HL Deb 19 February 1976 vol 368 cc578-607

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I must declare an interest as I sometimes obtain fees for searching parochial records. In order to put in a nutshell what this Bill is about, I must reiterate its Long Title: A Bill entituled an Act to provide for the better custody and preservation of parochial registers and records and to amend the provisions of the Parochial Registers Act of 1812 ". The parochial registers are registers of baptisms, marriages and burials dating in some cases back to 1538. Parochial records consist of a variety of matters dating from the time when an ecclesiastical parish was not just a religious unit but more of a unit of local government. It controlled the Poor Law, the maintenance of highways, pest control and it was responsible for keeping law and order.

Both the parish registers and records are unique documents and comprise very much part of our national heritage. Some of your Lordships may recall the interesting Unstarred Question which was dealt with in your Lordships' House in 1971, thus breaking a silence on this subject that had lasted for many years. I am pleased to see that some of your Lordships who took part in that debate are also taking part this afternoon, and they have been joined by other noble Lords and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford who will be representing the point of view of the Church of England. The Church in Wales cannot be represented here, unfortunately, but I have a letter stating the opinion of their Bench of Bishops and I shall be referring to this later.

These registers and records are used by genealogists and people seeking to compile their family history; but not solely so, as is often thought to be the case. To give a few examples, there are some elderly people who are trying to establish their entitlement to a pension and are unable to find their birth certificate because their parents failed to register their birth with a district registrar. Therefore a baptismal certificate has to be produced instead. Similar problems arise in other cases. For instance, it is becoming increasingly common in connection with our immigration laws, when persons try to trace the baptismal certificates of either their parents or grandparents, particularly in cases where they were born before July 1837, when registration began—that being then the only record. There was a recent example of a council housing programme which involved the title to land in which a 200-year lease had just expired and the heir to the reversion had to be traced through parish registers. Other parallel needs arise in the case of intestacy. There is also a useful academic value attaching to parish records for economic historians, demographers and biographers. Statistics of population trends, fertility and mortality in England before the agricultural and industrial revolutions have been of value to those who are concerned with population trends in the underdeveloped Third World. These figures are largely drawn from parish registers.

Legislation to improve the safe keeping of parish registers has a long history. The original order instigated by Thomas Cromwell in 1538 states that parish registers should be kept in a strong wooden chest with two locks. Section 5 of Sir George Rose's Act in 1701 replaced that requirement by stating that parish registers should be kept in "a dry, well-painted iron chest." The proposal contained in this Bill for a fire-proof safe with a hygrometer shows a logical sequence of progress. There was a Church Assembly (Parochial Registers and Records) Measure in 1920 which gave the Bishops the power to direct that registers and records should be kept in a chest or safe, to give security against fire, damp and wrongful interference. There were also specific requirements to effect this. The new proposed Parochial Registers and Records Measure that is at the moment going through the Synod does not lay down a specific container, but it is stated that it will do so in its code of practice.

The current situation concerning the preservation of these records gives much cause for alarm. Since 1831, when a census of records was taken, it has been estimated that 2,400 volumes of parish registers have been lost or destroyed. Put another way, this means that over the last 144 years we have lost on average a volume of parish registers every three weeks. In the South of England, one vicar recently disposed of many important historical records of his parish by getting the local refuse department to take them to a corporation tip. This is, of course, an extreme case, and it must be said that since then there has been some contrition on the part of the incumbent. Luckily, the records were in polythene bags, so that a band of helpers were able to recover them more or less intact from a great pile of rubbish.

Another recent case concerns a South Midlands parish where the Church had been broken into many times and where the registers were not locked away but left in a chest under one of the pew seats in the nave. In due course the Church was broken into again and on this occasion the thieves took the chest containing the registers. Happily, these were recovered later. In a parish near to my home, the registers were left in such a dreadful condition that they have more or less turned to dust and can never be read again. Other recent examples include an occasion where a newly-arrived rector produced his first register which began in 1732, but on making inquiries an earlier volume covering the period 1634 to 1732 was traced. It had beeen lent by the previous rector to a parishioner, who had kept it in a drawer in his desk for 18 months.

Another example was where the registers had been inaccessible for nearly two years because they were kept in a wooden chest made circa 1620, with three locks of the same date, which had jammed. The Vicar simply turned away all requests on these grounds until a complaint was made to the Bishop, who ordered him to employ a locksmith to open the chest. There are other classic stories of registers which have been found in parsons' garden sheds, under the sink in a disused scullery or left lying on the floor of an empty house.

The other major cause of loss is by fire. Losses by damp are insidious and slow, but losses by fire are large and dramatic. Most early registers are written on parchment, which is particularly vulnerable to heat. It is here that the iron chest stipulated by the 1812 Act is very inadequate, because it acts like an oven and the parchment shrivels into a tight, illegible lump. Indeed, it is the opinion of archivists that the iron chest stipulated in 1812 was one of the least satisfactory conceptions. It does not offer protection against fire and, if the inside or the contents get damp, it provides the finest climate for growing mould and mildew. Precise causes of loss are difficult to come by, but on a sample survey it was 42 per cent. by fire, 42 per cent. by damp and 16 per cent. from other causes, a major one being lax custody.

At last, having explained the background of the Bill and the necessity for it, I will turn to its specific provisions. Clause 1, first, repeals Section 5 of the 1812 Act, which, as I have said before, lays down that registers are to be kept in an iron chest. This requirement is replaced by the specifications laid down in Schedule 1. They call for a fireproof safe, for a hygrometer to British Standard No. 3292, and for a relative humidity in the safe not exceeding 65 degrees. A great deal of thought has gone into this and it is appreciated that although the provisions of Schedule 1 do not represent the most perfect method of storage, they are easily attainable and considered reasonable for a parish to accept. The first stipulation is that registers should be kept in the parish church, being the ancient and proper place. However, in Committee we could consider whether the incumbent's house might be included, because there, there would be less risk of damp, but with a greater fire risk than in the church. With a fireproof safe, the fire risk is eliminated, but if documents are kept in an unventilated container damp must be eliminated; hence the need for a hygrometer to measure humidity and thereby see that it does not rise above 65 degrees, that being the minimum needed to control damp, and no more.

