HL Deb 20 April 1977 vol 382 cc176-222

5.4 p.m.

Lord TEVIOT rose to draw attention to the present state of the public records; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in opening this debate I must declare two interests. One is that I am a member of the National Advisory Council on Public Records and the other is that I am a professional record agent. Your Lordships will know that the history of scholarly interest in the public records of this country goes back for many centuries. In the time of Elizabeth I an Act for the safe keeping of records was passed.

If the practical results left much to be desired, the result in terms of scholarship, and indeed of politics, was both subtle and profound. It could be, and indeed has been, argued that without that scholarly interest there would have been no English revolution, no Civil War, no Hampden and no Cromwell. Your Lordships may think that that might have been a jolly good thing! However, I merely want to emphasise the importance of the records and to remind your Lordships of the long history of interest in them and of the effort that has gone into their care over the centuries.

In this century there have been two notable occasions when the administration and state of these records has been scrutinised by Parliament: the great Royal Commission set up in 1910 and the Departmental Committee which produced the Grigg Report of 1954, on which the present Public Records Act was founded. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago, and I trust your Lordships will feel that enough time has elapsed to justify further consideration. Thus, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have put down their names to speak today, and in particular I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord who is kindly going to answer on behalf of the Government. I should also like to pay a very genuine tribute to the PRO staff, with whom I have enjoyed a very close and intimate connection for seven years, for their dedication and helpfulness.

I hope your Lordships will bear with a little brief history. The Public Record Office dates back to 1836, when the first modern Public Records Act was passed. That was as a result of six Public Record Commissions dating back to 1800. Initially, the Office was intended to deal with the enormous collection of records which had accrued since the Norman Conquest—these records that were rendered, for all practical purposes, obsolete and useless: indeed, it seems that those entrusted with their custody could find little better to do with them than sell them off to be boiled down to make soap. Following that was the fire of 1834 which burnt down the Palace of Westminster, in which many of the records were stored. It was that event—as always with disasters—that seems to have been the immediate spur which convinced politicians of the day to stop shilly-shallying with the problem, accept their responsibility for this great heritage and pass the Act of 1836.

At first, the Office was intended to deal with the enormous collection of records which had accrued since the Norman Conquest and which, with the great reforms in public life and the law which took place between the abolition of feudalism in 1660 and the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, had become quite obsolete. Therefore, the immediate task at that stage was to sort out and arrange this vast collection—a process which occupied the full attention of officials for many years and which is still done on an ever-decreasing scale as part of the Office's activities today. As one part of this effort, the Office engaged in a massive scheme of publication which, in the course of the succeeding century or so, resulted in the production of something like 600 large volumes of calendars alone. Again, that side of the Office's work still continues, though what was once a flood is now reduced to little more than a trickle.

As I have said, the Office started out with the medieval records but later in the 19th century was made responsible for the records of many active Government Departments, some of which had not even been in existence when the Office was established. In this century there have been added numerous new Departments—Ministries of Labour, Pensions, Health, Education—I do not need to go on; we are all familiar with them. The Departments produce an enormous quantity of paper. I do not say that that is necessarily their purpose, but it is certainly an inevitable by-product of their work. As a result, the building in Chancery Lane was soon bursting at the seams and more accommodation had to be found elsewhere. Many hospital huts and munitions factories in the country, disused for many years, served that purpose.

This year marks a very important event in the history of public records, in that this autumn there will be opened the new Public Records Office at Kew. That building will solve the accommodation problems. It is the most advanced office of its kind in the world. No expense has been spared. It is equipped with all the best and latest machinery, and it is something of which we can all feel proud. As a building, it will certainly do justice to the great collection—surely the most complete and impressive that any nation can boast. It must be admitted that some of us have had misgivings about its location, but the argument about that is past. We all now wish it well, I am sure. What I am concerned about is that, having provided this splendid building, we should not sit back and assume that we have done everything that was required.

There is a very wide interest in our records, as can be seen in a very good article in today's The Times. They touch upon not only the many nations which formerly made up the British Empire, but those—and they are virtually in every part of the world—with which we have had any contact, whether it be commercial, diplomatic, military, naval or otherwise. This interest is profound and is growing. It is essential, if only as a matter of prestige, that we cater for it as well as we possibly can, and not only cater for it in some passive way but go out and encourage it.

The last major study of our archives was, as I have said, by the Grigg Committee in 1954, which resulted in the 1958 Public Records Act. The results have, on the whole, been successful. For the first time, a special responsibility was placed on Departments for the long-term preservation of our records. It gave the PRO a loose, but more clearly defined, co-ordinating role. It established certain broad principles on which to determine which records should be kept and which added to the nation's heritage, and which to destroy. It established a 50-year rule, which was later reduced to 30. All these were substantial advantages, but since 1954 there have been great changes in the records themselves, in the users and in the ways in which they use them.

To give an obvious example, who in 1954 could have foreseen the great changes that the computer would bring? Again, the needs of historians and scholars were very different then. That is not to say that Grigg should have foreseen them, any more than we can foretell what historians of the year 2007 will be wanting. The late Sir Lewis Namier, whose work on 18th century political and 20th century diplomatic history did so much to revolutionise those disciplines, used to claim that a laundry bill of a man of eminence might be as valuable a piece of historical evidence as a paper which he drafted to put before the Cabinet. No doubt that is an extreme example, and no system would cater for it, but I should like to emphasise the study of low-level papers.

But since Grigg reported there has been a distinct shift in interest from, perhaps, old-fashioned political and diplomatic histories, on which I and most of your Lordships were brought up. There is now an emphasis on economic, social and local factors and, most important of all, the scientific. Would the guidelines set down by Grigg have identified the records appropriate for studies of this kind? I do not know, but we should ask the question and I am certainly not convinced that we are doing all we can to let the professional historians—who, if anyone, should know about these things—have a fair say in the process of selection.

These are hypothetical questions and we cannot answer them here. What we can do is concern ourselves with the practical question of whether the machinery, which is established to determine them on a day-to-day basis, is the best that can be devised. At this stage, I want to make it quite clear that I am fully aware of the present economic situation, so that, purposely, one is trying not to make any suggestions which could cost a lot of money. Ideally, a new Royal Commission would be the answer, but that is quite obviously out of the question at the moment. Perhaps another Grigglike committee could be formed to look at certain aspects of archive management. This brings me on to suggest a Government archive service to be set up on the same lines as the Government economic service and the Government accounting service.

The present situation is that each Department appoints its own departmental record officer, who has a small staff under him. The idea behind this, as recommended by Grigg, was that the DRO should have some long experience in the Department and be able to follow the records throughout the 30-year period. To advise him, there is an official called the PRO inspecting officer who calls and advises him from time to time. There are only five of these inspectors, excellent as they are, one scientific adviser and a medieval specialist to cover 200 Government Departments and three nationalised industries. There is something to be said for this system. The long experience and wide knowledge of the best DROs is not lightly to be cast aside, but I question whether the man from inside the Department is any longer really the man for the job.

Is he not likely to be parochial? Even if he escapes this, how is he to maintain his enthusiasm? Able men join a Department in order to forward its primary functions, not to preside over the funeral arrangements of its long-forgotten triumphs and disasters. Years ago, when the pace of life was slower and the great Departments of State endowed from generation to generation, the post of Librarian and Chief Paperkeeper was no doubt something to be sought after. But today, when the life expectancy of many Departments is so short and when the administrators scarcely remember what happened the day before yesterday, let alone 20 or 30 years ago, the post of departmental record officer is all too often, and regrettably, regarded as an assignment to oblivion. This may sound harsh, but would one expect to find in many Departments able people whose interest lay in the history and records of 20 and 30 years ago? I think that the answer must be found.

With a Government archive service, you would provide a career structure. People interested in records would want to join such a service, and it would not be staffed by those who felt that they were being pushed into a backwater. A proper training in archives management would be given, which I gather is not so at the moment. Historians would be invited to take part in selection and reviewing at early stages. I do not say that this is a perfect solution, but it is the kind of solution which merits proper study.

My next question to the noble and learned Lord is to ask whether he is satisfied that adequate arrangements are being made for records of bodies wholly or substantially supported by public funds. My impression is that he is not, and I hope that he can tell us what he proposes to do about it. Regrettably, there is no national archive service in this country. There is the PRO with its duties, the Manuscripts Department of the British Library, the Historic Manuscripts Commission and the National Register of Archives and a growing number of other bodies, supported directly or indirectly from public funds, but there is no overall co-ordinating body and there is certainly no overall directing body. My personal opinion is that the Public Record Office is the right body to deal with them, because the HMC and the others do other excellent work in advising on and recording private collections.

To give one example of these other bodies, there are the records of the National Enterprise Board which are outside the scope of the Acts, as are all but three of the nationalised bodies. The NEB is concerned with a critical element in the Government's economic strategy, and has a decisive power over the future of British Leyland and several other manufacturing concerns. Future economic historians will need a full record of those proceedings for a comprehensive study of the British economy in the late 1970s.

