obviously too late to do anything substantive here, but will the Minister think about the possibility of creating Freemen of counties?


Yes, certainly. In answer to the noble Baroness, it is the freemen of England who have been instrumental in getting this Amendment into the Bill in place of the arrangement that we had proposed before; but so far as I can see at the moment the provision extends to Wales, though if the noble Baroness were to ask me in which town in Wales it would apply I should be at a loss.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 235 [Honorary aldermen and freemen]:


I propose that we discuss with Amendment No. 125JJ, Amendments Nos. 125KK and 125LL. These are all paving Amendments to the new clauses after Clause 238 which we agreed we should discuss when we reached that point.

Amendments moved— Page 183, line 4, after first ("a") insert ("city, borough or royal") line 7, after ("the") insert ("city, borough or royal") line 9, after ("the") insert ("city, borough or royal").—(Lord Sandford.)

On Question., Amendments agreed to.


We have just referred to Amendment No. 125MM in connection with Amendments No. 125W, Amendments 125NN and 125PP pave the way, and Amendment No. 125QQ is associated with the one referring to freemen. If the Committee agree, I suggest that we might deal with these together as they deal with the same subject.

Amendments moved— Page 183, line 9, at end insert ("but the admission of a person to be an honorary freeman shall not confer on him any such rights as are referred to in section (Freemen and inhabitants of existing boroughs) (4) below.") line 11, after first ("a") insert ("city, borough or royal") line 15, after ("the") insert ("city, borough or royal"). Transpose Clause 235 to after new clause (Freemen and inhabitants of existing boroughs).—(Lord Sandford.)

On Question, Amendments agreed to.

Clause 235, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 236 agreed to.

Clause 237 [Provision as to Sundays, etc.]:

LORD SANDFORD moved Amendment No. 125S. Page 183, line 22, leave out clause 237 and insert the following new clause— ("237.—(1) Where the day or the last day on which anything is required or permitted to be done by or by virtue of any provision to which this subsection applies is a Sunday, day of Christmas break, of the Easter break or of a hank holiday break or a day appointed for public thanksgiving or mourning, the requirement or permission shall be deemed to relate to the first day thereafter which is not one of the days specified above. (2) Subsection (1) above applies to any provision of this Act or of an instrument under this Act, except a provision in Part IX or X or a provision of rules under section 42 above or paragraph 14 or 28 of Schedule 12 to this Act. (3) Where under subsection (1) above the day of election or the day of a poll consequent on a parish or community meeeting is postponed, the day to which it is postponed shall be treated for the purposes of this Act as the day of election or of the poll, as the case may be. (4) In computing any period of time for the purpose of any rules mentioned in subsection (2) above or for the purposes of section 44(1) or 89(1) above any day specified in subsection (1) above shall be disregarded, but where between the giving of a notice of election or of the poll and the completion of the poll a day is declared to be a bank holiday or day of public thanksgiving or mourning the foregoing provision, so far as it relates to any such rules, shall not operate to invalidate any act which would have been valid apart from that provision. (5) Subsection (4) above, so far as it relates to any such rules, shall have effect subject to the provisions of those rules.")

The noble Lord said: This Amendment, which I move on behalf of my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross, is consequential on Amendment No. 88HH to Clause 44.

On Question Amendment agreed to.

Clause 238 agreed to.

LORD SANDFORD moved Amendment No. 125RR: Insert the following new clause—