Subsection 2(b) gives this clause, and indeed the Bill, the necessary flexibility. There are, for example, many parishes, some of which I know personally, which have arrangements for the storage of their registers and records which do not absolutely conform with Schedule 1, but do conform with the intention of it, regarding the protection of the archives. Therefore this subsection permits the chief officer of the record office to certify this as adequate. It also allows flexibility for other purposes, where registers and records maybe removed from the parish from time to time for exhibitions, repair, and microfilming.

Clause 2 provides exemptions to Clause 1. First, it exempts modern records in current use. Secondly, it exempts registers and records already deposited in a record office. In effect in England, although not necessaily in Wales, this means the diocesan record office; perhaps here I should give a brief explanation of a diocesan record office. The Church Assembly (Parochial Registers and Records) Measure of 1929 gave power for these excellent places to be set up and they are already in existence. They are usually in the same places as the county record offices, which are run by professional archivists; these county record offices have a parallel authority to receive and care for parish registers and records given to them by the Local Government (Records) Act 1962. The third exemption is a formal necessity to exempt certain items for which Parliament has already provided, and these are listed in Schedule 2.

The practical effect of Clause 2 is to provide an alternative to the rigorous requirements of Clause 1. When a parish so wishes, it can retain its records in current use, but deposit all its earlier records in the record office. This, my Lords, is the primary intention. There is no objection whatever to parishes retaining their registers and records provided they do so properly. Here I would add that there are so many people who come here from the new countries, and it is very difficult for them to get to grips, genealogically speaking, with the parish from which they have come. Also, in many cases, the incumbent enjoys this contact with these people from the past. But, if they are unable or unwilling to retain and care for their records, they can hand over their responsibility to the care of the record office and the professional archivists, rather like a private individual who prefers to deposit his jewellery in a bank. The choice is theirs.

The remainder of the Bill deals with enforcement and technical details. Clause 3 is straightforward and provides for the chief officer of the record office to apply to the county court for an order for compliance with the Bill. However, I shall be drafting an Amendment to be moved in Committee to alter the word "shall "to "may "on page 2, line 11, which I have been asked to do by local authorities and archivists. Clause 4 is different; it endeavours to close some potential loop-holes in the application of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 to parochial registers and records. The need for this is that the criminal sanctions of the 1812 Act, which protected parish registers and provided inter alia for punishment by 14 years' transportation, were removed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1888 and, while there is a certain amount of protection afforded by the Forgery Act 1861, the application of this to earlier records and registers which are more subject to Canon Law than to Statute Law is debatable, as the 1861 Act protects only records kept by statutory authority.

An example of the limitations of this can be given by quoting a case where the bishop specifically warned incumbents about the activities of one man, who was trying to prove inheritance to a title from the Byzantine Empire; in fact, a prince. Despite the warning, the parsons concerned loaned their registers to this man, who erased genuine entries and inserted forged ones in the registers. Although this was undoubtedly forgery, the point is that this man was trying to prove a title from an empire defunct for 500 years and the only person he could possibly have defrauded or deceived was himself, and without proof of intention to defraud or deceive there can be no prosecution under the Foregry Act 1913. However, the real difficulty is an historical one, for it has yet to be defined in the Church of England to whom the parish registers and records belong. Most probably they make up part of the "parson's freehold ", and therefore they are the property of the in-incumbent for the time being. But in the province of Wales these doubts are removed; they belong to the representative body of the Church in Wales.

The application of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 depends on the question of to whom property belongs. Clause 4(1) therefore lays down that a defence of ownership should not apply in the case of damaging or destroying parish registers and records. Subsection (2) provides that failure to take reasonable precautions to care for parish registers and records, resulting in their damage or destruction, shall be deemed to be reckless for the purposes of the 1971 Act, but that complying with Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill should be a good defence to a charge of being reckless; and subsection (3) very simply lays down that forgery without intent to defraud or deceive, and therefore outside the scope of the Forgery Act 1913, shall be criminal damage within the meaning of the 1971 Act. Subsection (4) clarifies the position regarding the destruction of unimportant records, if done with due authority. The reason for this is that, from time to time, entirely superfluous records turn up in parish muniments; for example, in one recent instance a parochial church council had a 50-year series of old cheque-book counterfoils.

Clause 5 is no new departure, placing the financial costs of taking proper care of registers and records on the parochial church council, which is precisely in accordance with the Church Assembly Measure of 1929 in England, and the 1812 Act which applies to the Church in Wales. There is the further point that, taking advantage of thefacilities provided by the Local Government (Records) Act 1962—which, again, is not a new departure but is already provided for by Parliament—if a parish chooses to relieve itself of its duties towards its registers and records by depositing them in the record office, it is also relieved of the cost of doing so. This is not placing any new burden on local authority finances as it is doing no more than complying with the 1962 Act. It is not foreseen that any additional costs to local authorities will arise. In fact, most, if not all, local authority record offices have made contingent provision in their planning for the necessary storage facilities—this is most important —if, as a result of this Bill, there is an increased number of parish registers and records deposited with them. The extent to which parishes have already taken advantage of the 1962 Act to deposit their registers and records varies from under 25 per cent. in Wales—that is an average figure—to well over 90 per cent. in a few English counties.

The final nine words of this clause are, to some extent, a new departure. In England under the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure, incumbents arc entitled to fees for searches in parish registers. They remain so entitled when registers are deposited in record offices, although in many cases this is waived. However, where fees are not waived they are entitled to share them 50 per cent. with the record office. This causes a great deal of accounting for record office staff and, not untypically, at the end of a year an incumbent is sent a postal order for some such sum as 30p. This Bill seeks to abolish that; indeed, it is not fair that a parish should be able to discharge its liabilities for custody of its registers to a record office but still enjoy the benefits of search fees which are supposed to be for supervision.