At this stage, I shall say little on the question of access and closure, as I know that my noble friend Lord Bethell, who has very strong views on this aspect, will deal with it extremely thoroughly. I can say only that I have been advised that, on the whole, Departments take a very robust line and close documents only if they are strictly personal and sensitive, or perhaps politically sensitive. But there, again, I leave that entirely to my noble friend. Another point is the transfer of the 100-year old records from the Registrar-General to the Public Record Office. Here, again, I am hiving-off this one, as it is a wide debate, to my noble friend Lord Sudeley, except to say that when it happens it will benefit an enormous number of people, not only genealogists but demographers, social historians and epidemiologists, to state a few. Practically the whole of my speech has been devoted to the public records in the Public Record Office and not to those deposited elsewhere, but I do not want to underestimate the importance of these records. I should like to mention and welcome the Parochial Records Measure which has been passed by the Synod and which is on its way here. It is an extremely good Measure and it has been eagerly awaited for a very long time.

The Lord Bishop of LONDON

My Lords, may I correct the noble Lord. The Measure has not yet received final approval in the general Synod but it is hoped that it will do so very shortly.


My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his intervention. However, I understood this to be the case. I hope, therefore, that the right reverend Prelate is going to give me some good news on that particular point, and I shall eagerly await his speech. Finally, there are two important domestic matters about which I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord. The first is the question of the opening hours at Kew and Chancery Lane. Will there be any Saturday opening at Kew and Chancery Lane? And in view of the fact that many people will have to travel far to Kew, could there be a late night opening there? This service is enjoyed at other similar institutions, such as the British Library and elsewhere, and it is very important for those members of the public and students who are unable to get there at other times. I appreciate that there are staffing and financial considerations, but I cannot stress the importance of late night openings too strongly.


My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend for a moment in order to add to what he has just said? The National Archives in Washington stay open until nine o'clock every evening.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his intervention. The photographic charges are at present disgracefully high. I am aware that the Keeper and the Assistant Keeper have done their best to control costs but they, like holders of high office in other Government Departments, are continually being hounded by the Treasury. For example, commercial firms charge 6p for a Xerox copy, and University libraries less, whereas the current price charged by the PRO is 14p. This charge is prohibitive to many students and others and in some cases curtails their work and studies. Is the noble and learned Lord able to give us any hope that the charges will not go up any further in the near future?

One aspect of the costing that I cannot understand is this: why, when the Rolls building at Chancery Lane and presumably the new building at Kew are Crown property, do we have to pay accommodation rates which are equivalent to the current inflationary rates which are being charged for rents in Central London? Other costs, like staff and the handling of documents, I can perhaps understand but the high accommodation costs I find a very difficult pill to swallow. I fear that I have spoken for too long, but it is a very wide subject. Thus, I eagerly look forward to the intervention of other speakers. I beg to move for Papers.

5.23 p.m.


My Lords, I believe that I speak for all noble Lords, not only on my side of the House but everywhere else, when I say that we are grateful to my noble friend Lord Teviot for introducing this debate. My noble friend has cast his eyes over the broadest horizon, although he seems to have left out Scotland. Perhaps he was thinking of the well-known Scottish mottoes which serve to caution those South of the Border: "Touch not the cat without a glove" and, "Gaing warily". Therefore I presume that my noble friend is happy about the way that the Register in Edinburgh and Scottish records in general are being looked after. Before continuing, may I say that we ought not to forget that this work is going on in Scotland also. Because the Public Records Acts of Parliament do not deal with Scotland, my noble friend's Motion does not mention them; it just speaks about public records. However, this is the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and I should like to make the point that Scotland is being looked after very well and that the rules which apply to England and Wales apply also to Scotland.

My noble friend has asked many searching questions, to many of which he applied that old Latin friend of ours "Nonne"—which reminds me that we expect the answer, Yes. All of us like to ask questions to which we know the answer. Governments have to answer those questions, and I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will do his very best to answer them.

May I state right away that we are dealing with a side of the public service which receives no publicity or laurels and where the senior officers, after a lifetime of service, appear to be rewarded in a rather niggardly fashion. This is the case, despite the fact that our records, on the mere pittance of an annual budget of well under £2 million, are looked after, and produced for historians and students, as well as anywhere else in the world. We do not have many Knights in the Public Record Office, nor do we have many CBEs there. It is an Office which has no excitement about it. Nevertheless, the work goes on there, day in and day out, and without that work a great deal of our most exciting history would be lost. We have probably more records than almost any other country in the world.

Before we carp about whether or not we can use our records in one way or another, we ought to give thanks that they are there and that they are looked after so well. Many of us today think that yesterday's events call for remedies. For this purpose, many people demand greater and fuller access to our records, but let us consider whether it is common sense to show all too early? Which of us would show our intimate papers, if awkward, to the world? Yet today we are being urged to withdraw the safeguards against personal distress and loss of commercial confidentiality and State security from the documents which are so carefully preserved before the sting of time has been removed.

Let us first remind ourselves of how grateful we should be to the guardians of our record heritage. I take a great interest in this subject because my great grandfather, Speaker Gulley, later Lord Selby, who was a QC, took a great interest in records. I have some of his papers and books which deal with the matter, and yesterday I was looking at some of them. I thought it would interest that most noble, learned and erudite of Lord Chancellors if I cited an example that I found among his papers concerning a recent part of the history of his rightly beloved country of Wales. The Record Commission Board held a meeting at the Speaker's House in New Palace Yard on 30th March 1833. The business to be dealt with concerned the records of the Auditor of the Land Revenue for Wales. The board were given an extract from a Select Committee Report of 1800 of the House of Commons to consider which said, and I quote: They were lodged in a building in New Palace Yard adjoining to the Exchequer within a few yards of the Thames in one room only, and much too small at that, but otherwise tolerably convenient as to security and accommodation for the keeping thereof, were it not so very damp, for being on the ground floor and near the Thames, every high tide brings the water more or less into it, but the floor has been raised to try to keep it dry. In 1833 the Board laconically commented that after the building in which they had been situated was pulled down these ancient and valuable records were placed in the Wooden Shed in Westminster Hall. From this place it seems they were removed to the Bail Court. They are now"— we are speaking of 1833, of course— in one of the bins at the King's Mews. No keeper of them has, it is believed, yet been appointed, and if they are as wet and mouldy as were the King's Remembrancer's records which lately occupied the other bins in the same depot, it is pretty certain the services of such an officer will never be wanted. That, my Lords, shows how recently they were in danger and during this debate tonight the Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, will be speaking and he might be interested to hear about how some of the Rolls fared as they were kept not so very long ago.

I am now speaking of a letter dated 10th June, 1833, written by a Mr. E. Protheroe Junior. The New World did not have the monopoly of the title "Junior" even then. He wrote about the Rolls: Only one man was at work in this office—Henry Gay. He was engaged on the Inquisitions post-mortem and the Parliamentary writs. His working place was the recess of a window in the large room next the roof and over the Rolls Chapel. It is in this chamber, subject to all the variations of temperature felt in an old and ill-built house, that are deposited some of the most valuable records of the Kingdom. The space allocated to the workman seemed much too limited and the spot in every respect so inconvenient and ill-adapted for the work that it scarcely admitted of the task—this was certainly done with less facility and expedition than could have been performed with more room. In winter I remember the coldness of the chamber was given me as a reason for his being absent from his work, as having gone to warm himself by a fire". That is only 140 years ago and we are dealing with documents that go back much further than that. So before we carp and criticise let us give thanks that what we have got have been brought into order—indeed, not only brought into order but preserved and available.

The two noble and learned Lords now have a right to purr to themselves as they lick their cream at the way things have changed. The 1838 Act brought order out of that chaos. The Grigg Report of 1954, after an interval of 116 years, highlighted the modern needs based on modern technology and, above all, made the right of access after 50 years dependent upon the Lord Chancellor. It made it the norm that after 50 years all documents were available with the exception of one or two which the Lord Chancellor, as advised, could deal with.

As has been said by my noble friend Lord Teviot, the 1967 Act merely changed the 50 to 30 years with the same powers to the Lord Chancellor on non-disclosure. As my noble friend has said, The Times today asks whether the advisory council of the noble and learned Lord should not be made to advise more on such matters as the bodies corporate of the State, which are not included by law. We have the Post Office, the National Coal Board and the Atomic Energy Authority mentioned specifically as being bodies corporate whose records are to be looked after. I suppose the noble and learned Lord can assure me that this is written into their constitutions? I have assumed that it is, but am not certain about it. It is in the Public Record Bill but I am not sure whether it is in the Acts of Parliament setting up those authorities.

