HL Deb 02 February 1977 vol 379 cc845-7

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether all Cabinet papers relating to discussions and decisions by the United Kingdom Government from 1946 until the British position as the mandatory Power in Palestine terminated have been placed in the Public Record Office.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

My Lords, the British mandate for Palestine did not terminate until 1948 and, under the provisions of the Public Records Act 1958 and 1967, Cabinet papers created in 1947 and 1948 will not, in the normal way, be opened for public inspection until January 1978 and January 1979 respectively. As the noble Lord will know, some of the 1946 Cabinet records relating to Palestine have been prescribed for extended closure.


My Lords, arising out of that Answer, is my noble friend aware that a whole series of supplementary questions occurs to me but that, out of respect for other Peers who have Questions on the Order Paper, I do not propose to ask more than one question? It is as follows: Has my noble friend read any of the Cabinet papers in the Public Record Office, and if he has—and as a member of the Government he is supposed to have done before they were placed in the Public Record Office—did he note any indication that, preceding the decision to terminate the mandate in Palestine, there were any top secret papers indicating discussions and decisions of the Cabinet? Rather, did he note that all that appear in what are known as "cabinet papers" are decisions taken by Prime Minister Attlee and Foreign Secretary Bevin which were never discussed at any Cabinet meeting?


My Lords, I cannot answer for the actions of a Cabinet of which my noble friend was a member. All I can say is this: I know that there have been arguments about this and in many ways I should like to help my noble friend. Representations have been made to revoke the decision to extend the period of closure for the records in question. It has also been suggested that there has been some inconsistency in the treatment of Palestine records belonging to different Departments. We are looking into these matters and I shall let my noble friend know the outcome.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that the Cabinet Secretariat was established in 1916 to bring together all Cabinet papers, and also whether all the Cabinet papers mentioned in this Question have been brought together by the Cabinet Secretariat?


I assume that, my Lords. After all, there are our responsibilities under the Public Records Act which provides for an Advisory Council and a Minister who has responsibility.


My Lords, was not the general purpose of the 30-year rule that advice given in Cabinet should not be held up against a man during his lifetime? Thirty years used to be considered enough to see Ministers out, but people are living longer nowadays. Ought there not to be an extension of the period?


My Lords, that is another matter. The noble Lord looks very well!


My Lords, being a member of the Advisory Council, does not the noble Lord agree that, on the whole, when documents are closed for a further period there is very strict surveillance by the departmental record offices? Is it not realised that this kind of situation is unfortunate but that there are occasions when documents have to be closed for longer? Does not the noble Lord also think that this whole question of access and closure should be further debated? I hope that I shall get a mini-debate later on in the year.


My Lords, the noble Lord has declared his interest. I agree with him basically. It may well be that we ought to look at the Acts which give Ministers certain responsibilities. I am prepared to consider this, but I gave an assurance to my noble friend that I would pursue the matter further.


My Lords, may I ask whether by any chance any documents that are considered to be highly confidential can be extracted before the files are opened?


My Lords, there is a question of sensitivity and one is not able to deal with these immediately in a public forum, but I intend to look at the procedures.


My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that it is customary in matters affecting public documents to consult the leaders of all organised political Parties?


My Lords, I would accept that point entirely—before we ever made a decision on that as well.