Clause 6 deals with interpretations. Those for "parish "and "parochial "are self-explanatory and need no comment. I shall, at the suggestion of the legal assistant to the governing body of the Church of Wales, be drafting an Amendment to be moved in Committee to add a definition of "parochial church council ". The inclusion of civil records in ecclesiastical custody is a need which arises from the historical dichotomy of the civil and ecclesiastical function of parishes in the past. This embraces such matters as the poor law records which remain in parish custody and a miscellanea of other items. For example, it was not unknown for private persons to deposit their deeds in a parish chest for safe keeping, much as today one uses a bank strongroom, and some of these—forgotten by their owners —are still there.

The question of record offices is complicated by the ecclesiastical situation. We have, on the one hand, the Church of England in the Provinces of Canterbury and York with one legal and administrative structure and the various Measures of the former Church Assembly and the present General Synod; and, on the other hand, we have the Church in Wales, with a separate structure and organisation.

Moreover, the ecclesiastical boundary between the two is not the same as the civil and political boundary.

In the Provinces of Canterbury and York we have a structure already of diocesan record offices, most of them being local authority record offices fulfilling the same function under the Local Government (Records) Act 1962, although a few of them operate a parallel function under the Museums and Libraries Act. By defining a record office within these two provinces to be the diocesan record office appointed by the Bishop under the Measure of 1929, this Bill reserves the choice and appointment of respective record offices to the Bishops and the Church, while taking advantage of the facilities provided by Parliament through the Local Government (Records) Act 1962 and the recent Museums and Libraries Act.

In the Province of Wales, however, matters are different. First, there is only one diocesan record office for the entire Province, that being the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. There are local authority record offices functioning under the Local Government (Records) Act except for the very rural County of Powys, formerly the Counties of Brecknock, Radnor and Montgomery. Unlike England, registers and records within the Church of Wales arc not the property of the local parish or the incumbent for the time being but are the property of the Representative Body of the Church in Wales, and as things stand at present the local record offices have no power to accept the deposit of parochial registers and records, only the National Library. But I understand that this is under review and that the Representative Body is currently negotiating with the local record offices. The Bill as drafted leaves it open for the Representative Body to appoint local record offices if they so wish, but without compulsion. As in the Provinces of Canterbury and York, the choice of record offices is left entirely to the several Church authorities.

I shall not detain your Lordships for very much longer. Clause 7 provides, first, for the Short Title; secondly, that Clauses 1, 2 and 3 shall not come into force for two years, thereby giving parishes two years of grace to make their arrangements. However, the provisions for application of the Criminal Damage Act shall come into force as soon as it is passed. Thirdly, the Bill applies to England and Wales only. Scotland, I should say here, has its own arrangements whereby all early parish registers have been called into the Record Office in Edinburgh.

That, my Lords, is the Bill explained, and in conclusion I should like to make certain remarks comparing this Bill and the proposed Synod Measure. In principle they both agree, but with certain differences. First, the Measure does not lay down a method of storage in parishes but includes this in its code of practice. I ask your Lordships, is this enough? —namely, codes of practice. Surely these ancient, precious documents deserve more protection for their preservation. Secondly, a Synodical Measure cannot contain enforcement provisions. Thirdly, it cannot obviously legislate for the Province of Wales. Besides all this, in the Synod debate in November, most of its members who spoke declared that their Measure did not go far enough. As I understand it—and I hope that the right reverend Prelate will enlighten us further —there are already more very far-reaching amendments put down in their own revision committee. For example, I believe—this is not like the House of Commons, for the Synod is another place but we can talk about what goes on there—that Canon Welsby from Rochester and Mr. John Smallwood from the Southwark diocese wish all records before 1837 to be compulsorily deposited, except in cases where a parish can prove that they can maintain their records to a certain standard and apply to the Bishop to retain them. On this, I would say that compulsory deposit would not be welcomed by the professional body of archivists and would not be desirable.

This Bill seeks to achieve the desired effect by providing a voluntary choice of either efficient arrangements for custody or, alternatively, deposit in their record offices. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford felt that there was a need for the Church to be rid of this kind of thing so that the Church could get on with its own affairs, and I believe that he also has put down amendments of that Measure in the Revision Committee. May I say how much excellent cooperation I have received from the General Synod Office and the Representative Body in Wales. The Church of Wales is not represented here, except in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, who I know has an engagement later on in the evening at Stoke on Trent. If he wishes to leave at any time after he has made his speech he will not have to crave our indulgence because I know what it is like trying to get anywhere. We are delighted that he is to speak, for he made an excellent contribution to our debate in 1971 when I bullied him into speaking. After I sent a copy of the Bill to the Bench of Bishops to consider. the Representative Body of the Church in Wales wrote to me and the letter reads as follows: The Bench has now had an opportunity to read the Explanatory Memorandum and the copy of the Bill. They welcome your initiative in introducing this legislation to Parliament ". The letter goes on to say that the Bishops: … were quite content for you to proceed as you intend, knowing that both they and you have received the helpful advice of Miss Patricia Barnes ", who is a Principal Assistant Keeper of the Public Record Office. I believe that this Bill strikes the right balance. There are probably quite a number of things to be put right at some time but on the whole I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Teviot.)

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Teviot for the way in which he has introduced the Parochial Records Bill. He has gone into the matter in great detail and has shown detailed knowledge of the subject. We all knew he had it, and my noble friend has taken a great deal of trouble to explain to us the intentions behind the Bill and its background. Therefore, we are very grateful to him.