However, what about the other authorities which have come into existence since then? They are not mentioned. One thinks of the Race Relations Board which has been functioning, I believe, since 1968 and which is now going into limbo and a new body is emerging. What is to happen to its records? To say the least, they are of some historical interest for the future, if not now, and I am sure my noble friend Lord Bethell would say they are of interest now. Whether or not it is wise, Parliament has decided that 30 years is a good period and I am not querying that because it is for this Parliament or future Parliaments to change it if they want to. But with bodies such as this, and other corporate bodies such as the water boards, is the advisory board unable to advise the noble and learned Lord as to whether these other corporate bodies of the State whose existence is important should not also be brought into some form of advisory or compulsory saving of their documents for the future?

Recently there was a letter in The Times by a Mr. Aronsfeld dealing with a distressing matter to his people at the time of the German ill-treatment of the Jews. He complained that under Section 5(1) of the Public Records Act 1958 the disclosures have not been allowed. It made me wonder. I do not suppose for one second that without prior notice the noble and learned Lord will be able to give me the answer, but it might be interesting to find out on just how many occasions the noble and learned Lord, in his capacity as an adviser, has issued evidence as to non-disclosure under this section of the Act. I am sure it would be interesting not only to this House but to the country if we could have that information, but I appreciate that I have not given the noble and learned Lord any warning.

I have enormous sympathy with both views on this point. I can appreciate completely the points raised by my noble friend Lord Teviot and what I feel sure my noble friend Lord Bethell is going to say, knowing him as I do. One wants to know the truth and the sooner one knows it, the better, if only to castigate those with whom one disagrees who may still be in some form of public office, and one would like to castigate them while there is a chance to do so.

Bearing in mind the other points mentioned, such as personal distress and Government security and commercial confidentiality, it is difficult to decide. I am sure we should all love to punch some people on the nose, but whether or not it is a sensible thing to do is another matter. On balance, I am prepared to believe that we have probably got it almost right. As I have said, if Parliament believes otherwise it can change the law and give the Lord Chancellor and his advisers advice to consider the matter in another way. But as long as we give him this advice I do not see how we can blame him, and I am not sure that we should blame him or the Act at the moment, although on certain matters we should all like to know what has happened. That is only human.

I suggest that historians like my noble friend Lord Bethell will always be upset by the fact that they are going to be delayed in getting their information. I can remember just after the war being absolutely amazed when an Australian war correspondent called Chester Wilmot wrote a book called Struggle for Europe. I thought then—and I still think with knowledge later acquired—that it is one of the best accounts of the last war ever written. The interesting thing about this book is that it was an Australian war correspondent, historian, writing very soon after the event, without the advantage of the memoires of British, German, American and other generals, without the advantage of documents made public by Governments of one sort or another, enemy or friend. That man, Mr. Chester Wilmot, was a great historian; he was a great journalist. He got his facts right without having all the proofs there. I suspect that my noble friend Lord Bethel!may be able to get some of his facts right without all the proofs, and it may be that his son or grandson will say, "Daddy" or "Grandpa, was dead right; here is the proof". We in this age get our facts moderately right, I think, if we have our antennae out in the right directions.

I gave the list of the reasons which the noble and learned Lord had for withholding, and I personally think that this discretion is by and large right. Bearing in mind the type of noble and learned Lord Chancellors we have had in recent decades I think they can be trusted to do this duty. If circumstances totally change, well, all right, Parliament can change the law, have another advisory body to advise. My noble friend Lord Teviot mentioned the late Sir Lewis Namier. I was thinking how L. B. Namier would have loved to have the original documents about the Balfour Declaration. Would it have been good, though, if he had got them, I ask myself, and I think the answer would be, No; his historical antennae might have had too much support perhaps.

My Lords, I have been speaking for a long time and I apologise; it is a subject which interests me. I really do believe that, with all the political interest and excitement which can be caused by complaining, we have to remember that the chief duty of the Public Record Office is to preserve, codify and, when possible, when more money is available, of their own accord to publish some of the facts they already have. My great-grandfather, Speaker Gulley, was one of those who said, "Is it as important to record as to publish?" I think myself that you cannot publish without recording, so I think the records must be kept first.

The Public Record Office is now, as my noble friend said, about to move to Kew; the building opens in some two weeks' time, and the official opening is in October. The £6 or £7 million spent on this building at Kew is an enormous sum when you consider that their annual income is well under £2 million. I think they are going to be very happy there. Some two-thirds of these dedicated servants of the Crown are moving there. It is not easy for them; they do not want to move there; very few of them want to move there. One-third only will stay in Chancery Lane. It means that searchers will have to go down to Kew. It is not far, I know, but nevertheless for those who work there it is not always all that easy. We should pay tribute to the fact that they are going to move. What they will need is a period of consolidation to be able to get their feet more firmly and efficiently on the ground with these new buildings. At the moment they have only some 20 years filing space ahead of them. After that they will have to consider with the Government of the day acquiring more buildings. When we are considering these things, we forget what is involved. There are over 80 miles of shelves filled with files.

In this debate we should not be doing our duty if we did not primarily put forth our thanks to the Public Record Office for what it is doing. Whether or not we as Parliament see fit to authorise the earlier or later publication of the documents they so carefully record is another matter, but in a debate of this kind the least we can do is to say thank you to these people, 450 of them, of whom only some 33 are on the repair and maintenance side of these very delicate documents. They work on a comparatively minute peppercorn budget, and with no glamour. I for one should like to say to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, whose pleasant duty I imagine it is to preside over this body in a paternal capacity, that I would wish him to pass on from myself and from my Party our grateful thanks for what this body does.

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, as Master of the Rolls, I have many occupations; perhaps I might say I have many roles. Among these are the records of the Realm. My Patent describes me as the Keeper or Master of the Rolls and Records of the Chancery of England, and those go back for at least the last 700 or 800 years. The Master of the Rolls, I am afraid, must have been a little remiss in 1834 in the care he took then. I should like to say it was my predecessor Lord Langdale—and, of course, in those days the Master of the Rolls owned all the land between Fetter Lane and Chancery Lane—who made it possible for the Public Record Office to be built. He presented the land on which the Public Record Office now stands to the Government, and the Government built the Public Record Office on it. Since that time the Master of the Rolls was Keeper of the Public Records and responsible for them, with a deputy keeper, who, of course, did all the work.

Since the Grigg Committee in 1954 and the Public Record Act of 1958, the Lord Chancellor has been responsible for the public records. The Master of the Rolls is chairman, shall I say, of the consumer council; he is Chairman of the Advisory Council on Public Records. One of the most valued members is my noble friend Lord Teviot, who has practical experience of the working of the Office, and his most valued initiation of this debate has brought to your Lordships' attention matters which do need consideration. I have been Chairman of the Advisory Council for the last 15 years. We meet regularly and we have under review many of the matters which have been raised today.

During that time there have been two major achievements. When I became chairman of the Advisory Council there was the 50-year rule which meant that Government Departments kept all their documents close to their chests for 50 years and that no one could see those documents until the 50 years had expired. A few years ago, on the advice of the Council, the period was reduced to 30 years bringing it into line with that applying in other countries. That was a great improvement. Government Departments are now bound to release the documents and send them to the Public Record Office after 30 years. That is the first great achievement.

The other is that as accommodation was so short in Chancery Lane—the search rooms were overcrowded and papers could not be kept within those confines—a great new building has been erected at Kew. The site was provided by the Government and the finest record office in the world is now built and will be opened later this year. There have been some difficulties over staff having to move their homes closer to Kew, but I hope and believe that the new building will give rise to a great advance in the keeping of records in England. Those are the two major achievements in recent years.

My noble friend mentioned the problem of the new situation since the Grigg Report. We have all the computerised systems, mechanised records and the like. However, there has been a change in emphasis in history. In addition to the great diplomatic changes that have taken place, there have been changes in the social and economic history of the people. Furthermore, great new bodies have been set up which are not subject to the Public Record Office at all. My noble friend mentioned the National Enterprise Board. There is also the Race Relations Board, the Steel Corporation, the transport undertakings and many others which do not come within the ambit of the Public Record Office. Some means should be provided or advice should be given whereby their records can be preserved and allocated instead of being destroyed. The problem has been considered by the Advisory Council and it does not come within the terms of the Statute. However, the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts has initiated a pilot study to discover the extent of the problem as regards these fringe bodies. Therefore, that matter is being dealt with as far as possible.

It has been well said that, in view of these changes, perhaps it is time to take a new look, rather as the Grigg Committee did 23 years ago. The Advisory Council thought that that was desirable and put it before the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. The noble and learned Lord was sympathetic to its request but felt that this was not the time to take such a look. We must accept that. It is important to say that the Public Record Office is serving the country well. The users and readers of its records, and those overseas who use it, are well served as economically as may be.

One particular problem which has been raised lately—I think my noble friend Lord Bethell may raise it—is whether Government Departments disclose or send to the Public Record Office all that they should. It is a difficult question because if Departments do not want to disclose their records, they may overlook them, miss them or even destroy them. The Public Record Office can do nothing about that. There may be very good reasons for Departments acting in that manner. Perhaps I could give an illustration.

Some years ago I had to conduct an inquiry into the Profumo incident. Some very secret records containing all sorts of indiscretions were made. Should those records be kept, or not? The key answer to that was that the evidence was given in confidence. I assured everyone who gave evidence before me that such evidence was completely confidential and would not be disclosed. Only one copy was kept and many people would have liked to read it. A year or two later I was asked whether even that one copy could be destroyed. A good case was put forward for destroying it. The information had been given in confidence and, therefore, the question was raised as to whether it would not be a breach of faith for such records to be disclosed later—even 30, 40 or 50 years later. The answer is that the confidence is being maintained; the records of the Profumo inquiry have been destroyed and the information is only in my head and I am forgetting it all now. That is just an illustration of the way in which Departments can control—I do not say wrongly—the disposition of records.

The other problem is whether the period should be extended from 30 years to 50, 75 or 100 years. Departments can often make out a good case for that. National security, international diplomacy or exceptionally sensitive matters may be involved, or information may have been given in complete confidence, never to be disclosed. There is also the exceptionally sensitive situation where individuals who are still living might have their characters injuriously affected. All those are grounds on which the period of 30 years is from time to time extended. However, I hope that there will not be too much anxiety over this because the inspectors of the Public Record Office inquire of the Departments the grounds for closure for a longer period. They tell the Departments that the Advisory Council keeps an eye on the matter. The Advisory Council looks into these requests for extended closure to see whether they are justified. We hope to institute a procedure whereby samples can be taken of these requests for extended closure.

I hope and believe that the procedure works reasonably well. We should thank the Keeper and staff of the Public Record Office for keeping the records as well as they do. From time to time improvements have to be made, and the Advisory Council will do what it can.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether it is necessary for me to make my speech at all because my noble friend and former colleague Lord Mowbray and Stourton has told the House what I am about to say. Nevertheless, I can perhaps add to the interpretation of my speech, which noble Lords have already heard, and I hope that they will not be too surprised if it differs in certain respects from the version they heard from my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton.


Pure guesswork!


My Lords, indeed, pure guesswork. I should like to join with my noble friend Lord Teviot in paying a tribute to the Public Record Office and to those who work there for the extremely noble contribution that they make to the recording of this country's history. My noble friend Lord Teviot and I are, I think, the Members of your Lordships' House who spend most time in the Public Record Office. In fact, my noble friend probably spends more time there than I. Certainly, whenever I go there I usually see him. I have yet to meet my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton there. It is on the basis of continually visiting those excellent offices for seven or eight years that I believe that I may have something to contribute today. Like my noble friend Lord Teviot, I wish to declare an interest in that I am a professional writer who makes use of the Public Record Office for his writings.

I fully accept that this is a question of balance, and most of the speakers this afternoon have emphasised this point: how do you balance the arguments for disclosure against the arguments for closure? The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has the unenviable task to maintain the balance, and what is he to do about it? It has been said in a previous debate on this subject in 1967 that sound Government must be the primary consideration, and historians must take second place. I entirely agree with that. Historians are an interest, but a comparatively narrow interest, and sound Government must be the main consideration which the noble and learned Lord takes into account when deciding whether or not to close documents.

I would make only one point here and that is that when making these decisions the noble and learned Lord should bear in mind that it is not only the narrow interest of the historian that he has to consider, it is also the public interest, and on occasion the public interest may be better served by disclosure than by closure. There are certain areas of history where the national point of view is kept hidden; where documents which would put us in a better light, or would explain why this country acted in a certain way, would reveal to the world the reason behind our actions, even though they are criticised elsewhere; documents which perhaps are kept closed, perhaps to the detriment of the national interest. This is a consideration that should be borne in mind.

So we get back to the question of balance and the noble and learned Lord's unenviable task. This is where I wish to put to him and to the House my first point where I think there is cause for concern. We all know that the noble and learned Lord has it as part of his duties to close documents for longer than the statutory 30-year period. In this duty he acts upon advice. It is obviously not practicable for the noble and learned Lord to read every single document to which he affixes his signature for closure. He acts upon advice. But the question is on what advice. How does he decide which, closure or disclosure, is in the interests of the nation as a whole? How does he maintain this balance? What advice does he get?

Of course, he gets advice from the Department which issued the documents in question. I cast no aspersions whatsoever on the members of Government Departments who give the Lord Chancellor advice suggesting that documents should be closed, but the fact remains that the member of the Department who gives this advice is a member of that Department; he has an interest in the matter. I would submit that it is not only the advice of that person, or of that group of people, that should be taken into account by the noble and learned Lord when making his decisions, but in practice this is so. I shall willingly give way to the noble and learned Lord if he will interrupt me and tell me that it is not so, but in practice, I feel, after making inquiries, that it is so.

The noble and learned Lord does not, in practice, have the chance of getting any advice from any other body of people, whether from any group of historians or the Advisory Council. The Advisory Council can request the right to see documents but this request will be granted only if the Department feels able to allow it. Nor does he get advice from the Public Record Office itself. In other words, it seems to me that the noble and learned Lord who acts in a judicial capacity in this matter is hearing only one side of the case. I ask him seriously to consider whether some improvement might not be considered in the implementation of either the present 1958 and 1967 Acts or of some new Act, which would enable an advocate for disclosure to have the chance of putting arguments to him.

In this respect I have a lot of sympathy with the suggestion put by my noble friend Lord Teviot that a national archival service might fill this gap—a group of men with a career structure who had an interest in history and the preservation of documents; who were cleared for security at the, highest level; who were thoroughly reliable, and who might be able to balance the arguments to enable the Lord Chancellor and his successors to take a judgment over closure or disclosure. This is not the only problem over the closure of documents. If it were the case that the noble and learned Lord made decisions about closure and disclosure either himself or under advice entirely, this would not be so bad. At least we would know that there was a machinery through which all documents had to go before they were closed to the public. But this is not the case. There is, I am sorry to say, the notorious matter of Section 3(4) of the Public Records Act.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that a completely new situation has arisen through the publication of the Crossman Diaries? I entirely support the extreme objectivity and fairness with which the noble Lord approaches this subject. The documents will be published under advice; the most skilled and impartial advice one can get. But the situation now is that it does not wait 30 years; its waits five minutes. On this point, would the noble Lord take into account that nobody's name was more lavishly mentioned by Mr. Crossman than my own? There is a difference between Mr. Crossman and myself. He kept diaries and no papers; I have kept the papers but no diaries. I shall leave my documents, too, for them to be looked at perhaps in 30, 40, or, so far as I am concerned, 100 years hence. But I can assure the noble Lord that I know of no single instance of which Mr. Crossman has given an account in which he is not the major part of 100 per cent. inaccurate.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, for that interruption. However, may I say with great respect that it is on a slightly different point from the one I was arguing. While I have the greatest sympathy with him in what happened to him over the Crossman Diaries I am, at the moment, addressing my arguments to the question of documents which are at least 30 years old and to the problems which arise from the existence of those 30-year-old documents.

I mentioned Section 3(4) of the Public Records Act. This section provides that— any records may be retained after the said period"— of 30 years— if, in the opinion of the person who is responsible for them, they are required for administrative purposes or ought to be retained for any other special reason and, where that person is not the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor has been informed of the facts and given his approval". In other words, Government Departments may retain in their offices documents for administrative purposes or … any other special reason", and I should be interested to know what kind of special reasons are envisaged in this Act, provided that the Lord Chancellor has been informed and given his approval.

One may say that there is an adequate safeguard against abuse of this section of the Act because the noble and learned Lord has to be informed of facts and to give his approval. But I have to inform the House that on 13th November 1967 the noble and learned Lord's predecessor, Lord Gardiner, gave a general authority for the retention in Departments of various categories of records. He gave that authority in advance for 25 years, authority which will lapse only in 1992. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord could allay my anxiety in this matter by indicating to the House exactly which categories of records can be retained in Departments indefinitely without even being submitted to him. At present, Governments can and do retain papers without even submitting them to the Lord Chancellor for long closure under this section of the Public Records Act 1958 and I feel that in this matter justice is not being seen to be done and that, in all justice, the noble and learned Lord should turn his mind to the problem.

My third point where I think there is cause for concern was referred to, I thought dramatically, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning—the question of the destruction of records—and here again the Public Records Act 1958 provides certain opportunities, if that is the right word, for Government Departments, for under Section 6 we read: If, as respects any public records in the Public Record Office or any place of deposit appointed under this Act, it appears to the Keeper of Public Records that they are duplicated by other public records which have been selected for permanent preservation or that there is some other special reason why they should not be permanently preserved, he may, with the approval of the Lord Chancellor and of the Minister or other person, if any, who appears to the Lord Chancellor to be primarily concerned with public records of the class in question, authorise the destruction of those records, or, with that approval, their disposal in any other way. Again, we have this provision that for any "other special reason" documents may be destroyed, and Lord Denning described how the documents which related to the Profumo affair had been destroyed. I was rather alarmed and shocked when I read in The Times this morning that there was a rumour that they had been destroyed; that is, the documents in the Profumo and Suez affairs. Lord Denning has now confirmed that the Profumo documents have been destoyed and I wonder what others have been destroyed.