It seems to be my fate always to be talking to a Bill with another Bill wafting about over one's shoulder, to be talked about at some time in the near future. The last occasion I did this was a few days ago, when we did not know what the Government's Bill was going to be. We have known for some time what this Bill would be like. However, it is always disconcerting to discuss a Bill knowing that it will probably not see the light of day in the form in which we are discussing it.

Parochial registers and records are, as your Lordships know, only a very small part of the total records which historians and archivists use for research. For instance, I do not know how many of your Lordships know that up to the break with Rome in 1534 the Central Church Archive was kept in the Vatican. It is only in the last 80 years that the Public Record Office has arranged for these entries in the Papal Registers about this kingdom to be published here in some 14 volumes. The Church records in this country, other than these parochial records which we are now discussing, are held by the two Provinces of Canterbury and York, 43 diocesan offices, 103 arch-deaconries and the deaneries of Jersey and Guernsey which form part of the diocese of Winchester, although, oddly enough, they are not in England. Then there are many cathedral chapters and also some 50 peculiar jurisdictions, the whole forming some 248 archive groups. So we can truthfully say that the Church is well experienced in the management of registers, muniment rooms and libraries.

My noble friend Lord Teviot's Bill asks us to arm the Church authorities with powers to enforce better protection for the parochial records which have not got the protection of properly prepared storage. As my noble friend Lord Teviot mentioned, it was in 1538 that Thomas Cromwell, acting as Vicar General to King Henry VIII, issued on his master's behalf an order to the parish clergy to keep their parish books detailing every wedding, christening and burial in one sure coffer with two locks and two keys, one key to be kept by the parson and the other by the churchwarden. I feel sure that some 240 years later fireproof safes and hygrometers are a sensible suggestion to add to what was essentially Thomas Cromwell's instruction.

If the parish does not want to do this they have only to hand the books over to the local record office for safe keeping. I am sure that the Church authorities in these days would not make the mistake of a former Bishop of Chester—not our friend the past Bishop of Chester who is now in London—who ordered in 1748 that the records of the Western deaneries in Westmorland and Lancashire, which were part of the Archdeaconry of Richmond, should be removed to Richmond, and there they journeyed in mid-winter in open carts, one or two turning over in various becks in Wensleydale and Wharfe-dale. I am sure the Church has learned since those days.

Centralization and codification of records is of the greatest help to the researchers, although it can have tragic results as we saw—before my time, of course—in 1922, with the total destruction of the Four Courts in Dublin with all their irreplaceable documentation, and again to a lesser extent with probate records in the bombing of Exeter in 1942, which caused great loss to West Country records.

But these were acts of man against man. What we are here dealing with, as my noble friend said, is protecting these records from damp, fire and theft, and although he mentioned damp and fire as being each roughly 42 per cent., and I think he said 16 per cent. other causes, I personally suspect that damp is the most dangerous and insidious. You always know when you have a fire, so there is no doubt in that case. Quite often there is evidence of a break-in or of theft, although not always if it is something that is hidden in a coffer at the back of a church. But with regard to damp I do not believe one always knows when one's papers are suffering from damp. Possibly when you or Iare dead and our successors go to that coffer to get something out they will find that the papers are all covered in mildew and damp. So I am by no means convinced that the figure for damp is right; I believe it may be much greater.

We have also heard about the other vicissitudes which these documents have suffered at the fate of their temporary masters, which if this Bill and the Church Measure were law would not happen so much. This little Bill does not have the detail of the Parochial Registers and Records Measure and which I imagine the right reverend Prelates and the Church will wish to see become law, but in my opinion my noble friend's Bill in no way offends in principle against the Church Measure. In fact I suggest to your Lordships that it would strengthen the existing and proposed provisions. The conditions of safe keeping as laid down in Schedule I are particularly to be commended and I hope the Church authorities, the Government and my noble friend will be able to arrive at a formula agreeable to all. I suggest that my noble friend's Bill, suitably amended, might well be complementary to the proposed Church Measure, the more so since, as we have heard, the Church Measure can never take effect in Wales. In the meantime, I hope we shall give this Bill a Second Reading.

4.14 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of CHELMSFORD

My Lords, I feel greatly chastened by the iniquities of the clergy of the Church of England in the past century or two, but somewhat cheered that we have done quite well over a longer period and on a larger canvas. Speaking for the Church of England, we give this Bill a general welcome because we recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, is seeking exactly what we are seeking. Indeed, this Measure of which mention has been made is before us and seeks to do very much the same thing as the Bill. The difficulty of course is that they have come up for consideration at much the same time. It could be called a happy coincidence, but perhaps in this company we might call it providential.

The Measure before the General Synod of the Church of England has been mentioned and it was in fact last November given general approval by the General Synod. Therefore it goes forward to a revision stage, we hope fairly rapidly. With the permission of the House, I will speak to the Measure to show where it differs from and where it coincides with the Bill. We are seeking to do exactly the same thing. We hope and will that, where possible, parochial registers should be kept where they belong, in the parishes to which they belong, and we are as concerned as the noble Lord that the way in which they are kept should be proper.

The noble Lord has himself expressed slight doubt about his Schedule 1, and our own council, the name of which I forget for the moment, which looks after these things has certain minor criticisms of that Schedule. It will be part of our Measure to see that proper conditions are provided, but not, as he suggested, in the Measure itself. Let it be said—and indeed it has been said several times already—that we cannot legislate for Wales. Others will have to decide in this matter whether Wales remains devolved or undevolved. So obviously there will be a need for a Bill there. There are also the interests of other Churches, although by virtue of the case almost all parochial registers are in the hands of the Church of England.

I now turn to the strengthening of the procedures which will be made mandatory under the Measure. The persons made responsible under the Measure will remain the Bishops of the diocese, and herein of course we differ somewhat from the Bill where a secular officer is put in charge. Certain mandatory duties will be laid upon the Bishops, and also their hands will be strengthened in this matter where, as has been made plain to us, their policies have not always been adopted.