I very much doubt whether the noble and learned Lord will be able to give me an answer now, but have the Suez documents been destroyed? I dare say he will not be able to tell me today, but I should like him to write to me on the subject telling me what documents on important controversial matters have been destroyed and what is the machinery for authorising the destruction of documents. It seems to me, as an historian, an entirely different thing to close documents for 50, 100 or even 150 years than to destroy them. As an historian, it goes very much against the root of my professional feelings to think that documents on such a crucial matter could have been destroyed. It is not possible to argue it out here, but I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord did not make an error here and whether it would have served the purposes which he rightly had at the front of his mind—the question of confidentiality—if he had requested that the documents be closed (even for 150 years) so that some future historian could have made use of them.

My noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton said that in his opinion the 1958 and 1967 Acts were probably working reasonably well and he felt that radical changes were perhaps not necessary. Personally, I doubt whether he would feel the same way if he had had as many bounced tickets as I have had. A bounced ticket is a ticket applying for a document which is returned to a reader with an inscription on it indicating that the document, for one reason or another, is not available, usually because it is retained in the Department under Section 3(4) as I have described. I was, in one particular case, the victim of many bounced tickets earlier this year when I was researching the question of Palestine—and here I must declare a special interest in that I am writing a book on Palestine. As was published in the Press at the time, a large proportion of the Cabinet Office papers on Palestine were closed for 50 years instead of 30 years; in other words, for an extra 20 years.

While being sad about that at the time, I could not complain about it because I did not know what was in the documents; for all I knew they might have contained most damaging matter extremely dangerous to the security of the United Kingdom. Thus, I should have been in no way justified in making any complaint about the decision taken by the noble and learned Lord to close the Cabinet Office papers on Palestine on the recommendation of the Cabinet Office. However, by an archival quirk I had the opportunity of seeing some of the documents which the noble and learned Lord closed last year, and I am holding one in my hand. The reason I was able to see this document is because it was cross-referenced in the Foreign Office documents. It had been closed in the Cabinet Office but a copy of it appeared in the Foreign Office documents, so I found myself in the lucky position from my point of view of having obtained a document which the noble and learned Lord closed. I was able to obtain several such documents.

I hope the House will accept that I mean no disrespect to the noble and learned Lord when I say that, having read these documents which he closed last year, I cannot for the life of me see why he did it, because while the material in the documents is extremely interesting and indeed controversial and might embarrass—embarrass but not, I think, injure—one or two individuals, it is in my view in no way prejudicial to this country's security; it is in no way likely to damage this country's diplomatic, national or economic interests. The most extraordinary part about it is that it seems that the noble and learned Lord agrees with me, because when I pointed out this quirk a reconsideration was made of the 1946 Palestine papers and I have now heard that, with one small exception, they have all been opened. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for taking the trouble, which I know he took, to reconsider this matter and for coming to a generous decision on reconsideration.

While this is a story which ended well, it forces me to ask myself how many other documents there are which have been closed by the noble and learned Lord or his predecessors or which are retained in Departments under Section 3(4) on the cautious advice of Government record officers but which could be revealed without any damage whatsoever to individuals, to the national interest, to economic interest or to any of the other criteria mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton.

Those are three points which I would put to the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, and upon which I hope he will be able to give me some sort of an answer. I shall end with one or two positive suggestions: my first suggestion has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Teviot. I agree with him that perhaps a Government archive service would answer some of the genuine worries which historians feel about the way that documents are closed, preserved or kept in Departments. A professional body of civil servants whose job it was to take a personal interest in the history of our country and in the records themselves would provide a balancing factor to the advice of Government Departments which, although it is in no way sinister—I am not suggesting that there is any sinister motive here at all—must always be seen from one point of view.

I would also suggest that the noble and learned Lord might perhaps think it advisable to consider ways of strengthening his Advisory Council. At present, it meets only once a quarter and I gather that it is not always well attended. The members are not entitled to see individual documents unless the Departments give their consent. They have no powers, but give advice only. Perhaps a few teeth for the Advisory Council would allay some of our worries.

My third and most immediate practical suggestion is that the ad hoc Cabinet Committee which is about to review Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act should take under consideration the question of public records. I know that the noble and learned Lord is a member of that ad hoc Committee and I wonder whether he can indicate to the House whether he would think it useful for this matter to be put on the Agenda of the ad hoc Committee which, I understand, is to meet on the general question of open government this summer. It seems to me to be something which would be very much in the spirit of the Government's Manifesto, and we all know how anxious the Government are to fulfil their Manifesto. In that document, there is a promise to move as quickly as possible towards the maximum degree of open government.

I wish to close by once again expressing thanks and paying tribute to the archive officers in Government Departments who have always been very helpful to me personally and against whom I have no complaint whatsoever, as also to the staff of the Public Record Office, who have always been politeness and helpfulness itself. I hope that I have advanced certain arguments which indicate that the situation, while not at all bad, leaves room for improvement.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Elwyn-Jones)

My Lords, may I, with great respect, remind your Lordship that this is a short debate? If there is to be any expectation that I am to reply to the debate—and I gather that there is—perhaps those who are to follow will bear in mind that the debate has to end at 7.30 p.m. or thereabouts. I apologise for this intervention, which I hope will not be thought unkind to those who are to follow.

6.23 p.m.


My Lords, I shall keep my speech as short as I can, though I am afraid that there are four points which I had it in mind to raise. The first relates to the Registrar General. In February, 1975, the Registrar General reached an agreement with the Keeper of the Public Record Office on the transfer to the Public Record Office of the registers of all births, marriages and deaths which are more than 100 years old. However, before the transfer can be made, the Public Records Act 1958 must be amended so that these records can be treated as public records and the Registration and Marriage Acts must be amended so that the records can leave the custody of the Registrar-General. In January last year, the Lord Chancellor's Office advised that the chances of amending the Public Records Act 1958 in the near future were slight. Once the records have been transferred, the Keeper of the Public Record Office intends to preserve the original registers by giving public access only to microfilms of the registers. The microfilming, which has already been put in hand, is proceeding in reverse chronological order and should be completed by about 1980.

This is the state of affairs at the moment, but, in many ways, it is rather unsatisfactory. There is no reason why only those registers which are more than a century old should be transferred. Registration has always been an open matter, so no objection can be raised that the privacy of individuals will be infringed if the registers of births, marriages and deaths which are less than a century old are also transferred. Also, though changes in the law may be required before the registers themselves are transferred, I am not sure whether there is anything to prevent the microfilms from being transferred to the Public Record Office immediately after they have been completed.

Meanwhile, students using the Registrar-General's office labour under great disadvantages. They have access not to the registers but only to indexes of them. After consulting the indexes, they can only obtain certified copies of particular entries. This is of little use to demographers and social historians who have to consult large quantities of the original entries rather than just individual entries. Then, the high cost of certificates has gone far to drive down the demand. In February, the Registrar-General wrote to me to say that since 1975 the demand for certificates had dropped substantially. When questioned as to why he will not give the public access to the original registers the Registrar-General likes to argue that under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and the Marriage Act 1949, he is not required to provide access. However, the point here is surely that neither of these Acts prohibits the Registrar-General from providing access.

The Registrar-General is also to be criticised for his change of policy over providing access to the records of local superintendent registrars. In the autumn of 1973, the General Register Office did not see why historians should not have access to those records but, in August 1974, Miss Graham of the General Register Office, sent out a circular letter reversing that policy. Miss Graham said that the volume of requests for access had reached unmanageable proportions. But it is pointed out in Local Population Studies No. 13 for the autumn of 1974 that this statement is not well founded and that the number of students was unlikely to exceed about 60. It would be very satisfactory if the law were changed so that these local records could be transferred to county archivists under whose care the same problems would not arise.

The second matter upon which I should like to comment is one which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, mentioned. It relates to the political papers which should be recovered as public records but which are not so recovered. In February, the Secretary to the Advisory Council on Public Records wrote to me saying that the papers of Ministers and officials in the registered files of Departments were safe enough but that difficulties arose where papers were in unregistered folders or not filed at all and so became intermingled with private papers. The extent to which loss has occurred in the past owing to these difficulties has recently been indicated in two surveys which have just come out—Hazlehurst and Woodland's Papers of British Cabinet Ministers 1900–1951 and C. Cook's British Political History 1900–1951, Vol. 2, Guides to the Private Papers of Selected Public Servants. While the Public Record Office does its best to try to stop this loss continuing, the Secretary to the Advisory Council on Public Records does not think that anything like total success can be claimed.