Under the draft Measure diocesan Bishops will be required to issue directions for the safe keeping of all registers and records in parochial custody in their dioceses, and to institute a system of quin-quennial inspection of such records by or under the supervision of qualified archivists. Here I suggest the Measure goes usefully beyond the provisions of the Bill. It also deals with the complications which arise when churches are made redundant or when various pastoral reorganisation takes place whereby the records or registers are transferred or have their homes taken from them. Provision is made for that.

At the moment, as we have heard, not every diocese in the Church of England has a record office, although under the draft Measure the Bishop of the diocese will be under a duty to designate or establish such an office where none already exists under the 1929 Measure. There-for, while I suspect and hope that most of the records will remain under strict regulation in the parishes, some will go —and I think in my diocese, which is typical of many, most have already gone —to the local record office, where the county archivist is also my diocesan archivist.

In cases where, following his investigations and surveys, a Bishop learns that records are not being properly kept and in proper conditions he will have strengthened powers under the measure to enable him to insist in such cases on ther permanent deposit in a record office of any parochial registers which are, in his opinion, of special value or interest, whether or not they are exposed to immediate risk of loss or damage. The noble Lord suggests that compulsion is not desirable, either from the point of view of the Church or from the point of view of the county archivists, but I think in such cases, especially where there is danger of damage, the archivist would be only too pleased.

Your Lordships will see from these matters which I have mentioned—and I am not dealing with the matter in any detail, because it would take too long—that greater powers are to be given to the Bishops to see that the records are properly kept. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, rightly suggests that when this matter comes up for further discussion before the General Synod there will be a number of amendments. The noble Lord mentioned one of them, that all completed registers before 1837 should be compulsorily deposited. It is not for me to suggest in this House, or any other, whether in fact this Amendment will be adopted. Another amendment requires that microfilming of all parochial registers and records should be carried out. The reason for this is supported by the disaster mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, when the entire record office at Exeter was destroyed by bombing, and earlier a not quite similar disaster destroyed all the records in Dublin. There may be something in this. There will be other amendments, but I will not waste the time of the House speculating on what they may be, or what their fate may be. However, it would seem to be certain that their effect will be to strengthen the measure rather than weaken it. We believe that parishes will take advantage of the improved facilities for depositing records if they wish to do so, and that the loss of valuable historical material will be virtually eliminated.

My Lords, a question has been asked about the penal clauses. It would be ultra vires for the General Synod of the Church of England to attempt penal clauses. However, it has already been objected by some that the introduction of penal clauses for forgery and for reckless damage to registers, set out in the Measure, are an undesirable innovation; although, as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, reminded us, the Act of 1812 provided for transportation for such offences. In spite of the awful stories he has told us, we think this is perhaps taking things too far, and might imply taking people too far, but this is for discussion.

If a parish wishes to keep its registers and other records, it is obviously right—and we are agreed—that at its own expense it should provide adequate facilities for such safe keeping, as envisaged in Clause 5. The Council for Places of Worship (the name which eluded me before) has some reservations. It is true that in the Measure we have not set out a similar Schedule to Schedule 1 demanding certain standards, hygrometers and the like, but the Council is already at work, under the auspices of the General Synod of the Church of England, on recommendations to be issued to diocesan Bishops, and by them to all parishes on standards of care to be laid down as part of the directions of the Bishop. Work has already started on such a code of practice, and we believe that this is probably a better way to do things because the code can be amended as need suggests and time passes.

Therefore, we give a general welcome to this Bill, although we have some reservations about points of detail. We are a little anxious about possible confusion that may arise from the point of view of the Church of England over the partial overlap between the Bill and our own draft Measure. Of course, it is a matter of timing. As I said, the draft Measure is now before a revision committee of the General Synod. It should comeback from the revision stage at the July group of sessions. It should then be ready for final approval by the General Synod in November. We hope this will mean that the draft Measure might come before your Lordships' House for Affirmative Resolution early in 1977, and go upon the Statute Book shortly after that. It is not for me to speculate about the timing of this Bill if it goes forward, but I believe it would be surprising if it received the Royal Assent as soon as early in 1977.

My Lords, I see from Debrett that the motto of the family of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, is sero sed serio—late, but in earnest. We have enjoyed the earnestness of the speech he made. I could wish in my heart that the noble Lord could have made it a little later or perhaps a little earlier, because then we should not have this slight confusion between the two. But it appears to me from the tone of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, that it should be possible for further consultations. There have been very happy consultations between the noble Lord and the Synod secretariat. Further consultations will take place between him and them to bring the Bill and the Measure more into line so that, as has been suggested, they really do complement one another, and confusion departs.


My Lords, I do not want to interrupt the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, but I should like to ask him a question if he will allow me to. Am I right in thinking that, if Parliament were to enact the Bill now before us, it would still be necessary for the General Synod to proceed with the Measure? Or would the General Synod prefer to see whether this Bill is enacted by Parliament, and then consider what supplementary Measures are required by the Synod?


My Lords, I stand open to correction, but my belief would be that whichever arrives at the winning post first will imply that the runner-up has to provide a complementary Bill or Measure. My own feeling is that if by some procedure the Bill could be held back a little, it would be possible to have two complementary Measures from the beginning, and I hope it may so prove.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I will not speak for long. The House will be delighted to know that I have an appointment about half-past eight about 150 miles away, so at least your Lordships can know that "that fellow "is not going to talk for a long time. May I say to the noble Lord opposite that it is a pleasure to support and cheer him. There was the voice of approval there, qualified approval nevertheless, which may need to be looked at again after the General Synod has had its professional discussions—and I use that word in the best sense and in an ecclesiastical sense if necessary. I know the way the Government timetable is crowded, and I know that my noble friend is loaded with work, but, whatever work there is, the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has served a purpose and I will try to say why in this noble House in about six minutes. Consequently, I hope the Front Bench will look at this matter with sympathy and find a formula by means of which the co-operation between the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and his colleagues and the House can produce a very necessary Bill at this juncture in our very materialistic history. I will not go into details, because people who relate with the Church or the archivist will read with interest the speech carefully prepared by the noble Lord opposite who opened this debate, and it would be very remiss of me to reiterate those well-thought-out remarks of his.

My Lords, I am conscious of something, having lived in West Wales, South Wales and Mid-Wales—and it must have been the gypsy in my family that sent us all over various parts. The lovely little churches appealed to me in my youth. We always looked to see where the best choir was, and joined it in order to improve our music and to improve our ear. I am conscious that many of these churches still have precious documentation. I was looking at Murray's English Dictionary, and according to that dictionary the word "parish "is not found in English until about the thirteenth century. Chaucer may have mentioned it in passing. I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, say that all the archives were kept at the Vatican at that period; until the Tudors came along in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that was pretty well true.


My Lords, I should not like to be on the record as saying that that applied to all the archives; I merely referred to some of the essential archives.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that qualification; we do not want to mislead anyone. What interests me is that we should revive interest in these things. I know little churches in remote places where the archives in the belltower only hear the sounds of the rooks or the swinging of the bells or the moaning of the wind in wintertime; nobody goes near them. There is precious documentation there. I do not know what has happened to the youngsters of today. In my grammar school days, and in my small old-fashioned Welsh elementary school in Cardiganshire, we were encouraged to take brass rubbings and encouraged to be interested in local history.

I think the Church might co-operate with the education committees, not so much on scripture but in developing young archivists. Now that we are keeping children at school until 16 years of age, they often say that they do not know what to do in their last year. Here is a great wealth of documentation redolent of the history of Britain. Weird epitaphs appear on tombstones. I have read many of them; we found them for ourselves in our village churchyard. Man is a funny creature; there is an ambivalence about this ape, the mix-up of his instincts. There is nothing that appeals to him more than stories of the day before yesterday. This nostalgia—that is not quite the right word looking at the etymology of "nostalgia "—this feeling of looking back and feeling where he comes from. I thought the noble Lord opposite wanted to interrupt me because he was making the thumbs up sign; I did not know if we were in the Roman arena.

I would say that the BBC could help with its school broadcasts. Perhaps they could offer local prizes, a good book, for youngsters who have made researches into the local church history. I am sure they would get the co-operation—the right reverend Prelate would agree with me—of the local vicars and parish priests. Here would be a remarkable resurgence of interest in the history of this country. Everyone seems to have gone all European at the moment, but European man, whether he is a Celt, Iberian or whatnot, at some time or other had a similar origin. We are very proud of ours right back to the days of Geraldus Cambrensis, when we claim we discovered everywhere, including the United States. One of our claims was that St. David helped to Christianise Ireland I do not know how successful we were about that.

I would say that this debate could very well revive an interest in the local schools throughout Britain in following up what the Church has to say about our past or what the documents have to say. As Murray's Dictionary points out, and the Daily News pointed out in about 1896, the local vestry at one time was responsible, too, for civil government, and mixed up with the ecclesiastical documents in many cases there are documents of value for civil government. I sincerely hope that the Synod or others will try to rescusitate an interest in the schools. I hope, too, that the BBC can consider a series of school talks, half a dozen or so, to revive the interest of young historians.

My Lords, I have spoken two minutes longer than my intended five. I am coming, your Lordships will be pleased to know, to my recitative. There is one thing that makes me sad. I was visiting a church that was always left open. I will not say where it is because some wicked vandals might take the opportunity. Whether or not one is an Agnostic, some of us still like to move into the quiet of the church in the lovely quiet villages. It is a sad thing today that many of these documents have been vandalised; that many treasures of the church are vandalised. It is a sad thing to feel that in many lovely country villages in England and Wales church doors have to be closed. I sincerely hope that a revival of interest will make the young people realise that here is a great treasure which tells about our greatness, our misdemeanours and successes. I sincerely pay atribute to the noble Lord who initiated this debate. This is my last sentence. I see from the researches that he has done—I have the letter which he was kind enough to send me but I will not read it—that the Representative Body of the Church of Wales, as the right reverend Prelate will know, also welcome the effort of the noble Lord.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, first I must declare an interest as President of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies at Canterbury. Secondly, may I say what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, and hope that he may join the institute at Canterbury even if he lives in Wales. For the last ten years my Institute has been pressing for such a Bill as this one before your Lordships today. We are very far behind the other countries of Europe in looking after our records. It seems to me a great pity that more positive care is not taken. Two years ago a bookseller in New York advertised an Elizabethan register from a parish in Yorkshire. How did it get there? We do not know. We were glad to hear that we got it back and it is now where it should be. This kind of thing has gone on and I believe is going on.

My grandfather spent the last 20 years of his life transcribing 78 parish registers of Kent; the right reverend Prelate from Rochester will have seen something of this. He then typed by hand three copies, one for the parish, one for the diocese and one for himself, and when he died they went to the Society of Genealogists. I should have thought that we want more of this kind of thing. If you come to my library you will find 78 books on the pedigrees of cows, and I suppose the thousands of members of the Friesian Society look at the trouble we have taken to make sure that the breeding of the cows is right and the records are straight. What little trouble is taken and what few books on genealogy and records of local parishes one has in one's life.