The third matter upon which I should like to touch is one that has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, my noble friend Lord Mowbray and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning; that is, records of a public character about which Her Majesty's Government ought to do something even though they are not covered by Statute. These are the records of the fringe bodies. The secretary's report to the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts for 1975–76 included a note headed Historical Documents of the State, Records of the Fringe Bodies, which deals with this subject, and I should like to give the gist of this note so as to make it better known. It has not been mentioned in the debate so far.

The note speaks of the growing numbers of bodies of a public character, financed by public funds, which would resist attempts to bring their records within the scope of the Public Records Act because this would vitiate their independence of Government control. The note goes on to say that discussions have taken place between the Keeper of the Public Record Office and the Lord Chancellor's Office with a view to making such records into a new class, called protected records. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would decide which records would fall into this category, and where they do so there would be an obligation to consult the Keeper of the Public Record Office on how these records should be selected and disposed of, where they should be deposited, and what access the public should have to them. I should like the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to say, when he answers the debate, whether these proposals which I have just outlined have any chance of being implemented in the very near future.

The fourth matter on which I should like to touch is that of the records of the Church of England, which I trust come within the scope of the debate, since if one goes back far enough one sees that the Church courts governed many matters which come under the arm of the secular law; the Church is not disestablished, and many of our parish records are already in the care of the local record offices. On the subject of parish records, some months ago genealogists were extremely pleased with the Parish Registers and Records Measure, which far exceeded their original expectations. They were so happy indeed that they hoped that when the Measure came before your Lordships' House no noble Lord would criticise it, because they were afraid that the Measure might then have to go back to the Synod which has taken so much trouble over the Measure that it has by now become rather tired of it.

But unfortunately I am afraid that at the last moment an Amendment has been put down to the Measure which has given much disquiet to historians and genealogists. The 1962 Public Records Act enables bishops and incumbents who deposit the registers of baptisms and deaths to request that research into these records should be free of charge, but if the Amendment to which I refer goes through, then diocesan record offices will be able to override the provisions of the 1962 Act. Some diocesan record offices come under local authorities and they will continue to be restrained by some kind of public accountability. But private diocesan record offices, such as the Borthwick Institute at York, the Cathedral Library at Canterbury, and the Bodleian will be able to charge what they like. I am not sure whether the movers of the Amendment realised the full implications of what they did, and I am hoping very much that there might be some happy chance that when the right reverend Prelate speaks after me he will be able to give the House some assurance that the Amendment will be dropped before the Measure goes before the Synod for final approval.

Then there are the records of cathedral libraries. At the moment the deans and chapters of cathedrals are able to dispose of their records without reference to the Cathedrals Advisory Committee as a statutory body, and not so long ago some mediaeval records were sold from Bury St. Edmunds. But if, as I hope, the Cathedrals Advisory Committee can be turned into a statutory body—and I should like to ask a Starred Question about this—then the deans and chapters of cathedrals are unlikely to surrender their independence without getting some kind of State aid in return. Once the cleans and chapters receive their State aid, then the need to consider their records as public records will become twice as significant.

The final matter on which I should like to touch is that of the central records of the Church of England, covered in Dr. Kitching's pioneer survey published last year by the Church Information Office. Dr. Kitching mentions the possibility of the Public Records Acts being amended so that the Church might make greater use than hitherto of the services of the Public Records Office, and together with his survey there is published a report of the Survey Committee which goes so far as to suggest that if the central records of the Church of England were entrusted to a State-managed institution this would in no way conflict with the interests of the Church. What the Survey Committee has gone so far to suggest might in some ways be a happy alternative to the present sorry state of affairs where, on the one hand, it is often contemplated in Dr. Kitching's survey that the central records of the Church of England should come under the umbrella of the Lambeth Palace Library and, on the other hand, it is apparent from many paragraphs of Dr. Kitching's survey that Lambeth Palace Library is starved of money. Several paragraphs of the survey spell out in detail the consequences of the Church Commissioners not providing the money that is needed for the very necessary expansion of the library.

For example, it is mentioned that the records of the Archbishop's Counsellors on Foreign Relations, and bishops' meetings, should be transferred to the library, yet for want of space the first of these two classes of records cannot be transferred. Again, it is mentioned how, during the course of the survey, the records of the Jerusalem and East Mission and of the Archbishopric of Jerusalem had to be turned away from the library for want of space. My Lords, this is a wide debate, and I hope that I have not erred in trying to cover so many rather disconnected points in the scope of a single speech.

6.36 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of LONDON

My Lords, I should like to add my voice to those who have expressed gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for the introduction of this very important debate, and I have immediately to make an apology to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, because I am afraid that due to a lapse of memory I gave wrong information in the intervention which I made in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. The new records Measure has now received final approval by the General Synod last February. I was under the impression that it was to receive it in July, and I am very sorry that I gave that wrong impression. The Measure is on its way to this House. It is incapable of being revised now, and of course I cannot in any way possibly comment on the debate which will no doubt take place in this House when the Measure is presented for Affirmative Resolution, but I can only agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, in saying that the General Synod has spent a very long time on the Measure, and I doubt that it will want to spend any more time on it. But I apologise to both noble Lords for having, as a result of an aberration of my memory, given a false impression on that point.

However, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, mentioned the question of the ecclesiastical records of this country because they are very widespread. They vary enormously in their characters, and yet cumulatively they amount to one of the major sources of information on our history and on research into our people. The widest area of distribution of these documents is the parochial records; that is to say, records of baptisms, of marriages, of burials, church wardens' accounts, terriers of possessions, tithe maps and so on. These documents are of not only ecclesiastical interest. As the noble Lord pointed out, they are great sources for the social historian, for the genealogist, for those who are interested in the movement of population and for those who are interested in medical history.

They are of the greatest possible importance, and I should like to give two very small instances from my own experience. When I was Bishop of Chester, I carried out a visitation of my diocese and I examined all the burial registers, among others. It was very interesting to note that up until about the year 1914 every page had an entry relating to three or four infants having been buried. I think that in the whole of my ministry I have buried only one or two infants, and here is an illustration of the way in which medical aid has come to help in the preservation of life. Moreover, occasionally an assiduous parish priest would enter the cause of death, and one would see references to diseases which one never hears of now, such as croup and other childish diseases which no longer are the cause of death.

Another instance concerned one of the most remote and tiniest of the parishes in the Chester diocese, which was Woodhead, where for some years the navvies had congregated in order to cut the tunnel through the Pennines and create the Woodhead Tunnel. When a certain historian was recently writing the history of the navigators he was particularly interested in the records of this parish, not only because of the strange names which the navigators gave to one another but also because at a particular period they had had a very serious outbreak of cholera, and this was all recorded nowhere other than in the burial registers of the parish. So one recognises how very important these documents are, and also, of course, at what risk they are at the moment, because under the existing measure a bishop has very little power in order to ensure that they are safeguarded. He can do something about it only if he is absolutely convinced that the parish will not spend the money on them to provide a proper safeguard, proper repair and so on.

So I am very glad that the two noble Lords have welcomed the new measure, and I hope that the one particular point that the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, has mentioned will not act as a barrier to the passing of the measure, because it does enclose so many important things. The most important from our point of view is that it will require that all documents older than 100 years must be deposited in the diocesan record office unless there is some special reason and the bishop is satisfied that a particular parish has a proper safe, that it has had the documents properly repaired, that they are kept in proper condition and so on. This will be a very great advance, as will also be the requirement that the bishop must immediately carry out a survey of all the documents.

Some reference has been made to the diocesan record offices, and I want here to pay a special tribute of gratitude to the public authorities who have made it possible for diocesan record offices to be incorporated into the public record offices. I think I am right in saying that 40 of the 43 dioceses all have diocesan record offices alongside the public record office of the local authority, and where that has not happened they are kept in very responsible places such as the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, mentioned—the Borthwick Institute in York, the Bodleian for the Oxford diocese, and so on. I believe that this new measure will provide a very much greater safeguard and will also provide much better opportunities for students, because one of the difficulties at the moment is that if a student wants to make a survey of some particular issue in an area then, if the parish has not deposited its records in the local authority record office, he has to go from one parish to another and back again in order to compare documents. Moreover, it is very seldom in these days that a parish priest can provide a proper oversight when students are examining documents, and there have been cases when pages have been removed from important documents because of a lack of proper oversight. All these things will be cured if, as I believe, it is right that these documents should be deposited in diocesan record offices alongside the local authority record offices, so that they can be properly cared for and properly available to students.

But, of course, the ecclesiastical documents and records are not confined only to the parochial records. There are, as the noble Lord has reminded us, archbishops' and bishops' records, and there are documents attached to particular sees. I think, for instance, of the very interesting and very important documents that attach to the See of London which are known as the Fulham Papers, because for 200 years the Bishops of London were responsible for the oversight of all Church of England congregations outside the British Isles. This meant that they had to exercise very considerable control over the early American colonies, as well as other places where the British Empire was spreading its influence. It is a remarkable thing that the Bishops of London, sitting in their study at Fulham Palace, were able to exercise this control, and yet all those documents are there. They have been most beautifully cared for and catalogued, and they are now in the Lambeth Palace library and available for scholars.