I welcome this Bill. I can see problems arising on timing. Perhaps a little delay would be no bad thing if they can be conjoined with the Bishops Conference. I wonder also whether my Church, and indeed the Catholic Church and other Churches which keep records, should not be persuaded, or ordered, to keep their records equally safe so that all the records of the Christian communities are preserved. And why only the Christian communities in Britain? Anybody who has records of births or christenings or other religious ceremonies should keep them safe. I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like warmly to welcome the Bill which my noble friend Lord Teviot has brought before us this afternoon. I was one of those who supported him in his debate in your Lordships' House in 1971, and I do so again today in the capacity of a churchwarden, and I should declare an interest here. Churchwardens, as your Lordships are well aware, are enjoined, in taking their annual oath, to care for the registers and records of a church. In the particular case of the parish in which I am involved the records are now on deposit, so our parish will not be concerned with the purchase of a safe or the possibility of the question which is concerned here. Nevertheless, I should like to direct my remarks almost solely to the question of the interpretation of Schedule 1. The words of Schedule 1 you will find are: In a fireproof safe. A little above that, under Clause 5, we read: The cost of complying with section 1 of this Act shall be borne by the parochial church council … Naturally, my inclination as a church-warden was to examine it in the light of what I believe would concern fellow churchwardens throughout the country over the interpretation and the carrying out of their responsibilities under this Act. I carried out some research to discover the type of cost which it might be incumbent upon a PPC to meet, if they were so desirous, in order to purchase a safe. I found a wide variety of different types of fire protection. So I return to the phrase in Schedule 1: In a fireproof safe. If your Lordships decide today that the Bill shall go forward, no doubt we shall have an interpretation of what this means. But I have discovered that there is a variety of different equipment on the market. There are fire protection files; fire protection cabinets; fire resisting records cabinets; fire protection safes. Each one has a slightly different meaning, a slightly different specification, and a widely varying range of price.

In the case of fire protection cabinets a well-known manufacturer produces a price range between £440 and £1,000. The same manufacturer is willing to offer a fire-resisting record cabinet at a price range between £160 and £300. If a parish is somewhat concerned at present with its greatly increased cost of maintaining the parish church and finding its quotas, these are substantial sums for that parish to find. So what is the parochial church council going to do? Should it wish to follow the course of action of depositing its records, it would find one solution; but in a number of parishes it is surely desirable that they should remain within their parish.

I most warmly commend what has been said on both sides of the House in regard to the interest, which not only people in this country but foreign visitors have, in visiting the parish itself and examining both the tombstones, the physical records within the parish, and also the documentary evidence to be found in the registers and deeds. In many cases in my parish I have known great interest to be shown by visitors and lasting satisfaction to be obtained by those who have come to this country. Perhaps here it is worth while recollecting the growth of the tourist trade in the past 20 years or so. We have figures between 1950 and 1970, when the tourist trade grew by 900 per cent. from approximately 590,000 to over 6,500,000. Many of those will not perhaps be concerned specifically with parochial records but a large number will; surely we should cater for their desires in going to the parish and finding the records in a satisfactory condition.

The second part of Schedule 1 refers to the question of a hygrometer. I most warmly commend this provision which my noble friend Lord Teviot has included. In order to ensure dryness within a safe, one can use a chemical called silica gell, which attracts damp and can be re-used repeatedly by simply drying it out in an oven or some device of that kind. Damp is a great enemy, as has been recognised, I believe, and the provision of a hygrometer is a most important factor. I commend this thoughtful suggestion which is before your Lordships. I conclude my remarks by warmly commending to your Lordships the Bill before us this afternoon.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I want to resist the temptation to add to the debate this afternoon my pieces of the history of this business, because they have been very adequately covered by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton. What I want to say at the beginning is that the Government believe there is a need for a Bill of this kind setting out in clear and precise terms what is needed for the safe keeping of records of the nature that are contained in the Bill. Whether or not it will eventually be covered by the Bill of the noble Lord or by a Measure of the General Synod of the Anglican Church only time can tell. Certainly the Government support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot.

Having said that, I want to make one or two things perfectly clear. I ought not to give your Lordships the impression that, while the Government support the Bill in general and in principle, we feel that, in the Bill's present form, it is workable. I must point out that there arc various Government Departments which have an interest in the Bill. The Registrar-General is not directly concerned with the Bill, since marriage registers maintained by incumbents under the Acts for which the Registrar-General has responsibility are excluded from the operation of the Bill because the Marriage Act 1949 provides already for their safe keeping.

The Lord Chancellor's office, who are concerned with the jurisdiction of county courts, consider that the drafting of Clause 3 is unsatisfactory in two respects. I think I ought to say to your Lordships that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and I have met before this afternoon. We have discussed his Bill—I will not say in detail, because we were aware of it—and I have been able to discuss with him (perhaps, in fairness to him, I ought to say superficially) the difficulties which various Government Departments have. He knows our thinking on this and he has been extremely co-operative. As I have said, the Lord Chancellor's office find Clause 2 unsatisfactory in two respects.

In the first place it would force the chief officer of the record office to go to the county court whenever there was failure to comply with Section 1 of the Act. It would be sufficient if he were given power to do so by saying that he "may "instead of "shall "apply, and the noble Lord has dealt with that. It involves going to the county court whenever there is a failure to comply with Section 1 of the Act, and my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor feels that this must be looked at very carefully, because at this stage we are not able to say whether this is really desirable. Secondly, he can only apply for an order that the Act be complied with. An order in this form would lack sufficient particularity to enable it to be enforced by contempt process. Therefore that is another matter that has to be looked at. It ought to be an order to secure compliance with the Act so as to enable the court to specify exactly what has to be done.

The Home Office consider that the whole of Clause 4 is unsatisfactory, particularly because of its attempt to bring this under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. I do not want to argue against their point at this stage because we have conceded that this is a Bill which we want to see on the Statute Book, but the Criminal Damage Act 1971 deals with reckless and intentional damage and, if the criminal law is to be used to encourage the preservation of parochial records the provisions of Clause 4 need to be thought out again from first principles. It may be right to tackle this subject by use of the criminal law but the particular method adopted in the Bill causes serious problems. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, will see that we are trying to help in pointing out the difficulties at this stage.