Then there are the papers of the societies, and reference has been made to these. The big societies can of course look after their own documents, like the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Church Missionary Society. Their documents are invaluable as records of work done overseas at a time when there was very little evidence available otherwise. Then there are such documents as are contained in the archives of the Council for Places of Worship. We owe this to Dr. Francis Eales and Miss Judith Scott, who created a library of photographs of churches which is quite invaluable and which is there, carefully kept, for all to see. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, pointed out, the danger is that some of the smaller societies —small religious communities, for instance—if they fold up or unite with some other body, do not quite know what to do with their documents. It was in order to advise about this that the Pugh Committee, as I would call it, although Dr. Kitching was the secretary and the research officer, made recommendations about the appointment of an archive officer; and I very much hope that the advice that that archive officer, who has now been appointed, will be able to give will protect these documents with the greatest care.

The noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, referred to the great library at Lambeth. Apart from small sums of money that are raised by friends and others, this is entirely financed by the Church Commissioners, and the Church Commissioners, not unnaturally, are very much concerned, about the rising costs of preserving a great library like this, because any money that is spent on the library is not available for the stipends of the clergy, which is the main objective for which the Church Commissioners have to exercise their stewardship. The cost of preserving this very important library at Lambeth is a matter of great concern. However, we place every hope in the appointment of the archivist by the Central Board of Finance of the Church of England and by the Church Commissioners. They have followed almost exactly the recommendations of the Pugh Commission, and it was only after very careful consideration by the policy sub-committee of the General Synod that it was decided to go ahead and make this appointment. We have every hope that it will meet many of the anxieties which have been expressed.

My Lords, I thought it right that I should express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and take this opportunity to assure noble Lords that the Church is very conscious of its responsibility in looking after this unparalleled treasury of historical interest to our country, and that we shall continue to do so to the best of our ability.

6.49 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for introducing this fascinating debate in so informative and interesting a manner. Clearly we are touching at the very roots and heart's core of our history in this debate. It is a refreshing thought, as the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley, said in debate in 1973, that: We have a literature which compares with that of the Ancient Greeks and, on account of the continuity of our institutions, which is unique by European standards, our records are wonderfully preserved". [Official Report, 13/6/73, col. 7911. As I was listening to what the right reverend Prelate was saying just now about church and cathedral records, I was thinking that my noble and learned friend, Lord Denning, would be the first to recognise that at least it was due to the care of the cathedrals that some of the historic copies of Magna Charta have survived, so that they may indeed have exercised care where other authorities have failed through the centuries.

I myself, as a lawyer, am proud to recall the words of F. W. Maitland as to the Public Record Office: that it is the most glorious store of material for legal history—as, of course, it is. While I cannot, as can the noble Lords, Lord Teviot and Lord Bethell, claim to have worked in the public search rooms myself, I have visited them and I am aware of the unique collection in the Public Record Office of documentary material spanning 10 centuries of British history and also of the formidable problems which the Office has had to grapple with in recent years, some of which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, referred to in his speech.

Since the beginning of 1966, when records of the period up to 1922 were opened as a first step towards establishing the present normal access period of 30 years, the quantity of records held by the Record Office has risen by one-third from 300,000 ft. to 400,000 ft. The number of attendances in the Record Office search rooms each year has more than doubled from 43,700 to 89,300, and the number of records produced annually for students has risen nearly 2¼ times; so that there is a splendid awareness of the value of the Record Office. I should like to join in the tributes paid so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, and others to the magnificent work of the Keeper and staff of the Public Record Office. It is skilled work; it is difficult work. There must be acres of boredom involved in it as well as moments of glistening history and excitement. We are all very conscious of the debt that we owe them.

My Lords, we were all fascinated to hear the account by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, of the activities of Mr. Speaker Gulley and Lord Denning's own historical introductory survey. The noble Lords, Lord Teviot and Lord Bethell, were good enough to give me some advance notice of some of the matters that they raised and for that I am grateful. One of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, was whether the Government would consider amending the Public Records Acts to bring within the definition of "public records" the records of all bodies wholly or partly financed from public funds; and that has been mentioned by other noble Lords as well.

Already, under the terms of the Act, public records defined in the Act include the records not only of central Government but also of the establishments and organisations that are listed in Schedule 1 to the Act. Among these are three nationalised industries, the Coal Board, the Post Office and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. The Keeper of Public Records already has powers to accept custody of records of public bodies which are excluded from the statutory definition of public records; and in some cases he has already accepted such records; for example, those of British Rail, the Commonwealth Institute and the British Council. Amendment of the statutory definition to include the records of all kinds of public bodies would, however, require the most detailed consideration of the implications of such a policy not only for the bodies themselves but also for the Public Record Office; so I am afraid that I cannot at this moment give any undertaking about that, but obviously it is a matter which needs further thought and consideration.

Discussions have taken place, as members of the Advisory Council who are here will know, on the proposal that a new category of "protected" records should be created and it is hoped eventually by Statute. Appointment to that status, it has been suggested, should be by the Lord Chancellor with the agreement of the body concerned and would carry no more than an obligation on its part to consult the Keeper of Public Records on the selection and disposal of records, the choice of place of deposit and the regulation of public access. It may be that that more flexible approach will provide a more practical way of resolving the problem; but I must add the caveat that even that modest measure would require a strengthening of the Public Record Office resources which, I am afraid, would be rather difficult to justify at the present time.

Perhaps the most interesting matter, and certainly that which perhaps gave most concern during the course of the debate, was with regard to the closure of public records beyond the normal 30-year period. As noble Lords have already been informed in the course of the debate, the statutory position is that under Section 3(4) of the 1958 Act, records may be retained in Departments if, in the opinion of the person responsible for them, they are required for administrative purposes or ought to be retained for any other special reason, and the Lord Chancellor has been informed of the facts and given his approval.

The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, asked me about the action taken by my predecessor, my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner, in 1967. What happened then was that he was invited by the Secretary of the Cabinet to consider a number of documents and he agreed to their classification at that time as being suitable for closure and desirable that they should be withheld. The documents in question all concerned the security of the State. The classes of records had been identified as closely as possible by the appropriate inter-departmental committees concerned with intelligence and security. So that was the circumstance in which they were withheld, and noble Lords may think rightly withheld. After all, one must have a certain confidence in the great Government Departments and the civil servants when they give assurances that the security of the State will be adversely affected. I hope that we have not become so mistrustful and lacking in confidence in our public servants as to question their integrity and judgment in these matters.


My Lords, if the noble and learned Lord will permit me to intervene, can he please confirm that his predecessor gave this blanket provision for documents to be retained under Section 3(4) of the 1958 Act only in respect of documents which relate to national security and not in relation to documents which are sensitive or which fall into any other of the categories under which the noble and learned Lord may close documents?


My Lords, I have already indicated that the documents in question were all documents which were retained for reasons of the security of the State. That is the position. They were concerned with Intelligence and Security and were classified after careful consideration by the appropriate interdepartmental committees. The position under Section 3(4) of the Act I have already indicated is that records may be retained in Departments if, in the opinion of the person responsible for them, they are required for administrative purposes or ought to be retained for any other special reason, and I have been informed and given my approval. Section 3(4) requires that the Lord Chancellor must be informed if there is a retention by the Department, and therefore the Department could not retain the document without my being informed.

Records which are transferred to the Public Record Office must, under Section 5(3), when 30 years old, be made available to the public, unless it appears to the person responsible for them that they contain information obtained from members of the public under such conditions that their release to the public at large would constitute a breach of good faith on the part of the Government. In that case they are closed, except as agreed with the Lord Chancellor, or unless the Lord Chancellor, at the request of the Minister concerned, prescribes a period of closure longer or shorter than 30 years.

Previous Lord Chancellors have on two occasions announced the broad categories of records for which they prescribed periods of closure in excess of 30 years. On the most recent occasion in 1971 my predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, classified these records in these terms: first, exceptionally sensitive papers, the disclosure of which would be contrary to the public interest, whether on security or other grounds (including the need to safeguard the revenue); secondly, documents containing information supplied in confidence, the disclosure of which would or might constitute a breach of good faith. The withholding of those documents is all that was contemplated.

I may say in regard to that that certainly no destruction was contemplated, refrain from making any comment upon the remarkable fact that was disclosed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, but I imagine that the circumstances there were of such an exceptional character personal to him that he thought it right, in view of assurances he may personally have given, to take the course that was taken. But I would venture at least to express the view that that must be regarded as a highly exceptional event—namely, the destruction of records—and what I have been concerned with is the retention of them in appropriate cases. I see the noble Lord wishes to speak again: I have a great deal of ground to cover and the noble Lord has had a very long run for his unpaid money, if I may say so.

The third category is documents containing information about individuals, the disclosure of which would cause distress or embarrassment to living persons or their immediate descendants. Those are the kind and class of documents with which we are concerned. I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, in how many cases the Lord Chancellor had intervened under the powers of the Act. My information is that Lord Chancellors have approved 47 schedules under Section 5(1) of the 1958 Act, closing records for longer than 30 years or opening them sooner. The number of classes of documents in each schedule varies greatly, and the number of records in each class equally, so I am afraid I cannot give an arithmetical total. The last schedule contained about 45 classes of records.

I am of course aware of certain recent criticisms of this procedure—and some of them have been made tonight—which has focused on the fact that decisions on what records should be submitted to the Lord Chancellor for prescription are made by civil servants alone. But I should point out that when a complaint is made about individual closures, the Minister responsible for the Department which has requested the closure is himself bound to investigate the matter in the same way as any other complaint about his Department's actions. As to the suggestion that there should be independent checks on the power of Departments to withhold documents beyond 30 years, the House will have heard with interest of the suggestion which has been made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning (to whom I am deeply grateful for his services as Chairman of the Advisory Council on Public Records) and we shall look forward to learning how the measures he has proposed will work out. I am very willing to give careful consideration to other suggestions which have been made about present procedures.

I was perhaps somewhat harshly chastised by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, about the Palestine papers. There was clearly a misunderstanding between the Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I have since signed the instrument opening the Palestine papers, with one minor exception, and I am grateful that at least I have credit for having done that. I hope that there will be no unfortunate repetition of that kind of departmental misunderstanding. I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, whether the subject of public records would be considered by the Cabinet Committee which the Prime Minister set up last year to pave the way for legislation to amend the Official Secrets Act and to provide for more open Government. The Government have of course looked at a number of possibilities in the course of considering their commitment to more open government, about which the Prime Minister made a statement in the debate on the Address in another place towards the end of last year.

Open government is generally equated with more information about current issues, and I think it was to this that the Prime Minister's statement was largely addressed. There was a suggestion that a committee should be set up to review the working of the present system for selecting records for permanent preservation. The Public Records Acts place the duty of selecting records for permanent preservation on the Departments or bodies which create or hold them. They also provide that this duty should be performed under the guidance of the Public Record Office. Following the recommendations of the Grigg Committee in 1954, each Department subject to the Acts, appoints a departmental records officer to carry out its duties under the Acts, while a records administrative division of the Record Office provides guidance and supervision. The staff of that division under the records administration officer comprises seven inspecting officers, one principal inspecting officer, two senior assistant keepers, with of course executive and clerical support. Guidance is given by the Public Record Office to more than 200 Departments and other bodies which are subject to the Records Acts.

The changes that were made after the Grigg Report have improved things considerably, and give I believe reasonable ground for confidence in the present arrangements for permanent preservation of documents. Whereas before the Grigg Report Departments generally did not usually bother about their records until they became a nuisance to them, they now recognise that they have a duty towards their records, even if it is a duty which has often to take second place, I fear, to the more pressing needs of their current work. But that change of attitude has been of great significance and has provided a fulcrum on which the Public Record Office can exert leverage; and it does not fail to do so.

I am doubtful therefore, in the light of the improvement that has undoubtedly taken place, and the problems about setting up further committees of inquiry at this time (which may, and often do, result in the recommendation of measures involving considerable expenditure of additional resources), whether this is quite the time to set up such a committee. But, naturally, my noble friends and I will pay careful attention to the suggestions concerning the better use of existing resources.

Valuable suggestions were made by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, and others about the setting up of a national archives service. What I can say by way of assurance as to the quality of the staffs and those engaged in the protection and selection of records is that the Public Record Office has made determined efforts to maintain its standards by giving guidance and co-ordination to departments which, since Grigg, have honourably fulfilled the duty they owe to history by the care of records. The Public Record Office provides instructional visits by departmental record staffs to the Office and it has also made preparations to deal with machine-readable records on computer tapes by recruiting technically-qualified staff, commissioning specially-built tape stores and engaging in discussions with departmental computer staff and academic researchers experienced in the use of such records, so that a great deal of progress has been made.

I am afraid that at this time I cannot undertake to establish a national archives service on the lines suggested, attractive in many ways though I find the proposition to be. If there were more funds available we might be able to do so but, here again, I should like to hear further detailed proposals of exactly what noble Lords have in mind regarding this, because certainly my mind is not closed on the matter.

There was commendation of the new Public Record Office building at Kew, which will be handed over to the Record Office on 2nd May. The formidable and complicated task of moving to Kew documents which at present occupy a quarter of a million feet of shelving in four different repositories will begin in mid-May and will take about five months to complete. Arrangements for maintaining the best possible service in the search rooms while the move is in progress are being given the widest publicity, and we hope that the new building will be open to the public in mid-October. Then it will become the administrative headquarters of the Record Office and will be the most advanced purpose-designed archival building in the world. It will have no equal and it will be a national institution of which we should be proud. It will maintain the worldwide reputation which the Public Record Office has maintained in its 120 years of existence.

If members of the staff of that Office feel anxiety because of any implied lack of confidence in them, I must say the opposite has been the case from everyone who has spoken in this debate. While the move to Kew will clearly cause personal difficulties to some members of the staff, I hope and believe that they will find at Kew a satisfactory working environment in which to continue their skilled and loyal service. I believe, also, that the excellent research facilities there will compensate for the inconvenience caused to readers who might find Kew less accessible than Central London.

I was asked points of detail about charges for photo-copying services. I am afraid that I cannot hold out much comfort as to charges, and unfortunately the same must also apply to the other points of financial detail, which I agree are not unimportant, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. As regards the charges made for the photo-copying service, the Record Office is bound by the Government policy that a Government Department providing a service for which a charge is made must recover the full costs that are incurred. Therefore, I am afraid I cannot hold out great hope for a reduction in this field. Indeed, in a time of inflation, such as we are in, we shall do well if we can maintain prices at their present level.

There was a question as to whether the search rooms at Chancery Lane will be open on Saturdays or one or two evenings a week after the movement to Kew has been completed. I understand the extension of the opening hours at Kew would be more costly than a similar extension at Chancery Lane, and that staffing problems to meet such an additional service would be more difficult. It has been decided, therefore, that Saturday or evening openings at Kew cannot be considered until the pattern of public use of the search rooms there has been established and the extent of any demand for opening beyond normal weekly hours is known. But it is hoped that it will be possible to con-continue the present limited Saturday morning service in the search rooms at Chancery Lane to enable readers to see documents which will be sorted in that building.

My time is nearly up, so I hope I shall be forgiven if I deal only briefly with the delightfully ecclesiastical note upon which this debate has ended. I hope I have dealt with some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley. If not, I will communicate with him. It is excellent to hear that such useful steps are being taken to safeguard ecclesiastical church and parish records, which again go to the very heart of our history as a people. I am sure we have all been greatly reassured by what was said by the right reverend Prelate about that. I thank noble Lords for their participation in this debate. I feel sure I have not been able to satisfy all of them, but I assure them that we do our best to fulfil the principle that documentation of our historical past is made available wherever it can be done safely.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, this has been an extremely useful and enjoyable debate. There has been a lot of strong talking, which is very good. Quite often some of our Wednesday debates are criticised for being bland. This debate has been far from being bland. I shall be extremely brief and not be "dog in the manger" for the next minutes to have my time, because there is a very important Unstarred Question still to come initiated by my noble friend Lord Boyd of Merton. Perhaps this would be an apt point to mention that a senior member of the Public Record Office, who comes here occasionally and is currently engaged in that important dependency, is looking at its archives at the moment.

I must apologise to my noble friend Lord Mowbray for the omission, which he pointed out, of any reference to Scotland. I agree that it is a great personal omission not to have mentioned Scotland, and even more disgraceful because more than five-eighths of my blood comes from that country. I do apologise for not mentioning it. My noble friend started to pre-empt the speech made by my noble friend Lord Bethell, which I thought was a little unfair. However, it did not matter; but my noble friend did make a very controversial speech. He is a believer in open government. He is an historian and is thinking of posterity, and all the facts—the correct and complete facts—which will be available to historians at that time.

The noble and learned Lord manfully did his very best to answer all our questions. He will realise that one is naturally rather disappointed that he can accept so few of the suggestions which one made. But he has assured us that he will consider matters such as the Government archive service. I feel that this debate has not been wasted, and one v, ill read very carefully the Report of what he has said and look forward to better things to come. On my domestic points, I hope that photographic charges will be pegged. I am disappointed about the opening hours at Kew, and I hope that that is another point which will be considered. I noticed that the speeches of my noble friend Lord Sudeley and the right reverend Prelate gave an added touch. When we got on to the internecine warfare with my noble friend Lord Bethell, their speeches provided the right colour. On that note, my Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.