The 1971 Act is a major piece of codifying legislation and any attempt to alter its effect calls for serious consideration. Some of the provisions of the clause seem to be unnecessary to achieve what the noble Lord has in mind and others apply the provisions of the 1971 Act to matters for which they are not appropriate, but this does not mean that this is an insurmountable problem. It would not be right to comment in detail on every provision of the Bill at Second Reading, but it may help if I illustrate our concern by reference to Clause 4(2). This subsection would make the custodian of parochial records guilty of an offence if he has failed to take adequate precautions to protect parochial records and if parochial records are damaged. This would mean that the criminal liability of the custodian would arise solely through chance, as a consequence of some occurrence over which he has no control. I realise that this is quite extravagant but I should point out that it would also make him liable to a sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment on conviction on indictment for failure to take specified precautions. That was never in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, any more than in that of the Government. This penalty seems to be out of proportion to the mischief done. I am not being facetious about this, but when one wants to bring something under a specific Act the conditions of that Act must apply. However, there arc of course ways of dealing with this.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment also has some interest in this Bill. His principal concern is with local authority records, and he has examined and will continue to examine the Bill closely. He will consider whether it effects any change in the law relating to those records. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, touched on local government records, but my right honourable friend is concerned because he will want to see whether the Bill, when it gets through all the stages and arrives on the Statute Book, will entail increases in local authority manpower and expenditure. I know that the noble Lord has said he does not think it will, but that is not the view taken at the present moment by the Department of the Environment. Having said that, it means, in our view, that a good deal must be done to put this Bill into thorough working order. As I said, I have discussed the matter with the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and there is no reason, if and when it is necessary, why we should not get together with the various Departments concerned and with the Parliamentary draftsmen to put this Bill into a proper state so that there will be no difficulty. The noble Lord understands the position and knows the situation with regard to Parliamentary time during this Session, but, as I said, the Government welcome the Bill and—


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the noble Lord's sympathetic reply, but is not this a case where the Bill should be sent to a Select Committee of this House, as has often been done in the past?


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will not seek to carry that suggestion into effect because we feel that it would be much better to do as we suggest. The noble Lord Lord Teviot knows the position. I did not make any reference to the Measure which the Synod is bringing in. I believe he understands the position and that we would prefer to deal with it in the way I have indicated. I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue the matter.

I do not feel that there is any need for me to say more, other than to repeat that the Government welcome the Bill and will give whatever help is necessary.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a most interesting debate on this matter. I believe that the best way to sum up—a process which I always find intensely difficult—is to go through the various speeches in turn. I therefore begin with the very interesting speech of my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton. He kindly agreed with what I had said and I felt that he had a good point as regards damp. I believe that one should do much more.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford mentioned a number of matters and spoke very kindly about a Measure which was similar to a Church Measure. He explained the Church Measure in detail and explained what was intended and what would be the result of the present Bill. He also referred to various points where the Bill could achieve something which that Church Measure could not. I dislike the term "penal clauses "and prefer "enforcement measure "With important documents of this kind one would like to think of this as a preservation Bill so that, in the same way as so often in your Lordships' House one seeks the preservation of flora and fauna, one can see this Bill as one for the preservation of documents. The Church Measure as it stands deals, among other things, with the method of storage. I have merely taken a continuation from 1538 to 1812 to what I believe to be acceptable in 1976. The Church Measure is rather splendid. It contains a code of practice divided into two parts. It will be a lovely glossy, booklet provided by the Council for the Preservation of Churches—I have probably got that organisation's name completely wrong, but the right reverend Prelate will understand what I mean. If the right reverend Prelate thinks my fireproof safe rather stark, I feel that his may on the whole be somewhat pedantic. We want something done fairly quickly because these are important records.

My noble friend Lord Monckton of Brenchley said that we were lagging behind other countries in Europe. He knows more about that than I do. His grandfather, whose name he did not mention, was a gentleman called Sir Thomas Colyer-Fergusson, who copied a great many records and genealogists will be grateful to him. My noble friend said that not only the Church of England should follow these proposals but that the records of other Churches should be preserved. At one time we would have spoken of Dissenters but one might refer to other Christian and non-Christian Churches. I thought of that when I introduced the Bill but I came to the conclusion that it could not be dealt with in this Bill, but in another one.

My noble friend Lord Sandys went into much greater detail, and I am grateful to him, about fire protection cabinets and he quoted their prices. When the Church comes to its code of practice, I hope that it bears that in mind and that it goes into the question of damp. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, was typically himself, and was most amusing and put everything on. But I do wish that he came down to the fundamentals of Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, in our discussion on a day previous to today did not mention that, but I believe that the Welsh Office was rather concerned about this Bill, although I quoted the pleasure of the Welsh Church. It is extremely important that the Welsh Church should probably do rather more than it is doing, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, because so few of its records are deposited.

One of the other points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, concerned the Lord Chancellor's Office. I agree, and I should say before that that I have friends in the archivists' world and they pointed out the very points which were brought out by the Lord Chancellor and the Home Office; they were rather worried about those things. I am quite sure that those are points which can be brought out in our future discussions, which I hope will take place rather soon. With regard to the Criminal Damage Act,the proposals were drawn up because other Acts did not seem very suitable. I did not quite understand its implications. They are more modified than the 1812 Act and the matter of transportation. But, equally, I do not think that the noble Lord realised the situation until I quoted instances. There was an extraordinary instance of someone trying to prove that he is a Byzantine prince. I heard that the Byzantine prince tried to make a Birmingham businessman a count of his order. That type of thing can probably mushroom. It probably will not, but it can lead to something else. However, true life is stranger than fiction and extraordinary things can happen.

In that context your Lordships have been very kind regarding this Bill, and have given it one and a half hours of your time. Since 1812 I do not think that very much time has been given in this way, apart from the registration Act of 1836–37, and there were one or two Bills in the 19th century. The Bill in 1887 was rather stronger than mine, but it did not get very far. It was strangely akin to the Measure I mentioned of the Church Synod, which is about to come up. Even the great Lord Salisbury did not have a Bill on this matter. Your Lordships have been very kind in offering this Bill a Second Reading.

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